By now, if you’ve read parts one and two, I’ve left you pretty high and dry on the whisky portion of our recent trip to Scotland. But if you have made it this far your interest in visiting Scotland is at its peak, so here is your reward. We visited four whisky distilleries, toured and learned about a cooperage (some of our Kentucky bourbon staves are constructed into whisky barrels) and a whisky shop that only sells hard-to-find bottles. We also, thanks to Al from Rabbie’s touring company, took in some lovely views of endless green rolling hills, ancient cathedrals, grazing cows, goats and lambs, hiked up to waterfalls and saw the same famous arched bridge over the Glenlivet river that is depicted on the Glenlivet label. (Note: All sections that quote Rabbie’s will be in italics.)
Day 1: Into the Highlands
Going north from Edinburgh we would enter the Highlands. We’ll stop at the historic village of Dunkeld for a short forest walk to see the waterfalls. Afterwards, we’ll lead to Pitlochry for lunch and to our first distillery visit at Dalwhinnie. This is the highest distillery in Scotland and the closest to the source of the River Spey. From Dalwhinnie we follow the river north through the Cairngorm National Park to the small town of Grantown on Spey.
The quick walk to see the waterfalls was well worth it. We couldn’t make out the salmon that had chosen to fight their way over rocks and rushing water, but we could see lots of foam from the water’s activity. It would be the first of many stops that took our breath away, and the first where we all – our fellow travellers hailed from England, Switzerland, Sweden and Australia – appreciated what we were able to take back in our memories.
Our first stop was at Dalwhinnie. Like all the distilleries there was a small fee for the tour and tasting, about $10, and another fee to upgrade your tasting to include more. We upgraded at each stop, who knew when we might be back? Of note: we met people that were driving themselves, for these guests the gift shops sold kits with small sealable bottles so you could take your tastes home with you. Unlike wine tasting (whisky is much stronger) there is no way you can taste and drive responsibly. And doing more than two distilleries a day seemed to be a bit too much for all of us in the tour. We were thrilled to have an experienced driver to mange the windy roads!
Our distillery guide at Dalwhinnie gave us our first of four lessons on how whisky is distilled. This part was not so interesting to me as I’m versed in it, and I’d have to say by our second distillery our entire group had also grown weary of it. My only comment would be that, like Napa Valley, the distilleries will probably learn to change it up at bit. The little bit of variation between how the distillers worked, or how large/old they were proved to be of enough interest to hold our attention until we were offered our tastes at the end. At Dalwhinnie we were given different flavored chocolates to pair with the whisky. It was a nice touch. However, again for me, I prefer to judge a spirit without food. So I went through each, preferring a nice 25 year old, then returned to enjoy with some of the chocolates.
Day 2: Exploring Scotland’s Most Famous Whisky Region
We’ll spend the entire day exploring Scotland’s most famous whisky region. After a scenic drive toward the coast our first stop is the family-owned Benromach Distillery for a personalized tour…then a lesson and tour at the
Speyside Cooperage. Later that afternoon we visited Cardhu Distillery, which produces the most important whisky in Johnnie Walker Black Label.
On day two we toured Benromach. What was interesting here for me was learning that the distillery began business in 1898 and had later shuttered, in my own lifetime, for at least a decade. When they re-opened, everything was still of use. And you know I asked what happened to the whisky that had been aging when they closed: still of use as well, just a lot older, rarer and more valuable. At the tasting we had a very lightly colored organic, peated and a classic 10 year old Spey. The peated stole my heart, and it was distilled in 2008 and bottled in 2017.
The Speyside Cooperage was fascinating, even though we went into it thinking, “What, no whisky?” Watching these men, both young and old, continuously slinging large hammers and rolling barrels as if they were just small weights, was kind of mesmerizing. We learned that they are paid per piece – and only if the barrel passed rigorous testing. I found myself drawn to a redheaded man that Just Never Quit. I didn’t count up how many barrels he seemed to be working on but the work never ended. We also learned that they make a good salary, often owning more than one nice car. And when it was time to retire – there was one older gentlemen – it was up to them to decide when. The older man didn’t complete as many barrels as his young counterparts, but it was a lifestyle he knew and wasn’t ready to leave behind. Pretty interesting.
At Cardhu we finished up our tour with a blind tasting of several whiskies. They called it the “Guess Dhu” Tasting. Our glasses were tinted blue so the amount of coloring – that comes from the smoked bourbon barrels that could have held anything but usually Bourbon to Sherry – was hidden. Our guide gave us some of the tasting notes for each, and then we were to try and match what we tasted with the correct bottle. Completely daunted by the task we all just dove in, made some notes, and lo and behold one of the young men from Sweden, who said he was the least experienced with whisky, was able to identify them ALL. Usually there isn’t a winner in every tour, it was actually quite rare to have a winner, and his photo was quickly snapped to share on a spot in the tasting room wall with photos of the other winners. It was quite exciting. As far as the tasting, I enjoyed them all, but I bought the one that was on special that month, the Amber Rock.
Day 3: Glenlivet & Balmoral Castle
On this final day of the tour we’ll take you through the beautiful Cairngorm Mountains as we make our way back to Edinburgh. In the morning we’ll explore Glenlivet, which is not just a distillery but also home to a beautiful glen that features great walks and abundant wildlife. Later on we pass by famous Balmoral Castle and stop in the village of Braemar in the heart of the National Park. From here the route takes us south over Scotland’s highest mountain pass and then through Perthshire before our arrival Edinburgh.
The idea of visiting one of the largest and well known distilleries in Scotland, (rivaled by Glenfiddich and now both being nudged out by The Macallan) was very exciting for the group. We were also told that Glenlivet was very generous with their pours. Yehaw, day three, Our Last Day, would start with a bang!
We ended up in a large room, with a lovely table filled with trays of whisky to be tasted. Embarrassed to say that I don’t recall the exact whiskies we tried, guessing it was 12, 18 and 25 year olds, but you know that point where you are so happy to be where you are, knowing it’s the last day you’re going to be there, that you just want to savor it? Yep, that was us. But, we weren’t done.
Al had made some calls after making good time on the roads, and lucky for us, the Whisky Castle in Tomintoul would see our party that afternoon. Al told us that they are very generous with their pours, and carried only the most rare and hard to find bottles. Everyone in our party tasted, and I believe everyone in our party bought at least one bottle. (I did take their business card with me as they do a good amount of shipping – but at press time not to the U.S!) And we took a bottle home that day too: The “Peated Malt” Old Ballantruan that we’ve since enjoyed at home.
Within days of our return home I took to Google to look for whisky events next summer to attend. I have my eyes already focused on this one: The Spirit of Speyside, hope to see you in Scotland soon!
Eve Bushman has a Level Two Intermediate Certification from the Wine and Spirits Education Trust (WSET), a “certification in first globally-recognized course” as an American Wine Specialist ® from the North American Sommelier Association (NASA), Level 1 Sake Award from WSET, was the subject of a 60-minute Wine Immersion video (over 16k views), authored “Wine Etiquette for Everyone” and has served as a judge for the Long Beach Grand Cru and the Global Wine Awards. You can email Eve@EveWine101.com to ask a question about wine or spirits.