By ignoring the Northern Highland distilleries, whisky lovers are not only missing out on a number of the country’s most fascinating and historic distilleries but they are also neglecting some of Scotland’s finest coastal scenery.
‘Base camp’ for a tour of the area is the historic ‘Highland capital’ of Inverness, which, in the days before over-production caught up with the Scotch whisky industry during the 1980s, was home to three distilleries. Today, Glen Mhor and Glen Albyn are long gone, lying beneath the Tarmac and steel structures of a retail park, though part of Milburn has found a new lease of life as ‘The Auld Distillery Bar & Restaurant’.
Central to a tour of Scotland’s northernmost mainland distilleries is the A9 road, or ‘Scotland’s spine,’ as it is sometimes known. Running 273 miles from Stirling to Thurso the A9 now bypasses Inverness, taking the traveller across the Kessock Bridge over the Beauly Firth onto the Black Isle. This is not actually an island at all, but a notably fertile peninsula.
From the Black Isle you may take a detour inland to the west and visit Diageo’s Glen Ord distillery, on the outskirts of the village of Muir of Ord, some 18 miles from Inverness. Ord boasts a typically professional and well-presented Diageo visitor centre, and while the bulk of the distillery’s output is destined for the blending vats, a Singleton of Glen Ord expression, usually only available in Asia, may be sampled and purchased.
Sticking with the A9, a modern, low level bridge crossing of the Cromarty Firth transports you from the ‘Black Isle’ towards the town of Alness. Here, a number of vast oil rigs, laid up in the deep waters of the firth between assignments, present a somewhat surreal vision in this Highland landscape.
Alness is home to Diageo’s Teaninich distillery, hidden away on an industrial estate and dating in its present form from the early 1970s. The low-profile distillery produces malt whisky for the Johnnie Walker family of blends.
Teaninich is not open to the public, but nearby Dalmore distillery has a strong commitment to visitors, and has recently invested around £1 million in a new, greatly upgraded visitor centre. Dalmore occupies a peaceful location on the shores of the Cromarty Firth and this Whyte & Mackay showpiece, established in 1839, boasts a pair of stillhouses that are surely the most idiosyncratic in Scotland. The distinctive copper water jacket on ‘number two spirit still’ dates back to 1874.
The port of Invergordon, once an important naval base and now popular as a stopping-off place for cruise liners, lies just four miles from Alness, and is the location of Whyte & Mackay’s Invergordon grain distillery. This facility can produce up to 36 million litres of whisky per year, compared to Dalmore’s 4.2 million litres.
Fifteen minutes’ drive along the A9 from Alness lies Tain, Scotland’s oldest Royal Burgh and nearby stands Glenmorangie distillery. The background water at this point is the Dornoch Firth, and if Dalmore boasts one of the strangest stillhouses, then Glenmorangie surely has one of the most striking and aesthetically pleasing. The 12 elegant stills are modelled on the original ex-gin stills installed when the distillery opened in 1843, and at almost 17 feet in height they are the tallest in Scotland.
A detour off the A9 along the A836 road, just west of Glenmorangie distillery, embraces the small village of Edderton and Balblair distillery. Balblair belongs to Inver House Distillers and is one of the oldest distilleries in Scotland, dating back to 1790. For a long time Balblair’s ‘make’ was almost all destined for the blending vats, but it has become much better known as a single malt during the past few years, and in 2007 Inver House adopted a highly successful policy of issuing vintage releases of Balblair. The distillery is charmingly traditional and visitors are welcome by appointment.
Returning to the A9 and crossing the Dornoch Firth Bridge brings you into the county of Sutherland, with Dornoch itself being best known today as the venue for Madonna’s wedding to Guy Ritchie in 2000. Heading north, the sea is never out of sight for long, and from just south-west of the village of Golspie the A9 hugs the coastline for the next hour’s drive. Golspie is home to the Scots Baronial-style splendours of Dunrobin Castle, ancestral home of the Earls and Dukes of Sutherland.
The Marquis of Stafford, later Duke of Sutherland, was responsible for constructing the next distillery at which you arrive, namely Clynelish, situated just to the north-west of the golfing resort of Brora and dating from 181. Here The Sutherland Inn in Fountain Square boasts a collection of more than 300 malt whiskies and is the ideal place in which to relax with a local dram.
Like its fellow Diageo Northern Highlanders Ord and Teaninich, the face presented by modern-day Clynelish is a product of the post-war whisky boom, with the distillery being constructed alongside the original of the same name in 1967. The old plant was subsequently renamed Brora, and continued to work in tandem with its successor for several years. In addition to tours of the modern Clynelish site, there is a bookable ‘Taste of Brora’ tour which takes in the old distillery, with its sadly silent pair of stills, and allows participants the opportunity to savour a couple of highly sought-after drams.
From Brora, the A9 continues to cling to the coast, with the scenery gradually becoming wilder. The Ord of Caithness is a dramatic pass that separates Sutherland from Scotland’s northernmost county of Caithness, and beyond the Ord are the Berriedale Braes. The daunting hairpin bends and steep inclines have now been somewhat modernised and tamed, though still a driving challenge in severe weather conditions.
The coastline of Caithness is bleakly beautiful and punctuated by many small inlets and harbours, most of which are all but abandoned today, though during the 19th century ‘herring boom’ they were a hive of activity. Dunbeath in Caithness was the birthplace of the 20th century Scottish writer Neil M Gunn, who set a number of his novels in the area. Before turning to writing full-time, Gunn was an excise officer, latterly at Glen Mhor in Inverness, where he penned the classic 1935 volume Whisky & Scotland.
The port of Wick was the centre of the herring trade in Caithness, and the town is home to the final distillery in our Northern Highland line up. Pulteney distillery is hidden away in the back streets of the historic fishing port, and what its location may lack in glamour, the distillery itself more than makes up for in character.
Like Balblair, Pulteney is owned by Inver House Distillers, and it is worth the trip to Wick just to see its unique spirit still, which has no real head and swan neck, like most other stills. According to distillery legend, this is because the still was found to be too tall to fit into the stillhouse when it was delivered. The manager at the time instructed the coppersmith to cut the top off the still in order for it to be accommodated, thus creating the unique shape.
There is a fishing-related theme to the well-presented visitor centre, which opened in 2000 in the former cooperage and maltings, and is in keeping with the marketing of Old Pulteney as ‘The Maritime Malt.’
Distilleries of the Northern Highlands
Glen Ord Distillery, Muir of Ord, Ross-shire IV6 7UJ
Tel: 01463 872 004
Dalmore Distillery, Alness, Ross-shire IV17 0T
Tel: 01349 882 362
Glenmorangie Distillery, Tain, Ross-shire IV19 1PZ
Tel: 01862 892477
Email: tain-shop @glenmorangie.co.uk
Balblair Distillery, Edderton, Tain, Ross-shire IV19 1LB
Tel: 01862 821273
Clynelish Distillery, Brora, Sutherland KW9 6LR.
Tel: 01408 623000
Pulteney Distillery, Huddart Street, Wick, Caithness KW1 5BA
Tel: 01955 602371