A visit to Scotland cannot be considered complete, or even attempted, without a trip to a whisky distillery or at least the sampling of a dram. Many visitors will only stay within the confines of the capital and while there are whisky attractions in Edinburgh itself, there’s nothing to with going to the true source. Distilleries are closer than you think, with Glenkinchie in East Lothian sharing the same EH postcode.
Diageo owns several distilleries across Scotland and has put together the ‘classic malts’ scheme to reward those who sign up. Now I’ve mentioned that earlier right here, also making the promise to get around each distillery in due course. Earlier this year I visited Northern Ireland and Bushmills, which isn’t part of the scheme, but like most traditional distilleries features original architecture and the option to purchase an exclusive distillery bottle.
Bushmills also offered the option to have your own label but this is little more than a signature and sticky label. Compare that to Glenmorangie where you actually poor the whisky (cask strength) into a tradition bottle, fill out the label, complete the log book and leave with your bottle in a sack cloth, and you’ll agree which option is better, albeit more expensive. Having been around a few distilleries in my time, there are subtle differences to each tour.
It is worth signing up for this scheme in advance. If you do that then you’ll be able to hand over your booklet and be taken on the tour for free! Also included on the tour ticket is a discount voucher; so don’t go spending in the shop until you get back from the tour.
On this trip I had the opportunity to visit three distilleries namely Dalwhinnie, Glen Ord and Clynelish. If all goes well to plan, later this year I will try and cover the Speyside region and next year make the trip to Islay and Skye.
As Diageo owns each distillery many of the props, seating areas and displays are the same at each venue, but the tours have their own differentials. The staff at each venue are reasonably knowledgeable and very friendly, making everyone feel welcome. If they don’t know, then they will endeavour to find out, going so far as to phone another distillery for me or show a genuine interest in your appreciation of the malts.
One aspect that the tours below lack is language; it’s all in English and sometimes relayed in a regional accent that even those from south of the border struggled to keep up with. Leaflets do have translations but it is an area that can be improved. Attending these tours the widespread of whisky was suitably confirmed with a variety of ages and countries in attendance. I counted nationalities including Germany, Spain, England, Africa and Japan, all enjoying the experience. Even take a moment to sign the visitor’s book at each location and look back on previous entries for confirmation.
A beautiful location, one that you cannot miss travelling up the A9. It is one of the highest distilleries and set in a picturesque location. Too often I’ve driven past, looking at the buildings dominating the hillside above the village. Being one of the smaller distilleries, the tour is a tad shorter than the others here. A reasonable 30 minutes or so sees you whisked into the main facility before finishing with a look through the glass pane where some of the barrels are stored.
Dalwhinnie is not able to store all of its produce with much being warehoused in Falkirk; such is the limited size of the site. Distilleries in Scotland operate a scheme where they house each other’s barrels, even those of competitors, thereby preventing a cataclysmic loss if a fire occurs. For this reason you cannot take photographs inside the main buildings, but you do receive a wee dram at the end as compensation!
I’d recommend Dalwhinnie as a great place to start if you are heading into the Highlands. Not only is it a central location but also the whisky itself is sweet, drinkable and kind to any palate. I really feel sorry for anyone that starts out first at the Talisker distillery, which is a heavily smoked malt and won’t be to everyone’s taste. The shop at Dalwhinnie also offers an exclusion distillery bottle that has been distilled an extra time. From 1991 and bottled in 2009, it’s only £14 more than the standard 15yr malt that retails here for £31, making it a unique souvenir! As you can readily pick up the 15yr malt in any shop, I’d suggest the distillers edition as a nice memento. It is a flavoursome offering, smooth and attractively priced for an 18yr single malt. Being owned by the same group means you can pick up other malts if you’re not able to visit other locations on the scheme, but not exclusive editions.
Set in Muir of Ord, this distillery is within touching distance of Inverness. Muir of Ord has its own small distillery and should not be confused with this epic distillery. The whisky itself is disappointing and mainly aimed at the Asian market particularly Taiwan, hence why there is no exclusive distillery option. The name itself won’t ring many bells as it is currently labelled as Singleton and is arguably the weakest entry in the ‘classic malts’ scheme. A look around the seating and shop area will reveal the various bottles this distillery has produced and the number of name changes it has undergone. This series of image changes has resulted in a confused heritage and brand that feels out of place. However the tour itself is one of the best, even if the wee dram at the end it too heavily flavoured by the casks and not to my liking.
Muir of Ord is totally different to Dalwhinnie, a more sizeable, industrial distillery with the emphasis on volume. Before the tour commences its well worth setting some time aside to wander through the various historical items including an illegal bootlegging still that are in the large exhibition area. Inside you can view the spirit stills and get up close with the various stages of production, never being hurried along. Perhaps the real bonus is being taken into one of warehouses they have on the site, feeling the drop in temperature and seeing line upon line of casks, sitting patiently. Here your guide describes the various casks used, their differences and their limited shelf life. Props are also on display so you can smell the different finishes the casks bring to the distilling process. Despite the disappointing whisky, it is a more thorough tour than that at Dalwhinnie.
If you thought Dalwhinnie or Glen Ord were in the north, then think again. Clynelish is on the outskirts of Brora in Sutherland and is the most northern location on the ‘classic malts’ list, being midway between Dornoch and Wick. Its remoteness may dissuade many from making the trip and the fact it’s not open on a Sunday, but if you’re in the region it is only a 30-minute drive north of the Glenmoraigine distillery at Tain.
This was the most enjoyable tour so far, particularly as it seemed to be a quiet day so my friends and I were the only ones on the tour. The guide was extremely helpful and took time to answer our questions. A generally relaxed atmosphere was evident in the distillery, as we were able to wander through at our own pace, appreciating the process and also the workers describing what they were doing in more detail. Despite the heavy rain of the past few weeks, the spring draught meant that production was not at full pelt so our timing was ideal to see a different stage of the distilling process. Also highlighting how reliant these distilleries are on local traditional water sources.
As you will see from the photographs the old distillery is still on site but is no longer used except for the warehouses, which you also gain entry to as part of the tour. There are six prominent casks with plaques here, which were set down in anticipation of the bicentenary celebration in 2019. No doubt those six will make up a very limited special edition, I may watch out for that one nearer the time. Apparently last year the distillery manager thought it would be beneficial to include the original stills on the tour which are housed in their original location. It makes for a real contrast walking from the new distillery to its original site; I really prefer the traditional buildings. Also worth noting are the last few Brora casks are due sometime this year and then that output will be sadly over. The 2009 release is in the well-stocked shop, retailing for an eye watering £230.
The distillery shop is easily the smallest and the use of props nil compared to others. However Clynelish stocks not one, but two exclusive editions along with some very limited releases I did not see elsewhere. As ever your tour ticket includes a discount for the shop. The standard bottle is the 14yr malt that with your discount is a well-priced £28. I do enjoy this malt, it has a slight smoky taste yet retains a crisp bite with that distinctive waxy finish. Yeah, I thought the same when I first tasted Clynelish, but that’s one of its distinctive qualities.
The first of the exclusive editions is a Distillers option, packaged similarly to the Dalwhinnie release (£42 including discount) and like that malt, has undergone an extra maturing process. This heightens the smoky taste but it remains an extremely drinkable malt, but I do prefer the original. The other exclusive is the cask strength bottling, and coming straight from the barrel provides an extra kick at 58% alcohol content. It lacks the refinement and flavours of the standard release but I could see myself heading back to the distillery when I’m next in the area to pick up a bottle. Even as I type this I’m still feeling that extra large dram!
I’ve posted all of photographs I was able to take for each distillery in each of the links below. If you do have the opportunity to visit Scotland then I would recommend a distillery tour, whichever one you take I hope you find it enjoyable. As suggested I will try and do a few more tours later this year and aim to try some outside of the ‘classic malts’ range including Balblair, my current favourite tipple who I hear do not do tours as a rule, but are very accommodating.