Unearthing Speyside’s Whisky Heritage …
This summer, we’ve been off the beaten track, up mountains, on lochs and in seas. This month, we took time out to discover Speyside … underground.
Speyside is special. A protected locality for Scotch Whisky distilling, it has the greatest number of distilleries of any whisky-producing area of Scotland – and two of the world’s best-selling malts – The Glenlivet and Glenfiddich. It is an area of rolling hills and cascading streams – tumbling from the Cairngorms Mountains, the Carn na Loine plateau and the Cromdale hills into the Spey that runs west to east across the region … before reaching the national nature reserve at Spey Bay on the Moray coast.
During our visit, we heard of a new project – an underground development that had transformed the landscape and created a visitor attraction like no other. Intrigued, we set off to explore.
Heading north east on the A95 – passing a new steam-rail enthusiasts’ development just outside Grantown – you’re soon on The Malt Whisky Trail. Brown signs keep you on track – and one by one, the distilleries come thick and fast.
Tormore – was one of the first distilleries to be built during Scotland’s post-World War II whisky boom. It is is home to some architectural quirks, including a clock that plays four different Scottish songs every quarter of an hour!
A few miles further …
Ballindalloch: the estate has a long history of distilling, dating back almost 200 years when a distillery was built at Delnashaugh near where the Delnashaugh Hotel stands. Under the stewardship of Sir George Macpherson-Grant, the 3rd Baronet of Ballindalloch, distilling was firmly established. He co-founded Cragganmore distillery in 1869 and enjoyed a close association with Robert Hay, who built Glenfarclas Distillery just down the valley. His final direct involvement with a new distillery was the building of Speyside Distillery in Kingussie in 1896. The building of the Ballindalloch Distillery is a return to the industry for the Macpherson-Grant family: the dream to create a distillery on the estate began late in the summer of 2011.
The old steading was viewed by owners, Clare and Oliver Russell, as the perfect location. Conversations took place with leading industry figures, together with their sons, Guy and Edward. In 2012, they decided to commit to the project. Work began on the building – that dates back to the 1820s – using a small group of skilled craftsmen. From the stonework to the slates on the roof, the woodwork to the interior decoration, the family has committed to use local companies.
You can visit the family’s ancestoral home – Ballindalloch Castle. On the banks of the River Avon – just a stone’s throw from where it joins the Spey – is the stunning castle, home of the Macpherson-Grant family since 1546. Beautiful gardens, castle tours and much more to be discovered and enjoyed. And if you love exploring and discovering Scotland by car, follow this link to find more on the North East 250.
Developed by Guy Macpherson-Grant, the North East 250 is encouraging visitors “to come to the region, to enjoy driving its roads and to enjoy everything it has to offer – spectacular scenery, bounteous wildlife, globally renowned food and drink, traditional warm hospitality and activities galore”.
Carry on driving …
Glenfarclas: there’s some evidence that a distillery first began here as far back as the 1790s. First granted a license in 1836, it was run as mentioned by Robert Hay. Then in June 1865, John Grant bought it. More than 150 years on, it is owned and run by his descendants, making it truly independent. Glenfarclas has around 68,000 casks maturing on site with stock dating from every year since 1953 to the present day. It set the standards for whisky tourism in the early 1970s becoming one of the first distilleries to open a dedicated visitor centre. The Whisky Trail continues …
Aberlour: a few miles further along the A95 you reach Aberlour. In 1879, James Fleming founded the Aberlour Distillery – a site chosen for its pure water spring water that flows over the pink granite of Ben Rinnes. This is the very heart of Speyside.
Whilst in Aberlour, a slight detour off the Whisky trail can take you to the home of Walkers Shortbread. The Walkers story started in 1898. Twenty-one year old Joseph Walker opened the doors of his own bakery with a loan of £50. He used every spare moment to perfect his shortbread recipe – time well spent as shooting parties from the local estates were soon making detours just to visit Joseph’s bakery. More than a century later – Abelour is still the home of shortbread and Joseph’s recipe is now enjoyed the world over. Just a few miles further …
A turning left off the A95 signposts – our destination: The Macallan. The site – on the Easter Elchies Estate in Craigellachie – is steeped in history. The original distillery, first licensed in 1824 when Alexander Reid leased 8 acres from the Earl of Seafield. It has been expanded and extended numerous times over two centuries. Today, it has been mothballed. In its place?
After many years of designing and planning and a solid four years of building – with a 400-strong workforce across 20 different trades – the result is nothing short of remarkable.
They have created a breathtaking distillery and visitor centre for the 21st century. There are no fewer than 36 copper pot stills – 15 more than the previous site. As and when required, this will enable Macallan to up production of single malt by a third.
The building is stunning: built into the hillside – facing south over the Spey – it was designed by Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners. The internationally-recognised architect behind London’s Millennium Dome (now the O2) the inspiration came from Scottish brochs. The living rooftop is rolling grass and wildflowers creating one of the world’s most complex timber roof structures. It is a living building designed to blend into the surrounding Speyside landscape, classified as an Area of Great Landscape Value.
The visitor centre opened in June (2018) and was designed by museum developer, Atelier Brückner. There are interactive displays and it houses the company’s archive – a collection of 398 bottles, 19 decanters and four flasks on public display for the first time. There are also displays of historic advertising and brand development projects …
This is whisky tourism on a new scale – and an investment like no other. Macallan is owned by Erdington who are investing half a billion pounds in the brand over the coming decade. Their CEO, Ian Curle, says: “The unsurpassed quality of the Macallan is in high demand and we face the future confidently with this new distillery. It’s an authentic, abiding, ambitious investment that will match consumer expectations for generations to come. We expect this new Macallan enterprise to deliver significant benefits for the tourism industry, Scotch whisky exports, and the economy.” He’s not wrong.
We could wax lyrical about more on the site – but it has to be visited. Whisky lover or not, this is an iconic development that needs to be seen to be believed, to be understood and to be appreciated.
Back on the road. There were plenty more distilleries to be seen – but for another day. We had a bike ride planned in the afternoon – so head to head back.
Our return to Nethy detoured away from the Spey through Glenlivet and on to Britain’s highest village, Tomintoul. The village has seen many changes over recent years including the opening of a discovery centre and museum. Much of the activity has been driven by the Tomintoul & Glenlivert Development Trust – set up in 2012 with a variety of community partners including Cairngorms National Park Authority, Highlands & Islands Enterprise, Moray Council and the Crown Estate. We arrived in the build up the TMG – Tomintoul’s Motorcycle Gathering and enjoyed a visit to the discovery centre (below right) as well as an alfresco lunch from The Clockhouse on the village green.
If you’re heading there in the evening – book ahead: at lunchtime, they were taking their final booking for dinner – the last table of four snapped up. It was a good lunch – very tasty soup and sandwich deal – with friendly service, but don’t just take our word for it … check out their reviews on TripAdvisor.
If you need more information, please follow any of the links embedded in this Blog.
Interested in a whisky tour?
Again, you can visit any of the individual distilleries listed for their own tours, or follow this link to the Malt Whisky Trail company.
A top up?
Edrington‘s origins date back to the mid 19th century when William Robertson founded the Robertson & Baxter company in Glasgow. In 1887, the family business founded Highland Distillers. But the company’s longevity, innovation and success is owed to three sisters. In 1961 Elspeth, Agnes and Ethel Robertson saw a different way of working, transferring their shareholding and ownership to the newly formed charity The Robertson Trust. Their purpose was to ensure that the family businesses remained active and independent, and to continue and extend the past support they’d given to charities. They were among the first Trustees, serving for a combined 71 years.
Their ingenuity ensured not only Edrington’s independence but also its history of philanthropy would continue. Their benevolence and business acumen ensured that profits from the successful Robertson companies would always help people and communities in Scotland, just as they had done since their grandfather’s day. Headquartered in Scotland, the family business operates as the global company and is one of Scotland’s largest private companies .
Thanks for reading!