When you think of Scotland what is the first thing that springs to mind? Romantic castles, dramatic mountain landscapes and men in kilts maybe. Think again though, of course we have all of those things (though the men in kilts tend just to turn out at weddings these days) but we have something which is altogether more precious - we have Scotch Whisky. Even if you have never tried it you will have seen it behind just about every bar wherever you go in the world.
I know it sounds obvious but really think about it - If it's called Scotch Whisky then it comes from Scotland - every single last drop of Scotch Whisky in the world is made here! On Speyside we are very lucky because we have around half of the worlds malt whisky distilleries on our doorstep and a visit to one to see the 'water of life' being made is a must.
WHICH DISTILLERIES CAN I VISIT?
SEEN ONE SEEN 'EM ALL? - WHY ALL DISTILLERIES ARE NOT EQUAL.
WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW ABOUT VISITING A DISTILLERY.
THE SPIRIT OF SPEYSIDE.
WHICH DISTILLERIES CAN I VISIT?
SEEN ONE SEEN 'EM ALL? - WHY ALL DISTILLERIES ARE NOT EQUAL
WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW ABOUT VISITING A DISTILLERY
The one thing that I would say about visiting distilleries is to allow plenty of time. A basic tour takes about an hour with time for a tasting after that (the best part - and not to be rushed). A more in depth tour can take an hour and a half to two hours and these tours are usually the ones that must be booked ahead. This can tie you in to their timetable rather than your own: i.e. The Aberlour tour in the morning is at 10.30am. Allowing two hours for this takes us to 12.30pm. Then it's time for lunch and a look around the immediate area before leaving for the Macallan Most Precious Tour at 3pm. That takes us to 5pm so you can see how the day can be taken up with pre-booked tours. Other distilleries though run tours every 15 minutes in high season so we can turn up and tour. The choice is yours and depends on what you want to see and how long you have got. The last tour at most distilleries is at 4pm and most don't open until lunchtime on Sundays due to the licensing laws in the UK.
Many distilleries do not allow children under 8 in the production areas and be aware that all tours involve some walking and often include stairways and some quite strong aromas!
THE SPIRIT OF SPEYSIDE
With over 80 distilleries in Scotland all using the same three ingredients and the same basic process you may ask what makes the difference between them all? The best way to find out is to let the individual distilleries tell you. Each distillery produces a 'single' malt whisky. The word 'single' tells you that it is the product of one 'single' distillery. Some single malts are bottled as just that - think 'The Glenlivet' or 'Glenfarclas'. Some single malts don't get bottled as malts in their own right, they are mixed with grain whisky (which is produced by a different process but still in Scotland) to make a blended whisky - think 'Bells' or 'Chivas Regal'. Some distilleries offer tours throughout the day and you can just turn up and tour. Others only have tours at specific times and for these it is essential to book as far in advance as possible to avoid disappointment. Each distillery has its own particular character and it certainly isn't the case of 'seen one seen 'em all'. The production method will be essentially the same but each offers something different to the visitor.
Whether you are a connoisseur, just curious or a complete novice who doesn't know their whisky from their whiskey there is a visit to suit you. All will explain the whisky making process from scratch and will happily answer all of your questions. I can provide a real insight into to life at a distillery, having had firsthand experience.
- The Glenlivet was granted the first legal licence to distil in 1824 so it has a special story to tell of the local smugglers whose livelihood was threatened by George Smith.
- Aberlour is highly recommended for anyone who wants a unique memento to take home. At the end of your tour you are offered the chance to fill your own bottle of Aberlour single malt whisky and apply your own unique personalised label. I can guarantee that none of your friends will have one of those in their cabinet back home!
- Macallan is widely regarded as the Rolls Royce of single malts and there are three options for a visit. You can take a regular Macallan Experience tour, a Spirit of Macallan tour or a Most Precious tour. The Most Precious tour is highly recommended but I have to admit that I am slightly biased as I was brought up at Macallan where my father was the engineer for over twenty years. I also worked at Macallan myself as a carpenter for over ten years.
- Glen Grant is surrounded by acres of extensively restored Victorian Woodland gardens established by Major James Grant as part of his modern vision of whisky making. This is a perfect destination for anyone who is 'whiskied' out or just wanting an antidote to stills and mash tuns.
Many people have heard of and drunk Scotch Whisky but don't realise what it means to the local community. Over half of the world's single malt whiskies are made within thirty miles of Elgin because the Speyside area provides everything that the whisky maker could want. The fertile land provides barley for malting, the rivers and burns bring clear cool water and of course we have the unique climate of Speyside which is essential for the maturation of the finished product. Whilst production methods have evolved over the last two hundred years the ingredients have not and Speyside is still rightly regarded the world over as the Heart of Whisky Country.
Wherever you travel in this beautiful area you cannot escape the impact that whisky making has on day to day life. In Summer fields of golden barley stretch as far as the eye can see, the distinctive pagoda shaped chimneys of the malt kilns are tucked into unexpected corners of the landscape and the long low warehouses containing thousands of sleeping casks wait patiently for the master distillers nod which signals that the time is ready for the water of life to be bottled.
Other less romantic sights greet you too. The coppersmiths yard with it's redundant copper stills, the vast pyramid of empty barrels at the cooperage waiting to be filled or recycled into plant pots or oak shavings for smoking salmon and the processing plants that take the waste products from the distilleries and turn it into valuable cattle feed.
The whisky industry is big business - there are no two ways about it. Local people grow the barley, work in the maltings, make the whisky, make the stills, make the casks, bottle the finished product, sell it in the shops, welcome visitors to the visitor centres. All of these people spend money with local businesses and keep the local economy going. And of course we must not forget the people who travel from around the world to visit the home of their favourite tipple and stay, eat and shop locally. There have been huge changes in the whisky industry with the inevitable introduction of new technology making many jobs redundant but in this it is no different to any other industry and it has quickly grasped the idea that visitors are interested not only in consuming whisky but also in seeing and understanding how it is produced.
At one time the choice of distilleries open to visitors was very limited but now you are spoilt for choice.
The Spirit of Speyside whisky festival takes place every year at the beginning of May and The Autumn Speyside Whisky festival takes place at the end of September. During the festivals there are lots of special events arranged such as tours of distilleries that are not normally open to visitors and talks and discussions with world famous whisky experts. The festivals get bigger every year with more and more to offer and the websites are well worth a visit to see what is planned for the coming year.