The north of Scotland has never been at the very top of my holiday bucket list until now- but there are at least 60 golden-tinged reasons to visit Speyside in the form of some of the most unique whiskies I have ever tried at every turn.
The region around the strath of the River Spey is split between the Moray council area and the Badenoch and Strathspey committee area of Highland, and one of the main centres of the Scotch whisky industry.
Scotland’s oldest whisky hotel, The Craigellachie was one of the highlights of the trip. Nestled in the valley, the 26-bedroom hotel is a rural retreat with knowledgeable staff, a cosy community pub-restaurant named The Copper Dog, perfect for sitting outside at the take in the spectacular views of the Scottish Highlands, and a room which boasts at least more than 500 whiskies from across the country and beyond.
The Quaich bar within the hotel, only open at certain hours, allowed guests and visitors to come along and get up close and personal with hundreds of whiskies from some of the most remote distilleries in the world. Drams ranged in price but the real star was the 22-year-old Quaich Bar manager who had been tasked with arranging the whiskies how she saw fit, while offering some fantastic recommendations to whisky drinkers of all varieties - from newbies to seasoned professionals.
Budget or Boutique
Rooms at The Craigellachie start from £150 per night, and offer a boutique whisky-led experience. Each bedroom has a Johnston’s of Elgin cashmere topped mattress, Egyptian cotton sheets and an elegant bathroom, with bath and shower, slate floors and panelled walls and the hotel itself has the feel of a guest house, meaning you may bump in to say hello to someone you previously saw at the Quaich bar.
Worth getting out of bed for
Of the people I met living in the area, their storytelling was a strong point, and the storytelling didn’t stop at the door of the distillery I visited, which offered something different to the norm of what was expected from a distillery tour.
The new Speyside Home of Johnnie Walker visitor experience at Cardhu Distillery was launched on Thursday June 17 with a flag raising ceremony to celebrate pioneering women in Scotch whisky, which was a highlight of the trip.
The stunning new visitor experience tells the story of the distillery’s founder Helen Cumming and how, in the early days of illicit distilling in Speyside over 200 years ago, she would raise a flag to warn her neighbours of approaching authorities.
It also celebrates Helen’s daughter-in-law Elizabeth who took on running the distillery as it grew into a successful business throughout the 19th century until it became the first distillery to be acquired by John Walker & Sons in 1893.
The tradition of female leadership continues at Cardhu and Johnnie Walker and women who have played a key role in the transformation project joined forces to launch the new visitor experience, which is part of a £185m investment in Scotch whisky tourism by Diageo.
The leadership team included managing director of Diageo’s Scotland brand homes Barbara Smith, Cardhu Distillery manager Roselyn Thomson, Cardhu brand home manager Laura Sharp, Johnnie Walker chief archivist Christine McCafferty and Johnnie Walker master blender Emma Walker.
The new brand home treats visitors to an immersive and interactive tour which includes a captivating, animated video interpretation of the distillery’s early years made by award-winning Scottish production studio, Eyebolls.
Guests are also be able to explore the distillation and maturation process of Cardhu’s signature whisky, bursting with notes of orchard fruits and freshly cut grass, as part of a selection of interactive sensory tours and experiences, and enjoy a dram or delicious highball at the brand home’s new tasting kitchen.
As a self-proclaimed city dweller, what has always put me off of rural staycations is I never know where to begin with them. Driving around and seeing beautiful scenery is one thing, but without any knowledge of an area there is, as I discovered, much to be missed.
On my first day in Speyside, I was whisked around the area by Willie at Copper Still executive hire - the bespoke tour offered a unique insight to Speyside from someone who lived in the area, an appreciation I likely would have not left with without him.
With a story for almost every road we went down, from illicit distilling to his own experiences working in the whisky industry, he pointed out probably 60 distilleries within a 50 mile radius. As a local, there was some fantastic recommendations for food, drinks and last but not least, golf.
The storytelling of Speyside also took us to Knockando Woolmill, which recently underwent a mass regeneration project after several parts of it caved in.
The working woolmill has stood on site since 1749 and has been continually working for the last 200 years. It has stood the test of time, housing an archive of textile production in Scotland and while most mills disappeared between the World Wars, Knockando is a sole survivor.
Incredible preservation of Victorian machinery which is Grade A listed by Historic Environment Scotland can be seen throughout as well as the mastery of the mill’s weaver.
Wining and Dining
It is worth travelling around to try out some of the offerings of Speyside. There is a lot of emphasis on businesses helping each other out, so some of the delicious cuts of meat and vegetables are likely to be locally sourced. The Dowans Hotel in Aberlour, which is family-run and has undergone a stunning renovation offered a casual dining experience, and great pit stop if you are travelling around Speyside. The Station Hotel in Rothes had a stunning seasonal menu, which was as mentioned locally sourced. While The Copper Dog in The Craigellachie Hotel provided a menu of breakfast along with the room and an upmarket gastropub style of food throughout the day.
The Craigellachie welcomed us with a dram of whisky in the room in a beautifully displayed decanter, as well as The White Company soaps and shampoos.
Locally I felt welcomed with open arms as Speyside was showcased to me. Storytelling and community really felt at the heart of the uniquely Scottish experience which was only enhanced by Cardhu Distillery as it allowed us to explore its roots which were just a stone’s throw from the site.