The A9 (www.a9road.info) trunk road - sometimes referred to as 'the spine of Scotland' - runs for 273 miles from near Falkirk in bustling Central Scotland via Perth and Inverness to the port of Scrabster on the peaceful Caithness coast. It is the longest road in Scotland and remains the main artery between Perth and the Far North. Its origins lie in an 18th-century government programme of road construction.
Since the 1970s, many of the towns through which the A9 formerly ran have been bypassed, but it is well worth turning off the road to explore nearby distilleries, as well as some fascinating non-whisky attractions.
For rail travellers, the same route can be accessed from Perth to Thurso via Inverness, and in many places the rail line runs parallel to the A9 road (www.scotrail.co.uk).
In the first of this two-part feature we travel the A9 between Perth and Inverness, and then we go on to cover the northernmost section of the route, which is between Inverness and Thurso, in Issue 143.
The city of Perth, situated on the banks of the River Tay, was once home to great blended Scotch names such as Famous Grouse, Bell's and Dewar's, but today its whisky links are all but gone. Nonetheless, Perth is a must-see venue at the start of this journey, boasting an extraordinarily colourful history, and once being the effective capital of Scotland (www.perthcity.co.uk).
North of Perth it is worth making a detour into the beautifully preserved small town of Dunkeld, with its partially ruined 14th-century cathedral. It is around this point that the traveller really begins to feel they are in the Highlands, with stands of pine trees, tumbling burns, and distant snow-capped mountains.
The first distillery to visit is Blair Athol (www.discovering-distilleries.com), located on the fringe of the popular tourist centre of Pitlochry, some 27 miles from our starting point and also home to two excellent specialist whisky shops in the shape of Drinkmonger (www.drinkmonger.com) and Robertsons (robertsonsofpitlochry.co.uk).
Blair Athol is one of few Scottish distilleries to have its roots in the 18th Century, being founded under the Aldour name in 1798 by Robert Robertson and John Stewart. The name Blair Athol was adopted in 1825, when Robertson expanded the operation.
Blair Athol was acquired by Arthur Bell & Sons in 1933, in order to supply malt for the Perth firm's blends. Today, in the hands of Diageo, the distillery is promoted as the brand home of Bell's, and offers informative, professional tours.
Just a couple of miles from Pitlochry is Edradour (www.edradour.com), undoubtedly the most photogenic distillery in Scotland. Essentially, it is a cluster of venerable, lime-washed and red painted farm-style buildings, grouped around a burn in a small valley.
Inside, production methods are highly traditional, and feature a small, cast iron open mashtun dating from 1910 and a pair of Oregon pine washbacks, while the two stills are linked to a worm tub which is 100 years old. Edradour came into being in 1825 when a distilling co-operative of local farmers was established, and today it belongs to the independent bottler Signatory. Edradour has traditionally been presented as a single malt with a sherry wood profile, though heavily-peated Ballechin single malt has also been produced since 2003. Back on the A9 and heading north, the countryside becomes progressively wilder as the road climbs to the highest point of its journey through the Cairngorm Mountains at the Pass of Drumochter - 1,516 feet above sea level, and frequently hazardous in winter due to ice and driving snow. Not surprisingly then, nearby Dalwhinnie distillery (www.discoverng-distilleries.com) is the second-highest in Scotland (after Braeval) at 1,164 feet above sea level. Painted white, with gleaming copper-topped malt kiln pagodas and a pair of traditional wooden worm tubs to the fore, Dalwhinnie stands against starkly spectacular Highland scenery.
The distillery was established in 1897, at the height of the Victorian Scotch whisky boom, under the name of Strathspey Distillery, and today its 15-year-old single malt is one of Diageo's best-sellers in the Classic Malts range, as well as being the 'signature malt in the fast-growing Buchanan's blend.
North of Dalwhinnie, a detour along a reclassified section of the old A9 takes you through the small Highland towns of Kingussie and Newtonmore, where fierce rivalry prevails regarding the sport of shinty, which is taken very seriously in those parts. Just three miles from Kingussie, but hidden away along a quiet back road which passes the ruins of Ruthven Barracks (www.hisotricenvironment.scot), is Speyside Distillery (speysidedistillery.co.uk), a modest operation in scale which used to be impenetrable to visitors, but may now be toured by prior arrangement. Speyside Distillery has its origins in 1956, when Glasgow based distiller and whisky broker George Christie purchased a plot of land where a barley mill had previously operated at Drumguish.
Today, Speyside is owned by Harvey's of Edinburgh, headed by Jon Harvey McDonough, and the single malt is marketed under the Spey label, selling particularly well in Asia.
North of Kingussie on the A9, a detour into the busy holiday centre of Aviemore is recommended. It offers a wide range of restaurants and shops, and tours of the Cairngorm Brewery (cairngormbrewery.com) are also available.
Beyond Aviemore, the A9 again climbs, this time to 1,328 feet at Slochd Summit, and then bypasses the hamlet of Tomatin as it heads towards Inverness. Like Dalwhinnie, Tomatin Distillery (www.tomatin.com) dates from the height of Victorian whisky frenzy, also being established in 1897. The distillery we see today bears little resemblance to the original. However, due to a series of expansion programmes which led to it being equipped with no fewer than 23 stills by 1974, it now operates on a more modest scale, with just 12 stills. North of Tomatin the A9 begins its descent towards the Highland capital and the Moray Firth, where we will pick up the story of this remarkable road and its distilleries next time around.