“The making of single malt whisky is a sort of alchemy; the making of truly great single malt whisky is a form of magic.”
It’s hard to think of Germany and not envision frothy steinkrugs overflowing with amber-hued beer. France elicits images of delicate bubbles, floating up a flute of champagne. Russia makes you shiver as you remember the razor-sharp sensations of drinking good, cold vodka.
And then there’s Scotland. Long-haired cows roam the mountains like mopey hippies. Icy lakes give way to barren mountains and, eventually, the crashing violence of the northern Atlantic. From this land of jagged beauty comes one of the great drinks — Scotch whisky.
The complexity and depth of a decent single-malt whisky [whisky when it’s made in Scotland, whiskey everywhere else] is hard to overstate. It can be peaty or smoky or smooth; it can be spicy or oaky or nutty. In honor of National Scotch Day, let’s look at seven iconic distilleries, each well worth your time and the effort of getting to.
On the A9, between Stirling and Perth, there’s a village in the Scottish Lowlands that likes to call itself the “Gateway to the Highlands.” It seems almost like an affectation, because the town of Blackford is so tiny that the Tullibardine distillery is its unarguable epicenter.
Originally one of Scotland’s oldest breweries, Tullibardine has been around since the 1400s. Even if you don’t drink, the grounds alone are worth a visit for their medieval history. In 1949, they started distilling whisky, sourcing their water from a nearby natural spring, and their product is now renowned worldwide.
Across a narrow sea you’ll come across the windswept and ragged isle of Islay. Almost dead center on the southern coast of the island you’ll find some white buildings adorned with dark roofs. This is Lagavulin.
Back in the 1740s, 10 illegal stills were operating out of Lagavulin Bay. By 1816, a Scot named John Johnston gathered a little coin and opened up the first legal distillery at Lagavulin and a history of classic whisky was born. The mix of barley grown in the salty sea breeze and the locally dug peat used to smoke the malt make Lagavulin one of the world’s most recognizable brands.
Along the western coast of Scotland, a peninsula juts deep into the sea called Kintyre. Near the end of Kintyre there’s a small hamlet by the name of Campbelltown. The village was home to the illicit still of a man named Archibald Mitchell. In 1828, he went legit and founded Springbank.
About 188 years later, Archibald’s great great grandson owns and operates the Springbank Distillery in Campbeltown. There was so much whisky coming out of Springbank that it was once known as the “whisky capital of the world!” Given Kintyre’s remoteness, it’s pretty incredible to discover that Springbank and their chain of distilleries source every aspect of their whisky locally.
Leaving the harsh rains and sea sprays of the Scottish coast, you head toward mountains of brown and grey that look otherworldly in their cragginess. You’ve arrived in the Scottish Highlands. Deep in Inverness you’ll come across a simple stop alongside the highway. It’s nothing more than a few blink-and-you’ll-miss-them white-washed buildings standing along the side of the road. Inside those innocuous structures are the long stills of Tomatin.
Tomatin accesses soft water running clear and pure from the Monadhliath Mountains in what’s called the Alt-na-Firth Burn. This soft mountain water gives the family run distillery its signature mellow flavor. A visit is both local and intimate — offering the perfect way-station between Inverness and Cairngorms National Park.
On the western reaches of Cairngorms sits a small town with a big distillery, cast against snow-covered mountains. Weave between the scores of Scottish lochs, cutting through the Highlands like razor slashes, and you’ll find the increasingly popular Dalwhinnie Distillery.
Dalwhinnie is often argued to be a Highland-Speyside whisky, since their water comes from a tributary of the great river Spey. It also lays claim to being the distillery that sits highest above sea level, at 1,164 feet. For tastings, Dalwhinnie has started pairing their single malts with high-end chocolates made locally to add an extra layer of flavor and nuance.
The islands of Scotland had to fend for themselves throughout most of history. That allowed for the island whiskies to become a unique style of Scotch in and of themselves. The Isle of Arran is no exception.
Isle of Arran Distillery is the youngest still on our list, but it holds a special place in the hearts of whisky aficionados. The distillery’s location on the north of the island provides a unique and warm micro-climate, which allows their whisky to excel in wine barrels.
Far north and out to sea, amongst the Hebrides, you’ll find the Isle of Skye, home of Loch Harport. Along the southern reaches of this bay you’ll see a collection of buildings right on the water. This is where Talisker was born.
Opening a bottle of Talisker, you should be able to smell the crash of the ocean on the hard rocks. Their whisky is at once peaty, peppery, and smokey — well worth the pilgrimage across the raging seas.