Need a definition of a whisky nerd? I am a whisky distiller and distillery tour guide in Scotland and in my spare time I visit distilleries. Hope that helps…
Joking aside, since I moved back to Scotland in early 2015 I have explored over 70 whisky distilleries all over the country and joined about 30 distillery tours. The quality of these organised visits ranges from absolutely outstanding to downright abominable. Here is some advice for casual visitors and hard-core whisky fans alike to help you make the best of it.
- It’s worth repeating: not all distillery visits are of the same quality! If you are heading for your first (and only) distillery visit in Scotland just because it is on your bucket list, it would not make much of a difference, but if you are a repeat visitor I strongly recommend that you find out what the whisky nerds have to say about their experiences. For that, forget about TripAdvisor. Read some whisky blogs instead or head over to my Best-Of list (coming soon!) where I offer you my own ranking of visitor experiences from distilleries all over Scotland.
- If possible, avoid the peak season (July and August). Most distilleries are really crowded during that time of the year, tour guides tend to be more stressed and are under pressure to stick to their schedule. Once the season slackens off a bit (or has not really started yet) the tour guides are more relaxed and often have time to go into details.
- Do not wait for the last tour of the day. Many distilleries offer the last tour about an hour before the visitor centre closes. Consequently, the tour guides tend to strictly adhere to their timetable (they want to get home and crack a beer too, right?). That does not necessarily mean you are taken through in a rush, but there will also be less time to answer questions or show something out of the ordinary.
Opening times vary greatly from distillery to distillery and throughout the year. Not all visitor centres are open seven days a week throughout the year. In fact, only a few such as Glenfiddich, Tomatin or The Famous Grouse Experience are open seven days a week year-round. On the other hand, some distilleries close down their visitor centres completely during the winter (Cragganmore and Edradour among them). Opening on Sundays is also not guaranteed, especially outside the peak season. Because of the Scottish Licensing Law you can be sure that no distillery opens up for visitors before 09:30. Better check in advance, either online or by phone.
- You cannot always rely on secondhand information provided by tourism websites or TripAdvisor about tours available and opening times. Many distilleries are not regularly updating their information on those sites.
- If you’d like to take pictures make sure photography is permitted during your visit before you buy a ticket. Generally, distilleries belonging to one of the big chains (Diageo, Pernod-Ricard, Dewar’s, etc.) are perhaps a bit overconcerned with health and safety. So your tour guide might ask you to switch off mobile phones and cameras right at the beginning of the tour. The reason for this remains obscure to me because the usual explanation (‘risk of explosion’) would mean that there is so much alcohol vapor in the air that you would be stone drunk by the end of the tour.
- Should you be travelling with children, be aware that most distilleries have an age limit for visitors. This limit is entirely depending on company policy, so if you are not sure better check in advance. I had people asking me if they could carry their six-month old on a tour and then getting annoyed when I tried to explain that this would not be safe. You can assume that most visitor centres have a minimum age of at least eight for their tours, Edradour has an age limit of 12 and at Glenfiddich the limit is 18. At the time of this writing there is only one distillery I can think of that does not have any age restriction: Tomatin Distillery, south of Inverness.
- Beware of the very strict laws regarding drunk driving in Scotland. Since almost all distilleries will offer you their whisky samples at the end of the tour (Edradour being one notable exception), you might want to bring sample bottles or plan a lengthy break after the tour if you are the designated driver. (In that context: better to avoid BenRiach! What they do is beyond unacceptable and warrants its own blog post…)
- Be aware that many distilleries have silent seasons during the summer, i.e. no distilling is taking place. That is not necessarily a bad thing, but if you are looking forward to the sights, sounds and smells of whisky making in progress, then better look for another distillery. The distilleries will tell you in advance if they have silent season and might even offer their tours at a discount during that period.
- If you are travelling with heavy luggage you might have to carry it with you throughout the tour. Some visitors are packed like a mule during their distillery visit, which is not always annoying to just themselves. Of course, if you are a backpacker you probably don’t have any choice. On the other hand, people sometimes show up for a tour carrying full-sized suitcases. Why somebody might want to do that beats me. One thing is sure: no visitor centre/tour guide/distillery will take the responsibility and let you just leave your luggage in the visitor centre or the reception area.
Visiting a whisky distillery in Scotland can be a memorable experience for you and your family, but it is worth investing a few minutes to do some research ahead of your tour to get the most out of it.