The Total Insider’s Guide to Speyside, the Epicenter of Scotch
If you’re looking to plan a whisky pilgrimage, get yourself to Speyside.
About half of Scotland’s 118 distilleries are in this small region of the Scottish Highlands—an idyllic, booze-lover’s country paradise covered in green pastures and sheep. The area has always been renowned for its natural beauty, excellent salmon fishing, and scenic hill walks. But just a couple of two-lane roads link all the Scotch makers, making this a place better-suited for cozy country guesthouses than luxury resorts.
Still, catalyzed by a growing worldwide interest in the local spirit, Speyside is growing up; once-sleepy towns have upgraded their offerings to cater to a wealthy visiting crowd, and small producers are opening up new visitors’ centers to the public. Seven leading distillers have joined forces to create itineraries and exclusive tours for travelers as part of the new Malt Whisky Trail. Some distillers are even planning exclusive retreats for connoisseurs in the know.
For Speyside’s Scotch distillers, this moment in the spotlight is just the beginning. The Macallan, which tops the list of the world’s most collectible Scotch producers, is taking on a £100 million ($126 million) new cooperage and warehouse while Glenfiddich is adding new distilling facilities in Dufftown. A $6.3 million renovation at the lesser-known Speyburn Distillery has doubled its production.
The concentration of such iconic Scotch producers in Speyside means you can taste a lot in a few days. And its proximity to both Edinburgh and Glasgow, both about 170 miles away, mean it’s easy to arrange for a car transfer from major cities if you don’t feel like making the drive on the wrong side of the road. But unlocking Speyside’s luxury offerings still requires some know-how. Here’s how to plan a trip now, while it’s still exclusive and quaint.
Where to Stay
Most of the top-end accommodations in Speyside are run by the distillers themselves, but few have traditional websites or booking channels. Prices are often offered by request (to maintain exclusivity), and to get a room in these castles, villas, and private homes, you need to know who to reach directly.
The liquor giant Diageo—which produces whiskies like Lagavulin and Johnnie Walker—manages the 169-year-old Drummuir Castle, right in the heart of the Speyside region. Renovated just last year, its 22 rooms are available for private reservations and special events for VIPs; each one has a uniquely regal feel, with spacious marble bathrooms, large windows for enjoying the scenery, and cascading, heavy curtains. There’s an open bar in the library that includes nips of cult favorites from discontinued distilleries such as the Rosebank 20 ($750 a bottle) or Brora 30 year-old ($2,000 a bottle)—perfect for a fireside treat. (Rates upon request; e-mail here to inquire and book.)
Balvenie’s five-bedroom Torrin House can be rented privately. It was recently updated with a mix of traditional tartan patterns and reclaimed wood finishes, but it’s the deep soaking tubs and chef’s kitchen that make it especially covetable. Travel specialist Kirsty MacGeoch at the Whisky Co. can hook you up with a reservation.
Though not as ornate or grandiose as the others, Glenfiddich's four-bedroom Malt Kin House in Dufftown is an affordable option that’s relatively easy to book. (Just e-mail the reservationist here.) The entire home runs about $1,000 a night (and sleeps eight), including access to a complimentary bar stocked with Glenfiddich bottles and snacks.
Where to Drink
The advantage to visiting Scotch distilleries firsthand isn’t just about meeting the producers—though that’s an irrefutable lure. Being there in the flesh also means you can buy extremely limited-edition bottles that aren’t easily available to the public. With that in mind, plan at least one tasting based on what’s worth bringing home.
Among the year’s hottest new releases is the Strathisla Distillery’s Chivas Regal Ultis, a surprisingly smooth, yet complex new blended malt Scotch expression ($200)—the first in Chivas’s 100-plus-year history. Also worth buying: Glen Grant’s recently released 50-year-old single malt ($8,000). The limited, 150-bottle production run carries a two-month wait if you order it from the U.S.—if you can get your hands on it.
Since smaller producers are less likely to show up at your hometown liquor store, make them a priority. Knockdhu, which just opened to the public this year, offers an extremely intimate experience around a dining table—there's no formal tasting room, videos, or restaurant—and most visitors have yet to catch on. Ask your greeter to summon Gordon Bruce, the distillery manager who lives across the street, and have him show you the washback room, where six fermenters emanate candy-like smells. (Bruce attributes the sweet aroma to a “fancy-pants” yeast that yields tons of flavor-packed esters.) He’ll also let you sip the distillery’s flagship whisky, anCnoc, which has notes of dried fruit, leather, and spice.
Then, for something completely different, head to Balmenach Distillery, which makes a standout gin called Caorunn. The company’s new “tasting and sensory deconstruction” is an experience worth booking; it includes a private tour of the production facility, a lesson in identifying aromatics with Balmenach’s gin master Simon Buley, and a round of gin-and-tonics in an art-filled tasting room. Buley can also take you foraging for botanicals—a fun way to spend a day in the country if you need a break from the constant imbibing. (Book ahead right here.)
Where to Eat and What to See
Speyside isn’t just about drinking. But those who specialize in booze are often well-positioned to help you navigate the destination at large. Case in point: The Macallan’s general manager, Jody Marshall, doubles as a local concierge of sorts. He can help arrange rare cask tastings, a private Range Rover tour of the area, helicopter rides, and bookings at Michelin-starred restaurants like Boath House, in the seaside town of Nairn.
But know that if you stick to a five-star experience the whole time you’re in Speyside, you’re doing it wrong. At a laid-back pub like The Copper Dog, you can knock back drams of Scotch bottlings you've never heard of alongside thickly accented Scottish patrons. The place has become such a legendary institution, it’s now being replicated in Dubai.
For properly composed cocktails, head to the renovated Dowans Hotel, where the bartenders at Mbar stir a mean Rob Roy, which swaps the rye in a Manhattan for—you guessed it—Scotch. Then sample the other local specialty, Scottish smoked salmon, by arranging a private dinner for up to 15 people down the hall in the hotel's newly opened Still Club, where the cured fish is served alongside local greens and root vegetables in a cozy room lined with 500 rare whisky bottles. (E-mail for reservations here.)
If any time remains unspent between all the food and drink, stop into the medieval British monastery of Pluscarden Abbey—it claims to be the only medieval British monastery that’s still in use by Benedictine monks, who chant multiple times a day in the stone-walled nave. Then you can purchase a few original tartan wool scarves at the world-famous Johnstons of Elgin cashmere mill, which makes wool for brands such as Burberry and Chanel. It’s only a few miles down the street from the abbey.