A special corner (South and East Highlands)
The region known as The Highlands covers a huge and disparate area. So in this area we focus just on the South and East part of the region
Is it time to reassess our definitions of the whisky regions of Scotland? Are our broad regional descriptors becoming increasingly redundant and as whisky enthusiasts grow in number and the knowledge levels rise, are they over-simplistic and meaningless?
Certainly a growing number of distilleries are questioning whether such caricature descriptors are doing more harm than good. With an increasing number producing whisky that doesn’t totally sit at ease with the region they operate from (Bruichladdich and Bunnahabhain on Islay, Jura, Scapa, Tobermory and Arran in the islands, Tomintoul and Benriach in Speyside) the question needs to be asked.
Such musings aren’t new; geographically island malts are placed in the Highlands anyway. Speyside has never been a naturally defined region and many of its distilleries aren’t at the side of the Spey. It has three or four places which each claim to be the true centre of the region, a point addressed comprehensively by Robin Laing in his new book The Whisky River.
More pertinently to this article, can we really describe a region as ‘The Highlands’, include in it Glengoyne in the South, Oban in the West, Glen Garioch in the East and Pulteney in the North East and do it justice, particularly when the central band of distilleries in this vast region are removed (because they form Speyside)? Of course not.
So we have split The Highlands in to two separate regions stretching from the South and across to the East of Speyside, including Glen Garioch, Ardmore and Glendronach. For accommodation and other things to do in the area, we have based ourselves around the two main population regions of Perth and Aberdeen. But from a travel point of view the region can be reached by air from Aberdeen for the more northerly group of distilleries and from Glasgow and Edinburgh from the South.
So let’s start our journey driving out of Glasgow and to Glengoyne. No distillery offers more to the visitor in the way of diversity of tours and it makes up for its modest size by offering enthusiasts everything from a straightforward tour to an advanced tasting and in-depth blending school. It has a smart and modern visitor centre, and is well geared up for visitors having attracted some 40,000 last year.
(Website www.glengoyne.com, tel +44 (0) 1360 550 254).
Without doubt the best area to enjoy a whisky experience but keep the rest of the family happy at the same time is the region close to the A9 in Perthshire. In all there are no less than three stopping points that combine whisky with fun aimed at other members of the family.
First up is Tullibardine, which was reopened as a distillery about four years ago and is sited next to a retail park to keep shoppers in the family happy. Tullibardine is run with passion and enthusiasm and while it waits for the new whisky to mature (around 2014 apparently) it has a brewery on site and markets a very palatable whisky ale made with distillery worts and yeast and matured in bourbon. (Website www.tullibardine.com, tel +44 (0)1764 682 252) Not far away is Glenturret Distillery, where an easy to follow and basic distillery tour can be combined with The Famous Grouse Experience, which will fascinate children because of the computer-generated interactive features which include a room where images are projected on to walls, floor and ceiling to impressive effect.
The owners of the Famous Grouse are also making strides to show off the blending process. (Website www.famousgrouse.co.uk, tel +44 (0)1764 656 565).
A similar double-barrelled experience that will keep the family amused awaits at Aberfeldy Distillery, home of the Dewars World of Whisky. Aberfeldy is a lovely distillery and makes fine whisky, the new 21 year old in particular worthy of mention.
But the glitzy and high-tech Dewars World of Whisky is what attracts the bulk of the visitors and there is plenty for all the family to do here, and a nice coffee shop.
(Website www.dewarswow.com, tel +44 (0) 1887 822 010) Close to Pitlochry is Scotland’s second most popular distillery destination but also its smallest. Few distilleries attract as much loyalty as this one. Edradour is a cottage-style distillery offering very personal and informal tours but attracts upwards of 100,000 visitors a year, and in recent years it has won the best visitor centre award in Whisky Magazine’s Icons of Whisky Awards. Amazing.
(www.edradour.com, tel +44 (0) 1796 472 095) Passing Deanston distillery which has a shop but doesn’t offer tours, we arrive at Blair Atholl Distillery, which has a visitor centre celebrating its 20th year.
This is yet another distillery that is strongly linked to a blend – in this case, Bell’s. It has a functional visitor centre which unsurprisingly focuses on the Bell’s connection, but the single malt is definitely worth exploring as well.
(Website www.malts.com, tel +44 (0) 1796 482003.
Heading up to Aberdeen there are a handful of distilleries skirting the edge of Speyside but do not consider themselves part of that region.
First up is Glen Garioch, off the main road at Old Meldrum. The distillery has had a chequered past and even now its whisky is undergoing a taste metamorphosis. It’s an altogether intriguing place and whisky, and well worth the detour from the main road to have a look. (Website www.glengarioch.com, tel +44 (0)1651 873 450).
Glendronach is a gentle and pleasant distillery dealt with in some depth elsewhere in the magazine so we won’t dwell on it here, but it does have a visitor centre (tel +44 (0) 1466 730 202).
Which leaves two other distilleries in the Eastern Highlands, both owned by Diageo and both well worth visiting.
Royal Lochnagar is close to the Queen’s Scottish residency at Balmoral and has the right to use the ‘Royal’ prefix because of its association with Queen Victoria.
It is a small distillery but it is a worthwhile draw for the whisky enthusiast, partially because the emphasis here is on the more serious side of whisky education, and partially because of the distillery’s special features, such as its worm tubs.
(Website www.malts.com, tel +44 (0) 1339 742 700).
Finally we reach Dalwhinnie, said to be the highest distillery in Scotland and certainly one producing some of the country’s finest Left: The eponymous bird stands proud outside GlenturretDistillery whisky. It’s a bit of a trek and not really close to much else but as you’d expect with a Diageo distillery, the visitor offering is pleasant and satisfying. (Website www.malts.com, tel +44 (0)1540 672 219).
There are plenty of other Highland distilleries further North and West, but our journey from Glengoyne to Dalwhinnie has taken us through a huge mix of distilleries, from small to large, artisan to technically advanced, and through a range of whisky styles. Enough for even the most serious whisky traveller.
WHERE TO STAY
For both Aberdeen and Perth there are a wide range of accommodation options from castles and five star hotel options such as Gleneagles at one end and much cheaper bed and breakfast options at the other. If we take Perth as the main population centre to the South and Aberdeen the main one to the East, then there are lots of options.
Perth has a wide range of types of accommodation to suit all budgets and tastes, including hotels, bed and breakfasts and country inns. If you’re thinking of splashing out and combining your whisky trip with golf, the world famous Gleneagles Hotel is at nearby Auchterarder, and the Crieff Hydro is close to Glenturret and the Famous Grouse experience.
There are great websites including www.visitscotland.com and www.perthshirescotland.co.uk
In the city of Perth itself the options include
The Best Western Hunting Tower Tel +44 (0) 1738 583 771
The Express By Holiday Inn Tel +44 (0) 1738 636 666
The Lovat Hotel Tel +44 (0) 1738 636 555
New County Hall Tel +44 (0) 1738 623 355
Parklands Hotel Tel +44 (0) 1738 622 451
Queens Hotel Tel +44 (0) 1738 442 222
For hotels in Aberdeen go to www.visitscotland.com or www.agtb.org/aberdeen-hotels.org
NON WHISKY THINGS TO DO
If you’re in Perthshire visit the House of Bruar and the Crieff Visitor Centre, both of which are great for shopping for Scottish goods, the Crannog Centre, which houses a range of archeological treasures, or the Scottish Liqueur Centre. The region isn’t without its heritage either, and is well served with castles and stately homes. Try Scone Palace as well as Blair and Drummond castles, or up at Brechin, close to Glencadam Distillery, visit Glamis.
As you travel up towards Aberdeen other famous properties include Balmoral, not far from Royal Lochnagar, Braemar Castle and other castles to visit such as Ballater, Banchory and Kildrummie.
Up at Aberdeen children will be entertained at Storybook Glen and Macduff Marine, or Codona’s Beach Amusement Park. The region also boasts the Cairngorm Mountains, Duthie Park Winter Gardens and the Gordon Highlanders Museum.