I’ve begun to enjoy whiskey a lot more than I used to, since arriving in the UK, which I suspect means I am beginning to get old. Another of my old, whiskey-loving friends and I thought it would be a great idea, while we’re based up here in Europe, to spend a weekend up in the north of Scotland checking out the spiritual home of our new favourite, uh, spirit, and so B and I organised little weekend getaway with him and his girlfriend (actually they did pretty much all the organising for this one, which was great).
Usually we fly on a Friday night after work, but this time we opted to travel on Saturday morning instead. This sounded nice in theory, but in practice meant a 3:30am start in order to catch our early flight. Needless to say, it wasn’t a pleasant way to begin the weekend, but we eventually made it to Aberdeen, picked up our car (VW Golf, much better than what we had for our last drive) and hit the road.
I’d heard it rains quite a bit in Scotland, before going, and I can now confirm that this is in fact the case. It started drizzling almost as soon as we got in the car, and during the short drive from the airport to Aberdeen central the rain had properly set in. Aberdeen is a grey place at the best of times (much of it is built from granite – “Granite City” is a common nickname), and today the city and sky seemed to merge together into one big dreary smudge.
Despite that, we quite liked the place. We were actually only there for breakfast, so our opinions were probably heavily influenced by the fact we found a very nice place to eat: Cup. Cosy and warm, with super friendly staff, amazing food & very nice coffee – the perfect place to fuel up on a cold day. My big breakfast disappeared a lot faster than was perhaps respectable, and B tells me her gourmet porridge was excellent too. I’d recommend it if you’re ever passing through.
After that we hit the road. Our destination was the Speyside region, specifically the Glenfiddich distillery and then on to the nearby town of Craigellachie. I couldn’t drive on this trip (my license had expired, for UK purposes), so I got to just sit and watch the countryside go past – and what a nice countryside it was. It reminded me quite a lot of the Waikato region in New Zealand, actually, except for all the houses we passed looking about 300 years older than anything you’d see back home.
We’d picked Glenfiddich not because either of us boys wanted to visit it particularly (I’m not actually that fond at all of their most common product, the iconic green bottle you’ve probably seen in every duty-free around the world), but because it was one of the few which appeared to still be open in mid-November. But I’m so glad we did – it was awesome. The founders laid the first stones on the site in 1886, and, I hadn’t realised this, but Glenfiddich distillery has remained family-owned ever since. There are a couple of buildings which look like they haven’t changed much over that time either. Inside one which is used to age the whiskey, our guide pointed out one of their rarer products: a couple of innocuous-looking barrels which were apparently worth north of £2 million each. Should you want to try a top-end Glenfiddich whiskey but find that hefty number slightly out of your price range, fear not – they had recently tapped one, and a sample bottle was available in the bar. A snip at £1,000 a sip.
We opted instead for the tasting that came standard in the ticket price, which was actually very good. You get to try four different whiskeys, starting with their iconic 12 year single malt (the green bottle) and moving through three progressively more sophisticated products, which was more than enough for amateurs like us. The incredibly knowledgable guide told us a heap of information about each as we went, as well as the history of Glenfiddich (ours was also an excellent comedian). It was actually a fantastic tour, overall, with even non-whiskey drinkers like B having a good time.
At the end of our whiskey experience we were very surprised to find that the sun had come out, and made the most of this by checking out the castle and surrounding countryside above the distillery. We’d picked a beautiful time of year to visit, late in the autumn, and the late afternoon sun made everything look amazing.
Of course, being Scotland, this didn’t last long, and fog had begun to roll in by the time we drove back to Craigellachie. We had a little look around the local area and took a few photos but we headed off to check in to our hotel before too long.
We’ve stayed in a few places around the world now, for fun and business, and so I feel I’ve got a reasonable base of experience to make this statement a meaningful one: the Craigellachie Hotel is my favourite hotel I’ve ever been to. If you are thinking of going to Speyside, go here. Everything about it is just so nice. The people are impeccably and genuinely friendly; there are fireplaces everywhere (some with resident dogs sleeping in front); the attached restaurant is delicious; the rooms are huge and incredibly comfortable; and the brunch in the morning was probably the best I’ve had since arriving in the UK (and as a kiwi, I am something of an authority with regard to brunches). And, there is a whiskey library, which is amazing (there was also a resident expert on hand to help guide your selections) and much loved by the guys (the girls had cocktails, which I’m told were also excellent). Nowhere’s perfect, of course, but this place came close.
In the morning we left fairly soon after brunch, as we had a reasonable drive to do – 160 or so miles down to Edinburgh. It was actually a pretty nice day to be stuck in the car for a drive across the Scottish highlands, as all the rain and low cloud seemed perfectly appropriate for the landscape, and made everything look quite brooding. Sitting in the car looking out the window doesn’t make for a good story though, so I’ll skip ahead to our one stop of the trip.
House of Bruar was a completely accidental find. I was feeling a little under the weather, nothing at all in relation to the whiskey library the previous evening, and suggested we take the next turn off the main road to search for a coffee. It just so happened that this took us into the parking lot of this wonderful place, so in we went.
House of Bruar turned out to be a kind of one-stop-shop for anything the well to-do country Scotsman might ever need in his life. It appeared largely focused towards clothes (the practical, well made type you buy with every intention of using for the next 25 years), but also covered all manner of other things – beautiful home wares, hunting and fishing accessories, outdoor equipment, even a wide range of dog beds (in Harris Tweed, mostly). The food hall was also amazing, and we had a very nice afternoon tea before loading up on edible souvenirs and hitting the road again.
Top tip for anyone dropping a car from Europcar back in the middle of Edinburgh – your GPS will lie to you about where to do so. Our TomTom, which had been perfectly reliably all throughout Europe and America, gave us the wrong directions, as did each of our phones as well. They’ll all point you towards the main train station, right in the middle of town, but if you try drive down what looks to be the only viable entrance there you’ll be scolded by an angry Scotsman. Which is exactly what happened to us. To be fair, he must have to deal with this sort of thing a lot.
Eventually we found the right place and dropped the car, and were left with an hour or so to have a quick look around. At dusk, the central city looks fantastic, and the whole place seemed pretty vibrant. We’d already decided to spend a weekend up there at some point in the future, but our short time there certainly convinced us further.
And that was it for our first trip to Scotland. We caught the train from Edinburgh back to London (I still can’t get enough of train travel, so much more appealing than air), and in a few hours we were home. It was only a short trip, and the weather was kind of terrible, but I absolutely loved Scotland. I can’t wait to go back.
Until next time, B&A.