Isn't it lovely to find a factory that's quieter than the brook running next to it? Scotland's Aberlour Distillery is like that. Right across from the village graveyard, it's a...
Isn’t it lovely to find a factory that’s quieter than the brook running next to it?
Scotland’s Aberlour Distillery is like that. Right across from the village graveyard, it’s a small stone campus of Victorian industrial architecture where the only racket is the light laughter of a nearby stream and a leafy breeze over the high-peaked roof of the still house. It’s nearly lunchtime, and some kids in blue school uniforms wander up the road toward the village shops a few doors away.
To reach the tasting room, you walk along the side of the warehouse, a long blackened stone wall interrupted by a bright red door where two men in coveralls wrangle a wooden cask onto a truck. It’s a great, heavy thing, but not so unwieldy that they can’t stop and nod to some passing strangers. Behind them, the deep shadow of the warehouse is a sanctum of patience. There is just enough light through the door to glimpse the long ranks of casks, each resting sideways in its own silent meditation, each keeping vigil over the mysterious alchemy that unfolds with exquisite slowness inside itself.
There is whisky being born here. It evaporates, even through the thick oak staves of the cask, at a rate of about 2 percent a year, nearly a quarter lost in 12 years of undisturbed steeping. That’s known locally as the “angels’ share.”
They are a wee bit spiritual about their whisky in Scotland, particularly here along the Spey River the spine of whisky country. Aberlour itself was once an ancient Druid settlement. “We don’t know much about the Druids, but we know they worshiped water and oak,” our guide Beatrice Warner says with a significant look. Whisky, don’t you know, also is born of water and oak. And the word itself, whisky never “whiskey” in Scotland comes from the ancient Gaelic, uisge beatha, the “water of life.”
Centuries later and centuries ago the Celts settled along this same creek, which runs briskly down to the Spey from Ben Rinnes, the mountain rising behind us. The melted snow and rain up high is filtered finely through the brooding mountain before it emerges from an ancient spring St. Drostan’s Well, the Celts called it a mile above the distillery. They use the water, untreated, to make the whisky. “It’s a lovely water we have here, very soft,” says Warner. “It’s already amber, flavored by granite, moss, peat, all the elements of the ground.”
It’s a heady introduction, this walking about a Speyside distillery. By the time we’ve toured the process the grinding of the barley, the fermenting of the mash, the distilling and endless aging of the spirit and sit down for a proper sip, it’s as if we’re lifting a chalice at the communion rail.
Permeated by whisky
Whisky seems in the very air of this old and unpeopled countryside. Along the Spey River in northern Scotland, where old stone distilleries sit amid acres of barley and where the pubs are thick with smoke and spirits and talk, my simple evening cocktail has become a way of life.
My mate on this whisky pilgrimage is Michael Teixido, a friend and fellow single-malt enthusiast from Wilmington, Del. We began the day before, a sunny fall afternoon, when we flew into Aberdeen and set out to the northwest in a rented Mazda on the disquieting side of the road. Just an hour on, nearly halfway to Inverness, we find ourselves on roads narrower and more charming by far, threads curling through broad rolling fields.
Suddenly, we round a bend and there, in the middle of the rural void, rises a fanciful building just off the lane. It’s like a temple, with a towering pitched square roof capped by a high cupola, a sort of pagoda of stone and slate. A few blocky outbuildings surround it. Bunk houses for the monks? The grounds are lovely. There’s a pond.
I slam on the brakes as realization dawns. This is a whisky distillery. Our first. We’re in Speyside, the Napa Valley of Scotch whisky, where the official “Whisky Trail” winds through Scotland’s highest concentration of distilleries. Over the next days, that distinctive high-peaked silhouette of a still house will become as familiar to us as a church steeple. We idle in respectful silence a few minutes, then take off again for our base, the Craigellachie Hotel.
If Speyside is whisky’s Holy Land, then the Craigellachie is its minor cathedral. And Peter Brown is its verger.
“Oh, I love the smells of a distillery,” says Brown with a beam of appreciation. He is youthful, balding and trim in his station behind the small mahogany bar that is whisky’s high altar. “I’ve been around them for years. You’ll find that most people around here have worked in the industry, or have family that has done.”
Gains national acclaim
A former tour guide at the Strathisla Distillery home of Chivas Regal Brown now tends the hotel’s Quaich Bar (a quaich is a deep silver saucer, the traditional whisky vessel in these parts). He’s such an expert on Scotland’s national drink that he’s been officially saluted by the Scottish Parliament as a national asset.
The bar itself, though small, is filled with almost 500 separate malt whiskies, from modest blends (there’s a Dewar’s distillery just behind the hotel) to the truly dear (like the 40-year-old Glenfarclas that goes for about $250 a shot). “It’s a great pleasure for me to talk to people about the whiskies,” says Brown, “to find just the right lovely dram for whatever mood they are in.”
In the main, two types of guests find their way to this comfortable stone hotel at the edge of the tiny village of Craigellachie: fly fishermen and whisky nuts. And usually, by the time the former leave, they have turned into the latter.
We spend a few rounds in the bar under the serious tutelage of Brown, who takes us on a tasting tour of Scotland’s main whisky-producing areas (Speyside, Lowland, Islay and Campbeltown). We play a few games of snooker in the billiard room and retire in a haze of gentlemanly testosterone. If there had been Huns to fight, you can trust we would have done our bit.
Whisky-making is an elegant process, but a simple one. Ditto the distillery tour. We visited five, quickly perfecting a regimen of whisky tour golf whisky tour dinner at a country hotel whisky tour chat in the pub. And between every phase we cleansed our emotional palates with drives through the fetching countryside.
The distilleries vary little, although each introduces its own subtle character (much like the liquors they produce). Some have more elaborate gift shops (Glenfiddich, Strathisla), others more generous tastings (Aberlour, Macallan), but all feature an up-close hour or two among the copper, wood and stone infrastructure of their art. With the exception of Glenfiddich, the most touristy of sites we visited (people are moved through on a tour-bus scale), you get the idea that most distilleries are open to the public not to squeeze out the last pence of profit but to show off their skills.
After a morning at the Speyside Cooperage the timeless barrel-making factory near Craigellachie we finally reach Aberlour for a primer on the process. Here’s how to make whisky: Take barley grain, soak it, let it germinate just a bit and then dry it. That makes it malt. (In some parts of Scotland, notably Islay on the east coast, they dry the barley with pungent peat fires, giving their whisky a deep, smoky flavor.) Next, grind up the malt, dump it in a series of vats, usually wooden, add water and then yeast, and let it ferment into, well, beer.
This small beer, called wash, is piped to a pair of giant copper stills. Whisky stills are works of the smithy’s genius, a collection of shapes both voluptuous and sharp, all in gleaming copper. The usual form is something like a pregnant onion wearing a collapsed wizard’s hat, sometimes six or eight of them all in rank under the distinctive Shinto lines of the still house. The wash is heated in that big belly.
The alcohol steams upward through the long swan’s neck of the spout where, as it cools, it’s collected and piped over to the second still for another round. Under the expert eye of the stillman, the final spirit is siphoned off through a mixing chamber called a spirit safe, a beautiful contraption of glass, rivets and brass that Jules Verne could have designed.
Finally, the distilled spirit is ready, except for the little matter of a decade or two of aging in a wooden cask. We sit in the glassed-off corner of a warehouse that serves as Aberlour’s “nosing” room. (Serious whisky sampling involves as much sniffing as drinking. Little narrow snifters are preferred; the American tumbler is eschewed.) In the earthen-floored warehouse, the 500-liter casks steep in silence. On several, the words “Jim Beam” are stamped in faded letters. Most whisky is aged in casks previously used to hold Spanish sherry or American bourbon. The residue of those earlier drinks provide most of the color and much of the flavor of malt whisky.
By law, no drink can be called Scotch whisky unless it’s aged in a cask, in Scotland’s own moist airs, for at least three years. Most are aged much longer, especially fine single malts, which might mature for 10 to 20 years or more. (Whisky 101: Single malts Macallan, Glenfiddich, Laphroaig, etc. are whiskies from a single distillery and contain nothing but malt whisky. Blends Johnny Walker, Chivas Regal, etc. are a mixture of single malts from many different distilleries and usually include other grain alcohols as well. They are usually less expensive and, to most whisky snobs, less fabulous.)
The next day, after a morning at the more isolated and informative Macallan Distillery, we wind our way up to the North Sea coast.
It’s like driving along the top shelf of a good bar as we pass more distilleries, or signs for them, than sheep farms: Glen Grant, Cardu (the main ingredient of Johnny Walker), Strathisla (the heart of Chivas Regal), Dallas Dhu.
We’re heading for Forres, where we’ll tour the much newer Benromach Distillery and play 18 holes on the hilly town golf course. And we’ll end the day in the Mansefield Hotel in Elgin, happily choosing from more than 100 labels in the fire-lighted whisky lounge.
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