by Melanie and Jim
If you’ve never been to Scotland and someone asks you to free-associate words you link to the country, you might think of things like highlands, tartans, kilts, golf, sheep, and scotch whisky. Though Scotland is much more than these, these stereotypes actually hold true. The land is beautiful and rugged; the people hold their textiles and kilts dear; golf courses are everywhere; and whisky is one of the main manufactured products of the land.
According to wikipedia, “Scotch Whisky has survived USA prohibition, wars and revolutions, economic depressions and recessions, to maintain its position today as the premier international spirit of choice, enjoyed in more than 200 countries throughout the world, and generating more than £4 billion in exports each year.” Besides the whisky itself, the whisky industry is closely linked to tourism. Many distilleries are open for public tours (for a fee), adding more than £30 million of value a year.
When we decided to travel to Scotland, whisky was one thing that drew us. Friends recommended we look at Rabbie’s tours for parts of our journey. Rabbie’s hosts a number of whisky industry tours. Benefits of using a tour company include having a driver/tour guide, an itinerary, and scheduled entrance to distilleries and other sites. We didn’t need to rent a car, drive on the left, or figure out how to get around, all while potentially tipsy!
Where We Went
The Scottish region with most whisky distilleries is Speyside, the area around the River Spey in northeast Scotland. The prime location features fresh water springs and nearby farming of barley, two of the three ingredients used in production. The third ingredient is yeast.
Our 3-day tour, in orange, took us from Edinburgh up to Perth and then northwest through Pitlochry, before turning northeast to follow the River Spey. Near the top of the green region of Cairngorms National Park we stayed 2 nights at a bed & breakfast. On day two we reached the north sea near Forres. The third day brought us down the east side of the park and near Balmoral Castle on the south. Our driver said during one recent summer, on two separate occasions, he met a pair of vehicles on a remote road with one of them driven by the Queen.
Distilleries were in abundance north of the park. Every few miles we saw the characteristic white buildings, smokestacks, and pagoda style chimneys. This map plots a few of them with names you might recognize. Notice the high concentration near the River Spey. Whisky.com has a huge database of them.
Cairngorms National Park is a gorgeous highland region. We frequently entered beautiful parts of the park on our travels. Pictures later in the post. This map can be enlarged for a more detailed view.
How to Make Single Malt Scotch
Others have written extensively describing the intricacies of the process. We will describe it briefly. You can find much more with an internet search if you are interested. As a starter, this wikipedia article is good, as is this more comprehensive one from Whisky.com. From the wiki:
Under Scotch Whisky Regulations, a “Single Malt Scotch Whisky” must be made exclusively from malted barley, must be distilled using pot stills at a single distillery, and must be aged for at least three years in oak casks of a capacity not exceeding 700 litres (180 US gallons).
The three ingredients are water, barley, and yeast. Reliable supplies of fresh water are of utmost importance for several parts of whisky making. First the barley is malted by soaking it in water for 2-3 days. It starts to germinate and release enzymes that convert starch into sugar.
In 3-5 days when enough sugars have been formed, the barley is heated in a kiln to dry it and stop the germination process. Drying kilns traditionally have a pagoda style chimney. Some distillers also burn some peat in their drying kilns. The peat adds a smoky flavor and aroma to the whisky.
The dried malt is ground into a coarse flour called grist to which hot water is added in a large tub called a tun. The heating and stirring of the mash takes place for many hours. We saw several examples of this mashing process on our tours. The liquid wort is separated from the solids. The solids are used as animal feed.
Yeast is added to the sugary wort and kept at a warm temperature. The yeast converts the sugars to alcohols and releases carbon dioxide in a process called fermentation. It can take up to 3 days. The end product is called wash and has an alcohol content of 5-7%. It is very similar to a beer at this stage.
The wash is heated in large copper pot stills to boil off the alcohols. The desired alcohols are collected and condensed into a liquid with an alcohol content of 65-70%. This ‘new-make spirit’ whisky is diluted to 62.5% before putting it into oak casks. Only after 3 years in cask can it be called “Scotch whisky.” Most single malt whisky is matured for at least 10 years. Many are matured for more than 20 years and go for quite high prices. After the maturation the whisky is bottled and distributed for sale.
Examples of Distilleries We Visited
Below are some of our photos from outside the distillery buildings. We were not allowed to take pictures inside due to safety hazards, as explained by one of the tour directors. Each link provides a close look at the distillery operations and pictures of the inside.
Dalwhinnie was our first distillery stop, at the far western edge of our tour on the map. We toured the facility and enjoyed a dram or two. We were able to keep the complimentary glasses.
Cardhu started at least as early as 1816. Helen Cummings ran most of the illegal operation with help from husband John. They obtained a license in 1824. In 1893 it was sold to John Walker and Sons.
Glenfarclas is one of the few privately owned distilleries remaining in the region.
Benromach was founded in 1898. It is one of the smallest distilleries in the Speyside region. It was one of our favorite stops with a great tour guide, interesting facilities, and excellent whisky.
Glenlivet started in 1824 when the government began issuing licenses. Today, it is one of the largest producers in the world making over 6,000,000 bottles annually. We were told they were building to double production soon.
The Cooperage Visit
With distilling as the primary part of the whisky industry, it’s easy to overlook other aspects. From farming barley to selling the final product, every part is essential in the chain. One of the most interesting places we visited was the Speyside Cooperage. The cooperage renovates oak barrels from American whiskey production and Spanish sherry.
As with the other facilities, visitors are welcome here. There is a viewing mezzanine above the main workshop, which you can see below. There are stations for about 10-12 workers in the foreground; at the back wall are stations for about 6 apprentices. On the left of the shop is a doorway to the inventory of barrels to be worked. Each cooper retrieves a barrel when he is ready for it. In the center of the space is a rack with barrel staves. The cooper inspects and marks the barrel for damaged staves, which are then removed and replaced with staves from the rack.
The video below has three segments. In the first, Speedy Pete fixes an end cap before sealing it with reeds so it doesn’t leak. Another worker pounds the metal rings off a barrel, and then Pete pounds a couple of rings back onto his own. In the second segment, a machine mills wood to be shaped into end cap blanks. The final scene shows a barrel being adjusted so the metal bands are tight. If it passes final inspection and doesn’t leak, the cooper gets paid for that barrel.
We’ll have a final post on Scotland to share a few of our favorite pictures and memories.