Dornoch Castle Hotel, Whisky Bar and Distillery (Scotland)


More than six months after we checked out of the Dornoch Castle Hotel, here is a brief write-up of the hotel, their famous and excellent whisky bar, and a quick walk through their micro-distillery. Whisky geeks are well aware of the Thompson brothers and the Dornoch Castle Hotel. The brothers are members of the Online Scotch Whisky Illuminati  (OSWI) and their hotel and bar has been part of the itinerary of whisky travelers in the northern highlands for some time now. A few years ago they also launched a micro-distillery in the hotel grounds. Here now is a quick look at all of it.

We halted at Dornoch for one night on our way from the Speyside to Orkney. The morning had seen us touring Aberlour and lunching at the Mash Tun. En route to Dornoch we made quick stops at Glenfarclas and Balblair. It was a nice drive north, with a big chunk of large highway (always appreciated by Americans in Scotland) and as we approached Dornoch the kids were quite excited by the prospect of staying in a castle. Well, in case you haven’t been, the “castle” part of the name is a bit of a misnomer—it’s an old building for sure but you aren’t actually going to be staying in a castle; and it’s only from the rear that it has the aspect of anything approaching a castle at all. More relevant is that it is a very nice hotel.

Hotel and Restaurant

We had a family suite on the top floor: two large, comfortable rooms, separated by a large bathroom. A warning: the castle part does come into play in the absence of an elevator. The staff will help you haul your luggage to your room but if you have a lot of heavy bags and/or mobility issues, you might want to ask for a room on a lower floor. The hotel is very well-appointed, very modern and the room was warm. Their restaurant is said to be very good at dinner but after a long day’s travel we decided to keep things casual and ate up the road at the Eagle Hotel.

They have a large beer garden behind the restaurant. No one was drinking beer there but it was a great place for our kids to run off some excess steam. They have their own parking lot but you can also just park right in front of the hotel. The hotel is located right opposite Dornoch Cathedral—well worth a visit. And right behind it is the small but surprisingly substantive Historylinks Museum. We spent more than an hour there before leaving the next day and enjoyed it very much—very kid-friendly.

Whisky Bar

The restaurant is on the ground floor and you get to it through their whisky bar. The bar is everything it is billed to be: lots of old (in terms of age and era) bottles, lots of legendary names: all at fair prices. There is a very cosy sitting area in front of the bar where you can relax with a drink. I came down here by myself after the family had gone to bed and had a couple of very good whiskies (reviews in the next few days). The bartender was quite new—he’d apparently been in the job for just a few weeks—but he was knowledgable and personable. There’s a lot to tempt the whisky geek in the bar’s holdings and I had to restrain myself from some of the more expensive pours. In the end I went with the Thompson brothers’ “good value” selections from the staff favourites section in the front of the whisky list: a Malts of Scotland Glen Moray 1977 and a Whisky Fair Bunnahabhain. I don’t usually review whiskies in bars but this was such a mellow experience—like being in a comfortable living room—that I asked for pen and paper and took some notes (I’ll have those up this week). A very nice place to drink alone and it would be even better drinking with friends.

Distillery

The next morning while we waited for breakfast in the restaurant I got a quick tour of the distillery from Phil Thompson—I had an introduction through another member of the OSWI, Billy Abbott, but I suspect they will be happy to show any dedicated whisky geek around. I’d never visited a micro-distillery before and didn’t know what to expect but it’s basically like any other distillery except much, much smaller. Everything is currently done onsite—well, not the milling and malting. “Currently” here refers to June—I was told they were set to expand down the road and for all I know have already done so. Their expansion is being bankrolled by crowd-funding, allowing them to remain independent.

While their whisky is still aging, their gin is much acclaimed and is currently their major (only?) distilled product. I normally get a little nervous seeing young people running distillery operations but they seem to be doing things right here. Whisky is being made in the old way in their distillery, with brewer’s yeasts and long fermentation times. The idea I think is to create whiskies in the mold of those distilled in the 1970s and to aim for that older Highlands style. It will be interesting to see how close they come to those goals—they’re also using some much smaller casks—and I look forward to tasting their whisky in a few years. In the meantime, if you live in the UK or EU they still have casks available on their crowdfunding site. If it weren’t so difficult (and prohibitively expensive) to ship in high volume to the US, I’d get friends together and buy one for sure.

Thanks to Phil T. for taking time out of his busy morning to show me around a bit.

A very nice stay all-around and I’d recommend it highly to any whisky travelers passing through the area. We found it to be the perfect mid-point between the Speyside and Orkney but it would also be a very good place to stop between the Speyside and Skye and the western highlands.

All that’s remaining now from the Scotland trip in June are some food reports from Orkney and the Highlands. And then London food reports from the second half of that trip. I’m going to push a lot of those out quickly so I can get caught up with the current Hong Kong/Bombay/Delhi trip by the end of January. Up next: a pair of whiskies from the Dornoch Castle Hotel’s whisky bar and some more Hong Kong reports.

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