For the whiskey lover—and there are a lot of us out there now—a visit to the distillery of a favorite brand is a bucket-list
no-brainer, ranking right up there with playing St Andrew's for golfers. But you don't have to be a whiskey geek to enjoy the experience. Distilleries have ways to charm even brown-spirits neophytes—not the least of which are the come-hither aromas. (My own wine-loving wife exclaimed, "It smells like maple candy," upon entering a barrel-aging warehouse, and it convinced her to try Bourbon for the first time.)
Autumn is a beautiful time to visit their typically picturesque settings and also coincides with the time that many stills go back online after summer maintenance. Seeing a plant in full swing will boost the educational value. You'll find that all still houses have commonalities. (The process starts with water, grain and yeast, which are made into beer in huge vats. Those feed stills, which increase alcohol percentage. The spirit is then stored in casks.) But the idiosyncrasies are what distinguish their products and make multiple distillery tours worthwhile.
Scotland is fairly dotted with distilleries in five regions (Lowland, Highland, Speyside, Islay and Islands), which reflect very different geography and spirit style. The quaint landscape of the Lowlands predicts its lighter flavors, just as the pounding surf and peat bogs of Islay speak of its sea spray and smoky notes. As single malts are all made of pure barley, recipes don't differ, but pay attention to the shape of the pot stills as they often account for how heavy or light a dram will be.
Most of the dozen or so Kentucky Bourbon and Tennessee whiskey distillers use equipment fairly similar to one another and sit in a landscape set on limestone, which provides soft water, good for whiskey and race horses. But their grain recipes (including corn, rye or wheat, and barley) can vary tremendously. So can their aging conditions. Each rickhouse may contain several microclimates by temperatures and humidity.
Consolidation of the industry has shrunk Ireland's once ubiquitous distilling operations, but new facilities and the reopening of shuttered ones have expanded visiting opportunities. Some, like the old Jameson distillery in Dublin, are simply museum experiences. (Jameson and its sister spirits have long been made at the Midleton distillery.) However, Teeling recently returned distilling to Dublin. Expect to learn about the importance of the island's many varieties, from poteen to pot-stilled to blends.
New microdistilleries have also enlarged visiting venues. Check schedules and make reservations when possible, especially with smaller operations. Charges vary from free to just covering the price of a whiskey sample to more expensive tariffs for extensive events like hard-hat tours. Gift shops often sell expressions available only at the distillery.