I’m hiking up a whisky smugglers’ trail in the Scottish Highlands on a day alternating between moody fog patches and misty rain when I wonder if I’m walking up a streambed rather than a trail. The flowing water is tinted golden brown from the peaty soil, and it looks like an overflow of nature’s own whisky rushing downward.
Here, every raindrop and puddle could wind up as uisge beatha, whisky’s Gaelic name, meaning “water of life.” Half of Scotland’s 97 distilleries are located in this compact region known as Speyside.
This is exactly the kind of day on which whisky smugglers of the past would choose to move their goods over Highland passes to markets like Aberdeen and Edinburgh. The fog would conceal the line of ponies bearing a cask on each side from excisemen intent on collecting tax and controlling the defiant Highland clans.
Ingenuity reigned on both sides of the battle between peetreekers (illicit distillers) and gaugers (excisemen). It became part of Scotch whisky’s DNA.
But choosing a single malt can be overwhelming. There are a few thousand options, each unique. Serious whisky aficionados are keen to know not only the single malt they enjoy drinking, but the story that goes with it…details of production, aging, history or other bragging rights.
Immersion is the best way to meet the challenge, and so I came to Speyside. It’s a place rich in the stories and culture of the gentle dram, and full of opportunities for tutored comparative tastings.
And there is an element of suspense: U.S. Customs mandates that visitors to Scotland can bring home only one bottle of spirits without duty. The bottle going home in my luggage must be perfection.
The smuggling scene
In the Braes of Glenlivet the landscape is exposed, empty and forlorn, scattered with ruined croft cottages at the foot of rounded, heather-covered hills. This remote spot was the epicenter of illicit distilling, once hosting more than 200 stills.
Here, peetreekers placed stills in hillside cut-outs along the streams and disguised them with heather thatch. They burned smoke-free juniper bushes rather than peat to avoid detection. And they had a transportation network of trails threading through the gullies and over the hills.
The smugglers’ trails are now marked for hiking, but I take a Land Rover tour of the Braes with David Newland of Glenlivet Wildlife who points out the still sites and regales me with stories. We follow the Malcolm Gillespie Trail, named after a particularly despised exciseman who had a notorious black attack dog and sported 42 scars from smuggler skirmishes. In the glen of Glenlivet, the Robbie MacPherson trail is named for one of the most successful smugglers. He hid his whisky through the winter in camouflaged pits dug in the hillside, and sold his smooth, matured spirit in the spring.
The trail passes the remains of the first legal distillery in the Highlands, owned by George Smith. King George IV favored his fruity, pineapple-accented whisky and granted him a license in 1824, launching The Glenlivet. Smith was considered a traitor by his former colleagues in the illicit trade and carried loaded pistols for protection.
The reward for hiking the four-hour MacPherson trail is looping back to The Glenlivet Distillery to tour the facilities and to taste a dram. Those on a single-malt quest will want to opt for the more in-depth Ambassadors Tour with a tutored tasting of The Glenlivet’s offerings.
Pineapple scents and flavors still dominate The Glenlivet 12, true to George Smith’s creation. It’s a perplexing phenomenon—pineapples don’t grow anywhere near Scotland. There are varied offerings, such as The Glenlivet XXV finished in oloroso Sherry casks; Nàdurra, which is cask strength and not chill filtered, with a finish that won’t quit; and the latest, Founder’s Reserve, a limited edition 21-year-old that drinks more like a Cognac.
Alan Winchester, master distiller for The Glenlivet and distilling manager for all 13 Chivas Brothers’ Scotch whisky distilleries, reveals what he drinks when he goes out with friends. “The Glenlivet 18 is one of my favorites,” he admits. “It’s light but has a lot of complexity at the back of it, with the fruity/floral aspects you expect, plus a wee bit of boiled fruit and spiciness from the Sherry.”
Many of the region’s early distillers emulated Smith’s royally sanctioned, popular whisky with fruity-floral characteristics, and the Speyside style emerged, still generally characterized as unpeated and fruity.
Malt Whisky Capital of the World
It seems distillery pagodas poke out the landscape everywhere here, but Dufftown, with nine distilleries and rows upon rows of warehouses holding sleeping casks, takes the title of Malt Whisky Capital of the World. It has nearly twice the production capacity of the whole island of Islay.
I take the four-mile Dufftown Dramble past the town’s distilleries with Steve Oliver, director of the Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival. It’s a popular festival event since it features a dram at the six working distilleries; we’ve brought along our own supplies.
Oliver calls the Glendullan whisky we sample a “drink-all-day whisky,” light in color and flavor. He believes the 12-year-old Pittyvaich is one of the best whiskies in the world, but adds that supplies from the distillery, mothballed in 1993, are running out.
The Mortlach 16 is also hard to get since most of the output from this distillery goes into Johnny Walker Black Label, and Oliver affords hushed reverence when nosing and drinking this dram, with its rich combination of spice, toffee and Sherry; it dances on the tongue. The distillery is the oldest in town, established in 1823 at a well used for moonshine. Mortlach is a leading contender for my luggage bottle with its gorgeous flavor, good story and rarity factor.
The Whisky Shop Dufftown is stocked with over 600 single malts, a third of them special bottlings by independents. There are limited editions that are cask strength, not chill-filtered and naturally colored, with various wine finishes. Owner Mike Lord understands the problem of the single choice bottle to bring home, so he has 300 of his offerings open for tasting, more than any shop in the Highlands.
Which single malt does he prefer? “I make my selection according to how I feel or how I want to feel. If I’m unwinding, I choose one heavy on the Sherry or peat. If I’m looking for a dram before going out or when I have more work to do, then I go for a Bourbon cask whisky,” he explains.
The whisky alternatives are even more overwhelming at Gordon & MacPhail in Elgin, where there are 1,000 different whiskies on the shelves, including 300 under their own independent label. The gourmet food selection adds another dimension here; thankfully, knowledgeable staff recommends whisky pairings with the artisan Scottish cheeses and chocolate truffles. One particularly exquisite and memorable match is Benromach Peat Smoke Whisky with Lanark Blue Cheese.
I ask Mike Drury, owner of Whisky Castle in Tomintoul, about independent and single-cask bottlings. They are his shop’s specialty, representing 400 of the 600 offerings. “Distilleries make whisky that harmonizes in color and taste with their last batch. Sometimes extra casks or rogue casks that don’t match their established profile are sold off to independents who bottle them straight from the cask without chill filtering or adding caramel, Drury explains.
“If you want one special bottle to take home, go for an old, single-cask, independent bottling at full cask strength,” says Drury, adding that the advantages are better flavor and value.
“Here’s a unique cask that I got my hands on and bottled,” Drury says as he pulls out an odd pink elixir. He calls it the Pink Laphroaig (admittedly not a Speyside), a peated whisky aged nine years in a Bourbon cask and 14 months in a Château Lafite Rothschild wine barrel. He pours our drams, adds a drop of water to each and closes his eyes as he inhales the aromas, his nose fully inserted into his tulip-shaped glass.
Eyes still closed, Drury describes his experience, taking time to register each sensation: “The nose is steaming tarmac freshly laid in a rainstorm with a horse stable in the vicinity and now a smoldering muck heap mixed with straw on a frosty morning. I love horse poo in a whisky. On the palate there’s a cherry orchard with sun-ripening cherries and a steam train going by. The finish is intense cherry compote just coming to a boil on the stove, not overcooked.”
Now that’s a story. “Ring it up,” I say to Drury, as cherry compote lingers at the back of my mouth.
Whitewashed Fiddichside Inn is the region’s most authentic pub experience. (011-44-1-340-881-239) The Quaich Bar at Craigellachie Hotel features nearly 700 whiskies, while the Highlander Inn has a menu of 28 different themed whisky tasting flights drawing from 280 whisky offerings.
Watch coopers hand-assemble oak whisky casks the old-fashioned way at the Speyside Cooperage.
A bagpiper pipes guests into the twice-a-month whisky dinner at Muckrach Lodge. Each of the six gourmet courses is paired with a single malt. Cozy rooms, memorable food and a whisky experience package highlight this Victorian hunting lodge.
Take in more terrain, and learn about the history and wildlife on a Land Rover tour with David Newland, Glenlivet Wildlife. Choose between The Glenlivet Distillery Tour or more specialized Ambassadors Tour (pre-booking required) to see how whisky is made and taste the offerings. The three-day Guardian Whisky School is in May.
The Whisky Shop Dufftown offers the largest single malt tasting selection in Speyside. Of the 600 single malts here, half are open for tasting.
The Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival at the end of April features hundreds of events including distillery tours, tutored tastings, a three-day Whisky School and traditional music. The Autumn Speyside Whisky Festival is September 29–October 3. Take in nine distilleries on the Dufftown Dramble, a four-mile path around town.
In high season attend Stramash with Scottish music on Mondays; the Dufftown Pipe Band concert on Tuesdays; tutored whisky nosings on Wednesdays; and ceilidh music and dance on Thursdays.
At La Faisanderie, try Chef Eric Obry’s roast lamb with haggis croquettes and honeyed whisky sauce. (011-44-1-340-821-273)
Ride the scenic Keith & Dufftown Railway to tour pretty Strathisla Distillery in Keith, and Balvenie and Glenfiddich distilleries at the other end in Dufftown.
Gordon & MacPhail is a gourmet food and whisky emporium with 1,000 whiskies, including 300 bottled under their own label. Stop at Johnstons of Elgin Cashmere Heritage Centre to tour the factory and buy luxe sweaters.
Charlestown of Aberlour:
Get maps and advice at the Speyside Way office for walking part of the 64-mile path along the Spey River passing many distilleries.
At the Mash Tun, you can get a shot of a specific year from the Glenfarclas Family Casks series, 1952 to 1994.
Archiestown Hotel offers a central location, 11 lovely rooms, three-course meals and 140 whiskies to sip by the fire.
In addition to the largest Scotch whisky bottle in the world, buy one of the 600 other whiskies at Whisky Castle; about 400 are independent or single cask bottlings.