Tony Singh on getting into the festival spirit

Chef Tony Singh MBE welcomes Nick Kwek into his 'Whisky Lounge' to talk the 25th anniversary of the Spirit of Speyside festival, his illustrious career and why he has swapped restaurants for whisky-infused supper clubs

Words by Nick Kwek

Tony Singh - lead
Tony Singh MBE

When one of the world’s biggest whisky festivals, Spirit of Speyside, begins next week, it will be chef and whisky lover Tony Singh who cuts the ribbon at the opening. ‘I’m so happy to be asked to kick off this special year because we also have some iconic distilleries celebrating their 200-year anniversaries, from Glenlivet to The Macallan.’

The year is a special one because the festival is celebrating its 25th birthday. Its success is built on insightful whisky events and the promise of rare chances to get behind the scenes at much-loved distilleries, including some that are usually closed to the public. ‘It’s like going to your friend’s house but on a much grander scale,’ says Singh. ‘This isn’t business, this is passion. They [the producers] welcome you with open arms.’

A photo taken at The Glenlivet, a distillery celebrating its 200th anniversary in 2024

Speyside is home to 51 working distilleries, making it the area with the largest concentration of malt whisky producers in Scotland. This year’s festival runs from 1-6 May, a period in which 85 venues will throw open their doors for hundreds of events, including tastings, tours, talks, masterclasses, dinners and even, for added immersion in the area, experiences such as salmon fishing in the River Spey.

‘The festival has been a hidden gem and treasure for whisky aficionados and now is being brought to a wider audience,’ Singh adds. ‘We know the magic will remain but you need to be quick, as there are only so many places to stay up there.’

Tony Singh at The spirit of Speyside 25th Anniversary
Singh will open this year's Spirit of Speyside festival on 1 May

We are chatting in Singh’s ‘Whisky Lounge’ at his home in Edinburgh. Drinks cabinets are bursting at the seams and a dedicated wall of whisky is overflowing with countless bottles.

Singh, who was awarded an MBE for services to the food and drink industry in 2016, is a third-generation Sikh born and raised in the land of Scotch. The spirit has become an increasingly prominent partner on his gastronomic journey, which, as he points out, began at a very young age.

‘It’s fashionable these days to say we grew up helping our parents in the kitchen but we were – I was there on my mother’s knee, aged five. What I learnt really quickly is that if you’re in the kitchen, you get extra food. And me being a wee chubby boy, I was right in there.’

What I learnt really quickly is that if you’re in the kitchen, you get extra food. And me being a wee chubby boy, I was right in there

His appetite has never waned, particularly in a business sense, with cookbooks, a drinks collaboration, a range of condiments and numerous primetime television shows all under his apron. His career to date has seen him as the youngest chef aboard the Royal Scotsman, the first ever civilian chef on the galley of The Royal Yacht Britannia and head chef at the celebrity-packed rooftop restaurant Oloroso near Edinburgh Castle, which closed in 2012. Now he runs supper clubs from his home and whisky is one of the main attractions.

‘From a flagship, modern, large, international restaurant in a capital city to me doing supper clubs has been a journey of discovery, passion, of food again, and the essence of hospitality. What I learned about doing pop-ups and street food, and various residences at hotels, is that the thing I missed most was the interaction with guests; to be able to convey my personal hospitality and see the joy on their faces when they eat my food’ says Singh.

Chef Tony Singh preparing his signature cocktail using Woven whisky
Singh mixes a cocktail for supper-club guests using Woven's 'Homemade' blended whisky

‘The plan of supper clubs was always there but I wasn’t expecting this until later in life – my softer years, should I say – but we’ve been lucky in that we can try it out early.’ ‘We’ is a reference to his supportive wife Bechan and long-time right-hand man chef David Romanis.

Upon arrival at his supper clubs, guests are treated to a fresh and fiery whisky cocktail that features a homemade ginger syrup. It packs a punch intentionally, says Singh. ‘A strong aperitif in one hand, a canape in the other – naturally, you relax and the ball starts rolling. It gives you that Dutch courage. Anxiety levels drop and you see magic happening.’

His whisky of choice for this loosener is one from Woven, which is mixed locally in an old biscuit factory in nearby Leith. ‘Their whiskies are modern, experimental but approachable. I ask guests who don’t like whisky to raise their hands – then I tell them they are still getting it! But when they have my signature cocktail, they are converted.’

In cocktails, we can fine tune the sweetness, sourness, acidity to exactly what we want – and this is where whisky is a magical ingredient

The cocktail is served with pakoras, made of haggis, swede and tatties, coated in chickpea flour and rolled in toasted spices, fresh coriander, ginger and garlic. It’s a dish representative of Tony’s Scottish and Punjabi heritage. As supper club staples, they’re served hot alongside homemade mango and chilli sauce, a tamarind drizzle, and a cool coriander and mint chutney. ‘They’re recipes that we’ve had in the family forever’, says Singh.

The pakoras are simply an amuse bouche. As diners sit down to a spice-charged eight-course menu, Singh often turns to whisky. He never serves it neat, however, either diluting with a drop of water or mixing in cocktails to avoid overwhelming guests’ palates.

‘For subtle dishes, like sweet scallop, we use fantastic whiskies that are born from islands that are stored to get that briney-ness on the palate – perfect with lobster or langoustines. We can go bigger, combining meat and game with earthy spices like black cardamom, one of my favourites, which lends itself perfectly to peat.

‘Then things like black peppercorn, cloves and star anise that I look towards when serving rich Highland whiskies. With Deanston, we serve roe deer tartare, which when eaten raw is such a beautiful, delicate ingredient.’

Tony Singh supper club
Singh uses the different characteristics of whiskies from across Scotland to complement a range of dishes at his supper clubs

Towards the end of the meal, a nip apparently always goes down smoothly. ‘When it comes to dessert, you have that spectrum of flavours from spicy to sweet. I love the contrast with ingredients like chocolate, cream, dried fruit, and fragrant green cardamom always marries well with Speyside whisky.’

Whisky is obviously an established and important part of Singh’s supper club craft. ‘In cocktails, we can fine tune the sweetness, sourness, acidity to exactly what we want – and this is where whisky is a magical ingredient.’

Singh is clear on what he believes is one of the Spirit of Speyside festival’s greatest strengths – ‘it’s not about the best whisky, it’s [about getting] the best whisky experience, and the festival offers the best experience ever’ – and it’s a sentiment he emphasises again in the context of his supper clubs.

‘A dinner party is science meeting art. It’s friends to meet, people to be fed. For me, when people ask what my last meal would be, I say it’s who you’re going to share that last meal with. A cheese sandwich with the right person is the best thing ever.’

The Spirit of Speyside festival runs from 1-6 May, 2024 with tickets for events available here.

Tony Singh’s supper clubs take place on selected Friday evenings and Saturday afternoons. For availability and tickets, click here.