If you're visiting the Spirit of Speyside festival next month for the first time, then read on for some tips and advice on making the most of your time there.

With the Spirit of Speyside festival taking place in early May, we give you the lowdown on what the event is, where to stay and what to visit…

What is the Spirit of Speyside Festival?

First launched in 1999, the Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival’s annual celebration of Scotland’s national drink has developed into one of the largest events of its kind anywhere in the world.

The festival takes place over six days in the heart of Scotland’s whisky-producing region, and plays host thousands of visitors from home and abroad for a programme combining the country’s national drink with music, food and fun.

This year it’ll run from 1-6 May with many of the region’s distilleries throwing open their doors to the public, giving a unique insight into some of the lesser-known names.

Home to over 500 whisky-inspired events, visitors can look forward to distillery tours there will be bespoke tastings, a chance to meet distillery teams, live music and foodie events.

The Awards

During all of this, whisky fans will be able to vote for their favourite finalists in the annual Spirit of Speyside Festival Whisky Awards.

Each year a panel of judges – including our own Sean Murphy – select two whiskies from each of the four categories which are shortlisted for the Roving Whisky Awards Judging and Tasting, when visitors and locals can cast their vote during the Festival.

Where to stay

The Craigellachie Hotel plays host to many of the events and is an ideal, central base to stay during the festival but because of this, it sells out months in advance.

By now many of the main venues will be full as people book well in advance. Although it is always worth checking for any last minute cancellations.

Recently the Craigellachie posted on their social media about some unexpected room availability thanks to some cancellations, so book now if you want to be at the heart of the action.

Here are a few other places to stay within the festival locations…

Dowans Hotel, Aberlour

This family run hotel was once a Victorian mansion home, and was updated to modern-day splendour by interior design firm Chelsea McLaine in 2012.

With panoramic views of the Spey Valley, two restaurants serving seasonal produce and a bar that stocks over 500 single malts, this is definitely a hotel to check out if you’re visiting the festival.

The Station Hotel, Aberlour

Originally opened over 100 years ago on the site of a shop, two houses, a free church and free church school, The Station Hotel was a frequented by wealthy guests who visited to fish salmon on the Spey. After an extensive refurbishment courtesy of local couple Richard and Heather Forsyth, the hotel re-opened as the luxury digs it is now.

A study in contemporary décor with a hint of Scotland – but without any twee tartan touches – The Station Hotel offers guests a homely and cosy place to spend a night or two.

Knockomie Inn, Forres

Spirit of Speyside beginners guide

Picture: Knockomie Inn Facebook

If roaring fires, good food and a wide, award-winning range of Scottish whisky (and gin) is your idea of an ideal break then the Knockomie Inn is the place to book.

Located in Forres, the lodge only has 15 rooms giving it a real boutique feel. Guests arrive up a long driveway to the family-run country home, and check in in the informal setting of the front lounge. All  rooms are named after distilleries, and some have recently been modernised.

Blervie House Hotel, Forres

This five star guest house has been lovingly renovated by owners Graham and Sheena, making it a comfortable and stylish home from home.

The hotel is close to restaurants and bistros, or can arrange evening meals for guests that book ahead (this can also include a BBQ, weather permitting).

West Beach caravan park, Moray

If you’d like to spend your time in Speyside by the sea, then check into the West Beach caravan park.

As well as providing pitches for tents, motorhomes and caravans, the park also has of self catering options including beach wagons and holiday vans.

What you must see

Speyside Cooperage

See highly skilled Coopers spinning and flaming barrels at the Speyside Cooperage near Craigellachie.

Find out more about this time honoured craft at one of the only cooperages in the UK. The coopers still use traditional methods to shave and charr casks for the whisky industry.

Discover the life-cycle of the cask, watch the coopers at work and try it for yourself in one of the mini casks on a tour of the

Tours – either classic or VIP – are held every weekday from 9am until 3.30pm with the on-site coffee shop closing at 4pm.

BenRiach warehouse tasting and dinner

BenRiach is home to some of the most eclectic casks in Speyside is opening the doors to its warehouses especially for the festival with a chance to see its annual on-site maltings, a time honoured craft that is celebrated for one month each year.

As well as the warehouse tastings, master blender Dr. Rachel Barrie will be hosting an exclusive dinner and paired tasting tour in the BenRiach still room on Friday 3 May.
The evening will include a seasonal meal cooked by Chef Ed Barnard from It’s Right to Roam served alongside the award-winning expressions from the distillery.

Strathisla Blending Lab

Find out what the blending process is like at the newly opened blending lab at the beautiful Strathisla distillery.

After an extensive refurbishment, which was completed last year, Strathisla has once again opened its doors to tours, tastings and a new blending room – home to the Chivas blending experience.

This experience gives visitors the opportunity to taste some special drams and the chance to create your own blend in the style of Chivas Regal, a small bottle of which is available to take home.

Distillery Tours

There are many distillery tours throughout the festival, but if you’re struggling to decide then why not book a visit to Cardhu or Macallan?

The Macallan made headlines when it opened its state of the art luxury visitor centre and distillery, which overlooks the River Spey. The contemporary building offers visitors a unique insight into the process of creating Macallan, and boasts an undulating roof planted with a Scottish wildflower meadow.

And, a visit to Speyside wouldn’t be complete without visiting Cardhu, the home to the world’s best selling brand of Scotch, Johnny Walker.

Rare Finds with The Station Hotel and Blair Bowman

The picturesque Station Hotel in Rothes has teamed up with whisky expert and author, Blair Bowman for an afternoon of Glen Garioch tastings and foraged finds.

Starting at 1pm in the hotel, guests will enjoy a light lunch while finding out more about the hotel’s wall of over 500 malts and blends.

The tour then heads out towards the River Spey, tasting a range of Glen Garioch drams along the way. With a picnic basket of surprises and a chance to forage for ingredients synonymous with the area, the day ends back at the hotel in the Spirit Safe bar where the head chef will create dishes which not only use some of the day’s foraged discoveries but will also complement the last dram.

Unusual tours

This event is recommended by our own Sean Murphy, who says: “I would heartily recommend the Off the Beaten Track tour and any event that involves either of the wonderful teams at Glen Moray distillery or the Speyside Cooperage.

“This year my pick would have to be the Mortlach History and Whisky Walk. Working by himself, Alastair of the Highland Spirit Bed and Breakfast has embodied the spirit of the festival by creating an incredible tour that reveals some of the stunning history behind one of Speyside’s most enigmatic distilleries.”

How to get around

Spirit of Speyside

The Whisky Line

If you’re going to be sampling whiskies, it is best to know how to get around without the car and the Keith and Dufftown railway offers a handy solution.

Step back in time on the vintage train, which travels at leisurely pace between Keith and Dufftown (home of Glenfiddich) stations. Originally opened in 1862, this line was an important part of the whisky trade as it ensured safe transport of grain to the distilleries.

Stagecoach Whisky Bus

Stagecoach ‘Whisky Bus’ will take you to Glen Grant, the Speyside Cooperage and Glenfiddich, as well as other distilleries.

Another bus, number 10, visits Glen Moray, Strathisla, BenRomach and the historic Dallas Dhu which has been preserved by Historic Environment Scotland.

Driving

Don’t worry if you’re a designated driver as many distilleries give have tasting drams in handy miniature bottles to take home and enjoy later on.

Taxis

Being a rural destination, don’t expect an Uber! Instead local taxi services, such as Speyside Executive Hire, ACE Taxis Fochabers and A2B Cabs Elgin are available to be booked. If you need a bigger car or minibus, best to book in advance. Your hotel can also advise on taxi services and help book.

Beyond whisky….

Visit the restored gardens at Glen Grant

One of the world’s best-selling whiskies, the distillery in Rothes was founded in 1840 by two brothers who marked the importance of the distillery’s water source by constructing a large Victorian garden, which has been recently restored and makes for a wonderful day out.

Before a tour, take a leisurely walk around the beautiful garden, and spend some time relaxing in the dram pavilion.

Home to a variety of fruit trees and with a winding path, the garden is at the end of the river walk and is a wonderful place to spend a sunny afternoon.

Pick up some sweet treats

If you’re looking to satisfy a sweet tooth and see more of the area, then head for the Bakehouse in Findhorn.

The cafe is open seven days a week and offers a seasonal menu complemented by baked goods from the adjacent bakery.

It is also just minutes from Findhorn Bay, an ideal spot to walk off the tea and cake.

See artwork at Glenfiddich

whisky trail

Picture: the angels share sculpture by Lois Carson, 2003

As well as producing famous whisky, the Glenfiddich distillery is also home to a well-established artist in residence programme, which was set up in 2002.

The simple idea behind the programme was to welcome creative minds from around the world to be inspired by the unique and special environment that Glenfiddich provides.

The result is a range of artworks – from paintings to sculpture (and, at one point an aeroplane) – shown throughout the distillery and in the on-site gallery.

Dolphin-spotting at Spey Bay

Try and catch a glimpse of some Moray dolphins at Spey Bay near Fochabers.

This is where the River Spey meets the Moray Firth and it is a feeding point for dolphins due to the supply of salmon from the Spey. Just remember to bring a camera!

Find out more about famous shortbread

Visit the shop at the world’s finest shortbread manufacturer, Walkers, in Aberlour.

The shop at the factory and another shop in the heart of the village sell large packs of delicious shortbread seconds and also the latest recipes they have been trying out.

About The Author

Rosalind Erskine

Known for cake making, experimental jam recipes, Champagne and gin drinking (and the inability to cook Gnocchi), Rosalind writes for The Scotsman on all things food and drink related.

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