There is a small island in the North Sea, just off the coast from one of the most famous alcohol-producing countries in the world—France. It sits quietly (okay, not so quietly) and gets on with things. From ale to cider to gin and whisky, this little place known as the British Isles, and, much like with London 2012, Team GB makes bigger waves in the drinks arena than its size would suggest.
If you’re heading over for a visit to this green and pleasant land, you’ll find many places that welcome visitors with open arms, showing not just the myths and legends behind their brands, but also opening up their breweries, distilleries and production lines to anyone who might show even a glimmer of interest.
Of course, the most famous for booze of all the British regions must be Scotland. A country where the liquor was so good, they named it after the place itself. You don’t catch us drinking a glass of “Irish”, “American”, “Japanese” or “Indian”, but you will very much hear the call for “Scotch” across a crowded hotel bar.
However, Scotland is not where we begin our journey, but where we will end this fluid movement across such scattered isles. For England boasts its own spirit, a clear gem known worldwide as gin.
A spirit flavoured predominantly with juniper and bulked out with other botanicals and herbs, this drink is of Dutch origin, but became intrinsically linked with England and London during the 1600s, when William of Orange came to the throne. The popularity of the Dutch monarch gave gin a huge boost. By 1733, it was estimated that London was producing more than 11 million gallons of gin a year. That’s around 14 gallons for every adult resident of the city.
There are very few gin distilleries left in the capital now. Only Beefeater really produces in what can be considered central London, with its base in Kennington, overlooking The Oval cricket ground. Sadly, it doesn’t have an official visitors’ centre yet. So if you want to really learn about gin, the place to go is Plymouth.
Located in the south-west of England, Plymouth is the only distillery with a protected geographical identification, and their visitors’ centre is fantastic. They even have a Master Distillers Class where visitors can distil their own gin.
Over in the east of England, there are two new distilleries—St George’s (also known as the English Whisky Company) and the newly opened Adnams Southwold, which has recently expanded to produce gin, vodka and whisky. Both of these sites are open to visitors, with Adnams being in the particularly stunning coastal town of Southwold, where you can visit not just their spirits operation, but their brewing arm, too.
Heading north, up towards Scotland, you soon hit gold-rush country. Boasting over 100 single malt distilleries alone, the Scotch whisky map is divided in to five main regions—Lowlands, Highlands, Speyside, Campbeltown, and Islay and the Islands. If you’ve come to Scotland to taste Scotch, then you’re on the right path.
Many of the distilleries now boast visitors’ centres, many of which are award winning and are open all year to the public. However, nearly all the distilleries are located in rural Scotland and each one will have a short “silent season” where operations are closed for cleaning and maintenance. They are also often located in remote areas. So if you are planning on having a drink, make sure you have a taxi arranged or a designated driver in your group with access to a car.
The biggest question when visiting Scotland to explore whisky is where on Earth to start. A good place would be the Scotch Whisky Experience in Edinburgh: a mini tour of the history of the drink as well as aspects of the production element. Moving out of Edinburgh, Auchentoshan distillery, just outside Glasgow, is an excellent place to start—Scotland’s only fully triple-distilled whisky, this visitor experience is unrivalled in Scotland’s southern Lowlands.
As you move north, the density of distilleries becomes thicker, with Deanston and Glengoyne distilleries—both within an hour of Edinburgh and Glasgow, respectively—and both well versed in giving any visitor an experience worthy of a journey out to see them.
The real whisky experiences, however, come in two highly contrasting places—the Isle of Islay and Speyside.
The latter is what you might think about when Scotland is first mentioned to you—heather, weather, bagpipes and stags. The area boasts of distilleries, making unpeated whisky, and is home to such greats as the Macallan, the Glenlivet, Glenfiddich, the Balvenie and Strathisla, all of which have exceptional visitors’ facilities, and are, without exception, stunning places to visit, showing off Scottish hospitality at its very best.
But there is no contest about the real heavyweight area when it comes to the production of smoky, peated whisky—the Isle of Islay. Home to eight distilleries, these cathedrals of single malt each have an avid following of hardcore fans. When I first visited Islay, on a pilgrimage to each distillery, what I found was an island that, aside from producing some of the tastiest whiskies in Scotland, is also one of the most unique and beautiful places I have ever been to. Visiting never becomes a chore.
You can get to Islay by flying directly from Glasgow, which, on a clear day, gives you a fantastic view of such great whisky names as Ardbeg, Lagavulin and Laphroaig. Home also to Bowmore, Bruichladdich, Kilchoman, CaolIla and the always unpronounceable Bunnahabhain, if you like smoky whisky, this island is the place to visit.
Wherever you choose to visit, places with visitors’ centre are always welcoming. Just make sure you take along a notebook to write down what you learn and a liver made of lead for things you may consume...