Spirit of Speyside appoints George McNeil as chairman

The new chariman will take over in November.

Published 23rd Aug 2021
Updated 7 th Sep 2021

The popular Spirit of Speyside whisky festival will have a new chairman, ahead of its first in-person event since the pandemic, due to take place in November.

George McNeil, MD for Johnstons of Elgin retail, spoke to the Scotsman elusively about his new role.

You're about to become chairman of Spirit of Speyside, what does that entail?

At the moment I’m chairman designate and on the 8 November I will officially take over from James Campbell as Spirit of Speyside Chairman. 

I have some big shoes to fill. James has been the Chairman and director of Spirit of Speyside for over 10 years and transformed the festival into a six-day event with over 50 distilleries from around the region taking part. 

I’ve lived in Speyside now for 14 years after moving to join Johnstons of Elgin as managing director of their retail division.

Speyside has been very kind to my family and I’m looking forward to giving something back to this amazing region by looking after Spirit of Speyside’s Festival. 

What can visitors expect from the in person event in November?

After taking the Whisky Festival online earlier this year, our November Festival will see the return of the in-person event for the first time since 2019.

While we won’t have quite the same number of events as we would see in our spring Whisky Festival, it’s sure to include something for everyone, including behind the scenes distillery tours, food pairing masterclasses and lively music events.

As guests will expect, we will see increased hygiene measures in place across all of our partner sites and some events may have reduced capacity so early booking is recommended. 

And, what can we expect from the 2022 event?

We’re hoping 2022 will see the return of our full programme of events with our celebrations providing the ultimate opportunity for travellers, whisky lovers, outdoor activity enthusiasts and the local community to explore, taste and learn about the world-famous Speyside region.

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What changes are you making, if any?

Spirit of Speyside is on to a winning formula by bringing together a huge variety of whisky companies with local communities and nearly 140 business members in the region, making it the biggest festival of its kind in the world.

I’m really looking to continue that legacy.  

We would be doing James’s legacy a disservice if we were to stand still over the coming years; we will continue to look at ways to grow this festival in a way that maintains the DNA of the event and works for the region and members throughout Speyside. 

How important is the festival for the region, and tourism in general?

According to VisitScotland, Moray welcomed 800,000 visitors in 2019  and there are almost 3,000 people working in the tourism industry. 

This is a sector that is worth £130 million to the region’s economy. 

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Three out of every five tourists come to Speyside for whisky tourism and there were 2.2 million visits to Scottish distilleries from tourists in 2018 according to the Scotch Whisky Association, making it the third most popular tourist attraction in Scotland.

It’s been a difficult 18 months for most businesses but particularly those who rely heavily on tourism.

A recent study by VisitScotland showed that 82 per cent of activities, attractions and tour businesses in Scotland had a lower turnover in summer/early autumn in 2020 compared to 2019 with the same study showing that this totals £264,100,00 in lost revenue.

Any lessons learned from Covid and going virtual?

Nothing beats being together to celebrate the world’s largest producing whisky region but it was clear that there was still an appetite to enjoy a dram together virtually with 688 guests from 15 countries from around the world logging into our first online event.

As the distilleries and businesses involved in our online event had to adapt to allow for our 2021 festival to go-ahead, we hope the knowledge and technology will come in handy for future events and we may see some opt for in-person and online hybrid events. 

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What's your vision for the future of the festival?

I’ll be working closely with James over the coming months to really immerse myself in the Spirit of Speyside and I’ll be looking to continue to elevate our offering.

We want to make sure we’re doing what we can to bring people into Speyside so they can see first hand what our amazing businesses, and the people within those businesses, are doing and producing.

The people of Speyside are our secret weapon.

I want Speyside to be recognised for whisky in the way the Champagne region is to wine in France.

From festivals past, what have been your top three events?

The opening event is always a night to remember.

Over the years, we’ve had everything from an outdoor concert to a flyover from RAF Lossiemouth. 

I’ve taken part in my fair share of vertical whisky tasting events which always prove to be very educational for my own whisky journey.

And it’s an event I always recommend to Speyside visitors, allowing them to enjoy various drams from some of the most iconic distilleries in Speyside. 

Although it’s not an event as such, one of the biggest highlights of Spirit of Speyside for me is meeting and chatting with the visitors at the events, whether they’re locals exploring their hometown or flying in from around the world, or the members of the events teams who have worked tirelessly to make their event memorable.

I’ve met some fascinating people over the years and made some lifelong friends. 

The Spirit of Speyside Festival will take place 2-8 November, with more information and tickets available here.

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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