Best Distilleries Distilled
Where: Highlands, Scotland
Half the malt distilleries in Scotland are sprinkled through the valley of the River Spey east of Inverness in the heart of the Scottish Highlands. The tourist board markets it as the Malt Whisky Trail, a route 113km (70 miles) long through the glens of Speyside, connecting several fine distilleries that accept visitors, usually from March through October.
Begin in Keith with the oldest operating distillery in the Highlands, Strathisla (Seafield Ave.; tel. 44/1542/783-044; www.chivas.com), dating from 1786. With its twin pagoda-like kiln chimneys in front, this cozy stone distillery may be the most picturesque on the trail. Most of its whisky is spirited off to be blended into Chivas Regal, but the small amount of single-malt it does bottle is excellent, slightly sweet and fruity.
Just off the A941 in Craigellachie, the Macallan Distillery (tel. 44/1340/872-280; www.themacallan.com) is built around a Jacobean manor house on a dramatic hilltop overlooking the Spey; it's surrounded by its own golden barley fields and a pure mountain spring on site. Guided tours (prebooking essential) let you see the unusually small stills and hand-crafted oak barrels that give The Macallan its extraordinary complex and full-bodied smoothness -- which you'll be able to savor in post-tour tasting sessions.
The epicenter of the whisky universe is Dufftown, which has no fewer than seven distilleries. The best-known is Glenfiddich (A941; tel. 44/1340/820-373; www.glenfiddich.com), still owned by the Grant family who founded it in 1887. With its white silos and smokestacks, it's not as picturesque as the others, but the kilted guides run an informative tour, and the tasting at tour's end gives you a satisfying dram of mellow, golden whisky. The Grant family's other excellent Dufftown distillery, The Balvenie (tel. 44/1340/820-373; www.balvenie.com) now runs a limited number of in-depth tours of its century-old maltings, mash house, cooperage, and still rooms. They're pricey, but well worth it. Advance booking is essential.
A great place to end your tour is the Glenlivet Distillery (B9008, 16km/10 miles north of Tomintoul; tel. 44/1340/821-720; www.glenlivet.com). Madly popular worldwide, Glenlivet has a sweet, rounded taste with intriguing hints of bitterness. The distillery's wind-scoured moorland setting will take your breath away.
Read about the Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival.
Inverness (66km/41 miles).
Where to Stay:
Minmore House Hotel, Glenlivet (tel. 44/1807/590-378; www.minmorehousehotel.com). Grange House, Grange (near Keith; tel. 44/1542/870-206; www.aboutscotland.com/banff/grangehouse.html).