Ex Macallan whisky maker to become new Spirit of Speyside chairperson - the first female lead in the festival’s 25 year history

Scotland’s biggest whisky festival is set to welcome the first female chairperson, as current chair, George McNeil, is set to stand down after this year.

Published 8th Feb 2024
Updated 8 th Feb 2024

As we head into spring, many whisky fans are looking forward to a plethora of whisky festivals throughout the year, the biggest and most anticipated of which is the Spirit of Speyside festival.

Now in its 25th year, the festival will host over 600 events this year, and saw a huge number of tickets fly off the virtual shelves when sales went live at the end of January. Over 5000 tickets sold in 24 hours, with over a quarter of a million in revenue already. 

The festival has been consistently growing and adapting, and this year will see current chairperson, George McNeil step down from his role, which he took over in 2022, from James Campbell who had been in the position for 10 years.

Now Sarah Burgess, ex lead whisky maker for Macallan (and current whisky maker for The Lakes distillery) will take over as chair for the 2025 festival.

Speaking of the move, Sarah said: “George approached in 2022 and asked me if I’d come on the board (of the festival) and I said I’d be absolutely delighted as I love the festival and Speyside.

"We started to put a bit more structure in place for the board, and looked at length of tenure for any board member and what we do around the chair.

"George asked me to be vice chair, with a view to stepping in as chair and taking up a three year stint. I am absolutely delighted.”

Sarah Burgess chair Spirit of Speyside

When asked what it’s like to be the first female chair of the Spirit of Speyside festival, Sarah is pragmatic, saying: “Having worked in whisky for most of my life, I have been asked the question of ‘how does it feel to be a woman in this position’ a million times.

"Regardless of whether it’s my paid employment or the festival, I don’t know if I’d feel any different if I was a man - I can’t honestly know.

"But I am massively proud of Speyside and I am glad that I am able to keep one foot in the camp of Speyside as it’s my home and where I live, although my work is now English whisky.”

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George McNeil added: “Sarah is superb, and while it is great that she’s the first female chair of the festival, first and foremost she’s the right person.

"She’s a fantastic vice chair, she’s a strong individual who is well educated in the world of whisky and she’s well connected.

"However after 25 years of male leadership, it’s great news to get a female leader up there to front it. The whisky industry itself has some really excellent female leaders, it really is changing.”

The festival itself is an ever-growing machine, which is loved and visited by people from all over Scotland and the world.

After a quiet time post covid, it feels like it’s really got back to what it was before, with an almost overwhelming number of events taking place over the first May bank holiday weekend.

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Of this, Sarah said: “With the festival, every year it gets bigger and better and every year you think there can't be more events next year or there can’t be more people, and there just is.

"This year there’s almost 700 events happening between the 1-6 May, and this year, for the best new events, there were so many people that applied for that so to get it down to the shortlist was so difficult. We rightly are one of the world’s biggest whisky festivals.

"There’s nowhere else in the world where there’s over 50 distilleries in such close proximity to each other, and I don’t think we shout loudly or often enough about how great Speyside is and what it has to offer.”

As for what events Sarah is looking forward to this year? She said: “If I had a massive budget, I, without a shadow of a doubt, would be going on that whisky helicopter flight with Glenfarclas."

For more information on the festival and to buy tickets, 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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