The Best Places to Travel for Whiskey
With National Whiskey Sour Day coming right up (yes, friends, it's a thing, and it happens on Aug. 25)—and National Bourbon Heritage Month immediately thereafter (all of Sept.), you'll no doubt be looking for the best places to raise a glass. And we've got 'em, both at home and around the world.
Part of the fun of taking this spirit quest global? Whiskey means totally different things to different cultures. In fact, we can’t even agree on how the word is spelled. Americans and Irish use the "e;" everyone else ditches it. Either way, the word is an English corruption of the Gaelic "uisge beatha." Translation: water of life (which is no exaggeration to devotees).
In the most general sense, whiskey's distilled from grain and aged in wood. The technical details vary from there, but they're all worth exploring. (Doesn't hurt, of course, that the spirit tends to originate in places of immense natural beauty.) So check out our guide for the Whiskey-curious, then pack your bags. Because the "e" may be optional, but the experiences—as we think you'll agree—are not.
For lovers of bourbon—a charred oak-aged, American-made whiskey whose majority grain is corn—Louisville used to be a mere gateway to the rural landscape of distilleries that make up the fabled Kentucky Bourbon Trail. But now that the city has evolved into its own epicenter of production, you'd do well to check out the local scene. Whiskey Row, a recently revived historic stretch of Main Street, showcases everything from barrel-making to bottling. We'd tell you not to miss the spiritual centerpiece of Old Forester's new distillery, but you couldn't even if you tried: Rising multiple stories like a copper altar to the bourbon gods—on the same spot where the brand first did business about a century ago—is a shiny column still named Big Penny. Meanwhile, at Michter’s new Fort Nelson Distillery, you can bottle and label your own bourbon and rye, or just grab a drink at the high-minded cocktail bar a floor above the fermenters. Across the street is 21c Museum Hotel where the aptly named lobby bar and restaurant, Proof, houses an exhaustive catalog of the local liquid. If you're going to drop in for National Bourbon Awareness Month, as you should, you may want to time your trip to the Kentucky Bourbon Festival (Sept. 18-22)—five days of tastings, concerts, lectures and even the World Championship Bourbon Barrel Relay 40 miles outside of Louisville in beautiful little Bardstown.
Whatever hand Bill Murray had in the phenomenon, Japanese whisky is currently the most exclusive on the planet. The country can’t make enough of its carefully constructed blends and single malts, though you'll find a good assortment in the capital. Whether you're prowling the frenetic alleyways of Golden Gai—the rare Tokyo district whose tiny, scrappy bars haven't been razed and redeveloped—or retreating to serene drinking dens like Bar Benfiddich or Gen Yamamoto, local whisky frequently takes centerstage. Then again, if you ride the bullet train—either south to visit Yamazaki in Osaka, or north to see Miyagikyo just outside of Sendai, you'll have access to excess—pours and full bottles—for exponentially less than you'd pay in the big city. But before you leave Tokyo, remember: A well documented Lost in Translation moment is absolutely obligatory on any Japanese whisky pilgrimage.
Scotland sells more whisky than any other country on earth—and drinks a wee bit, as well, what with the 120 resident distilleries. And almost half of those facilities are concentrated in the northeast, in a small region around the River Spey. Anchor your Speyside adventures in Craigellachie (cray-gell-a-kee), the region's spiritual home, and stay at the 19th-century Craigellachie Inn, where the bar stocks more than 900 bottles of single malt and the views include Macallan’s barrel warehouses. Venture not too far beyond the hotel, and you'll find Dufftown ("the town built on seven stills"); Rothes, all granite facades and pagoda-capped distilleries; and the GlenDronach, home to some of the world’s finest sherry-matured single malt.
While Speyside whisky is known for a floral—sometimes nutty—roundness, many drinkers associate scotch with a more assertive smokiness. You can thank Islay for that. Nicknamed "Whisky Island," this windswept rock on the southern edge of the Hebrides is home to nine distilleries—among them, Lagavulin, Laphroaig, Ardbeg, and Bruichladdich, renowned for serious peatiness. Tour and taste your way across the island, and stay at the new Machrie Hotel & Golf Links, the island’s first luxury property, where you can tee off beside the very peat bogs that made Islay whisky famous. Just make sure to pack a bottle in your golf bag.
Australia is making its own claim to a Whisky Island—complete with a Tasmanian Whisky Trail. If you can't hit all 15 stops, know that Lark and Sullivan’s Cove have garnered serious international praise. To try some of the island's best whisky-based cocktails, pull up a stool at Hobart's IXL Long Bar at the Henry Jones Art Hotel.
This industrial city across a river (and international boundary) from Detroit, seems an unlikely pilgrimage site, but Windsor is home to Hiram Walker and Sons Distillery — North America’s largest whisky-maker, and the only major Canadian facility to offer public tours. Various labels—J.P. Wiser’s, Lot No. 40, Pike Creek and Gibson’s, among others—now share the space, where the J.P Wiser’s Experience offers you a peek at production and a few drams with views of the Detroit River. Though the experience is a far cry from bootlegger operations that thrived in the area during Prohibition (booze wasn't outlawed on this side of the border), you can still find—if you look hard enough—some dimly lit, underground parlors that nod to that era. If your search for the Blind Owl ends successfully, reward yourself with one of the beloved local, seasonal whisky cocktails.
While much of the world associates Irish Whiskey with Dublin, most of the liquid is actually being produced about 135 miles to the southwest, in Cork. Even Jameson—after calling Dublin home for more than two centuries—decamped for the greener pastures of Co. Cork in the 1970s. The brand now offers various tours and tastings in Midleton, where you should also undertake an epic bar crawl along the River Lee. You'll love the Old Town Whiskey Bar at Bodega, the Shelbourne and the Frisky Whiskey as much for their trad music, craic and cozy snugs as for the local whiskey. For a more reserved affair, check into Hayfield Manor, where the stately Manor Bar will serve you premium pours of Irish alongside the likes of miniature pastries and Irish cheeses.
New Zealand’s South Island is slowly emerging as an epicenter of modern whisky excellence. Many of the upstarts, including Cardrona and Kiwi Spirit Distillery are spread across expanses of this rugged terrain. But you’ll get a good taste of the local scene with a visit to Christchurch. Near the city center, the Spirits Workshop is crafting a single malt from locally grown grain, aged in Manuka wood micro-barrels. Just off the busy promenade of New Regent Street, the Last Word whisky and cocktail lounge displays hundreds of bottles on a two-story backbar from which you can select an entire flight of Kiwi creations. (Don't miss the stunning, 16-year-old Oamaruvian—it's aged for a decade in barrels that once held New Zealand red wine.) And stay at the George, where the nightcaps come with a generous pour of Old World charm.