Last updated on March 1st, 2021
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 some of the top distilleries along with lots of information about visiting each one.
A guide to the Speyside Malt Whisky Trail
Speyside is famous within whisky-drinking circles for having the largest number of operational distilleries out of all six whisky-producing regions with two of the most-consumed brands in the world originating from the area.
Although it’s generally perceived as a whisky region in its own right Speyside is actually a subdivision of the Highlands whisky-producing area.
Known as ‘Malt Whisky Country’, Speyside 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 (as of 2020) allow tourists to view the distillation process – including the world-famous Glenfiddich, Glenlivet, and Macallan which are on most whisky enthusiasts must-visit list.
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 the most awe-inspiring mountain views can be seen of anywhere in Britain.
Dotted around the area are dozens of castles and historic buildings while the cities of Aberdeen and Elgin provide plenty of shopping opportunities.
Crossing the county of Moray is Scotland’s longest river – the Spey – which runs for over 100 miles northwards to enter the Moray Firth at Spey Bay.
Furthermore, 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 right 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.
However, moving back to the regions most famous export, no trip to Speyside can be considered 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.
So if you want to immerse yourself in history and nature, as well as enjoying a few drams, 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 malt whisky in the U.S. with around 6 million bottles being sold worldwide each year.
To the south of the distillery lie the imposing Cairngorm mountain range which includes 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 the very first production of this famous whisky began here.
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 many other whisky producers 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 which 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 ancient 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 company 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 recognisable 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 officially being the worlds 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.
Started 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 visit to the site 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 up to a thousand, and a very good gift shop selling high-quality Scottish goods.
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 our itinerary consisting of just 8 stills, several warehouses, and some lovely woodland gardens that can be enjoyed 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 saw that the abundant barley crops from the Speyside fields allied to the clear 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 can 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 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 operation is more than made up for by the quality of the product that Strahisla is famous for and the distillery is also regarded as being one of the most attractive in the Highlands. Just walking around the production areas you get a sense of the old-world charm that exudes from every exposed wooden beam in the low-slung ceilings.
Although Strathisla was purchased by the Chivas Brothers conglomerate in 1950 they still make single malts 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 by every whisky lover.
Here you get 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. Definitely recommended!
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 fine single malt whisky since its founding in 1897. Originally a brewery, the owner Robert Thorne converted his business into whisky production after realising that quality spirits that could be created from the clear waters of the nearby river.
The business has changed ownership several times during its history but it’s now owned and managed by the La Martiniquaise company which uses the output from Glen Moray in their own blends, as well as producing some good quality single malts.
The distillery has expanded production to three stills and currently produces over five and a half million litres of spirit per year, and taking part in one of their tours allows you to see their distilling process first-hand as well as giving you the chance to sample some of their fine single malts.
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 fantastic 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. It really is like stepping back in time at this distillery, and all the better for it in my opinion.
The distillery was founded way back in 1898 by Duncan McCallum and F.W. Brickman, two experienced businessmen in the field of Scottish whisky who sought to utilise their combined knowledge to produce fine Speyside whisky themselves.
Unfortunately, there was a great depression in the industry at the time and they had to close their doors shortly after due to a lack of money. 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 was instigated 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.
This meant that the old-style production methods could be used once again and to date it appears the whisky-loving public appreciates this style of production, 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 fine single malts up until 1983, but economic pressures and an unreliable water supply forced Dallas Dhu to close in that year.
Luckily for whisky-lovers the world over this small piece of Scottish history has been kept alive thanks to Historic Environment Scotland’s tireless work to restore the buildings so that today they’re just as they would have looked way back at the end of the 19th century.
The trust also serves to educate the public about the history of Scotland and it’s whisky heritage, and audio guides and various presentations 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 Recipies.
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