Sipping Speyside: on the whisky trail in Scotland

Whisky is much more than Scotland’s national drink – it’s blended deep into the country’s history and culture. Donna Dailey learns more and discovers the best ways to enjoy a wee dram.

As the Argocat lurches off into the foothills of the Cairngorms, I wrap my scarf tighter against the autumn chill. This rugged eight-wheeler, a cross between an ATV and a jeep, is hauling us through the hidden glens of Speyside on the Glenlivet Hill Trek, following the trail of olden-day whisky smugglers.

Today, whisky is Scotland’s premier product. It’s exported to over 200 countries and worth more than £2.5 billion (US $3.3 billion) annually.

The country has around 120 active distilleries, in fact, and over half of them are here in Speyside.

This scenic region straddles the River Spey between the mountains and the Moray Firth, and whisky has been made here for centuries.

When the English Parliament imposed excise duty in 1644, the remote hills of Glenlivet became a haven for countless distillers who couldn’t pay and were forced into hiding.

The Argocat chugs to a stop at the Peat Reek Bothy. Inside the small stone hut is a surprisingly tiny copper still, the sort that made hill farmer Robbie McPherson a fortune from illicit distilling in the early 19th century.

“Small stills were easier to hide when you saw the excise men approaching,” explains Charlie Ironside, our guide. “They were easily spotted walking over the open countryside, and neighbours would alert each other.”

Far below us, the chimneys of the Glenlivet distillery bellow clouds of steam into the valley

McPherson would have stored his contraband whisky in small barrels, strapped them to a saddle and smuggled them out on horseback along these same routes.

I linger on this thought for a moment before we’re off again, climbing through the purple heather at what seems a dizzying 45-degree angle.

We reach the summit of Carn Liath and Charlie pulls out a whisky hamper, pouring us a warming dram of The Glenlivet Founder’s Reserve. I hold up the glass and its golden hue is the brightest thing on the cloudy Scottish skyline.

“When whisky smuggling was rife, there were more than 200 illegal stills here,” Charlie tells us as we survey the stunning panorama of surrounding hills and glens. “Barrels of whisky were hidden in the heather and never found again.”

Scotland’s distilleries produce a mind-boggling array of whiskies, from rare single malts to popular blends

Far below us, the chimneys of the Glenlivet distillery bellow clouds of steam into the valley. Its founder, George Smith, was the first bootlegger to come in from the cold, establishing Scotland’s first licensed distillery here in 1824.

Although he incurred the wrath of the whisky smugglers, The Glenlivet soon became one of Scotland’s most esteemed and successful brands. We rumble our way towards it, down along the ancient paths, spotting red deer and a mountain hare leaping away across this exhilarating landscape.

While traditional methods remain at its heart, our tour of the Glenlivet distillery reveals that modern whisky making is a much more complex process.

After perusing the historical exhibits in the visitor centre, we learn the steps as we’re shown the silvery, spaceship-like mash tun, enormous wooden washbacks and gleaming copper stills, their pointy tops silhouetted against floor-to-ceiling windows looking out to the ancestral hills.

Scottish whisky has come a long way from those old stills in the hills

“This new expansion opened in 2010, and all the materials were sourced from companies within a 30-mile radius of the distillery,” says our guide, Ann Miller. “But we maintained the tradition of using wooden washbacks (where fermentation occurs). Today, The Glenlivet Distillery still stands true to George’s vision, and his legacy lives on.”

It’s nothing short of impressive. So is the bonded warehouse stacked high with barrels of exquisite, ageing whisky.

Scotland’s distilleries produce a mind-boggling array of whiskies, from rare single malts to popular blends, from the smoky, peaty whiskies of the islands to the fruity aromas or spicy flavours of bourbon or sherry casks.

We end our Glenlivet tour with an enlightening tasting session in the Malt Loft.

Scottish whisky has come a long way from those old stills in the hills. Getting to know it is a life-long challenge – one I’m happy to embrace.

The best ways to enjoy Scottish whisky

There are plenty of ways to get a true taste of Scotland’s beloved national drink. Here are four of our favourites.

1. Take a distillery tour

Many distilleries throughout Scotland open their doors for public tours. Check locally or online for tours in the area you’ll be visiting. Tours, tastings and prices vary.

Another good bet in Speyside is the Solera Deconstructed tour at Glenfiddich Distillery, where you can create your own blend from 15-year-old cask samples. Also on site are exhibitions from their Artist in Residence programme.

2. Bag tickets to the Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival

This annual festival, held at the end of April/early May, is one of the best ways to discover and celebrate whisky.

With more than 400 events from guided walks and Victorian picnics, to special distillery tours and tastings, to music and art, to pairings with food and chocolate, there is something for everyone. Many are free – book well in advance for popular, ticketed events.

3. Try a whisky cruise

A cruise might not sound like everyone’s cup of tea, but this truly is an unforgettable experience – think spectacular scenery, great food and, of course, fine local whisky. There are many options, from barge cruises on the Caledonian Canal to 10-night sojourns on the Majestic Line to Islay and the southern Hebrides.

4. Book yourself onto a whisky bar crawl

Get into the spirit with Once Upon a Whisky’s storytelling and walking tours. The entertaining 3-hour tours include premium single malts at four of the best whisky bars in Glasgow’s City Centre, West End or Edinburgh’s New Town.

Images top to bottom (left–right): Jacek Nowak/123rf; Elizabeth Oliver/Flickr; Glenlivet Hill Trek; Maedi/Flickr; Mark Rowland/Flickr; Pixabay/CC0; Marc/Flickr; Dave Conner/Flickr

20% off ebooks

Subscribe to the Rough Guides newsletter and get 20% off any ebook.

Join over 60,000 subscribers and get travel tips, competitions and more every month.