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A Highland Fling   Have any of us ever wondered just what a whiskey festival would look like at its inception?   For those of us who have ever visited any festival which has been up and running for a period of time, by and large, everything seems to be going smoothly a lá swan, i.e. everything neat and elegant on the surface whilst there is a lot of paddling going on just underneath. Some of us are fortunate enough to be able to escape to our Celtic cousins in Scotland a couple of times each year and this year Finn MacDonnell and I had an opportunity to explore the brand new Highland Whisky Festival whereby eight famous Highland Distilleries opened their doors for some very special events in a similar fashion to the now very legendary Islay Feis Ile (or Whisky Festival), and Speyside Whisky Festival. Incidentally, the Islay festival actually started out as a traditional music festival. The inaugural Highland Whisky Festival, which took place from May 10th to May 17th ‘is a celebration of the region’s finest distilleries on the North Coast 500 route. Balblair, Clynelish, Glenmorangie, Old Pulteney, The Dalmore, The Singleton of Glen Ord, Tomatin and Wolfburn will each host visitors from around the world, showcasing their centuries of tradition, process and craft through exclusive tastings, tours and events.   It’s an unmissable experience for even the most seasoned of whisky enthusiasts.’ This event takes place along 300 miles of the North Coast 500 (NC500) which is a popular tourist attraction very similar in idea to our own Wild Atlantic Way, and it was recognised by a couple of the distilleries involved that there was no festival to celebrate the Northern Highland Whisky Trail. Indeed, the Highlands were nominated as a must-visit by the Lonely Planet travel guide for 2019 and therefore it was only right that the excellent whisky produced in this region be given its very own festival and in conjunction with VisitScotland, the Highland Whisky Festival was born. The main objective of the festival is to raise awareness that there’s a whisky trail in the very northern Highlands. The organisers felt that they’re often forgotten in lieu of the more accessible Speyside.   - 'The Highlands were nominated as a must-visit by the Lonely Planet travel guide for 2019' -     The eight distilleries involved were chosen because they’re on the NC500 and are operational and open to the public. Speaking to Kirsty Cameron of Multiply Agency, one of the organisers of this event, I put to her that; Obviously, this event will be a success and therefore how will you accommodate other distilleries who wish to come on board next year? Will you expand the timescale to longer than a week?     - "If there’s any interest from other distilleries we will look at the route and see what we can do." -     Were the Islay and Speyside whisky festivals’ success an inspiration for the festival and were any of them used as a template for yours? "Not so much a template, but the success of the other festivals have been an inspiration and aspiration. Our festival is different as we have a full day dedicated to each distillery. The very North is less densely populated by whisky distilleries, therefore we can afford one day per distillery. Also, from a logistical point of view, it would be difficult to have visitors ping-ponging from Thurso to Edderton and back to Wick. " Can you give me a quick idea of just what is involved in setting up an event such as this? "We started planning back in July, getting full buy-in from each of the eight distilleries. From there the creative agency (Multiply) refined the creative, developed the digital strategy and social content plan. The event organisation ramped up from March when events were finalised and hotel and restaurant partnerships were put in place." We had become aware of this event through social media and had been watching the website from January. Having visited Islay several times previously, we wanted to ensure that we could source tours and accommodation well in advance.     Having booked flights we had to wait until March before anything of significance occurred on the official website and we then could organise where we would stay and tour times etc. Eventually, the website was updated and we organised everything. Obviously, given the distance to be travelled by any would-be whiskey geeks, the festival began in the far north, starting at Wolfburn distillery which is the most northerly distillery on the British mainland and travelled south from there. And so to the distilleries. Wolfburn distillery located in Thurso and very close to where the ferry departs for Orkney, reopened on Burns night in 2013 after having been closed for 150 years. All of the bottlings is done on-site and each bottle is filled by hand. The distillery appeared to be the only one to actually have a specific festival bottling of which there were over 700. Charlie Ross provided an excellent tour on the day and one of their standard offerings, the Northland is matured in 2nd fill Laphroaig quarter casks. There are eight people working here, five in production and three apprentices. Just around the corner figuratively speaking, Old Pulteney distillery is located in Wick. We arrived here at the end of the day when everything was winding down. Having visited previously, I was happy to return here. The tour, guided by Kathy Csorogi, is one of the best that I have done and worth doing just to see the unusual stills housed here. The distillery houses seven stainless steel washbacks, with a working capacity of 23,500 litres and their semi-lauter mash tun will complete 19 mashes per week, with five tonnes of malt milled. Of course, the distillery also uses the eponymous four roller Porteus mill from Leeds. It appears that every Scottish distillery has one. Moving further down the coast, we overnighted in Clynelish where we paid a visit to the legendary distillery. Owned by Diageo, this location originally housed two distilleries, Brora and Clynelish, Brora having closed in July 1983. Manager Kevin Ennis explained that Diageo was currently spending £20m recommissioning Brora increasing the footprint of the distillery, £5m on a  new shop and visitor experience and £15m on Clynelish itself.   Clynelish had a special 20-year-old bottling to commemorate their 200 year anniversary. Although not a partaking distillery in the festival, deserving a special mention is the Dornach distillery, located in a small renovated 19th-century fire station at the rear of the family-owned Dornach Castle, near Tain. Dornach Castle has been a whisky bar of the year in 2014 and 2016 and is currently Whisky Hotel of the Year. The distillery is the brainchild of brothers Simon and Philip Thompson and they are being aided by self-proclaimed whisky gypsy Benedict Skelton. This tiny distillery has four washback’s, a 600 lit Wash Still and 1000 lit spirit still from Portugal and a 2000 lit gin still. It is hoped that whisky will be produced in mid-2020. This fledgeling business has been going for three and a half years and got off the ground through crowdfunding. It is now undergoing a second round of crowdfunding to enable the business to move up the road to an old slater’s yard. This is definitely worth a visit. Balblair Distillery was next on the list and is a quaint wee distillery in a lovely location. It houses one Wash Still, one Spirit still, and four washbacks. They keep 10% of their new make and 90% is used for blends for White and Mackay, Chivas Bros. and Ian MacLeod. The distillery has recently changed from Vintages to Standard aging and given its whiskey a complete repackage. On this day only, they had a cooper give a display of coopering and also allowed visitors to stencil casks which have been laid down. Balblair was the distillery featured in the recent film ‘The Angels Share’. Glenmorangie Distillery was next up, and Manager Andy MacDonald did not disappoint. He is 29 years in the industry, 11 in Glenmorangie and 18 in Diageo and gave an excellent tasting in one of the warehouses, allowing us to sample amongst others; the two constituents of its 10-year-old and also an Elanta 19 and a stunning 30-year-old port pipe. He explained how that orange colour associated with their packaging comes from the name of the Morangie Burn where the distillery is located, in the Glen of Tranquility. Glenmorangie employs almost 400 people. Our final visit of the week was to the home of The Dalmore. The distillery was built in 1839 and prior to this, it was a mill. It is operated by Whyte and MacKay and owned by Philippine company Emperador Inc. Dalmore uses the water from the salty river Alness, which runs through the small town of Alness, where the distillery is located. The location of the Dalmore’s distillery and its smooth, salty floral flavour qualify it as a Highland malt. Like Old Pulteney, the stills at Dalmore have to be seen to be believed. They have flat tops and are also in two sizes. Three are 13,000-litres in capacity, the fourth is twice that. The spirit stills all have water coolers around their necks to aid with reflux. The Dalmore has nine warehouses, five dunnage and four racks and also control a bodega at Invergorden of all places. Master Distiller Richard Paterson, a 50 year a veteran of the industry is a brilliant entertainer who cares passionately about the whiskey they produce. His presentation on the day was both humble and hilarious and some of the whiskies presented included their distillery bottling finished in Cabernet Sauvignon casks, a 40-year-old Graham port finish and an Apostoles sherry finish. Unfortunately, we did not have enough time to acquaint ourselves with the remaining two distilleries taking part in the festival
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