Greg Dillon guides us around one of whisky’s heartlands
I love Speyside, it is one of the few places in the world that I long to go back to and love every minute spent there. From the rolling hills to the great walks, to drams on the banks of the River Spey and even just enjoying the delights of the Highlander Inn and the famous Quaich Bar at The Craigellachie Hotel. When I see my schedule and it has a trip to Speyside, I’m checking in ASAP. But the main reason I love Speyside is that it is home to some of the most idyllic, most recognisable and most interesting distilleries in Scotland, if not the world.
Just an hour and a half’s drive from Aberdeen airport, through the serene Scottish Highlands, past a bunch of distilleries, and in to the Speyside region. Definitely ensure you are not the designated driver as you are going to want to be sampling some amazing whiskies along the way. There are tour companies and private individuals who can help arrange or host trips, or simply hire a driver to take you where you want to visit.
Having been to 134 distilleries around the world, it is fair to say that I know my lyne arms from my spirit stills and my wash backs from my worm tubs, but, for me, there’s a moment when you arrive at a distillery where the smile rises, the production smells waft into the car and you know you’re about to have a great couple of hours looking round and hopefully trying some incredible whiskies you cannot sample anywhere else.
The region itself is fascinating, with such rich history and storytelling. One of my favourite stories is of how Helen Cumming, who had a massive impact on the success of Cardhu Distillery, was known for her ability to avoid the taxman and to let her neighbours know he was coming as well. When she saw him coming up the road, she would raise a red flag as a signal and distract him so others had a chance to hide their stills. What a great team player.
Without doubt, the most picturesque Speyside distillery is Strathisla. It is what I imagine the image of a malt distillery to be on any postcard from the region; the beautiful pagoda roofs, the old school buildings, the lovely stills and, of course, the whisky.
Nestled away peacefully amongst the rolling hills of Speyside, Strathisla has a charm that captures the imagination as soon as you arrive. It is the spiritual home of the Chivas Brothers and claims to be the oldest continuously working distillery in Scotland, first opening its doors in 1786.
Today, it is renowned for creating the malt that lies at the core of Chivas’s blends. Set in the breathtaking Speyside countryside, you get a true feeling of how the Scottish environment plays its part in the creation and maturation of the Strathisla product. The rolling green hills and vast swathes of undisturbed land create an atmosphere of peace – perfect for enjoying a dram or two.
They have a new blending room experience too where you can blend your own bottle of Chivas from various components presented to you – well worth a visit, the room is definitely one of the most nicely designed whisky experiences in Scotland, too. They have a bar just tucked in behind the shop for you to sample their full range and the eager collectors or those interested in owning single cask whiskies from some of the elusive distilleries in Scotland can periodically pick up some very interesting and unique bottles from the Distillery Collection, which includes bottles from some or all of the Pernod Ricard-owned distilleries, depending on the time of year you are visiting. For those looking for duty-free offerings from Chivas, the recent Secret Speyside collection launched with expressions from their most elusive distilleries.
Situated near the coast in Speyside, Benromach is a beautiful distillery that is just waiting for you to discover more about its malts. There are many tours available at Benromach with each giving you a different glimpse of the distillery and its story. Perhaps the most interesting tour is the Personal Distillery Tour with manager Keith Cruickshank. This is the perfect opportunity to hear some exclusive anecdotes and pick the brain of an industry expert.
This is a distillery that is very proud of it’s position in one of the most interesting and alluring whisky regions in the world. Described as ‘The Classic Speysider’, it harks back to a time before the 1960s, when, as Benromach themselves claim, Speyside whiskies had a delicate trace of smoke in them. This has been somewhat reduced in recent decades, with a more floral and spicy flavour being present within most of their single malts. But, of course, there are a good number of smoky Speysiders today, with Benromach leading the charge. The distillery was bought in the early 1990s by Gordon & MacPhail, who now champion it as the renaissance of early Speyside malts. It may be one of the smallest of the Speyside distilleries, but it certainly has a big character.
A couple of years ago I spent two days at the distillery learning the process of creating whisky from the mash, through to filling casks as an honorary distiller – an incredible experience that taught me a lot about the process and the detail and graft that goes in to each and every batch of single malt produced.
Now on to Elgin, where we find Glen Moray – one of the most underrated distilleries in Scotland. Situated in town’s sleepy suburbs, Glen Moray is a distillery that was founded in 1897 and is still thriving today. Glen Moray has gone through many changes in the time since, having been closed for numerous years, and having switched operators on a few occasions.
Today it is in the hands of La Martiniquaise and recent years have seen fantastic releases as well as a rebranding. This rebranding saw the distillery release their Elgin Classic Collection, revealing a flavour profile from the distillery that includes peated drams as well as lighter expressions. Look out for stunning whiskies, including their 30 Years Old, for very reasonable prices, as well as a ‘bottle your own’ feature too.
Head over to Dufftown and you’ll get to experience one of the absolute best distillery visits in Speyside: Glenfiddich. With the lofty ambition ‘to create the best dram in the valley’, William Grant began distilling in 1886. He, his wife and his many children built the Glenfiddich Distillery by hand (yes, by hand!) in the middle of a harsh Speyside winter, with the first new make running off the stills on the crisp Christmas day of 1887. The whole distillery was built for £800, or £40,000 in today’s money. Considering the Glenfiddich brand sells limited edition bottles of whisky for close to the latter figure, that’s pretty incredible; especially as around 20 per cent of that was spent on stills bought second hand from the Cardhu Distillery.
Home to the first ever distillery visitor centre, that in itself is celebrating 50 years since it opened its doors this year, the Glenfiddich Distillery is a superb place to spend many-an-hour at, or as a lunchtime pitstop in their restaurant which serves all your Scottish favourites as well as some modern classics. With one of the more enviable whisky lists available, you can try all manner of limited edition Glenfiddich whiskies, including bottles only available to try in the distillery itself.
When you’re done looking round the gorgeous still room, and have done the immersive tour, you will not want to miss treating yourself to one last experience; bottling your own 15 Years Old Glenfiddich single cask, writing the labels and signing the ledger of ownership. I do it every single time I pop in to the distillery. For extra points, head to the beach in Craigellachie and skim stones whilst having a drop from the Glenfiddich you bottled yourself, I promise you it will be a lasting memory of time well spent in Speyside. Duty-free covers a wealth of expressions from Glenfiddich, but more recently the launch of Glenfiddich Grand Cru is worth getting excited about.
On the way back from the beach, I would head into the Highlander Inn, where one of the greatest collections of open bottles of Scotch whisky is found and where a great many Japanese whiskies are also waiting for you. Many of the bottles available to order by the dram are long out of production, some were distillery exclusives and others are simply long lost fan favourites. Sit at the bar, chat to the bartenders and follow his or her lead and recommendations – trust me, they know best.
Your next stop should be the Quaich Bar in the Craigellachie Hotel, just across the street, where you’ll find some incredible top-shelf drams and even a bottle keep if you wanted to buy a whole bottle of your favourite spirit and have it tagged with your name and stored on the bar’s shelves.
I Should probably point out here that the Craigellachie Hotel is arguably the best hotel in Speyside, so if you can get a room for your trip, then I would definitely book in. The rooms are comfortable, the bar is always close and the breakfast is truly superb. If you can arrange to have dinner there too, then please do – the chefs create superb food with local ingredients and you can definitely pair each meal with whiskies, just to really cement the experience.
When you’ve checked out, take a short walk around the corner to the Craigellachie Distillery. It is not open to the public, aside from one day per year during the Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival in May, so you may want to look at your timings. Regardless of when you go, this is a classically designed distillery with glass shutters on the front of the still room, a sort of early-days air conditioning, I guess, that allows you to see the stills from the roadside.
Then, why not just stroll on and enjoy the amazing scenery as you walk through the
fields, hills and on to your next adventure, or simply back down to the Spey for another dram of your precious Glenfiddich single cask as you toast a wonderful trip and some amazing times in some of the most historic distilleries in the region of Speyside.