There’s something about the air in Scotland’s Speyside region. As you walk through the elevations and the long, spiralling roads that connect this area in the north-east with nearby towns, you can smell the maltiness and caramel notes of whisky.
That’s because Speyside is one of the six—apart from Highlands, Lowlands, Campbeltown, Islay and Islands—whisky-producing regions of Scotland, and by far the most prominent. It’s home to more than 50 whisky distilleries, thanks to the Spey, one of the longest and fastest-flowing rivers in Scotland.
Like wine, the location of where Scotch is produced influences everything from its taste and look to smell. While Scotch whisky produced in the Highlands region is sweet and rich in character, Speyside whiskies are renowned for hints of vanilla, oak, dried fruits, with either very little or no peat at all.
To find out more about these finer details, and taste a wide range of whiskies, I recently visited The Macallan Distillery, for an exclusive experience at The Macallan Estate in Craigellachie, Moray.
The private tour starts with a dram (meaning a small serving; a term you will encounter a lot in Scotland) of some of the finest single malt whiskies to come out of Scotland. In this instance, it was The Macallan Sherry Oak 18 Years Old, which has a robust flavour with hints of spice, clove, orange and toasted mature oak.
Following a light lunch at the Elchies Brasserie, where the dishes include everything from Speyside hare meat to whisky butter, the experience moved on to a tour of the estate by car. This marked the beginning of an immersive experience to understand the incredible detail that goes into making whisky.
Driving past The Macallan’s old distillery, which was established in 1824, we are given a preview of the warehouses from the outside. There are 64 warehouses at The Macallan Estate, housing close to 400,000 casks. We pass a large pile of casks. “The ones labelled with a red cover are really special as these are responsible for some of the best Macallan whisky,” says Lindsay Burgess, our guest experience host, as she drives us around the 485-acre estate.
It is hard to miss the Spey river in the background. While the moist weather is perfect for whisky distilleries in the region, the river plays a key role in the overall production process. “Anything we take from the river, we are going to clean at our effluent plant on site and return it to the river,” Burgess adds, as we taste a dram of The Macallan Edition No.6 near an old well next to the river bank. “We need the water for more than just making (the spirit). We need it for cooling, condensing and cleaning. The river is perfect for this. But it is governed by SEPA (Scottish Environment Protection Agency, the principal environmental regulator), who have full control over what we put back. We have to be very careful and respectful of the environment.”
We return to the new distillery, first announced in 2012 and completed in May 2018, which sits at the heart of the estate. It’s an architectural marvel. Designed by the acclaimed architects Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners (now known as RSHP), the £140 million (around ₹1,400 crore) distillery has 36 copper stills that allow it to produce approximately 12 million litres of spirit per year.
The distillery building—with its unique geodesic rooftop design—also houses the Brasserie, the exquisite Macallan Bar and a contemporary visitor experience centre, complete with a gift shop, interactive pillars and two archive walls that showcase more than 950 Macallan bottles, some of them dating back to the 1820s. For whisky lovers, it’s like Disneyland.
It is during this interactive part of the tour in the distillery that I also learn the importance of—and difference between— European and American oak used to make the casks for the maturing process. Whiskies take 100% of their colour from the wood in which they are matured. “That red, copper, brown kind of colour will come from the European oak,” Burgess explains. While European oak imparts flavours of dried fruits, spices and orange citrus in the whisky, American oak tends to offer sweeter, lighter lemon citrus and vanilla notes. Each cask is like a different person, which gives every bottle of whisky a different character.
The Macallan experience is not the only whisky tour in the region. Places like the Speyside Cooperage in Dufftown and active distilleries like Benromach, Glen Grant, Glen Moray, Glenfiddich, The Glenlivet and Strathlisa are part of the famous Speyside Malt Whisky Trail, which takes you to nine destinations. For whisky enthusiasts, the annual Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival, which will run from 26 April-1 May this year, is another excellent option, given the host of whisky tours and experiences on offer.
Whisky etiquette is also worth keeping an eye out for. Many of us are used to heavily diluting our choice of whisky with water. But ask for some water with your dram of whisky in Scotland and it’s possible you will be handed a small decanter of water with a dropper. That’s because in some cases you only need a few drops of water to open up the flavours of the whisky. You can sense the change in the whisky’s composition—after the water is added—not just when you taste it but also visually. It’s almost like adding more water to your watercolours.
It’s safe to say I have returned from Scotland with a renewed sense of respect for whisky. Not just for the manner in which it is produced, but also for how it should be consumed and savoured.
During my visit, the talk of the town was the once in a lifetime sighting of the northern lights, or aurora borealis. A visit to Speyside is similar—a must for any whisky enthusiast, whether you are a tasting hobbyist or a vintage collector of this “liquid gold”. It’s nothing short of magical.
The writer was in Scotland at the invitation of the Edrington Group.