A Review of Speyside’s Best Distilleries
I’ve been looking forward to this one for some time.
Go anywhere in the world, reveal yourself to be Scottish and the most likely reaction will be one involving whisky along with a sly wink, an ear-to-ear grin or a thump on the back. Yes, whisky has been my ultimate ice-breaker and has triggered many a conversation in many a foreign tongue. No-one participating may know the necessary words for “hello” or “goodbye” but we know our Dalwhinnie from our Talisker, our Highland Park from our Glengoyne and our Ardbeg from our Springbank. Getting to know our national drink is one of my many top Scotland travel tips.
With around half of Scotland’s distilleries, travel to Speyside represents a full-on pilgrimage for lovers of the single malt, and with good reason. The sight of the pagoda turrets as you round that final bend into a fabulous Highland valley is likely to turn even the most miserly of folks into something of a babbling balloon. This, as they say, is where the magic happens.
As opposed to the take-your-head-off approach generally adopted by Islay malts – which I’m not knocking in the slightest by the way as I’m equally prone to raid the cupboard for a peaty powerhouse – Speyside’s are all about elegance and delicacy. As you float through the Golden Triangle of distilleries with that goofy, thoroughly-all-too-satisfied-with-yourself look about you, what you can generally expect is a deliciously sweet dram that delivers flavours including vanilla, toffee, butterscotch, fruits and subtle spices….to name but a few.
All within a short drive of each other, here is my look at some of the top distilleries and their tours to be found in the magical world of Speyside.
Ah yes. If Speyside whisky was a Game of Thrones, Glenfiddich would be a Lannister. A giant amongst champions, we will fortunately never know what state the Scottish whisky industry would be in were it not for these guys. If you go to an end-of-the-road-middle-of-nowhere bar pretty much anywhere on the planet and they only have one single malt Scotch tucked away at the back behind the vodka and a questionable tequila, there’s a fair chance that bottle will be a Glenfiddich. In my longer-term international travels when reserves were low and hope was all but lost, the gleam of triangular green from a Glenfiddich 12 on the other side of a dimly-lit bar has been the alcoholic equivalent of a waterhole in the desert. For that reason, I will always feel that I owe Glenfiddich one.
The ubiquitous nature of the stuff has led to a lot of turned up noses as drinkers (particularly those with plenty of whisky experience) search elsewhere for less well-known brands, but don’t let that put you off. This is just the nonsense side of whisky enjoyment kicking in. Aside from the 12, the 15 year old in particular is bloody wonderful and just maybe my single biggest whisky mission in life is to one day try a Glenfiddich 21 year old Havana Gran Reserva. Perfected in rum casks (I’ve always been partial) and with tasting notes that include apple, honey, vanilla and dark chocolate this absolute belter of a whisky is yours for around £150. I’ll save up and aspire to this one very special day.
Located in Dufftown, the epicentre of Speyside whisky, Glenfiddich offer a range of tours to visitors starting at £10. The distillery shop is also the most impressive I’ve seen and amidst its fabulously thoughtful décor showcases the huge range they have presented to the world since it all began in 1886. Glenfiddich is also backed by the impressive ruins of Balvenie Castle – you wouldn’t be the first to excuse yourself for a head-clearing wander up here so don’t be too proud.
I have decided to include Cardhu on this list because a. I love the stuff and b. I love the story of the distillery. The only one in the country to have been started by a woman – Helen Cumming way back in the early 1800s – the Cardhu story sums up the origins of whisky distilling brilliantly. With a record of dodging the law and evading the taxman, the Cumming family were like many others in the early years when hoisting of red flags served as a warning to neighbours that the excisemen were out and on the war path. Hide yer stash and all that. Starting as a farm distillery it was as simple as selling bottles of their freshly completed product to passers-by. Entrepreneurship at its best.
Cardhu is all about spicy sweetness for me, with vanilla an ever-present in the tasting notes. A lot of the distillery’s range do not carry an age statement but ask for a taster of their 18 year old in particular when visiting. Smoothness defined, you could have this stuff with your breakfast it’s that good. I’m also a long term fan of their Gold Reserve – another easy drinker and you can actually pick up a bottle of this stuff through most of the big UK retailers for around £40. Other bottlings are pretty rare as Cardhu has focussed its attention predominantly on the Spanish market as well as being prevalent in the Johnnie Walker blends.
Cardhu offer a fabulous £9 tour that I thoroughly recommend but prices do start from £5. Located a little off the beaten track in the village of Cardow to the west of Archiestown on the B9102, it’s pretty dainty in comparison to some of its industry-dominating neighbours, making for a different visitor experience.
James Bond brought a new level of fabulous to The Macallan when it was namedropped during Skyfall as one of his alternate pastimes. If you’ve ever tried a Vodka Martini you’ll agree it’s little wonder he’s finally moved up a level. But yes, if Bond is wiring into the stuff it says it all for the power of the brand and its status as one of the very best drams in the world.
When dissecting the flavours of a Macallan I’ve come to realise that for my taste buds it, more than any other, defines what I associate with Speyside malts. Not always easy to find in bars despite its undisputed status as another colossus in the whisky world, the standard bottle you’ll come across is the Macallan Gold range, which effectively replaced their 10 year old a few years back. Both the Sherry Oak and Fine Oak 12 year olds are equally lovely and you can expect to enjoy citrus fruits, toffee and spices along this particular tasting journey at the distillery. Christmas cake also screams its arrival at this point as well, enjoy that one. A final nod to another favourite of mine – I’m having one now as it happens – is the Select Oak from their 1824 Collection. Smooth, sweet but with a kick that stops you drifting off, I pull this one out on special occasions, such as writing about and reviewing Speyside whisky distilleries.
The Macallan Distillery is currently undergoing some pretty comprehensive construction (due for completion in 2017) but tours continue undeterred and prices start from £15 per person. If you can make it in and out of their distillery shop without whipping out the credit card I’ll be astounded.
Whisky distilleries in Scotland tend, on a visual level, to be utterly magnificent. With the odd exception, the building structures are full of history and love, while generally – and very unapologetically – laying claim to some glorious backdrop scenery. As far as Speyside goes, my favourite whisky HQ based on appearance goes to little-discussed Tormore Distillery. Conveniently located along the A95 I just love the functional yet handsome 50’s style architectural appearance of the place – with a nod also going to the brilliant work undertaken by the hedge-trimming groundsmen. Predominantly used in blends – hence it’s not being a household name in malt spheres – it does offer a very fine 12 year old that wouldn’t get poured down the sink. Even if it’s just to stop and gawk at this granite masterpiece from the car park, Tormore is worth a visit.
“Coopers are the most underrated people in the industry.”
A fantastic quote that has stuck with me during my Speyside wanders. This side-attraction is all about the oak casks – the barrels – that whisky is matured in. From acorn to cask, the Cooperage presents a journey exploring the full life journey of the wood and I’m certain will present a new-found appreciation of the key role that it plays in making whisky what it is.
The Cooperage tour is a steal at only £3.50 and presents an excellent video introduction into both the science and hard graft that the coopers contribute to the process as well as allowing a peek of the men at work.
I have never been able to drive by Craigellachie without a stop at its commanding 19th Century bridge. Crossing the River Spey – the fastest and third longest in Scotland – it’s a perfect spot for a reflective appreciation of the source of the golden magnificence that finds its way into our glasses. Along with the plethora of world class barley available in these parts, it really all comes down to the superb water quality from this very river. Which also makes for a damn fine cup of tea by the way.
If you’re reading this in a perturbed state that I have not visited your favourite whisky HQ, I’m not surprised. Speyside is a huge area and offers an exhausting number of distillery tours only too willing to tell visitors why their product kicks the backside of the one down the road. Other giants I have not discussed here include Aberlour, The Balvenie, Glenfarclas and, of course, The Glenlivet. Notable lesser-known brands that I love offer up the likes of Glendronach, The Glenrothes and Tomintoul. This is merely an introduction for the beginners and first time visitors to the region.
What should you look for when planning your own distillery hit-list? Location practicalities, cost, length of tour….Above all else, though, go to the distilleries where you love their product. As much as learning the process and observing the origins of each from the distillery guides is a fantastic way of spending an hour or so (I’ve yet to have a bad tour guide experience by the way, the standard across Scotland is excellent), the highlight will always be the drams at the end. Which should be all the more enjoyable if you’re a fan or, better still, an addict. When booking distillery tours note that it is best to reserve spots in advance and do check the opening times for each distillery, as they vary considerably through the year.
If this has whetted your appetite, check out the full marathon that is the Speyside Malt Whisky Trail and consider getting yourself over for the Spirit of Speyside Festivals where distilleries open their doors for a series of events and a whisky extravaganza to remember.
You can listen to my Radio Scotland broadcast of the top things to do in Moray by clicking the Play icon below.
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