Whisky Route #3: The Highlands
Whisky Route 3: Whisky hopping across the Highlands
When someone mentions Scotland in a conversation, the image that will most likely materialise in the minds of the surrounding talkers is that of vast wild, almost prehistoric landscapes, covered in heather and rocks: that postcard image which is the Highlands.
As far as whisky is concerned, the region extends north of the imaginary line which links the Firth of Clyde to the Firth of Tay, cutting midway just near Stirling (leaving out just Islay, Campbeltown and Speyside). Covering such a wide area, the Highlands are incredibly rich and diverse, and this aspect is mirrored in the whiskies hereby produced. After indulging in some northern tastings around the North Coast 500 and rolling on the whisky rivers in Speyside, we are headed for a cross-country whisky trip to discover the Highlands from head to toe.
A coastal pearl: Portsoy
Our journey begins with a stroll on the white-sand beaches of the Moray coast, in the fishing harbour of Portsoy.
The beautiful drive from the A98 passes through the village of Cullen, where you’ll be welcomed by picturesque views of the coastline and the viaduct towering over the burgh, as well as a taste of the local seafood delicacy, the Cullen Skink. Shortly after, you will reach the seaside retreat of Sandend Bay, a lovely spot for paddle boarding and surfing.
Overlooking the bay, you’ll find the distillery of Glenglassaugh. Despite not being among the most famous sites in the whisky world, it is however an incredibly charming spot, nestled between barley fields and the ocean. Brought back to life in 2008 by Billie Walker, it prides itself on a small but interesting production of single malts which have recently been brought to the shelves, whereas in the past the production would mainly go into blends like Cutty Sark and Famous Grouse. While most of the buildings are from the 1960s, there are a few remaining warehouses and malt barn preserving a more traditional and pleasant appearance. The distillery makes very little use of modern technologies and privileges a manual approach, with most of the equipment branded Porteus, including their last mash tun in use today. Besides the beautiful views from the still house, the distillery has access to the beach by a path, offering the option of a nice walk in the sand after the tour (however, check their closing times with their staff if your car is parked at the distillery to avoid being locked in!).
Once you’re satisfied with your drams, a quick hop into the Portsoy Ice Cream is great for a tasty tub or a warming hot waffle with chocolate on the chillier days. And, if you fancy some maritime entertainment, Portsoy also hosts the annual Scottish Traditional Boat Festival in the summer.
Sherry Pie: Glendronach (Huntly)
It’s now time to leave the coast and head south, towards the heart of Aberdeenshire. A few miles north of the town of Huntly lies the distillery of Glendronach, a small paradise for whisky drinkers with a thirst for sherry influence. The cottage-like buildings, nestled in the barley-rich fields of the Forgue Valley, is one of the oldest distilleries in Scotland, and the beautiful traditional buildings are a heritage to time. The distillery offers whisky and chocolate tastings and in-depth masterclasses with insights on sherry and premium wines which form part of the casks used to mature this renowned dram. An eye should be kept open for its famous single cask bottlings, incredibly appreciated by whisky fans and collectors.
Historic remains can also be found in Huntly, where you can visit the remains of an ancient castle and walk through its gardens, which are a delight over spring, or contact the local Falconry centre to organise an entertaining and “wild” afternoon.
A market stop at Oldmeldrum
Our next stop is a historic market village near Inverurie, in Aberdeenshire. Oldmeldrum is also known as The Granary of Aberdeen, thanks to the fertile barley fields that grow in its surroundings. Fortunately, an abundance of barley calls for an abundance of…whisky!
Needless to say, one of the oldest distilleries in Scotland is located right here: the lovely Glen Garioch. Although the barley provision was never an issue, the distillery has had problems in the past with its water sources. However, in 1973, a certain Alec “Digger” Grant “smelled out” a new water supply, which enabled the distillery to impressively increase its production. Now owned by the Japanese Beam Suntory, the distillery is making a name for its single malt production, mostly marketed in a series of vintage bottlings. The distillery is a beautiful piece of stonework and usually offers a mouth-watering pairing with cheese.
For classy accommodation with a great whisky bar (and a great golf spot), head to the Meldrum House Country Hotel & Golf Course.
A Monarch’s dram – Balmoral
Just a kilometre away from Her Majesty’s summer retreat, Balmoral Castle, lies the distillery of Royal Lochnagar. Due to the proximity to the Royal Estate and the fact that Queen Victoria had an acquired taste for this whisky, it was given a Royal Warrant (Royal Brackla, near Nairn, was the first-ever distillery to receive the prestigious mention). However, despite the Royal Warrant being expired, the distillery has retained the honour in its name.
As you can imagine, the royals have fairly good taste in picking locations and the area where Royal Lochnagar sits is no exception. Nestled on the southern side of the River Dee, the distillery is set in a spot of beauty, and the converted farmhouse building adds that traditional charm to the picture.
Not far from here is also the beautiful Braemar Castle for a journey back in time, but if you love the great outdoors, there are walks and hikes aplenty in the area – just remember to carry your hip flask with you for extra warmth.
Highest Distillery in Scotland: Dalwhinnie
Making your way back on the A9 on the Western side of the Cairngorms, with its majestic mountain views and wild landscapes, we now head to the distillery in Scotland set at the highest altitude: Dalwhinnie. The travel across the barren hills and placidly flowing burns is a wonderful route, extremely calming and soothing. Once you’ll reach the distillery, you will be welcomed by breathtaking views. From autumn and winter, the white buildings are surrounded by snow-capped, which makes it a perfect occasion to warm up with a dram or two. A smooth mix of heather notes and honey, Dalwhinnie is a lovely dram in a lovely place, and great if you have a sweet tooth as the distillery happens to offer an utterly delicious pairing with chocolate truffles.
Not far from here is also Strathmashie distillery, home to Daffy’s gin. A bonnie setting lost in the countryside, the distillery also runs entertaining gin school sessions, a hands-on experience on how to forage the right botanicals for your gin and how to create the tasty juniper spirit. Recommended for those who want to unleash the wild child in them – but are strictly over 18!
Gateway to the Cairngorms: Pitlochry
The route going south is a stunning drive as the solemn Cairngorm landscape fades into the verdant Perthshire hills. On the way to the beautiful village of Pitlochry, do not forget to hop off at Blair Castle in Blair Atholl; a stunning location with beautiful gardens, the castle is also where the Keepers of the Quaich, a society which recognises the outstanding work of individuals in promoting whisky and its culture, hold official banquets and award ceremonies.
Pitlochry is a bonnie and picturesque setting, very popular with tourists visiting the Highlands. A parade of cafes and small shops around will offer shelter and some tasty homemade bites, and the many wee shops are a good chance to grab a souvenir or two.
What’s even better, Pitlochry is also home to two beautiful distilleries. The one closest to the town centre is Blair Athol, which features beautiful climbing-plant-covered walls at its entrance. Their single malt is mainly used to create blends, and it’s one of the core malts for Bell’s whisky. However, a small part of its production is bottled and is one of Diageo’s Flora and Fauna range. The tour is a great introduction to whisky and it’s interestingly intertwined with Bell’s history. The second distillery, Edradour, is another extremely pretty location and stands perched on a hill overlooking the surrounding countryside. Once boasting the title of the smallest distillery in Scotland, it is still one of the smallest nowadays after an expansion and with the advent of the microdistilleries of the new wave (Strathearn distillery, near Perth, now holds the title). The advice is to visit in high season, when the whisky bar is open, as they have many interesting bottlings to offer, not only from Edradour but also a good variety of independent bottlings from the distillery’s owner, the independent bottler Signatory.
If you are visiting on a chilly day, however, the cosy Moulin Inn will provide shelter, a fireplace and some lovely house ales. The brewery is a tiny beauty, with all the equipment all fitting in one room. The beer produced is also very nice, and if you need a winter warmer their Old Remedial is a great honey-flavoured pick-me-up.
If you have time for a small detour, head to Dunkeld and Birnam: here, you will find the Birnam Oak, which is said to be part of the moving forest portrayed in Shakespeare’s Scottish play, Macbeth. In Dunkeld a walk through verdant gardens and a stunning view of the Tay with the Cathedral on the side is highly recommended. Most importantly, though, it is the perfect place to get tempted by the scrumptious scones and cakes at The Clootie Dumpling Cafe.
We now head to the burgh of Aberfeldy, where the Aberfeldy distillery sits next to the chattering Pitilie burn. This is truly a bonnie place for the whisky lover: nestled in a verdant forest, the Home of Dewars offers really good distillery tours, as well as having a brilliant interactive heritage museum inside it. It is also home to the Scotch Egg Bar, a secret behind-the-distillery venue perfect to try delicious cocktails and whiskies. The cafe is also a lovely spot where to stop. Otherwise known as the golden dram, Aberfeldy’s single malt has a quintessential honeyed aroma, and ties in well with the partnerships the distillery has developed with local beekeepers.
In Aberfeldy, you’ll also find a place from which chocolate lovers will not part easily: the Highland Chocolatier produces exceptional truffles and other chocolate creations. (Trust me when I say that a whisky and chocolate pairing with these beauties is otherworldly!)
It is time for us to leave Perthshire and stretch towards the lovely countryside that leads us close to Loch Lomond & Trossachs Park, just outside Stirling.
Our next stop is Deanston Distillery, near Doune. Far from being one of the most renowned, it is also very peculiar in its looks: a set of red brick buildings stands overlooking the River Teith, almost a throwback to the traditional British industrial architecture. The distillery boasts an extensive range of interesting cask finishes, which make an interesting afternoon for the palate! A warming and insightful tour can end up with a tasty meal at their lovely coffee bothy.
The final whisky destination on our tour takes us to Glengoyne, the southernmost distillery of the Highland region (it is, in fact, right on the border with the Lowlands). The stunning landscapes that surround the building are a joy of mild green hills. Any Lord of the Rings fan will surely feel a bit as in the Shire, ready to enjoy some hobbit feasting. A very traditional-looking distillery, with white and stone-walled buildings, it has a lovely walk along the waterfall which was used in times of illicit distilling as their water source. It is now home to a beautiful reception room for private dining and tastings. The distillery offers a varied range of whisky tours and tasting experiences, as well as some very interesting bottle-your-own options.
Finally, what more glorious end to the trip could there be than to explore the marvels that Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park have to offer? Keep a hip flask with your favourite whisky ready to sip and cheer on the beauty of the Scottish Highlands.
Festivals & Events
Stirling Whisky Festival
Organised in May at the Stirling Highland Hotel, this is a great occasion to celebrate the whisky festival month and engage with whisky producers and bottlers from all over the country and learn more about the golden sunshine with several masterclasses.
All across the Highlands, summer is dotted with folkloristic gatherings for the Highland games. Visit to see strong athletes toss the caber, lift extremely heavy stones and local youth compete in fast races. A great occasion to see pipe bands perform and enjoy tasty local food. Just check the calendar to see when the ones near you are happening. Usually, several stands with whisky tastings are also in attendance!
Whisky journey top tip #3: packing for travel
Travelling across a whisky country can surely induce the temptation of buying some to bring back home as a present to keep and enjoy whilst remembering the times had over your holiday. Halas, most bottles are made of glass! It is important then to pack well your bottles to make them get home safe (as well as your clothes), especially if you will fly back home.
- When you buy bottles, ask for some bubble wrap from the shop staff, they will usually be more than happy to help you and they will package your bottle perfectly.
- When buying multiple bottles, always keep them as further apart as possible and wrap them in clothing. If you have spare plastic bags, putting the bottle in first is a good way of recycling them and gives extra safety from unlucky spillages.
- For samples or tasting bottles, socks are a great ally – put the bottles in the sock and wrap as much as you can, and if you have spare shoes fit them in there.
- If you are checking in the luggage, ask if they can put a FRAGILE tag on yours. Not every operator will do it but it could make life a bit easier for your luggage while travelling.
- If the bottle is in a box that you can open, put a bit of bubble wrap on the naked bottle so that it will sit more firmly in the box.
- Some countries will let you bring in only a certain amount of alcohol so double-check online which is the limit for your own country. Also, ask if they provide a tax refund form at the shop!
Author Federica Stefani Whisky Writer & Jornalist