The world’s best distilleries to visitBy Annie Hayes
It’s not just vineyards making a buck or two from tourism. With opportunities to fill your own bottle of Scotch and wade through sugar cane, the world’s best distilleries provide visitors with some unique experiences.
Distilleries across the globe welcome millions of visitors through their doors every year, enabling spirit fans to grab a glimpse beyond the label of some of their favourite tipples.
Thanks to the visitors’ centres, museums and guides, the fascinating process from base ingredient to bottle can be observed in detail, often with a little taster of the end result.
Distillery tourism has become a major institution in the past 50 years, as spirit consumption – and a consumer interest in provenance and history – has risen. So much in fact, that many distilleries invest heavily in providing a magical experience for their visitors.
Just last month Diageo unveiled its new £1 million visitors’ centre at Talisker Distillery on the Isle of Skye, while Chivas Brothers’ Speyside distillery The Glenlivet also recently opened its own interactive timeline of the brand’s history onsite.
While some offer the chance to smell the malty aroma of the mash tuns and become entranced by the ballet of the bottling plant machinery, others are starting to give visitors the opportunity to fill their own exclusive bottle of spirit.
Some meanwhile offer a little more than you might expect, like the Old Bushmills Distillery, which hosts the annual Bushmills Live festival; the only music event held in an Irish whiskey distillery.
So whether you’re enthralled by the art and craft of distillation, itching to snap up an exclusive distillery edition or just eager to educate your palate, there’s a distillery to suit everyone’s taste. We’ve listed what we think are the top distilleries to visit in the world.
Have we missed your favourite distillery out? Let us know by leaving a comment below.
City of London Distillery
24 Bride Lane, London, EC4Y 8DT, UK
Historically, London has always been an acclaimed producer of gin. Steeped in distilling history, renowned industry names such as Gordon’s and Taqueray hold their heritage in the capital. Although London dry gin is not required to be made in London (and, nowadays, to suit the logistics of big business, very little is), the opening of a new distillery in town is met with nostalgia from some and anticipation by all.
The City of London’s first distillery to open in over 200 years can be found tucked away on Brides Lane; a historical area in the heart of the city, where the company distil and bottle their own City of London gin and vodka recipes on the premises.
During the day, gin-lovers can partake in the Gin Experience; a guided tour of the distillery which reveals the intricacy of how artisan gin is made, from the stills to the bottling line. Gin super-fans can book in for a masterclass with master distiller Jamie Baxter, to indulge in a tailor-made experience, complete with cocktail lessons.
In the evening an intimate onsite bar — which showcases the spectacular sight of two gleaming copper stills, framed behind huge glass windows — offers over 100 other gins from around the world, and a range of tonic waters to compliment them, along with nibbles.
A small distillery in the heart of London, COLD offers an insightful introduction to the world of craft distilling, which although is growing rapidly around the globe, is still a relatively niche phenomenon in the UK.
Avenue St, Bundaberg East QLD 4670, Australia
“When life smothers you in molasses, make rum,” advises The Bundaberg Distilling Company — advice it incontestably lives by. Born in 1888, when a band of sugar millers turned an overwhelming surplus of molasses into rum, Bundaberg rum has since been appreciated as one of Australia’s favourite Aussie spirits.
The distillery has much more to experience than just the obligatory giant ‘Bundy bottle’ photo opportunity outside the front and, depending on your preference, there are two types of tour to choose from.
The first is The BDC Story, described as the ‘show yourself around tour’; where interactive visual displays and touch panels guide you through the history of the company, which has over 120 years experience crafting rum.
The second choice — if you’d like a more in-depth experience, or simply just have more time — is The BSC Distillery Experience, or ‘be shown around’ tour. This guided tour begins with the interactive self-guided tour, The BDC Story, and then moves onto an extensive tour around the distillery, to provide visitors with a comprehensive insight into the lengthy processes involved in producing the rum. From the wells of raw molasses, to the fermentation and distillation, and the historic oak vats and bottling plant, no detail is left uncovered.
Benedictine Palace Distillery
110 rue Alexandre le Grand, 76400 Fécamp, France
The eclectic Benedictine Palace is situated in the medieval architectural town of Fécamp. A must-see for art and architecture lovers alike; not only does the palace house the distillery where the famous liqueur has been prepared for over a century, it also accommodates a museum filled with the art collections of the Le Grand family, featuring books, fine art, sculptures, religious artefacts, and a gallery of modern art.
Developed by the monks of Fécamp abbey in the early 16th century, the famous Benedictine liqueur is concocted from the same secret infusion of 27 herbs and spices today. Visitors on the distillery tour can watch as the recipe is poured into barrels, where the liqueur will age for two years.
Observe the hammered copper stills, examine cellars full of ageing oak casks, and relish a tasting of the liqueur itself, before browsing souvenirs at the gift shop.
Elsewhere in the palace, there is plenty more to explore — the Gothic Room holds an extensive and impressive library containing over a thousand books, and the Renaissance room contains a large collection of keys dating back from the 14th century.
Torihara 2913-1, Hajushu-cho, Koma-gun, Yamanashi-ken, Japan 408-0316
In the middle of the dense forests of Hakushu, at the base of Mount Kai-Komagatake, lies the highest and most remote distillery in Japan. At over 700 meters above sea level and with access to the soft, clear waters of the Ojira River — chosen as one of the top 100 spring waters’ in Japan — Suntory’s Hakushu malt whisky distillery is an isolated utopia.
The tour begins outside, in the natural forest setting surrounding, where Hakushu Distillery has set up a natural bird sanctuary, to participate in an environmental conservation programme. Once inside the distillery, visitors are shown rows of large wooden wash backs used in the fermentation process, vast bronze stills of different sizes and shapes — which create the variations in malt whisky flavour — and the ageing warehouse containing the casks. A tasting session of the distillery’s range is offered at the end of the tour.
Visitors spending the day at the site can relax with a dram or highball at the Hakushu Bar – where the centrepiece is the bar from Tokyo’s renowned drinking establishment Usagi – enjoy a meal in the White Terrace restaurant, or choose from an extensive selection of whiskies, glassware and snacks at the ‘In the Barrel’ factory shop.
Those keen to explore the world of whisky further can visit the four-storey Suntory Whiskey Museum available on site; the fourth floor is an observation tower offering panoramic views of the area’s mountains.
Buffalo Trace Distillery
113 Great Buffalo Trace, Frankfort, KY 40601, United States
Buffalo Trace Distillery — named so because it was erected where ancient Buffalo once roamed — is set in a valley near the Kentucky River. It boasts a rich 200-year history in creating Bourbon and American whiskey, prevailing as the oldest continuously operating distillery in America, even during the Prohibition era when it was one of just a handful permitted to stay open to produce liquid for “medicinal purposes”.
A variety of tours are available to suit every taste. The Trace Tour allows visitors to walk the path of rolling Bourbon barrels, leading into the warehouses and bottling hall, where signature whiskeys are packaged by hand.
The Hard Hat Tour presents complete behind-the-scenes access of the production process, and includes a pit stop at the E.H Taylor Jr. Microstill, where the company’s award-winning Experimental Collection whiskies are made.
The Post Prohibition Tour details the expansion of the distillery after the repeal of Prohibition — when it erected several new buildings to become larger than ever — and also provides a glimpse into some of the distillery’s future plans.
Finally, from one spirit to another: the Ghost Tour. Visitors access the spookier areas of the site, as featured on the popular TV show, ‘Ghost Hunters’, and learn the legendary stories surrounding the supernatural rumours.
The distillery is available for hire for personal occasions, such as weddings and private dinners, and it also hosts its own public events all year round, such as ‘The Great Buffalo Chase’; a 5k race around the scenic grounds, and ‘Disturbia at the Distillery’; a Halloween event with dinner, tastings, and a theatre show.
José Cuervo 73, Tequila Centro, 46400 Tequila, Jalisco, Mexico
Tequila — both the town, and the drink, deserve a spot on our list. The visitor centre for José Cuervo, which, incidentally, lies back-to-back with the Sauza facility, is named Mundo Cuervo and lies in the centre of its namesake town.
From there visitors can book a tour to La Rojeña, José Cuervo’s oldest distillery, to discover the entire process of creating Tequila — from agave plants to ageing — and the history behind the company. Some tours include a visit to the cellar containing the most exclusive Tequila, Reserva de la Familia, and in summer months, there are demonstrations of agave harvesting and live music.
Explore the Cuervo tavern, which houses ancient facilities used for Tequila production (including primal copper distilleries, a stone oven and a huge stone mill), or, if you’ve timed your visit right, enjoy an event at the José Cuervo forum, a huge open-air theatre.
If you dig into your wallet a little deeper, you can visit the private hacienda to taste Tequila aged for at least 30 years. If not, there’s an onsite restaurant, where you can polish off your meal with a controversial shot, salt and a lime wedge.
St. George Distillery
2601 Monarch St, Alameda, CA 94501, United States
Standing outside, you’d be forgiven for mistaking this distillery for a naval air base, but if you take a peek through the doors, you’ll be greeted by a veritable selection of shiny copper-pot stills and casks, which fill the 65,000-square-foot former naval air hangar. The site is the namesake of Hangar One Vodka, and in 30 years has evolved from a dedicated eau de vie distillery to a diverse production centre; branching out to create their own gin, Bourbon, liqueurs, whiskey, rum, absinthe, and even balsamic vinegar, which has been ageing for the past 14 years.
The tour provides an extraordinary insight into craft distillation and artisanal spirits, through a complete overview of the production area and equipment. As well as revealing the secrets behind the mascot shark in the hangar, the guide shares a few interesting myth-busting absinthe facts. The tasting room offers an expansive view of the runway, the Bay Bridge, and San Francisco skyline.
“We can’t write like Neruda, paint like Cézanne, or dance like Jennifer Beals, but we can express ourselves through craft distillation,” the website advises, and their craft is a talent as worthy as any other.
Flor de Cana
Family-owned Flor De Cana has only recently opened its beautiful wooden doors to rum fans, but some might argue it was worth the wait. Set in stunning, manicured grounds, the tour takes guests on an interactive journey through the history and production of the rum.
This is a tour with a twist; after being introduced to the raw materials involved in the rum production — sugar cane and molasses — the visitors board a vehicle, which takes them through several pit stops.
First is the Adela Movie Theatre, where guests are shown a short film; then the Reserva Familia, an underground cellar that is home to the company’s most valuable rums, which visitors can admire with a taster of 18-year-old rum.
Cooperage Operations is the next stop, where the coopers build, repair and fill the oak barrels used to naturally age the rums, moving on to the ‘Slow Aged’ Cellar; containing one of the world’s largest selections of aged stocks.
The tour ends with the rum museum, which features exhibits varying from the history of sugar cane, to the status of Flor de Caña worldwide.
Guests can visit the bar to watch a demo on how to prepare Nicaragua’s national drink, the Macua, grab a souvenir from the gift shop, or sip a cocktail at Café Flor de Caña whilst enjoying the balcony view of the San Cristobal Volcano.
Carbost, Isle of Skye, IV47 8SR
Set on the shores of Loch Harport, with magnificent views of the Cuillins, sits the only distillery on the Isle of Skye, which has recently undergone renovation to create an even more authentic experience for fans of its Scotch whisky.
Visitors are invited to soak up the history and heritage embodied in the rustic-looking distillery on one of three varied tours. There is a basic guided tour and an in-depth tour of the entire workings of the distillery, where visitors can watch the distillers at work on a new enhanced viewing gallery in one of the warehouses, and taste the end results of their labour in one of the brand new tasting rooms. There is also a tour dedicated entirely to tasting, for those who already have a good knowledge of whisky production.
Beside the distillery lie 21 underground springs that rise from Hawk Hill, or Cnoc nan Speirag, which is home to birds of prey. Talisker has drawn the soft water used in its whisky production from these springs since its inception.
House of Bols Cocktail & Genever Experience
Paulus Potterstraat 14, 1071 CZ Amsterdam, Netherlands
Although not strictly a distillery, House of Bols is compulsory visiting for cocktail fanatics, and can be found nestled in the Museum Quarter in the centre of Amsterdam.
A perfect mix of history and glossy contemporary design, visitors to the House of Bols learn about Lucas Bols, the world’s oldest distilled spirit brand, which has been producing liqueurs since 1575 and Bols Genever, a malt-based gin dating back to 1820, in a unique explorative tour.
The House of Bols experience educates all five senses on the glamorous journey of cocktails, liqueurs and bartending. Visitors can observe the Delfts Blue collection, designs of old Dutch houses based on famous buildings and monuments in the Netherlands, which were historically filled with Bols liqueur.
The Hall of Taste is filled with ingredients to touch, such as lemon peel and juniper berries, as well as interactive touch screens. To appeal to the sense of smell, 36 puffers containing different aromatic aromas challenge visitors to guess what’s inside. To engage the ears, a huge projection with accompanying music creates atmosphere, and, of course, last (and most importantly!) two satisfying taste tests.
The tour is rounded off with a complimentary genever cocktail to savour in the dazzling Mirror Bar, and if you’re feeling fancy, you can test your flair bartending skills in the Flair Booth.
House of Bols also offers cocktail workshops, tastings, exclusive events and private parties.