The whisky drinker's guide to Scotland
Scotland has the largest concentration of whisky production anywhere in the world. It is home to some of the best and most well-known distilleries such as Glenlivet, Balvenie, Macallan and Craigellachie.
Whether you are a connoisseur of the finest single malts, or someone (like me) who is a novice but keen to learn more, a visit to Scotland and its fabulous distilleries should be high on your list.
Here's what you need to know about whisky in Scotland.
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General tips for whisky in Scotland
You'll find whisky served in just about every café, bar, restaurant, pub and hotel in Scotland.
It's a great chance to try a glass or two while you're there. Even basic pubs can have whisky collections with dozens of options and you might be handed an overwhelming whisky menu book that rivals a wine list at a Michelin-starred French restaurant.
Rather than just choosing a familiar name you might have a bottle of at home, don't be shy about asking the staff for suggestions. Many Scots are very proud of their whisky (as well as being partial to a dram after work) and will enjoy the opportunity to tell you about their favorites and offer you something unique.
I was asked several times what flavor notes I enjoyed (think: smoke, citrus, fruit or peat). I'm partial to smoke as I really enjoy mezcal. Most times, when I had a good chat with a bartender or even a fellow guest, they would suggest something I would really enjoy.
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You may be asked if you would like a nip or a dram. There didn't appear to be a uniform size of each pour across the country when I visited. A nip is a smaller "shot" of whisky (around 25 ml) and a dram is a larger pour (around 35 ml), though this varies (some bartenders might only pour 25 ml for a dram).
Whisky is usually served neat, at room temperature beside a small glass of water.
You can either enjoy the full-bodied taste of the whisky without water or ice, or if you find the taste too strong (as I do) you can dilute it slightly by pouring a small amount of water into your glass of whisky.
There's absolutely no shame in adding water to your whisky. Asking for a fine, single malt mixed with diet soda, however, might raise a few eyebrows.
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How to get to Scotland
Scotland has four main airports: Glasgow (GLA), Edinburgh (EDI), Aberdeen (ABZ) and Inverness (INV). Glasgow and Edinburgh both have long-haul flights from the United States and the Middle East though some of these are seasonal and only in the summer.
If you're flying through London it's very easy and inexpensive to connect to any of these four airports with multiple flights every day. The most convenient airport will depend on which region you're visiting.
For the most popular region of Speyside, the closest airports are Inverness and Aberdeen. The Lowlands region actually covers all of Glasgow and Edinburgh.
Getting a rental car from these airports to drive you to your whisky region of choice will be an easy way to get there.
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How to visit distilleries
Scotland has five main whisky regions: Campbeltown, Highlands, Islay, Lowlands and Speyside (six if you count the Islands; more on that below). While it would be possible to visit all five regions if you had plenty of time, it's recommended you focus on just one or two regions and visit several distilleries on the same day, or a few days in a row.
The most popular, well-known and concentrated whisky region in Scotland is Speyside, so if you can only visit one region and want to visit some of the most iconic names in whisky then focus on Speyside. That's where I spent the majority of my whisky experience in Scotland.
Note that by region, it really is a region and not a single town. It would be very convenient if each distillery in each region was neatly lined up on the main street, an easy stroll from your accommodation or local train station. Unfortunately, most distilleries are spread out, and some have nothing more than country roads and rolling fields for miles around.
This means you'll need a car to reach many distilleries. So, you'll want to bring a designated driver (anyone who doesn't actually like the taste of whisky would be a good choice!) or else hire a driver for the day, or book an organized tour.
Private, guided tours should be booked at least six weeks in advance. I tried to book a tour two weeks in advance and was told it was impossible. You can also expect these private tours to come at a high price for the convenience: at least $400 per day and some are double this.
Group tours will be much more affordable, though you won't be able to tailor the tour to only visit the exact distilleries you want and you may not have as much time to linger at your favorite distillery if you're being hurried onto the bus for the next stop.
You can take taxis to and from the more remote distilleries but they will need to be prebooked and you might find you are waiting a long time for the taxi to pick you up. I almost missed a tour at Glenlivet because my prebooked taxi didn't arrive.
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I visited several distilleries during ongoing COVID-19 restrictions earlier this year and whisky tours needed to be prebooked and were limited to very small groups of just a handful of people to maintain social distancing.
If you are visiting outside peak summer times and now that there are fewer social distancing restrictions in Scotland you may not need to book a tour for the larger, more well-known distilleries — though if you have your heart set on one distillery in particular, book a tour or tasting online at that distillery first, and build the rest of your trip around that.
Most tours will be 60 to 90 minutes and end with a tasting of around three of their best-known bottles. It may be a younger 12-year-old single malt, followed by a mid-range 15-year-old whisky and finishing with a high-end 18- or 21-year-old for a cost of around $20 to $40 per tour. Some distilleries will offer more expensive, deluxe tasting tours where you can try some of their rarer, older styles. Prices for these tours can be between $70 and upwards of $135 per person.
Depending on how much you value some of the finest whiskies in the world you might want to pay more to try something.
Whisky from Scotland ranges in price enormously based on its quality, distillation and age. A cheap bottle can be purchased from the gift shop from $20 to take home with you, while the finest bottles quickly go into the thousands of pounds per bottle.
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If you only visit one region of Scotland for whisky, make it Speyside. Arguably the world's most famous location for single-malt whisky, you'll find a large concentration of exceptional distilleries, many of which open their doors for tours, tastings and whisky sales. Here, you'll find household names in the global whisky industry like Glenfiddich, Glenlivet and Macallan.
The distilleries are very spread out, though the town of Dufftown is relatively convenient to visit multiple distilleries in one day. With a huge range of distilleries available to visit in Speyside choose one or two to visit each day. A few will be walking distance from accommodations in the various towns around the region, though as noted above you'll need a car for most distilleries.
I chose to visit Glenfiddich and Glenlivet. Both provided excellent tours and tastings afterward. Some staff involved in the Glenfiddich distillery process have been with the company for more than 30 years and it was clear they've stayed because they believe in both the product and company.
Glenlivet has a brand-new tour exhibition section with plenty of flashy screens and a really cool indoor barley field. The distillery is now owned by French liquor giant Pernot Ricard and while the tour was very impressive, it didn't feel nearly as personal as the tour at Glenfiddich.
It was fairly easy to visit both these distilleries on the same day with the help of a (reliable!) taxi.
You won't find much in the way of high-end accommodations and restaurants here. You're more likely to find a family-run bed and breakfast and a pub serving lager and fish and chips than an international hotel where you can redeem points. Still, it's a good idea to book each dinner in advance if you're staying anywhere in Speyside. When I visited this summer, I found most were either booked for weeks out, or were closed because of a lack of international tourists due to COVID-19.
With only three distilleries left (there were once 30), this tiny region down on the southwest tip of the country might not be a priority for many travelers. Being on the coast you have the bonus of some beautiful ocean views, though don't expect an abundance of tourism infrastructure in Campbeltown.
The entire town is designated as a whisky region, so try a dram or two at Glen Scotia, which has been operating since 1832.
This is the largest region geographically, though it doesn't have as high a concentration of distilleries within a manageable space like Speyside does, so you may have to do a bit of traveling to visit several distilleries.
The Highlands region covers a good chunk of the country, so if you are traveling through Scotland you may be in this whisky region without knowing it. Keep your eyes peeled for a distillery as you travel through. If you fly into Inverness there is a good range of distilleries just north of the city including Dalmore and Glenmorangie. The region is famous for these two distilleries. Try the distillery of Oban as well, which is located in the gorgeous seaside town of Oban which has the largest, freshest and most delicious oysters I have ever had in my life.
Being so far north, in summer, this area enjoys spectacular late sunsets which last for hours; plenty of time to enjoy a glass of whisky in the fading light.
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Another small, isolated region is an island off the western coast of Scotland that's famous for its peaty whisky which gives it a strong, complex smoky taste.
This might be a little much for a casual whisky drinker on a warm and sunny day though if you are visiting in winter it will thoroughly warm you through, especially enjoyed in front of a roaring fire out of the cold and dark outside. Islay experiences wild and windswept weather, so dress appropriately. Laphroaig and Lagavulin are some of the best-known Islay distilleries.
Some of the oldest distillery operations in Scotland can be found in the Lowlands region. Rather than the heavy smoke of Islay whisky, here in the Lowlands, you can enjoy lighter, grassier notes in your whisky. This could be a good place to start for someone who hasn't experienced much whisky before, as the taste is smooth and approachable.
Both Glasgow and Edinburgh airports are both located in the Lowlands region.
The Northern Islands
Some Scots would say their country has a sixth whisky region: The northern islands. This area is up in the dramatic Highlands area including the Isle of Skye which has some of the most spectacular scenery you'll see anywhere in Scotland.
If you're only looking for convenient distilleries you probably won't want to head all the way out to this remote area just for a dram though if you are in the area, there are some unique distilleries to visit.
I particularly enjoyed Talisker which is located right on the water with a great view of Loch Harport.
For someone who has never really enjoyed whisky, I thoroughly enjoyed visiting Scotland and tasting several local styles. The distilleries are quite spread out though, so keep in mind it's not like a pub crawl where you can just wander from one to the next.
Scotland is a beautiful country with spectacular and dramatic scenery, hearty food (I put on a few pounds during my visit!) and of course some of the world's best whisky.