For anyone with an interest in whisky, visiting a distillery is always memorable. Surrounding oneself with the sights, aromas, and flavours of whisky production “at source”, meeting the people involved, and learning why so many people love this golden spirit is a fantastic experience.
Though it’s possible to visit distilleries in many locations around the globe, the spirit is most famously associated with Scotland. Currently, home to over 130 active distilleries, the highest concentration of distilleries (around 50, including many of the legendary names) is in the relatively small Speyside region.
It would be easy to spend weeks exploring this region (and many do!), but what follows is a few suggestions on how to make the most of a short 48-hour visit, and hopefully gain some insight into why so many people return year after year.
When to visit? The region can be visited year-round, though an ideal time to visit would be at end of April, during the annual Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival. Around this time, many of the distilleries, independent bottlers, bars, and hotels will stage special events as part of the festival – often featuring rare archive bottles, exclusive new releases or tastings & tours hosted by distillery owners, managers, or master blenders.
Where to stay? The region has accommodation for every taste & budget, from charming B&B’s to boutique hotels or luxury highland estate houses. Elgin is the largest town in the region and has a good base, though many stay a little further south, around the towns of Dufftown, Aberlour or Craigellachie. The latter boasts two of the finest Whisky bars in Scotland just a few metres apart (The Highlander Inn & The Quaich Bar at the Craigellachie Hotel).
Getting around? There are several local guides and tour companies in the area that would be happy to help. Many have great relationships with distilleries, so may be able to offer a more tailored, bespoke service (reach out to fellow DLC member Vikki Bruce for super advice here too). Transport options in the region cover everything from a vintage railway to classic cars. It’s even possible to have a guided whisky tour by canoe!
Where to visit?: Not every distillery is open to the public, but a copy of Ingvar Ronde’s “Malt Whisky Yearbook” would be a wise purchase before your trip, as this contains contact details of every distillery in the region.
Many distilleries offer different types of tours to cater to the widest variety of visitors. Whether you’re beginning your whisky journey or a qualified trade expert, a visitor won’t fail to be impressed at the attention to detail, pride and passion that the distillery teams put into their work.
The short distance between the distilleries here makes it easier to visit several in one day, so there’s no better opportunity to see how each distillery creates its character & atmosphere. Compare the spectacular new Macallan site, designed with visitors in mind, to the traditional Glenfarclas (still owned by the founding family, with staff living on-site, as they did over 150 years ago). The tiny Ballindalloch distillery (founded in 2014) shows that that smaller-scale craft distilling is alive and well in the region, and a tour of the Glen Grant distillery and gardens is also a must. Glenallachie has quickly become a star under their new owners, with the quality showing through in their whiskies, one of which was named “World’s Best Single Malt” at the 2021 World Whisky Awards.
Remember lookout for unusual bottles. Some of the distilleries and independent stores in the region will have exclusive bottles available (especially during the festivals). The excellent Glen Moray distillery in Elgin also offers hand-fill bottlings at their visitor centre. Bottles like this offer something a little special, and you could be the only person in your own country to own a bottle!
Final tips: Since Covid’s arrival, it’s more important than ever to plan before your trip. Booking visits in advance will help the distilleries ensure the best experience for you. Please do also check out the local restaurants, bars and independent stores as the region offers much for foodies too.
Most of all, “Haste Ye Back!” (You’re always welcome).