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How to Experience the Scottish Malt Whisky Trail's Whisky Distilleries

Posted by Tim Roberts on Mar 28, 2024 3:29:51 PM

Whisky oak barrels piled high outside a distillery with the rugged Scottish coast in the background

If you’re among the population of whisky connoisseurs, then you no doubt have heard of the famous Scottish Malt Whisky Trail, a collection of some of the finest malt whisky distilleries in the world and a pilgrimage for whisky enthusiasts of global travel. Scotland is the birthplace of this legendary drink and an excellent destination in itself. 

This particular writer visited just recently and bought a small bottle of Glenfiddich to help power himself up the last (and brutal) leg of Arthur's Seat hike in Edinburgh, one of the most scenic walks around the world. But little did he know the intricate process behind the scenes of creating the elixir. That's where visiting distilleries comes in handy, and there is no better way than venturing (and tasting) along the famous malt whisky trail in the Scottish Highlands. 

But first, let's delve a little into what's behind this legendary spirit.


What Exactly is Malt Whisky?

A row of copper pots for distilling whiskey

Malt whisky is a fine and distinct type of whisky that starts its journey with malted barley. The process from there is rather complex, so we'll break it down for you:

  • Barley is soaked in water to encourage germination
  • This activates the enzymes that will later convert the starches in the barley into sugars
  • Once germination is achieved, the barley is dried in a kiln, resulting in malted barley
  • The malted barley is then ground down into a coarse powder known as "grist"
  • The grist is mixed with hot water in large vessels called mash tuns
  • The mixing process creates a sugary liquid called "wort", which is then transferred to fermentation vessels
  • This introduces yeast which consumes the sugars in the wort, producing alcohol
  • The distilled liquid, now a high-proof spirit, is transferred to oak casks for maturation

The final stage is the aging process. You’ll see something along the lines of "aged 15 years" or "12-year-old Scotch whisky", on the bottles. This factor is highlighted because the length of time the whisky matures, the type of wood used, and the conditions of the warehouse all contribute to the final flavor and aroma of the malt whisky. Similar to winemaking, every malt whisky is unique depending on the conditions under which it was made and the time matured.

As such, distilling is as much a craft and fine art as it is an industry. As a result, rare and expertly distilled whisky has even become a popular asset class for investors over the last decade.


Single-Malt Scotch Whisky

Three whiskey glasses lined up overlooking a quaint Scottish village

The designation of "single" in "single malt" signifies that all the whisky in the bottle comes from one distillery, rather than being a blend from various sources. This aspect underscores the unique character and flavor profile associated with each distillery for single malts. The local terroir, the distinct water source, and the time-honored techniques employed nurture each to become a unique masterpiece.

Now that we've covered the basics of whisky production, let's move on to the fun part -- pour yourself a stiff one and join us as we tour the greatest Scottish whisky distilleries via the Malt Whisky Trail.


The Malt Whisky Trail - Scotland, UK

Buckle up for one of the world's greatest road trips and overland expeditions, the famous Malt Whisky Trail through the Scottish Highlands and Speyside whisky region.


Benromach Whisky Distillery - Forres, UK

Benromach Whiskey being poured into a glass with ice Photo credit Benromach Distillery 

The whisky-making artisans of Benromach Distillery take their craft seriously, using a handmade approach and the four simple ingredients of "barley, water, yeast, and a human touch". The whisky distillery dates back to 1898, nestled amidst the scenic beauty of Speyside. Growing barley and sourcing the purest of water from a nearby spring, Benromach Whisky Distillery stands as a testament to the time-honored tradition of Scottish whisky-making and blended whisky.

Benromach has five whisky distillery tours to choose from:

  1. The Classic Tour: A delightful invitation into the world of Single Malt Scotch Whisky
  2. The Contrast Tour: A leisurely guided walk through the distillery, including tutored tastings
  3. The Heritage Tour: Learn about the rich heritage of Benromach Distillery with whisky tastings
  4. Manager Experience: The most in-depth, immersive experience led by Distillery Manager, Keith Cruickshank
  5. The Red Door Experience: This one's a secret; you will have to discover what's behind the red door yourself 


Cardhu Whisky Distillery - Speyside, UK

The exterior of the historic Cardhu whisky distillery with it's distinctive tower

Cardhu has been successfully run by two generations of women, Helen and Elizabeth Cumming. They are both renowned in the industry for their skill and determination, as well as their generosity and support of the local community.

Cardhu is also famous for being the Speyside home of the legendary Johnnie Walker & Sons, the first distillery to partner with them in a working relationship that has been going strong for over 200 years.

Cardhu has four tours which you can book ahead on its website:

  1. Cardhu Flavour Journey: Combining story and whisky, this tour takes you on a fascinating journey of Cardhu's founding and history, while tutoring you on whisky tasting.
  2. Guess Dhu Tour and Tasting Challenge: This fun tour tests your knowledge and palette by tasting and guessing/matching the whisky to the taste.
  3. Cardhu Collection Tour: This tasting tour delves deeper into the diverse array of flavors Cardhu offers from some of its finest whiskey.
  4. Cardhu Cask Experience: Here you get to taste six different malt whiskies directly from the wooden casks produced in the Speyside region.


Glen Grant Whisky Distillery - Rothes Speyside, UK
A glass of Glen Grant whisky on the rocks on top of a whiskey barrel

The history of Glen Grant dates back to 1840 when visionary smugglers John and James Grant (aka "The Grant Brothers") founded the whisky distillery, playing a significant role in Scotland's whisky history. The Grant Brothers were also interested in technological advancement which led to the construction of the Northern Railway. And if that's not impressive enough, James Grant helped lead the last clan revolt in Scottish Highland history, "Raid on Elgin." You can even view his tartan waistcoat displayed in the distillery.

You begin your whisky distillery tour with a fascinating journey through the production room, where you'll encounter tall, elegant copper pot stills, complete with their water-cooling purifiers. Your exploration continues in a state-of-the-art bottling facility, where the art of bottling Glen Grant's exceptional whisky is unveiled. Culminate your day in their recently refurbished tasting room with the pleasure of savoring a selection of velvety single-malt Scotch whiskies. There's also the magnificent Majors Victorian Garden, established in 1886.

Check opening times for tours.


Glenfiddich Distillery - Dufftown, UK

Aerial shot of world-famous Glenfiddich whiskey distillery next to ruins of an ancient castle

Glenfiddich, (Gaelic for "valley of the deer"), has arguably the best distillery tour on the Whisky Trail, as well as being one of the more famous Scotch whisky brands. Located on the northwest coast of Scotland, Glenfiddich has a storied and impressive family history dating back to 1886 when William Grant and his family built a distillery with their bare hands, stone by stone. Glenfiddich is one of the last remaining family-owned distilleries and holds the record for the world's most-awarded single malt whisky.

Like most distilleries, you can book a Glenfiddich Distillery tour and learn about its rich history, meet the family of expert whisky makers, learn about the whisky-making process, and, of course, sample some of the finest Scotch whisky on the planet. If that's not enough, next door are the ruins of an ancient castle to explore.


The Glenlivet Whisky Distillery - Ballindalloch, UK

The exterior of Glenlivet Distillery with a lovely creek and stone bridge and green grass in Ballindalloch, Scotland

This world-renowned whisky distillery is located in the gorgeous Livet Valley, with abundant springs that supply some of the purest water available. The isolated region was perfect for founder George Smith who learned his craft illegally, hidden from the authorities (which didn't stop King George IV from requesting a drop of the infamous whisky on his state visit in 1822)! Eventually, there was a change in legislation, and by the 1830s Glenlivet was producing over 200 gallons of their whisky every week.

Today, you can visit Glenlivet Distillery with three tours to choose from:

  1. The Archives (Warehouse Tour): Explore the careful procedures of cask selection and warehousing, all while uncovering the pivotal role that oak plays in the art of crafting the whisky.
  2. Single Casks (Tasting only): For those who want to get straight to the good stuff, you can taste the different flavors, such as toffee and fruity, from selected casks.
  3. The Original Distillery Tour: Learn about rebel and visionary founder George Smith, as well as the individuals who keep the Glenlivet traditions alive. Tastings also.


Speyside Cooperage - Speyside, UK

Whisky pouring into an oak barrel for aging process at Speyside Cooperage whisky distillery

Speyside Cooperage was founded by the Taylor family from maritime roots in 1947 and has recently reopened after a major refurbishment. This includes the Speyside Cooperage visitor center, making it one of the most tourist-friendly whisky distilleries in Scotland (along with Highland Park, Glen Scotia and Islay). Whisky lovers can witness their ancient craft of whisky-making first-hand, renowned for their use of the acorn cask.

They host a range of tours including the popular acorn to cask visitor experience. The whisky distillery is open Monday to Friday and tours run on the hour but they must be booked in advance.


Strathisla Whisky Distilleries - Keith, UK

A man whisky tasting on a Strathisla distillery tour

Strathisla Whisky Distillery is the home of Chivas Regal and is the oldest operating distillery in the Scottish Highlands, established way back in 1786! Their incredibly popular tour is Chivas: The Blend, where you get to create your own whisky blend at the distillery right where the famous single malt Chivas Regal is made.

They have four tours to choose from, ranging from:

  1. Chivas: The Blend: In this exceptional and engaging experience, you'll delve into five distinct whisky flavor profiles - fruity, citrus, creamy, smoky, vanilla, and floral. Afterward, you'll have the chance to experiment with these profiles to craft your very own, one-of-a-kind blend, which you can proudly take home in a charming 20cl bottle.
  2. Strathisla Reserve Tasting: For the spirits aficionado, here you get to taste some of the more rare varieties that Strathisla produces which deliver lighter notes of fruit on the palate.
  3. Strathisla Distillery Tour: The perfect tour for an introduction to whisky making, including learning about Chivas Regal and tastings from mature casks.
  4. Iconic Distilleries: In this double tour package you visit two iconic distilleries; Strathisla and Glen Keith, the latter not open to the public otherwise.

Have you ever been to one (or more) of the distilleries on the Malt Whisky Trail in Scotland? What was your experience like? Comment below!

You might also like to Celebrate the Grape! The World of Wine Festival, blog.



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