It’s windy at the top of Ben Rinnes, and chilly too, even this late into May. But the views make up for it.
At almost 800 metres, Ben Rinnes is not quite a Munro. It would need an extra 114 metres for that accolade.
But it is the tallest bit of ground around here until you hit the Cairngorms just to the west, meaning the panorama is spectacular.
From up here you can see a grand total of eight of Scotland’s counties, a fact that lends itself to the name of the distillery I am here to visit.
Standing beside me, my guide for the day Alister Laing points out the Eight Lands Distillery, just a tiny speck 800 metres below us.
Alister drove me here in his Toyota Hilux, a powerful 4×4 that made short work of the steep terrain. Our assisted ascent startled a couple of walkers who were climbing the hill in a more traditional manner, kitted out in boots and blue cagoules.
“I always feel a bit guilty driving past the hikers,” Alister says as we glide up the hill.
I know what he means. Part of me wants to sink into my upholstered seat. Instead, I casually stare out the window and pretend to be the type of person that can afford to be chauffeured up a mountain.
Speyside in fine style
Alister has no reason to feel guilty. He’s the estate manager of the 7,500-acre Glenrinnes estate, so Ben Rinnes is part of his office. If he wants to drive up it, he can.
It helps that he gives off strong master-of-his-domain vibes, reeling off with ease the livestock and wildlife that he and his four keepers look after across the estate; shorthorn cattle, blackface sheep, ptarmigans, wild pheasant and a host of wetland birds.
He also sports an appropriately tanned face. Though that turns out to have less to do with traipsing over Speyside hilltops than a recent family holiday to Majorca.
The modern Speyside estate
Back down the mountain, Alister takes me around the deer enclosure, where the estate’s sizable herd roams before meeting their destiny on Speyside’s fine dining tables. The stags stare at me with doleful boredom, underneath antlers that at this time of year are only just starting to grow in.
As we drive, Alister explains the estate’s many facets, from venison to barley to the relatively new Eight Lands distillery, which only started four years ago.
Estate tours of the type I’m taking include everything from traditionally estate pursuits to ArgoCat adventures.
The mix of agriculture and tourism is typical of modern Speyside estates, that have been forced to diversify as traditional methods of income dry up.
An organic experience
At Glenrinnes, the draw is the estate’s organic model, which has been in place since 2001.
The distillery is the newest addition to the organic output. Inside the modern, low-slung building sits a copper still not too dissimilar to the ones inside the many world-famous whisky distilleries nearby.
The difference is, though, that this one – aided by a couple of column stills – only makes gin and vodka.
“The idea was to do something a little different,” says distillery manager Martin Pieroni, as he leads me through a sampling.
Martin used to work for the water board, and before joining Glenrinnes a few years back was employed to check the water quality at many of those whisky distilleries.
He says it is Glenrinnes’ use of water from a nearby spring that gives the vodka its almost milky smoothness.
The gin, which leans on locally-foraged botanicals, is also something of a showstopper.
The past few years have seen gins move away from the juniper-forward flavour that gave them their name. Eight Lands Organic Gin jumps two-footed into juniper, with excellent results.
“It’s a gin-drinkers gin,” Martin says.
A Speyside and Moray food tour minus the whisky
I’m travelling through Speyside looking for food and drink experiences that go beyond the usual whisky tourism that the region is famous for.
As we move past the lockdowns of the past few years, more locals in the north and north-east are exploring their home patch.
But not everyone is as in love with the water of life as the whisky tourists that flock here every year.
Stories over dinner
“There is so much to do here besides whisky,” says Steph Murray, who along with her sister Lauren, mum Marie and dad Michael own The Dowans Hotel & Restaurant just outside of Aberlour.
I’m staying two nights at the beautiful Victorian manor house and Steph and Lauren treat me to dinner on my first.
It is a riotous occasion during which they regale me with stories of their childhood in Hong Kong and juicy celebrity stories from when Steph worked at the exclusive One Devonshire Gardens in Glasgow.
The sisters also fill me me in on non-whisky attractions – hunting and fishing, of course, but also a ghost tour in Elgin and bike trails across the nearby Glenlivet estate.
As for food experiences, there’s no need to stray beyond The Dowans’ restaurant, called 57. Steph and Lauren want guests to get a taste of the Speyside’s fantastic local produce, which can sometimes get overshadowed by the whisky.
“Speyside is a microcosm of Scots produce,” Steph says, adding that Moray adds the seafood element – langoustines, lobster and crab caught fresh from the firth. All of this is on show at 57.
But the sisters also maintain they would have no problem if their guests didn’t spend any time eating in the hotel.
“We know that if they have a good time then they will come back,” Steph says. “There’s so much to see and do in the area that it wouldn’t be right to keep them at the hotel.”
A happy welcome at Hearth
Another restaurant with local produce at its core is Hearth At The Old Mill Inn Brodie just outside of Forres on the Moray coast. Owners David and Sophie Maclean have turned a rundown pub just off the A96 into a cosy little space with amazing food.
David used to run a catering firm that delivered fine dining on a massive scale to events in the Middle East and Asia.
Hearth is a much smaller project that is proving very successful.
The restaurant – ably commanded by head chef Paul McKechnie – has a coveted AA Rosette award and a four-star rating for its five rooms.
My lunch there was a great combination of traditional pub food with Paul’s signature twists.
The Wye Valley asparagus and egg yolk came with a nutty dukkah sauce that really hit home. And the beef brisket with Yorkshire pudding was the perfect Sunday roast.
I was lucky to get the lunch roast – David, Sophie and Paul typically run three different menus a week at Hearth, which during the week and on Saturday is evening service only.
This variety, they said, is down to the the strength of the local supplier contacts they built up during the pandemic, which has allowed them a far freer hand in experimenting with different ingredients.
Moray’s daffodil sanctuary
Just down the road from The Old Mill Inn is Brodie Castle, a quiet, welcome retreat for anyone looking for a slice of history to go with their holiday.
My enthusiastic host for the castle tour was the bubbly Alex, whose passion for Scotland’s storied past almost spilled over as she showed me Brodie’s prize possession – a 1311 letter from Robert the Bruce to the then-Brodie laird.
The Playful Garden is a newer addition to the Brodie estate, which came into the hands of the National Trust in 1979.
The garden holds a number of fun attractions for children, including a giant bunny rabbit called – appropriately – Brodie.
My interest, however, was in the garden’s daffodil collection, a legacy of a previous Brodie laird’s fascination with the flower around the turn of the 19th Century.
The collection is one of just seven National Daffodil Collections recognised by the Royal Horticultural Society, and is responsible for many of the daffodil hybrids in use today.
Unfortunately, I’d just missed blooming season. But head gardener Chris, who I found dead-heading the last of this year’s crop, gave me a potted history of the collection.
Chris also told me about the oddity of maintaining the gardens during lockdown. The estate was virtually empty, with only a few people from the nearby villages dropping in from time to time. Chris, however, is happy to have people back – it gives him something to look at as he works.
“I once saw a boy use another boy as a sledge,” Chris says, pointing over to the hill the bunny lies on. “You don’t see that every day.”
Whisky with a difference
Benriach Distillery is also happy to see guests returning.
The subject of a major refurbishment just before the pandemic hit, the distillery hasn’t been able to make full use of its new and improved visitors centre.
Which is a shame, because the gift shop and tasting lounge is the perfect spot to kick back and sample some of Speyside’s most exciting whisky.
Whisky is something I’ve been trying to avoid on this trip around Speyside and Moray. But that is near impossible.
What Benriach typifies, however, is more modern thinking around the traditional act of turning malted barley, water and yeast into Scotland’s national drink.
Yes, it has the history and whisky heritage – it dates back to more than a hundred years, and is one of just two distilleries left in Speyside to use its own floor maltings.
But since US drinks giant Brown-Forman, which owns Jack Daniels, bought Benriach and sister distilleries Glenglassaugh and Glendornach in 2016, a lot of investment has flowed into the site.
Hence the new visitors centre, and the giant Instagram-friendly Ben Riach sign painted on the rackhouse at the entrance.
And the takeover probably had something to do with Benriach’s most daring play yet – appointing a female master blender!
Granted Rachel Barrie has worked in Scotch whisky for almost three decades, but in the largely masculine world of the spirits industry, her appointment in 2017 felt significant.
Benriach obviously agrees. They’ve put Rachel’s name on the front of every bottle.
And that’s something worth raising a glass to.