Determined to find a haggis, we knew we had to leave beautiful Edinburgh. Our 2nd priority was to find a fine single malt – preferably something we could afford. Both challenges we embraced with enthusiasm!
We head north, leaving the comfort of the freeway, and looking for the land of the clans and the drams. Cold grey weather and stark, bleak countryside… into the Cairngorn National Park…round the corner… and there it is… the distinctive sight of the pagodas marking our first distillery of the holiday – Dalwhinnie!
Hey – I have heard of that one – have even tasted some – time to stop the car! Apparently the highest distillery in Scotland – an appropriate first stop. Perhaps the romance of the moment is slightly dulled by Dalwhinnie being owned by the massive, listed super brand company, Diageo)!
Like many of the distilleries we would visit, they offer tours and tastings (this one paired 3 single malts with 3 chocolate – £12/head. Very clever – all tickets include a £5 discount off any purchase – so tempting! But, we have miles to go and can’t get distracted so soon!
The iconic Speyside is our destination… arguably the heart of whiskey making in the Scottish Highlands (home to at least 50 distilleries). Crossing the River Spey, the scenery became less grey and stark and rolling green fields, sunshine and flowers greeted us. It started to make sense that the whiskeys here would be lighter, fruitier – maybe even sweeter!
Outside of the bigger cities, Scotland is quaintly conservative – Sundays are not for fun and games – not even with a permit!
I was delighted when we were slowed down by a large truck and as we got closer, I saw it was a massive tanker filled with Glenfiddich – maybe not so romantic but it seemed rather appropriate. Again, on the corner, you see the pagoda roof of the distillery. OK – we were soon corrected – it looks like a pagodas but is in fact a “cupola”! This beautiful iconic shape is the ventilation roof sitting on top of the kilns where the barley is malted was dried (sometimes with the addition of peate for that extra smokiness) – but more info later!
Round another corner, we saw a steam train and a tiny station. It turns out that this was a rather clever way to visit the distillery towns and be able to enjoy a dram or 2 – Scotland is fierce about enforcing no drink driving rules.
The Strathspey Railway steams from Aviemore through the tiny villages of the National Park into Speyside. The old line used to serve many of the old distilleries on Speyside but is now just a nostalgic trip for tourists. They offer whiskey tastings on the train as you chug through beautiful countryside. Only £240 for 6 people – the challenge possibly is to find the 6.
One whiskey on offer on the train was from Glen Fiddich – fortuitously only a 10 minute stroll from our home in Dufftown – but that’s another story for another day!