On any other day I’d approach Speyside from the south, gunning the car north up the snow-flecked glacial basin of the Drumochter Pass. Today however I’m heading east following last night’s mighty vertical tasting of Clynelish with the honourable members of the Loch Ness Whisky Parliament which ended with a head-to-head taste-off between the recent Manager’s Choice bottling and the 17 Years Old Manager’s Dram bottled in 1998. What? No, no, that would be telling.
My first stop is Leakey’s Bookshop in Inverness, an antiquarian treasure-trove stocking old prints, maps and second-hand books housed in the old 18th century Gaelic church. I’ve always admired their nonchalant devil-may-care attitude of using a wood-burning stove in a room stuffed to the rafters with flammable paper sitting on towering tinder-dry shelves. Low down, I find my quarry of ageing whisky books to guide my trip. I pick up Scotch Whisky: Its Past and Present by David Daiches (third revised impression 1978) and add The Glenlivet - Where Romance and Business Meet (first published 1924, reprinted 1966), not the saucy tales of a Highland moll suggested by the tagline, but a slim pamphlet written to commemorate the centenary of the first licence granted to the distillery.
Squeezing back behind the wheel, I point my nose towards southern Speyside, hanging a left on to the A938 to Carrbridge where the arch of the old bridge makes for one of the most picturesque scenes in the region. This is Scotland out of season, not a soul about and I feel like I have the place to myself. In a few weeks the buds will burst open and the heather will rage across the hilltops but today the birch trunks are naked, save for the modesty of shaggy lichens. I stare at the churning chocolate and cream of the River Dulnain in flood, draining last week’s downpours from the Monadhliath Mountains. Down the road, I roar across the 1930s New Spey Bridge passing a fly fisherman casting from the banks licked by high water, optimistic for a run of spring salmon.
As a self whisky it has no peer. Old, ripe and mellow; fine in flavour; delicate in aroma; pure; replete with volatile ethers; Glenlivet stimulates without causing reaction, and differs in this respect from common varieties. It is secured by the blender, wholesaler and wine and spirit merchant eager to tone and give quality to the rougher whiskies. The real Glenlivet can only be produced in the district of Glenlivet.
The dated language of the Glenlivet book gives an insight into the manner in which single malt whisky (or self whisky) was once promoted. The Glenlivet was held in such high regard by the mid-19th century that many other distilleries named their whisky Glenlivet compelling Colonel John Gordon Grant to legally defend the name in 1880. Rivals were required to hyphenate their true distillery name with the Glenlivet from then on, coining the joke about Glenlivet being the longest glen in Scotland due to the sheer number of distilleries that must be there. Daiches lists a great many of these ‘Eastern malt distilleries’ (his term for the most famous of the Highland Distilleries, as Speyside wasn’t considered separately) including Balvenie-Glenlivet, Benromach-Glenlivet, Glen Moray-Glenlivet and even Macallan-Glenlivet. However, he remarks: “These are fine whiskies, some of them splendid. DCL [Distillers Company Ltd] does not now use the name Glenlivet in the titles of any of its distilleries and this makes sense, since none in the above list really needs this designation to prove its merit.”
Tormore distillery is the first of the former hyphenated sites on my journey and it’s always a joy to behold with its muted green roof and decorative topiary. Currently owned by Chivas Brothers, it was originally a showpiece distillery for Long John Distilleries constructed in 1958-59 from Sir Albert Richardson’s designs. The Tormore photograph in David Daiches’s book predates the gardens and the signage reads “Tormore Distillery. Long John Scotch Whisky”, an original feature that has long been revised. Daiches’s recollection of the company’s blend in the 1970s damns with faint praise: “It is some time since I have tasted Long John, but I remember it as a whisky in the middle of the spectrum, lacking that metallic taste which I sometimes detect in blends.”
Doubling back off the A95, a low guttural snarl from the exhaust takes me up the final slope to a deserted Cragganmore, its brand flag snapping in the wind. This distillery was built in 1869 to take full advantage of the new Strathspey Railway and bottlings of Cragganmore-Glenlivet were released but they are scarce today. It is worth the extra mile to see the flat-topped spirit stills and offset lyne arm that contribute to Cragganmore’s complexity once the visitor season begins. However, I press onwards on the B9008 to The Glenlivet Estate, where the tight twists of the tarmac test the car to the limit. Once the summer comes, this place will be full of bus parties of whisky fans, but there’s only one set of wheels in the car park today. The substantial expansion to The Glenlivet distillery opened last summer, and the hum of big machines fills the stillness. Behind me, I can see the grey hulk of the warehouses identifiable from George Mackie’s 1959 sketches in the Glenlivet book, my 1966 reprint coming in the same year that they stopped malting here.
Even in Daiches day, change was afoot: “They built a new mash house in 1972 and a new still house in 1973. Their new mash tuns are all covered (this is becoming standard practice in distilleries), and keeps everything cleaner.” He noted other modernising touches, “They now have three pairs of stills (three wash stills, three spirit stills) in the same building and in 1972, they introduced gas LPG firing.”
This changed the running of the stillroom as one man could look after six stills whereas previously two men looked after four.
He records, “They now use condensers instead of the traditional worm-and-tub for cooling, which is more efficient and is also becoming more and more common in distilleries.”
Cutting through the centre of the Crown Estate, you can picture the ease with which smugglers operated in these mountains back in George Smith’s day especially as you pass the two remaining arches of the old Bridge of Livet.
The third arch was swept away in the great floods of 1829, the very floods which caused the River Dulnain to demolish the Bridge of Curr and swept away the Bridge of Spey at Fochabers.
Grateful of the torque, I climb to Tomnavoulin pausing at the Whyte & MacKay owned Tamnavulin distillery. It was established in 1966 by the Tamnavulin-Glenlivet Distillery Co Ltd and draws water from the River Livet.
The distillery itself is a roughcast 1960s build with green slanting roofs which was closed in 1995 and regular production did not restart until 2007 under United Spirits. “Sorry, no visitors” says the sign reinforced by the shabby appearance of the former visitor centre in the old wool mill which has seen better days.
One day perhaps.Closing the loop takes me into Tomintoul. The place has a single main street lined by hotels and cafes reminiscent of those Wild West movie sets where the saloon turns out to be nothing but a wooden façade propped up in the desert.
Checking for outlaws or a speeding stagecoach, I tug my imaginary Stetson acknowledging an old-timer and cross the street to pay a visit to the Whisky Castle.
The range of independent bottlings is commendable including the Blackadder Raw cask bottlings, complete with the authentically murky jetsam from the cask innards.
Owner Mike Drury is assisting a novice customer, guiding him through the offerings highlighting suitable selections and scorning his nemesis bottlings subjected to chill-filtration or caramelisation.
It’s time to get out of town and whichever way you take the A939, whether up the Lecht or back towards Grantown-on-Spey, you’re in for the most spectacular ride of your life.
With the wind in my hair, it’s time to drive this baby home.