Each year, thousands of whisky tourists make their way to Speyside to visit their own personal mecca. Each pilgrim no doubt has their own favourite and plans their itinerary around getting a glimpse into the factory that produces their most revered malt.
Of course, no one travels all the way to Speyside just to visit just one, single distillery and thus it’s not uncommon for we pilgrims to set up camp in one of the many hotels or B&B’s and use it as a base to explore multiple distilleries over several days.
Outside of the distilleries, however, your average whisky tourist quickly runs out of things to do in Speyside. The only other pursuits are the outdoors – golf, salmon fishing, and hiking. And it’s this last category that offers something pretty special to the whisky enthusiast.
Ben Rinnes is the highest mountain in the Speyside region. At 840m, it’s officially a “Corbett”, being 300 feet shy to qualify as a Munro. It towers above many of the distilleries, and the snow melt and water run-off from the hills goes a long way to supplying many of the surrounding distilleries in its foothills. Needless to say, the view from the summit is incredible, and distillery spotters can have fun trying to identify the many distilleries visible from the top. For the whisky enthusiast or jaded Speyside visitor looking for a new perspective, a hike to the top is a highly recommended and rewarding journey. So here’s the whisky lover’s guide to climbing Ben Rinnes…
First things first: This is not a stroll in the park. It’s a very steep climb and the track consists of diverse sections that are challenging under foot. You’ll encounter sections that are stony & rocky; long sections covered with slippery gravel; uneven steps; spongy heather; and pebble ballast. The ascent is 541m and the return trip is 7.5km. A minimum level of fitness and mobility is thus required, not to mention strong knees and ankles for both the ascent and descent! If you’re at all unsteady on your feet or your joints ain’t what they used to be, perhaps give this a miss.
The travel guides and website info suggests allowing three to four hours for the hike up and back, plus whatever time you spend either resting or enjoying the view at the top, so you’ll need to allow half a day for your trek. However, if you’re particularly fit and active, you’ll complete this much faster – yours truly managed to get up in one hour and back down in 40 minutes, stopping for lots of photos along the way.
There are several tracks up to the summit, all starting from different sides of the mountain. However, the main and most popular route starts on the eastern side of the summit, accessed via a small unnamed road that branches off the B9009 near Glenrinnes. There’s a small carpark at the start of the track. If you’ve got a SatNav device in your car or on your phone, the co-ordinates for the carpark are N 57o 24’ 29.52’ W 3o 11’ 31.45’’. (Click on all thumbnail images below to enlarge)
The path to the top is a clear and well-used track, so there’s no fear of getting lost or for need of orienteering gear. It’s a hard slog up, and – regardless of whether it’s warm and sunny, or cold and windy – you’ll work up a sweat. Needless to say, take plenty of water with you, and be prepared for the elements. It can be particularly windy at the summit, so a windcheater is recommended for your backpack. And – of course – be sure to pack a dram!
As you near the halfway mark of the ascent, Allt-a-bhainne Distillery becomes visible to your left. And Benrinnes Distillery comes into view on your right. The topography and the route of the track means you lose sight of the summit several times on the way up, and there are admittedly one or two disillusioning moments during your climb when the summit suddenly re-appears and you realise how much further you have to go and how much steeper it gets!
However, the destination is the reward, and when you finally get to the top, the view is breathtaking. Uninterrupted, 360 degree views await, showcasing all of Speyside before you. On a clear day, the Moray Firth and North Sea are visible to the north and north-west, and the Cairngorms stand behind you to the south.
Best of all, for the whisky enthusiast, an incredible number of distilleries can be spotted. You don’t quite appreciate how long the Speyside region is until you see Glenlivet behind you all the way to the south, and Elgin beyond you to the north. Dufftown is also visible to the east of these, giving a sense of perspective as to where Glenfiddich sits relative to the distilleries of Rothes, Craigellachie, and Aberlour….all of which are visible from where you stand.
A brass plaque has been mounted to a pedestal at the top of the summit that lists, shows and points to all of the distilleries around you. Align yourself with the vectors and you’ll readily spot plenty of well known (and not so well known) distilleries.
Be sure to enjoy a dram at the summit; toast your success for getting there; and take the obligatory selfie!