Scotland is renowned for its whisky and one of the most prolific whisky-producing regions is located in the north-east of the country. Speyside has a long tradition of distilling Scotch and in this guide you’ll discover the top distilleries along with detailed information about visiting each one.
A guide to the Speyside Malt Whisky Trail
Speyside is well-known for having the largest number of operational distilleries out of all six whisky regions in Scotland, with two of the most-consumed brands in the world originating from the area.
Speyside is actually a subdivision of the Highlands whisky-producing region which can be found in the north-east of Scotland around the River Spey in Moray, Badenoch and Strathspey.
Although there are a total of 84 working distilleries in Speyside, only 14 allow tourists to view the distillation process – including the world-famous Glenfiddich, Glenlivet, and Macallan which are on most whisky enthusiasts ‘must-visit’ lists.
Surprisingly for such a relatively small area of Scotland, Speyside produces 60% of the country’s entire whisky output which is easily explained by the characteristics of the whisky produced there.
Unlike the peaty malts of Islay and the smoky malts of the Highlands, Speyside’s location and low mineral content in the water means the whiskies are normally very low in peat, if not totally unpeated.
This makes Speyside whisky much lighter and sweeter in flavour and therefore much easier to drink for beginners who may find other stronger flavours an acquired taste.
The favours of Speyside whisky can be broken down into two categories; the rich sherry-flavoured malts and the lighter floral-flavoured malts. But even within these distillations there are further nuances, with American bourbon and Spanish sherry casks adding delicate notes to the already complex flavours.
But the Speyside region has much more to offer than whisky. The beautiful coastline of the Moray Firth can be easily explored to the north while heading inland towards the south will take you into the breathtaking Highlands where awe-inspiring mountain views can be seen everywhere you look.
Crossing the county of Moray is Scotland’s longest river – the Spey – which runs for over 100 miles north to join the Moray Firth at Spey Bay.
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Downstream at Granton, you’ll find the world-famous River Spey salmon fishing region where thousands of fly fishermen from all over the world attempt to outwit Scottish salmon each year.
The southern half of Moray is home to Ballindoch Castle, rightly referred to as ‘The Pearl of the North’.
The castle is situated in an area surrounded by rolling hills and the crystal clear waters of the river Spey flow through the castle grounds, which makes a visit there the perfect accompaniment to any Speyside tour.
Discover Scotland’s fortified buildings in my Guide to the Best Castles in Scotland.
Moving back to the region’s most famous export, no trip to Speyside is complete until a tour of its famous distilleries has been completed and the following list highlights not only the whisky but the stunning countryside that can be found in this part of the country.
If you want to immerse yourself in history and nature as well as enjoy a few drams of fine single malt, this itinerary will give you everything you’re looking for. Follow me on a journey into whisky heaven.
The Speyside Malt Whisky Trail: Day one
- Speyside Cooperage
Speyside whisky trail map
About the Glenlivet distillery
Set within a wild and remote glen near Ballindalloch in Moray, the world-famous Glenlivet distillery was founded in 1824 and has operated almost without change since that time.
Although production was originally on a small-scale, the popularity of the brand means that it has now become the biggest selling single malt whisky in the U.S. and around 6 million bottles are sold worldwide annually.
To the south of the distillery lie the imposing Cairngorm mountain range which feature many of Scotland’s highest peaks, while to the north the massive Ben Rinnes mountain dominates the landscape. All of which go towards making a visit to Glenlivet a truly memorable experience.
Telephone: 01340 821720
About the Cardhu distillery
The Cardhu distillery can be found in open countryside around 17 miles from Grantown-on-Spey and around 7 miles from Craigellachie. The wide-open fields that surround this area would have made it easy for early illegal distillers to spot an on-coming government tax-man which is the likely reason why whisky production began there.
Cardhu was founded in 1824 by the whisky smuggler John Cumming who knew the value of the peat-softened water that flows through the river Spey. The whisky from the original stills was sold to passers-by as they made their way past the Cumming farmhouse but it wasn’t long before the quality of the product made demand far outstrip supply.
In 1855 the distilling equipment was upgraded and a new distilling plant was built that could produce triple the quantity of whisky that the old distillery could, much more than any other whisky producer in the area.
Around this time the blended Johnnie Walker brand was becoming increasingly popular and to keep up with demand a large proportion of the Cardhu output was purchased to put into their blend, a process that continues to this day.
Telephone: 01479 874635
About the Speyside Cooperage
The Speyside Cooperage is the only working barrel manufacturer in Britain that still practices the traditional art of coopering, otherwise known as barrel or cask making. The cooperage has been running successfully since 1947 and to this day they still make their barrels using the same hand-crafted techniques that have been passed down through the generations.
The Speyside Cooperage has an excellent visitor centre where not only can you watch the craftsmen as they create new barrels but you can even have a go yourself (results may differ!). There’s also a coffee shop and gift shop to visit after you’ve tried your hand at barrel making.
Telephone: (01340) 871108
The Speyside Whisky Trail: Day Two
- Glen Grant
Speyside whisky trail map
About the Glenfiddich Distillery
The world-famous Glenfiddich brand is instantly recognizable by its stag logo, derived from the Scottish Gaelic phrase ‘Valley of the Deer’ and this logo adorns every bottle of the 13 million litres of spirit which they produce annually.
Glenfiddich has the accolade of being the world’s best-selling malt whisky and the impressive distilling plant certainly lives up to its status as one of the worlds most enjoyed single malts.
Although Glenfiddich is today one of Scotland’s biggest whisky producers its humble beginnings were tiny in comparison.
Founded in 1886 by William Grant, the distillery building was hand-built stone by stone by the Grant family over the course of a year, and the passion the family has for whisky is still evident as Glenfiddich is one of the few distilleries that is still entirely family-owned.
The scale of the operation is what is most impressive about a tour with 32 handmade copper pot stills producing the spirit that’s eventually sent to its own bottling plant within the complex.
In addition to the various tours that are available there’s an excellent restaurant on-site, a bar with drams costing from a few pounds to a thousand, and an excellent gift shop selling high-quality Scottish souvenirs.
Telephone: 01340 820 373
Glen Grant Distillery
About the Glen Grant Distillery
Glen Grant distillery is situated at the north end of the village of Rothes and is one of the smaller distilleries in this itinerary consisting of just 8 stills, a few warehouses and picturesque woodland gardens in a glen just behind the distillery plant.
The Glen Grant distillery was founded by brothers John and James Grant who saw the business opportunities that lay around Rothes in Speyside.
Originally producers of illegal whisky, the Grant brothers understood that the abundant barley crops from the Speyside fields allied with the clear River Spey waters were perfect for producing whisky in abundance, and so in 1840 they applied for a legal licence to produce malt whisky.
After the brothers’ deaths, their nephew James ‘The Major’ Grant took over the family business where he devised the unusually tall and slender stills which create the distinctive Glen Grant taste that we enjoy today.
During his tenure the Major also brought back many plants from Africa during his service in the British army and it was these specimens that established the previously mentioned woodland gardens at the rear of the distillery.
Telephone: 01340 832 118
About the Strathisla Distillery
Originally founded as the Milltown distillery in 1786, Strathisla has the distinction of being the oldest continuously operating distillery in Scotland.
Although it’s not the smallest whisky operation in Scotland it definitely ranks towards the lower end of whisky production by volume, with only two stills in operation producing around two and a half million litres per year.
However, the small size of the distillery is more than made up for by the quality of the product, and the distillery buildings are also regarded as the most attractive in the Highlands. Walking around the production areas gives you an incredible sense of the history behind this 200-year-old business.
Although Strathisla was purchased by Chivas Brothers in 1950 they still make single malts in the traditional way, in addition to providing malts for the ever-popular Chivas Regal blend.
As with most distilleries in this itinerary there are various tours that you have the option to sign up for but the Strathisla Connoisseur Tour definitely needs to be experienced if you’re a fan of this whisky.
The tour allows you to sample six limited-edition single malts along with a private tour of the plant with one of the Strathisla expert guides over the course of an afternoon.
Telephone: 01542 783044
The Speyside Malt Whisky Trail: Day Three
- Glen Moray
- Dallas Dhu
Speyside whisky trail map
Glen Moray Distillery
About the Glen Moray distillery
Situated on the banks of the River Lossie in Elgin, the Glen Moray distillery has been producing single malt whisky since its founding in 1897. Originally a brewery, the owner Robert Thorne converted his business into whisky production after realizing that quality spirits could be distilled from the clear waters of the nearby river.
The business has changed ownership several times during its history but it is now owned and managed by the La Martiniquaise company which uses the output from Glen Moray in their own blends, as well as Glen Moray single malts.
The distillery has expanded production to three stills and currently produces over five and a half million litres of spirit per year. Taking part in one of their tours allows you to see their distilling process first-hand and gives you the chance to sample a dram or two after.
Another draw to this distillery is the fact that it’s sited in the Speyside capital city of Elgin so after a tour of the plant you can spend the remainder of the day wandering around the historic city.
While you’re there make sure you check out Elgin Cathedral which features panoramic views from the top of its towers. You can find out more about it in my Complete Guide to Elgin Cathedral.
Telephone: 01343 550 900
About the Benromach distillery
Benromach is one of those distilleries that insists on creating the perfect whisky by age-old methods – which can be seen everywhere you go on a tour of the complex.
Not only is every cask hand filled but Benromach refuses to use computers or pressure gauges to control the distilling process. Instead, everything is monitored and managed by human touch, smell and sight, backed up by years of experience.
The distillery was founded in 1898 by Duncan McCallum and F.W. Brickman, two experienced businessmen in the field of Scottish whisky who sought to utilize their combined knowledge to produce quality Speyside whisky themselves.
Unfortunately, there was a great depression in the industry at that time and they had to close their doors shortly after opening due to a lack of funds. Over the next hundred years the business was sold and re-purchased by many owners until 1993 when the Gordon and MacPhail company took over.
A complete restoration of the distillery began in 1997 when the owners took the decision to revert the stills and machinery back to similar types that were used in the 19th century.
That meant the old-style production methods could be used once again and it appears the whisky-loving public approves because in 2014 Benromach won gold at the World Whisky Awards.
Telephone: 01309 675 968
Dallas Dhu Distillery
About the Dallas Dhu distillery
The last distillery in our Speyside whisky itinerary is slightly different to the others as it’s not actually privately owned but is in fact owned and managed by the Historic Environment Scotland trust. It’s earliest days were rather different though.
In 1899 businessman Alexander Edward decided that the Scottish whisky boom meant that a profitable distillery would be warmly welcomed by the Forres community and so Dallasmore was born (later changed to Dallas Dhu).
The distillery continued to make single malts up until 1983 when economic pressures and an unreliable water supply forced Dallas Dhu to close.
Luckily for whisky-lovers, this small piece of Scottish history has been kept alive thanks to Historic Environment Scotland’s tireless work to restore the buildings, and today they’re just as they would have looked at the end of the 19th century.
The trust also serves to educate the public about the history of Scotland and its whisky heritage, and audio guides and information panels are provided to educate visitors and keep the story of Dallas Dhu alive.
You can find out more about this attraction with my Guide to the Dallas Dhu distillery.
Telephone: 01309 676548
If you liked this itinerary check out The Out About Scotland Guide to the Scotch Whisky Regions and if you’d like to learn how to cook with whisky read my Guide to Delicious Scotch Whisky Recipes.
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Frequently Asked Questions
Where are the single-malt whisky regions of Scotland?
Speyside, Highlands, Lowlands, The Islands, The Isle of Islay, and Campbeltown.
What are the most popular whiskies from each Scotch-producing region?
Speyside: Macallan, Dalwhinnie, Glenlivet, Glenfiddich.
Highlands: Dalmore and Glenmorangie.
Lowlands: Auchentoshan, Glenkinchie
The Islands: Highland Park, Talisker, Jura.
Islay: Ardbeg, Laphroaig, Lagavulin
Campbeltown: Glengyle and Springbank
How many whisky distilleries are there in Scotland?
There are currently 128 different distilleries licensed to produce genuine Scotch whisky in the five main single malt regions. Distilleries that are not located in Scotland are not allowed to call their product Scotch whisky.
How important is whisky to Scotland?
Scotch whisky accounts for almost 20% of the entire UK exports of food and drink and earns the UK around £140 every second. The industry supports over 40,000 jobs with 10,000 employed directly by whisky manufacturers.
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