Fine Scotch: Let's take a look at traveling around Scotland, visiting some of the key distilleries in each of the various whisky regions of the country. Regional variations have always been a basic way of describing the primary aroma and flavor attributes of specific whiskies. For instance, a novice to the enjoyment of single malt whiskies might wish to explore the lighter, more fragrant and floral whiskies distilled in The Lowlands or Speyside, rather than begin with the powerful, peaty and smoky whiskies of Islay.
As with any tour, a map is a good place to start. Over the years, I have seen as many as eight or nine whisky distilling regions identified, but for this trip, we're going to visit four: The Lowlands, The Highlands, Speyside, and Islay (pronounced "eye - luh").
Our tour begins in Edinburgh, which is located in The Lowlands whisky region. A quick drive to the village of Pencaitland brings us to the Glenkinchie Distillery. Lowland whiskies - there are only about three currently active distilleries here - are sweet, delicate, floral and herbal in aroma and flavor - very similar to the landscape with its farms and gentle terrain. A broad swing to the southwest brings us to Bladnoch Distillery in Wigtown. Bladnoch has recently come back on line once again producing spirits after several years of dormancy. The Lowlands part of our tour ends just outside Glasgow at Dalmuir, where the Auchentoshan distillery can be seen from the busy A-9 highway.
The next leg of our tour takes us past Loch Lomond to the coast where we catch the "CalMac" (Caledonian MacBrayne) Ferry to Islay. This island is home to seven active distilleries, most known for their bold, briny, peaty, smoky aromas and flavors. Some people even detect medicinal tones to the aroma. Water sources for most of the distilleries on the island flow through peaty aquifers, providing additional peat influences to the whisky, in addition to that which has been burned in the drying process of the barley. Islay single malts include Laphroaig, Lagavulin, Ardbeg, Bowmore, Bruichladdich ("brook loddie"), Bunnahabhain ("bun a hav inn"), and Caol Isla ("kull eela").
Back on the mainland, we are in the largest of Scotland's whisky distilling regions: The Highlands. So vast and diverse (for whisky making) is the region that it is generally broken down into sub-regions such as West Highlands, Central Highlands, etc. While on the west coast, we visit Oban Distillery, one of the very few distilleries to be located in an urban setting, right in downtown Oban! A short drive north to Fort William brings us to the Ben Nevis Distillery, located on the outskirts of the city, at the base of Scotland's tallest mountain. Driving northeast through the Scottish Highlands, we come to Dalwhinnie. At just over 1000 feet in elevation, Dalwhinnie is Scotland's highest distillery above sea level and lies in a vast valley surrounded by rugged mountains.
A short drive east from Dalwhinnie brings us to the fabled Speyside area of The Highlands. About 80% of the world's best known and best selling single malts are from this area. Speyside is to Scotland what the Napa and Sonoma regions are to California's wine industry - a concentration of producers in a relatively small area. Driving through Speyside is driving through a Scottish geography lesson: it seems like each river has a distillery named after it! We pass distilleries sharing their names with the rivers Devron, Dullan, Fiddich, Livet, and, of course, the Spey itself. Although vast in area, The Highlands and Speyside whiskies generally exhibit profiles of spiciness, honey, fruitiness with complexities of both aromas and flavors.
We end our tour of Scotland's distilling regions at The Glenfiddich distillery in Dufftown. One of the few distilleries to still offer a free dram at the end of a distillery tour, Glenfiddich was the first distillery to open its doors to the public - forty years ago. Here, the World's Most Awarded Single Malt Whisky is made in time honored, traditional methods. As we leave the distillery in a moderate downpour, our tour guide leaves us with a hearty "Och - a fine day for whisky making"!!
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