An Odyssey


A guest blog from our friend; James Saxon from the Scotch Odyssey blog. If you have never read this blog, seriously do. James is the guy who had the crazy idea of cycling around Scotland’s distilleries. Even in the spring, this is a herculean task. I’m sure he wondered about his own sanity at times. He made it though, and we salute him for it. He makes Lucas and I look completely lazy.


A meeting of great minds

Quarantined in Edinburgh airport with Chris recently, he asked me if I could put my knowledge of whisky tourism before the adventurous and discerning readers of Edinburgh Whisky Blog. While you may be able to separate your Macallan 18-year-olds from your Aberlour a’Bunadhs, and this is something Chris and Lucas are more than qualified to assist with, the concern was that, when it came to distinguishing between the multitude of distilleries in Scotland open to the public, which distilleries offer a tour worthy of the spirit they produce? Having taken forty-two of Scotland’s standard distillery tours in the spring, here is the Scotch Cyclist’s guide to some of the must-visits – and also those which, like certain bizarre wine-finished drams, don’t quite work.


The distillery you should have been to already:

If you haven’t been to Tullibardine yet, why the hell not? They style themselves as ‘the most accessible distillery in Scotland’ and as the shadow of its silver chimney falls across the A9, between Stirling and Perth, there is no defence for having omitted this little gem.

Newly independent from 2003, Tullibardine has serious small-business, personable credentials. It is situated on the oldest combined brewing and distilling site in Scotland, and the associated date of 1488 graces its visitor centre and café. Spacious, modern and delicious, you could while away the day in here quite happily, but the tour itself is equally rewarding.

If you are fortunate enough to have Gavin Cunningham take care of you, my guide when I visited at the shaky start of my Scotch Odyssey in April, the veil of mystery shrouding the world of malt whisky production will be gloriously lifted. Over the six weeks I pedalled around Scotland’s whisky industry, I couldn’t find any guide better.

The cleanliness and neatness of the distillery is carried over into its malts and few other distilleries offer quite so many exotic expressions at affordable prices, a wee nip of two such drams provided as part of your tour.

Tour: £5


The distillery tour no malt-head can be forgiven for omitting:

Yes, you may have heard a lot about the Aberlour Warehouse No. 1 Tour elsewhere. It is quite legendary, in fact, and richly deserves such status.

The two hours simply vanish in jokes, sights, smells and tastes. Everything slows way down, however, when you get to that mythical first warehouse.

The Aberlour standard range is good, I don’t think we can disagree on that, but some of their individual casks are pure nectar. Usually plucked from the dunnage darkness in their mid-teens, one is a first-fill, cask strength Bourbon hogshead, the other a first-fill, cask strength Sherry butt.

Just be thankful the angels didn’t slurp up all of these, and just hope you have the £60 in your back pocket to bottle one for yourself. Better yet, stuff £120 in the wallet, and so humanely avoiding the agonies of choosing between them. For my visit, I was hopelessly in love with the 63.3% 14-year-old Bourbon, but the rich, sweet fruit and nut of the Sherry might be more your thing. Get to Aberlour and find out.

Tour: £10

Highland Park

The distillery for those who seek whisky enlightenment:

It is nothing less than a pilgrimage getting to Highland Park. There is no getting away from the fact that you will have to drive a lot and cross the wilful Pentland Firth (or fly, of course) but the iconic distillery awaits, and will reward you so fabulously.

Seriously old, seriously good, and seriously thorough: from the flawless visitor centre, to the for once well-judged and stirring brand film; from the omniscient guides, to the traditional production methods, Highland Park is a visitor experience like no other. Testament to this is the Magnus Eunson tour – at £75 one of the most expensive poke-arounds in any distillery in Scotland. It is difficult to see how it could improve on the standard offering , however.

I lost myself in history, romance and novelty – I had never seen live malting and kilning before, I had never sniffed inside one of the casks from which the Ambassador bottlings were drawn, I had never been more astounded by what I could get in return for six measly pounds.

The expenses attached to getting to Orkney do, of course, total a tad more than £6, but I promise you it is completely worth it.

Tour: £6

The distilleries that hadn’t quite got it:

It baffled me how Diageo (yes, yes, but wait) could, on the one hand, take credit for Royal Lochnagar which is one of the best visitor experiences in Scotland – Nigel the distillery cat performing front-of-house duties impeccably – and on the other was responsible for a poor showing by Caol Ila.*

My welcome was less than auspicious with nowhere for a bedraggled cyclist to hang his clothes (Glen Garioch gave me their still house) and my guide’s indifference once on the tour was so acute it even succeeded in piercing my blissful bubble, tarnishing the unalloyed delight of having reached my favourite distillery. As you may not be surprised to hear, Glen Garioch holds that title now.

Much as it pains me to say it after their superlative hospitality, I cannot recommend the standard Pulteney tour. Twice on my way up the country I was warned by previous tourists not to get my hopes up, and the gentlemen touring with me in May certainly seemed crestfallen when the guide could not answer their questions. However, they have since introduced two specialist tours – and I can endorse manager Malcolm Waring’s company unreservedly, a steal at the £30 asking price – so perhaps the standard has been overhauled, too.

A tour is only as good as the person showing you round, and distilleries have to realise that there may be a rogue whisky geek hidden amongst the newbies. The content and choreography of the first three tours takes this into account, and as a result I am now partisan towards their whiskies for life. It’s marketing at the end of the day, but when done properly is just an hour of pure delight.

For facts and findings of more great distillery tours, and the fun to be had cycling between them, take a peek at the Scotch Odyssey Blog.

* The specifications for almost all of Diageo’s tour-enabled distilleries have been upgraded since I visited them and it is with satisfaction that I note their efforts to make the homes of their malts as comprehensive an experience as possible for those who desire a little more from their distillery visit. They even state that ‘tailor made tours are available on request’ – this is a step in the right direction.

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