“The proper drinking of Scotch whisky is more than indulgence: it is a toast to civilization, a tribute to the continuity of culture, a manifesto of man’s determination to use the resources of nature to refresh mind and body and enjoy to the full the senses with which he has been endowed.”
~ David Daiches, Scottish historian
In Scotland, they take their libations seriously. It is a source of national pride that the best whisky in the world has been distilled here for over 500 years. Even the name of the liquor has been anglicized from the Scottish Gaelic, “uisge beatha”, which literally means “water of life”. To a true Scotsman and to other aficionados of fine spirits, no description has ever been more apt.
For those who have already learned to fully appreciate the virtues of Scotch whisky, no introduction is needed. The sophisticated enjoyment of this amber-colored aqua vitae has long been considered to be an indication of the personal refinement of an individual with discriminating taste. For the uninitiated, however, a short primer may be in order.
Whisky versus Whiskey
Around the world, there are a staggering number of whiskey varieties available, and from country to country, the offerings can differ wildly. All whiskeys are made from some type of fermented grain mash that has usually been aged in a wooden cask, most typically one made of charred white oak. Depending upon the type of whiskey produced, the grain used can be barley or malted barley, rye or malted rye, corn, wheat, buckwheat, or even molasses.
For example, American bourbon is made with corn as the chief grain, while Canadian whiskey has a characteristic “bite” because of the rye it uses. India, which consumes nearly as much whiskey of the rest of the world put together, produces a grain whiskey blended with an alcohol distillation made from molasses. Single malt Scotch whisky uses only malted barley which has most often been smoked over a peat fire.
Additionally, the time that the liquor ages in the wooden tasks can likewise vary country to country. Once again using the above examples, American bourbon is required to age for a minimum of two years, while Canadian whiskey has no minimum age requirement. Scotch whisky must by law age for a minimum of three years, although many distillers may age their product for several decades.
Even the wooden casks themselves can contribute to the distinctiveness of a particular whiskey. American bourbon is aged in barrels that may only be used once. Distilleries in Scotland frequently purchase these barrels, along with Spanish sherry and port casks and use them to age Scottish whisky.
By virtue of the Scotch Whisky Regulations of 2009, the only whisky that may be legally manufactured in Scotland is Scotch whisky. This stipulation allows for the protection of Scotch whisky as a product that is distinctive in nature from other generic variations. For that reason, in Scotland, it is simply known as “whisky”, with a spelling different from some other parts of the world.
Types of Scotch Whisky
There are a few distinct varieties of Scotch whisky, and aspiring connoisseurs will happily familiarize themselves with the intricacies and subtleties of each one. By training and educating the palate, one can deepen one’s appreciation, both of the numerous individual types and Scotch whisky in its entirety.
Single grain Scotch whisky is referred to as such because it is the product of a single distillery and made from an unmalted grain such as barley, corn, or wheat, or in the mixture thereof. Because almost all grain whisky is used to make blended whisky, single grain can sometimes be hard to find.
Single malt Scotch whisky is only distilled in copper pot stills and is made completely of malt whiskies from a single distillery. Each region of Scotland, and indeed each distillery, produces a whisky that is distinct from any other. No two whiskies will ever taste the same. Tasters with trained palates can often identify a particular region during blind taste tests.
The longer a single malt Scotch is allowed to mature within the oaken barrel, the better the resultant outcome will be. High-end single malts are often aged for 15 years or more. Discriminating devotees actively seek out and appreciate single malts for their distinctive and earthy flavor.
Blended Scotch whisky is by far the most popular worldwide, accounting for approximately ninety percent of all whisky produced in Scotland and can be made from a combination of both grain and malt whiskies. Master blenders are able to create blends that are much more palatable and of a consistent flavor than single malts.
A blended malt will be a mixture of single malt whiskies from different distilleries. Likewise, a blended grain will be a mixture of single grain whiskies from different distilleries. An authentic blended Scotch whisky will be a combination of any number of single grain and single malt whiskies. Master blenders oversee the process, marrying different quantities of single grains and single malts to create individual blends with their own unique characteristics and traits.
Although it is very rare, it is possible to find a single blended whisky. A small number of distilleries produce both grain whisky and several malt whiskies at the same site.
Single cask malts, also known as “single single” malts are very exclusive whiskies bottled from a single cask. By definition, the production run is often quite small, usually around 400 bottles. In fact, the longer the malt ages inside the barrel, the fewer bottles that can be produced, due to evaporation and “the angels taking their share”.
The taste of single cask malts diverges completely from other Scotch whiskies, including those made at the same distillery. The biggest reason for this disparity in taste is due to the fact that the master blender cannot adjust the consistency by blending the batch with other malts.
For anyone who is never enjoyed a single cask malt whisky there is one caveat worth mentioning. This particular variety of Scotch whisky is bottled at “natural cask strength”, the alcoholic potency existent within the aging barrel. As such, it is not cut or reduced by adding water, as are blended whiskies. Where a blend might register at 80 or 86 proof, a malt at single cask strength might be as high as 127 proof. Partakers are instructed to add water to taste, if absolutely necessary.
Before doing so, however, one would be reminded of the words of the famous comedian and singer, Joe E Lewis, who said “Whenever someone asks me if I want water with my Scotch, I say I’m thirsty, not dirty.”
A Dream for Whisky Lovers
Scotch has never truly gone out of style, but in recent years, it has enjoyed a burgeoning popularity not heretofore seen. This has led to a growing borderless class of whisky cognoscenti who share a passion for the finer things that civilization has to offer. There are now enclaves of enthusiasts in every nation, and for many, it has become something of an obligation of appreciation to perform a pilgrimage to Scotland to experience an authentic whisky tour at some of the most renowned distilleries in the world.
For those whom this trip sounds like a dream vacation, the month of May has been officially designated as “Whisky Month” and is absolutely the best time to go. There is a number of top-shelf whisky festivals going on, with classes, tastings, competitions, art, and music, all centered on the national spirit of Scotland. In addition, this is the time of year that many exclusive whisky varieties are released and offered for sale. The unparalleled combination of the immersive and inventive experiences and singular offerings make for an unforgettable holiday.
The Spirit of Speyside Whisky and Festival
Arriving in the first part of May is the Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival, which has since 1999 showcased the heritage and culture of Scotch whisky. Located in northeast Scotland, Speyside has the largest number of distilleries in the country. This area was once considered to be part of the Highlands, but because it has nearly half of the total number of distilleries in Scotland within its borders; it has been officially recognized as its own separate region.
Some of the most iconic whisky distilleries are located here, offering tours and tastings not to be missed.
The Glenlivet Distillery is located in the eponymous town of Glenlivet, and has been producing one of the world’s finest single malt whiskies since 1824. On the free daily guided tours, visitors have the opportunity to fill by hand and purchase an exclusive bottle of cask strength whisky. Those wishing to learn more can purchase a ticket for the Spirit of the Malt Tour and Tasting, where they can visit the famous Josie’s Well, the distillery’s water source, and be tutored through a tasting of seven different “expressions” of The Glenlivet. For the ultimate tour, patrons are invited to the Legacy Experience, which culminates in a tutored tasting of some of the oldest and rarest whiskies in the world. Many of the whiskies made available for this Experience are of such rarity that they have never been bottled for sale, and can therefore only be tasted during this tour.
The Glenlivet Distillery Visitor Center is a “can’t- miss” stop on any itinerary, and in 2013 was awarded the national Thistle award for best visitor attraction in Scotland.
Founded in 1786, the Strathisla Distillery has the distinction of being the oldest operating distillery in the entire Highlands of Scotland. Home to the prestigious Chivas Regal varieties of blended Scotch, this distillery has a well-earned international reputation. At the 2013 San Francisco World Spirits Competition, the 18 year, 21 year, and 25 year varieties were all awarded Double-Gold medals.
The distillery offers two “connoisseur-level” tours. First is the Straight from the Cask tour, where visitors will enjoy an in-depth guided distillery tour, a trip to the dunnage warehouse, and a tutored nosing and tasting of a number of limited-edition cask strength single malts.
In addition to a guided tour, the Ultimate Strathisla Experience tour will feature the tasting of a number of luxury whiskies, from single malt to blended. The tour climaxes with a tutored testing within the distillery’s board room, where guests can sample four premium “expressions”, and concludes with an indulgent trip to the Royal Salute Vault, where they will have the privilege of sampling Royal Salute 38 year old Stone of Destiny, straight from the cask.
For a truly historic distillery trip, visitors should make a point to stop in at Glenfarcas, “Glen of the Green Grass”, located in the heart of Speyside, five miles south of Aberlour. Since 1865, six generations of the Grant family have produced a premium single malt Scotch whisky, making it one of the few remaining family owned and operated distilleries in Scotland.
In 1973, Glenfarcas became one of the first distilleries to establish a visitor’s centre, and they continue that tradition of warm hospitality today. In addition to the requisite guided tours and expensive gift shop, the distillery began offering a new private connoisseur’s tour in 2014, the Five Decades Tour and Tasting. The highlight of this particular in-depth tour is an exclusive tasting of five whiskies personally chosen by one of the family’s Brand Ambassadors. The selections will be chosen from five of the Family Casks, one from each decade.
The Spirit of Stirling Whiskey Festival
Held in historic Stirling, the largest city in central Scotland, this May-time one-day-only event draws thousands of whisky fans from around the globe, and has been so successful that it was officially recognized by the Scottish Parliament. Showcasing the length, width, and breadth of the expansive Scotch whisky landscape, the Festival offers attendees a chance to sample upwards of 250 distinct varieties from dozens of distilleries. Anyone hoping to attend is advised to purchase tickets very early, because they often sell out months in advance.
In addition, Stirling is a wonderful point of interest for history buffs. Civilization dating back to the Stone Age is in evidence here, and during medieval times, the city became one of the most strategically important locations in Scotland. Still standing and in use are Stirling Castle, where several Scottish kings and queens were crowned, including Mary, Queen of Scots, and the Church of the Holy Rude, which was established almost a millennium ago, in 1129. The oldest parts of the current church date from the 15th century, and the church is still in use, holding services every Sunday.
Feis Ile – The Islay Festival of Malt and Music
For thirty years, lovers of all things Gaelic (including whisky) have set aside the last week in May for half a fortnight of cultural celebration and revelry. The festival takes place on Islay, the southernmost island within the Inner Hebrides archipelago off the southwestern coast of Scotland. The event itself might be described as one long ceilidh, or traditional Gaelic social gathering, complete with storytelling, folk music, dancing, and games.
Islay is widely recognized as prime destination for whisky tourism, and the distilling industry is the second largest employer on the island. With a population of only about 3000 full-time residents, Islay is home to eight distilleries. During the Feis Ile, each distillery has its own special Open Day and sponsors tours, tastings, and competitions. This is also the time that they distilleries will release special batches commemorating the festival.
The whisky industry has a rich history on Islay– seven out of the eight distilleries found there are over 130 years old, and two of them, Bowmore and Lagavulin, have been producing whisky since the 1700s.
The newest distillery, Kilchoman, opened in 2005 and started filling bottles in 2009. Kilchoman is noteworthy because it is one of the very few distilleries in Scotland that still uses traditional floor-malting, and because its whisky can be called a 100% Islay whisky. Every single step of the process– the growing of the barley, the malting, the distillation, the maturing, and the bottling– takes place on the island.
As a distinct regional offering, Islay malt whiskies can be recognized and characterized by a pronounced smoky flavor attributed to the local water and the strong peating levels of the barley. Experienced tasters can also detect undertones of iodine, salt, and seaweed.
Laphroaig Distillery, located in Port Ellen, produces a strongly-flavored whisky that has been described as the most distinctive of all Scotch whiskies. The single malt is produced with levels of maturity ranging from 10 to 40 years. The whiskey is the favorite of Charles, Prince of Wales, and as such, is the only whisky to carry his Royal Warrant, which he awarded the distillery personally during a visit in 1994.
The Ardbeg Distillery, originally opening in 1798, offers the peatiest whisky on Islay, and is one of the peatiest in the world. Their full flavor premium whiskies have earned numerous international awards. For example, according to the Whisky Bible, the distillery was responsible for producing the World Whisky of the Year and the Scotch Single Malt of the Year in 2008, 2009, and 2010. At the 2013 World Whiskies Awards, the Ardbeg Galileo was recognized as the World’s Best Single Malt Whiskey.
Located on the Rinns peninsula of the island, the Bruichladdich Distillery is a required stop for those interested in the history of whisky production. Originally opened in 1881, it is the newest of the island’s “old” distilleries. Visitors touring the distillery will be especially fascinated by the original Victorian-Era equipment still in use. Interestingly, computers are not used at all in production.
Something for Everyone
It is no exaggeration to say that Scotland is the whisky capital of the world. There are approximately 150 distilleries in the country, each with several varieties of whisky. A person could literally spend a lifetime sampling, experiencing, and falling in love with the thousands of available choices. For every taste, every preference, and every palate, there is a corresponding whisky that is sure to please.
For all practical purposes, the choices are endless. If one is traveling for the traditional reasons for vacation or holiday – sightseeing, shopping, relaxation – then it is very simple and not at all out of the way to take short detours to nearby distilleries. Most individual tours last only a few hours, and can be a wonderful way to spend part of a day.
If one wants to travel to Scotland for the express purpose of a whisky tour, that tour can either be self-guided or at the direction of a travel agency specializing in whisky tours. A self-guided tour can be most rewarding, because it can be done at a more leisurely pace, in any order, and in any region. An agency-directed tour can be very convenient and is an excellent way to hit the “highlights” during a trip. Trips of this sort can be scheduled for varying lengths, from a whirlwind three days to a measured two weeks.
No matter how it is scheduled, a whisky tour of Scotland can greatly deepen the appreciation that a person feels for fine Scotch. The knowledge gained from such an experience can help a person realize both a visceral sense of connection and a clearer understanding of what makes a truly great Scotch whisky.