Light and smoky, or bold and peaty? In addition to describing my laundry hamper during California fire season, these adjectives are commonly used by whisky drinkers to classify the taste of Scotch. Today, we have industry insider and local resident Sam giving us a personal tour of his favorite spots in and around Scotland, with a focus on distilleries and local gems.
Whether you’re a novice drinker, a Scotch aficionado, or just want a local’s perspective on experiencing Scotland’s natural beauty, keep reading to find out more!
Years Lived in Scotland: 7
Hobbies/Interests: I’m a keen amateur cook, especially interested in non-meat experiments.
Restaurant Pick: Polentoni – my bond is strong. If I ever lose that restaurant, I lose my reason for being.
A Whisky Lens
I’m going to have to come clean in my first paragraph. I moved to Scotland 7 years ago, learned to love Scotch whisky 6 years ago, and got a job in the Scotch whisky industry 5 years ago. I love the stuff with every fibre of my being, and I even get paid to do so. Small wonder, then, that wherever I go in Scotland, I’m looking through a lens (and sometimes a haze) of whisky.
You may not be a whisk(e)y drinker yourself, but the fantastic thing about Scottish distilleries is that they are set in some of the most picturesque scenery you can imagine. If you’re going distillery hunting for yourself, or just to keep company with someone who is, you’ll naturally be treated to views of breathtaking glens (valleys), bens (hills), firths (river estuaries), lochs (lakey-fjordy things) and islands (those are just islands).
And don’t worry about not liking whisky – the odds are good that once you’re fully submerged in the Scottish atmosphere, windblown and rain-beaten, you’ll fall deeply and madly in love with the fortifying dram of spirit. I know I did.
This is Scotland’s Achilles’ Heel – the country is kind of lumpy, and there are inconvenient stretches of water getting in the way all the time. The very scenery that makes Scotland worth a look at, is what gets in the way of easily being able to see the place.
Drivers will get the most out of their time in Scotland – a hire car will be flexible enough to take you up the hills, or hop onto a car ferry to take you to many of Scotland’s numerous little islands (car ferries MUST be booked ahead). There are buses, and there are trains – but your route will need to be carefully planned, and you’ll probably still find yourself arranging for a few local minicab drivers to get you the final few miles.
In my experience, Scotland has some excellent Airbnbs, both in the cities and in some quite rural locations. Friendly hosts are great to talk to, and often have great local knowledge.
If you’re a happy camper, Scotland is also great for that kind of thing – with an awareness that Scotland has a reputation for being wet, windy and full of little biting midgies in the summer.
City Break Edinburgh
Scotland’s main cities are in the South, and both are very beautiful places to just wander around and take in the architecture. And Let’s face it – they’re more accessible than the Highlands.
Edinburgh is the capital city, and my home now. The café culture is excellent here, with lots of independent places that serve excellent coffee and whatever little cakes and pastries their home culture specialises in – be that brownies, bakewell, baklava, bougatsa, or rum baba. You’ll want coffee and fuel to help you go up and down all of Edinburgh’s hills.
One almost compulsory visit is Arthur’s Seat – a geologically fascinating hill right inside the city. It’s quite a hike, but the views from the top are stunning, over the city or the Firth of Forth heading out to the North Sea. For a lower and less populated hike you can try Salisbury Crags just below Arthur’s Seat – I’d even argue the views are better, because you can see Arthur’s seat itself looming above you. And if you descend into the Duddingston area, you can take lunch at the Sheep Heid Inn, a really old pub that has a great gastro menu and a free to use skittle alley in the back. Just make sure you’ve got a plan for getting back to downtown.
A little off the beaten track for food, I thoroughly recommend The Little Chartroom as a place for a fancy meal – the chef, Roberta, has a great vision, a small team and the food that comes out of the kitchen is local, seasonal and really very exciting. Not cheap, but also not as expensive as restaurants of this tier often can be. In a nearby part of town, you’ll find Polentoni, a small Italian café/restaurant specialising in hearty, stodgy, north-Italian food. Their prices are superb for the love they show their cuisine, and I’d recommend heading away from the famous parts of town to find them. Edinburgh’s great for food generally, but these are my favourites.
An excellent place to get started on your road to whisky is The Scotch Whisky Experience. Located at the top of the Royal Mile and next to Edinburgh Castle, if you’re being touristy, you can’t miss it. It IS a touristy place, but the people who work there know their stuff and the introductory tour they give to Scotch is genuinely superb. Just make sure to ask your guide lots of tricky questions.
For the more serious whisky nerd, Holyrood Distillery is located just under Arthur’s Seat and is one of Scotland’s youngest distilleries. They make great whisky, excellent gin and they’re happy to show you the lot. And if you’re in the area, go for a curry at Kismot. They boast one of the spiciest curries in the world, which is free if you finish it. I managed a couple of drops on my tongue, and then had to bow out when my hands went numb and the hiccups replaced breathing.
I know it less well than Edinburgh, but I love this town. It’s like Edinburgh’s cooler, younger cousin – with a love of live comedy, music and nights out. Trains between Edinburgh Waverley and Glasgow Central/Queen Street are very regular and quite affordable (but they stop before midnight).
If you’re going anywhere in Glasgow, you must take the Subway (affectionately known as the Shoogly Train). It’s micro in scale and the only train I have ever called ‘cute.’
On the banks of the river Clyde (where Glasgow used to build and send great ships out into the world) you’ll find the Glasgow Museum of Transport, a haven for people who love trains, boats and planes.
A couple of hundred metres downstream of that, you’ll find Clydeside Distillery. Another young distillery, this place is cool, post-industrial chic with an exciting new whisky and a tasting experience of various whiskies paired with artisan chocolates. Great café, too!
Edinburgh is on the coast, sort of. It’s actually on the southern bank of a huge river estuary, the Firth of Forth. Scotland’s most famous engineering landmark, the stunning Victorian Forth Bridge spans the gap, taking trains (exclusively) over the water to Fife. Fife is a farming and fishing region north of the Firth of Forth, and a great place to visit for some lovely fishing villages along its southeastern edge. Quite accessible from Edinburgh, with possible day trips, but staying overnight will buy you more time.
In my personal experience, the string of villages of Elie, St Monan’s, Pittenweem and the larger Anstruther are great summertime destinations if you like clifftop walks, boat excursions & freshly caught (and usually deep-fried) seafood. The villages and towns are very appealing to the eye, too.
And if you’re after some Fife whisky, let me recommend Lindores Abbey Distillery. Built on the site of the ancient monastery where monks were making Scotland’s first whisky over 500 years ago, this modern distillery drips with historical character – and does the farming needed to make their own whisky and special Aqua Vitae – a powerful spirit flavoured with local botanicals.
North of the Highland line, Scotland begins to get serious – the terrain becomes barren and windswept hills, and population density thins out drastically. This is whisky country, where most of Scotland’s distilleries are situated: a nod to the fact that most whisky used to be made secretly, away from the prying fingers of the English Royal Tax Authorities in the South.
This means that almost anywhere in the Highlands is great to go for excellent hiking opportunities. Many people in Scotland list Munro Bagging as one of their hobbies. ‘Bagging’ a Munro refers to climbing to the summit of a mountain 3,000 feet (914.4m) tall. One is usually enough for me per day, but some people like to bag multiple Munroes in a single day and they are wrong and bad.
Distilleries in the Highlands? Too many to mention but let me put in the spotlight just one that I visited recently and fell very much in love with. It’s also accessible by Bus from Glasgow, which is a very solid point in its favour.
Glengoyne Distillery makes a great whisky – mellow and quite easy drinking by Scotch standards. The distillery is full of friendly staff and is also set into a stunning natural landscape – the point where the Lowlands of Scotland suddenly mushroom up to become the Highlands. Glengoyne are also very eco-aware, with a wetland project recovering their waste, wind power keeping the lights on, and locally sourced recyclable packaging. Take a little walk around before or after you sample the whisky – it’s a great part of Scotland, and not too hard to get to.
Actually, I can do you one better. Remember I said that I work in the whisky industry? One of my roles is creating a YouTube show to educate and entertain people on the subject of Scotch. My October 2020 episode had me visiting Glengoyne distillery, as well as Teaghleach Wood – a forest renovation project in Perthshire that’s also well worth a visit (and a sponsorship if you like trees)!
Here’s a video to prove it!
Well now, if my previous choices were a bit on the conservative side, no such danger here. If you’ve got a few days to spare, and are willing to spend a couple of them in transit, Scottish islands are beautiful, remote, and calm. There are lots of them, but let you introduce you to just two.
Arran is often described as ‘Scotland in miniature’. This makes it perfect for excursions – you’ve got mountains to hike, beaches to lie on, ruins to marvel at, highland cows to point at and, of course, whisky. Every part of Scotland is represented.
Arran distillery is a relative newcomer at 27 years old, but the isle itself has a long tradition of illicit distillation, so the raw materials and knowledge are definitely in place. The whisky is excellent, creatively presented, and the distillery is in a very scenic spot.
In terms of places to eat, I unfortunately never found a restaurant I’d rave about, but that may have changed by now. The best way to reach Arran is by the ferry from Ardrossan harbour, which takes cars. If you don’t want to drive, then a train goes every hour from Glasgow Central.
The Orkney Islands
The Orkney Islands are definitely an intrepid place to visit. You can fly from Edinburgh Airport, but I travelled in a rented car from Inverness, and then took the ferry from Scrabster. That’s a long trip indeed.
But once you’re there, it’s truly an alien world. A melding of Scotland and Viking Norway. Blue seas surrounding undulating green isles, but almost no trees anywhere to be seen. But let me recommend some other things that stand vertically: Kirkwall Cathedral is a glorious red sandstone church, gorgeous as it catches the slanting autumn light. The Ring of Brodgar is a massive circle of Neolithic standing stones, evidence of ancient strands of history.
The Old Man of Hoy is a natural sea pillar, standing tall next to the cliffs off the island of Hoy. A little extra effort is needed to get out to this one, as Hoy is a ferry ride away from the Orkney’s main island.
As for distilleries, you have a choice – the two most Northerly in Scotland. Highland Park, a smooth and honeyed dram made in impressive dark buildings, with just a whisper of smoke on the palate. Or Scapa; a light and fruity whisky, which draws more on the summery notes of Orkney. Drinking a sample of either will be unforgettable on wild Orkney, whether the sun is refusing to set in summer, or setting at 3pm in winter.