As well as having some fine real ale pubs and whisky bars, Edinburgh is a great place to start a tour of Scottish breweries and distilleries.
Beer + Curry, Anyone?
You don’t even have to leave the city for your first stop, Edinburgh’s Caledonian Brewery. It was founded in 1869 and is still on its original site — the last survivor of forty Victorian breweries in the city — though the current buildings date from the 1890s. The red brick exterior and the gleaming copper inside show the age of the equipment. And it’s a tower brewery, which for non-nerds means one designed so that once each stage in the brewing process has been completed, you simply open the taps for the liquid to flow down one floor to the next, using the force of gravity rather than pumps to move it around.
Caley’s tours come in different flavours, including one that ends with a curry buffet — a more modern Edinburgh tradition! Like almost all the tours these days, you’ll have to book in advance (easily done through the website).
Sadly, Traquair House, which brews the superb Jacobite Ale, a coriander-flavoured dark beer, doesn’t appear to do brewery tours. This fine laird’s house brewed beer for the workers on the estate and the servants on the house back in the eighteenth century and it still brews using the original oak fermenters. But you can visit the house and grounds, drink the beer and feel the history.
Or you could head out to Dunbar to visit the Belhaven Brewery, now owned by Suffolk-based Greene King. Brewery tours run at 1.45 every weekday except Mondays, and though Belhaven claims to be the oldest operating brewery in Scotland — and has the date 1719 carved above the lintel — you’ll also visit the gleaming new wing for a taste of more modern operations.
You could also visit Inveralmond Brewery up in Perth. It’s not at all picturesque or historic, based in a modern industrial unit, but the beer is excellent — Lia Fail, a lovely dark, rich, malty beer is one of my favourites — and you’ll be able to see how brewing works on a smaller scale than at the massive Caley’s or Belhaven.
Whisky starts pretty much the same way as beer, mixing malt with hot water to extract the starch, and then adding yeast to start the fermentation; but then things get different — the alcohol is distilled out from the liquid using huge pot stills made of copper. It’s usually distilled twice and the raw whisky is then aged in oak casks for at least three years, and often considerably longer.
The Speyside and Islay malts are probably the best known, and to visit those distilleries you’d have to travel quite a way; but there are lowlands distilleries within easy travelling distance of Edinburgh.
In the gently rolling farmland of East Lothian you can find Glenkinchie, which not only offers distillery tours, but also hosts an exhibition about the process of making whisky and the history of the spirit. The distillery has only two stills — though they are said to be the biggest in Scotland (I’ve been told the roof had to come off the building to get one of them in) — that’s a pretty impressive part of the tour. And yes, you get a taster afterwards.
Alternatively, make your way towards Glasgow to visit Auchentoshan, a distillery with a difference; while other whiskies are double distilled, Auchentoshan is triple distilled, which helps account for its delicate and smooth character. Auchentoshan offers various tours to accommodate different tastes, and even — admittedly at a price — lets you bottle your own whisky straight from the cask.
A Whisky Theme Park
If you’re really pressed for time, although Edinburgh doesn’t have a distillery, it does have The Scotch Whisky Experience, which explains the production process with an amusing ‘barrel ride’ and also teaches visitors about the difference between the various types of whisky. You’ll get a tutored tasting and here the tour guides will help you identify what types of whisky you like (there’s a huge difference between a lightly floral Glenlivet and the smoky, tough Laproaig for instance), and give you hints as to what your next bottle ought to be. And there is a handy cheap Edinburgh hotel not far away.
With all these tours, remember to book in advance, don’t take young children along (these are busy production environments and there’s a safety issue), and perhaps most importantly remember to have someone else do the driving!