The Top Six things to do on Speyside

Yes, the obvious thing to do on Speyside is to visit distilleries and drink whisky.  But there’s so much more on offer if you look beyond the distilleries…

Any punter who’s been to Speyside can tell you to visit Distillery X or to make sure you do the “Experts Tour” (or some similarly badged experience) at Distillery Y.   The problem with such advice or recommendations is that most people giving you their tips can only draw from their experience of the five or six distilleries they’ve been to, or they simply tell you to go to their favourite distillery – which is a subjective opinion and experience at best.

There are 50 operating distilleries on Speyside at the moment, and Whisky & Wisdom has visited and toured all but one of them.  (Ironically, the one Speyside distillery Whisky & Wisdom has yet to step inside of is the Speyside Distillery at Drumguish!!).   Roseisle, Dalmunach, Mannochmore, Macduff, Strathmill, Ballindalloch, Glenburgie, Allt-a-bhaine, Braeval, Speyburn, Balmenach…..you name it, W&W has been there; met with the staff; and seen around it.  Which means we can take a more objective view of what’s on offer and provide a balanced opinion of what appeals or what provides value to the visitor.

However, this piece is not titled “The Top Six distilleries to visit on Speyside” – we’ll save that article for another day.  Rather, it’s the top six things to do.   The distilleries that are open to the public generally have tours between the hours of 10.00am-4.00pm (in the summer months), and – as you’ll discover, if you haven’t already – trying to schedule your tours and dovetail your visits so that you can sequentially get to multiple distilleries in a day is not the easiest of tasks.   This means you’ll have gaps in your day, or you’ll have time to do other things – particularly after the visitor centres close their doors.   So here are a few other things to keep you amused:

  1. Head down to the Spey at the Craigellachie Bridge

It’s called Speyside for a reason, right?  It’s all about the River Spey, so if you’re in this neck of the woods, it would be a crime not to get down to the river itself.  One of the best places to do so is at the foot of the Craigellachie Bridge.  If you’re at all interested in engineering or roadways/bridges/construction, then there’s double the fun to be had here, as the Craigellachie Bridge is a piece of engineering history and heritage in itself.

Heading north up the A941 past Craigellachie and towards Rothes, there’s a tiny little road down on the left hand side as you pass the two adjacent turn-offs to Dufftown and Craigellachie respectively.   You can park your car at the foot of the bridge and then walk along to the bank of the river.  Depending on recent rainfall and the level of the river, there may even be a picturesque “beach” waiting for you.  Of course, this is wild and natural water, completely unfiltered and untreated – but if you’re brave, you could get down on your hands and knees and taste Speyside’s famously soft water.

Whilst you’re here, take some time to admire the bridge and walk across it – you’ll get some great photos of the Spey.  The bridge’s design and construction was revolutionary for its time, utilising a slender cast-iron arch that could never have been achieved using traditional masonry construction.  The work of Thomas Telford, a famous British civil engineer, its construction was finished in 1814.  Unbelievably, this was the main road and river crossing up until as recently as 1970 when the adjacent concrete bridge was built.  The bridge remained opened to vehicle traffic until 1972, when it was then closed and left for pedestrian and cycle access only.  As you stand at the crest of the bridge, imagine the old horse carriages of the 1850’s or the lorries of the 1950’s transporting precious cargos of casks up and down the Speyside district.

 

  1. Climb Ben Rinnes

The River Spey is over 170km long and rises at the south-western fringe of the Cairngorms National Park, in a location significantly removed from where most whisky enthusiasts picture “Speyside” to be.   It twists and winds its way in a north-east direction to the Moray Firth, eventually passing through or near the towns and villages we typically associate with whisky, e.g. Knockando, Aberlour, Craigellachie, Dufftown, and Rothes.

There are really only two ways to truly appreciate this and to fully grasp and understand the physicality of Speyside.  One way – an ultimately unsatisfying experience – is to stare at Google Maps on your computer.  The second – and far more rewarding experience – is to climb Ben Rinnes.  From the summit of the mountain, you’ll see and witness not just one of the views of your life, but also Speyside and the whisky industry in all its geographical glory.

From the lookout at the top, you’ll instantly spot a surprising number of distilleries – both nearby and off in the distance.  However, one of the best ways to appreciate the size and length of Speyside is to note the physical distance between what you can take in from the peak.  To the distance in the south you’ll make out the Glenlivet Distillery.  Turn around 160 degrees and you’ll see Moray Firth way off to the north – with the villages such as Craigellachie, Dufftown and Rothes and all their distilleries in plain view in the foreground.

For a more detailed description of this experience, plus tips on how, where, and when to climb Ben Rinnes, and also some photos, check out our  Whisky Lover’s Guide to climbing Ben Rinnes.

 

  1. Enjoy dinner and drams into the evening.

With the boom in whisky tourism and visitors to the area, the hospitality industry has (finally) responded, and there’s no shortage of excellent establishments to stay, wine, and dine.  We won’t be bold enough to pluck just a single venue out, but the following all come with Whisky & Wisdom’s seal of approval:

  • The Dowans Hotel, Aberlour. The Spé restaurant offers fine dining and excellent fare, and “The Still” bar has a formidable collection of whiskies in a most cosy and intimate setting.  Or sit out in the garden with a dram as the sun goes down.  There’s also a more casual bar and dining room, plus the Dowans has the friendliest staff in the district.
  • The Highlander Inn, Craigellachie. There’s some great pub grub downstairs, but it’s the whisky you’re here for – an awesome range of whiskies from across the globe and all very reasonably priced.  It’s a busy place in the evenings and you’ll find yourself amongst a crowd of international whisky pilgrims.  Try and grab a quiet booth in the corner.
  • The Mash Tun, Aberlour. Great food, a good “village pub” atmosphere, and a great range of whiskies.  Nice and central, too.
  • The Station Hotel, Rothes. A new arrival on the scene, the Station Hotel just opened in 2016 after a major building restoration and refurbishment.  Owned and operated by the Forsyths (of copper still manufacturing fame), the entire hotel is a shrine to the distilleries of Speyside.  There is both a guests’ bar at the rear and a public bar at the front with a great range of food, beers, and – of course – whiskies.

 

  1. Ride the Keith-Dufftown Railway

This area of Scotland was once served by a number of passenger and freight rail lines that operated between the major towns, and certainly a number of distilleries also utilised rail for the delivery of materials and the departure of spirit.  (Knockdhu, Cragganmore, Ardmore, Tamdhu, and Knockando being obvious examples).  The Keith-Dufftown branch line was built in 1862 and was later extended to Craigellachie where it interfaced with another line between Perth and Elgin.  However, the railways around the River Spey were de-commissioned in the mid-20th century, and the Keith-Dufftown branch line ceased all services back in 1968.

However, several decades later, a team of local enthusiasts rallied to restore the railway and preserve it as a Heritage Railway and – since 2000 –  these same volunteers now operate a nostalgia service that runs Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays during the summer months.

The 11 mile journey is hardly going to make it on to Great Railway Journeys of the World but, for whisky enthusiasts, it’s definitely a worthwhile attraction.   The ride takes you past a surprising number of distilleries, including an excellent birds’ eye view of the old Parkmore Distillery.  Parkmore closed in 1931 but still stands in excellent condition, as its buildings and warehouses are still used by Edrington.

Parkmore Distillery, as viewed from your carriage whilst rolling past.

The journey takes you through forests, waterways, farmlands, and reveals to its passengers many aspects of the Speyside district that are off the beaten track and which the average whisky tourist would otherwise overlook.   Truth be told, it’s simply a very relaxing and scenic way to appreciate Speyside from a different angle.  We recommend you start your journey at Dufftown, where the western terminus has a nice café and some historical information about the railway.  A one-way journey to Keith is forty minutes, or the return trip back to Dufftown takes just over an hour and a half.

 

  1. Visit the Speyside Cooperage

The making or repairing of oak casks is a fundamental part of the whisky industry, and up to 60-70% of a whisky’s final flavour is due to the cask in which it matured.  As such, no visit to Speyside is complete until you’ve dropped into the cooperage.  Here you’ll learn all about the ancient art of coopering and see it in real time before your eyes.

The cooperage was founded in 1947 and supplies & repairs a huge number of casks to the whisky industry – not just Speyside, but all over Scotland and beyond.  The official tour starts with a twee video (although the new one recently produced is not as informative as the old one they used to show, IMHO), before you then head upstairs to the viewing gallery where you can see all the action in the workshop below you.

There are helpful guides on hand (most of them are retired coopers) to explain what is going on and to answer any questions, plus displays and descriptive panels on the boards behind you.  Aspiring coopers must serve a four year apprenticeship to master their trade, and the skills and expertise required unfold directly in front of you.  Coopers at the Speyside Cooperage are not paid an hourly wage or a salary, but are paid for each cask they successfully complete.  So the more they complete in a day, the more they earn!   As such, the pace is frantic and frenetic.   And if you’re keen to give it a try, there’s a little toy set of staves on hand for you to try to assemble.  Good luck!

 

  1. Visit the Glenfiddich Distillery

As the most widespread single malt that arguably started this current craze back in 1963, all whisky drinkers and enthusiasts should raise a dram to Glenfiddich.  Even though its ubiquitous 12yo might not necessarily excite your tastebuds, or you might – incorrectly, I stress – feel Glenfiddich is a boring whisky, there are a few good reasons why you should include a visit to the distillery in your itinerary.  I’ve often said that if you can only ever get yourself to one distillery in Scotland, Glenfiddich it should be.  Yoda agrees.

No, it’s not my favourite Speyside distillery (that would be Glenfarclas); no, it’s not the most beautiful distillery (arguably Strathisla); no, it’s not the oldest (Strathisla); no, it’s not the most technically advanced (Roseisle); nor does it offer the latest start-of-the-art visitor experience (the new Macallan visitor centre – once completed – will no doubt take this title).  However, Glenfiddich certainly ticks all the right boxes:

First of all, Glenfiddich was the first distillery to set up a Visitor Centre (way back in 1969!) and they’ve been catering for the whisky tourist longer than anyone else.  It’s easy to get to; there’s ample parking; and if you’ve got a “significant other” whom you’re dragging around Scotland who is less enthused about whisky than you are, there’s a great café and lounge area where he/she can relax whilst you indulge your passion.  Or stay for lunch and enjoy a great meal from the Malt Barn bistro.

Secondly, the distillery has a range of tours and caters for all budgets and levels of whisky experience.   The “Explorers Tour” at £10; the “Solera Deconstructed Tour” at £50; or the truly excellent “Pioneers Tour” at £95 all give tremendous insight into the production areas and processes, and each tour concludes with a cost-appropriate range of whiskies for tasting.

Thirdly, the tours here are actually good.  The guides are all excellent, well trained, honest, informative and entertaining.  Unlike many other distilleries around Scotland, you’re able to take photographs in or around the key production areas, and you can get up nice and close to the equipment.  And they also cater well for visitors for whom English is not your preferred language.

Fourthly, despite its size, Glenfiddich is still a reasonably traditional distillery and you’ll see good ol’ fashion distilling here.  The washbacks are still wooden; the stills are direct fired (you’ll see the rummagers rotating for the wash stills); the stillman is still measuring and taking the cut manually instead of a computer or density meter automatically switching to feints; and there’s still plenty of old dunnage warehouses on site.

Fifthly, there is some serious whisky available to taste here.  The old barley store has been renovated and turned into the Malt Barn Bar.  This houses the largest range of Glenfiddich pouring whiskies available in the world…you can taste age-statement whiskies from 12 to 50 years old, vintage reserves (perhaps a 1958 for £1,000 a dram?), and other extremely rare whiskies.

Sixth – as if you needed a sixth reason by now? – the Distillery Shop has an exceptionally good range of products.  Whiskies, clothing, trinkets, food, glassware, bottle-your-own, you name it…I’ll be amazed if you don’t walk out the door with something in your shopping bag.

Finally – if you plan your visit and timing appropriately – you can take in Glenfiddich’s sister distillery, Balvenie.  Located on the same site, Balvenie is notable for being one of the last distilleries in Scotland to still operate its own floor maltings.   This is a rare sight and a rare treat – particularly in Speyside, as the other five distilleries to feature a regularly working floor maltings are a long way away in Campbeltown, Orkney, and on Islay!

– – – – –

So there you go – believe it or not, there’s more to visiting Speyside than just checking out its distilleries.  Of course, there are still other attractions here, too: Salmon fishing, Ballindalloch Castle, golf, walking/hiking, shooting, and so much more.   The trick is to try and squeeze it all in!

Cheers,
AD

Did we miss anything?   Let us know in the comments below.

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Author: AD

I'm a whisky host, writer, presenter, educator, taster, critic & all-round malt tragic! Also Director & Cellarmaster of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society in Australia. Follow me on Twitter and Instagram @whiskyandwisdom and also on Twitter @SMWS_Australia

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