The Moray Speyside region – like a good single malt – is all about depth of character. Located in Scotland’s richly atmospheric northeast, it’s an area of rugged coastlines, green glens (valleys) and wild hillscapes. Its main town, Elgin, is easily reached by car from both Inverness Airport (50 minutes) and Aberdeen International Airports (1 hour 25 minutes). Visitors here can expect a true Scottish experience underpinned by tradition, hospitality and locally sourced cuisine.
And then, of course, there’s the whisky. The region is home to the world’s largest concentration of Scotch malt whisky distilleries, and an autumn road trip is the ideal way to discover how and why the “water of life” has played such a central role in the culture here. Speyside single malts tend to be light, sweet and warming – perfect, in other words, for those looking to broaden their knowledge, understanding and enjoyment of Scotland’s national drink. Here’s how to get the most from your trip.
Begin in Elgin, a medieval town on the south coast of the dramatic Moray of Firth. Its 13th-century cathedral was once renowned as the most beautiful in Scotland, and a tour of its ruins remains deeply atmospheric. On the edge of town is the Glen Moray Distillery, which is celebrating its 120th anniversary this year. In that time the distillery has had just five managers, which tells you plenty about the expertise involved in production. It offers distillery tours year-round, up to five times daily.
By law, the making of a single malt whisky involves just water and malted barley (as opposed to bourbon, for example, which predominantly uses malted corn, or blended whisky, which usually involves multiple grains and distilleries). The whisky must then be stored in oak casks for at least three years. All this information – and much more – can be gleaned from two distilleries lying west of Elgin: Benromach (20 minutes’ drive) and Dallas Dhu (30 minutes’ drive).
Benromach has been making whisky since 1898, using spring water from the nearby Romach Hills, while there’s an experience of a different kind to be had at Dallas Dhu. It ceased production in the 1980s but remains open as a historical visitor attraction, complete with a malt barn, a kiln and an old mash tun – the name given to the great vat in which grains were mashed for fermentation. Dallas Dhu is also less than 20 minutes’ drive from Universal Hall, a first-rate arts venue with a year-round calendar of concerts and events.
Take a 45-minute drive south of Elgin to reach Glenlivet, the legendary distillery on the fringes of the Cairngorms National Park. Described as “the single malt that started it all”, Glenlivet has a history dating back to 1824, when a local man named George Smith – who came from a long line of illicit whisky-makers – became the first licensed distiller in the Glenlivet parish. Almost two centuries on, his whisky remains one of the best-selling on the planet.
Distillery tours run throughout the day, and those visitors keen to make the most of their time here can opt for a 90-minute Legacy Tasting Experience, which gives tutored samplings of some of the distillery’s rare and aged whiskies.
Glenlivet’s location on the edge of the mighty Cairngorms also makes it a great area for lacing up your walking boots and heading into the hills. There are 20 waymarked walks in the vicinity, ranging from short heritage trails to longer, circular hikes.
Back in Elgin, don’t miss the chance to visit Gordon & MacPhail a premium retail store that still operates out of its original 1895 premises. Luxury hampers and Scottish cheeses are specialties, but it’s best known for its Whisky Room, stocking around 1,000 single malts.
No trip to Speyside would be complete without a visit to Glenfiddich, half an hour southeast of Elgin. Home to the world’s most awarded single malt whisky, the distillery was founded in 1887 and remains family-run. It still uses stone-walled warehouses and tall copper tuns and offers a number of themed tours, including one on which you’ll be presented with your own exclusive whisky, filled direct from the cask.
The distillery sits in the burgh of Dufftown, and is by no means alone. Among the many other distilleries in town is The Balvenie – a fine bet for those in search of a personal experience as each tour is limited to eight people. And as malt whisky is about an appreciation of the ways of the past, why not also visit the remains of Balvenie Castle, dating back to the 1200s?
Round off the day with a visit to the excellent Speyside Cooperage (under 10 minutes north of Glenlivet), where the ancient art of barrel-making can be explored on a guided tour. Traditional whisky casks are still made here, using top-quality oak, and you’ll be able to see highly skilled coopers at work.