Now we reach the final and most anticipated stage of the tour, an opportunity to sample a few of their whiskies. First up is their 10-year-old malt, a pale amber spirit that’s aged in old sherry casks. I’m impressed to find I really can discern the sherry flavour, along with surprise hints of sweet chocolate, vanilla and cinnamon notes. Meanwhile, Origins No.2 unloads lots of red berry and orange peel, whispering of the port pipe in which it was matured.
Next came the 25 years, a creamier, rounded malt lifted with citrusy notes and aromas. The star of the show is the darker copper-coloured Benromach Vintage 1961, in which sweet apples and pears harmonise with burnt aniseed notes. We mix it with a little water – not ice, as this stifles the flavours and aromas – and it develops into something more treacly and floral.
From the bijou Benromach we drove across to Scotland’s largest distillery, Glenfiddich, at the other end of the Whisky Trail map. A more commercial operation with a vast merchandise shop and on-site cooperage, tourists mill around the various outbuildings and pose for group photos under its iconic stag logo. Despite being bigger and slicker, the distillery is actually one of very few Scotch whisky companies to remain in the hands of the family who founded it, William Grant and Sons Ltd.
Guided tours are free but we upgraded to the ‘Connoisseur Tour’ with a tutored nosing of some vintage single malts for £20. For me, the winner was Glenfiddich 21-year-old; there’s a caramel sweetness that really stands out thanks to its spending four months in reclaimed Caribbean rum barrels. My sweet tooth is piqued with the fig, fudge and banana aromas, while the palate is a deliciously rich mix of vanilla, toffee and spice. A similarly pudding-like treat came with their baked apple and cinnamon-laced 18-year-old scotch. The rather special Glenfiddich Rare Collection 1937 was sadly off limits to our group, so I’ll just have to take the word of the tasting notes that it’s like crème brulee and almonds.
As much as I was relishing my initiation into Scotch connoisseurship, man cannot live on whisky alone (indeed, a few wee drams coupled with bracing walks along nearby Findhorn beach works up a formidable appetite), so back at Knockomie we tucked into a feast of regionally sourced treats in The Grill Room. The oak-smoked Scottish salmon with home-pickled fennel, beef farmed at nearby Dallas (him) and linguini with cep (me) were worthy of any top London restaurant, shaking off my apprehensions about the stodgy uninspired fare one traditionally finds at the country house hotel. We shifted from grain back to grape for dinner, taking advantage of the restaurant’s serious wine list. A bottle of Amalaya Malbec Blend 2009 was all velvety, juicy cherry-laced indulgence.
We ticked off two more distilleries during our long weekend – Dallas Dhu Glen Grant, with its distinctive light floral malts, and Strathisla, the oldest distillery in the Highlands – of the possible eight on the Whisky Trail. The remaining three are Cardhu, Glenlivet and Glen Moray, plus Speyside Cooperage if you’re feeling particularly thorough. I wouldn’t recommend visiting every single site for all but the most devoted whisky scholar, as there are only so many vats of yeast and boxes of barley one can stare into with a convincing degree of interest. Instead, picking a couple of contrasting producers, as we did with Glenfiddich and Benormach, avoids the risk of distillery fatigue.
One final note: far be it from me to suggest that motoring and spirits make for a wise combination, but the classic car collection of Knockomie’s proprietor Gavin Ellis really is worthy of mention. The highlight is a unique 1925 Galloway 25/30 Tourer, which has seen the hotel become a hub for veteran car clubs and enthusiasts. Continuing with the theme of Scottish heritage, Galloways were made at an ex-wartime aero engine factory in Dumfries from 1920 onwards and Gavin has one of Britain’s five surviving Galloways – not to mention its being the only overhead valve example in the country. Gavin certainly has some enviable routes in which to exercise his Tourer; if there was ever a place to embark on a scenic drive, it’s surely the swooping Loch side roads and mountain passes of the Highlands.
At a bar back in London the following week, I significantly waived my usual glass of Sauvignon Blanc for a wee dram. I opted for a 10-year-old Glen Moray, and smugly informed my friend that I would be diluting it with a little water rather than having it on ice, citing Sandy’s wisdom about how this “opens up the spirit” by breaking down the ester chains and freeing the aromatics. Anyone who has savoured the dual pleasure afforded by a wine tour or cookery holiday, namely how getting rather tipsy on some fine vintages is legitimatised by learning a civilised new skill, should now turn their attention to scotch and Speyside’s Malt Whisky Trail. Sitting rosily by the fireplace as the smoky warmth of a single malt spreads through your body is all the more satisfying when you know you’re simultaneously gathering some connoisseurial aplomb.