Whisky Route #4: The Lowlands
Whisky Route 4: The Lowlands, a Reviving Whisky Region
If there is a region that has seen its whisky landscape transformed in the last two decades, it surely is the Lowlands. Historically a hotspot of whisky merchants, the area produced a spirit which was considered poor in quality, a reputation caused by distillers who would rush through production with an appallingly fast distillation rate, resulting in a very harsh, raw spirit.
For this reason, and for its proximity to very popular spots such as the Highlands and Campbeltown, the area has been overlooked for decades, with only a couple of distilleries making it into the pages of whisky guides (usually Auchentochan in Glasgow and Glenkinchie near Edinburgh), the whisky being generally dismissed as an entry-level, light-bodied spirit.
However, together with a reignited interest in the beauty and historic heritage that this land has to offer, the Lowlands are nowadays bursting with new distilling ventures which are expanding the profile of the local whisky in flavour and techniques.
For example, the Borders, which has been lacking a distilling scene since 1837, saw a new distillery bringing back whisky production to the area, with some new projects on the way.
With a push from the soaring interest in whisky and whisky tourism, the main cities of Glasgow and Edinburgh are being repopulated by new whisky producers, making it more accessible for people to visit a working distillery and creating a new urban whisky landscape.
Exciting times await this beautiful region, and we are now off to discover more about it.
A trip back in time: Lindores Abbey
We kick off with our journey in the Kingdom of Fife, where we are set to take a step back in time. Located in Newburgh, a few miles south of Perth, Lindores Abbey Distillery is a living connection between past and present: one of the new distilleries on the scene, it was built on the ruins of the ancient Lindores Abbey, which is considered the “spiritual home of Scotch whisky”. Friar John Cor, a Lindores monk, is mentioned in the Exchequers Roll, the earliest written reference to distillation in Scotland, which dates back to 1494.
In connection with this heritage, distillery founders Drew and Helen Mackenzie whose family owned the land around Abbey’s ruins decided to bring back distilling to Lindores, where they built the new site in harmony with the ruins and created a building in between a distillery and a museum.
Focusing on history, Lindores Abbey tries to tie in its production as much knowledge from the past as possible, which reflects in their first product, Aqua Vitae, in which local botanicals which were used by the monks are key ingredients. The Apothecary tour is quite a unique experience and makes you feel like an alchemist.
Walking through the ruins of the abbey while sipping a dram and overlooking the evocative scenery on the Tay is just a wonderful experience. Overall, Lindores Abbey is a great spot for history geeks and countryside lovers.
Making our way towards St Andrews, we will pass close to Daftmill distillery, which is both a working farm and a distillery. Although this small producer is not open to visitors it is an extremely fascinating project: despite being up and running in 2005, the distillery released its first whisky only in 2017, with great anticipation for whisky enthusiasts.
Whisky University: St Andrews
Featuring the oldest university in Scotland, a renowned golf course and a long, sandy beach, it is no wonder that St Andrews has become a popular hub for international students, golfers and tourists. Exuding history and not lacking a certain charm, the town is also a strategic place in-between two very interesting whisky spots.
Just before getting to St Andrews, you’ll pass from the burgh of Guardbridge – here, you will find the Brewery and Distillery of Eden Mill. Opened in 2012 as a brewery and producing spirit since 2014, the buildings were retrieved from an old paper mill and the renovation of the nearby Seggie distillery. It is, in fact, the first combination of brewery and distillery in Scotland, with craft ales, single malt whisky and gin at the core of the production. Although the distillery is currently closed to visitors due to an expansion project, it is worth keeping an eye on their brand new site when it is ready. In the meantime, the brand is operating a series of pop-up locations in the area as well as a series of virtual experiences.
Whilst in St Andrews, you could visit one of the St Andrews Brewing Company brewpubs: they are also a great place where to fuel up with some tasty bites.
A walk on the beach on a sunny day and exploring the ruins of the Cathedral of St Andrews offers a fascinating dive into nature and history.
Heading out of St Andrews is the new distillery of Kingsbarns, which released its first single malt only in 2018. The buildings are the result of the restoration of a derelict farmstead. The Weymiss family, who owns the distillery and runs an independent bottling company, has done a great job in polishing the rustic buildings, which now host not only the distillery but also a shop and a lovely cafe with a nice view across the farmland. This is an interesting stop as it allows us to see the development of young whisky throughout the years, as well as taste the locally-made Darnley’s Gin.
Southern Fife drive-through
Encompassing Southern Fife, heading towards Kirkcaldy and Leven, there is a series of distilleries (which are sadly not open to the public) but which are worth mentioning as they are important names in the whisky world.
One of these is Diageo’s power plant for grain Whisky, Cameronbridge. The distillery, an impressive industrial implant, is also the largest and oldest operative grain distillery in Europe. Here, the backbone for many of the company’s blends is produced, as well as the single grain expressions Cameron Brig and Haig Club. Since 1998, they have also produced Gordon and Tanqueray’s gin and Smirnoff vodka.
Nearby, is the playhouse for whisky creators at Diageo: Leven distillery. Although pretty much unknown to the public, this distillery is equipped to prepare any style of whisky the company may want to produce. Starting as a bottling plant, it is now a centre for production and flavour experimentations, with a variety of stills and other equipment to support the company’s innovation in Scotch whisky.
Another distillery that focuses on experimenting and innovating is the smaller and independent, brand-new distillery of Inchdairnie, in Glenrothes. The distillery’s very unique equipment, which sees a mash filter instead of a mash tun and a hammer Mill as well as the use of a mix of brewing, winners and whisky yeasts, focuses on the goal of producing new styles of whisky – among which, one of the very few rye whiskies made in Scotland.
A royal dream: Edinburgh
We leave Fife to head south, cross one of the suggestive bridges on the Firth of Forth (one of which, currently closed, dates back to 1890) and hit the dazzling capital of Scotland: Edinburgh. Needless to say that this urban pearl is one of the most visited locations in the UK: from its world-famous castle, the fascinating architecture to its vibrant cultural life (with a whole lot of international festivals taking place here in August), the city is almost a compulsory destination for anyone visiting Scotland.
And visitors, of course, can revel in its whisky life as well. An exciting scene of bars and shops provides an incredible trail for the whisky lover to follow. For more information on its whisky scene, you can check our tips on the best whisky in Edinburgh.
However, for the past decades, the Scottish capital couldn’t offer a working distillery for eager whisky tourists to visit the city. In fact, what was almost the only option was a trip to Glenkinchie Distillery which, set at a half-hour drive from the city centre, remains a nice place to visit for its rural setting in the Lothian farmland. It’s also a much-recommended destination for its museum, where they even have a miniature of a working distillery which allows for a broad overview of the whisky-making process.
To cater for those who couldn’t move outside the city, members of the industry came together and set up the Scotch Whisky Experience, which is a tourist attraction and a great hub to learn about whisky without a focus on a specific brand.
Things have changed as the very new Holyrood Distillery opened to the public in 2019. Although whisky as such is not yet available, the distillery offers fantastic interactive tours with a focus on nosing and aromas. But they are not the only ones in the spotlight: in Leith, plans are going ahead for the Port of Leith distillery and a new distillery by John Crabbie & Co, as well as for a big visitor experience by Johnnie Walker on Princes Street.
However, the capital is not the only city experiencing an incredible whisky surge.
Rolling on the river: Glasgow
Hopping from one side of the central belt to the west coast, we find the industrial city of Glasgow. Scotland’s biggest city is very often overlooked when compared to the historic beauty of Edinburgh, and to one extent it does not have quite the same historic elegance. But you should not be fooled: what Glasgow has to offer is a rich and variegated cultural life, being one of the most important music hubs in the UK (great concerts will always pass from here rather than Edinburgh), and a patchwork of architectural contrast where historic buildings alternative to modernly designed attractions. All of this is tied in by the flow – not so placid! Of the river Clyde, which made Glasgow a crucial port for shipbuilding.
Needless to say, the whisky culture here is just as vibrant: check our guide on where to drink whisky in Glasgow to navigate the local whisky drinking scene! (make sure you add the world-famous Bon Accord whisky bar to your list!)
As for Edinburgh, the choice of whisky distilleries to visit was not huge up until recently. The one to visit has been for years Auchentoshan Distillery. Although far from being the prettiest plant, Auchentoshan is a very interesting one to visit as it is the only one in Scotland to triple distil all the whisky produced in it. Triple distillation, usually related to Irish whisky, gives an extremely light and drinkable character to the spirit, to which maturation adds extremely interesting notes.
Following the whisky boom, we now have two other working distilleries in Glasgow: the first to open in 2015 was Glasgow distillery, which released its very first single malts in 2018 and is located in Hillington Business Park. Although they don’t have a visitor centre, you can try some of their products in one of our entertaining Glasgow Distillery Virtual Tastings.
The second to come was Clydeside Distillery, which is wonderfully placed on the banks of the Clyde, on the old Queens docks – whose pumphouse is today part of the distillery. The building with the distillery and the visitor centre perfectly blends in a modern and sleek design with the historic monuments it incorporated. The Virtual museum inside is quite unlike any other tour experience, as it focuses on the history of Glasgow as a whisky-commercial centre and the people who made this history possible. Please, indulge in a whisky and chocolate pairing after the tour: you absolutely won’t regret it.
However, there are talks of more distilleries to visit in and around Glasgow, so keep your eyes peeled on the news if you visit in the future!
If you have time for a detour, however, head to Wishaw and get yourself sat for a meal at The Artisan restaurant. Between each bite, have a go at some of the over 1300 whiskies they have on the menu!
Below the Belt: Ayrshire, Dumfries and Galloway and the Borders
Heading south towards the west coast, we cross the Ayrshire region (worth a pit stop to Ayr, for a stroll on the beach and Ice cream, but mind the seagulls!), take in the beautiful coastal views and drive towards Dumfries & galloway. However, on the way, you’ll pass the plant that holds the grain distillery Girvan and the single malt producer Ailsa Bay, which are both owned by William Grant & Sons. If the first one a workhorse for the brand’s blends (although recently a single grain version has been released), Ailsa Bay is a relatively new distillery founded in 2007 and originally was designed to create whisky for Grant’s blend – however in 2016 they released a single malt release, which aims to balance a sulphury character and light peat with sweetness. With eight stills, it is made to produce a variety of whisky styles (stills have the same shape as Balvenie). None of the two distilleries has visitor facilities but it’s worth noting their location – and a quick hop in Girvan, a fishing burgh, is recommended.
But now, let’s get to some proper whisky tasting – going past the Galloway forest park – the most extensive in the UK and full of walks for outdoors enthusiasts, our next stop is near Wigton (book city!) to meet a distillery that was saved from disaster.
Bladnoch distillery was liquidated in 2014 and eventually bought by the Australian David Prior, with stills coming back to life in 2017. The distillery aims to explore the Lowland styles from the 1800s and is a wonderful example of the conversion of an old farmhouse. Right on the river Bladnoch and close to the seaside, this is a wonderful distillery to explore as well as the area.
Driving back east and paralleling the border with England, we get to the bonnie town of Annan, on the north shore of the Solway Firth, which deserves a stroll on the high street and historic buildings full of local shops and cafes. Distilling has been an industry of great importance in the past, however, it was only in 2014 that spirit flowed again from the new Annandale distillery, which had closed for good in 1921. The old sandstone warehouse walls give the distillery an industrial and historic allure, and the old maltings have now been turned into a visitor centre – it almost looks like a tiny village itself. Their first two releases, Man O’ Words (unpeated) and Man O’ Swords (peated) are respectively dedicated to Robert Burns and Robert the Bruce.
Our last whisky stop on the route is Hawick, the biggest town in the Scottish Borders. It was in 2018 that whisky flowed again in this region for the first time since 1837, thanks to the aptly named Borders distillery. The outlook speaks of an urban distillery, where the old Victorian buildings have been converted into a distillery blending with the elegance of modernly designed and freshly renovated interiors. This is a lovely experience and easy to access from Hawick town centre, which is also where our tour ends: make sure you get your hands on one of the knitted goods, for which the town is famous!
Festivals & Events
A great festival taking up Hampden Park Stadium each year, it offers an incredible array of tastings, talks and events for the whisky lover to enjoy.
Another pearl of Glasgow, usually taking place in old warehouses, it’s a fantastic and vibrant event combining live music, exhibitors and delicious food.
An Edinburgh staple for whisky lovers, it usually takes place at Surgeon’s hall, giving you the chance to wander around one of the city’s historic buildings whilst sipping on some delicious tasters.
This is a relatively new festival which takes place in March in Cupar – but have a look at the happenings around all the other whisky places in Fife over that weekend! A fresh and independent festival with a lot to offer.
Whisky journey top tip #4: Dress to impress (the weather and the warehouse!)
Any sensible travel requires a wee research into the local weather conditions. For Scotland, you will be looking to go with a layered outfit and always with a waterproof and windproof jacket at hand (umbrellas will mostly be made unfunctional very soon by the sudden gusts of wind that may arise).
Jokes aside, there is a very valid reason why people say that you can see the four seasons in a day in Scotland, so be prepared to be kissed by the sun and be hit by hail on the same day.
Most importantly, on your whisky travel, you will surely want to sneak (on a tour, legally!) into one of those musty warehouses where our beloved spirit takes shape and flavours in the casks. Even on a warm day, some of these buildings can get pretty chilly, and as much as a few drams may make you feel warmer, always bring an extra layer…just in case! You’ll savour the whisky much better if you are not shaking or chattering your teeth.
Author Federica Stefani Whisky Writer & Jornalist