Wind the clock back to the 1990s and visitors on Scotch whisky distillery tours could be forgiven for feeling like they were on a conveyor belt. Get off the tour bus, have a wander round a hot still house and a cold warehouse, then taste a thimbleful of whisky before being herded back onto your bus.
How times have changed. Now, Scotland’s distillers are laying on ever more creative tours, drawing on elements of gastronomy, history and even theatre to enthral their audiences.
Tourism is big business too, with a record 2.16 million tourists visiting Scotch whisky distilleries in 2019, up by two-thirds over the previous decade. No wonder that 68 of Scotland’s 140 whisky distilleries now boast visitors’ centres. From the Lowlands to the Highlands and Islands, there’s a distillery and a tour to suit every budding whisky geek.
Standing on the pier at Ardbeg is one of the highlights of visiting not only the distillery but also the island of Islay. On a clear day, you can see down to the Mull of Kintyre and Northern Ireland, while the black lettering on the distillery’s whitewashed walls has been the backdrop to countless selfies. Inside, the distillery has turned its old still house into part of its visitors’ centre displays, and runs a range of tours, from self-guided ‘DIY tastings in a box’ to picnic tours around the grounds on Wednesdays. Its busy Old Kiln Café has now been joined by an ‘Ard-stream’ trailer serving food and drink in the courtyard.
Ardbeg, Port Ellen, Islay, PA42 7EA. Open Mon-Sun, 10am-4.30pm. Classic Production Tour: £20
Built in the pump house and tax office for the former Queen’s dock, Clydeside Distillery blends the old with the new, with the glass box of its stillhouse offering superb views along the River Clyde. That architectural mix of ancient and modern continues inside, with the displays telling the story of Glasgow’s wharfs and docks rivalling anything in the neighbouring science or transport museums. The chocolate and whisky tour here includes five drams paired with handmade chocolates crafted by local artisan chocolatier Sugarsnap. Just as with food and wine pairings, the chocolates and liquids bring out different flavours in each other.
100 Stobcross Road, Glasgow, G3 8QQ. Open Mon-Sun, 10am-6pm. Chocolate & Whisky Tour: £35
Like all distilleries, Glengoyne has a ‘silent season’, when the distillery shuts down for maintenance. But Glengoyne doesn’t let its silent season over the summer go to waste. Instead, the distillery runs Glenside nature tours through its grounds, and its Teapot Tour, which harks back to a time before the 1970s when distillery workers were given drams each day. Glengoyne is set in a beautiful wee glen, with its own hidden waterfall and mill pond. The two silent season tours combine stories about the distillery’s history – both legal and illicit – and include nosings and tastings of a range of its Sherry-focused whiskies.
Dumgoyne, near Killearn, G63 9LB. Silent Season: 28 June-10 August. Open Mon-Sun, 10am-5pm. The Teapot Tour & Tasting: £45
With its cobbled courtyard and stone walls, Orkney’s Highland Park is one of Scotland’s most picturesque distilleries. It’s one of only a handful of distilleries that still malt their own barley on site, so the floor maltings are a highlight of any tour. Prices start at £30 for the standard tour but reach £1,300 for the ‘Rare & Exclusive Experience’, which includes drams of 30- and 40-year-old Scotch. After visiting the distillery, head out to Hobbister Moor to see where Highland Park cuts its peat between April and September. If the weather’s good you can even have a paddle in the legendary Waulkmill Bay.
Holm Road, Kirkwall, Orkney, KW15 1SU. Open 1 April-30 October, Mon-Sun, 10am-5pm; 1 November-31 March, Tue-Sat: 10am-5pm. Spirit of Orkney Experience: £30
Brewing is often the overlooked step in the whisky-making process, but at Holyrood Distillery, it takes centre stage. The distillery’s tour celebrates the history of the ‘charmed circle’ of breweries that once surrounded the distillery’s site in Edinburgh, which sits a well-aimed stone’s throw from Arthur’s Seat and occupies an old stone-built railway goods shed. Holyrood is experimenting with a range of yeasts and heritage barley varieties for its new-make spirit, with many of them available to taste as part of the tour, along with its gins and various cocktails, spread throughout the visit.
19 St Leonard’s Lane, Edinburgh, EH8 9SH. Open Sun-Thu, 11.30am-7pm; Fri-Sat, 11.30am-8pm. Whisky & Gin Tour: £20
Whisky legend Billy Walker once told me that the first thing he did at each distillery he bought was to give it a fresh coat of paint to raise morale and impress visitors. This time, he’s done more than just give GlenAllachie a fresh coat of paint – he’s added a bar and tasting lounge to the 1960s distillery, bringing its visitors’ centre bang up to date. Its warehouses are full of fascinating casks, making The Connoisseurs’ Tour my pick of its trio of tours. Nestled on the outskirts of Aberlour, GlenAllachie is at the heart of the Speyside action.
Aberlour, Banffshire, AB38 9LR. Open April-October, Mon-Sun, 10am -5pm. November-March, Mon-Sat, 10am-5pm. The Connoisseurs’ Tour: £60
Ever fancied trying your hand at blending? Then The Glenturret’s Whisky Maker’s Tour is the one for you. After a guided tour around Scotland’s oldest working distillery, guests can put their noses to the test with an aroma assessment before using five of Glenturret’s casks to blend their own whisky to take away. It’s not just about the whisky though; Glenturret is also the only distillery in the world to hold a Michelin star for its food, which cleverly weaves whisky into its menu, with dishes such as crisp yet fluffy salt and malt chips and a malted barley Paris-Brest.
The Hosh, Crieff, PH7 4HA. Open Mon-Sun, 10am-6pm. Whisky Maker’s Tour: £100
How do you create a tour to match your £140-million architect-designed Teletubby-like distillery? Alongside its chauffeur-driven Speyside partnership with Bentley and its film and TV tie-up tour with James Bond, The Macallan has enlisted the services of five professional actors to play pioneering characters from its historic story during promenade-style theatre performances in July. Guests visit a half-dozen locations around its 196ha estate, including a cleverly-integrated hearty picnic under a large awning on the banks of the River Spey. Audience participation is optional but encouraged, while the sneaky peek inside Macallan’s cathedral-like still room at the tour’s end is simply breathtaking.
Easter Elchies, Craigellachie, AB38 9RX. Dates vary during July. Other pre-booked tours available on Thursdays to Sundays. Pioneers Experience: £80