Before arriving in Scotland I’d heard of something called the Scotch Whisky Experience (SWE). Other than reading it was worth visiting, and its near the Edinburgh Castle, I knew nothing about what it actually was other than it having something to do with scotch. Also, I knew it would make all my scotch loving friends massively jealous and that was enough to make up my mind…I was going! These types of tours are typically not as much fun solo, luckily I had met two friends (Andrea and Tim) in my hostel that also wanted to go.
Since we three were all traveling long-term, on a budget (Andrea, about 7 months and Tim, over 2 years!, and me, somewhere between), we chose to take the least expensive tour available. While some tours included dinner and some other extras, ours was more basic…but still fantastic! The tour guide placed us in a roller-coaster-like whisky barrel seat and we went on a 10 minute ride that explained the entire process of making Scotch. Starting with ingredients, then going through the different methods used to create malt, on to aging, bottling, etc. I knew most of the process already but they present the information in an interesting way and I think it would be easy for someone with no previous knowledge to follow along. After the informational ride our guide took us into a room with about 25 tasting glasses set up, unfortunately only one was for me. She explained the four main distilling regions for single malts in Scotland and the characteristics of each. They include:
- Islay – Has distinct smoky flavors that come from peat.
- Speyside – Where most Scotch distilleries are located and the two best-selling single malts in the world, The Glenlivet and Glenfiddich, are distilled here. Speyside Scotch tastes either grassy and light or sweet and rich.
- Highland – Has a wide range of flavors due to its large geographical size. Tastes range from dry to sweet with a touch of smoke/peat.
- Lowland – Light bodied with subtle malt and grassy aromas.
Along with the 4 main single malt regions there are also blended scotch whisky distillers (Johnny Walker being the world’s best selling) where they will mix several different single malts to create a unique blend.
After giving us the 411 on the single malt regions we practiced picking out the different aromas using a scratch and sniff card. No joke. After only a few minutes with the card, along with some tips/hints from our guide, we were (nearly) able detect fruity notes in Speyside Whiskies and the stronger smoky peat flavors from Islay. We then got to choose a single malt from one region, or a blend to taste. Since the night before I had indulged in a small, airplane sized bottle of 18-year-old Bowmore (an Islay scotch), I chose to try Speyside. Tim picked Islay and Andrea went with the Highland region. Out guide poured each of our drinks and led us to another room, the tasting room. While she was unlocking the door I realized this was the only locked room on the tour, and for good reason as it houses the world’s largest collection of unopened single malt scotch. Over 3400 unique bottles, no duplicates. That’s three thousand four hundred bottles of single malt scotch, unique and unopened! Owned by the parent company of Johnny Walker, and on loan to the SWE for 10 years, it’s the perfect place to taste scotch and end the tour. Since Andrea, Tim, and I each chose a different scotch to taste we decided to taste each others also. And with our new knowledge of the subtle flavors and aromas unique to each region it was quite easy to pick out the differences in the three, and I suspect if we were able to try whisky from the Lowlands on this day we could have picked out its characteristics as well.
Below is a video of the tasting room (apologies for the amateur-ish-ness, my cameraman doesn’t exist so I shot this with my iPhone).
You do not need to be a scotch connoisseur to enjoy this experience. The historical and cultural information learned from the SWE stand alone as reason enough to visit, and the whisky barrel ride, while sort of kitschy, is entertaining. The tasting at the end, in that tasting room, is just icing on the cake. I think almost anyone, apart from someone who is against drinking alcohol altogether, would have a good time at the SWE.
This was a really enjoyable morning for all three of us (that’s right, we were doing this at 10 am!) and something I wish I could have shared with my brother and our scotch loving friends, but was glad to share it with two other solo travelers nonetheless. It’s something I would recommend to anyone traveling to Edinburgh, and when I go back to Scotland I may do it again, just to see that collection!