If you’re a connoisseur of whisky, then the ultimate dream holiday surely must be a trip to Scotland. These days it’s easier than ever to wander through the countryside on an educational romp with dark, brooding mountains on one side and angry seas on the other. Historic distilleries are scattered like pebbles, nestled between moors, lochs and valleys of this ancient land.
Scotch whisky, like bagpipes and kilts, is a national icon of Scotland (although whisky is undoubtedly the best tasting of the bunch). The word whisky comes from the old Scottish Gaelic words uisge beatha, meaning the water of life. What better way to peer into the Scottish soul than by learning more about its national drink?
Whisky has been around since about 1500. Originally made from malt barley, it can also be made from wheat and rye. The golden liquid is aged in oak barrels for a minimum of three years but usually much, much longer before it is bottled and shipped around the world. There are several categories of Scotch including single malts, single grains, and blends.
Scotland’s whisky map is diverse, with five main production regions. Differences in ingredients and distilling methods in each region results in whiskies with distinct characteristics. If you’ve only got a limited amount of time, you can focus on just one or two regions, saving the others for the next trip (because you’ll want a next trip).
The Highlands region is the largest and most popular area of production in the country. You’ll find many popular distilleries and brands here including Dalwhinnie and Oban. One of Scotland’s oldest distilleries, the Ben Nevis Distillery, is also located here. They’ve been making whisky since 1825. The Islands sub-region is also part of the Highlands. It includes whiskies produced on these islands: Arran, Jura, Mull, Orkney and Skye.
This small region in the north of the country has more than half of Scotland’s malt whisky distilleries. You’ll find Glenfiddich, Aberlour and The Glenlivet here, plus many more. The area is home to the Malt Whisky Trail, a journey into the heart of whisky making. The trail takes you to seven working distilleries, one historic distillery and the Speyside Cooperage, the only working barrel factory in the UK. You can see for yourself how different distilleries create their own unique whiskies by following the process from selecting raw ingredients to pouring a sample in your glass. Budget several days to explore the trail.
There are eight single malt distilleries on the Island of Islay including Bruichladdich, Laphroaig and Bowmore. Islay whiskies are known for their peaty flavour. Most distilleries have tours and offer samples. If your time is limited, Islay is a good destination, as all the distilleries are relatively close to each other.
Campbeltown, on the Kintyre peninsula, used to be a major producer of whisky. At one time as many as 30 distilleries operated in the “Whisky Capital of the World”, but no longer. Today there are just three, and only two are open to the public. Of those, don’t miss the Springbank Distillery. It was founded in 1828 and is the oldest independent family-run distillery in the country.
Lowlands whiskies tend to be a little lighter in flavour, which many people prefer to the peaty varieties produced elsewhere. The region is home to the southern most distillery in the country. The Bladnoch Distillery has been producing the “Spirit of the Lowlands” since 1817.
There are two ways to visit Scotland’s distilleries. If you’ve got the time, renting a car is a great option. You can travel at your own pace and change itineraries on a whim. You’ll have to be aware of your consumption, or better yet, have a designated driver.
Leaving the driving to someone else is always a good idea, especially when liquor is involved. You can find tour companies through the excellent Scottish Tourism website. If you want a higher end tour, the Scottish Malt Whisky Society has partnered with Dream Escape to provide luxury tours of Scotland’s best distilleries. In larger centres you’ll find whisky bars with tasting sessions led by local experts.
Most distilleries are open year round, but travelling in the fall means smaller crowds and good weather.
Scotland is more than just whisky… there’s the music, the food, the land and the Scots themselves. But a whisky tour will take you away from the big cities and introduce you to rural Scotland. At times you’ll feel like you’re in the middle of a dream… although that may be because you’ve had a dram too many.