1. Book your toursWhen it comes to distillery tours you’ll generally have two options to play with: distillery or tasting.
A distillery tour will take you through the process of making Scotch Whisky, with each distillery offering its own unique twist to emphasise why their Scotch Whisky tastes different to the rest. After about an hour you’ll probably end with a free dram or two at the end of a tour but the emphasis is on the process and not the product.
A tasting tour on the other hand may include a distillery tour as part of the fee, but is more about product over process. It tends to attract the experienced and sometimes know it all Whisky drinkers who are looking to try multiple variations of Whisky from a distillery led by an expert. These are more likely to take 2-3 hours and there’s every chance you’ll be stumbling out the door pronouncing your love for the distillery’s master blenders.
Every distillery will have set times for each type of tour over the course of the day and a limited number of people allowed on each tour. If you’re planning to head in peak season (April-September) you’ll have more options but also more competition for spaces. In off-peak season (October-March) you’ll have a lot less options with time slots and some distilleries even stop tours entirely.
Either way, planning where you can go in a day and what tours you can fit in is key to making the most of your time. By organising in advance you may also be able to get your own tour set up if you are planning to travel with a bigger group.
Take a trip to Glenfiddich as an example, one of Scotland’s largest single malt Whisky producers. As an iconic name distillery in the heart of Speyside they offer multiple types of tour throughout the day that give a comprehensive view on the Whisky process and industry.
Within a few minutes distance however you have the Balvenie distillery, an extremely popular venue due to the traditional process of malting they still use today. Tours at this venue tend to fill up extremely fast given the size restrictions.
Get yourself organised however and a morning tour of Balvenie followed by a tasting and lunch at Glenfiddich becomes an option. You’ve then got the afternoon to pop a few miles up the road for a cheeky tour around Aberlour or Macallan. And after finishing that, anything’s possible.
Scotch Whisky Association offers a good place to start your planning with tour times and distillery contact information.
And an interactive Whisky map to work out areas where you can combine multiple tours.
2. Choose your designated driverDon’t worry, there’s lots of options to avoid DD status.
One possibility is to look at bulk distillery tours where a guide takes you round multiple distilleries over the course of the day and you don’t need to worry about drivers. Scottish Routes tour is a great way to visit most of the Islay distilleries in 4 days. This is a great way to meet people while travelling and with some tours you can also combine the Whisky stops with other scenic and tourist landmarks along the way just to prove the trip had some level of order around it outside of Whisky.
If you’re looking to keep your budget tight however getting yourself into an area with multiple distilleries and using public transport is another possibility. This can actually be a lot of fun as you backpack your way from distillery to distillery but it is time consuming and will restrict the amount of distilleries you can squeeze into a trip unless you go down the taxi route. Just remember however that you are in the highlands of Scotland so expecting your normal five minute uber waiting time ain’t going to happen.
If all else fails driving to these distilleries is not the end of the world. Scottish drink driving penalties are very strict and distilleries therefore plan accordingly by offering guests taster kits at the end of tours that allow you to take your Whisky home with you. Although this option does give you the freedom to get around more quickly and drink the Whisky when you want, there is something to be said about enjoying a dram of Whisky in the environment it was produced. You have gone all that way after all.
3. Pick some independentsAfter you’ve done a few tours you’ll start to get a sense for how they work. You’ll tend to start with a history of the distillery and its Whisky followed by a description of the water source and the barley being used. No surprises but you’ll then be taken through the process of making Whisky in the logical order it is created by mashing, fermenting and then distilling. The tour will then tend to end by explaining the process of putting distilled spirit into barrels to mature before the fun begins with tasting!
While this structure is virtually the same at every distillery, each one will have its own unique approach of creating a memorable experience. This is where fitting in some visits to independent distilleries becomes worthwhile. Health and safety rules at bigger brand distilleries with parent companies such as Diageo make the tours quite strict and not all stages of the process (especially putting the spirit into barrels) actually occur on site.
Independent tours tend to give a more personal experience and let you get a bit closer to the action. Tasting the wash, the alcohol product created during fermentation, seeing the inside of stills used during distillation and getting close to the workmen, can all become part of the experience as you interact with every part of the process.
Bruichladdich distillery in Islay is arguably one of the best examples of this. From the grinding of malt in the mill to the bottling of the product, everything happens on site and you gain a complete understanding of the Whisky making process.
They’ve gained a reputation for experimentation in the industry and a walk around their storage room at the end of the tour lets you understand why. Unique sherry and wine barrels from around the world offer a clue as to some of the rare finishes we may get to try from their Whisky in the future. Just don’t be the guy who trips and knocks over a few barrels.
And if that hasn’t sold you independents? They tend to give you a lot more free Whisky. Full stop.
4. Hone your social skillsIn Whisky regions such as Speyside and Islay you are never further than twenty metres from a local Whisky expert. Don’t ask me for a source on that one but it’s pretty much true. The majority of people living outside of cities in Whisky regions either work in the industry or know somebody who does. And the Scots are known to be friendly for a reason! A free dram or two is never usually too far away if you start chatting.
The tours themselves are therefore a great opportunity to not only ask questions to the guides but talk to your fellow tourists about their best tips in the area. It’s highly likely they’ll be coming from or heading to other tours nearby and might have some great information to share about a distillery or a place to eat and drink the area. So in the spirit of sharing…
Here’s a little tip for anyone visiting Talisker’s distillery in Skye. The distillery sits at the end of a long road that runs parallel to an inlet of water. While the distillery seems to be at the end of the road keep going and you’ll be taken round to the left and up a hill. Keep heading straight and you’ll eventually pass a place called the Oyster Shed. No prizes for guessing what it’s famous for but you name the seafood and they’ve got it. With everything caught in the area and cooked to order it couldn’t be fresher.
5. Get a notebookFinally, once you’ve put all this work into organising a great tour, give yourself a way to remember the drinking memories. Get yourself a tasting notebook and keep track of the Whiskies you try and what you like to drink.
It will come in handy when thinking of your next birthday present to a fellow Whisky drinker or more importantly the next bottle to sit on your own shelf! There’s no need to be Ernest Hemmingway but you will forget otherwise and it will make for a great souvenir of your trip.
You can even let out your Whisky geek and ask each distillery you visit to stamp your notebook when you are there.
And there is of course the Flaviar tasting app if you find it easier to keep things digital. How about that for a cheap plug?
Bonus Tip: Get a free Friends of the Classic Malts membership. It gives you free tours at 12 Diageo distilleries in Scotland and discounts in their gift shops.