The Malt Whisky Trail: Speyside [World’s Whisky Capital]
Whisky Route 2: Speyside
Stretching out from the shores of the Moray Firth to the mountains of the Cairngorms National Park, the malt whisky trail in Speyside is an almost compulsory destination for the whisky lover. Being the most densely distillery-populated region of Scotland (more than fifty are currently active) and home to some of the most celebrated brands on the global scene.
Taking its name from the River Spey, which originates near Fort Augustus with its waters flowing into the Moray Firth by Buckie. The area has been popular with whisky makers over the centuries due to its abundance in clear water sources, an essential feature for the production of golden sunshine. However, the main reason for this success is probably due to the difficult access to the area when compared to the central belt, which made life a lot easier for the illicit distillers wanting to hide from the excise men.
Travellers are spoilt for choice with distilleries and attractions aplenty. To help you navigate the Speyside whisky flow here are a few tips. These tips will take you on a whisky journey across rolling hills, white beaches and lively rivers.
1) Taste of the past: Forres
Heading east from Inverness and following the Moray coastline – by car or train – you will reach the former royal burgh of Forres. This quaint old town, which offers a nice stroll through its historic centre, is home to the Benromach distillery. Dating back to 1898, the plant was made operational again in 1998 after a long period of inactivity, when the independent bottlers Gordon & MacPhail bought it. Their goal was to produce Speyside whisky in the typical 50s style, where intense fruity notes meet a softly peated character. Their experiments with a variety of cask finishes, levels of peat and organic ingredients make their core range an interestingly varied mix. One of the smallest distilleries in the region, they also produce Red Door Gin in their strikingly white buildings.
Without moving from Forres, we can take a step back in time and head to the only whisky distillery owned by Historic Environment Scotland: Dallas Dhu. The distillery, which fell silent in 1983, is now run as a museum and offers an interesting glance into the old days of whisky-making.
For a refreshing pause, you can head to Speyside Brewery, just a few steps from the river Findhorn and try one of their craft ales. Or if hunger strikes, hit one of the local cafes or restaurants in the town centre for a bite to eat.
If you feel the irresistible call of the sea on the way, you can head north to Findhorn, a historic fishing village where you can stroll on the seemingly endless sandy beach. A few minutes drive from here is also Roseisle Beach, where the surrounding forest makes for a great camping spot. On the way there, you may also spot its namesake distillery. Roseisle Distillery, which started production in 2017, is a workhorse for blended whisky and one of the most technologically advanced distilleries in the Scottish landscape. Praised and award-winning for its innovation towards sustainable production, it lies close to Roseisle maltings.
2) Moray’s capital: Elgin
If you are planning to visit Speyside, Elgin makes a great strategic base to reach many of the distilleries in the area. With a train and bus station offering connections for non-drivers, as well as being the starting point for many organised tours on the Malt Whisky Trail. The town is also home to the Glen Moray distillery, which originates from Elgin West Brewery in 1830. The distillery offers guided tours as well as a small cafe where you can sit for a quick nibble before or after the tour. It is worth trying some of their cask finish experiments, which add interesting touches to a quintessentially light, fruity and easy-drinking whisky.
Heading back into town, popping into Gordon & MacPhail’s flagship store on South Street can bag you some great whisky loot. The selection of whiskies – official bottlings and own brand – is fantastic and mouth-watering. They also sell sweets, chocolate and other treats, some of which would surely go well with a whisky tasting or make good souvenirs for those friends and relatives less interested in spirits.
If you are interested in other tour experiences, you can check out Moray Distillery, who produce Avva Scottish Gin and have some interesting whisky tours or, if you are more of a beer fan, head to Lossiemouth and visit Windswept Brewing. Whilst there, a gelato pit-stop to Miele’s is highly recommended.
Just south of Elgin you will find Benriach distillery. A classic stone-walled building, it is equipped with a malting floor which was revamped in 2013, although it is used only occasionally. Benriach is a small distillery which has been growing as a brand and in production over the last decade. Producing a varied range of very interesting malts and providing a range of peated and unpeated drams.
3) A pretty stop in Keith
One more stop on the train or a twenty-minute ride among hills and fields of barley will take you to the town of Keith. Another charming historic highland town, it hosts what is considered the oldest (and arguably one of the prettiest) working whisky distillery in Scotland: Strathisla.
Within its typical stone-walled buildings hides a fresh and contemporarily designed visitor centre. The distillery is owned by Chivas Brothers and is one of the flagship locations of the brand. The whisky bar has an interesting selection of single cask whiskeys and is a lovely end to the tours or even a good place to rest your legs if you are just stopping by.
Keith also offers another brewing stop with Spey Valley Brewery, which deserves a visit and a taster.
4) Whisky capital hop: Dufftown
Driving through winding country roads, we head back west to visit the malt whisky capital of the world: Dufftown. The surrounding area, in fact, produces more single malt whisky than any other in Scotland.
This record-breaking amount is likely related to the presence of a global giant of the industry: Glenfiddich. The distillery produces over 13 million litres a year and their single malt is the best selling in its category worldwide. Despite the great capacity, however, Glenfiddich looks nothing like a massive industrial plant; on the contrary, it is a very pleasant location, with a stone-walled visitor centre and a peaceful duck pond, with a good variety of tours available.
Owned by William Grant & Sons, one of the largest independently-owned whisky companies, it lies just a few steps away from its brand-sister; The Balvenie. Another popular name in the global panorama, it offers in-depth tours which give you access to basically every step of their production. Not only do they have their own malting floors on-site, (which supply about 15% of their overall need) but also their own cooperage and coppersmith. An early reservation is however essential, as they tend to run only once a day for very small groups.
Dufftown is also an interesting hub of small whisky shops, where you can seek out bargains and rare bottlings.
5) A whisky cluster: Craigellachie and Aberlour
Making our way back towards the river Spey, our busiest stop waits ahead. First, we head to Craigellachie, a small village nestled between the flowing River Spey and the surrounding verdant hills. This is a great place to stay whilst visiting the area, a night at the Highlander Inn is thoroughly recommended. Their whisky bar is legendary among whisky aficionados, its off-season deals can give you the opportunity to try some amazing drams without having to drive back home afterwards. Another great option for your stay, is the elegant Craigellachie Hotel, with their Copper Dog whisky bar providing a great selection of whiskeys and delicious food.
Climbing up to Hill Street, you can reach a centre of great interest for the whisky buff: the Speyside Cooperage. Whilst you will feel somewhat submerged by the impressive pyramids of casks laying around the area, you will be able to admire the coopers’ mastery of their craft.
On the opposite bank of the Spey lies an incredible work of architecture, the new Macallan distillery. Designed to disappear in the surrounding landscape, these massive buildings hide underneath four artificial hills (complete with wildflower meadows on top). One of the largest single malt distilleries and very particular visitor experience. The feeling you are in a Bond villains lair is very strong, whilst the views from inside the distillery looking out on the surrounding landscape makes the blend with nature feel seamless.
It is now time to head to the town of Aberlour: once you are here, a stop for a dram and some food at the Mash Tun which offers a fantastic whisky menu as well as accommodation is highly recommended.
A stroll along the riverbanks of the Spey on a sunny day is a delight, as well as the walk towards Linn Falls, which happens to be hidden behind Aberlour distillery. The building is more traditional, with stone walls and a small shop at the entrance. A tour with tasting here is highly recommended, as they offer an interesting selection of core range and single casks bottlings, and the tasting rooms are beautifully furnished.
However, Aberlour is not the only whisky producer in town: Glenallachie distillery, formerly owned by Chivas and which has been recently purchased by whisky entrepreneur Billy Walker (formerly at Benriach and Glendronach). It is being brought back to glory with a high-quality single malt range being marketed. The tour is a great experience and one of the most straightforward on the market, with extremely knowledgeable guides, and a brand new visitor centre.
6) Run to the hills: the way to the Cairngorms National Park
Taking the A95 towards Aviemore, we head out of Aberlour and get lost in the countryside dotted by distilleries (Tamdhu, Dalmunach, Dailuaine…to name just a few). However, turning left just before Marypark, we will focus on the wee gem which is Glenfarclas. This family-owned distillery, highly regarded amongst sherry-cask lovers, sits next to Ben Rinnes, its brilliant trademark red shining out of the stone walls of the warehouse buildings. The visitor centre, one of the first one to be opened, integrated the panelling from a ship, the RMS Empress of Australia, which one of the owners bought at an auction and turned it into an elegant tasting room. The tours are extremely well-run, with very knowledgeable guides and wonderful landscapes to view as you are taken around.
Just a few miles ahead we reach one of the other big players of the industry: Glenlivet. The first licensed distillery in Scotland, its recent expansion has given it one of the highest capacities for production in the country. In its visitor centre, combining an old outlook with modern design features, you can visit a museum which covers the history of the Glenlivet and of the Speyside whisky region. It also has a cafe and a whisky shop for finding a little something to take home.
Following the road to Aviemore, passing in front of the towering Tormore distillery, we reach another interesting spot. Ballindalloch Distillery is one of the newest distilleries in the area, a family-owned steading which was turned into a single-estate distillery, with all the ingredients sourced from within its grounds. Whisky production started in 2014, so the wait for their first single malt release should be soon over – in the meantime, visitors can book tours by appointment and you can spend a full day with the team and immerse yourself in the experience offered by the distillery.
Gin lovers can stop by at the home of Caorunn Gin, at Balmenach Distillery; owned by Inverhouse, their whisky production is used almost exclusively for blends. The gin, however, has grown in popularity and gin tours are offered on-site.
Soon after you’ll reach our final stop in Aviemore. A lovely ski and mountaineering hub, served by buses and a train station to accommodate the needs of the many tourists that set off for the Cairngorms from here. You can sneak a final tour in the Cairngorm Brewery if you wish, otherwise, your trip will have a wonderful ending in one of the many bars and cafes that are dotted across the town (one I particularly recommended is the Old Bridge Inn).
Festivals & Events
This is a great event to attend for the variety of masterclasses and experiences available and the possibility to visit distilleries which are usually closed to the public.
It usually runs from the end of April to the first week of May, a true delight to welcome spring!
If you fancy blending fitness and drams then Dramathon is the perfect event for you. In October, runners meet up for a marathon with some very important pitstops amongst several whisky distilleries. Shorter circuits are also available.
Canoe on the Spey
Not really a festival but a wonderful way to immerse yourself in the surrounding environment, canoeing on the Spey is a great experience for everyone should take part in. The company Spirit of the Spey blends the whisky and the canoeing into an entertaining experience.
Whisky journey top tip #2: water and nibbles can get you a long way
On a whisky journey, where you’ll likely taste a variety of products from different distilleries, it is always recommended to bring a good bottle of water with you and something to munch along the way.
Although water has to be provided during tastings, and a glass of water between one glass and the other will allow you to taste and smell the differences between the whiskies a lot better. It’s good to keep hydrated between one whisky stop and the other, always taking time between tastings not to overwork your palate – and your brain.
Some nibbles of your choice can also help you absorb the whisky, making it a hangover-proof trip (of course, always drinking responsibly!).
Author Federica Stefani Whisky Writer & Jornalist