Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival

James CampbellWhat better way to kick off Whisky Month – which starts tomorrow – than with the world’s most popular Scotch whisky festival? Event chairman James Campbell gives us the details.

What is the Festival’s mandate and history?
The Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival is a five-day celebration of Scotland’s national drink and is unique in that it not only offers visitors the chance to sample some of the finest malt whiskies, but also allows them to meet the people behind the passion in the very places where the spirit is produced. The annual festival started in 1999, but it is not only the whisky industry that is involved. Lots of other businesses and communities across Speyside host events too, from craft sessions to family fun days. This year sees the inaugural Spirit of Speyside Sessions, a festival in its own right, which will involve some of the country’s best traditional and contemporary musicians playing in whisky-themed locations.

Why is it an important event for the community there?
Speyside is home to over half of Scotland’s malt whisky distilleries, so the industry is ingrained into the local community. Whisky has a rich tradition and heritage, and everyone is incredibly proud of what distilleries in this very small corner of Scotland have achieved. People love the Festival and really look forward to welcoming people from all over the world. Many of the festival events also include local businesses who are not directly linked to the whisky industry. This benefits the local economy, as well as building lasting relationships between the industry and the people who live here. Last year the Festival generated £1.65 million for the local economy, and attracted 30,000 visits to the various events.

Who traditionally attends the event?
Each year whisky lovers from all over the world travel to Speyside to sample the incredible malt whiskies and take part in the wide variety of events we have on offer. We welcome a wide range of people, from the real whisky aficionados to people who are trying Scotch malt whisky for the first time. There is so much on the events programme that it’s possible to come and have a great time without even touching a drop. This year we are proud to have been chosen as the launch event for Whisky Month, part of the Year of Homecoming Scotland. We hope that this will encourage even more visitors from overseas, who maybe haven’t visited the festival – or Scotland – before. And of course, the Festival is supported by a huge number of local residents and people throughout Scotland who want to share in celebrating our national drink.

What can they expect this year?
At this year’s Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival there are over 370 unique events taking place across the region. As well as the traditional distillery tours – some of which are exclusive to the festival and not available year-round – there are also a number of interesting events for whisky fans to attend. There are whisky tasting and nosing sessions, events where people will learn how to pair whisky with food, art exhibitions, walking tours and ceilidhs. This year will also mark the launch of the Spirit of Speyside Sessions, a festival within the festival which will see a number of whisky-loving musicians performing traditional and contemporary Scottish music. A diverse range of music will be represented, including The Shee – an all-female band that combines folk, Gaelic and bluegrass to create a unique sound – and popular energetic traditional folk group Old Blind Dogs. Scottish Album of the Year winner RM Hubbert will showcase some of the alternative folk that has won him critical acclaim, as will DIY folk-rocker Withered Hand. The Whisky River Boat Band, who originally came together for a canoe-powered journey down the River Spey to play gigs and sample whiskies on the way, will also return to the area.

What does the future look like for the festival?
We are determined that the Festival will go from strength to strength and cement its position as one of the world’s foremost celebrations of Scotch whisky. We want to continue to attract visitors from all corners of the world – this year we have seen record numbers of ticket sales from Canada and the United States, and we want to grow this event further. Every year we aim to expand the programme, adding new and innovative events to entice newcomers and keep regulars coming back for more.

What are your thoughts on the state of the Whisky industry today?
The whisky industry in Scotland has never looked better. Whisky is currently very popular both at home and around the world, and each year new whiskies are being unveiled by distilleries across the country. Now is a great time to be celebrating the diversity and innovation within the whisky industry. Distilleries on Speyside are now having to increase capacity in order to cope with the global demand. We are delighted that this investment and the resulting increased supply will provide even more opportunities to discover and enjoy Scotch whisky.

From your perspective, why has it exploded in popularity in recent years?
Everyone remembers their first whisky. There’s something special about sitting sipping a dram, whether you take it neat, on the rocks or with a splash of water. It’s an irreplaceable experience. Consumers are becoming more discerning with their tastes and are naturally drawn to whisky as there is such a diverse range of flavours to sample: from smooth grassy malts to heavier, peaty varieties. Each one has something different to bring to the table, and I think that is inherently appealing.

What can we be doing better to promote it?
Scotland is the home of malt whisky, and as such should be promoting whisky to the wider world. Through the Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival we try to increase awareness of malt whiskies, and the people who make them. By approaching international markets and inviting them to the festival, we hope to raise awareness and in turn hope that the whisky industry will be able to take advantage of this increased attention and be able to expand further.