Visit a distillery: learn chemistry, get pished on the cheap

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Ruaridh MacIntyre

Whisky, it’s synonymous with Scotland and if you’ve never had a dram then right now is the best time to start. It’s 10am you say? Too early for whisky? I can’t quite hear you over the taste of this fine single malt and the violent tremor in my hands.

Scotland has nearly 100 distilleries to choose from, each producing numerous different whiskies, all with a fairly unique flavour. The amber liquid can be roughly categorised by region though, and whiskies within these regions tend to have a similar flavour. Speyside (on the river Spey) whiskies tend to be quite light, floral with a lot of flavours from the barley and cask. Highland whiskies (from the highlands, funnily enough) tend to be a pretty mixed bag covering half of Scotland – on the whole rich in flavour and peaty. Lowland (South of the M8) whiskies tend to be rather fruity. Triple distilled, they have a less robust taste, making them good for beginners. Islands (and Islay) tend to have a fairly peaty smoky flavour with lashings of sea water for good measure. I mention Islay by name as it’s generally something of a Mecca for whisky drinkers, excusing the fact that no-one going to Mecca would be drinking alcohol.

Whisky is produced in some of the most beautiful, god-forsaken places in Scotland. Force 10 gales with near-horizontal rain means lots of water to make whisky with; mile upon mile of barren land means lots of peat for flavour; and lots of high cliffs means an escape if it all gets too much. In all honesty though these places are truly glorious when the sun is shining and there’s no better smell than a still house on a warm summer day.

A distillery turns water and malted barley into something greater than the sum of its parts*. The process is relatively simple: barley is soaked, this forms sugars which it’ll use to grow; it’s heated (using hot air or smoke) to stop it growing; then you smash the malt to get the sugar out, use more water to dissolve – then add yeast, ferment, distill and leave for at least 3 years. Done.

When on a tour ask as many questions as you want, a good tour guide will be happy to answer them, and feel free to ask if you can sample things during the tour, malt, wash and occasionally even the raw spirit are available. If you don’t ask you won’t get, but don’t be rude eh? Some distilleries have rules against taking photos, this is stupid for multiple reasons**, but not something you can get around, it’s a like or lump situation; take advantage where you can and savour the memories where you cant.

Visiting a distillery comes with quite a few benefits: most distilleries have bottles you can only pick up in person, it makes the trip a bit more special; you get to journey through the most picturesque parts of the country; and they normally have free samples. FREE.

If you’ve read day 12 in this series you’ll already want to go to an island, so I recommend Islay. An island with a population of only 3000, and island that has as many distilleries as churches (eight) and, at one point, the most expensive petrol pump in Europe (to mitigate they did a crackin’ ice pole). Islay has the advantage of being relatively close to Glasgow (as the Nazgul flies) and has beaches and other fun summery things. Start your trip with one of the lighter distilleries, say Bunnahabhain (Boon-a–havin’) to get your palate used to the fine amber nectar, work your way through to Bowmore (“come for the whisky…..we have nothing else, I hear Port Ellen is a much nicer village”) and finish with the three peaty monsters on the South coast: Laphroaig, Lagavulin and Ardbeg. These are the most heavily flavoured you’re likely to experience, quite different to one another, and yet separated by one and a half miles. That’s right. You can “experience” as much whisky as you like and still be able to walk home. Hell, a taxi would only be a fiver.

If this is a bit much you can day trip to Arran. Get a train from Central, a ferry from Ardrossan, and you’re there. In fact, go in any direction from Glasgow and you’re likely to hit a distillery. For more info, go to scotlandwhisky.com/Whisky_tours . Notice I say info. I wouldn’t buy anything – that shit costs like £500.


* although forbidden in any scientific field it’s fine if you’re marketing something or just general one of those wankers that uses words like synergy without any hint of humour.

** the flash will cause explosions. WHAT?! They used to heat the flammable liquids with open fires. The sheer non science makes my head ache. Offer to turn your flash off, you will still be turned down. Sad times.