British Travel Journal
In search of SCOTCH WHISKY
Over four million visitors a year beat a path to Scotland's distilleries for an authentic taste of the country
THERE ARE MANY REASONS to visit Scotland, but its whisky industry is by far one of the best.
Unlike many major manufacturing sites, the average Scottish distillery is almost always located in the countryside. Because they draw their water from the purest springs and streams, whisky-makers tend to work in clean, unsullied rural locations. And most of these tend to be picturesque.
Often you'll find the famous drink being distilled inside idiosyncratic old buildings that have evolved over time, many of them with distinctive pagoda-like wooden rooves. Step inside and you'll invariably be met with a cocktail of highly distinctive smells: old wood, grain, yeast and spirit. You're also likely to be met by an enthusiastic team who love sharing their commitment to Scotland's uisge beatha (the Celtic words for water of life).
The whisky industry is thriving today – with the result that the names of lots of tiny Scottish villages are famous all round the world – so it can be hard to believe that in the 1980s “Scotch” was verging on the unfashionable.
A drink that had evolved over centuries had become the tipple for old men and many distilleries were on the brink of closure. The reasons for whisky's subsequent recovery are many and complex. Clever marketing, astute management and increasing affluence in the east may have had something to do with it but the resurgence within a generation is extraordinary.
Today whisky is not just one of Scotland's major exports, but one of the reasons people from all over the world come to visit.
Uisge beatha began in feudal times as a crofter's spirit brewed and sold locally and used to provide a powerful kick-start to the day. Not diluted as it is today (to around
40% alcohol) this original “water of life” probably actually shortened life expectancy. Invigoration or anaesthesia against the cold Scottish mornings was probably the main benefit of whisky in those early days.
In the nineteenth century however the first enterprising
Scots merchants began buying up raw local whiskies and blending them to create a predictable – and enjoyable – taste in every bottle.
The rapid improvement in the quality of blended whiskies like Johnnie Walker, Famous Grouse and Dewar's had the knock-on effect of encouraging individual distilleries to improve the quality of their own single (unblended) malts.
These days, although there are still great blended whiskies out there, it is the single malts that sell for thousands of pounds at auction and it is the individual distilleries that attract pilgrims from all over the world who come just to pay homage to the home of their favourite dram. ________________________________________________________
Just as French wines rely on the individual terroir where the grapes are produced, so Scots whisky is an embodiment of the landscape over which the water flows before going into each
Whisky is one of Scotland’s most valuable commodities, attracting visitors from all over the world, with one in five visitors making a trip to a whisky distillery during their stay - VisitScotland
whisky. Single malts are also influenced by the local peat that may stoke the fires at the distillery. For this reason Scotland's bleak islands, its green glens, its lowland pastures and rolling northern moors all contribute to the unique flavour of each and every whisky.
The barrels in which ageing takes places also influence that flavour, No wonder no two whiskies ever taste the same.
Nowadays six whisky producing regions are recognised in Scotland although they are hugely different in size. “Lowland” is an area scarce in distilleries between Edinburgh and Glasgow, conversely “Highland” is really four massive regions – North, East, West and Central – that are found to the north of Lowland.
Then there is “Speyside”, a tiny area between the Grampian Mountains and the Moray Firth, which is as densely overpopulated by distilleries as Lowland is underpopulated.
Meanwhile to the west – and only eleven miles from the coast of Northern Ireland – lies “Islay”, a single island that is home to eight major distilleries. Campbeltown – once the whisky capital of the world but which ironically almost closed up shop in the twentieth century – sits nearby on the mainland.
Finally there is the region known as “The Islands” which comprises every other island distillery that isn't on Islay itself.
If you are confused then just to make matters more complicated the Scotch Whisky Association officially lumps all the islands – except Islay – into the Highland region. Conversely, many whisky experts subdivide the Highlands into four separate inner regions. There is no simple appellation system for Scottish Whisky.
Because each region has its individual qualities the Scotch Whisky Experience in Edinburgh offers a very accessible 50-minute audio-visual crash course (with tastings) that explains whisky and its regional characteristics.
But nothing beats the experience of visiting a distillery and having the magic explained to you in situ. All that polished, complex bespoke equipment inside can cause the mind to boggle. What do the grist mill, mash tun, washbacks and copper pot stills actually do? What is a spirit receiver and why is it kept locked? And why do all of these pieces of Heath-Robinson invention look so different? The byzantine machinery of each distillery is as individual as the taste of the whisky it produces.
Finally, the great thing about a whisky tour is that it unleashes a terrible thirst and that is what the tasting room at the end of the visit is designed to sate.
There are so many distilleries to enjoy in Scotland – far too many for the average visitor to ever reach – but here is our selection of just one from each region.