Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Whisky Writers' Spey Journey - Final Part

Following a quick stop at Craigellachie Hotel for a change of damp footwear, our select little band were whisked off, compliments of Wm. Grant & Sons for lunch, at the lovely Malt Barn Restaurant within the picturesque, immaculate Glenfiddich Distillery site. Wonderful menu choices include delicious Cullen Skink and open sandwiches generously laden with tasty smoked salmon or juicy slices of steak.

After lunch Dr Dram (Andrew) acting as our chauffeur took us towards Glenfiddich’s neighbouring, pretty, quieter little sister ~ The Balvenie. Now in his absolute element, starting on the malting floors, Andrew captivates the writers with his enthusiasm and in-depth knowledge of whisky production, especially The Balvenie and its ‘5 Rare Crafts’ ~ i) its home farm still producing some of the barley used in production ii) only mainland distillery still regularly operating floor malting; iii) own in-house coppersmith (Dennis ~ over 40 years service); iv) own in-house cooperage; v) longest serving malt-master, the hugely respected David Stewart. Balvenie distillery is indeed a very unique place producing excellent, truly handcrafted malt whiskies.

After our fascinating insight into production of fine malts, culminating in a visit to the wonderfully mystical Warehouse 24  filled with some of the oldest Balvenie treasures, we returned to the comforts of Craigellachie Hotel where we were served a very nice dinner. After our meal we retired to the marvellous whisky-bar where bottles of whiskies lining shelves have replaced any need for wallpaper redecoration. In this world famous inner-sanctum of malt-whisky varieties one can savour whiskies from many years, from across the globe but with few matching true ‘Scotch’ and especially the many superb Speyside malts.

After a hearty Craigellachie Hotel breakfast our little band returned to the beach beneath the beautiful Telford Bridge and headed off downstream towards the Moray Firth. With many of the consistently most productive fishing locations on this section we find ourselves ‘zigzagging’ between anglers looking to land the silver-coated, iconic but at times illusive Atlantic salmon, intent in heading upstream in this its home river to procreate. We are almost at Spey Bay before, as protocol demands we are required to sit upstream, waiting for our fellow river user to bring ashore his hooked salmon. Once landed he weighs his catch ~ around 6lbs and as is now standard practice in preserving fish-stocks returns this hen fish to the water ~ undoubtedly with a wounded mouth but alive.

Before reaching this point, however, we pass the village of Rothes ~ a small village but with 4 operational distilleries, another huge plant converting draff and pot-ale into cattle feed and also a large engineering works producing small components for distilleries but now mainly for the off-shore oil industry.

We are now into estates with pools that have over the years delivered some of the Spey’s mammoths. Just a few years ago the fishing rights (only) on the Rothes and Aitkenways estate sold for around 6 million pounds. Once rounding the corner by the elevated site of the ruined Aitkenways castle, we are now into Delfur Estate and into a lovely pool called Sourden. From here one gains a stunning open view towards Ben Aigan, this highest hill in this area. In the shadow of Ben Aigan, are the Delfur pools, Holly Bush and Two Stones, famous for their ‘track record’ over the years for providing big fish e.g. monsters @ 48lbs! At a picturesque location named Otter Hole we stop for our picnic lunch and our first taste of the Scottish Malt Whisky Society bottle containing another  fine malt ~ most appropriately named ‘Capering on a riverbank’!

As we approach the parallel road and rail bridges at Boat o’ Brig (‘boat’ indicates a ferry was operated here) high on the hill river right we can just see the chimney of Auchroisk ~ another in the Diageo stable. Once into Braewater Estate, part of Crown Estates the group are enthralled by the Redheughs ~ cliffs rising to 30 or 40 feet from the river. Comprising glacial deposit affected by ferrous rock these cliffs are a stunning deep red colour. This is where the group witnessed their second osprey flopping its way upstream oblivious to our presence. Other birds spotted close to hand on this trip included ~ golden eye and mallard ducks; mergansers; goosanders; dippers; oyster-catchers; buzzards, etc.

On to Fochabers and the world-renowned Baxter’s’ food factory is clearly visible on its elevated site river left. The ever-changing shingle banks, strewn with the mighty skeletons of trees brought to the estuary in spate conditions requires paddlers to be alert and change course with minimal notice since his section is seldom the same twice.

Arriving at the Moray Firth, where the fresh meets the salt is normally an emotional experience for all who have paddled the majestic Spey here sharing her waters with the North Sea. Quite often the experience is made even more special by the sighting of seals or even dolphins, drawn to the area by the numbers of salmon who have come back to their home river after many months, indeed years at sea.

Our chariot awaited us in the Tugnet car-park and once all canoes and kit were loaded we headed back to Newtonmore. That evening and overnight our writers shared in a ~ at The Cross experience ~ a positively superb restaurant with rooms. We were all welcomed warmly by Katy and David Young, owners of The Cross. The dinner was absolutely superb with stunning presentation, excellent tastes and textures. The Cross has gained several prestigious awards for its extensive range of wines. 

The superb hospitality extended by The Cross was a very fitting way to end this great trip. Thanks to all who made this a truly excellent journey ~ Jude at The Beeches, The Craigellachie Hotel, The Cross in Kingussie, Wm Grant & Sons but in particular Andrew (Mr Balvenie) and the writers, Nicola, Fiona and Alwynne who shared their memorable Journey on this, Scotland’s most beautiful and ideal canoe-touring river. I look forward to sharing a future Spey Journey with you ......

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