Scotland is a whisky lover’s paradise. It’s broken into five different regions, each with its own storied past and well-loved brands. The never-ending passion for single malt whisky has inspired many a pilgrimage to distilleries to see where the magic happens. Not all distilleries are made equal, however. If you’re going to travel to Scotland for an unforgettable whisky experience, you need to go to the best of the best. These five distilleries all offer something special when you visit — not just a wee dram in a tasting room — so be sure to book them ahead of time.
The island of Islay is famous for its powerfully peated whisky. The smoky aroma and taste are instantly recognizable for any Scotch drinker (and for non-Scotch drinkers, it’s usually the flavor that puts them off). But what’s less known is what has to be one of the most enticing distillery trips in all of Scotland.
On every third Saturday from April to September, an employee from Ardbeg walks a group of visitors 600 feet into the hills above the distillery to Loch Uigeadail. Loch means lake, and Uigeadail translates to “dark and mysterious place” — and that dark and mysterious place is Ardbeg’s water source. Once there, people on the tour perform the “loch and key” ritual, where they open a box with an old key, take a dram from the bottle of whisky within the box, and then return the bottle “to the loch from whence it came.” The whole experience is around five to six hours, so plan your hiking gear accordingly.
One of the most celebrated names in peated Scotch whisky also has one of the most famous tours. Laphroaig’s Water to Whisky Experience is a four and a half hour adventure through the distillery, out to the peat bogs and over to the Laphroaig water source. Then it’s back into the cask room, where you get to taste a selection of whiskies and bottle your favorite one yourself.
It’s not for the faint of heart. The distillery recommends you have “an intermediate level of fitness” before signing up. You also need to take into account any weather that you’re going to face along the way, but the good news is that they let you borrow some Wellington boots to wade through the bogs.
3. The Glenlivet
The Glenlivet (yes, they insist on the “The”) is one of the better known single malt whiskies in the world. It’s found a way to stand out in the Speyside region, where there’s lots of competition for single malts, probably due in part to actually having a name people can pronounce.
When The Glenlivet first started in the 1800s, the region was a smugglers’ trail filled with warring illegal distillers and taxmen chasing them down; and the distillery has set up walking routes that you can take to learn about that history. It’s what you can do inside the distillery that makes a visit special, though. After learning about the story of The Glenlivet, you can fill your own bottle straight from the cask, cork it, cap it, and label it. So even if The Glenlivet is a mainstay on many a bar cart, few people can say they’ve actually bottled the whisky themselves.
Glenfiddich means “valley of the deer,” which makes Glenfiddich Scotch the whisky of the deer, or something like that. Founded in 1886 by William Grant, it’s one of the oldest family owned Scotch whisky distilleries. There probably wasn’t a lot to see back then for the average visitor, but there sure is now.
On the Solera: Deconstructed tour, you’ll get to walk through the distillery and see how things are made. But what makes this tour extra cool is the chance to make your own version of Glenfiddich 15 Year Old by mixing whisky from the cask yourself into a small sample bottle that you get to take home. You can one up that tour by taking the Pioneers tour, where you get to do a similar mixing, but the whisky at hand is from warehouse 12, otherwise known as the home of the Malt Master’s Selection.
Dalwhinnie is located in a town with the same name. It’s in the Scottish Highlands, and it’s the highest elevated distillery there. Think of it as the most highland of the Highlands. If that wasn’t reason enough to visit, the distillery has an exclusive whisky and chocolate tour where you can see how the place operates, and then taste six single malt whiskies that are expertly paired with handmade local chocolates.
This pairing (in addition to the regular tour) is why Dalwhinnie won the Best Distillery Tour in Scotland Award from Drinks International in 2017, which is no small feat when you’re located in a place that’s synonymous with whisky.