Over the course of four different trips in the past 15 years, I have visited over 40 different scotch distilleries in various regions of Scotland. The visits ranged from very detailed to rather brief, from formal tours to quick tastings.
As a general note, every time you go on a guided tour of a distillery, you will hear a lecture on the entire process of whisky-making, consisting of five main stages – malting, mashing, fermentation, distillation, and maturation. The variations between such guided tours are, mostly, in the delivery of the presentation and, possibly, with some end-of-the-tour activities. Each distillery will have something unique or specific in its process that will be highlighted, but on balance, it does not make much sense to go on a guided tour at each distillery that you visit. Rather, pick one or two that interest you the most, and limit yourself to a general visit at others, with some little tasting and shop-browsing.
I highly recommend that you closely research each distillery’s hours of operation and offerings online ahead of your visit. It is very rare to have a negative distillery visit, as long as you recognize that they all operate their visitor centers differently and adjust accordingly. There is a wide variance in what is offered for free, at a charge, and with or without a booking. Some places will not let you try anything unless you book ahead. In any case, for a visit that does not revolve around a tour, the more engaging you are, the better your chances of being offered something extra and possibly gratis. The people working at scotch distilleries are almost always exceptionally hospitable.
If you are driving, the driver in your party will certainly have to limit their intake of alcohol. The majority of distilleries leave it up to your discretion, but some make it a point to ask about who is driving and offer that person either tiny 5ml sniffs or pack their tasting portions to go. I mark such establishments as “driver-sensitive”.
A simplified two-grade scale of hearts is used in this article. The absence of a heart signifies that I found the combination of hospitality, ambiance, and the overall experience at a given place lacking compared to other places. But I am leaving all others at no more than a single heart as a way to indicate that although I may have a couple of favorites, these are not formal recommendations. Your mileage may vary.
Aberfeldy Distillery ♥, on the outskirts of the village of the same name, is nowadays known as Dewar’s Aberfeldy. The pleasant visitor center includes a bar where you can buy drams à la carte or by flight, as well as a café for a light meal. Visited: 2023.
Balblair Distillery ♥, in Tain, is very picturesque on approach. The bar area is nice without being exceptional, and the staff was among the most engaging and knowledgeable. Two free tastes of 10ml portions, and then we procured a third. Driver-sensitive (tiny portions to sniff). Visited: 2023.
Blair Athol Distillery ♥, in Pitlochry, has an atmospheric shop, a gorgeous inner courtyard, and a comparatively simple bar area – although the stills-themed behind-the-bar setup is certainly eye-catching. Drams to buy à la carte for tasting. Visited: 2015, 2023.
Clynelish Distillery ♥, in Brora, is headlined by the large modern visitor center adjoining the distillery proper, with an expansive lounge on the upper level. Although we arrived near the closing time, the staff was happy to give us a taster (three 10ml pours, gratis) and spend time explaining all about Clynelish, Diageo, Johnny Walker, etc.; one extra taste was procured. Driver-sensitive (packed tasting portions to go). Visited: 2023.
Dalwhinnie Distillery ♥, in the village of the same name, claims to be the highest above sea level in Highlands (but only by 1 meter over the next contestant). It offers an airy but not too outstanding shop, a pleasant if not expressly remarkable tour, and good surrounding scenery. Visited: 2015.
Deanston Distillery ♥, on the banks of the River Teith in Doune, has a dramatic industrial look on the exterior that is balanced by one of the brightest shops – large windows with a view to the river letting in more light than at almost any other distillery I have seen. A helpful staff member offered us three 10ml portions to taste at no charge. I also took advantage of the coffee shop in the adjoining similarly well-appointed room. Visited: 2018.
Edradour Distillery ♥, the smallest in Scotland, near the town of Pitlochry, boasts a fantastic and colorful shop and offers tasting of its products at the bar in the visitor’s center, where billboards describe in detail the process of whisky-making. The guided tour offered here is free, unlike other places, but I did not go on one. Visited: 2009.
The Famous Grouse Experience at Glenturret Distillery ♥, “the oldest distillery in Scotland”, is in Crieff. One of the smallest distilleries around, it is a popular tourist attraction, due to its headline position for the Famous Grouse scotch blend – whose popularity is roundly disparaged at many other distilleries. The tour is quite informative and spiced up by an interactive video presentation at the end. Both the famous blend and the Glenturret single malt are offered at the conclusion of the tour. On the clearly winning side, the visitor center remains open until later in the day than at other distilleries; if you are not looking to take a tour here, you can buy one of the tasting-tray options at the bar upstairs. Visited: 2009, 2015.
Glengoyne Distillery ♥, in the hamlet of Dumgoyne, straddles the road that is the semi-formal boundary between Highlands and Lowlands. Because distillation occurs on the northern side of the road, the distillery is said to belong to the Highlands district. The marketing differentiation of this distillery is the claim of unhurried whisky-making, but it is also among the most beautiful ones visually, and my hands down favorite one. I have now been 4 times.
On my first visit here, I was on the full tour, which included an interesting masterclass in whisky blending (I still have the 100ml souvenir bottle with some of my own blend – not exactly drinkable – in my home bar). Quite entertaining, although a bit more guidance would not go remiss.
On a couple of subsequent visits, we limited ourselves to stopping by the low-ceiling – it makes it feel like a cave – delightful shop. The staff has always been ready to engage, and we always procured multiple 10ml tastings gratis.
By the time of the most recent visit, the distillery changed its practices to offer tutored tastings or tours only with an advance reservation. We almost skipped it because of that limitation, but at the last possible moment decided to attempt a tasting, which turned out possible at short notice in the low season. That simplest tasting included two basic whiskies and a choice of another, and then 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). While less enjoyable than our past visits, it did nothing to suggest that Glengoyne may be losing its place as one of my top distillery choices. Visited: 2009, 2015, 2018, 2023.
Glenmorangie Distillery, in Tain, has a bit frivolous orange-y theme and a giraffe linkage (the former due to the correct pronunciation of the name, the latter because the distillery’s still necks are as high as the giraffe, the tallest in Scotland). Quite picturesque nonetheless. A bit bland shop is counterweighted by the museum-like tour starting point, which we accidentally stepped in. The compact pleasant bar offered a number of tasting flight selections, but minimal staff interaction, as the bartender also doubled as the shop assistant. Visited: 2023.
The Singleton of Glen Ord Distillery ♥, in Muir of Ord, hides a stunning modern bar and lounge behind the façade of a row of old black-stone buildings. One complimentary dram is offered to everyone (you can choose any from the menu), and then there are tasting flights to buy. Visited: 2023.
Highland Park Distillery ♥, in Kirkwall on Orkney, is one of the few in the country operating on a booking-only basis. You can stop without prior reservation by the excellent shop, but unless you have pre-booked a tour, no tasting will be possible. The cheapest tour option is relatively expensive in comparison with other places – the limited choice of options to properly enjoy the hospitality almost got me to withhold the heart for this review. The tour was a bit dry but reasonably informative and extensive, covering areas such as cask usage and maturation in addition to the standard process; it started with a dram and a video and ended with a two-dram tasting. Visited: 2023.
Oban Distillery ♥, in the heart of a picturesque town of the same name on the western coast of “mainland” Scotland, offered a nice shop and a reasonable tour led by a personable guide. Two drams are included with the tour – one at the counter, and another “to go” inside the souvenir box. Visited: 2018.
Pulteney Distillery ♥, in Wick, is also a rare one located in the center of town. You can obtain a lot of information on the history of the distillery and the area by reading wall information boards in the visitor center. The compact shop area is also the place for tasting, where you can get complimentary 10ml portions of as many different whiskies as you want – we had seven. The staff humored us for nearly an hour, explaining everything, responding to our banter, and making it easily the best visit we had on this trip. Visited: 2023.
Royal Lochnagar Distillery, in Ballater in the Cairngorms National Park area, was not the easiest to find but boasts an impressive shop. As we did not want to go on a tour, the staff seemingly lost interest in us, but there was a short Food Channel-like movie highlighting the royal link of the distillery in regard to its special malt. We were still able to solicit a single complimentary tasting. Visited: 2015.
Scapa Distillery ♥, in Kirkwall on Orkney. Through an inexplicable miscommunication, we came to the distillery on the day that it was actually closed to visitors, but the sole staff member onsite still welcomed us in and proceeded to give us 5 different tastes (albeit in tiny 5ml portions) while providing a lot of information. The ambiance is fairly understated, but the attentiveness was superb. Visited: 2023.
Talisker Distillery ♥, in Carbost on Skye. The bar is unpretentious but the adjacent shop is quite delightful. We went for the tour here, which was excellent, with the added activity of exploring smells of ingredients at different stages of readiness; three drams to taste as part of the tour. Tasting flights and à la carte drams to buy at the bar. Visited: 2023.
Tomatin Distillery, in the village of the same name, was an unplanned short stop where we solicited two complimentary tastings. A pleasant visitor center but limited lasting impression. Visited: 2015.
Torabvaig Distillery ♥ is a young establishment in a very picturesque location (the name means “small hill overlooking a bay”) in Teangue on Skye. Nice and not overwhelming shop, with photos depicting how the distillery came about. A fairly simple bar with five à la carte choices of existing blends to taste. Visited: 2023.
Tullibardine Distillery ♥, in Blackford, boasts a spacious shop and lounge area, with several rare and really expensive bottles as headlining exhibits. There are a few tasting tray options on the menu, which can be made into a combo to try the entire current line of products. Visited: 2018.
Wolfburn Distillery is located in a commercial park in Thurso. It is a young distillery that is decidedly short on ambiance, although the fact that the small shop and tasting area share the space with the actual whisky-making tools is kind of fun. If you do not go for a tour, you can buy a single flight of 4 drams, none of them superior to anything. For a new upcoming distillery, it felt like they were missing the opportunity by not being able to offer us anything that would make us fans. Driver-sensitive (refused to give anything to the driver). Visited: 2023.
Aberlour Distillery ♥ is located in a village of the same name. A lovely building hides one of the smallest and least impressive visitor centers around, very much in need of expansion. However, on my first visit here, I had one of the best distillery tours ever, including a tasting masterclass that highlighted how perceptions change as you progress through tasting different types of whisky.
The distillery apparently stopped offering tours altogether, so on the return visit we went for just the tutored tasting, on a smaller scale than the last time. Visited: 2009, 2023.
Benriach Distillery, in Elgin, is somewhat less picturesque and among the least impressive in Speyside. The bar is uninspiringly dated, and although there are several tasting flights and à la carte selections, the atmosphere is rather lacking. Visited: 2023.
Benromach Distillery ♥, in Forres, was one of our shortest stops anywhere, as we barely made it there a few minutes before the closing. Despite the fact that we were obviously intruding on the staff’s off-hours, they were very nice and offered us a complimentary taste and, a few minutes later, an extra. Visited: 2015.
Cardhu Distillery ♥, in Knockando, feels like it is never too busy. The cozy cavern-themed bar offers a number of tasting flights and à la carte options. As a bonus, there is an adjoining cow pasture and a short walking path with additional historic information about the distillery and the area. Visited: 2015, 2023.
Glen Moray Distillery, in Elgin, has a nice shop and cafe, with a dedicated tasting area. We did not desire either a tour or a formal tasting here and were told that complimentary tastings were not offered, for some reason related to legal measurements of the amount available on offer. This was the only distillery to offer such an excuse, so we drank coffee instead. Visited: 2015.
Glenfarclas Distillery ♥, in Ballindalloch, sits among a very impressive landscape. The non-tour tasting here is limited to two complimentary drams in a slightly old-fashioned lounge. Visited: 2023.
Glenfiddich Distillery, in Dufftown, is pretty big and industrial. The tour on my first visit here was not especially exciting but included an extended visit to the warehouse, which was undeniably a highlight. The shop was spacious but unexceptional, and unsurprisingly was being renovated at the time of the second visit. On that last visit, we could not elicit any sort of tasting, explained away by difficulties during renovation. I suspect it is all different by now. Visited: 2009, 2015.
The Glenlivet Distillery ♥, in Ballindalloch, impresses with its visitor center, and especially with the airy well-appointed Drawing Room lounge. There are several tasting flights and à la carte selections for a refined experience. Visited: 2023.
Macallan Distillery ♥, in Craigellachie, changed significantly between my two visits here. The Earth-hugging modern new visitor center is exceptional. The fantastic “Whisky Wall” exposition serves as a record of seemingly the entire line of Macallan products through the years; a hostess gave us a veritable tour of it, while formally performing the task of escorting us to the bar. The bar is a huge soaring space with expansive views of the surrounding countryside and offers an extensive tasting menu – although both flights and à la carte selections are comparatively expensive. On the additional plus side, the bar stays open later than other distilleries in the area.
On a slight downside, the distillery these days operates on an advance-bookings basis. Towards the end of the day in low season, we were able to walk in and enjoy, but I suspect at busier times the absence of a booking may be a challenge. Also, the tours on offer are significantly more expensive than elsewhere; we did take advantage of a really great tour on our first visit but decided not to repeat it due to the cost. These notwithstanding, Macallan has got to be one of the best distillery experiences around. Visited: 2015, 2023.
Not a distillery, but a worthwhile stop is the Speyside Cooperage ♥, also in Craigellachie. It is a working facility where an informative video presentation on the cask-making process is followed by the observation of the actual process from the gallery above the factory floor (if you choose to take a tour). Quite fascinating. Visited: 2009.
Strathisla Distillery ♥, in Keith, is one of the most picturesque of all distilleries, truly gorgeous. It also claims to be the oldest in the Highlands. The shop is quite large and a bit sterile, but there is an atmospheric lounge next door. Engaging staff; we had a complimentary taste, and then continuing conversation led to another complimentary offer. Visited: 2015.
Ardbeg Distillery ♥, on the south coast of the island, has a spacious shop and café area in a large high-ceilinged hall. You can buy individual drams at the table, or order the “Express tasting” set that includes 5 drams. The service started fairly slow, but once we got served – and had all of the whiskies in the set explained to us – it turned into a great leisurely experience. Visited: 2018.
Bowmore Distillery ♥, in the center of the eponymous town, is the most centrally located of Islay distilleries. We parked ourselves in the bright and airy lounge above the shop and first partook in a complimentary dram of the most common malt. Then, we bought additional tasting trays. The engaging staff member attending to us talked us into selecting nearly the most expensive options, but it was a good price to pay for an excellent tasting experience. Visited: 2018.
Bruichladdich Distillery is on the Rhinns in the western part of the island. We started to feel the weight of the previous tastings in the day when we arrived here, which definitely colored our visit. Informal tasting at the shop counter was actually pretty good, with several options offered to us in 10ml portions at no charge. The staff tried their very best to engage us. We probably did not do them justice. Visited: 2018.
Bunnahabhain Distillery ♥, on the northeast coast, offers the most picturesque final approach of all distilleries on Islay. Compact shop, where we had to wait for a few minutes until the next scheduled tour group departed. Once that happened, the remaining staff member spent good twenty minutes guiding us through tasting a series of rare whiskies at no charge. Visited: 2018.
Caol Ila Distillery ♥, on the northeast coast near Port Askaig, is the biggest on Islay by production volume. We took a standard tour here (which turned out as a private tour for us on a rainy March day). The scale is definitely impressive. The tour included one complimentary dram and we then procured one more at the shop. Visited: 2018.
Kilchoman Distillery, in the westernmost part of the island, is the hardest to get to and, for my money, visually least impressive of all of the distilleries on Islay. If going to the fourth distillery for the day is already a bit of a stretch, the fifth is undoubtedly an excess, and our impression suffered for that as well. The shop is pretty good, with a defining feature of providing the history of lost distilleries of Islay. There is also a café. We bought a tasting flight, and you can also buy à la carte. Visited: 2018.
Lagavulin Distillery, on the south coast of the island, is surprisingly old-fashioned in that the shop is relatively small and the visitor spaces are decidedly not modern. The only distillery on this trip where we only got a single complimentary dram. The staff member who brought us the drinks appeared not entirely interested in us; we decided not to buy any of the other drams available for tasting, which probably diminished us in her eyes. Sipping that dram in the quaint lounge was pretty nice, though, and another younger member of the staff tried to connect with us at a later stage. I allow that if my original intention to go on a tour of Lagavulin was not affected by their planned closure on the previous day, we may have enjoyed it more. Visited: 2018.
Laphroaig Distillery ♥ is also on the south coast of the island. Good shop with an adjoining lounge for tutored tastings. We paid for a standard tour here, which could have been better if the guide was not so focused on executing her script; but the educational component of the specifics of making peaty scotch was very good. At the end of the tour, each of us could exchange three “tokens” for one, two, or three drams to taste, depending on the “cost” of the particular whisky; I went for a two-dram combo. Visited: 2018.
Auchentoshan Distillery ♥, on the outskirts of Glasgow, is the only one in Scotland that uses the triple-distillation process. It started us off on the wrong foot by being unexpectedly closed when we drove up on the planned date in our itinerary. We swapped it with nearby Glengoyne and came back a couple of days later. That prior mishap helped us solicit a 3-dram tasting flight for free. The well-appointed shop has a nice seating area for this type of impromptu tasting and also highlights nearby attractions on the wall displays. A small screening room off the shop loops a 6-minute movie about the history of the distillery. Visited: 2018.
Clydeside Distillery ♥, is in Glasgow proper. A newish establishment, it certainly tries to gain fans. The staff was eminently engaging and generous, offering us several 10ml tastes at the bar in the shop, and then supplementing our tasting flight order in the café with a couple of additional 10ml portions. Visited: 2023.
Glenkinchie Distillery ♥, in Pencaitland in East Lothian, impressed us with the onsite museum of whisky-making, which includes a 1/40 scale model of a distillery, which we were told was fully operational. We got 3 drams to try at no charge. Visited: 2018.
Kingsbarns Distillery ♥, not far from St Andrews on the picturesque coast of Fife, is one of the youngest in the country. This farmhouse-like distillery is still some years away from offering its own product, but they bottle and sell several blends and single malts that they acquire elsewhere, as their own brands. The staff member who greeted us mistook us for someone else he was expecting, but even after recognizing the mix-up, he still offered us 5 different 10ml portions to try – and may have offered more if we had not stopped him. He walked us through an exhibition next to the shop, which included an interesting smelling exhibit that tested our perceptions of various scents present in different whiskies. We also took advantage of the coffee shop on the premises. Visited: 2018.