It’s no secret that the land of kilts and castles, haggis and haddock, is historically linked to liquor. Scotland is where 500 years of whisky making is revered, but certainly not routine. The country’s “liquid gold” contains a mere three ingredients: malted barley, water and yeast – yet its variations are endless. Due to location, water source and a host of other elements, each of 90 distilleries sports a whisky portfolio unlike any other – whether single malts or premium blends. Trekking from the Highlands north to the islands to learn about whiskey production and sample a dram or two, here is our selection of distinctive distilleries. Slainte mhath!
One of eight facilities on the diminutive isle named Islay, Caol Ila is a low-profile gem. Until recent years, it was little known to whiskey aficionados, but today’s product is savored. The facility is so beloved that multi-generational employees are the norm – the current team of 11 is led by Billy Stitchell, a fourth-generation devotee.
Laphroaig showcases Islay’s earthy, peaty-flavored whiskies. Its 15 Year Old is Prince Charles’ personal favorite; the distillery’s most recent accolade is “best of the best” in 2005’s Champions of Whisky Competition. On a clear day you can’t see forever, but you can see Northern Ireland from its prime perch.
Tucked into the Central Highlands is Aberfeldy. Also known as Dewar’s, the distillery was built along the River Tay by John and Tommy Dewar, sons of Scotland’s first blender. If you need only one reason to visit, the interactive visitor center – named Dewar’s World of Whiskey – is it.
So important is Speyside to whiskey production, over half of Scotland’s distilleries call it home – among them, The Glenlivet. Founder George Smith began making whiskey long before it was legal. Since, its expressions have excelled – The Glenlivet Archive 21 Year Old is considered “the Sean Connery of whiskies – mature, sexy, rich and debonair.”
Constructed from ancient grey stone and adorned with candy red doors, Glenmorangie sits on the shores of Cromarty Firth like a stately baron. Known as the forerunner for “finishing” whiskies in casks previously used for Burgundy, Madeira, Port and Sherry, the result is deliciously descriptive: “Voluptuously smooth like sipping velvet.”
Mainland Scotland’s northernmost distillery is Old Pulteney.
Located on a non-descript road in the one-time herring capital of Wick, its coastal whiskey reflects the region’s maritime past. It is here where you can bottle your own from a single cask selection, complete with a personalized label.
A 40-minute ferry ride from John o’ Groats will land you on Orkney Islands, home of Scotland’s top-o’-the world distillery, Highland Park. The remote islands’ history is linked to the Vikings, and their distinctive wildlife rivals the Galapagos. But in the world of whisky, the distillery that has successfully battled its environmentally harsh elements since 1798 is the draw.
For more information go to www.scotlandwhisky.com.