In Scotland, a Good Reason to Grouse

Sunday, March 14, 2004

Some things you have to check out when you're in Scotland. Loch Ness? Check. Edinburgh Castle? Check. The golf course at St. Andrews? Check. Men in kilts? Whoa, check it out.

Whisky? Not big on the list for either my mother or me on a recent trip. Still, our hosts did invent the stuff, which goes a long way toward warming you up on a dark winter night. So when the woman at the tourist center in Perth, in the central Highlands, enthused about the Famous Grouse Experience nearby, we decided to have a look -- and, okay, a swig.

In the late 19th century, as wealthy English increasingly traveled to Scotland for its country sports, Perth merchant Matthew Gloag saw the chance to introduce a special whisky. The Grouse Brand was such an immediate hit it soon became the Famous Grouse. An essential ingredient is the Glenturret single malt, made at the Glenturret distillery, which claims to be Scotland's oldest and now houses the Famous Grouse Experience.

We arrived at the distillery -- just turn right at the 17-foot copper grouse -- to find a picturesque mix of old-style stone buildings that blended into their quaint country surroundings. We chose a tour that would take about an hour and end with a whisky tasting.

Waiting in the lobby, we amused ourselves by punching up the whimsical Famous Grouse commercials on the television screens. The clever, minimalist ads feature the adorable animated grouse that is the distillery's mascot. (Sample: The grouse, minding its own business center screen, looks astonished to see three fish swim by. It looks at us quizzically, then surprises itself by hiccuping air bubbles. Fade to white, followed by the words, "With water.")

The guide herded us to the first of several display rooms where -- surprise! -- there were big vats and some impressive spouts and funnels and tunnels and things. I know, there's more to it than that, but really, making Scotch is mostly a matter of waiting for it to age. Fortunately, the guide didn't tell us more about malting and milling and mashing and fermenting than we really wanted to know.

In the nosing and tasting bar, there was a shot glass of whisky for all, neat, no ice, plus scratch-and-sniff cards with which the guide led us through the various flavors and aromas that can go into the making of Scotch. The sturdier among us downed the shots at once; the daintier carried their glasses to the next room to watch an entertaining film on the company (now in its sixth generation of the Gloag family) and learn how computer animation brings to life its endearing avian mascot. The grouse even has its own theme song: a spare and distinctive xylophone ditty that sounds like what Alfred Hitchcock and the Pink Panther, meeting in a pub for a wee dram, would choose on the jukebox.

After a stop in the gift shop, which offers a variety of whiskies and cute souvenirs (my favorite: highball glasses inscribed "Reserved for the Famous"), we compared our whisky samples over soup in the distillery's cafe.

The next day, snow was making me especially nervous as I drove the unfamiliar roads U.K.-style, down a tiny country road en route to Edinburgh. So it was especially disconcerting to see an oddly low, wide, dark shape in the road ahead. What in the world? I slowed and squinted as we drew closer.

The mass seemed to be spreading and dividing and then rejoining itself, gradually moving in the general direction of a farm road leading off to the fields. The commotion continued, but comically, and now I knew that despite the charming whisky ads, no computer programmer could put this much personality into a bunch of pixels.

It was a milling flock of droll little birds, skittering about, popping their inquisitive faces over to look at us and then consulting among themselves. We laughed as they bumped into one another, bobbing in a flurry as they tried to decide which direction to move. We were still laughing as they eventually herded themselves successfully off the road, bustling over and out of sight into the white field.

Grouse! On ice.

-- Patricia Howard

Scotland's Famous Grouse Experience at Glenturret Distillery is about 20 miles west of Perth and 50 miles northwest of Edinburgh. Open daily except Dec. 25-26. The one-hour tours begin at 9:30 a.m.; last tour is at 4:30 p.m. Tours are about $11; a family ticket for two adults and up to four children is about $30. VIP tours (including four tastings and a guidebook) and Connoisseurs tours (four tastings, guidebook and a selection of cheeses, savories, sweets and tea or coffee) are about $23. Details: 011-44-1-764-65-6565,

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