Highland Whisky Festival 2019: Sip Your Way Down the Scottish Coast

Wailana Kalama

Hawaii, US

May 10th kicks off the first annual Highland Whisky Festival: a week-long booze fest that travels along the North Coast 500. Each day is dedicated to a single distillery, starting in Wolfburn and culminating at Tomatin. Not only do you get to sip local Scottish whisky along the way, but the 8-day festival journey takes you along a gorgeous coastal highway that winds from northernmost tip of Scotland (and then back around).

Looking to sip your way through the Highlands but not sure where to start? Here’s the low-down on how to prepare for a week full of coastal driving, drams and draughts:

May 10th: Wolfburn

In 1821, the Wolfburn Distillery became the northern-most whisky distillery on the Scottish mainland (and still is today). By 1826, Wolfburn was pumping out a quarter of a million litres, making it one of the largest producers at the time! Their spirits are known for a smooth warmth, coaxed out by a gentle distillation, lengthy fermentation, and ex-Islay quarter casks made from Spanish and American oak.

Look out for: Wolfburn will be selling 600 limited edition bottles, matured in ex-bourbon casks, at £64 a pop.

Cool things to see nearby: In Thurso, spend your mornings before the distillery visit at Swanson Gallery or the magical world of Glass Creations by Ian Pearson.

Pro Tip: Just four passionate individuals run production and bottling (Charlie, Max, Iain and Innes), so grab one of them for a quick chat if you can.

May 11th: Old Pulteney

Founded in 1826 in Wick during the village’s herring boom, Old Pulteney is all about the salt-soaked sea. Lying on the northernmost coast of the mainland, the distillery boasts its bottles as the quintessential “maritime malt.” Exposed to the wild sea air from the North Sea, the flavors carries salty notes, exotic spices and a sultry hint of vanilla.

Look out for: During the Highland Whisky Festival, Old Pulteney is hosting a light behind-the-scenes tour as well as a masterclass of all their hits: Old Pulteney 12, 15, 18, Huddart, and the Distillery Single Cask.

Cool things to see nearby: To the far north of Scotland, Wick is home to the Wick Heritage Centre, where you can brush up on all your herring and regional coastal history. Grab a bite at the Bord de l’Eau, a Francophone menu of game and fish. Wick is home to the cliffside Old Wick Castle, as well as the lonely ruins of double castles Sinclair and Girnigoe three miles north on the coast of Caithness.

Pro Tip: You’ll no doubt need a ride home after those tastings! Jimmy’s Taxis is offering a 25% discount for all festival-goers who need a ride back to their hotel or B&B.

May 12th: Clynelish

Located on the east coast of Sutherland, Clynelish is just 1 hour north of Inverness. It was founded in 1819 by Marquis of Stafford (the first Duke of Sutherland) as a way to balance out the whisky supply of a local smuggling fraternity. Though used for decades as a base for blending, the Clynelish eventually released their own standalone malt, the 14-year-old. The name Clynelish derives from the Gaelic for “sloped garden,” and you can be sure to find all the trappings of an English glade here: sweet, floral fragrances, with notes of honey, lemon and peppermint grounded by an oaky finish.

Look out for: During the Highland Whisky Festival, Clynelish offers tasting tours that range from the lighthearted to the more technical. True believers should book an afternoon with Stewart Bowman, the manager who enfused new life to the distillery.

Cool things to see nearby: The Scottish collections at Dunrobin Castle are worth a visit, with many rooms containing historical artifacts and lovely sculpted gardens. Arrive early in the morning to catch the falconer with his birds of prey. Recreational walkers will find a hearty morning spent on the trails at the Big Burn Walk in Golspie, or at Brora Beach. The nearby Carn Liath Broch is an Iron Age defensive structure that’s a bit of a hidden secret.

Pro Tip: Clynelish is tapping into popular culture with a Game of Thrones-themed tasting, each rare scotch paired with an iconic House of Westeros. Guests can also fill their own bottles straight from the cask, learn how a cask is put together, or pair whisky with luxury chocolates. The evening will be lit up with a traditional ceilidh with a cocktail, five-course dinner and five drams.

May 13: Balblair

Built first in 1790, Balblair lies on the coast of Dornoch Firth in Edderton. Boasting traditional dunnage warehouses and earthen floors, this single malt distillery is known for releasing only vintage single malts. Balblair malts are known for their blend of spiciness and fruitiness, evoking cinnamon, berries and chocolate that the distillery claims comes straight from its dedication to old-fashioned, mechanical pot stills. Keep an eye out for Balblair 90, matured in ex-bourbon casks from 1990 then moved to Oloroso sherry butts for the last two years prior to bottling.

Look out for: During the Highland Whisky Festival, the Balblair opens its doors with sample tastings, educational seminars from the distillery manager, and a chance to observe the fine art of cask stenciling. Stay the evening and get to know a few select whiskies quite well over a four-course meal and a private showing of the film The Angles’ Share, which was filmed in dunnage warehouse No. 3.

Cool things to see nearby: Just a few minutes from Inverness, the village of Edderton lies at Dornoch Firth, a national scenic area, and worth a walk around its oakwoods, heather moor and hills covered in scree. Across the water, the old Skibo Castle is a beautiful sight on the road, though these days it’s a members-only residence for The Carnegie Club. Golfers will find a home in the nearby course at Royal Dornoch. Trueblood whisky fans will no doubt be aware that Glenmorangie Distillery is just a brief drive east of Edderton.

Pro Tip: For a full 2-in-1 day of whisky, make your way from Inverness to the village of Tain, where Glenmorangie is based. A complimentary transport runs every 45 minutes from Tain High Street to Balblair.

May 14: Glenmorangie

Glenmorangie is one of the world’s most renowned malts and staple in every self-respecting bar worldwide. Part of this fame, they claim, is their dedication to wood. They were the first single malt to mature whisky in a cask stained with sherry, wine or bourbon, and only use casks twice before retiring them. Oak for their aging barrels is shipped all the way from Missouri’s Ozark mountains. Glenmorangie also has the tallest stills in Scotland, which results in only the lightest of aromas escaping and ultimately a light spirit.

Look out for: Glenmorangie keeps the week of the Highland Whisky Festival classy, with intimate dinners and canapes, or a light session pairing with Highland cheeses.

Cool things to see nearby: Seaside villages of Portmahomack, Balintore and Cadboil are all about refreshing rambles along the shore. In Tain, you’ll find some cozy furnishings browsing the Anta Factory Shop and Tearoom. In nearby Dornoch, don’t miss the elegant Dornoch Cathedral, castle and Royal Dornoch golf course. Birders should flock to Fairy Glen Nature Reserve, a magical woodland not far from Inverness.

Pro Tip: So what happens to those casks once they’ve expired? Glenmorangie doesn’t just throw their beloved wood pieces away. is going all-out with its passion for wood. Recently, they launched a line of surfboards crafted from the oak staves of whisky casks, with a stamp of approval by Mark Boyd, winner of the 2018 Scottish National Surfing Championships.

May 15: The Dalmore

Since its opening in 1839 on the banks of Cromarty Firth, The Dalmore has been the master of multi-cask maturation. Though under the radar compared to most, Dalmore is offering a few samples from the cask and new distillery exclusives led by the distillery manager Stuart Robertson.

Look out for: The Dalmore is offering a limited guided tour of four whiskies overlooking the river.

Cool things to see nearby: In Alness on the coast of Cromarty Firth, the Dalmore is within driving attractions of Cromarty, the best preserved 18th-century town, as well as the sandy beaches, lighthouses, and bottlenose dolphins that the Black Isle is known for.

Pro Tip: During your quick stay for the Highland Whisky Festival, make sure you have the numbers for A9 taxis on hand, they’re offering a 20% discount for festival goers.

May 16: Singleton of Glen Ord

The land on which now sits Glen Ord Distillery had been possessed by the Clan Mackenzie for 700 years when it was built in 1838. As one of the few distilleries that malts its barley on site, Glen Ord claims its rich flavor comes from an ancient twin water source on the grounds. Located out on the fertile and remote Black Isle, its malt is used in world-famous blends like Johnnie Walker and Dewar’s and claims a production of over 3 million litres per year.

Look out for: Take a behind the scenes tour of the malting process at the peat fire. The distillery also is offering to fill your own bottle, learn cask carving from an official cooper from Cambus, or enjoy music paired with the Singleton.

Cool things to see nearby: The Black Isle, while not an isle itself, has a few cool sights you can do on an easy day trip from Inverness. Nearby attractions include the farmshop Robertsons the Larder, Black Isle Brewery, Fairy Glen Waterfalls, and the 13th-century red sandstone ruins of Fortrose Cathedral. There is also the Clootie Well, since Celtic times a place of pilgrimage. Out on Chanonry Point, you can glimpse some panoramic views of the Moray Firth and the impressive Fort George. Golfers should swing by Fortrose and Rosemarkie Golf Club, open since 1793.

Pro Tip: The Singleton of Glen Ord has recently released a 14-year-old limited edition that’s been triple matured in no less than five different casks!

May 17: Tomatin

The first annual Highland Whisky Festival culminates with a lustrous night with Tomatin. Just 16 miles south of Inverness, Tomatin prides itself on its approachable and mellow spirits distilled from the waters of Alt-na-Frith and copper stills. The fruitiness of the malts pair well with cheese and chocolate, which the crafters know all too well. Founded in 1897, the distillery sells itself on its soft, smooth and sweet taste and pragmatic approach, claiming “the softer side of the Highlands.” More than 50% of the staff live onsite in the distillery houses.

Look out for: The festival’s final night rewards whisky pilgrims with an evening dinner and whiskies at the historic Kingsmills Hotel in Inverness, hosted by the brand’s Regional Brand Ambassador and Distillery Manager.

Cool things to see nearby: The Inverness area has a wealth of historic sites, from the Clava Cairns to the Culloden Viaduct. If you’re with kids, the Landmark Forest Adventure Park is worth a visit, or try your clubs out at Carrbridge Golf Club.

Pro Tip: Attend Tomatin’s evening whisky pairing dinner at Kingsmills Hotel and you might get a tasting of the exclusive 50-year-old single malt.


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