I recently had the good fortune to travel to Scotland (granted in January) and I took full advantage. Once my business was done in Edinburgh, I rented a car and got my arse into the highlands. My personal navigation skills are somewhat legendary in my family, (I once drove to South Dakota by mistake – please don’t ask) so I wasn’t entirely surprised that even when I used GPS, I still ended up on the hardest road that traveled rocky crags, over rivers, and past ski lodges before I landed at my intended site: Craigellachie, the heart of single malt Scotch Whisky country.
My mission was pretty simple and sadly American: see as much as possible in the shortest amount of time. We really must look crazy to the rest of the world as we vacation like we are planning a military invasion. How many historic sites can I ‘hit’? How many pictures can I take? Wait? No internet?? How will I post to Facebook so everyone can see what a great time I am having? Wi-Fi, why haste thou forsaken me?
What I found amazing about Scotland is the local culture wouldn’t let me live on my American schedule. I loved it. Being from the land of ultimate convenience, it was confusing to see the local time tables were relatively arbitrary and no one got bent out of shape. If you showed up at a distillery and it was closed, even during posted hours, the locals shrugged, they’d be back. The American tourist? Stomp my little foot and scratch my head. But I learn quick and the locals were there to help, providing opinions on the local Scotch Whisky choices as well as the proper way to drink it (just a splash of water).
I went on several Scotch Whisky tours, but my favorite was Glenmorangie. It is located along a rocky coast just after Inverness (you can even stop at Craigh na Dun standing stones, and travel through time Outlander style beforehand). There is nothing like a private tour and if you go in January, it can almost be guaranteed. Like many champion single malt Scotches, it starts with barley and cold, clear water, both of which Scotland has in abundance. At Glenmorangie, we received a tour of their production; one of my favorite parts was when we were ushered up to the vats mashing the ‘Wort’, the sugary goodness that becomes the base of this lovely spirit. Our tour guide threw open a porthole to one of the vats and invited us to stick our head inside and take a whiff. It is hard to describe the actual assault on your olfactory sense, but in a word: brutal. If you find yourself clogged with a sinus infection, this is the cure. It sets your eyes watering and your nose running in an instant, forcing you to bend over, clutch your knees and pray to keep the blood pudding you boldly ate at breakfast down. I admit the next stage of the tour on fermentation was a bit vague, as I was trying to right my ship, but by the time we got to the distillation warehouse, glistening with its shiny copper cisterns, I was in awe. Floor to ceiling vats purified the spirits before they were set into barrels for the aging process.
The minimum period for Scotch Whisky is 3 years, and even then it can’t be sold straight to the public; it can only be used in blends. It takes a minimum of 8 years before it gets the label of Scotch. Glenmorangie ages their Scotch for a minimum of 10 years in burned out Kentucky bourbon barrels. There aren’t that many trees in Scotland and when the thrifty Scots realized Americans were only using their barrels for 2 years, they quickly scooped them up at a discount, burnt out the bourbon residue and used them fresh for their own purposes. After the 10 year mark, Glenmorangie goes a step further, aging to 12 years in used port wine casks from France, which impart an even deeper flavor.
It turns out Scotch has Celtic origins, (I just can’t get away from the era of the Viking) who called it ‘aqua vitae’ which translates to ‘water of life’. It also made me immediately think of our Swedish tradition to drink our own hard alcohol, aquavit (granted we flavor ours with all sorts of herbs, spices and even wood shavings). Hundreds of years ago, if you wanted a nip of the hard stuff, you had to visit your doctor, as generally it was used for medicinal purposes. Yeah, that didn’t hold up over time.
It wouldn’t be a trip to Scotland without seeking out a few local legends. You gotta love a country that claims the unicorn as their national animal. The Scots have been talking about the Loch Ness Monster for almost 1,500 years, but it is the 1934 photograph that has garnered interest worldwide. And though I drove along the lake, besides some cheeky signs, Nessie never reared her possibly plesiosaurs head.
Probably the biggest surprise was the food. The United Kingdom isn’t exactly renown for its culinary delights. Though it could not compete with France, I was more than pleasantly surprised. The Scottish breakfast rivals that of the Irish one, with the added touch of mushrooms and roasted tomatoes. I admit to fattening myself up daily at every location. The best was at St. Andrews golf course, home of the infallible Bobby Jones.
While in Craigellachie, I happened upon the Highlander Inn with a basement bistro housing a well oiled bar serving up the local Scotch flavors. The atmosphere was a touch worn but the food did not disappoint: a hearty beef stew with a lid of ridiculously risen puff pastry. The freshness of the vegetables and potatoes were out of this world good, like they dug them out of the garden just a few minutes before tossing them in the pot.
Another notable location was at Dornoch Castle Hotel just north of Inverness. The front bar was Scottish chic, surrounding a stone fireplace serving up the most massive fish and chips I have ever seen. The dining room was understated but the food was not. Again, the vegetables took center stage for their freshness and flavor. The beef was cooked to perfection and my companion’s chicken was so good he wouldn’t even wait for me to take a picture of it. I reached for my camera and it was gone. That fast.
I wish I had been able to spend more time in Scotland. I’m already planning a sequel to see all that I missed (I’m looking at you William Wallace), or at least get another bottle of excellent Scotch.
Haste ye back!