Mike Lord gives us the low down on Speyside’s Autumn Festival
Hi Mike, it’s great to speak to you again! We’re sorry we didn’t get a chance to say hi at Spirit of Speyside Festival, but your shop was always packed to the rafters! And just when you can’t get any busier you announce the Autumn Festival 25th to 29th September 2014.
So how did the Spirit of Speyside Festival go for you?
We had a great festival. We put on a record number of events and had a record attendance- over 20% up on last year which was a record year for us up to then. We had great feedback from our guests and everything ran smoothly, at least it appeared so to our guests and that’s what counts.
What was your Festival highlight?
For me it was the trip to Glenfarclas to taste their whisky from each of the last 7 decades. We were very lucky to have George Grant hosting the tour this year and that just makes it extra special. It is his family’s distillery. His family’s whisky. To hear him talk about the drams we were having, from the 50’s when his Grandfather was in charge, to those he selected for the current Family Cask range was just something else. He’s also a great guy and very funny even when he is making jokes at my expense.
Did you see a big increase in business for yourself and the area as a whole?
The shop was extremely busy. Unfortunately we had people queuing to get in on occasion which is not really what you want but great to see and everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves. Dufftown had a real buzz and the feedback from the other businesses here is that they were extremely busy too. It’s great to think we made that happen. As usual I was pretty much Dufftown bound during the festival so I didn’t get to see how the rest of Speyside was doing but I hear it was great for everyone.
What have you been up to since the Festival?
Planning for our Autumn Festival, what else? We are really into our busy season in the shop now so that always gives me something to do. It’s also a very busy time for new releases, particularly from the independents so there are lots of whiskies to try and decide whether to stock them and how we are going to cram them into the shop. We are also going on tour to Dramboree and Maltstock this year so we have been arranging those trips. It’s busy, busy, busy. (Mike, do you ever have a quiet period?).
Tell us about the “Whisky Shop Dufftown Autumn Festival 2014?
Our Autumn festival is run over the last weekend in September each year. We host a range of masterclasses from many different companies and arrange bespoke whisky tours to various distilleries. This year the festival is taking on a slightly different approach. We are doing a whisky tour each day and co-ordinating them with our whisky tasting programmes in the afternoon and evening so that organising the day is easier for our guests.
How long have you been hosting an Autumn Festival?
This will be the ninth year that we have run events in September. Three years ago we decide to doing things on our own and started The Whisky Shop Dufftown Autumn Festival which has a wider Speyside focus. We wanted to put our own brand on our events and ensure that all the events in our festival are of the highest quality. It has been a great success and we are building it up year on year. We found so many of the Speyside distilleries keen to work with us and really help put our Autumn Festival on the map.
After the stress and success of the Speyside Festival, why did you decide to hold an Autumn Festival?
If we could, we would have a festival every month. We love them. But Autumn is a great time to come to Speyside. The Autumn colours are coming out. Forget New England in the fall, our colours are just as good and we have Scotch!! For me the Autumn shades are a perfect back drop for drinking whisky. Also, it really helps out the area by bringing people to Speyside at what is seen as a quieter time of year. And for those coming there’s less competition for beds and things are a bit cheaper all round. All-in-all it is an obvious time of year to have a whisky festival.
So what’s on offer to tempt us whisky aficionados?
We have a range of master classes which mainly focus on the independent bottlers. The timing is right for them to have their latest releases hot off the bottling line as it were. We have Adelphi, Berry Bros, Cadenheads, Douglas Laing, Morrison MacKay…. And they will be showing whiskies from all over Scotland and sometimes further afield.
This is a whisky festival in Speyside not a Speyside whisky festival. If you come you may also notice that we have some of the most passionate characterful Brand Ambassadors showing their whisky. They tend to be our friends and so they reflect our style and our passion. We have some great whisky tours planned as well.
Some of the distilleries are putting on special tours for us. You can be sampling straight from the cask at Glen Moray; have a VIP tour of Benromach; be one of the few people who have toured the re-opened Glen Keith. And we will be running our 7 decades tour to Glenfarclas. And if that’s not enough our very own Vicky Keough will be teaming up with one of our local craft brewers to pair artisan beer with the best of whisky. And there’s you of course! (It’s true, Mike has let the Whisky Corner shaped cat out of the bag, we are delighted to announce that we will be holding our very own master class at the Festival and should you so wish, you can book tickets to see us here).
Do you involve the wider community much?
You cannot help but involve the wider community. That’s partly why we are here. Each year we bring well over 20,000 people to the centre of Dufftown who wouldn’t normally come. But we do have a great team of locals who help out in the hall that we use for the tastings at the festivals.
They run a little café which raises money for the hall. And I don’t know what we do without the staff at The Royal Oak and The Stuart Arms who serve so many much needed drinks for our guests. I should also not forget to mention that we will also be raising money for our nominated charity for 2014 which is The Oaks in Elgin which is a Palliative care centre that does such great work.
Are all the events held in store?
We have some events in the shop. These are free tastings hosted by different whisky companies each day. We also run our “Blind Blends” competition in the shop which is to find the best blended whisky. People can come along to the shop and try a selection of blended whiskies and vote for their favourite.
We always have the previous festival winner in the mix or blend should I say. The current title holder is Hanky banister Heritage so we will need to wait and see if it can retain its title. Our master classes are held in one of the community halls. It gives us the dedicated space that we need to equip a proper tasting room for the festival. We also have a bar and a café there so people can relax between tastings.
Any special exclusives you can tell us about (we won’t tell anyone, honest)?
We would love to have another bottling of our own for the festival but that is just so difficult now. There are so few good casks on offer. We were very lucky at Spirit of Speyside to be able to launch our new Caol Ila which we did with Gordon and MacPhail and our new exclusive Glenfarclas. They have been a great support to us not least by allowing us to have our bottlings.
We may just have a few bottles of these left. But there will always be something new and unexpected. I have just been speaking to one of the guys that will be doing a tasting for us and he is really excited about the festival and wants a show stopper so we will have to wait and see what he comes up with. And of course there is your tasting.
There are some amazing master classes, why did you pick these events especially?
We love to have something new and that leads us to focus on a number of the independent bottlers. That’s what they do. Each bottling they release is something new and different. For us it really underlines the variety and unique qualities that whisky has. We also like to have the brand ambassadors that share our passion and, dare I say it, are a bit quirky (mad even), those people that can really engage a whisky audience and share their appreciation of whisky.
Are you running this event by yourself, or is it very much a team effort?
I could not run this without my minions and my wife who has a job of her own and takes holiday to help out. I have three friends that come very year to help out. We actually met via the festivals back in the day when I was a punter.
As the festivals got bigger they got sucked in to (or suckered may be) helping me out at the tastings, literally pouring thousands of drams. Thank you Gemma, Phil and Warren. Thankfully, I also have Vicky our only other full time employee who like me does not sleep for 5 days. Our festival regulars are also a great help. You wouldn’t believe what people will do for a free dram or even just the promise of one! (wait you promised us free drams…..)
“It All Started With A Dram, sounds like a great event, which promises plenty of humour, tell us more?
I am a big fan of the Big Dram Theory and obviously it is a play on words with that but what I try and do is find 4 whiskies that I think are real start of the universe cracking drams and therefore suitable to be the first drams of an explosive whisky festival to get people in the mood for what is to come. I host the tasting in the shop very informally and I present the whiskies in my usual irreverent style with a sideways glance at the whisky industry. It also gets festival guests together and they can get talking to each other over some fabulous whisky. (I can’t give anything away but this is going to be an amazing class!)
You are donating £5 from the sale of each “It all started with a dram” ticket, which charity are you supporting and why?
This year we are supporting The Oaks which is a Palliative care centre in Elgin. When you are on Speyside it does take long to find someone who has a relative, a friend or a neighbour who has benefited from the work of this great charity. It’s local and helps so many local people.
The Festival is also offering bus tours to distilleries, what will make these tours different?
We have tried to make these tours extra special. The distilleries have really pulled out the stops and created pretty much unique tours for us in most cases. We are chuffed to bits with this. On most of the tours at least some of the whiskies will be samples taken directly from the cask in that distilleries warehouse. You will probably be the only people to get to try those whiskies. We have also worked to ensure our bus tours gel with our masterclasses so you don’t have to decide between doing one or the other.
You still have a few classes and details to be confirmed, when do you anticipate having the finished programme of events?
I think we just have. Just need to confirm some details with one more firm and you of course. (email sent…..honest).
And a party to finish..tell us more?
The final party, The Drams Party, is a tradition for us and it pretty much is what it suggests. Basically it is a get together for the people who came to the festival to chat about the whiskies they have tried and the places they have been. To share their experiences. Oh yes, and there is also whisky on offer.
We have a selection of whiskies from the various tastings and tours we organise during the festival so you can try a whisky you missed or re-try one you liked and share it with a friend, a new friend hopefully.
We also have the dregs. Throughout the year I get sent hundreds of samples as part of my work as a judge for Whisky Magazine and Scottish Field. I never finish all of these – I have a liver to think of, and I can’t abide waste so they are there for people to try as well. We also have all the remains of whiskies that we have opened for customers of the shop to try and the whisky is no longer available. There are generally about 50 bottles of whisky and hundreds of samples that frankly we want to get rid of but in the best way possible – people drink them and talk about them. (So about our tickets….)
In a nutshell, why should people come to this Festival (aside from all the wonderful whisky and Master classes of course?)
Because it is fun from the first to the last drop and its held against the back drop of the Speyside countryside in Autumn!
Why we recommend this event:
It would be quicker to say why wouldn’t we recommend this event! Mike is a fantastic host, throws the best parties and has worked really hard to make this Festival run as smoothly as possible. This Festival is meticulously organised and not only are there some really special Distillery trips, which are not only special and in many cases exclusive, these have been expertly timed alongside the transport to ensure you don’t have that terrible, “will I go to this or this” quandary. To view the full programme of events and to book tickets click here.
There are some fantastic masterclasses, and ours of course and full schedule of events. See here to book tickets for distillery tours and master classes. Feel free to book for our master class *cough, blatant plug, cough* or any number of the other wonderful classes on offer. Don’t miss out on this Festival, you’ll be sorry if you do.
Kirsty Clarke (@kirstyclarke29)