Hofbräuhaus in Munich © JOHN BURKE
Part of the fun of a holiday is taking excursions that can range from a historical site to
an art exhibition. The nicest visits of all, maybe, are those highlighting local and
traditional produce, complete with goodies at the end.
Mostly, this means touring a vineyard, brewery or distillery, but it can also include
something for the sweet-toothed. For example, there are a dozen Scottish towns
where you can watch (and smell) the production of whisky, but Oban also has a small
business making chocolates by hand; entry is free, but a tasting batch costs £1.80.
Oban’s distillery, dating back to 1794, is one of the oldest and smallest in Scotland,
so it makes a convenient tour that includes a wee dram of 14-year old West Highland
Malt. If you prefer Irish whiskey (spelt differently) go round Jameson, and
a Dublin Pass will negate the usual price of 22 euros.
The same applies to the even dearer entry to Guinness, but that tour ends with a
large jar of porter. England has too many breweries to list, so you will never be far
from one. Adnams in Southwold reckons to be the most high-tech, and Bishop’s
Castle has the oldest brewer in Shropshire but Shepherd Neame in Faversham
comes first in all England. York claims the only traditional working brewery, but
Marston boasts oak casks in Burton-on-Trent.
Dray in Copenhagen © JOHN BURKE
There is also a free beer at Carlsberg and two other breweries in Copenhagen as
well as unfiltered Urquell in the Czech town of Pilsen. Germany offers many more
opportunities – from Kindl-Schultheiss in Berlin to four brewers of Kölsch in Cologne.
Beer tours in Munich, costing about £21, usually include the ancient Hofbräu whose
three-storey tavern has been rebuilt since Hitler patronised the pre-war premises.
By contrast, it can cost as little as £9 to visit the Viennese cellars of Schlumberger
complete with a glass of sparkling wine. For a taste of Champagne, there are 250
kilometres of cellars below Rheims and Epernay which are surrounded by 34,000
hectares of vines. Mumm, Taittinger, Veuve Cliquot and Moët & Chandon are among
a score of houses as well as many more châteaux (translating here as vineyards)
that can be visited.
Cellars in Rheims © JOHN BURKE
In the region of Burgundies further south, the best centre for tours is Beaune where
the cellars include Marché-aux-Vins and Patriarche Père & Fils. The largest area for
wine-tasting is around Bordeaux which counts some 700 million bottles a year. Tour
operators go out to six districts on either bank of the Gironde, such as Blaye, Médoc,
Saint-Emilion… Trips can be either all-day or half-day, the cheapest costing about
At Voiron you can sip green and yellow Chartreuse after 90 minutes of seeing how
the liqueurs are concocted, while in a neo-Renaissance palace at Fécamp its costs
only £11 to learn the myths and mysteries surrounding Bénédictine. Schiedam has a
surviving Dutch gin distillery and museum surrounded by five historic windmills, one
of which has flour for sale.
Gin in Holland © JOHN BURKE
As for brandy, the best place to go is Cognac whose distilleries include Hennessy,
Martell and Rémy Martin. More interesting is the lesser known Otard which started up
after the French Revolution when a Scottish baron bought the old Valois castle, the
presumed birthplace of Francis I in 1494. There is a historical waxworks in the dank
dungeons, so you can get a taste of history before tasting VS Tonic and VSOP.
Visits to Otard start at 11 euros.
Brandy has also been produced at Rüdesheim, overlooking the Rhine, since 1862.
The tour is free, and tasting Asbach Uralt costs only two euros, while bottles are
discounted in the gift-shop where alcoholic chocolates are also sold. There are at
least three chocolate factories to see in Switzerland and two more in Belgium as well
as a chocolate museum in Bruges. And most manufacturers of nougat in
Montélimar welcome visitors.
To get the best out of any such outing, it is essential to do three things before
you even leave home rather than take pot luck or rely on the local tourist office.
First, note the days and hours of openings as well as access for individuals or
groups. Secondly, be clear about whether it is free, flat rate or priced according to
length and level – the choice is especially bewildering around Bordeaux. Thirdly, look
at comments on one of the consumer sites.
Tasting in Blaye © JOHN BURKE
When you do get there, the complimentary tipple may well be in a café or restaurant,
not to mention a shop selling anything from foodstuffs to souvenirs. There is one
other excursion that cannot be regarded as a tourist trap.
This is the good, old Blanket Tour out of resorts on the Costa del Sol. The coach ride
is free to interesting places like Ronda or Malaga, but the complimentary sangria is at
a bedding wholesaler. Averaged out, enough passengers place orders for the
Merino wool products to make the trips a loss-leader.