A Whisky Tour Across the North Coast 500 [NC500]
A Whisky Tour Across the North Coast 500 [NC500]
All around the world, a movement of whisky enthusiasts and whisky tours is growing rapidly, with more and more people embarking on a pilgrimage to the homeland of Scotch.
The fact that a trip through Scotland is also a concoction of jaw-dropping landscapes, so beautiful and almost unreal, natural and wild, fascinating in heritage and history, with a thriving cultural life, just adds to the magnetic attraction that this country has for travellers.
Whisky production dots around a map of these wondrous sceneries, between historic hamlets and, in recent years, in cutting edge, design-led buildings, offering choice aplenty for a visitor to set off on a fantastic adventure.
To those whose heart beats for the liquid sunshine, or for the ones eager to discover its wonders, here are a few tips to help you plan your whisky tour across the North Coast 500 in Scotland.
Whisky Route 1: The North Coast 500
Let us begin our adventure in the Far North of the country, following the world-famous North Coast 500, hopping off a couple of times to reach whisky spots that cannot be missed.
This route starts and ends in the beautiful city of Inverness, encompassing the northern Highlands across the regions of Caithness, Sutherland and Ross-shire, where some of the most remote settlements, as well as some great distilleries, can be found.
For our whisky journey, we will focus on the Eastern segment of the route, but for those wishing to explore more, the Northern Wild West is a treat for the eyes.
But let’s not digress too much, it’s time to set off. Prepare your backpack, keep those waterproofs handy and get a spare glass ready. Let’s go!
A Northern Detour: The Orkney Islands
Our first stop takes us just a few miles away from the NC500’s route, but the detour is well worthy for the whisky-thirsty traveller. Amid enchanting shores, miles of green land and Neolithic vestiges, we are out to explore the Orkney Islands.
This majestic archipelago not only offers some incredibly fascinating archaeological sites recognised by UNESCO such as Skara Brae, the Stones of Stenness, the Maeshowe chambered tomb and the Ring of Brodgar, as well as stunning landscapes and great food but is also a great destination for spirits and ale enthusiasts.
Here, you’ll be able to visit the northernmost whisky distillery in Scotland: Highland Park. The distillery, enclosed in stone-walled buildings in the south of Kirkwall, proudly highlights the Viking heritage of the islands and offers a variety of tour experiences for the whisky virgin and the connoisseur alike. The character of its whisky is strictly related to the peat that grows locally, which is rich in heather, resulting in notes of herbal smoke.
Heading south for half a mile, you’ll find the distillery of Scapa set in a stunning location which overlooks the Scapa Flow, a sound where wrecks of a German fleet from the First World War can still be found in the sea. Despite the beauty of the site and its historic significance, Scapa’s visitor centre is surprisingly young, having opened only in 2015. Here, visitors can taste their Scapa’s characteristic unpeated, honey-sweet drams.
However, if your palate craves the taste of other spirits, fear no more, as in recent years the islands have witnessed the birth of several exciting distilling ventures. In Kirkwall, you will find The Orkney Distillery, a modernly designed venture opened in 2016 producing Kirkjuvagr Orkney Gin, the vodka, gin and liquors by Deerness Distillery in the eastern mainland, or even rum, which is made on the small island of Lamb Holm by J. Gow and which is close to the Italian chapel, a church built by war prisoners in 1939.
However, if you want to have a relaxing night with a great spirits selection and food pairings, you should visit the Orkney Hotel, which is a great hub to taste some of the local spirits. Foodies can indulge in a bite of some local delicacies from staple restaurants such as The Forevan, Hamnavoe’s Restaurant or The Commodore.
Surf, wildlife and whisky: Thurso
A short ferry journey will take you back to the mainland in Scrabster, near Thurso, which is exactly where our journey takes us next, back on track on the NC500.
The most northerly town in mainland Scotland, Thurso is a popular surfing area, with people coming from all over the world to enjoy its wild waves. For those who enjoy a more placid lifestyle, the town and its surroundings are a wonderful place to immerse into nature and wildlife.
Thurso is also home to one of the first ventures leading the movement of new whisky producers in the past decade: Wolfburn. Whisky making is not new to the area, as the new distillery was meant to rebuild the name of the old Wolfburn distillery, which ceased production some 150 years ago. The new distillery started producing whisky only in 2013 but the brand’s name is already popular in the whisky world. Although its looks are quite far from the romanticised idea of a whisky distillery, the efficient setup, with all the production chain taking place in one large hangar-like building, allowed the two first operators to produce whisky. Light and fruity in character, with mildly peated variations, this young whisky is an interesting example of the new insight in the future of whisky.
Leaving Thurso, it’s time to head towards the limits of mainland Scotland. Driving east, on bending country roads offering flashes of seaside when emerging on the coast, make your way towards Dunnet Bay. If you need a refreshment on the way, stop at Dunnet Bay Distillery for a tour or a wee taster. Then, head north on a quiet and almost desert road, which will lead you to Dunnet Head, where dramatic cliffs crowded with seabirds and incredible games of light on the ocean will capture your gaze, and visions from Orkney from afar.
If you want more of these coastal views, head east towards John O’Groats and Duncansby Head, where you can try some ales from John O’Groats Brewery as well as admire the island of Stroma, which was completely abandoned only a couple of decades ago, and where you can arrange a visit.
Back to our whisky journey, let’s head south, to the fishing town of Wick.
Of herrings and spirits: Wick
Driving across the barren and windswept countryside and passing through a few villages, we reach the town of Wick and the historic distillery of Old Pulteney. Here you will not only learn about their whisky but also take a look back in time in the past of the village. Pulteney, in fact, was originally a separate town created to host the fisherman population during the boom of Wick’s herring commerce. After the distillery was founded in 1826, seasonal workers would alternate between the two trades: whisky in winter, herring in summer. With the herrings sailing towards the likes of Scandinavia and Russia, it is likely that some extra whisky barrels may have known an early export to long latitudes.
A stroll on the river by night or a visit to the local museum is a lovely pastime whilst you are here. At the end of the day, head to the Mackays Hotel Whisky Bar, to sample their good spirit selection.
Past glories renewed: Brora
Navigating south on a twisting road which offers some breathtaking glimpses on the coast, passing through coastal villages such as Lybster and Helmsdale, the latter made famous by the Gold Rush in the 19th century, you’ll reach our next whisky pit-stop, Brora.
The village offers glimpses of the past and present of distilling, as it’s not only home to the Diageo-owned Clynelish Distillery, which is now undergoing a major refurbishment, but where the distillery of Brora, which fell silent in 1983, is now being brought back to life.
Therefore, even if at present you will mainly find construction works around the distillery (which can be somewhat interesting in its own right, this is surely a place on which to keep your eyes glued for the future.
History and drams: Dornoch
It’s now time to enjoy some proper sightseeing: the village of Dornoch is a beautiful place for a relaxing walk on the beach or a stroll around the lovely and placid historic centre with its cafes and shops, but you are also in for a great whisky tasting. The Dornoch Castle Hotel is the perfect place for this: this stunning converted castle hosts a unique whisky bar with a great selection of old-style whiskies and many new interesting expressions by independent bottlers Thompson Bros, who also happen to run the bar. More recently, Phil and Simon Thompson, whose family has been running the Castle Hotel for years, have started their own distillery right in the backyard of the Castle, in what used to be the old fire station. In this quirky and fascinating space, they set up an organic production of whisky and gin, with an attention to traditional methods which aim to bring back the typical estery flavours of the 60s and 70s.
A pictish touch: Tain
Leaving the Dornoch Firth behind, it’s time for us to head towards two well-known distilleries. First, we take a detour from the A9 and head towards the small village of Edderton, where we will find Balblair Distillery. The scene in front of you has pretty much all you’d want from a traditional distillery lost in the Highlands. Not for nothing, it was chosen as one of the locations for the film The Angel’s Share, a lighthearted story of whisky and redemption. The distillery, which is considered the fourth oldest one in Scotland, has a homely feeling to it and deserves a visit, maybe followed by a walk to the Clach Biorach, a prehistoric standing stone with Pictish carvings on it.
But Balblair is not the only whisky brand which the Picts have somewhat influenced. Going back to the main road and heading to Tain, you will find the place where one of the most globally renowned single malts is produced: Glenmorangie Distillery.
Nestled on the Dornoch Firth’s shore, the distillery has a very traditional feel, where particular attention for design in the visitor areas can be noticed – probably being owned by a fashion brand (LVMH) may have something to do with this. Glenmorangie’s symbol comes from a Pictish carving on the Hilton of Cadboll Stone. Entering the still house feels much like being in a small cathedral, with the high roof making space to the tallest stills of the industry. An interesting aspect is looking at the various projects undertaken by the company, one of which is an environmental scheme to reintroduce oysters to the Dornoch Firth and, lately, a new extension to the distillery which should be unveiled in the near future.
Stags and whales: Alness
Our next stop leads us to the Cromarty Firth, popular with tourist as the port of Invergordon welcomes hundreds of cruise liners each year. Here, we can spot the plant of Invergordon Distillery, Whyte & Mackay’s flagship grain engine for blends. The distillery is not open to the public, but we can get a glimpse of it and dig into a more famous brand later, just a few miles from here. Driving to Alness is difficult to miss the signs leading to Dalmore Distillery. Although at first sight, the location doesn’t seem extremely appealing, once you’ll reach the shore where the entrance is located, you’ll be rewarded: a beautiful tree stands on the shore overlooking the firth, and on less busy days it gives the place a feeling of calm and peace. The thick stone buildings balance between elegance and a sturdy, industrial look.
On the way out of Alness, you can also spot Teaninich Distillery, which produces mainly whisky to go into Diageo’s blends and some Single Malt for the Flora&Fauna range.
Time to head back south, but if you have time don’t miss the chance to take a walk to the Fyrish monument near Evanton, a construction built in the late 18th century to represent an Indian port. From here, the view on the Firth and on Ben Wyvis is spectacular.
Maltings, monsters and ghost dogs: Inverness
Just before getting to the Highland Capital of Inverness, we will cross over the Black Isle – if you are a beer enthusiast, you will thoroughly enjoy a detour at Black Isle Brewery, near Munlochy. The production is organic and they have a lovely bar in the centre of Inverness serving tasty pizzas! On the way south, you will probably pass Dingwall, where one of the newest distilleries, GlenWyvis, has started making whisky in 2017, becoming the first whisky distillery owned by the community. Whilst their whisky waits to be ready, they also produce Goodwill Gin.
But as we look to visit another distillery, we should head to Glen Ord, just outside Inverness. This is conveniently reachable by train, and what is interesting is that this distillery has its own maltings which serve most Diageo’s plants in the North. It is also a good opportunity to try their single malts, which are rare to find as most of its production goes, under the Singleton flagship, to the Asian market.
With one last detour from the NC500, we pass through Inverness, where we will come back to end our journey. But first, we have to finish our distillery bucket list with a very interesting breed: Tomatin Distillery. Although getting here by bus is an option, it is quite impractical and a car would serve you a lot better. The whole plant seems huge and fairly industrial.
However, you are in for a treat if you are visiting, as they offer a very in-depth standard tour, with the possibility to jump into an unused mash tun and see a part of the production from the inside, and ending with a great selection of distillery exclusives, straight from the cask (which you can bottle). One warning: beware of the number of drams as it’s said that a Ghost dog can appear near the village of Tomatin. Many sightings may have to do with the…ehm…quality of the whisky!
Back to Inverness, there is nothing quite like strolling on the river of the Highland capital, walking along the banks up to the Ness Islands or having a good look around the city from the Castle hill viewpoint. If you are in the centre, pubs like McGregors, Black Isle or Hootanannys will delight you with tasty ales and live music. However, if it’s a whisky bar you are looking for, there are a couple treats around, both of which are not the easiest to find (but that offer extreme cosiness). One is The Malt Room, right next to the Victorian Market, and the other is The Angel’s Share, which has a great selection of Gins too. Head to Encore Une Fois for a tasty Old fashioned and other cocktails.
And now, a well-deserved rest.
Hope you enjoyed the ride, Slainte Mhath!
Festivals and events
This is one of the newest festivals and an answer of the norther distilleries who are usually cut out from the big events. Eight of them have teamed up to organise a week of great tastings and fun. It covers most of the distilleries we have mentioned above.
A local celebration of the spirits industry in the North of Scotland, it takes place at Bogbain Farm, Inverness, usually in September.
A great celebration of whisky makers of the Highlands, usually held at the end of October.
Whisky journey top tip #1: pack up them bottles
With many distilleries located in fairly remote places, a car comes in handy, but chances are that the designated driver for the day will have to miss out on the tasting (oh no, the best part!). Whilst some people will not be too heartbroken from leaving their share to someone else, this can be a real shame for others.
Many distilleries now offer a driver’s dram option and will bottle the tasting set so that you can try the whisky when you reach your accommodation (or when you switch the driving seat with someone else). However, this is not always the case and it’s always good to pack up a few small bottles in which to pour the drams. A hipflask is a good option too and, although you’ll be able to keep just one of the whiskies on the menu, it’s a wonderful companion for excursions, especially in chilly weather.
Even if you are not driving though you may want to keep some whisky as a souvenir to savour and share later on, and enjoy a sensorial throwback of your trip!
Author Federica Stefani Whisky Writer & Jornalist