Having travelled solo a fair amount, I am comfortable being in my own company; but there are many times when I’ve been away and wanted to share a moment, or just have someone (that I know) to talk to. Be that partner or friend. That’s why I loved being on the recent trip with my girlfriends, particularly when we were in London. It was really wonderful to share a city that I’ve become quite fond of with some of my favourite people.
Travelling in Scotland is one of my favourite things to do. It’s one of my happy places. But the exchange rate isn’t really ever in my favour, so I’m always on the hunt for ways to #GetThrifty – without sacrificing fun – when I’m away.
During the research phase of my recent trip with the girls, I was very excited when the marketing coordinator from one of the distilleries emailed me back with an amazing tip for our Highlands road trip path. It’s called the ‘Friends of the Classic Malts’ and it was almost like getting a golden ticket because it equals… free whisky! And who doesn’t want that? We all immediately signed up.
What Is Friends of the Classic Malts?
‘Friends of the Classic Malts’ is an initiative from the Diageo Group, who own several single malt distilleries in Scotland (along with other well-known alcohol brands). When you sign-up, you get a certificate that entitles you to free tours at the listed distilleries, and a free dram anytime you visit any and all of said distilleries, for the REST OF YOUR LIFE. (Because you will want to go back to Scotland. I promise.)
How Does It Work?
At your first distillery, you get a cute ‘Friends of the Classic Malts’ passport that every distillery stamps. Get all the stamps (an ambitious feat – I still have 11 more to go!) and they will send you a quaich, which is a two-handled whisky sharing cup. Distilleries include Talisker, Oban, and Blair Athol – coincidentally, the distillery whose marketing coordinator sent me the link. It is also the distillery that we ended up stopping at on our way up to Aviemore.
Blair Athol is in the very picturesque town of Pitlochry, which I also recommend visiting. As our visit wasn’t planned, we, naturally, ended up at Blair Athol 15 minutes before closing. Seeing our distraught faces when informed that we had missed the last tour, the very kind and charming Ian took pity on us with a Cole’s Notes tour and by providing us with our passports and complimentary drams.
Moral of the Story?
If you’re going to Scotland, perhaps sign up to be a ‘Friend of the Single Malts’; just in case you end up at some of their listed distilleries. It will be worth the two minutes it takes to tap at your smartphone. In addition to the free distillery admission and drams, you can also choose to not receive the marketing emails – which is a nice bonus if trying to keep a streamlined inbox.
See Scotland. Taste the ‘water of life’ (for free!) for the rest of your life. Save money (so you can buy a nice bottle from a distillery or a nice cashmere scarf). You’re welcome.
(This is not a sponsored post. Opinions are, as always, my own.)
The water was not fit to drink. To make it palatable, we had to add whisky. By diligent effort, I learned to like it.
~ Winston Churchill ~
Okay, ladies. This question’s mostly for you. Regardless of whether you enjoy a dram or not, when you think about whisky, what comes to mind? Don Draper from Mad Men? Stuffy old men with cigars? It tastes like rocket fuel?
The second and latter of those were my thoughts on whisky for the longest time. And then I travelled to Scotland the first time. Turns out I had been trying the wrong kinds of Scotch. And then one day, I found one that didn’t taste (for me) like rocket fuel; and another. But that’s a story for another day. My point is that while the vast selection of whisky available can be intimidating and deterring (as discussed in City Girl Whisky Diary #1), so can the misconceptions and stereotypes.
So let’s squash the stereotypes. 1) Yes, Don Draper drank sale increasing amounts of whisky on Mad Men (though it wasn’t Scotch, it was Canadian Club), but Peggy Olson steamed her way into the advertising boys club and sipped whisky while she was breaking through that pesky glass ceiling. Whisky is not just for men to enjoy. 2) Whisky is not old and stuffy. It’s fresh and fun – but if you want to smoke a cigar while drinking it, go for it; and 3) Everyone’s taste palate is different. What tastes like rocket fuel to one person isn’t the same for another. I, again, encourage everyone to get curious and figure out what they like. While some can taste a bit harsh, there are some lovely, softer tasting Scotch whiskies out there.
THE SOFTER SIDE
Case in point: Tomatin Distillery, with their award winning Highland single malts and recent rebranding to their ‘Softer Side of the Highlands’ slogan and campaign. The girls and I went there for a tour on our recent Highlands road trip and we had a great time.
When I was researching distilleries us to visit, I came across Tomatin on Google Maps as it is right near where we were staying. I clicked on their link and immediately fell in love with the coo (not a typo) in red wellies on their landing page.
I did some digging, and kind of like how I occasionally buy wine based on fun or pretty bottle labels, I decided we needed to go this place based on their ad campaign. And this description of their product:
The smooth, rounded hills sheltering the Tomatin Distillery reflect the softer side of nature in this quiet corner of the Highlands. Here, bubbling pure spring water, tender barley and gentle patience all go into creating an incredibly soft Highland whisky. A whisky which is as easy to enjoy as it is hard to forget.
Who doesn’t want to taste that? I immediately emailed them to arrange a tour.
Located 16 miles south of Inverness and 15 miles north of Aviemore, Tomatin is a beautiful and incredibly vast property. When you’re driving up to the Visitor Centre, it feels like you’re en route to the manor house in a historical novel. It’s obviously not a manor house, but you know what I mean. That being said, there are homes on the property, as most of the staff live on the grounds. (I had an ‘awww’ moment when I found out that the Office Manager and Groundsman are married.)
Tomatin opened in 1897 and has gone through the highs and the lows of the alcohol industry in its 120 years. Though Tomatin is now Japanese owned, their owners have left them be to combine their legacy and tradition with 21st-century marketing and technology. An example of this ‘blend’ is the on-site Cooper who makes all the casks, and the VR headsets they bring to trade shows so people can virtually tour the distillery and grounds. (Fun fact: The Cooper is the son of the Office Manager and Groundsman.)
But if you’re after an in person tour, this is a fantastic one. We were put on their first Legacy Tour of the day, with the adorable Scott as our tour guide. He was very knowledgeable and entertaining, which always makes a tour that much more fun. All the Tomatin visitor tours take you step-by-step through the whisky making process and end in the tasting room. The Legacy Tour, at £8, is the basic and most #GetThrifty option that includes tasting of three of their selections.
Tomatin runs a very impressive operation and the tour is top knotch. Very tangible and nothing really like any of the tours I’ve been on in the past. I mean, how many places have decommissioned mash tuns that you can stand in?
Ready for some barrel photos? I took a lot. Sorry, not sorry.
When we got to the tasting room, I was very excited that we got to taste their lightly peated Cù Bòcan (named for a mythical black beast). This was right in my wheel-house. The 12 Year and Legacy were a pleasant surprise for me as they were, as advertised, very smooth and much softer in their taste than most Highland whiskies I’ve tried. The 12 Year was particularly lovely. These are excellent options for if you’re curious but don’t want anything too strong in taste.
Normally, a non-peated whisky tends to illicit a wrinkled nose look on my face when the liquid hits a certain point in my throat. I’ve been told it’s a cute look, but I was pleased my palate managed to not embarrass me.
As most places with tastings do these days, Tomatin acknowledges the poor soul who didn’t get to experience the tasting: the designated driver. Alison got to leave with a very nice little bottle of the Legacy whisky. I thought this was a nice touch, and spoke to the quality of the company and what they put forward. The shop also provides the option to fill your own bottle of their cask strength distillery exclusive whisky.
We had such a good time and I highly recommend a distillery tour (particularly this one!) as a fun activity for a group of friends, a date, or for a family (we had one on our tour). Personally, I would like to go back and do their tutored nosing and tasting, which is part of their Single Cask Experience. Like with wine, I want to get better at these skills.
I hope you get a chance to visit this lovely place!
P.S. If you’re curious about the whisky making process, here’s a great infographic from Tomatin. It describes things way better than I ever could!
Thank you to the Tomatin Distillery marketing team for making this excursion possible! As alway, opinions are my own.
I love a Scotch that’s old enough to order its own Scotch.
~ Robin Scherbatsky (from How I Met Your Mother) ~
Before I left for my trip in May, I was quizzing my expat colleagues about where the girls and I should eat and drink for our three nights in London. They all recommended one place: Soho. Though I’ve been to London many times, it was an area that, aside from the theatres, I had no paid much attention to. Having now explored a bit, I can safely say shame on me.
Located in the West End of London, Soho is London’s nightlife hot spot. It has morphed, chameleon-like over the decades, from being the place to find certain company and activities (you know what I mean), to the hub of the rag trade and mod 60’s culture, to music central, and where one goes to the theatre. Plus a few things in between. With the 21st century came the hipsters and a culinary rejuvenation. Mixed with trendy shops, theatres, and a few cheeky reminders of the area’s more notorious history, Soho is now a multicultural foodie paradise.
With that, where to start?? So many restaurants and bars tucked into the nooks and alleyways make the decision of where to eat, and where to find the best gin and tonic (important!) a bit of a challenge. (Particularly when on a budget in a country whose currency is whooping yours’ behind.) That’s where Eating London Tours comes in with their Twilight Soho Food & Cocktails Tour.
- Walking tour through Soho
- Six restaurants/bars
- Sizable appetizer servings and beverages at each stop
- Amazing tour guide to walk you through Soho’s history and current culture
- 3-4 hours of fun!
The tour starts outside the Palace Theatre, where you can look on with envy at those picking up their Harry Potter tickets. We were a mixed group of Canadian, Aussie, Irish, and Russian nationals, which was a reminder that wherever you’re from in the world, food is a universal language. ❤️
Our tour guide, Ashleigh, was fabulous. Her enthusiasm for food and sharing the history of the area was incredibly contagious. Not that we weren’t excited to be there, but having a happy and engaging tour guide is always a bonus!
1. LA BODEGA NEGRA
(Website / 16 Moor Street, Soho)
Located in what used to be a peep show shop, our first stop was La Bodega Negra, for some traditional Mexican tacos and margaritas. Mexican food in London? Si. Good Mexican food. My love for cooking started in Mexico, so I’m picky, but I was very impressed.
A play on fish and chips and mushy peas was served in the traditional house-made tacos and made for a zippy spin on some British favourites. Frozen strawberry margaritas were on the menu for our group, but as I’m allergic to strawberries, I ended up with a lime margarita on the rocks. If you know me, you know this made me the happiest camper.
The girls and I ended up back at La Bodega Negra the next night after going to the theatre, and it was hopping. No lineup, but full and boisterous with a really great party vibe. The margaritas are a bit pricey for the size, but for the multiple kinds of tequila that they use, it’s worth it. On point tequila to lime ratio.
2. THE LONDON GIN CLUB
(Website / 22 Great Chapel St.)
Next stop was The Gin Club at The Star. The building used to be a 1930’s cocktail bar and is now a family run establishment where, Julia, the owner, makes the in-house gin. And it’s fabulous. One of my friends, Alison, is all about a G&T. So this was her jam.
We were brought down a staircase to a tube station like room and served gin infused beef pie (yum!) while we were taught how to properly pour and enjoy a gin and tonic. (The bowl of the glass should be larger in order to better smell and taste the gin, and – because it’s all about flavour preference – your tonic should be poured by YOU. Not the bartender. So 90% of bars outside of the UK are doing this wrong. Huh.) Next time I’m in London, I plan on going back so I can do a proper tasting flight and make a very small dent in the 360(!) kinds of gin they have available.
3. ENRIQUE TOMAS
(Website / 132 Wardour Street)
This was hands down my favourite stop of the tour. More a shop than a restaurant, Enrique Tomás is essentially the reason I won’t ever be a vegetarian or vegan. I really and truly enjoy pork products and I am not ashamed to admit it. Prosciutto makes my mouth water. And now I’m crushing on its Spanish cousin, jamón, with its melt in your mouth amazing goodness.
We were sat at the large table near the back of the shop, with a placemat illustrating the different kinds of jamón, and how and where it gets raised. Lovely Spanish red wine was poured to go with the ham and manchego cheese all strategically placed on our plates, and a very shy, but passionate employee guided us through our delicious tasting journey. It was an unexpected prep session for the upcoming Barcelona leg of our trip and I could have stayed there and eaten for the rest of the evening.
4. PIX PINTXOS
(Website / 16 Bateman St.)
Feeling incredibly happy, we were ushered by Ashleigh to Pix Bar, where we continued the Spanish theme of things. With four locations in London, Pix Bar is where you want to go to get your tapas, or pintxos fix. (Pintxos are Basque snacks skewered with wooden sticks. This knowledge was filed away for Barcelona and came very handy.) The Soho location is great for people watching and it frequented by a lot of media. If you’re up for a bit of mischief, there’s a cocktail bar in the basement called Rooms by the Hour. Which, P.S., used to be a 1970’s adult cinema. (In case you missed it, Soho has a past. Ha.)
The tour includes two pintxos skewers. Make sure you scope it all out, like a buffet, before you choose. Because there’s a lot to select from to go with the fabulous white wine they serve you, called Txakoli. As far as white wines go, Txakoli is very dry and has a subtle sparkle to it. It’s served with great fanfare, poured from a height, with no spills. Tom Cruise has nothing on these bartenders.
(Website / The Jade Door, 15-16 Gerrard St.)
Next stop was Opium, in what we found out is Europe’s largest Chinatown. It’s technically not part of Soho, but I’m so glad that it was on this tour. Opium is located behind a jade coloured door with a very polite bouncer standing guard. Styled like a Shanghai opium den, there are three floors and multiple rooms. Be prepared to climb some stairs. I promise it’s worth the climb.
We were treated to a Chinese tea cocktail and incredibly tasty dim sum. The cocktail reminded me of a more exciting version of kombucha. Be careful, it’s easy to drink. Chinese tradition is that you don’t ever pour your own drink. Your cup will be refilled, a lot.
6. BASEMENT SATE
(Website / 8 Broadwick St.)
The last stop on our tour, Basement Sate is a blink and you’ll miss it gem with an unmarked door and a very discreet plaque. We got to the top of the stairs and the first thing one of my friends said was “I don’t want to leave”. I concurred. We hadn’t even sat down yet. But that’s the reaction this very Manhatten like cocktail and dessert bar will elicit from most. Yes, cocktails AND desserts.
One sparkly cocktail and an incredible hazelnut treat later, we asked Ashleigh if there was any way we could stay. The tour needs to end in a certain spot, but she made our little quartet a reservation to come back a bit later. We went back and it felt like we were on a girls’ night out in an episode of Sex and the City. Basement Sate is on point. I recommend the Notting Hill.
Life and work have made it so we don’t get to see each other very often, so I really loved getting to be out on the town having fancy G&T’s with three of my best friends.
This tour was a fantastic introduction to Soho’s restaurant and bar scene and was great value for money. It’s definitely the most budget friendly way to experience a cool area of an expensive city. If you think about it, on a girls’ night out, you might take turns buying rounds, but that adds up. Especially when you include food and gratuity (usually added on to the bill for you by the establishment you are in).
In addition to Soho, Eating London also has Brick Lane (Indian food) and East End (comfort food) options in London. Eating Europe also has tours in Rome, Florence, Amsterdam, and Prague. You can tell they have worked to cultivate relationships with their restaurant partners and everything is top notch. I highly recommend checking them out.
Make sure you wear your walking shoes and, if you’re in London, have an umbrella. Enjoy!
#GetThrifty – The lovely Ashleigh gave us a 10% discount code to use for future tours, and I’m so happy to share with you. Visit Eating London’s website and enter ASHLEIGH when at the payment page to get the discount. Every penny helps!
People who love to eat are always the best people.
~ Julia Child ~
Whisky. The Scots call this lovely amber liquid “The Water of Life”. With this, you know that they take their Scotch very seriously. (For example, it’s whisky, not whiskey with an ‘e’. This is a thing.) And there are endless kinds. So if you’re new to whisky, it can all be a bit daunting when you’re trying to figure out where to start.
My whisky palate has been cultivating for a few years now (I’m an Islay whisky girl), but if you’re like me, a million questions might run through the circuit board of your brain: How do they make it? What kind should I try? Which distillery do I go to? (So many to choose from!) Do I have time? What if it doesn’t taste good? Is there tasting etiquette? Is there a spit bucket? (Gross! Wait, what am I, five years old?? That’s how you sometimes taste wine. Hmmm.) What if I can’t hide the nose wrinkle that happens when I don’t like what I’m tasting?What’s a good price for a bottle? And so on and so forth.
Well, whether you’re short on time, with just a day or two in Edinburgh, or if you have the good fortune of getting to take your time travelling through Scotland (do it – it’s amazing), the place to start answering your questions and whet your whisky appetite is the Scotch Whisky Experience on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile. My friends and I started our girls trip there and it was fabulous.
Whisky’s Edinburgh Home
This top notch venue offers an interactive and entertaining way to learn about the history of whisky, how it’s made, and what kind is right for you. Friendly staff greets you at the front, as does a very Hogwarts-like ghost named Douglas McIntyre – your host for the barrel ride that will take you through their virtual distillery. You are essentially the whisky being made. One of my favourite parts was what I dubbed the yeast bubble discotheque. There are different tour options, but they all start with the virtual experience.
Your barrel drops you off for some self-learning about barreling and aging before you are guided into the theatre to learn about the different whisky regions. This is where you start using what I consider the most important sense on this journey, your sense of smell. The fact that they give you a scratch and sniff map of the regions delighted me to no end. Yes, I kept mine.
What Whisky is Right for YOU?
Your guide then shifts you into the Blender’s Sample Room, where you are visited again by Mr. McIntyre and introduced to what are called the holodrams. All I could think was Harry Potter. I was so tickled by this. Yes, I know, I’m a complete dork.
You then get to choose what region of whisky you want to have a dram of. If you can’t decide, there is blend available. And then, off you go into The Collection to learn about how to taste your whisky.
(Something to remember: this is a learning experience. It’s all about trial and error, and you might love the one you choose, or you might not. That’s why your tour ends at the tasting room. I encourage you to get curious!)
Hear the Angels Sing
When you walk into the stunning The Diageo Claive Vidiz Whisky Collection and see 3,384(!) beautifully displayed (and full) whisky bottles in their cases, there will be a collective gasp in awe from everyone you are with. The angels will sing in your mind, and you will feel like the very impressive glass and marble vault is heaven. I’m not kidding – I got goosebumps.
Your guide will take you through the tasting steps and then it’s all about the photos ops and staring at the amazing collection.
Claive Vidiz, a Brazilian gentleman who used to travel to the UK a lot for work, became a collector in the 1970’s. A friend brought him six different bottles of Islay whiskies, and he fell in love. Laphroaig is the first whisky I ever actually enjoyed, so I completely understand why his senses went “yes!” Over 35 years, he collected the almost 3,500 bottles of Scotch that are now on display.
There is even a Canada connection, with a few bottles of Hudson’s Bay Company Whisky from the 1960’s!
Check It Out
The Scotch Whisky Experience offers a variety of tours. Any of the options are excellent to check out on your own, or with friends; and are fantastic value for money. With cost and time restraints being kept in mind, we took the 50 minute Silver Tour, but I would definitely go back to do any of the upgraded tours the next time I am in Edinburgh. It’s going to blow the Brit’s mind!
- The Silver Tour is the basic and most economical option. It includes one taster and you get to bring home your tasting glass. (They give you a box – for which I was very grateful!)
- If you have a valid post-secondary student card, you get the Concession rate for the Silver and Gold Tours. Your student card is a valuable thing to remember for when you are travelling, as many tourist attractions, museums, etc have a student rate. So remember to bring that card!
The Scotch Whisky Experience is located just off the Royal Mile in Edinburgh’s Old Town. Be sure to check it out! Slainte mhath!
An appreciation of prose is learned, not instinctive. It is an acquired taste, like Scotch whisky.
~ Abigail Padgett ~
This outing was made possible in partnership with the Scotch Whisky Experience. Some images have been provided by them, and have been credited as such.
I’ve been back a couple weeks now from a really fantastic trip with some of my best girlfriends, and with jet-lag blessedly dissipated, I’ve begun to dive into my photos and notes. So many pictures, and a lot of information. And memories. Really fun and good memories. (Like this one!)
For obvious reasons, small group travel is very different than solo and paired travel. Here are some key points to remember and how to best enjoy the spectacular places you will see with your friends:
This is the most important part of travelling with your friends. Why? Because it’s not just about you. It’s about what’s best for the group and making sure everyone gets the most out of the experience. Cost/budget, what to do, where to go, where to eat, etc. Because we were going to be in several places for short periods of time, we each stated our wishlists and a few musts for each city. This allowed for some planning and tends to be easier when one or a more of you have already been to a place. I’ve been to Paris a few times, but two of my friends had not. It was incredibly fun to see it through fresh eyes.
Equally as important as compromise. These are your friends, but you don’t live with them – or perhaps you do. But three weeks, or even a few days, all day, every day, has its moments. Everyone has quirks or a bad day; no one is perfect. You love them, and there’s no point in creating conflict, so keep that patience cap on. Sometimes you just need to let things go. If there’s a spat, talk about it; hug it out. Buy the next round. Be supportive. They are your people.
When we started planning our trip, we agreed on a) to pipe up if one of us wasn’t down with something; and b) we didn’t have to be together all the time. If someone, or a pair (the buddy system is important!), wanted to go do something else, we set a meeting place and time and checked in periodically through our Whatsapp group.
This bundles up all of the above, but specifically applies to bathroom time; particularly with a group of girls! Check in before you take a shower, be quick, and remember that mostly anything outside of bathroom appliance related activities can be taken care of in front of a non-bathroom mirror. Also try also keep your stuff in your own space.
An obvious #GetThrifty perk to travelling with more than one person is some shared costs, particularly for accommodations. Because, let’s face it, that is usually the biggest money suck when travelling. You will rarely get to have your own bed, nevermind your own room, but you will save some money – which means more good food and wine! I’m slightly more partial to apartments or aparthotels (fridge and laundry!) than traditional hotels, but costs and location always determine what makes the most sense. Example: Some hotels have complimentary or cheap breakfast, but apartments have fridges and small appliances for minor groceries and making breakfast at “home”.
Here are my recommended accommodations that are great for 3-4 people in Edinburgh, Glasgow, London, Paris (two options), and Barcelona. All have free wi-fi and are great value for money. Warning that some don’t have elevators, but this is a blessing when eating all that good food!
Friends are the siblings God never gave us.
~ Mencius ~