After leaving France in the middle of July, we spent some time visiting new areas of Europe that we had not seen before. After a few days of sightseeing in Amsterdam we flew to Scotland to begin a week that was sure to be memorable.
While Aberdeen may not be the first city that comes to mind when you think of Scotland, there was one very specific reason for starting our trip through Scotland in this northern city. Scotch, or what the locals simply call “whisky,” is what drew us to this rugged city which is deeply tied into the oil industry thanks to its proximity to the oil rigs just off shore in the North Sea. Being situated in Scotland’s Highlands made this lessor known town the perfect jumping off point for a whisky tour (notice there is no “e” in whisky when you are referring to Scotch).
As we were planning our time in Scotland, we knew that a whisky tour needed to make it onto our itinerary, so we started looking into tour companies that operated in the area. In my research I came across a tour company called Rabbie’s which had really great reviews on TripAdvisor, they even had a whisky tour that started in Aberdeen and went deep into the Highlands of Scotland. The tour that we ended up booking was the 1-day Speyside Whisky Trail tour, which focused on the Speyside sub-region of the Highlands.
Reading the description of the tour on the Rabbie’s website made it clear that we were going to see a couple of really famous distilleries, a coopering facility, and almost equal to the scotch itself, we’d have a chance to see the famous Highlands countryside that Scotland is known for. The tour itself is truly a full day experience, we departed in a very comfortable Mercedes 16-person coach at 9:00am, and we were scheduled to returned to Aberdeen around 7:00pm.
When we got to the meeting point our driver Doug introduced himself and laid out the agenda for the day, he was informative and gave us a clear understanding of what we would see and do throughout the day. Along our drive to our first stop, Doug taught us about a wide range of topics that included information on the local area, fascinating Scottish history, and of course provided an education on the process of making Scotch whisky. Before we knew it we were pulling into our first stop of the day which was Speyside Cooperage where somewhere around 100,000 whiskey barrels are prepared annually for the distilleries in the Highlands region.
With a £4 entry fee, our tour of the cooperage included an informational video and a visit to an observatory deck where a guide from the cooperage explained the process of preparing the barrels as we looked out over the production facility from the second floor observation area. It really was amazing to learn the origin of the barrels that are used, and to see how quickly the coopers can assemble the casks that will age whisky in them for many years before the world famous spirit can be called scotch. On the day we visited Speyside Cooperage we were lucky enough to see the Guinness World Record holder for fastest cooper at work on the floor below us. Out of all of the facts that we learned about the coopering trade, is that it’s really hard work. It was obvious to see the labor that goes into producing these barrels, and it became clear why these individuals go through a 4-year apprenticeship to become a cooper.
After our first stop it was nearing lunchtime, our driver and guide for the day gave us several options to choose from for lunch which included the option of visiting the town of Dufftown to have lunch at a pub or pick something up at the supermarket. There was also an option to go to the restaurant at Glenfiddich where our first whisky tour of the day would be. Everyone on our tour chose to go straight to the Glenfiddich distillery for lunch rather than the options to go into town for lunch. Our lunch at the restaurant at Glenfiddich was good, but we didn’t feel that the service matched the level of price or presentation. If we went on the tour a second time I think we might opt for lunch at a pub for a more local experience.
After lunch we bought our £10 tickets for the tour, and when the clock struck 1:00pm our tour of the Glenfiddich distillery began and we were on our way to the first tasting of the day. This family owned distillery which still operates on the original grounds has a quaint feel, while still being large enough to be the number one selling single malt scotch in the world. To see the process of making scotch was special, but to learn about the history made it a memorable tour. After a tour through the different buildings, including seeing the mash tubs in operation, a warehouse of aging barrels, and viewing the stills close up – we walked through the area where the bottling is done, and then we were off to a tasting.
There was a series of three different whiskies that we tried, the 12 year, the 15 year, and also the 18 year. While all of them were smooth, as you would probably imagine, the 18 year scotch was the smoothest and had the most depth of flavor. After we said goodbye to the tour guide from Glenfiddich that we had spent the past hour with, there was time for a quick stop to the gift shop to make any purchases before loading into the coach to see more of the Scottish countryside on the way to our third and final stop of the day.
With more green hills than you can imagine along the route, we weaved through the winding and hilly roads of the Highlands making our way to the Cardhu Distillary. I had never heard of this distillery before the tour, but I had heard of one of the famous blended whiskies that is made using the whisky produced at this facility. The nickname of the Cardhu Distillary is “The Home of Johnnie Walker” because 75% of the whisky made at this facility goes into the famous Johnnie Walker scotch.
In a similar fashion to our tour at Glenfiddich, a guide from the distillery took us through the facility and showed us the operation. The feeling of the Cardhu operation seemed to be smaller and less polished than the Glenfiddich distillery, which in a way made the tour feel more personalized and authentic. Before the tasting at the end of this tour commenced, we paid a visit to the old warehouse containing many barrels of whisky that were resting until such time as they would be bottled and shipped around the world for scotch connoisseurs to enjoy.
The tasting at Cardhu was set up a little bit differently than how it was at Glenfiddich, mainly in that the tasting was a blind tasting. When we arrived at the distillery, we were given an option of doing a blind taste test with three whiskies, or the taste test with just one. The cost for the blind tasting of three was £12, and the tasting of one was £8. We opted for the blind tasting of one, but almost everyone else on the tour went for the option with three. There was a lot of engagement and discussion within the group as the tasting was conducted which made for a lot of fun. By the time the tasting was complete it made me feel like maybe we should have chosen the tasting of three rather than just one.
While the Cardhu distillery might have been our last scheduled stop of the day before returning home to Aberdeen, there were a few other stops that added to the enjoyment of the trip. The first of these unscheduled stops was to take a look at the famous Highland cows, or “coos” as they are called in Scotland. If you’ve never seen one of these hairy beasts up close, that’s reason enough to book a trip to Scotland. We also stopped to take some pictures of a 19thcentury bridge that crosses over the fastest moving river in the UK before taking the scenic route through the heather cover hills of the Highlands.
The tour with Rabbie’s was really a great experience, we had such a great time that we ended up booking a second trip with them when we were in Edinburgh. I can’t say enough good things about the Speyside Whisky Trail tour, and our driver Doug. Our experience was better than I could have imagined and would suggest that you are in any of the cities that Rabbie’s operates out of that you take a look at the tours they offer.