Scottish whisky tours: the best distilleries old and new

Isle of Raasay Distillery with views towards Skye. best Scottish whisky tours
Isle of Raasay Distillery with views towards Skye. Credit: Phillip Thornton

Try a wee dram at one of these distilleries, which range from the historic to the brand-new, for the best in Scottish whisky tours

If you want to sample some of the best of Scotch whisky on offer then a visit to a distillery is a must. And best of all, many of them are located in stunning locations, too.

The first step in choosing the right distillery for you is to choose where to go. Scottish whisky production is spread out across five regions: Campbeltown, the Highlands, Islay, the Lowlands and Speyside and each of the regions brings its own flavours to the whisky, through the water and the peat.

Isle of Raasay distillery, The Highlands

The first (legal) whisky distillery has just opened on the small Hebridean island of Raasay, located to the east of Skye, by R&B Distillers.

Before now the only distilling taking place on Raasay were illegal stills – a custom that was rife in the 1850s. Apparently residents on the neighbouring Isle of Skye would even hang out white washing to warn the distillers of the approaching tax man.

The Stills at Raasay Distillery. Credit: Phillip Thornton

Today’s distillery is all legit though and its cofounders reckon they may have happened upon the best views of any distillery in Scotland. They now plan to use the raw elements of the unique terroir to create the first Raasay Scotch, which will be ready to drink from 2020.

The new distillery is housed in a former Victorian villa hotel, Borodale House, and will soon be joined by a visitors’ centre and luxury onsite member’s accommodation.

Across the water from Raasay on the ’misty’ Isle of Skye, you will find Talisker – the oldest distillery on the island, which has been making single malt whisky since 1830.

Indeed Talisker whisky is so good that having tasted it on his travels, writer Robert Louis Stevenson concluded that whisky, in particular Talisker, was: “The King o’drinks as I conceive it.”

Today there are three options for travellers wanting to find out what enamoured Stevenson so: a Talisker Classic Distillery Tour that costs just £10 and lasts 45 minutes; a Talisker Flight, which costs £25 and includes a tour and a tasting session; and a Talisker Tasting Tour, which costs £40 and includes an in-depth tour, plus a tutored tasting of five expressions of Talisker.

The Islay distilleries

Islay can definitely lay claim to being the most prolific of the whisky-producing islands with no fewer than eight distilleries along its 25 miles.

Its believed the tradition for whisky-making here came from the Irish monks who lived here during the 14th century and utilised the fertile ground that was ripe for growing barley, plus the ample supply of fresh water and peat.

Islay malts are considered some of the strongest whiskies in Scotland and at Laphroaig, Ardbeg and Lagavulin on the southern side of the island, the whisky is made using heavily peated malt, while on the north side of the island the whiskies are a lot milder.

Tours such as the Four Day Islay Whisky Tour with Scottish Routes give you the chance to sample the difference malts produced on the island.

Take the Malt Whisky Trail in Speyside

Meanwhile, for the highest concentration of Scotch malt whisky distilleries in the world, you need to follow the Malt Whisky Trail in Speyside, in northeastern Scotland.

Each of the nine locations along the route offers tours – including Glenfiddich, the only distillery where you can witness the whole process from barley to serving – plus it’s a great chance to meet the craftspeople who create the whisky and hear stories and techniques that have been passed down through generations.

Springbank Whisky, Campbeltown

For the most amount of hand-made whisky produced in Scotland we must look to the self-contained distillery of Springbank in the pretty town of Campbeltown, which overlooks the Kintyre Peninsula in western Scotland.

Whisky-making in Campbeltown goes back to the late 16th century and Springbank is the oldest independent family-owned distillery in Scotland – its original owner, Archibald Mitchell, built it on the site of his illegal sill and today the distillery is run by Archibald’s great great grandson. Every step in the whisky-producing process takes place on site and Springbank is unusual in that it malts its own barley using traditional floor malting methods.

Glenkinchie Distillery, near Edinburgh, The Lowlands

Known as the Lowland Ladies, the single malts produced in this region tend to be softer and lighter than whiskies produced elsewhere in Scotland. They are also known for their malty, zesty flavours with fruity or floral notes.

Once a thriving whisky-producing region, the Lowlands are now home to just four distilleries: Ailsa Bay, AuchentoshanBladnoch and Glenkinchie.

Located just 15 miles from the capital city of Edinburgh, Glenkinchie, which celebrates its 180th anniversary in 2017, makes for a great day trip.

Jump on one of the shuttle buses in the centre of Edinburgh and come visit the permanent exhibition, or take a Glenkinchie Tour (£4-£10 including a complimentary whisky) or a Flavour of Scotland Tour (£14), which will introduce you to malts from across Scotland.