EASING along tree-shrouded slopes, in the shadow of some of Scotland’s highest mountains, a whitewashed distillery emerges to my left, then another on the right, followed by a third straight ahead.

In the distance, a plume of steam rises from a hidden fourth distillery. This can only mean one thing – I’m back in Speyside, Scotland’s whisky heartland, where I find a flurry of new joys.

On my first night I’m based at the Grant Arms Hotel (www.grantarmshotel.com) in stately in Grantown-on-Spey. It’s an ideal base for whisky adventures with the knowledgeable Gavin at an impressive bar stocked with over 130 whiskies. When I eye an old Islay favourite he gently coaxes me to try a Speyside dram I’ve never tried before – GlenAllachie. It’s good advice – it’s a deliciously smooth dram. In Speyside there is always something more.

And in Speyside these days there is always something new. The north bank of the lifeblood Spey just outside town is now home to The Cairn, which opened its doors to the public just over a year ago, the brainchild of Scotland’s legendary whisky aficionados and whisky bottlers Gordon And MacPhail.

They’ve really gone to town with this striking modern distillery, the first in the Cairngorms National Park. Their elegant bistro shows just how much Speyside distillery visits have changed over the years. People expect more than just a wee tour these days and The Cairn delivers with a delicious Scottish tapas menu alive with local produce conjured up by TV chef Tim Maddams. Think carrot hummus and fresh asparagus with wild garlic and parmesan. Delicious.

READ MORE: Why it's no wonder that Edinburgh's Circus Lane draws so many tourists

Over lunch, Rebecca, of Gordon And MacPhail, talks me through their brave whisky plans. “We are resisting the temptation to bring out a very young whisky and are aiming for our first release to be a 12-year-old in the 2030s.”

Distiller Ali says they are “going for a classic Speyside malt”. Real thought has been gone into the distillery, with only cooling water taken from the Spey and returned, the draff is made into biomass fuel and the aspen roof is designed to be alive with plants and wildlife.

Fortunately you don’t have to wait a decade to sample whisky at The Cairn. After a tour around the ultra-modern distillery, guide Lexie – who joined straight from school – takes me into a tasting room with floor-to-ceiling windows peering out over the Spey and the Cairngorms. They offer drams from their CRN57 (the distillery lies at 57 degrees north) range of blended malts you can only buy bottles of here.

READ MORE: Karen Gillan wants to buy Highlands cottage for 'rest of my life'

I sneak a taste of their delicious Spirit of Speyside festival release. Then it’s on to the CRN range. The 18-year-old is a smooth wonder, matured in bourbon and sherry casks, with the 30 an all-sherry bomb with fruitiness and orange zest. The stars of the show are their 57 and 70-year-olds, the latter the world’s oldest malted blend. Director David King describes it as reminding him of a “headmaster’s office”, laced with leather and tobacco.

You could spend all your time in Speyside at the distilleries, but that would be a waste as there is so much more. I’m reminded of that by the pine marten that scurries across my path as I leave the distillery. This gorgeous corner of Scotland is superb for wildlife and the landscape is just made for exploring on foot or two wheels. You can even kayak down the Spey on a whisky-themed trip with the Spirit Of The Spey.

The restaurant scene has also improved lately too. In Grantown I pop into the new Highland Fusion Bistro (above) on only its second night. Matt and Heather – the lovely husband and wife team – serve up Scottish produce given a Francophile twist in a light-drenched conservatory. I highly recommend the Speyside whisky-flambéed prawns and the braised lamb shank.

I also recommend my second bolthole of this trip – The Mash Tun in Aberlour. A team with previous experience in the cigar industry have breathed remarkable new life into a hotel and restaurant that felt tired the last time I was in.

The rooms are seriously stylish and comfy, with views out towards the Spey. And a wee dram, of course, awaits your arrival. They have a four-bedroom lodge too onsite with a huge terrace.

The Mash Tun’s restaurant is worth staying in for too. I kick off with a sharing platter of Highland charcuterie and cheese, before tucking into the delight that is their comforting venison bourguignon pie.

The whisky-themed bar is stacked with a remarkable array of malts – everything from cheap and cheerful drams, through to rare big hitters from Macallan and Glenfarclas. It’s an utterly unique collection, essential for any whisky connoisseur to visit.

I end my last night in Speyside in style at The Mash Tun’s Pavilion, a stand-alone sitooterie. Finely matured whisky raconteur Neil guides me through a tasting that brings not only top-notch malts but surprises like a peated Speyside dram and the delightful Saorsa whisky, part of the independent Stalla Dhu range they bottle themselves. They’ve snared awards for their whiskies and I can see why.

It’s just one of a barrel-full of new discoveries in a heartland of whisky that constantly evolves.


Walk this Way

IF you love walking, you’ll love the Speyside Way, a long-distance trail that weaves through the heart of Speyside’s whisky country. It’s well signposted, but it’s still best to plan your route. Handily for my latest Speyside trip, one of my favourite stretches is from Aberlour across to Craigellachie – a village that sports not one, but two, fantastic whisky bars. www.speysideway.org