After our successful Highland Fling race, our Scottish holiday continued with sightseeing in the Highlands and Islands, and exploring different whisky regions. I knew it would be fun, obviously, but after visiting ten distilleries (and a cooperage), I was pleasantly surprised at how fascinating it was and how much I learned! Eight distillery tours and two distillery tastings (without tours) within a few days was great because it really highlighted the differences between the distilleries, and thoroughly impressed the process in our heads. “To make whisky you need three ingredients: water, barley, and yeast…” 🙂
However, for all of your sakes, I’ll skip the tour guide monologue. In case you’re unfamiliar or just a bit fuzzy on the process, here’s a fun, animated explanation (from Kilchoman Distillery) of how to make whisky.
Unfortunately, many of the distilleries did not allow photos within their buildings, for various reasons. I understand their reasons, but stills are generally beautiful to look at, and each is very different. Without the option of photography, I tried to take mental notes on the varying still shapes as it is one of the many factors that affects the character (flavor) of the spirit, in addition to the length of their fermentation and many other unique factors within their whisky production.
Just to give you an idea of where the distilleries are located in this part one of our whisky tour, here is an interactive map of the distilleries listed in this post:
Without further ado, the distilleries!
We started with this classic distillery on the beautiful Isle of Skye. Talisker is located on the water in Carbost, a tiny town at the end of a single track road. Their tour availability was limited, so we ended up on their morning tour. The weather that day was horrendous (sideways rain and crazy wind gusts), so we were grateful to start our day inside a warm distillery with tasty drams awaiting us. (No worries, we still braved the weather for the Old Man of Storr, Kilt Rock, and the Quiriang.)
Our tour guide was excellent and very procedural with her explanations of the distillation process. She explained everything very clearly and was obviously very knowledgable on the topic. It was a great tour for us to really get our heads around the finer points of whisky-making. We sampled four of their whiskies and splurged on a bottle of their Friends of the Classic Malts Bottling.
What difference did I notice in Talisker’s process? They have a U-shaped lyne arm (piping that runs from the top of the still to the condenser) to increase reflux to create a lighter spirit.
In case you don’t know what reflux is… “Reflux refers to the amount of vapor that condenses and falls back into the still before ‘escaping’ to the condensers. The more that happens – that is, the more ‘reflux’ there is – the more the spirit gets cleaned up before it is passed on to the next stage.” – Lew Bryson “Tasting Whiskey.” Essentially, distillers are aiming for more reflux in order to obtain the purest (and best-tasting) alcohol possible.
Cragganmore Distillery – Speyside region
I’ll be honest, this wouldn’t be my first choice as a representative of the Speyside region. However, once we actually got to the area it was very busy with tourists, and some of the other distilleries I really like had no room on tours (Aberlour and Balvenie). I was trying to figure out where to try next, but we were running out of time that day so I just selected one that was near us. I hadn’t tried a Cragganmore before, so here was our opportunity.
The buildings weren’t flashy, and there weren’t a lot of other folks around. Our tour guide was young, and it was rather clear that she had just memorized a script and her heart wasn’t in it. She was nice enough, but she certainly didn’t have a passion for the product or the company. I wasn’t overly impressed with the whisky either. However, this was the only “dud” tour we went on, so I can’t really complain!
What difference did I notice in Cragganmore’s process? Their stills have a flat top that I haven’t seen before. It’s supposed to increase reflux to make a lighter-bodied spirit.
Benromach Distillery – Speyside region
After our lackluster experience at Cragganmore, I was determined not to leave Speyside without a redeeming distillery experience. Over 50% of all Scottish single malt distilleries are in this region, so surely we could find one that was more engaging! We settled on Benromach because they’re known to have a good tour and they’re not owned by the giant Diageo (like Talisker and Cragganmore.) They’re a bit north of the main hub of Speyside distilleries, but have a nice location and beautiful grounds.
Our tour guide here was excellent! He was a natural storyteller and you could tell that he loved his job. After a short video explaining Benromach’s history, we got a tour of the distillery. We also got to see their warehouse, a dunnage style, and a cask signed by Prince Charles himself. We also sampled their flagship whisky.
At this point in our holiday, we had started our Rabbie’s Islay and the Whisky Coast Tour. (It was a fantastic tour, for future reference.) Our first stop, before heading south to catch a ferry to Islay, was the Oban Distillery. It was right in the middle of town, which is slightly unusual, but we were told the town ended up building up around the distillery as it grew in size.
Our tour guide here was also great and very personable. The extra special part of their tour was at the end. In a warehouse room they have a cask that’s full of 13 year old whisky. (The 14 year old is their flagship.) He drew whisky directly from the cask and we got to taste it. It was fun to try a whisky that won’t ever be for sale!
What difference did I notice in Oban’s process? Their fermentation process is quite long – 4 days. Not by design, but because they only have one wash still and one spirit still (and six washbacks).
Bonus: The Speyside Cooperage
While not a distillery, it is without question that cask(s) play a massive role in developing the flavor of a maturing whisky. We were lucky enough to go to the Speyside Cooperage for a tour (before the Cragganmore Distillery), and it was incredible to see these coopers work. There was a short smell-o-vision video at the beginning of the tour to give us a background about where barrels come from (with occasional blasts of scents like wood, charring, etc to “enhance” the experience.) Then we went to a viewing platform of sorts where we were able to look out at the workshop and the coopers hard at work.
The coopers are apprenticed for four years, and it’s a highly sought after opportunity. They are paid per barrel (and it must be up to spec), so being fast as well as highly skilled is an advantage but it is a mystery what they make per barrel. We were told they average around 25 barrels a day, while “Crazy Pete” usually does 26 or 27. There are different sizes of barrels as well, but I won’t go into those details in order to avoid boring you!
At the very end of the tour there is a small area in which you may try your hand at assembling a small barrel with loose staves and hoops. I gave it a try… and the guide cheerfully told me, “yer doin’ it wrong.” Yup, absolutely, but since I haven’t been apprenticed for four years at a cooperage, I don’t feel too bad about my lack of coopering skills. 🙂