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The Ingredients of a Perfect Distillery Tour

Distillery tours. If you have seen one, you've seen them all. After all, the ingredients and the processes of Scottish Single Malt Whisky are the same at any distillery. Right?

But, let me tell you – not all distillery tours are made the same! Take it from someone who has toured a wide variety of distilleries across the different whisky regions of Scotland. If you're short on time or resources, you could be forgiven for not wanting to spend money on visiting several distilleries or time on researching the best tour along your route. If you do not already have a favourite whisky, you could even be forgiven for thinking that any distillery tour will do.

Every distillery tour is a unique experience. There are so many steps and details involved in whisky making, it is unlikely that all the information will stick with you the first time around. Every distillery has a slightly different process and tours can emphasise different aspects of a distillery's distinct character. With every tour I join, I learn something new about whisky and pick up a piece of information to add to my personal whisky-wiki.

I have had the pleasure to join some fantastic distillery tours, but of course not every distillery is as great as the next. Based on these experiences, I have distilled a list of key elements that the perfect distillery tour simply has to have – see what I did there?

Mash House TourThe Clydeside Distillery


The first ingredient is history. The best distillery tours start with a journey back in time. There is a long tradition in Scotland of making whisky, and a lot of the history begins with illicit stills in barns or cellars and ends with the expansion of the market due to a world-wide thirst for more.

Although they have this in common, each distillery has its own unique history to tell. My favourite distillery tours start by delving into these stories, telling visitors more about the families that started the distillery and how they dealt with hardships caused by new tax laws or changing markets. I love hearing about the heritage connected to certain whisky brands and the interesting facts on the history of making whisky. Do you know at what point in history distilleries started to produce more single malts than blended whiskies? Or the name of the first woman to run a major whisky distillery?

Lean back and start immersing yourself in the history of the dram you are about to taste.

Kathi Blog Image 3Photo by Kathi Kamleitner


The next ingredient to add is location. The fact that no whisky tastes the same is not unrelated to the specific location of each and every distillery. The location of the still house and the warehouses, their proximity to the coast or the mountains and the quality of the water source are important for the character of a single malt whisky.

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Photo by Kathi Kamleitner

Most tour guides will explain how the location of the distillery has an influence on the different tasting notes that you experience. Just don't always expect to find out where the distillery stores their casks. They will not give away all their secrets!

One thing I particularly enjoyed about the tour at the Clydeside Distillery is that even though it is such a new distillery, the tour focuses a lot on the rich history of whisky making in Glasgow and of the Pumphouse where the distillery is located. Based at the former Queen's Dock, one of Glasgow's largest and most iconic docks where thousands of whisky barrels were loaded onto ships that sailed the seven seas, the Pumphouse was used to operate a hydraulic swing bridge at the dock's entrance. The building's role in the smooth running of the dock's traffic shines through in the video at the start of the tour and the drawings and photographs on display in the halls and the exhibition rooms. This gives visitors the feeling of being in a building that was as utterly significant for the city then as it is now!

Kathi Blog Image 5Photo by Kathi Kamleitner

Explaining the Process of Whisky Making

The next ingredient of a perfect distillery tour is an overview explaining the process of whisky making. Every distillery does this differently, but the essence is always the same – taking visitors on a journey from an unassuming grain of barley to the golden liquid we all enjoy to drink so much.

Simplicity is key. Making whisky is a highly complex process that requires not only labour-intensive steps such as germinating the barley, spreading it out and turning it to dry and sometimes even kindling a fire with peat to malt it. Whisky also involves a series of complex chemical and technological processes such as fermentation and temperature control. From the malt floor to the mill to the mashtun, on to the washbacks, worts in, wash out – all at different temperatures, on to the stills – two kinds – down different pipes and through the spirit safe – is your head spinning yet?

The best tours explain this process step by step in the simplest terms to give every visitor a rough understanding of what is going on. If your interest is piqued, there is hardly a question your tour guide would not be happy to answer! At The Clydeside Distillery, the tour guides will set the scene before you see the whisky production process in action. They explain the process before entering the production floor and then run through each step again as you move through the rooms. That way, you get two explanations of how to make whisky – there is no way you could miss an important detail!

Kathi Blog Image 6Photo by Kathi Kamleitner

Experiencing the process with all 5 senses

Now add a sprinkle of each of your senses. Theory is good and all, but no distillery tour would be complete without experiencing the process of whisky making with all five senses. Feel the difference of barley grains, grist and husks, and taste the contrast between unpeated and peated barley. Hear the loud noises of the machinery required to grind down the grains, to heat up the water and to pump the wash through pipes.

Kathi Blog Image 7Photo by Kathi Kamleitner

During a distillery tour in Scotland, your guide might give you opportunities to taste different liquids out of the washbacks or smell the distinct aroma of fermentation in progress. For example, at The Clydeside Distillery, you get to see what the New Make Spirit looks like and the difference between Foreshots, Feints and the New Make.

Kathi Blog Image 8Photo by Kathi Kamleitner

After all, the reason why you are visiting a whisky distillery is that you want to see, smell and taste the magic for yourself!

A Whisky Tasting

And with that, we have reached the final ingredient of any great distillery tour – the whisky tasting. You could simply not leave a distillery without trying some of their own whisky and learning about the different tasting notes that the master distiller is developing.

Tastings vary greatly among different distilleries, but personally I prefer those that invite you to sit down around a large table and spend some quality time with your guide and other guests. The tasting is when you finally get to talk about your own favourite whiskies, exchange stories about other distilleries with your neighbours and compare taste notes. Your tour guide will walk you through the proper process of tasting whisky and often you will get to taste a variety of different whiskies from the distillery. Now is the time to ask any questions you might have left – or simply enjoy your dram. It is up to you!

Kathi Blog Image 9Photo by Kathi Kamleitner

A Fantastic Tour Guide

A perfect whisky tour is more than just the sum of these elements though. The best tours also need an enthusiastic person who ties everything together and offers guidance through the complicated process of whisky making – your tour guide.

No tour will ever be exactly the same – not even within the same distillery – because each tour guide will add their own personal spin to the experience. Some might focus more on the history of the distillery or want to convey the significance of the location, while others are more interested in the nitty-gritty details of the production process. It is that personal element that makes an excellent tour stand out from the rest.

The guides at the Clydeside Distillery have shown that they provide such an outstanding experience for all visitors – their 5 star status from Visit Scotland and consistent review results are proof of that. What I like in particular is that every staff member at the distillery speaks at least one foreign language, in order to be able to explain the process to anyone who is not entirely confident with that language – or the Scottish accent! 

Kathi Blog Image 10Photo by Kathi Kamleitner

By the time you finish your tour, your head will brim over with knowledge and a new appreciation for the process of whisky making! You could develop your new knowledge by trying the whisky flights in the café at The Clydeside Distillery or even pair them with the food there, all made with the best local produce, such as the Taste of Scotland platter. If you’re ready for a pick-me-up, you can have a coffee and a whisky glazed doughnut. Or you could also test your new expertise in the Clydeside retail shop and pick a whisky to take home.

JMP TCD HR 5Whisky flights in The Clydeside Cafe