Do you like whisky? If your answer is yes, then a trip to Scotland – the mother of all single malt Scotch whisky – should really be in your cards. If your answer is no, then you’re a lot like me. Unlike with Tequila my hate relationship with whisky has nothing to do with an initial overkill of love. I just never enjoyed the taste and smell of whisky. Single malt, blended, or bourbon; cheap or expensive; neat, on ice or with coke – it didn’t really matter how you served it; I certainly wouldn’t drink it. Moving to Scotland however, I knew that I had to slightly change my attitude towards Scottish whisky- if only not to offend anybody. And so I tried at least a sip whenever I was offered it, and smelled my way around a variety of different bottles to learn more about the distinct features and differences. I came to believe that in Scotland there is a whisky for everyone – that’s what everybody says anyways. And slowly over the last three years I have come accustomed to the idea of wanting to like whisky. And while it is not always easy, I’m warming up to the golden spirit that makes the world (or at least parts of the Scottish economy) go round.
Whether you are already a connoisseur, or still green behind your ears like I was when I arrived in Glasgow, a trip to Scotland would not be complete without a Scottish whisky experience of some sort. Here are a few suggestions.
1) The Scotch Whisky Experience in Edinburgh
I only visited the Scotch Whisky Experience in Edinburgh for the first time this summer – almost three years into my time in Scotland. I thought that because it is not an actual distillery, it’s a tourist trap. Instead I visited three Highland distilleries and emerged from each of them even further away from the ultimate goal of liking whisky. But my trip to the Scotch Whisky Experience changed everything.
It is true, that this tourist attraction is not a distillery and you will not be able to see those iconic copper stills you know from the pictures. However, this is not a tourist trap. You still get a step-by-step explanation of the distilling process – just not presented in the ‘real’ environment of a distillery, but rather during a fun whisky barrel ride.
I think this is the perfect introduction to Scottish whisky though, because your guide will also explain more about the five major whisky regions in Scotland and you learn more about their distinct characteristics in terms of production, taste and flavour. Based on the information you can make an educated choice of which whisky you’d like to taste – and I kid you not, this was the first time in my life that I a) enjoyed a whisky, and b) finished my entire dram. Had I known earlier that I like Speyside whiskies, I would not have ‘wasted’ money and energy on visiting one Highland distillery after the other.
If you’ve not got the slightest idea of what I’m talking about, here’s a wee overview:
Scotland has five major whisky regions: Lowlands, Highlands (including most islands), Speyside, Campbeltown and the Isle of Islay. The guides in Edinburgh can explain the differences much better, but just to give you an idea some of these whiskies are produced with smoked barley and hence a very smoky and ‘peaty’ smell & taste (especially whiskies from Islay), while others are produced with air-dried barley, so they’re not smoky at all. There are other differences too, but once you’ve figured out whether you’re the smoky type or not, you’re already one step closer to finding a Scottish whisky you like.
2) Order a Dram in a local Pub
Another way to find a whisky for your taste is to jump into the cold water and simply order one in a pub. I think you can judge the quality of a bar (wo)man by their ability to talk about whisky, because even though I didn’t drink whisky myself throughout my career as a bar woman, I still knew how to describe the differences in taste and could recommend various whiskies for different needs.
So, when you walk into a proper pub, simply ask the bar staff for their recommendations, or go straight for the malt of the month, which is a very common special deal offered in most pubs. The malt of the month will most likely be a Scottish whisky at a reduced prize. Maybe it’s from a little known distillery, or a smaller and older batch, in any case that could be a great option to try.
Once you have decided on your whisky, there are some rules as to how to order it – and I want you to repeat after me: no ice. Scottish bar staff might forgive you for ordering ice when you’re not Scottish yourself, but they will encourage you to try the whisky on its own before tampering with it. Your second step would be to add a few droplets of water, which releases more flavours and makes it easier to drink. In every proper pub there is a jug of water on the bar which is there for exactly this purpose. Finally, if you still struggle, the bar staff will be happy to serve you some ice in a separate glass.
One thing you should definitely never do is to order a single malt whisky with a mixer like Coke. I think no one would forgive you even if you’re not Scottish.
Finally, when it comes to drinking your dram, you should do it with leisure and enjoyment. It’s not tequila or vodka, so no need to rush!
3) Visiting a Distillery
Once you’ve found your favourite Scottish whisky it makes sense to see where it comes from. I’d like to think that visiting your first whisky distillery should be as meaningful as Ron Swanson from Parks & Rec visiting the Lagavulin distillery on the Isle of Islay. In reality I know this is probably not how it will go down, and most likely you will – just like me – choose to visit a distillery which is practically located along your chosen route through Scotland. Whether you travel to a specific distillery, or visit one along the way it is a great opportunity to learn more about one specific single malt whisky.
I have visited three Highland distilleries so far: Talisker on the Isle of Skye, which is a great bad weather activity on the island; Edradour just outside of Pitlochry, which is Scotland’s smallest operating distillery – try their whisky liqueur which tastes like Baileys, but better; and Glengoyne, which is the southernmost Highland distillery and makes for a great day trip from Glasgow – the public bus from Glasgow’s city centre drops you right outside the distillery, so no one has to drive.
High in my bucket list is a trip to one or several Speyside distilleries (there are 84 different distilleries in this very small region alone) and a tour to the Malt & Music Festival on the Isle of Islay which happens in May every year and combines live music with whisky tastings.
On visiting a distillery:
Note that you are not allowed to take photos or use your mobile phone inside a whisky distillery. Because of the alcohol in the air, you’d risk to blow up the entire place. Your guide will make you aware of this at the beginning of your tour, so please respect this! Usually your tasting takes place in a separate room (always close to or even in the shop), so you can take photos there.
4) Buying Whisky as a Souvenir
You can buy whisky basically anywhere and every supermarket and off-license shop sells at least a small selections of single malts (only from 10am to 10pm though). However, to get a specific Scottish whisky brand or a malt of a certain age, you will have to go to a special whisky shop. In Edinburgh there are options scattered all over the Old Town and in Glasgow there are a couple in the city centre. A quick search on Google or Maps and you’ll find what you’re looking for.
The Scotch Whisky Experience also has a shop and so has every distillery. There you can buy anything from the standard bottles starting at £30-35 (for 70cl) to the special editions and super-old bottles which can set you back hundreds or even thousands of pounds.
As a souvenir I like bringing back the small 5cl bottles which you can even get on a whim at the airport!
On a side note:
Age doesn’t necessarily indicate the quality or the taste of a whisky, so don’t worry about buying whisky that has ‘only’ aged for 10 years or so!
To round off this wordy article, have a wee look at my latest attempt at enjoying a whisky. They say having a dram or two increases your chances to spot the monster of Loch Ness, so I had to try it. I ordered a glass of Glenkinchie (a distillery close to Edinburgh) thinking that a Lowland whisky would be right up my alley. Well, let’s just say it wasn’t…
My quest for my favourite Scottish whisky continues…
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All photos by Kathi Kamleitner.