Expert's tips and must-see events at Spirit of Speyside 2020

With just over 60 days to go until this year's Spirit of Speyside festival, we ask some whisky experts for their advice on events to look out for on what's set to be the biggest festival yet.

Published 19th Feb 2020
Updated 21 st Sep 2023

The extensive Spirit of Speyside event programme launched on the 14 February with tickets  on sale today (19 February).

Now in its 21st year, the celebrations provide the ultimate opportunity for the traveller, whisky lover, outdoor activity enthusiast or local community to explore, taste and learn about the world-famous Speyside region.

With hundreds of events on offer during the six day festival - which runs from 29th April until 4th May - what do the experts suggest to look out for?

Angela McOwan, events coordinator at The Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival, said: “This year we are celebrating 21 years of the Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival, now recognised as the world’s finest whisky festival. Our diverse programme is jam packed and will be our biggest yet, with more events to be announced in the coming weeks.

“There really is something for everyone, whether visitors want to get to know Speyside as an outdoor adventure destination as well as enjoy our whisky, taste its delicious larder, learn about industry innovations from our whisky masters or explore distilleries that will open their doors especially for the Festival.

Spirit of Speyside highlights

Picture: Spirit of Speyside

The Spirit of Speyside team suggest their highlights, which include:

Dalmunach Distillery Manager’s Tour – Chivas Brothers: One of Scotland’s most contemporary distilleries will open its doors exclusively for the Festival to give visitors an understanding of what it takes to build a state of the art distillery, designed with innovative energy efficient technology at its core.

Archaeological Excavation - The Cabrach Trust: A guided tour of the excavation site at Blackmiddens Historic Distillery followed by a whisky tasting.

Aberlour & Macallan Whisky Brunch Trail Run - RunSpeyside: A trail run through the heart of Whisky country, learning about the history of the region along the way, finishing with a dram and brunch at The Macallan Distillery.

Women in Whisky - The Dowan’s Hotel: A topical discussion hosted by Georgie Bell of #OurWhisky, exploring the career stories of a panel of female whisky masters.

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Banquet in the Barn - Elchies Estates: A five course communal dining event at Campbell Cairns Farm.

Laurie Piper, operations manager for Moray Speyside Tourism says: “I am particularly looking forward to The Start of the Whisky Story which is taking place at Byres Farm – it offers a rare opportunity to find out about that most important of ingredients, the barley which shapes the taste of your favourite Speyside drams."

And Laurie's tips for the novice festival-goer? “You don’t need to be a whisky aficionado to have a great time at Spirit of Speyside. Just pick from one of the hundreds of events and be yourself! You’ll be sure of a warm welcome and an experience you’ll never forget.”

Sound advice comes from whisky expert, consultant and author Blair Bowman, who says: "One thing that I've prepared for over the last eight years of Spirit of Speyside is the ever-changing weather, which seems to happen on that one weekend in May!

"I've seen a heatwave, torrential rain and even snow, sometimes all in one day. I'd advise packing for all weather and be prepared for anything especially at the outdoor events."

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When it comes to the events Blair says: "There really is something for all budgets and levels of whisky knowledge. Despite the festival being so large, people that are new to whisky shouldn't be put off as there are interactive events - such as whisky and doughnuts at Tomintoul - that are perfect for those exploring whisky.

"Also there's nothing better than trying drams - some of which are once in a lifetime creations - in the place that they are made."

Laura Sharp, brand home Manager at Diageo, says: “This year as part of the Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival, we’ll be opening the doors to some of our distilleries which are not usually open to the public.

"Our exclusive tours of Linkwood, Dailuaine and Roseilse, amongst others, will give visitors a rare opportunity to go behind-the-scenes to explore the craft and heritage involved in creating Scotch, and meet key members of the teams.

“Our stillmen at Cragganmore will also be hosting special tours throughout the festival, during which they’ll each pick out two of their favourite expressions from the Cragganmore range which visitors will be invited to try.

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“With plans for the festival still being developed, keep an eye out for updates.”

The team at independent bottler of Scotch whisky, Malt of the Earth, have this advice: "Be sure to organise accommodation well in advance. If driving whilst there, take plenty of empty sample bottles to have filled at tastings if you’re the designated driver. Take a good camera and a big smile - whisky fans are the best!"

Seoyoung ‘Mila’ Kang, executive assistant at Cask 88 says: “My first Spirit of Speyside was in 2016 and in spite of the volume of whisky imbibed, the whole event was hugely memorable, and packed with fascinating tastings and whisky story-telling events alongside the main vendors.

"I attended a whisky and desserts pairing session by Martine Nouet – so insightful, and a wonderful example of the type of intriguing and creative tasting events which set Spirit of Speyside apart from the whisky festivals held in big cities! The festival team seem to put particular effort into creating a programme full of interactive whisky experiences, and I absolutely can’t wait to get back to Speyside.”

Sam Laing, head of content at Cask 88 added: “It seems to me that the strength of the Spirit of Speyside is the sheer scale of it – in terms of the contributors, and the distance the festival covers across whisky heartland.

"There’s stuff for whisky geeks, those with a taste for the old and rare, history buffs, science nerds, gastronomes – just choose an aspect of whisky that’s important to you, and there’s an event for you. I’d say that’s a really healthy sign of the maturity of the whisky industry; that it can be approached from so many different angles. Personally, I have my eye on the Tomintoul and Donut pairing event!”

Sean Murphy, editor of Scotsman food and drink and judge of best new event at the festival suggests: "The Fiddichside Inn, which has a free 200 Bottles event, is a hidden gem of a bar in Craigellachie that recently lost its much loved owner. Now under new hands, will be interesting to see it prosper once again."

Sean's other events to book include: "The Tomintoul Fireside sessions are a brilliant insight into this oft hidden distillery coupled with an enjoyable riverside jaunt with a roaring fire and drams.

"The Mortlach History and Whisky Walk is a creative look at the other side of the running distillery war between workers and Gaugers with a guided walk and plenty of drams around Dufftown, a stunning insight from the Highland Spirit Bed & Breakfast team.

"One of the most unique events at the festival is the Spirit of the Spey - Canoe/Whisky Journey, where Dave Craig takes you and a team of fellow canoers on a guided tour of the river followed by a dram or two in a Teepee on the beach by the Telford Bridge.

"A BBQ and a Ceilidh in a distillery? What more could you want from the Glen Moray BBQ & Ceilidh.

"Finally the Blending Masterclass with Billy Walker at the GlenAllachie Distillery would be up there on my wish-list as Billy is whisky royalty."

Food fans should look out for the Tamdhu's Spain to Speyside event, which is being catered by chef Barry Bryson of Cater Edinburgh.

Barry creates unique Tamdhu whisky and food pairing menus, featuring Spanish tapas with a Scottish twist that bring out Tamdhu’s 100 per cent sherried whisky aroma and flavour.

This event is a good introduction for people not familiar with sherried whisky or the Scotch Whisky industry’s links with Spain as part of the cask production process.

Mark Thomson, brand ambassador for Scotland for Glenfiddich comments on the festival and how it brings so much to the area: "The festival, now in its 21st year, is a celebration of whisky like no other.

"Speyside is, at best, a fairly sedate, cosy wee part of Scotland, but come 29th April and for the six days following, the villages, towns and hamlets stretch and yawn into life as thousands of whisky lovers from all over the world make their pilgrimage to get to grips with the water of life.

"Distilleries which are normally closed to the public open their warehouse doors and offer behind the scenes tours, meet the maker masterclasses, talks from the history of whisky to the future and even morning events such as 'best dram with a bacon roll'”

Mark's events to watch out for include some of Glenfiddich's own, which include an evening of intrigue. "There’s a fabulous opening night ceilidh to kick things off then it’s up to the guests to work out which of the many events they want to mark off in their calendars.

Spirit of Speyside

Picture: Glenfiddich

"Highlights for me this year will be the Friday night dinner I will host (an evening with Mark Thomson) with Ian Millar (an ex global ambassador) where we serve some outstanding and rare whiskies alongside a top class five course meal at Glenfiddich.

"I’m also host a tasting of cask strength whiskies on Friday afternoon called fantastic beasts and how to drink them in conjunction with The Whisky Shop Dufftown.

"On Saturday at The Malt Barn in Glenfiddich you’ll find me cracking open some rare and old bottles from archives to a small group which I’m excited about because there are a couple of the bottles I’ve not tried before.

"The list of events is vast over the festival period, and the biggest problem I find is choosing one over the other....and obviously trying to find transport and drivers between them all, which is why I try to choose things in and around Dufftown."

Finally Mark's advice for first time Speyside visitors: "The great thing about the festival is that you can dip in and out, finding little tastings here and there or talks, dances, gatherings...or if it all gets a bit too much, just take up a seat at one of the local bars and watch the world go by.

"More often than not, you’ll find you start engaging in conversation with the most interesting of people. They could even be the owner of one of the local distilleries."

To view the full programme and buy tickets, please visit the Spirit of Speyside website.

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Known for cake making, experimental jam recipes, Champagne, whisky and gin drinking (and the inability to cook Gnocchi), Rosalind is the Food and Drink Editor and whisky writer for The Scotsman, as well as hosting Scran, The Scotsman's food and drink podcast.
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