Deep in Scotland’s whisky country, the tastes and trappings of another time await.
In the past decade, Scotch whisky has made a stunning turnaround in the American consciousness. Greatly fancied during the two decades immediately following the Second World War, Scotch whisky was considered thoroughly obsolete during the granola-and-carrot juice era of the 1970s and ’80s. But the 1990s saw a Scotch revival, and today, it’s one of the most fashionable drinks you can name. Indeed, knowing Scotch whisky has become a cultural statement—a badge of sophistication. In some places, the appreciation of Scotch whisky’s panorama of aromas, tastes, and styles approaches a religion. Tasting events and food-matching dinners that focus on Scotch whisky are on the rise, and increasing numbers of people from all walks of life are sampling the scores of estimable spirits of Scotland’s whisky regions.
But while tastings and dinners offer the opportunity to become fascinated, nothing stokes the fires of Scotch whisky passion more vividly than a pilgrimage to its source, the friendly yet haunting nation of Scotland. Currently one can visit more than 40 single-malt distilleries scattered around the Highlands and islands of Scotland. The pursuit of Scotch whisky appreciation reaches its pinnacle when you’re tramping through distilleries on Scotland’s whisky trails. And the nation of Scotland itself is a nation of enchantment, a land of pristine countryside and intriguing cities. Few places I know seep into the blood more quickly than bonnie Scotland,
For pretrip research, the British Tourist Authority (551 Fifth Avenue, Suite 701, New York, NY 10176; 877/899-8391) offers a wealth of free brochures, road maps, and information on Scotland. Another important number to call before leaving for the United Kingdom is that of The Scotch Whisky Association, based in Edinburgh (20 Atholl Crescent, Edinburgh EH3 8HF; from the U.S., call 011-44-131-222-9200 or visit their web site at www/scotch-whisky.org.uk). The SWA website contains maps and listings of distilleries, and if you wish they’ll be delighted to send you all sorts of helpful materials (“Distilleries Which Welcome Visitors” is particularly good) on which distilleries to visit, including time-saving information on how and when to visit them.
Many of the distilleries have web sites of their own, so you can check them out on-line when you’re planning you’re trip. Be aware that it’s a good idea to call every distillery ahead of time to make sure that it’s open, since virtually all distilleries close down for repairs and maintenance during different periods of the year—and some do not welcome visitors at all. Also, most distilleries that do welcome tourists charge a nominal admission fee (Â£3 to Â£5), although some redeem the fee if you make a purchase in the visitors shop.
Late spring and early summer are the best times to make your Scotch whisky pilgrimage. The months of May and June are drier than July and August and they offer the advantage of extended daylight because of Scotland’s latitude. You’re better off avoiding travel in Scotland from December through March, especially in the Highlands, where heavy snow can impede your trip. (I’ve been snowed in as late as March 30 in the Central Highlands.) Scotland’s east coast tends to be cool and dry, while the west coast is frequently mild and damp. But these are generalizations. Scotland’s climate is notoriously tough to predict because of the country’s position in the North Atlantic; as a result, the weather can be wildly variable.
Clotheswise, assuming that you’re traveling within the suggested May-through-June period, it’s good policy to pack a windbreaker or a waterproof slicker, plus one sweater. Daytime dress is generally casual, even in restaurants, but it’s wise for men to bring at least one sport jacket or suit, plus shirt and tie.
In and around Glasgow and Edinburgh
Whether you begin your Scotch whisky sojourn in hip and artsy Glasgow or the stately capital of Edinburgh doesn’t really matter because both cities are close to whisky distilleries, as well as to each other. Near the village of Killearn in pastoral Stirlingshire, a quick 30-minute drive north of Glasgow, is the Glengoyne Distillery (011-44-1360-550254), built in 1833. The white-washed buildings of Glengoyne are nestled in the northern stretch of rolling hills known as the Campsie Fells. Glengoyne’s single malts are noted for being among the very few unpeated malts in Scotland, meaning that the barley used in making the whisky has been dry-kilned with fuels other than smoky, intense peat.
A mere 14 miles southeast of Edinburgh in the quiet Lowlands village of Pencaitland is Glenkinchie Distillery (011-44-1875-342004), a distillery renowned for its dazzling “distillery in miniature” display and its ethereal single malt whiskies. An hour’s drive north of Edinburgh near Crieff and the Falls of Turret in the beautiful Perthshire countryside sits the Glenturret Distillery (011-44-1764-656565), one of the most avidly visited Scotch whisky distilleries. Glenturret’s superb 25-minute guided distillery tour is both thorough and entertaining. Their Visitors Heritage Centre and Exhibition Museum offer interesting presentations on the distillery, as well as the history of Scotch whisky. Half an hour north of Glenturret in the village of Aberfeldy stands the recently opened Dewar’s World of Whisky visitors center (011-44-1887-822000), where one can learn about blended Scotch whisky through the story of the Dewar family.
If your time in Edinburgh is brief, a good option is to take an hour and stop at The Scotch Whisky Heritage Centre (354 Castlehill, The Royal Mile, 011-44-131-220-0441) in the city itself. The Heritage Centre’s innovative exhibition transports visitors through the history and production of Scotch whisky in a Disney-like ride. In the shop, you’ll find a mother lode of whisky bottlings (over 180 are available).
Unforgettable Islay and Jura
For intrepid Scotch whisky adventurers, the prop-engine plane flight from Glasgow west to the Inner Hebrides island of Islay (pronounced, eye-lah) is one of the most exhilarating distillery excursions of all. In clear weather, the views from the air are spectacular. Islay’s fabled single malts are famous, or perhaps even infamous, for being the most virile, challenging and smoky of whiskies. A stop at Bowmore Distillery’s splendid visitors center (011-44-1496-810441) in the village of Bowmore is a must. Not only are Bowmore single malts among the greatest in Scotland, but the seaside views are magical. While in the village of Bowmore, duck your head into the bar of the Lochside Hotel (Shore Street, 011-44-1496-810244) and feast your eyes on their collection of over 350 single malts from all over Scotland.
Four other notable Islay distilleries accept visitors, but only if arrangements are made ahead of time. Those distilleries are Lagavulin (011-44-1496-302400) and Laphroaig (011-44-1496-302418) in Port Ellen, which lies on the southeast corner of the island, and Caol Ila (011-44-1496-302760) and Bunnahabhain (011-44-1496- 840646), both located near Port Askaig, which overlooks the Isle of Jura. The briny, heavily smoked malts of Lagavulin and Laphroaig are sure to curl the toes of most imbibers, while those of Caol Ila and Bunnahabhain are more nimble to the taste.
Another nifty side trip while on Islay is a stop at the Islay Woollen Mill in Bridgend (011-44-1496-810563). Their traditional wool clothing has been featured in numerous films and television programs, and a visit to this quirky mill tops off a day on Islay … often with a snappy wool cap.
Ferries from photogenic Port Askaig regularly battle the choppy currents of the Sound of Islay to reach Jura, an island where the population of more than 5,000 red deer has far outpaced that of the 250 bipedal residents. Jura’s name means “deer island,” and was bestowed by invading Vikings in the 9th century. The island lays claim to but a single distillery, Isle of Jura (011-44-1496-820240), and all visits must be prearranged. The possibility of queasiness on the frequently rough Sound crossing is outweighed by the chance to visit this remote bastion of Scotch whisky, not just for the sake of the adventure, but for the reward of tasting the silky smooth single malts at their source.
The remote Northern Highlands near Inverness
The Northern Highland region north of the city of Inverness is a desolate, basically maritime district, whose few, far-flung distilleries perch on the breezy estuaries, called firths, that feed into the North Sea. The single malts up here are sublimely peaty and, consistent with the environment, ruggedly geared. Allowing two travel days, four outstanding distillery visits include The Dalmore (011-44-1349-882362, by appointment only) in Alness; Glenmorangie (011-44-1862-892477, pre-booking advisable) in Tain; Glen Ord (011-44-1463-872004, by appointment) in Muir of Ord; and Clynelish (011-44-1408-623000, by appointment) in the village of Brora.
Speyside: The Rolls Royce of whisky regions
While Islay and Jura are exciting, the Northern Highlands alluringly remote, and the distilleries near Glasgow and Edinburgh are convenient, the ultimate experience for any Scotch whisky lover—veteran or neophyte—is a two- to four-day romp through the bucolic, mesmerizing Speyside (pronounced spay-side) whisky region. Speyside’s virtues are prodigious: pristine countryside and crystalline air; arguably the finest fly fishing in the world; picture-postcard hamlets, streams, rivers, pastures and shops; award-winning hotels, inns and restaurants and, most importantly, many of the world’s greatest whisky distilleries. There are, in fact, approximately 50 of Scotland’s malt distilleries clustered within the natural borders formed by the River Findhorn to the west, the Atlantic Ocean to the north and the Rivers Deveron and Bogie to the east.
There is a quartet of Speyside distilleries that’s particularly geared to welcoming large numbers of visitors. These headliners include The Glenlivet (011-44-1542-783220) in Ballindalloch; Glenfiddich (011-44-1340-820373) in Dufftown; Glen Grant (011-44-1542-783318) in Rothes; and Cardhu (011-44-1340-872555) in Knockando. These four bustling distilleries are accustomed to handling thousands of visitors annually and offer guided tours and spacious tasting rooms. If you’re traveling with a group of 10 or more, I’d head directly to these locations.
If you prefer smaller and more intimate visits, Speyside’s four hidden-treasure distilleries, somewhat off the beaten path, are: The Macallan (011-44-1340-871471, by appointment) in Craigellachie; Glenfarclas (011-44-1807-500257, by appointment) in Ballindal- loch; Aberlour (011-44-1340-871204, by appointment) in the picturesque hamlet of Aberlour; and in the fastidiously neat, grey stone village of Keith, Strathisla (011-44-1542-783044). Keep in mind when mapping out the Speyside leg of your trip that Strathisla, Speyside’s oldest distillery, is hands-down the region’s most photogenic distillery. Call ahead to make sure that someone will be there to show you around.
One of the most interesting nondistillery visits in Speyside is to the Speyside Cooperage (011-44-1340-871108), where skilled coopers construct (or “raise” as they put it) new oak casks and repair old ones for the maturation of Scotch whisky. It’s located between the villages of Craigellachie and Dufftown on route A941.
These are four of Scotland’s most accessible whisky trails. There’s also the Western Highlands/Islands Trail, which includes the towns of Oban and Fort William; the Inner Hebrides islands of Skye and Mull; the Orkney Islands Trail; and the Central and Eastern Highlands Trail.
A trip to Scotland’s whisky regions makes for a memorable adventure, and drinking your favorite libation at its ancient source is a thrill you won’t ever forget.
F. Paul Pacult is the spirits tasting director of Wine Enthusiast. He is a life member of the Keepers of the Quaich Whisky Society.