Planning your Scotch Whisky Distillery Pilgrimage

Laphroaig distillery, Islay

If you’re a fan of Scotch single malt whisky, and really, why wouldn’t you be, a visit to the distilleries of Scotland increases your appreciation by an order of magnitude. Having recently completed a ten day trek through Speyside in the Scottish highlands, as well as the island of Islay, Mrs. Wonk and I agree it was the trip of a lifetime. While writing my earlier Essential Highlights of a Scotch Whisky Distillery Visit article, I realized I had a ton of distillery visit planning trips to share, so I wrote this post to focus on those topics. A special bonus is that Mrs. Wonk joined me in writing this. She always handles the high level logistics of our trips (planes, hotels, etc…), and she’s a top notch writer with even more experience than I. You can find her insights in the second half of this post.

When planning a Scotland journey, the time of year when you visit matters a great deal. Summer may be ideal in terms of weather, but many distilleries aren’t distilling in the summer months—so there is less activity to see. During the spring and fall seasons, the most popular time to take on distillery visits, popular locations are often overwhelmed by visitors, yielding less than optimal conditions to linger a bit, meet the still operators, or maybe get a peek at something not on the usual tour.

January might not come to mind as an ideal time to traipse across Islay buffeted by often blustery winds or to brave the possibility of snow on the twisty, narrow roads of Speyside. Despite encountering 75 MPH winds on Islay, driving the breadth of Scotland just ahead of a treacherous snowstorm, and running through heavy downpours in Speyside, the weather during our visit was somewhat of a fluke, the chance confluence of an unusually heavy series of winter storms. But weather aside, everything else about going in January was ideal. Little traffic to be found anywhere. The public distillery tours had not more than a tiny handful of people, and often the same groups we had seen at other properties. As for the private tours which we booked in advance, it was wonderful having the undivided attention of the guides and nearly limitless time to poke around, ask questions, and take photographs.

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Islay

We rented a car for the entire time, and it was ideal visiting as many spots as possible in a short span. The fact that you drive on the left side in Scotland is the obvious hurdle for we Americans. But here are two additional pieces of wisdom, should you decide to drive: The roads in Scotland are very narrow if you’re used to American roads with broad shoulders. I was firmly convinced that I, in the passenger seat, would be dropped into a ditch or a centuries-old drystone wall at any moment, despite Mrs. Wonk’s excellent driving performance.

And then there’s navigation. If you think you’re going to show up with your iPhone/Android and Google Map your way through Scotland, think again. Cell coverage is notoriously inconsistent, and our pre-trip experiments with “offline maps” yielded only pain. We wisely packed an up-to-date portable GPS unit, seeded with European driving maps.  It was an absolute life safer, and for around $120, much more economical than renting a navigation unit for a week. (Says Mrs. Wonk:  It saved our sanity and, at points, likely our marriage. Did we mention that there is also a distinct lack of signage in Scotland, and what exists is often in Gaelic? Get the nav system.)

On the road to Cardhu

In terms of planning distillery visits, there are two schools of thought: One is to play it casual and see what’s nearby and open in the next few hours. The other is to rigorously plan a schedule to maximize what you see and avoid the “Wait, they’re not open on Sundays?” moments of disappointment. (Says Mrs. Wonk: Which is a nice way to say we plan so as to avoid massive meltdowns–like the time we arrived at Saint Mark’s Basilica in Venice five minutes after it closed.  Or the time we visited Versailles’ Hall of Mirrors—which was currently under renovation and covered from end to end with scaffolding. No one wants a repeat of those public episodes.)  It’s no surprise that I’m in the latter camp.

I began planning with a list of all the distilleries I might be interested in, then researched the parent company of each. Most Scottish distilleries are owned by a larger spirits company; for instance, Laphroaig and Bowmore are owned by Beam Suntory, Lagavulin by Diageo, and Glen Grant by Gruppo Campari. Utilizing my industry contacts, I contacted public relations people at the parent companies to see which distilleries might be available for a private tour, perhaps with the master distiller or at least a dedicated PR person. A private, one-on-one tour is almost always vastly superior to a public tour, so I prioritized and booked our appointments as soon as possible to get an initial schedule in place.

The holes that remain in your schedule are ones to fill with public tours. The trick there is to know three things:

  • Distillery tour hours. They vary wildly, and from season to season. In the winter months, there may be only two or three tours per day, set hours apart. Use their web site to know for sure—and perhaps call or email to confirm, if it’s a deal breaker.
  • Travel time between distilleries. Remember that you should arrive at least a few minutes before the tour to get collected.
  • Advance booking. Many distilleries offer more in-depth tours than the standard “one hour” tour, but they must be booked in advance, and are limited to a handful of people. Lock these in first.
Islay

If you plan to photograph the distilleries, be prepared for a certain amount of frustration. Distilleries have wildly divergent policies about if and where photos are allowed. Some have a “Snap away! Take photos of whatever you want” policy.  Others say “No photographing inside buildings,” meaning no great shots of gleaming rows of copper stills. And some are in between. The biggest area of concern seems to be around photographing the stills: When operational, they hold thousands of gallons of highly flammable liquid, and if enough alcohol vapors build up in the air, a spark (say, from a flash) could ignite it. Some distilleries will simply tell you to not use a flash. At two Diageo distilleries, our PR rep/tour guide carried a portable alcohol vapor meter with her the entire time.

I minimized surprises when arranging private tours by making it clear that I planned to photograph them to include in my write-ups here. Ultimately I was able to photograph nearly everything I wished. The one exception was the still room at The Glenrothes, which is unfortunate because it’s both beautiful and unlike any other still setup we encountered (details in a further post).

Highland coo at Cardhu

In terms of which distilleries we visited, we focused entirely on the single malt distilleries. These get most of the love and attention, despite being only about 10 percent of the total Scottish whisky production. The vast majority of whisky made in Scotland is grain whisky, made at giant distilleries most people have never heard of, using giant column stills akin to what you’d find at the bourbon behemoths of Kentucky. Put another way, 90 percent of whisky made in Scotland is produced at distilleries you have never heard of and can’t easily visit.  Thus, it was surprising yet entirely understandable that that we didn’t spy a single column still during our entire Scotland trip.

Travel tips from Mrs. Wonk

One of the great joys of traveling for me, Mrs. Wonk, is researching and planning.  It’s a kind of sickness, and I hope there is no cure.  There is no feeling greater in the planning process than the first moments of clicking around (or for you old school folks, unfolding) a new map and figuring out where to go, what to see—and most important, where to sleep and where to eat.  If there is one thing that Mrs. Wonk knows how to do, it’s find a good hotel and a good restaurant.

We traveled to Glasgow from London via Virgin Trains—a great experience, until the tracks were flooded out due to winter storm rains, and we finished our journey to Glasgow via tour bus.  (Ah, well.)  The hotel at the train station in Glasgow—the Grand Central Hotel—is both grand (and recently renovated, Mrs. Wonk approved) and central.

The next morning we hailed a taxi to the Glasgow airport where car rental options were plentiful.  I could tell the story of how the first company we rented from left us stranded with a blown-out tire on the side of a Scottish roadway for five hours until we abandoned all hope and rented another car from another company.  It’s a funny story—now, with some distance. If you do rent a car, use Arnold Clark, a local UK agency.  They were beyond lovely and kind and took good care of us—and it turns out their car was both nicer (a BMW!) and cheaper by half than the other, pan-European car hire agency we started with. But I digress.

The cause of our five hour delay.
The cause of our five hour delay.

Travel to Islay is a commitment.  On the map, it looks like it should take an hour or two to drive from Glasgow, the nearest major city, to the Islay ferry dock.  In reality, it’s more like three to four, accounting for weather.  That said, the drive is gorgeous in all seasons, which you will notice as soon as you stop clenching the steering wheel every time a giant lorry (that’s British for “huge lumbering truck”) blows past you, your American brain screaming at you for driving on the wrong side of the road.  But I digress.

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Roads are narrow and winding.  Lots of craigs and lochs, and lots of quaint hotels and pubs to stop in along the way.  There is an infamous stopping point village called—seriously—Rest and Be Thankful, and once you’ve spent a few hours on those roads, you’ll truly understand the name.

On the way to the Islay ferry

Loch Fyne

We stopped for lunch a bit more that midway at The Inveraray Inn at, you guessed it, Inveraray.  The parking lot—and some seats in the pub– have a spectacular view of Loch Fyne that will take your breath away.  The remainder of the drive to the Kennecraig ferry terminal is quite rural—and void of places to eat, get fuel, or stay the night, should you miss your ferry.  Note that the ferry terminal itself is not in town, or walkable to anything—it is a small building and a large queueing lot on the edge of the sea, and not much else between you and your dreams of Islay.

Kennecraig ferry terminal
Port Askaig, Islay

Be sure to book your ferry crossing well in advance—sailings do sell out, and there are fewer in the winter season, and those sometimes cancel due to weather.  (And having seen the Islay weather, you do not want to be on a car ferry if the locals think the weather is gnarly.)

The islay ferry coming into Port Askaig
Islay ferry
Islay ferry

Once on Islay, your lodging options are limited, especially in the winter.  The main towns are Port Charlotte, on the west side of the bay; Bridgend, at the top of the bay; Bowmore, at the east side; and the ferry landing villages of Port Askaig on the north and Port Ellen on the east.  We chose to stay at the Bridgend Hotel in—say it with me—Bridgend, and we were taken care of with incredible hospitality by Lorna and her team, even though we were quite literally the hotel’s only guests for our last night there.  The Port Charlotte hotel is the largest and some would say nicest hotel on the island, but your drive to the distilleries is quite long—so plan accordingly.

It's hard to argue with a fire in your hotel dining room
It’s hard to argue with a fire in your hotel dining room
Pub at the Port Charlotte hotel

The restaurant at the Port Charlotte hotel was easily our best meal on the island, in a room that looks like the perfect movie set of the Scottish pub of your dreams, with live music several nights a week.

The town of Bowmore, on Islay

Bowmore is a lovely town that is fairly central to where you will be touring, and there are several hotel options, as well as rental cottages at the Bowmore distillery itself.  If we planned another trip, we might consider staying in Bowmore—though we would be heartbroken to miss the folks at Bridgend, so call it a tough choice.  The remainder of Islay has many B&Bs and small inns as well, though keep in mind that many are not open in the winter months.

The drive back from Islay to Speyside should have been uneventful along the northern Highlands route, along Oban through Fort William and on to Inverness—but thanks to Winter Storm Gertrude, we were strongly suggested to take the southern route back through Sterling and Perth, to the eastern coast and Aberdeen, then north to Inverness, to avoid many inches of swirling snow.  It was the right choice but made for a long day’s drive after a rough ferry ride—and we were sad to miss the tour through more of the Highlands.  Alas, it will wait for the next trip.

Speyside is, like all of Scotland, a collection of small towns and villages connected by winding roads and more than one country’s share of roundabouts.  The closer you get to Inverness, the more large chain hotels you find—but the less charm, as well.  This is the perfect locale to stay at a classic bed and breakfast—we chose the lovingly and recently restored Highland Spirit in Dufftown, which was a solidly central location to tour the area.  We spent an evening at The Stuart Arms pub in Dufftown, along with a pint and a dram and our fish and chips and bangers and mash—and had a great evening chatting with the locals in between the beach-party karaoke performances.

Neeps and Tatties at Glenfiddich

Other great restaurants in the Speyside area include the Mash Tun in Aberlour (itself a cute town worth wandering through, if only to visit the Walker’s Shortbread factory store) and the Copper Dog in Craigellachie, in the newly renovated Craigellachie Hotel—which would be a lovely place to stay on our next visit.  For lunch, don’t miss the café at Glenfiddich—exceptional food in a lovely setting—or pick up supplies for a picnic from The Spey Larder in Aberlour, which will fill all your fantasies about local food and drink, and maybe your suitcase too.

We ended our travels by returning our car to the kind folks at Arnold Clark in Inverness and taking the overnight train, known as the Calendonian Sleeper, back to London.  The iconic sleeper is undergoing a needed refresh, with new trains coming online in March 2018.  But if you’re up for an adventure—and sleeping in a teeny tiny bunk on a high-speed train hurtling through the Scottish countryside—give it a try.  Tickets can be booked 12 months in advance, and trains in London arrive at Euston station, with easy connections into London or across the street to Kings Cross, with Eurostar connections to the rest of Europe.

Caledonian Sleeper train
Caledonian Sleeper train
Caledonian Sleeper cabin
Caledonian Sleeper cabin
Dinner on the Caledonian Sleepr
Dinner on the Caledonian Sleepr

Bon voyage, and please feel free to email Mrs. Wonk (mrscocktailwonk ‘@’ gmail.com) with any travel questions—she will be happy to reply!

Ardbeg
Ardbeg
Speyside Cooperage
Glenfiddich
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