Image: Glenfarclas Distillery
With the Spirit of Speyside whisky festival taking place this month aficionados from across the world will be indulging in tastings, tours and events celebrating our national drink. Speyside is a massive draw for tourists, the concentration of top end distilleries, outstanding scenery and an industry that caters for visitors with tours, retail opportunities and transport makes it an easy option for those wanting an authentic whisky experience. But there is so much more to the whisky industry in Scotland than just Speyside, with a little bit of effort it is possible to visit smaller, independent and family-owned distilleries and sample the varied tastes of Scotland from every one of the main whisky producing areas in the country.
Lowland distilleries are typified by their lighter style single malts that are traditionally known as the 'Lowland Ladies'. These have malty, zesty flavours with slightly fruity, citrusy and sometimes floral notes. Established in 1836 Annandale is one of the oldest operational distilleries in Scotland and predates Glenfiddich by over 50 years. Now producing whisky again after a period of inactivity the distillery is open every day for tours and has a coffee shop and retail outlet where you can pre order one of the first batch of casks to be distilled. Berryburn is just a few miles away and has an open fire, the perfect place to relax with a local dram after a days sightseeing.
Kintyre was traditionally a major whisky producing region with Campbeltown once home to 30 distilleries and known as the whisky capital of the world. Single Malts produced in the remaining three distilleries are today famous for their briny character and peaty notes. Springbank is the oldest independent and family owned distillery in Scotland. There is a visitor centre, shop, a range of tours available and a tasting room. The scenery around Kintyre is so attractive it almost feels a bit disappointing to be sitting inside for a whisky tasting. The beach at Machrihanish is one of the best in the country and is rarely busy, for a stroll with a hip flask it cannot be topped and nearby Kirkland House is a great location to retire to afterwards.
At 1,000 feet above sea level, Tomatin Distillery is one of the highest distilleries in the world and dates back to the 15th century when drovers bringing their cattle over the mountain passes would fill their flasks from a hidden still at a house adjacent to the distillery. This independent distillery is most famous for its 12 Year Old Single Malt which is finished in sherry casks giving it notes of sweet fruit with a hint of nuttiness and a rich citrus finish. Visitors can enjoy a variety of tours and you can even fill your own bottle with one of the distillery exclusive, single cask whiskies. The Press House is a traditional farmhouse and is walking distance away, a truly appropriate place to savour the taste of the surrounding mountains.
Islay has long been one of the most distinctive whisky producing regions in Scotland. This island has a rich whisky history and boasts of eight distilleries. The newest of these is perhaps the most interesting as it is the only independent on the island and one of the smallest in the country. Established in 2005, Kilchoman is a great example of the grass-roots tradition of whisky crafting. As well as being one of only a handful of distilleries still practicing floor malting, barley is also grown on the farm, making this unique in that all parts of the whisky making process take place on site. The best example of the benefits of the small scale production is Machir Bay Single Malt which is initially matured in ex bourbon casks, and finished in ex Oloroso Sherry casks. The extraordinary strain of barley and unique maturation process give the whisky notes of vanilla, papaya and malt on the palate with a finish of peat, vanilla and caramel. Oban is the best jumping off point for ferries to visit the islands off the west coast, a short drive to the splendour of Achnacloich or the comfort of Rhunacairn.
We end our tour in Speyside with one of the last of the staunchly independent producers in the area. Glenfarclas has been owned and run by the Grant family since 1856 and was one of the first distilleries to open a dedicated visitor centre. The idiosyncratic buildings and the infamous tasting rooms, constructed from the oak carved panelling and ship's furniture of the historically important Empress of Australia mean this should be on every whisky fans bucket list. The much sought after Five Decades Tour and Tasting features a sampling of exclusive Grant family casks, one from each of the last 5 decades. Shenval Farmhouse sits right on the official Whisky Trail with dramatic views over hills, woodlands and glens, an inspiring location for a luxury retreat.