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Scotch at the Source
You don't have to be a whisky connoisseur to appreciate the country-house hotels, pastoral villages and old stone distilleries of Scotland's Whisky Trail -- but it helps.

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.

I slam on the brakes as realization dawns. This is a whisky distillery. Our first. We're in Speyside, the Napa Valley of Scotch whisky, where the official "Whisky Trail" winds through Scotland's highest concentration of distilleries. Over the next days, that distinctive high-peaked silhouette of a still house will become as familiar to us as a church steeple. We idle in respectful silence a few minutes, then take off again for our base, the Craigellachie Hotel.

If Speyside is whisky's Holy Land, then the Craigellachie is its minor cathedral. And Peter Brown is its verger.

"Oh, I love the smells of a distillery," says Brown with a beam of appreciation. He is youthful, balding and trim in his station behind the small mahogany bar that is whisky's high altar. "I've been around them for years. You'll find that most people around here have worked in the industry, or have family that has done."

A former tour guide at the Strathisla Distillery -- home of Chivas Regal -- Brown now tends the hotel's Quaich Bar (a quaich is a deep silver saucer, the traditional whisky vessel in these parts). He's such an expert on Scotland's national drink that he's been officially saluted by the Scottish Parliament as a national asset.

The bar itself, though small, is filled with almost 500 separate malt whiskies, from modest blends (there's a Dewar's distillery just behind the hotel) to the truly dear (like the 40-year-old Glenfarclas that goes for about $250 a shot). "It's a great pleasure for me to talk to people about the whiskies," says Brown, "to find just the right lovely dram for whatever mood they are in."

In the main, two types of guests find their way to this comfortable stone hotel at the edge of the tiny village of Craigellachie: fly fishermen and whisky nuts. And usually, by the time the former leave, they have turned into the latter.

"This is it all right,"says guest Jim Kinney, a payroll consultant from Chicago who's settled into a plush armchair at the bar. "This is the heart of it all." Kinney and his wife Lorrie are here on what has become their annual whisky trip. It's their fifth and final day, and he's letting Brown select a last few obscure labels for tasting. Jim buys whisky seriously as a collector; Lorrie doesn't even drink it but says she is captivated by the charm of the countryside and the whisky factories. "We figured it out today," she says. "We've been to over 35 distilleries in Scotland."

We're anxious to begin our own first visit to a distillery, but since it's growing late for a tour -- we've lingered over our admirable fish and chips -- the hotel manager, Duncan Elphick, suggests we get into the proper Scottish mood with a few holes at the public golf course down the road in the village of Dufftown. He lends us clubs, and we go 'round in the last of the autumn sun, almost alone on the high, dramatic, windswept course. There's nothing elitist about golf in Scotland and most sizable villages have their own affordable public courses. Dufftown's is maintained with help from Glenfiddich Distillery, visible on the edge of the village just over the first tee. Our golf balls, two of which I promptly lose in the wicked, wicked heather behind the third, are stamped with the familiar Glenfiddich stag.

That evening, there are more buck heads and antlers looming over our sportsmen's dinner at the hotel dining room. I have an almost-delicate venison. Michael, an adventurous diner, has haggis, the traditional Scottish dish (born of famine, no doubt) made of leftover organs. "Kinda squash-like," he declares. "Not at all like lungs and tracheas."

We spend a few rounds in the bar under the serious tutelage of Brown, who takes us on a tasting tour of Scotland's main whisky-producing areas (Speyside, Lowland, Islay and Campbeltown) and teaches us the proper handling of a nosing glass. We play a few games of snooker in the billiard room and retire in a haze of gentlemanly testosterone. If there had been Huns to fight, you can trust we would have done our bit.

Whisky making is an elegant process, but a simple one. Ditto the distillery tour. We visited five, quickly perfecting a regimen of whisky tour -- golf -- whisky tour -- dinner at a country hotel -- whisky tour -- chat in the pub. And between every phase we cleansed our emotional palates with drives through the fetching countryside.

The distilleries vary little, although each introduces its own subtle character (much like the liquors they produce). Some have more elaborate gift shops (Glenfiddich, Strathisla), others more generous tastings (Aberlour, Macallan), but all feature an up-close hour or two among the copper, wood and stone infrastructure of their art. With the exception of Glenfiddich, the most touristy of sites we visited (people are moved through on a tour-bus scale), you get the idea that most distilleries are open to the public not to squeeze out the last pence of profit but to show off their skills.

After a morning at the Speyside Cooperage -- the timeless barrel-making factory near Craigellachie -- we finally reach Aberlour for a primer on the process. Here's how to make whisky: Take barley grain, soak it, let it germinate just a bit and then dry it. That makes it malt. (In some parts of Scotland, notably Islay on the east coast, they dry the barley with pungent peat fires, giving their whisky a deep, smoky flavor.) Next, grind up the malt, dump it in a series of vats, usually wooden, add water and then yeast, and let it ferment into, well, beer.

"Stick your head in there," suggests Aberlour's Warner, opening the top hatch of a huge vat, called a washback, revealing a mighty head of foam. The yeasty smell is strong up here on the catwalk, and close to the vat there's a burning bite to the air. "But don't inhale -- it's almost pure CO2."

This small beer, called wash, is piped to a pair of giant copper stills. Whisky stills are works of the smithy's genius, a collection of shapes both voluptuous and sharp, all in gleaming copper. The usual form is something like a pregnant onion wearing a collapsed wizard's hat, sometimes six or eight of them all in rank under the distinctive Shinto lines of the still house. The wash is heated in that big belly. The alcohol steams upward through the long swan's neck of the spout where, as it cools, it's collected and piped over to the second still for another round. Under the expert eye of the stillman, the final spirit is siphoned off through a mixing chamber called a spirit safe, a beautiful contraption of glass, rivets and brass that Jules Verne could have designed. Her Majesty's customs agents keep it well padlocked. This is the real stuff.

"In the old days, the workers took a lot," says Warner, whose own dad and uncle were distillerymen. "Four times a day, the bell would go and the workers would stop and take their wee little drappies. There was a lot of human error." She points out the char marks on the wall of a long ago fire. Now, the six workers who run the stills get a monthly bottle to take home.

Finally, the distilled spirit is ready, except for the little matter of a decade or two of aging in a wooden cask. We sit in the glassed-off corner of a warehouse that serves as Aberlour's "nosing" room. (Serious whisky sampling involves as much sniffing as drinking. Little narrow snifters are preferred; the American tumbler is eschewed.) In the earthen-floored warehouse, the 500-liter casks steep in silence. On several, the words "Jim Beam" are stamped in faded letters. Most whisky is aged in casks previously used to hold Spanish sherry or American Bourbon. The residue of those earlier drinks provide most of the color and much of the flavor of malt whisky.

By law, no drink can be called Scotch whisky unless it's aged in a cask, in Scotland's own moist airs, for at least three years. Most are aged much longer, especially fine single malts, which might mature for 10 to 20 years or more. (Whisky 101: Single malts -- Macallan, Glenfiddich, Laphroaig, etc. -- are whiskies from a single distillery and contain nothing but malt whisky. Blends -- Johnny Walker, Chivas Regal, etc. -- are a mixture of single malts from many different distilleries and usually include other grain alcohols as well. They are usually less expensive and, to most whisky snobs, less fabulous.)

The next day, after a morning at the more isolated and informative Macallan Distillery, we wind our way up to the North Sea coast. It's like driving along the top shelf of a good bar as we pass more distilleries, or signs for them, than sheep farms: Glen Grant, Cardu (the main ingredient of Johnny Walker), Strathisla (the heart of Chivas Regal), Dallas Dhu. We're heading for Forres, where we'll tour the much newer Benromach Distillery and play 18 holes on the hilly town course. And we'll end the day in the excellent dining room of the Mansefield Hotel in Elgin (its own fire-lighted whisky lounge boasts more than 100 labels).

In the meantime, for lunch, we pull into a country hotel at the crossroads village of Archiestown, a two-story stone inn overlooking long gray-green swaths of pastoral Scotland.

"The great thing about Speyside is how little it has changed over the years," says John Therley, a soup-sipping English tourist we meet in the dining room. "It's as quiet here now as it was in the 1950s." He and his wife, Janet, are here on a driving tour. When he came to visit a friend five decades ago, he learned the basics of making -- and drinking -- really fine whisky. "Back then, I didn't appreciate the better malts. But now, I look at anything under 10 years old as firewater. This place will ruin you."

He goes back to his soup.

"Waiter," I call happily. I wouldn't have put it exactly that way, but yes.

I'm ruined.

Details: Scotland's Whisky Trail

Want to do a little Scotch hopping? Speyside's malt whisky trail winds informally through the barley fields, villages, castles and -- of course -- whisky distilleries clustered loosely around the Spey River. This isn't the only whisky-making district of Scotland, but it does have the most concentrated collection of working distilleries, nearly 50 in all, depending on how you draw the circle. Not all are open to the public, and some have more elaborate tour and tasting programs than others. Most, if not free, charge only a modest fee and include a nip of the finest at the end. I visited five of varying size and found that each had something unique to add:

• At Macallan (Craigellachie, 011-44-1340-872280, www.themacallan .com), the stillhouse cat is friendly and whisky maker Bob Dalgarno spent nearly an hour with us describing his craft. (For the record, the Macallan 12-year-old is the soul of my own liquor cabinet).

• At Strathisla (Keith, 011-44-1542- 783044, www.chivas.com), the tasting is generous and the setting fabulous.

• Glenfiddich (Dufftown, 011-44-1340- 828373, www.glenfiddich.com) is big and well-curated, with a giant gift shop. This is where the classic Balvenie is made.

• Aberlour (Aberlour, 011-44-208- 2501801, www.aberlour.com) is intimate and friendly.

• Benromach (Forres, 011-44-1309- 675968, www.benromach.com), an old distillery that was closed for decades, was restored and reopened -- by Prince Charles, no less -- in 1998.

In the center of the area, just outside the village of Craigellachie on Dufftown Road, is the Speyside Cooperage, a working cask-making factory largely unchanged from the 19th century. Here, they build and refurbish the sherry and Bourbon casks that will go on to contain whisky for its decade or two of maturation. It's full of craftsmen in leather aprons with heavy mallets, and the smell is a glorious mix of wood shavings and Bourbon -- in short, guy heaven. Info: 011-44-1340-871108, www.speysidecooperage.com.

A good starting place for Speyside generally is with the local tourist boards who produced the Malt Whisky Trail map. Info: 011-44-1224-288825, www.maltwhiskytrail.com.

WHERE TO STAY: Standard rooms at the whisky-friendly Craigellachie Hotel (011-44-1340- 881204, www.craig ellachie.com), at the center of the Scotch universe, start at about $160 a night, including full breakfast. The hotel has many seasonal offers, including an "Apex" that runs through February: Pay a fixed rate of $67 for dinner and breakfast and your room cost will range from full price to free, depending on how many rooms are available when you call. Its Ben Aigan Restaurant is excellent, featuring a hearty mix of traditional Scottish dishes with some prudent nods to modern tourist tastes.

WHERE TO EAT: Eating has certainly gotten more interesting and varied in Scotland (as in all of Britain) in the past 10 years or so. While the greasy joy of fish and chips is still available at takeaways in every village, we also found some smart French cuisine at the pricey La Faisanderie in Dufftown (Balvenie Street, right by the clock tower), excellent Loch mussels in cider at the quaint Archiestown Hotel in tiny Archiestown, and some tasty Angus beef at the elegant Mansefield Hotel in Elgin, another good base of operations for whisky country.

WHISKY ELSEWHERE : There are other whisky-producing areas of Scotland, of course, and Edinburgh has a major whisky exhibition for tourists next to Edinburgh Castle called the Scotch Whisky Heritage Centre (354 Castlehill, 011-44- 131-220-0441, www.whisky-heritage.co .uk

). And Dewar's runs the sizable

Dewar's World of Whisky in Aberfeldy, about an hour and a half from both Edinburgh and Glasgow. Info: 011-44-188-782-2010, www.dewarswow.com.

INFO: For details on Scotland:

Visit Scotland, 011-44-150-683-2121, www.visitscotland.com, or British Tourist Authority, 800-462-2748, www.travelbritain.org. For Speyside: Undilutedscotland, www.undiluted scotland.com.

Details: Scotland's Whisky Trail

Want to do a little Scotch hopping? Speyside's malt whisky trail winds informally through the barley fields, villages, castles and -- of course -- whisky distilleries clustered loosely around the Spey River. This isn't the only whisky-making district of Scotland, but it does have the most concentrated collection of working distilleries, nearly 50 in all, depending on how you draw the circle. Not all are open to the public, and some have more elaborate tour and tasting programs than others. Most, if not free, charge only a modest fee and include a nip of the finest at the end. I visited five of varying size and found that each had something unique to add:

• At Macallan (Craigellachie, 011-44-1340-872280, www.themacallan .com), the stillhouse cat is friendly and whisky maker Bob Dalgarno spent nearly an hour with us describing his craft. (For the record, the Macallan 12-year-old is the soul of my own liquor cabinet).

• At Strathisla (Keith, 011-44-1542- 783044, www.chivas.com), the tasting is generous and the setting fabulous.

• Glenfiddich (Dufftown, 011-44-1340- 828373, www.glenfiddich.com) is big and well-curated, with a giant gift shop. This is where the classic Balvenie is made.

• Aberlour (Aberlour, 011-44-208- 2501801, www.aberlour.com) is intimate and friendly.

• Benromach (Forres, 011-44-1309- 675968, www.benromach.com), an old distillery that was closed for decades, was restored and reopened -- by Prince Charles, no less -- in 1998.

In the center of the area, just outside the village of Craigellachie on Dufftown Road, is the Speyside Cooperage, a working cask-making factory largely unchanged from the 19th century. Here, they build and refurbish the sherry and Bourbon casks that will go on to contain whisky for its decade or two of maturation. It's full of craftsmen in leather aprons with heavy mallets, and the smell is a glorious mix of wood shavings and Bourbon -- in short, guy heaven. Info: 011-44-1340-871108, www.speysidecooperage.com.

A good starting place for Speyside generally is with the local tourist boards who produced the Malt Whisky Trail map. Info: 011-44-1224-288825, www.malt whiskytrail.com.

WHERE TO STAY: Standard rooms at the whisky-friendly Craigellachie Hotel (011-44-1340- 881204, www.craig ellachie.com), at the center of the Scotch universe, start at about $160 a night, including full breakfast. The hotel has many seasonal offers, including an "Apex" that runs through February: Pay a fixed rate of $67 for dinner and breakfast and your room cost will range from full price to free, depending on how many rooms are available when you call. Its Ben Aigan Restaurant is excellent, featuring a hearty mix of traditional Scottish dishes with some prudent nods to modern tourist tastes.

WHERE TO EAT: Eating has certainly gotten more interesting and varied in Scotland (as in all of Britain) in the past 10 years or so. While the greasy joy of fish and chips is still available at takeaways in every village, we also found some smart French cuisine at the pricey

La Faisanderie in Dufftown (Balvenie Street, right by the clock tower), excellent Loch mussels in cider at the quaint

Archiestown Hotel in tiny Archiestown, and some tasty Angus beef at the elegant

Mansefield Hotel in Elgin, another good base of operations for whisky country.

WHISKY ELSEWHERE : There are other whisky-producing areas of Scotland, of course, and Edinburgh has a major whisky exhibition for tourists next to Edinburgh Castle called the

Scotch Whisky Heritage Centre (354 Castlehill, 011-44- 131-220-0441,

www.whisky-heritage.co .uk

). And Dewar's runs the sizable

Dewar's World of Whisky in Aberfeldy, about an hour and a half from both Edinburgh and Glasgow. Info: 011-44-188-782-2010,

www.dewarswow.com

.

INFO: For details on Scotland:

Visit Scotland, 011-44-150-683-2121,

www.visitscotland.com

, or

British Tourist Authority, 800-462-2748,

www.travel britain.org

. For Speyside:

Undilutedscotland,

www.undiluted scotland.com

.

-- Steve Hendrix

© 2003 The Washington Post Company