“If you want to know about whisky then doing the Spirit of Speyside festival is a must-do event.”
So says Ann Miller, a festival director and International Brand Ambassador with Chivas Brothers. Ann has been involved with the festival since its infancy and has watched it, and the profile of Speyside, grow ever since.
This May the festival will celebrate its 13th year running. From the 3rd to the 7th, thousands of people from around the globe will descend on the distilleries and communities of Speyside to celebrate its whisky, heritage and culture. On Saturday, its official programme went live with tickets on sale for nigh-on 300 events over the five days, ranging from outdoor wildlife and whisky tastings, to bottling your own whisky at Glenglassaugh or enjoying a whisky-themed afternoon tea on the Strathspey steam train.
“It does such an amazing amount to publicise Speyside to the world,” says Mary Hemsworth, the festival’s manager. “It’s not so much Scotland’s heritage and culture – it’s Speyside’s history and culture because of the illicit stills and the history of whisky making here; it’s about promoting that element.”
“The people involved are so passionate that it makes it a truly great job,” she adds.
Most of the small communities based around the more than 50 local distilleries become involved, she says, which makes for a very inclusive festival. This year, for instance, there will even be a “safari supper” in Grantown on Spey where attendees get to try three courses matched with three whiskies in three different venues, before ending up at the town hall for a Ceilidh.
Ann and Mary are not the only women helping shape the festival. Also on the board of directors is Penny Ellis, who owns the Knockomie Hotel in Forres with her husband. Penny has been involved in the whisky industry for 25 years – having previously worked with J&B and Cutty Sark – and says the festival does wonders for local businesses.
“A lot of business are closed throughout the winter and reopen in April so it’s a great kick-start to the tourist season. Accommodations have hugely benefited over the years,” she says.
This year, the team has focused on moving the festival into the 21st century by promoting it heavily through social media – a tactic that has seen its fan base grow enormously.
“What’s been interesting is the sheer amount of interest. We’re almost at the 2,000 [follower] mark on Twitter and moving towards the 2,000 mark on Facebook. Every day we’re picking up more followers,” adds Mary.
So, what does it mean to have such a strong, female contingent on the board of one of the top whisky festivals?
“I think we can lend a different angle as to the direction of some of the events and it’s important that it’s not just seen as a male event,” says Penny, who adds she’s made it a key goal over her time running the hotel to make sure she introduces more women to whisky.
“There’s much more awareness about the fact you don’t have to be a man to enjoy it or to work in the industry. You see women at the events and suddenly there is this moment of revelation where they realise that whisky can taste this good,” she says.
Moving forward, the team hopes to build on the number of communities involved and continue making sure distilleries not normally open to the public do so for the festival.
“If we target different distilleries on a year by year basis it gives us a unique selling point,” adds Penny.
So, with all of the events, unique opportunities and excitement, why else do the organisers hope new people give the Spirit of Speyside a try?
“The festival gives people the opportunity to come together with lots of like minded people in a really convivial way. You can enjoy it and meet the people who make whisky – for a couple of weeks a year we can bring it all together,” concludes Ann.