If you love a good single malt scotch, a trip to Scotland’s Whisky Trail should definitely be on your travel bucket list. (By the way, they spell it without the e, as in “whisky”.) The cheery, friendly (and dare I say quirky?) people of the Highlands are extraordinary folk and after a thousand years of experimenting, they do know a thing or two about scotch. In fact, their love for dramming (drinking whisky) has an insidious way of rubbing off. Before you know it, you might find yourself pouring a wee dram with your oatmeal in the morning (“Aye, hits guid w’it, Lassie!).
We visited the Highlands recently (see my Scotch Whisky Trail map with distilleries, accommodations, activities and more) and I learned a few things worth sharing. Here are some tips for planning a trip along the Whiskey Trail:
1.) You may be tempted to think of a scotch tasting like a wine tasting. Don’t. Scotch is strong stuff and most tastings include at least one cask strength whisky (around 120 proof). Add one tasting per day to the scotch served at breakfast (not kidding) and dinner, and you might just need to check into the Betty for awhile when you return home. Fortunately, there are plenty of things to do in the area, so you can easily combine one or two tastings per day with other activities, like golf, cycling, or a visit to a castle. (see my sample itineraries for the Whisky Trail)
2.) I don’t like buses filled with drunk people, so an organized tour wasn’t high on my list. That said, you have to manage carefully if you are going to tour on your own. A designated driver is the best plan. If you don’t have a driver, certainly do no more than one tasting per day that is very modest in quantity. Also, have a little food and a walk (or take the tour after you taste) before you leave. Roads are narrow and winding, which makes drinking and driving all the more dangerous.
3.) Some distilleries require tours in order to taste and/or reservations prior to a visit. I’ve included a list of all distilleries in my guide to the Scotch Whisky Trail with URLs. Check the web site of each distillery you plan to visit and make reservations where necessary. Almost all close at 5pm or earlier. If you are visiting out of season (and I’m not sure why you would – it is COLD in Scotland), many distilleries have limited hours or may not be open at all.
4.) As noted above, there are really too many distilleries to visit in one trip (unless it is a long one). So if you want to fully experience what is on offer in the region, head to the pubs in the evening. Most offer a very wide variety of scotch and many offer tastings. Another option: If you fly into Edinburgh and stay for a night, stop in at The Amber Restaurant – Scotch Whiskey Experience (very close to Edinburgh Castle). The food is very good but you can skip the meal and go directly to the tasting bar.
5.) Two distilleries worth visiting, Edradour and Dalwhinnie are not in Speyside (the heart of the Whisky Trail); however, these are easily accessible (right off of the highway) on the way in. At Dalwhinnie, your tasting will be paired with chocolate (who could resist THAT?). Edradour is a very small distillery and clings to many of the old ways, so the tour offered there makes it very easy to understand how scotch is made. If you only do one tour, do it at Edradour!
6.) Big hotels (especially the name brand hotels you are familiar with) aren’t common. Cottages, B&Bs, and small inns are the norm (see my map for a range of inn options; Sykes Cottages has a good selection as well). Most serve a full, cooked breakfast and many offer a dinner meal as well. Fancy something special or unusual? Stay in a castle (The Castle Hotel, Park Castle) or at least, at a castle (cottages and houses for rent at Ballindollach Castle).
5.) Restaurants are not as plentiful as one might imagine. Every town has a pub (some of them great, some of them terrible) and as noted above, inns usually have a dinner option, but don’t count on being able to find somewhere to eat in any of the small towns along the trail (you might go hungry depending on the day and time). When you do find a restaurant, the food is primarily traditional Scottish dishes (many include scotch as an ingredient), British pub food, and a smattering of European options.
One additional note on eating out: If you are a wine drinker, it might be a scarce week. Wine lists are generally limited in even the better restaurants. The good news is that single malt scotch can — and is — paired with food in much the same way. Single malts have a vast array of flavors and can, like wines, enhance the overall experience of food. In fact, be prepared: you will be offered scotch pairings with certain dishes throughout the day (oatmeal in the morning, for example). And if you don’t happen to order something with scotch in it, no worries. Within 30 seconds of the arrival of your entre, the waitress will come by with a handy little spritzer bottle filled with scotch whiskey and ask if you would like “a spritz”.
A spritz? Of whiskey? On what? (I ask innocently)
“On whatever ye like” says the waitress. “Eggs, bacon, even yer toast, but I d’na recommen’ it. If ye want it on yer toast ha’ the scotch marmalade or scotch honey.”
And then there are the candies (scotch fudge) cakes (vanilla with toffee frosting and a scotch sauce was my favorite) and scotch-laced main dishes (whisky baked langostines were yummy). Seriously, you have to love a culture that can do so much with a single ingredient. (BTW, if you are interested in single malt whisky and food pairings, check out Whisky & Food by Jan Groth and Arne Adler.)
SO THAT’S IT…Those are my tips. Now get out the laptop and start booking your trip.
Enjoy the Journey!
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