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On the Whisky Trail

by | Destinations, Scotland | 20 comments

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 making whisky 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 trip, a road trip in our motorhome, we took in numerous distilleries in Aberdeenshire, Speyside and Orkney. 

Whisky stills at Genfiddich on the Scottish Whisky Trail

The beautiful copper stills at the Glenfiddich whisky distillery

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 situation 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!

First stop on the whisky trail: the Glenglassaugh Distillery

Looking out to see from Glenglassaugh

The whisky stills in Glenglassaugh

anCnoc 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: as we arrived at 10.00 am just as a private tour for some American visitors was starting. We were invited to join.

Knockdhu Distillery on the Whisky Trail

The tour 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 distillery is very traditional and you have 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.

Mash tuns in the Knockdhu whisky distillery

The Mash Tuns

Fermentation in the Knockduh whisky distillery

Fermentation

Fermentation underway in the vats

Bubbling away in there!

Copper stills in the Knockdhu whisky distillery

Distillation

In the warehouse at the Knockdhu whisky distillery on the whisky trail

And finally, the warehouse!

We really enjoyed the visit 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 whisky distillery

Standing outside the Strathisla Distillery on the whisky trail

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. They have a visitor centre, a cafe and wonderful gardens to wander around. It is worth visiting for the gardens alone!

The Glen Grant Distillery on the whisky trail

A copper still outside the Glen Grant distillery

The gardens in Glen Grant whisky distillery

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, much of it in this area a disused railway line, is an excellent cycle track. 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, which we viewed through a glass window. It was very different from the tour we took the previous day at Knockdhu, which was up close and personal with the guide encouraging us to take photos. Cardhu has lovely grounds set in a beautiful landscape.

Outside the Cardhu distillery

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!

Another distillery on the whisky trail

Tamdhu whisky distillery

Ballindalloch distillery

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.

The Glenlivet Distillery

Outside the Glenlivet Distillery with spoils

And more then distilleries on our cycle route….

Another whisky distillery on the Whisky Trail

Glendullan whisky distillery

 

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 and 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!

Glenfiddich whisky distillery on the Malt Whisky Trail

The Glenfiddich Distillery

The old fashioned barrel lorry outside the Glenfiddich Distillery

Whisky stills at Genfiddich on the Scottish 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.

Balvenie, Scottish whisky distillery

On my bike outside the Balvenie whisky distillery

 

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, 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!

Outside the Aberlour whisky distillery

 

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!)

Inside the Speyside Cooperage

On the tour of the Speyside Cooperage

Finished barrels in the Speyside Cooperage

The Dunnet Bay Gin Distillery

After Tain, we headed up towards Scrabster where we were booked on the ferry for Orkney, but as we had a few hours in hand, we deviated from the whisky trail and visited the Dunnet Bay Distillery (in Dunnet Bay) where they make Rock Rose Gin. It is a very small establishment, but very friendly and they really want you to taste the gin! We had missed the tour unfortunately, but we were allowed to poke our heads into the distillery and have a quick look around.
Gin has become very trendy over the last few years and it is easy to understand why when such fabulous concoctions are being cooked up. I should admit to being more of a gin drinker than a whisky drinker! The difference is, of course, that gin has a very quick turn around and can be on the shelves in a matter of weeks, unlike whisky which has to mature for years. This was an interesting visit and the Rock Rose range really should be sampled!
The still inside the Dunnet Bay Gin distillery where Rock Rose gin is made
Me holding a box of gin outside 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. More can be 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.

Shovelling coke and peat for the kiln in the Highland Park whisky distillery

Stoking the kiln with peat and coke

The malting floor in Highland Park

There was no barley on the floors when we visited: it was all in the kilns being dried

The first of two kilns in Highland Park whisky distillery

One of the two kilns

The still room in Highland Park

The Still Room

A very old fashioned, quaint view in Highland Park

Highland Park is a very old, characterful distillery

Outside Highland Park whisky distillery with our purchases

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…..

Outside the Orkney Brewery

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.

Inside the Orkney Brewery

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 grounds and the car park for 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 Macallan Whisky distillery seen from the outside

The Macallan Whisky Distillery with its “living roof domes.”

The living roof domes of the Macallan Whisky Distillery

The entrance to the Macallan Whisky Distillery

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!

Inside the Macallan Whisky Distillery

A wall of whisky, a bottle from every year in the Macallan Distillery

A wall of whisky, a bottle from every year with lots of special editions

Elaborate pipework beneath the tuns

Elaborate pipework beneath the tuns

The copper whisky stills in the Macallan Distillery

The stills, 12 in each of 3 pods

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.

A wall of bottles with all the colours of whisky

Another wall of bottles to demonstrate the range of colours which can be achieved by whisky

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….

Drinking whisky at the end of the tour of the Macallan distillery

The proof of the pudding….!

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:

If you visit the north of Scotland, it is certainly worth visiting the whisky distilleries, even if you are 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 you have 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. If you have 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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Related posts about Scotland, Whisky – and Whiskey!

Let’s Visit Orkney!

Old Man of Hoy for related post

Why visit Orkney? AbFab reasons why you should! What to see and where to go on Orkney.

On the Whisky Trail – again!

Inside the barrel warehouse at Fettercairn whisky distillery

A tour of two Scottish distillieries: Tullibardine and Fettercairn

On the WhiskEy Trail!

Whiskey samples all set out for tasting

A tour of Jim Beam and Jack Daniels whiskey distilleries in the US. How do they compare with Scottish whisky distilleries?

 

20 Comments

  1. Great post! I love how you just cruised around everywhere on a bike, that’s awesome! Thank you for sharing 🙂

    Reply
    • Thank you. Have bike will travel! Especially when it is an e-bike.

      Reply
  2. Like you, I’m not a whiskey drinker, but I would love these tours even so. Your photos are so educational! I really like seeing how the old ways/containers are right there along with the new technology!

    Reply
    • Yes, it is really interesting. You just get drawn in.

      Reply
  3. Yes, there are always more distilleries to visit and does add a bit of a focus to a trip.

    Reply
  4. I love the idea of touring Scottland on bike and what better motif for the trip than the Whisky Trail. It really is such an integral part of the culture. The weather and peat combine together form the very spirit of the spirit. On top of that, using pot stills instead of the Coffey Still (like your gin picture) was a conscious choice of Scottland and a mark of independence from England and their gin ways.

    Reply
    • Well, I’d love to claim that we toured Scotland by bike, but actually we were in our motor home! We used the bikes (e-bikes) to get around. You really do get to see more on two wheels.

      Reply
  5. OI had no idea that there were so many distilleries in Scotland. I am not much of a drinker, and we have never been on a tour of a distillery, but I think I would enjoy it. I find the machinery and the process of making whisky or gin fascinating. What a great way to enjoy the Scottish countryside, riding around on a bike, and stopping off for tours along the way.

    Reply
    • I’m not much of a drinker either, but it is so interesting! I think we have covered about a third of the distilleries so far.

      Reply
  6. wow you must be a whisky expect despite not liking whisky before your visits to these distilleries! I love the fact that Knockdhu Distillery was not overly technical or rushed. I swear I switch off on tours which are far too high level for those who are not experts. Now I really fancy a glass of whisky….

    Reply
    • Go for it! Not sure I would describe myself as an expert; an interested amateur perhaps!

      Reply
  7. This sounds like so much fun!! I’m a wine girl, and live in the Virginia’s wine country so I do lots of winery tours. I’ve only done a handful of distillery tours though! Northern Scotland would definitely be the place to go for that though. These all look really interesting and so different from each other! Also, I’m impressed you were able to do the whole tour on a bike – my bike riding skills would not be so great after all that whiskey tasting LOL.

    Reply
    • Thanks Maggie. We did not do the whole tour on bikes though. We were in our motorhome and used the bikes (e-bikes by the way!) to get around. The distilleries are really interesting, but I love wineries too. We are heading down east cost USA this autumn so hope to take in some wineries then.

      Reply
  8. This is indeed an epic tour de force of the distilleries of North Scotland. Though we are teetotalers found this post extremely interesting. Really there is so much more to this trail than just whisky. The history of the distilleries and the manufacturing process makes for fascinating reading. Again the entire journey and the beautiful locales that you traversed in the whisky trail is in itself a heady experience.

    Reply
    • I agree completely. I am not really a whisky drinker at all, but visiting the distilleries added an interesting theme to our tour. I have another post from the same trip which concentrates more on the villages and coastal areas we visited. Thank you for reading.

      Reply
  9. Wow, what a detailed tour of a distillery at Portsoy and to watch all the process like fermentation in person must be interesting. Also,the surroundings of this place are very beautiful and there are so many distilleries.

    Reply
  10. I’m not a whiskey drinker either. It would be interesting to understand the process though and those barrels are huge! I think I would like the Strathisla Distillery or the Glen Grant Distillery best (mainly because of the architecture)! I will say I’m impressed that you toured all these distilleries and you weren’t a whiskey drinker prior!

    Reply
    • It is difficult not to get caught up the process and it did add an interesting theme to our trip!

      Reply
  11. Interesting to see the behind the scenes action of the distilleries and all of the barrels. Especially cool to see The Glenlivet have such a nice facility, which makes sense with their popularity

    Reply
    • Yes,I agree – the behind the scenes view is really worth seeing.

      Reply

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Hello

Hello!  I’m Jane. I live in the Lake District in the north of England with my husband, Peter. We love to travel, but this is a great place to call home.

We gave up work in order to travel and do all the things we were not able to do in our careers. We know we are incredibly lucky to be able to do this.

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