Planning a trip to Scotland? Here’s the perfect distillery hop for the Whisky lover, specially curated by Ewan Gunn.
The Dram Attic House has been privy to many interesting evenings with friends and family from all walks of life. A typical evening is spent with a nice dram, some music, food, and conversations that range from tales of adventure to plans for world domination.
We recently had one such evening with Ewan Gunn, Global Whisky Master, Diageo Scotch Whiskies, while he was in the city for work. A fine bottle was cracked open, the conversation flowed and inevitably veered towards our impeding Scotland trip in March. Ewan has been a real gem with helping us plan the trip and being the perfect host even before we arrive. And therein lies the trigger for this post.
We asked Ewan to impart some wisdom and design the perfect Scottish distillery tour for our readers. His knowledge of Whisky and Scotland combined make him an indomitable force to reckon with and we can’t think of a better way for you to spend your next 15 minutes, especially if you have a trip to Scotland on the cards.
Despite being a relatively small country, Scotland can take a while to get around, and travelling by car is usually the best option. With that in mind it’s best to nominate a designated driver for each day and reward them with a tasty dram in the evening, once all of the driving is complete. Most distilleries will also give the designated driver a sealed sample of their Scotch which they can enjoy later. I’d suggest booking all distillery tours in advance through www.discovering-distilleries.com as they can often be fully booked on the day.
Most tours of Scotland begin in Edinburgh, so we’ll begin there too. The closest distillery is Glenkinchie to the east – a mere half hour drive from Edinburgh Airport or from the centre of town. I would suggest taking the shuttle bus from the centre of town to the distillery – this can be booked in advance and means that everyone can enjoy a dram following the tour. The Scotch Whisky made here is a great first step into Scotch, as it has a gentle, floral style.
Spend at least one night in Edinburgh – it’s a beautiful city with an incredible history and lots to see and do. We’re here to talk Scotch though, so I’m going to focus on distilleries and maybe a couple of great Scotch bars to visit. For everything else check out visitscotland.com. In terms of great Scotch bars, Edinburgh has a lovely selection – The Canny Man, The Whiski Rooms and (if you’re feeling fancy) Scotch at the Balmoral Hotel are all wonderful. The Scotch Whisky Experience at the top of the Royal Mile by the Castle is also well worth a visit, particularly if you’re new to Scotch.
From Edinburgh head north on the famous A9. This is the road along which Bond and M fled north in Skyfall. Although most of the filming took place on the A82 to the west, the A9 is also a stunning journey, carving its way through the Highlands and the Cairngorm National Park. Your next stop is 70 miles north of Edinburgh in the picturesque, small town of Pitlochry where you can visit the Blair Athol Distillery. In addition to producing the delicious Blair Athol Single Malt, the distillery is also the home of Bells Blended Scotch Whisky.
From Pitlochry continue north on the A9 another 30 miles until you reach Dalwhinnie Distillery. This is the highest distillery in Scotland, and also the coldest, with the climate being described as “borderline subarctic”. The average annual temperature here is a chilly 6.6C, and in recent winters it has dropped as low as -16C. The Scotch Whisky made here is gentle, mellow and smooth.
Continue north to Aviemore, from which there are a selection of ski and snowboard options in winter, and mountain biking and hiking in summer. From here you can veer north-east on the A95 and head into Speyside. After about 30 miles you’ll see signs for Cardhu Distillery which is just a few miles off the main road. This is the home of Johnnie Walker, being the first distillery the Walker family purchased, back in 1893. I’d suggest overnighting in nearby Craigellachie. The Craigellachie Hotel has been recently refurbished and has an impressive Scotch Whisky bar. The nearby Highlander Inn also has accommodation and a great bar.
From Craigellachie head north on the A941 to Elgin, and then take the A96 to Inverness. This is the Capital of the Highlands, and the town and nearby Loch Ness are well worth a visit. Continue north from Inverness for about 6 miles to the Tore Roundabout and then take the A835 to Muir of Ord and follow the signs for Glen Ord distillery. This is where the famous Singleton of Glen Ord is made. The distillery has recently undergone a considerable expansion in order to keep up with demand for the Single Malt made here.
From here you have a couple of options:
1 – If you have a few days to spare and enjoy driving and stunning scenery I strongly suggest heading back to the A9 and completing the North Coast 500 (www.northcoast500.com) in a counter-clockwise direction. This 500 mile route has been called Scotland’s answer to Route 66, and is an amazing experience. There’s a comprehensive website with itineraries, hotels, etc and there’s even an iPhone and Android App. I’d also highly recommend stopping off at Clynelish Distillery in the town of Brora – a lovely North Highland Distillery with an interesting history. To rejoin the itinerary below, veer off at Strathcarron, take the A890 to Kyle of Lochalsh and take the bridge over to the Isle of Skye.
2 – If you don’t have 3-4 spare days then you now need to head west from Glen Ord Distillery. A beautiful 2 hour drive along the A835 and A832 will take you to Kyle of Lochalsh. From here you can cross the bridge onto the Isle of Skye, or first take a short detour to the north to the picturesque fishing village of Plockton (great seafood can be had in any of the pubs and restaurants). Once on Skye follow the A87 to Sligachan (the hotel here has a great whisky bar attached to it) and then take the A863 and B8009 for Carbost and the lovely Talisker Distillery.
Talisker is a Scotch Whisky loved by many. It was described by Robert Louis Stevenson as “The King o’ Drinks” and has been enjoyed by James Bond on a number of occasions. The Single Malt made here has a distinct smoky and coastal style, and pairs beautifully with fresh oysters from the Oyster Shed strategically located on the hill right behind the distillery (bring a bottle with you). Following your tour you have two of Scotland’s finest restaurants to choose from. The Three Chimney’s (to the north west of the island) is probably one of my favourite restaurants in the world, with an incredible tasting menu, and Kinloch Lodge (back towards the south east) is a Michelin-starred delight. Both have excellent accommodation.
From Skye you can meander your way south to Oban. You can either leave Skye from Armadale and take two short ferry crossings from Armadale to Mallaig, and from Corran to Ardgour – every 20 minutes, no need to book)) which, along with the driving sections, will take about 4-5 hours, or you can head back over to Kyle of Lochalsh, take the A87 to Invergarry, the A82 to Ballachulish and then the A828 and A85 to Oban. This way will take just under 3 hours. Both are beautiful journeys, but only the second option will allow you the chance to stop at Eilean Donan Castle, just to the south of Dornie. The castle is absolutely stunning (google it!) and has featured in many films including “Highlander”, “James Bond: The World is Not Enough” and for Bollywood fans “Kandukondain Kandukondain (I Have Found It)”.
When you reach Oban you’ll find it very easy to find the distillery – it’s in the absolute centre of town. It’s a small distillery, and one of the oldest in Scotland, dating back to 1794. The Scotch Whisky made here is rich and fruity with a hint of sea salt and subtle smoke. The fresh seafood served on stalls on the pier are the perfect accompaniment.
From Oban you can head on to Glasgow through the Loch Lomond & Trossachs National Park which is a beautiful drive. Alternatively, if you still have a few days to spare, you can head on to the Island of Islay to discover some smoky and intense Single Malts. You can either fly there from Glasgow Airport (a 45 minute flight) or you can drive to Kennicraig from Oban on the A816 and the A83 (2 hours) and then take the ferry to Islay (2 hours). There are also less frequent services from Oban to Islay. Visit www.calmac.co.uk for ferry info.
Once on Islay you must visit Lagavulin and Caol Ila Distilleries. Lagavulin is just outside the town of Port Ellen and is one of my favourite Scotch Whiskies and my favourite distillery. The location is stunning and the whisky holds a dear place in my heart, being the first whisky I truly fell in love with. Caol Ila on the other side of the island is more modern in style, and the views across the Sound of Islay to the Island of Jura are breathtaking. Stay overnight in the Islay Hotel, Port Ellen for some great live music and a massive Scotch selection. If you plan on visiting between 26th May and 3rd June 2017 be aware that the Islay Festival (Feis Ile) takes place then. It’s an amazing time to visit the island, with every distillery having an open day, but accommodation is also booked up months in advance.
Happy travels – enjoy Scotland and always enjoy your Scotch responsibly.
Download the map for this distillery hop here.
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