For the casual drinker and collector alike, it’s high time to visit one of Scotland’s many distilleries. More than 70 Scotch whisky distilleries now offer visitor tours—some even give you a choice of four or five different experiences. So many tours, so little time! Don’t panic: it may seem bewildering at first, but there are key strategies to making the most of your visit.
If it’s your first time touring a scotch distillery, let your favorite dram guide your choice of where to visit. Nothing beats that incredible feeling of standing in the place where the whisky you first fell in love with was made.
Note that most distillery tours follow a similar formula, with a guide leading you through the steps of the whisky-making process (prepare ahead of time by brushing up on the basics of how whisky is made). You’ll see the mill, mashtun, washbacks, stills, plus a warehouse if you’re lucky—and then round off your trip with a tasting of the whisky.
If you’re a seasoned distillery visitor, scroll down for advice about getting more from your tour, as well as how to handle the designated driving, whether to bring the kids along, and what to do if you’re visiting during the distillery’s silent season.
Fifty years ago, Glenfiddich was the first distillery in Scotland to open its doors to visitors, but today your choices are much greater—both in number of distilleries and the types of tours you can experience. Glenfiddich, for example, offers the opportunity to fill a bottle straight from a cask in the warehouse, or even to blend your own version of its 15 year old Solera whisky. Other distilleries provide tours at multiple levels, such as introductory, expert, or VIP, that offer similarly special experiences.
Around two million people visit a Scotch whisky distillery every year and spaces on in-depth tours can fill up quickly during peak season. If you have your heart set on a specific experience, phone in advance or book online to reserve your place. Standard tours cost as little as $8-$13 and will last at least 45-60 minutes, while the top connoisseur tours may last half a day and cost up to $250. Some distilleries are open seven days a week, while others are more restricted; opening hours tend to be shorter during the winter months, so check ahead. Tours are conducted in English, but the most popular distillery visitor centers also offer tours in a variety of languages including Spanish, French, German, and Japanese.
Dress appropriately for the time of year: stillrooms can be extremely warm when distillation is taking place, but outside it is Scotland, so be prepared to encounter sun, rain, wind, or snow, sometimes all within the same day! Wear sneakers or walking shoes for comfort: you may need to climb steep stairs and stand on industrial open mesh steel flooring. Production areas of many distilleries are not wheelchair accessible, though access is improving. It’s uncommon for old distillery buildings to have elevators between floors, so contact the visitor center if you require extra assistance.
The End of Tour Tasting
Just seeing the whisky production process is exciting enough, but there’s one more thing to look forward to: the complimentary whisky tasting at the end of your tour. The size and number of drams poured will vary, but expect a third- to a half-ounce pour per whisky. If you’ve opted for a more expensive tour, the whiskies are likely to be rare or limited-edition expressions.
If it’s your first-ever tasting, read up about tasting etiquette. No matter how curious you are, be patient and don’t swallow the whisky right away. Listen and learn: your guide will walk you through the different stages of whisky appreciation and will point out the key flavors in each dram.
What to Buy
After fully immersing yourself in the wonders of the distillery, you will be gently ushered into the shop while still under the seductive spell of the golden whisky on your palate. An immaculate display of bottles will be there for you to browse, along with accessories, keepsakes, and tchotchkes. In many cases, your tour ticket entitles you to a discount—so how could you possibly resist?
The perfect bottle is up to you—but bear in mind that distillery shops can feature rare expressions not sold elsewhere. If you’re into collecting, or want a memorable souvenir to savor later, concentrate on these. But keep a few important guidelines in mind to determine just how special that distillery-exclusive bottle is:
- Ask how it differs from the standard expression.
- Look for an age statement or vintage—these are often different from what is available elsewhere.
- Note its maturation: was it bourbon or sherry cask-matured or –finished?
- Check if it is bottled at cask strength, rather than a standard strength of 40%-46% ABV.
- Register if it is from a single cask or if it’s a numbered bottle, indicators of rarity.
- Think about how much space is left in your luggage. It can be easy to over-buy when every bottle is exciting.
- Don’t be afraid to ask for a sample before going to the cash register. You should know if what you’re buying tastes good to you!
In addition, some distilleries are owned by independent bottlers such as Edradour (Signatory), Ardnamurchan (Adelphi), and Kingsbarns (Wemyss Malts); spend time browsing their shelves, as they offer the additional opportunity to buy single cask independent bottlings.
Many distilleries allow you to hand-fill and label your own bottle straight from the cask, an opportunity you won’t want to miss: after all, you don’t get to do that every day.
The voice of reason can be hard to hear in the excitement of the visit, but be aware: not all distillery exclusives are special, and they can be expensive. Decide for yourself if the object of your desire is a good value, especially considering whether you are buying to consume, collect, or sell at auction.
Tips for the Seasoned Visitor
If you’ve been visiting distilleries for years and can recite the guide’s spiel in your sleep, it’s okay to skip the tour. Many distilleries will allow you to book just a tasting. Get your nose into the whisky with a tutored flight of three or four drams, or sit down to a whisky and chocolate pairing. In Glenfiddich’s Maltbarn restaurant, you can order limited editions like Glenfiddich 50 year old by the dram, or sample a whisky flight from the venue’s unbeatable range.
Distilleries are also a great place to grab a bite to eat, especially those located in out-of-the-way areas with few restaurants nearby. Among others, Ardbeg, Isle of Harris, Macallan, and Kilchoman have excellent cafés where you can tuck into a delicious meal.
Once you’ve crossed a few distilleries off your list, start getting choosy, and make your visits an adventure. Distilleries such as Edradour and Strathisla are among the most handsome in Scotland, while the journey to many others will take you through some of the most spectacular parts of the Scottish landscape and coastline.
Hit the road early to get on the first tour of the day when group sizes are smaller and you can get more flexibility out of your tour. Or set an educational challenge: try to see a distillery with floor maltings such as Bowmore, Balvenie, and Highland Park, or worm tubs like at Glenkinchie, Oban, and Dalwhinnie. Wherever you go, pay attention to the still shape, size, and lyne arm configuration to deduce the style of spirit being produced.
Up the quality of the standard experience with an extended connoisseur’s tour: you might find yourself digging peat, trekking to the water source, taking a personal tour with the distillery manager, or drawing whisky by valinch from special casks deep inside the warehouse.
Visit parts of Scotland during festival time, and you’ll be treated to special tours, legendary tastings, and access to distilleries normally closed to the public. Some of the country’s biggest festivals are the Spirit of Speyside Festival and Fèis Ìle on Islay; they’re popular events, so be ready when tickets go on sale.
The Designated Driver
Legal levels of blood alcohol concentration for drivers are lower in Scotland than the U.S. and any other part of the UK (50 mg. of alcohol per 100 ml. of blood—a BAC of .05%). Don’t risk it—don’t even try. Distillery staff won’t serve the designated driver, but here’s a tip: many visitor centers, like Laphroaig, will give drivers a 50-ml miniature of whisky at the end of the tour to enjoy later, so nobody feels left out at the tasting. Bonus: this is a much better deal than the 10-ml. pour everyone else is enjoying.
What About the Kids?
While many distilleries accept children over the age of eight on the tour, some distilleries do not allow entry to anyone under 18 years old. Young children are not allowed into production areas for safety reasons: a distillery is an industrial site with scalding hot metal surfaces, chemical hazards, flammable and explosive vapors, carbon dioxide fumes, loud noises, and traffic dangers from heavy trucks driving around the site. Safety at whisky distilleries is taken very seriously.
If the whole family isn’t into scotch, be kind, and don’t march them into distilleries on every day of your vacation. Resentful partners, grumpy teenagers, and bored kids will distract you from enjoying your visit, so mix it up and plan some other activities with them. Explore an ancient castle, climb a mountain, track down your ancestors, canoe across a loch, or go mountain biking through a forest.
Pics or it Didn’t Happen
Many distilleries have fantastic props that make great photo opportunities, such as classic distillery signage, pyramids of painted casks, vintage delivery wagons, and old copper pot stills. Get creative and have fun!
Some distilleries prevent visitors from taking photos inside production areas, while others prohibit photography only in the still house and occasionally the mill; they note this is for safety reasons due to the potential risk of explosion. If you’re planning on drone photography, ask permission before taking flight; many distilleries prohibit drones.
Of course you’ll want to Insta-brag about your great visit: don’t forget to tag the distillery (and Whisky Advocate). Bear in mind that cell reception may be spotty in remote areas.
Visiting During Silent Season
Every scotch distillery ceases production for a few weeks a year, usually in the summer. This is called silent season, and it can be a great opportunity to get up close and personal with the distillery apparatus. Scrutinize the mechanism of rakes inside a mash tun, appreciate the massive depth of an empty washback, stand in the middle of the kiln, and pop your head through the manhole cover of a copper pot still to peek inside.
Sometimes, distilleries undergo repairs or other major building work during silent season, and this can understandably detract from the tour you were expecting. Don’t be afraid to change your plans and visit a different distillery instead.
Whatever you decide to do, visiting Scotland to enjoy its whisky riches is a rewarding and life-changing experience for a whisky lover. If you’re looking for tips on where to visit and what to do (besides distillery tours), be sure to explore our Travel page.