I wrote about the knowledge I gained during my various visits to whisky distilleries in Scotland (and 1 in Belgium). While writing it I realized I had a lot to say about the various Distilleries I visited and I thought it would be keen to share it with you in a follow-up instalment.How is Whisky Made? Learnings from Visits to 12 Whisky Distilleries
Over several trips to Scotland I’ve had the pleasure and privilege to visit 11 distilleries, and 1 other malt distillery in Belgium. There have been a few that I’ve visited more than once as well. I’ve had a wide variety of tours from each of the distilleries and have found that each one has some brilliant strengths.
Based on my travels I’ve decided to rank the visits to each of the distilleries and provide some insights into what you can expect if you visit them while travelling in Scotland (or Belgium).
My biggest piece of advance that I hope you take away from this article is simple: book your tours in advance. Throughout my travels, only 1 or 2 of the Distilleries I’ve visited had tours available to be booked day of, all of them seemed to expect a reservation. To avoid any disappointment make sure you’ve booked in advance!
Someone once asked me why I keep visiting distilleries – surely I must already know everything there is to know about making whisky? While I consider myself an enthusiast I am by no means a master of the art. Each time I visit a new Distillery or revisit an old one, I tend to learn something new or pick up on a nuance I missed previously.
And for the tastings. Those are always worth a visit.
About the Rankings & Ratings
Each of these Distilleries is well worth a visit especially if you’re in the area. The rankings and ratings I’ve applied to them is representative of my preferences of how the distillery operates their tour and tasting, and the general vibe I had while I was there. If you’re looking for one to visit read through the notes and see if what I’m saying resonates with your preferences as well.
What I appreciate about a whisky tour and tasting most of all is the excitement and passion I feel from the guide and the authentic environment of the tour and experience. These days many Distilleries have a lot of their work done off-site, especially the malting and the maturing processes, but that doesn’t mean that they still can’t have a beautifully authentic experience during the tour.
As the industry around distillery tours continues to grow and emerge there are more and more distilleries looking for unique spins on the tour offerings that they have. Most base tours will only include a single dram of whisky but smaller distilleries often have a chance to be more generous with their offerings.
Ranking Tastings & Tours for Whisky Distilleries
Table of Contents
1. Aberlour Distillery
|Tour:||(5 / 5)|
|Tasting:||(5 / 5)|
|Overall:||(5 / 5)|
Tour: 1.5 Hours, £15
Aberlour is a smaller distillery based in Speyside but is almost certainly a name that most whisky fans would have come across in their tastings. It’s located in the village of Aberlour in the Speyside region of Scotland. Which means that the whisky has the beautiful characteristics of Speyside – smooth, sweet, distinct lack of peat/smoke, vanilla and fruit. Speyside is densely populated with whisky distilleries due to the quality of the water in the region.
The tour itself incorporated all the key areas of whisky-making through the distillery, touching on all the key areas. The Distillery itself is very photographic on the outside and really beautifully quaint. This is one of the smaller Distilleries in the group that I’ve visited but resonates with heart and soul. The tour is very intimate and we had a smaller group here than any of the others we visited on that particular trip. Our guide was very passionate about whisky and hugely knowledgeable. She was eager for questions and engaged with us on every level possible.
It was the enthusiasm of the guide, the no holds barred approach to visiting the facility, and the authentic atmosphere that made this tour so special.
On the back of the tour, the guide led us to a tasting room where we sampled 5 whiskies and a new spirit from the distillery. This was one of the most thorough and informative tastings that I’ve had in the various ones that I’ve done. I liked the inclusion of the new spirit so that we could understand the liquor that enters the casks, and exactly what the maturation process does to that alcohol. It’s nothing short of magical.
I visited Aberlour in 2014 with 4 friends. During the same trip, we saw 4 other Distilleries (Dewars, Dalwhinnie, Glenfiddich, and Macallan) – and we were all in agreement that Aberlour was our favourite tour and tasting.
2. Dewar’s Aberfeldy Distillery
|Tour:||(5.0 / 5)|
|Tasting:||(3.5 / 5)|
|Overall:||(4.5 / 5)|
Tour: Cask Tasting, £18 (Basic Distillery Tour is £10.50)
Dewar’s Aberfeldy Distillery is only a 2-hour drive from Edinburgh and is well worth the visit. What I appreciate most about the experience at Dewar’s Aberfeldy is the passion each staff member has for the whisky. Despite the very large size of the company, it is clear that the love of the spirit comes first with the staff. I’ve taken their tour twice – first in 2014 and again in 2019 – and both times I had an exceptionally wonderful guide.
Many of the Distillery tours I’ve taken treat the Distillery itself as a working museum and will have plaques along the walls as you pass from stage to stage. These are great and helpful to understand the process, especially if you can’t hear the guide or don’t speak English as your first language and need longer to interpret what is being said. However, what very few Distilleries offer is a museum that features the history and details of their craft. Dewar’s Aberfeldy has a wonderful museum exhibit that is included in the tour and they do a great job of explaining the history of whisky but of the Dewars brand. They have great displays on the art of blending as well.
The tour at Dewars Aberfeldy includes a short introductory video, followed by a visit to their museum, then a full tour of their working distillery and it ends in the on-site warehouse. Depending on which tour you purchase from them (as there are tiers and options) you can have a cask tasting within the warehouse. I definitely recommend this as it’s a unique experience and the whisky is usually very different from what Dewar’s Aberfeldy bottles for their single malts. If you’ve never had a single cask whisky before I absolutely recommend including this in your tour. After the warehouse, you’re invited back to their cafe area for a tasting of one of their signature whiskies. I personally had Dewar’s on the Rocks in honour of my father, but their Aberfeldy single malt is exquisite and I would highly recommend tasting those.
Dewar’s Aberfeldy does not allow photography while on the tour but do have a display at the bar where you can enter your email address and receive photos of the interior of the distillery via email.
If you love whisky, like me, then I recommend striking up a conversation with the super friendly guide and bartender. Especially if his name is Alex (he was spectacular).
3. Glen Ord of Singleton Distillery
|Tour:||(3.5 / 5)|
|Tasting:||(4.0 / 5)|
|Overall:||(4.0 / 5)|
Tour: £12-18, we did Singleton of Glen Ord Tasting Tour for £18
Singleton owns 3 individual Distilleries and bottle them to sell to specific regions; Glen Ord to Asia, Dufftown to Europe and Glendullan to North America. It means that finding a bottle of Glen Ord in the UK can be something of a challenge. Although this meant that I’d never heard of the distillery before we visited. It happened to come up on my radar when looking for distillery options while travelling near Inverness. The reviews were positive and it was conveniently located in our direction of travel near Inverness so it seemed like an easy decision.
If you’re travelling near Inverness or the highlands please take the time to visit this lovely distillery. The staff were really warm and welcoming. We had a small group tour of only 6 people altogether. It was pretty incredible for that reason alone. The guide listened to my endless questions and was excited to talk about whisky and the nuances of the Glen Ord distillery. They had a beautiful facility as well, and their tasting was one of the nicer ones we’ve done over the years.
We were able to keep our tasting glass and try 3 different ages of Glen Ord whisky. They invited us to their bar afterwards to taste any of their sister distillery’s spirits as well, and we tried several more while talking whisky with the knowledgeable staff. To this day I regret not buying their 18 Year Old whisky.
4. Dalwhinnie Distillery
|Tour:||(4.5 / 5)|
|Tasting:||(4.5 / 5)|
|Overall:||(4.5 / 5)|
Tour: £12 for Distillery Tour or £24 for Whisky & Chocolate Tasting Tour (recommended)
Dalwhinnie is one of the most beautiful distilleries I’ve visited, by far. And the reason it has not ranked higher on this list comes down to the fact that I have visited the Distillery 3 times, but only toured once. The latest visit I’ve had was tremendous and I’ve based my scores on that visit alone.
My first visit we missed the last tour of the day by a mere minute and there was nothing they could do for us at the time; the staff were relatively rude all things considered but we stayed for a tasting since we had driven all that way. At the time we were coming cross country over the back roads from Aberfeldy and it did not work well with our GPS time estimates. The disappointment soured the rest of the visit for me on that trip, unfortunately, despite a lovely pairing of whisky and chocolate for the tasting we took part in. They included a tasting map of Scottish whisky that I framed and have next to my collection to this day.
The second visit I had was a flying visit for a quick dram and a shop while driving past it on a trip a few years later. We saw the signs on the A9 and diverted for a quick visit as we were making our way south through the Cairngorms from Inverness to Perth. The brief visit reminded me how undeniably gorgeous the distillery was with its iconic kiln and highland scenery. I later realized how harsh I had been in judging them based on this encounter, so was very willing to give them another chance several years later.
The third visit was in honour of my birthday this year. I planned it out so we could experience a bit more of the Cairngorms during a 4 day weekend in Scotland. When we arrived the two gentlemen behind the counter were unbelievably friendly and helpful. On this trip, I arrived over an hour early for the tour and they allowed us to join the earlier tour instead since there had been some dropouts. I explained the challenges I’d had five years before and both of them apologized to me and ensured that I had the very best visit. We had a lovely chat about whisky and my passion for Dalwhinnie, as one of my favourite single malts. I’d booked tickets online for the basic tour but wanted to upgrade to one of the cask tastings for two of the four members of our party. While at the till I had that request, plus a pin badge and a coffee mug. In light of it being my birthday and an apology for previous issues, the gentleman chose not to charge me for the tasting upgrades, but only my pin and coffee mug. It was such a sweet gesture and we were very appreciative and grateful.
The tour itself is what cemented my appreciation for Dalwhinnie that afternoon. It was led by Pete, who was extremely knowledgeable and friendly. He gave a passionate tour about the distillery and whisky-making process and engaged wonderfully with the large group he was bringing around the distillery. His tasting at the end, of Dalwhinnie 15 and Dalwhinnie Winter’s Gold, was one of my favourite moments. I finally got a clear explanation of how the length of fermentation can bring out specific tasting notes in whisky as well, and that combined with the information on the cooling process impact on the whisky really gave me some new insights that I’d not had before. Overall Pete and the other gentlemen at Dalwhinnie made the entire visit worth it and really changed my opinion about the distillery.
I can recommend a visit to Dalwhinnie – whether you’re driving down the A9 and want a brief distraction, or you have time to spare for a full tour of the distillery. If you are going to take a tour just make sure you book it in advance and give yourself plenty of time to arrive on time!
5. Deanston Distillery
|Tour:||(5.0 / 5)|
|Tasting:||(3.5 / 5)|
|Overall:||(4.5 / 5)|
Tour: £9 Standard Tour / £25 Whisky & Chocolate Quadruple Taster (recommended)
Deanston is a relatively “new” Distillery and was converted from an old cotton mill. It’s one of the more unique structures that I’ve visited for a distillery given its history and background. It was converted in the 60s and has a feel all it’s own. It is a very conveniently located distillery near Stirling, and easy to access.
One of the things I appreciate that Deanston does is have a wide variety of tour packages and options, and they can be selected on a guest by guest basis. We went with the slightly fancier whisky and chocolate taster, opting for 4 drams instead of 3, and it was splendid. Not only did it give us a great appreciation for the whisky at Deanston we also got to appreciate some beautiful highland chocolate. Many of the distilleries are picking up this pairing option and are using Iain Burnett’s chocolates. Dalwhinnie was another distillery which had this option available as well.
If you’ve read to this part of the article so far you’ll already know that what is important to me in a good tour is a passionate and knowledgeable tour guide. While the gentleman who gave us the tour at Deanston was very knowledgeable I did not necessarily feel the same level of passion from him as I have enjoyed at a variety of other distilleries – including each one ranked above Deanston on this list. The tour itself is still very good, very comprehensive, and different because of the nature of the distillery. Added with that the convenience factor and tiers of tasting available I would definitely recommend a visit if you are travelling near Stirling in the future.
I also got to see my first “open” masher, which is usually covered wooden tanks. This one was an open steel tank and it was running while we visited. This was the most interesting part of the tour for me, since I’ve seen so many others.
6. Royal Lochnagar Distillery
|Tour:||(4.0 / 5)|
|Tasting:||(3.0 / 5)|
|Overall:||(3.5 / 5)|
Tour: £9 Distillery Tour / £13 Tasting Tour
In my write-up on Deanston, I mentioned that the tour guide can make a world of difference in the enjoyment level of a tour- especially after you’ve done as many as I have. We had a real lovely Scotsman who gave us a brilliant tour of Royal Lochnagar and guided us through the tasting. On the tour was a gentleman who had visited this single distillery over 17 times, often escorting non-local friends up to the distillery for a tour and a dram. It speaks a lot to me that they’ve inspired this level of loyalty from a local Scotsman.
We arrived very early at this distillery and were lucky that it was an unnaturally sunny autumn day; we sat outside on their picnic benches for a good hour as there was no cafe inside. The shop was on the smaller side but did carry the wider ranges of whisky from the other Diageo brands, and had a lovely whisky recipe book (that I could not resist).
The staff, both in the shop and our guide, were exceptional. They were incredibly friendly and very passionate about the whisky at Royal Lochnagar. They were not the most passionate of teams that I’ve come across but definitely operating at a level that I found impressive and inspiring. The tour was well structured and we were able to see all the working areas that can sometimes be closed.
The tasting options for tours were a little limited. Royal Lochanagar offered two whiskies where I would have preferred a wider array. What they did offer was a “driver’s bottle”; that a dram meant for a driver could be tipped into a sealable bottle to be taken home. We ended up seeing this at a few distilleries on this trip, which we definitely appreciated. The only other gripe I had about the tasting was that we felt a tad bit rushed at the very end to leave the tasting room.
7. Talisker Distillery
|Tour:||(5.0 / 5)|
|Tasting:||(3.5 / 5)|
|Overall:||(4.5 / 5)|
Tour: £10 Classic Tour
The best reason to visit the Talisker Distillery is because it’s on the amazingly beautiful Isle of Skye. This is one of my favourite places in Scotland with all of it’s natural and rugged beauty. When we visited we stayed in Portree and had a car to dart around to all the best locations on Skye (Quarang, Talisker, Fairy Pools, etc.).
Talisker is a long way off the beaten path of dual carriageways and easy to reach locations. I would not recommend driving all that way for just the tour, as there are many better ones with closer proximity to each other or major cities. Talisker in itself isn’t enough to motivate me back to visit it, but the Isle of Skye is well worth the trip. And while on Skye it makes perfect sense to include a trip to the Talisker Distillery.
The tour was relatively standard with nothing remarkably standing out for me during it. There were a lot of people and we had to book it in advance to have any hope of joining the tour. The only place nearby for food was a quaint and cute pub called The Old Inn & Waterfront Bunkhouse.
The tasting was also something of a let down as we only got to taste 2 whiskies on the tour. Afterwards in the shop I could request to have a taste (a drop, not a dram) of bottles if I was thinking of buying them. The staff were happy to help but it’s not necessarily the same experience and I was a bit let down overall by it. When compared to other tours, like Glen Ord for example, that were happy to serve me a generous portion of whisky when I was looking to purchase a bottle (and I did there), this was lacking considerably. I imagine a lot of the reason for it is due to the popularity of the Talisker name and how busy they were.
8. Macallan Distillery
|Tour:||(2.5 / 5)|
|Tasting:||(4.0 / 5)|
|Overall:||(3.5 / 5)|
Tour: £15 for Six Pillars Experience
I remember particularly enjoying the Macallan tour, but later thinking back on it that nothing in particular stood out for me aside from one of the whiskies we tried. It was everything you would expect from one of the top whisky brands and ticked all the usual boxes – tour went through all the usual places in the distillery, and while it was thorough none of them were particularly memorable. Even when I was digging for photos for this article I was hard pressed to find photos of the site that were memorable, or considerably pretty. I did very much enjoy their warehouse and a lot of the explanations they provided on the distilling process. The staff were warm, welcoming and engaging.
The tasting was the part I remembered the most. There had been a private tour ahead of us so we were served outside on picnic benches, rather than at the standard tasting room. But I actually rather liked that. I prefer the outdoors on a warm September day rather than the overly stuffy tasting room. Our guide walked us through the usual assortment of whiskies from Macallan, most of which I’d had before. The last one we were given was the surprise, and it was a bonus one that wasn’t included in our tour. Given that we were sat outside rather than in the normal room they opted to give us a taste of the Macallan Estate Reserve. And we were immediately in love. This whisky was beautiful, complex, smooth and was very much unlike the rest of the whiskies we tasted.
We visited Macallan Distillery in Sep 2012, and it was the first time in our touring that we noticed that a distillery was leading with flavor led whisky profiles rather than age led. In the years to come following that I’ve noticed a lot of distilleries are now doing this. It’s been explained to me during other tours that some are doing this because they’re unable to meet the demand for the older whiskies. Since it takes 12+ years to age some of the older ones it’s hard to stay ahead of the demand curve. Whether or not this is the case the flavor led profiles for the whiskies definitely stood out to me as part of this tour.
In reviewing the site and details of Macallan Distillery for this article I did notice that they have seemingly undergone a major overhaul on the tour and experience. I’d love the chance to go back and experience this new tour and visitor’s center.
9. Tullibardine Distillery
|Tasting:||(3 / 5)|
|Overall:||(3 / 5)|
Tour: £9 for Classic Tour
I will caveat my ranking of Tullibardine by saying that I’ve not had their tour, and would love to return and have that experience to complete my ranking for them.
I was travelling with a friend along the A9 from Perth to Stirling and we came across a sign for a whisky distillery – which was an invitation for us to pull off the road and stretch our legs. At the time I had not heard of the brand so I was even more curious about the stop over and to try some of their whisky.
The building is relatively new compared to the others in this list, built in 1949. It was picturesque despite abutting the A9 dual carriageway. It was very unique in it’s own way as well with the way it was structured. We were too late to take the tour and since we had been on our way to Stirling couldn’t wait the time needed for the next tour.
Instead, we opted to try a tasting flight of 3 Tullibardine whiskies: 20 Year Old, 228 (Burgandy Finish), and Sovereign. They were really lovely whiskies, though not a favorite of mine. The gentleman who served us was really knowledgeable and helpful. He was excited to talk whisky with us especially as we tasted through the set we’d purchased.
10. Glenmorangie Distillery
|Tour:||(3.0 / 5)|
|Tasting:||(2.5 / 5)|
|Overall:||(3.0 / 5)|
Tour: £8.50 Original Tour
Glenmorangie is a very well known name to single malt whisky fans but before the visit to their distillery, I had only tried their “Original” 10 year old whisky.
What I remember most of my visit to Glenmorangie was that the tasting was disappointing. The room was cramped and it was only a single dram of the “Original” and then one extra of one of their other offerings. I tried the “Nectar D’or” and my traveling companions tried “Lasata”. It is rare that I cannot find a whisky I like at a given distillery but none of the 3 we tasted (since we shared around the Nectar D’or and Lasata) spoke to me at all. The nature of the tasting and the actual tasting itself left something to be desired at Glenmorangie. An ongoing theme in these reviews is that some of the most known brands produce some of the poorest tasting experiences, likely because they have more visitors than the smaller ones. Which means the smaller ones can spend more time catering to their guests.
The tour was good, but not great. We were in a large-ish group, which was to be expected at a Distillery of this size. It felt less personal than some of the other tours we took. The redeeming factor for me was that the distillery and surrounding area were very picturesque and had a lovely quality. As we were leaving we were graced with a lovely rainbow that ended on top of the whisky warehouses – my very own pot of gold.
If you’re a casual whisky drinker, or traveling with casual ones, and really appreciate the Glenmorangie 10 Year Old then I would recommend this tour and tasting to you. If you’re more of a connoisseur and have been to other distilleries I would recommend Glen Ord, which was nearby. We didn’t get a chance to try Balbair either but that was practically next door and did look to be much smaller. And also neighbouring Glenmorangie to the north was Clynelish Distillery.
11. Glenfiddich Distillery
|Tour:||(2 / 5)|
|Tasting:||(4 / 5)|
|Overall:||(3 / 5)|
Tour: £10 Explorer’s Tour
Where Glenmorangie had a better tour Glenfiddich had a far superior tasting. In fact, despite ranking at the bottom of my list, I would actually recommend the tastings at Glenfiddich over taking the tour.
We took the Explorer’s Tour when we visited 5 years ago, and it was the same cost as it is today but came with a 4th dram for tasting – a 21 year old. Part of the reason I appreciated the tasting as much as I did was down to this particular whisky and the 18 year old. Any whisky fan would have long ago tried the 12 year old and 15 year old before vistiing the distillery, and these two were more unlikely to be whiskies we’ve not tried over time. It does seem that Glenfiddich have pared back their Experience tour to only 3 drams – 12, 15 and 18 year olds.
The distillery itself is beautiful and it’s great to see a larger one in action with all the extra stills and bigger enterprise. However, the tour guide we had was very much presenting from a script she had learned. There was no spirit during the tour and although she was very friendly and nice it was lacking in what makes the tours special – passion. Given the size of Glenfiddich and the number of tours they must run a day I should not be surprised by this, but I definitely was disappointed. They brought you into a lot of awesome areas of their facility and opened many doors – this was the first of our tours on the trip in 2014 that we could take a photo of stills (because we took it from outside of the building looking in), and that was really nice. But it was very over-engineered, scripted and honestly lacklustre in nature.
On our visit it happened to be my 30th Birthday so we paused at their Barn for an extra dram. My friend bought me a 30 year old dram and it was exquisite – beautifully smoooth, delicate and danced over my tongue.
(Bonus) Belgian Whisky: Carolus Distillery
|Tour:||(4 / 5)|
|Tasting:||(4 / 5)|
|Overall:||(4 / 5)|
Tour: €9 Tour, or combine with Brewery Tour for €17
Single malt whisky is not unique to Scotland and the making of it has spread to many other countries in the world – Japan is perhaps the second most famous for this style of whisky. It’s also made in Taiwan, India, Sweden, Welsh, Belgium and many more countries. And if you’ve not tried any of the malt whiskies from outside of Scotland you’re missing out!
One of my best friends is from Belgium and over the last 7 years I’ve spent a lot of time traveling to Belgium or the Netherlands to spend time with her and another dear friend. These women are my sisters in whisky and whom I have visited many of the distilleries with over the years. We’ve formed our own mini whisky society that we called “Glacadan” and take every opportunity we spend together to have a dram of whisky.
In 2014 my Belgian friend gifted me, and my Dutch friend, each with a bottle of Gouden Carolus Single Malt Whisky. It was young, only 3 years old since the distillery had only re-opened in 2010, but gorgeous. Flavorful and with it’s own unique nose and taste. And as it turned out, made in the same town that my friend lived – Mechelen.
When we visited Mechelen in 2015 she arranged a visit to the Carolus Distillery and the Carolus Brewery for an amazing visit. The tour and tasting at the distillery were amazing, and it was an incredible place to visit. There was a lot of history there since it had run as a distillery for hundreds of years, from 1637 to 1914, but they were not distillery whisky then it was jenever (a gin like Dutch spirit). Anyone who has been on a tour understands that the process for creating beer and the process for creating whisky take very similar routes at the start of their distilling and brewing. We learned that the base of the whisky is the same exact base of their beer and that is what formulated the plan of the Brewer to re-open the distillery as a whisky distillery (instead of jenever).
The building and location were gorgeous, the guides were passionate about the business and distillation, and as we visited on a weekend all of the site was opened to us since the stills were not running. The tasting was great, though they didn’t have a lot to offer for variety given that they’ve only started the business 5 years ago (at that time in 2015), but it was an overall wonderful experience.
Which Distilleries are on my short list for future visits?
All of them.
Ones that I’ve scouted for previous trips, and definitely look worthy of a good visit:
- Blair Athol
- Highland Park
VisitScotland have a great resource for mapping out the Distilleries: https://www.visitscotland.com/see-do/food-drink/whisky/distilleries/
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