Speyside opens up

The Cluny Bank Hotel is working within the community of Forres to give whisky fans the perfect Scottish break. Dominic Roskrow stayed there
By Dominic Roskrow
They say that Inverness is now the fastest expanding town in Europe. Whether that’s true or not, there can be absolutely no doubt that the development of its airport has helped drive tourist trade in
the area.And it’s had a more fundamental psychological effect on the region, too. For the Speyside district has always been somewhat split, and a visitor’s perception of the area is dependent on the direction you approach it from.Fly in to Aberdeen and Dufftown and Grantown-on-Spey are the dominant reference points. But approach from the West or North and the distilleries scattered between Nairn and Lossiemouth are your focus. And Inverness draws you closer to the latter.Forres sits somewhere between the two and it’s as good a place as any to explore the furthest reaches of Speyside.Now, with Inverness playing a key role in providing visitors, the area is making an effort to make its whisky links accessible. There are moves to cast aside the perceived divisions in the area and to provide a more structured approach to the district.The two whisky festivals don’t enjoy the same cohesion as the one held on Islay, for instance, and some take the view that the bigger distilleries have hijacked the events.But that’s at least partially due to the fact that distilleries in Speyside have tended to compete with each other rather than work together. Coordinated transport to take whisky-drinking visitors to different destinations has been sadly lacking.That’s set to change – and among the people determined to push for change are Rene and Pamela Looper (pictured above), who run the Cluny Bank hotel in Forres.Through their passion for whisky they have promoted the hotel as a whisky destination. And they are proving that it’s possible to promote Speyside whisky with modest investment and a lot of energy
and enthusiasm.The hotel itself is a relatively small but very pleasant traditional Scottish hostelry that originally served as a private house. Its dining room and bar are both small and cosy, the food is very good and the atmosphere pleasant and welcoming. But if it wasn’t for the special efforts of its hosts, it would be unspectacular.What the Loopers have done is to provide the environment and support for a range of holidays including walking, fishing, hunting and golfing. But the jewel in their crown are the whisky events they put on.Several times a year, for instance, they conduct whisky tastings and hold whisky dinners. And they have teamed up with local distilleries Benromach and Glen Moray and the whisky museum at Dallas Dhu.Benromach, the hotel’s true local distillery, was reopened by Gordan & MacPhail seven years ago and is an intriguing mix of ghosts of the distillery’s past and excitement for the future. It’s a small, intimate and highly attractive distillery with pretty much all its production carried out in one room, making it as good a place as any to learn the rudiments of whisky making.Much of the equipment is new, installed with the reopening, but its historical context is poignantly marked by the signatures of the people who worked on the distillery’s final day before closure in 1983.The distillery is now bottling new stock to go alongside the older casks. And the new Benromach Traditional is sufficiently impressive to justify the company’s optimism in the distillery. It is young, of
course, but with plenty to recommend it.Up at Glen Moray Ed Dodson doesn’t hold back when it comes to offering anopinion. He retires this year, he has an impressive track record and he’s probably pretty much seen it all.But he’s anything but cynical. Indeed, as he shows off the distillery’s warehouses he’s positively excited about the quality of whisky that he’s lying down now, the success of the wood policy that is now just starting to bear fruit, and the opportunities that the distillery will have in the future.They’re not scared to experiment at Glen Moray, and we taste some wonderful whiskies, including the Chenin Blanc finish and the two recent additions, Glen Moray Classic and Glen Moray 16 Year Old.The 12 Year Old tastes pretty fine after dinner at the Cluny Bank hotel that night, too. And you can’t help feeling that with so much going on, this region is set to go from strength to strength.