If Scotland's verdant greens, rolling hills and magical lore aren't enough to draw you to the country, a dram of whisky might do the trick. The Scots are known for their whisky, the most popular being the Single malt Scotch whisky. While blended varieties combine whiskies from more than one distillery, each single malt is unique and comes from one distillery.
In other parts of the world, this golden goodness is often referred to simply as 'Scotch.' You may notice one more difference. While the Irish and Americans spell 'whiskey' with an 'e,' in Scotland it's 'whisky.'
There are nearly 100 distilleries around the country producing the whisky that put Scotland on the drinking map. Many of them welcome visitors with distillery tours where participants can learn about the process and sample the goods. Bottoms up as we take a tour of Scotland's best distilleries where malt masters carry on the country's age-old tradition.
The Whisky Coast
Scotland's western coast is also known as the Whisky Coast with rolling hills, a rocky shoreline, great golf and some of the country's best whiskies.
There are distilleries throughout Whisky Coast's towns and islands, including Campbeltown and the islands Aran, Skye and Jura. However, the mecca for whisky lovers is the tiny island of Islay. Located off of Scotland's west coast, Islay is just 25 miles long but home to 8 top-notch distilleries. The island's whisky has a distinctively salty flavor thanks to the sea spray that covers the peat. This peat is later used while malting the barley, bringing this taste of the wild sea air to the strong whisky.
No one's certain exactly when Laphroaig Distillery started working its magic, but word started spreading about its whisky by 1815. The pungent 10 Year Old has a rich taste with hints of the island's heather, while the collector's favorite, the 40 Year Old, is rare and smooth, aged in European oak casks. Tours are available daily from March through October and on weekdays from November to February, though the distillery is closed to the public in July and August.
Bowmore is the island's oldest distillery with basic tours and a more intensive Craftsman's Tours for whisky diehards. The basic tour provides visitors a chance to experience the sights and smells of traditional whisky-making with a peek at the malting barley process and a sniff of the pungent peat. After a cruise through the cool storage vault, you can sample a dram of the classic Bowmore single malt, a 12-year-old amber beauty with subtle hints of lemon and honey.
Kilchoman Distillery invites visitors for a different kind of whisky experience. Instead of just sipping the stuff, you make it. The Distillery Experience invites visitors to shadow the distillery manager for 5 days and help with every step in the process, from malting to mashing and even bottling. For all your hard work, you can take a small bottle of your spirits home with you.
Malt Whisky Trail
Scotland's Malt Whisky Trail winds through the Speyside region with 9 distilleries in the area. Highlights include the Glenlivet Distillery, which was the first licensed distillery in the Highlands. The company's distinctive green bottle might look familiar -- the single malt has been the most popular Scotch whisky in the US since Prohibition ended. The Visitor's Center is open from March through October and offers free tours and a dram of the Glenlivet 12, 18 Years Old or French Oak Reserve. True connoisseurs can join the Guardians Club with members-only benefits, including a personal key to the intimate Guardians library at the Distillery.
The fairy-tale setting at Glenfiddich Distillery is reason enough to visit: You'll find a stunning landscape of hills, forests, natural springs and even some castle ruins. In 1886, William Grant built the distillery with the help of his 9 children. It's been lovingly maintained by the same family for 5 generations. From April through October, visitors can watch a movie outlining the distillery's history before setting off to see the mash tuns and stone-walled warehouses. During August and September, stop by the gallery to see the inspired work of the distillery's artists-in-residence.
Cardhu is the only distillery around with a true woman's touch, thanks to the days when Helen Cumming distilled the first gallon of malt whiskey in the early 1800s. Helen's daughter-in-law Elizabeth kept things moving and helped the distillery gain its reputation as one of the country's top malt whisky distilleries. Today, the luxury single malt whiskey is produced in limited quantities and is one of the components found in Johnnie Walker blends. The distillery's Glassic Tour covers the basics, while the Aromas and Flavours Tour features the prized single malt, a Johnnie Walker blend and some perfectly paired snacks.
Chivas Regal is one of the premier blended Scotch whiskies. One of the key ingredients is the Strathisla single malt whisky created at Speyside's Strathisla Distillery. A tour of the distillery begins with a dram of the precious Chivas Regal 12 Year Old. After a look around the facilities, including the distillery and the warehouse, guests are rewarded with a taste of Strathisla 12 Year.
The rugged Highlands area is the largest whisky-producing region in the country. Thanks to its size and variable terrain and weather conditions, the region produces an assortment of flavors from spicy to fruity.
Highland Park welcomes visitors all year long, though touring may be disrupted during the distillery's silent season from late June through August. The standard tour covers all of the basics, but advanced options tempt whisky fanatics with the chance to sample a wide range of the goods -- from the babies at 12 and 15 years to the more mature 18- and 25-year-old expressions. The Magnus Eunson Tour introduces visitors to the senior malt whisky, the unique 40-year-old single malt.
North of Inverness, the Glenmorangie Distillery is another working distillery that welcomes guests all year long. The name means 'valley of tranquility' and visitors will find the place lives up to that moniker. Sample the malt whiskies and then spend the night at the nearby Glenmorangie House hotel. This charming country inn has quality amenities in the main house and adjacent cottages with private bathrooms, cozy sitting areas and a decanter with a spot of the namesake single malt Scotch.
If you're visiting Glasgow or Edinburgh, you can still enjoy a traditional distillery experience without leaving the city too far behind. There are just 3 distilleries in the Lowlands, but they are perfect for a quick day trip from the center of town.
You can take public transportation from Edinburgh to Glenkinchie, but wear your walking shoes because it's a 2-mile jaunt from the bus stop to the distillery. As an alternative, you can arrange for a taxi to meet you at the bus stop and shuttle you back there, after you spend some time tasting the classic Edinburgh malt.
If your home base is Glasgow, it's just 20 minutes to Auchentoshan. Daily guided tours are 45 minutes and give the lowdown on this distillery's unique triple-distillation process. Longer tours are available, including the Auchentoshan Experience and the Ultimate Auchentoshan Experience, when visitors are invited to sniff and sip more exclusive archive whiskies straight from the cask. For the ultimate souvenir, bottle your own from a specially chosen cask and bring a taste of Scotland home.