Exploring Scotland’s historic whisky trail
Barrels of malt whisky at the Glen Grant distillery in Speyside. (Glen Grant)
Much like kilts, the Highlands and bagpipes, Scotland is inseparable from whisky, its national drink. So it makes sense that the only malt whisky trail in the world is nestled among historic castles in the rolling green hills of Speyside, a region in the northeast Highlands.
Created in the early 1980s, Scotland’s Malt Whisky Trail does not encompass all of the distilleries in the area, though it includes seven working ones, a cooperage and a historic distillery. Drive through the lush countryside and follow the signposts to each locale, which can be visited in any order. Though the distilleries are fairly close together, leisurely travellers may want to dedicate a few days to taking in the distinct traditions and lore at each stop. Also be sure to build in time to sample all of the unique flavours -- since every working distillery gives guests the opportunity to smell and taste the handcrafted drink.
Whisky has played an integral role in Scottish life since 1494. The term “whisky” comes from the Gaelic “uisge beatha” or “usquebaugh”, which means “water of life” and Scotch whisky — which is often referred to as Scotch — must be made in Scotland. Travel back in time at the Dallas Dhu Historic Distillery, a state-owned site that became a museum in 1988. Located just outside the ancient market town of Forres, the well-preserved Victorian distillery was the last one to be built in the 19th Century. Visitors can wander the grounds, learn about the craft of Scotch whisky, and tour the two-storey malt barn warehouse, kiln and other original sections of the distillery.
Located about 14 miles north, Glen Moray is a traditional Scottish farm-turned-distillery, with a courtyard that is surrounded by traditional, low-roofed brick warehouses and rich blue doors that match the bottle’s label. Founded in 1897, Glen Moray is located on the banks of River Lossie, in the Royal Burgh of Elgin, the capital of Speyside. Distillery employees, who are known for sharing their insider expertise about the whisky making process, may be on hand to lead you through the working distillery. The internationally-celebrated label is known for its classic single malt whisky, with notes of butterscotch, shortbread and lemongrass.
The oldest continuously operating distillery in the Highlands — and home of the famed Chivas Regal brand — is Strathisla, located about 18 miles east of Glen Moray in Keith. Known for its double pagodas and cobbled courtyard, the enchanting grounds have not changed much since it was established in 1786. Take the guided tour to learn about the history of its single malt and blended whiskies, and see the traditional warehouse where the single malts that make up the premium and super premium blends are stored. You will not just learn about its past, you will taste it too -- with a dram of 12-year-old Chivas Regal and 18-year-old Chivas Regal. Caroline Mitchell, the manager of the Chivas Brothers Visitor Centre, described the Strathisla single malt whisky as having a “distinctive mellow honey flavour, offering a full, nutty, balanced whisky”.
About 27 miles farther south along the trail is The Glenlivet, which was founded in 1824 as the first licensed distillery in the Livet Valley and is also known for its distinct taste: a defining fruity pineapple note. An exhibit at the distillery explores how The Glenlivet’s natural resources — the mineral-rich spring water, cool mountain climate and raw terrain — provide the ideal environment for producing the spirit. “Two centuries ago, the whisky from the remote and wild region of Glenlivet was sought after for its smooth and character-full qualities,” Mitchell said. During a guided tour, sample a dram of the 12-year-old Glenlivet, which has delicate layers of honeyed, floral aromas.
In nearby Knockando, west of Aberlour, Cardhu is a Scotch that may taste familiar because it is used in Johnnie Walker’s blended whiskies. But that is not Cardhu’s only boasting point; it is also the only malt distillery pioneered by a woman. After her husband and whisky-smuggling in-laws passed away, Elizabeth Robertson took over in 1872. In 1884, she expanded and built a new distillery, tripling the output of Cardhu single malt whisky within a year. She eventually sold the distillery to John Walker and Sons in 1893.