It was around the fourth whisky distillery that I was forced to acknowledge an incontrovertible truth about myself: I do not and likely will never enjoy drinking Scotch whisky.
I don't like peaty whiskies or floral whiskies; I don't like whisky neat or on the rocks or even (gasp) in cocktails; I don't even really enjoy the smell of whisky, if I'm being completely honest.
But you know what I DO love about whisky? The stories and the history.
Whisky-making has a long history in Scotland; people were distilling “the water of life” long before it was legal to do so, and it's a tradition that runs as deeply in the veins of Scotland as kilts and bagpipes.
I'm a lover of history and a lover of stories, and so I found myself fascinated by the idea of traveling a “trail” dedicated to the history and stories of whisky – despite not being a lover of the stuff myself.
Thankfully I'm married to a whisky connoisseur who was only too happy to accompany me on this strange pilgrimage I wanted to make as a non-drinker. He would drink and I would drive, we decided.
And so in the middle of a chilly June, my husband Elliot and I drove ourselves into the region of Speyside in the Scottish Highlands in order to travel the official Malt Whisky Trail.
The Malt Whisky Trail in Scotland
The Malt Whisky Trail was the first trail of its kind in the world, having been established in Scotland in the 1950s. But Speyside has been home to the bulk of Scotland's whisky distilleries for far longer.
There are roughly 50 distilleries in Scotland's Moray Speyside region (a region focused around the River Spey in northeast Scotland) producing whisky, though many are not open to the public.
The Malt Whisky Trail covers 9 sites throughout the region: 7 working distilleries ranging from mass production brands to more boutique producers, 1 historic distillery, and the Speyside Cooperage.
We dedicated 3 days to traveling this whiskey trail, though you could spend 5-7 days here and still not see everything!
(If you want to skip to our suggested 3-day Malt Whisky Trail itinerary, click here.)
But first: A Scotch whisky 101 lesson. Single malt whiskies are made using basically just 2 ingredients: water and malted barley. The malting of the barley is usually done off-site now, but the process basically forces the barley to germinate in order to get to the sugars in it. After it's malted, the barley is shipped to a distillery, where it's put into a mash tun in order to extract all the sugar. The product from the mash tun (the mash or wort) is then fermented using yeast in giant vats called washbacks. The beer-like liquid produced after fermentation is then distilled in copper stills, and the resulting spirit is then put into wooden casks (previously-used oak casks in Scotland) to mature for at least 3 years.
Stops along the Whisky Trail
The official sites on the Malt Whisky Trail are:
What makes it worth visiting: This family-owned distillery is one of the smallest in the region, and still makes its whisky the traditional way: entirely by hand. Benromach is a lightly peated whisky, which is unusual for a Speyside!
Tours: Benromach offers 4 different tours. Their Classic Tour is 1 hour and costs £8, which includes a distillery tour and two tastings. Find more tours/book yours here.
Summer hours: 9:30 a.m. – 5 p.m.; Classic Tours run every 30 minutes
Tastings: Don't have time for a tour? You can do tastings of their Classic or Contrast ranges for £12 per person.
2. Cardhu Distillery
What makes it worth visiting: Cardhu is the only distillery that was started by a woman! It was also the first distillery Johnnie Walker purchased to be a part of its blended whisky business.
Tours: Basic distillery tours last 40 minutes, cost £8, and include 1 tasting. There's also an hour-long “Guess Dhu” tour where the tour is followed by a blind whisky tasting and guessing game. This one is £12. There's not online booking for this one; email firstname.lastname@example.org to reserve a spot in advance.
Summer hours: 10 a.m. – 5 p.m.; basic tours generally run on the hour.
What makes it worth visiting: Glenfiddich is home to the world's most-awarded single malt whisky, is still family-run by the Grant family, and was the first Speyside distillery to offer tours in the 1960s.
Tours: Glenfiddich offers 4 different tours to appeal to different levels of whisky lover. Their basic tour is the Explorers Tour, which costs £10 per person, lasts 90 minutes, and includes 3 tastings. Their most expensive tour is the Pioneers Tour, which is basically a whisky masterclass. The tour lasts 4 hours, costs £95, and includes a 20cl bottle that you get to fill yourself from a cask of your choice. Find more tours/books yours here.
Summer hours: 9:30 a.m. – 4 p.m.; Explorers Tours run on the hour
Tastings: Order a dram or a tasting flight at the Malt Barn Bar.
Cafe: The Malt Barn is open for breakfast and lunch, and serves up great Scottish fare.
4. Glen Grant
What makes it worth visiting: Glen Grant offers one of the most inexpensive distillery tours on the Whisky Trail, and tours also include entry to a beautiful Victorian Garden on site.
Tours: Admission is £7.50 for the Glen Grant Distillery and Victorian Garden.
Summer hours: 9:30 a.m. – 5 p.m. Monday-Saturday (11 a.m. – 5 p.m. on Sundays).
5. The Glenlivet
What makes it worth visiting: The Glenlivet distillery was one of the first *legal* distilleries in Speyside, has a nice museum on-site, and is currently producing the largest amount of single malt whisky every year.
Tours: The Glenlivet Distillery offers up to 5 tours to choose from. The most popular is the Classic Tour, which runs 75 minutes, costs £12.50, and includes 3 tastings. If you want to skip the tour and just taste some whisky, the 1-hour Drams of Distinction Tasting is £40 and includes a sampling of rarer single malts. Find more tours/book yours here.
Summer hours: 9.30 a.m. – 6 p.m.; tours run every 30 minutes from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
Cafe: The Old Maltings Coffee Shop is a nice place to grab a snack or light lunch before or after your tour.
6. Glen Moray
What makes it worth visiting: Glen Moray uses all the latest technology in its whisky production, which is interesting to learn about. You can also do a whisky and chocolate pairing here that's worth making the trip for.
Tours: Standard distillery tours cost £5 and include an optional tasting of 2 whiskies. We did the Chocolate and Whisky Tasting Tour, which is offered at noon on Fridays. This tour is £20 per person, and includes a distillery tour followed by a tasting of four Glen Moray whiskies paired with chocolates by Iain Burnett, Highland Chocolatier. Learn more about tours/request to book one here.
Summer hours: 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. Monday-Friday; 10 a.m. – 4:30 p.m. Saturday; closed Sunday; tours run every 1.5 hours
Tastings: You can stop by any time to do a 4-dram tasting for £10.
What makes it worth visiting: Strathisla is the oldest operating distillery in the Scottish Highlands, dating back to 1786. It is, in my opinion, the prettiest distillery we visited and had the coziest tasting room. The whisky produced here mostly goes into Chivas Regal blends.
Tours: The Traditional Distillery Tour lasts 75 minutes, costs £15, and includes 4 tastings at the end. You can also book a cellar tasting (£40) if you want to taste some things straight from the cask, or even book a Blending Experience. Learn more about tours here.
Summer hours: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Tastings: Don't have time for a tour? Stop in to the comfy tasting room for a Fly Dram, a tasting of 3 different whiskies for £10.
8. Speyside Cooperage
What makes it worth visiting: Probably the most unique stop on the Malt Whisky Trail, the Speyside Cooperage is a working cooperage where coopers use traditional tools and methods to build and repair (but mostly repair) casks used for aging whisky. A tour here includes a 4-D video about cask-making, and then the chance to watch coopers at work.
Tours: The Classic Tour costs £4 per person and lasts 45 minutes.
Hours: 9 a.m. – 4:45 p.m. Monday-Friday; tours run every 30 minutes from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.
Cafe: There's a coffee shop on-site that's open 9 a.m. – 4 p.m. Monday-Friday.
9. Dallas Dhu
What makes it worth visiting: Dallas Dhu is no longer an active distillery, but rather an historic one. You can see how distilleries operated decades ago, from the malt barn to the kiln to the still house; basically, you can see parts of the whisky-making process here that you won't see at other Speyside distilleries.
Tours: Admission is £6 and includes an audio guide
Hours: 9.30 a.m. to 5.30 p.m.
Things to know about traveling the Scotch Whisky Trail
A few things to know as you're planning your Malt Whisky Trail trip:
1. The official stops aren't the only ones worth making
The distilleries along the official Malt Whisky Trail are all part of it for good reason – they're big names within the whisky industry, and/or have really interesting stories that are worth hearing.
BUT, there are dozens of other Speyside distilleries NOT on the Whisky Trail, too. For example, we also added a visit to the brand new distillery at The Macallan Estate, which was a must for Elliot.
The majority of the distilleries in Speyside are within a 30-minute drive of one another, so you can certainly swap some out for others if you have any personal favorites.
Another thing we considered adding is this Dufftown Distilleries Walk with Speyside Tours, which visits 9 different Dufftown distilleries – with samples at each!
2. DON'T drink and drive
Scotland has very strict drink-driving rules (even stricter than in other parts of the UK), and basically no tolerance for people who break them. The legal blood alcohol content (BAC) in Scotland is 50mg/100ml blood or 0.05% – but the limit for breath is 0.022%. For many people, one dram of strong whisky could put you over that limit.
Thankfully, offering to be a designated driver on the Malt Whisky Trail doesn't mean you have to miss out on all those great (and often included) tastings.
Mention that you're driving at any distillery, and they will likely offer to give you your tastings in “driver's drams.” A couple distilleries (like The Glenlivet and Glen Moray) will charge a couple pounds extra for little glass bottles, while others offer them up for free.
These are SUCH a great idea, and I wish more countries would adopt this model to encourage people to drink safely, even while on a dream vacation. (Elliot was a big fan of this, too, because it meant he could enjoy my drams later on!)
3. Be prepared for single-track roads
Another reason you definitely don't want to be impaired while driving around in Scotland? Many roads are narrow, sometimes even single-track (meaning only wide enough for one car).
Google Maps will often take you down single-track roads as the fastest route between two distilleries, so don't be surprised if you find yourself on one!
4. Make note of silent seasons
For a few weeks every year, each distillery will go through what it calls its “silent season.” During these weeks, the distillery stops whisky production in order to carry out maintenance and repairs.
You can often still tour distilleries during this time (we toured The Glenlivet during its silent season), but you won't necessarily see everything you would during the normal production season. Some distilleries do their maintenance in the quieter winter months, but others have silent season in the summer.
Check online as you're planning your trip in case this will make a difference in your itinerary choices.
Non-whisky things to do in Speyside
Even though Speyside is the capital of single malts in Scotland, there are plenty of things to do nearby that don't have anything to do with whisky. I of course made sure we worked a few of these into our itinerary.
My favorite non-whisky-related stops we made included:
Ballindalloch Castle and Gardens
No trip to Scotland would be complete without a visit to a castle, and Ballindalloch is a great option in the Moray Speyside region. This castle has been the family home of Macpherson-Grants since 1546, and they still live there!
This isn't a castle ruin, but an actual lived-in castle, which I always think is more interesting. Be sure to give yourself enough time to wander around the beautiful grounds and gardens, too, if you decide to visit.
We only allowed ourselves a little more than an hour to visit, and definitely could have spent double that amount of time just wandering through all the gardens!
Bow Fiddle Rock
The River Spey originates in the Scottish Highlands and flows for 107 miles before emptying out in the Moray Firth. This means that you're never really all that far from the coast no matter where you are in Speyside.
I saw a photo of Bow Fiddle Rock in a Moray tourism brochure, and decided we needed to go. Bow Fiddle Rock is along the Moray Coastal Trail, which runs between the towns of Forres and Cullen.
Thankfully you don't have to walk much of the trail at all to reach the rock formation – simply drive to the little town of Portnockie, and it's right there!
You can also make quick stops at Craigellachie Bridge (a cool cast iron arch bridge that spans the River Spey) and the Knockando Woolmill if you find yourself with some time to kill. There's a nice coffee shop at the woolmill that's perfect for a non-whisky pick-me-up.
A 3-Day Malt Whisky Trail Itinerary
If you're curious about how to distill (ha! an unintended pun!) this all down into just 3 days in Speyside, here's an example of the itinerary my husband and I used for our tour of the Malt Whisky Trail.
Because I don't really drink and because the distillery tours do all seem very similar after you do a couple, we did not do tours at every distillery – and didn't even visit every single spot on the Trail. We added some non-distillery stops, and went to a distillery not on the Malt Whisky Trail that Elliot really wanted to see.
Note: Our itinerary was largely based around when we could book certain tours (the Macallan tours, for example, sometimes book up a couple days in advance!), and looked slightly different than this. But this suggested itinerary is based on what we enjoyed the most and which tours/activities pair up well together.
Feel free to use our itinerary for inspiration!
Morning: Speyside Cooperage
Start your morning off with a visit to the Speyside Cooperage, where you can get unique insight into how all those whisky casks are built and maintained. There's a fun 4-D video all about cask making, and then you can watch the coopers at work.
This was fascinating to everyone on our tour, and a highlight for both Elliot and I. The art of coopering is still a very traditional one, and would-be coopers have to go through a 4-year apprenticeship. They don't build many casks here any longer, but they do more than 100,000 repairs every year since whisky casks can be used multiple times.
Tours here start at 9:30 a.m., so this is the best place to start your day!
Late morning: Glenfiddich
Super close by, you can visit Glenfiddich next. Glenfiddich is a large-scale whisky producer, yet is still family-run after 5 generations (which is not the norm!).
The tour here is very comprehensive; you get to learn about the distillation process, see the big wooden washbacks that are still used for fermentation, and even see where they bottle everything.
If you're driving: Sadly you won't get driver's drams at Glenfiddich. People doing the full tour will get 3 tastings, while drivers are given a travel-sized bottle of Glenfiddich 12 to take with them.
Lunch: The Malt Barn at Glenfiddich
Glenfiddich has a nice restaurant and bar onsite where you can grab lunch and maybe one more dram before you continue on.
Strathisla is not known for its single malts – rather, it's known for contributing to Chivas Regal blends. But this is the oldest operating distillery in the Scottish Highlands, so it's worth visiting for that fact alone.
We didn't do a full tour here, but instead just stopped in for a Fly Dram, a quick 15-minute 3-dram tasting. The Strathisla tasting room is SO cozy, and the tasting including a single malt that you aren't likely to find elsewhere.
Tastings come with jelly beans, too (because no two whisky blends will ever taste exactly the same, just as no two handfuls of jelly beans will be exactly the same).
This would be a good distillery to tour, though, to contrast a smaller-production distillery with a giant like Glenfiddich.
Evening: Moray coast/Cullen
From Glenfiddich, it's a 40-45 minute drive to Portnockie on the coast, where you can visit the cliffs, coastal path, and Bow Fiddle Rock. Follow one of the trails down to the rocky beach, and make sure you come ready to take some photos!
This spot is more popular at sunrise/sunset, so if you visit in the late afternoon/early evening, there's a good chance you'll have it all to yourself.
After you get your fill of photos at Bow Fiddle Rock, drive along the coast to to Cullen, a seaside village home to only 1300 people. There's a beach here (and a beachfront golf course!) that's nice for a walk, plus the village itself is adorable.
We grabbed dinner at the Cullen Bay Hotel, which has fantastic views out over the beach. (Try the Cullen Skink, a creamy fish soup that this village is famous for.)
Morning: Benromach or Dallas Dhu
Benromach and Dallas Dhu are both on the Whisky Trail, but are a little far from the other trail sites. If you want to visit either of them, this is where I'd start this morning.
Late morning: Glen Moray
Next, head to Elgin to visit Glen Moray. Elliot and I did the chocolate and whisky tasting tour here, which is only offered at noon on Fridays – but it looks like you can now do this chocolate and whisky pairing anytime at Glen Moray's tasting bar.
This was a fun pairing, with incredible chocolates from Iain Burnett, Highland Chocolatier.
The tour at Glen Moray is interesting, too, as the distillery uses all the latest technology and aims to not waste anything (even down to the steam coming off the wash stills). You get to go into a warehouse here, too, where you can smell how different types of casks affect the aging whisky.
If you're driving: You can purchase a driver's dram “kit” for an extra £2, which comes with little glass bottles for all your tastings, as well as a reusable plastic bag to carry them in.
Elgin is one of the larger cities in Speyside, with a population of 23,000. There are lots of cafes and restaurants to choose from here.
If you have extra time, stop by the impressive ruins of Elgin Cathedral, which dates back to the 1200s.
Late afternoon: Macallan tour
The Macallan Estate isn't part of the Malt Whisky Trail, but Elliot admires this whisky a lot, and I had read all about their brand new, state-of-the-art visitor experience and wanted to check it out.
The Macallan tour is not like ANY other distillery tour you'll take in Scotland. The distillery, opened in summer 2018, is very futuristic, and was essentially built with the visitor experience in mind. Meaning I definitely recommend checking it out!
The tour doesn't cover a ton of ground. You won't, for example, see any malting floors or warehouses. You'll see giant mash tuns and dozens of copper stills, though, along with several multimedia-heavy displays that creatively explain the whisky-making process.
Locals and other distillers in the area largely HATE the new Macallan distillery and tour (there's really nothing “traditional” about it), but Elliot and I really enjoyed it!
If you're driving: The Macallan tour includes 3 tastings, one of which you're not allowed to take out of the distillery. But for the other two, they'll give you small glass bottles for your take-away drams.
Evening: Craigallechie bridge
This evening, pop by the Craigellachie Bridge for some photos.
Morning: Cardhu distillery
By this point, you'll likely be an expert when it comes to the whisky-making process. Another small distillery tour, then, might not be necessary. But the tour at Cardhu is pretty cool simply because this distillery was pioneered by a woman!
The story of how Helen Cumming, wife of a whisky smuggler, built up this distillery and kept it hidden from the authorities before distilleries were legal in Scotland is a good one. When the excisemen (essentially the alcohol police) would come around, she'd cover herself in flour and throw some bread in the over to cover up the smells of distillation.
Helen's daughter-in-law later took over the distillery, and it was the very first one purchased by Johnnie Walker and Sons in 1893. Cardhu is now run by Diageo, and the whiskies made here still make up a large part of the Johnnie Walker blends.
If you're driving: The basic tour at Cardhu only comes with one tasting, but they'll give you a glass bottle for yours if you tell them you're driving.
Morning: Knockando Woolmill
For a break from whisky, consider stopping by the Knockando Woolmill, which is a picture-perfect woolen mill with lots of old machinery to look at, along with a small cafe and shop. It's only a couple minutes away from Cardhu.
Late morning: Ballindaloch Castle
One of my favorite non-distillery stops in Speyside was Ballindalloch Castle. This is a castle that's still lived in by the Macpherson-Grants, who have called the castle home since 1546.
Wandering through a castle where the living rooms are still lived in and the bedrooms are still slept in is weirdly fascinating to me (I'm really nosy, what can I say), and so I really enjoyed this visit.
The grounds and gardens here are also lovely and well worth strolling through if you have enough time.
There's a tearoom where you can have a light lunch, too.
Afternoon: The Glenlevit
Your last stop can be the famous Glenlivet, currently the distillery producing the most single malt whisky every year in Speyside.
There's a coffee shop here if you arrive early for your tour, along with a small museum about the Glenlivet story.
We visited Glenlivet during its silent season (meaning no whisky was being made at the time), and they don't allow you to take any photos on the tour, but the Glenlivet distillery tour was still Elliot's favorite – mostly because we had a really excellent guide.
Elliot also got to use a copper dog to pull some whisky out of a cask in the warehouse. A copper dog is a long skinny dipper hung from a string that whisky workers would often keep hidden in their pockets, or down a pant leg. They could slip into a warehouse, dip their dog into a barrel, and basically drink all day – often colloquially referred to as “taking the dog for a walk.”
If you're driving: You can purchase a driver's dram “kit” for an extra £4 here, which allows you to take away all 3 tastings.
Pro tip: I definitely recommend booking any must-visit distillery tours in advance. We walked into several (like Cardhu and Glenlivet and the cooperage), but needed reservations at others. If you pre-book all your tours, it'll make it easier to plan out the rest of your itinerary.
Check out this map to see all those stops plotted out for you:
Where to stay on the Malt Whisky Trail
There aren't actually a ton of hotels in the Speyside region, but there are a number of guesthouses and B&Bs, which is what I'd recommend anyway!
We stayed at the Cardhu Country House, just down the lane from Cardhu distillery in Knockando. This B&B is located in an old manse (a former minister's house) surrounded by farmland, and was the perfect place to relax in the evening after a long day of whisky touring.
The owner was warm and lovely, and the meals we had (3 breakfasts and 1 dinner, which we booked in advance) were all excellent.
And as a fun bonus, all the rooms at the Cardhu Country House are named after local distilleries!
Other Speyside accommodation options include:
- Highland Spirit Bed and Breakfast – The top-rated B&B in Dufftown, which is the heart of whisky country in Speyside.
- Dowans Hotel – A luxurious hotel option with very good reviews. It's close to several distilleries.
Would you travel the Malt Whisky Trail – even as a non-drinker?
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