Toby Shippey loves whisky. We meet the morning after a night in which he’s polished off a bottle of Cragganmore at an Edinburgh folk session, and his enthusiasm for the stuff remains undaunted. “I don’t want to sound like a hippy, but I think whisky is a spiritual thing,” he says.
It was this unquenchable love for Scotland’s national drink that led to the formation of The Whisky River Boat Band, and the founding of a new musical genre – ‘adventure folk’. The band have made a name for themselves by blending tunes, the outdoors, and Scotland’s best whiskies.
“Our heroes are Mallory and Shackleton, and that kind of Victorian pursuit of pointless adventure. I’m sure they liked whisky too,” explains Toby.
Having made his name leading Latin-Scottish fusion band Salsa Celtica around the globe, Toby felt it was time to take a more relaxed approach to music, and teamed up with some of the finest roots musicians in Edinburgh to form the The Whisky River Boat Band two years ago.
“We’d all been playing in various different bands and doing lots and lots of touring and were just bored of sitting on buses…we formed the band, really, to do the trip down the Spey.”
Speyside is Scotland’s most well known whisky region – it’s home to the two most popular single malts, The Glenlivet and Glenffidich, and there are more distilleries here than in any other part of Scotland.
Armed only with their instruments, and a canoe, The Whisky River Boat Band set off from Loch Insh on a epic trip down the Spey that took in several distilleries and the thoroughly recommended Highlander Inn at Craigellachie.
Remarkalby the trip involved only one drunken capsizing incident.
“It was just a magical experience really,” says Toby, “normally when you’re touring with a band it’s the worst experience in the world: getting up in the morning and back on the bus. Whereas on the Spey you’d wake up and just want to get back in the canoe.”
Another perk of “adventure folk” is the lack of hangovers experienced by the band along the way. Something Toby puts down to the fresh mountain air. “I think that hangovers have a lot to do with a lack of air, if I drink whisky in the Highlands I very rarely get a hangover, and I think it has a lot to do with your mental state and being outdoors.”
The adventures of The Whisky River Boat Band have continued since their initial trip down the Spey in 2011. Last year their tour involved boarding a yacht and sailing along the west coast of Scotland, taking in distilleries on Islay and Jurra.
“For us, it’s such a nice thing to play in a distillery,” says Toby, “to see the whisky being produced and the history of it. I’ve drunk whisky all my life and as I get older I love it more and more. Ardbeg in particular was a lovely distillery to visit”
“Our mission is to try and play music at every distillery in Scotland,” he proclaims. Toby is reluctant to name his preference when it comes to the sharply contrasting qualities of Islay and Speyside whiskies.
“I love Speyside, because some of them are pretty mellow, they’re really warm, soft and reassuring, but I love also love Isaly malts, because it sometimes feels a bit like a wave hitting you across the face, it’s exciting, refreshing and energizing”.
Undeterred by either the challenges of Scotland’s landscape, or the health effects of drinking so much whisky, the band have numerous future expeditions in the pipeline. These include trips by boat up the Great Glen, a sailing trip to Orkney and Shetland, another trip to Islay.
This weekend, they’re staging a daylong event in which they cycle to North Berwick from Edinburgh, and stop for no less than seven gigs along the way.
Yet The Whisky River Boat Band are still on the look out for more adventure. Toby is keen to stress that, when it comes to free drink, they’re open to any suggestions. “We’re not opposed to wine either: we’d happily go down the Loire valley, or cycle around Burgundy. We’ll design a trip for pretty much any type of booze.”
For more information about the Whisky River Boat Band, visit their Facebook page.