Speyside, Scotland

Anyone who knows Andrew will know about his love of whisky. It’s in his (Scottish) blood. So when our Edinburgh-based Kiwi friends suggested a getaway to the Speyside region there was no hesitation in booking a long weekend in to explore and taste more of this fine drop.

We booked an epic Airbnb farmhouse on the outskirts of Aberlour and set to fill the next four days with hearty food, amazing scenery, great company and several whisky distilleries.

We kicked off our Saturday by driving out towards the coast, stopping in at our first distillery, Glen Grant, along the way. We didn’t do the distillery tour here but instead walked through their lovely Victorian gardens which they have recently restored to their original glory. After a wander, we sat down to our first tastings of the weekend. Back on the road, we made our way out towards Culbin Forest where we ventured through the woods to ‘The Gut’ – a slightly unattractive inlet.

Famished after our longer than expected walk we made our way to the lovely, rose-coloured Brodie Castle. Now in the care of the National Trust, the castle was previously inhabited by the Brodie clan for over 400 years. Turning up just shy of closing time we had unfortunately missed the final tour, but the lovely staff offered us a condensed tour for a reduced fee which was much appreciated. Back near Aberlour we got some all-important group shots by the Craigellachie Bridge and then headed to the Highlander Inn for a simple, yet delicious dinner, finishing the evening off with a few tasty drams.

Sunday was a big day. After a bit of breakfast, we drove out to Strathisla Distillery, in the small town of Keith. Strathisla is the oldest operating distillery in the Scottish Highlands, and perhaps one of the prettiest we’ve seen. As soon as we got out of the car we could smell that weird but enticing smell of malted barley. Those of us not driving settled on a ‘Fly Dram’. The website says the barkeeper will take 10 minutes to talk through the three drams, but our passionate guide spent at least 30 minutes with us running through the history of the distillery, the relationship between the single malt and world-renowned Chivas, and of course the all important tasting notes of the three whiskies on offer.

For lunch we were booked into the Copper Dog at The Craigellachie Hotel – this pub is a must-visit if you’re in the area! We had just enough time before our Macallan tour to drop into the Aberlour Distillery shop to taste a few drams and for the boys to convince each other to purchase their first bottle of the trip to take home (they were pretty pleased with themselves).

The newly opened £140 million Macallan Distillery and visitor centre opened in June 2018, but the estate has been creating single malt whisky since 1824. The building’s rolling green living roof is set into the hillside and is often compared to Hobbiton or the Teletubbies Hill. The interior is equally impressive with the timber roof on show towering above you as you enter the building. Macallan runs a pretty slick operation. The ‘Six Pillars’ tour follows your typical walk through the history and process of whisky making, but there are a few extra bells and whistles here too.

Monday was probably the highlight of the trip. Just down the road from our Airbnb lay the GlenAllachie Distillery – not yet open to the public for tours. However, our friend had emailed them prior to our trip and asked if we could pop in for a bit of a look around. We were overwhelmed with their hospitality and ended up getting a truly one-off experience. Until 2017 GlenAllachie was predominately used in blended whiskies, so is not a well-known brand in itself just yet. Since being acquired by three whisky veterans they have started a journey to create a single malt whisky to be proud of. We spent about two hours with two great characters from GlenAllachie being taken through the distillery itself and then through a number of the warehouses. It was refreshing to get the workers own perspective on the distillery and the whisky here rather than a well-rehearsed marketing pitch. We even got to meet the Master Distiller Billy Walker himself on our way out.

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With a bit of a tight schedule to keep, we high-tailed it to Glenfiddich where we, unfortunately, didn’t have time for any tastings as lunch was our priority. The food in the café here was exceptionally good, most of us indulged in the Haggis, Neeps and Tatties which was served with a Glenfiddich whisky cream sauce – I could have seriously licked my plate it was that delicious! Just a short distance down the road we arrived at the Balvenie Distillery for our 2pm tour. We’ve done a number of whisky tours now, not only here in Speyside but on our previous trip to Islay, and Balvenie definitely delivered on the unique experience. At Balvenie, you get to see the only traditional, working floor maltings in the Scottish Highlands. Also, another highlight was getting to see their on-site cooperage in full swing. The cooperage is an impressive sight and watching from a platform above the warehouse you’re in awe of these men who have honed this age-old skill, effortlessly rolling huge barrels, up to 500L, across the floor, skilfully breaking down and rebuilding the casks with hand tools handed down from generations before and charring the inside of barrels with open flames.

On our final morning, we stopped in at the Speyside Cooperage for the 10am tour where we got to see more highly-skilled coopers at work. Some of the most experienced coopers work at such a furious rate and that is in part to them being paid by the barrel and also our guide said that the environment can get highly competitive. These guys really put their bodies on the line working in this physically demanding job.

Going by some recommendations from our friends, who had now left us and headed back to Edinburgh, we set out towards the east coast to test out the claims of an award-winning Fish and Chip shop. The Bay Fish and Chips in Stonehaven overlooks the North Sea inlet and offers sustainable, locally-sourced fish. Being from New Zealand we often turn our nose up at fish and chips offered in the UK but this one was pretty damn tasty and we were pleasantly satisfied. Our final stop was the Dunnottar Castle just south of Stonehaven. This ruined medieval fortress sits out upon a steep rocky headland which provides some impressive perspectives from the surrounding hills. After a quick explore it was time to head to Aberdeen Airport for our flight back to Londontown.

Andrew and I seriously love Scotland, and it’s not just down to the whisky! The landscapes remind us of home, the locals are (usually) very kind and friendlier than anyone living in London and the local food is hearty and tasty. We’ve only scratched the surface here and are already considering our next trip back.

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