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Issue 29 - Whisky galore

Scotland Magazine Issue 29
October 2006


This article is 12 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

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Whisky galore

Some of Scotland's best whisky is found in the Lowlands and the islands. Dominic Roskrow acts as tour guide

You’re going to have to have a great deal of energy and a considerable amount of time if you’re planning to visit the distilleries in the Lowlands of Scotland and the islands: with the exception of one special whisky island, the distilleries making up these broad groupings are not concentrated as they are in Speyside, and they take some getting to.

For all that, though, the effort is surely worth it, for a comprehensive journey to the distilleries of these regions takes you to a wide variety of Scottish scenery, much of it breath-taking, and there are historical landmarks just as stunning as those in the north and Highlands.

We have often argued that too many visitors arrive in Glasgow and Edinburgh and look directly north for their entertainment and by doing that they’re missing out because to the south a great swathe of Scotland is just waiting to be explored.

What better way to make your travels all the smoother than a visit to the few remaining Lowland distilleries?

Historically this was the region with the best land for growing crops such as barley on, and the nearest to the major ports, cities and rail links. And so it was that while the Highlanders were distilling whisky illegally in small hidden stills, the Lowlands became the home of the bigger whisky producers.

The big stills traditionally employed in this area made for a lighter whisky because the longer the distilled spirit is in contact with the copper, the more impurities are removed and the lighter the whisky.

Once upon a time there were many distilleries in this region but over the years they have gradually disappeared, until now when there are just three.

The furthest south and therefore the most difficult to reach is Bladnoch, which lies a couple of kilometres outside Wigtown in Galloway, a region associated with literature more than distillation.

Bladnoch is regarded as one of Scotland’s prettiest whiskies, with Lowland floral notes dominant.

But its location is special too, and a museum and whisky school give the traveller further cause to visit, should any be needed.

On the other side of the country is Glenkinchie. Leave Edinburgh on the A68 to Dalkeith and then on to Haddington. Here you’re likely to get as good a tour as you’ll find in Scotland, and there’s an excellent museum with all sorts of audio-visual delights. Plenty of fine whisky to sample, too.

Definitely worth the visit.

If you’re travelling out of Glasgow the nearest distillery – just 20 minutes by road when travelling north west towards and round Loch Lomond – is Auchentoshan.

This distillery takes the smooth and light style one step further by using a triple distillation system similar to the one commonly employed in Ireland for its whiskey.

It lies on the shores of the Clyde but struggled until relatively recently, when its owners Morrison Bowmore opened a visitor centre and set about promoting the whisky as a major force. If you go, try the highly-satisfying Three Wood – this writer’s favourite Lowland tipple.

Glasgow’s as good a base as any for starting your explorations of the western whisky islands. You can drive from Glasgow to Auchentoshan and then round to Tarbert down the Campbeltown peninsula (itself home to the wonderful Springbank Distillery) and start exploring by ferry from there. Or you can fly to most of the islands from Glasgow airport which is much quicker but, unsurprisingly, much more expensive.

Let’s get the most famous whisky out of the way first. Islay – pronounced eye-la – contains no less than eight wonderful distilleries and can be reached from Glasgow or Tarbert. Islay is known for its peated whiskies and four of the producing distilleries are of this style (the fifth and newest, Kilchoman, is still maturing its first whisky).

Three of them lie within a couple of miles of each other, just outside Port Charlotte in the south east of the island; Laphroaig, Ardbeg and Lagavulin.

Travel on the road (there is only one) north and turn left to Bowmore and you’ll find the Bowmore distillery in the heart of the town on the banks of Loch Indaal. And straight across the water you’ll be able to see Bruichladdich (pronounced brook-laddy).

Both these distilleries have outstanding visitor facilities, with Bowmore in particular setting the pace with its new centre only recently opened in October.

At the far end of the island close to the town of Port Askaig are Bunnahabhain (boon-a-ha-vane) and Caol Ila (cul eel-a). The former has some houses for hire and lies overlooking the sound of Jura and its famous ‘paps.’ Slightly to the north of this site are the ferocious Corryvrechan whirlpools.

Caol Ila isn’t pretty to look at but its location is stunning and the whisky, particularly the 18-yearold, makes the journey worthwhile.

One slight word of warning. Whisky dominates the isle of Islay, and it’s a whisky-drinkers’ paradise. But if you’re not so fond of Scottish malt or you’re travelling with children, you might find it too much of a good thing.

From Islay there is a short ferry ride to Jura, a pretty much deserted island with one small town and its own distillery. Jura is known for its deer, cows with attitude, and has a cosy little pub and hotel across the road from a distillery whose reputation is growing. The distillery too offers accommodation, having renovated its flats to luxury status.

Travel back to the mainland and on the other side of Campbeltown, between the mainland and the peninsula, is the island of Arran.

You can sail there from Ardrossan, a port relatively near Prestwick Airport and linked to it by rail. Trains are timed to connect with ferry crossings. On Arran is one of Scotland’s newest distilleries.

The island is described as Scotland in miniature, with its scenery in miniature reflecting the Lowlands and Highlands of the mainland. It is famous for its perfumes and more recently a brewery, but some 10 or 11 years ago a dinky but very accommodating distillery opened there.

It has a purpose-built visitor centre and welltrained and highly informative guides. This is recommended for first-time visitors because the tour is designed to take you through the whisky-making process in the most logical way (not always the case at all) and the whisky is rich and creamy, very drinkable and not in the least bit challenging for the novice palate.

You must travel a considerable distance up the west coast to reach the town of Oban from where you can travel to Mull, but it’s no great hardship because this route is not only one of the most picturesque in Scotland, it’s rarely matched anywhere in the world.

Oban is a pretty little seaside town and has its own distillery tucked away in one of the streets close to the port in the centre of the town .We can’t linger here as it’s a Highland distillery, but it’s definitely worth a visit.

The ferry to Mull drops you at the wrong end of the island though there is a longer two hour journey round to Tobermory if you want to take it. The drive across Mull is a treat all its own, though, with rugged Highland scenery all the way.

Tobermory sits at one end of the beach. It’s a compact distillery that makes the most of itself with a video presentation at the start of the tour. The Tobermory style is also straightforward and not particularly challenging, but a sister whisky, called Ledaig (pronounced lech-aig) is sweet, peaty and spicy, and growing in reputation.

The beauty of this distillery is that it sits within walking distance of the town that inspired the children’s television series Balamory. The houses are painted bright and instantly recognisable to a whole generation of youngsters, so while the nonwhisky loving adults take the wee ones off for a wander, the drinkers can enjoy the distillery in peace.

Back on the mainland you can continue on the stunning west coast road up to Fort William, under the shadow of the imposing Ben Nevis, and another Highlands town with its own distillery.

From there its on and up in to the Northern Highlands to the bridge that takes you on to Skye, once more on a road that is awesome in its beauty.

Last time I travelled there the Northern Lights were clearly visible.

This is remote and rugged Scotland at its most extreme and the whisky here, Talisker, is well placed, being a challenging and difficult dram but one of Scotland’s most rewarding. As you’d expect from Diageo, the world’s biggest drinks company and the owner of this iconic brand, the distillery is kept in exemplary condition, the tour is professional and informative, and the facilities outstanding.

And Skye is a great place to explore and to savour.

Finally, everyone should visit Orkney at some point in their lives, and the Highland Park distillery is one of the many good reasons why you should do so. It produces wonderful whisky and has great visitor facilities. There is a second distillery at Scapa, but at the moment it’s not open to the public. But the whisky’s easy to drink and it’s one of life’s great pleasures to stand with a wee dram at one of the island’s great historical sites – Skara Brae or one of the island’s stone circles – and let the wind and emotion wash over you.

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