A birthday surprise
TL;DR: in December 2019 Teresa organised a surprise weekend for Gianluigi’s birthday, so we travelled to Speyside for the first time. One of the few times we travelled by train, it wasn’t easy to reach all the places we wanted. Nevertheless, in the first couple of days, we managed to visit four distilleries in Elgin, Aberlour and Dufftown.
2019 was a weird year for us. Because of an intense period at work, Gianluigi could take very few leave days throughout the year. But it was also the year where something changed for us about whisky: we became members of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, we started listening to whisky podcasts, reading books, and visiting distilleries more often. So, when December arrived, going off on a wee whisky holiday was a very easy decision to take. It was also Teresa’s gift to Gianluigi for his birthday…so for him the destination was a surprise!
In the morning, first train to Aberdeen, then another one to Elgin, so Speyside, which we’d never been before! This is home to over 50 distilleries, without doubts the biggest producing single malt whisky region. Although not all of them are open to visitors, a good bunch are. Which ones then? Still a mystery to Gianluigi.
The first distillery was only a 20-minute walk from Elgin train station: Glen Moray. We are now very fond of this one, probably underrated because of their entry-level expressions available in supermarkets. Thanks to a few very tasty SMWS bottlings, however, at the time we had already started to appreciate it, so Gianluigi was very happy! Because of time constraints we only did a tutored tasting at the distillery’s café. We chose different flights, the travel retail (with the Elgin Heritage NAS, 12y and 15y, but all bottled at 48% and not chill-filtered) and the distillery casks (2008 ex-rye cask finish, 2001 2nd fill ex-oloroso, 2014 peated ex-gamay cask). We loved these expressions, in particular the 12y in the travel retail range and the 2008 Rye cask finish, but we felt it was too early in our trip to buy anything (much regretted decision).
From there, we took a cab to another distillery, completely unknown to us: Benriach. Together with its sisters GlenDronach and Glenglassaugh, it had been recently sold to Brown-Foreman (aka Jack Daniel’s).
At the time the visitor centre was just a small room with a couple of sofas, table and chairs, and a small shop. The tour was intimate (only 6) and quite in depth. We were guided throughout production, including their malting floor (first time we visited one), and we tasted the wash (someone said: “like a bland and watery beer, basically an English ale”). It was before the revamp of their core range, so we tried their 10y, 10y peated (Curiositas), the magnificent 12y triple-sherry cask, and the travel retail 10y triple distilled (of which we were able to grab a bottle only a few months ago), and another couple of older distillery exclusive expressions, including a peated ex-port cask. Truly a great tasting!
By the end of the tasting, it was dark outside (December…), and we almost missed the last bus to go to our final destination for the day. Fortunately the driver saw us waving at him in the dark. We arrived in Dufftown, where we stayed at the Conval House, a lovely B&B run by the very kind Linda. After the check-in, we had dinner at the Stuart Arms (not open anymore) and a couple of final drams at the Seven Stills.
The next day we woke up a bit dizzy, how so? (wink, wink). This didn’t prevent us to move on with our mission, and after breakfast, Linda generously drove us to the next distillery: Aberlour, in the near village of… Aberlour!
It was just us on the tour, definitely not high season for them. The guide gave us a dram straight away (the 12y), which we enjoyed before another really in depth tour. The distillery sits in a marvellous location, surrounded by woods and near the Linn Falls waterfall.
Again, the final tasting was quite generous, with samples of the newmake spirit, the 16y, the Casg Annamh, and two 14y single cask, one from an ex-bourbon barrel and another from an ex-sherry butt. Unfortunately the A’Bunadh, which we hadn’t tried yet, was not in the line-up, but we would have caught up later that day.
After a quick stop at the Walker’s cookies shop in Aberlour, we caught the bus, next stop: the Speyside Cooperage. It was a very cool experience, and very different from a distillery. To be honest, the guide did not say much (a bit shy?), but was available to reply any questions. However, as whisky novices we didn’t have that many. The walk in the production area was very interesting: we could admire the toasting process and the coopers doing their magic rebuilding the casks.
Finally, the last stop for the day: the Glenfiddich distillery. This is a massive operation with a capacity of over 22 million litres of alcohol per year. The tour started with an introduction video. After that, we parted from another quite large group of people, as only the two of us went for the in-depth tour. It was the first time we visited a distillery of that size: the two huge lines of stills striked us!
At the end of the tour and after a wee look at the bottling line, we were ready for thetasting. We had the 12y, the 15y, the Project XX (the best of the bunch, in our opinion), the Fire and Cane, the 18y and finally the 21y rum finish. When we visited the warehouses we could try a tiny sip of the 15y cask strength form one of their huge solera-style vatting tubs – very tasty but pricey (at the time 120 quids at the visitor centre).
Our day ended with a nice dinner at A Taste of Speyside restaurant (now unfortunately closed), and another dram, only one this time (the Aberlour A’Bunadh) at the Seven Stills. What an intense day!
Distillery (tours) links
(Because this trip happened almost 3 years ago, we are not compiling the distillery visit evaluation box.)