Scotland’s Speyside is a region rich in whisky heritage nestled within rolling hillsides, small towns and fields of barley. Here’s how to explore it.
In the pastoral region of Speyside in northeast Scotland, whisky is everywhere. Vast, blond fields of barley stretch under open skies. Wooden whisky barrels sit stacked behind low stone warehouses. Whisky bars and bottle shops line the streets, the signature pagoda-shaped chimneys where malt is roasted peek above the green hillsides, and the sweet smell of fermenting barley fills the air.
There are more than 100 whisky distilleries operating in Scotland, and more than half of them are located in Speyside, a subregion of the Highlands. It’s the capital of single-malt whisky production in Scotland, and in fact, the world. More single malt whisky is produced here than anywhere else, and tiny towns with just 1,000-2,000 people often support at least two or three working distilleries.
For whisky lovers – particularly Scotch whisky lovers – Speyside a playground for the palate. And for those who’ve never so much as sipped a dram, there’s no better place to learn the ins and outs of whisky production and sample a wide range of styles. Here’s your primer on tasting your way around Speyside.
While each distillery puts its own unique spin on things, the basic processes are the same. Rather than trying to tour every distillery, focus on visiting a cross-section of distilleries, or choose brands you’re especially passionate about (they may have some distillery-exclusive bottles you can’t get anywhere else).
A street in Dufftown © Katie Hammel / Budget Travel
Aberlour runs a very informative tour and tasting that’s great for beginners. The 90-minute tour costs £15 per person and includes a walk through the distillery, an overview of how whisky is made, and a tasting of six whiskies. Continue your education at Balvenie, which grows and harvests its own barley onsite and is the only distillery that still practices floor malting in which barley is germinated on a floor. Small-group tours are offered three times per day for £50 per person, and you can bottle your own Balvenie for an additional £30.
To see the future of whisky production, head to The Macallan. One of the most modern distilleries in the region, both in design and production style, The Macallan distillery is a gleaming, glass-and-steel monument to whisky and an architectural marvel. Half of the structure is built into the hillside, sheltered under a living roof covered in grass. Underneath that grass, some 2500 individual sheets of Scandinavian spruce – held together only by pressure, with no glue, nails, or other materials – form the distillery ceiling. And, almost all (95%) of the distillery’s energy comes from renewable courses. Ninety-minute introductory tours cost £15 per person, while 2.5-hour tours that go deep into the state-of-the-art production area cost £100 per person.
One of the most inexpensive options for tours is Glenfiddich, where a 90-minute tour with three tastings costs just £10 per person. And if you don’t want to spring for that, you can simply wander the bucolic grounds dotted with stone buildings, a small lake, several warehouses, a gift shop, and statues of founders Elizabeth and William Grant. You can even catch a peek at the copper stills. Or, head to the Malt Barn where you can sample by the dram along with soups, salads, and sandwiches that range from £5-8.
To work off a few of those whisky calories, join the Dufftown Distilleries Walk. This 3.5-hour tour combines a leisurely stroll through woods and meadows past nine Dufftown distilleries – both active and historic, now-defunct distilleries – with up to 18 drams representative of each distillery’s style. The tour is fully outdoors and doesn’t go inside the distilleries or tasting rooms, but it’s an informative and active way to learn more about the area’s history while sampling a wide variety of whiskies.
Once you’ve toured enough, continue your education at the local pub. Most pubs in Speyside boast expansive whisky collections, knowledgeable bartenders, and drams starting at around £2, so you can sample quite a bit for a small bit of cash. Head to the Seven Stills in Dufftown, The Mash Tun or The Still at the Dowans Hotel in Aberlour, or the Quaich Bar at the Craigellachie Hotel.
A tasting the Balvenie with cheeses © Katie Hammel / Budget Travel
How to Plan Your Day
Nearly all distilleries require that you take a tour if you want to sample the goods, and most tours last 1-2 hours. Factor in lunch, and typically you can do no more than three distillery visits in one day – and honestly, that’s plenty if you want to be standing by 6pm.
Most distilleries open for visitors at 10 or 11am and close by 4 or 5pm, and while not all require reservations, it’s wise to make them as tours do sell out. The most popular tours, like Balvenie, book up weeks in advance.
Assume one tour in the morning, a break for lunch, and then one or two tours in the afternoon, and when possible, cluster them within one town or area to eliminate unnecessary travel time. Or, plan one of the activities listed below in the morning, before tackling the distilleries.
What to Do When You’re Not Drinking Whisky
While there are enough distilleries that you could spend a week or more doing nothing but touring, your liver might not be up to the challenge. Thankfully, there are plenty of other things to do in the region.
To learn more about whisky production, head to the Speyside Cooperage where you can watch master coopers repair the barrels used for storing whisky. You’ll learn all about the barrel-making process and can watch the lightning-fast coopers from a second-story observation window. Thirty-minute tours are offered Monday through Friday for £4. Nearby, the crumbling ruins of the 12th-century Balvenie Castle are also worth a look (closed Oct 1 to March 31, admission £6).
Head to the town of Elgin to visit the Johnston’s of Elgin cashmere and wool mill. Free, daily guided tours take visitors through the entire production process from dyeing to weaving, as the famous mill creates fabrics for high-fashion companies including Burberry.
Reindeer spotting in the Cairngorn Mountains © Katie Hammel / Budget Travel
Speyside also offers plenty of opportunities for outdoor fun. There are hikes both big and small, from the 65-mile Speyside Way trail (one of four official Long Distance Routes in Scotland) to a 20-minute walk behind the Aberlour distillery that leads to a lovely little waterfall. There’s canoeing on the River Spey, or you can go fishing, ATVing, or clay shooting at the House of Mulben.
And, if you’re up for an hour drive, head to the Cairngorm Reindeer Centre in the Cairngorm Mountains. The reindeer that used to roam these mountains vanished centuries ago, but they were reintroduced in the 1950s. Now, visitors can take a guided walk (£16) to the herd to meet the reindeer, hand-feed them, and learn more about the important part they play in the local ecosystem.
How to Get around Speyside
Scotland has a zero tolerance policy on drunk driving. There are strict limits for the amount of alcohol you can have in your system, and just one drink can put you over that limit. Distilleries will not allow designated drivers to sample, however most distilleries offer a driver’s tasting kit. For a few extra pounds, they’ll fill up small sample bottles with each of the tastes that were offered onsite, so you can try them all at home. If you’ll be visiting a few distilleries, bring your own; Amazon sells the sample bottles individually or as part of a whisky-tasting kit.
If you’re not willing to delay gratification and want to taste onsite, you’re left with three options: public transport (bus or train), private driver, or taxi.
Public transport is the cheapest, but provides the least amount of flexibility; you’ll need to limit your travels to distilleries in and around towns served by busses and trains, and forgo visits to any distilleries in the countryside. Between bus and train you can easily travel between the main towns; train fare varies and the bus is typically under £3. Traveline Scotland has an easy-to-use website for planning routes.
Hiring a private driver is more costly. Speyside Whisky Experience offers full-day tours with private transport for up to six people that include three distillery visits and time for lunch for £275-£325.
A taxi can be a good compromise; you have more flexibility but it’s not quite as pricey as a private driver. Taxis aren’t found in abundance so call well in advance and set a pickup time with the driver when they drop you off. Depending on the distance, the cost might be £15-40 per ride; many taxis, such as Craigellachie Cars, will also offer a single price based on a pick-up and drop-off schedule booked in advance.
Where to Stay
While you could base yourself an hour west in lively Inverness, to really immerse yourself in Speyside, choose one of the central towns, such as Aberlour, Dufftown, or Rothes, which are surrounded by distilleries.
Rothes, a workaday town set on the River Spey, has a residential feel. While it’s home to two distilleries, a couple of pubs, and a fish and chips shop, it doesn’t offer as many tourist diversions as Aberlour and Dufftown. What it does have is the luxurious Station Hotel, a 14-room hotel housed in a 1901 stone building. It doesn’t come cheap, but the Caperdonich Suite is a stunner, with a four-poster king bed, gas fireplace, and a mezzanine level where a deep two-person tub overlooks the room. Room rates start at around £196.
Four miles south, tiny Aberlour (population 972 as of the last census) offers accommodation across the budget spectrum in a quintessential Scottish village. The main street runs parallel to the River Spey and is lined with shops, including the Walkers Shortbread Bakery Shop (the factory sits on the end of town), and the Spey Larder, a great spot to load up on picnic supplies.
Check into the Dowans Hotel, conveniently located right on the edge of town (rates start at £150 per night). The 18 plaid-and-velvet-adorned rooms call to mind an old Scottish country estate, and the onsite bar, dubbed The Still, houses a collection of more than 500 whiskies. On the lower end of the budget, try the Mash Tun, a pub and whisky bar with four cozy upstairs rooms starting at £120 per night.
Rounding out the trio of towns, Dufftown is the Goldilocks: slightly larger and busier than Aberlour and with a bit more charm than Rothes. Home to six distilleries, it produces more whisky than any other town in Scotland and offers lots of options for dining, drinking, and shopping. The Highland Spirit Bed & Breakfast offers three sweet rooms in the heart of town starting at £139 per night including a full Scottish breakfast.