THE once stereotypical image of men in tweed conjured up by the words ‘whisky drinker’ is long gone in the drink’s spiritual home.
There is nothing new about the number of Scottish women who enjoy sipping our national drink, and in recent years there has been a sharp rise in the number of females breaking into a traditionally male-dominated industry by taking on key production and management roles.
But sisters Steph and Lauren Murray have taken their passion for the amber nectar to a whole new level. Along with their parents Michael and Marie, they have turned their backs on the bright lights of Glasgow to buy a hotel in rural Speyside with the aim of turning it into one of the country’s leading destinations for whisky lovers.
Steph (28) and Lauren (23) took over at the helm of The Dowans Hotel in Aberlour last year after being won over by its location in the heart of Scotland’s most famous whisky producing region. Speyside is home to more whisky distilleries than any other part of the country, including internationally renowned brands such as Glenfiddich, The Glenlivet and The Macallan.
Steph found herself working in the hospitality sector while studying for a degree in international politics and human rights at the University of Glasgow. Unable to find work after completing her studies, she stayed on at the city’s prestigious One Devonshire Gardens and was offered a role as a supervisor.
“Working in a hotel was never something I thought about as a career option, but I really enjoyed it – even more so when I became part of the management team,” explains Steph.
“It’s probably fair to say that a lot of young people think about jobs in the hospitality industry as something to do to get by while at university. But as time went on I realised how much potential there was to develop professionally and to go beyond traditional student roles like working behind the bar.
“Things changed when my dad took early retirement three years ago. He could see how many hours I was working and while the experience I was getting was invaluable, the monetary benefit didn’t match. He also knew that Lauren, who was studying international hospitality and event management at Edinburgh, was also going to face difficulties getting work when she finished her degree.
“That’s when, as a family, we came up with the idea of buying a hotel that Lauren and I would run together, operating to the high standards that we had both set for ourselves.”
Lauren adds: “We had always enjoyed family holidays in the Highlands when we were young, so we were naturally drawn here in our search. We wanted to own somewhere we had a real passion for, and which we could share with the local community.
“We fell in love with The Dowans from the moment we saw it. It had a good reputation as being a country sports hotel, but we could see the potential straight away to develop something really special for whisky tourism. We made it our aim from day one to build relationships with the local distilleries.”
Over the past 10 months the family has been carrying out an ambitious refurbishment programme. Many bedrooms and the bistro have been overhauled – a second fine dining restaurant called Spe was opened in February – but one key change is yet to happen.
They plan to remove the bar from its current location in a snug lounge, and move it to another part of the hotel where the already huge collection of single malt and blended whisky from Speyside – and beyond – will be expanded even further.
Visitors and locals alike have been raising a glass to the investment and of their commitment to supporting the whisky industry: the hotel is fully booked during the region’s biggest celebration of all things malt – the Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival.
The Festival, which takes place this year from May 1-5, is largely regarded as one of the world’s must-do whisky events. Last year it had 32,000 visits to events and generated £1.65m for the local economy – a figure which could be smashed this year as ticket sales look on course to break records.
The Dowans will be hosting five events during the festival. A venison and whisky pairing has already sold out, while only a few tickets remain for its two luxury whisky dinners and two whisky tasting sessions, where there will also be a discussion on collectible malts.
“Whisky is huge here, and on top of developing our skills in hospitality we’ve also had to learn about the industry so that we can share it and educate our visitors,” says Lauren.
“We are so excited about the festival – we couldn’t believe it when one of our events sold out within hours of tickets going on sale. We’ll be welcoming lots of people who are really passionate and enthusiastic about whisky, so it will be an excellent opportunity for us to test our own knowledge.
“I didn’t think I would have to learn a whole new topic so soon after my degree, but it shows that there is always scope to grow and learn new things in every career.
“We’ve currently got 150 malts in our collection and Steph has been preparing her own tasting notes to share with guests. We’ll be expanding the range when we move the bar into its new location, so there will be a whole new set of malts to discover.”
Steph adds: “I think people are genuinely quite intrigued by the changes that are going on at The Dowans. People are always a surprised when they find out that a hotel built on country sports and whisky tourism is being run by two relatively young girls.
“We’ve never been daunted by the scale of what we’ve taken on, just very excited. I think aiming to achieve more, being ambitious and never being afraid of a challenge are key pieces of career advice, regardless of the industry you work in.”
Tickets for all events in the 2014 Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival – a key event in Homecoming 2014 which will kick off Whisky Month in May – can be bought via the website www.spiritofspeyside.com
The Festival is also active on social media – facebook.com/WhiskyFestival and @spirit_speyside on Twitter.