I wonder how many distilleries in Speyside we could cycle to in one day..?’ It was a throwaway thought at first – a flight of fancy inspired by sunny days and a casual conversation about whisky and cycling.
But, once the idea was out there, it was too good to ignore. The transition from brain to execution was swift. A date was fixed. A state-of-the-art bike and a bespoke Society cycling jersey followed.
Then came the route and the narrowing down of the concept; the trip would start in Benromach in Forres and end up at Glenlivet, passing by 37 working distilleries along the way. Our writer’s challenge would be to cycle to as many open distilleries as possible and collect a miniature from each, all in the space of one day.
Before long, it was time to saddle up and hit the road…
9am: Forres to Elgin, 17.3 miles
At Benromach, the starting point for my whirlwind bicycle tour of Speyside, distillery manager Keith Cruickshank shows me around the distillery’s revamped visitor’s centre. As he does so, his colleague Sandy Forsyth, head guide at the Benromach visitor centre, arrives on his bike to start his day’s work. Keith introduces us. “This guy’s cycling around all the open distilleries between here and Glenlivet,” he says, pointing to me. Sandy looks at me as if I must be crazy. As the rain starts to fall outside, I’m inclined to agree.
9.30am: The initial route from Forres east to Elgin makes for perfect cycling, despite the driving rain. With a slight tailwind, I’m soon sailing along the flat back roads and savouring the views, interrupted only when I have to shout a warning to some youngsters who are skiing up and down the road ahead of me. Yes, skiing. And I’ve not even touched a drop of whisky.
10.30am: At Elgin, I stop in at Glen Moray, the only one of the eight distilleries in and around town open to the public. It has none of the touristy airs and graces of other more picturesque locations. Here, your tour guide is likely to be the stillman or mashman, so visitors are in for an authentic experience. It’s still early and there’s not much life about the place yet, so I pick up a miniature and press on south towards Rothes.
10.40am: Elgin to Rothes, 10.4 miles
The rain is now falling so hard it’s hurting my eyes, and the spray from passing trucks – mostly Chivas, as far as I can tell – isn’t helping my mood. I decide to take the direct route to Rothes, down the A941, rather than the back roads.
11.30am: It’s a relief to get into Rothes, and the sanctuary of Glen Grant’s modern visitor centre. It’s certainly impressive and has been awarded the top ranking of five stars by VisitScotland. The visitor centre has the feeling more of a spa than a distillery. I could do with some therapy at this point, but the manager sees that I’m more in need of a glass of water than a dram, and dashes off to oblige.
11:40am: Rothes to Keith, 11.8 miles
From this point, heading east from Rothes to Keith, I cross the Spey for the first time, at Boat O’ Brig. Distilleries dot the landscape. Glen Spey, Speyburn, Auchroisk and Glentauchers fill the air with the aroma of distilling. The rain is easing off and I’m looking forward to a lunch stop in Keith, after a visit to Strathisla.
12:10pm: Strathisla is said to be the oldest distillery in the north of Scotland and attracts legions of international Chivas fans. I have a quick chat with Jeanett Grant, visitor centre manager, who is busy booking in the next tour group. The visitors look at a dripping cyclist, clacking precariously around the polished floorboards on his cleated shoes, with a mixture of bemusement and sympathy.
Over lunch in Keith, I assess my progress – I’ve racked up 40 miles on the clock. I am just about halfway there and a whole five minutes ahead of schedule at this point. Time to fuel up with a bowl of kedgeree and a slice of cake.
1:20pm: Keith to Dufftown, 10.9 miles
Having stopped long enough to dry out and stiffen up, getting back on the bike for the stretch to Dufftown is a bit of a test. Once I get warmed up, it’s not so bad and, before too long, I see the first signs for Glenfiddich.
2.00pm: It is 40 years now since William Grant & Sons led the industry by opening the first distillery visitor centre and, even on a dreich Thursday afternoon, the entire complex is heaving with people. Apparently, the centre sees around 80,000 visitors a year through the gates, from more than 100 countries. There seems to be a good smattering of them around today. It’s an impressive operation, but I grab my miniatures and head on.
2.30pm: Dufftown to Craigellachie, 6.4 miles
I cycle on towards Craigellachie, passing the eponymous distillery on the right-hand side before stopping off to take in Thomas Telford’s cast iron bridge over the Spey. Unfortunately, even by bike, it doesn’t lead anywhere so, if you want to take in Macallan’s distillery, you have to re-join the busy A941. A word of warning to cyclists – it’s a long slog uphill to reach Macallan, perched high above the Spey on the north side of the river. When I get to the long drive at the entrance to the distillery, a sign tells me the visitor centre is closed. But I’ve come this far, so I pedal on to find out for myself. It’s open after all, so I tell the young chap at the till about the closed sign. “Looks open to me,” he says, helpfully.
3.15pm: Craigellachie to Aberlour, 3.7 miles
At least what goes up must come down, and I’m happy to freewheel back towards Aberlour. My detour to Macallan has put me slightly behind schedule, so I make a quick visit to the Aberlour distillery – or at least to the little lodge at the entrance to the distillery grounds, which is used as the visitor centre.
3.25pm: Aberlour to Cardhu, 6.3 miles
I turn off the A95 after a couple of miles towards Carron, home to Dailuaine distillery, right on the Spey. It’s a pleasure to be back on a quiet, leafy road, riding close by the river. Just round the next bend is the imposing Imperial distillery, which has had an on-and-off
history in recent years. As I pedal past, it looks eerily silent. This is where my route starts getting even more interesting. My next stop is Cardhu, and the map tells me I can make it along a path towards Knockando House. At this point, any shortcut is welcome, and a couple walking their kids along the riverside confirm to me that the route is manageable by bike.
Well, maybe a mountain bike – but not on my skinny tyres without any tread, or suspension. I rattle and bounce on my rigid carbon frame over rocks and mounds of grass, praying my tyres hold out against the abuse, which I’m delighted to say they do. The only benefit from my shortcut is a brief encounter with a deer, startled in its tracks by the sight of a muddy Italian road bike on a forest path.
4.00pm: When I trundle into Cardhu, photographer Mike, who has been travelling by car, tells me the back roads to the distillery are lovely, quiet and weave through delightful pine forests. Lesson learned…
At least Cardhu makes a pleasant place to make a stop, with commanding views across the Spey. The visitor centre is packed out but the shop doesn’t have any miniatures in stock. Time to move on.
4.15pm Cardhu to Blacksboat Bridge, 7.8 miles
From Cardhu, it’s a short and pleasant downhill run to Tamdhu, which is tucked away by the river on the side of the old Strathspey railway line. The distillery is notable for its continued use of Saladin box maltings, and it’s one of the last that provides for all its own malting needs. It did have a visitor centre, housed in the old Knockando station, but it is now closed. From Tamdhu, I consider trying to cycle along the Speyside way, which runs behind Knockando distillery. A couple of locals try to persuade me that the path will be fine: “It might be a wee bit soft,” is the only warning. After my off-roading nightmare near Knockando, and with the day growing even longer than I expected, I turn the bike around and stick to the tarmac.
4.50pm: Blacksboat bridge to Glenfarclas, 2.9 miles
I’ve made the right choice this time. The road from Knockando sweeps downhill through the valley, with the river always in sight and forested hills in the distance. The sun has finally triumphed and the light really brings the landscape to life.
Down at Blacksboat bridge, a favoured beat for the salmon anglers, we stop for a break and to take some pictures. It’s a chance to catch my breath before the final leg, which takes me back up the A95 to Glenfarclas.
By the time I reach it, there’s no sign of life at the distillery, and the last tour parties have headed on to their hotels and B&Bs. But I pause for a moment to metaphorically take my cycling hat off in tribute to the key role that a cask of Glenfarclas played in the creation of the Society. It was here that Society founder Pip Hills and his friends purchased their first single cask – a moment that inspired the establishment of the Society. But with no-one around to talk to, I press on.
5.45pm: Glenfarclas to Glenlivet, 8.4 miles
With another seven miles left to my planned finishing point at Glenlivet, I am now running on fumes. As the road winds its way through the Crown Estate, the distillery refuses to reveal itself until, finally, its chimneys come into view.
6.20pm: I dismount by an old red phone box to reflect on my travels. Photographer Mike has brought a bottle of Society whisky along, thinking a dram might be called for at the end of the day – but to be honest, I’m too exhausted to enjoy it..!