Distilleries may be closed, but the show goes online for whisky lovers

Scotch isn’t on the rocks yet, with a flurry of rare releases offering solace to fans bereft of the usual May festivals

Words by Joel Harrison

For whisky lovers, there is rarely a bad time to be in Scotland, but the month of May holds particular allure. Of the five Scotch whisky-making regions, three normally hold festivals this month, and the events have become pilgrimages for Scotch aficionados across the world.

This year, in lockdown, things are a little different, but distilleries are still keen to keep spirits high.

The start of the month would ordinarily have been marked by the Spirit of Speyside Festival playing host to over 700 events, ranging from tastings and distillery tours through to immersive music-and-malt experiences, walks and dinners. With 51 operational distilleries, Speyside has the highest concentration of single malt producers in the country.

One of the highlights of the festival is the unveiling of a selection of rare, unique and limited-edition bottlings. These are chosen by distillers well in advance of the dates, and normally demand stoic queuing – often in seasonal driving rain – to secure their purchase. This year, while the bunting may be mothballed, distilleries have been looking at ways to ensure their most avid fans still have access to such rare gems.

Glenfiddich single malt scotch whisky bottle
Glenfiddich's 2007-vintage malt was selected by malt master Brian Kinsman

Glenfiddich releases a single cask each year to celebrate the festival. This year’s selection, chosen by Malt Master Brian Kinsman, is 2007-vintage malt, finished in a sherry cask and bottled at an unusually high strength of 65.7% ABV. It will be offered for auction via from 17 June, with all proceeds going to local Speyside causes and those most affected by COVID-19.

“We felt it was important to do something to honour the festival and to help the communities within our heartland,” said Kinsman. “The move to a digital launch and the partnership with Whisky Auctioneer enabled us to release a very special variant that is completely unexpected for Glenfiddich, and in the process raise as much money as possible.”

Tamdhu, whose reputation as a Scotch of ‘first growth’ quality is growing, is among a clutch of smaller Speyside distilleries to open to the public during the festival. Alert connoisseurs who purchased the small number of tickets to distillery tastings were offered an online version to compensate, while two key bottlings, both high in the canon of collectables released during the festival, are available on the distillery’s website.

The two Tamdhu bottles to look out for are the Dalbeallie bottling, now in its third year (the first two releases caused a collectors’ storm, with the second release in 2019 picking up the winning medal for ‘Best No Age Statement’ whisky at the festival’s annual awards), and a single cask offering.

Glen Scotia’s 2020 Festival Edition is released this month

From Scotland’s densest whisky-production region, to the smallest: Campbeltown. At its height during the Victorian era, the area had more than 30 operational sites. Today, just three remain, the minimum number of distilleries needed to maintain a legal status as a stand-alone Scotch region.

The Campbeltown festival, involving the last-standing triumvirate of producers – Springbank, Glengyle and Glen Scotia – was due to take place from, 19-22 May, and Glen Scotia has taken its activity online.

The distillery will host a historical Campbeltown walking tour, virtual tastings and a dedicated festival playlist as a soundtrack to the drams. The online event will also see whisky expert Charles MacLean introduce a tasting of Glen Scotia’s 2020 Festival Edition, a limited edition 14-year-old Tawny Port Finish, released this month.

The end of May is ordinarily the time for the legendary Islay Feis Ile, the festival of music and malt on Scotland’s most renowned whisky island. Traditionally, each of the nine Islay distilleries, as well as those of Jura on the neighbouring island, bottles a unique, one-off expression which causes a frenzy of excitement among fans.

Islay’s annual whisky festival will play out online this year

This year, many of these expressions are set to be released online. The first to appear was from Bruichladdich, which will also be hosting festivities live across social media. Its 2003-vintage, heavily peated Port Charlotte release was open to a ballot via the brand’s website.

“Nothing could replace the atmosphere that comes with physically being on Islay for Feis Ile,” says Christy Mcfarlane, communications manager for Bruichladdich, and a dyed-in-the-wool local. And while she wasn’t promising any digital dynamism, the distillery is determined to put its best foot forward. “Forget slick production values, this is just about us getting together online, having a bit of fun and hoping our 4G signal is strong enough to beam our jokesters out into the world.”