Following the Scottish Whisky Trail is a wonderful way to explore Scotland. Visiting Scottish whisky distilleries provides a theme and a focus. I was not a great whisky drinker when we first started visiting distilleries, but the whisky distilleries in Scotland are almost always set in a beautiful landscape and are characterful structures themselves, often with a long and interesting history. This was an attraction to visit in itself, but I then became captivated by the whisky-making process and inevitably, the whole whisky tasting experience: the smell, the taste, the tingle, the follow-through as it warms the gullet….Yes, I acquired a taste for the amber nectar and do now appreciate an odd nip!
Our first experience of the Scottish whisky trail was on a visit to the islands of Arran, Islay and Jura. Although It was not our intention at the time, we ended up visiting every whisky distillery on these islands. We were hooked! On this second road trip following the Scottish Whisky Trail, we took in numerous distilleries in Aberdeenshire, Speyside and Orkney.
There are so many whisky distilleries in Scotland, especially in Speyside, it is simply not possible to visit all of them and take tours unless you have several weeks or months to devote to the mission. We followed significant sections of the whisky trail on our bikes (e-bikes!) which added to the fun. We came upon many distilleries on our travels. Sometimes we paused to take a photo; sometimes we went in to explore further and perhaps to taste; occasionally we took a tour. Here is what we found.
On the Whisky Trail in Aberdeenshire
Glenglassaugh Whisky Distillery
Our first whisky distillery visit of this trip the Glenglassaugh distillery at Portsoy. This distillery is beautifully situated on the Aberdeenshire coast with views over the sea. Unfortunately, we were too early for the tour but we had a good look around and are currently sampling our spoils as I write this! This distillery has an interesting history. It closed down for a number of years and was then “revived” (hence the name of one of its whiskies) with the result that it has some very old whiskies and some which are just approaching the ten year mark. Cost precluded us taking away some of the very old stuff (£400+ per bottle), but the new productions are standing up well!
Knockdhu Whisky Distillery
Our second distillery on this trip was the Knockdhu Distillery in Knock in Aberdeenshire. The distillery produces anCnoc (pronounced “An Knock”) whisky. We visited on our way over to Speyside and really lucked out: we arrived at 10.00 am just as a private tour for some American visitors was starting. We were invited to join.
The tour at Knockdhu was excellent and really clarified for me the whisky-making process. I have been on whisky tours before but this was easily the best so far: clear, unhurried and not overly technical. The Knockdhu distillery is very traditional and one has the impression that it has not given in to the tourist industry: it is a bit more “rough and ready” than some distilleries and does not put on airs and graces. We had access to all areas, including up on to the roof where the condensers are cooled by pools of water from the burn. This distillery has real character.
We really enjoyed the visit to the Knockdhu distillery and they allowed us to take samples away rather than having to taste there and then, a real positive for us as we were in the RV and driving. We took away four samples; I am not going to get into details of individual whiskies as the experience of whisky is a very personal thing, but I will say that they have all gone down very well indeed and a couple have become firm favourites.
On the Whisky Trail in Speyside
The Strathisla Whisky Distillery
We continued on our journey to Speyside and called in to the Strathisla Distillery in Keith. The building is beautiful and the visitor centre very well presented, the staff friendly and helpful.
Strathisla is the oldest distillery in the Highlands. They offer a variety of tours, but as the highlight for us is the tasting at the end and they did not have “driver packs” available. As we were in the RV at this point, we had to forgo. We bought a couple of samples to try.
The Glen Grant Distillery
We were booked into a campsite at Aberlour and somehow managed to take a wrong turn, but it took us directly past the Glen Grant Distillery in Rothes – so we went in! This distillery is very manicured and very picturesque. It has a visitor centre, a cafe and wonderful gardens to wander around. It is worth visiting for the gardens alone!
We stayed for three nights in Aberlour in the heart of Speyside and took to our bikes to explore the countryside and more of the distilleries. The Speyside Way is an excellent cycle track in this area as much of it is a disused railwayline. We used this and also the quiet, country roads on our tour.
The Cardhu Whisky Distillery
High on our list to visit was Cardhu and we decided to take the tour. The tour, like the distillery, was very polished. It was interesting and informative, but photos were not allowed and neither was entry into the warehouse. It was very different from the tour we took the previous day at Knockdhu, which was access all areas with the guide encouraging us to take photos. Cardhu has lovely grounds set in a beautiful landscape, but the tour was not up to the standard at Knockdhu.
The Glenlivet Whisky Distillery
Next on our list to visit was Glenlivet, but we cycled past several more distilleries on our way…..It became a bit of a game to spot them!
Glenlivet is set in stunning countryside and is a very impressive distillery with an excellent visitor centre. There is a free exhibition, which was very interesting and a comfortable cafe. We did not take the tour, but tasted several whiskies. As a whole this facility is bigger and more commercial than several distilleries we have visited, but we enjoyed our visit very much. The staff were very helpful and friendly.
And more then distilleries on our cycle route….
The Glenfiddich Whisky Distillery
Eventually we arrived at the Glenfiddich Distillery and visitor centre, which now also takes in the Balvenie Distillery next door. We tasted a number of whiskies in the shop and also had lunch in the restaurant where we sampled a couple more. This was probably why we ended up spending far too much money in the shop! The Glenfiddich Distillery is very pretty and in a beautiful location, definitely one to visit on the whisky trail!
Balvenie is just next door to Glenfiddich and very much a working distillery, but not set up for visitors in quite the same way, although it is possible to book a tour.
The Aberlour Distillery
The Aberlour Distillery is just down the road from where we were staying in Speyside Gardens so we cycled down there one morning. It is a much smaller distillery than some in the area and still carries the Glenlivet name on the building. This is a throwback to when many distilleries called themselves Glenlivet. A legal battle eventually resulted in the name being reserved for the original Glenlivet distillery producing “The Glenlivet”, but if the name is etched in stone, there is not a lot they can do!
The Speyside Cooperage, a “must visit” on the Whisky Trail
Whilst we were in Speyside, we also visited the Speyside Cooperage. This was really interesting, providing a little variety to distillery visits and adding an another insight into the whole process of whisky making. The coopers have to undergo a four year apprenticeship before they are fully qualified as coopers and then they are in great demand across the world. The casks in which the whisky is matured are incredibly important to the process. It is from the cask that the whisky acquires most of its flavour and all the colour. About 90% of the work carried out here is fixing and refurbishing the casks, which previously contained bourbon or sherry, ready for the whisky. About 10% of the work is creating new casks, but these are not for the whisky and are shipped elsewhere. The work of the cooper is very physical and very skilled. On the tour, we looked down into the workshop where they were at work and it is impossible to do so without having the greatest respect for these men (and yes, they are all men – so far!)
The Dunnet Bay Gin Distillery
The Whisky Trail in Orkney
And so to Orkney. We had a wonderful crossing in the evening. It was flat calm and the sun caught on the cliffs as we were rounding The Old Man of Hoy. Beautiful. You can read about our visit to Orkney in Let’s visit Orkney!
There are two whisky distilleries on Orkney: Highland Park and Scapa.
The Highland Park Whisky Distillery
We were particularly interested in visiting Highland Park as it is one of the very few Scottish whisky distilleries that still malts and then dries its own barley in the kiln. The distillery is very old, officially founded in 1798 (unofficial whisky was made here before this!) and has the appearance of a northern cobbled street – a little like the old Hovis adverts, for those who remember them! We took the tour, which was very good. It starts with a short film accompanied by a dram of ten year old. Great way to start a tour! The tasting usually comes at the end; this had tastings at both ends.
We went onto the barley floors and into the kilns, the most recent of which is a hundred years old. The barley is turned by hand and the kiln manually stoked with coke and peat. We were taken through the whole process and allowed to take photos everywhere except in the still room, but even then, we could photograph from the door and were encouraged to do so.
The warehouse was viewed through a glass window, but one of the main takeaways from this tour was smelling the two oloroso casks, one from North America and one from Spain. This more than made up for not actually going inside the warehouse. The difference between the smells from the two casks was remarkable and really brought home just how important the cask is to colour, flavour and nose. The tasting at the end was also excellent as the guide tutored the audience in how to actually drink and appreciate the whisky. Another whisky to add to my personal favourites: the 18 year old Viking Pride.
We also called by the Scapa Distillery, which is a rather smaller affair. They do a couple of tours each day, but we were too late to participate when we called. This is one reason to return!
The Orkney Brewery
And for yet more variety following our gin deviation…..
We also visited The Orkney Brewery. Unfortunately, the final tour of the day for which we had arrived had been cancelled as no one had booked on. Apparently all the other tours during the day had been fully booked. The lady in the shop took pity on us and allowed us to look around anyway!
The core building of the brewery is the visitor centre and this used to be a school house. This theme has been retained and made for an interesting slant, with school photos and reports pinned up around the hall. The other buildings have been built around the school. The owner grew up on Orkney and his father and grandfather both went to the school as pupils.
We sampled a “paddle” of ales, all very different and palatable. The brewery produces a very wide range of ales so we could not possibly sample them all. This was an interesting visit and certainly worth adding in to our itinerary.
And back to Speyside on the Whisky Trail!
The Macallan Whisky Distillery
And for our final distillery visit on this trip, we returned to whisky: Macallan. On our way through Speyside the previous week, we had called by the new Macallan distillery, but it did not open to the public until the following week. We decided to return on our way home. It was worth it!
We arrived about 9.30 am to discover it did not open until midday, but the very friendly and helpful man on the gate suggested we check out Lossiemouth up the road and then come back just before 12.00, which we did. He also advised us that as we were in the motorhome, we would have to enter by his gate, which was actually for deliveries, not the usual visitor entrance. We returned just before midday and waited in a layby up the way, and just before 12.00, he arrived in his car and gave us a personal escort into carpark of the old distillery, which we were to use. Then he told us to hop in and he drove us to the entrance of the visitor centre, which meant that we were in time for the very first tour of the day. That is service! Thank you.
The new distillery is awesome. It is built into the beautiful landscape, camouflaged by a living roof, almost like a row of Teletubby houses. Inside it is stunning with a complex, wooden, domed roof and floor-to-ceiling glass walls of whisky bottles. Huge glass windows open out on to the countryside and you can see right through the building to the stills, all 36 of them!
The building is ultra modern and about as far removed from Highland Park or Knockdhu as you can possibly imagine. The whisky-making process is exactly the same, but it is on a huge scale and everything is high-tech. This is by no means a criticism; they have built upon a traditional craft and utilised 21st century resources and technology to continue it. The building is like a work of art.
The tour itself was also modern and made full use of current technology. The guide was armed with an ipad, which she used to trigger a number of computerised exhibitions and projections, and a headset and microphone, useful to hear her in the noisy still room. We toured the various stages of the whisky making process and each was augmented by a computerised model or projection. At one point we found ourselves inside a “barrel”, which closed in upon us, with an animation of the forests where the wood grows for the casks projected on to the staves. And then, on the other side, was a projection of the coopers actually making the barrels and in the centre was a barrel with smoke wafting up as it was charred. A bit twee? Perhaps. But it was effective.
The tasting in the bar at the end allowed us to sample “new spirit” (the spirit before it goes into the cask for maturing) and four different whiskies. Unfortunately, Peter was the designated driver….
It was all very slick and polished, an “experience” rather than a simple tour – and not to be missed.
Some final thoughts on following the Whisky Trail:
For anyone visiting the north of Scotland, it is certainly worth taking time to check out some of the the whisky distilleries, even if one is not a whisky drinker. The craft of making whisky and its history, as well as some of the very picturesque buildings, make for interesting and memorable visits. If there is time to visit two distilleries, visit Knockdhu for the traditional, access-all-areas tour and a very knowledgeable guide and also Macallan to see the other end of the spectrum: ultra modern and very polished. Time for a third? Highland Park on Orkney offers another insight as they still do their own malting and drying.
It is a great buying experience to purchase from the distilleries and they usually let you take a nip of those you are interested in. However, it is not like visiting a factory shop where you expect the prices to be lower; usually it is just a few pounds more expensive and you don’t mind that as you are paying for the experience. But beware: prices on the ferry can be considerably cheaper and sometimes there are offers at other outlets or online, which the distilleries do not match.
Remember, the Scottish drink driving laws are very strict. Basically, do not drink and drive. In fact, don’t drink and drive regardless of which country you are in!
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