I spent a good amount of time researching various distilleries and tour operators before we went but still had a number of “wish I had known moments” that I want to document for others thinking of doing a similar trip. If you want to treat this experience like a weekend drunk fest in Napa Valley or a Pub-crawl in Dublin then any tour service will work.
However, if you want to have a “whiskey taste altering experience” you need to find a private guide that is flexible, asks a lot of questions of you and is willing to develop an experience that is perfect for you. We had a great time on the trip and our guide Duncan from Highland Whiskey Tours did an amazing job before and during the trip to make it extra special. Taking into account some of his suggestions and what we learned on the tip here are some considerations.
What is the goal of the trip?
Our original goal was to visit that part of Scotland and learn about and taste Speyside whiskey. Seems simple enough, but once you get there it can take on another dimension and wishing you had thought it out a bit more and made some different choices.
Distillery Visits – as all will tell you the whiskey process is the essentially the same so you could do a one and done on distilleries. Yes, each has differences that make them unique and never dreaded any of the tours but I can see where it might get repetitive for some people. If you have a deep interest in the distilling process and want to understand some of the nuances of how specific products get their distinct tastes than I suggest do multiple tours. I learned a lot about how the sizes and shapes of stills, how the types, sizes and aging in barrels impact the final taste profile. Learned terms like marriages and taste/nose of each elements are combined to create the specific profile the blender desires. Just be aware, for the non-whiskey geek with you, they may get board after the first couple of them. Note, in many cases, they don’t do just tastings and you have to do the tour to do the tasting.
Tasting – My tasting goal was to taste whiskey’s that are not readily available in the US. Honestly, if you just want to taste go to any of the number of whiskey bars, restaurants or even hotel bars with most bragging on having 100 or more variations. Doing it at the distillery gives an extra special experience especially if they have tasting rooms set up old office/library like at Craggmore Distillery. While many want you to do the tour to taste others have small cafe when you can order a dram.
A few like Arberlour and Strathisla have specialty tastings like the Casks of the Past and the Cellar Collection. Both of these were the highlight of the trip with the tasting at Strathisla bing the biggest surprise. Strathisla is the name of Chivas’ Distillery. Here we did the Cellar Tasting where we got to try a number of options straight from the cask. While not that old the 25 year and Ultis were new additions to my preferences. The Arberlour Casks of the Past had us blind taste testing a variety of reserve collection ranging from 24 to 37 years half from Distilleries that are not longer producing.
Time of Year – We hit it right when the weather was change into spring. The weather was not bad, very strong winds which made it colder than what it actually was outside. These were the first pictures ever in Scotland that had sunlight so we hit it perfectly. Many places are not open until spring and summer and/or have limited hours. There are some that only open to visitors during the week so if you want to go somewhere specific make sure you there when they are actually open.
Base of Operations – Speyside runs from Inverses to Aberdeen and in the middle thee are not a lot of options. Depending on your budget and comfort level. Most of the day you are touring so you just need to think of breakfast and dinner. Since they are European hotels breakfast is typically included. Originally we planned to stay in Arberlour but at our guide’s suggestion we stayed in Elgin. This was a win since the grocery store was across the street, the high street with numerous restaurants was a few blocks away and we were able to walk to a few of the old sites like the Elgin Cathedral and Woolen Mills. This was right on the train line so we could walk from the train station across the street to the hotel. We completed out tour in Keith and caught the train back from there to Aberdeen.
Getting There – Speyside is in the north with flights into Inverness and Aberdeen. You can take a longer trip from Glasgow or Edinburgh. We got a great deal on Aer Lingus to Aberdeen. We then tool Scot Rail from the station near the airport to Elgin. It took just over an hour and was about $50 US round trip.
One big consideration for the airport of departure that we had not considered was being able to get a duty refund. Whisky duty in Scotland is 74% and depending on how much you buy some of the larger distillery’s participate in one of the duty free programs. You can at least ask for an additional receipt. Aberdeen does not have a main duty free station but have a collection box by Gate 1 that you can put your completed forms into. Supposedly they will add the customs stamp to the form and send in the post paid envelop. So far we have not received a refund. Had we flown through Heathrow we could have gotten our duty back in cash.
The goal is to find bottles that you cannot easily get at home. Most of the distilleries have “Distillery Exclusive” bottles that you can only get there. These are tempting but does it meet your criteria? Yes, you cannot get it but it is often a blend similar to ones that have in Duty Free. For any that you are considering, ask them to add it to one of your drams or pay for a separate tasting for it.
Luggage space and TSA tax-free allocations dictate what you can bring back. Nearly every place we found something we liked and wanted to get a bottle. We did settle for a few variety sets and smaller bottles that were easier to pack. We brought wine bottle protectors, bubble wrap etc but since we were going to our favorites on day 2 we wanted to make sure that we had plenty of space and allocation for those bottles.
The more you think about what you want to do and get out of the tour the better it will be. We cannot wait to go back and will be even more prepared this time.