Whisky or Whiskey?
Before we delve into which Scottish distilleries you should visit, it is imperative that you get the word right. Irish distilleries in the 19th century began to use the “e” as a way to differentiate their whiskey from Scotch. The “e” was taken to the US by Irish immigrants and has been used there ever since. Irish whiskey is distilled 3 times, whereas Scotch is distilled twice.
Within Scotland there are five distinct Whisky regions....
Speyside: Located alongside the mighty river Spey in the North East of Scotland. Speyside malts tend to be lighter and sweeter, the area is known for growing high quality standards of barley.
Islay: The western island has heavily peated and medicinal single malts that are world renowned, Ardberg, Bowmore, Laphroaig and Laguvulin to name a few...
Island: From the Isle of Skye to Arran right up to the Orkney islands this is by far the most diverse region. In Orkney there is Highland Park and Scapa, whereas Mull is home to Tobermory which produces nutty cereal like malts.
Lowland: Anywhere south of the river Tay, this region has the most closed distilleries in Scotland. Traditionally the region was known for it’s soft, floral characteristics. Auchensoshan is the last remaining distillery and is unique in that it uses triple distillation.
Campbeltown: These malts come from the burgh of Campbeltown on the Mull of Kintyre. The malts are known for their dryness and coastal characters.
These are our top picks of distilleries and the tours they offer across the regions, prices as per autumn 2019.
Location: Craigellachie, Moray.
Opened in 2018, this purposefully built distillery cost £140 million to build and has a futuristic vibe, with a grass covered roof which mimics the rolling hills of the surrounding area. Macallan distillery has been voted as one of the world’s 100 must-visit destinations by Time Magazine. The design of the distillery is a huge contrast to the more traditional distilleries in the Speyside region.
Taste and character: Smooth, with rich dried fruits and sherry, balanced with woodsmoke and spice.
The Six Pillars Experience.
Join the knowledgeable guide and learn about the foundation stones of the Macallan Distillery, you will learn about the contributions the cask can make to the whisky and the tour includes a nosing and tasting. £15.00 per person. 1 hour, 25 minutes.
The Peerless Spirit Experience
You will delve into the history of the distillation process and learn all about the local heritage.
The experience includes a welcome dram and an exclusive tour of the production area. You will then enjoy a drink in the iconic Cave Privee which will be followed by a tasting of specially selected Macallan whiskies. Upon departure you will receive a bespoke, engraved whisky tumbler. £100 per person. 2 hours, 30 minutes.
Laphroaig (“La – Froyg”)
Location: Port Ellen, Islay.
Arguably the most famous distillery on Islay. The name Laphroaig itself translates into “The beautiful hollow by the broad bay”. Located on Loch Laphroaig on the south coast of Islay, Laphroaig Distillery is renowned for the rich taste of its whisky which happens to be the Prince of Wales’ favourite tipple.
Established in 1825 by brothers Donald and Alexander Johnston, Laphroaig still employs the traditional methods and time-honoured skills that have been used for centuries to produce the most distinctive single malt in the world. The visitor centre also has a lounge bar where you can relax and unwind and select your favourite dram or whisky cocktail from their extensive range.
Taste and Character: Medicinal and peaty, lemon, pear and salt.
Enjoy a guided tour through the production areas of the distillery. You’ll begin the tour in the traditional floor maltings and end the tour by selecting up to 2 whiskies of your choice. The tour includes a Laphroaig glass and lanyard. £10 per person, 1 hour.
Enjoy the tour of the distillery from the malting stages through to the maturation stages. In the warehouse you will sample 3 straight from cask drams and you can take your favourite home to enjoy in a 250ml presentation box. £70 person, 2 hours.
Location: Dufftown, Moray
Glenfiddich distillery has been owned by the Grant family since 1886. It is also the only Scottish distillery in the north where bottling of the whisky still takes place on site. The name Glenfiddich means “valley of the deer” in Scots Gaeilic and that is reflected in their logo. Glenfiddich is the world’s best selling whisky and the distillery has 21 “swan-neck” copper pot stills, all of which are handmade. Also on site there is a visitor centre, gift shop and Malt Barn Bar where you can marvel at the world’s largest collection of Glenfiddich whiskies.
Tasting and Character: Light and easy drinking, notes of vanilla, pear and cream.
On this tour you will begin with a short film on the five generations of family ownership, followed by a tour of the distillery on foot. You will journey through the still house, the original warehouse and learn about the in depth flavour of the Glenfiddich range. The tour concludes with a tutored nosing and tasting of 3 world renowned single malts. £10 per person, 1 hour 30 minutes.
Enjoy a half day visit where you will be welcomed by one of their experienced guides. You will visit a number of warehouses and discover the infamous warehouse number 12 - home to the Malt Master’s selection. You will be invited to fill a 20cl bottle from the cask of your choice, alongside a commemorative book to take home. After the tour you will have a masterclass nosing and tasting of 5 of the finest whiskies with freshly prepared canapes. £95 per person, 4 hours.
Location: KeIth, Moray
Strathisla is the home of Chivas Regal and the distillery was the first owned by the Chivas Brothers who are famous for their smooth, consistent style of whisky. The distillery was founded in 1786 and has survived many years of economic change. Strathisla is a very picturesque distillery with a twin pagoda, working water wheel and 2 copper stills. The distillery offers a “fly dram” 10 minute experience where you will talk to the passionate bar keeper about 3 of the drams on offer.
Tasting and Character: Warm amber, soft with ripe melon, berries and ginger.
Traditional Distillery Tour
The perfect tour for an introduction to the whisky making process. You will be guided through the production area, get an explanation of the distillation process from start to finish and then head over to the bonded warehouse to see the whisky filled casks maturing. Thereafter you will be invited to enjoy a tasting of four whiskies and learn about their famous single malt and Chivas Regal blends. £15 per person, 1 hour 15 minutes.
The Chivas Blending Experience
Create your own blend with a Chivas blending experience, which includes an art of blending session hosted by whisky experts and learn about the craftsmanship of a master blender. You will also discover how the single malt is made before tasting a few drams at the end. £60 per person, 2 hours 15 minutes.
Island Highland Park
Location: Kirkwall, Orkney Islands.
Highland Park is situated on the outskirts of Kirkwall. The island home has a very wild climate and this is the northernmost single malt Scotch whisky distillery in the world. It was founded by Magnus Eunson, a butcher and church officer by day, turned whisky smuggler by night. 30 years later the distillery received an official license to distill whisky legally.
Taste and character: Sweetness, heather-honey and a warming silky mouthfeel.
There are in all 5 different tours to choose from including:
Viking Soul tour
You begin the tour with a short film about Orkney, its viking roots and Highland Park. You will then have a tour of the working distillery and finish with a tasting of 2 selected drams including the 12 Year Old Viking Honour whisky. Cost: £10 per person, 1 hour.
Orcadian Vintages Experience
Join an authentic behind-the-scenes tour of the distillery and see the different parts that are not usually open to visitors. Sample whisky straight from the cask and meet the modern day Viking descendants whose skills make Highland Park. You will enjoy exclusive tastings of Vintages - 1968, 1970, 1971 and 1976 in front of an open fire in the Eunson Room. Following the tour you will have the chance to purchase the single cask as a souvenir. Cost: £250 per person, 3 hours.
Location: Stafford street, Oban.
Nestling beneath the steep cliffs that overlook the town of Oban is one of Scotland’s smallest distilleries, established in 1794 on the site of a former brewery. You can still see the dominating red brick chimney standing tall. The distillery has 2 pot stills and the tours offer visitors the chance to witness the traditional craftsmanship of whisky production.
Taste and Character: Oban’s taste is light and zesty. Some say it even tastes like the sea.
Sensory & Flavour Finding Tour
This tour includes a guided tour of the distillery with the opportunity to learn about the whisky making process and includes 2 samples of the Oban Malt Whisky range. £12 per person, 1 hour.
Distillery Managers Tour and Tasting (Monthly)
Be the special guest of their distillery manager, this unique opportunity allows the visitor to learn the details involved in what it takes to make Oban Single Malt. Join them in the manager's office to have an in-depth conversation whilst sampling a range of their finest malts. At the end of the experience the manager will then present you with a bottle of Oban DE and a glass pipette.
Cost: £200 per person (minimum of 4 people required)
Location: Carbost, Skye
The oldest working distillery on the Isle of Skye, set on the beautiful shores of Loch Harport with views of the Cuillin hills. The distillery has 5 copper stills with unique swan neck pipes and makes the only single malt whisky from Skye. All the stills use “worm tubs” (condensing coils) rather than the modern condenser, some believe this results in the whisky having a fuller flavour.
Taste and character: Intense, coastal spicy with white pepper and smoke.
Whisky and chocolate
Enjoy a guided tour where you will see the inner workings of the distillery and learn about the process involved in making the world class single malt. The tour will end with a tasting of three Talikser single malts and each accompanied with locally handmade chocolates. £30, 1 hour 30 minutes.
Following a guided tour of the distillery, enjoy a tutored tasting of six world-class Taisker whiskies, one of which includes the new spirit. You will also receive your own nosing glass to compliment your experience. There is also a £5 discount voucher redeemable against a 70cl Single Malt whisky. £45 per person, 2 hours.
Lowlands Holyrood Distillery
Location: Old Town in Edinburgh
Holyrood distillery opened earlier this summer (2019) and it is the first time since 1925 that a single malt distillery has been operating in the centre of the capital, Edinburgh. Located next to Holyrood Park, the 180 year old building has been carefully renovated to accommodate visitors and the distillery also produces gins and liqueurs. The distillery has been carefully built to be immersive and educational and you will be guided through by passionate master distillers.
Holyrood Distillery Tour
A fully guided tour throughout the entire distillery. You will be introduced to botanicals, testing how well you taste and getting hands on in this immersive experience. You will learn about the malt whisky and gin production and enjoy some samples along the way. £14 per person, 1 hour.
Jack Mayo’s Whisky Masterclass
This 2 hour masterclass has been developed to guide you through the distillery, which includes a behind-the-scenes production area and distillation. After the tour, you will have an exclusive tasting of Holyrood’s selected whisky range and newmake spirit. £85 per person, 2 hours.
Location: Pentcaitland, Tranent
Situated just 15 miles from Edinburgh is a single malt whisky distillery in East Lothian. The origins date back to 1825 and was founded by two brothers (John & George Rate). In the 1850’s the Rate brothers were met with bankruptcy and the site was then turned into a saw mill. Fast forward to 1881, the distillery was rebuilt and whisky making started up again. The Glenkinchie 12 year Old was named the Best Lowland Single Malt at the World Whisky awards 2012.
Taste and character: A light nose with hints of barley malt, almonds and hazelnuts.
For everyone Glenkinchie Tour
Your visit begins in the unique exhibition centre situated on the malting floor, which is home to a model distillery. You will be guided through to the production area, learning how they make the “water of life”. To finish the tour, you are welcomed into the bar for a complimentary tasting of Glenkinchie Single Malt. £10 per person, 1 hour.
Join the distillery manager for an exclusive tasting. You will be given the chance to sample 6 different single malts and have tutored tasting led by the manager himself. The tasting includes the recent Special Release 24 year old whisky. As a record of your experience you will have your very own copita glass and distillery only bottle of Glenkinchie, worth £85. £150, 2 hours
Location: Campbeltown, Argyll.
Springbank Distillery is located on the southern end of the Mull of Kintyre, the area was once home to over 30 distilleries and was a smugglers paradise back in the 17th century. Today however, only 3 remain on the island. Springbank was established in 1828 on the site of an illicit still and is still family owned to this day, 5 generations later. 100% of the whisky making process is carried out on site, and they are the only Scottish distillery to malt all of their barley using the traditional floor malting method. Three distinct single malt whiskies are made there - Springbank, Hazelburn and Longrow.
Taste and character: Oak, exotic spices, soft smoke and toasted barley.
You will have the chance to see each and every step of the whisky making process, and journey through their historic site that has a tasting room where visitors can sample some superb whiskies. At the end of the tour you will be gifted with a Springbank whisky glass and miniature to enjoy at home. £10 per person, 1 hour.
Barley to Bottle Tour
This is the distilleries most in depth tour where you will experience the whisky making process hands on and have access to all areas. You will have your skills tested at each stage and as a reward you will enjoy a couple of drams straight from the casks in one of the warehouses. After a short tasting you will have the chance to create your own personal Springbank. You will be encouraged to blend various cask types and create your own perfect recipe. You will be able to take a 70cl bottle home to show off your skills. Thereafter you will enjoy a platter lunch and a miniature whisky from each distillery. £250, 5 hours.
In all there are over 120 whisky distilleries in Scotland ( see map here), so obviously these are just some of what is on offer. Most will give the visitor an insight into whisky production and a taste of the tradition. If your favourite distillery is not on this list be sure to add it in the comments. Slàinte! Cheers!