Scotland's Whisky Trail: Root of the barley in the home of golf

By Tim McDonald, Contributor

Head to Speyside's famed Whisky Trail for a tour of some of Scotland's best distilleries and golf courses.

Glenlivet Whisky
Whisky lovers can combine a day of golf at Grantown on Spey with an evening at the Glenlivet distillery.
Glenlivet WhiskyNairn Golf ClubBoat of Garten Golf Club - hole 18
If you go

You've probably heard the joke: Why did God make whisky?

Answer: To keep the Irish from taking over the world.

The first written mention of whisky in history comes from Ireland in 1405, where it was distilled by monks. But it is universally agreed the world epicenter of whisky is now Scotland. Malt whisky was born in the Scottish Highlands, where it was once illegal, but now flourishes.

Golfers in the U.S. generally are more likely to drink watered-down American beer after a round, but there are many Americans, and many more non-Americans, who would rather sample a clean, pure single-malt before and after a round - some would even say during a round.

Combining a Scotland golf vacation with a tour of the country's whisky distilleries (the Scots drop the "e") is hardly a unique idea. Many have gone before. A little golf in the morning, followed by a tour of a distillery, dinner at a little country hotel, another distillery tour and, finally, a stop at a pub for more of the root of the barley.

Scotland's main whisky-producing area is Speyside, up in the Highlands, with distilleries loosely grouped around the Spey River, but other regions are the Lowlands, Islay and Campbeltown.

It would take around a year to visit all of the country's distilleries - and one hell of a liver - so we've put together some suggestions for a week-long tour of golf and stops along Scotland's famous Whisky Trail in Speyside. Remember, September might also be a good month to go, since that is usually when the whisky festivals are held.

This tour will take you around and through traditional Highland villages like Newtonmore, Kingussie, Aviemore, Boat of Garten, Carrbridge, Grantown and Nethy Bridge.

Some extra driving will be involved, but the scenery is spectacular, with most of the trail set beneath the Cairngorm Mountains. A reputable golf vacation packager who books Scotland can assist with planning your trip, or offer a similar whisky/golf expedition.

Whisky-golf tour: Day one

Distillery: We'll start you off at the Glenlivet distillery, located in the most remote setting of any Scottish distillery, so remote the "excise men" rarely made it there to bust up the place, as they did others back when it was illegal. It's higher and colder than other distilleries, and very scenic with the Caingorm Mountains to the south and Ben Rinnes to the north. Founder George Smith built his still near Josie's Well, a natural spring. Glenlivet is the No. 1 single malt in U.S., arriving strategically after Prohibition

Golf: Grantown on Spey is located in the Cairngorms national park about 35 miles from Inverness. It's a parkland golf course beside the river Spey, noted for its scenery and walkability. It's a good, par-3 course a mile south of Grantown, with mountains to the south and the Cromdale hills to the east.

Whisky-golf tour: Day two

Distillery: Some critics say the Glenfiddich ("Valley of the Deer" in Gaelic) distillery is too "touristy," but we say, well, you are a tourist, right? There are two tours here, the original tour, better known as "free," and the Connoisseurs tour, which concludes with a tutored "nosing." The tours are guided and they show films in six languages. You can catch the bus from Elgin and visit their outdoor picnic tables and visitors center, at one time voted the best in Scotland. You can book a tour beforehand and while you're at it, see the nearby castle ruins and natural spring. William Grant and his nine children founded the distillery in 1886. It's half a mile north of Dufftown.

Golf: The Ballindalloch Castle Golf Club is another nine-hole golf course, but a superb nine-hole course on the banks of the River Avon with views of the surrounding hills and woods. There are nine greens and 18 tees, measuring 6,417 yards when you play all 18.

Whisky-golf tour: Day three

Distillery: Speyside Cooperage isn't a distillery, but it's a must visit to see the inside scoop, specifically the casks that are used to age the whiskey - it may interest you that the casks are from America, where they were used to age bourbon, and imported from the U.S. Each year, Speyside Cooperage repairs around 100,000 oak casks. There's a gift shop and - don't worry - tastings. This is the only working cooperage in the UK where people can witness the ancient art of coopering.

Golf: There are seven working distilleries in Dufftown alone, and Dufftown Golf Club is a mile south of town. The ninth tee is one of the highest areas in the UK with terrific views, almost 1,300 feet above sea level. The 10th tee has a vertical drop of 340 feet from tee to green. There are some excellent bed and breakfasts in the area.

Whisky-golf tour: Day four

Distillery: Strathisla is the home of Chivas Regal, the oldest working distillery in the Highlands. It was founded in 1786, and here you can sip a 12-year-old blend of Chivas. There's a train and bus to and from Keith.

Golf: Kingussie Golf Club is an easy walking course on upland terrain, with a few short climbs. The course has generous fairways with a tough first four holes and views of the Cairngorm and Monadhliath mountains. "Golf does not get more scenic than this and the course plays as pleasingly as it appears," writer David J. Whyte wrote.

Whisky-golf tour: Day five

Distillery: Glen Moray has been distilled on the banks of the River Lossie in Elgin, the capital of Speyside, since the late 1800s. The highlight here is that sometimes the craftsmen - the stillman or the mashman - act as your guides. It's a small distillery without the tourist frills and yes there is a wee dram at the end of the tour. It was originally built as a brewery. There's a lovely courtyard surrounded by low-ceilinged warehouses.

Golf: Whyte called Boat of Garten Golf Club "one of the most enchanting golf courses I've ever encountered - playing over billowing fairways amid heather, gorse and birch." Designed by James Braid, the original six holes opened in 1898.

Whisky-golf tour: Day six

Distillery: Benromach in Forres is an old distillery that was closed for decades, then restored, with bonny Prince Charles presiding over the official re-opening. This is the smallest working distillery in Speyside, founded in 1898, though it does have a gift shop and museum. Watch a video in the "wee nook," and see how they use spring water from the nearby Romach hills.

Golf: The Nairn Golf Club is 20 miles from Loch Ness, located on the shores of the Moray Firth, which can be seen from virtually every hole; you can hit the ball into the sea on each of the first seven holes, in fact.

It's a traditional Scottish links layout, with whins and heather and gorse and all that. Founded in 1887, Nairn is considered one of the best golf courses in Scotland, demanding precision drives and approaches. There is also a nine-hole family course.

Whisky-golf tour: Day seven

Go to Elgin's Birnie Church, dating to the 12th century, and confess your sins.

Famous whiskey quotes

"Men are nicotine soaked, beer besmirched, whisky greased, red-eyed devils."
- Carry Nation, leading member of the pre-Prohibition temperance movement

"I like whiskey. I always did, and that is why I never drink it."
- Robert E. Lee, Confederate general

Tim McDonaldTim McDonald, Contributor

Veteran golf writer Tim McDonald keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.

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