A sampling of Scotland’s Speyside region in three days, three ways: scotch, castles and wildlife in the Highlands
Editor’s note: This is the first in a three-part series on tourism in Speyside, Scotland.
“Haggis is really just honest sausage,” remarked a fellow diner of Scotland’s unofficial national dish — considered repulsive by those unfamiliar with how other less, say, offensive sausage is constructed. Made from sheep’s organs minced with onions, oatmeal and spices, then encased in a sheep’s stomach, it is at once unassuming and appetizing.
As is Speyside, home to the world’s heaviest concentration of whiskey distilleries — 43, give or take — nestled in the northeast region of the Highlands. Such a lofty title would seem to impart a boastfulness to the residents of this area, but based on a three-day immersion, this does not appear to be the case. Visitors will find boundless hospitality, self-deprecating personalities and scenic countryside in Speyside. And yes, haggis does pair very well with a dram of sweet scotch.
Speyside gets its name from the River Spey, which snakes its way from Loch Spey 107 miles to the North Seat. It’s ideal for salmon spawning and whiskey distilling, which source pure spring water from the Highlands. Combined with barley fermented in huge “mash tuns,” which is then cooked and distilled in massive copper stills and casked in oak barrels for anywhere from two to dozens of years – this is essentially how “the water of life” is made.
Some distilleries are open to visitors. Some are not. It seemed that those not open to the public preferred to focus on perfecting their craft.
However, ubiquitous Glenfiddich, known as the world’s best-selling single malt whiskey, has turned its distillery into a veritable theme park for scotch lovers, complete with educational tours, a visitor’s center and a restaurant. All the trappings might suggest Glenfiddich has “sold out,” but in fact it’s one of the few family-run establishments left in Speyside. Most others have been bought up by the expansive beverage conglomerate, Diageo.
This is all according to Speyside’s No. 1 (and only, according to TripAdvisor) whiskey walking tour guide, Dufftown native Michelle Myron. The mother of two, dressed in sensible weatherproof pants and hiking boots, used to work in one of the distilleries. After a while she found the day-to-day drudgery of turning barley mash “boring” and instead decided to share her trade secrets with whiskey aficionados (and newbies) lucky enough to make a pilgrimage to the area.
And if her clients are say, just gamely joining a scotch-loving spouse on the tour and not self-professed whiskey drinkers, it’s her mission to make them one by the end of the tour. Some tours pair whiskey (she carried the bottles in a backpack) with gourmet chocolates and her mother’s homemade shortbread.
Michelle shared insights like the Scots’ tendency to serve a small pitcher of water to add to scotch to “open it up” as some varieties taste better that way. Some key verbiage to learn include the “angel’s share,” or the 1-2 percent of whiskey that evaporates from the barrels every year, and “the head, the heart and the tail” named for each step of the distilling process. (The main difference between Irish whiskey and Scotch whiskey is of course geography, and that whiskey is distilled three times and scotch, twice). Slàinte is Scottish Gaelic for “your good health” — i.e., cheers.
The distilleries in Dufftown are so heavily concentrated that you can walk to nine of them in a few hours. Michelle stopped outside every one and explained the history of the distillery and how its whiskey is made, followed by a small dram (that’s “nip” in Scottish) to taste. Paired with unseasonably sunny skies dappling dense green shires, fields of shaggy cows and crumbling castles every few miles, it makes for an exceptionally enjoyable afternoon.
However, the history of the Speyside scotch industry, as she shared, is not quite as smooth and sweet as a 16-year Balvenie. Men working in the distilleries drank whiskey all day, and stole whatever their employer didn’t ration them, as was expected. The idea that there is now a whiskey store in downtown Dufftown is actually laughable to many of the older residents.
“Whiskey was like a currency in Dufftown,” she explained. “Only tourists bought whiskey instead of stealing it.”
But in the 1970s, a local doctor, observing the ill effects of all-day whiskey consumption on his patients and their family lives, implored the distillery managers to limit their consumption. Nowadays it’s illegal to drink while on the job. If discovered, the workers have to complete an alcohol abuse prevention program.
Perhaps knowing the distilleries have taken on a more responsible attitude toward their employees’ wellbeing makes it a little easier to enjoy the fruits of their labor guilt-free. In any case, a full understanding of the origins and production of the spirit certainly makes one feel better prepared to order a dram of single malt at the bar. A visit to a distillery — or several — is an essential stop in Speyside. Slàinte.