Revealing the secrets of fine single malts on a whisky aficionado’s tour of Scotland

Jet-lagged, I woke before sunrise, a now all-too-familiar fragrance in the air. How authentic, I thought — the hotel’s scented the room with burnt peat. Ah, the aroma of Scotland. Moments later, of course, I came to my senses and realised that it wasn’t the hotel that’d scented the room — it was me. Like the central character of Kafka’s Metamorphosis, I’d awoken to find myself transformed. But I’d not turned into a bug. Rather, I’d become a man-sized version of one of those cardboard trees hanging from taxis’ rear view mirrors… only, instead of giving off the fresh smell of pine needles, I positively reeked of peat.

This was hardly surprising, given where I’d spent the previous afternoon — the Talisker Distillery on the Isle of Skye, the first stop in a cross-country Scotch odyssey. My journey had begun at London’s Gatwick Airport. Looking out the plane window over the English countryside after take-off, it struck me just how effectively the land had been tamed, centuries of agriculture moulding the landscape into a series of manicured, orderly grids, the chaos and disarray of nature smoothed over, dominated by man. The contrast, when we entered Scottish skies, couldn’t have been more marked. As we approached Inverness, the land took on the random patterns of camouflage fabric, haphazard splatters of colour — yellow, forest green, lime, brown; monolithic rock formations that, from the sky, looked like blistered, rough-hewn marble. No one had tamed this country.

At Inverness Airport — a charmingly basic little terminal that reminded me of the quaint airstrips in early-’80s Queensland I’d so often flown into in my youth — we were met by our driver, James. Or, as he pronounced it, à la Sean Connery’s 007, Jamesch. (Oh yesh, you’re in Shkotland noo, I thought.) James ushered the three members of our party — photographer Andy Barnham; our guide, whisky savant Jonathan Driver; and me — to the car. Jonathan and Andy insisted I take the front passenger seat, as this would give me, the writer, the best view of the countryside. Later, James explained that their motives were possibly not entirely altruistic — riding in the front, if we hit a deer, as often happens in rural Scotland, he and I would share a wonderful view of its antlers…very possibly, impaling our lungs.

Still, all danger of painful stag-horn death aside, the view was amazing — I generally refrain from using the word ‘awesome’, unless faced with something truly awe-inspiring (the birth of my daughter was an awesome experience; whereas a film or piece of music — ‘Awesome movie! Awesome tune!’ — generally won’t leave me with the impression I’ve gazed upon the face of God), but here was some legitimately awesome scenery. Throughout the five-hour journey to Skye, I looked away from the countryside unfolding before me only to scribble notes or sketch line drawings in my Moleskine. Scotland is a tiny country — you’re never more than a half-hour’s drive from the sea — but its landscape is expansive, majestic, colossal. We navigated mile upon mile of open, near-uninhabited land, spotted with the ruins of stone cottages and the occasional small farmhouse, craggy open spaces enclosed by titanic hillsides steep enough to give a Nepalese Sherpa shivers.

Cutting jagged courses through the slopes, streams of water ran from the mist-shrouded hilltops. I’d the urge to ask James to stop so I could walk to one of these streams, dip a bottle and sample what I imagined would be wonderfully crisp, cold, fresh, clean water. The Highland vista was unspoilt, untamed, unconquered. Unbelievable. Even Andy’s fantastic photos, snapped periodically at picturesque spots along our route, don’t do it justice.

We drove around the famous Loch Ness, an immense, eerie body of water that gave off a peculiar energy we all picked up on. Who knows if there’s any truth to the Nessie legend, but looking at this inland sea, getting a real sense of its scale, it’d be easy to see how a family of prehistoric monsters could’ve quietly bred in its black depths for millennia.

Hungry, thirsty, we stopped at a remote inn for lunch. To a city-boy, used to finding pubs set on street corners in busy boroughs, it was a curious sight, this isolated tavern (which doubled as a service station, an old-school petrol bowser set outside), no houses nearby, just insurmountable hills either side and the road stretching off into the distance. Following a deep-fried repast (masters of the Fryolator arts, the Scots) and a pint, I stood outside smoking — and shivering, buffeted by a brisk wind, a chilly drizzle falling from the slate sky. “You’ve been lucky with the weather,” James commented. “Very mild, really.” We’d come to Scotland in the middle of winter, and I was — as the English would put it — freezing my bollocks off. I extinguished the cigarette, popped the collar on my new Aquascutum quilted nylon hacking jacket, tightened my Scottish cashmere scarf, and suggested we get back in the warm vehicle and set off in search of ‘Highland central heating’ — whisky. At Talisker, there’d be no shortage of that.

I’d soon learn in intricate detail how Scotch whisky is made. But I was also beginning to get a sense of why it’s made. The ‘Highland central heating’ factor is an important one — in the days before polar fleece, when men were getting around the highlands in kilts, they’d have needed a wee bracer stashed in the sporran to warm the cockles when the weather got too brisk. And aside from warmth, often they’d have needed an intoxicating escape from their travails.

The Scots are a very hardy people, but in centuries past, life in this part of the world must’ve been incredibly tough. Looking at the landscape, and imagining how difficult just getting by day-to-day would have been for subsistence farmers hereabouts in the 19th century and further back, I was reminded of an anecdote I’d once read. Story goes that, on a visit to Scotland in the 1800s, the American intellectual Ralph Waldo Emerson was walking through the countryside with his friend, Scottish writer Thomas Carlyle. Noting the rugged terrain and the poor soil, Emerson asked Carlyle: “What do you raise on land like this?” Carlyle replied, “We raise men.”

Given the difficulty of getting by in this beautiful but unforgiving country, predictably, when the New World opened up, many Scots seized the chance to emigrate; many more had emigration forced upon them by the brutal Highland Clearances, where throughout the 19th century, landowners and clan chiefs forcibly — and often, violently — removed the farming tenants from their lands to make way for grazing sheep, leaving the Highlanders homeless and destitute, with nothing but a stiff drink of whisky to console them. While I can’t be certain whether they were driven by a desire for a better life or simply the survival instinct — very probably, a combination of the two — my own forebears, on both paternal and maternal sides, left Scotland for Australia during this time, or so my father’s genealogical investigations suggest. Coming here, then, was interesting not only from the perspective of a whisky lover, but also as an exploration of my roots.

But enough wistful sentimentality, and back to the whisky… After a long, majestically picturesque journey, we arrived at Talisker, the only distillery on the Isle of Skye. Established by the MacAskill family in 1830, this august whisky maker was immortalised in verse by Robert Louis Stevenson, who wrote of his favoured tipple, Scotch: “The King o’ drinks as I conceive it, Talisker, Isla or Glenlivet.” Agreed, Rabbie. Talisker was gutted in 1960 when a coal-fired still overflowed, causing an alcohol- fuelled conflagration that destroyed the still room. Rebuilt, the original stills exactingly reproduced (the shape and size of stills, which differs from distillery to distillery, is said to give the spirit no small part of its character), despite much of the compound being just 50 years old, the Talisker Distillery continues to exude a sense of history. Our photographer Andy was disappointed to find an all-too-new hatchback parked in front of the main building, wrecking what would’ve been a terrific shot. The modern world can’t be allowed to enter the wonderfully vintage Scotch landscape — it certainly hasn’t been allowed to significantly impinge on the way whisky is made (at least, not at Talisker, though the premises producing more garden-variety whiskies, a couple of which we drove past on our later travels, do look like high-tech, charmless factories, rustic Scottish setting or no).

How is a good malt whisky made, you ask? This was explained to us by our guide at Talisker, Georgette Crawford. It all starts with barley. This is malted — wet, and allowed to germinate, turning its starch into sugar, for between one and three weeks, at which point the barley will be dried over a kiln, usually fired in part by peat (decayed vegetation dug from the earth in the Scottish moors and bogs — and the substance my hotel room would reek of that night). The amount of peat used in this process determines how smoky and ‘peaty’ the malt — and thus, the end-product Scotch — will be. Most distilleries, Talisker included, now outsource this process to malting plants — the traditional method involved literally back-breaking labour, and has been all but done away with — though each distillery will precisely guide the amount of peat used in their malt’s drying, so key is this to the final product.

The malt is then ground, producing grist (not for the mill, but ultimately, the still). The grist is mixed with hot water and churned in an enormous tub called a mash tun. Here, large particles of malt are separated (later dried and used as cattle feed) and a liquid named wort is created. The wort is pumped into another massive tub named the washback, yeast is added, fermentation occurs, and eventually, you’re left with a kind of strong, deliciously bready- smelling beer — the wash.

This goes into the first of two stills (almost always copper; at Talisker there are five of these, two large, and three smaller stills) — distillation involves the liquid being heated, the vapours rising to condense in water-cooled pipes, beginning to weed out pesky non- alcoholic liquids. This first distillation results in what’s called low wines; the liquid is passed into the second still, watched carefully by the stillman, who oversees a beautiful brass contraption called a spirit safe, where the first and last of the flow from the run (inferior products know as foreshots and feints, respectively) can be separated, later to be redistilled, so only the ‘heart’ of the run — a strong pure spirit — is passed for the next stage in the process: ageing.

And this, dear friends, is where the magic happens. At each of the three distilleries I’d visit — Talisker, Royal Lochnagar and Cardhu — the whisky sages guiding me through would opine that, contrary to popular belief, the water used in whisky making is of little importance. So long as it’s relatively pure, you’re good to go. This goes against the common theory that, as so much Scottish water passes through peaty ground, that flavour is imparted on the Scotch. Not so, I was told — the peaty taste comes from how much of the stuff is used in drying the malt. The heavily-peated flavour of Islay whiskies, for instance, is not the result of the distilleries’ location, but purely down to a preference for using plentiful peat in the kiln. The distillers of, say, Speyside — known for making a more delicate drop — could, if they so chose, make a feisty dram in the Caol Ila of Islay mould; they simply don’t wish to. The malting is one of the key flavouring factors, ageing another. To qualify as Scotch, a whisky must be distilled and then aged in Scotland in wooden casks for at least three years. (Casks that previously held sherry or bourbon are commonly used, generally a whisky will be matured for some time in each of the two varieties, but whisky makers will also experiment with casks that have held more extraordinary potations — port, madeira, cognac, rum or perhaps even wine.) Three years is the bare minimum, but as we all know, many whiskies are aged in wood much longer — like the 10-, 18- and 25-year- old Taliskers I was treated to, along with some delicious local oysters, after my tour of the stills and cellars. I favoured the 18-year-old — another open secret among aficionados is that, while snobs and neophytes may believe otherwise, whisky doesn’t necessarily get better the longer it’s been allowed to mature. May sound sexist to say it, but like a woman, whisky sometimes peaks at 18 and just grows darker and more disagreeable thereafter. But more of that later…

We retired to the charming Cuillin Hills hotel, the best on Skye and boasting a beautiful view over the bay, and dined very well on mussels with whisky-cream sauce and a side dram of Oban; lamb coupled with Johnnie Walker Black Label; and cheese complemented by Caol Ila. I slept deeply, and awoke smelling of the moors. Under a flinty sky, we set off through yet more dramatic countryside — the land dappled with reds, greens, greys, oranges and purples reminiscent of leery tweed, crumbling stone cottages, signs warning of sheep on the roads, great bodies of water fed by the ocean and hillside streams, myriad pines lining hillsides — en route to Royal Lochnagar in Deeside. This small distillery, a stone’s throw from the royal residence Balmoral was established in 1845 by John Begg. When his new neighbours, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, moved in, in 1848, Begg invited them over to tour the premises, and was immediately rewarded with a warrant as official supplier of Scotch to the Queen, hence the brand’s ‘Royal’ prefix. Here, the distillery’s erudite manager, Donald Renwick, guided us through the handsomely restored buildings and whisky-making set-up, a highlight of the tour being the duty-paid ageing cellar. At most distilleries, as tax hasn’t yet been levied on the whiskies maturing there, visitors aren’t able to sample direct from the cask. At Royal Lochnagar, however, the owners have paid duty on a small selection of casks containing truly singular whiskies — some aged for great amounts of time, others matured in unusual casks — that you’ll never taste anywhere else. Very special indeed. Donald then took me through the Malt Advocates course, where the whisky-making process was explained in even greater detail.

One of the most interesting nuggets of wisdom came in the form of a graph Donald displayed, showing the way in which at a certain point, should a whisky be over-aged, it will lose the unique distillery character — the flavours resulting from the way a distillery malts its barley and ferments its wash (a longer fermentation results in a fruitier spirit) — and merely take on the flavours conferred by the cask. And please, do call it a cask — I made the mistake of saying whisky is aged in barrels, and Donald was quick to point out that using this term betrayed one as a whisky dunce. ‘Barrel’ is the designation of one particular size of cask — just as all ships are boats, but not all boats are ships, so too are not all casks barrels. Officially, a barrel contains roughly 120 litres, while the ex-bourbon American oak casks used in whisky maturation hold around 200 litres, and the European oak, ex-sherry casks designated ‘hogshead’ and ‘butt’ — the sizes most commonly used to mature Scotch — hold about 250 and 500 litres respectively. (The smaller a cask, the faster it will give character to the spirit, but the impatient approach brings with it a greater risk of missing the optimum point of maturation and overdoing things, Donald told me.)

The evening brought dinner with Donald, Andy and Jonathan at the boutique Balgonie Country House hotel — halibut in honey-mustard sauce with Oban; lamb served with the first wine I’d had in days; a chocolate tart coupled with frozen Talisker; and cheese with a 23-year-old Caol Ila… plus a number of additional tipples that my subsequent intoxication prevents me from recalling.

Our distillery-visiting adventures concluded the next day at Cardhu, where the distillery manager, Andy Cant, was impressed by our newfound expertise in the whisky-making process — and failure to call casks barrels. A much larger distillery than Royal Lochnagar, which produces some 500,000 litres of whisky per annum, Cardhu makes six times that annually.

This Speyside distillery is also the official home of Johnnie Walker, whose superb Blue Label includes in its blend malts from Talisker, Royal Lochnagar and Cardhu. But wait, this story’s supposed to be about the secrets of single malts, not blends, right? Well, perhaps the biggest secret — one that misguided malt purists will decry to their dying day — is that sometimes, blends can actually be better than single malts. The symphonic, beautifully balanced Blue Label a case in point. Sipping a large glass of this liquid gold seemed an apt end to the journey, bringing together as it did the best of the three distilleries we’d seen.

In fact, I might just have a wee dram of Blue to celebrate finishing this piece — and if I wake up vaguely redolent of smoke on the moors, well, so be it. What’s a man of Scottish blood without a little Scotch in his blood, eh?

Source: The Rake     Words: Christian Barker     Photos: Andy Barnham