Speyside hotel’s spirit still shining

Whisky remains at heart of The Craigellachie’s DNA 125 years on

The Craigellachie Hotel bar
A thread of whisky runs through the interior of The Craigellachie Hotel, from Copper Dog to Quaich

ONE hundred and twenty five years ago, the man who built Craigellachie Distillery had a vision.

Scotland was becoming increasingly fashionable as a holiday destination, fuelled, no doubt, by Queen Victoria’s frequent trips to Balmoral.

And Alexander Edward saw an opportunity.

Craigellachie had a railway station at that time and so he began building houses in the village, which sits where the River Spey meets the Fiddich. He also bought what was then a drovers’ inn; commissioned Charles Doig, who had designed Craigellachie Distillery for him, to draw up plans for a hotel; and, in 1893, opened The Craigellachie Hotel.

Over a century later, Speyside is firmly established as a tourist destination – as much for the country pursuits and stunning scenery enjoyed by its Victorian visitors as for its whisky distilleries and visitor centres; and another entrepreneur had his own vision for The Craigellachie Hotel.

Having visited Speyside and stayed at the hotel some years earlier with his father, who had spent time in Craigellachie during the Second World War, London bar and nightclub owner Piers Adam had fallen in love with it – so much so that he bought the hotel in late 2013 and, following a £3 million root and branch refurbishment, relaunched it in May 2014.

For Kevin Smith, who has been at The Craigellachie for the past nine years, the change in ownership brought a fresh opportunity to combine two of his passions: hospitality and design.

Quaich’s gantry is home to around 900 whiskies

Kevin, who has a degree in interior design from Glasgow School of Art and was the hotel manager at Mar Hall near Glasgow before making the move to Speyside, was made a director and worked closely with Piers on the six-month refurbishment, for which he said the vision was clear from the outset.

“This hotel was built 125 years ago by the distiller Alexander Edward; he was a real visionary,” said Kevin, whose Welsh Springer Spaniels Alfie and Ella lie obediently on the floor throughout SLTN’s visit.

“It has been immersed in the whisky industry since the day it was built and we wanted to keep it that way.

“We started looking at what we could do. Piers wanted to create a bar that meant something, a space you could belong in; we wanted as many demographics as possible to feel at home.

“It all started with Quaich – that was the original idea; it’s all about friendship, sharing a drink. And we wanted the craftsmanship that goes into whisky to be reflected in the design.”

The result is two distinct bars – Copper Dog and Quaich – each of which has whisky firmly in its DNA.

Copper Dog, the ground floor bar and restaurant area, has a rustic feel to it, with exposed stonework, wood panelling made from the outer edge of an old washback and a roaring fire.

The bar, named after the cylinders once used by distillery workers to pilfer drams, shares its name with a blended Scotch created by the hotel team in 2016 as a parting gift for celebrities, including Kate Moss, Noel Gallagher, Sadie Frost and Nick Grimshaw, who had attended a party at the hotel. The Copper Dog whisky is now wholly-owned by Diageo, which worked with the hotel on its creation, and The Craigellachie remains the brand’s home.

Traces of the whisky industry are also evident upstairs in Quaich, where a huge gantry, made from the timber taken from the washback, sits behind a wooden bar inlaid with a silver band designed by jeweller Stephen Webster and produced by Hamilton & Inches.

The commitment to craftsmanship extends to the furniture in Quaich, on which the team worked with London-based Soane; items like the red leather chairs were built by seven different craftsmen.

“Craftsmanship had to be at the heart of it,” said Kevin.

“We could have used regular timber and not used real silver but the hotel has been soaked in the whisky industry since it was built and we wanted it to stay that way.”

Of course the thread of whisky runs deeper than the interior design of the 26-bedroom hotel, which also has a private dining room, a 60-capacity function room and an elegant first-floor lounge in what was originally home to the Quaich bar.

Quaich’s gantry houses a collection of some 900 whiskies, curated by bar manager Lyndsey Gray, who worked at a number of distilleries before joining the 52-strong team at The Craigellachie five years ago.

“We’ve got a great team and it’s a great area to work in; half of Scotland’s distilleries are within 14 miles and there’s amazing local produce,” said Kevin.

“We push boundaries with everything; great food, great drinks, great service.

“We want to deliver a great experience, full stop.”

It’s a strategy that seems to be working.

With an annual occupancy rate of 80%, the hotel is not only attracting whisky tourists and those involved in the industry, but leisure guests (it has good relationships with ghillies on the Spey as well as local kayaking, off-roading and clay shooting providers) and weddings, with 21 booked this year.

And the team continues to promote The Craigellachie Hotel and Speyside at home and abroad.

A Copper Dog bar was opened in Dubai three years ago, and a Quaich bar has just launched in the British Airways Club Lounge at New York’s JFK Airport.

“We’re trying to spread the message of what The Craigellachie Hotel and Speyside is all about,” said Kevin.

“Visitor numbers to Speyside were up 14% last year, whish is great. We can’t be a success if Speyside isn’t; we’re part of it.

“One hundred and 25 years on I hope we’re doing Alexander Edward’s vision justice.”

Talking drams with Kevin Smith

Kevin Smith, The Craigellachie Hotel
The Craigellachie Hotel’s MD

Q: How many whiskies do you currently stock?

A: We currently stock around 900 whiskies, however Lyndsey Gray (bar manager) has a focus on quality, interesting drams rather than volume; there will definitely be something for all tastes.

Q: What’s the most affordable dram in your bar and what’s the most expensive?

A: Most affordable/best value for money is without a doubt Copper Dog whisky; it’s packed with around eight Speyside malts, up to 15 years old in there too… you can’t argue with £3. Also we do Glenfarclas 10 for £4, such a great dram. And we have The Macallan 1940 Speymalt at £295.

Q: What’s currently your best-selling whisky?

A: Without a doubt it’s Copper Dog – you’d expect that, right? It features heavily on our cocktail list too.

Q: What are your own personal favourite three drams?

A: Copper Dog

Glendronach 25

Lagavulin 16

Q: If you could go for a dram with anyone, who would you invite, where would you go and what would you drink?

A: Easy one, I’d take my father; he’s not with us anymore and I never really had the opportunity to share many whiskies with him. I’d take him to New York, he’d love Dead Rabbit, we’d drink half and a half and, on the way back, we’d stop in at the Quaich bar I’ve just opened in partnership with British Airways at JFK airport. That would be an incredible trip.