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BRITAIN'S FINEST WHISKY DISTILLERIES – AND WHERE TO STAY

Adrian Mourby

Back to Inspirations
Many countries can lay claim to discovering the spirit we now call whisky, but the British Isles did the most to develop it beyond a powerful draft for medicinal purposes. Maybe our cold winters gave an urgency to the creation of this heart-warming drink. Or maybe it was Henry VIII’s decision to dissolve the monasteries that provided that special impetus. After all, those monks thrown out into the community, needed to earn a living somehow.  One of the few transferable skills they had learned their cloisters was how to distil.

Scotland and Ireland in particular were responsible for developing  the wonderful drink we know today as whisky (in Scotland and Canada) and whiskey (in Ireland and the USA), but it was Scots alone who pioneered the idea that whisky was so much more than a dram: it was a part of national identity along with tartan, Sir Walter Scott and (regrettably) the bagpipes.

In the nineteenth and early twentieth century the reliably good British whiskies were, oddly, the blends. Individual distilleries produced a spirit so unpredictable that the true masters of whisky were the blenders who could pull together a wide range of malts to produce something eminently drinkable and reliable – something that was guaranteed to taste like the bottle you bought last year.

With the appliance of science, however, British distilleries, by the end of the twentieth century, were producing unique single malts of sheer beauty and excellence and the idiosyncratic buildings in which they did their distilling were fast becoming places of pilgrimage.

Today a visit to a British whisky distillery – be it in Scotland, England or Wales – is a delight if you love whisky. The moment you step inside those dark buildings a chill, earthy smell arises, one redolent of old wood and pure water.

So here are ten great whisky distilleries to visit in Britain and places to stay at on your way there – or on your way back. Remember most distilleries will now provide little sample cups or bottles for the designated driver to enjoy when you return to your hotel or pub with rooms.

THE DISTILLERY
Penderyn Distillery is located in the foothills of the Brecon Beacons National Park in South Wales a couple of miles from Hirwaun. The visitor centre is a low black modern building clad with rough-hewn, dark wooden planks.Its chimney recalls the distillery cowls in traditional Scottish stills.

As the premiere whisky producer in Wales Penderyn received more than 43,000 visitors in 2019. (Numbers obviously dropped in 2020). Tours cost £11.50 if booked online in advance (more if not) and they last an hour. Guests are given a history of the distillery as they pass by the grain mill, the mash tun and the single copper-pot Penderyn stills. At the end of the tour there is an opportunity to sample a few whiskeys in the Tasting Bar.
There are also Whisky and Chocolate Tours that pair single malts with hand-made chocolates from Chocolate House in nearby Pontypridd (£17pp), and Distillery Masterclasses which cost £60pp.

Penderyn produces good solid whiskies that are packaged in some intriguing ways. The “Icon” Series celebrates talismanic Welsh figures like Dylan Thomas and Bryn Terfel (Sir Bryn will be pleased to learn he has now sold out) and there are three “Dragon” single malts: Legend, Myth and Celt, that are named after the red dragon flag that Henry Tudor took onto the battlefield at Bosworth to become the first Welsh king of England.
 
THE HOTEL
Gliffaes Country House Hotel lies at the end of a gorgeous 25-mile drive from Penderyn through the majestic Brecon Beacons National Park. You can also take the mountain road past the Talybont Reservoir if you’re feeling adventurous. Gliffaes was built in the nineteenth century by a clergyman, the Reverend West for his own enjoyment. He used an ancient British word for his home on the River Usk. Gliffaes means "abounding in fish".

The hotel is a typical Victorian stone building with a tall Italianate tower, a folly made fashionable by Queen Victoria's Osborne House. The reverend’s country retreat was not cheap to build and by the time he had completed his new home, he had spent his way through three inheritances. After his death the house was subsequently let and then sold to various local dignitaries before becoming a hotel in 1936. It soon developed a loyal following amongst anglers. These days the hotel will even arrange rods and waders for you.

THE DISTILLERY
Adnams, in the picture-perfect coastal village of Southwold, was originally founded as a brewery, not a distillery. The enterprise was set up in 1872 by two Suffolk brothers, George and Ernest Adnams.

In the twentieth century Adnams produced huge amounts of cask ales, seasonal ales, bottled beers and ciders from a substantial brick building adorned with a statue of Southwold Jack. This armoured figure with its axe and bell is a copy of the mediaeval mechanical figure who stands in St Edmund’s Church Southwold, his job to sound the hours by striking the bell.

In 2010 the company successfully challenged an old law that prevented brewers from having a distillery on the same premises. Subsequently the firm's new Copper House Distillery was created behind the old premises to make gin, whisky and vodka from the same locally-sourced ingredients – Suffolk barley, rye, wheat, and oats – that go into Adnams beers.

Today Adnams runs daily tours that demonstrate how spirits are distilled. These cost £20 and last one and a half hours. When the guides take you to the top of the old building you get to see some of the best views in Southwold, right across its red rooftops to the lighthouse and North Sea beyond.

The modern Adnams shop, one of the consumer highlights of Southwold sells a wide range of distillery and brewery products including the Whisky Trio Box which offers three 20 cl bottles of the Adnams Single Malt, Triple Malt and Rye Malt Whisky (£41.99).

While a whisky takes three years to mature Adnams also offers the chance to make your own gin which you can take away with you the same day. For £95 guests select their own botanicals to add to the crucial juniper berries which they then infuse into Adnams own vodka via a small basic still. And hey presto: gin!
  
THE HOTEL:
Set amid gracious lawns and a 38-acre estate, Kesgrave Hall is located 30 miles inland from Adnams. It was built as a gentleman's residence in 1812 by the wealthy MP William Cunliffe-Shawe who owned various estates in England. Cunliffe-Shawe, MP for Preston in Lancashire never had the time to live in his latest house so gave it to his son Robert Newton Shawe who in the 1830s became MP for East Suffolk. Later in the nineteenth century the house was let to various schools before being bought in 1907 by the Mayor of Ipswich, Philip Wyndham Cobbold of the Tolly Cobbold Brewing Company. During World War II the house was used as a base for the pilots of the USAF 359th Fighter Squadron who were involved in operations over France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany out of nearby RAF Martlesham Heath. Their time in residence is commemorated by memorabilia in the bar today.

In 2007 the hall was bought by the Milsom Hotel Group. Founder Gerald Milsom invested £4,000,000 in turning Kesgrave into his ideal "restaurant with rooms" and succeeded in spades. This is a charming, slightly quirky country house hotel and very popular with locals as well as guests from further afield.   

THE DISTILLERY
Located in the village of Hunmanby, Spirit of Yorkshire is the first  single malt whisky distillery in England’s largest county.  It produces a range of “Filey Bay” whiskies, which were first released in 2019. They use the image of the gannet on their label as Britain’s biggest gannet sanctuary lies on the coast nearby.

All the barley used in the distillation process here is grown on the farm of Tom Mellor, co-founder of Spirit of Yorkshire. The water, a crucial ingredient in any successful whisky, comes from a borehole on the farm that is sunk deep into chalky soil. The company even bottles on-site (not always the case) allowing them to assert that the whole whisky process “from field to bottle” happens here in Hunmanby.

One-hour distillery tours cost £12.50.  There is also a longer brewery and distillery tour (£22). The nearby brewery, known as Wold Top, was an earlier enterprise by Tom Mellor and his wife Gill. Several times a week the wash from the brewery is tankered across to the distillery for distillation. Both tours conclude with a chance to sample the products and there are “driver packs” available for the designated driver to take away and enjoy later.
 
THE HOTEL:
Ox Pasture Hall Country House Hotel is located 13 miles north of the distillery. It stands just outside the seaside town of Scarborough in its own 17 acres of grounds. Many of the bedrooms have views of the purple-heathered North York Moors and a few even have four-poster beds. As you might expect of such an old building, the main house has low ceilings, stone walls and real fires in the lounge and bar areas. Food is under the direction of Ollie Moore who recently joined Ox Pasture Hall after spells in Jersey’s Ocean Restaurant, Peter Gorton's The Horn of Plenty and at Richard Branson's property in Morocco. 

THE DISTILLERY
Bimber is the Polish word for “moonshine” or illegally distilled spirits. It’s also the name for a new distillery just off the A40 in London founded by Dariusz Plazewski and Ewelina Chruszczyk. Bimber brings to British whisky the skills perfected over centuries by Polish moonshiners, but it applies them legally. The distillery laid down its first casks in May 2016 and released the inaugural single malt whisky, known as “The First” just over three years later. All 1,000 hand-numbered bottles sold out within three hours. Bimber puts its success down to handcrafted traditional techniques and the founder’s passion for single malt whisky.

The barley used is grown on a single farm near Basingstoke. It is floor-malted (allowed to germinate) at Warminster Maltings – built in 1855 and the oldest floor maltster in Britain - and then hand-mashed and fermented slowly for seven days in wooden washbacks at Bimber itself. These washbacks were hand-made by the company’s own coopers. This highly artisanal approach is continued with direct fire being used to heat unusually small copper pot stills and no computers are used in the production process whatsoever. Everything is based on the artisanal human senses of smell, taste and even touch. After maturing in hand-selected casks – charred oak, Bourbon, sherry and oloroso - this precious and reassuringly expensive whisky is bottled on-site. As far as is possible today, this is how whisky might have been made centuries ago.
Tours at Bimber last two hours and cost £40. They begin – unusually - with a whisky cocktail and conclude with the opportunity to taste a selection of the company’s single malts. Bottles cost from £65 to £90.

 
THE HOTEL:
The Petersham Hotel sits seven miles south of Bimber on the River Thames near Richmond.  The Petersham was designed by the great Victorian architect John Giles. In fact Giles was working on the Petersham at the same time that he was designing the famous Langham Hotel in Central London. Both hotels opened in 1865. With its variegated brickwork, towers, turrets, bay windows and balconies the Petersham is an archetypal Victorian hotel. Many of its bedrooms have idyllic views of the River Thames.

Head chef Ade Adeshina is a regular at the annual Foodies Festival held in nearby Syon Park. In 2019 Ade demonstrated his signature turbot and razor clam dish to large crowds that included Michelin-starred chefs Atul Kocchar and Alyn Williams. So make sure you dine in.

THE DISTILLERY
Cotswolds Gin has gained a great reputation in the last five years but its distillery, 16 miles south of Stratford upon Avon, was always set up to produce whisky. Dan Szor, the visionary behind this project, is a New Yorker who made a small fortune in the City of London. Dan dearly wanted to create whisky from all those barley fields surrounding his Cotswold home. So in 2014 he opened this distillery and its gin – with its lovely hints of lavender – became a quick success. Gin is a favourite start-up product for whisky producers because it provides a quick turn-around on investment. Gin – unlike whisky - doesn’t have to wait three years in the barrel before being released on to the market so it starts earning its keep almost immediately.

The Cotswolds Distillery is located amongst rolling fields in a new building constructed of local honey-coloured stone and richly seasoned wood. It looks like a beautifully-designed barn conversion. There is a shop and café, and a seductive tasting room with leather sofas that make you feel that you’re staying in the spacious country cottage of a very wealthy friend. No expense has been spared. Upstairs are two more rooms, one for serious whisky tasting and one for gin.  Cotswolds Single Malt Whisky is now available in three forms including Lord Mayor's Single Reserve, which was blended for the 691st Lord Mayor of London, Peter Estlin who has been a keen supporter of the Cotswolds Distillery.
Head of Production at Cotswolds Distillery is Nick Franchino of Italian and American ancestry. He leads some of the tours and tastings and is a big-hearted host. “Who wants a clean spirit?” he asks alluding to the old casks of bourbon, sherry and sauterne. Nick has even bought in peated casks from Laphroaig on the isle of Islay to mature (add flavour) its single malts.
The distillery is a popular venue for visitors to Shakespeare country and Oxford. It is able to offer up to three tours and tastings a day. These cost £15 per person and if you’re lucky the charismatic Nick will put in an appearance.

THE HOTELS:
The George in Shipston on Stour and the White Bear are former coaching inns four miles north of Cotswolds Distillery. They stand almost shoulder to shoulder on Shipston’s eighteenth-century High Street with just one house separating them. The George – now known as the George Townhouse - is a pub with rooms owned by Brakespear while the White Bear is owned by Donnington’s brewery. Both hotels offer good food and a few comfortable bedrooms with the Townhouse’s rooms being more designer-led. Both hotels also have beer gardens for drinking and dining to the rear. Not surprisingly they are equally convenient for visiting the Cotswolds Distillery.  

THE DISTILLERY
The Oxford Artisanal Distillery (known as TOAD to its friends) is a big Oxford success story in this famous University city. TOAD burst on the market in 2017 with an excellent Oxford Dry Gin that used a picture of Mr Toad himself (as drawn by Ernest Shepard) on its label.

TOAD is the first legal distillery in Oxford and occupies a charming position in old farm buildings at the top of Headington Hill. Its founder, Tom Nicolson was inspired to make a commitment to the “grain-to-glass” ethos of handcrafting gin, vodka and spirit of rye using grain specially grown for the distillery. To this end, the archaeo-botanist John Letts helped TOAD find and plant medieval heritage grains that were commonplace in England before the rise of industrialised agriculture.

In keeping with its self-consciously eccentric, not to say theatrical style, TOAD commissioned two very special steam-punk stills, named Nautilus and Nemo that do look like something out of Jules Verne. They were designed by master distiller Cory Mason and constructed by an English firm that usually builds steam-powered railway engines. (It was very TOAD not to go down the usual path of commissioning Arnold Holstein GmbH of Markdorf, Germany for their stills.)

Now after three and a half years of barnstorming gins, including one commissioned by Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum, TOAD is preparing in 2021 to unveil its first whisky. It’s actually a pure rye whisky that costs £75 a bottle, the most expensive product from this ambitious distillery unless you want to spend £6,000 on a 225-litre cask of the stuff. Rye is thought by many to be the new direction for whisky in the 2020s. It has a distinctive taste and makes for great cocktails, and the distillers who make their whisky from rye, like Cory Mason and the charismatic Mikko Koskinen of Finland’s Kyro Distillery are the fly-boy superstars of the whisky world. 
Tours and tastings at TOAD start at £20 and are always fun.
 
THE HOTEL
The Macdonald Bear is Woodstock’s oldest inn, located just ten miles north of TOAD. It’s a destination hotel for fine-diners with a cozy bar facing onto the High Street, known as the Front Room. Here you can find a pleasing selection of whiskies and working fireplace.
Next to the Front Room is a small private dining room known as the Gun Room (with real guns on its walls) while to the rear of the hotel stands Blenheim’s former Glove Factory which has been converted to offer some of the hotel’s more interesting bedrooms. One of these offers a four-poster bed was said to have once hosted Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor.  

THE DISTILLERY
Based on the shores of Bassenthwaite, one of the largest bodies of water in Britain, this new distillery only issued its first single malt in September 2019. The Lakes Distillery was founded in 2011 by Paul Currie who had previously set up the Isle of Arran Distillery at Lochranza in 1995.  The Lakes’ visitor centre is based in a repurposed mid-nineteenth century farm on the banks of the River Derwent and attracts over 100,000 customers each year.

The distillery’s first release was called The One, a British Isles blended whisky, featuring spirits from Scotland, Wales, England, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. This was put on the market in 2013, before the distillery had been completed as a marker to say that the Lakes was on its way.

In December 2016, Dhavall Gandhi joined the team as whisky master, and now under his influence between 80 and 90 percent of the Lakes’ spirit is matured on-site in a range of ex-sherry casks. In September 2019 the distillery unveiled its Whiskymaker’s Reserve, the first in a long series of projected single malt whiskies from the distillery. Dhavall knows each cask intimately; how the flavours are evolving and then how they can be blended with other casks to complement, enhance, deepen, broaden or contrast in the hope of a perfect whisky.

The Lakes’ latest creation is a Whiskymaker’s Reserve No.3, the third release of a series, matured in the finest sherry and red wine casks. It was released in June 2020 and has hints of incense, spiced chocolate and toffee.  

The Distillery Tour and Tasting costs £12.50. A Whisky & Chocolate Tour and Tasting is £25 and meeting the resident alpacas: £12
 
THE HOTEL:
Rothay Manor, at the top of Windermere, was built in the 1820s by Joseph Crossfield, a wealthy soap manufacturer from Warrington. Like many northern industrialists Mr Crossfield wanted a healthy Lake District holiday home for his large family. A cast-iron balcony running the full length of the manor’s facade at first-floor level is an unusual but charming original feature of the original house.

Later the veranda underneath the balcony was enclosed into the house and the balcony itself was lengthened. Today Rothay Manor’s best six rooms have access to private terraces created by this long balcony. 

In 1936 the house became an unlicensed hotel with “garage accommodation”. Today it is owned by the Shail family and run by GM Peter Sinclair who, with his Chef Daniel McGeorge, has turned Rothay Manor into a fine-dining hotel.

Rothay Manor stands 25 miles south of the Lakes Distillery. Its own bar is stocked with the classic Scots whiskies, in particular Glenmorangie, the sweet Glenfiddich, Glenkinchie from near Edinburgh and the smoky Islay whiskies of Laphroaig and Lagavullin. There is even a bottle of Japanese Nikka whisky behind the bar.  

THE DISTILLERY:
The word “Oban” is Gaelic for Little Bay. Today this west coast town is a quiet port, a hub for the ferries that ply between Oban and the Hebridean islands. Up on its topmost point stands McCraig’s Tower, the outer wall of an incomplete nineteenth-century construction designed by the wealthy John Stuart McCraig to give work to local stonemasons. In silhouette it resembles the Colosseum in Rome (as was McCraig’s intention). Close to the port below, in a blunt stone building, stands Oban’s Distillery founded here in 1794 by the brothers Hugh and John Stevenson.

The legal production of a reliable whisky in Oban made the port even more important. Over 200 years later Oban single malt is still made from water that flows from a loch three miles away, using barley brought in from Speyside.

In 1814 Sir Walter Scott visited the area and published his poem The Lord of the Isles which encouraged many visitors to the town.  Today the principal industry of Oban is tourism. People come here for the distillery (now owned by Diageo) but Oban is also an important ferry port, acting as the hub for Caledonian MacBrayne ferries to many of the islands of the Inner and Outer Hebrides.

Oban is proud of the fact that it is one of Scotland’s oldest, slowest and smallest  distilleries. Its copper stills are rested between batches thereby giving more contact between the spirit and the metal - and enriching the resultant flavour. The excellent limited edition “Oban Little Bay” is aged in small oak casks for maximum smoothness A 70cl bottle costs around £55. Tours start at £17.50.

 
THE HOTEL:
From Oban it’s a lovely 20-mile drive coastal north along Loch Creran to Airds Hotel & Restaurant. From the outside Airds is a simple white-washed old drovers’ inn with gardens running down to Loch Linnhe, one of the few west coast lochs that connects to the sea. Inside Airds is luxurious, with just a touch of Long Island’s Hamptons in the décor of its twin drawing rooms.

Preprandial drinks are served in these rooms, surrounded by sofas and art in front of blazing fires. The bar staff offer a range of whiskies including the Oban 14-year-old single malt, Ledaig from Isle of Mull and Kilchoman from one of the newest distilleries on Islay. Step outside after dinner to enjoy the midnight sky, which this far north is absolutely free of light pollution. It’s amazing how many stars actually are up there that you don’t normally catch.

Later, when you finally head to bed there will be a decanter of Whisky Mac (whisky blended with ginger wine ) by your bedside to see you to sleep. In the morning there is the option of whisky in your porridge. Surely Airds is the perfect complement to any distillery!

THE DISTILLERY:
Glenmorangie is a highland distillery and one of the most northerly in Scotland. Fittingly its single malt is created in the tallest stills in all of Scotland. The distillery was founded in 1843 by William Matheson who renamed his new acquisition, Morangie Farm, Glenmorangie.

Today Glenmorangie Company is a subsidiary of Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy and produces around 10 million bottles  a year. This makes it the best-selling single malt in Scotland with a 6 per cent share of the single malt market worldwide.

It produces a wide range of single malts aged in a variety of casks – including American white oak and bourbon casks, as well as Oloroso, ruby port and Sauterne casks. Some malts are marketed rather daringly with French names like Nectar d’Or but many are sturdily Gaelic with names like The Duthac, The Dornoch and The Tarlogan.

Visiting the distillery costs £2 and that fee is redeemable against any purchase over £15 at the distillery shop.
               
THE HOTEL:
Thirty miles south of Glenmorangie down the Cromaty Firth stands Coul House, a remarkable nineteenth-century mansion with an octagonal core that now serves as the hotel’s dining room. This house  was built for Sir George Steuart Mackenzie, Seventh Baronet of Coul in 1821. His descendant, Robert Ramsay Mackenzie, Governor General of Queensland retired back here in 1868.  In 1888 the house hosted Queen Victoria, a great enthusiast for Scotland, who had been visiting the nearby spa town of Strathpeffer. In her honour there was a Highland gathering on the lawns of Coul House.  A painting of that occasion is in the possession of Stuart and Susannah Macpherson, the current owners. 

Stuart describes himself as not just the proprietor of Coul House but the “proud owner” and he and his wife Susannah have much of which to be proud.

THE DISTILLERY
In springtime there are blossoms around the Glenkinchie Distillery, which lies to the south of Edinburgh. The Lowland whisky produced here seems to take its cue from this rural landscape. There are distinct floral notes and even hints of cut hay in the Glenkinchie 12 Year Old, which has been named Best Lowland Single Malt at the World Whiskies Awards.

The distillery was founded in 1825 in the glen (valley) of the Kinchie Burn near the village of Pencaitland. The name 'Kinchie' is believed to be a corruption of 'De Quincy', the owners of the land who in 1825 sold the land to the brothers John and George Rate who built the old stone distillery we see today.

Surprisingly for such a successful distillery Glenkinchie ceased trading in 1857 and the main building was turned into a sawmill. But it bounced back. Indeed it bounced back a number of times. The story of whisky production in Scotland is littered with so many setbacks overcome. Given the massive importance of Scotch today worldwide it’s difficult to believe what a precarious industry it used to be.

Glenkinchie used to malt its own grain but in 1969 the distillery turned the malting floor into a museum of whisky with tasting opportunities. Today it costs from £13 to visit Glenkinchie. A tour with tasting lasts one and a half hours.

 
THE HOTEL
The Nira Caldeonian in Edinburgh's eighteenth-century New Town stands sixteen miles west of Glenkinchie, It was formed by the knocking together of two neoclassical gentleman’s residences. Inside this 28-room boutique hotel is stylish and even slightly daring in its décor. Given that everything in New Town has protected status - even the railings outside, Nira Caledonia can only be painted one of two colours - so it’s not surprising if the hotel let's rip with its dramatic wallpapers, florid drapes and throws inside.

Charles MacLean, the charismatic and influential Master of the Quaich is a next-door neighbour of the hotel so Nira Caledonia has to keep its whisky credentials well-honed. Its Blackwood’s Bar offers 25 single malts including an 8-year-old from Caol Ila on Islay, which is bottled exclusively for the hotel by Adelphi Distillery near Dunfermline. There was just enough whisky to squeeze out 24 bottles and when that is gone, says Chris Lynch the manager, it is gone.

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