Co-founder of Speyside Tours, talks smuggling, walking, whisky and Speyside
Michelle and her husband Andrew took the decision to start up their own business, when finding themselves pondering (whilst on holiday) what do the local do? It was with that in mind that they founded Speyside Tours which offers so much! This year they have come on board with the Spirit of Speyside Festival which really showcases them at that very best.
Hi Michelle thanks for the interview.
Your husband and yourself founded the business, can you tell me a little more about this?
As well as recognising the need to offer a local experience for visitors I wanted to be able to showcase Dufftown, the Malt Whisky Capital of the World. Visitors often come to the area to visit Glenfiddich only, bypassing the town and its other 8 distilleries. While Glenfiddich provide a great tour, for those with an interest in whisky I could see there was much more we could offer. These distilleries, some now, closed do not offer tours but we can still visit their sites and learn about their history and how it was to work in the distilleries. This is essentially what the Dufftown Distilleries Walk(DDW) is. Find Speyside Tours Website here
Out of all the events your run, what’s your personal favourite?
The DDW is my baby and is my main event, the other activities which are popular are hill walking, golfing and fishing. The DDW has evolved greatly since I first started. I am always learning more, local people are always offering their stories to me. I enjoy it so much because I am always learning too.
Tell us about the event you are running with the Speyside Festival this year?
The DDW is my festival event. Essentially, this is a tour of the 9 distillery sites of Dufftown, with small tastings along the way that illustrate the whiskies from these distilleries. Visitors appreciate the fact that I do not represent any distillery/spirits company. It is an unbiased, UNSCRIPTED tour, I am objective and can answer awkward questions without feeling the need to stick to the party line! It is the DDW and this down to earth approach that has led me to being ranked number 2 on Tripadvisor for Dufftown, overtaking a major distillery!
You are incredibly knowledgeable on distilleries and the history of whisky throughout the Speyside Region, how did you learn this?
I talk to a lot of old men! I talk to men that have worked in the industry for on average 40 years each. They are still passionate about their work and like to tell me about what it used to be like. I also read constantly about whisky. I am undertaking a course in distilling – oh, and I try to taste as much whisky as possible!
You are able to show the whisky industry from the, shall we say darker side, what are people’s reaction to this?
I don’t know about darker side but I tell an honest version of what the industry is like. Often on tour we will meet with current and ex distillery workers and they too tell an honest version of how it is/was to work in a Dufftown distillery. We speak about stealing whisky, obviously. This was widely accepted within the distilleries but I also speak about the problem of alcoholism and how this was detrimental to families in Dufftown.
People might worry, being that it’s a walking tour they need to be super fit is this the case?
It is a 4.5 mile walk over 3 hrs, you don’t have to be fit at all. We stop a lot to take in the distilleries.
How important (as an independent business owner) is the Festival to you?
I am put on a platform beside the big players, this gives an opportunity for smaller event providers to obtain a wider audience.
How much benefit do you personally see?
I am fully booked for the festival and I already have people wishing to come back that were on the walk during last years festival. However, in general whisky is booming at the moment and the level of national/international interest in whisky is high.
Do you think that the Festival continues to bring benefit all year round to the area and the local businesses?
Anything which showcases whisky and the Speyside area is great, more and more businesses are involved, i.e. outdoor activity and craft businesses, all of these businesses and activities help to promote the area and help make it a destination for those with a love for whisky but also for those who want to have a break from whisky distilleries for the day and experience other aspects of the area.
You run your business all year round, are there certain events that lend themselves to better times of the year than others?
The DDW is available all year round, I think it is less enjoyable in the rain but the tourists don’t mind – I think they see it as part of being in Scotland. I’ve done it in the snow and my visitors found it quite magical.
How difficult is it, (especially while juggling a young family) to start, and run a successful business?
I find it difficult, there is no denying it. It is actually this problem that led me to starting my own business, I just couldn’t get part time work in the whisky industry which suited me. I do lots of work at night while the kids are in bed, I couldn’t do it without my supportive husband.
Have you always had an interest in whisky?
Yes, I grew up in the area and if you live here whisky will be an influence on your life, my uncles worked at Glenfiddich, my Dad was paid in part with whisky for several jobs that he did, etc, etc. For me whisky is associated with good times, sociable times. I love the fact that it is a truly Scottish product and can only be made here, the regional differences as well as the differences which are apparent in Speyside whiskies, the best bit is that when it comes to whisky not everything can be explained – there is still a bit of mystique!
Have you found it harder to work within the whisky industry as a woman?
I did when I was trying to get a job in the industry, however this led to me feeling that I had no choice but to start my own business, I felt I had a lot to offer but no one could see my potential. The dominance of men in the industry is reflected by visitor expectations, some visitors initially feel cheated that I am not a man in a kilt, they supposedly know more! I just have to prove myself and see this as a challenge of the job.
I believe there is a Women in Whisky day, the first I heard about it was in the newspaper. It would have been nice to be recognised as a woman in whisky. I feel I do a great job as an ambassador for the industry and the area. Sometimes these events are centred around the usual big players while others get passed by.
Do you have a favourite whisky?
How could I possibly answer this! To be honest it is completely dependent on which distillery gives me the most freebies – JOKING. I change my whisky all the time, always trying something new. I am a Speyside fan through and through, I try and force myself to drink Islay whiskies but I do find it a struggle.
Your website showcases just how many different activities the region has to offer, it is important to you that Speyside be known for more than only whisky?
Visitors come here for whisky primarily and this is unlikely to change. What I find is that I have groups where some people wish to do something else for an afternoon and it is then that I can arrange castle visits, hillwalking, zorb balling or even access to local sporting competitions, i.e golf, orienteering.
One of the most innovative services you offer, is that you will personally queue at distilleries and purchase distillery only releases on the behalf of your customers, this is a fantastic idea! Why did you choose to offer this service?
The simple answer is that I was asked to. I don’t collect whisky and have no interest in buying “limited” editions however for many overseas people they need someone to physically collect whisky bottles when there are special releases. I can do this for them. Sometimes this means very early mornings.
For people that haven’t yet decided to visit Speyside or the Festival why would you recommend they do?
They can visit lots of whisky distilleries but I urge them to enjoy the countryside, the mountains, its beaches and most importantly its people. Whisky is a big part of peoples lives here but we do other things too!
Thank you very much for the interview and we look forward to seeing you at the Festival and hopefully attending one of your events.
There are only a few tickets available for this event on Sunday, with the rest sold out, so if you haven’t already booked, what’s stopping you? Book here now!
Kirsty Clarke (@kirstyclarke29)