#20.1 Feast on the East

East of Scotland bonanza: Fettercairn and Arbikie


TL;DR: On our way to Speyside, we stopped by two distilleries along the way. One old, Fettercairn, and one new, Arbikie. We liked both tours: while Fettercairn was more of a classical distillery experience, we appreciated Arbikie forward-thinking and innovative spirit. Fettercairn Warehouse 2 drams were outstanding! 

Here we are again, mid-September, early Friday morning, on a bus to Lochrin Place, near Tollcross, where a car is waiting for us. We had booked it at McNicoll – following the increase in rental car prices due to the pandemic, they are now quite competitive and their service is generally much better than most of the other ones. That morning Teresa, the designated driver for the weekend (Gianluigi: “AH-AH”), drove us up north towards the Highlands, but then turned eastward on the road to Aberdeen.

Our first appointment of the day was with Fettercairn distillery, at the bottom of the Cairngorms mountains (which is the meaning of the name). This distillery is owned by White and Mackay and has a long history. Founded in 1824, it was one of the first to get a distilling license.

Here we are, ready for the tour (not so much for the wind).

Recently the brand underwent a restyling, so although the 12y and the 12y ex-PX cask (a travel retail expression) stayed at 40%, the 16y moved to a more natural presentation: from 40 to 46%, not chill-filtered and no artificial colour additions, just what we enthusiasts want! They also added the Warehouse 2 series to their portfolio, usually younger expressions at a higher abv from a vatting of casks selected by the distillery manager, each different from the previous one.

As we get to the (renewed) visitor centre, we are welcomed by our guide for the day: Kirsty. She illustrated very clearly the historical context of the late 1700s and early 1800s, around the time that Fettercairn got its license.

We then moved to the Forest Flow monument outside the visitor centre, a testimony of the distillery’s sustainability plans. For example, they planted oak trees on the Fasque Estate, an 8,500 acres land nearby. Another long-term but extremely interesting plan is a collaboration with the farmers in the area around the distillery, which will lead to single-farm expressions: exciting times!

The Forest Flow.

 Moving to production, Kirsty showed us the water recycle system they have in place to minimise water waste.We were then shown their copper lidded mashtun, their Douglas Fir washbacks, and finally, their 2 pairs of (vapour coil heated) stills with their cooling ring. This was one of the most interesting features: the ring is a circular tube spraying water on the neck of the still, cooling it and therefore increasing the reflux. In our understanding, this makes some particles drop back into the still, allowing only the lighter ones to go up. So cool(ing)!

Isn’t it cool?

We checked out the warehouse and finally went back to the visitor centre for a taste of the two 12y expressions and the 16y (we opted to pay and extra fiver for a third sample). The two 12y were tasty compared to other 40% basic drams, but the stand-out was the 16y: a nutty storm, truly delicious. Kirsty was very kind and gave us also two wee samples of the Warehouse 2 collection, batch 3 and 4 (1 and 2 were gone): the #4 is a more classical, rich and fruity dram, while the ex-rum cask influence on #3 gives it a tropical and flowery perfume, one of the most floral drams we ever tried. Both amazing.

Yummy drams!

Overall, a nice visit, which we’d repeat, particularly because Kirsty told us that they are planning to offer new tours, including warehouse tastings and some Warehouse 2 series focused, looking forward to it!

We had lunch in a café close to the famous arch in Fettercairn, and then moved to the next distillery: Arbikie. This is a quite new distillery, founded in 2013 by the Stirling brothers, originally farmers in the area. They started by producing vodka with potatoes they cultivate, and soon moved to gin and later to whisky. An interesting characteristic is that they produce whisky from 3 different grains: oat, rye and, of course, malted barley. As we parked, we were welcomed by a stunning view of the fields and the sea, truly a beautiful spot! The amazing landscape can also be enjoyed from the very nice café and restaurant.

Amazing view from Arbikie.

There were works going on to build a new semi-open conservatory to improve visitors’ experience, particularly in sunny days. It’s just the two of us on the whisky tour (they have also a gin-focused and a general tour). Our guide was Andy, very knowledgeable and whose great-grandfather worked for the Stirling family.

Lots still going on at the distillery!

Everything in the distillery is oriented towards sustainability, with heat-exchangers and other features in place to minimise energy consumption. Some peculiarities are their stainless washback silos (more similar to those in breweries) and their stills: three pot stills (one for wash and two for spirit) and the column stills. While gin and vodka are exclusively distilled in the column still, for the whisky they can play with a combination of the two. For example, we’ve been told that some of their rye newmake spirit recently underwent the second distillation in the columns, as the spirit stills (normally used for the second distillation) were under repair. Unlike most distilleries, they currently don’t have a dunnage warehouse, everything is palletized. On top of the usual ones, they have a variety of casks, including ex-Armagnac, ex-rum, and ex-red wine.

Pot and…
…column stills.

Back at the shop we tried some of their rye whiskies, the first ones officially released in Scotland in over 100 years. We had two expressions, the one that can be defined their core range (which we had already tried via Whisky-Me), and a single cask finished in ex-Armagnac casks. The second was better, but we weren’t huge fan of either: too herbal, almost a hybrid between a gin and a young rum. Very pricey too, £90 for the first and £250 for the second. It must not be easy to find your feet for something so uncommon as a Scottish rye whisky, where, unlike single malts, there is no “blueprint”. So, we are confident that their product will improve over time, in particular as more aged stock becomes available. Also, we’ll be very curious to try their single malt, once released.

The rye tasting.

Back to the car, we took the “slow” but very scenic road across Speyside to reach Fochabers, where we had our hotel booked. After a nice dinner at the Gordon Arms Hotel, we went to bed ready for the next day.

Fettercairn Tour (with extra dram)

Price: £20.00 pp (September 2022, £15 without the extra dram)

Duration: 1h 30min

Tasting: 3 drams, 12y (40%), 12y PX-finish (travel exclusive, 40%), 16y (46.4%, NC, NCF)

Target: anyone

Value for money: Very good

Highlights: the cooling ring system on the stills

Recommended: definitely!

Link: https://www.fettercairnwhisky.com/

Arbikie Whisky Tour

Price: £25.00 pp (September 2022)

Tasting: 2 drams, Arbikie rye (48%, NC, NCF), Arbikie single cask rye ex-Armagnac finish (46%, NC, NCF)

Target: anyone

Value for money: Ok

Highlights: the view and the distillery setting

Recommended: mainly to fans of all spirits

Link: https://arbikie.com/

#2.5 A very Scottish summer holiday

A trip to Orkney Speyside et al.
(day 5 and 6)


Leaving Speyside, direction the West Coast: not California, rather the Morvern peninsula and Nc’Nean.

(Forward to Day 10 / Days 7-8-9 or back to Day 4 / Day 3 / Day 2 / Day 1)

For day #5 we had no distillery visit planned (panic!!), but we had a long drive instead: we needed to reach the Morvern peninsula on the west coast of Scotland. We started the day calmly each one with a run, Gianluigi aimed for 10k and Teresa for 5k. For the record, we both got lost on our respective paths and ran more than planned (trails on the apps are quite different than on the ground).

Aviemore was supposed to be our first stop, but realising the amount of Sunday traffic and people visiting the town, we decided to keep going until the Culloden Battlefield. At the visitor centre, we had a coffee and bought a 5cl miniature for later (a Culloden Battle Highland Single Malt 8y, slightly peated, which we suspect might be a Loch Lomond). We then drove towards Loch Ness: we decided to drive along the southern coast of the lake, which gifted us with some incredible views!

Loch Ness and the temptation to put our feet in the water.

After a quick stop for a beer at Fort Augustus, we drove through Fort William, took the Corran Ferry and finally got to the Morvern peninsula. At this point the adventure started: we aimed for a parking spot on the beach, which was on the side of a very narrow (almost too narrow…) road. Unfortunately, we got there too late – someone had already taken the spot, so we decided to drive to the Lochaline Hotel, where the owner kindly allowed us to use his parking lot on the shore for the night. We thanked him by having a couple of pints at the bar. Waking up on the sound of the sea was very nice, and for the first time since we had left Edinburgh the weather was promising. We drove to the Clach Na Criche park to have breakfast, at this point it was an amazing sunny day already!

Finally, breakfast in the sun!

The road to the Nc’Nean distillery was harsher than we thought, culminating with half-mile of dirt road. Our van didn’t abandon us though, and we arrived there at the perfect time to start the tour. Since the visitor manager was on a leave, the tasting and tour was guided by the office manager Cindy (aided by her lovely wee dug), which welcomed us with a coffee and a gluten-free brownie! She has been there from the very start of the company, so she knew all the details we were curious about, including how the distillery building was a restored farm on the Drimmin Estate, all the innovation put in place to guarantee the carbon neutrality (recently achieved when we visited), and the challenges that releasing their first expression during a global pandemic brought, including having to get a provisional, and very manual, bottling line.

Gianluigi and the wee dug.

As usual, the tour ended with a tasting. We had three drams: the newmake spirit, the Nc’Nean botanical spirit (described by Cindy and others as a “gin-whisky hybrid”, as it is done by redistilling their newmake with botanicals at the Kintyre Distillery down south), and finally a dram of the Nc’Nean Single Malt. A few months back we had a taste of the very first batch released in September 2020, which to be honest we found a bit too young. However, the one we tasted there (batch 6) was more complex and deeper in flavour, with the STR casks used (in combination with ex-bourbon ones) having a bigger impact on the whisky.

Satisfaction after the distillery visit.

After the distillery tour we took a long walk in the Drimmin Estate, in particular to visit the gallery of the artist Alan B. Hayman, specialised in landscapes as well as Scottish fauna – some of the paintings were truly stunning! We got back to the van, got a quick but delicious sandwich at a kiosk at the Lochaline docks (which we already knew from a previous trip back from Mull), and we drove to Aoineadh Mor. This was an historical township depopulated during the infamous Highland clearances, where the land was taken from the crofters and given to the lords for their sheep herds. The walk is quite short and not particularly difficult, and it is possible to see the ruins of over a dozen former house buildings, a scar in the Scottish history still visible in this magnificent landscape.

Teresa ahead of the walking game.

Back to the car park, we thought it was the perfect spot for the night. There was one tiny detail we hadn’t taken into account: MIDGES! After a nice dinner, we had planned to spend the evening reading and having a few drams on the wooden benches outside. Instead, we had to quickly beat a retreat and lock ourselves up in the van to not get eaten alive by those b…. ehm, annoying beasts. We still had the drams, of course.

Nc’Nean Tour

Price: £15.00 pp (August 2021)

Tasting: 3 drams, new make spirit, botanical spirit and Nc’Nean single malt (batch 6)….plus a coffee and a delicious vegan brownie

Target: everyone, but in particular adventurous people

Value for money: very good

Highlights: the distillery

Things we did not like: nothing

Link: https://ncnean.com/