The Malt Whisky Trail, Speyside - distilleries and more - Scotland on Sunday Travel

The Malt Whisky Trail has more to it than just some of Speyside’s distilleries, but they’re a good place to start, finds Rosalind Erskine.

Benromach Distillery, Forres, one of the destinations on Speyside's Malt Whisky Trail. Pic: John Paul Photography
Benromach Distillery, Forres, one of the destinations on Speyside's Malt Whisky Trail. Pic: John Paul Photography

I’ve often thought about taking a week of work and travelling across Scotland, guided only by the brown tourist signs. As a regular on the A9, the Beatrix Potter gardens in Dunkeld and The Scottish Liqueur Centre near Perth are two that always catch my eye. While I have yet to wander around reacquainting myself with Peter Rabbit having discovered a range of tasty drinks, I have had the pleasure of following the brown signs to discover the Malt Whisky Trail.

Set up in the 1950s, the Malt Whisky Trail was the first whisky trail to be established in Scotland and links nine iconic whisky locations in Moray Speyside, an area with the largest concentration of whisky distilleries in the world. In the picturesque countryside around the River Spey you will find many of the world’s most famous brands of single malt Scotch whisky but also the Speyside cooperage, amazing whisky-bars and stunning scenery.

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Although there are nine distilleries on the Malt Whisky Trail (and all are worth a visit for whisky fans), there's a few that will appeal not just for a dram or two.

If you’ve ever fancied yourself as a master blender, then the blending experience from Strathisla is a must visit. Outside, not much appears to have changed since the Keith-based distillery was built in 1786 but inside, the modern rooms including the tasting room and relatively newly-added blending room, are contemporary additions to one the oldest working distilleries in Scotland. Home to the namesake single malt, the distillery also produces the Chivas Regal range, and is without a doubt one of the prettiest distilleries you’ll come across on the Malt Whisky Trail.

After a tour which details the history of the distillery and whiskies, it’s on to the beautiful blending room with its cabinet of tasting note inspirations and wall of backlit whisky bottles and blue glass. Our guide talked us through five whiskies - grain, single malts and a blend - each of which have been chosen to add a flavour note to the blend - from smoky to fruity and creamy. A fun and educational hour spent, which ends with a 200ml bottle to take home and enjoy.

Whisky fan or not, most of us know that our famous national drink is matured in casks (in order for it to be Scotch whisky, this maturation has to take place in oak casks, in Scotland for a minimum of three years). As well as being home to wonderful distilleries, Speyside also has a cooperage - the place where these casks are built and repaired, and it’s now reopened post-covid. Here visitors can immerse themselves in the lifecycle of the casks - from the trees that are used to the charring and repair processes. The tour starts with a short but informative film, before moving on to view the coopers at work. I was lucky to be able to walk around the workshop, to see first hand how labour intensive this job is. And while it is an ancient practice, it’s thankfully not falling out of fashion, with new apprentices signing up regularly.

All this touring is hungry (and thirsty) work, so a stop for lunch at the family-owned Dowans Hotel was an ideal way to fuel up before visiting another distillery. With a menu of fresh, locally sourced produce and an eye-catching whisky bar stocked to the ceiling with a variety of single malts, this stylish abode is well worth a visit. The team also recently opened Hotel 1881.

Strathisla Blending Experience. Pic: Contributed

Onwards then to Benromach, which is based near Forres and a little bit away from the usual Speyside haunts that many whisky fans may be used to. But don’t let this put you off as this charming distillery, which is also home to Red Door Gin, offers an excellent classic tour, where you’ll learn all about the history of the distillery and its recent reawakening. The whisky is also a favourite of mine, so I relish any chance to try new expressions. Lightly peated, it’s a good introduction to those looking to try something smoky, without being bowled over by the big Islay drams.

When it comes to accommodation in Speyside, there’s a wealth of cosy hotels (including the aforementioned Dowans), but this time we stayed in a spacious and comfortable room at The Craigellachie Hotel and enjoyed the hospitality at Kilmorie House in Elgin. Posh pub grub is available at Copper Dog at The Craigellachie, and it won’t be a visit to this historic hotel without a dram or two in the Quaich Bar. While over in Elgin, Kilmorie House, which was built in 1851 and restored between 2017 and 2019, offers a relaxed, home from home stay thanks to owner Peter’s welcome and awesome cooked breakfast. There are antiques and curiosities abound in this quiet, statuesque house, which is conveniently located close to Elgin town centre, making it easy to wine and dine at the fantastic Drouthy Cobbler.

While in Elgin, whisky buffs can continue tours and tasting at Glen Moray, but if you’re looking for something less dram-based, then a trip to Johnstons of Elgin woollen mill is a must. The tour here showcases the incredible 200-plus years history of the brand and the family behind it. Visitors can also see the complete process of how the natural fabrics for the products are made, from dyeing to spinning, weaving and knitting. This craftsmanship, while totally different from whisky, also has its roots in the community and history of the town - and is one of a few ancient brands that has helped put Scotland on the map. After the tour, we recommended lunch in the cafe courtyard, and don’t leave without trying a scone with a cup of tea.

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Speyside will, for most people, be one of the key places to visit for whisky tourism and it’s easy to see why. But the rolling hills, warm welcome, good food and great accommodation also offer something for everyone, and while the Malt Whisky Trail is set up for tours of distilleries, it also opens the doors to other attractions and provides an excellent starting point for seeing the sights, and meeting the people, of Speyside.

The Speyside Cooperage, Craigellachie, where the oak casks for whisky are made and repaired. Pic: Peter McNally
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Kilmorie House, Elgin. Pic: Contributed
Johnstone's of Elgin woollen mill and visitor centre, another of the must-see destinations along The Malt Whisky Trail, where the tour showcases the 200+ year history of the brand and the family behind it. Pic: Peter McNally
The Quaich Bar, at the historic Craigellachie Hotel, Craigellachie, near Aberlour, Speyside.