How to Plot Your Next Whiskey Pilgrimage

Making the most of your next liquid tour of Scotland and Ireland takes planning and a great guide, but it’s well worth the effort.

A glass of whisky on the rocks outdoors in the Scottish Highlands
Photo: Peter Burnett / Getty Images

For centuries, the Scots and the Irish have quarreled over which nation first invented whisk(e)y. They've made little progress. To this day, they can't even agree on how to spell the stuff. Nevertheless, all self-respecting lovers of the liquid can agree that getting to either country is a rite of passage.

American drinkers, before the pandemic, had been making the passage in record numbers. In 2019, just over a half a million US tourists visited at least one distillery in either Ireland or Scotland. Those stats will continue to climb as there's more for them to see and as travel restrictions continue to loosen up: Over 32 producers now call the Emerald Isle home, while scotch is currently laid down at more than 130 locations.

That's a lot to sip. And it's scattered across remote and rugged landscapes that aren't as accessible as they may seem on the map. Ross Corcoran is here to help you navigate. The founder of a bespoke travel outfitter called Lang Atholl Experience, he specializes in planning individualized trips to all corners of these whisk(e)y-wielding regions. By carefully aligning his local connections and logistical know-how with your personal preferences—and palate—he'll help you plan the perfect pilgrimage. He can blend it all together after just ten minutes of talking with you.

His service comes at a cost, of course. For the well-heeled traveler he'll build and curate an entire itinerary from arrival to departure. He could even be waiting for you at the airport in a lipstick-red Ferrari, if you so desire. But for the budget traveler, he's willing to share some insight on how to go it alone. Here are some pro-tips from Corcoran, along with a couple of other industry insiders.

Don't Pour Out More Than You Can Sip

"The beginnings of any experience are based around two simple factors: The duration of the experience and which whisky distilleries you would describe as 'must visit'," says Corcoran. "This allows us to gain an understanding on the specific whisky regions which would be of interest to the guest, coupled with which regions can be visited within the given timeframe."

Scotch is typically subcategorized into one of five basic areas of provenance: Highlands, Lowlands, Islands/Islay, Speyside, and Campbeltown. Each has its own hallmark style. Try to focus on one such region, especially if you only have a week or less on the ground. Think about what you like to drink, plot out where it's all made on a map, and identify any clusters that emerge.

"If a client says their favorite distilleries include Laphroaig, Bowmore, and Talisker, for example," Corcoran notes, "we know that peated island malts are their preference and we would establish Islay as our home base."

Get Wise On Size

Both Scotch and Irish whisk(e)y distilleries run the gamut, from garage-sized craft operations to massive industrial facilities spread out over the footprint of several football fields. At Edradour, a famed example of the former, about 10,000 cases of whisky are bottled annually. The Glenlivet, by comparison, can lay down that much liquid in under five days.

This isn't to say that one brand is at all better than the other, of course. Only your own tongue can tout that judgment. It's observable fact, however, that The Glenlivet boasts far more funds for cutting-edge visitor experiences than Edradour. To wit, the single malt behemoth just cut the ribbon on a multi-million-pound welcome center and tasting room that includes an immersive multimedia masterclass on how scotch is made. A tour of Edradour remains decidedly more lo-fi. You'd be lucky to even find wi-fi.

"When you actually go into any region and start exploring, you'll discover a lot of boutique places—a lot of things that haven't made it international," observes Jay Bradley, founder of the Craft Irish Whiskey Company. "It's not mass produced, it's not mainstream, but it's incredibly amazing. That's what excites me."

"With our clients, we always want to know if they prioritize the 'visitor experiences' or if they would prefer something more rustic," adds Corcoran. "This allows us to either base the trip around the large whiskey brands or around smaller, independent distilleries. And in Ireland, compared to Scotland, these smaller producers are spread even further across the country. So they have to be willing to spend some time on the road."

Which doesn't have to be a bad thing, when you…

Savor the Scenery

"As there will be traveling involved from site-to-site, the Irish experience is perfect for coupling whiskey with sightseeing, whether that be from a scenic or historic standpoint," Corcoran points out. So get a sense of what non-whiskey sites you'd like to explore long before you book your flights…and if you'd like to be more urban or rural as you go. Whisk(e)y hubs such as Dublin, Belfast, Glasgow, and Edinburgh are densely weighted with cultural significance. You'll be hard-pressed to simply pass through them after deplaning from a long-haul flight.

"Places like Teeling and Jameson and Bushmills all have experiences either directly in these cities or just outside of it," adds Corcoran. "But if a client wished to explore the countryside of Ireland, we would look at Donegal, Kerry, and Clare as key regions, and visit distilleries such as Connacht, Dingle and Clonakilty—which tend to be lesser known, and in beautiful locations."

For some fans of Scotch, surveying the far-flung reaches of its birthplace isn't an option so much as an obligation. "To truly get under the skin of the real Scotland, you need to be prepared to get on a ferry to one of the [Hebridean] islands," according to Rory Gammell, founder ofWee Smoky Scotch Whisky. "The West Coast is a true gem, and those that are prepared to travel further are rewarded hugely. The Isle of Skye—home to Talisker—is unforgettable. But try not to go during the summer when it's often crowded with tour buses."

A short walk down the street from the 190-year-old distillery is the Oyster Shed. Gammell recommends procuring a dozen or so fresh bivalves from here and carrying them down to the loch for a pairing alongside the local liquid. It's DIY experiences such as these, he contends, that will persist in your memory longer than any distillery tour.

But don't stop there.

"While it's a longer journey, the ferry onward to Harris is 100% worth it," he says of the hour-and-fourty-minute crossing. "You'll be met with the Isle of Harris Distillery as you land at Tarbert—which is at the heart of the island's community."

The windswept surroundings hide some of Europe's most stunning beaches, including the picture perfect Hushinish. "Harris is like a Caribbean postcard, but with chillier waters," says Gammell. "It's very much worth a dip, particularly the morning after a thorough whisky tour."

A Carry-On Won't Cut It

If you are keen on venturing well off the beaten path, remember that the weather won't always cooperate. Scotland and Ireland are among the wettest, windiest places on earth. Seas are often rough, "puddle-jumpers" are frequently canceled. Have a contingency plan for your major ports of entry in case you get stuck. And always pack rain gear. Still, you'll want to maintain plenty of space in your suitcase for the return flight, because most distilleries today offer some sort of exclusive release that you'll only encounter on-site.

"The rarest spirit on earth is triple-distilled Irish single malt over ten years old, so try and find as many expressions as you can to bring back home with you," recommends Bradley. "But it's not only about collecting fancy bottles. You want to bombard your senses. Get into the [barrel] warehouse whenever you can. That's where the large percentage of flavor comes from. You can smell it in the air."

And for this, Bradley concedes, the right guide can make all the difference. "Anybody can do a quick internet search and find a popular tour to take or spot to see," says the Irish whiskeymaker. "But a guide lives and breathes it everyday. They can open doors. Good look getting Google to do that."

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