Touring European wine regions in the winter can be a lonely, unrewarding experience. But there is a warming, picturesque alternative. IAN WISNIEWSKI stops off for a dram in the Scottish highlands .
ISITING MALT WHISKY distilleries in Scotland is the very definition of an activity holiday. It has it all – history, culture, the great outdoors, the even greater indoors, and an ultimate adventure for the palate.
Exploring Speyside and Islay is an ideal combination, offering a contrast that encapsulates the variety of Scotland and the range of flavours that malt whiskies offer.
In terms of a dram, Speyside offers floral elegance and fruity fulfilment, compared with the marine character and peaty, smoky magnificence of Islay. And while Speyside landscapes are animated by heather, mountains and forests, Islay’s romantic seascapes provide a sublime island idyll.
Both regions hold malt whisky festivals, which means a calendar of additional action such as a ceilidh. While I’m more free-style on the dance floor, with no knowledge of reeling, I’ve always been welcomed by local partners, who value enthusiasm when experience is lacking.
Scotland’s notorious weather generally requires the precaution of an umbrella in one hand, and sunglasses in the other. Then again, when visiting a distillery, who cares if
it’s raining outside?
Moreover, distillery visitor centres provide additional attractions: vital refreshments and rewarding retail opportunities to stock up on whisky accessories, and books by authors you can trust (including one author with a distinctly non-Scottish surname).
Even though Speyside is technically part of the Highlands, this is also considered a region in its own right. And with more than half of Scotland’s 90 distilleries congregating in Speyside, there’s abundant choice.
My favourite place to stay is The Craigellachie Hotel, which is perched on a hillside overlooking open countryside. Traditional architecture and Victorian interiors make one feel like a guest in a country house party. The food exemplifies everything that’s great about Scottish cuisine, with such a sensational line-up of malts in the bar that this could easily be the only destination of an entire trip.
As the top-selling single malt, The Glenfiddich is an ideal distillery in which to start a tour of Speyside. Owned by the fifth generation of the Grant family, The Glenfiddich was one of the original pioneers to generate interest in malt whisky, with the category essentially emerging as recently as the 1980s.
The neighbouring Balvenie distillery, also owned by the Grant family, is open during whisky festivals or by appointment. Producing malt with a totally different character from its neighbour, The Balvenie is a rarity. It is one of only five distilleries to maintain floor maltings (buying malted barley from commercial maltsters being the norm). This is also the only opportunity to see floor maltings on the mainland.
Every distillery has its own particular characteristics and one of the most beautiful is Strathisla. Built in 1786, it’s the oldest working distillery in the Highlands, with a pair of pagoda roofs adding an oriental flourish above the original malt kiln.
The architecture of Glen Grant, founded in 1840, provides a prime example of Victoriana, while the extensive woodland garden that can be visited behind the distillery encapsulates the character of the Highlands. It was originally laid out in 1886 by Major James Grant, son of the distillery founder, and a stroll past the apple and cherry orchards, rhododendron bank, lily pond and bog garden leads to a waterfall, where the Glen Grant ‘back burn’ flows through a ravine.
Offering the most extensive collection of vintage malts, from 1926 to the mid-1970s, proves that every year can be a great one for The Macallan. Thriving on cult status, The Macallan inspires intense desire among devotees and collectors. It’s easy to see why, from the two guided tours on offer – a comprehensive one-hour option, or the more detailed one-and-a-half hours.
Benromach was brought back to life when acquired by Gordon & MacPhail (the renowned independent bottler of malts) in 1993, having been silent since 1983. The first bottling distilled under the current ownership, Benromach Traditional, was released this year. With subtle vanilla sweetness, gentle wafts of smoke, and lively citrus notes extending with cooked apples and pears, it’s certainly a dram to savour.
Renowned as the leading malt whisky retail specialist, Gordon & MacPhail’s shop in the town of Elgin extends to several hundred malt whisky options, and the company’s own sensational Atholl Brose whisky liqueur. The delicatessen section also includes some of Scotland’s greatest gastro-hits, including delicious shortbread and local cheese.
Dallas Dhu is no longer a working distillery, but continues in its original role as a museum distillery (it was the last distillery to be built at the end of the 19th century). Tours include an audio-visual presentation of the story of Scotch whisky, while a picnic area for alfresco snacks is one of the other extras on offer.
With so much choice in Speyside it’s vital to make a shortlist of distilleries. Islay offers a ready-made itinerary – there are just seven working distilleries, meaning you have time for them all.
The Harbour Inn, within the town of Bowmore, is an ideal ‘townhouse’ base from which to visit each distillery, being in the centre of the island. It’s also right by Loch Indaal, with a large quay conveniently allowing a closer look across this substantial, panoramic inlet.
If you prefer to be more local each time, the Port Charlotte Hotel is close to Bruichladdich, with a country-house style, great restaurant specialising in seafood, and a charming garden overlooking Loch Indaal. Similarly, if you’d like to be within easy range of Bunnahabhain and Caol Ila, the traditional Port Askaig Hotel is perfectly located. Views are across a small bay where a ferry links Islay with the neighbouring Isle of Jura (the Isle of Jura distillery, tel:
+44 (0) 1496 820 240, is also open to visitors).
Islay is renowned for producing malts that deliver abundant peaty, marine characteristics, and there’s no shortage of peat bogs offering flat, poignant vistas as you tour the island. But there’s also plenty of variety, and Islay does rugged beauty to perfection. Beaches extend with eccentric sand dunes, rock pools harbour various colourful plants, while turtles, grey seals and otters frolic on the sandbanks.
There’s also plenty of variety among the malts. Ardbeg, Laphroaig and Lagavulin have a pronounced peaty character, though each has plenty of other characteristics on offer. Being located within a short distance of each other in the south of the island may be coincidental, but it also means you can do the peat brigade in one day.
The floor maltings are the highlight of visiting Laphroaig. Lagavulin overlooks a bay with its very own, deeply romantic ruin, the 13th-century Dunyvaig castle, originally a seat of The Lord of The Isles. Ardbeg offers the wonderful Kiln Cafe in the visitor centre, and is close to the ninth-century Kildalton Cross. This is considered the finest example of a Celtic high cross, carved by one of the monks who fled to Islay from marauding Norsemen who arrived on Iona.
Bowmore is situated in the centre of the island, and offers a correspondingly medium peating level. In addition to floor maltings, the distillery has an interesting connection with the neighbouring leisure centre. Created within an ageing warehouse donated to the community by Bowmore, water in the swimming pool reaches the right temperature using heat recycled from the distillery.
Meanwhile, Bunnahabhain and Caol Ila in the north of the island have very mild peating levels, which makes for a convenient correlation between peating levels and location.
However, another centrally located distillery, Bruichladdich, distills malts with various peating levels, from low to medium and up to a maximum, while also distilling the first organic Islay malt whisky, in December 2003.
Straight down the road (and there is only one) from Bruichladdich to Port Charlotte is the Croft Kitchen. Ideal for a ‘coffee and cakes’ visit, as well as three courses,
it’s a great place to compare notes on the previous distillery, and anticipate visiting the next.
Ian Wisniewski is the author of Whisky (£8.99, Ryland Peters & Small) and Classic Malt Whisky (Classic Drinks Series) (£9.99, Prion Books Ltd)
Written by Ian Wisniewski