Speyside is definitely the heart of the scotch malt whisky industry - there more than 50 distilleries in this small area. You can drive from one end of Speyside to the other in an hour, but exploring all of the whisky experiences on offer would take years.
Here's our guide to the top whisky-related experiences in this exciting corner of north-east Scotland. If you would like us to build you a holiday around them, then please get in touch.
Title image credit: Visit Scotland / Damian Shields - Cardhu distillery
The best distillery tour: The Balvenie
A distillery tour is a great way to learn how whisky is made, experience some of the rich culture and history surrounding it, and taste a few drams. Lots of distilleries offer tours, but the tour at The Balvenie is probably the best in Scotland.
Nestled behind the modern buildings of Glenfiddich, Balvenie has been producing whisky the traditional way since 1893. They claim to be the only distillery that still practices all 5 of the Rare Crafts on-site: growing barley, malting barley, coppersmithing, coopering and blending.
The full tour takes around 3 hours: starting with a welcoming cup of tea and a bite to eat, your guide will then show you around the whole site. The guides here are excellent - many of them were trained by David Stewart, the distillery's Malt Master, who developed the modern technique of finishing whiskies in the 1980s.
On the malting floor, fresh barley is gently heated until it germinates and then needs to be turned regularly to dry it out. Most malt is made in dedicated factories with modern machines these days, but here you'll get to see how it always used to be done: by hand on large open floors.
At the cooperage, skilled workers maintain the wooden casks for ageing the whisky. Scotch whisky is usually aged in casks that have previously held something else (often Bourbon or Sherry) - but these second-hand containers need a lot of maintenance, including the dramatic charring process to re-invigorate the wood: they literally set fire to the cask to improve the flavour of the whisky!
Coppersmiths maintain the stills, which is an incredibly specialised job. Balvenie is known for being one of the only places where you can still learn this rare craft as an apprentice.
At the end of the tour, you'll get to taste a whole variety of Balvenie whiskies. Make sure you're not driving home afterwards (we always arrange a taxi or chauffeur for our guests...).
Tours are limited to 8 people and only run twice a day - so book early to avoid disappointment!
The best whisky shop: Gordon & MacPhail
Gordon & MacPhail have been selling whisky in Elgin for over 125 years. Originally founded as a grocery shop, they've been specialising in whisky since at least 1915.
These days, they are well known as one of the world's leading independent bottlers. They buy whisky in casks direct from the distilleries, then age and bottle it themselves.
The shop is a treasure trove of interesting whiskies from all over Scotland, with bottles to suit every wallet and immensely knowledgeable staff to help you choose.
The best-looking distillery: Tormore
Arriving at Tormore, you could be forgiven for thinking it dated from the 1800s - in fact it was built in 1958. Designed by the architect Sir Albert Richardson, this remarkable distillery was granted listed building status in 1986, despite being less than 30 years old at the time!
Over the years, the copper roof has weathered to a deep green, which sits perfectly in the minimalist gardens surrounding the buildling. Despite the formal appearance, the architect clearly had a sense of humour: there's even a clock which plays a different Scottish song every quarter of an hour.
Tormore is only open to the public for a couple of days each year during the Spirit of Speyside whisky festival. Amazingly though, you can stay in one of beautiful white cottages right next door.
The best time to visit: The Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival
The Speyside Whisky Festival takes place over 5 days at the end of April every year. With over 500 different events, there really is something for everyone! As well as distillery tours, tastings and masterclasses, there is live music, food, comedy, heritage and outdoor activities - it is possible to visit the festival without touching a drop of whisky, although there's no denying that whisky fans are in their element during the festival.
Accommodation sells out months in advance, so make sure you get your booking in early.
Note: The 2021 festival is taking place virtually, but an in-person event is planned for early November 2021.
The best whisky experience: The Macallan Mastery Experience
Macallan have been making whisky since 1824, but in 2018 they rebuilt the distillery. The new buildings are undoubtedly the most dramatic of any whisky producer in Scotland. The architects, Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners, have won multiple awards for this stunning building which is cut into the hillside above the River Spey.
To go with the new distillery, a new range of onsite experiences have been launched. The Macallan Mastery Experience ranks up there with the top whisky experiences anywhere in the world. Starting with a welcome dram at the Whisky Wall, you'll then enjoy a two-course lunch with wine at the on-site Elchies Brasserie.
After lunch, you will be led on an in-depth production experience through the distillery before being guided through a tutored tasting of a carefully curated selection of Macallan whiskies in the iconic Cave Priveé.
You will then be invited to The Macallan Bar to experience a Macallan whisky flight. Finally, your experienced guides will be available to offer personal shopping assistance in The Macallan Boutique after your experience.
The best whisky bar: The Quaich Bar
The Quaich first opened in 1893, and these days they have a strong claim to the title of the leading whisky bar in the world. Their range covers over 900 whiskies, but the depth and quality makes the selection stand out just as much as the variety. Here you will find many of the most unique and rare whiskies in the entire world, some of which are exclusive to The Quaich and all of which can be sampled by the glass.
This is the perfect place to enjoy a guided whisky tasting or a modern twist on a classic whisky cocktail, mixed by the expert and internationally-renowned bartenders.
The word Quaich means ‘cup of friendship’ and comes from the Gaelic word Cuach, meaning cup. A quaich is used to toast special occasions such as arrivals, departures and weddings, and can be offered as a special gift - in 1589, King James VI of Scotland gave Anne of Denmark a quaich as a wedding gift.
The Quaich Bar is situated inside the Craigellachie Hotel, which also boasts the Copper Dog pub (with excellent food), and 26 cosy, dog-friendly hotel rooms.
The Dowans Hotel in nearby Aberlour also deserves an honourable mention for their whisky bar, The Still. Small but perfectly-formed and with a beautiful outlook, their impressive collection includes at least one whisky from every distillery in Scotland.