Here is my sixth report on a visit to a distillery in the Speyside and it’s finally one that I toured. (Previous stops were at Cragganmore, Glenfiddich, Strathisla, Glen Moray and Glen Grant.) I was very much looking forward to this visit as I’d heard a lot about their distillery exclusive bottles and was hoping to taste and purchase one of each, and certainly at least the ex-bourbon cask they’re said to always have on offer. And the tour itself has a very good reputation—it’s one of those that is always recommended by whisky geeks to people making their first visit to the Speyside. Well, I was disappointed on one score and pleased on the other.
I might as well start with the disappointment as it came first. I asked about the fill-your-own options in the little shop/visitor centre by the entrance to the distillery (even smaller than Cragganmore’s) and was told that they’d not had a true fill-your-own for a while, and that to boot at the time they were completely out of the pre-bottled distillery exclusives. Just my luck. The tour, however, did turn out to be very good, though things didn’t get off to a great start there either. First, I was a little surprised to have to pay for the sample bottles in which to take away the little bits of whisky that are part of the tasting at the end of the tour (my friend Daniel and I were both driving). This was the case at Highland Park a week later as well, but everywhere else I’ve been, the sample bottles have been complimentary. As far as I can tell, very few people ask for these and so it surprises me that a company like Pernod-Ricard feels the need to charge visitors £3 for them.
Then there was a bit of an annoyance with the start of the tour. We were doing the basic tour; it was supposed to start at 10 am. We were all milling around outside and at 10.10 the guide came out of the shop to say that they were waiting for one more person who was signed up to show up. Five minutes later she came out again and this time she mentioned the name of the person we were waiting for. Oh, that’s me, said a woman who’d been standing with us all along! Apparently, she had not checked in at the shop. But to be fair, nowhere in the booking process had it said to check in at the shop—we only did it ourselves because we wanted to let them know we’d be driving after the tour. And they could have just done a head count of the people waiting outside instead of waiting for the person to check in. This delay was to screw us a little at the end.
The tour itself, I am glad to report, was very good once it got started. Our guide, Kirsten, was good-humoured and knowledgeable and kept the marketing flim-flam to a minimum. It was a pleasant group (nobody was drunk at 10 am—which, alas, cannot be taken for granted on distillery tours in Scotland, as we discovered later at Tomatin). Though we did have one member of the party who at one point turned out to have been eavesdropping on my friend’s questions to me about a production issue Kirsten had mentioned and took it upon himself to give us an unwanted lecture on caramel colouring etc., completely unmoved by our absolute lack of interest. Please do not be that guy if you go on a distillery tour.
The tour is quite comprehensive. Aberlour does not have floor maltings, so you don’t start there. Instead there’s a nice bit of talk about the history of the distillery and the town, most of it in a room with some very nice old photographs (I am always a sucker for old photographs, especially of distilleries). From there we went on to the production areas. Alas, Aberlour—like all the group’s distilleries—does not allow photographs in production areas. And so I can show you none of that except for a picture of the stills, which I was allowed to take from outside the still house door. I can tell you that the distillery was in production when we were there and so it was bloody hot inside. In a first for me, we were offered sips of the wash to try—both Daniel and I did, and we both liked the beer (later we got to taste the new make it was distilled into as well). The production bits are no different than they are at any other distillery and if you’ve done many other tours that will not hold anything new for you (beyond getting to taste the wash). However, for a first-timer—like Daniel—it was quite thorough and interesting.
Emerging from the still house we popped into Warehouse No. 1 for a quick look. No photography was allowed in there either. I think that in the past the tours culminated in a tasting in this warehouse and that it was here that the fill-your-own casks were located. If I’m wrong about that, please let me know. The tasting portion of our tour was not in here, however. We went across the yard and upstairs to a nice, clubby tasting room with long tables that had already been set up with tasting flights. There were two casks in here but neither was set up for bottling (at least not that I could tell). There was a delay here as well as our guide disappeared for a bit. When she came back the tasting began. There were six pre-poured portions in each person’s flight (and the pours were not very consistent—I got about 10 ml of a few and trace amounts of a few). The first of these was the new make, which we were interested to try. After that were a 12 yo ex-bourbon cask, a 12 yo ex-sherry butt and the regular 10 and 16 yo; the flight culminated with the A’bunadh (Batch 61, I want to say). Of these, we only tasted the new make there, filling our purchased sample bottles with the rest.
The tasting seemed like it would have been interesting anyway, as Kirsten continued to talk about their production process. Alas, between the delay at the start of the tour and the delay at the start of the tasting, Daniel and I had to leave to catch up with our families for lunch. In the rush to leave, we failed to ask if the larger tasting glasses on the flights were ours to keep—if so, we left ours behind. I also did not have time to ask Kirsten about the fate of the fill-your-own casks. I certainly hope that those two casks in the room (one ex-bourbon and one ex-sherry) were not, in contradiction to what I had been told in the shop, tapped at the end of the tasting.
The distillery itself is quite small, though it does not feel as compact as Strathisla. The aesthetic of the visitor centre—as you can tell—is similar to that of Strathisla and also Glen Grant. And the tasting room was also of the clubby kind now quite common at many Scottish distilleries. What the Fleming Rooms—pictured in a couple of photographs below—are for I’m not sure, but they looked fancier still from the outside.
Launch the slideshow to take a look at the pictures of the parts of the distillery I was allowed to photograph. If you can i.d any of the buildings/structures or correct any errors please do so below. Scroll down for some final thoughts on the comparative quality of the tour and to see what’s coming next.
So, what’s my take on the tour as a whole? Well, I have not toured any other distilleries in the Speyside and so cannot tell you if the Aberlour tour is the best in the area. I can tell you that it is very good indeed. Still though far better than Talisker’s perfunctory tour, it’s not the best tour I’d be on till that point—both Bowmore and Laphroaig on Islay were better. And it was not the best tour on this trip either: Tomatin, Highland Park and especially Pulteney were quite a bit better and more comprehensive. But the average visitor to Scotland is unlikely to go to Orkney on their first trip and as good as the Pulteney tour is, it’s not enough reason to go to Wick. So if the Speyside is where you’re going and you’re only going to do one tour, Aberlour’s standard tour is certainly a good one. At £15 it costs a bit more than most others (well, it costs 3x Glen Moray’s) but you get to taste the wash and the new make and five more whiskies besides. That’s not a bad deal even if you don’t in fact get to keep the tasting glass (please tell me you don’t). But if you’re going to be tooling around the Inverness/Drumnadrochit area as well, and are only looking to do one tour, I think Tomatin’s basic tour is superior. If you are going to do the tour at Aberlour, keep in mind that they only do two a day and that they fill up quickly in peak season: make your bookings early on their website.
Up next: a review of a widely available Aberlour. I still have a bunch of distillery reports to post: quick stops at Glenfarclas, Balblair, Clynelish and Scapa, and more in-depth reports of tours at Pulteney, Highland Park and Tomatin. Not to mention, a micro-report on a certain micro-distillery in Dornoch. I’ll try to get them all out before the end of August. And I still have reports on whisky stores in Edinburgh plus meals in Edinburgh, the Speyside and Orkeny to write up as well. It’s a good thing I’m paid so well to write this blog.
The two casks in the tasting room appear to be the ones used for the fill-your-owns previously–I believe they’re props, with some kind of inert container inside–but you’ll be pleased to know that the tapping/pouring mechanism isn’t attached, so it is unlikely that they were waiting for you to leave the room before tapping them. I don’t recall Aberlour letting you keep a glass, either.
Aberlour was once rated the top whisky visitor attraction in Speyside, but I gather that the fellow who was in charge of the tours and visitor centre moved on some years ago. Obviously some things have changed since I then, and it’s too bad they discontinued the fill-your-own thing. I used to make a point of stopping in at the shop whenever I was in the area, but I guess I don’t need to do that anymore.
Oh, please don’t stop going on account of my experience.
My understanding was that they still sell distillery exclusives, just not a fill-your-own, and happened to be out the day I was there. So even if they don’t revive the fill-your-own it may be worth stopping in for a high quality ex-bourbon Aberlour. As it happens, the 12 yo we got a taste of as part of the tour was rather good—though I’ve no idea if that’s what would have been on sale or how much it would have cost.
Oh, I didn’t say I wouldn’t go. Just that I don’t need to (and to underscore the point, I won’t be staying in Craigellachie this year). Your experience echoes mine for the past two or three years–no fill-your-own, no Chivas Bros Editions, exclusive stuff often out of stock. I figured it was because I’m there in October, but it looks like whoever is running the show there is just not on top of things. Too bad.
I did the tour at Aberlour in summer 2014. We didn’t get to taste the wash from what I recall. We went to the room for the tasting like you said and the line up was new make, 10yo, 16yo, 15yo SC Bourbon, 16yo SC Sherry and A’buandh. Afterwards one could fill your own of the SCs (I didn’t as I already had other bottles I was bringing home and frankly I preferred the A’bunadh to either SC). We didn’t get to keep a glass.
It was a very good tour on the whole. I would say it was vastly better than the basic HP tour I did two years later (as that one included unforgivable factual errors), although not as good as the SB tour (which is easily the best one I’ve done so far).
Thanks for all the geeky distillery notes. I will be over again next summer and will keep Tomatin in mind.
Thanks for chiming in. I wonder when the fill-your-own thing at Aberlour stopped (and why). With only two tours a day it’s not like they’d be getting overwhelmed.
I may be over-rating the basic Highland Park tour because it was so much better than I was expecting it to be based on word of mouth, but I did like it. The fact that they have their own maltings give their tour an element very few in Scotland now have. I do wish they’d do away with the marketing film at the start though. But more on this in a few weeks.
Four years on and just wanted to report from my Aberlour visit. Right now the distillery (other than the visitor centre and shop) is closed for construction work, so they don’t do tours, which is fine by me since I’m not crazy about the production process anyway. It was £40 for the single cask experience – new make, our choice from Bourbon or Sherry distillery exclusive (both 11 years old, marriage of 3-4 casks, 48% ABV), 10 year-old Oloroso, 16 year-old refill Sherry, 18 year-old Bourbon, 21 year-old Sherry. The last two were easily the highlights.
Unfortunately the distillery exclusive was a letdown – I went for the Bourbon one after all the glowing reports of Bourbon-matured Aberlour, and it was strangely flat and lacking in those rich fruit flavours I was expecting. When I went there I was pretty sure I’d end up buying it but I left with no purchases in the end (the single casks were not available to buy, though there were some Aberlour 50cl bottles – maybe single casks? – at Strathisla).
No complaints about the single cask tasting per se, though it did start with a rather unnecessary and generic 10 minute talk about the production process. Overall – quite good, but not the highlight of my Speyside trip.
Thanks for that. It’s kind of lame that for £40, and doubtless not very massive pours, they wouldn’t let you taste both the bourbon and sherry exclusives—especially considering both would be potential purchases.
Where else did you go on this trip?
I should say that they were happy to let me taste stuff in the shop afterwards, though we’d stayed past their closing time so I agreed to come back another day (our AirBnB was literally 3 minutes walk from the distillery). As it happened I didn’t return because I’d found enough bottles to take home elsewhere.
Altogether, we very much aimed for as many distilleries as possible over the week, so I’ll see if I can do a tl:dr version:
The highlight overall was a tour at Knockdhu, where the distillery manager himself showed us around literally everywhere (even the roof) before treating me to several drams in his office. Not only that, but he insists that the tours are for his ‘personal guests’ so they don’t charge anything – instead prompting us to donate to his preferred charity (for guide dogs for the blind) if we want to contribute something. Oh, and there were some stunning AnCnoc drams sampled.
On the way up to Speyside we stopped at Deanston and I did their Warehouse 4 tasting – not cheap at £35 for 3 drams, but it was much less formal than Aberlour, and the guide was someone who worked all over the distillery and was a pleasure to chat to. Also the whisky was quite literally straight from the cask, bits of wood and all (which may be a plus or a minus depending on how much of a whisky nerd you are). Got to keep the copita glass from the tasting and they were happy to offer me various samples in the shop afterwards.
On the way down to England I did a tour and tasting at Aberfeldy – the tour was a bit of a joke but the tasting was pretty good, with 6 drams for £25. (Aberfeldy 12 and 21, Dewar’s 12 and 25, Brackla 18 and an Aberfeldy 1999 at cask strength). And they had a 2002 cask for their bottle your own.
The rest was mostly spontaneous visits to various Speyside distileries – the gardens at Glen Grant were a particular highlight, as was the welcome we received at Benriach, with various samples and an engaging chat. Got hand-filled bottles from Glen Moray (great value at £55), Glenallachie (not great value but a very unusual red wine cask that I surprisingly enjoyed a lot) and Aberfeldy.
I’m in the middle of writing up my reports, so feel free to click on my name if you somehow think you need more details!
Those are some very nice reports—I look forward to reading the rest as they go up.
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Finally got round to finishing them – so if you want to read reports of places you’ve already been to (plus Benriach and Aberfeldy) you know where to find me.