In the current issue of BESPOKE magazine, Ker & Downey explores the history behind Scotland’s whisky heritage with a journey through Speyside and Islay.
In his 1880 poem “The Scotsman’s Return from Abroad”, Robert Louis Stevenson declared whisky “the king o’ drinks” and connoisseurs of fine spirits agree. There is no better place to experience the world’s finest whiskies – and the stories behind them – than Scotland.
Usquebaugh: The water of life. Sure it’s water, happily enhanced with a little peat, grain, yeast, and time, aged for years and even decades until its golden hue is just so, its aroma singing from the mouth of a tumbler. Of all the world’s varieties, whisky can’t be labeled “scotch” unless it’s made in Scotland, a distinction reserved for the bevy of brands produced in more than 125 distilleries across the country. Each region has its own unique nuances in flavor, from smoky to fruity to woodsy, and for lovers of fine spirits, nothing compares to sampling the world’s best with a view over the Scottish countryside.
The earliest documented record of distilling in Scotland was made in 1494, but historians estimate the art may have begun as early as 500 A.D., with the arrival of the Dalriadic Scots to the Isle of Mull on Scotland’s western shore. Just south of Mull is the Isle of Islay, the “Queen of the Hebrides” and one of Scotland’s major whisky-producing regions. Eight distilleries are in operation today, and as many as 23 were active simultaneously in past centuries. Established in 1779, Bowmore is the eldest of the bunch, with the capacity to produce two million liters annually. The peat of the nearby Laggan River serves as the natural filter for this whisky, giving it a smooth and full-bodied taste. Farther to the west, Kilchoman is the island’s youngest distillery, and its traditional floor-malting techniques and “Islay-only” processes of growing barley, malting, distilling, aging, and bottling, have quickly made it a unique and highly desirable brand. On the island’s northeast coast there’s Bunnahabhain, along with a town of the same name that was born out of a need to house distillery workers in the 19th century. The rugged coastal scenery here makes for a nice panorama as you sample the distillery’s offerings; the ruined wreck of the Wyre Majestic sitting atop the rocks is a reminder that the magnificent shores are deceptive and treacherous. Islay itself is as diverse as the whole of Scotland’s distilleries. As tasters travel north to south across the 239-square-mile island, the flavors change from mild and light to intense and peaty, with brands produced in the south considered the strongest in the country.
The same wide range of flavors can be found in Speyside, a hotbed of whisky production in Scotland’s northeast. More than 50 distilleries share some 1,000 square miles, cranking out whiskies that go into household names like Chivas Regal and Johnnie Walker, and also producing the world’s top two single-malts, Glenlivet and Glenfiddich. The former survived turbulent years during the Great Depression to become instrumental in Great Britain’s economic recovery after World War II by exporting to its thirsty neighbors across the Atlantic, and today remains the best-selling malt whisky in the United States.
Cardhu Distillery produces its namesake brand as well as the family of Johnnie Walker blends – a rainbow of red, black, green, gold, and the coveted blue, all of which can be sampled after an exclusive behind-the-scenes tour of the distillery. Interestingly, Cardhu also helped give birth to one of its competitors – Glenfiddich founder William Grant purchased the old stills from Cardhu in 1885 and put them to work one year later. Today at Glenfiddich, rum casks from the Caribbean, Spanish sherry butts, and Bourbon whiskey barrels from the United States all lend themselves to the maturation process and produce an amazing array of rich flavors. The oldest distillery in the Highlands is Strathisla, founded in 1786 and noted for its double pagoda silhouette and original cobblestone courtyard. Aside from being visually stunning, it also has the distinction of being the birthplace of world-renowned Chivas Regal and its 12-, 18-, and 25-year-old blends. Although founded by different families and using unique recipes, the whiskies of Speyside reveal a web of interconnectivity. Ownerships have changed and the storms of two World Wars have been weathered, but a common ground of tradition and innovation bind the generations who have prospered thanks to the water of life. During the annual Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival, held May 2 to 6 in 2013, the region’s distilleries throw open their doors for a whirlwind week that celebrates the food, culture, history, and of course the spirits that have shaped the way of life here.
The distilleries of the Highlands range beyond Speyside, and most notable among these is Dalwhinnie, the highest in elevation of its brothers. Private tastings of its creations feature the acclaimed 15-year-old, described as a smooth and medium-bodied treat. On the famed Isle of Skye, Talisker reigns as the lone distillery, an operation that at one time paid for its lease with annual 10-gallon casks of its distinctive spirit delivered to clan leaders. Talisker’s seven ages are less peaty than its cousins on Islay, instead emphasizing a smoky, spicy flavor.
Edinburgh’s scotch whiskey experience displays thousands of the finest and rarest scotch whiskies in the world, surprisingly, by way of Brazil. The collection was started in earnest by Brazilian businessman Claive Vidiz in 1973 and was curated and treasured over the next 35 years. In 2008 the beverage company Diageo, a major player in today’s whisky industry, purchased the collection and had each bottle shipped back to its homeland – an estimated 2 million–pound investment in national posterity. To date there are 3,384 varieties sitting untouched in a state-of-the-art glass-walled vault. Among the thousands of unique finds: a bottle of Johnnie Walker Blue autographed by Grand Prix driver Juan Pablo Montoya, one of only 69 Strathmill single malts produced to celebrate Speyside Distillery’s centenary, and a special edition of Dimple Pinch purchased for $1,000 in 1969. Beyond its impressive display and sheer volume, the collection is a panorama of the industry that has come to define Scotland.
Ker & Downey’s Water of Life excursion is a pilgrimage to Mecca for the whisky connoisseur, as well as for those with the basest of appreciation for the handcrafted treat. Guests are chauffeured on a journey through the countryside to Speyside and Islay, with ample opportunities to take in the historical sites and imbibe along the way. Experience a fantastic private cruise on the infamous Loch Ness with a spread of fresh seafood and an incredible view of true Highland beauty. Bed down in picturesque Gregorian estates, enjoying private visits to castles and ruins on a journey that blends the charm of yesteryear with the storied past and promising future of whisky in Scotland.