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Issue 56 - Distilling at Your Leisure

Scotland Magazine Issue 56
April 2011


This article is 7 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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Distilling at Your Leisure

Ian Buxton recommends some excellent places to stay, and not just for the whisky minded

Do yourself a favour and see where God would live, if he had the choice.” That’s the enthusiastic comment of one visitor to the distillery cottages at Bunnahabhain on Islay. And why wouldn’t you want to stay at a distillery?

Just imagine the possibilities, never mind that the tedious ‘nominated driver’ problem disappears if you can simply stroll from the sampling room to your accommodation. It’s the perfect solution for a whisky holiday – and there’s a range of possibilities for all budgets.

Bunnahabhain were probably the originators but the cottages started as a problem: what to do with empty houses as employment in the distillery declined in the 1980s. The whole industry faced this challenge but owners Highland Distillers were the first with a creative solution, refurbish the properties and get into the tourist market. Others have followed suit, recognising the opportunity not just to use an otherwise empty house but make new friends for their brand.

Unfortunately the four cottages at Bunnahabhain, right by the distillery are no longer open to the public, but if you want to stay on Islay there are more options. If you want a more urban setting, then consider the recently refurbished Bowmore cottages, right in the heart of Islay’s main town. The famous Harbour Inn is directly opposite your front door, or, if self-catering is your pleasure, you can pop into the Coop. Varying in size from two to twelve people, the properties are all rated four stars by VisitScotland and are remarkably comfortable and convenient.

A complimentary distillery tour and a bottle of Bowmore 12 Years Old are included in the price, so you’re saving money already! The Bowmore cottages are somewhat more luxuriously appointed than those at Bunnahabhain, however, reflected in prices starting from £630 per week for two people.

But that’s far from the top of the market. For that you have to take a further short ferry trip to Jura and book the Jura Lodge in Craighouse, right in the distillery. It’s magnificent and probably quite unique. Where to start?

Well, let’s get the question of price out of the way: the four bedroom Lodge will sleep eight in some luxury but will set you back a cool £2,500 per night with a minimum three night stay! Owners Whyte & Mackay say themselves that the Lodge is “an eccentric display of colour, décor and stylistic touches”. Local reaction has been, shall we say, mixed but curious amusement seems to sum it up. Certainly this little corner of Jura will never be quite the same.

But shooting, hunting, fishing, fell walking, lobster eating, sailing and whisky drinking can all be organised upon request, so you won’t be short of things to see and do – and the views from the top floor are sensational.

Created by interior designer Bambi Sloan (and I didn’t make that up), the Lodge comes dangerously close to being a corporate folly but, in fact, earns its keep in Jura’s PR programme by hosting a writer’s retreat programme. So far Will Self, Janice Galloway, John Burnside, Romesh Gunesekera, Swetha Prakash, Philip Gourevitch and others have stayed at “The Lodge” and shared their experiences in the book “Spirit of Jura: Fiction, Essays and Poems from the Jura Lodge”. The visitors’ book also carries the signature of the great Alexander McCall Smith so it can’t be long before the fantastic, contrived and rather other-worldly but wonderful Jura Lodge, with its eclectic décor and frankly bizarre white suit of armour, appears in one of the great man’s novels. One can only imagine what Precious Ramotswe would make of it!

Returning to earth, visitors to mainland Scotland have several options, including former workers’ cottages at Glenlochy distillery (closed 1983 but some bottlings still available) and Tormore and members’ only apartments in the Scotch Malt Whisky Society’s Leith HQ.

Glenlochy is by Fort William and, with prices starting at £200 per week for a couple, offers great value and an excellent base for touring the West Highlands (visit Oban and Ben Nevis while you’re there). On Speyside, there are various options on the Tormore estate including the Stillman’s Cottage (from £300/week; sleeps 6) or Six Trees Cottage (starts at £360/week; also sleeps 6). Tormore itself is an interesting, showpiece distillery. Built in 1958, the building is quite distinctively symmetrical. Today it is owned by Pernod Ricard and in operation, though virtually all the output is required for blending. There is no visitor centre but tours may be possible by arrangement. It’s definitely one for ‘whisky twitchers’ to tick off their list; even if the whisky is not widely available Tormore is worth visiting for its impressive architecture.

Further north, Glenmorangie House is a few miles from the distillery but they have plenty of the cratur in their well-stocked drinks cabinet. Aiming for the atmosphere of a traditional country house party, where everyone is on first name terms, dinner is eaten around a communal table. Guests have access to a secluded beach. As well as rooms in the main house, there are cottages in the garden. These are let on a hotel basis and are larger than rooms in the main house.

Glenmorangie offer whisky weekends throughout the year. Typically, these involve a two-night stay with a distillery tour and the opportunity to sample blends and malts from their range of whiskies - all under the guidance of a Glenmorangie expert (remember they own Ardbeg also). Rates at the house might seem a little high, beginning at £170 per person, per night, but this includes afternoon tea, pre-dinner canapes, five course dinner and full Scottish breakfast. They probably could be persuaded to throw in the odd dram or three!

Back in Auld Reekie (Edinburgh), members of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society can hire one of three well-appointed flats in The Vaults, the Society’s HQ. Rates start at £88 per night including breakfast supplies and free parking (a major asset in Edinburgh). If you can resist the appeal of the Members’ Room, just one floor below your apartment, then one of Scotland’s very best whisky bars is waiting for you in The Vintners Room with more than 1,000 whiskies to sample.

And, if that wasn’t enough, the revamped restaurant has been winning rave reviews with food described as “divine” and service that’s “attentive yet not over the top, friendly yet not overbearing.” What more could you want?

Of course, you could just book the usual bed and breakfast; hire a camper van or even bring a tent – but would it be the same? Some luxury accommodation adds an indefinable touch of style to your distillery visiting and offers a different way to see Scotland at its best.