Uisge beatha – meaning the Water of Life – is the Gaelic word for Whisky, known the world over as Scotland’s national drink – it has been distilled in Scotland for centuries, some people believing that it was introduced from Ireland by the missionary monks in the 6th century. It may well have evolved, however, as a means of using up barley which would otherwise have rotted after a wet harvest. Whatever its origins, no visitor to Scotland should leave the country without visiting at least one of our malt distilleries. Scotland has over 98 working distilleries and several whisky producing regions ranging from the Lowlands, to Highland Perthshire, Speyside and the Islands. More than 500 different malt whiskies are distilled in Scotland, some of them rarely seen outside our country. As a “Malt Whisky Ambassador for Scotland”, I would love to share my knowledge of our national drink with you on a fascinating whisky tour.
In Lowland Scotland Glenkinchie, near Edinburgh, produces a pale, mellow malt which has been distilled since 1830. Housed in a delightful setting near the East Lothian village of Pentcaitland, the distillery has an excellent display of old distilling equipment. Glenkinchie is one of the famous six Classic Malts, the others being Dalwhinnie, Cragganmore, Lagavulin, Glenkinchie, Oban and Talisker.
Another Lowland Distillery, is Glengoyne, nestling in the foothills of the Campsie Fells near Loch Lomond. It is still supplied by the 50 foot waterfall which tumbles down the hills behind the distillery. This area was well known for its numerous illicit stills and also for the larger than life character, Rob Roy, Scotland’s most famous Highlander who was forced to make a living from cattle thieving after being outlawed by the government of the day. No peat is used in the manufacture of this malt and many connoisseurs maintain that the true taste of the malt comes to the fore, giving the whisky a creamy, fruity, floral and delicate aroma.
There are many distilleries of note in this very scenic part of Scotland, and the country’s oldest is Glenturret at Crieff, home of the Famous Grouse. The distillery which dates back to the 18th century is still housed in some of the original buildings where illicit distilling and smuggling was rife in the past. Glenturret whisky is a full-bodied Highland malt with a rich, nutty flavour and nicely rounded finish.
Built in 1837, Edradour is the smallest distillery in Scotland as well as one of the most picturesque, situated in the heart of the countryside near Pitlochry. It is a wonderful distillery to visit as ancient machinery and methods of production are still in use. The whisky is smooth with a fruity, malt taste and a slight dryness. Edradour whisky is imbibed by Members of Parliament as it is the official whisky for Westminster.
The Blair Atholl distillery, in the same vicinity, also enjoys a delightful situation on a wooded hillside. It is supplied with water from a nearby burn Allt Dour (Burn of the Otter) which flows past the distillery. The end product is a light, fresh single malt with dry notes and a hint of smokiness.
Situated in rural Perthshire, at Blackford, very near Gleneagles Hotel, this distillery built on the site of a 12th century brewery, was re-opened in 2005 and forms part of a larger complex with a visitor centre, shop, café and a number of exclusive retail outlets. The whisky from this distillery is a good, all-rounded single malt, full-bodied with a sweet, grapey hint.
Nearly 50% of Scotland’s malts are produced in Speyside so it’s impossible to mention all the distilleries here. The most important part of Speyside is the central area where many distilleries are situated around the famous River Spey. Malts like Macallan, Cragganmore, Aberlour, Glenfarclas and Glenfiddich are to be found in the heartland of Speyside. Many visitors to the area follow the famous Malt Whisky Trail, the only one in the world, which includes nine distilleries and Speyside Cooperage where you can see the highly skilled coopers practising their ancient craft of barrel making.
A tour to this part of Scotland can also include a stop at the highest village in the Highlands, Tomintoul, home of the Whisky Castle, a little shop in the High Street which stocks the largest collection of malt whiskies in the world – over 500. You can do some tasting here too – but not all 500!
The island of Islay, on the west coast of Scotland is famous for its very rich, peaty whisky. There are seven distilleries on Islay : Ardbeg, Bowmore, Lagavulin, Laphroaig, Bunnahabhain, Caol Ila and Bruichladdich. And the neighbouring island of Jura has its very own distillery – Isle of Jura.
Other island distilleries include Tobermory on the island of Mull, Talisker on the island of Skye and Highland Park in the Orkneys.