On the whisky trail: a weekend of wee drams in Moray Speyside, Scotland | Scotland holidays

The world outside my sleeper-train compartment was black and white: trees with feather-like branches silhouetted against snowy fields; the grey stretch of the A9 and then the sleek steel of a river; white candy-floss clouds against an ever paler sky.

Whisky map

By the time I was in my hire car, driving east from Inverness, colour was slowly returning to the landscape, though the hills beneath the milky sun were still cloaked in snow. I was heading for Moray Speyside, edged by the Cairngorms in the south and the wide Moray Firth in the north. Over the course of my weekend, the water of the latter dipped in and out of view, while the mountains remained tantalisingly distant.

Salmon boats line the River Spey at Craigellachie. Photograph: Jasperimage/Alamy

The region is famous for its whisky and justifiably 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 – no sooner would I pass one pagoda-marked arrow than I would see another.

It seemed only right that whisky should be my first stop, and so I headed seven miles south of the small town of Forres, winding through quiet single-track roads lined by muddied, tyre-tracked snow, to Dunphail Distillery.

This is the newest kid on the whisky-making block, though it doesn’t look it, set as it is in 160-year-old farm steadings. The most interesting thing about Dunphail at the moment isn’t actually its whisky, which has only just started being produced and needs to be matured for three years to be considered scotch. It’s that its owners have decided to strip the processes right back, away from the computers and off-site maltings that are now common across Scotland’s distilleries.

The beach at Findhorn. Photograph: Björn Abt/Getty Images

Our affable guide, Mike, took our group into a low-ceilinged room where a perfect rectangle of barley rested on the floor while it germinated. We took it in turns to rake it with a contraption that one of the distillers had fashioned out of a huge rake and a couple of hammers to replicate a traditional hand tool. In the main distillery room, where the yeasty, fruity smell of the mash circled us, the spirit safe (usually locked) was left open so that the distillers could interact with the spirit being produced – the new make – rather than rely on computer readings.

In the absence of its own single malt, the tasting session at the end involved trying this new make which, at 63.5% ABV, is significantly stronger than what will be sold in bottles. “It makes me think of standing in a baker’s doorway,” Mike said as I dipped my finger into my glass (I was driving, after all) and I could see what he meant – at first fruity before the low, savoury note of barley came in, it had all the sensory hits of that experience, coupled with the anticipation of what will come in a few years.

It is a bit of trouble, this distillery-visiting business, when you’re driving. Luckily, this was quickly rectified at my hotel, The Dowans, a stately Victorian pile overlooking the Spey valley from just outside the village of Aberlour. After dinner, I holed up in The Still, their narrow whisky bar – though, with more than 500 bottles lining the walls, it felt more like a library than a bar. In truth, I’d come to the region unconvinced about the merits of its whisky (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 quickly proved me wrong.

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The Dowans Hotel

The 107-mile River Spey winds its way along the north-western edge of the Cairngorms national park to spill out into the Moray Firth. I had caught glimpses of it shimmering in valleys below me the day before, but it was only in Aberlour that I really saw it – as dark as a well-matured scotch. 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-bit miles east to the small, next-door village of Craigellachie; just a smidgen of the 65-mile walking route that follows the river from Buckie, on the coast, to Aviemore. The path was thick with ice, and I spent most of the walk crunching through the inch-deep snow at the side of it to avoid a comedy fall. Though the main road kept me company for most of the way, I was barely aware of it, my eyes instead on the wide, rushing river, and the sheep that stared at me from the floodplains. It was an easy, relatively flat route which, on a normal day wouldn’t have felt like enough of a walk, but by the time I reached The Highlander Inn in Craigellachie the ice had given my calves enough of a workout that I was grateful to be able to stop for a half pint in the cosy bar.

On my last day, with my back to the now almost snow-free hills, I headed north, determined to make it to the coast, which so often through my travels had shimmered temptingly in the distance. I drove out to Findhorn, a small seaside village of low, tightly packed houses, where I clambered over dunes and then shingle to the pale sand, which even in the fading half-light of the afternoon seemed to glow. I walked around the hook of the headland, constantly adjusting my hood to the stop-start rain, and took a seat by the large window at The Captain’s Table, festooned inside with fairylights. While I waited for my food, I watched a solitary boat bob in the bay, the gulls swoop in low, and the clouds shift constantly in their dance between rain and sun.

Inside the Dunphail Distillery

“People don’t realise how much there is to do here,” Steph had said to me that morning, “so they end up coming back, again and again.” This was true of my trip, too: every road I drove meant passing countless others with signs pointing to a walk, or a distillery, or a village I’d never heard of. When, finally, I dragged myself back to Inverness, the landscape gradually flattening out around me, I did so knowing it wouldn’t be too long before I returned.

Transport to Scotland was provided by Caledonian Sleeper. Accommodation was provided by The Dowans hotel (doubles from £234 a night B&B). For more information, see Visit Moray Speyside

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