Angus Macraild reports on the Dornoch Whisky Festival 28-30 October 2016

I had certain expectations about the Dornoch Whisky Festival while driving up the A9; helping to build a distillery, however, wasn’t one of them. Well, when I say ‘building’, really it was lifting stills into place. I arrived at Dornoch Castle Hotel and was promptly greeted by Phil and Simon Thompson who were in the midst of putting the finishing touches to the new Dornoch Distillery. All that remains is to wait for the official documentation from HMRC to arrive before distillation can finally commence.

Once concluded there was barely time for a tweet and a pint before getting the coach down to Balblair distillery for a tasting and screening of the Angels’ Share in the sage-like company of Charles Maclean. The first dram was a 2002 Balblair direct from a fresh bourbon barrel in the warehouse. If you’ve never tasted whisky from the cask it is one of life’s most supreme and decadent pleasures. To stand amidst all the must and thick dankness of an earthen floored dunnage warehouse watching as whisky is drawn – sloshing and frothy – direct from the cask into your waiting glass is a remarkabl and memorable experience. The whisky was fragrant and redolent with Balblair’s typical coastal zing and notes of gorse, wild flowers and green fruits. Walking out of the warehouse back towards the distillery, dram in hand, under the shimmeringly cold October skies I was reminded by just what special distillery Balblair truly is.

We enjoyed further drams from the distillery’s range, paired with chocolate while we gorged on the Angels’ Share. A film I’d only seen once before so it was a pleasure to watch it again in the place where so many of its key scenes were filmed. Afterwards it was back on the coach for the return trip to Dornoch; the taste of Balblair 1983 still echoing on our palates.

The distilleries of the north easter highlands are somewhat scattered, which is fitting in many ways as a festival such as the Dornoch Whisky fest needs a home – a nerve centre if you like. Undoubtedly that place is Dornoch Castle Hotel with its epically stocked whisky bar. I chatted, drank and dined with whisky enthusiast friends from Norway and new acquaintances from the industry itself. The food at Dornoch Castle is something too few people talk about in reference to the hotel in my opinion. If the whisky bar has one drawback it is only that it somewhat overshadows the restaurant. I’m not sure where else in this neck of the woods you can eat so well as Dornoch Castle Hotel. The execution and preparation using abundant local and seasonal ingredients is just faultless every time I eat here.

After dinner the local musicians played traditional music into the night. It’s a touch that just lifts the whole atmosphere of an already crowded and joyful bar to new levels. All in all it was a night full of merriment with an abundance of remarkable drams scattered throughout the evening. When I finally ascended the stairs to bed I was tired and met my pillow gratefully but still with a gladness that Saturday was still to come with more of the same sure to follow…

I can think of few other occasions where you could sit in the company of Charlies Maclean and eight other fellow whisky enthusiasts nursing a dram of Gordon & MacPhail’s 1974 Millburn Old & Rare. There are always interesting tastings to attend at any whisky festival of course, but to have such an intimate setting with such fine whiskies is a rarity indeed. On Saturday I arrived at the tasting for 3pm as scheduled, the line up was six whiskies – all quite exceptional whiskies. Over two hours later we still hadn’t made it to the sixth and final dram. Tastings are usual quite rigidly times affairs but this one was luxurious, stately in pace and generous in depth and variety of conversation. To have the opportunity to sit and discuss all things whisky in such depth over such fine whiskies in Charlie’s company was a real treat and certainly the highlight of the festival so far for me.

The main event on Saturday though, was the Gala Tasting. A lively, and at times very busy, marquee tent on the grounds of Dornoch Castle Hotel was packed full of highland distilleries and local producers selling and showcasing their wares. For me the opportunity to taste such a multitude of whiskies in the company and tutelage of the people that make them is always welcome. However, what struck me was also the quality of the other produce on offer; delicious vegan home cooking; home baking all made using an old fashioned Aga; some exceptional chocolates and home made truffles – there was no shortage of delicious and decadent food and drink on offer.

Come the evening I disappeared up the road for dinner with friends before returning to the Castle for the Ceilidh. Sadly I didn’t get a chance to do much dancing given I was again cornered in the bar by friends old and new. There isn’t much more to say except that drams were had, stories told and laughter flowed loud and free. It’s hard to overstate what a great setting it is for a festival. To have a single hub at night around which everyone coagulates and comes together to share in whiskies and chatter is a very bright cherry on the cake.

Sunday was the final day of the Dornoch Whisky Festival. People were tired but the sun was out and we were still smiling. We caught the coach at 12.30 from Dornoch to Clynelish distillery for what was to prove the undoubted highlight of the festival for many of us: tasting several truly beautiful Broras in the old Clynelish distillery. It’s hard to explain just how special a place the old Clynelish distillery is. It’s not even a particularly attractive distillery. The grey stonework has an industrial feel to it, interspersed with steel and concrete structures and a fading brick chimney rising above the old pagoda. Walking around the muddle of buildings what makes it so special is that this sprawl of industrial buildings created such an immense and legendary distillate for the entirety of its lifespan. Looking around now and seeing the disrepair of the still room and the spreading lichen, grass and moss which is overtaking everything, it’s sad to think of the whole distillery just sitting there and rotting away.

It does, however, make for a remarkably good place to contemplate and enjoy the whiskies that were produced there. We are led by our guide, the tremendous Jacqueline James-Bow, around the various accessible buildings of the old distillery – stopping for a dram in each one. We began with the filling store, then onto the warehouse before finally stopping for a taste of three different Special Releases Brora – by way of a quick glance in the old still room – in the old distillery office. It was a wonderful way to spend a quiet Sunday afternoon, the air cold and crisp but the sun out and dazzling.

Upon departing Brora it was back to Dornoch Castle Hotel for a few hours of relaxation and recuperation before the finale tasting that evening. We reconvened around eight o’clock for the Balblair tasting hosted by Phil and Simon Thompson. Six old and rare – mostly independently bottled – Balblairs. It was exactly what everyone wanted, a lazy, relaxed and informal but entertaining run through six terrific whiskies. An experience which once again highlighted just what a consistently great distillate Balblair is, and what a uniquely perfect setting the Dornoch Castle Hotel is for such a festival.

After the tasting a few of us remained in the bar – a far quieter place than the previous two nights – and relaxed with a few of our own bottles scattered on the table. As someone remarked: “Where can you get a session like this with these kinds of quality whiskies?” It’s a question you might ask of the whole weekend and one to which the answer remains: not many. Roll on the 2017 Dornoch Whisky Festival.

(Angus Macraild is a writer for www.scotchwhisky.com and Whisky Online Shop)