Whisky the Water of Life
Whisky, the Water of Life is an important part of the culture of Scotland; a key ingredient in the blend that makes us who we are and woven deep into the fabric of our psyche. It is one of our biggest industries, bringing in nearly £4 billion per year into the Scottish economy; and a major player in Scottish tourism.
Today there are around 100 working distilleries scattered across Scotland; many of which have visitor centres, guided tours and plenty of interactive presentation. And of course you get to sample the fruits of their labour – the single malt whisky. Believe me, no whisky tastes better than when drunk at the distillery of origin. It’s all part of the ambience, the atmosphere and the story telling that creates the perfect mood to savour the crafty nuances and delicate aromas.
Traditionally the distilleries were grouped together by region: Highland, Lowland,Islay and so on, but in recent years there has been a move away from this towards classification by flavour and aroma instead; which I tend to agree with. After all, not all Islay Malts are smoky, and not all Speyside malts are spicy or fruity. A lot depends on the cask, the amount of smoke used at malting, shape of the still, aging and so on. In the past however, geography was far more important and distilleries were built close to a good source of water, access to barley and to the market. So, they do tend to be clumped together and that makes planning whisky tours a lot easier.
Most trips around Scotland begin from Edinburgh, as the second most visited city in the UK after London; but Glasgow makes a convenient base too, especially for trips to Islay and the west. There are day trip options offered by many of the tour companies in Edinburgh which will include a distillery visit as part of the day, but they are not specialised whisky trips as such. Custom made whisky tours from Edinburgh are easy to put together and tend to include the distilleries in Highland Perthshire, such as Blair Athol or Aberfeldy. These are great days out with lots of fun where the group will maybe do a bit of walking, learn something of the local history and finish the day with a couple of beers in a traditional bar.
Many whisky enthusiasts however are looking for something more involved, a tour that takes them into the heart of whisky country, stay a few nights and get a feel for the area and its people; and no two places are better than Speyside or Islay.
The River Spey cascades down from the high peaks of the Monadhliath Mountains, and flows fast and true past the Cairngorms through the rolling valley of Strathspey. Along the way it captures crystal clear streams tumbling over granite boulders as it runs inevitably to the sea. This myriad of rivers supports the bulk of Scotland’s malt whisky production: as nearly two thirds of all distilleries are classified as ‘Speyside’. There are several reasons for this as well as the water, some geographical, some historical; but it was the decision in the 19th century by the great Whisky Barons like John Walker and Arthur Bell to use Speyside whiskies as the key building blocks of their Blended brands that has kept the number operating high.
Any tour to Speyside will head north through Highland Perthshire with a stop to enjoy a couple of drams made in the area, before crossing the Grampian Mountains to Strathspey. Generally speaking most trips spend two or three days in this enchanting corner of Scotland; sampling a few whiskies (famous and exclusive alike), taking a guided tour here and there, exploring the heritage and simply relaxing amid glorious scenery. There are plenty of add-on activities too, ranging from golf and fishing to hiking and off-roading. Essentially, tours are built around the clients and their interests. The accommodation is also taken care of and can be anything from Guest House to Castle; and usually comes with a healthy range of malts on hand. Locations would include Grantown on Spey, Aberlour or Dufftown, as these towns are within easy reach of the Malt Whisky Trail and a number of other attractions and walks in the area.
An engaging trip, drawing upon the majesty of the Central Highlands; but if it’s breathtaking you want with your dram, then Islay and Jura are surely the jewels in the crown.
The green and rolling Island of Islay lies off the west coast of Scotland, and is accessed by a ferry from the mainland at Kennacraig. The road from Edinburgh or Glasgow takes you through some of the most striking landscapes in the country, including Loch Lomond and the Argyll Coast. From the ferry terminal the crossing takes around two hours, but the bar is well stocked with malts, and ales from the island’s micro brewery. So, take a dram, sit back and relax as the mountains of Jura form the backdrop to a great sailing experience.
Islay is a verdant place with lots of good farmland, and this plus its strategic location between Scotland and Ireland made it historically very important; and it was here that the all powerful Lordship of the Isles was based in medieval times. This rich and colourful history is complemented well by the strong Gaelic culture and unique island personality. The whisky helps too – and there are eight distilleries here: so a veritable paradise of sandy beaches, evocative names and malt tasting opportunity.
Most Islay tours will spend around three days on the island, and will include a visit to nearby Jura as well. Jura is very different to Islay: mountainous and sparsely populated; but great for hiking, wildlife watching and chillin’. The distillery is in Craighouse, and the tour is free; so, that’s a must do. Back on Islay we’ll probably tour three distilleries and taste at a couple of others. It really all depends on the group and just how much whisky making they need to see. Most trips base themselves either in the whitewashed village of Port Ellen, or the more bustling town of Bowmore as there are good options to stay and to go out for the evening. That said, there are other hotels, guest houses and self-catering places dotted across the island.
So, from a good walk out to the cliffs of the Oa to the Dark Age stone cross at Kildalton, from the silver sands of Saligo Bay to live music in a Bowmore bar, it’s an unforgettable journey of discovery.
Whisky tours of Scotland come in all different shapes and sizes, but the key is bringing to life the local area, the social history of the people and to get a sense of how important whisky has been to the community; so the next time you pour a dram you’ll be drawn back there and can recall the wonderful story that’s in the glass. It’s a delicate balance between science and art; very much like whisky itself.
Information and Booking Tours
For more information on whisky tours, plus how to book please click on the link below. To gain your special Holiday Scotland discount, please quote the code number – HOLS1 with all correspondence