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Touring and tasting in Scotland's whisky country.

Scenic drives, historic buildings, and distilleries in the Highlands, north of Edinburgh

BONNIE SCOTLAND'S Highlands--where craggy peaks give way to undulating green fields laced with rushing rivers--is the rich, damp birthplace of Scotch whisky (from the Gaelic uisge beatha, "water of life"). No drink better captures the essence of its homeland than peat-tinged whisky.

In late spring, this scenic region north of Edinburgh and Glasgow erupts into green grasses and colorful wildflowers. Rolling fields are dotted with puffy white sheep, and along the roads yellow wild gorse and iris mix with soft lavender native rhododendrons. Brown, still-dormant heather (it blooms in late summer and fall) fringes hills and mountains.

Water is everywhere: it falls from the sky, roils in streams and rivers, and fills countless slender lochs (lakes). As it filters through the peat soil on the hills, it often picks up a subtle flavor and tea color (the plentiful supply of water and peat is central to the production of Scotch whisky).

More than a hundred Scotch whisky distilleries nestle near Highland rivers and streams; 45 of them offer organized tours. The richest concentration of distilleries is in the region's northeastern section along the River Spey, about a 4-hour drive north of Edinburgh.

On a three- or four-day trip from Edinburgh, you can visit a few of these distilleries. A 70-mile Malt Whisky Trail begins just northeast of Gran-town-on-Spey (a 2 1/2-hour drive north of Edinburgh); you can stop, look, and sip just as in California's wine regions.

Allow about an hour to tour each distillery. Along the way, you'll take in some of Scotland's most breathtaking scenery and delightful small villages. But remember, the roads are often narrow two-laners with oncoming traffic on the "wrong" side.

Prepare for all types of weather. ("If it's not raining, it will soon, and if it's raining, the sun will be out shortly," the Scots often say.)


Until 1823, when distilling was legalized, whisky was illegally produced in remote glens along streams that fed the Highlands' main rivers. Many distilleries remain at these once clandestine sites. (Glen Grant and Glenlivet are just two distilleries of many that owe their names to their locations.) Although the size of these operations varies, low stone warehouses and peak-roofed smokehouses are typical sights.

On tours, you'll learn how whisky is made. At one of the most popular destinations in the Speyside region, Glenfiddich distillery outside of Dufftown, for example, you'll learn how single-malt whisky--a distillery's particular barley-based whisky--is produced. (Blended Scotch mixes several single malts with a larger volume of whisky based on other grain.)

Barley is soaked in water, spread on a concrete floor, and allowed to germinate. Then it is slowly dried over peat- or coal-fed fires (which impart some of the earthy, smoked flavor characteristic of Scotch whisky).

The dried barley is coarsely ground in giant grinders, mixed with hot water, then moved into pool-size tanks where fermentation with yeast turns the liquid into a tan, frothy mixture. The liquid is drawn off and distilled twice in large copper pot stills; the whisky emerges clear and raw. It's transferred to oak casks and stored in stone warehouses, where the air is dank and pungent. Only after several years in the casks does the whisky assume the color and complex flavor of Scotch whisky.

At the end of some tours, you can sample the host distillery's whisky. Wait until you get home to buy any, though; surprisingly, prices for Scotch are lower in the United States than they are in Scotland. If you're with a group, head to a local pub and order its "pub lunch" and several different Scotches. Smell, taste, and compare them: you'll find subtle differences in whiskies from the Highlands, the Lowlands, and Islay (an island off Scotland's west coast).

For a list of distilleries that are open to the public, write or call The Scotch Whisky Association, 30 Liberty Ave., Lindenhurst, N. Y. 11757; (800) 274-7942.
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Author:Reno, Lorraine
Date:Apr 1, 1993
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