The Speyside Whisky Trail, In Search of the Perfect Single Malt

The Ultimate Scotch Experience


Colorful, rugged, misty, and slightly mysterious, wonderful Scotland beckons all connoisseurs to come and explore the birthplace of some of the world’s finest (and most collectible) single malt Scotch whiskies. My (Irish) father always joked that the Irish played a bad joke on the Scots when they introduced them to the Irish Bagpipes, but when Irish monks introduced the Scots to whisk(e)y back in the 15th century, they certainly did them a great favor which has been paying dividends ever since.

Anyone who is even mildly interested in Scotland’s liquid gold owes it to themselves to come and see where the wonderfully complex, aged, single malts originate, and tour the distilleries to learn about all the intricate factors that cause each and every batch to be unique. Recently, I successfully ticked this particular activity off my wish-list and set off to explore the Speyside Single Malt Whisky Trail with a small, group tour from Edinburgh. Our group of 14 whisky lovers set off enthusiastically to visit a total of four distilleries where we got an in-depth look at all the subtleties that go into turning ordinary single malt whisky into exceptional nectar that can fetch prices in excess of $18,000 at auction.

Dalwhinne Distillery
Dalwhinne Distillery

Day One: Dalwhinnie

Dalwhinnie, in the heart of the Cairngorm National Park, was first on our list. After a very interesting talk on flavors and a tour of the distillery, we had our first tasting.

Typically, you are offered a basic tasting where two or three of the most popular varieties are presented, but it is possible (and highly recommended) to pay extra for a “special” tasting of the superior or rare vintages.

.. a beautiful dinner of seared scallops and locally caught, fresh Scottish Salmon,…

Another advantage of visiting in person is that you can buy unique Special Reserves which are only available on site at many of the distilleries. You will be issued with your Classic Malts “Passport,” which each subscribing distillery will stamp for you – it makes a nice memento, and you can jot down tasting notes. From Dalwhinnie, we proceeded to our base in Grantown on Spey and settled into our guesthouse. As we rounded off our day with a few more drams and a beautiful dinner of seared scallops and locally caught, fresh Scottish Salmon, we found ourselves already planning a return trip.


Day Two: Benromach, Craigellachie, and Aberlour

Day two was busy and exciting, and our first stop was at Benromach, one of the few remaining family-owned distilleries, dating back to 1898. Today, Benromach is the smallest of the Speyside distilleries and prides itself on the hands-on approach of their three distillers who specialize in producing heavenly whisky reminiscent of the pre-1960’s Speyside malts which were lightly peated. (These days, Speyside single malts generally lack a peaty flavor.) We enjoyed the tour, although it was similar to our previous tour at Dalwhinnie, and learned more about the exacting process of producing great single malts. You can buy several varieties on site, including the newish Benromach Organic, the flagship 10-Year Old, and the Benromach 35-Years Old. The latter is matured in first-fill sherry casks which have helped produce a particularly smooth and complex malt which recently won a coveted award at the International Spirit Challenge and will set you back around $500.

If you have an even bigger budget, you can take home a rare, single-barrel bottle from 1973 for around $15,000 a great addition to any collection.

Benromach Distillery
Benromach Distillery

From Benromach, we went to Craigellachie to visit the Speyside Cooperage where the all-important oak barrels (most of which have been previously used for sherry) are re-finished by hand by some extremely efficient coopers who take great pride in their work. Our last visit of the day was to Cardu Distillery in Aberlour.

Cardu is famous for being the first whisky produced by a female distiller.

Today Cardu is one of the principle 12-year old Speyside malts used in the Johnny Walker Black Label blend. At Cardu, you will be able to sample Single Malts of varying ages, all redolent with creamy vanilla, pear, and apple tones.

Day Three: Glenlivet

On our last morning we visited Glenlivet, which has been at the forefront of single malt production since before World War I. Throughout two wars, the Great Depression, and

Glenlivet 50
Glenlivet 50

The Prohibition eras, Glenlivet has weathered some dramatic storms but has always continued to produce superior single malts. Over the years, production has had to keep up with overwhelming demand and the distillery has been enlarged and modernized several times. In the last few years, Glenlivet has released some really special, single cask malts that have sold for record prices at auction. The latest in this line of distinguished and very collectible vintages is the Glenlivet Winchester Collection Vintage 1966 – a 50-year old malt presented in a superb, hand-blown, glass bottle specially designed by glass artist Brodie Nairn. A lot of thought went into the design of the bottle, whose smooth lines are intended to represent the Gaelic translation of the name Glenlivet – meaning “Valley of the Smooth Flowing One,” and the bottle is topped by a gold stopper set with a quartz Cairngorm Stone. This beautiful presentation comes in a hand-crafted cherry wood box that would add real prestige to any connoisseurs’ collection. The asking price is around ₤24,000.

Fortified by several drams of wonderful Glenlivet vintages, we made our way back to Edinburgh through the majestic scenery of Royal Deeside, passing by Balmoral Castle and stopping for lunch in the little town of Braeside.

Balmoral Castle
Balmoral Castle

Final Thoughts

On this particular tour, we used Grantown on Spey as our base – a typically small Highland town filled with character and a favorite weekend destination for salmon fishermen and hiking/outdoor enthusiasts. We stayed in a guesthouse, but there were also a couple of hotels and a few surprisingly good restaurants, given the remoteness of the village.

The four distilleries we visited are but the tip of the iceberg!

Speyside is home to over half of Scotland’s single malt whisky distilleries, and there are dozens more you can visit. A private tour would be the perfect way for a connoisseur to enjoy the Speyside experience at a more leisurely pace. Several companies offer tailor-made tours to suit your specific tastes and timeframe, visiting several more distilleries and allowing time for leisurely lunches and some shopping in the quaint Highland towns and villages.

Sláinte mhath!

Originally posted 2017-02-07 12:13:18.

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