Travel: Touring Scotch Whisky Distilleries in Speyside, Scotland
The trouble with drinking whisky in Scotland is the regret you experience the moment you get home. No matter how long you spend there and how much you purchase, by the time you get back to the States you wish you’d tasted and brought home more than you did. The vastness of malt whisky options available to residents and visitors to the UK is impossible to overstate. Even the humblest of pubs is likely to have 100 or so bottles on the shelf, a few of which you will never even have heard of. At major whisky meccas like Edinburgh’s Royal Mile and inns in the heart of Speyside, it isn’t unusual to see 500 Scotch whiskies on the back bar — or rather jammed into every corner of the place. Each night at the Quaich bar in the Craigellachie Hotel in Speyside I got to ogle whiskies, just sitting on shelves next to the armchairs, that retail for $4000 or $5000 a bottle. Of course, it’s the ones I was able to sample that I will remember forever.
And so it is that I return to you, my bags stuffed with liters of whisky but my heart left in Scotland, following a pilgrimage I’ve wanted to make for the better part of a decade.
Visiting distilleries in Scotland isn’t difficult, but you’ll want to plan your trip carefully to make the most of your time there. With this post, I want to share some tips and advice if you decide to venture to see Scotland’s stills for yourself, along with commentary about each of the distilleries I visited.
For starters, unless you have a week or more to spend here and can cover multiple areas, you’ll want to pick a region to focus on. For some, Islay and its smoky malts is the place to be — and I’m told there’s really nothing else at all to do there except drink whisky. For others, its Speyside, which is where I spent four solid days.
Speyside is a great choice for visiting for a lot of reasons. First, some of the best whisky in the world is made here, so you’ll have endless opportunities to sample lovely malts. Second, the central location makes it relatively easy to get to. (Fly into Aberdeen, then drive about 80 minutes.) Third, and most importantly, Speyside boasts about half the distilleries in Scotland. From a base in Craigellachie, you’re about 15 miles from 40 or 50 distilleries, and more if you venture 25 or 30 miles away.
Not all distilleries are open to visitors, so keep that in mind when planning your trip by researching them in advance, and many require you book in advance if you want a tour. Don’t overlook this step, as you don’t want to venture 5000 miles to Scotland only to find out that the tours for the week are all booked.
Lastly, and this is where I blew it a little, note that many if not most Scottish distilleries shut down for a month or two in the summer, usually starting in early July. This is called the “silent season,” and it’s a period when the distilleries are repaired, upgraded, cleaned, and otherwise worked on. The stills can’t operate during the silent season, so many are indeed very quiet. That’s not that big a deal — you’ve see one mash tun, you’ve seen ’em all — but the bigger problem is that with all that construction you often can’t even venture into the stillhouses or other parts of the distillery because they’re closed off as a safety precaution. Despite all that, July is still a heavy tourism month for Scotland and most everyone is still operating a tour of some kind even during the shutdown. Just bear in mind you might not see everything you could if you were there, say, in the middle of winter.
As I mentioned above, we chose the Craigellachie Hotel as our base. This is a lovely place to stay — though the Wi-Fi is pants — with a perfect location, nice rooms, and solid dining in the Copper Dog restaurant below. The breakfast options (included) are amazing — and nothing beats a full Scottish to prime the pump before heading out to the distilleries. The Quaich Bar makes for a perfect nightly ritual, too.
So let’s get on to the distilleries. Here they are, in the order I visited them.
The Glenrothes is not open to the public, so it’s perhaps not fair to start here, since you can’t actually visit. But Ronnie Cox really set the stage for a memorable time here, treating us to a tour of the Rothes House — the spiritual home of parent company Berry Bros. and Rudd (literally, the town minister used to live there) — plus lunch and an in-depth tour of the distillery. Capped off by a deep dive into the Glenrothes spirit archives, our time included discussions about the geology and history of Speyside, a stroll through the (no longer haunted) Glenrothes cemetery, and even the raising of the U.S. flag in honor of my visit. I couldn’t have asked for a better host than Cox, and he really set a high bar for the other distillery visits we had in store.
Cardhu was a last-minute addition to our trip after some scheduling hiccups at another distillery, but it was a nice one to visit because it was actually up and running. Cardhu mostly ends up in blends, not single malts, but the tasting did include three single malts from the distillery, each made in a slightly different style. Higher-end tastings are available for an additional fee. The nosing challenge (where you try to ID what’s in a series of sealed containers) is particularly fun.
Aberlour’s tour was one of the more unique ones, with a distillery that includes a look at some rare parts of the facility, including the funky biologically-powered tanks that process the waste product from the stills and turn it back into water which can be returned to the river. The tour is concluded with a very nice, sit-down tasting that lets you sample the full range of Aberlour products, including distillery-only releases.
Macallan is in the midst of a massive expansion. In two years there will be a whole new visitor’s center here. Our visit to the estate began with lunch at Easter Elchies House, a historic home on the property that you can find on the label of Macallan whiskies. After lunch, a tour takes you through every aspect of production — and includes a very well-done museum-style exhibit on the various types of wood that the distillery uses. For whisky newcomers, consider Macallan as an excellent first stop in order to aid with education. Following the tour (sadly, photos were off limits in many buildings) we sat down to a private tasting that started with the Fine Oak 21 Year Old and went deeper from there. Macallan saved the best for last, though: A sampling of the 1979 Gran Reserva, a long-off-the-market bottling that spent 18 years in first-fill sherry casks. This beautiful but incredibly intense whisky really showcases what sherry aging can do, and it was the perfect way to cap off the day.
Glenfiddich is a massive operation, with 47 warehouses full of whisky on the property. Our tour guide, Fergus, led us on a private tour of the facilities — again, some areas off limits and many with no photos allowed — which included some fascinatingly fun times. A stop at a warehouse to try to identify — simply by smelling the casks — which of three whiskies was in an ex-sherry barrel was much tougher than you think, and the chance to see Glenfiddich’s Solera vat, from which its famed 15 year old is drawn, was a unique experience. Of course, a major highlight of the trip was dropping our own “dog” into our choice of Glenfiddich barrel — first-fill or refill, sherry or bourbon — to bring home our own, bespoke, single-cask selection. We ended the day at Glenfiddich with a tasting of rare bottlings, including the 21 Year Old Gran Reserva Rum Cask, the red wine barrel-finished Age of Discovery (third edition), and the oddball 26 Year Old Excellence. Very different whiskies, and each memorable in its own way. Again, a highly recommended tour especially for newcomers to Scotch.
All good things must come to an end, and we wound up our time in the Highlands at Benromach, which is about 30 miles north of the heart of Speyside, near the Moray Firth on the coast. Benromach is younger and smaller than all of the other distilleries we visited, and it operates under the ownership of famed indie bottlers Gordon & MacPhail. We dropped by on the road to the city of Inverness, the gateway to Loch Ness. Benromach was a great place to stop because it was in production, there are no crowds, and unlike the distilleries in the heart of Speyside, it uses a bit of peated malt in its production. This was a very casual tour — we asked for an expedited visit due to a time crunch — but the staff was friendly and accommodating and really distilled the operation well despite our shortened visit. We’ll have a full review of the newly released Benromach 15 Year Old in short order.
Thanks to all my new friends in Scotland for taking care of us ugly Americans! See also our coverage of drinking in Dublin, Ireland.