Best of Scotland: Five Destinations for Whisky Enthusiasts

by Keith Savage · 19 comments

Dalwhinnie Distillery

A new week brings a new best of Scotland collection! I’ve already provided the building blocks of a great visit to Scotland for nature lovers and history buffs.

Today is for whisky enthusiasts.

Being one myself, this list was ridiculously difficult to cobble together. I opted against listing whisky regions, meccas like Islay and Speyside that every whisky enthusiast is familiar with, because that level of detail would leave you wanting more granular recommendations. This decision sent me into the distillery wilderness and a look back through 40 posts I’ve written about whisky here on Traveling Savage.

Scotland has around 100 operating distilleries, and the reality is that a whisky enthusiast will have a good time at just about all of them. This is a list of the greats – my favorite distillery experiences – that will yield sure-fire amazing whisky memories.

One particularly important note: If you plan to visit these distilleries, never settle on the basic tour and always call ahead to ensure they can accommodate you. The higher-end tours, while more costly, generally come with in-depth tastings that provide a complete view of the distillery’s style. There are always fantastic drams! These tours are often limited in their offering and the number of guests they accommodate. For example, Balvenie offers two three-hour tours per day with a maximum of eight guests each, and pre-booking is required.

Enough preface. Pour yourself a dram, hold the ice, and let it breath. This one’s for you, malt maniacs.

Balvenie Distillery

Truly one of the great whisky tours in Scotland, Balvenie, outside Dufftown in the heart of Speyside, spares no process or bit of information from their glorious and lengthy tour. If you’re lucky, like I was, David Mair will greet you outside one of Balvenie’s old-fashioned stone buildings and invite you in for some tea, shortbread, and a nice chat before the tour.

Balvenie is special for a number of reasons. From a tourist’s perspective, you get to see every process that goes into making whisky, from malting the barley all the way through coopering the barrels that become home to Balvenie’s uniformly excellent whiskies. Only a handful of distilleries still perform any maltings on distillery premises, and even fewer have a cooperage on site. Balvenie might be the only distillery with a personal coppersmith.

All of this would notch a distillery with mediocre whisky above the rest, but the absolute beauty of it all is that Balvenie makes some of the best whisky in the world (in my humble opinion). The tasting at the end of this tour is an epic spin through some of Balvenie’s core and rarer expressions under the careful, warm guidance of David Mair. A great guide makes a world of difference, and David is the best I’ve encountered among many great guides.

Highland Park Distillery

Highland Park Distillery

Far to the north, on the wind-swept, heart-breakingly gorgeous Orkney Islands, stands a pillar of whisky excellence: Highland Park. I try not to pick favorites. I really do. But Highland Park is eternally on my desert-island whisky list as it combines so many characteristics into one amazing package: top-shelf whiskies, classic distillery aesthetic, fascinating history, and stunning surroundings.

Highland Park, much like Balvenie, prefer doing things the old way. Among the distillery’s stone buildings and cobbled alleys you’ll find floor maltings, roaring peat fires, deliciously smoky kilns, thrumming copper stills, and warehouses stuffed with 45,000 casks weathering Orkney’s preternatural gales.

The higher-end Highland Park tours are capped with extensive tastings of their incredible whisky range. If you needed a reason to visit the Orkney Islands, Highland Park is enough. You’ll wonder why it took you so long.

Talisker Distillery

Ah, Talisker. Tucked away on Skye‘s largely empty west coast, Talisker has snagged me for three visits in the last seven years. What can I say but that they make an explosive, enigmatic, and beguiling dram that demands the curious come seek out its home.

Snug on the shores of Loch Harport, Talisker’s location is undeniably beautiful. The sea air imparts conspicuous elements to their whisky, which has a peaty element that sits somewhere between Islay and Orkney, kind of like Skye itself. Talisker provides a solid tour, but what really makes it stand out is the tasting and discussion at the end. The roundtable discussion over six drams of Talisker’s spirits makes for an excellent afternoon break from hiking Skye’s famous hills.

Just make sure you’ve mapped out the route home. The roads around Talisker are quite windy and often clogged with cattle and sheep.

Benromach Distillery

Benromach Distillery

For my money, Benromach might be my favorite Speyside whisky. This tiny distillery outside Forres is dedicated to making whisky the old-fashioned way (seeing a theme here?). Two men handle every aspect of the process (though I’ve heard they may add a third to keep up with demand) from milling and mashing the barley to distillation and filling the casks. The only “computer” in the building is an old chalkboard with a few marks on it.

In the land of whisky giants, Benromach is going against the grain. And the going is great.

Visitors to Benromach can expect an in-depth, cozy tour in the capable hands of a guide like Sandy Forsyth, an affable chap who’s only too happy to discuss the history of whisky in the region. Be smart and book either the Essentials Tour or the Exclusive Managers Tour and treat your senses to an array of Benromach’s award-winning whiskies.

Like the other distilleries on this list, Benromach makes excellent whisky and provides an excellent visitor experience. Curious how these two seem to go hand in hand.

Bruichladdich Distillery

Bruichladdich Distillery

Some of you might’ve been wondering if an Islay distillery would make this list. Bruichladdich takes the cake as my favorite visit on the island of whisky. Until recently, Bruichladdich was an independent distillery under the stewardship of Jim McEwan and his magnetic genius. Jim’s passion pierced the low clouds and rain on my visit to the distillery as he lovingly spoke of his stills, including Ugly Betty, and his family members living in the warehouse (aka casks).

Bruichladdich possesses some beautiful Victorian equipment and houses a cache of whisky worth more than the gold in Fort Knox (assuming there’s some left). When you visit, go for the warehouse tasting option and enjoy drams in this atmospheric and aromatic paradise.

One of my favorite things about Bruichladdich is their propensity to experiment and push the boundaries of what we think of as Scotch whisky. Jim has curated a line-up of expressions that exhibit such range – in style and creativity – that you can’t help but cheer them and sip another dram.

Honorable Mentions

This list was really painful to curate, and I can’t rightly end this article without giving hat tips to a few other distilleries that certainly warrant your attention. Here’s to you Aberlour, ArdbegDalwhinnie, and Deanston. Sláinte!

Joanie MurrayNo Gravatar November 1, 2016 at 11:05 AM

Hi Keith,
Can’t believe I never read this post before. Bryan and I went to Highland Park and Deanston and loved both. We picked well. Thanks for all of your interesting and informative posts!

Keith SavageNo Gravatar November 2, 2016 at 3:25 PM

Good choices! Thanks for reading 🙂

DaveNo Gravatar April 27, 2016 at 10:36 PM

Thank you for this review. Excellent recommendations, although I wish that you would reconsider your recommendation in the comments to skip Oban. It is one of the few in-town distilleries and offers small groups with a personal touch tour. It was one of my favorite among the dozen or so that we visited last September. There is much to see and do while in town, and the local seafood is amazing. It is also located near the Isle of Mull, offering a day trip over to Tobermory if one desires.
I’d also recommend that anyone considering a vacation with a few distillery stops to sign up for the Friends of Classic Malts ( for free or reduced entry into several distilleries across Scotland. Nice little no-cost bennie, and frugal Scots are always looking for ways to save a few pence.

Keith SavageNo Gravatar April 28, 2016 at 8:27 AM

Hi Dave,

Appreciate the thoughts. I returned to Oban distillery last spring and it is perfectly pleasant. It being in town is a plus, though Oban is a fairly sleepy little town. The experience at Oban distillery feels a little too much like Diageo’s other distilleries – the slight artificial feel from the highly produced. That doesn’t mean you won’t enjoy a visit to Oban, but when in the running with Laphroaig, Talisker, and Balvenie, as Priya asked below, it’s definitely in fourth place in my book.

DaveNo Gravatar April 28, 2016 at 9:04 AM

I agree. It is definitely not have the same offerings of the larger distillery tours, and its compact facilities limits the variety of presentations (such as a barrel warehouse) that can be offered at the rural distilleries.
One other note about visiting The Balvenie. Plan your trip and reserve your visit well in advance. For our trip last September, we made our request for a tour there three months in advance and found no dates available. The gentleman making the reservation, who also handles Glenfiddich booking. The number of tours are limited to a small number and only on certain list but nothing came available. It is obviously the tour of choice. Fortunately, the multitudes of distilleries (and a cooperage) in the Speyside area give you plenty of alternative when visiting the area.
Thank you, Keith, for providing this forum.

HansNo Gravatar June 17, 2015 at 2:00 PM

I like the Ardbeg for his smokey taste.

PriyaNo Gravatar January 8, 2015 at 8:34 PM

Thanks for all the insight. My husband and I were planning on doing a Whisky Tour. We have picked the following: Laphroaig, Oban, Talisker, and Balvenie. Do you think the tours will be redundant? Should we just stick to two?

Keith SavageNo Gravatar January 8, 2015 at 9:05 PM

Hi Priya,

Those are all good choices, though if I had to choose one to skip it would be Oban. The other three are quite different from each other.

Enjoy the tours!

esther SannNo Gravatar March 24, 2015 at 3:07 PM

Can Anyone recommend a good tour company..three of us r interested in a guided tour of the best Scottish

Keith SavageNo Gravatar March 24, 2015 at 3:15 PM

Unfortunately, the only one I knew about recently closed. I’ve always opted to explore on my own rather than pay for a tour, so I don’t have much experience regarding that question.

Flights to PhuketNo Gravatar January 15, 2014 at 3:48 AM

Another whisky here please 😉

Marysia @ My Travel AffairsNo Gravatar December 29, 2013 at 6:56 PM

It looks like perfect places to visit ha ha ha 🙂

HoggaNo Gravatar October 23, 2013 at 2:26 PM

mmmmm whisky

DanielNo Gravatar October 23, 2013 at 1:15 PM

Love your selections, but I would ask you to consider SpringBank in Campbeltown too. They still do every step of the whisky making process in house, and the products speak for themselves. Besides, a trip to Campbeltown puts golf enthusiasts right down the road from Machrahanish which is one of the Old Tom Morris gems that is a treat to play (and much less expensive than most of the others).

Keith SavageNo Gravatar October 23, 2013 at 1:36 PM

Hi Daniel,

I have heard *great* things about Springbank and I can’t wait to visit the distillery one day. But since I haven’t visited it I couldn’t put it in my list! Perhaps version 2.0 of this list will include it 🙂

RebeccaNo Gravatar October 22, 2013 at 6:59 PM

keep the whiskey posts coming! love em! making me look forward to the weekend for a glass

Keith SavageNo Gravatar October 22, 2013 at 8:17 PM

If you’re interested in back catalog reading, there’s always this:

Also, how are having a dram and the weekend related again? 😉

KenNo Gravatar October 22, 2013 at 5:57 PM

Great post and some great choices. I can appreciate how difficult it was to decide what to include and what not to include knowing that there are many other truly excellent distilleries and whiskies in Scotland. Having been to most of them, I can attest to the quality of the tours. The whiskies speak for themselves.

Keith SavageNo Gravatar October 22, 2013 at 8:19 PM

Then there’s Deanston, too. Argh.

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: