Scots probably invented whisky, but they were certainly among its earliest distillers and soon became experts. Today, taking a distillery tour is pretty much a right-of-passage for visitors to Scotland and the Scottish Whisky Association publishes a handy leaflet detailing the forty-or-so possibilities. Find it at most tourist info centres and online.
Scottish distilling probably started in monasteries, and was first recorded in 1494. It remained a cottage industry until the mid-17th century which led to a 1644 British Parliament excise tax on the drink. This prompted many manufacturers to go underground: hiding equipment in remote Highland glens. Only in 1823 were taxes lowered and distillers licensed, which effectively legalized the trade. The first licence went to The Glenlivet; and today over a 100 distillers operate in Scotland.
Scotch whisky owes much of its taste to the country’s geology and geography. Scotland has some of the world’s oldest rock, plenty of peaty swamps and hundreds of tiny trickling burns (streams). Yet, its key characteristic – compared with most other whiskies – is the malting of barley and its drying over peat-rich fires. This unlocks many flavour-building minerals from plant matter that’s decomposed for thousands of years.
Scottish whisky technically divides into half a dozen categories, but for most a simple division into single malt (a single whisky from one distillery using only malted barley) and blended (the product of several different whiskies from one or more distilleries). Generally malts have a stronger, more distinctive, flavour, but blends are milder with a softer finish. Blends only really took off in the late-19th-Century, but are less expensive to produce so account for about 90% of global sales. Major labels include Bell’s, Johnnie Walker and The Famous Grouse.
Connoisseurs generally favour Malts, which come from two broad regions: the Lowlands – a broad area south of a line between Dundee and Glasgow – and the Highlands to the north.
The Highlands contain four small sub-regions: Speyside (a valley northeast of Aviemore); Cambletown, Islay and “the Islands” (mostly the larger islands Inner-Hebridies of Arran, Jura, Mull and Skye).
Highlands: Large and varied area with many distinctive flavours that often end up in blends to provide character. Examples: Glenmorangie, Dalmore
Campbeltown: Arguably the region where Scottish whisky began, but today its distillers mostly produce for blends. Examples: Cambeltown Loch, Hazelburn, Springbank.
Islay: Known for strong flavours from the island’s thick dark peat and briny sea breezes. Again, many end up in blends to provide some bite. Examples: Bowmore, Bunnahabhain, Lagavulin, Laphroaig.
Speyside: This valley easily has Scotland’s highest concentration of distilleries and many of its most famous malts, generally known for their clean and pure flavours. Examples: Aberlour, Cardhu, Dalwhinnie, Glen Grant, Glen Spey, Glenfiddich, The Glenlivet, Macallan, Strathisla (Chivas Regal)
Lowlands: Mild whiskies that are great “beginner” whiskies and often form the basis of blends. Examples: Auchentoshan
The Islands: Eclectic bunch with flavours that range from from smoky to salty to sweet. Examples: Arran, Highland Park, Talisker.
Many distilleries routinely provide tours, others need some advance reservation. Most charge a small fee but will often deduct the ticket price from purchases at the distillery shop.
A highlight of any tour is the tasting. For the full experience try to let the flavour open up a few minutes after pouring, swish it around the glass to check its viscosity (aged and better whiskies are generally a bit thicker), then try tasting it straight and then with water. Adding water is never an insult to a whisky and some pubs even have taps on the bar for this. How much is a matter of personal taste, but even the smallest dash of water will open up a whiskies in new and interesting ways.
Finally, if you the taste of whisky seems a bit harsh, try Drambuie. This sweetish whisky liquor has a touch of honey in its taste and makes a delicious low-carb end to a meal!