On the rocks. Equal parts water. Neat. Or just straight out of the bottle. It doesn’t matter how you like your Scotch, you’re going to love it in Speyside, Scotland. Diana Kotwal takes you on a Scotch tasting trail in the home of the world’s finest whiskey, so let’s hope you can handle your drink.
Picture yourself here. It’s an idyllic Scottish countryside. You’re sitting on an open bench, admiring the glorious, multi-coloured view. Cotton candy clouds playfully swirl around mountain tops. And a flock of sheep have their way with the rich, lush grass that’s carpeting the landscape. There’s a lovely cool summer breeze, as you watch strong, rugged Scotsmen in kilts walking about (and staying clear of that summer breeze).
It’s a perfect setting, really. Well, almost perfect. Something’s missing.
Oh yes, also picture yourself drunk.
Just when you think you can’t make a good thing better, the Scots prove us all wrong. These fine people are the makers of what some would call, ‘the best thing ever’, or ‘a good reason to live’, or if you really want to get technical: Scottish whiskey.
There are more Scotch distilleries in Scotland than there are cows in India. So you can’t lift a finger without knocking down a bottle of Scotland’s greatest produce. While distilleries are found all over the country, they are divided according to area: the lowlands, highlands, and Islay, a small island just off the west coast. Although, Islay whiskeys enjoy a good reputation within Scotch drinking circles, a true connoisseur (I’m talking about the kind who likes his cigars Cuban and his lips permanently pursed in disdain) will only want to visit the Highlands. This is where they make the really good stuff, in the region of Speyside in Moray, North-East Scotland.
Speyside is home to over half of Scotland’s whiskey distilleries. And they are all located within 28 miles. So it’s really just one endless line of Scotch-tasting burps. It also makes going on a Scotch-tasting trail that much more convenient. What makes Speyside so special is that the Gods decreed that everything be whiskey-perfect here. The fertile land is ideal to grow barley. The Spey River offers cool, spring water and the weather is just right for the maturation process. The two best-selling single malt whiskeys in the world, Glenlivet and Glenfiddich were born here.
If you visit during the summer, you’ll see miles and miles of golden barley, interrupted occasionally by the quirky chimneys of the malt kilns. The people here live and breathe whiskey. They grow the raw ingredients, make the casks, distil the whiskey and then whisper sweet nothings into the bottles as they lovingly fill them up. Then, they go on to create two words every Scotch lover worth his freshly drained glass wants to hear: Whiskey Festival.
The Speyside whiskey festival is held twice a year, in May and September. Distilleries that are generally closed to the public throw their doors open. The world’s most famous Scotch experts show up and you can drink in all their, um, knowledge. And best of all, there’s as much Scotch drinking as you can handle while standing up straight (if you topple over, just get a straw). There are also wildlife walks, mountain cycling tours and other entertaining events you can drink to.
Where to stay in Speyside
There are many quaint towns and villages within Speyside. The city of Elginis considered to be the center of all activity, and has some great shopping options too. Dufftown is also worth spending a couple of days in, since it is home to the most popular brand of single malt scotch, Glenfiddich. Places like Aberlour, Craigellachie and Lossiemouth also offer B&Bs and cute little hotels for you to consider and are close to the major distilleries.
On the Scotch trail:
Even a whiskey rookie has heard of Glenfiddich. And so has his grandfather’s grandfather. This very popular brand of single malt whiskey set up shop in 1887 in Dufftown. Tourists can take a one hour or a half day tour depending on just how much they love the brand. The half day tour includes bottling the single malt directly from a cask, and tasting 30-year-old Glenfiddich whiskeys.
This distillery is located at Knockando, west of Aberlour. Here, you can sample their brands along with the famous Cardhu 12-year-old single malt whiskey. They welcome children on the tour, but they do need to turn 18 before sampling any of the Scotch.
Here, you get a great view to go along with your Scotch tasting. It will be more than worth your while to sample the 12 and 18-year-old Glenlivet. The coffee shop offers light meals and home-style baking so you don’t have to stagger home light-headed.
If you feel like drinking whiskey with the sea breeze blowing in your hair, head over to the island of Islay, home to seven distilleries. Lagavulin is the definitive malt of Islay, and quite a famous brand in its own right, so it’s worth it if you’ve got the time.
Know your whiskey
Types of whiskey
Whiskey is segregated according to country of origin (Scotland, Ireland, America, etc) and blend (single or multiple distilleries). One distillery makes a single malt. However, if that malt is not good enough to fly solo, it’s blended with other single malts to produce a whiskey like Johnnie Walker or Chivas.
Colour comes from the cask that whiskey is matured in, not from the liquid itself. These casks are hand-me-downs from the bourbon and sherry industry, since fresh wood overpowers the aroma of scotch.
Whiskey stored in bourbon casks are lighter, those stored in sherry casks are darker and slightly sweeter (since sherry is sweeter than bourbon).
How to drink your Scotch
Use a broad glass for your Scotch, with a ratio of 1:3 parts of water to release the flavours of the Scotch, though you can always drink it neat or on the rocks. Soda usually reduces the aroma. The experts say the best way to drink Scotch is to add the water from the same stream that is used to make the scotch, ie use spring water from Spey for a Speyside malt.
In colder climates people tend to prefer the heat of neat whiskey, while in warmer countries water is added to prevent dehydration.
Growing old is a good thing when it comes to whiskey. Scottish whiskey by law has to mature for three years to earn the title ‘Scotch’; otherwise it’s just plain old whiskey. Some brands of whiskey are kept for 20 to 30 years in storage, but a lot of the liquid evaporates from the cask. This is called the ‘angel’s share’. So if you’re down one too many, and look directly up at the sky, squint a little and you might just spot a few angels happily passed out on their clouds.
Diana Kotwal loves travel and food, and finds that writing about the former is a good way to pay for the latter.
She’s visited several cities across the world, and brought back quite a few souvenirs (especially in the form of body fat), making her love handles the perfect ode to her two loves.
Diana has written for Lonely Planet, Mid-Day, Femina, Jade Magazine and Random House India.
View all posts by Diana →
Canada is an underrated country often forgotten by travellers when planning their world trip. Nevertheless, I thought me and my hefty back-pack would give it a gamble and without a doubt it paid off. There was no denying Canada’s wonderful, diverse landscape in which I had the privilege to travel across, complete with some of [...]