8 Tips for Planning a Whisky Trip to Scotland

In certain kinds of movies, there’s a special kind of montage scene. The small-town hero, fresh-faced and wide-eyed, arrives, dazzled, in the big city for the very first time. To the left, the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty, the Brooklyn Bridge, Wall Street bankers stepping into yellow cabs. To the right, the Hollywood sign, Malibu, the Walk of Fame. Each step brings the fresh thrill of something simultaneously new and familiar, an icon in the flesh.

If you love whisky, Scotland is like one big discovery montage. Across every single-lane bridge, around every bucolic bend, sits yet another world-class distillery, temples to whisky. You’re so spoiled for choice, it’s almost dizzying.

Earlier this year, I spent two whirlwind weeks exploring the Highlands, Islands, and Speyside regions of Scotland—first, tagging along with Customized Journeys’ whisky-themed trip to Islay, and then a week in Speyside with my husband. I came away with a deeper understanding of Scotch whisky, a new appreciation for smoked seafood, and two suitcases groaning under the weight of the maximum allowable quantity of whisky we could take home without paying those exorbitant baggage fees.

I also learned a thing or two about planning a whisky trip to Scotland. In light of the incredible growth in Scotch whisky tourism – last year 1.7 million people visited Scottish whisky distilleries – here are a few pointers for making your own trip easy, enjoyable, and full of fantastic whisky.

Whisky Trip to Scotland

With a little planning, you can visit your favorite distilleries in person. And with a rain coat. Photo by Margarett Waterbury, image copyright The Whiskey Wash.

  1. Plan ahead, especially when it comes to distillery visits. Most distilleries offer a range of experiences, from inexpensive tours of the production floor, to half-day extravaganzas with a focus on specific topics or guided premium tastings. Especially if you’re looking to do higher-end tours, booking ahead is essential. For accommodations, booking ahead likewise behooves you, as most hotels and guest houses, especially outside the urban centers, are quite small.
  2. Getting around Scotland by car is easy, even if driving on the left side of the road takes some getting used to. But you should also be aware that Scotland’s drunk driving laws are extremely strict, and the legal limit, 0.05%, is a little more than half of the United States’. For many, that means a single drink can push you over the edge. Thankfully, most distilleries are very accommodating of drivers, providing coffee and tea, waiving or reducing tour fees, or offering takeaway drams in tiny bottles for sampling once the car is safely parked. Or, you can always hire a driver.
  3. Focus. Scotland might be small, but you’ll have a better time if choose one region and dig in, rather than flit around to your top five favorite distilleries, distance be damned. Even the most dedicated Scotch fan probably has a few distilleries they’re not too familiar with, and getting to know smaller producers that usually play second fiddle to the big guys in international markets is an important part of the fun. Spending more time in one place increases the chances you’ll discover those under-the-radar distilleries.
  4. Leave plenty of time between appointments. There’s nothing worse than having to cut a visit short because you’re too tightly scheduled, and you’ll probably want to spend some quality time in the shop before heading out. Two distillery visits in a day is the maximum I’d advise—and honestly, one might be enough. There are other things to do in Scotland, after all.
  5. Remember to eat. Fortunately, the days of all British food being brown, bland, and boring are well behind us. Seafood uniformly excels, as does anything featuring local lamb or game. Some distilleries, like Kilchoman on Islay, even have their own onsite cafés. There’s also great food from the Middle East and South Asia to be found, especially in larger towns, which makes a nice change of pace from Cullen skink and fish and chips.
  6. Leave home with plenty of space in your suitcase. Almost every producer sells at least one distillery-only bottling, and specialist whisky shops are everywhere, not to mention the temptations of duty-free. Depending on the dollar-to-pound exchange rate (at the time of writing, it’s currently advantageous for Americans, but getting a little less favorable every day), prices can range from competitive to cringe-inducing. However, if you ask for a tax refund receipt, you can get a portion of VAT tax returned to you at the airport on your way home. And after all, there’s no better souvenir than a delicious bottle of whisky to share with your friends back home.
  7. Don’t forget about the pubs. Visiting distilleries is fun, but after three or four, the tours can start to feel repetitive. Even modest Scottish pubs often have a huge range of whiskies behind the bar, knowledgeable bartenders (and patrons!), and a comfy, casual atmosphere that makes you want to sit down and stay awhile. Prices are also very reasonable, especially compared to American whiskey bars. Expect to pay somewhere around £3 or £4 for a mainstream, entry-level dram; if you’re willing to spend twice that, you can drink like royalty. Plus, pubs are just about the only way to get your hands on Scotland’s other delicious drink: cask-conditioned ale. But I digress…
  8. Pack a rain coat, even if your trip is scheduled for July. During our visit, it rained practically every day, and everybody we met said it had been raining like that all summer long. Hey, at least a rainy day makes for great pub weather.

Have you made the trip to Scotland? What do you wish you’d known before you left?

About the author

Margarett Waterbury

Margarett Waterbury is a food and drinks writer based in Portland, Oregon. She's the managing editor of The Whiskey Wash, the managing editor of Edible Portland, and a regular contributor to local and national publications.

  • Rebecca Field

    Very comprehensive. I couldn’t have said it better myself and though we have some very comprehensive advice for connoisseur’s on our website, we don’t have quite such a down-to-earth list of pointers for novice visitors. We’d like to link if you don’t mind (Scot Mountain Holidays).

  • ashay

    Thanks for your sharing this blog! We are planning a visit in August 2018 to UK and one of the key attraction is Whiskey distilleries . Could you recommend me 1 or 2 good distilleries where i could get more knowledge and good experience? My preference is fruity single malts and less smoky.

    Looking forward to hear from you.