Photo: Lucentius/Getty Images
The world outside my sleeper train compartment was black and white: trees with feathery branches silhouetted against snowy fields; the gray stretch of the A9 and then the smooth steel of a river; white cotton candy clouds against an increasingly paler sky.
By the time I was in my rental car driving east from Inverness, color was slowly returning to the landscape, although the hills were still shrouded in snow under the milky sun. I was heading to Moray Speyside, bordered by the Cairngorms to the south and the wide Moray Firth to the north. Over the course of my weekend, the latter’s waters dipped in and out of view, while the mountains remained tantalizingly far away.
The region is known for its whisky, and rightly so. Moray Speyside is home to more than 50 distilleries, more than a third of Scotland’s total. Despite knowing this, the number of brown distillery signs that greeted me came as a surprise: as soon as I passed one pagoda-marked arrow, I saw another.
It seemed only right that whiskey should be my first stop, and so I drove seven miles south of the town of Forres, winding along quiet single-track roads lined with muddy snow on tires, to the Dunphail Distillery.
This is the newest kid on the block in whiskey production, even if it doesn’t seem like it, considering it’s set in 160-year-old farms. The most interesting thing about Dunphail right now isn’t actually the whisky, which has only just been produced and needs to be aged for three years to be considered whisky. It’s that the owners have decided to bring the processes back straight away, away from the computers and external maltings that are now common in Scottish distilleries.
Our affable guide, Mike, took our group into a low-ceilinged room where a perfect rectangle of barley rested on the ground as it germinated. We took turns raking it with a device that one of the distillers had made from a huge rake and a few hammers, to mimic a traditional hand tool. In the main distillery room, where the yeasty, fruity scent of the mash circled us, the safe (usually locked) was left open so that the distillers could interact with the alcohol produced – the new brand – rather than relying on computer data. .
Lacking a single malt of its own, the tasting at the end consisted of trying this new brand, which at 63.5% ABV is considerably stronger than what will be sold in bottles. “It reminds me of standing in the doorway of a bakery,” Mike said as I dipped my finger in my glass (I was driving after all) and I could see what he meant – first fruity and then the low, savory tone of barley came in, it had all the sensory hits of that experience, coupled with the anticipation of what will happen in a few years.
The trail was thick with ice and I spent most of the hike crunching through the inches of deep snow on the side to avoid a comical fall.
It’s a little tricky, this distillery visit, if you’re driving. Fortunately, this was quickly remedied at my hotel, The Dowans, a stately Victorian building overlooking the Spey Valley just outside the village of Aberlour. After dinner I holed up in The Still, their narrow whiskey bar – although, with more than 500 bottles lining the walls, it felt more like a library than a bar. In truth, I had come to the region unconvinced of the whiskey’s merits (I’m a diehard Islay fan), but with the help of receptionist turned bartender Courtney, I was introduced to two very different local drams that already quickly proved me wrong.
The 170 kilometer long River Spey winds its way along the northwestern edge of the Cairngorms National Park and flows into the Moray Firth. I’d glimpsed it glistening in the valleys below me the day before, but it wasn’t until Aberlour that I really saw it – as dark as a well-aged whisky. On the recommendation of Steph Murray, who owns and runs The Dowans with her younger sister and parents, I walked the Speyside Way two and a half miles east to the small neighboring village of Craigellachie; just a small part of the 65 mile walking route that follows the river from Buckie, on the coast, to Aviemore. The trail was thick with ice, and I spent most of the hike crunching through the inches-deep snow on the side to avoid a comical fall. Although the main road kept me company for most of the way, I was barely aware of it, my eyes focused on the wide, flowing river and the sheep staring at me from the floodplain. It was an easy, relatively flat route that wouldn’t have felt like walking enough on a normal day, but by the time I reached The Highlander Inn in Craigellachie the ice had given my calves enough exercise that I was grateful to be able to stop for half a pint in the cozy bar.
Related: Highland Refuge: Scotland’s serene, socially conscious retreat
On my last day, with my back to the now almost snow-free hills, I headed north, determined to reach the coast that had so often shone tantalizingly in the distance during my travels. I drove to Findhorn, a small coastal town of low, tightly packed houses, where I clambered over the dunes and then onto the pale sand, which seemed to glow even in the fading half-light of the afternoon. I walked around the corner of the headland, constantly adjusting my hood to accommodate the stop-start rain, and took a seat by the large window of The Captain’s Table, decorated inside with Christmas lights. As I waited for my food, I saw a lone boat bobbing in the bay, the seagulls swooping low and the clouds constantly moving back and forth in their dance between rain and sun.
“People don’t realize how much there is to do here,” Steph had said to me that morning, “so they come back again and again.” This was also true of my journey: every road I drove meant passing countless others with signs pointing to a walk, or to a distillery, or to a village I’d never heard of. When I finally dragged myself back to Inverness, the landscape around me gradually leveling out, I did so knowing it wouldn’t be long before I returned.
Transport to Scotland was provided by Caledonian sleeper. Accommodation was provided by The Dowans hotel (doubles from £234 per night B&B). See Visit Moray Speyside for more information