Liquid Indulgences: Scotland
It All Started At Speyside
How far would you go for a glass of your favourite whisky? It’s one thing to sink into that familiar couch in the comfort of your own den and savour your preferred dram, but quite another experience to taste it at source. That’s what prompted me to make the trek halfway across the world to the northern fringes of the United Kingdom. It all began here at Speyside; this was the single malt whisky that started it all, almost two centuries ago.
It was Ian Logan, global brand ambassador, The Glenlivet, who planted the seed for this visit during a whisky-tasting session in India. He regaled me with tales about The Glenlivet and its legendary founder George Smith. I was glad that he did, especially as I was driving through the rolling glens (high valleys) of Speyside. My love affair with Scotland began almost as soon as I set foot in Edinburgh, one of Europe’s most photogenic cities.
There are multiple vantage points from where you can take in 360-degree views of the city’s Gothic architecture and its key landmarks. I’d recommend at least two of these spots. The first is Edinburgh Castle, steeped in history, and the other, Scott Monument that is dedicated to one of Scotland’s favourite sons and author, Sir Walter Scott. This is a steep climb and slightly challenging if you’ve been cheating on your gym routines, but totally worth every perspiring step. Edinburgh is also home to The Scotch Whisky Experience, a compact museum of sorts. It gives you an overview of the distillation process and also rounds up an array of whiskies in its well-stocked store. But it is clearly no match for a distillery experience. The droves of whisky aficionados who make the ‘pilgrimage’ to check out their favourite distilleries only continue to increase.
Back in 1824, however, they wouldn’t have been able to visit any distilleries. Speyside was a bootlegger’s paradise and the liquor trade was illicit. But it all changed when King George IV visited the area and asked for a dram of Glenlivet. You don’t say no to a monarch after all. George Smith turned the king’s request into a business opportunity, becoming the first licensed distiller in Glenlivet in the same year. He earned the ire of the area’s bootleggers, who had enjoyed the benefits of a tax-free trade. You are bound to hear these tales and more from the seasoned guides who escort visitors through the Glenlivet distillery. About how George Smith always carried guns to keep smugglers at bay and how he lived a long and healthy life despite constantly sampling the produce from his distillery.
The Castle Hotel is one of the preferred oases for the region’s whisky tourists. This quaint 18th-century, mansion-turned-family-run boutique hotel is located in Huntly, a small picturesque village. It shares its borders with the 14th-century Huntly Castle that is definitely worth a quick visit. It’s not the only reason why visitors make a stop at Huntly; the bar at the Castle Hotel is a magnet too. It’s easily one of the best-stocked whisky bars in the world. I enjoyed interacting with fellow whisky connoisseurs, who filled me in on their whisky trails in the region. Aside from The Glenlivet, other popular stops in Speyside include the Cardhu and Aberlour distilleries.
The drive to The Glenlivet is truly spectacular; scenic drives are almost a given around Scotland. It’s best to sign up for a distillery tour on arrival; which is exactly what I did. The 90-minute tour offers a quick look at the whisky-making process. It takes just three ingredients — barley, water and yeast, to make that fine bottle of Glenlivet. The six-stage process hasn’t changed much over the decades, aside from the introduction of modern equipment that has helped bolster production volumes. It begins with the malting process, where the barley is allowed to germinate before it is heated and dried. Some whisky drinkers like smoky and peaty whiskies; I prefer whiskies in the Glenlivet mould that don’t use peat during the drying process. The whisky is then matured in oak casks after fermentation and distillation.
Just like most distillery tours, the best is always saved for the last; the journey through the distillery finishes on a ‘high note’ at the visitor’s centre. All visitors get to sample a ‘whisky flight’ and, of course, you can also make purchases at the store. The Glenlivet’s 15- and 18-Year Olds are among my personal favourites here. For the less evolved, fine whisky might be just a spirit. Once you make the journey to Speyside or one of Scotland’s major whisky producing regions, you realise there’s so much more that goes into each of those bottles. It’s why the same whisky you’ve drunk for so many years suddenly tastes better once you’re back from Speyside. I’m sure the images of Speyside’s spectacular scenery and the legacy of the region’s fine traditions will start to play out in your mind. They are etched in mine forever.
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