When I invited my husband Sam to meet me in Scotland between two trips I was leading in the United Kingdom and Ireland, he jumped at the chance. I asked him what he wanted to do and he only had one answer – drink whiskey. He formerly worked as a bartender and has developed an extensive knowledge about this timeless spirit, sparking his interest in exploring more in Scotland.
Whiskey is life. More specifically, the water of life. At least according to the literal translation of the Gaelic word for whisky, uisge beatha. This is actually a direct translation of the Latin word aqua vitae, referring to distilled spirits during the Roman times. Whisky distillation was practically perfected in Scotland. Centuries of tradition and a touch of magic blend to create Scottish Whiskey, one of the most revered spirits on the planet.
The whisky business is a big business in Scotland – and sometimes quite a pretentious one.
It can be really overwhelming to plan a whiskey trip to Scotland. There are so many distilleries to choose from, and how do you know what to look for? If you're embarking on a trip to Scotland wanting to explore whiskey, this is the blog post for you! Written by my husband Sam, this non-pretentious Scottish whisky travel guide breaks down everything you need to know.
From the history and tasting characteristics to the best whiskey regions and etiquette for visiting distilleries, we'll unravel the secrets of Scotland's whisky heritage. Whether you're a curious newcomer or a seasoned drinker seeking to expand your horizons, this guide will lay the foundation for your exploration of Scottish whisky.
Everything You Need to Know About Traveling to Scotland for Whiskey
History of Whisky in Scotland
The first recordings of whisky distillation in Ireland and Scotland date back to the 1400s. Technically, Ireland produced whiskey first, but if you ask a Scottish person, they’ll say they are responsible for perfecting it. Either way, the art of distillation was still in its infancy at this point. The whisky was vastly different compared with today’s product.
One major difference was that whisky was un-aged, making it more akin to moonshine.
The distillation of whisky continued to grow and improve for a couple hundred years, until the early 1700s. It was around this time that England and Scotland merged into one kingdom. With this “new” kingdom came new opportunities for taxes. Only things you can’t avoid in life are death and taxes. The most divisive tax was the malt tax of 1725. The higher tax on malt, one of the key ingredients for whisky, resulted in a 90% tax rate on whisky. Additionally, the British crown put a strict limit on the number of whisky licenses it would allow.
Between the taxes and licenses, most Scottish production of whisky was shut down or moved underground by the middle of the 1700s. Essentially, this was an era like the American prohibition era. Not quite the same, but for the next 100 years, it is estimated that around 75% of Scotland’s whisky output was illegal. After the Excise Act of 1823, the restrictions were eased for licensing distilleries. Whisky production immediately started to climb, welcoming in an era of revitalization for the industry.
Differences Between Scotch, Whiskey & Single Malt
An astute reader will recognize that I have spelled whisky two different ways in this article. It can be spelled both with and without the ‘e’. There is some debate on the reason why, with the region of origin as the main distinguishing factor. Most of the world spells whisky ‘whisky’, with just Ireland and the US adding that ‘e’ before the ‘y’, spelling it 'whiskey'. For our purposes, I will stick with the Scottish spelling of whisky, since this is an article about Scotch whisky after all.
Scotch vs Whiskey
So first things first – Scotch is not different from whisky. Scotch is a colloquial term used by people outside of Scotland to describe whisky that comes from Scotland. A Scottish person would not call it Scotch, but rather just whisky. Basically, it is a redundant term. Call it whisky, Scotch, Scottish whiskey, or Scotch whisky. Regardless, they are all referring to the same spirit.
Irish Whiskey vs Scottish Whisky
There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to differences between Scotch and Irish whiskey. That being said, there are some generalities that can be applied. Scotch whisky is made from malted barley, while Irish whisky is usually made from unmalted barley. Second, Scotch is normally distilled twice, while Irish whiskey is often triple distilled. This usually lends to Irish whiskey having lighter and smoother taste, while Scotch will have a fuller, heavier taste.
One variety of Irish whiskey, called single pot still whiskey, or simply pot still whiskey is unique because it includes unmalted raw barely in the mash. This component gives the whiskey a spicy complexity, and an oilier mouthfeel, leading to an enjoyable, long-lasting aftertaste. In my humble opinion, this is the most interesting and unique style of whisky. Look for a bottle of Green Spot or Redbreast to give it a try yourself.
Single Malt vs Blended
Originating in Scotland, single malt whiskey is distilled at a single distillery using only malted barley. Alternatively, a blended whiskey combines single malt and grain whiskies. In general, single malt whiskey is considered to be higher quality than a blended. Single malts are a testament to craftsmanship, showcasing the unique flavor profile of the distillery. Scotch whisky, as defined by the Scotch Whisky Regulations 2009 (SWR), has the following qualities and characteristics:
- A minimum alcoholic strength by volume of 40%
- Aged 3 years + 1 day in Scotland in an oak cask no larger than 700 liters
Whiskey Tasting 101
There are some very important considerations to take into account when trying whisky. First is what kind of cup the whisky is served in. For an ideal tasting, you will want glassware with some shape to it, like a tulip glass or snifter. This allows the aromas of the whisky to be concentrated together, resulting in more potent flavors. You should always smell a whisky before tasting it. Pay attention to the aromas. They can range anywhere from sweet and caramelly to fruity to smoky and peaty.
You should also look at the whisky. Hold the glass up to the light, or against a light background, and take a note of the color. It can range from light, pale straw colored, all the way to deep browns and tans. This will be a good indicator of what types of flavors you can expect. Darker whiskys generally have more robust flavors, like sherry or smoke, while lighter whiskys tend to have lighter flavors, like caramel or butter.
When tasting whisky, less is more. As in, only sip the tiniest amount to wet your tongue.
Don’t immediately swallow it either. Let it linger and mellow on your palate. You’ll want to note as the flavors develop which subtleties come through. What is at first sharp and strong will transform into mellow spiciness, or sweetness, or smoky peatiness, depending on the particular style of the whiskey you are tasting.
Finally, when it seems like there is no more whisky left and it has all dissolved into your mouth, swallow what remains and feel the satisfying burn slide through to your stomach. Here you will also note the aftertaste, or how the flavors of the whisky linger and evolve in your mouth before finally fading away.
Whew, you made it. Not so bad, right? Even better, you are now ready for the second sip! Your mouth has now sufficiently warmed up and the subsequent sips will allow you to explore the nuance of flavors even further.
Of course, if the alcohol flavor is too strong, you can always add water or ice to mellow things out. Start with a few drops of water. Some even say that a drop of water will “open” up the whisky, unlocking different flavors and aromas in subtle ways. If you want more, consider an ice cube. But keep in mind that the coldness from the ice will dampen your tastebuds and alter how you physically taste the whisky.
Regions for Whiskey in Scotland
The Lowlands region of Scotland is the furthest south region of the county, with many of Scotland's major cities like Edinburgh, the capital, and Glasgow, the largest city. The landscape of the Lowlands is characterized by its relatively flat to gently rolling terrain. The area is less mountainous compared to the Highlands, including a mix of fertile farmland, lush valleys, and meandering rivers, all of which are perfect for malt cultivation.
Lowland whiskies tend toward the realm of softer, smoother malts, yielding a gentler, lighter whisky. Perfect for an aperitif, they often have flavors of honeysuckle, toffee, grass, cream, toast, and other lighter spices. Look out for Glenkinchie for a good representative for this region.
The Spey river is one of Scotland’s cleanest and longest rivers, providing an excellent source of fresh water. Given that water is a key ingredient in distillation, it is unsurprising that many whisky distillers have opened up shop in this region. This fertile region is full of tributaries and valleys (also called glens), perfect for whisky production. Plus, it is pretty far away from the main cities, an ideal characteristic for illicit whisky distillation in the 1700s and 1800s. Speyside actually has the highest density of distilleries in Scotland.
Whiskys of this region tend to be light on peat flavor and heavy with fruity, nutty flavors. You will commonly taste honey, apple, pear, vanilla, and other spices. It is quite popular to find Speyside whisky that has been aged in Sherry cask, adding another layer of complexity. You have probably heard of a few, if not many, of the distilleries here, such as Glen Fiddich, Glen Moray, The Balvenie, or Aberlour.
The Highlands region, which technically includes the islands (although some people say the islands are a 5th region for whisky production in Scotland), has a wide range of flavors and characteristics. It is by far the largest region on this list, making it hard to generalize the characteristics.
From light and citrusy to smoky and peaty to salty and minerally, there really is no end to the different combination of flavors you can find in a bottle of Highland whisky. There are also a number of combinations of barrels used in the highlands, so there are a lot of variables that can impact the flavors. Some of my favorites from the region include Oban, Tallisker and Dalwhinnie.
Whiskey production on the island of Islay in western Scotland is renowned for its distinct character and flavor profile. The island has a harsh climate and has no trees, which leaves few sources for firewood. Enter in peat moss. Grains from Islay are dried over a fully peated fire, which imparts smokey (aka peaty) notes to the grain. Islay is particularly famous for its peaty and smoky single malt whiskies.
Do you like peat? If so, try a bottle from Islay.
Despite its small size, the whiskys unique enough to designate Islay as its own whisky region,. The whiskys are bold and assertive, often brimming with salt, peat, and smoke. They make for a rich, indulgent experience, although the peatiness can be a bit alienating for those not accustomed to the unique flavor. Look for Lagavulin (of Parks & Rec fame), Bannahabhain, or Laphroaig for good representatives from this region.
How to Visit Distilleries
Most distilleries in Scotland offer public visits. Some are private or by appointment only, but this is rare. Most commonly, a distillery visit includes a guided tour of the distillery where you’ll see some or all of the whisky process. Most tours will provide you with a dram or two (or three, I’m looking at you Oban) as they guide you through the distillery buildings. If you are interested in taking a tour, make sure to make a reservation in advance! These tours are very popular and fill up fast, especially during tourism’s high season.
Some distilleries offer just tastings, independent of the tours. If you are just looking to try some whisky, a tasting is what you should seek out. These tastings will usually consist of 3-5 samples of different whiskies the distillery produces, showing you the different styles and techniques the distillery is capable of employing to make their different whiskies. Same rule applies for the tours, where you definitely want to make a reservation in advance.
If you just want to stop by and pick up some bottles to go, almost all distilleries will have a gift shop. Some distilleries have robust and large visitors centers, such as Tallisker, where you can simply walk in and learn a bit about the distillery without going on a formal tour. Not all distilleries offer whisky tastings at the shop.
Costs can vary based on popularity and renown of the distillery, but tours are usually in the range of 20-30 euro per person. Tastings will be more expensive, but you are getting more whiskey for that price. They tend to be smaller groups as well, so you may be able to ask those niche questions to the person giving the tasting.
What to Expect on a Distillery Tour
Once you decide to go on a distillery tour, you will generally see the same types of equipment, regardless of the distillery. This is, of course, due to the fact that the distillation process is more or less the same for each distillery. The key differences come from the ingredients used, most importantly the water and malt, but can also from aging techniques and the types of barrels the whisky is stored in.
A good Scotch whisky tour will take you through the distillation process in sequential order, starting with the mash. This is the ground malt and/or other grains mixed with water, and then heated to allow for fermentation to occur. This is essentially the same process for brewing beer, however in this case, the resulting liquid, called wort, is processed further to raise the alcohol content.
This is done in the still, where the wort is cooked to a temperature where the alcohol evaporates out and the rest of the wort remains. This alcohol vapor is collected and cooled back into liquid form. This is distillation. This distilled liquid can be put through the still again (i.e. double or triple distilled).
Once it ready for the next step, it gets put into barrels for aging. Scotch must be aged for at least 3 years and 1 day in oak barrels, although most single malts are matured for much longer, some even up to 18 or 21 years. The aging warehouse where they keep the whisky is not normally part of the standard tour, but there are some distilleries that offer this, especially the smaller ones.
Best Distilleries to Visit for First Timers
Nestled on the picturesque shores of Loch Harport, the Talisker Distillery stands as a beacon of tradition and craftsmanship, creating one of Scotland's most renowned single malt whiskies. Established in 1830, Talisker is a storied brand that really understands itself and its customers. As you approach the distillery, the salty sea breeze and majestic Cuillin Mountains set the stage for a captivating journey into the world of whisky-making on the Isle of Skye.
If you’re looking for a quicker visit, you don’t need to do a full tour to enjoy the experience. Simply grab a whiskey flight at the Talisker bar, and sample some of the best whiskey Scotland has to offer. Of all the distilleries we visited, I think Tallisker had the best guest experience. The visitor center showcases the brand's history through memorabilia and exhibits, allowing guests to delve into the rich heritage and cultural significance of Talisker on the Isle of Skye.
Dalwhinnie Distillery is surrounded by sweeping landscapes of heather-clad moors, craggy mountains, and pristine lochs. The distillery is impressive and iconic in appearance and it is almost perfectly located in between Edinburgh & Inverness, making it an ideal stop on the drive up to the highlands.
The high altitude of Dalwhinnie Distillery has a profound impact on the whisky's character. The cold and crisp mountain air influences the maturation process, allowing the spirit to interact with the casks in a unique way. The resulting whiskies often possess a delicate balance of sweetness, floral notes, and a touch of heathery peat. Dalwhinnie whiskies are often celebrated for their smoothness and approachability. The gift shop is small, but cozy and allows for walk-in tastings. This was my favorite Distiller’s Edition bottle that I bought in Scotland.
Perched at the water's edge in a historic stone building, Oban Distillery is a great distillery in a great location. Founded in 1794, Oban Distillery carries with it centuries of tradition and craftsmanship. Its long history is evident in every nook and cranny, and we especially enjoyed the tour here. Oban is one of the few distilleries that is located in the heart of town – it is one of the mainstays in the charming harbor town of Oban. Hence the name!
Oban Distillery is known for its distinctive small-batch production, which allows for meticulous attention to detail and an emphasis on quality over quantity. You can really see this process on the tour, since they only have a few stills and aging rooms. The distillery's proximity to the coast is reflected in the salty tang that sometimes finds its way into the whiskies produced here, adding a unique maritime character to the final product.
Sleep in a distillery! At Isle of Raasay, you can. It was the highlight of our 1 week in Scotland! The Isle of Raasay is a small island just east of Isle of Skye with only about 150 residents. There are only two businesses–a villa hotel and the distillery–on the island, and it is only accessible by ferry. It is an excellent off the beaten path stop with unmatched views of the Isle of Skye.
While you might find more established whiskey brands better, the vibes at Isle of Raasay distillery were perfect. Some distilleries can be so high-brow and pretentious, raving about their process and awards. Contrastingly, Isle of Raasay has a fun and lighthearted approach. The staff is enthusiastic and proud, and the tour was informative and intimate. It feels like a new take on whiskey production with a start-up kind of vibe. I found it unpretentious while still offering great quality. Plus, the bar is stylishly designed with cocktail options for those who don’t love to drink whiskey or gin neat.
What to Buy at a Distillery
At the gift shops, many distilleries offer distillery exclusive bottles. As the name implies, these whiskeys are not sold in other locations. These are definitely the items to look for when shopping at a Scotch whisky distillery. They will be a little more expensive than the normal bottle, but these are unique products.
In my experience, these whiskeys have a higher quality than the standard offerings. Some are even small batch whiskeys, and you can see the exact number of bottles that were made in the batch. I found my favorite whisky in Scotland this way – the distillery edition of Dahlwinnie.
Do you have questions about Scotch whisky or planning a trip to Scotland? Tell me in the comments below!
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