Day 5: Elgin and Glenfiddich
Not having anything planned for Saturday morning, I decided to head up to the small town of Elgin for a bit of sightseeing. With a population of around 108,000, Elgin is the largest population center in Speyside, situated up near the coast not far from the mouth of the Spey. It’s about 15 minutes drive from Aberlour along the pleasant A941 (or as my rental car’s GPS pronounced it, the “A, 9, 4… 1!!!“).
The center of Elgin has a bit of a dual personality. I liked the smaller back streets with their interesting little shops much more than the pedestrianized and homogenized High Street. There’s one shop that the whisky enthusiast has to visit though – the home of independent bottlers Gordon and Macphail sits proudly at the corner of South Street and Culbard Street, as it has done since 1895.
The shop sells not just whisky, but wine, deli food, and local fare as well. In fact the casual visitor might never even make it to the back corner that hides the whisky section. What it lacks in size, though, is made up for by the sheer amount and quality of the stock on hand. Hundreds of whiskies are on display, from standard distillery bottlings to independent single-cask gems. If you ever visit Speyside, you have to pop into G&M if only to browse! For myself, I was limited to only one more bottle I could bring back home to Canada after my purchase from Aberlour, so I decided not to buy anything just yet. In hindsight this was a bad call… oh well, next time!
I made a quick stop at Elgin Cathedral (yes, this small town has a cathedral, albeit ruined), which looked very impressive from the outside. Unfortunately that’s all I got to see, as it was closed! On a Saturday! I think the person running the gate had gone for a late lunch, but sadly I was unable to hang around until they got back. I had another distillery to go to!
Driving south to Dufftown, I again passed BenRiach and also this time Craigellachie and Balvenie before arriving at my destination – William Grant’s world-famous Glenfiddich. Obviously used to large numbers of visitors, the distillery has a huge car park across a small road from the main grounds. Due to the late season it was mostly empty when I was there, apart from a group of Lotus Elise enthusiasts who had taken over half of the car park.
The distillery grounds are quite picturesque. Looking at Glenfiddich on a map you can see a lot of industrial-looking warehouses, but they’re hidden as you walk down the path to the historic stone buildings of the distillery proper. As well as the usual working (or previously-working) buildings, there are some beautiful tiny cottages on the site. Everything looks to be in excellent condition – the distillery is obviously very well looked-after.
I made it to the visitor centre just as a tour was starting; in fact it had already begun and I was ushered into the theatre with the introductory film already in progress. It gives a good overview of the things you’d expect – a brief history of William Grant and the distillery, the whisky-making process and so on. The rest of the tour was interesting but brief, and the warehouse visit at the end was disappointing. It was a small room that felt more like a movie set than an actual working warehouse.
Still, the tour was free and it came with three drams at the end, of the 12, 15 and 18-year-old standard bottlings. That was pretty generous I thought (though as I was driving I sadly had to pass them up). I noticed when browsing around the gift shop that they also offer a unique “fill your own” bottling much like Aberlour. A suggestion to Glenfiddich – offer a dram of this in the tasting at the end of the tour, as Aberlour do. That directly led to me buying the single-cask bourbon whisky at that distillery, and has to be the most effective form of advertising… if it’s any good of course!
I finished the day off with a steak at the Mash Tun in Aberlour, which was perfectly cooked and delicious. Great single malt selection behind the bar too. It was here that I tried Glenfarclas for the first time, the 15-year to start with, and along with the single-cask bourbon from Aberlour it made one of the biggest impressions of the trip on me. Massively sherried with its own unique character, it pretty much blew me away. To try it for the first time just a couple of miles from the distillery itself was very special too… it was one of those moments that bring home what an amazing part of the world this really is.
Up next: the last chapter, a visit to Glenlivet and some final thoughts.