In the second of this two-part series following the A9 road north, we explore the distilleries and other sights to see between Inverness and the northern coast of Caithness.
Until the 1980s, the Highland capital of Inverness boasted three working distilleries, namely Glen Albyn, Glen Mhor and Millburn. All fell victim to the contraction of the industry during that decade, and today only part of Millburn is still to be seen, masquerading as a bar/restaurant, while the two 'Glens' have disappeared beneath the tarmac and steel of a retail park.
Inverness (www.explore-inverness.com) is a great centre from which to explore the Northern Highlands, and a detour for some monster-spotting on Loch Ness is a virtual must. Back on the A9 and heading north, another detour, via the A862, leads to Diageo's Glen Ord Distillery (www.malts.com) and adjacent maltings. Glen Ord dates from 1838 and expansion over the past few years has given it an impressive capacity of 11 million litres per annum. Its Singleton of Glen Ord range of expressions have given the distillery a much higher profile of late.
Back on the A9, a 20 miles' drive brings you to the town of Alness, home to Diageo's Teaninich Distillery (www.malts.com), which is not open to the public. However, nearby Dalmore Distillery - founded a year after Glen Ord - offers a luxurious and highly informative visitor experience. Dalmore (www.thedalmore.com) is the 'signature' malt in Whyte & Mackay's family of blends, but it has also earned itself a serious following among high-end connoisseurs, and limited edition bottlings sell for truly serious money.
Just a couple of miles from Dalmore, on the shores of the Cromarty Firth, is its 'ugly sister,' Invergordon grain distillery, which is altogether more utilitarian and has no need to impress visitors. Nonetheless, it is a vital part of the Whyte & Mackay operation, and has been active since 1961.
From Alness the A9 heads north-east for 15 miles before arriving at the historic Royal Burgh of Tain, best known for Glenmorangie Distillery (www.glenmorangie.com). Here the star of the show is its dramatic stillhouse, which is home to six pairs of very distinctive stills. At 26 feet 3 inches, Glenmorangie's stills are the tallest in Scotland, and are based on the design of the original ex-gin stills from London, installed when the distillery first opened in 1843. Glenmorangie is currently the world's fourth best-selling single malt after Glenfiddich, The Glenlivet and The Macallan.
From Glenmorangie, travel north on the A9 once more, before taking the A836 to the village of Edderton, and Balblair Distillery. Balblair (www.balblair.com) dates back to 1790 and is owned by Inver House Distillers. It is now best known for its range of vintage single malt expressions, and there are three varying tour options. At the end of each tour, visitors have the opportunity to fill, personalise and buy a bottle from an individual cask of Balblair.
A minor detour off the A9, north of the Cromarty Firth, via the A949, is recommended in order to see the newest distillery in the Highlands, namely Dornoch. Phil and Simon Thompson have established the distillery in a small, former fire station building close to the family's Dornoch Castle Hotel, which boasts an excellent whisky bar. The distillery's pair of stills can be direct-fired using gas, or steam heated, and the brothers plan to experiment with floor-malted 'heritage' varieties of barley and produce organic spirit.
Driving north once more on the A9, you reach Brora, and just north of the small town, and within sight of the main road, is Diageo's Clynelish Distillery (www.malts.com). Clynelish was built during the 1960s, as its design makes clear, and alongside it stands its now silent forebear, Brora, established in 1819 and last active in 1983. Clynelish offers three different tour options, and the distillery shop is the only place retailing a notably fine cask strength edition of the single malt.
From Brora, the road passes through spectacular coastal scenery over the dramatic Ord of Caithness, which separates the county of Sutherland from its northern neighbour of Caithness. At Latheron, the A9 takes a left fork to the ferry terminal of Scrabster, and the literal end of the road, but it is time for yet another detour, via the A99 to the historic fishing port of Wick.
Wick was once the most important herring fishing centre in Europe, and it is claimed that at the height of the herring fishing, some 3,000 litres of whisky were being consumed per week, much of it supplied by Pulteney Distillery (www.oldpulteney.com).
Other distilleries boast more picturesque locations, but Pulteney - marketed as 'The Maritime Malt' - offers a must-see stillhouse, with a unique 'sawn-off' spirit still, with no real head or swan neck.
Visitors have the opportunity to fill and label their own bottle of an exclusive expression of Old Pulteney from the cask, while three tour permutations are offered, including a pre-booked Manager's Masterclass Tour.
From Wick, head via the A822 to re-join our old friend the A9 near the village of Halkirk, and on to the largest town in Caithness, namely Thurso, which is home to Wolfburn Distillery (www.wolfburn.com). Wolfburn is located in an anonymous business park on the outskirts of Thurso, within sight of the Pentland Firth which separates the Scottish mainland from the Orkney Isles. The neighbouring fishing port of Scrabster is also the terminus for NorthLink car ferries, if you fancy taking in Highland Park and Scapa distilleries on Orkney before heading south once again.
Wolfburn was commissioned during early 2013, and is situated close to where the 'original' operated between 1821 and the 1850s. One pair of stills is in situ and Wolfburn has not been shy in offering its young spirit to the public, with a 2016 release of its 3 Years Old single malt, matured in a mix of Spanish and American oak quarter casks previously used by an Islay distillery. This has been followed by two subsequent releases.
Having reached the end of the road, it is surely appropriate to raise a glass of the Northern Highland's newest single malt and toast a trip through dramatic scenery and visits to some of Scotland's most distinctive and diverse distilleries. Slàinte!