For every whisky lover, it’s the ultimate pilgrimage: After listening jealously to other people’s travels and dreaming of making it to the promised land, you’ve FINALLY saved up for and planned your first whisky trip to Scotland. Exciting times!
Of course, every first-timer always asks the same questions in the early stages of planning: Where’s the best place to stay? Which distilleries should I visit? Should I hire a car? Do I have time to get to Islay? How many days should I spend in Speyside? Is the trip up to Orkney worth it?
Naturally, the answers to these are highly subjective and individual. They’ll depend on your budget, the amount of time you can spare, which distilleries are your favourites, and what transport options are at your disposal. But there are a few things to appreciate about visiting distilleries that you won’t read in the guide books or find online. Here are ten things you ought to know before heading off to Scotland…
- You ain’t alone
Believe it or not, this whisky appreciation thing is actually pretty popular around the rest of the world. Other pilgrims will be flocking to the sites of worship at the same time as you, and – particularly during the busy summer months and holiday periods – the distilleries will be swarming with whisky tourists.
Accordingly, tours book up quickly and you’re really chancing your arm if you just show up and expect to be squeezed on to a tour. Accordingly, do as much research as you can before you depart; find out the tour times in advance, and book yourself in accordingly. There’s nothing worse than arriving at a distillery and being told you’ll have to wait two hours (or two days!) until they can accommodate you.
- This ain’t the city
The list of “urban” distilleries is small. Notwithstanding the smaller distilleries that have just been established in the last year or two, Glasgow has Auchentoshan, and Edinburgh has Glenkinchie. Day trips and bus tour companies can take you from both these cities to the likes of Glengoyne, Deanston, Tullibardine, Blair Athol, and Edradour. Beyond that, you’ve got to leave the “big smoke” and head off into the countryside. It surprises many (although it shouldn’t, if you think about it!) that the distilleries scattered throughout Speyside and the Highlands are in rural areas. There are no major shopping centres in the middle of Speyside (Elgin is the best you’ll get); there’s no regular taxi service operating between the distilleries; internet and phone services can be very grim; and it’s a very different life and scene altogether if you head to the islands of Islay, Mull, Skye, or the Orkneys.
All we’re saying is that you shouldn’t automatically assume the coffee shops, restaurants, department stores, conveniences, and services of cosmopolitan life extend up into the Highlands or the remote areas of Scotland. For our north-American readers, don’t bother looking for a Starbucks.
And, speaking of services, if you’re buying a local phone or SIM card for your time in Scotland, Vodaphone is the only reliable service up in Speyside. Go with the other carriers (EE, O2, or Three) and you’ll find yourself with no reception around most of the towns, villages, and distilleries.
- This ain’t hotels.com
A combined result of the issues raised in Items 1 and 2 above, you’ll quickly find that accommodation options are limited in the whisky tourist areas, and demand for a place to stay will be high with every other whisky enthusiast in town wanting a room for a night or three.
You won’t find any of the big chain hotels in the Highlands (at least not near the distilleries), and your accommodation will generally be in 3 to 3.5 star village hotels and pubs (with the occasional 4 star gem to be found here and there). Alternatively, there are excellent Bed & Breakfasts and self-catering options scattered all over Scotland. Fear not – despite the outward appearance of some places, the service and quality is generally good, and you’d do well to experience Highland hospitality in all its forms.
Having made six separate trips to Scotland over the last 18 years and spent a combined total of six months staying in all forms of accommodation whilst travelling across Scotland, Whisky & Wisdom is pleased to personally endorse & recommend the following:
- Speyside – Dowans Hotel, Aberlour
- Speyside – The Station Hotel, Rothes
- Speyside – The Highlander Inn, Craigellachie
- Eastern Highlands – Castle Hotel, Huntly
- Highlands – Mansfield Castle Hotel, Tain (perfect for when visiting Glenmorangie & Dalmore, or before heading further north)
- Highlands – 2 Quail, Dornoch (a superb B&B – perfect for when visiting Glenmorangie, Balblair, Clynelish and Dalmore)
- Perthshire – Atholl Palace Hotel, Pitlochry (perfect for visiting Aberfeldy, Edradour, & Blair Athol)
- Fife/Lowlands – The Bank, Anstruther (perfect for visiting Kingsbarns & the other new distilleries in the area – or the attractions at St Andrews).
- Islay – The Bowmore House, Bowmore
- Islay – Harbour Inn, Bowmore
- Skye – Taigh Ailean Hotel, Portnalong
- Mull – Western Isles Hotel, Tobermory
- Arran – Catacol Bay Hotel, Lochranza
- Oban – The Ranald Hotel, Oban
- Ardnamurchan – Salen House B&B (+44 1967 431 384)
- Edinburgh – Malmaison, Leith (perfect if you’re visiting The Scotch Malt Whisky Society’s members’ rooms at The Vaults)
- Edinburgh – Le Monde Hotel
- Glasgow – Blythswood Square Hotel (a bit fancy and pricey, but worth spoiling yourself!)
Of course, if you stay in any of these places, let them know Whisky & Wisdom referred you!
- You ain’t special
When it’s your first time in Scotland and your first time at a distillery, it’s easy to get caught up in the magic and the romance of it all. You’ll walk around with wide-opened eyes; your mouth gaping open at each amazing sight & experience; and each dram you sample at a distillery will taste 10 times better than it did when you last tried the same bottling at home. In this state of euphoria, it’s easy to lose perspective on what it’s like for your hosts and the distillery guides. For them, this is just their job and their daily grind. Don’t be too crestfallen if it seems your tour guide is just going through the motions, or when – after you’ve crossed the planet and travelled for two days to get to the distillery – they tell you that 10 of your countrymen were already at the distillery earlier that morning! The tour guides and visitor centre staff deal with whisky tourists all day, every day; they deal with many tourists for whom English is not their native language; and they have to deal with folks who’ve been dramming all day and are the worse for wear. Show your hosts respect and courtesy and they’ll reciprocate accordingly.
Bear in mind also that, at most distilleries, the tour guides are guides and usually aren’t involved with production. Don’t be too upset if they can’t answer your question about which year the distillery switched from 20 mashes to 24 mashes each week or whether the spirit’s character changed when they started automating their cuts with density meters.
- You ain’t invincible
How many distilleries can you visit in a day? It depends on the timing of the tours, and whether you opt for simple tours (some last just 30 minutes), or the more detailed tours and tastings which some distilleries offer that can go for two or three hours. However, if you’re visiting multiple distilleries in a day, and participating in tastings or samples at each visit, then you need to give due consideration to your alcohol consumption and whether or not you should be driving. Five drams in the space of a 15 minute tasting followed by five drams again at the distillery down the road, and it’s pretty obvious you shouldn’t be behind the wheel to drive back to your hotel afterwards. Plan and space your visits and tastings accordingly, or have yourself a designated driver, or – as I’ve observed many German and Swedish whisky tourists doing – take along some sample bottles and pour your tasting drams into your bottles for you to enjoy safely when you get back to your accommodation later that night.
- You ain’t a taxi
Public transport is grim or non-existent around most distilleries, particularly in Speyside. Remember, these places were chosen because of their proximity to a good water supply, not because they were near the main road! Islay does a little better, but it’s still not uncommon to see folks catch the bus from Bowmore to Port Ellen and then walk to Laphroaig, Lagavulin and Ardbeg.
The best bet and our recommendation is to hire a car and be under your own steam – although give due regard to your alcohol consumption, as discussed above.
- You ain’t Doctor Who
Time travel is impossible, and yet it would be very handy if you could utilise it whilst trying to co-ordinate visits to the distilleries. The problem is that the Visitor Centres at the distilleries are very varied with their tour times and durations. Most pilgrims want to squeeze as many distillery visits into a day as possible, but the tour commencement times, duration, and travel times required between the distilleries will rarely align for you. Larger distilleries like Glenfiddich or Glenlivet run very frequent tours all throughout the day; others might have just one in the morning and one in the afternoon. If (for example) the tour at Cardhu commences at 10.00am, then you simply aren’t going to be able to make the 11.00am tour at Aberlour. Also, many distilleries don’t have late afternoon tours – for example, it’s not uncommon for the last tour to depart at 3.00pm, so don’t plan on distillery hopping well into the evening. In short, you might have to stay in a particular region for more days than you were banking on if you want to get to all the distilleries on your list.
Again, plan your visits in advance; do your homework; calculate your travel times (Google Maps is pretty accurate with its journey times); give yourself a bit of leeway (it’s not uncommon to get caught behind a tractor or a flock of sheep); and book your tours in advance. It’s the best way to avoid disappointment.
- This ain’t the Sahara
Okay, stereotypes aside, there’s one or two gospel truths in Scotland, and one of them is simply this: It will rain. Expect to get wet. The locals will hardly notice – the distillery guides will think nothing of talking to you out in the open courtyard whilst the rain is coming down, so grin and bear it. After all, if Scots ran inside every time it rained, they’d never see the outdoors!
The trick is to take a light but good quality and thoroughly waterproof jacket with you, ideally with a hood. You’ll want something you can wear in and out of the car and around the distilleries without overcooking yourself whilst indoors. Umbrellas are discouraged – not only will the wind blow them inside out, they make it hard to hold a dram and take photos at the same time!
- This ain’t a Disney tour
Distilleries are factories for producing alcohol. They’re not exhibition rides at Disney, and there’s no purpose-built monorail that takes you effortlessly around the production areas in the comfort of an air-conditioned seat. No, you’ll be walking up and down stairs (so make sure you’re physically fit and mobile); walking along catwalk grilles (so, ladies, don’t wear high heels); and you’ll experience two contrasting temperatures in a single visit, so dress appropriately. (Warehouses can be uncomfortably cold; stillhouses – particularly right next to the stills – can get incredibly hot, so be prepared to add or take off layers as necessary).
Furthermore, don’t automatically assume you can take your phone or camera out and start snapping lots of Instagram moments. Many distilleries (particularly the Diageo ones) do not permit cameras or photographs in or around some of the production areas. Airborne dust in the mill rooms is a known explosion hazard, as are the highly volatile vapours that escape in the stillhouses. Whilst the chances of your Canon Powershot or Samsung Galaxy causing a distillery explosion are ridiculously small, there are Workplace Health & Safety issues at stake here, so respect the distilleries’ policy on cameras and everyone will be happy.
- It ain’t all about the whisky
The distilleries and the whisky are why you’re here – but don’t shut yourself off to what the rest of Scotland has to offer…
- There is incredible history to explore. The Highlands north of Glenmorangie feature some incredible Neolithic tombs and sites; the Lowlands & Borders not far from Bladnoch have wonderful old Medieval abbeys & churches; and – of course – there are castles scattered all across the land. Check out the sights as well as the sites.
- Scottish dining and cuisine copped a bad rap when tales of the deep-fried Mars Bar did the rounds, but the truth is, there’s excellent seafood, game, fresh produce and food being served up around the place and in the many gastropubs that have popped up everywhere. Don’t just retreat to the local chippie at the end of the day – seek out the good food and support the local economy.
- It goes without saying, but Scotland has a great love of outdoor sports: Golf, hiking, kayaking, fly fishing – you can do all these things in the areas around the distilleries, so give your liver a break for a day and support the other businesses in the area.
- On this very theme, check out our other article, The Top Six things to do on Speyside