Although Bill and I usually make a point of going places on the weekends, he had to leave for Africa this morning. Fortunately, I happened to be inspired to write today’s post thanks to a thread in one of the local Facebook groups. A woman wrote that her husband loves scotch whisky and was interested in visiting some in Scotland while they are living in Germany.
Bill and I have so far been to eight whisky distilleries, entirely thanks to our sailings on Hebridean Island Cruises‘ Hebridean Princess. Since Hebridean Princess mostly sails around Scotland and only occasionally ventures to other lands, there is a heavy emphasis on Scotland’s national drink on that ship. Each of our four voyages on Hebridean Princess has included at least one stop at a whisky distillery. We have even been to two of them twice.
Last year, Bill and I signed up for “The Spirit of Scotland” trip Hebridean was doing. It was a whisky themed cruise, which meant we would be visiting different distilleries every day. Last month, we cruised to Northern Ireland and Ireland and that trip also included a stop at a distillery in Scotland. Although I don’t expect my readers to visit whisky distilleries via cruise ship, I thought today’s post could be a “one stop shop” for a look at the ones Bill and I have seen.
One thing you will learn if you come to Scotland intent on tasting whisky, is that there are several different styles of scotch whisky: Highland, Lowland, Speyside, Campbeltown, and Islay. Bill and I visited Edinburgh at the end of our first Scotland trip in November 2012. Although we had already been to a couple of distilleries, it was at the Scotch Whisky Experience in Edinburgh that we got a really good introduction to the different styles of scotches out there, as well as the many different whiskeys made around the world. If your trip involves a stop in Edinburgh, I would highly recommend going there first and visiting the Scotch Whisky Experience for a primer on the different types of Scottish spirits you will encounter. You’ll also get to see a very impressive collection of scotches and even try a few.
Just some of the huge collection at the Scotch Whisky Experience in Edinburgh.
The world’s largest bottle of Single Malt Scotch Whisky is at the Scotch Whisky Experience.
The Isle of Arran Distillery is, naturally, located on the Isle of Arran in Lochranza, at the northern end of the island. The area around the distillery is absolutely beautiful and remote. Arran is the first whisky distillery Bill and I ever visited and we have since been there twice. Founded in 1995, the Isle of Arran Distillery has a very nice visitor’s center with a gift shop and a cafe. Although you can drop in and take a tour, it is recommended that you book in advance, particularly during the summer. Arran whiskies are excellent, but I am especially fond of Arran Gold, which is kind of like Bailey’s Irish Cream. Tours are conducted all day and cost 8 GBP each.
The first casks of whisky made at Isle of Arran Distillery. It was in 1998 when the first casks were opened, since it takes three years to make whisky.
Sorry my finger got caught by the camera. This is the facade of the distillery. We have toured it twice; both times, our guides were kilted gentlemen with delightful Scottish brogues who introduced us to their product. When we visited last, in March 2016, the flags were at half mast because the founder, Harold Currie, had just died. Harold Currie was the former director of Chivas.
Springbank Distillery makes some of my favorite whiskies. It’s also the other distillery Bill and I have visited twice. I always enjoy visiting Springbank, because it’s one of just a few distilleries left in Campbeltown, Scotland. There was a time when Campbeltown was home to many distilleries, but many of them closed at the start of the 20th century. Today, Campbeltown is host to Springbank, Glen Scotia, and Glengyle.
Springbank is a very old style distillery and uses a lot of old fashioned equipment to create its spirits. It’s also the only distillery in Scotland that performs every step of the whisky making process, from malting the barley to bottling the spirit. For that reason alone, I think it’s worth a stop. An added benefit is that there’s a great whisky shop just steps away from the distillery. Tours are offered several times a day Monday through Friday and twice daily on Saturdays. They have several different levels of tours available, too– everything from a basic trip through to distillery (7 GBP) to one that includes a personal tour with whisky legend Frank McHardy and lunch (100 GBP).
A fewshots of the Springbank Distillery. The picture of the barrels was from our 2012 visit. Last year, they did not show us the warehouse.
We got a pretty special deal when we visited the Glengoyne Distillery in Dumgoyne, just north of Glasgow. The ship had arranged for us to be able to blend our own whisky. A simple tour is 9.50 GBP, but apparently we were all booked on the Malt Master Tour (65 GBP). We all sat around a table and took whiskys from five different cask to make our own individual blends. Bill and I still have our own blends. We did taste them a couple of months ago, but haven’t had the heart to finish them yet. Glengoyne is also notable because the distillery is located just north of the line that distinguishes Highland and Lowland whiskys. Glengoyne’s stills are located in the Highland region; while just across the street, the maturing casks rest in the Lowlands. This is another place well worth a visit if you’re into scotch.
I was standing in the Lowlands taking a picture of fellow passengers in the Highlands.
A shot of our “malt master” class. It was pretty cool!
Different types of oaks used for the barrels.
And the resulting whisky… Notice the bottles on the bottom have less in them. This is known as the “angel’s share”, and it’s part of the process of evaporation that occurs when whisky is made.
Laphroaig Distillery is located in Port Ellen, on the Isle of Islay, an island every scotch drinker must visit. Islay is home to a whole bunch of whisky distilleries. It’s also a very beautiful place. The Laphroaig Distillery and brand is currently owned by Beam Suntory, which is a subsidiary of the Japan’s Suntory. Of all of the distilleries I’ve visited so far, I think Laphroaig’s visitor center is among the most impressive. They have a really interesting exhibit you can look at while you wait for your tour to start. They allow visitors to try the wort, too, which I recommend doing just once. Just make sure they offer it to you in a disposable cup. Trust me on this. You should get a cup of your own at this distillery.
At the end of our tour, I distinctly remember they gifted us with souvenir whisky glasses. A basic tour costs 10 GBP, though they have more detailed tours available at correspondingly higher prices. You can even try your hand at cutting peat if you want to.
Barley being malted. You will also see this at Springbank and Kilchoman Distilleries.
The Laphroaig Distillery also offers a great view of Port Ellen.
Kilchoman is one of the newest distilleries. It opened in 2005 and is situated on a beautiful farm in a rural part of Islay. It has the distinction of being the first distillery to be built on Islay in 124 years and, until recently, it was the westernmost distillery in Scotland. That honor is now claimed by Abhainn Dearg Distillery on the Isle of Lewis. Kilchoman also does its own malting and is one of only six distilleries in Scotland doing traditional floor maltings. I really enjoyed touring Kilchoman, which also offers a liqueur as well as several different whiskys. A basic tour at Kilchoman costs 7 GBP, while a premium tour runs 30 GBP and includes a tutored tasting.
One thing I do want to mention about this tour is that we were offered a taste of the wort there. They passed around a communal container and, I’m pretty sure, that is where I picked up norovirus. I got very sick with diarrhea and vomiting. Fortunately, it happened in the wee hours of our very last night on the ship, so it didn’t devastate our cruise. Still, it was a really stupid mistake on my part and one I hope to spare others from making. It’s especially important to be mindful of hygiene when you’re on a cruise.
Our guide pours drams for us to try. I remember enjoying a very fresh scone on the way back to the ship. The distillery has a nice cafe where one can have lunch.
Jura Distillery is located on the Isle of Jura, a tiny community that has only one road, one pub, and one distillery. Only 200 people live on the Isle of Jura, which makes it a very interesting place to visit. I remember our guide explaining to us that at Jura, it’s especially possible to see the effects whisky distilleries have on trees. All of the trees near Jura Distillery were black. Apparently, in the United Kingdom, the authorities can tell how much whisky is being distilled simply by looking at the trees. Although I was getting a little fatigued of distilleries when we visited, I do remember thinking Jura’s history was especially interesting. Tours cost 6 GBP. Afterwards, you can visit the one pub on the island.
Jura’s Distillery. I’m not sure they have a grocery store on Jura, but they sure do have whisky.
Oban Distillery was the last one we visited on our “scotch whisky” tour. It’s a very compact place because it was built next to a cliff. Originally established in 1794, Oban Distillery is actually older than the town of Oban itself. I distinctly remember our guide telling us about Oban Distillery’s 14 year old malt, which is very well-regarded. Three years ago, they also started selling a non age statement whisky called Little Bay. Oban is one of the smallest distilleries in Scotland, mainly because when they were excavating the cliff behind the distillery, they found human remains. Also, people started building on top of the cliff, which made expansion in its current location very difficult.
Oban Distillery also has a very informative exhibit available to peruse while you wait for your tour.
Finally, we have Bruichladdich, another Islay distillery located in Port Charlotte on the Isle of Islay. Bill and I visited Bruichladdich last month while we were on our Northern Ireland cruise. We were originally supposed to visit Bowmore, but that got cancelled. Then we were going to visit Lagavulin, but then our itinerary got switched around. So that’s how we ended up at Bruichladdich, which also makes The Botanist gins. This distillery is another one I think is well worth seeing if only because of the very cool old equipment they still use. One of the mashtuns is from the Victorian era and is one of only a few still in existence and the only one on the island. They also use a still from 1881, which was when the distillery was founded. And they have a still called Ugly Betty that is used for making gin. This distillery also has a very colorful and interesting history best told by someone who sounds like a Scot.
We found the distillery to be very liberal about allowing tastings. Our guide told us that if there was anything under 200 GBP we wanted to try, just let her know. They have a really nice shop, too. I brought home a beautiful wool blanket from there.
Very old equipment… this is from the Victorian era.
The two pictures above show the different ages of the washbacks.
If this post inspires you to visit any distilleries, I encourage you to bring a designated driver or hire a cab. You don’t want to be driving drunk, especially in a place like Islay, which has a lot of narrow roads with tons of potholes. Also, presuming that most of my readers are not used to driving on the left, it would be especially risky to drive after tasting whisky at the distilleries.
I think the way Bill and I visited these distilleries was pretty much ideal. We had a coach that took us to them, so we were free to enjoy as much as we wanted. On our whisky tour, we enjoyed the services of John Harbour, a professional tour guide. Mr. Harbour was engaged by Hebridean Island Cruises for us and was with us the whole week, but you can also book him privately. I would highly recommend him because he’s very knowledgable and will handle the driving. Here’s a link to his Facebook page.
Although I’m not sure if Hebridean Island Cruises is going to be offering the Scotch Whisky tour again, I would recommend looking to them if your budget allows. It’s a marvelous way to see Scotland, albeit not kid friendly and very expensive. We did have a blast, though, and I don’t think I will ever forget how scotch whisky is made after seeing all of those distilleries!
Click here for a sequel to this post— eight more whisky distilleries I have known.