Our round up of 20 fantastic distillery tours and experiences across the Lowlands, Highlands, Speyside and Scottish islands
Scotland is renowned for producing some of the best (if not the best) whisky in the world and they don’t give up their secrets easily. However, for serious connoisseurs and curious minds alike, a visit to a working distillery is an excellent way to get an insight into how the ‘Water of life’ or ‘ulsge beatha’ in Gaelic, is made.
There are around 145 distilleries operating across Scotland and aside from the core methodology involved in producing whisky, each distillery produces its own unique version of the spirit.
From light and aromatic whiskies made in the Lowlands through to dark & smoky liquors from Islay, the factors that determine the end result are plentiful. Whether it be the type of malt, water and yeast fed into a washback, or the shape of the pot stills, the type of barrels used for maturation, and even the conditions of bonded warehouses (Old Pulteney aficionados will proclaim that you can taste the sea air in every drop), the idiosyncrasies that make each distillery different result in unique, incomparable subtleties.
Setting up a distillery is no easy task, not least the number of years you need to wait after you’ve distilled your first drop to be able end up with something that you are be able to call whisky (all Scotch must be matured in oak barrels for a minimum of 3 years to be able to be labelled as Scottish Whisky).
So, it is reassuring to know that the gatekeepers of existing distilleries are happy to open their doors to the public and invite people in to get a sense of how a good whisky is made.
To help you on your journey to discovering how whisky is made in Scotland, I’ve pulled together a list of some of the best distillery tours on offer, and there’s no better place to start than in Scotland’s capital city, Edinburgh.
Located at the top of the Royal Mile, this 5-star visitor attraction is where I first fell in love with whisky. I took a job as a tour guide, cramming in as many shifts between my lectures as possible. It was a 10-minute walk from the Archaeology department and possibly one of the best ‘commutes’ in the country.
The Scotch Whisky Experience is the perfect starting point for anyone looking to get a deeper insight into how whisky is made. Although the experience has been updated somewhat since I worked there, the story remains true and incredibly engaging.
Tours are led by multilingual staff and as it doesn’t revolve around a single distillery, you get a fantastic overview of the different types of whisky, the regional differences and begin to understand what makes Scotland’s national drink so delectably special.
Lowland distilleries open to the public
Around 15 miles to the east of Edinburgh, and overlooked by the Lammermuir Hills, lies Glenkinchie.
Owned by the global giant Diageo, the distillery is proud to state that it is a vital component of Jonnie Walker whisky, as well as producing its own brand of malt with a distinct Lowland note of freshly cut grass and floral fragrance.
The distillery is open daily for tours and even runs an evening ‘full-sensory’ tour on selected dates so that you can immerse yourself in the full flavours of the distillery.
Located on the western fringes of Scotland’s largest city sits Auchentoshan Distillery, one of Glasgow’s oldest producers of whisky. Founded in 1823 but sold several times throughout its lifetime (and even temporarily closing during WW2), Auchentoshan remains a prominent brand in the world of whisky and is the only distillery that practices the art of triple distillation for every drop of spirit produced.
The Auchentoshan visitor centre is open on Tuesday to Sunday from 10.00am to 4.00pm, with different guided tours depending on how much time you have available. For those wanting a more private affair, you can book to visit after hours and get a ‘behind closed doors’ experience.
At the time of writing, the Port of Leith Distillery will become the newest in Scotland, with tours starting in October 2023.
Located on the Albert Dock Basin on the edge of the Firth of Forth, the Port of Leith Distillery is strikingly different to the traditional model of distillery buildings, with production taking place in the form of a large tower and relying on gravity to sequence the process of mashing to distillation.
Being located in Scotland’s capital, the distillery is likely to become one of the city’s most prominent visitor attractions, with the Royal Yacht Britannia and Ocean Terminal on its doorstep.
A 206 year old distillery set on 50 acres in the beautiful county of Dumfries and Galloway, Bladnoch is a true Lowland gem. It is also Scotland’s most southerly producer and sources its water from the Bladnoch River that runs alongside the distillery.
Despite its early success, the distillery has had more than its fair share of misfortune, with the site being mothballed in the 1990’s and ownership being transferred numerous times throughout its lifetime. In 2015 the distillery was purchased by the Australian entrepreneur David Prior, with production recommencing two years later.
In 2019, Bladnoch opened its visitor centre and today offers two different tours and an on-site shop and cafe.
In the heart of Hawick (pronounced ‘Hoyk’) you’ll find the Border Distillery – “the first Scotch whisky distillery in the Scottish Borders since 1837”. The distillery opened in 2018 and takes its water from a large underground later deep beneath the site, and uses the River Teviot (conveniently located on its doorstep) to help cool the spirit after distillation.
Although the distillery produces Scotch Whisky, it also uses the raw spirit to produce gin and vodka, both of which take on a different ‘post distillation’ process that doesn’t require a lengthy maturation stage required for whisky.
The distillery visitor centre and tour have been awarded a 5* visitor attraction certificate by VisitScotland and is open daily from the end of March through to the end of October.
Highland distilleries open to the public
Located just off the A9 in the picturesque Scottish Highlands, Dalwhinnie Distillery is one of Scotland’s highest distilleries, nestled amidst the stunning Cairngorms National Park.
Founded in 1897, this remote distillery has a rich history of producing exceptional single malt Scotch whisky. What sets Dalwhinnie apart is its frigid climate, which results in a slower maturation process, enhancing the whisky’s complexity.
The distillery and visitor centre is open 7 days a week but do check ahead during the winter months, as there is a tendency for snow to disrupt travel in this wild part of the country.
Famed for being run by ‘The 16 men of Tain”, Glenmorangie has been crafting whisky since 1843. What makes Glenmorangie truly unique is its dedication to oak casks, particularly American oak barrels that once held bourbon. This practice imparts a distinct vanilla and citrus character to their whisky.
The distillery is also known for having Scotland’s tallest stills, contributing to a remarkably smooth spirit as the vapour climbs to the top of the copper towers.
It is also one of the first distilleries I visited when I lived in Scotland, so naturally it is one of my favourites, as it struck home that making whisky is more than just chemistry and time, but more about people working in harmony to craft something so exceptionally delicious!
Situated in the heart of Scotland’s Speyside region, Glenfiddich is one of the last family-owned distilleries, with a legacy dating back to 1887.
Glenfiddich is renowned for its pioneering spirit, being one of the first distilleries to market single malt Scotch whisky globally. They pride themselves on using traditional craftsmanship and their own cooperage, ensuring exceptional quality control.
Tours of the distillery run between Wednesday to Sunday, but the Glenfiddich gift shop is open 7 days a week for those looking to take a bottle of something rather special home with them.
Overlooking the picturesque harbour of Oban on the west coast of Scotland, this distillery was established back in 1794 and lies at the heart of the town.
Oban is often referred to as the “Gateway to the Isles,” and its whisky reflects this coastal influence. It is also one of Scotland’s smallest distilleries, with a footprint of just over an acre and a team of 14 distillers who carefully craft this exquisite single malt.
A tour of the distillery includes an insight into how our whisky is made and what gives it that ever-so distinctive taste and a guided tasting session to help you identify the subtle notes that go into each of their malts.
Located in the far north of the Scottish mainland in the historic fishing town of Wick, Old Pulteney Distillery has been crafting whisky since 1826. The distillery’s proximity to the sea plays a significant role in shaping its character, imparting a subtle maritime influence to the whisky.
Known as the “Maritime Malt,” Old Pulteney whiskies often feature briny and salty notes alongside honeyed sweetness. The Old Pulteney 12-Year-Old is a prime example of their unique flavour profile, making it a favourite among whisky enthusiasts who appreciate the sea’s influence on their drams.
Between April to September, the distillery is open for guided tours from Monday through to Saturday. During Autumn and Winter, the distillery is closed to visitors at the weekend.
Speyside distilleries open to the public
Located in the heart of Speyside, The Macallan Distillery is renowned for its commitment to producing some of the world’s finest single malt Scotch whiskies. Founded in 1824, its rich history is a testament to its dedication to craftsmanship and innovation. Macallan is distinctive for its sherry-seasoned oak casks, which lend a sumptuous, dried fruit and spice character to its whisky.
The distillery’s portfolio includes a range of age-statement and limited-edition expressions, with the Macallan 18-Year-Old Sherry Oak standing out as an icon of their style and quality.
Although one of the most well-known distilleries, tours and private events are by appointment only, so be sure to book ahead to secure a place.
Found in the village of Keith, Strathisla is one of Scotland’s oldest distilleries, dating back to 1786. The picturesque setting along the banks of the River Isla adds to its charm and Strathisla is uniquely known for its distinctive pagoda-style chimneys and traditional pot stills (which you may have seen on numerous photographs over the years).
It plays a significant role in Chivas Regal blends but also produces the acclaimed Strathisla 12-Year-Old Single Malt, characterised by its gentle, fruity, and malty profile.
Alongside the traditional tour of the distillery, you can also have a go at creating your own blended whisky which you get to keep and take home!
Situated in the heart of Speyside, Cragganmore Distillery was established in 1869. What sets Cragganmore apart is its complex whisky, often described as a “Speyside in a glass.”
Its water source, the Craggan Burn, and the use of traditional worm tub condensers contribute to a distinctive, rich, and slightly smoky character, giving it a very distinctive (and delicious) taste.
The distillery offers a daily tour which includes a tutored tasting of 3 different malt whiskies made at the distillery.
The Glenlivet, founded in 1824, is located only a couple of miles from Cragganmore next to the foothills of the Cairngorms National Park.
It holds the distinction of being the first legal distillery in Scotland and praised for its smooth and fruity style (The Glenlivet’s whisky is crafted with pure spring water from the nearby Josie’s Well).
Their core range includes classics like The Glenlivet 12-Year-Old, which boasts notes of orchard fruits and vanilla, making it a beloved representation of Speyside whisky traditions.
The Glenlivet offers 4 different experiences and a bespoke experience where you work with the distillery to craft your own tour, tasting and behind the scenes exploration.
Positioned on the edge of the Balmoral Estate in the Scottish Highlands, Royal Lochnagar Distillery enjoys royal patronage, with Queen Victoria granting it a “Royal” title in the 19th century.
Founded in 1826, it is renowned for its rich and robust Highland whisky. Royal Lochnagar’s water source, the Scarnock Springs, and copper pot stills contribute to its character, with malty sweetness and a touch of spice.
The distillery offers daily tours and is an excellent addition for anyone making a visit to glorious Royal Deeside.
Island distilleries open to the public
On the remote Isle of Jura, nestled off Scotland’s west coast, Jura Distillery has been crafting whisky since its establishment in 1810.
Known for its wild and rugged landscapes, Jura’s isolation plays a significant role in shaping its whisky’s character. Jura whiskies range from lightly peated and sweet to more robust and smoky expressions, mirroring the island’s diverse terrain and climate. The Jura 10-Year-Old is a popular choice, offering a taste of the island’s unique personality, which combines maritime influence with a touch of peat.
Situated on the stunning Isle of Harris in the Outer Hebrides, Hearach Distillery, also known as the Isle of Harris Distillery, is a relatively young establishment, founded in 2015. This distillery is characterised by its deep commitment to sustainable practices and its dedication to reflecting the island’s natural beauty in its design and ethos.
Their flagship product, Hearach Single Malt, captures the essence of the island’s coastal and maritime influences, resulting in a whisky with a unique and captivating character.
On the enchanting Isle of Raasay, off Scotland’s west coast, Raasay Distillery is a recent addition, founded in 2017.
Raasay’s whisky-making history is still in its infancy, but its unique location, surrounded by rugged landscapes and the sea, holds promise for distinctive expressions.
The distillery aims to create a signature Raasay style that reflects the island’s terroir, and while its offerings are still maturing, they provide a glimpse of the future potential of Raasay whisky.
Nestled on the Orkney Islands, Highland Park Distillery has a history dating back to 1798, making it one of Scotland’s oldest distilleries. Its location (it’s Scotland’s second northernmost distillery), with its Viking heritage and proximity to the sea, is central to the whisky’s character.
Highland Park is known for its balanced, peated expressions that incorporate honeyed sweetness and subtle smokiness, reminiscent of the islands’ rugged coastline and Norse history. The Highland Park 12-Year-Old is a classic representation of their style, with a harmonious blend of flavours.
Situated on the southern coast of the Isle of Islay, Laphroaig Distillery has a storied history dating back to 1815. It stands out for its fiercely peated and medicinal-style single malts, making it a polarising but revered distillery among whisky enthusiasts.
Laphroaig’s whisky derives its distinctive character from the island’s abundant peat bogs and the briny, maritime influence of the sea. The Laphroaig 10-Year-Old, with its intense smokiness and medicinal notes, is iconic in the world of peated whisky, offering a bold and unforgettable Islay experience.
If you’re inspired to visit some of Scotland’s stunning distilleries and immerse yourself in all things whisky, be sure to check out some of the exceptionally well curated tours below leaving from major Scottish cities.