Touring and Tasting in Scotland
Article & Photography by Jeanne Devine
When you think of “Scotland,” what images come to mind?
Perhaps castles, golf, bagpipes, kilts, Harry Potter and Outlander, if you happen to be a fan.
I first learned about Scotch Malt Whisky at a brand ambassador tasting in New York City. The more expensive labels, such as Glenlivet and Glenfiddich, reminded me of a robust cognac, which I indulge in as an after-dinner drink sometimes. My new found knowledge wouldn’t cause me to completely switch my alcoholic allegiance, but I’d keep Scotch Malt Whisky in my back pocket for occasional dalliances. When I decided to take a trip to Scotland last August, I put whisky tasting on my agenda.
Bagpiper on Princes Street, Edinburgh
There are numerous options for tasting whisky in Scotland. I chose touring and tasting at operating distilleries. Scotland is the biggest producer of whisky in the world, with over 100 active whisky distilleries. All whisky starts out as a mixture of yeast, barley or other grain and water. To be sold as Scotch Whisky, the distilled spirits must be aged for at least three years in oak barrels in one of five areas of Scotland: Highlands, Lowlands, Speyside, Campbeltown, or Islay. Differences in the water source or minerals used in the distilling process provide flavor varieties, but ultimately, there are only five types of Scotch Whisky: single malt, blended malt, single grain, blended grain, and blended.
Even if you don’t drink alcoholic beverages, I recommend a distillery visit if you travel to Scotland. Whisky is Scotland’s national drink and part of its historic and cultural heritage. The earliest documented record of distilling in Scotland was in 1491. One of Scotland’s most famous poets, Robert Burns, wrote an ode to Scotch Whisky in 1785. Besides, the distilleries are often set in the most picturesque natural wonders of the country.
Glenlivet Estate in Ballindalloch, Cairngorms National Park
Cairngorms National Park, voted one of the Top 20 places to visit in the world by National Geographic Travel Magazine, is home to several distilleries. The scenic estates offer bars, cafés, restaurants and . . . shopping! You can browse the gift shops for unique glassware, local artwork, silver cutlery. Plus, if you have a travel companion who wants to imbibe, you can be the designated driver.
Let me share how I found my designated driver. In 2016, I joined a now defunct travel companion website called Thelma and Louise. I connected with a Scottish woman, JM, who was planning a trip to the U.S. that summer. Sadly, when JM arrived in New York we couldn’t coordinate our schedules, but we kept in touch via email. When I asked if she was up for a visit from me, she enthusiastically replied “Yes” and insisted on hosting me at her home in Glasgow. She also offered to be my chauffeur to anywhere I wanted to go in Scotland! And guess what else - she used to be an ambulance driver, so I knew I would be in good hands on those narrow, winding Scottish roads!
Thistles - Scotland's National Flower
Armed with this information, I finalized my calendar for a two-week trip. I made advance reservations online for whisky tasting tours at three distilleries, one in Oban, located in the Highlands Region, and Glenlivet and Glenfiddich in Speyside. Of course, that wasn’t all I was going to do in Scotland!
After spending four days in the capital city of Edinburgh, I took Scotland Rail one hour west to Glasgow. Happily, JM and I hit it off in person. We both liked to sleep late and eat breakfast for lunch. I packed in three days of sightseeing in Glasgow. We also explored the small town of Cambusnethan, finding a church and cemetery where my ancestors may have worshipped or been buried.
Cambusnethan Old & Morningside Parish Church
Then JM and I stashed our suitcases and snacks in her Honda Jazz and headed for Oban, a bustling fishing village on the west coast of Scotland. Driving northwest from Glasgow we ran into a smidgen of fog and drizzle, but to me it made the Scottish landscape even more ethereal.
We ducked into Three Lochs Way Information Center for a pitstop, then endured an annoying amount of one lane traffic due to road construction. Three hours later JM dropped me off at my bed and breakfast, No. 26 By the Sea, and went to her own hotel for a three-night respite.
Three Lochs Way Information Center
Three Lochs Way Information Center Views
Oban roused me the next morning with quintessentially bad Scottish weather. Cold, windy, and wet. Luckily, I had prepared for all types of weather, and dug out my trench coat, gloves and wool hat.
Oban Distillery has been in business since 1794.
I had met their representative at a NYTimes Travel show and promised to visit if I was ever in the area. This dovetailed nicely with the fact that my friend Sal, whom I’ve known for many years, recently moved from London to Oban. I was looking forward to my first whisky tasting tour and spending time with Sal, meeting her fiancé Geno and her golden retriever Riggs.
My tour was scheduled for 11:30am. I underestimated the time to walk from my hotel and was five minutes late, but the kind man at the check in desk rushed me upstairs to join the group. The tour guide stood at the front of the room explaining the fermentation process and the sample glasses on the tray were still full.
Oban Distillery is one of the smallest in Scotland, with two copper stills. There is no room for expansion because it’s located right in the town center.
The organization boasts “Our distillery is 208 steps from the sea. We like the air and so does the whisky.”
The tour presented an up-close look into the whisky making process. We saw the mill room (grain is ground into grist), mash room (grain is combined with water), tun room (fermentation process) and still room. The yeast smells like bread fresh out of the oven and you can peek inside the vats. We learned that whisky is aged in either American white oak barrels or casks from Spain previously used to mature sherry.
We tasted four Oban whiskies. At the end of the tour, you keep your sample glass as a souvenir. If you want to buy more glasses or a bottle of whisky to go, stop at the gift shop on your way out.
Oban Four Whiskies Tasted
I had one more day in Oban. Sal and I visited Dunollie Castle and McCaig’s Tower, both of which have awe inspiring views of the town, harbor, and outlying islands.
We ate fresh-off-the-boat seafood and engaged in lively conversations with her fiancé and friends. But finally, I promised Sal I’d come back for her wedding next year and continued on my trip.
View from Dunollie Castle
McCaig's Tower & View from tower
JM drove us northeast from Oban on the A82 toward Grantown-on-Spey, a town in the whisky making region of Speyside. Speyside is situated between the Cairngorm mountains and the southern shore of the Moray Firth, an inlet of the North Sea.
Fluffy clouds drifted lazily across the royal blue sky. The mountains appeared in the distance. Purple thistles, Scotland’s national flower, popped up. Sheep, cows and horses grazed the verdant countryside. JM pulled the car off the road and I took photos.
Spean Bridge - Letterfinlay
Sheep Striking a Pose
Thistle - Scotland's National Flower
We stopped in Fort Augustus to see the locks on the Caledonian Canal.
I spent two hours at Urquhart Castle overlooking Loch (Lake) Ness, which is highly recommended.
We arrived at our hotel in time for dinner. The next morning, we would go to Glenlivet, one of the distilleries on the self-guided tour called the “Malt Whisky Trail.”
Following the route of the Malt Whisky Trail gives you the opportunity to visit many renowned whisky makers. Speyside single malt whiskies are considered some of the finest in the world. A key component of whisky produced here is the pure water that comes from the river Spey and its mountain springs.
The Malt Whisky Trail road signs were easy to read while driving. Glenlivet is in the town of Ballindalloch. We arrived early so we made a quick detour to see Blairfindy Castle, a 16th century ruin which was once a prime example of L-Plan castle architecture.
Guides at the reception desk inside the Glenlivet lobby greeted me warmly. The waiting area has an afternoon-tea-in-the-parlor atmosphere, with couches and chairs you can sink into.
Photos of Glenlivet royalty adorned the brick walls. Even the ladies’ room was luxurious.
Tours last ninety minutes. First you walk down stairs, where you’ll see portraits of founders George Smith and John Gordon Smith and find out Glenlivet was established in 1824.
The barley room gives an in-depth explanation of the growing process. You can touch the grain and read about local farmers who supply the distillery.
Next, cinematic videos introduce you to people who work behind the scenes getting the whisky to market.
Glenlivet Waiting Area
We gathered in the barrel room (warehouse), kept at a regulated cool temperature.
Glenlivet Barrel Room
Our guide explained the legend of “angel’s share” (the part of the whisky that evaporates in the aging process).
Along the way, an artistic display of evolving Glenlivet bottle designs caught my eye.
Glenlivet Angel's Share
Glenlivet Bottle Display
Glenlivet lets you taste three whiskies. If you want more, you can buy an assortment at the retail shop. Or stay a while and order drinks at the cozy in-house bar.
Glenlivet Tasting Samples
Glenlivet Retail Shop
After the tour we drove to Nairn, an ancient fishing port and seaside resort. Charlie Chaplin used to vacation there! I walked on the beach and the brash breeze tousled my hair. I paid a brief visit to the nearby Inverness Museum and Art Gallery and we ate dinner at The Mustard Seed before going back to the hotel. Glenfiddich tour tomorrow!
Glenfiddich Distillery lies on the banks of the Fiddich River north of Dufftown. As we meandered through the sunlit pastoral grounds, I had an urge to lay down a blanket, unpack a picnic basket and sit on the lush grass with my shoes off. The river babbled. Ducks quacked. JM found a well-placed bench to wait for me and turned her face skyward.
A life size sculpture of founder William Grant and his wife Elizabeth is available for photo ops outside the visitor center. The receptionist seemed frazzled, on the phone asking if she could add last-minute people to a tour. There wasn’t anywhere to sit in the lobby area except chairs inside the women’s bathroom.
The tour guide arrived and shared with us the Glenfiddich history of five generations of family ownership, from 1887 to today. We admired the gigantic tubs of aluminum, wood or bronze in the mash house and tun room.
Glenfiddich Wood Tub
In the distilling room, dozens of handmade, copper swan neck stills stood in rows like dutiful soldiers, safeguarding their precious cargo. Our tour guide did double duty as photographer.
Jeanne in the Glenfiddich Still room
To get to the warehouse, we walked outside and across a short bridge. Below, tables and chairs waited for guests in an outdoor atrium next to the café.
We went back to the Malt Barn for tasting.
Glenfiddich Malt Bar
The friendly guide sat with our group of eight and provided facts and figures about the four Glenfiddich whiskies we tried. She expounded on when to add water or ice and how much. She quoted the retail price of each bottle in the U.S. and Europe. I love a tour guide who knows her stuff!
Be sure to take a peek inside the high-end gift shop, where if your budget permits, you can create your own exclusive whisky!
Glenfiddich Gift Shop
We left Grantown-on-Spey the next day and followed the central route south through Pitlochry, Perth and Dundee to St. Andrews. I posed for selfies in front of St. Salvador’s Hall at the University of St. Andrews, where Prince William and Kate met.
The main shopping area of St. Andrews, Market Street, is car-free and I found some cute boutiques with unique clothing and jewelry.
University of St. Andrews
St. Salvador's Hall
I had accomplished everything on my Scotland trip agenda. I experienced Scotland’s cities, towns, coastline, museums, castles, art, idyllic scenery, amazing food and welcoming people. I reconnected with an old friend and made a new one. I toured spectacular distilleries and tasted my fair share of Scotch Malt Whisky. Two weeks was definitely not enough time to see all that Scotland offers as a tourist destination. But no matter how long or short your stay, please put a tour of a Scotch Whisky distillery on your must-do list!
Tips for Touring the Malt Whisky Trail
To tour the Malt Whisky Trail, stay at a centrally located hotel in Grantown-on-Spey or Aviemore. The distilleries are spread out over a one-hundred-mile (one-hundred-sixty-kilometer) radius.
I confirmed three nights at the Speyside Hotel, which was about a forty-five-minute drive to each distillery I visited. Reservations were absolutely necessary in August for both the hotels and distilleries.
If you don’t have a designated driver, prearranged taxis or cars are available. The distillery tour guides won’t let anyone who is driving participate in the tasting. They will give you whisky samples in dram containers to sip later.
About Jeanne Devine
Jeanne Devine is an attorney and certified financial planner based in New York City. She is a published author, travel blogger and emerging travel photographer. Jeanne uses her knowledge of law, finance and travel to serve as a financial counselor and provide legal and business advice to individuals and organizations.
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All photos within the article are courtesy of Jeanne Devine; 2022 (c) Jeanne Devine