Wine has long been a draw for travellers the world over, and we’ve all seen the recent rise in craft-beer tourism, but now travel in search of supreme spirits is booming and with good reason.
Let’s face it, to really appreciate a peaty whisky or honey-smooth tawny port, you need to taste them at the source – shaken or stirred with a splash of history and a squeeze of local culture. From pisco sours in Peru to gin infused with hand-foraged botanicals in Wales, get ready to raise a glass to our pick of the distillery crop.
Whisky on Islay, Scotland
Ask a Scot to rattle off their top whiskies and those produced on Islay (eye-lah) in the Inner Hebrides invariably make the grade. Islay may have mellower beauty than, say, Skye or Mull, but the real drama is in its distilleries, marked out with bold, black letters on whitewash and gazing out to a brooding sea.
The powerfully peaty, multi-award-winning single malts made at Ardbeg are legendary, particularly their smoky, complex Ten Years Old. This southerly distillery has a cracking visitor centre and tours and tastings that include hikes and historical storytelling. Much newer to the scene is farm distillery Kilchoman, which showcases the entire production process, from growing and malting barley to bottling by hand. Award-winning Laphroaig – revered for its richly flavoured whiskies – offers highly immersive tours; the 4½-hour ‘Water to Whisky’ experience takes you from peat cutting to picnic, before you're whisked off to a distillery tour and tasting.
If you can, time your visit for the Fèis Ìle in May, a shindig of music and malt, with tastings, open-door distillery visits, ceilidhs and pipe-band performances.
Tequila in Jalisco, Mexico
Ay, tequila! Few spirits come with such a notorious reputation as tequila, but there’s more to this drink than the usual shot-slamming, mouth-twisting, lemon-licking, headache-inducing madness would have you believe. True tequila, made from the fermented juice of the blue agave plant that grows in rocky volcanic soils in Mexico’s Jalisco state, is actually best enjoyed in small sips from larger glasses that allow the flavours to open properly.
Any tequila aficionados worth their salt will know that there are three stages of ageing: blanco (pure, crisp and unaged), reposado (softer, rested in oak barrels for a short period) and añejo (aged and complex). To dive into the tequila world proper, hook onto a distillery tour in Mexico’s eponymous town or in the state capital Guadalajara, which take visitors out to small-batch producers in the sunbaked countryside.
Gin in Snowdonia, Wales
The global thirst for gin shows no sign of waning and distilleries are popping up all the time with increasingly creative botanicals and bottle designs that deserve pride of place on the mantelpiece. Gin has been much loved by the Brits for centuries, reaching its zenith during the ‘Gin Craze’ in the early 18th century, which (quite literally) brought London to its drunken knees.
Times have changed dramatically and gin is no longer a cheap and cheerful staple, but a carefully-crafted, classy spirit. There’s no better example of this volte-face than the recently-launched gin venture at Palé Hall, a lavish Victorian mansion on the fringes of Snowdonia National Park. Settle in for a weekend of fine dining, foraging for ingredients like heather, gorse and juniper on the slopes of Mount Snowdon and a tasting courtesy of the highly innovative Snowdonia Distillery.
Pisco in Ica, Peru
On the fringes of the desert in southern Peru, Ica is both the country’s finest wine producer and arguably the true birthplace of pisco (‘arguably’ because Chile also lays claim to the honour). The origins of this feisty, colourless spirit – essentially an unaged brandy distilled from grape must and juice – hail back to the early days of the Spanish colony in the 16th century, when it was distilled on private haciendas (large estates or plantations) and sold to sailors heading through the nearby port of Pisco. Back then it was cheap firewater guzzled in excess despite producing the hangover from hell.
Nowadays it’s far more sophisticated in its frothy cocktail form: pisco sour (with lime, sugar and egg white). A number of hacienda distilleries open their doors for visitors in the vine-striped Ica region – among them the much-lauded and award-winning Tacama. In Cuzco, the Museo del Pisco extols the virtues of the national drink and its bar has an encyclopedic list of piscos.
Port wine in Porto, Portugal
If your idea of port wine is a sickly-sweet, after-dinner tipple wheeled out by your grandparents at Christmas, you clearly haven’t yet tried the good stuff. And for that you really need to head to the port wine lodges that rise high and mighty above the Douro River in the Vila Nova de Gaia district of Porto itself. Here you’ll be winged back to the 17th-century origins of this fortified wine on guided cellar tours (usually followed by a tasting of three different ports).
The choice is quite overwhelming, but for our money, top billing goes to British-run Taylor’s, founded in 1692, and Graham’s whose aged tawnies are pure nectar. Both lodges have staggering views over Porto from their hilltop perches. For an expertly mixed port-tonic, Diogo at Prova in downtown Porto is your man.
Absinthe in Val-de-Travers, Switzerland
‘Brain-warming, idea-changing liquid alchemy’ is how Hemingway so eloquently described absinthe – and who are we to disagree? Dubbed the ‘Green Fairy’ by the literati back at the turn of the 20th century, absinthe was banned and reviled for a century because of its supposed hallucinogenic properties. Now this lurid-green, anise-flavoured spirit, infused with botanicals including native wormwood, is back en vogue in the Val-de-Travers, the forested valley where it was invented, which sidles up to the French border in northwest Switzerland.
You can get the inside scoop on absinthe – and, of course, get a taste of the tricksy stuff in the bar afterwards – at the Maison de l’Absinthe, an interactive museum dedicated to the history and heritage of this potent spirit.
Jenever in Amsterdam, Holland
Jenever may go by the moniker ‘Dutch gin’, but these two spirits deserve individual recognition. Sure, they are both juniper-based, infused with botanicals and contain malt wine, but jenever stands as the original spirit from which gin was derived. It comes in two styles: oude (old-style, with a higher percentage of malt wine) or jonge (new-style, lighter, with a lower percentage of malt wine).
In the late-16th century jenever was being sold as a medicine, and over the years has been concocted will all manner of ingredients from grains to molasses. You can learn about the origins and distilling process of this Dutch tipple at the House of Bols in Amsterdam, and can mull over all your new-found knowledge with a complimentary cocktail post-tour. Wynand Fockink, an intimate tasting house dating to 1679, has scores of different jenevers to try, including the house special boswandeling (secret of the forest) – a tangy blend of young jenever, herb bitters and orange liqueur.
Rum in Barbados
Barbados draws visitors in with a myriad of amazing attributes – sublime sandy beaches, colourful cuisine, laidbacks locals – but they leave talking (in between hiccups) about the rum! Home to one of the world’s oldest commercial distilleries, Barbados is heralded as the birthplace of rum. And the Caribbean island has never stopped celebrating the delights of its syrupy golden nectar. In fact, its ‘Story of Sugar and Rum’ – encompassing the island's historic sugar plantations and distilleries – now features on Unesco’s tentative list of cultural heritage sites.
First distilled in the 17th century by slaves who fermented molasses, a byproduct of the sugar-refining process, rum is now a staple spirit across the world. For purists, however, the real deal is produced in its homeland. For an insight into the rum-making magic, join a distillery tour at Mount Gay, whose aged rums are some of Barbados’ best, or visit the hyper-traditional St Nicholas Abbey plantation house, a Jacobean-style mansion presiding over a lush valley.