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Issue 5 - Visiting Distilleries

Scotland Magazine Issue 5
November 2002

 

This article is 15 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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Visiting Distilleries

A VISIT TO SCOTLAND JUST ISN'T COMPLETE WITHOUT SAMPLING THE AMBER NECTAR – WHISKY. AND THERE'S PLENTY TO KEEP YOU AMUSED, AS IAN BUXTON EXPLAINS

Believe it or not, you can just walk through the gates of most of Scotland’s distilleries and they won’t throw you out! In fact, more often than not, they want you there so badly that they’ll pour you a drink and invite you to look around! More than a million visitors a year enjoy this hospitable policy and visiting distilleries has become an important tourism activity, especially in remote areas. Where jobs have been lost through mechanisation, the visitor centre has created welcome new employment. Distillers now vie with each other in a contest to create the latest
and greatest facilities.

GLENFIDDICH is the world’s best selling Scotch malt whisky – and still fiercely independent. They were the first to open their doors back in 1969, and now welcome around 80,000 visitors a year. The distillery itself is in the heart of Speyside and notable for being one of the very few that still bottles the finished product right at the distillery.

Over the years the facilities for guests have grown to include a multi language film presentation, a guided tour, a brand exhibition and – best of all – a generous tasting session. There’s also a shop and you can afford to spend freely because the tour itself and the dram afterwards is free. Even the car park comes with their compliments, making it a welcome haven for harried city dwellers.

The visit encompasses the whole production process, from malt mill to bottling line, and there’s no pressure to buy; though it’s churlish not to at least glance at the well-filled shelves!

At first, Glenfiddich’s rivals were sceptical of this initiative and suspicious of the idea of letting the public through their doors. But success has bred many imitators and now around 40 of Scotland’s distilleries welcome visitors. For the most part, they offer essentially the same experience: a film, guided tour, some kind of exhibition area, a tasting and the inevitable shop. But some go further, with cafés or even full-blown restaurants, conference facilities, nature rambles, tutored tastings and ambitious ‘brand centres’.

So, if Glenfiddich is the original, here’s our insider guide to the best distillery ‘open houses’. IT all depends where you start. Visitors to Edinburgh have little choice: the Scotch Whisky Heritage Centre on the Royal Mile is a fine exhibition, but sadly there’s no distillery, so it’s a good introduction, but not the real thing. For that you have to say goodbye to the city’s rutted roads, swirling litter and rapacious traffic wardens and make a beeline for GLENKINCHIE.

Some 15 miles south east of Edinburgh, Glenkinchie is that rarest of malts: a Lowland. Once a thriving industry supplied whisky from the Lowland region but, today, only three Lowland distilleries remain in production. Glenkinchie is a delight: trim, compact and thoroughly traditional in style. In the attractive visitor centre you’ll find probably the most magnificent model distillery anywhere: built in 1936 for the
Empire Exhibition it’s worth the entrance fee all on its own. The light, floral, grassy malt is one to savour and a joyous revelation if Lowland whiskies are new to you.

The situation improves yet further as you travel north. About an hour and a half’s drive from either Edinburgh or Glasgow, and just off the A9 trunk road, you come to ABERFELDY. This, as it famously proclaims, is ‘the malt at the heart of Dewar’s White Label’ and, as such, beloved of our American friends. Tommy and John Dewar established the distillery in 1896, since which time it’s been maintained in apple pie order by a succession of owners.

The latest, Bacardi, have invested in the most high-tech centre you could wish to find. Modestly entitled ‘Dewar’s World of Whisky’, it was acclaimed by Whisky Magazine as “the ultimate Scotch Whisky visitor centre” – and there is no praise higher than that! It’s a shrine to the Dewar family and the brand they built, and rapidly and deservedly growing in popularity. Allow at least a half-day for your visit and try to see something of the pretty Perthshire town that lends its name to this easy-drinking honeyed malt.

Just over the hill from Aberfeldy is Crieff, home to GLENTURRET and the Famous Grouse Experience (brand experiences are all the rage, you see). Due in no small measure to its allure to coach parties, Glenturret has been for years the most visited distillery in Scotland, even if its malt is hard to find. But it was due a makeover and, stimulated no doubt by competition from Dewars, the new Famous Grouse Experience has been created at a reputed cost of £2,500,000 ($4,000,000). The facilities should be very special indeed and, combined with Glenturret’s excellent restaurant, pleasantly filled shop and attractive setting, it will put this charming little distillery and its famous resident cat,Towser, back on the tourist map.

For a completely different approach, journey on to the Speyside town of Keith and visit STRATHISLA. The proprietors, the French Pernod-Ricard group, invite you to wander through the distillery on your own, at your own pace, with just a 1930s style guidebook in your hand. Of course, the staff are all well-trained and are happy to offer advice and information, but they’re apparently equally content just to let you look, if
that’s what you want. It’s curiously relaxing, due in no small measure to the elegant and hospitable welcome they offer at the centre itself.

Constructed in the style of a laird’s country house library, coffee is served with freshly warmed shortbread as you catch up on the local papers in the unusually comfortable armchairs. It’s actually quite an effort to drag yourself up and around the distillery, but the enjoyable tasting at the end makes all your hard work worthwhile.

Whilst in Speyside, take the chance to drop in at GLEN GRANT in Rothes. The main attraction here is Major Grant’s Garden. Whilst the distillery is attractive enough, the visit – apart from the ‘time capsule’ in the Major’s study – is really not very different from others you will have enjoyed by now, although the distillery was recently awarded five star status as a tourist attraction by VisitScotland.

However, the gardens are well worth a visit in their own right and make for the perfect trip for a party where only some are interested in whisky. Major James Grant, the distillery’s original proprietor, first laid out the gardens in the late 1880s. He created a wonderful Victorian woodland wonderland, its 27 acres by turns formal, romantic and picturesque – and hiding his ‘Dram Hut’ with its artfully concealed safe and private supply of whisky. Sadly, after the Great War, the garden fell into decline. Its recent restoration is a triumph that deserves to be more widely recognised. Be sure to toast the Major when you reach the top of the garden, for all the effort and skill that went into its creation and restoration.

Many of the Speyside distilleries have excellent centres. We cannot leave, however, without mentioning the newest, at THE MACALLAN. This malt whisky is renowned around the world, and passionately discussed and enjoyed by its many devotees. As a result, demand is high and I strongly recommend that you book ahead to be sure of getting a tour.

Real enthusiasts will want to book the optional tutored tasting. At £15 ($23) a head it’s a bit pricey (and you’ll need a teetotal companion to drive you home), but it offers a fascinating and detailed exploration of The Macallan’s development and distinctive sherry wood style. For the aficionado it’s actually remarkable value. You get personal attention in a small group of enthusiasts and it’s always very possible that extremely rare and valuable Macallan vintages will be sampled.

Finally, you may find yourself on one of Scotland’s islands and searching for a dram. Good news: on Islay, Jura, Shetland and Orkney, distillery visits are very much part of the experience. On Islay in particular, it’s unthinkable that you would leave without visiting at least one of the island’s most famous attractions and enjoying their distinctive hospitality. But we recommend two other island distilleries in particular.

TALISKER, at Carbost on Skye, is internationally renowned for its strongly flavoured malt, highly sought-after by blenders and renowned amongst connoisseurs. The centre and tour makes a welcome haven from Skye’s tempestuous weather, and you get a real sense of Talisker’s place in this small community.

Finally, Scotland’s newest distillery is ARRAN, at Lochranza. The distillery was the dream of Harold Currie, a retired whisky executive determined to restore distilling where once it had flourished. Judge how well he succeeded by enjoying a tour, eating in the restaurant and, of course, by sampling a dram in the agreeable surroundings of the distillery in the north part of this popular island.

What better conclusion to your holiday than to savour a glass of Scotland’s greatest and most enduring export, whilst making at least one man’s dream come true?

Slainte!

MORE INFORMATION
Admission prices (some are free), facilities, opening times and seasons all vary from distillery to distillery. If you are travelling far, telephone ahead to confirm your arrangements or get the Scotch Whisky Association’s guide Distilleries to Visit 2002 (free by phoning + 44 (0)131 222 9200)

For distilleries in this article, contact numbers and websites (where applicable) are:

Aberfeldy (Dewar’s World of Whisky):
+ 44 (0)1887 822 010, www.dewars.com

Arran: + 44 (0)1770 830 264,
www.arranwhisky.com

Glenfiddich: + 44 (0)1340 820 373,
www.glenfiddich.com

Glen Grant: + 44 (0)1542 783 318

Glenkinchie: + 44 (0)1875 342 004

Glenturret: + 44 (0)1764 656 565,
www.glenturret.com

The Macallan: + 44 (0)1340 871 471,
www.macallan.com

Strathisla: + 44 (0)1542 783 044

Talisker: + 44 (0)1478 640 314