I just returned from ten days in Scotland, tracking down the world’s greatest single-malt Scotches. Locally, they refer to them as “whisky,” pronounced “wess-key.”
We called our family’s “wess-key” treasure hunt “The 2011 Single-Malt Scotch Safari."
As there are 400 producers of “wess-key” in Scotland, no matter how hard we tried, we were unable to visit all of them in our ten-day safari.
But we didn’t do poorly.
On our 1,000-mile safari we visited four of the country’s five major whisky-producing regions: Islay, the Lowlands, the Highlands and Speyside.
Initially, we visited distilleries on Islay, a small island reached by ferry, off the west coast of the country. The nation’s most peaty, smokiest, single-malts are produced here.
Then we headed north to the Lowlands, to the Highlands and onward to Speyside, where some of the nation’s best-selling single-malt brands are produced.
After 900 years, or so, the Scots have pretty much figured out how to turn barley, water and yeast into the magic elixir we call Scotch.
They start with barley, which they wet to encourage germination. This sprouting process is critical as it converts the grain’s starch into sugar.
Many producers, especially the eight on Islay, dry their malted barley over smoky fires fueled with dark chocolate-colored clods of dried, boggy earth, known as peat. This stains the beverage with a smoky richness.
The dried, malted barley is then washed three times with fresh water (the water in Scotland is some of the tastiest I ever drank) in vessels called “mash tuns.” The soluble sugar in the barley dissolves and the sweetened water, called wort, is collected; yeast and heat are introduced, initiating a bubbly fermentation. If carefully managed, this produces a muddy liquid that is really an 8 percent (alcohol by volume) beer without the presence of hops.
Distill this fermented mixture twice and you produce a clear, colorless liquid called “new-make spirit.” Transfer the spirit to a used American (bourbon) or Spanish (sherry) oak barrel, age it for at least three years and voila! - you have young whisky.
For spirit newbies, single-malt Scotch is a whisky:
- That is distilled in Scotland in a copper pot still at a single distillery
- Is made from only one grain – barley – which is malted (germinated)
- Is matured in oak casks in Scotland for not fewer than 3 years
Best Overall Distillery Tour
At Laphroaig. The tour here is equivalent to the one given at Robert Mondavi Winery in Napa Valley, which remains the best, basic, essential winery visit for first-timers to wine country.
Laphroaig offers a sensational visiting experience; it was the only distillery where we saw an active malting floor and the actual peat-drying process.
Visitors are encouraged to sign up and join 380,000 individuals from 150 countries, who call themselves “Friends of Laphroaig.” This has been a very successful marketing campaign; Friends are given a lifetime lease of one square-foot of land at Laphroaig and in exchange, for letting Laphroaig use your land, they pay you an annual rent -- a free, wee “twee” dram of Laphroaig. To collect your rent, however, you must visit the distillery. Details at www.laphroaig.com.
Most Generous Single Malt Tour
Oban. One of spirit giant Diageo’s smallest distilleries, this sweet discovery in the heart of downtown Oban (pronounced “OH-bin) is a must on any tour. While the tour is concise, our guide Patrick gave a thoroughly enjoyable tour. It was here that we tasted two of our top whiskies.
Best Single Malts Tasted on our Single-Malt Scotch Safari
+ 25-year-old Ardbeg Lord of the Isles. A symphony of flavors in a wee glass; Christmas cake, sherry, molasses, treacle and salt taffy come to mind, in both scents and taste. An extremely elegant, alluring, rich malt whisky with a long and stunning finish. If one ascribed points to malted whiskies the way we do to wine, this would be a 100-pointer.
+ 30-year-old Brora and 32- year-old Oban, distilled in 1969, bottled in 2002, tasted together at Oban. We were extremely lucky and got to taste both these sensational “wess-keys” with Oban general manager Mike Tough.
I had never tasted either of these aged whiskies. Tasting them side by side was an exceptional treat. We’re talking two perfect, 100-point whiskies, each a gorgeous expression of the masterful art of whisky making.
Whisky blender Bob Dalgarno, at Macallan, generously offered to share a whisky from my birth year, when he learned that we are food and wine writers; he pulled a sample from a cask of whisky that has been aging – and continues to age – since 1946.
+ 1946 Macallan, cask sample, the oldest Scotch whisky I have ever tasted – 65 years old! 42% alcohol at cask strength today, and still ageing in American oak, once used for sherry and then filled, once only, with Macallan whisky before the 1946 spirit started ageing in the barrel.
If you have to ask the price of a bottle, you likely shouldn’t consider buying it. A second mortgage may be required on your home. The last bottle of 1926 Macallan, a 20-year senior to the ’46, last sold at the distillery for $32,000.
Older is Not Always Better
At some point in time, matured cheese, matured Champagne, even matured whisky can be less thrilling than a younger expression of the same food or spirit.
Although we were thrilled to taste older, fully matured, whiskies on our safari, I realized, during our visit to Macallan, just how great – and special -- one of their younger whiskies is.
At Macallan, they lead visitors through an extremely generous whisky nosing and tasting; guests are permitted to taste five different whiskies, aged from 10- to 30-years of age.
And as good as they all were, my favorite is, was, and continues to be the benchmark 12-year-old Macallan. One expert taster has called the Macallan the “Rolls-Royce of 12-year-old Scotch.” After a week in Scotland, I’d have to agree.
Best Single dish of the trip
Scrambled eggs and Inverawe Smoked Salmon at Pierhouse House, Port Appin.
In all my life, I have never had tastier, richer, more memorable scrambled eggs than the ones served at a wee Loch-side hotel called Pierhouse.
The locally caught salmon is smoked nearby and the scrambled eggs are farm fresh and fabulous, enhanced with a pinch of maldon (English) salt.
We haven’t stopped talking about this breakfast dish. Sometimes big, 3-star, over-hyped restaurants just can’t live up to such honest, simple fare.
Pierhouse Hotel and Seafood Restaurant, Port Appin, Argyll, Scotland. www.pierhousehotel.co.uk
Best Single Meal of the Trip
Lunch at 1-Star (Michelin) Martin Wishart, in Edinburgh. We breezed through a four-hour tasting menu of stupendous breadth and balance; if a picture is worth a thousand words, here are 5,000 words worth (no, not THAT Wordsworth!), of what we sampled at lunch. But there were many more taste treats, which are NOT visually represented here.
Best Whisky Store in Scotland
That’s owner Mike Lord selling some impressive single malt whisky.
Okay, you ask, how do I know that it’s the best in all of Scotland? From what others tell me and from my own experience.
I walked in, asked owner Michael Lord for several rare, aged Scotches, which were on my Must Get list and he happily engaged me in conversation, while pulling the whiskies from his shelves.
Michael has more than 600 different whiskies on hand – even more than my favorite Scotch source in California, KL Wines.
Best Way to Visit Scotland
If you plan to visit many distilleries, you don’t need the aggravation of trying to remain sober or of trying to learn how to stay out of trouble while driving on “the other side of the road,” as they do in Britain and Scotland.
We contacted Classic Scotland, asking the ever-jovial and helpful proprietor, Stephen Wood, to line up hotel accommodations for our family, a van and a driver for a week.
Creating an entire itinerary, including requests to book several 1-star Michelin restaurants, wasn’t much more difficult than making a dinner reservation at a favorite restaurant in Napa Valley.
To contact Classic Scotland, go to www.classicscotland.com, or connect with Stephen via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or call him on his free-from-the-US hotline, 866-464-7389
Our assigned driver turned out to be a wonderfully friendly, thoroughly knowledgeable guide.
As Jean Blair does not book hotels, so you still need to contact Classic Scotland for this component of your trip; but Jean does lead independent walking tours throughout Scotland and can be contacted – and contracted – directly via her own website, www.travelthroughscotland.com.
Not long ago, Jean gave travel-guide writer Rick Steves a personal walking tour in Edinburgh for which he gave her a glowing report in his most recent updated Edinburgh commentary. Way to go, Jeannie!
Finally, this classic Scottish discovery:
You know you are in Scotland when you find these in a neighborhood grocery…