Scottish Highland Vacation: Should You Take Kids to a Whisky Distillery?

United Kingdom

Taking teenagers on a tour to learn about distilling alcohol is a little unconventional, but we recommend it.  Whether it’s beer, wine, champagne, or whisky, these brands and labels—most of them internationally known—provide great business stories and science lessons for older kids and adults.

A good example was our tour at the Glenfiddich Distillery in Dufftown, Scotland, a couple of years ago.  Some distillery tours are adults only, but the Glenfiddich Explorer tour allows kids (and under 18 for free, as they’re not sampling the wares at the end of the tour) and even provided great talking points specifically for them.

Building a Family Business

First of all, the history and scenery of the place are cool.  The founder was essentially the COO for the biggest distillery in town. Then later in his life he decided he wanted to be in business for himself, so he gambled everything, quit, and built his own distillery–brick by brick–by hand with his sons.  Today Glenfiddich is the largest privately held Scotch concern in the world, with five generations of ownership.

Driving in from Inverness, we made our way through windy roads and beautiful green hills passing many other distilleries around the roads. No shortage of green hills, perfectly clear creeks, and sheep which are just free to roam, anywhere.

The Glenfiddich whisky-making process hasn’t changed since 1887. Using the same highland water source (which they said is very important), and the same unusually-shaped stills, all the traditions were set in place by the original guy, William Grant and continue on.

On the tour, our guide (appropriately outfitted in a Scottish tartan) took us through every part of the Glenfiddich tradition, to learn how the whiskies are created. The process is interesting–Glenfiddich makes beer, then distills it through special stills (made just for Glenfiddich), then ages it all in this fairly small factory in Scotland.  They operate 24/7/365 to supply the world market.  Lots of chemistry going on, which interested our teens.

Learning a Little Chemistry and Physics

Glenfiddich Scotland

After a nice introductory video, we were ushered into the mash room with two humungous tuns where we watched the paddles rake the water and grain “mash” readying it for fermentation, and then moved through several rooms with 24 Oregon wood washbacks where the wort—the liquid extracted during mashing—begins fermenting for 72 hours.  These washback vats can each hold 50,000 liters of liquid, and they provide steps and a clear top so we could see right in.  Between the very pungent smells and loud sounds, it was like being in the middle of a chemistry experiment, only better!

Before entering the room with the specially crafted stills, which are smaller than other whisky stills, our guide told us no photos inside. They have special secrets they want to stay secret. I love hearing things like that. The room is very loud and has a different smell than the other rooms, but what is amazing is that 12 million liters of whiskey is produced here every year. One maltmaster is in charge of ensuring the quality of everything produced.

Creating Marketing Magic

Once we finished the science part of the tour, our guide moved us to the original dark warehouse. Also, no photos allowed. More interesting smells and stories about the generations of maturing casks. In 2010, the warehouse collapsed under a ton of snow, and the casks unexpectedly exposed to sunlight. They thought the whisky in that warehouse was ruined, but when the maltmaster tasted the whiskey, it had an entirely different and interesting flavor. They released it as a limited “Snow Phoenix” edition for a hefty price, and it promptly sold out (as in, the whisky arose, Phoenix-like, from what threatened to be a snowy demise). Go figure.

Related: Survival Tips for Hiking Scotland’s Ben Nevis

As a marketer, I geek out on marketing stories like “Snow Phoenix.”  Early in the 20th century, one of the heirs went on a world tour to introduce the globe to Glenfiddich scotch. Glenfiddich also introduced its triangular bottle back in the early 1960s and was among the first distilleries to package its bottles in tubes and gift tins.

Glenfiddich Scotland

One final stop before the tasting is the factory. My kids hadn’t seen an assembly-line operation like this. It’s fun to watch the bottles go through the machines, get labeled, and sealed. They did a good job to have the bottling process going full swing, and my kids stood and stared for a while watching all the work being done. It’s a bit mesmerizing.

The tasting at the end is the only part of the tour which is really adult-only That lasted all of ten minutes–we got to sample eensy-weensy pours of four scotches. [Note: Our favorite is the 15 year one.] The kids made do with water.  We all agreed the tour was interesting and added to our vacation.  Taking teens through a series of distillery tours would probably be boring for them (and, frankly, probably for the adults as well) but spiking your vacation with one little distillery or vineyard tour adds something interesting.

My favorite takeaway from this stop is the whiskey soap I discovered in the restroom called Noble Isle. I went in several times to wash my hands because I loved the scent of the soap. After looking in various stores throughout Scotland, I finally found the soap at a whiskey store in Edinburgh. I went home with one bottle reserved only for the very important guests. This Christmas, Santa brought me three bottles.

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