A couple of years ago, I think it was, at my first time attending the Victoria Whisky Festival’s Grand Tasting night, I noticed a small table as I passed through the crushing mass of merry whisky enthusiasts. Behind it there were a couple of friendly people passing out samples of a rye and encouraging people to pick up a brochure. I said hi, tried a small sample of the whisky, grabbed a leaflet, and wandered off to lose myself in the crowd and Scotland’s finest.
Shelter Point’s location on Vancouver Island, BC.
It was only later that I took a look at what I’d picked up, and was surprised to see that not only was this a distillery rather local to Vancouver, but that the rye was only an initial foray into the whisky market and they’d be developing their own single malt! I knew I’d love to visit one day but while it’s not far as the crow flies, the trip over to Vancouver Island from the mainland can be costly and takes several hours, and life tends to get in the way of having a good time far too often.
Roll forward a couple of years, then, to the present day, and my whisky obsession has only deepened. I’m now writing this blog and chatting about whisky on Twitter, and it was there I rediscovered Shelter Point through their discussions online with other local enthusiasts. A bit of a last-minute plea to squeeze us in on a tour last weekend fell on sympathetic ears, and finally we were on our way.
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.
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 weather had brightened up during my time at Aberlour, to the point where it didn’t feel like a crazy idea to grab a bite down by the river before my Macallan visit. So, sometime just after noon I was happily munching on a sandwich right on the banks of the famous river Spey. The Spey is the fastest-flowing river in Scotland apparently, and I could believe it; the water was choppy as it rushed by, though that was probably as much to do with the strong wind as the river’s high velocity.
Donald at the hotel had told me you could walk to Macallan by crossing onto the north bank of the Spey and following a path along the river, bordering the fields. His directions kind of ended there but I was fairly sure I’d find it (ah, the optimism of youth) so I set off across the rather attractive suspension bridge you can see in the photo.
I woke from a fitful and jet-lagged sleep greatly looking forward to the day ahead – at last it was time for my first distillery visit! The Dowans Hotel is just a couple of minutes walk to Aberlour so it was the obvious choice to begin my Speyside tour. I was already impressed with the Aberlour staff; when setting up the tour via email they’d been really helpful and friendly, and happily they proved to be even more so in person.
I decided to take the train to Inverness rather than drive, as the weather was a bit snowy over the Highlands and I pretty much just wanted to relax and enjoy the scenery. This turned out to be a brilliant idea as that train journey is probably the most scenic one I’ve ever made. It starts out in fine style crossing the Forth Bridge, the beautiful Victorian mass of girders that was built in 1890. Not too much later I remember passing what looked like a distribution center for a whisky company, with casks piled high.
The Highlands in late Autumn, from the Edinburgh-Inverness train.
October 2011 was pretty good to me. After working overtime for months, I was given an unexpected 2-week vacation, with less than a week’s notice. What to do with it? I’d get bored sitting around the house for that long. Well, I had been hankering to visit some distilleries in Scotland…. maybe I could!
The Sir Walter Scott monument in Edinburgh, aka the Gothic Starfighter!
I’m not really a person who does things on the spur of the moment, but this felt like too good an opportunity to pass up (edit: my wife disagrees with this. She reminded me we once made a 2000-mile round-trip by car to see a Formula 1 race with one day’s notice). How often do you have two clear weeks with no prior plans? For me, never. So with my wife’s blessing (she wouldn’t be able to come, poor thing), I started planning.
Initially I was set on visiting Islay. Obviously something of a Mecca for whisky lovers, it seemed the perfect destination. However late-October weather in Scotland is unpredictable to say the least, and in the event of ferry problems I decided to hedge my bets for as long as possible. I made up two completely different itineraries: Option A saw me flying into Edinburgh on day 1, exploring it for day 2 and heading to Islay on day 3. Option B swapped the Islay ferry for a train to Inverness and a drive to Speyside.