The Best Way to Discover the Top Whisky Distilleries in Speyside, Scotland

ballindalloch distillery

One of the things on our Scotland Bucket List was to take a tour of the Speyside whisky region. After a lot of research, we settled on a private, full-day experience with Speyside Whisky Tours.

Chauffeur, tour guide, and whisky connoisseur Toby Wingfield-Digby met us out front of the Craigellachie Lodge bright and early and presented us with a whisky quiz to mull over (more of a conversation-starter than a graded assignment!). We piled into his Range Rover Vogue and set off for Speyside Cooperage, the first stop of a jam-packed day. Since the Cooperage didn’t open until 9am, Toby took a detour to the Craigellachie Bridge from which we looked over the River Spey in search of salmon and heron.

Speyside Cooperage is a must-do as part of any Speyside whisky experience – the largest cooperage in the UK, every year they make and repair nearly 150,000 casks which then make their way to distilleries throughout Scotland. Casks can have a lifespan of up to 60 years, having been inspected and repaired multiple times at Speyside Cooperage. We were the first to arrive that morning so we had a tour to ourselves, which included an introductory film followed by a visit to the viewing gallery above the cooperage floor from which we watched the coopers hard at work.

Next, we went to Ballindalloch Distillery. We weren’t really sure what to expect here; neither of us had heard of Ballindalloch and a quick internet search wasn’t very helpful. While planning the day, Toby had recommended this as our in-depth tour and told us it would take the entire morning. Fingers crossed, we met the distillery host, Brian, and the other people on our tour (the TWO other people – it was so lovely!). Over tea and biscuits, Brian shared with us the history and vision of Ballindalloch, Scotland’s first single-estate distillery (the barley used to produce the whisky all comes from Ballindalloch’s estate) which began production in 2014.

After our chat, Brian led us on an in-depth tour throughout the distillery and warehouse, going into detail on its construction (it’s a renovated and converted farmstead), introducing us to other members of the distilling team, answering all our questions, and inviting us to take as many photos as we liked (photos aren’t permitted in most other distilleries).

Whisky tours all end with a tasting, right? So what did we do at Ballandalloch, since it has another five years before it bottles its own? We tasted from the Macpherson-Grant family (the owners of Ballindalloch Estate)’s private collection – Cragganmore from 1984, 1985, and 1986 (cask strength), as well as a bit of Johnnie Walker Blue. What a treat!

Our two and a half hours at Ballindalloch was the highlight of the day and we are eagerly anticipating 2022 when their whisky is bottled.

All tours of Ballindalloch Distillery are limited to groups of eight and are held Monday-Friday by appointment only.

Our next stop was The Glenlivet. We first had lunch at the distillery cafe while discussing whisky history with Toby over our jacket potatoes, then selected a few The Glenlivet drams to sip while exploring the distillery exhibition. Toby also introduced us to Ian Logan, The Glenlivet’s Brand Ambassador (who had appeared in the film at the Speyside Cooperage) and also to The Glenlivet’s social media manager before it was time to get on to our next stop.

We’d really enjoyed a dram of Glenfarclas 10 during our tasting at the Scotch Whisky Experience in Edinburgh so we were excited to see Glenfarclas next up on the agenda. Glenfarclas is one of only a few distilleries in Scotland still privately owned and managed, having been in the hands of the Grant family since 1865. The Glenfarclas tasting room, or Ships Room, is decorated with the original oak paneling from the smoking lounge of the RMS Empress of Australia, which is a unique touch. In addition to a few of their regular whiskys, we also had a delightful dram of their limited edition £511.19 Family Reserve (so-named for the price John Grant paid for Glenfarclas 150 years ago).

When we returned to the car, Toby had a surprise waiting for us – tea and biscuits served from the boot of his car! He had kept the tea hot all day using a thermos! We enjoyed the warm drinks and tasty cake and biscuits before setting off for Cardhu.

Cardhu was a very quick stop – their small tasting room/shop was rather busy though we squeezed in for a dram. While the whisky didn’t wow us, we were thrilled to meet Arnie, Toby’s favorite Highland cow who lives in a field next to the distillery. We had been hearing about Arnie all day and had so much fun giving him some treats and pets!

The Macallan was next. It’s an insanely huge complex with an impersonal, corporate feel, and in our opinion, there are much better, more unique whiskys than The Macallan’s. That all being said, it was interesting to see all the development being done to increase production, including an under-construction massive new subterranean distillery covered in grass and flowers to help it blend into the surrounding area. We also drove around the older buildings on which we could see black Angel’s Share (evaporated whisky) residue.

Our final distillery of the day was Aberlour, which Toby snuck us into just as the team was starting to close up for the day. It was a pretty small facility and tasting room, and we found the whisky to be pretty average.

arberlour distillery

Just when we thought the day was over, Toby had one more surprise in store for us – he took us to the Fiddichside Inn, a small, local pub on the River Spey, to introduce us to his good friend Joe. A former cooper and ghillie on the Spey, Joe had been working at the Fiddichside Inn for almost 60 years. We also met a few locals and shared some whisky stories before Toby returned us to Craigellachie Lodge.

It wasn’t a cheap day but it was well-worth it and we would absolutely do it again. The 10-hour tour cost £400 (though if you had more than two people, it would be £150 each) and did not include the tour/tasting fees at the Speyside Cooperage or the distilleries. However, Speyside Whisky Tours made all the bookings for us. We HIGHLY recommend you take advantage of Toby’s expertise and hire Speyside Whisky Tours for your Speyside whisky experience! Toby seemed to know everyone at every distillery and we very much benefited from his connections, as well as his knowledge of and passion for whisky. Toby was also quite the character, so be prepared for a unique, interactive, and memorable experience!