According to the Malt Whisky Yearbook 2014 there are currently 46 working distilleries in Speyside, one museum (Dallas Dhu), four closed or demolished and three in the planning or building stage. This famous triangular-shaped whisky region, deriving its name from the river Spey, has always been rather widely interpreted with Balmenach at its southern tip, Benromach the most western, Inchgower the most northern and Strathisla the most eastern.
From a strictly geographical point of view the first Speyside distillery one can encounter, coming from the south, should be Dalwhinnie. Standing in splendid isolation it can be seen alongside the well-travelled A9, at the Drumochter Pass, closely situated near the source of Scotland's fastest flowing river. This is where my journey along the "100 per cent" Speyside distilleries starts. Dalwhinnie is a must see anyway, with its beautiful double pagodas and traditional wooden worm tubs, once doubling as a weather station due to its high elevation.
This single malt has been part of the Classic Malt range since 1988.
Leaving the parking lot I turn back to the A9 in northerly direction through stunning scenery. Close to Aviemore I leave the road and join the A95 towards Grantown-on-Spey. Just outside this lovely little town it is time for a short stop at the old stone bridge and a wander along the shore. At this particular point, a quarter of a century ago, I dipped my bare feet into the river Spey for the very first time, scooping a handful of the clean, cold and clear water, sampling it as if it were a precious single malt. It happened to be my first trip to Scotland, destination Speyside. In the following decades many trips would follow with many acquaintances made, many distilleries visited, even more drams enjoyed.
But let's not dwell too long here.
Instead I am going to cross the Spey and will pass Balmenach shortly, a distillery not open to the public and rarely seen as a single malt. This is a typical blender's malt. The A95 meanders to and from the banks of the river. It does not take long to discern the silhouette of Tormore, designed by Sir Albert Richardson. He had something different in mind and it shows! It probably is the most remarkable distillery in Scotland, with its bell tower capable of playing various tunes, the copper covered roofs, the beautifully maintained garden with hedges trimmed in the form of pot stills.
During the Spirit of Speyside Festival it is usually open to the public. Tormore is readily available on the market as a 12 Years Old single malt.
Minutes later a sign on the left side of the road points the way to another member of the original Classic Six: Cragganmore, a beautifully refined and complex single malt whose distillery was the first ever to make use of the railroad in the Highlands, having its own siding. The visitor centre has various artefacts on display, illustrating the old link with Scottish Rail.
On we go on the east bank of the river, which does not mean there are no 100 per cent Speyside distilleries on the west bank: clustered in a tiny triangle one can find Cardhu, Tamdhu and Knockando. The first one is also the home of Johnnie Walker, being at the heart of this well-known blend. The threesome is available as single malt, usually at 12, 10 and 12 years respectively. Out of the three, Cardhu is open to the public.
Back on the east bank the distilleries follow one another in a rapid pace: Glenfarclas, Dailuaine, Benrinnes, Glenallachie and Aberlour - three blender's malts sandwiched by two famous single malts. Glenfarclas, still in the hands of the founder's descendants, is well known for its excellent range of old expressions, making this single malt a fine candidate for a vertical tasting in Issue 118 | Whisky Magazine 37 the extraordinary 'ships room' on the premises. Aberlour, in the eponymous town, boasts an intriguing cask strength A'bunadh edition, made in numbered batches only. The gatehouse annex distillery shop is a beautiful example of Victorian/Baronial architecture.
The next village, Craigellachie, is often mentioned as the essence of Speyside, with a hotel whose world-famous Quaich Bar has over 700 single malts to taste. Craigellachie distillery is situated on the east bank, not open to the public, catering to famous blends like Dewar's and White Horse. On the west bank rises Easter Elchies House, stately home of The Macallan, often dubbed the Rolls Royce among single malts. Visitors have to book in advance and those who can afford it may rent the little fisherman's cottage on the estate, from where one may cast a line into the river Spey. The Macallan is the only distillery actually owning fishing rights on about two miles of the famous river.
Now there are some decisions to make. Slightly to the east is the Dufftown cluster of distilleries, spearheaded by Glenfiddich. To the northwest one can find the Rothes cluster, with Glen Grant and Glenrothes. However, if I want to keep following the course of the river Spey as closely as possible, I have to go straight on and will only encounter one more 100 per cent Speyside distillery - lonely Auchroisk with its whitewashed buildings at Mulben. Once this blender's whisky was bottled as a single malt in the Singleton series. It can still sparsely be found as a vintage 30-year-old and in the famed Flora & Fauna series.
The road further up north will take the traveller to Spey Bay, end of the journey. It's a beautiful place to contemplate and enjoy the natural surroundings with a nip from the hipflask, preferably containing a Speysider of your own preference.
The River Spey has many tributaries like the rivers Tromie, Feshie, Druie, Dulnain, Livet, Avon, Fiddich and the Burn of Rothes. Taking those into account the whisky traveller could expand his quest for 'greater Speyside' distilleries considerably, incorporating, among others the famous The Glenlivet and a distillery actually named Speyside, near Kingussie.