Greek fire was one of the most powerful and mysterious weapons of Byzantium, almost mythical in its power to subdue and overpower enemies of the empire. The recipe for this legendary liquid flame — a highly combustible compound that was hurled through the air and could not be quenched with water — has been lost in the ensuing centuries.
Pour a finger of Scotch, swirl the tumbler, and watch as light plays across the amber fluid like dancing flames encased in glass.
Inhale the heady fumes, which may fill your nostrils with the smoky perfume of peat.
Finally, take a sip. Careful now, because this is where whisky really earns its reputation, searing your throat and warming your belly, tracing a course through your body so intense that you would swear it left a mark on your flesh.
Certainly, whisky has made its mark on Scotland, where the inhabitants have been brewing their usquebaugh (Gaelic for “water of life”) since at least 1494. This incendiary spirit has become so synonymous with the country that it can legally be called “Scotch” only if it has been distilled and matured in Scotland.
Today, approximately 100 distilleries hunker down amid the misty hills and windswept coast of mainland Scotland and its satellite isles.
As I discover while following the meandering (and sometimes downright wobbly) whisky trail across the country, you don’t just drink in this moody, atmospheric panorama with your eyes. Every time you pour a glass of whisky, you taste Scotland itself.
To understand why the surroundings make such a difference, it helps to know how whisky is produced. For an entertaining overview, I head to Dewar’s World of Whisky in Perthshire, which features a scratch-and-sniff, Willy Wonka-worthy wheel with buttons you can push to see how sensitive you are to aromas sometimes found in whisky, for better or for worse. (Sweat? Boiled cabbage? Meat, anyone?)
Next door, at the Aberfeldy distillery, you can see (and smell) virtually every step in the distillation process. My guide, dressed in a black and green kilt, explains that malt whisky requires surprisingly few ingredients — malted barley, yeast, and water. First, barley is steeped in water, then allowed to germinate to make the starch soluble before being dried.
If the barley is heated over a peat fire, the whisky will retain a puff of smoke, like a recently extinguished bonfire. Next, the dried malt is ground in a mill, and the resulting grist is mixed with hot water in a mash tun to produce sugary wort.
After the wort cools, it passes into massive washbacks, where yeast is added to induce fermentation. This results in an alcoholic “wash” that is then distilled in large copper stills, with a portion of the fluid being stored in wooden barrels for a minimum of three years before being bottled and distributed.
Most distilleries mature their Scotch in “ex-bourbon” American oak barrels, which, by law, can only be used once to age bourbon. (The Scots, renowned for their thriftiness, like to joke that they employ used barrels because it’s cheaper than buying them new).
If whisky is distilled or matured near the coast, it will likely be infused with the brackish smell and taste of the sea.
Every distillery has a particular water source they draw from, too, such as a local spring or a stream known as a “burn” (a particularly apt moniker, given whisky’s tongue-tingling heat). This is key to the whisky’s flavor, because the water carries with it subtle reminders of its journey across the earth, whether burbling up through decaying peat, trickling down hillsides tufted with heather, or meandering past hedges of coconut-scented gorse blossoms.
Given the water’s importance, it’s not surprising that distillers can be quite protective of their source. Although none, as far as I’ve heard, have resorted to land mines or snipers, Glenmorangie, on the northeastern coast of Scotland, has fenced its mineral rich Tarlogie Springs and bought 650 surrounding acres to preserve its integrity.
Even that hasn’t always proven sufficient, as Dr. Bill Lumsden, Head of Distilling & Whisky Creation for Glenmorangie and Ardbeg, discovered when he came across two boys swimming in the crystal clear waters one day.
“That batch was a bit meaty,” the tall, dark-haired Scot recalls wryly.
While you wouldn’t expect to detect “essence of local lads” in your tumbler, some drams do possess a decidedly idiosyncratic appeal.
Master blender and whisky consultant Robert Hicks reveals that for years, the marketing slogan for the pungent Laphroaig 10-year-old was “Love it or Hate it.”
With its hint of Band-Aid and iodine, it’s perhaps not surprising that this Islay-made whisky was sold as a medicine in the U.S. throughout Prohibition.
“It was great for rubbing on your back—but by God, you could still lick it off,” Hicks laughs.
While Islay produces some of Scotland’s most distinctive whiskies, Speyside boasts the country’s largest concentration of distilleries. Nearly 50 facilities nestle in the valley along the swift-running River Spey, making me wonder if the amber-colored waterway might be pure whisky itself.
To test my theory, I sign up for a canoe ride down the river. The scenery—at least, above the water line—is beautiful, offering tantalizing glimpses of undulating meadows and primeval-looking forests. But after capsizing twice while attempting to negotiate the rapids (which even my stubbornly cheerful guide has to admit are “a wee bit bouncy,”) I have swallowed enough of the Spey to determine that, indeed, it is just plain old water, and icy cold water at that.
When I finally make it to shore, I literally kiss the ground, washing down the lingering taste of Scottish soil and river water with a plastic cup full of Speyburn 10-year-old that someone has thoughtfully thrust into my frozen fingers. As the viscous flame roars down my grateful gullet, I think I may never taste anything so sweetly welcoming again.
IF YOU GO
Related link: Scotland’s Isle of Arran: http://amylaughinghouse.com/?p=2236
Related link: Scotch Whisky Month, May 2014: http://amylaughinghouse.com/?p=1915
Touring distilleries: If you wish to tour a distillery, it’s always wise to call ahead. Many require advance bookings, and some are closed for tours in winter or during maintenance periods.
A sample of distilleries that offer tours:
Where to stay: The Castle Hotel in Huntly, Aberdeenshire is housed within an 18th century stone mansion. Lush grounds, well-appointed rooms, and a thoroughly stocked bar with a roaring fireplace make this a charming base for exploring Speyside distilleries. www.castlehotel.uk.com.
The Glenmorangie Highland Home at Cadbull occupies a stunning location near a windswept bluff on the Dornach Firth. www.theglenmorangiehouse.com.
The Balmoral, with its stone clock tower standing sentry over Princes Street, has served as one of Edinburgh’s most distinctive landmarks for more than a century. The hotel features an award-winning spa and 188 sleekly contemporary rooms, including 20 suites. Famous guests have included J.K. Rowling, Tom Hanks and Ron Howard. www.thebalmoralhotel.com