Men in black huddled and murmured darkly in an unfamiliar tongue as they received their drinks at the bar. This being Islay, I fancied I was at last hearing Gaelic in one of its remaining refuges: the islands along the west coast of Scotland. The whisky bar at The Ardview Inn in Port Ellen is a cozy nook where you tend to chat with your neighbours. It turned out the men were actually Norwegian. They were whisky pilgrims to Scotland, just like me.
As a drinks writer, I’ve been lucky to be invited to visit Scotland by the big whisky distillers numerous times to see the facilities. Whereas the stills and barrels always pretty much seem the same (oh, look, more copper and oak!), the vistas are never routine: From the evergreen-covered hills of the lower Highlands to the dramatic crags of the north, it can seem as if most Scotch distilleries were deliberately plunked where the gift shop postcards would turn out the loveliest.
If you enjoy Scotch whisky, a distillery pilgrimage makes the perfect excuse to escape the Glasgow-Edinburgh-Loch Ness tourist triangle in the centre of Scotland. You’ll likely end up somewhere slower paced, not to mention breathtaking, if you randomly pulled a single malt down from the shelf and set its address as your destination. These regions are especially worth the trip.
Scotland’s fifth largest island is a short ferry ride (or an even shorter flight) from Glasgow, but a world apart. Flat, boggy, windy and thinly populated, Islay is famous for famous for smoky, oily, challenging whiskies, made by malting (that is, kilning) the barley over fires fuelled with chunks of turf known as peat. Like death metal and salted fish, these smoky “peated” whiskies are an acquired taste with a cult following — particularly in Scandinavia. Some of Islay’s eight or nine distilleries actually make non-peated whisky, but they all smell of the sea. You’ll understand why if you visit the Laphroaig-Ardbeg-Lagavulin cluster to the east of Port Ellen. Lined up next to each other on the rocky south coast, their whitewashed warehouses are close enough to be air-kissed by the slate-grey waves. At Laphroaig, ask if you can lie down and make angels in the barley. Islay is the sort of place where they might shrug and say yes.
The Bordeaux of whisky, the Speyside region is home to more than half of Scotland’s 100 or so active distilleries
The Bordeaux of whisky, the Speyside region is located in the district of Moray (pronounced “Murray”) and is home to more than half of Scotland’s 100 or so active distilleries. Many are actual next-door neighbours, making Speyside an efficient choice if you want to stop in at a bunch. (Important “biscuit”-related note: The Macallan distillery’s neighbour is the Walker’s shortbread factory in the village of Aberlour.) Many big names, including Glenfiddich, The Glenlivet and Glenmorangie, are here in the land of winding roads, grazing deer and stately whiskies. Make the towns of Keith or Elgin your base, book a tour or rent a car, and suck in the painfully Instagrammable hills and Scottish cuisine. It’s often tastier than you’d imagine, and Speyside is well accustomed to feeding sophisticated visitors.
A chain of islands off the north coast of the Scottish mainland (but please call it “Orkney,” never “the Orkneys”), there are only two distilleries here, and only one of them, Highland Park, offers tours. But it’s a tour that gives you a little taste of everything: Highland Park still malts a portion of its own barley. And it’s lightly peated, in case seeing (or rather, smelling) the unique pong of a peat fire is on your to-do list. The whisky itself is sublimely balanced, a connoisseurs’ favourite. While you’re on Orkney, the scuba diving and fishing are well-known, but the islands’ chief attraction has to be the archaeological sites. The Skara Brae village is still under excavation but offers a visitor’s centre, while the famous Standing Stones stand alone; they’re every bit as significant as Stonehenge but not cordoned off like celebrities or turned into a roadside tourist trap. Running my bare hands down the lichen-dotted rocks as the late afternoon sun cast its sparkle across the Loch of Harray, I only wished I’d remembered to bring my flask.