Scotland is blessed with over 130 malt and grain distilleries, producing what is called ‘Uisge Beatha’, ‘the Water of Life’. Seldom are marketing descriptions so accurate! Even better, more than half of these distilleries are open to the public, with tours available. If you have visited a whisky distillery, you will know that the whisky making process is a fascinating, almost mystical experience, and always ends up in a dram or two being sampled.
Whisky production has taken on an almost mythical history, with illicit stills and excise dodging shenanigans. By 1823 however, the duty to be paid on spirits was slashed and it became more attractive to move away from hidden whisky production to becoming a legal entity, and it was at this point that distilleries as we know them today, began to be established. The individual distillery stories and that of whisky in general are always entertaining on a tour.
Our blog will highlight eleven Scottish whisky distilleries worth visiting that we have enjoyed and loved. We have even added two more for good measure as a bonus – GlenWyvis, which is not yet open to the public, and the Loch Ewe Distillery, which has unfortunately permanently closed. At Tailor-Made Itineraries we delight in creating bespoke self-guided tours. So if any of these distilleries or whisky regions appeals to you, reach out to us by email. We would be more than happy to design a whisky based self-guided tour around your requirements.
Edradour Distillery is known as the smallest traditional distillery in Scotland and one of the most beautiful too. Dating back to 1825, Edradour, stands alone as the last stronghold of handmade single malt whisky from a farm distillery still in production today. Edradour boasts over 25 distinctive expressions of Highland Single Malt Scotch Whisky. Each with their own wonderful characters and flavours.
This unassuming distillery has a colourful past, having been controlled in 1938 by Irving Haim, an agent for Frank Costello, a mafia Godfather in New York! It is also interesting to note that many of the cases that sank off Eriskay in 1941, becoming immortalised in the film 'Whisky Galore!', were Edradour blends. Moreover, just four years later, Edradour's King's Ransom blend was on the menu at the Potsdam Conference attended by Churchill, Stalin, and Truman.
Glen Ord’s story started in 1820, when Thomas MacKenzie of Ord inherited the estate and embarked on rejuvenating the area. A large portion of MacKenzie's land was devoted to the cultivation of barley, as such he decided to lease the land for a distillery to be built, this would also provide year-round employment for local men. Water from Loch nam Bonnach and Loch nan Eun flowed to two large water wheels from which the distillery derived its power. The water for the mashing was taken from a well, known as the Cuckoo Well.
The Glen Ord whisky distillery is the only remaining single malt scotch whisky distillery on the Black Isle. Producing single malts that are only available for export to South East Asia, having a tasting at the distillery is one of the few ways you can have a taste of this excellent whisky. As well as the highly informative tour, there is also a separate, small exhibition which we found remarkably interesting.
When visiting the Clynelish Distillery during a tour along the NC500, we were welcomed by beautiful views of the North Sea as well as the hills to the north. It is from these hills where the Clynemilton burn runs over seams of gold in the rock. With this water, Clynelish distillery produces a fruity, waxy, slightly smoky, sea-spicy single malt and there are a range of tours available to see the production process and taste the results. The original Clynelish was established in 1819 by the Marquess of Stafford to create a market for the barley produced on his lands. A new, bigger, and more modern distillery was then built opposite this in 1968. The new distillery took the name Clynelish, while the old distillery carried on under the name of Brora. The Brora Distillery eventually closed in the early 80s, but due to popular demand, this distillery will soon be reopening.
Cardhu Distillery was founded by Helen Cumming in 1811 as an illicit distillery and licensed in 1824. This made Cardhu the first distillery to be officially pioneered by a woman. Two women, in fact, for in 1872, Elizabeth Cummings, daughter-in-law of the founders, took over the running of the distillery and set about refining the flavour and character of the whisky we know today. The word "Cardhu", pronounced "cardoo", derives from the Scots Gaelic Carn Dubh, meaning "Black Rock". The distillery, owned by Johnnie Walker since 1893, sells over 3 million bottles a year.
The Glenlivet Distillery was founded in 1824 and has operated almost continuously since. The distillery remained open throughout the Great Depression and its only closure came during World War II. The Glenlivet brand is the biggest selling single malt whisky in the United States and the second biggest selling single malt brand globally. The distillery produces enough for 6 million bottles of The Glenlivet single malt annually. To match the impressive size of its production, the Glenlivet distillery has also invested heavily in its visitor facilities, leading to an excellent experience all round.
Deanston Distillery has quite a distinctive look since it was originally a cotton mill. The mill was converted into a Whisky Distillery only in 1965, making the distillery one of the youngest in Scotland. Deanston Distillery produces its own energy by using turbines at a dam in the River Teith a few miles from the distillery. The water used for the whisky is also from the River Teith.
At this point, we must admit that our primary reason for visiting Deanston was not actually its superb whisky or even its excellent café. Rather it was that the distillery had been used as a filming location for the popular TV show Outlander. For those of you who are aficionados of Outlander, the distillery provided the setting for the wine warehouse at the port of Le Havre in season 2. It is here that Claire notices that the Comte St Germain’s men are ridden with plague, costing him his wine cargo. The distillery’s tour guide will point out the filming spot for you.
The Glenfiddich Distillery was founded in 1886 by William Grant in Dufftown, Scotland, in the glen of the River Fiddich. The Glenfiddich single malt whisky first ran from the stills on Christmas Day, 1887. In the 1920s, with prohibition in force in the USA, Glenfiddich was one of a very small number of distilleries to actually increase production. This put them in a strong position to meet the sudden rise in demand for fine aged whiskies that came with the repeal of prohibition. Glenfiddich has now become the world's best-selling single malt. It is sold in 180 countries, and accounts for about 35% of single malt sales. Of all the distillery tours that we have taken, Glenfiddich is the one which probably gives the visitor more to see of the operations. The tasting session was among the best too!
The Royal Lochnagar Distillery has an interesting early history. When John Begg founded his distillery in 1845, he invited his new neighbours - Queen Victoria and Prince Albert – to experience his new business. Not only was this the first recorded tour of a distillery, but he impressed the royals so much with his drink that a Royal Warrant was issued to the distillery. It seems that Queen Victoria was partial to a dram of whisky mixed with claret! While we didn’t get to mix our whisky sample with claret, we did have an excellent tasting with a drop of water instead!
Benromach is a Speyside distillery founded in 1898 and is situated near Forres, being fed with spring water from the Chapelton Springs in the Romach Hills. The distillery changed ownership several times, before closing in 1983. Thankfully, Gordon and Macphail of Elgin took over the site ten years later and started to restore the distillery, eventually reopening in 1998, with new malt being bottled in 2004. Since then, the distillery has gone on from strength to strength, winning many awards, including most recently becoming the winner of the annual Whisky of the Year blind tasting by The Whisky Exchange with their 15 year old expression.
The Talisker Distillery produces a single malt scotch whisky which is characterised by a powerful and peppery taste that has more than a hint of the sea and is moderately peaty. It is with good reason that it has been referred to as "the lava of the Cuillins". The taste is a little too strong for our liking, but we are well aware that Talisker has a huge following, so don’t let us put you off this iconic whisky. In 1830 Hugh MacAskill leased a site at Carbost on Loch Harport from the MacLeods, raised £3,000 (it probably helped that his brother Kenneth ran the bank in Portree) and built a distillery at Carbost. Hugh chose to name his new distillery after his estate, Talisker, rather than the village in which it was located, Carbost.
Dallas Dhu is typical of the many small distilleries built around 1900. Where advances in technology have since transformed many distilleries and closed others, Dallas Dhu remains a well-preserved time capsule of the distiller’s art. Dallas Dhu Distillery was the idea of entrepreneur Alexander Edward. In 1898, he built two new distilleries – Benromach and Dallasmore – to respond to demand for malt whisky for blending. Before Dallasmore went into production in 1899, Edward sold the distillery to Glasgow blending firm Wright & Greig Ltd. It wanted the distillery to ensure a supply of malt for its popular blend, Roderick Dhu. Dallasmore was renamed Dallas Dhu to highlight the link. Dallas Dhu Distillery filled its first barrel on 3 June 1899 and its last on 16 March 1983. Although there is no production anymore, Historic Scotland have done a great job in preserving what a distillery would have looked like more than one hundred years ago.
The GlenWyvis Distillery was established in 2015 and was the first distillery in Dingwall since the last one closed in 1926. What makes GlenWyvis unique is that it is the first ever 100% community-owned distillery, having launched a wildly popular open share offer in 2016. 3,000 like-minded whisky lovers now own this eco-friendly distillery. Unfortunately, it will be a few years yet before a well-aged whisky becomes available. But if you cannot wait that long, the distillery sells a New Make Spirit which is a chance to taste their whisky before it goes into casks, as well as a delightful gin called 'Goodwill'.
GlenWyvis is currently not open to the public, with only limited open days for its shareholders. However, an exception was made for us at Tailor-Made Itineraries, and we managed to enjoy a private tour of this excellent facility. There are plans to open to the public, but as yet, this hasn’t happened, but watch this space!
The Loch Ewe Distillery was the brainchild of John and Frances Clotworthy. As well as being the proprietors of the Drumchork Lodge Hotel in Aultbea, they transformed a garage behind their hotel into a 'distillery in a cave'. The distillery used an ancient method for the design of its still - an alembic pot still which was used by the ancient Egyptians to produce perfumes and aromas as far back as 200BC. Initially, their distilling application was denied by the HMRC, because stills must have a capacity of 1,800 litres or more and their alembic stills only held 120 litres each. However, they found a loophole in the law and were awarded their license in 2003. Within ten minutes that loophole was closed, and Loch Ewe found itself to be the UK’s smallest legal still.
At the time of writing, it seems that John and Frances have retired, and that the distillery has gone into the pages of history. So has their whisky because we recently drained the bottle that we bought there! Their Drumchork Lodge Hotel, which won awards for being the worlds top whisky hotel and Scotland’s top whisky bar with its 700 single malts on the gantry, is currently closed. As far as we can tell, it has passed into the ownership of another proprietor and is currently closed for renovation.
We hope that you enjoyed our pick of 11 Scottish whisky distilleries worth visiting as well as notes on GlenWyvis and Loch Ewe. Exploring whisky distilleries is a great way of travelling around Scotland and it seems no coincidence that most distilleries are sited in the most beautiful surroundings. There is also the advantage of being able to enjoy a dram or two at the end of your tour! With new distilleries soon to open and with current visitor facilities being modernised, distillery tours are becoming one of the premier experiences to be had when journeying around Scotland.
Don't forget that at Tailor-Made Itineraries we delight in creating bespoke self-guided tours. So if any of these distilleries or whisky regions appeals to you, reach out to us by email. We would be more than happy to design a whisky based self-guided tour around your requirements.
Please note that Scotland has strict drink drive laws, and the designated driver should always avoid sampling the whisky at the end. Happily, though, the distilleries accommodate this and can decant your samples into small glass bottles so that you can appreciate the drink later. Also, note that some distilleries do not allow small children on their tours and some have restrictions on the type of footwear you can wear, i.e., no open-toed shoes, so please check the distillery websites for up to date information.
Join us next time when our family adventures continue exploring the castles of Aberdeenshire. Until then, happy reading and safe travels.
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