Day 6: Glenlivet
I awoke from a somewhat better sleep than usual. The jet lag that had tortured my rest since I arrived was finally resolving itself the day before I flew back to Canada, naturally. I wasn’t complaining, though. After another incredible full Scottish breakfast I was heading for Glenlivet, one of the most recognizable names in the business. It’s so influential that in times past other distilleries used to brand their own whisky with the Glenlivet name in an attempt to get a free ride on their brand recognition. Legal action mostly put a stop to this in the 19th century, but to this day on the barrels of some other distilleries you will still see Glenlivet appended to their own name.
The drive to the distillery from Aberlour only takes around 20 minutes, and in common with almost any route in this part of the world is pleasantly scenic. You pass Glenfarclas and at least one legitimate castle on the quick trip along the A95, before turning off onto the narrow B-road leading to the distillery itself.
The scenery may be lovely but you might initially feel as if you’re driving onto an industrial estate; the distillery buildings are fairly squat and industrial, form following function with no real attempt at beautification. The new stillhouse is quite attractive though; opened very recently in 2010, it has a modern design with huge windows. They wouldn’t have built it like that in the old days, but it looks great – modern and inviting.
The visitor center opens at noon on Sunday, and I was the first person to arrive and register for a tour. After a quick sandwich in the cafe, it turned out that I was the only visitor so far and would it be OK if we went for a solo tour? Um, sure! So Connor and I set out alone.
If you can swing a one-on-one tour I highly recommend it. Connor told me that during the summer the distillery gets thousands of visitors a day. However I had the good fortune to arrive on the absolute final day of the season, when just about every sensible tourist had abandoned the Highlands for warmer climes.The weather on this particular day was still beautiful and I’d lost nothing but the crowds. In fact I gained quite a bit, as the benefits of a private tour showed themselves one by one. I could take photos anywhere, and as many as I liked; I could ask questions the whole time; we could look at whatever I wanted. It was, in short, pretty sweet.
As usual, I especially enjoyed the warehouse visit. This one actually looked and felt like a real operating warehouse too which was a plus. It was a modern racked warehouse, which was nice to contrast to the more traditional dunnage warehouses I’d seen up to this point. Connor pointed out a cask which had been filled in 1962 and was due to be bottled as a 50-year-old sometime in 2012… I wonder if that’s been done yet?
After the tour I chatted with my guide and a couple of other distillery staff members for a while, and then headed up the Smuggler’s Trail out back for a mini-hike. The Smuggler’s Trails are (allegedly) paths up to the old illicit still locations used in the distant past, when dodging the Customs and Excise men as well as other dubious characters was the order of the day. The trails go for quite a distance but only about half a mile from the distillery the route I was following crossed a stile into a field full of cows. I thought they looked particularly shifty and prone to violence and so exercised well-advised caution, frankly bottling out of going any further, but I’d already seen some spectacular scenery and was well pleased with the day.
It wasn’t quite over yet though. Just a short walk from the distillery is the awesomely-creepy looking Blairfindy Castle ruin, and an obliging murder of crows added the perfect touch of extra spookiness right as I was taking pictures. I found the historic Packhorse bridge by accident as I took a different route back towards Dufftown, and then enjoyed a scenic drive by deliberately picking random roads and getting a bit lost just to prolong the trip back to the hotel. All good things come to an end however, and after a blindingly good venison dinner and another good night’s sleep, I only had time for some quick photos of the Glenfarclas distillery (no time for a tour!) before retracing my steps for the journey home; the drive back to Inverness, the train back to Edinburgh, the flight back to Canada.
As hastily-planned as this trip was, I still managed to see almost all of my highlights. That’s all I managed though; in a week, I didn’t have enough time to linger over anything, couldn’t return to anything I really liked, and missed out on some things entirely. I didn’t visit Benromach, Glen Grant, Glenfarclas, Balvenie; didn’t have a chance to get to the Quaich bar at the Craigellachie Hotel; had no time for the Speyside Cooperage; and no doubt I missed a lot more besides. I’d have liked more time just to walk around the countryside and discover things for myself (avoiding any vicious gangs of cows, of course). I’d have liked another day in Edinburgh too. But if you get into that frame of mind then of course it never ends; I’d have liked another week to go over to Islay and visit Campbeltown and Oban, then it’d be cool to go up to Orkney to visit Highland Park, working my way back down south to see Dalmore and Glenmorangie… Pretty soon you’re up to a trip several months in length which is never going to happen for someone with a full-time job to get back to!
One thing I was unsure of before my journey was how the experience of traveling solo would turn out. As it happened it was mostly fine; I really enjoyed being beholden to absolutely nobody when it came to my itinerary, and it was very freeing having the ability to change plans at the drop of a hat. I did however very much wish my wife was along for the ride; we’ve always traveled together and I really missed having her around to talk over the events of the day. It’s a real shame she wasn’t able to experience the scenery and wildlife, so hopefully we can repeat the trip together sometime. Chatting with staff and other tourists at the hotel and the distilleries was illuminating and really enjoyable though and filled some of the companionship void. One thing I never got over though was the feeling of awkwardness when eating alone in the hotel, or in a restaurant. I would typically read but it never felt comfortable. Maybe I just need more experience!
I should have bought more whisky! I allowed the fear of high Canadian and BC import taxes to put me off from bringing back more than my duty-free allowance, but I think I should have brought back anything unusual I found and just dealt with it. I’m still regretting missing out on a couple of interesting bottles I saw in distillery shops or G&M etc.
Outside of the distillery visits and talking to the friendly staff there, the single most enjoyable thing I did was to take the train from Edinburgh to Inverness. I did it to avoid driving in sketchy weather on the Highland roads at that time of year, but it was so scenic and relaxing that I think I’d do it again no matter the season.
I was pleased with the photos I brought back. I took my DSLR with me everywhere and got some stuff I was really happy with. I used only a 17-55 lens on a crop body (f/2.8; fast lenses are useful in gloomy distillery settings). I did have a wide-angle (10-22) with me but almost never used it, and I didn’t have any reason to use a tele either, although an f/4 70-200 or something similar is always nice to have. None of the distilleries minded my having a large camera out most of the time, though anywhere you’re around alcohol fumes or grist they’ll ask you not to use it. Strangely this rule tends to be relaxed or rescinded entirely if there are no managers around so read into that what you will!
So overall, a fantastic experience. I’d love to do it again, though not as a solo traveler next time. My wife and I are planning a trip to Islay next year, but I’m willing to bet we’ll return to Speyside before too long.