The essential guide to Speyside bars

The essential guide to Speyside bars

David Stirk is 'entertained in a truly Scottish manner' during his five-day whistle stop tour of Speyside allowing him to bring you the definitive guide to Speyside's best bars

Bars | 16 Apr 2001 | Issue 15 | By David Stirk

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The Mash TunThe sun is shining far too brightly today, its rays force their way through the curtains and hit the floor with a bump that’s only audible to people who have heavily overindulged the night before. People like me, for example.It’s 9.30am and my body aches as I lay prostrate in my bed. The reason for this is that I have once again been entertained in a truly
Scottish manner. I have just experienced the first night of a five-night stay in Speyside and I have already eaten heavily into my energy reserves. I’m not complaining though. The reason for my lethargy is a lengthy visit to The Mash Tun.The bar is, without doubt, one of Speyside’s wonders: the good times and the water of life flow in equal amounts. There are many treasures behind its peculiar exterior, which looks like the hull of a brick ship – possibly one of the reasons Scottish shipbuilding was confined to the
opposite side of the country. Originally called The Station Bar, the establishment has been given the kiss of life and a face-lift by the new
proprietor, Neil MacDonnell.Previously manager of an Oddbins in Glasgow for 10 years, Neil decided that it was time for a move. He searched the Highlands for a decent pub and decided upon The Station Bar, which had gone into receivership a year earlier. Neil saw its potential: it was located in an area with a distinct lack of good beer and whisky pubs. Showing me the map in the CAMRA Good Pub Guide he says:“As you can see there is about a thirty mile radius in Speyside that is not serviced by a real ale pub.” After purchasing the bar a complete refurbishment was in order and Neil made good use of local businesses while dressing his bar. “The bar and floor are made from old washbacks obtained from a nearby distillery,” Neil claims, “and while my brother and I were cutting them to shape the smell of the wash was quite evident.” The bar is situated a stone’s throw away from the River Spey and is a common haunt for travelling fisherman. The atmosphere is relaxing and jovial with anything from jazz to Van Morrison coercing regulars and first-time visitors to relax and enjoy themselves. The bar is decked out with an impressive array of beer and whisky memorabilia: no one forgets they are in a pub. Before you know it you’ve had a great time, met new friends and sampled some of the finest drinks in the world. Neil serves over 60 single malts and numerous beers including cask ales, foreign lagers and bitters. He really can boast a drink for everyone. Due to his close proximity to Aberlour Distillery, Neil tries to stock as much of their range as possible. On any given day there can be as many as 12 different expressions of Aberlour on sale: this includes the 10-year-old, 15-year-old, Antique, 100 proof, 21-year-old, 30-year-old and the 12-year-old double matured for example. I should warn you not try them all, or your story will much resemble the beginning of my own tale.Neil’s success was recently recognized by CAMRA who awarded him Pub of the Year 1999 – Aberdeen, Grampian and Northern Isles. And don’t leave without trying the food or you will have missed out on a menu that ranges from Scotland to Mexico and beyond. I insist that anyone traveling through or near Aberlour must stop at least once. If I am to survive five days in Speyside I will have to go somewhere less hospitable!Highlander InnAnother day, another bar. I’m looking forward to meeting Jock Anderson, the proprietor of The Highlander Inn, Craigellachie. My enthusiasm has been flamed by glowing reports from many friends and colleagues. They tell me I won’t be disappointed. Jock greets me with a warm handshake, a big grin and a rather large kilt. He looks very much like a man who works very hard for his money and enjoys doing so. Once the pleasantries are out of the way I take up my position next to the bar and order a large dram, Jock’s choice. He
sportingly supplies me with a Macallan 18-year-old – his favourite dram. The bar isn’t the biggest in the world but size isn’t always important, is it? Yet many larger bars wouldn’t come close to matching The Highlander’s atmosphere, you just have to look at my fellow patron’s faces to see that they enjoy the convivial atmosphere and have, metaphorically, let their hair down. Wherever you look there are people having fun as the live music plays on and the drink continues to flow. You get the feeling that every night a party is waiting to happen and all it may take to start one is a popular tune on the jukebox and a spontaneous outburst of song from a vociferous group shooting pool.Jock soon introduces me to the entire Macallan Distillery crew who, funnily enough, just so happen to be having a party for a member of staff who has left the fold that day. I casually note that some of them are drinking Macallan (always a good sign) and eventually I chat with them about the state of the industry and how they have viewed the changes within their own company. Talk is easy in an establishment like this. Jock is rightly proud of his establishment and of his love for whisky. Jock stocks around 70 malts and is beginning to buy in some special cask strength whiskies that guarantee a headache the next day – trust me! He has begun a whisky menu and looks out for whisky books in foreign languages for those occasions when communication is a problem. This doesn’t mean it is exclusively a great whisky bar, just that it’s a great bar where you can buy a good whisky. There is no doubt that Jock knows a good malt from a poor blend – he proudly displays in the bar the quaich he won at the Spring Speyside Whisky Festival in the team nosing competition. In fact, while I was there, he managed to retain his title. It couldn’t have happened to a nicer fellow. I have had my glass refilled, perhaps more than once, and time seems to be accelerating at an astonishing rate. I have made friends and, despite a semi-serious pool competition in flow, the laughter hasn’t stopped for a minute. Pubs like this used to exist on every street in every town, now they are very much like a classic malt – rare and very precious. I’m singing some song about something Scottish and I know that the night has to come to a close yet I don’t want it to. It might be another day, but yesterday went too soon.Grouse Inn Off the beaten track’ is a mild understatement when describing the location of the Grouse Inn. As I drive out of Dufftown on Fife Street, passing the old Mortlach Church and Mortlach Distillery, I feel an overwhelming sense that I am going to get lost. Strange, as I have already been to the Grouse Inn twice – both times without experiencing any trouble with my bearings. The drive towards the Grouse Inn takes you along a winding road that must become far too hazardous to negotiate in the winter months. Perversely, it’s a drive that I really enjoy despite the refusal of my radio and mobile phone to work. The upside to these developments is that all of my senses are on red alert ready to react if any suicidal pheasants or grouse run in front of the car.Once on the right road you can’t miss the Grouse Inn as it is the only building that you pass which is large enough to be a pub. On arrival it is impossible to miss the part that whisky plays in the life of the owner, Ian McBain: there’s whisky everywhere! The water of life is on the shelves that line the walls, the ceiling and, obviously, the bar. There are over 220 malts on optics at the bar and a further 100 that just sit around waiting to be consumed! There are whiskies from all over the world and from every decade of the 20th century. One of Ian’s favourite bottles is one that he calls his “Al Capone bottle”. Bottled in 1920 during the Temperance, or Prohibition era, in America, the bottle is described as a ‘Pure Malt Tonic – A concentrated liquid prepared with the greatest care for medicinal use’. Ian claims that the only reason he has been able to collect so enthusiastically is due to the fact that he doesn’t drink whisky. Ian has been collecting for over 25 years and has declined numerous offers from people wanting to buy the entire collection: “John Grant, the owner of Glenfarclas Distillery, lives locally and came in one day asking if could buy the entire collection,” Ian laughs. “I turned him down but I do get a lot of requests to swap or sell individual bottles.” I, of course, just want to try them all.Ian is very coy about how many bottles he has in his collection or how much it is worth. You are all welcome to go and count – as long as you can negotiate the road and the suicidal pheasants.Quaich BarIt has been a struggle, but I have managed to survive my time in Speyside. I have retired to the Quaich Bar in the Craigellachie Hotel to enjoy a therapeutic dram and reflect on a successful week’s drinking. Sorry, research.The bar is the perfect location to relax and is incredibly tranquil. So much so I feel myself sinking, nay drowning, in one of the plush green leather chairs that surround the bar. All around me are hundreds of open bottles of whisky – it’s a whisky drinker’s paradise. The problem is, which whisky do you choose? Thankfully some Japanese tourists have bought me a whisky and saved me from making a decision. We chat and test each other’s ability to identify whisky. I find I’m a dab hand at it, if I say so myself, and my new friends are pretty astute as well.For those who do not feel confident enough to trust their own instincts about whisky, the bar is complete with tasting books that anyone may read and add their own comments. One note that caught my eye stated: “Came. Saw. Drank them all. Somehow got to bed!” In the corner of the bar there is an exclusive display cupboard with some rather exquisite malts on display. These belong to customers like Jim Murray, John Grant (of Glenfarclas Distillery) and Mark Watt (one of the barmen now with SMWS). Anyone can join this exclusive club by purchasing a section of the shelf and leaving a bottle of their choice to be drunk whenever they happen to return to the hotel. A beautifully simple concept and terribly appealing! I resist the temptation and instead look for my next dram.]There is a special offer currently at the Quaich Bar. Simply purchase their most expensive malt, The Balvenie 1967 Single Cask, and get your room for the night free. It’s probably worth pointing out that each dram of The Balvenie 1967 costs £90. A bargain if ever there was one! Taking up this offer were two Scotsmen, David Somerville and Jamie McCaig (pictured), who were on fishing and shooting holidays – a common reason for staying in this part of Scotland. I asked them why they remained in their own country for their holidays. Their answer was not in the form of words but an offer to allow me to try their Balvenie. After that heavenly dram passed through my lips and over my tastebuds I realised why there was no need for words – silence is indeed golden. Time seems to hover outside the door of this little bar. Looking for the right whisky to drink can take an hour. As I wrap my nose around my final choice of whisky before retiring to bed, I can’t help but feel a little lucky. I’ve met many characters, seen and tasted many malts, and found my Scottish hosts to be incredibly hospitable. It’s been an enjoyable tour and one that all Whisky Magazine readers should experience.
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