The heart of the matter

The heart of the matter

Joel Harrison explores the iconic whisky making region

Travel | 26 Oct 2012 | Issue 107 | By Joel Harrison

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The River Spey is the pulmonary artery of the Scotch industry, pumping water in to the heart of the country's largest whisky making region. This aqua is transformed by the age-old distilleries, using just barley, yeast, heat and copper, into the superhero version of its former self: aqua vitae.

It is this supercharged spirit which, having slumbered in oak casks, emerges as whisky. But not just any whisky; this is Speyside whisky.

Playing Oxford to the Highlands' Cambridge, the individual distilleries of this region stand proudly like colleges, their alumni, single malts who have graduated with distinctions and a much sought-after CV, recognised the world over. It is this international acclaim which attracts visitors from across the world to this small part of Scotland.

Hidden away somewhere between Aberdeen and Inverness, Speyside is home to a vast array of distilleries. Household names such as Glenfiddich, The Glenlivet, The Macallan and Cragganmore are flanked by some not-so-well-known monikers such as Tamnavulin and Tormore. Put simply, this is a hot bed for distilling and a must visit for any serious Scotch whisky fan.

Travelling around Speyside really gives one a sense of quite how vast this industry would have been in the mid to late 1800s. Deliberately hidden away in hard-to-find areas, in the hollow of a vast glen, or simply near a water source, many of these operations date back centuries to a time when avoiding the King's excisemen was as important as churning out spirit for your loyal customer base.

As a result, if you are planning a trip to this heartland of hooch, a lot of the distilleries you may be wanting to visit are not in easily accessible places. It is rare to find a distillery located close to a railway station, or even in a town.

If you are looking for somewhere with a thoroughfare even closely resembling a high street, then the best bet is either Keith or Dufftown. The former, a stunning town home to the equally stunning Strathisla distillery, complete with its own water wheel. The latter, a delightful town founded by James Duff in 1817, Dufftown is considered very much the home of whisky in Speyside, maybe even in Scotland. It is said that "Rome was built on seven hills, Dufftown stands on seven stills", referring to the original seven distilleries which surrounded the town (Mortlach, Glenfiddich, The Balvenie, Convalmore, Parkmore, Dufftown and Glendullan) the first, Mortlach, being built in 1823. Sadly, Convalmore and Parkmore are no more, but the ranks have been swelled by the addition of Pittyvaich and Alt a Bhainne in the 1970s and most recently Kininvie in the 1990s.

If you are in Dufftown and want to explore a local distillery, the visitor centre at Glenfiddich is open all year round, set up to accommodate large coach parties with a truly informative tour, restaurant and gift shop. For a more intimate tour of a smaller operation, take a visit to Glenfiddich's sister distillery, The Balvenie, where bookings are a must and tours only happen twice a day at 10am and 2pm, for a maximum of eight people per tour.

If you're after some unique and unusual liquid to take home from your trip, the Glenfiddich gift shop has a 'fill your own bottle' option, with whisky specifically held back for the distillery shop, housed in a bottle with a bespoke label and packaged in a heavy, wooden box.

The Balvenie also provides a 'fill your own bottle' option, but for members of their Warehouse 24 programme, who have a choice to sample from three different casks, using a 'copper dog' to fill and hand label their own 20cl bottle. On top of this, the distillery often has highly limited edition bottlings, available only to those lucky enough to have been on the Balvenie tour. In the past these have included the now highly collectable Tun1401 Batch 1, of which just 336 bottles were produced, and Rose (Batches 1 & 2). Both distilleries are highly recommended for a visit.

As you leave Dufftown and head down the road towards the River Spey, it's easy to miss out on one of the region's most interesting attractions, The Speyside Cooperage. We all know of the importance a great cask plays in the development of a whisky and at the Speyside Cooperage you'll learn not just why this is the case, but you'll also see the coopers hard at work. Marked clearly by pyramids of barrels reaching high into the sky, visiting is a visceral and powerful experience, underscoring the handmade, craftsmanship elements in the whisky-making process, this is a must when in Speyside.

Past the cooperage, down by the Spey, two hotels show off their fantastic whisky collections. The Craigallachie and the Highlander Inn provide a welcome break for a light lunch, a decent dinner or a superb sleep.

Whichever of these you choose, you won't be short of a dram or two to relax with.

In sight of the River Spey lies The Macallan distillery, the only one in Scotland with its own ghillie and fishing beat. A recently renovated visitors centre provides one of the best tour experiences in Scotland, with a 'sensory tunnel' and expert explanations of many of the more intricate aspect of the distillation and maturation process. While you're there, the town of Rothes is worth a walk around, which includes the Glenrothes distillery and nice views of Speyburn, one of Scotland's prettiest (and most photographed) distilleries.

Any trip to Speyside wouldn't be complete without a visit to Glenlivet. The valley through which the River Livet flows, is home to The Glenlivet distillery, to which it gives its name.

But the term 'Glenlivet' was previously used as a marque on many bottles from distilleries in the area to denote their affinity to this smaller parish and aline their quality with that of the hooch from this particular estate.

The Glenlivet itself is well set for visitors, with a recent expansion to their production facility making touring easy. Guardians of The Glenlivet will find themselves looked after in their very own library, equipped with leather chesterfield chairs and a wee dram or two!

Speyside is Scotch whisky distilled into a region. Visiting is a must any time of the year (weather permitting) and you're sure to find a warm welcome, whichever distilleries you choose to visit.


  • Both Aberdeen and Inverness airports are within easy reach of Speyside, with many carriers flying in and out of Aberdeen but only two, easyJet and Flybe routed to Inverness.

  • If flying isn't your thing, trains go to both cities as well as through the heart of Speyside, stopping in such locations as Keith. The sleeper train to / from London is also an option when considering travel.

  • A car is almost an essential if you want to visit more than one site a day.

  • For accommodation options, see our Speyside bars special feature.

  • Get used to the phrase: "About an hour away" as everything in the area is seemingly about an hour away. If you choose to drive, be careful about sampling drams, do not drink and drive please.

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