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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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, Ardbeg, Dalwhinnie, and Deanston. Sláinte!