The Splendour of Speyside

The Splendour of Speyside

Nature and native cunning have nurtured the distillery industry on the banks of the Spey. Tom Bruce-Gardyne took a trip through a whisky wonderland

Distillery Focus 16 Oct 1999 | Interviews | By Tom Bruce-Gardyne

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Pity the poor wine-lover visiting Bordeaux for the first time only to discover the finest châteaux amassed on the dreary banks of the Gironde estuary. No such disappointment awaits the devotee of Speyside malts – for here the setting of the distilleries is truly worthy of the spirit they produce. Of the three great rivers that split Scotland west to east, there is something unique and magical about the Spey. The fastest flowing river in Britain seems to capture the untamed beauty of the Grampian Highlands in its 100-mile journey from south of Loch Ness in the Monadhliath Mountains down to the Moray Firth. Indeed the river, in its headlong rush for the sea, has helped fashion the landscape, especially in the middle sections through periodic flooding and changes of course. Time has been the main factor though – 400 million years of bad weather and The Ice Age have smoothed peaks that were once as high as the Himalayas and exposed rock once miles beneath the surface. Today the river's tributaries are fed by melting snow and rain that cascade down the steep slopes and impervious granite. The cold, pristine waters of the Spey help make it one of the greatest salmon rivers in the world, with an average annual catch of almost 10,000 salmon and grilse – the young salmon that has been only once to sea.Most visitors to the region first encounter the Spey at Kingussie. Here the A9 road crosses and then follows the river for 10 miles. Some way before then, as the road climbs out of Glen Garry to reach the Pass of Drumochter, you catch your first glimpse of Dalwhinnie -the highest distillery in Scotland, 326 metres above sea level. It sits in a desolate bowl with the Forrest of Athol on one side and the mountains of the Cairngorms on the other. The Dalwhinnie distillery opened in 1897 and originally called itself Strathspey, more in aspiration than truth. But with its lightly peaty nose and sweet notes of heather and honey, it is a fine malt in its own right and a pointer of things to come. After Kingussie the A9 continues past the Highland Wildlife Park to the ski resort of Aviemore. Here the road turns north for Inverness passing the last outpost of the region's whisky production en route – Tomatin, the biggest malt distillery in Scotland with 23 stills and a five million litre capacity. Back in Aviemore the Strathspey steam railway offers daily rides to Boat of Garten throughout the summer and plans are afoot to extend it to Grantown-on-Spey thus bringing the visitor a little closer to the heart of Speyside. Approaching from Aberdeen, along the A96, the heady fumes of distillation soon fill the air. In the small triangle between Keith, Rothes and Dufftown there are no fewer than 19 distilleries, and only one of them, Pittyvaich, is currently mothballed.

Before the advent of decent roads and the railway this was a remote corner of Scotland, hidden behind the granite bulk of the Cairngorms. As a result the knowledge of illicit distillation could develop over time almost beyond the reach of the law. When moonshine became daylight in 1823, the art of making whisky was too much in the blood to ever disappear. This, combined with plentiful supplies of barley from the Laich o' Moray nearby, a ready access to pure water and peat to fire the furnaces, was enough to compensate for being so far from the market. It was a long way for the Clydeside bottlers and blenders to come, but the quality and complexity of the spirit produced was clearly worth the journey. As you near Speyside signs point to the seven distilleries and cooperage that make up the Malt Whisky Trail. It seems appropriate to start in Keith with Strathisla, the spiritual home of Chivas Regal and oldest working distillery in the Highlands, founded in 1786. After shortbread and coffee, you wander round at your own pace, before sitting down for a dram and the chance to nose eight different whiskies from the new spirit to an Islay malt. The town's two other distilleries are Glen Keith and Strathmill – 'the whisky world's answer to orange muscat', claims Whisky Magazine’s contributing editor Michael Jackson. From here the B9014 leads to Dufftown, the whisky capital of Speyside, built, so they say, on seven stills to rival Rome's seven hills. First on view is the giant Glenfiddich – the whisky that first hooked the world onto single malt. With the distillery’s towering chimney stacks belching steam, and endless corrugated iron rooves, this is no cottage industry. If you are looking for something smaller, and the guides are not too busy ,they may take you to see The Balvenie, a mere 10 minutes on foot. The distillery is owned by the same group as Glenfiddich and is one of the very few to have retained its own floor maltings.Three miles away at Craigellachie, the Speyside Cooperage is the only one in Britain open to the public. After a highly informative video narrated by the writer and broadcaster Derek Cooper, visitors climb up to a viewing gallery to watch the casks being made. Most of the work is in rebuilding ex-Bourbon barrels, but the cooperage has a contingency plan if ever the supply of such casks dries up. Over the last four years they helped pioneer the use of micro-wave technology in charring casks, so the wood can be ‘rejuvenated’ and reused.At Craigellachie the road now crosses the Spey downstream of the old bridge, built by master engineer Thomas Telford in 1815. Stand in the middle of this magnificent structure for a fine view of the river. Back on the road you soon hit Rothes which has five working distilleries including Glen Grant which is worth seeing for the gardens alone. Being the biggest-selling malt in Italy, the distillery tour is likely to be thronged with Milanesi muttering how like grappa it all is. Outside you can meander through the orchard, past the lily pond and banks of roses and rhododendrons and on to the Dram Hut – a curious thatched pavilion complete with whisky safe. The recently restored garden was conceived by Major Grant, a swashbuckling, big-game hunter – an eccentric even by Victorian standards. At this point you can carry on to Forres via Elgin to view Dallas Dhu, now run as a whisky museum by Historic Scotland, or else retrace your steps and follow signs for Cardhu. First though, there's The Macallan. Like most distilleries not on the Whisky Trail, The Macallan is happy to show people round so long as they have arranged their visit in advance. Such a tour would give you the a chance to see those famously small stills and watch The Macallan slumbering in its Oloroso casks. Operations are run from a late 17th century manor house with commanding views of the Spey. A few miles further on, Cardhu has long supplied the soft heart of the Johnnie Walker blends and, since 1965, a smooth, sweetish single malt of its own. Down in the trees below, almost on the river are Tamdhu and Knockando. Tamdhu is the only distillery in the whole of Speyside to take water from the river itself. It has its own well that goes directly into the river gravels below. Both distilleries sit on the old Strathspey railway whose track was ripped up in the 1960s and now forms part of the Speyside Way, a 45-mile footpath from the mouth of the river to Tomintoul.About a mile south of the Spey, Glenfarclas proclaims itself 'the spirit of independence' in recognition that somehow it survives as an independent family firm in an age of corporate giants. The distillery was established in 1836 on a cattle farm and sits beneath Ben Rinnes, a granite outcrop of the Cairngorms that dominates the skyline. Through the same granite comes the cold, crystal water used by The Glenlivet, Speyside's most famous son. The river Livet, a tributary of the Avon which feeds the Spey, flows through a small glen whose fame is out of all proportion to its size. There were 200 illicit stills in the glen in the 1820s and, such was the fame of the whisky at Glenlivet that at one time no less than 23 distilleries from as far as 20 miles away were using the suffix Glenlivet to try to add a little magic to their names – hence it being dubbed the longest glen in Scotland. Anyone visiting Glenlivet today will learn about the distillery's founding father, George Smith and his ferocious battle with the whisky smugglers. Then you should explore a little on foot. When the weather's fine you can climb up into the hills or else wander by the river trying to spot a leaping salmon and perhaps, if you're really lucky, an osprey swooping over the waters. And when it's not - well, there's always another dram.
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