The historic 'Highland capital' of Inverness (www.explore-inverness.com) makes a great base for touring Scotland's northernmost mainland distilleries, which between them offer a range of superb visitor experiences and the opportunity to take in some of Scotland's most spectacular but least visited countryside.
Some 15 miles south of Inverness, and just off the A9 north-south trunk road through the Highlands, stands Tomatin Distillery (www.tomatin.com). Tomatin dates back to 1897, though you would never know it to look at today's distillery, which has much more of a 1960s appearance about it. Fear not however, as the welcome is warm and the whisky increasingly appreciated by single malt connoisseurs the world over, and especially in the USA.
The entire range has recently been rebranded (see WM 132), and the new look Tomatin is due on the shelves any time now. As well as its comprehensive standard single malt range, Tomatin also offers a stand-alone peated collection under the Cù Bòcan banner.
Instead of heading north from Tomatin into Inverness on the A9, take a detour from the A9 via the B9090 to Royal Brackla Distillery, which is located in peaceful country just south of the seaside town of Nairn (www.lastgreatmalts.com). Unfortunately, it is not open to the public, though plans for a visitor centre have been mooted by owners John Dewar & Sons Ltd.
Brackla was established in 1812, though as with Tomatin you could be forgiven for not realising that, as most of the present production facilities date from around 1970, when a new stillhouse was constructed and the complement of stills doubled to four.
Brackla gained its 'royal' prefix in 1835, and its make has long enjoyed a high reputation as a blending malt. However, as part of its 'Last Great Malts' programme to offer whiskies from its low profile distilleries, Dewar's released 12, 16 and 21 Years Old expressions last year, and Royal Brackla is gradually becoming more widely appreciated.
From Royal Brackla take the A96 Aberdeen-Inverness road back to Inverness, and make your way north on the A9 over the Kessock Bridge and then via the A832 road to Glen Ord Distillery (www.malts.com). Glen Ord is another distillery with a lengthy heritage, dating back to 1838, but again you have to look beyond a classic glass-fronted mid-1960s Distillers Company Ltd stillhouse - as at Royal Brackla - to get a sense of its origins.
Here there is much more 19th Century architecture still in evidence, however, and the old kiln and malt storage areas were converted into a new tunroom last year, while the former Saladin maltings have become a second stillhouse, with eight stills to complement the previous six. Glen Ord is now one of the five largest malt distilleries in Scotland, boasting a capacity of 11 million litres of spirit per annum.
In the ownership of Diageo, Glen Ord spirit finds its way into many of the company's blends, but The Singleton of Glen Ord single malt is one of Diageo's notable success stories in the Asia market since its launch as a 12 Years Old in 2006. Ord boasts a neighbouring 1960s maltings plant, which supplies malt for a number of Diageo distilleries, and also a first-class visitor centre.
From Glen Ord retrace your steps to the A9 and drive north to the town of Alness, close to the Cromarty Firth, dotted with an increasing number of oil rigs 'resting' between jobs. The somewhat unprepossessing Alness Industrial Estate is home to our next Northern Highland distillery, namely Teaninich (IV17 0XB).
Like Glen Ord, Teaninich is owned by Diageo, and it too features a glass-fronted stillhouse, installed in 1970, when a new production unit - Teaninich A - was created alongside the existing one - which became Teaninich B. This was subsequently demolished, and in 2014/15 Teaninich underwent a major expansion programme, much like that at Glen Ord. Six new stills were installed to match the three pairs already in place, and capacity now stands at nearly 10 million litres.
Diageo had plans to build a second 'super distillery' along the lines of its Roseisle plant near Elgin beside the enlarged Teaninich, but these plans were shelved in autumn 2014, as it became apparent that global Scotch whisky sales were beginning to contract. Teaninich is a significant component in the Johnnie Walker family of blends, but it is very difficult to find as a single malt, only being available as a 'house' bottling in 10 Years Old Flora and Fauna format.
If Teaninich has a very low profile both as a distillery and a single malt, the same certainly cannot be said about Alness' second distillery, Dalmore (www.thedalmore.com). Established in 1839, a couple of decades after Teaninich, Dalmore has long been well known as a single malt, though its rise to 'collectable' status to rival The Macallan - courtesy of expressions such as the Constellation Collection - is a relatively recent phenomenon.
Sales of the core range have also been growing of late, however, hitting the one million bottle mark in 2014. Dalmore offers several tour options and provides plush visitor facilities, including features devoted to the importance of oak in the ultimate character of whisky, and a rare opportunity to nose spirit produced at different stages of distillation, from the first trickle off the wash still right through to feints. The eight stills are located in two stillhouses and provide the highlight of a visit to Dalmore, equipped as they are with unique copper water jackets. Remarkably the jacket on 'number two spirit still' dates back to 1874.
While in the area, it is worth visiting the nearby one-time naval base of Invergordon to catch a glimpse of the only grain distillery truly located in the Highlands. Factory like in appearance, it illustrates the workhorse nature of grain distilleries compared to those single malt sites like Dalmore, which set out to charm the visiting public. There are no hanging baskets filled with flowers at Invergordon!
Back on the A9 travelling north, Glenmorangie Distillery (www.glenmorangie.com) appears in sight to the right of the road, with the Dornoch Firth as a backdrop. Glenmorangie not only boasts the tallest pot stills in Scotland, but its single malt is the country's best seller. The distillery was established in 1843 and has an annual capacity of some six million litres of spirit, having been progressively enlarged, to the point where it now boasts six pairs of stills, housed in a splendid stillhouse building which showcases them to great effect, providing a true highlight of any distillery tour.
A few miles from Glenmorangie via the A836 road stands Balblair (www.balblair.com), owned by Inver House Distillers. Balblair's origins go back further than any other distillery in the North Highlands, having a foundation date of 1790. Compared with some of its contemporaries in the region it is a relatively small distillery in terms of capacity, equipped with just a single pair of stills.
Outwardly at least, Balblair remains the epitome of an old Highland distillery, having not been afflicted with architecturally questionable 1960s and 70s add-ons and rebuilds. Inside, there is a stylish visitor centre and the opportunity to fill a bottle straight from whichever cask happens to be open at the time. The standard Balblair range has comprised vintage bottlings since 2007, and the very latest to go on sale dates from 2005.
Back on the A9 heading north, the next distillery on the horizon is Clynelish (www.malts.com), on the north western outskirts of Brora. Clynelish is owned by Diageo, and like Royal Brackla, Ord and Teaninich, it bears the hallmarks of a glass-fronted stillhouse, as favoured in the 1960s and 70s by The Distillers Company Ltd. The present Clynelish was established in 1967, when it was constructed alongside the original distillery, dating from 1819.
Rechristened Brora, that plant last made whisky in 1983, but its distilling equipment remains intact, and Brora has developed something of a cult following among aficionados. Meanwhile, whisky from the new distillery is a mainstay of the Johnnie Walker family of blends, though it has also become increasingly widely available as a single malt. A first-rate Diageo style visitor experience is on offer, along with the chance to purchase a distillery exclusive bottle of Clynelish American Oak Cask Strength.
What used to be Scotland's northernmost mainland malt distillery is located in an unusually urban setting. Pulteney (www.oldpulteney.com) is to be found in the back streets of the old herring fishing port of Wick, and the visitor centre features aspects of Wick's nautical heritage, as well as a 'bottle from the cask' option.
The distillery was founded in 1826, and its Old Pulteney single malt has gained much wider recognition in recent years as the range has been expanded by owners Inver House Distillers, who market the whisky as 'The Maritime Malt.' One of the key features of Pulteney Distillery is its unique wash still, which has a very large 'boil ball' and a 'sawn-off' head.
The distillery that has stolen the 'northernmost' mantle from Old Pulteney is Wolfburn (www.wolfburn.com), situated in anonymous modern buildings on a business park on the outskirts of the town of Thurso. Wolfburn has existed well below the radar since it began making whisky in 2013, and there are no visitor facilities. However, the name is destined to become better known when its first single malt bottling hits the shelves this spring, and a whole new chapter opens for Northern Highland single malts.
For further information about all aspects of the Northern Highlands visit www.visitscotland.com