By Deborah Anderson

IT had established itself as the place for the discerning whisky fan and traveller to visit, but the Malt Whisky Trail had the heart ripped out of it when lockdown was imposed.

With people central to the whisky tourism genre which has developed and reached new audiences in the past few years, distilleries were forced to close their doors and visitor centres lay closed.

However, now there is hope as Scotland prepares to reopen for tourism on July 15 with the Malt Whisky Trail, and Speyside in particular, ready to re-emerge and help it get back on its feet.

Iain Allan, board member of the Malt Whisky Trail and visitor centre manager and brand ambassador at Glen Moray Distillery, in Speyside, said: “When lockdown happened we had staff placed on furlough, with tours and tastings all coming to a halt and our visitor centre closed.

“However, we are a global brand so we have been holding tastings with customers all over the world and we also have our online retail as well to ship. So I feel it has been a round of Zoom calls and cardboard for the past three months.

“Online we have been able to offer training with our importers and prepare sales people. We had been looking at live tastings on Instagram and had been prepared to pull the plug on that when we realised this way s way to connect with people and it has been quite successful. In the current situation it has been a way to promote what we have.

“However, we don’t want the virtual experience to replace that opportunity to come and visit Speyside and have that experience of the surroundings and going to the distillery. Speyside has great offerings for people to come and visit.”

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Mr Allan feels the trail is well placed to bounce back and with international travel subject to restrictions, he hopes they can tap into the domestic tourism market and the idea of the staycation. Preparations are still being made, but not everything will be back to normal with social distancing measures in place.

He added: “Our approach for the July 15 reopening will very much be to target the UK visitors as that will be the option for the short term. We like to think that groups of people will discover what Scotland has to offer on their doorstep. We are lucky to have outdoor areas people can enjoy and while we can’t offer certain attractions at the moment, we want people to be able to come and enjoy a safe time here.

“But can I say what it will be like when we reopen – the answer is we just don’t know. We don’t know what the reaction will be but we are doing everything we possibly can to make it a safe experience for people and to give them that confidence.”

Preparations were well advanced for one of the major events of the calendar, the Spirit of Speyside Festival. It was due to be held in May and would have led nicely into a healthy and busy whisky tourism season. The anticipated season was also coming off the back of record-breaking years in terms of growth for the distillers in the area for 2018 and 2019.

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Mr Allan added: “I think we will bounce back from this and look forward to welcoming people back. There are some fantastic whisky bars and hotels for people to discover and a lot of amazing brands known globally. These will all stand us in good stead to attraction people back, but we won’t see the wider picture until airlines are able to operate fully and have the infrastructure there. It’s all about getting people back and safely.”

Jo Robinson, VisitScotland Regional Director, said she was delighted Moray Speyside is gearing up to welcome visitors again.

She said: “There are so many reasons why a trip here should be on the visitor’s list. Overflowing with natural beauty, Moray Speyside and The Malt Whisky Trail offer a spellbinding scenic backdrop for a whole host of outdoor activities, including fishing on the River Spey, watching dolphins frolic off the Moray coast, and tranquil forest walks and hikes.

“Other attractions include castles at Brodie and Ballindalloch, Elgin's magnificent cathedral, and world-renowned names such as Baxters, Walkers Shortbread and Johnstons of Elgin cashmere. The new Bootlegger’s Bothy at Hopeman will also charm visitors to the region, with its open fire grills serving fresh meals at the waterfront.”

Ms Robinson said there are also some amazing hidden gems and undiscovered treasures just waiting to be explored around every corner and it benefits from being less crowded than some of the other tourism ‘hotspots’.

She added: “The tourism industry in the region recently voted in favour of a Tourism BID which is working hard to shine a light on Moray Speyside’s outstanding assets, and I know the industry have pulled out all the stops to ensure they are ready and able to welcome visitors safely back to malt whisky country.”

Laurie Piper, Chief Executive of Visit Moray Speyside, said echoed Ms Robinson’s comments adding: “Moray Speyside offers all the best ingredients for a memorable Scottish holiday; fabulous landscapes, incredible wildlife, space to roam, a wide range of accommodation choices, and of course more distilleries than any other area of Scotland.”

Trail Highlights

Eight malt whisky distilleries and a cooperage form the Malt Whisky Trail in Scotland's Speyside. Seven of the eight distilleries are in production and operational, whilst the Dallas Dhu distillery is a historic distillery.

Distilleries on the trail include Benromach, Glen Grant, Glen Moray, Glenfiddich, The Glenlivet, and Strathlisa, as well historic distilleries like Dallas Dhu, and The Speyside Cooperage, where a number of Scotland’s whisky casks are processed.

Things to do outside in Moray Speyside

Enjoy a walk around Brodie Castle Gardens. The grounds were opened up to give people the chance to explore.

A hidden gem on the Moray coast is the Walled Garden at Gordon Castle

Why not try the Speyside Way – a route which runs from Buckie to Aviemore.

One short route to follow is the Aberlour to Craigellachie 5km.