Every year more than a million people visit Scotland’s malt whisky distilleries. They include pilgrims worshipping at the shrine of their favourite tipple, coach parties, backpackers, bikers and refugees from wet Tuesday afternoons. The range of experiences on offer is every bit as diverse, which led us to the conclusion that a bit of help for those contemplating one or more distillery visits might not go amiss. In the summer of 2000 we visited the 40 Scottish malt whisky distilleries offering a visitor experience as well as Speyside Cooperage, Old Bushmills in Antrim and the Scotch Whisky Heritage Centre together with the Scotch Malt Whisky Society in Edinburgh to see what was on offer. Our research resulted in the book Visiting Distilleries, recently published by The Angels’ Share.The essential ingredients for a good visiting experience are the friendliness of the staff, the quality of the tour, the visual and olfactory delights on offer and the overall ambience – that indefinable feeling which marks the day as one to remember.The quality of distillery tours varies considerably. The best are those where groups are not too large, everyone can see and hear, questions are answered knowledgeably, and a coherent picture of the process from malting to maturing emerges. The experience needs to be as ‘hands on’ as possible with visitors able to feel, smell and taste malted barley and grist, savour the aromas of the mashtun and washback, and sniff the spirit from the dipstick of the spirit receiver. We viewed the distilleries through the eyes of inquisitive visitors and rated the tours on offer and the quality of the experience on a scale of one to seven ‘stills’. We also detailed the facilities from catering (if any) to disabled access.
The results are that ten distilleries received seven-still ratings with another six facilities bubbling under with six-stills.
This second tier is represented by the splendid proxime accessits: urbane Oban, unassuming Springbank, Hebridean Talisker, timeless Lagavulin, intimate Glen Moray and lusty Ardbeg. The others fell anywhere between three and five stills. Here are our top 10, all highly recommended. Bowmore (Islay)
A superb, traditional distillery set on the shores of Loch Indaal on the seafront of Bowmore – the centre of Islay. There is no better tour: it’s comprehensive, visually arresting and full of fascination. The water for the mashtun is brewed in two huge copper kettles, the six Oregon pine washbacks are named after the six owners of Bowmore (what happens if there is another?), and the stills are handsome single-onion jobs, so cramped that one condenser is outside in the cold. Christine Logan and her staff have an encyclopedic knowledge of whisky and of Islay. They’ll do anything for you (well almost!). And, on top of that, they have the best disabled facilities in the business. An absolute must to visit if you are enjoying time on Islay.Dalmore (Highland)
Set on the shore of the Cromarty Firth, with oystercatchers and herons moving in with the rising tide, the distillery is set an area that’s very aesthetically pleasing. Visitors are relatively few and the distillery does not even have a licence to retail whisky. Met by the Manager for coffee and a chat, visitors then gain an individual privileged insight into the life and history of Dalmore from an Assistant Manager who has spent 30 years of his life there. Forays to see hidden gems such as disused steam engines and a vintage lorry pepper the tour as you learn that the pipe for conveying draff to lorries is cleaned with a football and that the eight stills are divided by an underfloor stream. An experience as balanced as the malt with an after-taste as lingering! Glen Grant (Speyside)
An archetypal distillery whose gardens – 22 acres of restored Victoriana – culminate in a safe sealed in a rock-face where a dram awaited the more enterprising guests of Major Grant, a keen if not modest sportsman and the man who, according to Jim Cryle Master Distiller at The Glenlivet, “put the distillery on the map”. A good, humorous tour starts in a visitor centre where back-lighting emphasises the lightness of the malt. Everything here is big: from a huge mashtun to the sexy curves of the eight stills whose narrow swan necks get the credit for the unique light, sweet, ‘no-age’ malt. On sunny days your dram is served in the summerhouse in the glen, to which the less agile are conveyed in a golf-buggy.The Glenlivet (Speyside)
If the gods have restricted you to visiting one distillery, this could be a wise choice. Classic Speyside farmyard setting – Highland cattle, nesting oystercatchers – sublime. A warm welcome in an award-winning centre, a pre-tour coffee, a wander round a display which includes a cinema in a washback and a superb tour – cosseted is a word which springs to mind. Space-age technology blends with the mystique of distillation in a well-tended stillroom where stills and spirit safes positively glow in elegant fitness for their purpose. A church window at the far end of the warehouse befits this cathedral of the quintessential Speyside.Glenkinchie (Lowland)
Situated in the lush cornlands of the ‘larder of Edinburgh’ Glenkinchie is the epitome of hospitality. No portion control here as you sample from a wide range of temptations – have your chauffeur take you home! Before indulging, visit the museum and see the model distillery 50 feet long and eight feet high, built for the Empire Exhibition of 1924. Empathise with the clerks on high stills and quill pens in the period style office – grateful staff are asked to forego meal breaks in return
for “reduced office hours of 7am–6pm”! The tour is comprehensive, user friendly and easy on the eye. The huge ‘shift bell’ and the recently revealed kiln, redolent of smoke and peat linger in the mind, the drams which follow, on the palate.Glenturret (Central Highlands)
Arguably in one of the prettiest glens in all Scotland, this is a little gem. Quarter of a million visitors a year find it perpetually sparkling, pristine and welcoming. A visitor attraction without vulgarity, the experience embraces a first class tour of a small but pretty distillery taking 25 minutes with a film and exhibition to follow. A tun room like a farm byre, pocket sized washbacks, the curvaceous onion of the wash still and a plain spirit still half a floor down (gravity works!), please the eye and whet the appetite for the best of Scottish fare in the Smugglers Restaurant, and a shop which is the Harrods of the whisky world.Highland Park (Orkney)
Worth the pilgrimage to Orkney on its own. First there are floor maltings where visitors can see everything from traditional wooden spades and chariots to mechanical ‘turners’ at work. Then on to smell the peak reek from the kilns. There are 12 washbacks in Oregon pine next (filled with hot water during World War Two to allow some 60,000 servicemen the luxury of a bath) and then four sturdy purposeful stills – just right for Orkney. Highland Park is no showpiece but a segment of living history. Coffee and homemade shortbread in Elsie’s little café is recommended before you start – and after you finish. The Macallan (Speyside)
The setting is beautiful, with Elchies House facing across the Spey to Craigellachie, but the distillery itself is surprisingly mundane, with stainless steel washbacks, five high wash stills, and no less than ten small spirit stills of traditional onion shape – the smallest direct-fired stills in Scotland. What brings it all to life is the tour – definitely one for aficionados – clear, leisurely, meticulous, with guides who have a nice ‘wha’s like us’ pride in their product. The highlight is the visit to the inner sanctum of Whisky Maker Bob Delgano: it’s a cross between a chemist’s shop, science laboratory and wizard’s cave. Now, where else can a few thousand discerning cognoscenti each year come so close to understanding the art of perfection?Old Bushmills (Antrim)
There’s always a warm welcome to the oldest licensed distillery in the world – and it’s still the best in Ireland at least! Bushmills is a picture of weathered stone and tile, with rich red wood and walls freshly white-washed. Distillery staff join with guests to make you feel at home, as you marvel at the high castiron mashtun, with its brass trim and quickly pass inelegant steel washbacks to enjoy the best stillroom aroma by miles. Two wash and five spirit stills, elegant tall and slender, somehow achieve Bushmills triple distillation. It’s a bit difficult to follow with all the pipes and valves this entails, but who cares with a visit to the bottling plant and a generous dram to follow – in winter you even get a hot toddy with cinnamon! Strathisla (Speyside)
Probably the prettiest postcard distillery with its twin
pagodas and waterwheel, Strathisla, has a most original approach to the visiting experience. A hostess ensconces you in the Isla Room (an elegant club-style lounge) and invites you to peruse a booklet while enjoying a coffee and shortbread to die for. The tour is a DIY job with your booklet used as a guide. It works perfectly, allowing you to explore at your own pace and double back as inclined. You can view the Porteous Mill, copper pipes with brass valves, four sturdy stills and two magnificent brass-bound spirit safes. At the end, your hostess materialises as if by magic and takes you to the library to nose the constituents of Chivas Regal and to enjoy a dram of Strathisla in an atmosphere reminiscent of a stately home, with The Field, Country Life and Whisky Magazine to hand. Pampered, cosseted, wooed and won!