It’s true that a lot of visitors come to Scotland through their love of Scotch whisky, and this is particularly evident in Edinburgh, which is the first port of call for most tourists north of the border. Despite not having any distilleries here, there is plenty to satisfy the discerning whisky lover in the city, and one of the most popular attractions on this front is The Scotch Whisky Experience.
Back in my heady days of working on the tourist front line, I found out very quickly that I needed to develop a base knowledge of scotch whisky. Lots of folk who came into the shop (okay, okay, mostly North American blokes) had plenty of questions to ask, but most of the time I felt a bit out of my depth trying to answer them.
To try and save the regular humiliation, I read up a little bit about the more popular kinds of whisky and their characteristics, but I was still not an expert by any stretch of the imagination (which I have previously admitted!).
In hindsight, rather than trying to wade my way through dry websites and guides, I should have simply made a stop here. The tour at The Scotch Whisky Experience is just under an hour long, but they do a fantastic job of bringing the whisky distilling process to life and explaining the key nuances of the different whisky regions of Scotland.
The tour is split up into three distinct sections. For the first part, you are taken through the whisky creation in a giant whisky barrel.
As you sit back and relax, the barrel makes its way around the track as you’re talked through the creation of whisky, right from the raindrops falling to the Scottish earth through to the ageing casks, waiting patiently to mature.
The ride is full of engaging visual props and characters, making it interesting even for those who don’t have a passing interest in whisky – even kids. One of my favourite parts was the room full of “yeast” particles, lighting up to show the chemical reactions taking place in the brewing process (pictured above). It was really exciting to see it brought to life in that way!
The next part of the tour was a talk delivered by one of The Scotch Whisky Experience’s guide. We had Pete, who was great at talking to a small group of us through the different whisky regions of Scotland and the kinds of aromas and flavours that come from each.
- The Lowlands, which are typically light and fresh
- The Highlands, which are floral and smooth
- Speyside, which is sweet and fruity
- Islay, which is typically smoky in flavour
Admittedly, this was helped by the scratch and sniff cards that were distributed to each of us, so we could smell the different regions as he went along.
After we were guided through the scents and flavours, we were asked to choose which dram we wanted to try. There were five dots in front of us, four colours representing each of the Scottish whisky regions, and a multicoloured dot in the middle representing a blended “grain” whisky.
I opted for the yellow Highland dot, as the floral scent appealed to me and apparently it was good for mixing with a spot of water, which I normally like to do with my drams.
I was given the Ben Nevis, and while I never think I would be able to prefer it over my beloved gin, I was able to appreciate the whisky in a way I was unable to before, thanks to Pete and his expertise in guiding our group through the tasting process.
The final part of the tour was definitely the most breathtaking. After our drams were poured, we were ushered into a room that is home to the world’s largest collection of whisky – 3,500 bottles of the stuff. It’s quite hard to imagine that quantity, but once you enter the room you realise just how much that is!
The picture above is just a fraction of the bottles on display – as the room was full of other visitors I was unable to get a decent shot of the whole thing, but this gives you ann idea of how visually stunning the spectacle is.
Even those who feel indifferent to whisky can’t deny how beautiful this room is, and it certainly left the majority of my group (including myself) spellbound – until we had to move on!
That pretty much concluded the tour, and we were ushered into the Scotch Whisky Experience bar with the final part of the collection of unusual whisky bottles. The folks who opted for the gold tour stayed for their tasting session, but I called my visit a day after a brief wander around the gift shop.
Of course the Scotch Whisky Experience is an absolute must for any whisky-loving visitor, but it is also entertaining for those who simply want to learn more about Scotland’s favourite drink. I left much more knowledgeable about Scotch than I did when I went in, thanks to this engaging, passionate and knowledgable tour. I’ll still always prefer gin, granted, but at least now I won’t feel completely lost when confronted with a whisky cupboard!
The Scotch Whisky Experience (website) is at 354 Castlehill, The Royal Mile, EH1 2NE. The easiest way to get to is from Princes Street is up from The Mound, and turn right when you come to the crossroads with the Royal Mile.
Thanks very much to the Scotch Whisky Experience for providing me with a ticket for this visit!