In Search of Scotland's Best Whisky Trails

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, by Fabienne Lang

If you're looking for a mix of sport and whisky in your life, Scotland is the place for you. Photography by: Mitchell Orr / Unsplash

A hiker, a cyclist, and a canoer walk into a whisky distillery. What do they have in common?

You may think this is the start of a joke, but it isn’t.

Neat; on the rocks; old fashioned; however you like to drink your whisky, you can try it with a side of exercise in Scotland. From the Speyside Way Whisky Trail, to the Whisky and Burns route, to the isle of Islay’s tracks, this Gaelic country has you covered when it comes to sports and whisky.

One of Scotland’s Great Trails is the Speyside Way Whisky Trail, stretching for 116km from the eastern shores of the Moray Firth coast, in a south-westwards direction, to Aviemore and Kincraig on the edge of the Cairngorm Mountains (this may sound like the Lord of the Rings, but I swear they are real places).

The well-marked trail offers, for the most part, easy and level walking, often on former railway lines, military roads, and on forest tracks.

For much of its route, the trail follows the valley of the River Spey and passes through the heart of the Speyside Whisky region, also known as the malt whisky capital of the world. Take your pick of the world-famous whiskies produced here, from global names like Glenlivet, Glenfiddich, and Chivas, to little-known gems such as An Cnoc and Tamdhu.

Photo: Jacob Meissner / Unsplash

The Speyside whisky region in the north of Scotland is not only home to more than 30 distilleries, but it also leads you through emblematic Highland countryside. Akin to a postcard, the area paints an idyllic picture of sweeping valleys brimming with purple heather, dark lochs reflecting the rolling clouds overhead, and Scottish castles standing proud on hilltops.

The River Spey or "Whisky River" snakes through the region, providing another carbon-free way to explore the Scottish Highlands: in a canoe. The Spey is Scotland’s fastest-flowing river and stretches for almost 160km.

Open canoeing along the lifeblood of Scotland’s most celebrated whisky region is a diverse experience: from leisurely meandering to occasional adrenalin-raising rapids. It’s a chance to learn about the true nature of the whisky river and how it has contributed to some of the world’s most famous malts. Toss in a touch of history with Ballindaloch Castle, plus a smattering of hearty Highland cuisine and just a dash of whitewater paddling and you have the Speyside Way canoe route. You’ll notice nearly every village along the water boasts its own distillery. After a bit of fun and excitement in whitewater, what better way to celebrate your canoeing skills than with a dram on the riverbank?

The River Spey is Scotland’s fastest-flowing river. Photography by: Andrew Bowden / Unsplash

If you prefer to savor your whisky after a day on the saddle, then the Whisky and Burns cycling route in Western Scotland is for you. This is where history and whisky were made, and more battles were fought than anywhere further north. It is where Scotland’s national poet, Robert Burns, was inspired and where prehistoric people raised standing stones and hilltop forts. This 135-km route takes you on a journey by the sea, rivers, and mountains of Western Scotland, all while sampling some of its finest whisky at Annandale Distillery, founded in 1830, along the way.

Riding along mostly quiet country roads, the Whisky and Burns route is designed for cyclists of all abilities. Best of all, it allows you to pay homage to the man who made cycling possible: Kirkpatrick MacMillan, the inventor of the modern pedal bike. The route takes you to his gravesite, as well as Keir mill, where MacMillan built the first-ever bicycle. For those looking to enjoy a leisurely route, the trail can end in Thornhill, while more experienced and fit cyclists can continue uphill to Wanlockhead, the highest village in Scotland.

If you’re keen to cycle on even more remote roads, the Isle of Islay is another excellent option. The roads are reasonably flat and single-track, and the rugged western isle’s nature and sea breeze will spur you along. Plus, there is whisky. The three island distilleries – all founded between 1815 and 1816 - include famous names such as Lagavulin, Laphroaig, and Ardbeg.

(L) Whisky and Burns cycling route in Western Scotland. John Knight / Unsplash (R) The isle of Islay has three Island distilleries. BK / Unsplash

Regardless of whether you prefer sipping your whisky after a hard day’s hike, paddle, or cycle, Scotland dishes out a smorgasbord of options to suit all abilities and preferences. What better way to explore the essence of Scottish culture, history, and its national drink than by enjoying a glass of whisky after a day in nature?

That brings us back to the original question. What do the biker, the cyclist, and the canoer have in common? They are all three kitted out in Lycra and wearing a Garmin watch that tracks their journey to these Scottish distilleries on Strava. Cheers, or slàinte mhath, to your good health!

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