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Taking A Whisky-Centric Trip To Scotland? Here Are Eight Essential Stops

It’s quite possible, maybe even advisable, to design a Scotland trip entirely around whisky. That’s just as true for the Scotch newbie as it is for the serious connoisseur. And while plenty of distilleries go back literal centuries, there are also young upstarts changing the game while challenging long-held ideas about what whisky can be. Visit both and you’ll leave with a better understanding of the spirit’s heritage and its future.

Historic distilleries are obviously a must on any whisky-centric sojourn, but don’t sleep on the whisky bars. Scotland doesn’t just produce the stuff, they also have plenty of memorable places to drink it. Whatever your scene, you’re sure to find the vibe that suits you. Want an old empire whisky club with mustachioed gentlemen in plaid kilts? It’s there. Prefer a bar where the cool kids curate the best Scotland has to offer? They’ve got it. Take a tip from a pro: seek out a few whisky bars that offer oyster pairings. You won’t be disappointed.

To help you parse all this and plan the ultimate Scottish whisky journey, we’re highlighting eight stops, bringing together whisky’s rich past and its bright days to come. Four are distilleries spanning the whole country that offer a real sense of what’s happening there now, while still touching on deeply-held traditions. The other four are whisky bars offering unforgettable drinking experiences for the casual tourist and the Scotch aficionado alike.

It should go without saying that even a list this extensive barely scratches the surface of all the great places to enjoy whisky in Scotland. But it’s definitely a great place to dive in!

PART I — The Whisky Bars

1820 Bar Johnnie Walker Princess Street, Edinburgh

1820 Bar Princess Street
Zach Johnston

While I’d highly recommend going on the Johnnie Walker Experience at Princess Street in Edinburgh, you don’t have to if you’re not that into Johnnie Walker. What we do insist is that you hit up their rooftop bar.

This bar kind of has it all. The food menu is dialed in, and really highlights Scotland’s best offerings. There’s an excellent selection of Scottish root vegetable plates along with Scottish cheese and, of course, plenty of seafood offerings. And don’t sleep on the beef cheek and truffle doughnuts. Imagine a soft doughnut stuffed with braised beef cheek and grated truffle, with a killer, mustard-y dipping sauce. It’s the perfect accompaniment to a fine whisky — or a cocktail.

Before we get to the whisky, there’s the view. I know, it’s a rooftop bar so the view part should be pretty self-explanatory, but it truly is extraordinary. Basically, you’re looking right at Edinburgh Castle and down Princess Street. Then you can swing around the corner and see the rest of the city all the way to the sea. On a sunny day, it offers every vista you could want.

Then, of course, there’s the whisky. The whisky menu at 1820 touches on every major Diageo distillery (over a dozen of them) by region. Then the whisky list goes well beyond the core lineup to cover special limited releases that don’t leave Scotland, to whiskies that are 20, 30, 40, 50 years old or older. Some of those pours will set you back hundreds of dollars, but there are few other places where you’ll find such a deep bench of dusty whisky bottles available for your drinking pleasure.

Pro tip: Ask the bartender if there’s anything that just came in and isn’t on the menu yet. You might find a true gem.

Is This The Bar For You?

If you’re looking for a hip and trendy place to mingle with locals and tourists over bespoke dishes and trendy cocktails with the best view in town, then for sure. But it’s also a great spot if you’re looking to find super hard-to-find drams that might not be at any other bar in the world. That’s a win-win.

You can find the 1820 Rooftop Bar here.

The Pot Still Pub, Glasgow

The Pot Still
Zach Johnston

If you’re in Glasgow and looking for the one whisky bar that epitomizes the best Scotland has to offer in a pub setting, then you owe it to yourself to spend some time in The Pot Still. The pub is right in the center of the city, within walking distance of tons of hotels, restaurants, shopping, and clubs in the midst of a bustling street front. Inside, it’s a quiet sanctuary for whisky lovers during the day that at night becomes a packed club where whisky and beer lovers alike can meet up and enjoy a great dram before late-night kicks in.

The prime time to drop in is in the early to late afternoon when you can chat with the barmen about the vast collection of whiskies they stock. In fact, if you can’t make it out to any distilleries, you might learn just as much from the dude with the long ginger beard behind the bar as from any distillery tour guide.

The added beauty of the pub is the crowd. This truly feels like a local hangout, even in the bustling heart of the city. If you find yourself there alone, it won’t be long before someone strikes up a conversation. Before you know it, you’ll be getting even more whisky recommendations, and maybe even a bar recommendation or two around town.

Oh, and don’t forget to grab a Scottish pie from the warmer on the bar while you’re there. It’s the perfect snack to soak up some of that whisky you’ll be drinking.

Is This The Bar For You?

Yes is the simple answer. This is a bar for everyone, it’s a pub after all. It’ll skew a little older during the afternoon but you’ll also be able to chat with folks behind the bar about whisky at length. Every evening this turns into a party spot and it’ll be packed with a much younger crowd looking for a good whisky before the party starts at the club.

You can find The Pot Still here.

Bowmore Hotel Lucci’s Whisky Bar, Isle of Islay

Bowmore Hotel Whisky Bar
Bowmore Hotel Whisky Bar

Bowmore Hotel, across the street from the Bowmore Distillery (which is 100 percent worth touring), has one of the best whisky bars in the country, let alone Islay. Lucci’s Whisky Bar is one of those bucket list bars if you’re a whisky lover. The bar stocks over 700 Scotch whiskies, mostly from Islay. You can get lost here.

Here’s the play: roll in and ask for Peter. He’ll be your whisky guide. Have a nice chat and go over what you like to eat and drink. He’ll take a moment, and maybe pop in the backroom. Then he’ll bring you a whisky pour that matches your palate so well it’ll blow your socks off.

As with all the whisky bars on this list, the people working behind the bar are human encyclopedias. You’ll learn more chatting with Peter for half an hour then you would in a week of reading, assuming you can remember any of it the next day.

Is This The Bar For You?

If you’re in Islay, it’s almost crazy not to stop here. This is a bar for whisky lovers. You can go deep here. You’ll also likely meet other whisky tourists on the island doing a very similar tour to you, which means you might make some new friends along the way.

You can find Lucci’s Whisky Bar here.

SCOTCH at the Balmoral, Edinburgh

SCOTCH at the Balmoral
The Balmoral Hotel

The Balmoral is one of the swankiest hotels in Scotland. Naturally, the whisky bar in the Balmoral is a must-stop. You’ll want to book an experience with Cameron Ewen, the bar’s Senior Whisky Advisor (though there are several “whisky ambassadors” working at SCOTCH that’ll provide an amazing experience as well).

The vibe of this place is old-school “club” from a bygone era, with 500 whiskies at your disposal. You could spend a year here and not get to the end of it all. Moreover, the knowledge of the staff, and especially Ewen, is astounding. If there was a Ph.D. in whisky, Ewen would have it. His knowledge of everything from the terroir to the shape of the glass in your hand is precise, engaging, and always comes with a convivial smile and laugh.

It’s another place you might leave a little too tipsy to remember everything you just learned. Still, you’ll have had one of the greatest whisky bar experiences there is in Edinburgh. You’ll also be a little poorer too. Pours are not cheap here and there’s a private club behind the scenes in case you want to drop even more cash for whisky status.

Is This The Bar For You?

Did you pack a suit or semi-posh evening wear? No? Then this might be a little too high brow for you. While I feel comfortable in a place like this since I’m in the whisky industry, I can see it being a little too high end for the casual whisky drinker, much less the average tourist. That said, you will not find an atmosphere or whisky list like this anywhere else. This is truly a church of all things whisky.

You can find SCOTCH at the Balmoral Hotel here.

PART II — The Distilleries

Kilchoman Distillery, Isle of Islay

Kilchoman Distillery
Zach Johnston

Kilchoman Distillery is the new kid on the block on Islay. The distillery — which is attached to a farm and a stone’s throw from one of Islay’s best beaches — was the first distillery built on Islay in nearly 100 years. Opened back in 2005, Kilchoman is a self-contained facility pushing the boundaries of lightly-peated malt with every new release.

It’s also remote. The distillery is perched on a small hill on the far western side of the island, down a dirt road that’s completely surrounded by farm and wild land. Luckily, there are few roads on Islay and small signs pointing the way, so it’ll be hard to get lost. Still, you’ll have to want to go out to this distillery as it’s not on the way to anything.

Once there, you’ll be treated to a family-run experience. The welcome center has an airy open format that’s flooded with natural light. Locally made crafts mingle with bespoke bottles of Kilchoman’s limited edition and unique whiskies. A long bar runs the length of the building where you can taste the core line and limited editions (for about $2 a pour). There’s also a cafe on-site that offers oysters, chowder, and some of the best home-baked bread I’ve smelled in a while.

As someone who’s been dozens and dozens of distillery tours, none were quite as easy-going and personal as Kilchmonan. There was no rush between the malting floor, still house, or barrel house, and it was more like a long chat with an old friend while you wander through a small-time distillery operation run by friends and family.

Is This The Distillery For You?

Absolutely. It’s small, educational, and you might get a chance to pet a sheep on the farm. This is the sort of remote distillery that’s perfect for a lunch stop even if you don’t care that much about whisky. Though the people at Kilchoman are so engaging and nice, you might just care more about whisky by the time you leave.

You can find Kilchoman Distillery here.

The Singleton of Glen Ord Distillery, Highlands

Glen Ord Distillery
Diageo

The Glen Ord Distillery is the perfect blend of old and new. The facade of the distillery is built from an old row of rock houses dating back to the 1800s. The distillery behind that is a state-of-the-art facility pumping out some of the most sought-after whisky in the game: The Singleton of Glen Ord.

What I love about the distillery tour is that you’re lured in by this old-school Scotland feel of those row houses, then on the inside it feels like you’re in a pub museum, devoted to great whisky from The Singleton (and other Highland brands from Diageo). The gift shop is full of bottles that range into the 30-40-year-old age range, meaning you can pick up a true one-of-a-kind whisky to take home.

Then there’s the actual distillery. The whole facility was doubled in 2014 to handle the whisky boom (especially in the East Asian market). As you walk through the halls of stills and barrels, you’re met with a sort of awe at the size and efficiency of the whole place. Rows of pot stills line walls backlit by windows (again, allowing in all that natural light), giving it the feel of a post-modern cathedral dedicated to whisky. It’s enough to make you want to kneel at the altar, if there was one amidst the spirit safe and washbacks.

Is This The Distillery For You?

This is the closest to a big-time whisky operation like you might see in Kentucky or Tennessee. That said, it has a deeply Scottish character and you can feel the history. That’s countered by a factory-like tour which might be boring for some or exciting for others.

You can find The Singleton of Glen Ord Distillery here.

Springbank Distillery, Campbeltown

Springbank Distllery
Zach Johnston

Sometimes you have to go to the end of the road to find the sweet spot. Okay, Campbeltown isn’t technically the end of the road, but it’s very close to it on the peninsula of Kintyre. There, you’ll find a small town — the sort that still has family-owned hardware and toy stores — with a small distillery that has excited whisky lovers the world over, Springbank.

I’m not going to lie, Springbank is a whisky nerd’s distillery and brand. Its footprint isn’t huge in the U.S., yet. Springbank is one of those brands people seek out because it’s so unique (Springbank is one of only three distilleries left in the area) and each release is a banger. When I rolled up to the distillery, there was a line of whisky heads wrapping around the block waiting for the latest limited edition release.

Like most distilleries in Scotland, Springbank opened and closed several times throughout the 20th century. When you take the tour, the strain is still evident in the eras of machines and tools present. That boom-and-bust history is the throughline of the distillery tour. You see the decades of marks on the side of the grist mill where a broom was used to keep the grain flowing. The stills feel like they’re built into centuries-old brick walls, because, well, they kind of are. The whole place feels lived in and alive in a microbiome that helps make Springbank so unique and beloved.

Is This The Distillery For You?

This distillery bridges perfect gap, of being exciting for whisky nerds while also being small and unique enough to engage the passive tourist. It’s a small tour of a compact campus, so you won’t get lost on a factory floor here. There’s a real charisma to the place that transcends whisky.

You can find Springbank Distillery here.

Talisker Distillery, Isle of Skye

Talisker Distillery
Zach Johnston

A trip to Skye is essential on any Scottish tour. The island is full of natural wonders, from amazing rocky mountain outcrops to wind-swept cliffs over the sea to miles-long white sand beaches. It’s also home to one of the most-beloved distilleries on the planet.

Talisker, nestled right on the beach, is an old-school distillery making some of the most sought-after whiskies right now. The tour of the facility is a gentle walk through the history of a whisky touched by the sea. The highlight is the old outdoor cooling tanks for the stills fed by seawater. Then there’s the old warehouse, where you’ll feel the alchemy from centuries of molds and wood melding with the sea, oak, and whisky to create something unique and delicious.

But it doesn’t stop there. No trip to Talisker is complete without a trip to the Oyster Shed. Just above the distillery, you’ll find a small seafood shed with a patio on the side, where you’ll be able to score dozens of fresh oysters to eat with your newly purchased Talisker. The Oyster Shed also does fish and chip variations, excellent cold and hot smoked salmon, and pretty much every other combo of fresh seafood you can imagine. It’s the perfect cap to a trip to one of the most beloved distilleries in Scotland (and maybe the world.).

Is This The Distillery For You?

If I were to recommend only one distillery in all of Scotland to visit, this would be it. The tour is even-keeled and interesting to outsiders thanks to the amazing tour guides, history, and location. You also get the amazing seafood experience right above the distillery that adds a great layer to the place. Even if you don’t adore the whisky, there’s still enough of a unique vibe and food experience to carry you through.

You can find Talisker here and the Oyster Shed here.

Honorable mentions:

Ardbeg Distillery, Islay— One of the best tours on Islay with a newly expanded state-of-the-art distillery amongst the old seaside town/distillery.

The Malt Room, Inverness — A great whisky bar in the Highlands hidden behind a nondescript storefront with a massive selection of Scotch and a young crew directing and curating the vibe and cellar.

Lagavulin Distillery, Islay — Nick Offerman’s favorite distillery is everything you want in a seaside distillery experience — great tastings in the barrel rooms, a cool and informative tour, and a gift shop with limited edition bottles you can’t get anywhere else.

Oban Distillery, Oban — This distillery predates the town that sprang up around it and is a truly small-time operation with just seven people making the iconic whisky right next to the sea.

More Photos From Scotland’s whisky scene:

Kilchoman
Zach Johnston
Oban
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The Malt Room
The Malt Room
Kilchoman
Zach Johnston
Laphroaig
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Bowmore
Zach Johnston
Ardbeg
Zach Johnston
Ardbeg
Zach Johnston
Islay Ferry
Zach Johnston
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