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Issue 53 - The spirits of the nation

Scotland Magazine Issue 53
October 2010


This article is 8 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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The spirits of the nation

In the second part of our look at whisky we take a whirlwind trip across the country.

There is so much to see, do and taste once you start to delve into the interesting world of malt whiskies.

For those not really interested in whisky the good thing is that there is plenty to keep you occupied while your malt loving partner disappears off to talk about worm tubs and maturation periods.

I have travelled the length and breadth of the country visiting the distilleries and I have to say it never gets boring. Each distillery has its own character and the stills are never the same. Also with whisky people being some of the most hospitable, you can be assured of a warm welcome at most places.

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, from the peated delights of Islay to the rugged delights of the Highlands.

We start at Britain’s most northerly distillery Highland Park, set against the dramatic and rugged 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 to the mainland and 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 on 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 Years 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 on 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. A little detour if you are intent on travelling on the mainland, but this island is well worth visiting.

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 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 the 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.

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 only three malt distilleries survived the rounds of cutbacks over the years.

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 the delightful 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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