A Wee Dram: Speyside Whisky Tour

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.

Lindores’ aqua vitae, and 1494.

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.)

Kindrochit Castle ruins

Braemar truffles

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.

You can bottle your own… for 150 pounds!

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.

Brooklynn Guest Hosue

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).

Glen Moray flight

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!!!)

Craigellachie (Crag-uh-lacky) Bridge

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!)

Our tour guide Stuart in front of the MT.

This Heilan Coo needs his bangs trimmed.

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

Look at that face!

The Cardhu flight choices

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.

Dalwhinnie flight choices

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.

Edradour Distillery wasn’t open to the public.

The Mash Tun bar inside Blair Athol.

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.

The Blair Athol Distillery is overgrown with ivy

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.

More pics!

The Cairngorms

The Cairngorms

The Cairngorms in panoramic view

My bedroom at the Brooklynn b-n-b

Parag, Parag’s brother whose name begins with a T, Pam’s Husband Jeff?, and Stuart in front of the Craigellachie Bridge

View of the Spey from the bridge

View from the bridge

Glenfiddich (Glen-fid-ick) Distillery

Speyside Cooperage barrels

Glenfiddich ducks

Glenfiddich’s founders

Daisies in front of the Brooklynn Guest House

Cardhu bell stills

A cemetery by the Spey

A wonderful dog on the High Street in Pitlochry

Hayfield above Pitlochry

Dalwhinnie flight paired with chocolates

A footbridge above the Spey

An unlucky fisherman in the Spey

Entrance to Blair Athol Distillery

Cardhu wall sign

Brooklynn Guest House sign

Glen Allachie (Al-uh-kee)

The trees outside of Blair Athol Distillery were black from the barley smoking process (I think)

The Glenfiddich sign with our bus in the reflection

Glenfiddich’s family sign

Loch Ness & the Highlands, 2.0

I thought taking a two-day tour to Loch Ness and the Highlands would prove to be twice as good as last week’s one-day tour, but I wasn’t as impressed with the tour this time.  Don’t mistake me, I loved seeing both sights again, but the tour itself was lacking.  For one thing the tour guide had the personality of a flaccid noodle; whereas the other tours I’ve taken the guides have been chock full of stories and history and chatter, this guy was sparing to the point of laconic in his speech.  For another he didn’t seem to have a real itinerary, which offended me.  He kept asking the tour group what we wanted to do.  (I was like, dude, this is your country—you show us what we should see.)

A burn (little creek) in the Three Sisters. That little blue thing at the bottom is a tent!


We hardly stopped our drive at all.  We did go to Loch Lubnaig and the Three Sisters in Glen Coe again, but there were other places we might have stopped even for just a few minutes to take pictures. We stopped in Ballachulish at the Clachaig Inn where I made a fine lunch of (vegetarian) haggis, tatties (potatoes), and neeps (turnips), but it was a surprisingly heavy meal that I couldn’t finish.

Urquhart Castle, with Loch Ness in the background

And then we drove to Urquhart Castle, a little south of Inverness.  I know I said, “Once you’ve seen one castle, you’ve seen them all,” and I kind of stand by that statement, but I love ruins, and this castle definitely qualified. There wasn’t much to see since it was half knocked down but ruins speak to me in a way that preserved castle buildings don’t.  And the setting, of course, was lovely, as the castle was on the banks of Loch Ness.

The other people in the tour decided to take a boat ride, but as I took a boat ride on Loch Ness last weekend, I didn’t want to repeat it.  And it was just as well.  It started pouring.  I felt so bad for the rest of them because they got soaked, while I enjoyed some extra time in the gift shop and café, perfectly dry.

“Lay on, Macduff, And damned be him that first cries ‘Hold! Enough!'” (Inverness Castle)


And then it was on to Inverness.  I didn’t see as much of Inverness as I wanted.  Once I got to my B-and-B, Eskdale Guest House, I was kind of super tired and just kind of conked out in my tiny single bed right next to the radiator.  In the morning, I saw a little bit more of the town, but I didn’t get to visit Inverness Castle.  I thought it was closed, because of the time we got to Inverness the night before (6 p.m.), but actually it’s not open to the public.  I was disappointed because I really wanted to see the castle where I thought MacBeth would have lived (although he was King from 1040-1057, and technically the first castle was put up in 1057, so he didn’t live there after all), but I still wanted to see it.  The current castle was put up in the 19th century, and it’s veneered with lovely red sandstone.  And it’s in great-looking condition, though there was orange plastic fence all around it because they are doing repairs.

Who dis? It me!

The trip home was not exciting.  We made several stops for walks-in-the woods, which, if you know me, wouldn’t be my first choice.  One stop was at Loch an Eilein, in  Rothiemurchus Woods, and this was a pretty little loch.  I took the path beside the loch, but wanted to get a good picture from a different vantage point than the pictures I took initially (which, let’s be honest, were mostly about the ducks), and of course, I stumbled over a root and went down like the proverbial ton of bricks, getting mud all over my jeans, tearing holes in my sneakers, and fouling up my knees and legs and arms something fierce.  It never fails. This is why I don’t go hiking.  (Because the woods always try to kill me.)  And then, to add insult to literal injury, in trying to get back up, I fell again.  I was disgusted and filthy, and was glad to get back on the bus.  Then we stopped at another walk by the Tay River (?) and the river was quite pretty, but I didn’t walk too far because my ankle was throbbing and I knew that I was tempting fate to go into the woods a second time. So I found a picnic bench and watched the water.  We also stopped at the scenic Cava Cairns, big piles of stones used for burial and other religious purposes.  Actually, I kind of dug them.  One of the other people on the tour took my picture at the center of one.

The best part of the trip back was stopping at Dalwhinnie distillery, where I tried a flight of whiskies which were paired with festive chocolate truffles.  I didn’t have my camera on me, or I would have taken a picture of the drinks, but of the three of them, the 15-year, the Winter something brew, and the Distiller’s choice, I was partial to the 15-year.  It was raining and cold then too, so the whisky poured a little fire into our bellies.  Of course, the last thing I needed was three “wee drams” on an empty stomach, but fortunately I wasn’t driving.  Or required to stand upright for any length of time. 😉

A church missing its roof in Dunkeld

Afterwards, we stopped for lunch at Pitlochry and I ate fish and chips at McKay’s Hotel. The haddock was perfectly fried and crispy though it needed salt. I wish we had longer than an hour because Pitlochry’s High Street was full of cute little shops I would have liked to look in.  I might have considered skipping lunch, but the whisky was strong with this one, and I needed to offset the booze.  And then we stopped in one more place (Dunkeld) for another walk, where I saw a lovely church in the process of being restored.

In writing this down, I guess we stopped a quite a few places after all, more than I initally remembered, but because the tour guide didn’t really bother telling us about anything, it seemed like kind of a wasted few days.  I guess I’d have liked fewer walks in the woods, and more actual stops at things to see.  But everyone else seemed to enjoy themselves so perhaps my attitude was crappy.  And maybe I expected too much—but after the last few tours, I guess I was a little bit spoiled.

I still have a few more weekend tours planned, so I’m hoping they will be a little more energizing and interesting than this weekend’s.  But it was good to get back to the Highlands.  I just kept thinking how great it would be to live there part of the year (winter). I could so see myself in a little semi-restored farm house, with a sheep out back and a cat at my feet, where all I would do is drink hot tea, eat fresh scones, and write, write, write my heart out.  Maybe some day.

Hope you enjoy this new batch of pics!

Urquhart Castle

Lunch at Clachaig Inn–tatties, haggis, and neeps covered in a tasty brown gravy

Loch Ness, from Urquhart Castle

Urquhart Castle

Urquhart Castle keep

A view of Loch Ness from Urquhart Castle. In the middle left, you can see signs of tree farming. For every tree cut, Scotland plants 2 more.

A friendly gull

A lovely field at Dunkeld

A train bridge at the Hermitage, near the Tay (?) river

The train bridge from a further vantage point

Loch an Eilein… For this view, I injured myself. You’re welcome.

Mama duck at Loch an Eilein (Rothiemurchus Woods)

As soon as I sat down, these ducks came out of the water to see if I had anything to feed them. Sadly, I did not. (Loch an Eilein)

View from the center of a cairn in Cava Cairns

Ring Cairn, at Cava Cairns

Another view of Urquhart Castle

Another burn in the Highlands

Low hanging clouds in the Highlands (Ballachulish)

Inside of the Clachaig Inn, where I tried veggie haggis

Three Sisters (well, two of them, at any rate)

Another two of Three Sisters

Glen Coe, looking north

A sunny day at Loch Lubnaig

Glen Coe Mountain (from the back)

Glen Coe Mountain, with even more clouds

A view of Edinburgh Castle from Princes Street on the ride out of town