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Issue 46 - Whisky country

Scotland Magazine Issue 46
August 2009


This article is 9 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

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Whisky country

Rob Allanson takes us on a whistle-stop tour of Scotland's single malt distilleries.

Whisky... it entwines itself like an amber thread through Scottish life, its history and landscape.

The mention of the name takes you to cosy fireside chairs where the conversation flows freely.

If you travel throughout Scotland you are never very far from a distillery, and no trip to Scotland would be complete without a tour and tasting of its national drink.

This journey is going to take you through the land of single malts, blends will be dealt with next issue.

To be a single malt means that the liquid has to have come from one distillery, and been matured in Scotland for at least three years in an oak cask. It must also be made from malted barley, yeast and water. Now once you get your head round that, it is constantly impressive how so many different flavours can arise from just those three ingredients.

Our voyage through this rugged land punctuated by distilleries will take us from the dramatic island life of Orkney to the pastoral delights of the South.

We start at Britain’s most northerly distillery Highland Park, set against the dramatic backdrop of the remote Orkney Isles.

Although there are now two working distilleries on Orkney as the nearby Scapa has shaken off its mothballed status, a visitor centre for it is still under discussion at present so the only visiting option is Highland Park. This is the classic image of a distillery. It fires its own peat, has its own floor maltings (one of just a handful that still does) and it has the feel of a truly wonderful distillery. You’ll get a thorough tour here, a film presentation and a dram on your return to the warm and friendly shop and visitor centre.

Our trip now takes us back on the mainland to head down the east coast. The first distillery of note, and again it comes with a title, is the most northerly mainland distillery, Old Pulteney.

Situated in the fishing town of Wick, the distillery offers a distinctive dram for the drinker. Characterised by a dry saltiness with a wash of sweet malt, the whisky stands out from the crowd and is worth seeking out. Also when you visit the distillery make sure you leave a donation for the Royal National Institute for Lifeboats, which is championed by the Old Pulteney distillery.

Further down the road we find the cult distillery of Clynelish, and the much sought after Brora. The two distilleries stand next to each other set in the picturesque surrounds of the hills above Brora, renowned for its fishing and golf.

Our journey takes us to another distillery that inspires a cult following, Balblair. This wonderful Highland distillery is among the oldest in Scotland, with a rich history stretching back to 1790.

Next stop is the home of one of the world’s biggest selling single malts, Glenmorangie.

The distillery is close to the pretty sandstone village of Tain and takes its water from the local sandstone hills, possibly contributing to its famed scented character.

Further down the road we come to another distillery that holds a big claim to fame. The Dalmore sets the bar when it comes to selling extremely expensive bottles of whisky. In 2002 a 62 year old expression went for £25,000/$38,000 to an anonymous bidder.

As we turn inland and cross the Great Glen, we head to the small distillery of Ben Nevis, resting in the shadow of this imposing mountain. This is the first distillery we are going to come across that belongs to the west coast whisky trail – also known as The Whisky Coast.

Before taking a slight detour north and heading to Skye, Oban Distillery is one of the very few one the west coast and often the last you will see before heading across to the various islands.

So finally on a boat and across to our first island – Skye. Okay so it’s a little detour, but nothing worth visiting is always easy.

Talisker is one of the truly great whiskies and the distillery doesn’t disappoint. It sits broodily by Loch Harport on the west side of the island, and is at ease in its volcanic, otherworldly setting. You almost want it to be cold, wet and dreich when you roll up here because if ever a whisky was designed to warm the cockles of your heart it’s this one.

Back onboard and it’s a short island hop down the coast to the Isle of Mull.

Sited at the end of the beach as you enter the town of Tobermory is the eponymous distillery, which is compact and neat.

Before we hit the island whisky destination most people know, Islay, it is worth stopping off at Jura to visit the lovely distillery there which looks out over a glorious bay.

The history of the distillery stretches back to the 19th century but the current site was built in the 50s and developed in the 20 years following. From the ferry there is only one road and you follow it until you reach the distillery, which is very small and dinky, and has a homely almost farm-like feel about it.

Next we stop at Islay. The peaty soil and exposed position make for some particularly bold malts, and the coastal, seaweed laden atmosphere permeates the island’s distillery warehouses.

In a perfect world you would take enough time to visit all of the eight sisters, Ardbeg, Bowmore, Bruichladdich, Bunnahabhain, Caol Ila, Lagavulin, Laphroaig and Kilchoman, and sample the delights on offer.

One final island hop before we make sail for the mainland, and this is one of whisky’s great success stories.

Isle of Arran Distillery was built just 12 years ago so it is purpose-built for tourists, with a comfortable visitor centre and shop, and tours conducted by well-trained and affable staff.

Arran sits in the Gulf Stream so it has a mild climate, and the distillery itself at Lochranza seems to benefit from any sun that the island gets.

Back to the mainland we reach to foot of Scotland and Springbank, the well respected distillery in Campbeltown that produces several malts now, including the triple distilled Hazelburn, Longrow and with the newly opened Glengyle distillery soon Kilkerran will be available.

Now we are going to transplant ourselves several miles north in what many regard as the cradle of distilling, Speyside.

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, The Macallan, Aberlour and The Glenlivet, and an official whisky trail of its own, it is up to visitors to chose their own path.

It is safe to say that if you are driving around Speyside you will be hard pressed to miss a distillery. Come round a corner, admire the beauty of the River Spey and there you go, another distillery.

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

Out of the most well known names that dominate the Speyside style, renowned for big, fruity and honeyed whiskies, are Aberlour and The Glenlivet.

Also nestled in the Speyside area are Strathisla and Longmorn. The former is worth visiting with its instantly recognisable twin pagodas. It is often considered one of the prettiest of the Speyside distilleries and you can also get a good tour and tasting too.

Also worth looking out for is the Balvenie range, and the much sought after Balvenie Vintage 1972 which the experts describe as having “superb balance and harmony between all the elements.” The distillery itself backs onto Glenfiddich and offers tours for the more knowledgeable.

Right in the heart of Speyside, Glenfarclas is a must for any discerning malt drinker. Still a family run enterprise, the wonderful distillery has a stock list to rival any global concern. If you are in the market for a birthday present, the Glenfarclas Family Casks could be just the thing, with single barrels bottled since 1952.

If you are traveling to Elgin from Dufftown, watch out the majestic Macallan distillery.

You can expect to discover the importance of wood, water and barley to this most luxurious brand at its visitor centre.

Not far away lie two other Speyside trailblazers in the form of Glenrothes and Glen Grant. Glenrothes has recently experienced a massive growth in its sales, creating a niche for itself as a boutique malt offering different vintages. Glen Grant is a different beast. It is among the top selling malts in the world, the market leader in Italy and has the honour of being the only whisky that still bears the name of its founders.

Not far from Nairn the Benromach distillery has to be on the cards producing one of the only organic single malts on the market.

Expect a warm welcome and tour followed by a tasting of this wonderful spirit.

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.

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

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

If you are travelling out of Glasgow the nearest distillery, roughly a 20 minute drive from the centre of the city, is Auchentoshan.

Another distillery just a stone’s throw from Glasgow is Glengoyne. This picturesque distillery set in some glorious countryside offers a great tour and tasting.

Also worth visiting on your travels if you are staying in Perth is the Glenturret distillery, the oldest in Scotland and home to the Famous Grouse. Here you will find a fantastic visitor experience with fun for all the family.

Not too far away, just north of Pitlochry, lies Edradour distillery, the smallest in Scotland.

Worth seeing as you can get pretty up close and personal with the distilling process.

So it’s all out there, a world of whisky to discover at your leisure and if you put in the time researching and planning you can expect a most rewarding trip.

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