Touring Scotland’s Finest Whisky Distilleries In A Range Rover Autobiography
Experiencing Scotland’s best whisky distilleries and its greatest driving road made for an unforgettable getaway.
We stepped out of Edinburgh Airport behind a burly, gentle man named Mick Shirley who’d driven up from England with a new Range Rover for our trip.
“Shirley you must be joking,” my wife said. He eyed her like the crazy American before letting on that he got the Airplane reference and responding with one of his own.
We followed him to a parking garage where a diesel-powered Range Rover in its elite Autobiography trim sat parked between two Defenders. It was to be our mobile HQ in Scotland for the next seven days.
“You know how to handle this?” asked Shirley, as we did the requisite walk-around.
The only time I’d driven in the UK before, it was in a left-drive car, so it was only half-strange. This time I’d go full Brit: driving on the left with the wheel on the right. It’s a mental adjustment at my sharpest mental state, and a daunting thought in a jet-lagged frazzle.
“Of course,” I said.
He handed me the keys, and my wife and I set off on our mission to visit the best whisky distilleries in Scotland, going from Edinburgh, to Islay, to Oban, to Speyside, and back.
A couple hundred roundabouts later, we were in the old city of Edinburgh. The last time I visited Auld Reekie, I was in a punch-drunk fog on the Gumball 3000 rally. I was grateful to be able to take it at my own pace this time. Edinburgh is one of the most beautiful cities in the world, and it begs to be explored on foot at leisure.
We met our local contact for Visit Scotland for breakfast on the top floor of Harvey Nichols, a luxury department store with a café overlooking St. Andrew Square. After throwing back a desperately needed espresso and taking in the views, we secured our ride in the nicest parking garage I’ve ever seen.
Then we checked into the Cheval the Edinburgh Grand, a luxurious apartment hotel occupying a former bank building, with multiple restaurants and a gorgeous wood-paneled cocktail bar. Having an apartment to ourselves was clutch after the flight over—we exorcised the demons of our airplane clothes in the washer and dryer while we went exploring.
I’d seen Edinburgh’s legendary bespoke outfitter Stewart Christie & Co on Outlander stars Sam Heughan and Graham McTavish’s Scottish road trip show, Men in Kilts, and I was eager to see it in person. Started in 1700, the shop specializes in custom tartan, tweed, Scottish regalia, and sporting attire.
If you ever want to go to a Scottish hunting lodge, or just look like you belong there, this is where you go. They have ancient books filled with tartan swatches and can make a custom jacket, suit, or kilt for you out of any tweed or tartan known to man. Co-owner Daniel Fearn opened his book for me at random to the exact tartan my grandfather used to tell me was our family pattern, and I couldn’t help but get chills.
Chef Tom Kitchin is Edinburgh’s most famous hometown chef. His flagship restaurant, The Kitchin, earned a Michelin star by celebrating the local seafood that has long been prized elsewhere in the UK and in Europe. Kora has a more neighborhood restaurant vibe, and the menu is focused on Scottish ingredients from both land and sea. The food is artful and extremely good, with many tapas-style small plate options.
After a stellar Scottish breakfast at our hotel (theirs blow American breakfasts out of the water) we sprung the Range Rover from the posh car park and set out for the ferry to Islay. I soon learned that driving in Scotland is both beautiful and terrifying. Beautiful because it’s a constant visual feast. The weather is always changing, so you have rain on the windshield but you’re looking out over a Loch with sun gleaming on the water, or you’re in bright sun but you’re watching a rainstorm drench a green mountainside in the distance.
Terrifying because as an American driving a full-size vehicle, the narrow roads are a source of near-constant white-knuckle stress. Passing oncoming cars, you get the sensation that you’re going to lose a sideview mirror. But if you cheat to the left to avoid this, you run the risk of grinding the stone curbs that border main roads in Scotland instead of the forgiving flat shoulders of US highways. Not to mention the many one-lane roads with pull-offs for passing, where you can find yourself playing chicken with a tractor.
My wife and I worked out a system where I’d focus on the oncoming traffic, and she’d yell “curb” if I ever edged too far towards the sharp granite. It was yelled far more than I would like to admit.
After a quick stop at Inveraray Castle, which was barely 100 yards off our route, we made it to the Kennacraig ferry and lined up with the other cars. Getting blasted by wind and rain as we looked West towards the whisky Holy Land of Islay in the foggy distance.
There’s a quick flight from Glasgow to Islay, but I’ll take a big boat over a small plane any day. Caledonian-MacBrayne ferries, known here as CalMac, service the many islands surrounding Scotland.
The ship was far nicer than the ferries I’m used to in the US. We sat in a lounge at the bow and had lattes and chips. With the islands of Islay and Jura as your view, the two-hour trip flew by. Soon we were slowing down as the towers of Dunlossit Castle at Port Askaig came into view. Islay’s northernmost ferry stop is a stone’s throw from Caol Ila, Bunnahabhain, and Ardnahoe distilleries.
Islay is a rugged island with a tundra-esque landscape, measuring 25 miles long and 15 miles wide with a population of around 3,000. Because of its distance from the mainland taxmen of old, it’s home to nine of the world’s finest whisky distilleries. Coal was hard to come by here, so the distilleries used native peat moss in their kilns, which created the distinctive smoky flavor for which Islay whiskies are known.
We drove through gale force winds down the one-lane driveway to The Machrie Hotel and Golf Links, the island’s most luxurious digs with a stellar restaurant and a world-class golf course. Stepping into the lobby, we were met with a wood-burning fireplace in a cozy living room space that led to the pro shop. Our room overlooked the course, which is camouflaged in the tall grass along the water, so it looks more like a nature preserve than an over-manicured links.
The Machrie’s restaurant was worth staying in for, and after a good night’s sleep with the white noise of ocean wind, we had a breakfast of Scottish salmon eggs Benedict surrounded by a United Nations of golfers, then headed off for our first distillery tour of the trip: Lagavulin.
The most remarkable aspect of Islay is how remote it feels relative to how famous its exports are. You’re driving by Lagavulin, Ardbeg, and Laphroaig and they’re all neighbors and everyone knows everyone in the local whisky business. Everyone has an uncle who works here, or a grandfather or dad who worked there, or a brother. It’s hard to imagine another product that has such a global reach but starts in such a humble setting.
On a cold and rainy Monday morning, we arrived at Lagavulin. We stepped into the tiny gift shop with low ceilings and shelves selling whiskies: 8-year, 12-year, 16-year, 25-year, and a special distillery edition. We waited for our warehouse tour in a small wood-clad room furnished with a large ship model, a leather armchair, a fireplace, and shelves of whisky awards.
Lagavulin was the first fine Scotch I ever tasted. At 22, I wasn’t ready for the peaty smoke, but now my palate has either evolved or devolved to a point where I truly crave it. Particularly on the dreary kind of day when we visited. We joined a dozen other devotees in a barrel warehouse where a guide named Ian McArthur, who the locals call “Pinkie” because of his stature, runs the show.
McArthur was born in Islay and has worked at Lagavulin for 52 years. He’s small in size but massive in presence. A gifted storyteller and effortless charmer, as the Warehouse Keeper he hosts tastings of rare expressions—many of which you can’t even buy at retail—for whisky pilgrims from around the world.
A brilliant part of whisky tastings in Scotland is if you’re driving, they’ll give you Driver Drams for later. The only exception is with the really rare stuff because they don’t want you selling it. We ended up with a fantastic batch of Driver Drams, and some good “Ileach” (the name for locals) stories about growing up in a world where everyone you know works at one distillery or another.
Listening to McArthur, it was clear that top-shelf whisky is just as special here as it is anywhere. They don’t get it for free just for working in a distillery, it’s not cheap to buy in local stores, and even though they’re around thousands of gallons of it every day, they drink it with genuine reverence.
After a lunch of fish and chips at the Bowmore Hotel bar, we drove to the Atlantic side of Islay to Bruichladdich Distillery, producer of single malt whiskies and The Botanist Gin. Head Forager James Donaldson sources gin botanicals from the island, and in a small stucco-walled outbuilding, he showed us where freshly picked mint, thyme, and chamomile dry on racks before they’re combined together in cotton sacks to flavor the gin like giant tea bags.
The still that makes The Botanist is called “Ugly Betty,” and there’s a “Bruichladder” running up to where they put in the delicate botanicals (heartier ones like Juniper go directly into the still). In the larger nearby stills, they make their incredible whiskies, like the unpeated Classic Laddie, the smoky Port Charlotte, and the very smoky Octomore.
“If you help someone out on Islay, it’s not money they pay you with, it’s whisky,” says Gordon MacDougall, Bruichladdich’s Assistant Distillery Manager.
MacDougall is a true Ileach, born and raised. He’s worked for Bruichladdich for ten years, working his way up to his current post. Before that, he was a peat cutter, and before that, a milkboy at his family’s dairy farm. No matter how fancy the bottle is on the liquor store shelf, it’s the devotion to the hard work of making great whisky that makes what’s inside the bottle taste as good as it does.
After a morning walk through the Machrie Links to the beach on our last day on Islay, we loaded up the Range Rover to visit the wild child of Islay whisky: Ardbeg.
Ardbeg is serious whisky, but the vibe at the distillery is anything but. From the moment you arrive at the distillery and see the Airstream food truck and the graffiti painted on the stillhouse, you know you’ve found the playful side of Islay whisky. There’s a different energy here; much more of a party vibe. Every Spring, Ardbeg hosts a blowout bash for the Fèis Ìle, the Islay Festival that draws whisky lovers from around the world.
Known for its heavy peat, Ardbeg is unapologetically bold, and so are the people who make it. We walked through the stillhouse with visitor center manager Jackie Thomson, a former soccer radio announcer who is also Chairman of the Ardbeg Committee, the global community of Ardbeg fans.
Before departing, we met distillery manager Colin Gordon—a Lagavulin veteran who’s currently steering Ardbeg’s whisky range. Ardbeg is constantly releasing limited editions like Heavy Vapours and BizarreBQ to give Ardbeg fans new experiences.
Oban & Port Appin
After taking the ferry back to the mainland from Port Ellen to Kennacraig, we drove two hours north to the tiny hamlet of Port Appin and the Pierhouse Hotel—a romantic inn and restaurant across a gravel road from a ferry stop and fishing dock.
The setting is one of the most magical places I’ve ever seen, and certainly the most stunning place I’ve ever spent the night. The hotel overlooks an inlet with a lighthouse on an island, brightly colored fishing boats bobbing in the waves, and a backdrop of green mountains.
Dinner at the restaurant was also one of the best meals we had in Scotland. The seafood is so fresh that the kitchen staff are known to run across the street on a busy night to pull Langoustines from traps—even wading out up to their chef whites in high tide. We had fresh mussels, raw local oysters, and their rich Cullen Skink, a smoked-fish chowder, with French wine and homemade fresh-baked bread. The dining room has a panoramic view that keeps changing with the time of day, the weather, and the ferry schedule across the inlet.
We woke up the next morning feeling recharged in body and soul. Then we headed South to the waterfront town of Oban to visit its famous namesake distillery. Oban is different from most other Scottish distilleries because it’s in the middle of town instead of in the countryside. It’s been there since 1794, and they can’t just add more buildings to increase production, so the physical footprint of the distillery naturally limits how much whisky Oban can produce. Instead of parking in a large lot with other tourists, here you walk straight in off the street into the tasting room.
Our tour guide was a retired British policeman named Mike Wood. He walked us through the process with charm, humor, and a lawman’s knack for boiling things down to brass tacks. Because of the very slight amount of peat in Oban, it’s a perfect gateway for people who say they don’t like smoky Scotch.
It’s one of my absolute favorites, but I had to settle for the Driver Drams at the tasting. We had the longest drive of the trip ahead of us that evening, past Loch Ness North and then crossing the country Eastward to Speyside: home to Macallan, Glenlivet, Glenfiddich, Chivas, Benromach, Dalwhinnie, and many more legendary distilleries.
Speyside is in the heart of the Scottish Highlands and named for the River Spey that runs through it. It takes a lot of water to make whisky, which is why there are so many distilleries here. If you drink Scotch, you’ve almost certainly imbibed from this river at some point. When we arrived in the valley of the Spey, the leaves on the trees were orange and gold and the landscape reminded me of Autumn in New England—far more familiar than the tundra-like Islay.
Our base camp in Speyside was the Craigellachie Hotel in the town of Aberlour—a grand old manse overlooking the river with a cozy restaurant and pub downstairs, the Copper Dog, and the world-famous 120-year-old Quaich Bar, a whisky temple with over 1,000 single malts on offer.
Sitting at this bar, you’re surrounded by Scotch lovers from all over the world. It’s here where I realized that the way alcohol is sold in Scotland is superior to how it’s sold in the U.S. when your goal is tasting as many whiskies possible: They come in smaller pours (and with smaller prices unless you’re getting the really rare stuff) so you can try four whiskies for the cost and size of two shots in the U.S.
Speyside is a who’s who of whisky. At every intersection are arrows pointing you to every distillery that starts with a “Glen-“, plus Dewars, Chivas, Macallan, Benriach, Cardhu, and on and on.
We headed to The Balvenie, which is named for a nearby castle and is the smaller sibling of Glenfiddich. At its wooded unpaved lot only big enough for a few cars, you’re told by discreet signs that unless you’ve booked a tour, turn around. There is no public tasting room at Balvenie, and the small tours of a handful of people must be booked in advance. We had a private tour with a writer named James, who was more young university professor than tour guide, in the best possible way.
We had a tasting in the small “dramming room,” where they only host about three per day. Sipping whisky from Glencairn glasses on a leather couch overlooking the countryside is the right way to taste it, so if you’ve got the ability to plan ahead, this is an intimate way to witness the entire process from barrel cooperage, to malting, to distilling, to barrel, to bottle.
We headed North to the town of Elgin for dinner at Orrin Restaurant, a place that has built a stellar reputation since it opened less than two years ago. Chef-owner Andy Fyfe grew up in Elgin but left it as a young man to build a career as a chef in Glasgow. He returned to raise a family and put his hometown on Scotland’s culinary map, and together with his wife, Ellis, Fyfe is building a new foundation for high-end food and service here.
“I wanted to stop people leaving Elgin for dinner, and get people coming here,” says Fyfe, who humbly describes his cuisine as “good honest food with high-quality produce.” It is beautiful, offering world-class food and cocktails in an atmosphere that is elevated but not stuffy. If you make it to this part of Scotland, a meal at Orrin is not to be missed.
The Best Road In Scotland
The Old Military Road, or the A93, is perhaps the finest road in a country with some of the best driving roads in the world. We chose this route for our final leg of the trip, from Speyside back to Edinburgh, after some research kept singling it out as truly living up to its lore.
It was a hell of a time getting to the start of the route from Speyside because of road closures, but this drive through the Highlands is worth every extra minute it added to the trip. We passed Balmoral Castle, then stopped for a quick lunch in the town of Braemar.
Here’s a thing that happens in Scotland: You stop randomly at a café called The Bothy, which doesn’t look like much from the street. Then you walk in and realize that it overlooks one of the most beautiful waterfalls you’ve ever seen. And you wonder what other spontaneous experiences you’ve driven right past without knowing it. It’s moments of discovery like this that make you feel a deep need to come back to this country.
Heading south from Braemar through the Cairngorms National Park was the best stretch of the drive—curving along streams overflowing in the rain, hillsides dotted with sheep, and craggy mountains on all sides. Driving the Range Rover down this winding road was an adrenaline shot that brought out my inner Jeremy Clarkson (all but the anti-Duchess of Sussex part, that is).
We spent our last night in Scotland at the Gleneagles Townhouse, an urban outpost of the fabled five-star country estate resort, Gleneagles. We had ambitions of exploring the city a little more, but as soon as we walked into the hotel, we knew we wouldn’t be leaving until check-out the next day.
The Gleneagles Townhouse is partly a private club, so some areas are members only. But anyone can book a room here, dine in the restaurant, drink in the wine bar, or have cocktails on the rooftop. The staff and management here clearly understand that all truly great hotels employ a sense of theatre, and the tone they achieve here is just right.
Hip hotels can be too snooty, luxury hotels can be too fawning, but here they create hip-luxury without succumbing to either pitfall. Flagship restaurant The Spence occupies a space off the lobby with the scale of a cathedral and the cupola ceiling to match. And the rooftop bar overlooks St. Andrew Square and the city beyond. The rooms exude grandeur of another era, with massive clawfoot tubs and canopy beds. It’s the kind of place you just don’t want to leave, and it makes you conscious of every minute you get to spend here.
A week in Scotland made us crave it as a bigger part of our lives. I could say the usual things like, ‘The people are great, it’s so pretty, great food,’ but those kinds of compliments feel far too stock for Scotland.
If you like making friends of strangers. If you want to meet people who look you in the eyes when you talk to them and mean what they say. If you like eating food that tastes the way you’d make food for someone you love, or at least deeply respect. If you like the idea of a landscape and nature that, no matter how well-traveled you are, will constantly dazzle you with a sense of wonder and obliterate your cynicism, then Scotland is for you. The fact that the country also produces the best whisky in the world is just icing on the cake.
Our pal Mick Shirley was an hour early meeting us in the lobby the next morning, so we bid a bittersweet adieu to the hotel. Along with the keys to the Range Rover, we wanted to show our gratitude to Mick in some way. Then we remembered the console was still full of the Driver Drams of the finest whiskies we’d encountered all week.
“Everything in the console is yours,” I said.
He over looked at me with a sly smile.
“Shirley you must be joking.”