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World's best distillery tours

July 13, 2012 -- Updated 1741 GMT (0141 HKT)
Barrels you might see on a tour of Jameson Irish Whiskey, a distillery in Midleton, Ireland.
Barrels you might see on a tour of Jameson Irish Whiskey, a distillery in Midleton, Ireland.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Taking a tour of a distillery offers a glimpse into the production of your favorite alcohol
  • Tours include everything from tastings, master classes and 'honorary degrees'
  • Call ahead to make sure children are allowed on the tour if you want to bring the whole family

(Departures) -- Thanks to tours offered by distilleries around the globe, travelers can get a glimpse behind the scenes of some of their favorite whiskies, Scotches, rums and gins.

The Glenfiddich, Dufftown, Scotland

The Glenfiddich opened its doors in 1969 and is one of the few distilleries to offer tours year-round. Warehouses—dirt floors, stone walls, low ceilings—store the whisky as it matures, and the entire bottling process is on display. (The first drop from the Glenfiddich stills came on Christmas Day in 1887, which makes this year its 125th.) Three tours illustrate the stages of whisky production. The one-hour Classic includes a tutored tasting of 12-, 15- and 18-year-old whiskies. The Explorers is an in-depth 90 minutes that includes a visit to the Solera Warehouse and a tasting of several whiskies. The Pioneers is a half-day detailed tour, with a whisky master class that showcases spirits aged for 30 years. Can't get enough? Its sister distillery, The Balvenie, is located directly across the way. 44-1350/820-373; glenfiddich.us.

George Washington Distillery, Alexandria, Virginia

The bottling line at Maker\'s Mark Distillery in Loretto, Kentucky.
The bottling line at Maker's Mark Distillery in Loretto, Kentucky.

You can get a taste of history at Mount Vernon, where George Washington's distillery was reconstructed several years ago and is now the gateway to the American Whiskey Trail. (It's also used a few times a year to make a rye whiskey, which is for sale on site.) Back in the 18th century, Washington was the country's largest commercial distiller. Today, costumed tour guides take visitors through the whiskey-making process, which is done adjacent to a water-powered gristmill. It's an interesting peek into Washington's spirit and the type of resourcefulness that he was famous for. Continue the journey by traveling to the Mount Vernon Estate, located three miles away. 5514 Mount Vernon Memorial Hwy.; 703-780-2000; mountvernon.org.

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Heaven Hill Bourbon Distillery, Bardstown, Kentucky

Heaven Hill's Bourbon Heritage Center offers tours, tastings and plenty of historical insight into the Kentucky whiskey industry. Choose from a variety of tours that range from 30 minutes to three hours; each includes a pass through one of Heaven Hill's 49 rickhouses (barrel warehouses) and a tasting of two bourbons. In the fall of 2013 will be the debut of the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience: An artisanal pot distillery is the centerpiece, and a host of bourbon-oriented activities that celebrate the likes of Evan Williams Single Barrel Vintage and Parker's Heritage Collection small-batch bourbon rounds things out. 1311 Gilkey Run Rd.; 502-337-1000; bourbonheritagecenter.com.

Jameson Irish Whiskey, Midleton, Ireland

Jameson—the largest Irish whiskey brand—turned John Jameson's original distillery in Dublin into a visitor's center. To see the modern-day distillery you need to travel to Midleton, in the south of the country in County Cork, where all the brand's whiskies are made, including Powers and the pot-stilled Redbreast. An hour-long tour takes guests through the entire process and ends with a signature Jameson drink. Volunteers can up the ante and participate in a whiskey tasting. The payoff? An Irish whiskey certificate. Old Distillery Walk; 353 (21)/461-3594; jamesonwhiskey.com.

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Jim Beam American Stillhouse, Clermont, Kentucky

This American institution will offer tours of its distillery for the first time this fall at the new Jim Beam American Stillhouse. Currently, guests can visit a replica of an old tobacco barn on top of Beam Hill, which houses a tasting room and a variety of bourbon-geared wares. The new visitor experience will shed even more light on the spirit's place in history, thanks to historical documents and images highlighting its heritage. A walking tour will lead to the historic T. Jeremiah Beam Master Distiller's Home, which is listed in the National Register of Historic Places and houses a number of rare family treasures and photographs. The distillery features more than 27 rackhouses, which hold upwards of 600,000 bourbon barrels, and one of the best vantage points is Jim Beam's original barrel rackhouse (Warehouse D), a nine-story storage facility that has the aging whiskey barrels on display. 149 Happy Hollow Rd.; 502-543-9877; jimbeam.com.

The Macallan Distillery, Craigellachie, Scotland

The Macallan Distillery is located on its own 370-acre estate bordering the River Spey. The original farm is where The Macallan gets some of its barley, a special strain called Minstrel; the rest is grown throughout Scotland specifically for the brand. Choose from either a full tour (80 minutes) or an extended tour (135 minutes), which culminates with a taste of four different Macallan single malts. Visit the Still House 2, where the entire distillation process is on display, and Warehouse 7, where an exhibit called "Mastery of Wood" spotlights the oak casks that the Macallan uses—most of which have previously held sherry and help give the whisky its signature flavor. There is also a private salmon fishing boat and hut available during the fishing season. Easter Elchies; 44-1340/872-280; themacallan.com.

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Maker's Mark Distillery, Loretto, Kentucky

Maker's Mark has welcomed guests since 1952. Located on 650 acres in the heart of Kentucky (the distillery sits on 20 acres; the remaining land is a nature preserve), the brand gets 100,000 visitors a year and offers a comprehensive look at the making of its two bourbons: original Maker's Mark and the longer-aged Maker's 46 (the brand's first new offering in more than 50 years). "They get to see every inch of what we do," says Rob Samuels, COO of Maker's Mark and an eighth-generation distiller. Three tasting rooms in a functioning warehouse welcome guests, and tours cap off with a tasting and the opportunity to hand-dip a bottle in the bourbon's signature red wax. 3350 Burk Spring Rd.; 270-865-2099; makersmark.com.

New York Distilling Company, Brooklyn

Leave it to Brooklyn to house a fully functioning gin distillery attached to a neighborhood bar. Owner Allen Katz, a renowned cocktail and spirits expert, uses a pot-and-column still custom made in Germany to make his signature gins: the 114-proof Perry's Tot Navy Strength (named for Matthew Calbraith Perry, who was commandant of the Brooklyn Navy Yard in the mid-1800s), and Dorothy Parker American, a lighter offering featuring botanicals like juniper, cinnamon and hibiscus. "There is a current gin craze among professionals and cocktail enthusiasts," says Katz, who also makes a rye whiskey. "It is enticing to be able to add something new to the category." Everything in the operation is done by hand, and the Shanty—the distillery's in-house bar—shows off the end product in a variety of delicious cocktails. 79 Richardson St.; 718-412-0874; nydistilling.com.

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Old Bushmills Distillery, County Antrim, Ireland

Nestled in Northern Ireland, Bushmills and its Old Bushmills Distillery—where the label's five whiskies, including its "distillery reserve" 12-year-old single malt, are produced—is the oldest whiskey facility in the country. The whiskey is triple distilled (which is standard in Ireland) before it matures in former bourbon barrels and those that have previously held Spanish sherry, port and rum. The hour-long tour walks visitors through each stage of the process, instructing them on everything from history and tasting notes to how best to enjoy the spirits, like the ten-year-old malt with its hints of vanilla and honey, or the gently spicy 21-year-old with its essence of orange peel and oak. 2 Distillery Rd.; 44-(0)28/207-33218; bushmills.com.

Santa Teresa Rum, Estado Aragua, Venezuela

Santa Teresa, Venezuela's oldest rum producer, has been in the business for more than 200 years. The distillery is located in the Aragua Valley (about 50 miles from Caracas) and is surrounded by 900 acres of sugarcane—the base of rum. (The operation is headquartered at the Hacienda, which was founded in 1796 and is the site of Simón Bolívar's ratification of the abolition of slavery in 1818.) While Venezuelan rum is aged for at least two years, some of Santa Teresa's reserves are a century old. Pot stills produce the spirit, and the wax seals at the top of each bottle are done by hand. Its commitment to the environment—Santa Teresa has been a staunch proponent of reforestation in the area since 1949—only adds to appeal. "The aromas from one place to another are highlights," says Henrique Vollmer, a fifth-generation distiller who runs the business with his brother, Alberto. "From earth to harvested sugarcane to alcohol being distilled." El Consejo; 58(244)/400-2500/2509; ronsantateresa.com.

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