Scotch at the Source

By Steve Hendrix
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 26, 2003

Isn't it lovely to find a factory that's quieter than the brook running next to it?

Aberlour Distillery is like that. Right across from the village graveyard, it's a small stone campus of Victorian industrial architecture where the only racket is the light laughter of a nearby stream and a leafy breeze over the high-peaked roof of the still house. It's nearly lunchtime, and some kids in blue school uniforms wander up the road toward the village shops a few doors away.

To reach the tasting room, you walk along the side of the bonded warehouse, a long blackened stone wall interrupted by a bright red door -- as red as a London phone box -- where two men in coveralls wrangle a wooden cask onto a truck. It's a great, heavy thing, but not so unwieldy that they can't stop and nod, civil-like, to some passing strangers. Behind them, the deep shadow of the warehouse is a sanctum of patience. There is just enough light through the door to glimpse the long ranks of casks, each resting sideways in its own silent meditation, each keeping vigil over the mysterious alchemy that unfolds -- with exquisite slowness -- inside itself.

There is whisky being born here. It evaporates, even through the thick oak staves of the cask, at a rate of about 2 percent a year, nearly a quarter lost in 12 years of undisturbed steeping. That's known locally as the "angels' share."

They are a wee bit spiritual about their whisky in Scotland, particularly here along the Spey River -- the spine of whisky country. Aberlour itself was once an ancient Druid settlement. "We don't know much about the Druids, but we know they worshiped water and oak," our guide Beatrice Warner says with a significant look. Whisky, don't you know, also is born of water and oak. And the word itself, whisky -- never "whiskey" in Scotland -- comes from the ancient Gaelic, uisge beatha, the "water of life."

Centuries later -- and centuries ago -- the Celts settled this same creek, which still runs briskly down to the Spey from Ben Rinnes, the mountain rising behind us. The melted snow and rain up high is filtered finely through the brooding mountain before it emerges from an ancient spring -- St. Drostan's Well, the Celts called it -- a mile above the distillery. They divert the entire spring through the factory and use the water, untreated, to make the whisky. "It's a lovely water we have here, very soft," says Warner. "It's already amber, flavored by granite, moss, peat, all the elements of the ground."

It's a heady introduction, this walking about a Speyside distillery. By the time we've toured the process -- the grinding of the barley, the fermenting of the mash, the distilling and endless aging of the spirit -- and sit down for a proper sip, it's as if we're lifting a chalice at the communion rail. You can't have a nip here without savoring the ancient legacy and the very-much-alive devotion that went into producing this single dram. Here, the taste of an Aberlour 15-year-old lingers delightfully in your mouth in just the same way that Scotland's venerable whisky tradition lingers, also delightfully, in this quiet highland valley.

I have fallen into my drink.

Usually I just sip my Scotch. A judicious finger or two in that sweet nether-hour between day and dinner. Maybe a few more over a weekend (okay, five more). But now, on a four-day pilgrimage through Scotland's whisky country, my drink has left its usual seat at the bottom of the glass and engulfed me.

Whisky seems in the very air of this old and unpeopled countryside. I'm swimming in it, breathing it, speaking it. (And drinking my fair share, to be sure. But sipping, only sipping.) Along the Spey River in northern Scotland, where old stone distilleries sit amid acres of barley and where the pubs are thick with smoke and spirits and talk, my simple evening cocktail has become a way of life.

My mate on this whisky pilgrimage is Michael Teixido, a friend and fellow single malt enthusiast from Wilmington, Del. We began the day before, a sunny fall afternoon, when we flew into Aberdeen and set out to the northwest in a rented Mazda -- on the disquieting side of the road. Just an hour on, nearly halfway to Inverness, we find ourselves on roads narrower and more charming by far, threads of macadam curling through broad rolling fields. A tractor cuts barley hay, spreading a cereal incense across pastures that are fading brown with the coming winter. Stone fences line the way and low stone barns mark one farm from another.

Suddenly, we round a bend and there, in the middle of the rural void, rises a fanciful building just off the lane. It's like a temple, with a towering pitched square roof capped by a high cupola, a sort of pagoda of stone and slate. A few blocky outbuildings surround it. Bunk houses for the monks? The grounds are lovely. There's a pond.

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