For any aficionado of single malt whisky, a visit to the distilleries of Scotland to witness the miracle of turning water, barley and yeast into exquisite amber ambrosia is a pilgrimage—a spiritual and spirited journey.
My wife, Simone and I embarked on one such expedition recently and flew from London to the magical isle of Islay, in the remote west of Scotland.
Islay (pronounced EyeLah) is legend for its peaty, smoky malt whiskies and there are eight distilleries operating on this tiny jewel of an island including Lagavulin, Laphroaig, Bruichladdich and of course, Ardbeg, considered by connoisseurs as the ultimate Islay whisky, the most complex malt on earth.
We were received at the airport by the highly personable Michael Heads, Distillery Manager of Ardbeg, who drove us through the magnificently rugged Scottish countryside pointing out en route the peat marshes which imbue Islay malts with their unique, intense flavour.
Ardbeg, with its white washed walls and distinct chimneys is one of the most charming distilleries in Scotland, nestled by a rocky cove on the Atlantic Ocean. It is easy to see why the whisky produced here has such a distinct aroma of sea spray and iodine.
Single Malt Scotch is specifically the product of a single distillery, made from malted barley, distilled, and aged in oak barrels in Scotland for a minimum of three years.
Of course, most whiskies are matured for a minimum of 10 years before being bottled and whilst older malts are highly regarded, they are not necessarily superior to younger ones.
I noticed that the Lagavulin and Laphroaig distilleries were barely a few kilometers from Ardbeg and asked Michael how they each managed to produce such a distinct whisky.
I was informed that even the water source for all three distilleries is the same but it is the alchemy of the fermentation and distillation process, the shape of the copper stills and the maturation in wooden casks over several years that result in each distillery creating its own unique whisky.
The best part of a whisky tour is naturally the tasting and Michael took us into one of the low stone warehouses where hundreds of whisky casks are stored to mature. The air was permeated with the heady aroma of whisky and iodine from the salty sea breeze and Michael broke open a ten year old cask and drew a dram of whisky for us to taste. It is said that whisky never tastes better than when drunk straight from the cask in the distillery where it is produced. I emphatically agreed with this theory as the full bodied wallop of this exceptional whisky swirled its way around my palate and then down my throat. We proceeded to the tasting room where we imbibed other Ardbeg offerings including the evocatively named Uigeadail, Airigh Nam Beist and the Corryvreckan—all easier to drink than pronounce.
The next morning, nursing a mild hang over and fond memories of Islay, we drove through the fabled Scottish Highlands past Loch Ness to Glenmorangie Distillery.
Glenmorangie is famous for its Sixteen Men of Tain, the workers who toil tirelessly to produce this delicate, complex whisky. The famous swan necked stills of Glenmorangie are the tallest in Scotland and regarded a primary factor in contributing to the creation of such a finely balanced spirit.
Dr. Bill Lumsden, the Master Distiller of Glenmorangie, is world renowned for his pioneering effort in ‘wood finishing’ whisky in Sherry, Port, Madeira, Sauterne and other casks to imbue it with diverse and intriguing characteristics and the tasting session was therefore an orgy for the senses.
After a decadent afternoon at the distillery we returned to the Glenmorangie Highland Home where we were staying. This stately manor is the epitome of a Scottish Highland estate—sprawling gardens, regal portraits, opulent bedrooms, mounted heads of stags and boars and a hospitable lord of the manor.
After having worked up an appetite by going for a long walk by the spectacular, heather- lined shores of Cromarty Firth, we descended for a traditional Highland dinner which included Grilled Fillet of freshly caught Sea bass, Angus beef steak and the piece de resistance, Scottish Haggis with Neeps and Tatties and a wee dram!
Then, as a bagpiper played some merry tunes, the local Highland lasses put on a performance of Ceilidh or Scottish dancing and roped in the guests to tread a measure.
Already in high spirits we danced and sang ‘Auld Lang Syne’...and raised three cheers for ‘uisge beatha’ or whisky—the Water of Life.