I decided to take a whisky distillery tour, not because I’m a whisky drinker—I’m not really—but because I thought I should see how the national drink of Scotland is made. I’ve spent my entire stay living next to the Holyrood gin distillery—somedays, you could really smell the mash—but I wasn’t that interested in visiting. But whisky intrigued me, so I signed up for Rabbie’s three-day tour of the Speyside area. Unlike the peated flavor of the Islay (pronounced “eye-la”) whiskies of the north-north of Scotland and the Hebrides, Speyside whiskies are more mellow, possibly sweeter, and lack any smokiness. This is a good thing, because peated whisky reminds me of Lapsang souchong tea, which I just hate.
We left Friday morning, and I was thrilled when the tour guide, Stuart, told me that the tour only had five people registered. This made so much of a difference to my enjoyment. Suddenly, we could get to know each other intimately and really share in our whisky experience with each other. Since I was a nearly virgin whisky drinker (with the visit to Dalwhinnie a few weeks previous being my only experience with the drink), I was really open to trying everything. And the other members of the tour seemed really interested to know what I thought, just as I was interested in their thoughts too. I loved this tour for its camaraderie, and I thought Stuart was a wonderful guide. He is a true whisky afficionado, and everything he had to say I soaked up like a sponge.
Friday was a beautiful day to drive through the Cairngorms (east Highlands), because it was ridiculously clear and windy. Unlike the other visits I made to the Highlands to the west, full of mistiness and magic, the Cairngorms sat proudly to either side of us with nary a cloud rimming the top of the mountains to ruin the view. (Don’t get me wrong, there were clouds, just not clinging to the mountain tops.) The sun brought out the green of the Cairngorms and enlivened the purple of the newly-emerging heather, and the sheep we saw were like little clouds in the grass. And everywhere we looked was a photo opportunity, so it was nice of Stuart to stop the bus for a little while so we could get some pictures.
Our first whisky stop was the Lindores Abbey Distillery (lowland single malt), which had been around since the medieval times, though there was a 500-year gap between when the place was a thriving abbey making “aqua vitae” and whisky for kings and now. It recently (say, the last 10 or so years) reopened, and our guide at the distillery took us through the process of making whisky in great detail. By the end of the day, we understood the three ingredients of whisky (barley, water, and yeast), how whisky is collected in a curly copper still, how it is separated into the head, heart, and tail (different alcohol contents, with the heart being the perfect percentage, and the head and tail having to go back and be reprocessed), how it is stored in oak bourbon or sherry casks, and how long it has to age before it can be called whisky (three years and a day). After our walk through the distillery, we tried some aqua vitae liqueur, which was a drink with many herbs and spicy flavors, although the main flavor I tasted was rosemary and juniper (though rosemary wasn’t in the mix, according to our guide; I didn’t care for it because it seemed medicinal), and their 1494 brand of whisky, which I really liked because it was smooth and didn’t burn your throat. I wanted to buy some to bring home, except I didn’t know how I’d get it on the plane. (And I had hopes I could buy from their website, but they don’t sell it in the U.S.)
Our next stop was in Braemar, a lovely little hamlet, for lunch. I didn’t find much to eat, but I did stop in the Braemar Chocolate Shop and bought a six-pack of gorgeous truffle “jewels.” I accidentally threw out the list of candies I bought, but of the ones I remember, there were a mint truffle, a lemon truffle, a passionfruit truffle, and a weird blue cheese and chocolate flavor truffle that was really quite different. (The others might have been a strawberry and mixed berry.) I didn’t wind up eating the candy until much later in the day, so it kind of wound up being my dinner when I got to the bed-and-breakfast. 😊 Also in Braemar were the ruins of Kindrochit Castle (from around 1390), which were mostly just low walls people could climb on at this point. And there were children running and climbing all over it.
Our next distillery stop was Royal Lochnagar Distillery, near the River Dee, which bordered Balmoral Castle, a Scottish royal home since Albert and Queen Victoria bought it in 1852. I didn’t get to see Balmoral Castle because it was deep in the woods, and I was a little sorry about that, but the distillery was interesting. We learned much the same as we had learned at Lindores Abbey, but it was nice to see another version of the same process, and to see the large bell stills. Additionally, we spent a goodly amount of time in the cask room, smelling whisky through the bung holes (that sounds dirty, doesn’t it?) so we could determine what kind of cask the whisky was ageing in. And we also got to see a cask of Diamond Jubilee whisky, and the tour guide had us guess how much a bottle of it cost. Pam (the other woman on our tour) guessed $3,000; I guessed $10,000. But the true answer was $100,000 per bottle, and I think there were only 60 bottles made. The money was raised for charity, so I guess that justifies the cost. But still…that’s a ton of money for a blended (yuck) whisky.
At our tasting, we tried four different bottles: Royal Lochnagar 12 year, the Exclusive Bottling, the Selected Reserve, and the 17 year. Of course, I liked the 17 year best—and it figures that I would like the most expensive bottle, doesn’t it? It had quite a burn and it definitely put hair on your chest, but I liked it because it felt full-bodied. It helped that I added a few drops of water, which everyone said opens up the oils and make the whisky more florid. We were having such a good time talking about our tasting with each other that we had to be reminded to leave since the distillery was closing.
Then we drove to Grantown-on-Spey, where we were all staying for the night. My bed-and-breakfast was the Brooklynn Guest House, although the other group members were staying at hotels. My room offered a fancy bathroom and a comfortable double bed, a nice change from the single bed that I slept in in Inverness. I could have gone walking into town to find some dinner, but I was tired, and after all I had my Braeburn chocolates to eat, and a Hercule Poirot novel to read (Murder on the Links).
Saturday, I enjoyed a breakfast of fancy topped yogurt, full of granola and fruit, and eggs and toast and Scottish breakfast tea, and Stuart and the group picked me up for another day of touring. This time, we just had a tasting at Glen Moray, in Elgin, with a Rabbie’s tour exclusive flight: the 10 year Fired Oak, the 12 year, and the Peated Classic. I also bought a delicious shortbread to pair with the whisky, and the sweetness of the shortbread made the whisky taste better if you ask me. Glen Moray is what you call a “supermarket whisky,” which means it’s good quality, but not as expensive as other brands—the kind you’d find for sale at a grocery store. I liked the three whiskies offered, even the peated one, although I didn’t care for that as much as the 12 year, which had a bit of a honey flavor to it. (Or that could have been the shortbread.) I bought a couple of whisky glasses in their gift shop; they were only £3 each. (They had some beautiful crystal whisky glasses, but they were £25 each, and I was afraid they might not make the trip home. Also, hello, expensive!!!)
So after drinking whisky at 10 (!) a.m., Stuart drove us to Craigellachie Bridge (built in 1814 and restored in 1964), a lovely bridge that spans the River Spey. I walked the bridge and got some photos and then joined Parag and his brother for a walk to go to the river’s edge. They went on to get closer to the river, because Parag was all about making his TikTok videos, while I talked with Pam and her husband and found out that they live in Huntsville, AL, and she teaches nursing at the university. (Her husband works in the defense industry.) Then we all ambled back to the bus and drove to the Speyside Cooperage, which is where distilleries send barrels to be put together, refitted, or repaired. The Speyside Cooperage is one of only two cooperages in Scotland, and there’s nothing but barrels as far as the eye can see. Afterwards, we stopped at the Glenfiddich Distillery, more just to see it than anything, since it’s the biggest and most-recognized whisky brand, and then the Glen Allachie Distillery. At neither place did we try any whisky, but it was good to stop and nose around the gift shops; the Glenfiddich gift shop was particularly high-end and fancy. (They had shoehorns—which I actually am in need of—made of real horn… for £54 each!)
We had lunch at the Mash Tun bar and pub, and while I didn’t love my cranberry jelly and brie sandwich all that much, again it was nice to sit and dish with my fellow travelers in a “spirited” discussion. Plus I got to walk by the Spey and watch a fisherman not have much luck. After lunch, we headed to the Cardhu Distillery (“The Speyside Home of Johnny Walker”) in Archiestown, for another distillery tour, though first there was an informative video about the origins of the distillery and the fact that it was founded by a woman, Helen Cumming, in 1824. This time they were cooking so it was crazy hot in the distillation room. But our guide was very nice and knowledgeable, and also let us smell some bung holes to determine what kind of casks
the whisky was being held in. Our tasting included the Cardhu Gold Reserve, Amber Rock, and just plain Single Malt. I thought the Cardhu whiskies were alright; I wasn’t bowled over, but the other folks seemed to like them. I found I added a bit of water to each one, and that helped. Cardhu whisky makes up a big part of Johnnie Walker blended whiskies, and even if I didn’t have a snobby bias against blended whiskies, I think I would not be interested in Johnnie Walker because I just didn’t love the Cardhu (even though Stuart likes it). I do, however, love that a woman started the company (and the video does a great job of showing how influential Helen Cumming and her daughter-in-law were as they began their empire). The other thing I liked about Cardhu were the “Hielan’ Coos” that lived in an adjacent paddock. And you could buy oat cakes to give to them. (I would have done this, but the flies were so bad out by the cows that I didn’t want to stay nearby after I took pictures.)
Sunday morning after breakfast, I opened the door to go out and wait for the bus to get me, and who should run in but a handsome black cat. He ran into the dining room, and I was nervous that I had just let a strange cat in, but the server said that Louis belonged to the B-and-B. I got to pet him, and would have snapped a photo except that the server shook his bag of crunchies, and Louis high-tailed it back into the kitchen to get his breakfast. I said goodbye to the Brooklynn, and got picked up. Our first stop was Dalwhinnie.
While I had been here before and tried their flight of three whiskies, again, because I was with our group, I had a much better time. The whiskies were paired with chocolates, as before, which brought a pleasant sweetness to the four drams: the 15 year, the Winter’s Gold, the Distiller’s Edition, and the Distillery Exclusive Bottling. I was still partial to the 15 year, but the Distillery Exclusive Bottling was also very nice (and only available for purchase at the distillery proper). Additionally, because now I had more knowledge about whisky in general, I could appreciate them a little better then the first time I had tried them two weeks before. The other group members were quite in love with the Winter’s Gold, but to me, that version had an unpleasant earthiness to it. Not a peaty taste, but a heaviness that I guess might be nice in the middle of winter when you’re freezing your bezonkus off. Still I didn’t care for it.
We stopped in Pitlochry first to look at Edradour Distillery, “Scotland’s Little Gem,” which has been closed since Covid, but the grounds were lovely. Then we drove back into town for lunch (the third time I had been there), and I went to McKay’s fish and chip house and drank a Lemon Fanta and enjoyed chocolate orange ice cream for dessert. Pitlochry is apparently a bit of a retirement community; it has a busy high street with lots of tourists, but the town itself is sleepy and charming. Before we left town, we stopped at the Blair Athol Distillery, which had a Mash Tun bar (I guess it’s a chain) inside, with the bar itself resembling a big mash container. We all tried the “flavour flight,” which was composed of four whiskies, the Cragganmore Distillers (sweet), the Singleton 12 year (fruity), the Blair Athol 12 year (spicy), and the Caol Ila 12 (smokey). I liked the Blair Athol the best, but the others were fine… maybe not the Caol Ila which was really peaty, but it wasn’t bad, just not to my taste.
Blair Athol Distillery was our last stop before coming back to Edinburgh. The ride home was pretty quiet—all of us whiskied out for sure—and I mostly chose to reflect on what a good time I had, even though I wasn’t expecting anything in particular. Not being a practiced whisky drinker, with a special developed palate, I just tried everything with an open mind, learning what I could. I can definitely see now how people collect whiskies—Stuart told us about his collection, for instance—because they are like wine in that each one is different and even among the same distillers, the whiskies are different depending on how long they’ve aged, and in what. But unlike wine, you can open a whisky, and it won’t go bad in a few days—you can just have it until it’s gone. I asked Stuart how he decides which dram to drink on any given day, and he said it absolutely has to do with his mood (and how cold or hot it is). That makes sense; but from what he told us, he has a number of bottles (maybe 30-50, I can’t quite recall), so that’s quite an arsenal to choose from. I’m still wondering how he decides what to pick when he has all those choices.
As for myself, I will start my collection small, because I don’t imagine that I’ll be drinking too many drams any time soon: I’ve gotten Glenmorangie, Grangestone, and if Total Wine ever gets it, I’ll get a Dalwhinnie 15 year, and be happy with those. And I look forward to trying a flight of whiskies with C. and demonstrating all my new knowledge.
Of all the tours I took, this one was my favorite. While I didn’t see as many beautiful places to take pictures of, I got something better: the opportunity to hang with five other people all very present in the moment and all enjoying many wee drams of whisky. It was definitely worth every penny I spent on the trip.