Travel

Inverness and beyond

We look at the region of Speyside round about Inverness
By Rob Allanson
Every whisky enthusiast knows the importance of the Speyside region to the production of Scotch single malt whisky. And even quite casual whisky drinkers know of the iconic distilleries at The Glenlivet, Glenfiddich and The Macallan.But Speyside can be a funny place. It’s served by different airports at each end, and the terrain and geography plus a degree of local rivalry mean that it splits in to two halves.Could you name the whisky capital of Speyside? Well don’t worry because the locals have a problem too, and the answer depends on who you ask and where you ask them. The region even has two competing whisky festivals.There are other peculiarities too. Only a handful of the region’s distilleries welcome guests. Many of them only produce single malt whisky for bottling. And there are oddball distilleries littered around the region, too. Glen Garioch, for instance, a sister distillery to Bowmore on Islay and to Auchentoshan in Glasgow, is the closest distillery to Aberdeen and has a dinky and pleasant visitor centre at Meldrum. But it doesn’t feel like it’s in Speyside.And the Speyside Distillery – you’d think the name was a clue wouldn’t you? – is not on the Spey but out on a limb on a tributary and a considerable drive from Speyside’s heart.More than that, fly in to Inverness rather than Aberdeen and you’re in a more rugged and Highland terrain altogether, and if you’re visiting with family this is where you want to be. There are great walking and hiking opportunities here, great fishing suitable for all ages including for very young beginners; you’re not far from the regenerated winter sports centre of Aviemore, on the edge of the Cairngorms and the national park; and the impressive Rothiemurchus Estate offers a range of outdoor pursuits as well as keeping herds of deer that can be visited and fed.Inverness itself has benefited massively from cheap air travel and the influx of visitors to Inverness. The airport is struggling to cope but the town is offering a range of accommodation to suit all budgets, including some very modern boutique hotels. Check the VisitScotland website for further information.With the family taken care of, what’s on offer for the whisky enthusiast?Let’s start with Dallas Dhu, a Diageoowned closed distillery situated at Forres, between Elgin and Inverness and a whisky museum with no production of its own. While it might seem odd to visit here rather a nearby working distillery there are advantages. You can climb inside a mash tun, for instance and because there are no health and safety issues you can get in to places that no working distillery would allow. Try your hand at operating the spirit safe for instance.Dallas Dhu has been preserved as an old fashioned example of a distillery and while it’s all a bit eerie, it’s still worth a look.Down the road is Benromach, now owned by independent whisky retailers Gordon & MacPhail. This is another tiny distillery and a great example of a hands-on traditional outlet.There is a nice visitor centre here, a good heritage centre, informative tours and you have the opportunity to fill a bottle of the distillery’s whisky and test its alcoholic strength before making up your very own label.Last year the distillery also launched an organic whisky – a deliciously orangey product and proof that Gordon & MacPhail isn’t standing still.Another distillery sometimes overlooked but well worth a visit is Glen Moray, the smaller brother of Ardbeg and Glenmorangie.The approach to this distillery is a strange one – you come a long a typical suburb street and it’s hard to believe there is a pretty and traditional distillery nestling here.But Glen Moray is a lovely place to visit – compact, old-fashioned, friendly and with a developing visitor offering that allows visitors to hear about the whisky from people who have worked there and to try some truly special expressions. Don’t be put off by the fact that Glen Moray was sold at discount in supermarkets – there are some fine whiskies kept in outstanding casks here and the distillery’s definitely worthy of exploration.Benriach Distillery is situated on the main A941 between Forres and Elgin and is a work in progress. Now owned by Billy Walker, the distillery is a landmark one and is in the process of developing visitor facilities. If you can get through the doors this is a fascinating place. The original floor maltings remain intact and there were plans to open them again, though whether it will be for tourists or for production remains to be seen.The distillery’s also experimenting with peated whiskies, uncommon for Speyside, and has released two wonderful ones in Curiositas and Authenticus. And this is another fine example of a small labour intensive distillery crafting whisky.If you’re using Inverness as your base, you can trek out to one or two other distilleries that stand on the periphery of the region. The first is Tomatin, which is a large, modern and not particularly attractive distillery on the A9 from Inverness.This is a strange distillery. With much of its output going to blends and with an independent owner it doesn’t make a song and dance about itself. But a couple of years ago it released a very palatable 12 year old version and it offers tours of its facilities.The distillery has its own cooperage, novel in itself, and recently the visitor facilities underwent a major refurbishment.It attracted more than 30,000 visitors last year.Finally Glen Ord is not a Speyside distillery but it’s within easy reach of Inverness on the Black Isle. The distillery is surrounded by barley fields. It offers distillery tours and tastings, and there is a good museum which covers not just whisky production but the history of the Black Isle too.A stay in Inverness offers the visitor a welcome alternative view of Speyside and opens up the possibility of visiting some of Scotland’s most stunning beauty spots. It’s a good base to travel over to the west coast through wonderful terrain, or north in to the Highlands. And it’s the ideal base to try some of the region’s lesser known but very worthy whiskies.