And now, a little about Scotch. It was, after all, the real reason for our visit to Scotland. Yes, the pastoral scenery was beautiful and the woolly sheep were plentiful (as was the shortbread), but we were really there for the whisky.
First things first. One of my brothers asked me why I had spelled whisky with no “e” in all my Instagram posts from our trip. Scotch whisky is spelled without the “e.” Generally speaking, you should only use the “e” when referring to Irish and American whiskey. However, there are some American whiskey companies who are using the “whisky” spelling on their product. When referring to a specific brand, you should spell it however the producer spells it. Either way, the plural is “whiskies.”
In America we are used to calling Scotch whisky “Scotch” so as not to confuse it with American whiskey or Bourbon. If you’re in Scotland though, you can just say “whisky.” They don’t call it Scotch there. (It’s kind of like going to China and ordering Chinese food. Over there, they just call it “food.”)
Scotch whisky is made from three ingredients: water, yeast, and barley. The resulting alcohol is aged in oak casks for a minimum of three years (by law), but generally much longer than that.
Scotch distilleries use casks and barrels that have already been used to age either Sherry or Bourbon. As we learned on one of our distillery tours, Bourbon barrels are significantly cheaper than Sherry casks.
All distilleries follow the same process to distill whisky; the differences come primarily from the shape and size of the stills used and the aging process. All whisky starts with barley, which is soaked in water until it sprouts (or germinates). It’s then heated and dried to stop the germination process and at that point is called “malt.”
The malt is milled (crushed) into coarse flour called “grist.” The grist is combined with water to form “mash” and placed in a large vat called a “mash tun.” Mash tuns are machines with a rotating arm that stirs the mash as enzymes in the malt convert starch to sugar, producing a clear liquid called “wort.”
The wort is then combined with yeast and placed in a “washback,” a large vat made of wood or stainless steel. For two days the yeast converts the sugar to alcohol, at which point the liquid is called “wash,” and is about 8-9% alcohol. The wash is then transferred to the stills for the distillation process.
The first round of distillation results in “low wines,” which are 20-22% alcohol. The low wines are distilled again, and that result is separated into three components–the head, the heart, and the tail. The head is way too high in alcohol to be useful, and the tail is not high enough. Only the heart–the middle product–is eventually turned into whisky. (The head and tail are recycled.)
After distillation, the resulting alcohol is diluted to bring the alcohol percentage to a desirable amount and put into oak casks for maturation. When you see an 18-year-old whisky, that means it was matured in the oak cask for 18 years before bottling, not that it was made 18 years ago.
Because oak breathes, some amount of whisky evaporates every year during maturation. The longer the whisky matures, the more of it is lost, which helps explain why older whiskies cost more–the distiller has less final product to sell. This evaporated amount is poetically known as the “angel’s share.”
Once maturation is complete, some distilleries combine whisky from different casks into “marrying tuns,” to marry the flavors together and smooth them out. This is not the same as a “blended” whisky, which I will explain in a moment. Marrying whiskies from different casks can help create consistency, but the result is still a single malt whisky.
Single malt whisky refers to whisky that is mashed, fermented, and distilled all at the same site. It is truly the product of a distillery and its characteristics and nuances are determined by that distillery. You may recognize names such as Glenfiddich, Glenlivet, Macallan, Lagavulin, Laphroaig, and Balvenie–all single malts. Some well-known blends include Johnnie Walker, Chivas Regal, Ballantine’s, and Dewar’s. Blends are made from different malts from different distilleries, and combined with grain whisky. Blends do not give you a sense of place, the way a single malt does, but they have their own allure and appeal. If you’re looking to make a Scotch whisky cocktail, you’ll want to use a blended whisky.
You may have heard the phrase, “A dram of whisky.” What’s a dram, you ask? It’s an ancient unit of measure. A fluid dram equals approximately 1/8 of an ounce, or slightly less than a teaspoon. The distillery tours always include at least one “dram” of whisky at the end, but knowing what a teaspoon looks like, and knowing how much whisky they gave us, I suspect that it was really more like 1/4 an ounce. When we have Scotch at home, we drink 3/4 of an ounce, which is the small end of a jigger.
Scotch is served in nosing glasses with a wide bowl and narrower mouth. This allows you to swirl the Scotch to open it up, but then the narrow mouth concentrates the aromas upward. When tasting and drinking Scotch, it is allowable–encouraged, even–to add a bit of water. It can be just a drop or two or a more substantial pour. Every single place in Scotland where we had whisky (bar, distillery, hotel) provided water. Sometimes it’s in a little water pitcher; sometimes it’s a glass of water with an eye dropper. The bottom line is that you should be adding water to your whisky if you want to truly appreciate its flavors. And if you order whisky in the States and they don’t bring you water, ask for it!
The water opens up the aromas and flavors of the whisky. It takes away some of the sting and allows the spirit to unfold in your mouth. It also reduces the burn factor when you swallow it. In short, it greatly increases the pleasure derived from sipping your evening whisky.
All of the distilleries we visited are in the Scottish Highlands, known as Speyside, or Banffshire. Please note, if you are planning a visit, you must have a car to get around. It is truly the countryside, and everything is very spread out. The roads are narrow and winding (and, of course, they drive on the left in Scotland), but the best way to really experience Scotland is to get out of the cities and into the open country.
Our first distillery tour was The Glenlivet, which is pretty much in the middle of nowhere, but was more or less on our way from Edinburgh to Dufftown. They offer a free 45-minute tour that includes one dram of whisky at the end, or a tour of 2-3 hours for £30 per person, which includes a tasting of seven “expressions” of Glenlivet. I had attempted to schedule the longer tour a few weeks in advance, but they were fully booked. When we arrived at the distillery on a Tuesday afternoon, the last free tour of the day had just started, so we were able to join that one.
The Glenlivet is located near the River Livet. Translated, Glenlivet means “valley of the smooth-flowing one.” Many (perhaps most) of the distilleries in Speyside are Glen-something. It’s also quite common for the distilleries to be located near a river and to have their own supply of water from a spring or well. The water in Scotland is shockingly clean and clear, and the distilleries are fairly proud of their water sources.
The tour takes you through the entire whisky-making process, showing you the stills, the washbacks, the mash tuns, etc. The distillery is not large; you walk through real production areas, not some watered-down “tour-group-only” area. (But they don’t allow photos inside the production areas.) Our guide was very knowledgable (and very Scottish). He’s worked at Glenlivet for several decades.
At the end of the tour, they give you a complimentary dram of 12-year-old Glenlivet (their youngest variety) for “nosing” and tasting. Nosing is just what it sounds lie–you swirl and sniff the whisky, like you would with wine, to try to detect different aromas. The tasting room also has a bar where you can purchase other expressions. We tried a 21-year-old that I strongly preferred to the 12-year-old. Go figure–the older the are, the more expensive they are. The older whisky was, in fact, smoother and more complex. The 12-year-old was brighter with more fruit; the 21-year-old was warm and had a cinnamon flavor.
There is, of course, a gift shop at the distillery, where you can purchase all of The Glenlivet expressions (as well as a lot of swag with The Glenlivet logo). As it was our first stop on our tour, we refrained from making any purchases, especially because we know Glenlivet is readily available in the States.
Whisky distilleries open surprisingly (to me, anyway) early. Glenfiddich (valley of the deer, hence their logo) opens for tours at 9:30 a.m. We weren’t there quite that early, but we were definitely drinking whisky before noon on a Wednesday. (I guess that’s what vacation is for, right?)
Glenfiddich is walking distance from Dufftown, which is where we stayed, at the Highland Spirit Bed & Breakfast. We hiked up through a wood to get to the distillery, and took the less scenic route through town to get back. Once again, we lucked out with the timing, arriving just as a tour was beginning.
The Glenfiddich tour starts with a short video describing their history and a bit of the process. I don’t know how much they spent making that video, but the production values were outstanding. It was an extremely impressive piece of work. (There’s a short video on the Glenfiddich website that gives you a glimpse of their facilities. It also is very well done.)
We took the 1-hour Classic Tour, which was free. The tour was largely similar to that of Glenlivet, but at the end we tried three expressions of their whisky: a 12-year-old, a 15-year-old, and an 18-year-old. They also offer a 90-minute Explorers Tour for £10 per person, which includes a fourth dram–the 21-year-old. If you’re really serious, you can take the Pioneers Tour, which lasts 3 hours, costs £75 per person, and includes the 12-, 15-, 18-, 21-, and 30-year-old expressions, as well as a take-away bottle that you get to bottle yourself.
Of the three expression we tried, I once again preferred the oldest. The 12 has notes of pear and oak and is made up of 85% whisky aged in Bourbon barrels and 15% aged in Sherry casks. The 15 and 18 have an 80/20 Bourbon/Sherry split and get darker in color as the age increases. The 15 has a predominant honey flavor, while the 18 has baked apple and cinnamon.
Because we were only in Speyside for about a day and a half, we figured we only had time for three distillery tours. When the proprietors of our B&B asked us where we were going, we told them that we’d like to go somewhere we had never heard of, in addition to Glenlivet and Glenfiddich, which are very well known. They suggested Glenfarclas.
Many of Scotland’s distilleries nowadays are owned by conglomerates such as Pernod-Ricard (which owns The Glenlivet), but Glenfarclas is an independent, family-owned and -run distillery. It’s been owned by the same family since its inception in 1865. (Glenfiddich is also family-owned.)
Again, the tour itself is fairly similar regardless of which distillery you visit because the process is the same. But it’s fun to see the different sizes and shapes of stills used, and to hear the same story told in slightly different ways.
At the end of our Glenfarclas tour they provided a dram of their 10-year-old, but offered a taste of anything else we might like to try. My husband and I had already been thinking about buying a bottle of the 21-year-old, so we had a taste of that, which convinced us to go ahead and buy a bottle. (We also bought some whisky fudge, which is fairly common in Scotland.) Because Glenfarclas is a smaller distillery, their tour is not free, but at £5 per person, it’s not overly expensive, and is worth it.
All in all, a whisky tour in Scotland is a fantastic experience. I feel like I understand a product much better after seeing how it’s made, whether it’s whisky or Champagne. I’ve always been intimidated by Scotch, but now that I’ve tasted many different types and been on three distillery tours, I’m much more comfortable with it and knowledgable about it. If you ever have a chance to visit Scotland, I encourage you to book some whisky tours (or just drop in like we did!). It’s not easy to get out to the countryside where the distilleries are located, but I think you’ll be happy you did.