Monthly Archives: April 2012

Heather, Highlands & Haggis: It’s All in Bloom This Time of Year in Scotland!

Okay, true confession: the theme of our recent trip to Bonnie Scotland (aye ‘tis true, it is truly bonnie), was a tour of the whisky distilleries.  But one can only sample so many “wee drams,” so our secondary theme was to get out and see the countryside.  As you may know, nature, quiet, and seclusion are an on-going theme at Newton Fork Ranch.  So naturally, when we travel, that’s usually what we search for (Paris, ah Paris, not withstanding!).  Anyhoo… we found those qualities in abundance in Scotland.  A few miles outside of any city seemed to put us squarely in the country.

The adventure began with the flight touching down in Edinburgh and soon had us on a northerly trajectory.  Following a costal route, our tour wound through stately St. Andrews (sorry, no golf for us), Arbroath, Aberdeen, Buckie, Elgin, Findhorn (made famous in the 1960s commune era), Inverness (no sign of  the Loch Ness Monster).  Following the heather, we lodged at a castle hotel in Dornoch, across from the cathedral where Madonna and Guy Ritchie had their baby christened (no sign of Madge either).  Journeying up the rugged coast to John O’Groats, the northern most point in Scotland (hoping, but unsuccessfully, to see the Northern Lights), we then pointed our car west.

I should mention the food here because, for so many of us, travel is all about sampling different foods, isn’t it?  And if you love fish, this is your country.   We lived on fish: salmon and eggs for breakfast, fish chowder for lunch, and every manner of preparation of fish for dinner.  And each time, it was as if the fish had been caught and instantly cooked.  It was that fresh!  Oh yes, and the haggis: about the haggis.  We stopped in a lovely little restaurant in Dufftown whose wildly animated chef wanted us to try it.  We declined.  He said we couldn’t.  We said we could.  But, we lost.  Would you like to know how the haggis tasted?  It was very, very good, a bit like meat loaf.  Our strong-arming culinary ninja of a chef was right.  It was tasty and was served in the traditional way: on an oatcake with “neeps and tatties” (potatoes and turnips).

Back on the road, after Thurso, at times the road turned to single track and the scenery changed from rocky and desolate to more pastoral.  At Durness, we commenced heading south towards the Isle of Skye.  It felt like at that point, all of Scotland heaved a collective sigh because everyone kept telling us that the west coast was beautiful.  Go west, go west!  And it was; still, the charm of the rocky isolated, wind-blown northern coast was a strong draw.  But, the many sheep with the adorable freshly-minted lambs, angus cows, and Shetland horses on the narrow road kept us alert and smiling at all times.

After the Isle of Skye, it was back up into the Highlands to visit a few more villages.  We couldn’t resist hiking the highest mountain range, Ben Nevis.  After stopping for fish and chips, we drove the length of Loch Lomand (singing the famous “You take the high road, and I’ll take the low road”).  The Trossachs National Park took our breath away!

One last B & B, Fernbank House in charming Aberfeldy, had us coveting our two full Scottish breakfasts with to-die-for oatmeal made with milk, honey, whisky and cream floating on the top. We returned to Edinburgh on full stomachs via a quick stop to visit the lovely, and magical Rosslyn Chapel of, more recently, “Da Vinci Code” fame.  Would we go back?  In a New York, no wait, make that a Moray Firth minute!

Spring in the City of Edinburgh

The first stop was the City of Edinburgh where spring was in full bloom.

 Mother Church of Presbyterianism

Interior view of St. Giles Cathedral on the Royal Mile between Edinburgh Castle and the Palace of Holyroodhouse.

Loch Ness Ruin

Ruins were in abundance with this one standing on the shores of Loch Ness.

Highland Resident

This Highland bull was built for the heavy rainfall and strong winds that are the cornerstone of Scotland weather.

Change of Weather

Speaking of weather, here comes a change!

Well-Dressed Horse

This horse was well draped and ready for the wind and rain.

True Scottish Breakfast

Ah, just another lovely start to a tour of Scotland.

The beautiful Highland heather in all its glory.

Highland Lamb

Needless to say, the grass is always greener…

Sign at John O'Groats

The most northernly point, per the locals, on mainland Great Britain. It’s also the beginning or ending point of the renowned John O’Groats to Lands End walk.

Ruins Everywhere

Truly, it seems there are ruins around every corner.

Exploring Ruins

And some ruins just beg for exploration.

Boots & A Bike

The perfect image of a rural life, close to the sea, in Scotland.

Pristine Beach

A pristine and uninhabited stretch of beach along the northern coast.

Steall Gorge

Ben Nevis, at 4,409 feet, is the highest mountain in the British Isles and abounds with hiking trails.

Reflections in a Lake

On the way to Skye Bridge, we just had to stop and take photos of the area foliage reflected in a lake.

More Reflections in a Lake

And yet another reflective photo (you are being spared the other half dozen!).

Sheep on the Isle of Skye

So… can you find the sheep in this photo?

Ancient Stone Hut

It must have been a simple and solitary existence.

A Cow on the Isle of Skye

The life of leisure.

Fisherman's Cottage

The requisite photo of a fisherman’s cottage, yes?

Horse on the Isle of Skye

Just look at this poser!

Rural Call Box

We assumed this was the nearest “land line” for area inhabitants.

Passing Place

Perhaps the sheep follow the signs too?

A True Scotsman

Is this a quintessential photo of Scotland, or what?!?

A Painted Window

Clever window decoration in the charming town of Pitlochry.

A Gate in Stirling

A decorative gate near the castle in Stirling.

Sterling Castle Garden Scene

Spring was all abloom in Stirling Castle.

Another landscape scene watched over by an ancient oak.

Watchful Eye

Speaking of watchful eyes, they were everywhere in the castle.

A Study in Chimneys

Many chimneys and many reasons to stay warm during a long winter.

Daffodils in Aberfeldy

A spring view of Wade’s Bridge over the Tay in Aberfeldy.

Rosslyn Chapel Entry

Photos are not allowed inside Scotland’s famed Rosslyn Chapel but here is a lovely entry into the church.

A Trail of Whisky Begins in South Dakota and Ends in Scotland

So how does a bootlegger at Newton Fork Ranch send us on a foray to the famed distilleries of Scotland?  It all began with recorded tapes at the Hill City library.  In the 1980s, oral history tapes of area “old-timers” were compiled for the development of a “Living History Repository.”  It was during an interview that ranch matriarch, Arleen Lippman, mentioned that a bootlegger, many years prior, had taken up residence at Newton Fork Ranch and had allegedly used baseboards and woodwork for firewood from what is now Grandma’s Ranch House!  That must have been some wicked hooch to be worthy of compromising the old homestead!  However, that said, there is something about a hidden still somewhere in the quaking aspen and pine trees that just fuels the imagination.  How does one go about making some serious illegal backwoods brew?  To find out, well, we just had to go to the source.

A small sampling of the largest, at 3,500 individual bottles, whisky collection in the world.

The plane touched down mid-March at Edinburgh Airport.  Our first point of business was in the old section of the country’s capital to visit The Scotch Whisky Experience located within steps of the famed castle.  This seemed like a wonderful way to begin a neophyte’s trip to the distilleries as it lays a basic foundation of brewing knowledge.  It begins with a barrel ride (Disney Imagineers need not worry) through a fanciful distillery to see how whisky is made.  This is followed by a visit to the Diageo Claive Vidiz Collection of 3,500 individual bottles of Scotch Whisky, the largest in the world.

Each distillery tour featured a tasting. The Scotch Whisky Experience in Edinburgh allows you to keep your Glencairn glass as a souvenir.

It ends with an explanation of the four most prominent areas of distillery concentration in Scotland: Lowlands, Highlands, Speyside, and Islay.  And all of this, of course, would not be complete without a whisky tasting in our souvenir Glencairn glass. We were delighted to learn that all tours begin or end with the coveted “wee dram,” or in Scotch Gaelic, uisge beatha: “lively water” or “water of life.”

Another “must do” before hitting the roads (on the left, mind you) is to grab a map of Scotland ideally detailing the distilleries; “Collins Whisky Map of Scotland” is a good one.  It not only illustrates the location of each distillery but also offers a color-coded key indicating if each is open to the public, open by arrangement only, or not open to the public at all.

A very stylish tasting room is a pleasant end to the Glenfiddich Distillery tour.

So, we hop into our rented right-hand-drive car and carefully head to the famed Whisky Trail.  Making an initial layover in Dufftown affords us the chance to go to many well-known ones in the area.  The best tour (and one of the only free ones) is Glenfiddich.

It is incredible and gives an extensive base of knowledge.  Not only is everything spotless; the restroom alone is worthy of a visit.  It is the size of a condo, complete with a fireplace and comfy chairs.  Other area stops included were The Ballvenie, The Macallan, and Glen Grant with its lovely Victorian Gardens.

Waterfalls, streams, and lochs are around every corner. It's all about the water!

We discover from the various tours that our Newton Fork Ranch bootlegger was on to something: whiskey distillation is simple.  Now, we’re not saying GOOD whisky is simple, but the process is one easily grasped.  It takes only three ingredients for single malts: barley, yeast, and water.  That’s it!  No wonder our illicit friend settled next to Newton Fork Creek; it was for that clear, sweet, spring water!  And water (which is everywhere in Scotland) is what any distiller will tell you; it is probably the most important element for a quality scotch.  And these distilleries buy up as much property around the water source as possible to protect it.  The water gives a whisky the taste of its local landscape much like the importance of terroir is to wine.

It is also what defines the regions.  Lowland whiskies such as Glenkinchie and Auchentoshan (the ladies’ whisky, per the locals) have a milder, sweeter taste.  The Highlands have a rich, fruiter taste such as Ardmore, The Glendronach, Glenmorangie (note: in Scotland pronounced as “orange” not “mo RAN”), Glen Garioch and Talisker.

A Speyside favorite located in the village of Rothes.

Speyside, which has more than half of Scotland’s distilleries is mellow, sweet, and home to famed ones such as Glenfiddich (the final letter has a “k” sound, not a “ch”), The Glenrothes, Knockando and Oban.  Islay (pronounced “I-La”) is the heavier, saltier, peat taste as experienced in the famed Ardbeg, Bowmore, Bruichladdich and Laphroaig brands.

Each tour guide tells us that single malt whiskies begin with barley.  The whole process is elaborate but, in a nutshell, here is a quick summary.

Each distillery featured a unique pot still design, an important ingredient to a whisky's taste.

Water is added to allow germination.  Then, yeast is pumped in to begin the fermentation process.  After two to three days, the liquid is ready to distill.  This is another very important element in creating a distinctive whiskey: uniqueness of the copper pot still design changes the favor.  For instance, the fatter stills create stronger, oilier whiskies.  And each distillery appears to engage a different and unique pot still design and, hence, a different and unique favor.

Another interesting note, whiskies are clear.

A locked, per the excise man, spirit safe safeguards the clear whisky during distillation.

After the meticulous distillation and passing through a “spirit safe” where a stillman checks its strength and quality, it is ready to mature.  Aging in oak bourbon casks from the U.S. and port sherry casks from Spain give whisky its distinctive color.  Also of note, it has to age a minimum of three years in Scotland to be called a Scotch whisky.  Most are aged no less than 10 years and the aging stops when it is bottled.  It also loses two percent in evaporation each year in the cask.  This, in turn, drives up the price.  The evaporation is called “the angel’s share” and no tour guide (and I mean not one!) failed to mention that with a requisite smile.

Every distillery that features a visitors’ center also offers tastings.  Some charge £5 or more and a few charge nothing.  If you go to the 14 Diageo distilleries that are open to the public or register online, you can get a whisky journal; this allows you free passage into all of them.  We were told that if you get the journal stamped by all 14 distilleries listed, Diageo will present you with a gift.  Unfortunately, time (not desire) precluded us from achieving this ambitious goal.

Dewar's World of Whisky and spring time in Scotland: a perfect combination!

Without question, we enjoyed our educational journey and agreed that the outstanding tours were: Glenfiddich, Glenmorangie, Dewars in Alberfeldy; The Famous Grouse, and Talisker in Skye.  But our favorite distillery of all?  That would be Old Pulteney which is the farthest north on the far-flung, sheep-filled road to John O’Groats.  It is home to the 21Year Old that won Jim Murray’s coveted World Whisky Crown for 2012.  And trust that, Pennington County excise man aside, our bottle is hidden deeper than our Newton Fork Ranch bootlegger ever considered hiding his!

And, after tasting countless drams, what’s our very favorite whisky?  We’ll borrow a quote from one of our recent distillery guides: “It depends on how I feel that day or… want to feel.”  Slàinte!