Not long ago, me and my father (who shares my whisky hobby) went to Scotland. Below is a summary of what we did and experienced there.
Day 1: Plane to Edinburgh airport. Rented a car there (fiat 500 omg) and had to drive three and a half hours up to Dufftown. If you’re not used to driving on the left, this is a challenge, I assure you. We reached there around 9.30pm and settled into our lovely B&B (Morven, at the Square in Dufftown). Other than unpacking, not much was done on this day.
Day 2: We started by visiting the Speyside Cooperage, where we learned about the making and mending of casks. A very interesting experience as we saw the actual coopers at work. After that we went to Elgin, a town nearby, to visit the Gordon & Macphail shop. A malt specialist with an enormous amount of single malt whiskies to choose from. Quite the candy shop for the whisky enthusiast.
After this, we went back to Dufftown, parked our car at the B&B and walked down Balvenie street to visit, indeed, Balvenie distillery. On hindsight we did this tour on the wrong day. Of our entire trip, this undoubtedly was the best tour we got. We arrived just in time for the tour where David Mair, our guide, welcomed us in a room with the other tour members (we totaled at 8). He sat us down, gave us a cup of coffee, talked about whisky, the early process of making it and many other things. We then moved on to the tour as he showed us around the entire grounds of the distillery. Everything was allowed, we could see, touch, photograph every square inch of the place. We ended up in Warehouse 24 (where the magic happens) and did a small tasting of three cask strength whiskies, each of them available for bottling your own little 20 cl bottle. Personally I chose the Sherry cask and my personalised bottle now sits nicely on my whisky shelf.
David brought us back to the reception area where we had a tasting of 5 more Balvenie expressions, we went on to the shop to pay our tour fees and then went our separate ways. This was 3,5 hours after the start of the tour. Never have I seen such patience, such thoroughness and passion on a tour. David is a hobbyist, no doubt about it, and he’s exactly the person to talk to when you want to learn about the process of making whisky and everything around it. Lovely.
Happy with our day and purchase, we had a bite to eat at the Stuart Arms, which would turn out to become the place where we would go to relax with good food, after every long and eventful day.
Day 3: This day we visited 2 distilleries. First there was Aberlour. A lovely reception area there, almost like a fairytale house, where the clerk, Jonathan, welcomed us warmly as we waited for our tour to start. Our guide here was Jenny. As I said before, after the Balvenie tour it was hard for any tour to measure up, and this tour didn’t quite do it. Jenny explained everything well and told us a lot about the distillery, but you could tell she was merely doing her job and wasn’t passionate like David was. That’s fine, but a more personal approach would have been nicer. The end of the tour totally made up for that, though, as we had a very nice tasting of 6 (!) Aberlour expressions and the change to do a full-sized, personal bottling. Me and my dad both happily agreed to pay 65 pounds for this bottle, as you could do it all yourself, with personalised labels and everything. This was a great conclusion to the tour. In the shop we both purchased a second bottle as well; a bicentenary bottling of cask strength Aberlour, celebrating the 200 year existence of the town. Only 1812 bottles were ever made so we couldn’t pass up on this chance.
After Aberlour we went to Keith to visit Strathisla distillery. This has to be the most beautiful distillery in the world. It looks so quaint, so picturesque, as if hobbits made it and then decided to live in it too. Not a lot of visitors here that day, which was lucky for us, because we ended up being the only two people on the tour. Our guide was Andria, an American girl from California. She was very nice and knowledgable, and was very happy showing us around. In the shop we both grabbed hold of a cask strength bottling of Strathisla, available only at the distillery. In the evening, we had dinner at ‘a Taste of Speyside’, our only sidestep from Stuart Arms, which turned out to be a mistake.
Day 4: We agreed in advance that we wouldn’t take a tour today, but just drive around several distilleries for some pictures, and see some of the countryside in the process. We started at Glenfiddich, made our way to Glenlivet, then Cragganmore, Cardhu, Glenfarclas, Macallan and finally Glen Grant. Surprisingly, we did do a tour at that last one. A nice tour too, very different from the rest so far. A small tasting at the end and a lovely stroll through the distillery gardens which were free to roam. A great day that turned out to be.
We were both surprised by how close all these distilleries were to each other. Everything is easy driving distance, so seeing all those distilleries was done quickly with time to spare. This day the weather was also really nice, so we got to see some great scenery of the countryside. Never knew Scotland was such a pretty country.
Day 5: No distilleries today. As this was a sunday and they would most likely all be closed anyway, we decided to really see some of the country. We went driving along Loch Ness. Can’t go to Scotland and not see Loch Ness, right? This lake is huge. Not so much in width, but it is extremely long. Didn’t seem to end at all. We actually drove all the way around it this day. Unfortunately the weather got a little wet later in the day so we didn’t get to enjoy it to the full 100%, but nonetheless it was a great experience.
Day 6: Today Talisker distillery was our goal. A massive drive ahead (4,5 hours single trip), but we really wanted to see this one. The drive was long indeed and the fact that it was raining for about half of the journey didn’t help. We came across some seriously dodgy roads (single lane, space for one car width only), some really small towns and some absolutely amazing surroundings. When we finally arrived at the distillery it was kinda like a cold shower. It was very busy, which didn’t help, and the tour was boring and uneventful. It was clear that they wanted to get the information across as quickly as possible, with as much people as possible at the same time, making it very impersonal and rehearsed. No picture taking anywhere around the distillery, and the ‘warehouse experience’ was nothing more than a plexiglass box where you could look at the casks, not smell or touch them. No tasting at the end as well, and a very uninspiring shop. Quite disappointed we left Skye, but the nature that we saw made up for a lot of it. Absolutely exhausted we returned to Dufftown where the Stuart Arms offered solace after this day. Nothing like good pub food after such an experience.
Day 7: Another hefty drive (a little over two hours this time), but one that turned out to be completely worth it. We visited the Dalmore distillery today. Another one that we both really wanted to see so the drive didn’t bother us much. When we arrived our tour guide Linsey opened the door for us and we waited in the (beautifully designed) shop for our tour to start. Only two other people on this tour so that was nice. Linsey told us a lot about the distillery and the history of it, we saw some really interesting things (jackets around the stills to start the cooling process), and saw how in this distillery a lot of things are still old fashioned (the still man doesn’t have one single computer screen to his disposal, just a lot of clocks, dials, analogue equipment). At the end we tasted the 12 year old, saw a very nice film about the distillery and bought ourselves some lovely whisky to bring home. We also went to the Glenmorangie distillery, but we didn’t do the tour. We just browsed around in the shop, but not much was offered there. The Dalmore tour really made up for the disappointing Talisker tour and we left for Dufftown very happy customers.
Day 8: As they say; all good things come to an end. This day we had to return home. We said goodbye to the country, the distilleries, the great hosts of our B&B and to a fantastic experience that we will remember forever. As we came home, we were already thinking about the next trip here, which is definitely going to happen.