Food and drink contributes a staggering £16.55m to the Speyside economy every year and employs over 3,500 people: there’s no escaping the fact that food and drink is big business in that part of Scotland. This tiny corner has a population of just 90,000 but it punches above its weight when it comes to gastronomy.
The region is home to over half of all of Scotland’s distilleries – over 50 in total – including some of the world’s top-selling single malts, and food firms with a heritage spanning over a century have made Speyside their home.
But what is it about the area – where the food and drink sector employs almost five times the Scottish average – that makes it a haven for producers?
Visitors to Spirit of Speyside: Distilled, which takes place in the county capital of Elgin on September 1 and 2, might just help to unearth the answer to that question. The mini festival will bring together over 30 of the region’s food and drink firms in a celebration of Speyside’s foodie delights.
Whisky and gin distilleries, breweries and food innovators will be at the event, meeting with the people who buy their goods and providing an opportunity to sample some of their popular products and new additions to their range.
Jill Brown launched Berry Good, which produces fruit-based gin liqueurs, in 2008 while she was studying for a BSc in rural business management and agriculture. Deeply passionate about food provenance, she wanted to put into practice what she was learning on her course.
Berry Good was a huge success, and inspired her to launch Avva Scottish Gin last year. Jill says, “What has always struck me about the Speyside region is that it has everything the food platter needs to thrive – it’s coastal, but it also has fertile lands, pure water, hills and glens.
“That may be one of the reasons why so many famous names started here and have had so much success, but for new producers like me, the history and heritage attached to the distilling industry is also incredibly important.
“There’s a huge amount of experience in the Speyside area, not just from the distillers, but with the coppersmiths, electricians and so on who have been working with food and drink producers for years.
“I remember being at an event a couple of years ago and had the opportunity to speak to Jim Walker of Walkers Shortbread. Walkers is a huge international brand, and I was humbled that he had time for me but even more surprised that he had heard of Berry Good.
“The big names want to see smaller companies do well, to keep the food and drink industry in Speyside sustainable and keep first-class products coming out of here.”
Jill will be sharing the story of Avva Scottish Gin during one of Distilled’s master classes, and will also be using the event to launch a new cask-finished expression.
Graeme Cruickshank, master distiller of Aberlour Distillery, says it’s down to quality ingredients and craftsmanship. He adds, “Speyside’s single malt whiskies, such as The Glenlivet and Aberlour, use barley grown in the fertile ground surrounding the distilleries and local springs provide water for distillation. The craftsmanship, which is at the heart of single malt creation, coupled with the quality of these local ingredients results in Scotch whiskies that are rich and fruity in flavour.”
The Craigellachie Hotel’s popular Copper Dog pub is being recreated within venue Elgin Town Hall, where several hundred people are expected to attend four different sessions. Festival-goers will be able to enjoy the venue’s laid-back vibe, when it serves live music, food and drinks.
Head chef Andy Fyffe is in no doubt that the local landscape contributes to Speyside’s food and drink offering. He says, “We are blessed that Speyside is untouched with little human intervention on our landscapes, rivers and coastlines, helping raw produce to grow and thrive in a healthy, sustainable environment.
“As a chef, this is exactly what I am looking for when I decide what food comes into the kitchen at Copper Dog – it enables local people and visitors from far and wide to taste a little bit of Speyside which is growing in abundance around them.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by David MacDonald, the co-founder of Spey Valley Brewery – the first commercial micro-brewery in the heart of Speyside. The brewery is based on a farm near the distillery town of Keith.
“Moray Speyside is sheltered by the Cairngorms and has its own micro-climate which gives it the reputation of the driest region in Scotland. This micro-climate has given the area very fertile farming land and a fantastic larder of raw ingredients, including barley, oats and wheat.
“Add the fast-flowing River Spey cutting its way through the landscape, and we have almost all of the ingredients needed for both whisky and beer, right on our doorstep,” explains David.
But more than that, David believes that the people who live on Speyside have just as much influence over the success of the food and drink sector. He adds, “The region attracts people passionate about these products, who fall in love with the local area, make a home here, and pour their passion into creating the best beer and whisky they can.”
Innovation is a byword for one of the area’s largest food producers, Baxters Food Group. It’s soups, jams and condiments can be seen on the shelves of supermarkets around the globe – not bad for a company whose founder borrowed £100 from family and friends to open a small grocery shop in the village of Fochabers in 1868.
The family firm continues to be based near the village where it was founded, but now spans a huge complex. Fochabers site director Graeme Morrison says, “Not only are the people of Speyside passionate about what they do and feel a great sense of pride in sharing their products with the world, they are innovative and forward-thinking.
“Baxters Food Group is a prime example of that. Generations of the family have continually evolved the business, created new products and experimenting in the kitchen, while all the time holding on to the traditions that have been at the heart of the company since its inception.”
Walkers Shortbread is based just down the road in Aberlour and is another family-run firm which has achieved international acclaim. The bakery was originally launched in 1898 just over the county border in Deeside by Joseph Walker, who had a deep-rooted ambition to create the world’s finest shortbread.
However, he knew that a move to Speyside was necessary to grow his bakery and customer base due to the area’s growing population and transport links. Grandson Jim Walker is now at the helm of the business along with his brother Joe and other members of the family. He believes that Speyside in itself is a great selling point.
“The view from our base in Aberlour appears on our marketing and we believe that it adds to the integrity of the product. Not many food producers can say that they have such a stunning view, or that four of the world’s top-selling single malt whiskies are based within 10 miles of their factory,” he says.
“Speyside is known as Scotland’s golden triangle. It has been very successful for food and drink producers, and has a nice mix of small and large companies – all of which share a passion for quality and ambition.
“The shared interest means that we all co-operate. That is especially true when events like Spirit of Speyside: Distilled are taking place, when we all work together to showcase everything that is great about food and drink on Speyside.”
In addition to the wide number of exhibitors, there is a programme of masterclasses giving visitors the chance to enjoy rare and cask strength drams, learn how to pair food, and discover more about Speyside’s other drinks producers. Tickets for masterclasses must be bought in addition to entry tickets.
Distilled, which is sponsored by Bruce Stevenson Insurance Brokers, will run for four different sessions, one from 1-5pm and one from 6-10pm on each day. Tickets are priced at £20 which includes entry, six vouchers for tasting samples of gin, whisky or beer, a lanyard and a Glencairn crystal nosing and tasting glass.