This is a travel and photo report on Speyside whisky trip without driving. 3 days, 2 nights in Dufftown, 4 distillery tours, extensive distillery walk on all 9 Dufftown distillery sites, and 40 whiskies tasted.
I have been living in Scotland and Edinburgh for 3.5 years now but although being a whisky drinker had not visited many distilleries. Partly the reason has been not having a car (and a driver) and remote location of most distilleries.
Scotland has over 120 whisky distilleries and many of them have visitor centre, tours, or bar, or all of these. While whisky tourism today is part of the industry, it was not so when these distilleries were founded, even 100 to 200 years ago. At that time the location was not chosen based on ease of transportation for tourists but goods. Many distilleries are located in rural areas near barley fields and water sources. Longer distance transportation, for example shipping the whisky out, was handled by ships or trains but unfortunately most of those old railways do not exist anymore. Therefore, many distilleries are located in rural areas with no train lines and only small roads. They can be tricky to visit without driving that again does not go so well with drinking whisky.
I had this Speyside trip roughly planned already a year ago when I was first planning to do it. Finally now in June 2018, followed by a trip to Islay I carried on with the whisky month and did a trip to Speyside.
Speyside is definitely one of the top locations for visiting several distilleries with short distances in between. According to Visit Scotland, there are 50 distilleries in Speyside area. Not all of them welcome visitors, yet you will find many of the most famous distilleries with visitor centres in the area.
First I listed distilleries in Speyside that are easily accessible by public transportation, either train or bus. Eventually I picked Dufftown as my destination for spending two nights as it has several distilleries around it, significant history in whisky industry in Scotland, and because I had heard and read good things about Dufftown distilleries walk.
I picked four distilleries from my list along with the distilleries walk and build my itinerary around those. This post gives you an idea how I travelled there, how were the tours, what whisky I tasted, and of course loads of photos.
After deciding to stay in Dufftown for two nights, I booked the distilleries walk and built the rest around that. I wanted to visit few distilleries but still not too many that it would feel like running from a place to another, and also to avoid drinking too much. One note though that drams you get in tastings after distillery tours are usually very small, not the usual bar dram.
I wanted to leave Edinburgh as early as possible to fit two distillery visits for the first day. I chose Aberlour as typical traditional distillery to start with, and then new Macallan for something completely different. I booked these tours in advance.
I had not booked any tours for the second day as I was unsure if I wanted to do any before the long distilleries walk full of whisky. After all, I did go to Glenfiddich for a tour. Afternoon and evening was reserved for the 5-hour distilleries walk.
On third day on my way back I went for a tour in Strathisla I also had booked in advance. I had an option to stop at Forres for Benromach distillery on my way to Inverness but eventually skipped this and went directly to Inverness and then Edinburgh.
At the end of this post I have listed distilleries that are nearby the places I went to but did not include in this trip.
- Thursday to Saturday, two nights in Dufftown
- Day 1, Thursday
- Morning train from Edinburgh to Elgin, then bus down to Aberlour
- Aberlour distillery
- Macallan distillery
- Accommodation in Dufftown
- Day 2, Friday
- Glenfiddich distillery
- Dufftown distilleries walk, connoisseurs’ tour
- Second night in Dufftown
- Day 3, Saturday
- Old train from Dufftown to Keith
- Strathisla distillery
- Train to Inverness
- Train back to Edinburgh
Note that there are no trains going between Aberdeen and Dyce in summer 2018 due to major rail work. Therefore, only western Scotland railway was available. Normally there are options via Aberdeen as well.
Day 1: Edinburgh to Aberlour and Dufftown
- Train from Edinburgh to Elgin
- Bus from Elgin to Aberlour
- Visit at Aberlour distillery
- Visit at Macallan distillery
- Accommodation in Dufftown
I wanted to leave early so that I could visit two distilleries in the first day. I took a train from Edinburgh Haymarket at 6:38, arriving to Elgin at 11:38. This included 10 min transfer in Sterling and 30 min transfer in Inverness. So it is quite long journey, not expensive though; I only paid £17.15 when booked 2 months in advance.
Highlands are sparsely populated area so public transportation is not superb. Trains between Inverness and Forres/Elgin/Keith can be only every 2 hours. Also the bus going from Elgin down to Aberlour and Dufftown only goes once an hour. Arriving at Elgin at 11:38 the bus had left 11:30 so I needed to wait nearly an hour there. But this was a good time to eat before getting into the whisky business. Elgin is a small town so it is not much there; there is a small shopping centre where the bus station is, where you can find few shops (e.g. Mountain Warehouse), Subway, and a cafe.
I took 12:30 bus to Aberlour, which takes around 40 minutes. The journey costs £5.95 and there are also Moray area day tickets available for £10. Buses are operated by Stagecoach and they also have an app to track buses, check stops, and buy tickets.
While I took the bus from Elgin directly to Aberlour, there are many distilleries on the way. Therefore, this bus is actually your best mean to visit Speyside distilleries without driving. Between Elgin and Aberlour there are at least following distilleries: Benriach, Longmorn, Speyburn, Glen Grant, Glenrothes and Glen Spey, although I think only Benriach and Glen Grant are open to public.
Arriving to Aberlour village at 13:10 and distillery tour starting at 14, I had time for a coffee and short walk through the village.
Aberlour is owned by Chivas Brothers but known for single malts, not an ingredient for blends.
Unfortunately photography was forbidden inside production facilities.
At the end of the tour we got to taste a new make spirit, 12 years old bourbon-only and sherry-only not-for-sale samples, Aberlour 10, Aberlour 16, and Aberlour A’bunadh. A’bunadh is one of my favourite ‘sherry bomb’ whiskies but unfortunately they recently increased its price by whopping 40 %.
Aberlour distillery tour
- Basic distillery tour, they also offer other tours
- Tasting with six drams:
- New make spirit
- Aberlour 12 bourbon cask sample (not for sale)
- Aberlour 12 sherry cask sample (not for sale)
- Aberlour 10
- Aberlour 16
- Aberlour A’bunadh
- Duration: 1h 45mins
The next step planned after Aberlour tour was Macallan tour at 17, while the Aberlour tour ended at 15:45. The idea was to walk there to sober up a bit; this should be around 1h walk. However, a day before I was contacted from Macallan that there is no tour at 17, it was a booking system error. Plausible explanation as they had just released a new booking system for their new distillery two weeks before. As a replacement they offered me a tour at 16:15. This obviously caused some issues in my tight schedule. So after arriving to Aberlour distillery, before the tour I asked them for advise on organising a transportation to Macallan, and got a taxi for 15:45.
When going there by taxi and especially when leaving the distillery, it was clear that it is not really a walkable route. First of all it is quite long, there is no shortcuts according to the locals, and there is no pavement on the road. If you walk, you need to walk on the road. So taxi really is the way to go. Unfortunately they are not cheap up there, short ride from Aberlour to Macallan cost £14.
So there I was, in front of the new glorious Macallan distillery, seeing the wavey roof (which was clearer from the road the taxi drove, unfortunately no photo).
I had seen photos of the building from outside but not inside so I was truly amazed after stepping inside. Something completely opposite to any other distillery I had seen. When the tour started, the guide said this will be a distillery experience like no other, and I must agree.
Every now and then I had a stupid grin on my face, not only because of the Aberlour malt still warming my face but because of all the moving interactive things and audiovisual bits in the tour. Some will find it ridiculous what they have done but it is a complete breath of fresh air among old and traditional distilleries.
And it does look really cool inside. All the shape and colours provide nice photo opportunities as well.
This distillery really is designed visitors in mind, which shows. All upper deck is basically for visitors, while workers can access necessary things downstairs. Not that it normally requires many workers as everything is fully automated. It is not just shiny metal, blue lights, moving parts, and other eye candy, but also a truly state-of-the-art in terms of technology, automation, sustainability, efficiency, and consistency – according to Macallan.
As a negative side I would say this is not the best tour to learn how whisky is made, it is all other things that steal your attention during the tour. Also, you don’t see the things as in many other tours, like malted barley, barley mill, grist, smell of washbacks and even get a taster of what’s inside, see the spirit flowing from the stills and cut into head, heart, and tail, and feel the extreme heat of the stills. All this is explained and demonstrated using cool visuals but attention easily drifts away, and it is still nicer to actually see these things happening.
Something that was explained in more detail here and also showed in really cool way is cooperage and the use of casks, as this is something Macallan works a bit more on than many other distilleries.
Before ending the tour there was a tasting of five drams at the bar – their new make spirit and four whiskeys.
The tour was finished by showing their very odd cask showcase which again was like from a movie, like an infinite flow of casks in the middle of the building; obviously created with mirrors but still quite impressive.
The tour ended at the shop where our tour lanyards were swapped into Macallan glasses. There was no time after this last tour of the day to go to the bar as they only had a license until 6. They did not even promote the bar. I understood the license was going to change at some point. In the emails regarding the changed tour time they told me to get an extra dram from the bar but there was no time for that…
To recap, I would say this is a tour no whisky lover should skip whether you love or hate Macallan. The experience is simply amazing due to how different it is. However, if you have not been to a distillery before, go somewhere else first. Because from this moment on you will compare everything to Macallan.
Macallan distillery tour
- Macallan six pillars tour, the only one they offer at the moment
- Includes the tour, five tasting drams, and a glass
- Approximately 1.5 hours
- Whiskeys at this tour were:
- New make spirit
- Macallan 12 Triple Cask
- Macallan 12 Double Cask
- Macallan 12 Sherry Oak
- Macallan Rare Cask
More Macallan photos below. There are lots of cool things on the tour, like miniature models lifting up from a table, and audiovisual things. Even the cask demonstrating cooperage burning the casks included not only red light and steam but also heat!
When I left the distillery, the plan was to walk to the bus 36. While I was wandering at the site trying to find a way out, a security guy pulled over and asked where I was going. He kinda laughed at my plan to walk to the bus, and (nicely) asked me to hop in. At first he was going to give me a lift to the bigger road but eventually drove me all the way to Dufftown as he was going there anyway. Brilliant luck! And so nice of him.
But the lesson here is that Macallan is not really accessible by anything else than car. There are no paths, no pavements, no shortcuts according to the taxi driver and this security officer. You can walk to the bus but even that takes a while and you need to walk on the road.
After my lucky incident I arrived to Dufftown. Although whisky industry and its meaning for the region has shrunk, Dufftown is still the whisky capital of Speyside. Despite few distilleries having closed their doors for good, there are still five active distilleries in Dufftown.
It is a tiny town with basically two pubs, two restaurants, and one small shop. And one excellent whisky shop, of course. My accommodation was a flat, Acorn Apartment, and football World Cup was just going on so spending evenings in the flat was not a problem. This also ensured being sharp next morning, ready for new whisky adventures.
I can highly recommend Acorn Apartment, it is a fully equipped flat with sleeping space for six but you can also have less people for good price, for example I was alone.
See next page for Day 2.