Travel

A Dram Will Do You On A Scotland Whisky Tour, But Why Stop There?

For lease: one square foot of Scottish soil. Description: located on a grass-covered patch of peat bog near the Laphroaig whisky distillery on the Isle of Islay. Duration of lease: your lifetime. Rent: one dram of Laphroaig whisky, to be sipped only at the distillery.

All you have to do is buy a bottle of Laphroaig, register the purchase number found on the bottle at the distillery's website (www.Laphroaig.com), and voila! You then become an official Friend of Laphroaig and will even receive a deed to your very own piece of Scotland.

Then when you visit the distillery, claim your rent, pop over to your plot, and plant the flag of your home country in the peat. Just think of how impressed your friends will be when you tell them you own land in Scotland. Slainte!

Islay is also home to several other distilleries, and it is the windswept island, whose signature scotch tastes of smoke, peat, and salt, that is a good place to begin a liquid safari through Scotland.

Scotland may be better known for its shaggy Highland cows, innumerable herds of sheep, miles of stone fences, legendary monsters, mind-bending roundabouts, breathtakingly beautiful heather-covered mountains that glow like amethysts, and ancient villages, but it is also the only place on Earth where genuine Scotch whisky is made.

"Scotch whisky is an industry within itself," says the Scotch Whisky Association's Campbell Evans. "It is one of Scotland's biggest employers."

The figures, he says, range to about 25,000 who are directly employed in the industry, with another 10,000 indirect workers in sectors like retail stores, bartending, and cask-making.

That's quite impressive for arguably the world's most elegant spirit, but truthfully the process of making it is really not that complicated at all.

"Whisky is the easiest thing in the world to make," explains Evans. "It takes only three ingredients: water, yeast, and grain."

Maybe it's not that simple, but the alchemy of those three ingredients, blended with the sagacity of the whisky master and hundreds of years of experience and heritage, conducts itself into a liquid symphony of golden colors, crisp flavors, fragrant aromas, and sweet, creamy textures.

Just because all scotch uses the same basic ingredients does not meant it's all the same, as each distillery produces its own distinctive whiskies.

Why? The primary building block of great single malt is Scotland's pure mineral-laden water. The chemical makeup of water varies from one region to the next, so a Highlands whiskey from the more mountainous north tastes much differently from one from the islands like Islay and Orkney.

The basic recipe is to malt barley in the water, dry it with smoke, mash it, ferment it with yeast, distill it, and then siphon it into oak casks for maturation.

Some of those casks previously contained sherry, cognac, or bourbon, each of which lends a unique flavor to the scotch. Whisky matures slowly, so from the time it is casked, there it remains, soaking up the essence of the wood for at least three years and often for decades before it is bottled and sold.

The history of scotch whisky — and properly it's spelled without the "e" in Scotland — begins with the ancient Celts. They called their first batches uisge beatha, which means "water of life." Through the evolution of language somehow uisge beatha transformed into whisky, with the earliest documented record of distilling entered into official records in the 1400s.

Fancy a wee dram in the place where it was created so long ago? Scotland is known for its pubs, but to gain a better perspective, take an education tour to one or several of the more than 40 distilleries open to the public.

To begin your whisky safari, pick up your glass and pith helmet and head to Islay and Laphroaig, which is reached only by ferry or a very short, slow flight from Glasgow — so slow, in fact the pilot often opens a window and waves "go around!" to flocks of birds. After you visit the distillery and plant your flag in the peat bog, take in the dramatic coastal scenery of the Outer Hebrides where spotting seals, puffins, and red deer along the shoreline are commonplace.

In the far northeast corner of Scotland is Speyside, where about half of all of Scotland's distilleries are located. Stop in at the renowned Glenlivet, owned by the Chivas Brothers, which has been called, among other things, the preference of kings and the most treasured of all Highlands whiskies.

From Speyside and into the Highlands, you'll pass through some of the most beautiful terrain in Scotland. The endless, green countryside is an amalgamation of deep lochs and snow-covered peaks of the Cairngorms. I was stunned to utter silence when I witnessed a herd of stag leaping across a field in what seemed a choreographed moment with nature.

In the Highlands is Glenmorangie, where the scotch is crafted by the legendary Sixteen Men of Tain. And there's Cardhu, home of Johnnie Walker and which is the only malt whisky to be pioneered by a woman. The Macallan is here, sitting high on a hill overlooking the River Spey. Aberfeldy, home to Dewar's and a fun museum devoted to scotch, is surrounded by farmlands and natural beauty.

After sampling a dram in the distilleries, explore a castle or loch or even the two together if you take a cruise on Loch Ness to see imposing ruins of Castle Urquhart, the perfect perch from which to search for Nessie. Edinburgh Castle stands as a sentinel over all of Edinburgh, while Stirling Castle is probably the most historically significant castle in all of Scotland with ties to Robert the Bruce and Mary Queen of Scots. If you like to have your spirits with spirits, the reportedly haunted Menzies Castle is near Aberfeldy.

Among the lessons I learned was that scotch can be frozen to a viscous consistency and paired with chocolate. And I discovered that it takes months to properly build a copper still — only copper pots are used for distilling — and it is such an intricate craft that is considered an art. And did you know that the size and shape of a copper pot, like the water and casks, gives scotch distinct characteristics from another? Ha! Bet you didn't. But neither did I.

But one of the most notable lessons among Scotsmen is one on which I'll probably take a pass. "In Scotland," laughed a lad named Ian with a joking grin, "breakfast is the most important drink of the day."

IF YOU GO:

Visit the Scotch Whisky Association at www.scotch-whisky.org.uk for more details about the distilleries and tours. For more information on Scotland, call 1-800-462-2748 or www.VisitScotland.com. Don't miss the Claive Vidiz Scotch Whisky collection at the Scotch Whisky Experience near Edinburgh Castle, which contains the largest scotch whisky collection in the world. Recommended accommodations include Gleneagles Resort (www.GlenEagles.com) in Perthshire for golf and spa, the Balmoral Hotel in Edinburgh (www.TheBalmoralHotel.com), or the Glenmorangie House, a small luxury hotel overlooking Dornoch Firth (www.TheGlenmorangieHouse.com). U.S. tour companies offering distillery tours include Tauck (www.tauck.com), Contiki (www.Contiki.com), and Globus (www.GlobusJourneys.com).

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