The 17th annual Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival gets underway soon and such is its popularity that when tickets went on sale for its myriad of events back in February, more than 2,700 of them, valued at almost £75,000, were purchased within the first hour! Just ten minutes after the website went live on 2 February, transactions reached the same level that took an hour to achieve in 2015, while the same amount of sales in an hour took 24 hours on last year's opening day.
Festival Manager Pery Zakeri says, "We had ticket sales from a total of 22 different countries and in the first 24 hours of going live we had reached a sales value of over £91,000. I think this just goes to show how eagerly anticipated the festival is this year. We have garnered a fantastic reputation for putting on a world class event, and people are making sure they get in early to get tickets for the activities they really want."
Zakeri adds that, "As with previous years, the exclusive distillery tours have sold out first. The real whisky aficionados are always looking for very special experiences that are only available at the time of the Festival, so tours of distilleries, not normally open to the public, such as Strathmill and Dalmunach, were snapped up within minutes.
"However, with 467 different events on the programme from whisky tasting and blending experiences and from heritage walks to traditional ceilidhs, there are still plenty of tickets available. The beauty of the Spirit of Speyside Festival is that it is small enough to be incredibly friendly and welcoming, but big enough so that there is something for everyone."
Paul Bush OBE, Director of Events for Scotland's national tourism organisation VisitScotland, adds that, "The Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival is always massively popular with visitors from around the world and we are delighted to see so many people eager to take advantage of the opportunity to sample this unique aspect of Scotland's history and culture in 2016. Much more than simply whisky tasting, the Festival celebrates Scotland's national drink with an exciting and innovative programme of events."
Spirit Learning - A whisky school which only opens for three days a year
Imagine a school that is open just three days a year and is devoted to its students' favourite subject, and it is little wonder that there's world wide appeal - and a lengthy waiting list - for the Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival Whisky School.
It's an experience that couldn't be replicated anywhere else in the world, as only in Speyside, a region which is home to more than half of Scotland's malt whisky distilleries, can you find the unique mix of industry experts, specialist industries and the goodwill that make the whisky school the success that it is.
That's the view of four whisky legends who, with a collective knowledge of 200 years in the art of making whisky, founded the annual school which has become a magnet for dram lovers from all over the globe.
During the comprehensive three day programme, students learn about single malt whisky production from the raw material to the finished product through a series of lectures from industry experts, complemented by site visits.
A love of whisky knows no boundaries, with past pupils coming from Australia, Austria, Bahrain, Belgium Canada, China, Denmark, Germany, Hong Kong, Ireland, India, Israel, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Myamar, Netherlands, Norway, Qatar, Poland, South Africa, Sweden, Thailand and the USA, and of course the UK.
Despite the mix of nationalities, culture and language differences have never been a barrier, with a shared devotion to whisky serving as one of the best ice breakers around.
Students are drawn from all walks of life - couples, the retired, a bush pilot, paratrooper, doctor, even industry professionals with a thirst for tapping into the specialist insights on offer, are among graduates.
The majority sign up because they want a deeper appreciation and understanding of whisky; some even come with a vision of setting up their own distillery.
The school's founding fathers Ed Dodson, Dr Tim Dolan, Charles Smith and Peter Warren got behind the venture in order to give something back to an industry which has been good to them.
They've found that same generosity of spirit across Speyside when seeking lecturers, venues to visit and other support for the school. Industry experts freely give of their time, and firms are happy to open their doors and welcome scholars to their venues, explains Peter Warren, who continued a four generation family association with distilling, holding senior management positions and still working on a consultancy basis.
"The whole industry supports us, and everyone involved volunteers their time," Mr Warren explains. "Like us, there's a feeling that people want to give something back to the industry that they enjoy."
Charlie Smith's lengthy career in whisky management saw him work both in his native Speyside and other parts of Scotland. Mr Smith is adamant that for a complete grounding in whisky production, nowhere comes close to the experience offered on Speyside.
He says, "Speyside is the only place with the facilities that allow the school to reinforce what's been taught in lectures with site visits. You just cannot replicate that anywhere else in the world."
The exclusive school has places limited to just 18 in order to ensure students derive maximum benefits.
Dr Tim Dolan has extensive academic and industry experience which as well as management included teaching, coaching and lecturing. He says that although the whisky school could attract many more pupils, its protected size delivers better learning opportunities.
"Small is beautiful," says Dr Dolan, "and the essential thing is to give the right experience, for students to be able to speak to lecturers and ask questions, and because space can be restricted on technical visits."
Outgoing whisky school director Ed Dodson worked in the Speyside whisky industry for more than 40 years, retiring as manager at Glen Moray Distillery in Elgin in 2005, and has reflected on the whisky school's success.
"We have people who are genuinely interested in discovering the art of producing Scotch. The big attraction is gaining a more detailed knowledge of production than can be obtained by just visiting distilleries or reading about it. Contact with the speakers and having questions answered in detail is important for the students.
"There's always been international appeal and the main interest comes from the Scandinavian countries and Canada and USA. There's been more interest from Asia in the last couple of years.
"I feel that it is the range of subjects covered by eight lectures, each presented by specialists and backed up with excellent technical visits is what makes this school unique. There are other excellent whisky schools but we are in the fortunate position of having different distilleries, a malting, coppersmith and cooperage to visit as a follow up to the lectures. Being part of the festival makes it even more appealing to all the attendees."
Mr Dodson's invaluable contribution to the whisky school has been lauded by festival organisers as he steps down from the role of director, to be succeeded by another whisky industry stalwart, Eric Walker.
Information about the 2016 Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival can be found on the website: www.spiritofspeyside.com where tickets will be on sale from early February. The Festival is also active on facebook.com/WhiskyFestival and on Twitter and Instagram at @spirit_speyside.
Top Three Drams
Top three drams, as chosen by Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival Whisky School Founders, January 2016:
Glen Moray 16 Years Old
Longmorn 16 Years Old
Old Pulteney 12 Years Old
Highland Park 28 Years Old
Balvenie Double Wood 17 Years Old
The Macallan Fine Oak 17 Years Old
Cragganmore Double Matured
Johnnie Walker Gold Label
Talisker 10 Years Old
Highland Park 18 Years Old
Caol Ila 18 Years Old