With Burns Night nigh upon us, breaking up the January gloom, Sophie McLean takes on something of a whisky pilgrimage into Speyside, and its spiritual home…
Bouncing atop four large wheels, coursing off-road and splashing through giant puddles, an authentically beaten-up Land Rover Defender carries us from Chapeltown over lesser-trodden parts of Scotland’s Crown Estate, out into the Glenlivet and her brush strokes of green, purple and gold. Boots on frosty gravel crunch their way past cockerels, a wheelbarrow, firewood and fencing to reach a pretty stone cottage from which we survey this hauntingly beautiful landscape.
From here, Zeki Başan, son of cookery class host and author Ghillie Başan, whose family home this is, accompanies us over streams and into the nearby forest, teaching us what this part of the world can offer us in terms of foraged food. When it comes to herbs, we look at wild wood sorrel, mountain thyme and wood bitter cress. We discuss the magic of mushrooms, particularly with reference to Siberian shamans and how they and their reindeer would feast on these – perhaps accidentally, leading to where the modern legend of Santa and his flying reindeer originates. Zeki describes the mushrooms as ‘the fruiting bodies of mycelium’ and ‘the very veins of nature…that control and rot matter’ – very necessary breakdowns for the natural world’s regenerative cycle.
Over bowls of peppery nettle soup under the canvas of a yurt, complete with burning campfire, we are poured a similarly warming dram of Aberlour cask strength distiller exclusive whisky, aged in sherry casks, and made not far from here at Glenlivet. The intention from our overarching hosts is to clearly hone in on what else these surrounds can also capably provide. Lunch is a feast of venison roasted underground in an earth pit, dug by Zeki earlier that day, precluded by a hot toddy of Glenlivet double oak 12-year-old, garnished with cinnamon and pineapple and served, in true rustic fashion, in blue tin mugs. Through the dual aspect of the house’s wooden and gloriously granite walls, we stand at ease, feasting on a combination of Turkish inspired food, from which Ghillie draws much of her inspiration.
As sunset draws its inky veil over these wide-open views, we make our way onwards to the town of Keith – best known for being home to three distilleries and the start of the Scottish whisky trail – and our destination, Linn House. This stunning Victorian property, built in 1878 by the owner of a local woollen mill, has for the last thirty years been the ‘private’ home to the modern incarnation of the Chivas Brothers; the original two chaps, James and John, who in the late 1700s transformed their fortune from farmers from Ellon to suppliers of teas and spices to the finer folk of Aberdeen, before becoming whisky magnates.
From humble beginnings, the name clearly lives on today and, in this particular setting, now provides home comforts for the modern-day whisky connoisseur. Opened to guests as of November 2023, the house now offers the option of living like a Laird, with sumptuous stays here in one of the 13 newly renovated en-suite bedrooms, each named after one of the Chivas-owned distilleries and decorated in glorious Scottish fashion.
The whole house can be hired for the weekend, allowing a full Scottish experience, complete with Burns-style supper. Four packages are available depending on how serious your penchant for scotch whisky is. We are treated to a Royal Salute 21-year-old signature blend, a 30-year-old ‘key to the Kingdom’ Royal Salute, a Royal Salute 21-year-old Malts Blend, and finish up with an Aberlour A’Bunadh. These are accompanied by hand-dived Moray coast scallops, Auchindoun Estate faisan (pheasant) and, of course, haggis, ‘neeps and ‘tatties.
A piper counts us into the experience, complete with tartan sashes and kilts for the gentlemen. ‘Ceud mile failte gu Alba!’ cries Tony Guerreiro, the man in charge of the house, opening proceedings, ‘One hundred thousand welcomes to Scotland!’. The full service is extended to breakfast, where traditional Scottish delicacies are also offered in the dining room that overlooks river Isla, sometimes affording glimpses of salmon, making their way towards guests’ plates depending on the season.
Perhaps the real beauty of staying here (not only for the in-house bar with serious, often very rare whiskies available by the dram) is the wealth of activities that you can participate in nearby. The following day we visit Ballindalloch Castle alongside host and owner Guy Macpherson-Grant, who has overseen his family seat’s restoration in recent years from its first foundation in 1546, and under expert tuition, participate in some semi-successful clay shooting by the river Spey, the crack of the shots echoing into the surrounding scenery.
The Macpherson-Grants also make a more boutique whisky, under the Ballindalloch Distillery label, and claim ownership to the oldest Aberdeen Angus cattle herd in the world, and open both their home and extensive gardens to visitors during the better weather months of the year. For such visitors, both of these properties are not far from Maryculter House, another premium post for a stay, but also serving a brunch, appropriately enjoyed with a whisky Bloody Mary, over a ghost story or two woven into its potted history by Peter, the MD.
Of course, no trip to this part of the world is complete without a visit to the Glenlivet Distillery itself. The very modern incarnation of what was once simply a living, working whisky house, it is now as much an exhibition space as its source of production. Home to giant copper stills, producing a rich heritage and a defined house style for its single malts, enjoyed the world over.
As with all the finest crafts in life, none of this could be possible without the addition of clear personalities, equally passionate about bringing the overriding story to life, perhaps impossible without their own creative background, into which a passion is woven. From formally trained ballet dancer, Caris, and one-time landscape gardener, Ethan, the whole team comes together to bring the richness of this part of Scotland to life – and is now open to all of us.
Stays at Linn House start from £9,600 for 12 guests in 6 rooms, £19,200 for 24 guests in 12 rooms including two nights accommodation, breakfast, a three-course seasonal Scottish dinner with wine and whisky, and bottle of reserve whisky for each guest. For more information and bookings, please email email@example.com.
Whisky Safaris with Ghillie Basan available on request from Linn House. For more information, visit www.ghilliebasan.com.
To kick off its bicentennial celebrations, The Glenlivet is hosting an exclusive Burns Night event held in partnership with The Ivy on January 26th. This dinner promises a rare and refined opportunity to try The Glenlivet’s distinguished catalogue, including the brand new bold limited edition 200th anniversary of its 12-year-old whisky. To learn more about The Glenlivet’s 200-year celebrations, please visit www.theglenlivet.com. Tickets can be purchased here.
The Glenlivet 200 Year Anniversary Limited Edition 12-Year-Old is available now at The Whisky Exchange for £51.95.