For a lass from Shetland, whisky seems an altogether ‘Scottish’ thing – we don’t produce whisky (yet) in Shetland, and we never really have, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have a good appreciation for the water of life.
I’m leaving my island home for this blog and heading to the Scottish Mainland to tour Scotland’s famous whisky triangle in the beautiful Speyside region.
I hope you enjoy this break from the Shetland content and enjoy joining me on a journey through Speyside.
Speyside – the heart of Scottish whisky
Speyside is a region that sits in the northeast of Scotland, surrounding the crystal clear waters of the mighty River Spey. The area that, until the 1990s, was included in the ‘Highland’ whisky region has Scotland’s greatest density of distilleries, so if whisky is your thing, Speyside is the region for you. With over 60 distilleries, all within a stone’s throw of each other, we tried our best to visit a few in the three days we were in the area.
In total, we managed to see no less than 12 distilleries – and sampled many, many more from the region – so I hope you enjoy my insight into Scottish whisky.
Scotland’s whisky regions
Scotland is world-renowned for its uisge beatha (water of life), and Scottish whisky can be divided into six distinct regions: Speyside, Highlands, Islay, Islands, Lowlands and Campbeltown.
We chose Speyside for several reasons: The area is known as the Whisky Triangle of Scotland and has the greatest number of distilleries, and Speyside is home to some of the best-loved distilleries including, The Glenlivet, Glenfiddich, Balvenie and The Macallan. Our final reason for choosing the Speyside region is that the Speyside flavour tends to be sweeter with very little peat.
Speyside whisky itinerary
I’ve created a three-day itinerary for this blog, collaborating with Speyside Tours to ensure that you make the most of this fantastic region.
On the first day, we travelled to the Speyside region from Aberdeen, following the NE250, a new tourist route inspired by the ever-popular NC500 and launched in 2017 to promote this corner of Scotland. We drove along the Moray coast; an area punctuated with picturesque fishing villages and gentle, rolling farmland.
Highlights along this coast include the Museum of Scottish Lighthouses in Fraserburgh and the villages of Pennan, Crovie and Gardenstown, where a single row of old houses cling to the coastline and are dominated by sheer cliffs above. Banff and Macduff are fishing towns still relying almost solely on the industry today. Perhaps, like me, you’re a fan of Peaky Blinders – if so, visit Portsoy, where much of the final series was filmed in 2020. There are several castles in the area – my favourite being the impressive Duff House. Check out Crathes Castle, west of Aberdeen, before heading north if you’re into castles.
For lunch, we stopped at Cullen to visit the Rockpool Cafe. Cullen is the spiritual home of Cullen Skink, a delicious Scottish fish soup. Unsurprisingly it had sold out by the time we arrived, so we ordered a mouth-watering fish platter that included hot and cold-smoked salmon, smoked mackerel and sherry herring, creme fraiche and home-baked bread. On a previous trip to the area, we visited The Galleys Whitehills, a fantastic seafood restaurant overlooking the marina in the village of Whitehills.
After lunch, we drove through to Elgin, the capital of Moray and a town steeped in history. This former Royal Burgh had one shop that drew us in – Gordon & Macphail, a world specialist in single malt whisky. Gordon & Macphail is an independent bottling company and whisky dealer with over 100 years of experience producing some of the best malt whiskies.
We were guided through the vast whisky collection by Alannah, who was knowledgeable and generous with her time as we asked a million ‘beginners’ questions about the stock and the business’s place in the market.
Independent whisky bottlers buy whisky from distilleries and bottle them in their casks under their label. This means that the IB can choose how long to mature the whisky and influence the flavour and finish of the bottle. Whisky collectors collect rare bottles from trusted independent bottlers such as Gordon & Macphail.
Top tip: You’ll want to buy provisions from Elgin before checking into the accommodation at Craigellachie as there are no shops in the village. We ate out in the evenings, so we just had snacks and breakfast food. (The accommodation had tea, coffee, milk and sugar.)
Accommodation: We checked into The Whisky Hideaway for three nights.
Book directly via Speyside Tours
The Whisky Hideaway is situated in the picturesque village of Craigellachie, just a few miles from Dufftown, and is run by Michelle and Andrew from Speyside Tours.
The accommodation is a spacious and modern self-catering cottage with two generous bedrooms (double and twin). The property is a stone’s throw from the Craigellachie Hotel and Highlander Inn, offering well-stocked whisky bars and great food.
The attention to detail in this recently-renovated property is second to none – the cottage has a whisky theme throughout with, a favourite feature of mine, a feature wall made from old barrel staves. The whisky theme continued in the bathroom, where a half whisky barrel served for used towels!
The property can be booked by the night, with prices varying according to the length of stay. You’re looking at great value at, on average, £90 a night.
Being away from the family, we weren’t fancying cooking, and on host Michelle’s recommendation, we booked into the Craigellachie Hotel’s Copper Dog Restaurant. The food was fantastic – we had oysters and truffled lobster macaroni to start, followed by fillet of cod, crushed new potatoes & chimichurri (for me), and Craigellachie beef burger (for him.). We skipped pudding and went straight upstairs to their famous whisky bar, the Quaich. (The name derives from the Scottish Gaelic cuach, meaning a cup). The bar, the oldest whisky bar in Scotland, boasts over 1,000 single-malt whiskies from around the world. With so much to choose from, it’s no wonder we were sozzled when we stumbled across the road to bed!
My personal favourite (as a bit of a whisky beginner) was the Whisky Sourz – so much so that I had four of them – hic!
I woke with a dull head and a dry mouth – a sure sign that I had enjoyed too many whiskies the night before – but there was no time to wallow as we were meeting up with Michelle and Andrew from Speyside Tours for a full day of fun and whisky.
The first stop was the Speyside Cooperage, a five-star visitor attraction set within the heart of a traditional cooperage. Here, we watched 15 skilled barrel makers as they repaired and constructed the casks that would age the whisky for as many as 22 years at a time.
Whisky barrels come in standard sizes – the smaller American oak barrels (generally ex-bourbon barrels) and European oak barrels seasoned with sherry for several months to several years.
This was a fascinating place to visit, where we learned about the process from acorn to cask. The coopers, who never stopped working – shaping, shaving and charring casks – are skilled craftsmen and are masters of their craft and keepers of the ancient heritage of coopering.
From here, Michelle picked us up and drove us to our next destination, which she had planned – Cardhu Distillery. Along the way, we got the opportunity to dip our fingers into the River Spey at Tamdhu Distillery and soak up the beautiful Speyside scenery.
Many distilleries line the Spey, but the water used to make whisky comes from the hills, from springs deep within the earth. The Spey’s water is used for cooling during the distillation process before being released back into the river.
Our first tasting of the day – and the hair of the dog, as we say in Scotland – was at Cardhu Distillery. Cardhu was recently renovated and had a chique, modern and elegant feel.
Cardhu is possibly best known for being one of the whiskies used in the famous Johnnie Walker blend, but the distillery has several single malts that would stand their own in any ring with other ‘better known’ whisky hard-hitters.
Like many of Scotland’s distilleries, Cardhu began life as an illicit distillery by Helen Cummings in 1811 before being licensed in 1824. The whisky logo depicts Helen carrying a flag – thought to be the flag she displayed to warn other distillers about when the excise men were in town.
After sampling three drams and a highball whisky cocktail, it was on the road again to visit the picturesque Strathisla Distillery. Known as the Home of Chivas Regal, Strathisla is one of the key whiskies used in the famous Chivas blend. And in honour of their blending traditions, we took an enjoyable blending masterclass where Alison, our guide, talked us through the complex process of blending that perfect flavour. They say that women are better at blending than men, which was undoubtedly the case in our camp – Aaron’s blend was nothing short of horrific.
Feeling slightly sozzled, Michelle’s husband, Andrew, picked us up and took us back to their house, where Michelle had prepared a lovely meal to line our stomachs for the afternoon. I couldn’t get over the hospitality shown to us by Michelle and Andrew at Speyside Tours. They went the extra mile to ensure that our day ran smoothly and we had the best possible experience.
Michelle prepared a starter of ham and blue cheese croquettes on a bed of salad, drizzled with wild garlic sauce (foraged from her garden), followed by a steaming plate of rich and warming venison stew with creamy mashed tatties – it was divine!
After lunch, it was time for the tour I had built the whole experience around – Michelle’s famous, highly-acclaimed Dufftown Distilleries Walk! This tour through the nine distilleries of Dufftown was an incredible experience, without any of the pretences that can sometimes come from distilleries geared towards the visitor experience.
Now don’t get me wrong, I love a bit of glitz and glam, along with the polished copper accessories and gold gilded frames showing the founders of the once-family-owned distillery. Still, much of that is part of ‘the show’ as most distilleries are now owned by multinationals, including British-owned Diageo and French-owned Pernod Ricard.
What I loved most about the Dufftown Distilleries Walk was that, out of the nine distilleries we saw, only two – The Glenfiddich and Balvenie – had that sumptuously elegant feel that accompanies any famous ‘destination’ distillery.
If you want to experience the ‘Disneyland of Dufftown’, head for The Macallan with their impressive new turf-roofed distillery and five-star rating. We didn’t make it, but this cutting-edge, modern distillery is undoubtedly on the list for next time!
But, back to Dufftown and Michelle’s walk. Dufftown has a rich history of distilling, with no less than nine distilleries operating from the town at one time or another. We visited seven that are still in operation and two that are no longer producing – one of which has been bulldozed to the ground!
Those still producing include Mortlach, Dufftown Distillery (producers of Singleton), Glendullan, The Glenfiddich, Balvenie (also home to Kinivie) and Convalmore. We also visited the sites of the former Pittyvaich – where Michelle shared one of their drams – and Parkmore, where we enjoyed a whisky called Ardmore instead (see what she did there with the whisky play on names, smart, eh).
Along the way, Michelle treated us to her outstanding whisky expertise, invaluable local knowledge and delicious home bakes – supplied by her mum! We enjoyed a rich sticky toffee pudding – and a dram – before we set off. We had a master chocolatier’s dark chocolate with our Singleton malt and a few pieces of buttery shortbread with our Mortlach.
At the halfway mark – the walk is 6km (3.5 hours) – Michelle warmed us up with a traditional Scottish hot toddy (whisky, lemon and honey).
I thoroughly enjoyed this walk through the history of Dufftown, tasting our way as we went!
The Distilleries Walk takes 3.5 hours and costs £38 per person, and can be built into a full-day tour with Michelle and Speyside Tours (We had a full day tour including the Cooperage, Cardhu and Strathisla Distilleries).
By the end of this action-packed day, we were knackered! For us, it was a hearty meal of fish and chips across the road from the Whisky Hideaway in the Highlander Inn and an early night. A shame as the Highlander Inn has an incredibly well-stocked whisky bar too!
For the final day of our Speyside experience, Michelle from Speyside Tours had promised us something different – but still boozy! We were going back to school – this time to gin school.
Andrew picked us up at 9.30 and took us to their house, where we had sloe gin cocktails to start the day as Michelle explained her passion for distilling and – perhaps even more so – her passion for foraging. She told us that she had rediscovered the ancient art of foraging during lockdown. On the outskirts of Dufftown, their house is flanked by woodland on one side and rolling hills on the other, the perfect foraging location.
I’ve always been a fan of foraging. You may have seen my forays into living off the land on Instagram, where I’ve dabbled in seaweed, nettles, dandelions and wild garlic – some with more success than others (my dried seaweed was disgusting!), so I was looking forward to the first part of this workshop – foraging in the woods.
Michelle explained that we wouldn’t find a lot as the earth was only beginning to stir again after its long winter slumber, but, despite this, I was surprised how much was available. Shetland in early March is very much still barren, so I was pleasantly surprised to see swathes of wild garlic carpeting areas of woodland and hopeful young sorrel and garlic mustard plants. Perhaps not botanicals of choice for gin, but it was tasty to nibble on nonetheless!
Michelle is a foraging pro and can successfully tap birch trees for extracting the sap without causing any harm to the tree. Throughout the summer and autumn, she gathers and dries a variety of plants and mushrooms, providing a wholesome larder for both her family and her gin!
After our walk through the woods and around some of the fantastic Dufftown trails, we were back to the gin school to begin the process of distilling. Michelle is qualified in distilling, so she was well-placed to answer all our questions.
Our stills were ready, each one containing spirit, juniper and coriander. To this magic mix, we had a choice of dried and fresh botanicals from Michelle’s larder and our foraging walk.
Michelle explained to us how to get our ‘mix’ right and how to calculate the correct ratios of botanical ingredients to get the perfect gin. (This, I won’t share – you’ll have to do the course to learn more!)
I will, however, share our ingredients. We decided to go with botanicals that we could (mostly) forage at home here in Shetland. We came up with: 1.8g angelica, 1.8g pine (freshly-foraged), 1.8g rosemary (freshly-foraged), 1.8 g sea buckthorn, 1.8g dandelion, 4.5g rose hips.
We combined it all to the spirit, coriander and juniper mix and had lunch while we waited …
Another gin poured, and it was back upstairs to complete the distilling workshop. Our gin was ready for bottling, and our own locally-inspired ‘Glen-ginny’ was bottled, labelled and wax-sealed.
What a fantastic experience and we got a bottle of our creation to take away with us at the end!
From here, we waved goodbye to Michelle and Andrew, and it was on to our pre-booked tour at The Glenlivet Distillery. We had booked the Archives tour, where we explored the art of maturation and had an all-access look at their bonded Warehouse 3 at The Glenlivet. We discovered more about the art of cask selection, warehousing and finishing processes before heading to a private tasting room to enjoy a carefully selected tasting of some of the oldest and rarest whiskies, including The Glenlivet XXV and The Glenlivet 30-Year-Old Cellar Collection.
We liked The Glenlivet, it was very swish, but our guide was down-to-earth and took us back to the distillery’s roots, sharing their story and some of the family history behind the brand.
It was back to Dufftown in the evening, where we had pre-booked a table at The Seven Stills – as recommended by my pal Kay, also known as The Chaotic Scot. We used Craigellachie Cars for a taxi, who were brilliant, but remember that this is a rural area so you will need to book in advance. We found them extremely accommodating – and trusting – she didn’t take a penny from us till the end of the evening, despite several lengthy journeys throughout the day!
I’m not even sure where to begin raving about The Seven Stills restaurant. We had the best time there, with outstanding food, incredible hospitality and beautiful, homely surroundings. It was very relaxing. Rose and her husband Patrick run the business, and the couple ooze warmth and passion and make you feel instantly welcome and at home in their cosy restaurant. The Seven Stills is where French cuisine and hospitality meet rustic Scottish charm; the French-inspired kitchen perfectly complements the Scottish whisky bar. It’s the perfect fusion, and our taste buds agreed! The wine and whisky menus were fantastic, with good descriptions to help us choose the ideal bottle to compliment our meal. We pre-ordered our fantastic food, making it feel more like a meal with friends than a fine dining experience. The restaurant and bar are named in honour of the original seven whisky distilleries of Dufftown and opened their doors for business in 2016. This was a memorable experience that we will hang on to for many years to come – and I only hope that we can visit again soon.
Our time in Speyside was brief, but this beautiful corner of Scotland left a deep impression. We were blown away by the hospitality, kindness and stories of the people who live here who made our trip so memorable.
My special thanks go to Michelle and Andrew for – well, everything! We couldn’t have wished for more. Also, a big thank you to Rose for her incredible hospitality and good conversation; it was a pleasure to dine with you and Patrick.
I can’t wait to return to this special and unique part of Scotland.
Until next time,
Hello from Laurie
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