There are 108 whisky distilleries spread across the wide, ruffled map of Scotland but 50 are located within just a few miles of each other, along the river Spey. A few primal reasons exist for this. The valley is rich in water, barley and yeast – the only ingredients you need to make malt whisky. Also, the peat and dark of the Highlands, especially in winter – and above all in the short, unheated lives of the past – have always had an edge that needed taking off. “From early morning till late at night, an eternal dram drinking was forever going on,” wrote Lady Elizabeth Grant, who grew up on Speyside 200 years ago.
But there are also specific, historical reasons why Speyside emerged as the commercial centre of Scotland’s whisky trade in the 19th century. From 1644 to 1823, when the Excise Act finally reduced tariffs on strong liquors, whisky was a smuggler’s business. Exorbitant taxes, levied from London, made legal distilling uneconomic, so crofters, shepherds and other entrepreneurial types headed up to the unforgiving hills where they boiled their barley moonshine – their uisge beatha (“water of life” in Scottish Gaelic) – under the open air. The highland wastes and numberless caves around the Spey meant they could see the excise men coming a mile off.
When whisky went legit, these bootleggers came down and industrialised the valley. The Glenlivet, a formerly hidden distillery, began producing legal whisky in 1824, within a few months of the Excise Act. Over the next 75 years, a collection of exceptionally tough-minded Speyside whisky makers – engineers, dealmakers and patriarchs rolled into one, almost all of them called Grant – built the railways, roads, kilns and electricity plants that came to define the modern production of the drink, and connected the Highlands to the markets of England and Europe.
Spending a weekend touring Speyside’s distilleries – Dufftown alone, whisky’s capital, has its “Seven Stills” – really means spending a weekend in the company of these now mythologised men. Frankly epic corporate videos recreate their deeds. At Glen Grant, a distillery in Rothes, founded by two former smugglers in 1840, a gallery exhibits the life and appetites of Major James Grant, son of one of the founders, who took over the enterprise in 1872. The picture captions say it all. “The Major: pioneer motorist.” “The Major: hunting tiger in India.” “The Major: enjoying a dram on the grouse moor.” In 1894, the Major even went so far as to adopt an African boy he found on the side of a road in what is now Zimbabwe. The Major brought the boy, Biawa, back to Rothes to be his butler.
It was a biting, blue morning when we visited, and Glen Grant’s manager, Dennis Malcolm, who has worked in the distillery since 1961, wanted to give us a taste of how it felt to be the Major. He led us away from the stills and into 27 acres of gardens the Major planted. (His manor house, complete with stuffed alligator, was torn down in the 1990s).
We walked along a frosted path to the back of the glen, and then on to a boardwalk that picked its way up and around the Black burn, which has supplied the distillery with water for almost two centuries. The Major kept two safes up here, set into the rock: one for a cask of whisky, the other for a decanter and glasses. Biawa kept them stocked. Malcolm opened the first safe and pulled out a bottle of Glen Grant’s 25-year-old single malt. He pulled a dog – a wooden canister – of golden peaty water from the burn below and we drank in the thin sunshine that came through the firs. “They’re all different,” said Malcolm, contemplating the whisky as it chilled and warmed us at the same time. “They’re like people.”
Of course a lot of whisky history is fake or, at the very least, conveniently assembled. The idea of pure single malts – the “expressions” that distilleries slave over, and that whisky enthusiasts come from all over the world to savour and collect – did not exist until the 1960s. Before then, malt whisky was sold wholesale to be mixed with cheaper “grain” whisky (made out of wheat), and turned into blends. It was Glenfiddich, in a Don Draper-ish moment in 1961, that came up with the idea of distilling all that rain and Highland lore into something unique and expensive.
Once you know this, you realise how clever the whisky makers of Speyside continue to be. Even the least-known turn out to be little miracles of 21st-century, artisanal capitalism. Glen Grant single malt, scarcely on sale in the UK, is Italy’s bestselling whisky: 300,000 cases a year find their way to the Mediterranean. But it’s Glenfiddich, maker of the world’s bestselling single malt, that remains the undisputed master marketer. A Hollywood-style sign stands on the hill above the distillery, and inside you find out the company has been spinning its Highland yarn for more than a century. In 1910, William Grant, the son-in-law of Glenfiddich’s founder, sailed around the world, selling the “old” whisky (12 years old, to be precise) and the legend of its now-blind master.
The substance behind the myth, however, is all too real. Once you get past all the “land of the shaggy wood” stuff, the art and science of whisky making is a baffling pleasure to witness. From the rare malting floors of Balvenie (also owned by the Grants of Glenfiddich), where grains of barley are prompted by kilns to germinate and release their sugars; to vast warehouses of oak casks, recycled at great expense from American bourbon makers and Spanish sherry producers, the whole process is a satisfying collage of chemistry, minutely acquired skill and downright mystery. The rising, maturing smell of alcohol; the whisky vulgate of “mash tuns” and “worts”; the brass levers of the spirit safe, splicing the “heads” and the “feints” to reveal the transparent, oily “heart” – it’s Willy Wonka for grown-ups.
Tastes good too. I liked whisky before I went to Speyside but not in any considered way. Without coming over all hip-flasky (some connoisseurs, it turns out, demand their mixing water at a temperature of 21.5C), it was edifying to be shown how to drink it, if not properly, then better than I had been drinking it before. The right splash of water – pulled in a dog from a burn, naturally – burst the flavours open and made the malts much softer and gentler than I was used to. I tasted shades and colours that I had not known were there. A weekend of whisky drinking can get pretty fun pretty quickly but I had not expected it to be an imaginative test as well. The Quaich Bar, at the unpretentious Craigellachie Hotel where we stayed, has 750 whiskies on offer. When Steffan Masson, the hotel’s whisky master, introduced us to six of them from various regions of Scotland, our mouths became miscellanies. We found meat, tobacco, iodine, seaweed and lighter fluid. And, as the night progressed: three-bedroom houses; guitar strings; middlebrow novels.
They say that the best whisky doesn’t give you much of a hangover. Still, Sunday morning was one low, grey sky. Nothing to see above the cloud-wrapped hills. We walked briefly along the foaming, peated Spey and inspected an old bridge, built stone by stone in 1814, everything lugged by men and wagons, opening the land of secret whisky to the world, and the world to whisky.
Then, to clear our heads, we went to the nearby House of Mulben, a farm that offers a range of outdoor activities, and blasted clay pigeons out of the sky. Annihilating a few black discs turned out to be strangely moreish, and galvanising. “The man can shoot,” said Innes McPherson, who runs the farm, after I went on a lucky streak. I don’t know if any four words have given me more pleasure. Pieces of clay rained down in the trees. It was a time for a nip. McPherson produced a bottle of Balvenie. Fog fell down to the road.
Sam Knight was a guest of British Airways and the Craigellachie Hotel. The hotel’s two-night “whisky and adventure” package costs from £380 per double room, including whisky masterclass, distillery tour and clay pigeon shooting. BA flies direct from Heathrow and London City to Aberdeen, from £146 return. The distilleries also offer public tours, see www.glengrant.com, www.glenfiddich.co.uk and www.thebalvenie.com