As previously mentioned, the recently concluded trip was larger in scope and time than its predecessors – we visited 20 distilleries over the course of a week-plus, of which 15 were first-time visits. Following my traditional approach, I will start the series of trip retrospections with a quick round of reviews of each of those distilleries.
I used to assign grades to the visits in an entirely subjective attempt to synthesize the overall impression based on factors such as ambiance, facilities, and staff attentiveness. I now think that was sort of misleading since even the most agreeable quick stop aided by a couple of drams can hardly be properly compared with a full-blown hour-long distillery tour aided by a guided tasting. So, no grades this time – hopefully, the descriptions will provide enough of an indication of what I found either superior or lacking.
And with that…
Dewar’s Aberfeldy – pleasing to the eye exterior views and an excellent visitor center with the uncommon added bonus of a food-serving café. A selection of tasting flights and à la carte drams to buy from the bar.
Blair Athol – the last time here we barely made it before closing, which informed our desire to try again. This time, we lingered a bit by the bar, whose main highlight is the distillation-stills-based furniture for the behind-the-bar setup. The gorgeous inner courtyard is another visual delight. This distillery is part of Diageo’s “Friends of the Malts” circuit, which entitled us to a free dram. We then bought another from the menu.
Glenfarclas – set in a nice landscape, which turned out to be the snow-est of all our stops on this trip. All visitors are offered two complimentary drams in a somewhat old-fashioned wood-paneled lounge.
Macallan – solidly one of the most impressive distillery experiences around. Since our last visit eight years ago, a new Earth-hugging modern visitor center has been built. The undeniable highlight is the “Whisky Wall” exposition, which serves as the record of seemingly all famous Macallan products; a hostess gave us an impromptu tour of the Wall, while formally performing the simple task of showing us to the bar. The bar is huge, with expansive views of the surrounding countryside. A very extensive tasting menu (comparatively expensive on average). On a bit of a downside, the distillery operates on a prior-bookings basis, not just for the tours but also for the bar. On a low-season evening, we were let in without a reservation, but it may be an issue at other times.
Cardhu – a repeat visit, on account of not having a past stamp in the “Friends of the Malts” journal. Just like the last time, the distillery did not look too busy with visitors; it undeservedly enjoys a pretty low profile. Lovely scenery, including an adjoining cow pasture and a walking path highlighting historic facts about the distillery and the area. A cozy cavern-themed bar-and-lounge offers a number of tasting flights and à la carte options to buy. With the “Friends” membership, one complimentary dram started us off.
The Glenlivet – a very impressive visitor center is further enhanced by the airy well-appointed lounge, called the Drawing Room, which offers a relatively refined experience as related to impromptu whisky tasting. There are several flights and à la carte selections to choose from to buy.
Aberlour – yet another repeat visit, but this time 14 years apart. If any distillery is in need of reinventing its visitor experience, it is Aberlour (they are supposedly working on it). The pretty building holds a visitor center that is small and old, and you would not get anything to try without paying for a tutored tasting (no distillery tours are currently offered). The experience takes place in a compact old-fashioned tasting room and is actually excellent, 5 drams long, offering a lot of side banter and a lot of interesting information, both about Aberlour specifics and comparative qualities of different whiskies. We even talked our way into an extra. The experience makes up for the deficiencies of the visitor environment, but I am looking forward to returning yet again in a few years, hopefully to a different setup.
Benriach – less picturesque than others and among the least satisfying visits on this voyage. The dated bar adjoining a small shop does the job of offering tasting flights and à la carte selections (from a rather large menu, to be fair). But the non-tour visit felt flat, especially as the staff barely engaged us beyond taking our bar orders and serving drinks.
Singleton of Glen Ord – the row of historic warehouses hides an excellent spacious modern bar and lounge (and shop). One free dram is offered to everyone – choose anything on the menu. Then, there are tasting flights to buy – or cocktails, if that strikes your fancy. Surprisingly and unpleasantly, this Diageo property “stopped doing the Friends journal thing a while ago” (it should be noted that the membership program has overall been winding down, but all other distilleries honor existing memberships). It means that there is no way to stamp the entire booklet anymore, which is a mini-bummer for me, as I am missing only one other distillery beyond Glen Ord.
Talisker – in the past, one of the more remote distilleries in all of Scotland, being for a long time the only one on Skye. The setting is nice, and the visitor center contains a mostly unpretentious bar and a delightful adjacent shop. We went for the tour here – free for the “Friends of the Malts” (that is a perk that seemingly remains available at all Diageo distilleries). It is hard to learn something new about the process after having been on several of these before, but there was an added bonus of a smelling activity that involved the ingredients at different stages of readiness. Three drams to taste as part of the tour, with attendant tutoring and lecturing. The bar sells tasting flights and individual drams as well. We practically closed the place at the end of the day.
Torabhaig – a young distillery in a different part of Skye. Possibly the most picturesque of all that we visited on this trip, both in itself and in the surrounding views. In the well-appointed shop, a series of photos depicts how the distillery came about – and the staff is ready to engage and explain. The simple café across the courtyard offers five à la carte choices of existing blends to taste.
Glenmorangie – pleasant scenery on approach, and a bit frivolous orange theme throughout (the correct pronunciation of the distillery name rhymes with “orange-y”). There are several depictions of giraffes, due to the fact that the distillery stills’ necks are as tall as the giraffe, which makes them the tallest in Scotland. The tour starting area, which we accidentally stepped into without any intention to join a tour, is museum-like and quite enchanting. The shop, conversely, is a bit bland, and the shop attendant doubled as the bartender in the adjacent cozy bar, where a few tasting flights were on offer. The aforementioned “bartender” did not attempt to engage us, which puts Glenmorangie in the same category as Benriach for very limited staff interactions.
Clynelish – a large modern visitor center welcomes comers with a reasonable shop downstairs and an expansive lounge and bar on the upper level. We came here near the closing time but the staff was happy to spend time with us, give us a taster (three 10ml portions, gratis; the driver can take them to go), and explain everything we wanted to know about Clynelish, Diageo, Johnny Walker, etc. One extra complimentary taste was procured along the way. The free tasting is available to everyone, not just to “Friends of the Malts”.
Scapa – through a somewhat inexplicable miscommunication, we came to the distillery on the day that it was actually closed. There was a staff member onsite, however, and she graciously opened the shop for us and proceeded to give us 5 different complimentary tasting portions of our choice from the shop displays (albeit, in tiny amounts) while providing plenty of the narrative. The ambiance of the place is comparatively muted, and I suspect that we did the aforementioned staffer a favor by making her day not as boring, but certainly, the attention and the willingness to engage made this an above-average visit.
Highland Park – an interesting distillery that unfortunately limits visiting options by requiring advance tour bookings. Stopping by the shop spontaneously will only allow you to peruse it without any tastings or, frankly, much of an engagement from the staff. Going to a remote part of the country such as Orkney simply to peruse a shop, however superb, would be a silly thing to do, so we did book a tour at Highland Park (and, by the way, the cheapest option here is still somewhat more expensive than most of the tours on the mainland). The tour was quite informative, if a bit dry, but extensive in terms of covering areas such as the kilning, the cask usage, and the maturation, which usually are only briefly mentioned compared to the malting, mashing, and distilling steps in the progression; there are also vintage tools on display. Three drams to try, one accompanying a video at the beginning of the tour, and two in the tasting room at the conclusion.
Wolfburn – contends with Benriach for being the least satisfying stop on this trip. The distillery is located in a commercial park in a couple of hangars – not exactly picturesque – with the shop and the tasting area sharing the open space with the stills and the mash tuns. There is a single tasting option of 4 drams to purchase, strictly excluding the driver (not even a to-go package). The staff was friendly enough but rebuffed all of our attempts to elicit something extra or to take a closer look at the production without a paid tour. Yes, it is certainly a bit impudent of us to feel that a distillery staff member who stays within their defined boundaries is not as hospitable as someone who bends the rules a bit on our behalf, but at Wolfburn, it clearly felt like a missed opportunity for a young distillery to enlist us as fans.
Pulteney – amazing hospitality and easily our best visit of the entire trip. Pulteney is a rare distillery that is located practically in a town center and does not exactly boast superior exterior views. The large information room that acts as a tour launchpad offers detailed narratives on the history of the distillery and the town of Wick, as well as the whisky production, to the point that it may be unnecessary to go on an actual tour. We did not plan on doing that anyway and instead availed ourselves of tasting at the compact shop. There were no defined limits on how many different whiskies we could try in 10ml doses, so we lost count. The lovely staff member who was helping us humored us for nearly an hour, explaining everything, responding to our banter, and making us feel really welcome.
Balblair – a picturesque approach, a nice shop and bar area, and a knowledgeable and engaging host combined into a great package. Complimentary 10ml doses of two whiskies (drivers are offered a few drops), and then we talked our way into a third.
Glengoyne – not just a repeat visit, but my 4th stop at this distillery. Since our last visit 5 years ago, they switched to a prior-booking mode, meaning that an impromptu visit will no longer result in any impromptu tasting. We cut Glengoyne from our itinerary because of that limitation, but at the last possible moment decided to restore it to the plan and to book the simplest tutored tasting option, which turned out to be possible on short notice in the slower season. The experience included two basic whiskies and a choice of another; we talked our way into one extra. The conversation included a few tidbits that were new even to us (but we asked the host to skip the production explanation). The shop and the ambiance are as nice as we ever remembered.
Clydeside – on the river bank in the center of Glasgow, this newish distillery was arguably more hospitable to walk-in customers than even Pulteney. Although we immediately indicated that we had no designs on joining a tour, it did not dampen the attitude of the engaging and generous staff. Several 10ml tasting portions were offered to us gratis, accompanied by a wide-ranging conversation on a variety of whisky-related topics. We then sat down at the pleasant café (which also serves food), ordered a tasting flight from the menu, and continued to banter with various members of the staff, who eventually offered us additional 10ml doses that were not on the menu. A brilliant cap to our trip.
That is now 43 unique scotch whisky distilleries that I have been to on these trips. There are nearly 30 others that operate visitor centers to be targeted for future trips.