Scotland’s famed whisky distilleries should not be missed
Scotland is, of course, the home of Scotch.
Taking a Scotch distillery tour can be a great way to see this land of poetry, bagpipes, crumbling castles, ancient golf courses, dramatic cliffs and misty walks (not to mention shortbread and haggis). More than 130 Scotch distilleries are found in Scotland in five distinct regions (or six regions, depending on how they’re classified).
What is scotch whisky?
Scotch whisky is not the same as Irish whiskey. (Notice the different spelling of whisky found on Scotch labels that omit the letter “e” found on Irish whiskey bottles.)
More importantly, Scotch is a product of its unique terroir. The taste of Scotch depends on the climate, the ingredients and the oak barrels where the whisky is aged. (Scotch makers also swear by the water source in their distillery’s particular location.)
Geographically, every part of Scotland where Scotch is made is north of any point in Ireland, and this affects the taste. Scotch can be smoky, peaty or fruity, depending on how and where it is made in Scotland. But to be called Scotch, the whisky needs to be produced in Scotland.
Unlike Irish whiskey or American bourbon, Scotch is more restrictive in how it can be made. Scotch, for example, is made from malted barley, whereas Irish whiskey tends to use a blend of other cereals. Also, most Scotch is distilled only twice (though there are exceptions), while Irish whiskey is usually distilled three times.
Scotch also must be aged for a minimum of three years in an oak barrel (no other wood will do). There are five distinct categories of Scotch, including single malt, single grain, blended malt, blended grain and blended Scotch whisky.
Tip: AAA Travel can help you plan an unforgettable trip to Scotland. Click here to chat with an agent about group tours, walking tours, adventure vacations and planning a customized Scotch distillery tour itinerary.
Touring the Speyside Region
If you plan on taking several Scotch distillery tours, one natural destination is the Speyside region in northeast part of Scotland. Speyside is in the Scottish Highlands, but it forms a whisky region of its own concentrated around the Spey, one of the longest rivers in Scotland. Roughly 50 Speyside distilleries produce about half of all the Scotch made in the country. You’ll also find the producers of the labels best known to Americans, like Glenfiddich and Glenlivet.
Speyside is known for its single-malt Scotch. This is an area of pastoral villages and gently rolling hills, with an interesting old church, pub or the ruins of a medieval castle never far away.
Each distillery is unique in how it makes the whisky. You’ll notice immediately how small-scale and familial each operation is. Typically, just five to 10 people run an operation that may ship Scotch worldwide.
The distilleries don’t resemble big, noisy American factories. You’ll see large buildings with giant copper pots, but it’s quiet, almost silent, and the grounds resemble small farms (many of these distilleries started out as family farms with illegal still pots hidden out back). You will walk away with a sense of the unique way this “family” of Scotch makers produces its whisky.
Tip: Before any international vacation, it’s a good idea to get some local currency. AAA Washington can help. You can order foreign currency at any AAA Washington store. For your Scotland trip, you’ll want Pounds Sterling (GBP).
Each Scotch distillery tour is unique
The Scots may have a dour reputation, but that stereotype will quickly be put out of your mind when your Scotch distillery tour guide starts telling stories. Expect to be entertained with tales about the founders (sometimes going back hundreds of years.)
Take the history of the Cardhu, which produces the single malt whisky for blends of Johnnie Walker. The early history of the distillery is connected to two women: Helen Cummings and her daughter-in-law, Elizabeth, who distilled Scotch (mostly illegally) at their farm through much of the 1800s.
Helen Cummings reputedly kept an eye out for excise officers who would always come to her farm first. When she saw them coming, she would hang up a flag to warn her neighbors with stills of their own, while offering the officers tea to try to stall them. Note that Cardhu Scotch labels use a silhouette of a woman in a long dress hanging up a flag.
A Scotch distillery tour usually takes about an hour. You’ll learn the process of making Scotch, from how the barley is malted to the unique way its copper stills are shaped. The equipment and process at each distillery can differ in subtle ways.
Every Scotch distillery tour ends with a tasting. Usually, no food is offered. It’s all about the Scotch.
First, you will notice the whisky’s gold or reddish color. Then, swish it around your shot glass and watch how quickly the liquid flows down the inside of the glass. Then, smell.
Now, finally, it is time to sip. You’ll be told to keep the whisky on your tongue for as long as possible, even chew at it to bring out the flavor, whether that be fruity, nutty, smoky or peaty. It won’t taste like the Scotch from the distillery down the way. This Scotch is made a bit differently than any other in Scotland — and no Scottish distillery is alike.
At a tasting, you are typically given four samples in small glasses. Each of the samples is usually a different age.
Your host will point out what makes the Scotch a bit different. (By the way, you won’t hear a Scotch maker claim to make “better” Scotch than a competitor across the river; but you will be told what makes their Scotch a bit “different.”)
One thing to note about the tastings: If you’re driving, you won’t be offered Scotch. Scotland has a zero-tolerance policy for drinking and driving. If you’re the designated driver, the distillery will pack up your samples in a little box.
Tip: Don’t forget to book your Scotch distillery tour in advance or ensure that it’s part of your group tour itinerary. While it’s sometimes possible to join a tour after showing up at the distillery, often the tours are booked up for several days in advance, or the distillery only allows tours on certain days of the week.
The Speyside Cooperage
If you’re in the Speyside region for Scotch distillery tours, you also don’t want miss the Speyside Cooperage, which makes the oak barrels where the whisky is aged.
On the tour, you can watch workers (called coopers) in leather aprons building the barrels in the same way they’ve done for centuries. They don’t use glue to hold the wooden staves together. The casks are pounded together with a mallet and held together by metal rings. Once completed, the barrel is rolled across the floor and inspected. They’re paid by the barrel. Reputedly, coopers make a good living at the trade.
Coopers must apprentice for at least four years. On the day apprentices becomes a full-fledged coopers, they are doused in flour and molasses, feathered, then placed in the last barrel that they made and rolled through the factory (or so the story goes).
More Scotch regions to explore
Scotland has four other official whisky producing regions recognized by a 2009 government law. These include Islay, Highlands, Lowlands and Campbeltown. However, a fifth region, the Islands, is often included as a distinct Scotch producing area as well.
- Islay is the southernmost island of the Inner Hebrides of Scotland, known for producing peaty, smoky whisky.
- Highlands encompasses the entire northern region of Scotland. By area, this is by far the largest region. “Speyside” and “Islay” regions are within the Highland region but are recognized as their own distinct regions.
- Lowlands is the southern region of Scotland, where there are several distilleries known for producing a lighter whisky due to a warmer climate.
- Campbeltown on the Kintyre peninsula in southwest Scotland was once a main producing area, but now has just three active distilleries.
- The Islands, while not recognized officially, are home to several distilleries on the islands off the mainland of northern and northwest Scotland.
Tip: AAA group tours include transportation to take you safely to and from Scotch distillery tours. But if you’re renting a car and want to partake in a tasting, leave the car at your hotel. Drivers won’t be offered Scotch. Scotland has a zero-tolerance policy for drinking and driving. If you’re the designated driver, the distillery will pack your samples in a little box to savor later.
Enjoy a Scotch distillery tour on your AAA tour
AAA Washington offers a number of tours of Scotland that can include a Scotch distillery tour (or two):
- The 13-day Highland Trails Tour, inspired by the series Outlander, has stops at Blackness Castle, the battlefield of Culloden and a visit to the Blair Athol Distillery, one of the oldest distilleries in Scotland.
- The 10-day cultural and historical tour of the Scottish Highlands and Orkney Islands features a visit to Neolithic village of Skara Brae, Dunrobin Castle overlooking the North Sea, and a distillery tour.
- The 10-day tour of the Scottish Isles, Edinburgh and Glasgow includes a sea safari to spot whales and marine life, the remains of prehistoric settlements and a private whisky tasking on the Isle of Lewis.
- The 8-day Highlights of Scotland with Club Adventures tour includes a visit to Inverness Castle and Loch Ness, and a whisky tasting on the Isle of Skye.
If you’re looking for adventure, why not consider hiking one of Scotland’s iconic walking trails? Club Adventures by AAA’s Classic Walks of Scotland 6-day tour offers a sampling of some of Scotland’s best walks like the West Highland Way and the Great Glen Way, with expert guides by your side.
More fun things to do in Scotland
One great thing about doing a distillery tour is that you can also do other fun activities along the way, like:
- Touring the ruins of medieval castles. Anywhere you go in Scotland, you won’t be too far from an old fortress or ancient castle.
- Visit Loch Ness, the legendary home of the Loch Ness Monster. It’s an easy day trip to Loch Ness from the Speyside whisky region.
- Play 18 holes where golf was invented. Scotland is home to more than 500 golf courses, including famed British Open host courses St. Andrews Old Course, Muirfield and Royal Troon.
- Visit places you’ve seen in the movies and TV. From Harry Potter and Mary Queen of Scots to Hamlet to the Wicker Man (and don’t forget Monty Python and the Holy Grail), plus the TV series Shetland and Outlander.
- Taste traditional and new foods, ranging from haggis to deep-fried Mars Bars.
Fun Fact: India is the world’s top importer by volume of Scotch, with the equivalent of 219 million bottles of imports in 2022, according to the Scotch Whisky Association. (Source)
Traveling to Scotland with AAA Washington
If you’re planning a trip to Scotland, don’t forget to call a AAA Washington agent first. AAA offers an array of Scotland tours and cruises that will bring you to castles, legendary lochs and moors where legends were made — and of course a Scotch distillery tour or two.
—Written by AAA Washington staff
—Top photo: Peter Dibdin/VisitScotland
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