Ah Scotland. What a place. Deliciously fresh food, whisky, friendly people, rich history and culture, and amazing scenery be it rain or shine. It is to this day one of my favorite parts of the world to visit. And I have only been twice. The first was a spectacularly luxurious journey aboard the Belmond Royal Scotsman train, which was absolutely phenomenal. The second was in August 2021 when I revisited the highlands, but this time not by luxurious train.
Scotland and the U.K. had just reopened its borders and eased travel restrictions at the time, though in August 2021 you still had to register, pay and conduct your Day 2 arrivals test, but that whole process turned out to be relatively easy. Thankfully that is now all history, and you can simply waltz right into the U.K. again.
This time, my friend and I flew directly into the Scottish Highlands. There are 2 main airports in the highland region that serve a handful of European gateways, mainly Amsterdam, and that is Inverness and Aberdeen. From there you can rent a car, take a bus, or arrange for transfers/tours to get you to the heart of the Highland regions. My recommendation is to rent a car or arrange for a transfer/ tour (the latter option especially if you are solo and plan to do whisky tastings).
There are so many towns and areas of the Scottish Highlands to choose from to be based out of or to visit. You can easily base yourself in Aberdeen or Inverness and do day trips. But its really best to travel deep into the heart of the region and stay at the many charming bed and breakfasts or stunning manors/castles. We chose Dufftown for ease of access but also because it is known as the Malt Whisky Capital of the World, and what better place to be than that?
We landed in Aberdeen around mid-morning, customs and immigration coming off the Amsterdam flight was a breeze. Upon exiting the airport, a short walk lead us to the car rental facility where all major rental companies are. We rented a mini four-wheel drive for our short stay here. From the airport, it was a smooth and relatively easy 1.5 hour drive to Dufftown.
There arent any major hotels in Dufftown, it is primarily bed and breakfasts. We opted to book the wonderful and lovely Highland Spirit Bed and Breakfast, run by the ever so friendly and hospitable Karen and Alistair. At the time, we were the only guests and the first non-expat/stuck in U.K. Americans to visit since COVID. Highly recommend this cosy, homey and truly authentic bed and breakfast. Dufftown is small and mostly walkable and Highland Spirit is right on the edge of town close to everything. We arrived, checked-in, and were offered a welcome dram of whisky of our choice.
Shortly after freshening up we were off to exploring. First stop was The Glenfiddich Distillery, which I learned was a 6th generation family run and owned business, I thought like most major global whisky labels it was owned by some major conglomerate like Diageo. It was early to mid afternoon by this point so most tours were sold out or the last ones had already started. So we opted to have a late lunch at the distillery restaurant, sample some whisky (which at the restaurant they pour some special ones), and shop around the gift shop. We ordered some Scottish cheese and cold cuts and cured meat, followed by Cullen Skink, the traditional Scottish Smoked Haddock and potato cream soup, perfect for the chilly Scottish weather, yes even in August. And paired with a 1992 Glenfiddich dram. The shop had a nice assortment of bottles and souvenirs including a 27,500 GBP bottle of 50 year.
Across the street and up a small road/ hill (you can walk it) is Balvenie Castle, which at the time was closed (unclear if COVID reasons or it was under restoration work). But we were able to see it from the outside. Down the road just past the Glenfiddich Distillery is the Dufftown Railway Station, a beautiful classic Scottish railway station. There are trains that run here for scenic train journey/ commute to Keith. There is also a cool cafe inside a train carriage. The entire town of Dufftown can be walked within 20 minutes, its not very big, but its full of character.
Next up was our 5PM whisky walking tour: Dufftown Distilleries Tour with Speyside Tours run by Michelle, who used to work at Glenfiddich. At 38 GBP per person with nearly 12 half drams poured, most of which are rare and special bottles including an independently bottled MaCallan, and 3 hours of walking/ learning, it was very worth it. Highly recommend this tour. Michelle is a wealth of knowledge, friendly, brutally honest and hilarious. The tour goes into the history of the region, history and so many details of the craft of Whisky distilling as well as the various histories and insider knowledge of the industry from past to present. Even if you dont exactly drink Whisky, the tour is wonderful for the context/ history and understanding of this key aspect of Scottish culture and history.
We met Michelle at the Dufftown clock tower, the main center of town before she guided the group of us to her home’s garage to gear up for the tour and have a taste of her mom’s amazing homemade Date ButterScotch Pudding. Gear includes reflector vest and the best part, the whisky glass holding lanyard, and of course your whisky glass. One funny bit of the tour was halfway through, we stop at Michelle’s friend’s house where she has a cooler stocked with whisky and she switches out the whiskys in her backpack for the second half of the tour, as she can only carry so many in her backpack!
We also had our first dram in the garage, which was one of my favorites of the day, an independently bottled Speymalt MaCallan
First stop was a house where the local doctor lived and was the one who brought to the stop of a tradition called Dramming, where workers at distilleries would drink all day and even steal some whisky, and they would be alcoholics and drunks and cause problems.
First dram: Pittyvaich 12 year, at the now gone and destroyed Pittyvaich distillery site, very rare whisky.
Dufftown distillery, which produces Singleton of Dufftown, only sold in the U.S., Singleton of Glen Ore (where I went in 2019 on Royal Scotsman) is only sold in Asia.
Singleton of Dufftown 18 year
Tool that people used to use to steal whisky from the distilleries. They would hide this in their pants or jacket, and then would dip into the barrels or tanks
Glendronach 15 Year
Glenfiddich Distillery again, but this time we got to see the potstills!
Glenfiddich Rich Oak
The Balvenie Distillery is owned by the same family as Glenfiddich, the William Grant family, and is right next door to the Glenfiddich Distillery
The Balvenie Peat Week 14 year
The Balvenie 12 year American Oak
Next to Balvenie is the site of another former/ lost distillery
Linkwood, independently bottle whisky, also incredibly delicious 25 year and at 70GBP, very good value. Ended up finding a bottle later on the trip and bought one.
And so the sun set, and the amazing 3 hour walking tour came to a close. What is great is that the town over knows Michelle and her tour and they all had fantastic things to say about, but also warned us to be prepared to drink a lot, they were not wrong.
After 8:30PM on a Wednesday night in Dufftown, our only option was Indian or Chinese take out, we had Indian. Very sweet Chicken Tikka Masala.
And it was back to the inn for a very restful night.
The day started off with some fantastic breakfast at the Highland Spirit Bed and Breakfast. We started off with Monkey Shoulder Scottish porridge, honey, monkey shoulder whisky, nuts, and porridge, it was a pure taste of the Scottish Highlands. And no trip to Scotland is complete without a proper Scottish Breakfast with traditional Rowies (buttery bread).
Following breakfast, we began our full day of driving and self-touring the highlands near Dufftown, including driving along and through the edges of the Cairngorms National Park.
Along the way, we came across the Glenlivet Bridge, one of many historic stone bridges along the various Glens (rivers).
After a leisurely hour or so drive, we arrived at the town of Tomintoul. Primarily to stop at the Whisky Castle, an amazing whisky shop selling a wide range of whiskys including some rare independently bottled ones with reasonable worldwide shipping. We sampled nearly 6 whiskys and Magnum, Scottish Baileys.
We then visited the Glenfarclas Distillery, prebooked tours recommended. Now that restrictions have been lifted, I believe their full menu of tours is now available. We only had the choice of the basic tour, which was already quite fantastic. The tasting room tables and panels are from an original ocean liner and they recereated the cigar lounge from that ocean liner.
Then it was near evening time and we stopped by the Craigellachie Bridge on the way to Aberlour.
For dinner we went to The Mash Tun Inn and restaurant in Aberlour; They have the largest collection of Glenfarclas family casks poured by the dram in the world. Reservations highly recommended as it gets very busy. We had a sunset dram, then walked along the River Spey before our table was ready.
Haggis and blood pudding
Smoked Salmon salad
mint + pea soup
Pulled pork pie
38 GBP pour of the 1992 family cask, thank god it tasted good
Delicious date butterscotch bread pudding
Afterwards we drove back to the inn for another wonderful nights rest following a beautiful day of sightseeing and drinking.
Woke for our final Scottish Breakfast and porridge. Before driving back to Aberdeen airport for our departure back to Amsterdam.
And so was another fabulous albeit short trip to Scotland. I, of course, will be back, hopefully sometime soon. It is just such a beautiful, relaxing and wonderful place. And I am glad I got to do more whisky tastings and distillery visits on this trip.