The Southern Highlands

The Southern Highlands

Gavin D Smith embarks on a whisky trail through Perth and its environs

Travel | 04 Sep 2015 | Issue 130 | By Gavin Smith

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The designated 'Highlands' region for Scotch malt whisky production is geographically by far the largest in Scotland. It stretches from just north of Edinburgh and Glasgow in the Central Belt right to the northern coast of Caithness and Wolfburn Distillery, situated close to the Pentland Firth, with the Orkney Islands visible in the distance. The region roams from the modern distillery of Ardnamurchan in the far west to Glencadam and Fettercairn in the east.

In total there are currently 27 working distilleries in the Highlands, of which no fewer than 24 offer visitor facilities. For reasons of practicality, we have chosen therefore to focus here on those Highland distilleries within relatively easy reach of one of Scotland's most historical centres, namely the city of Perth.

Perth stands on the banks of the River Tay, and the origins of the settlement often known as 'The Fair City' lie in the Roman fort of Bertha, constructed in AD83. The location has long had a strategic importance as the lowest crossing point of the Tay and the highest navigable part of the river.

With the development of the railway network throughout Scotland from the mid 19th Century onwards, Perth was ideally placed between the Highlands, where most malt whisky was distilled, and the principal British markets for blended whisky in the south of Scotland and in England. Accordingly, it became a centre for blending and bottling, most notably being associated with the companies of Arthur Bell & Sons, John Dewar & Sons, and Matthew Gloag & Son - of The Famous Grouse fame.

As a base from which to explore some of the Highland region's most compelling distilleries, Perth boasts a variety of accommodation to suit most budgets ( and is also home to a whisky bar in the shape of Dickens on South Street. Dickens offers in excess of 120 single malts, including a 40 Years Old Highland Park as well as a selection of cask ales ( Further along South Street is Exel Wines, which boasts of being 'Perthshire's No.1 wine and whisky shop' (

No fewer than seven 'Highland' distilleries which welcome visitors are to be found within 45 minutes' drive of Perth, and if you are heading north through the Highlands towards Inverness, the picturesque Dalwhinnie Distillery owned by Diageo is around 70 minutes' drive from Perth along the A9.

The closest distillery to 'The Fair City' is also one of Scotland's smallest and newest, namely Strathearn (see Whisky Magazine 118). Strathearn is located some nine miles west of Perth off the A85 Strathearn and opened for business in October 2013. It produces both gin and whisky in beautifully crafted Portuguese made small copper stills, which yield some 12,000 litres of spirit per year. Visitors are made very welcome, but the operation is bijou, to say the least, so best to phone or email before dropping in.

Back on the A85 heading west drive through the market town of Crieff, to nearby Glenturret Distillery. Glenturret provides a significant age contrast with Strathearn, claiming a foundation date of 1775! From a public perspective, this is the brand home of Scotland's bestselling blended Scotch, The Famous Grouse, and as such tops the Scottish distillery charts in terms of visitors per annum.

Glenturret has unveiled a new line-up of tours this year, ranging from the onehour Distillery Experience Tour right up to the £250 per person full day Stillman Experience. Central to the Famous Grouse Experience is the Wild Thyme restaurant, which focuses on local ingredients and dishes incorporating Glenturret single malt whisky. At the same time as new tour options have been introduced, greater attention is being focused on Glenturret as a single malt, with a number of recent new releases on the market.

Returning to Perth, take the A9 towards Stirling and a 20 miles drive brings you to the village of Blackford and Tullibardine Distillery. Tullibardine was the first new distillery to be built after the end of the World War II and since 2011 it has been in the ownership of the French family drinks company Picard Vins & Spiritueux.

Picard bought Tullibardine from a group of investors who rescued it from a period of silence back in 2003, and under the French firm's stewardship, Tullibardine's range of single malts has been revised and repackaged, distillery output has been ramped up, and new on-site bottling and maturation facilities have been established. Regular tours are available and there is a well appointed shop selling the full range of Tullibardine whiskies, including a 60 Years Old 1952 vintage expression, if you have a spare £20,000.

From Blackford travel the 14 miles via the A9 and A820 roads to the hamlet of Deanson, near Doune, and the splendid structure that is Deanston Distillery.

Deanston is one of those rare Scotch whisky distilleries to have been developed within an existing building previously used for other commercial purposes. In Deanston's case that building was the listed, 18th Century former Adelphi cotton mill, standing beside the River Teith.

Conversion work was carried out during the mid 1960s whisky 'boom' by the Deanston Distillery Company Ltd, and today maturation takes place in a magnificent vaulted building that was created during the 1830s as a weaving shed! In 2012 a very smart visitor centre was inaugurated, and it offers a number of distillery exclusive bottlings and a fillyour- own bottle option.

While in this area consider making a detour to the French chateau style splendour that is Gleneagles Hotel, with its three championship golf courses, spa and numerous other luxurious attractions ( The main hotel bar is resplendent with fine whiskies, and the Dormy Clubhouse is home to the exclusive - invitation only - Blue Bar, which has been designed entirely to showcase Johnnie Walker Blue Label blended Scotch.

Just eight miles from Deanston via the A84 stands the city of Stirling, with its dramatically-situated medieval castle and a fine whisky bar in the shape of The Curly Coo (cow). The bar was established in Crieff during April 2009 by Mandy Silver, but moved to its present base in Stirling's Barnton Street in December 2013. As Stirling's only dedicated whisky bar, 'The Coo' offers a wide selection of drams and local ales, with regular whisky tastings.

Stirling is also home to a dedicated whisky shop ( which is located within the Stirling Highland Hotel. The shop offers daily in-store tastings, investment advice and valuations and runs a monthly whisky club. The Stirling Highland Hotel also plays host to the city's annual Spirit of Stirling Whisky Festival (, established in 2012 and staged each May.

The drive from Stirling to Perth via the A9 takes around 40 minutes, and once back in Perth head north on the A9 road towards Inverness, stopping off at the Scottish Liqueur Centre at Bankfoot.

The Centre is located beside the A9 and produces and showcases a range of liqueurs, while a line-up of rare whiskies is also on offer, bottled on the premises under the Carn Mor label.

At Ballinluig take the A827 to Aberfeldy, a charming holiday town on the banks of the River Tay. The Bacardi owned distillery on the outskirts of Aberfeldy dates from the late Victorian whisky boom, and visitor facilities are based in the former maltings, which house the retail area, a dramming bar and cafeteria, and the Heritage Centre, with its touch screen interactive displays and hand-held audio guides.

There are a number of tour options, right up to the £75 Blender's Tour, which includes sampling Aberfeldy single malt straight from the cask, an opportunity to create your own 50cl blend, and a tutored sensory blending session. There is a fill-your-own bottle option in one of the warehouses while on tour, and a self-fill cask in the retail area, both offering expressions exclusive to the distillery.

Back on the A9 you arrive in the bustling tourist centre of Pitlochry, home to Diageo's Blair Athol Distillery.

Blair Athol is one of Scotland's few surviving distilleries to have its origins in the 18th Century, and offers the usual high quality Diageo visitor experience.

The distillery has a long association with Bell's blended whisky, with some 95 per cent of output destined for their blending vats, and Blair Athol serves as something of a 'brand home' for Bell's, much as Aberfeldy does for the Dewar's family of blends.

As well as Blair Athol Distillery, Pitlochry boasts two first-class specialist whisky shops, namely Robertson's and Drinkmonger.

Just 2.5 miles from Pitlochry via the A924 is Edradour distillery (see Whisky Magazine 129). En route to Edradour you pass through the hamlet of Moulin, where the Moulin Inn was established in 1695. Today, it operates a microbrewery which can be visited, and its excellent ales are available on draught in the Inn (

Back on the A9 you can opt to return south to Perth or make your way north towards Dalwhinnie, Tomatin and all those other Highland distilleries that are just waiting to be explored. That is a treat for another time…

Highland distilleries with visitor facilities




Ben Nevis

Blair Athol








Glen Garioch




Glen Ord




Royal Lochnagar





Whisky with a tall reputation Glenmorangie Distillery is located by the shores of the Dornoch Firth, on the outskirts of the historic town of Tain, some 35 miles north of Inverness. You might imagine the whisky made there would possess a rugged, Highland character, but you would be very wrong.

Glenmorangie boasts the tallest stills in Scotland, based on the design of the ex-gin stills from London that were installed when the distillery was founded, and they contribute significantly to the light, fruity, floral character of the single malt.

The distillery was developed between 1843 and 1849 when the first spirit flowed. Its founder was William Mathieson, who utilised existing elements of the defunct Morangie Brewery, and in 1887 The Glenmorangie Distillery Co Ltd was formed. The plant was entirely rebuilt at that time, and Glenmorangie became the first distillery in Scotland to use steam to heat its stills rather than coal.

Macdonald & Muir Ltd, owners of the Highland Queen blended whisky brand, took a majority share in Glenmorangie in 1918 and continued to own it until 2004.

In that year Glenmorangie plc, as it was now known, was bought by French luxury goods organisation Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy (LVMH) for £300 million.

A major expansion project was completed during 2008/9, when £4.5 million was spent on the installation of a supplementary mash tun, four new washbacks and four more stills. This development increased potential capacity from four million litres per year to six million litres. Today Glenmorangie is the second-best-selling single malt in the UK after Glenfiddich, and globally occupies the number four position.

Glenmorangie was at the forefront of developing the practice of wood 'finishes,' and there are currently three in the core range, namely Lasanta (sherry), Quinta Ruban (port), and Nectar d'Or (sauternes). They sit alongside the 10 Years Old Original and 18 and 25 Years Old expressions, plus the cask-strength Astar, matured in 'designer' casks, and the highly individualistic Signet.

Twenty per cent of the component whisky in Signet is made from 'chocolate' malt, matured for 10 years in a combination of former Bourbon and new oak casks and then blended with other Glenmorangie whiskies, some up to 35 years old. These have been aged in a variety of cask types, including sherry and wine.

The company has also been innovative in its 'Private Collection' bottlings, which see a limited edition of a new expression released on an annual basis. Most recent is Tùsail, distilled using floor-malted Maris Otter barley, a now neglected variety developed for the brewing industry during the 1960s.

Additionally, Glenmorangie became the first distilling company to embrace crowd-funding, which led to the release last September of Glenmorangie Taghta, after aficionados had been invited to participate in the developing of the new expression. They began by choosing the liquid from three pre-selected samples, followed by deciding on the whisky's name and packaging design.

The very latest release from Glenmorangie is a travel retail exclusive named The Duthac. It comprises ex- Bourbon cask-matured spirit and whisky part-finished in charred virgin oak casks and is the first expression in a projected Legends Collection, which will celebrate historical aspects of the distillery's homeland.

With thriving sales and more innovative products in the pipeline, the tall stills of Tain are doing the Highlands proud.
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