Trip To Scotland (May 6/May 22, 2017) - Part 3 The Tours and the Tastings

“Drams Come True 2017 Part 3”

Hello Everybody and Welcome to Best Shot Whisky Reviews!

The Distillery Tours and Visitor Centres:

When compared to 2014 some changes are noticeable. These changes are more noticeable in some distilleries and less so in others. Most of these changes are a result of the continuing - and substantial increase in visitors. You can compare it to the difference between a local village grocery shop in the 1960's and today's large Supermarket. The first probably received a relatively small number of people each day and there was time for small talk. You were a friend, not a client. The same applies to the Whisky Distilleries. The Visitor Centres, Shops and Tours have become a parallel industry next to the actual making of Whisky. Especially in those Distilleries controlled by the large Internationals you are often not considered as guest or friend but as (potential) client.

Tour at Springbank

Glen Scotia

The large numbers of visitors also resulted in a strict Tour Schedule as the next Group is already waiting. That's probably the main reason why in most of the Multinational-owned Distilleries you are no longer allowed to take pictures. It's being sold as part of the Safety Procedures but I have my own thoughts about that. At the Dalmore Distillery we were not even allowed to take our switched off mobile phones into the Distillery. Leave them at the desk or put them in your car! Most Standard Tour prices have increased by around 30% since 2014 from around 6 to around 9 English Pounds with the exception of Islay where prices remained stable. The drams at the end of the Tour have become even smaller though!

Tour at Kilchoman


It needs to be said that the problems described above multiply during the weekends. At Glengoyne for example four different groups were touring at the same time. At Talisker it was almost impossible to move around in the (large) shop. It looked like a large supermarket on a Saturday Morning! So avoid the weekends if you want to have a little privacy! Also avoid the Friday afternoon as in most distilleries at least part of the process is stopped in order to be able to clean the equipment. It's much nicer when everything is working!

Tour at Tobermory


The increase of visitors has also lead to a decrease in general knowledge of the average visitor about the Whisky making process. For many of them it's the first time they visit a Distillery. As little or no in-depth questions are to be expected, some distilleries have delegated the guidance of the Tours to junior staff. They might also hire (mostly young) people during the high season to perform this job. For more knowledgeable persons this can be annoying sometimes as the more specific questions can't be answered during the Tour. The low point was our Tour at Bunnahabhain on Islay. We were really looking forward to that as the Distillery was closed during our first trip in 2014. The Tour Guide was a trainee who read the text from a piece of paper and many mistakes crept in the presentation. I could have done a better job there myself! We found out that the best days to visit a Distillery are from Monday to Thursday. If you're lucky you can score a private tour or a tour with a small group  of 2-6 people who have generally speaking more knowledge of- and interest in the Whisky making process. We were very lucky to have this type of Tour at a.o. Arran, Glen Ord, Tobermory, Springbank, Tomatin and Tullibardine.

Tour at Glenturret

Famous Brother-in-Law & Famous Grouse

Fortunately there are still many positive exceptions as well. At Laphroaig you always feel welcome for instance. And we are extremely positive about the Tours at Arran, Springbank, Glen Ord, Balblair, Tomatin and Tullibardine. And I shouldn't forget Tobermory in this respect. The Distillery is closed at the moment as important equipment is being replaced. There were no other visitors so we had the place to ourselves. Despite all this, our guide managed to give one of the best tours of our Trip. We were impressed! So in the end it depends on people as so often in life.

Tour at Balblair

I do hope that Distilleries will understand that their visitors usually come as friends. If they are treated like this there is a big chance they become clients afterwards. If they are treated as mere casual by-passers, they will not be inspired to become a client. In fact they might lose them for ever. Another suggestion I would like to make to the Distilleries is the following. Wouldn't it be an idea to organise separate Tours for first time Distillery Visitors. Or, as an alternative, reserve the Standard Tour for this type of visitor. This way, every guest can be treated in a more comfortable way. Just a thought!

Tour at Tullibardine

And, finally, a word about the Shops and Visitor Centres. Some are great like at Arran, Aberfeldy, Glen Ord, Kilchoman and Talisker but others are becoming too small like Caol Ila, Bunnahabhain, Lagavulin, Glen Scotia, Tobermory and Dalmore. It would be nice though if all shops would sell at least one miniature bottle of their Whisky. Lots of people would appreciate that to complete their collections. The Ardbeg shop was practically without product (except Whisky) during our visit. If you have a shop, organise it, keep it clean and make sure that all products are available. Glenmorangie is a good example of this. Even though I'm not a huge fan of their Whiskies, I must congratulate them on their job. It's a joy to walk around the premises and the Still Room or Whisky Cathedral is a feast for the eye!

Tasting at Isle of Arran

The Distillery Tastings.
For most visitors, the Tasting of the Whisky or Whiskies after the Tour is the fun part. The number of the Whiskies that you get to taste usually depends on the Tour you have booked. The Standard Tour will buy you one or at the most two of the Standard younger Whiskies of a Distillery. Most Distilleries offer a range of other Tours. They are of course more expensive but generally have the advantage of smaller groups, more experienced Tour Guides and, of course, more Whiskies to taste afterwards. A Tour of around 30 English Pounds will usually offer you six different drams + New Make Spirit. In most of these Tours the Whisky line-up include special Distillery Bottlings, Cask Strength expressions and so on.

Tasting at Kilchoman

When you do a Standard Tour, the dram or drams are usually offered in the Shop and/or Visitor Centre. The picture above is a good example of this. The whole procedure lasts 5-20 minutes.  When you do a more extensive Tour, the Tasting is usually set up in a special Tasting Room or in one of the Warehouses. The sessions can last up to one hour and are accompanied by a tutor. This is of course much more fun and, if you can afford it, I can fully recommend it. The following pictures give you an idea:

Tasting at Tomatin

There are always exceptions to these general rules of course. At Dalmore we got two drams after the Standard Tour but they were served in a nice Tasting room where you could also buy optional drams of other Whiskies if so required. And at Bunnahabhain we did the Tasting Tour but the drams were offered in the very small Shop that was crowded with people and with no place to sit down. And for that you pay 25 Pounds! That sucks big time!

Tasting at Tullibardine

We prepared a rating of the Distillery Tours. Both Jan and I gave between 1-10 points for the four categories we selected. This way each Distillery could gain a maximum of 80 points. Please find the table below. It should be noticed that this was our impression on the day that we visited the Distillery. Naturally this could change from day-to-day and from Tour guide to Tour guide. But it gives you a very rough idea anyway! We loved the first five in the ranking. The rest was Regular to Good with the exception of Bunnahabhain that was a thorough disappointment!

DistilleryTourguideTour  Price/Quality  Charisma  Total
Arran16.516.5  17  16.5  66.5
Tomatin16.517  16  15  64.5
Glen Ord16.515.5  17  15  64
Springbank/Glengoyle1516  15.5  17  63.5
Tullibardine16.516.5  15  14.5  62.5
Auchentoshan14.515.5  14.5  16  60.5
Balblair13.515.5  14.5  15.5  59
Glenturret/Famous Grouse1414  14    16  58
Tobermory15.513.5  14.5  14  57.5
Aberfeldy14.514  14  15  57.5
Talisker14.514.5  14  14  57
Dalmore14.514  14  14.5  57
Glenmorangie1415  12.5  15  56.5
Glen Scotia14.514  13.5  14  56
Glengoyne15.514  12  14  55.5
Kilchoman12.513.5  13.5  14.5  54
Bunnahabhain910  8  10  37

Tasting at Aberfeldy

What Else is There to See in Scotland except Whisky.

Scotland is a beautiful country. Especially the East Coast, the Islands and the Lakes. At least when the sun shines! Today's Rain is Tomorrow's Whisky but it can't be denied that the rain is a major factor to consider when you're planning to go there. It's not that important when you're on a Whisky Tour but when you go there for outdoor activities it can spoil your day! Historically speaking, May is a good month to visit Scotland but good weather is never guaranteed.


Arran and Mull are beautiful islands that are a must to visit when you go there. Skye (and the main town Portree) have become very touristic and are crowded. Not places we would return to if not for the Whisky. Another little town that called our attention was Tobermory. It's also touristic but still nice!



Final Observations:

What a great time we had in Scotland this time around. We were lucky with the Weather and the advanced Bookings of Ferries and B&B's proved to be crucial. A big Thank You to my brother-in-law who made all these arrangements. We can certainly advise you to do the same. We were also very fortunate to participate in a number of Private - or very small group Tours. If you fancy those, plan your distillery visits during the week, preferably from Monday to Thursday. In the weekends you might encounter large groups of tourists and on Friday afternoon most distilleries stop (part of) the production in order to clean the equipment. And, finally, we haven't visited all Scottish Distilleries as yet so who knows we might return in a couple of years. I can't wait to be honest!😄


Anonymous said...

Dear Jan,
That seems to have been a great trip. And thank you very much for your open opinions and advice regarding preperations and experiences visiting the distilleries. I actually had similar impressions already in 2012 when it comes to your general critism that I absulutely share. And, I am happy to read that Arran was your favorite distillery to visit especially as you saw so many meanwhile, as I was there last year and enjoyed it very much, as well.

Well, congrats to your impressive and great trip to Scotland...

All the best and best regards,
Yours Björn

Jan van den Ende said...

Dear Bjorn,
Thanks a lot for your kind comments. It was a great trip and we had lots of fun! Our visit to Arran was certainly one of the high points. Nice that you were there as well. If I would live in Europe (again) I would certainly spend more time in Scotland! But there are no plans for that so I will have to wait a bit until the next trip!
Cheers and Have a Great Weekend!

PS: Whisky has become a hype and the industry and distilleries take full advantage of that. I don't blame them but I will give my honest opinion on those developments and the whisky itself. Today, many Whisky "critics" are in fact merely promoting the industry. I think the Industry is capable enough to do their own marketing!