By Jack Peat, TLE Editor
21:15 on Thursday evening, my brother, my friend and I are sat on one of around 20 carriages parked on a shaded platform at London Euston away from the hustle and bustle of daytime West Coast mainline traffic. Our bags have been dropped off in two adjoining sleeping berths and wafts of haggis and tatties emanate from the buffet car kitchen. As the train starts its ten hour climb to the Scottish highlands I kick back and browse and extensive drinks menu, a mix of relaxation and giddiness engulfing my senses as I struggle to sit still. A whisky tour I had been anticipating for several months was finally underway.
As a lover of malt whisky, the lure of 50 distilleries huddled in such close proximity makes a Strathspey pilgrimage almost inevitable. After a successful trip to Islay last summer, friends and family from across the country headed north on trains, planes and automobiles in what – as this is the second consecutive year – has become classified as the ‘annual’ whisky trip.
After a somewhat disastrous overnight coach trip to the West Coast of Scotland last year I resigned myself to paying extra for a bed on a sleeper train on this year’s trip to the East Coast. The Caledonian Sleeper train departs Euston and heads north through Watford, Crewe and Preston before dividing in to two at the Scottish border where the train takes separate courses to Fort William and Inverness.
We worked our way up the English half of the journey with a selection of craft beers before tucking in to a veritable smorgasbord of whisky miniatures. In the interest of full disclosure we tackled the Lowlands, Highlands, Islands and Speyside (and a couple of cheese boards) before heading to bed.
What seemed like rather cramped sleeping arrangements actually turned out to be a peaceful night’s rest and I awoke at around 7 O Clock with a similar sense of giddiness as the morning sun shone across the rugged Highland terrain. I felt a little fragile, but ten minutes with my head stuck out of the window with coastal winds slapping my cheeks and a salt breeze filling my nostrils soon brought me around.
We were due to meet the other Southern contingent at Aberdeen airport, so we quickly tackled a Scottish breakfast before meeting City and Heathrow parties on the early flight. A short coach ride and three Budweiser’s later and we arrived at our campsite in Aberlour where the Leeds contingent arrived and the first game of cricket got underway.
Friday evening was reserved for acclimatising ourselves with the area, a pursuit most Brits on tour associate with locating the nearest Irish bar, but in this instance, stranded in the wilderness of Strathspey, it was a case of locating the nearest human settlement. We rambled along the River Spey before finding Aberlour where a chip shop and pub kept us fed and watered for the early part of the evening. Sensing this is about as good as it gets we ordered a taxi to Dufftown where we were assured a ‘nightlife’ exists.
The birth town of William Grant and a makeshift ‘capital’ of Speyside whisky, Dufftown lies at the intersection of the A941 which skirts a clock tower in the centre of the town. You can count the number of pubs on one hand, but the select few watering holes provided enough entertainment to see out the night. We arranged a handful of taxis to take eight of the nine of us home. The final member of the party made his own arrangements by walking part of the way before relying on the services of the local police force, who, as it transpired the next morning, took kindly to a pissed cockney who was helplessly lost and mind-bogglingly perplexed by the lack of black cabs on the street.
Saturday’s itinerary was jam-packed with whisky goodness, but as the party congregated by the coach it was evident that the well mapped-out journey would require an unscheduled stop for greasy carbohydrates. Fortuitously, the proprietors of a café in Dufftown’s heritage railway station were more than happy (sarcastic face) to accommodate nine dishevelled men in search of fried pig’s arse and sheep’s pluck, and our first call to Glenfiddich was only slightly delayed for the worthy cause.
Glenfiddich is one of three William Grant-owned whisky distilleries in Dufftown with a visitor centre that welcomes 125,000 visitors per annum. It is the top selling single malt whisky in the World thanks to its pioneering founder who brought new export markets to Scotland. With business at the heart, Glenfiddich seemed to lack personality that was so abundant on the Isle of Islay. Scale was undoubtedly the jewel in its crown, which made it hard to engage with the brand and its history.
Not that it stood alone as a corporate machine. Our drive into The Macallan had to be directed around giant warehouses that are being constructed to cope with a surge in demand and I found myself unawed by The Glenlivet, which has a rich history but is perversely faceless.
It was with a degree of exhaustion that the gang arrived at Cardhu distillery for the last tour of the day. Despite being part of the famous Johnnie Walker blended whiskies and run by Diageo, the Archiestown distillery had a semblance of character that had been missing from the other distilleries. The fact that our tour-guide was more focussed on its history than its output helped, although she managed to omit the Pure Malt Controversy of ’03 when Diageo halted the production of Cardhu single malt and replaced it with a blended malt to meet demand from overseas – classic Speyside!
Overall, I felt underwhelmed by Speyside whiskies. The corporate nature of the distilleries we visited left a sour taste in the mouth and it was with reluctance that I picked up a bottle from Aberlour, which we visited the following day. The purchase was driven more by sentimental reasons that an appreciation of the single malt, but it still takes pride of place on a shelf reserved exclusively for souvenirs of the ‘annual’ whisky tour.