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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!