Scotch whisky was my fiancé’s thing—until we went to Scotland together. Then it quickly became “our thing.” While touring distilleries and tasting some of the world’s most iconic single malts in two different regions of the country, I came to appreciate the myriad, complex flavors of Scotch. At the same time, we took in breathtaking views, ate fabulous Scottish food and became fascinated by all of the time and work that goes into making what the Scots call “a wee dram.”
Here are 10 reasons a whisky tour is absolutely worth your time, even if you are not yet a Scotch-lover:
1. The longer whisky is matured, the smoother it is.
There are four regions of Scotland that are known for their whiskies, and we visited two very different ones: the small island of Islay, off of Scotland’s western coast, which has a population of only 3,000 and is known for its smoky, peat-flavored whiskies; and Speyside, in northeastern Scotland, which is known for its floral, delicate whiskies and offers the most distilleries of any single region of Scotland. The best part of any distillery tour is the tasting portion, when you get to sample several whiskies—some of them aged to a remarkable smoothness (such as a 32-year Lagavulin). Don’t miss the three-hour tour at Balvenie (Speyside) and the warehouse tour at Lagavulin (Islay).
2. Full Scottish breakfasts and Scottish smoked salmon.
Full Scottish breakfasts with haggis, eggs, bacon, sausage, mushrooms and tomatoes are not to be missed (you can skip the haggis if you’re not a fan). If you’re lucky, you can also enjoy hot and cold smoked salmon with eggs. For the best Scottish breakfasts, stay at the bed & breakfast Glenmachrie Country Guest House in Port Ellen on Islay.
3. Whisky that’s made the old-fashioned way.
The whisky fermentation, distillation and maturation processes are mostly the same wherever you go, but there are only a handful of distilleries in Scotland that malt the barley on traditional malting floors. The barley is kept at a certain temperature and turned so that it sprouts, as it would in the ground, and turns it starches into sugar. “We are fooling nature into thinking it’s springtime,” according to Laphroaig’s website. Check out the malting floors at Laphroaig (Islay) and Balvenie (Speyside); you can touch the barley, and some of the guides even walk on it (it will later be boiled).
4. A chocolate-and-whisky pairing.
Look for tours that pair whisky with complementary foods, such as the chocolate-and-whisky tasting at Caol Ila (Islay). Caol Ila means “sound of Isla,” and you can enjoy the waterfront view from outside. (Islay distilleries Lagavulin, Laphroaig and Ardbeg also offer beautiful coastal views).
5. Watching coopers make casks.
The coopering process has hardly changed in the last 100 years, and Speyside Cooperage has been producing casks (only one size is technically called a barrel) for whisky distilleries since 1947. The wood comes from American oak bourbon casks, which by law can only be used once in the bourbon making process. Watch from a viewing gallery as 15 highly-skilled coopers and their apprentices assemble casks, which are then charred to caramelize the wood and release vanilla flavors. Seeing these tough artisans at work is a bit like going back in time. If you can’t make it to Speyside Cooperage, Balvenie has its own cooperage.
6. Beautiful old buildings, gorgeous gardens.
Strathisla (Speyside), built in 1786, is the oldest distillery in the highlands of Scotland and is known for its charming pagoda roofs and cobblestone courtyard. At Glen Grant (Speyside), enjoy a brief tasting of fruity, floral whisky before wandering in an expansive garden with log bridges over waterfalls.
7. Fish that’s caught nearby.
Have a seafood platter filled with the catches of the day at Yan’s Kitchen on Islay. Many cafés at distilleries also serve high-quality food that’s perfect to help you sober up after a tasting. Try the cafes at Glenfiddich (Speyside), Kilhomen (Islay) and Ardbeg (Islay).
8. The rocky Islay coasts.
Scotland’s scenic coasts are one of the country’s biggest selling points, and you can enjoy them in abundance on Islay, one of the less touristy areas of the country. Pony-trekking is a great ways to enjoy the white-sand beaches, and don’t miss the amazing cliff view from the American monument at the tip of the Oa Peninsula (the Mull of Oa).
9. Castles where you can wander gorgeous grounds and get a dose of history. There are a number of castles that are near Speyside. Ballindalloch Castle has a “Downton Abbey” feel, and is still the home of the Macpherson-Grants, as it has been since 1546. Castle Fraser dates back to the 15th century and the family’s lore is captivating. There’s an entire room of taxidermy.
10. You can bottle your own whisky straight from the cask. One of the most exciting things to do at a distillery is dipping “the dog” (man’s best friend) into a cask and filling a small bottle with special whisky that you can’t get anywhere else. You can enjoy this souvenir when you get home!
Where to eat, drink and sleep:
Distilleries to visit and sights to see (most distillery tours need to be booked in advance):
Places to eat:
Where to stay:
Distilleries to visit and sights to see:
Places to eat:
- The Highlander Inn (great whisky bar)
- To get to Islay, take a 30-minute flight from Glasgow or drive to the coast and take a ferry from the mainland.
- To get to Speyside, drive 5 1/2 hours north from Glasgow.
Photos by Evan Ryan