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Issue 34 - The spirit of Scotland

Scotland Magazine Issue 34
August 2007

 

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The spirit of Scotland

Rob Allanson introduces us to Scotland's whisky producing regions

Scotch malt whisky is one of the very essences of Scotland; a golden and copper spider’s web that sprawls across the country and weaves its way through history.

Whisky can often provide a link back to the motherland as it sums up the country and the people of this great nation. Every sip hails back to the place the water of life was born, peat-smoke and bog myrtle, heather, fresh hay and honey, white beaches and salt spray: the scents of the land.

It is not often you get something that has so much variation within such a relatively small geographical area, so for the purposes of our guide we have split Scotland up into its traditional whisky producing areas.

There are six main regions, each with a distinctive style, including Speyside, Highland, Islands, Islay, the Lowlands and Campbeltown.

There are plenty of places to stay in the main cities so it is easy to find a base and then head out on the trail hunting some of the best whiskies Scotland has to offer.

Speyside
We start off in what many consider to be the true whisky country. It certainly is one of the finest whisky producing regions in the world and has the greatest concentration of distilleries.

Depending where you draw the boundary lines there is between a third and a half of Scotland’s malt distilleries here including some of the world’s best loved names, as well as some you may not have heard of.

With classic names such as Glenfiddich, Macallan, Aberlour and The Glenlivet, and an official whisky trail of its own, it is up to visitors to chose their own path.

Perhaps one of the best places to start is Glenfidddich distillery on the outskirts of Dufftown.

Glenfiddich, which scooped our sister publication Whisky Magazine’s Icon of Whisky for its visitor centre, is one of the world’s best selling single malts and was the first to offer distillery tours. Today the scale of the distillery is matched by the number of people who flow through the doors.

The distillery offers several types of tour catering for those with little or no whisky knowledge up to the expert level.

Don’t let the size of the car park, normally complete with a couple of coaches, put you off, you will receive an exceptionally friendly welcome even at the most busiest times.

Whisky-wise there are so many drams to try so we turn to Whisky Magazine’s World Whisky Awards for a helping hand.

Out of the most well known names that dominate the Speyside style, renowned for big, fruity and honeyed whiskies, are Aberlour and The Glenlivet. Aberlour 10 Years Old and The Glenlivet 15 Years Old are a couple of gems in the ranges to start you off.

Also worth looking out for is the Balvenie range, and the much sought after Balvenie Vintage 1972 which the experts have described as a “superb balance and harmony between all the elements.” Going slightly against the grain of the Speyside style is BenRiach. Expect a bit of a swerve ball with this malt as it has a fairly peaty and smoky nature, more reminiscent of the Islay style than its native Speyside.

Highland
You can argue until you are blue in the face where the Highland distilleries actually begin, but the excellent Glengoyne is a good starting point.

It offers a decent grounding in the history and production of whisky. There are many levels of tours at Glengoyne, including a blending course and the chance to buy your own cask.

And the Glengoyne range is worth sampling as well. It is a good example of a Highland malt – rich and spicy with a good hit of sherried oak in some of the expressions.

Also you cannot go wrong seeking out the Aberfeldy range which offers a good range of malts for the enthusiast to get their teeth into.

One stand out malt, that is starting to become more noticeable recently, is Glen Garioch. It, like BenRiach, stands out because it is different from its native style. The malt is dried over peat fires giving that peat reek normally associated with Islay.

If you head up into the north west of Scotland, the distilleries get fewer, but are worth making the trek to. Agood point to start is at Tain, home to the world famous Glenmorangie and its wood finishes lovingly created by master distiller Bill Lumsden.

If you wend your way further north you hit the last couple of distilleries. At Brora you find Clynelish which offers a good tour for enthusiasts and beginners. Finally at Wick you reach Old Pulteney, the most northerly mainland distillery. It offers a splendid tour and a good shop where you can bottle your own malt straight from the cask.

From here it’s a shortish hop to John O’Groats and the ferry for Orkney that takes you to the next region.

Islands
Everyone should take a trip to Orkney at least once in their lifetime. These remote islands have plenty to offer, not least the Highland Park distillery.

It produces wonderful whisky, with the 18, 25 and 30 Years Old expressions being the experts choice from the range, and there is an excellent visitor centre which outlines the history of the distillery and its links with all things Orcadian.

There is a second distillery here as well – Scapa; overlooking the Flow with its dramatic naval history.

It is one of life’s great pleasures to stand on these windswept isles with a local dram looking over one of the island’s great historical sites or stone circles.

In our journey through the whisky islands, a good place to head for is Skye, another place that will stun the visitor with its rugged beauty. This is really Scotland at its most remote, and the whisky produced here, Talisker, fits in perfectly as it is challenging but rewarding.

The 18 Years Old expression was nominated the world’s best single malt by Whisky Magazine, and described as having: “a silky mouth feel and develops into richer orange marmalade with burnt edges.” A little further down the coast there is another Icon of Whisky winner in the shape of Isle of Arran Distillery. The island itself has often been described as Scotland in miniature, with its scenery reflecting the Highlands and Lowlands. The distillery opened more than a decade ago and is perfect for visitors of all knowledge levels, but especially those new to malts.

It has a purpose-built visitor centre and very well trained guides to take you through the whisky making process in a logical fashion due to the thoughtful layout of the distillery. The malt itself is creamy and rich, and is a good introduction for novices and enthusiasts alike. One product worth looking out for is Arran Gold, which was voted the world’s best whisky liqueur.

Islay
No review of whisky in Scotland would be complete without a look at the most famous of whisky isles – Islay (pronounced eye-la). Here you will find no less than eight distilleries. Islay is known for its peated whiskies and there are four producing this style.

Three distilleries lie close together, just outside Port Charlotte at the south east of the island, Ardbeg, Lagavulin and Laphroaig – whose 10 Years Old cask strength edition, 15 and 30 Years Old all picked up awards in the World Whiskies Awards.

Travel on up the road and you will find Bowmore distillery nestled in the heart of Bowmore town on the banks of Loch Indaal.

Across the loch you will be able to spot Bruichladdich. Both these distilleries have outstanding visitor centres facilities.

At the far end of the island close to the town of Port Askaig are Bunnahabhain and Caol Ila. The former has some houses for hire and overlooks the sound of Jura with its famous ‘paps.’ Caol Ila is in a pretty location and the 18 Years Old is worth hunting out.

Lowland
The Lowland area has a few remaining distilleries, but at a time when the Highlands were distilling illegally, the region became the home of some big whisky producers – now with just three malt distilleries surviving.

The big still traditionally employed made for a lighter spirit and whisky, and often has a distinctive floral note.

The furthest south, and possibly the most difficult to get to, is Bladnoch lying a couple of kilometres from Wigtown in Galloway.

Bladnoch is regarded as one of Scotland’s prettiest whiskies, dominated by the Lowland floral notes. But its location is special too, and the great museum and visitor centre should give the traveller further cause to visit if any is needed.

On the other side of the country is Glenkinchie, and here you will get an excellent tour with some whiskies well worth sampling.

If you are travelling out of Glasgow the nearest distillery, roughly a 20 minute drive, is Auchentoshan. This distillery takes the smooth and light Lowland style one step further by triple distilling the whisky, similar to the method employed in Ireland. On the shores of the River Clyde, the distillery has a great visitor centre and the Three Wood expression is worth looking out for.

Campbeltown
The journey to Campbeltown is possibly one of the longest treks to discover the world of malt, but given what’s on offer there it is well worth it.

Springbank, Hazelburn, Longrow and Glen Scotia are the main whiskies from the region, although a new distillery opened called Glengyle and is worth the visit to see what is happening.

No trip out to Campbeltown would be complete without a visit to Cadenhead’s whisky shop, with some interesting bottlings available to buy.