If there’s one place in the world you need to go to experience the best whisky distilleries, it’s Scotland, and if there’s one thing you need to do while you’re in Scotland, it’s visit some whisky distilleries. It’s hard to separate Scotland and whisky sometimes because they are so intertwined, but why would you want to? Whisky is as Scottish as lochs and mountains, Nessie and haggis, but it’s also a global drink that millions of people enjoy far away from this rugged landscape. When you’re visiting Scotland, whisky is a must-do experience, and that includes tasting it and finding out how and where it’s made. There are more than 130 whisky distilleries in Scotland and no matter where you stay while you’re in the country, there’s one near you. I’ve picked out my favorites so far!
1. The Balvenie Distillery, Dufftown
Nestled in the picturesque surroundings of Dufftown, Speyside, The Balvenie has been handcrafting whisky for more than 125 years. The distillery grows its own barley, malts its own traditional floor maltings, and still employs a team of coopers to tend to the casks alongside a coppersmith to maintain the stills. Today, The Balvenie is still run by direct descendants of William Grant who founded the distillery in 1892. Visitors to the distillery can meet the experts whose dedication to their respective crafts shape each of The Balvenie’s expressions.
With Balvenie Mains, where the barley is grown, and Conval Hills, the source of the spring water for the malting process, visible from the distillery, The Balvenie’s Speyside location is more than just a picturesque landscape. Each element plays an important role in producing The Balvenie’s rich character and creating a unique sense of home at the distillery. Tucked away in the trees of the idyllic Speyside countryside, The Balvenie has a unique tranquility about it where time passes more slowly. Welcomed by the family of ducks that reside at the pond and the sweet smell of the mash, there’s a feeling of homeliness and a connection with traditions of the past. With such a rich character and history, visitors to the distillery get an insight into the ultimate craftsmanship behind the process of making each bottle of single malt — from the growth of the barley in the fields that surround the distillery to the long-awaited on-site maturation of the spirit.
You might even feel the presence of a different type of spirit at the distillery. Legend has it that The Balvenie is haunted by the “Green Lady” who haunts the distillery’s craftsmen as they tend to the malt. If you like a good ghost story, they have an eerie little tale here.
2. Bowmore Distillery, Islay
For over 240 years, the Bowmore Distillery has been operating from the shores of its remote island home, Islay. Bowmore was the first licensed distillery on Islay and has stood on the shores of Lochindaal, a sea loch opening out into the wild Atlantic Ocean, since 1779. The distillery still operates in traditional ways, honoring the original whisky-making techniques, meaning that Bowmore is one of the few distilleries to have its own malt barn and still operate floor malting. The grain is turned by hand every 4 hours for 6–7 days during the floor malting process. The care and attention to detail during the distillation process creates whiskies known for their complex balance of smoke, maritime minerality, and fresh stone fruits.
Bowmore is also home to one of the world’s oldest Scotch maturation warehouses, the No. 1 Vaults. Bowmore Distillery’s proximity to the sea brings a hint of sea air to the character of the whisky. The Bowmore No. 1 Vaults is where most of the whiskies spend their long lives resting quietly in the cool, dark, damp cellars below sea level, with the waves thrashing the vault’s sea-facing wall. Matured in oak casks, previously used for bourbon, sherry, or claret, time develops rich and mellow flavors. Time is marked on each and every bottle of Bowmore, proudly and boldly as a marker of where and when each one’s journey began. Although the distillery doesn’t run tours as such, it does have a tasting room and a shop.
This is very much a working distillery. Even a visit to the shop requires a booking. It only opens Tuesday–Saturday and you’ll need to make an appointment to visit before you go. Bowmore is focussed on the production of great whisky and the exclusivity of a visit makes it all the more charming.
3. Knockdhu Distillery, Aberdeenshire
AnCnoc whisky is produced at Knockdhu Distillery, which sits in the shadow of the “Black Hill,” or Knockdhu in Gaelic, near Huntly in Aberdeenshire. It was established in 1894 by the pioneering John Morrison after he spotted an abundance of the natural resources needed to make fine malt whisky in the area: pure spring water and plentiful supplies of peat and barley.
Today, Knockdhu is known as one of the smallest and most enchanting distilleries in the Scottish Highlands, producing a refreshingly modern single malt whisky with the most traditional skills and processes. The Black Hill continues to supply pure water for the whisky-making process. The distillery’s two copper pot stills replicate the original 1894 design, their bulbous bases giving anCnoc its light, fresh, fruity flavor. Old fashioned worm tubs are used to condense the vaporized alcohol. And distillery manager Gordon Bruce and his team make up one of the smallest workforces in any distillery, even though they include many dogs! Visitors can currently book tastings at the distillery and tour bookings are set to resume from May onwards.
4. Glen Moray, Elgin
Glen Moray is one of Scotland’s best-loved single malt whiskies. It has been crafted since 1897 in the ancient town of Elgin, the capital of the Speyside whisky region, on what was once the Elgin West Brewery site on the banks of the River Lossie. Pure waters from the river, locally-malted barley, distillation in traditional copper stills, and maturation in American ex-bourbon casks combine to give the whisky its smooth, well-balanced, classic Speyside character. Records dating back to the early days show spirits maturing in a wide variety of different casks, which was a highly unusual practice at the time. A passion for experimentation and a deep knowledge of wood have been passed down through generations of Glen Moray distillers.
Glen Moray runs traditional daily tours, showing you around the distillery and guiding you through the process of whisky production. You can add in whisky tastings and there’s an on-site visitor café. You can even get the chance to bottle your own Glen Moray to take home.
5. Benriach, Elgin
In 1898, founder John Duff built his distillery, Benriach, in Scotland’s whisky region, Speyside. Benriach stands on the site of the old Riach farm in northern Speyside and draws water from a mineral-rich aquifer deep beneath the distillery.
Currently, tours of the production facilities are not possible under COVID restrictions, however, the following experiences are available:
Sense Of Flavor
This tasting experience guides you through the whisky-making process and highlights the flavors found in the range of Benriach single malts. You’ll try the original and smoky 10- and 12-year-old single malts, plus Benriach’s twist on a classic whisky cocktail.
Barrels, Butts And Barriques: An Exploration Of Cask Maturation
In this experience, you’ll learn about the art of maturation, and you can sample five single-cask whiskies. You’ll find out about the different oak woods and their influence on the spirit while creating Benriach single malt. Your tasting will include a demonstration of how four cask types are layered together to create the depth of flavor in Benriach’s whisky.
6. Glenmorangie, Tain
Glenmorangie is one of the most recognizable whiskies on the shelves. If you’re a whisky lover, you’ve most likely already tried it. If you’re just starting out on your whisky journey, this is a great place to start. They’ve been producing whisky for 175 years, so they’ve had plenty of time to become so popular. The distillery sits in stunning surroundings and enjoys a beautiful position near to the coast. With the sea breeze in the air, Glenmorangie uses five key ingredients — wood, water, barley, yeast, and time — to dream up delicious single malt whiskies.
You can visit the distillery from Monday to Friday — they are closed at weekends — and they are resuming their tours in April 2022. You can take the Classic Tasting or the Innovator Tasting which includes four Glenmorangie expressions. The team at the distillery creates a delicate and fruity spirit in stills as tall as an adult giraffe to allow for more taste and aroma. Led by director of whisky creation Dr. Bill Lumsden, this crew is always on a mission to bring new flavors and possibilities to the world of single malt.
This is a lovely location and you can stay the night in Glenmorangie House, a boutique hotel in a 17th-century building. Enjoy a tour and tasting in the distillery and then head to the house for dinner and a tipple in the bar.