Travel

The beautiful South

The Lowlands distilleries are surprisingly varied and highly satisfying.Caroline Dewar reports
By Caroline Dewar
You might think there isn’t a lot to say about the Lowlands as a whisky area. There may be only three main distilleries here and this part of Scotland often seems ignored outside of Glasgow and Edinburgh.Single malts produced here are softer in character than from other regions but equally versatile for different drinking occasions and mixed drinks (an Auchentoshan Whisky Smash – heaven).My word limit does not allow inclusion of all the non-whisky tourist activity in these areas. But part of the pleasure of such visits is any discovery you make yourself, once you have some basic information to work from.Let’s take the distilleries and their surrounding areas one at a time.In the far southwest of Scotland we have Bladnoch. The distillery shop is open all year, Monday-Friday from 9am-5pm; weekends and Bank Holidays during July and August 11am-5pm on Saturdays and 12pm-5pm on Sundays.The distillery itself does not produce spirit all year round. There is a significant lay off in summer. Bladnoch also runs a little whisky school a few times a year to coincide with distillation. Check out dates at www.bladnoch.co.uk.As it is quite out of the way, you’ll have a long drive, though Stranraer as a port serving Ireland is not too far. Troon is a bit further.Glasgow airport is nearly 100 miles away with Edinburgh at 133 miles. Prestwick in Ayrshire is closer if your nearest airport is served by flights there.However, do not be put off by distances as this part of the countryside deserves a visit.There is no direct train route either but a combination of train to Dumfries or Stranraer and local bus will get you there. By car is the most sensible option. After all, you’ll want to buy some to take away too.And what else to do in the area? Nearest town to Bladnoch is Wigtown, famous for its books (www.wigtown-booktown.co.uk).Other sights down in this corner include some wonderful unspoilt beaches and the star castle attraction round here is Drumlanrig Castle, home to the Duke of Buccleuch.The castle has a large collection of artworks – it’s the place where the Da Vinci painting was stolen from a few years ago. Also in the area are Threave Gardens, Glenluce Abbey and Cardoness Castle. Near the distillery itself is the ancient Torhouse Stone Circle.Aplace to sleep? Across from the distillery is The Bladnoch Inn, a local pub which offers bed and breakfast rooms and a restaurant, and a few miles away in Newton Stewart is Kirroughtree House Hotel voted Scottish Hotel of the Year in 2003. Across by Portpatrick is Knockinaam Lodge if great comfort and fine food are of interest and then up at Closeburn is Trigony House Hotel in a lovely country location.Another one with a good reputation for its food, they like to use mainly local, organic ingredients. Not only that but, best of all, they can offer you breaks using the vintage cars they have for hire.Venturing a bit further north and on towards Glasgow is the county of Ayrshire where Robert Burns memorabilia, golf and history sit comfortably side by side. Ayr, Troon and other parts of the county have some excellent accommodations to suit all budgets and for many years have been family holiday destinations for city dwelling Scots who need some sandcastle therapy. Good golf at Troon, Turnberry and a number of other courses.One of my favourite places in Ayrshire is Culzean Castle. It’s not the largest of castles but has a dramatic location and is beautiful inside, with friendly, knowledgeable guides to show you round.It has a strong association with President Eisenhower. The Kennedy family, who owned the castle, invited him to accept tenancy of a specially created guest apartment and, for those with large wallets, the Eisenhower Suite can be rented.It has six double/twin bedrooms either for separate couples or for one larger group. Not only this, but the castle has wonderful gardens and is worth a visit for those alone.The next Lowland distillery is Auchentoshan, near Glasgow. Known as ‘the spirit of Glasgow,’ it is the only distillery in Scotland to practice triple distillation full-time.In recent years Auchentoshan has made some changes to parts of the premises and opened a visitor centre, both welcoming and flexible in terms of use. Apart from the shop, there are rooms which can be used for meetings with good quality catering. Manager Ronnie Learmond and his team do a terrific job making things run smoothly.Easily accessible by car, the distillery entrance is just off a major road. You can also get here by bus or taxi, though the latter is not a cheap trip from the city. Opening hours are Monday-Saturday from 10am-4pm and Sundays from 12- 4, almost all year round.Refurbishment of two houses here will be underway in future providing a base for meetings, golf and access to some glorious scenery nearby.I hardly need say that there is plenty to do in Glasgow itself. Despite origins from over 800 years ago, Glasgow is largely a Victorian city. It flourished when merchants began trading in tobacco and limes; then shipbuilding and engineering took hold and it became the second port of the Empire. There are galleries and museums in abundance as well as parks and gardens including Pollok Park, home of Pollok House, the nearby Burrell Collection and a rather smart herd of Highland cattle.There is a wealth of good accommodation of all levels and types and a huge list of places to eat with representation from many nationalities. In fact, Glasgow has some of the United Kingdom’s best Indian restaurants.Also, plenty of good bars in both the traditional and style bar sectors, a number of them with great whisky selections.Its current advertising theme is ‘Glasgow – Scotland with Style.’ The inhabitants do seem to be Scotland’s most style and designer conscious so the shopping is particularly good. There are specialist whisky shops located in Buchanan Galleries and West Nile Street as well as in certain branches of national chain Oddbins.Before moving on, just a sneaky word here about Glengoyne. This distillery only just slips into the Highland region. Some of its warehousing facilities are on the Lowland side while the spirit itself is distilled on the Highland side.Technically, it’s not part of a Lowland visit but as it is close to Glasgow then it’s one to see while you are there. Glengoyne was one of the pioneers of corporate visits to distilleries offering reception/dining facilities too.It runs a marvellous operation and it is one of the most visited distilleries we have, not only for its proximity to Glasgow but for its amenities and customer care. It is open Monday-Saturday all year from 10am-4pm for tours and on Sundays from 12pm-4pm.The shop operates slightly longer hours except Sunday when it cannot open till 12.30pm. Certain holidays are observed here too so it is not quite a 365 day operation.Eastward ho! Not a lot to see whisky-wise at the moment in the county of Fife so a brief summary omitting all the other tourist information (maybe another time): Ladybank: to be built in the next 18-24 months. One to plan for in a future trip.Daftmill: private and strictly not open to the public.Cameron Bridge grain distillery: not open to the public as a general rule. Like all grain distilleries it resembles a factory, rather than possessing the beguiling charm of its single malt sisters.In Fife we absolutely must not forget Lindores Abbey at Newburgh, in ruins now, since its destruction by John Knox’s followers in 1559, but subject of an upkeep campaign.Its fame in the whisky world is due to it being the site where Friar John Cor distilled spirit for ‘aqua vitae.’ He was the monk mentioned in the first recorded mention of aqua vitae in the Rolls of Exchequer in 1494 and that’s why we celebrated the 500th birthday of Scotch whisky in 1994. Learn more about the history and the whisky they bottle and sell to contribute to the maintenance effort on www.lindoresabbey.co.uk.Finally into Edinburgh and East Lothian.Edinburgh has so much by way of sightseeing, sleeping and eating it is not possible to list all except in a small book.Suffice to say our capital has a range of eating and sleeping options to match any top city destination. The largely 15th/16th century Old Town stretches from the castle at the top to the Palace of Holyroodhouse at the bottom. These landmarks and the whole stretch in between are positively drenched in history. The castle also houses the Scottish Crown Jewels.The New Town dates from Georgian times and is a superb example of period architecture with its elegant circles and crescents. Some fantastic shopping and bars in the city too.Glasgow may lead on style but it doesn’t have it all.There are a few whisky sites in Edinburgh.One is the Scotch Whisky Heritage Centre near the castle. Excellent on the history of Scotch this venue also houses an awardwinning restaurant with very fine shop and tasting bar.They are open seven days a week and private rooms are available for functions. The SWHC also runs a short whisky course for enthusiasts as do Malt Masterclass in Leith.Further down the Mile is Royal Mile Whiskies – one of our finest whisky shops.Near Holyrood is Cadenhead’s, specialists in independent bottlings. The Whisky Shop has premises in the city as well as Oddbins branches and try also Robert Graham on Rose Street.Edinburgh is home to the Scotch Malt Whisky Society with premises in both Leith and Queen Street (city centre). Members have access to the lounges and food in both locations as well as to the excellent flats in the Leith venue.For anyone not a member, do think about becoming one as it offers bottlings of carefully selected casks – some quite rare – and events in its UK venues (London is the other). It has society branches in several other countries which allow access to the UK venues. Find out more at www.smws.com .The main distillery event near Edinburgh is Glenkinchie. Adelightful little distillery with a fine museum, you really need a car to get here, being about 40 minutes drive out of Edinburgh near Pencaitland.A thorough tour from super guides and good tasting options at the end. As with other Diageo distilleries, your visit entry fee is deducted if you buy a bottle in the shop. In recent times it has extended its opening hours as follows : January-Easter: Monday-Friday 12pm- 4pm; Easter-end October: Monday-Saturday 10am-5pm and Sunday 12pm-5pm. In November hours are Monday-Sunday 12pm- 4pm and December: Monday-Friday only, 12pm-4pm. The distillery is closed for a couple of weeks over Christmas and New Year.No mention of East Lothian would be complete without reference to golf. This area is a golfer’s paradise, highly recommended to any of you who enjoy the sport and who would like to combine it with a touch of whisky and sightseeing for holiday or corporate occasions.The East Lothian Golf Alliance is a grouping of 12 courses including Gullane, Longniddry, Royal Musselburgh and Craigielaw plus a number of hotels, restaurants and other facilities which banded together to raise the profile of their part of Scotland.It really is that old cliché – the hidden gem.For golf it offers a pass which gets you discounted rates at these challenging courses.Apart from the obvious pull of Glenkinchie and top quality golf, the area houses the Museum of Flight where Concorde can now be visited in its retirement alongside other civilian and military aircraft. There is also the excellent Myreton Motor Museum for transport fans.Dirleton Castle and Lennoxlove number amongst the historical houses available to visit and the area offers gardens, fishing, beaches, Belhaven Brewery, walks, churches, galleries and a whole slew of other attractions and outdoor pursuits.So for groups who are there primarily to play golf, there is plenty to keep spouses or partners happy while you are out on the course or for you, too, when the swing gets a little tired. Caroline Dewar is a director of Distillery Destinations Ltd, Scotland’s only specialist whisky tour company, owned and run by whisky experts. It also organises tastings and whisky dinners as well as formal whisky education independently and via the Wine & Spirit Education Trust.It offers tours all over Scotland including planned itineraries; transport within Scotland whether car rental, chauffeur, coach, ferry or flight; accommodation and visit appointments. Bottling plants and grain distilleries can feature too. It can also build in or suggest other activities of interest to clients. Corporate trips and events can be arranged. The company has more extensive lists of recommendations for visits, accommodation and restaurants on its tours to the Lowlands.Distillery Destinations is working in partnership with the East Lothian Golf Alliance to offer trips which include attractions in the area for holiday and corporate groups. Non-golfing partner programmes can be included.Web site : www.whisky-tours.com and e-mail: info@whisky-tours.com Tel: + 44 (0)141 429 0762