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The Geography of Scotch Whisky

The rugged terrain of Scotland has enduring travel appeal, particularly for Americans who have so much of Scotland scattered across their bloodlines.  This essay is one for the travel tippler: it is about the geographically informed enjoyment of Scotch whisky.

Living in England as a young man I became inured to the consumption of scotch whisky served right out of the bottle at room temperature.  My first swallow ever (Teacher's blended) tasted like pesticide. But gradually I became brand conscious, and later brand preferential.  When I befriended a Scottish lowlander I started to understand the manner in which the taste of Scotch whisky is determined by the distillation process, and more importantly, by Scottish geography.   I also started to grasp the idea of whisky as culture, how the Scots couldn't farm in the winter so they made whisky, and approached it seriously.  Different regions devised subtly different production methodologies and the local folk disputed which was best (map of whisky distilleries in Scotland). 

In modern times the culture of whisky has been threatened as worldwide demand waxed and waned.   Many old distilleries were shut down, then sometimes re-opened after being bought by conglomorates in France (Pernod Ricard), Cuba (Bacardi), Spain (Allied Domecq) and even Japan (Suntory).  Despite this turbulence at the source, a new worldwide generation of whisky drinkers have discovered single malts, a new attention that is rejuvinating the common appreciation of scotch whisky.  Bars across the country are now commonly stocked with several bands of single malt.   Eight or ten different kinds of scotch behind the bar?  Why in the world would you need that?  The answer is you want several different kinds of scotch for the same reason you have a wine list - customers increasingly appreciate varietal differences and across the face of Scotland different distillers produce a surprising variety of whisky.

It's important first to take blended whiskies out of the picture, because the standard blended whiskies that are poured when you ask for, "scotch and soda" are different than single malts. Single malt whiskies are heavier and more complex than blended whiskies. They are crafted to be distinctive, from year to year and from region to region similar to the way wine or cognac or calvados are crafted for distinctiveness. Single malt fans are attracted to the adventure of exploring these differing characteristics.  Beyond taste, the craftsmanship of whisky production is tied to the land and culture of Scotland, which is an added appeal for imaginative tipplers.

Blended whiskies, like Dewars or Cutty or Chivas, are mixtures of single malts together with lighter grain whiskies, the goal being to standardize the whisky over the span of production years ("McWhiskies" they might be disparingly called using trendy vernacular).  A blended whisky is maybe a third malt whisky and then the rest grain whisky, so if you are drinking blended you have at best a distant cousin of straight, single malt whisky.  Single malt distillers aren't looking for regularity in their product.  They pretty much let it rip and let the circumstances of the time and the weather freely dictate the flavor of their bottled product.   

With the re-newed appreciation of the variabilty of single malt brands there is new appreciation of the geographic guidestars that explain (in surprisingly intuitive way) why a single malt like Talisker has a sharp saltiness in the flavor, why Speyside whiskies like Glenfiddich have a light, sweet characteristic,  why a Campbeltown whisky like Springbank is different from a whisky one peninsula to the north on the serrated coast, and why an open bottle of Islay whisky smells like your carpeting is on fire.   

To explain I'll have to get uncomfortably technical, but I'll make it as short and interesting as possible (glossary of distallation terms).  Here are the general mechanics of single malt whisky production: barley is threashed and soaked in water to allow germination. (The influence of seawater that surrounds the windswept Isle of Skye imparts the salty flavor of the brand Talisker, which is such a disntinctive, ocean-influenced whisky that you can almost taste seaweed - here's a picture of the Talisker distillery.)  The soaked barley is then smoked to halt the fermentation process.  (During this phase distillers of Laphroaig and Lagavulin on the tree-scarce Scottish island of Islay smoke their barley with peat cut from the ground so that consequently an Islay whisky ends up with a smokey flavor that distinguishes it from other single malts.)  

At this point the dried barley is ground and mixed with hot water.  (Here's a nice collection of Scottish distillery images.) Yeast is added to provide the third of the only three ingredients in single malt wiskey - water, barley and yeast.  This concoction goes through a refinement process until the defining moment where it run through a copper still.  Basic still design is a bulbous base part where the boiled mixture is vented to a swan neck at the top, which in turn leads to a coiled copper pipe running through cold water. As the vapor is cooled in the copper pipe it returns to a distilled, liquid state.  Subtleties in design variation of the copper still create subtleties in flavor, each distiller claiming an edge on the other by virture of their great, great grandfather's still concept.  Some say a taller still is better; some say external heat sources under the still are essential, while others rely on internal heat coils.  After all this the distilled product is aged in wooden casks for a minimum of three years.  Once again, the type of wood and length of aging are variables that contribute to taste (and color).

If you like to travel, and you also appreciate single malt wisky (and particularly if you like to golf in the bargain), then you have what it takes to approach a trip to Scotland in a way that makes for a richly enjoyable adventure (malt whisky tour page).  If you've ever winced with appreciation at the rugged flavor of Talisker, then a visit to the dramatic west coast Isle of Skye where Talisker is crafted becomes a quasi-religious experience.  If you've marvelled at the even, regal taste of Oban whisky, wait until you see the balanced poise of the distillery in the harbor town of Oban.  The land in this part of the world has an old story, and Scotch whisky is as interwined with that story as much as any other incident of Scotland.  Whisky production remains Britain's fifth largest export industry, employing 11,000 people across Scotland.  Distilleries pepper the rugged landscape and reach every corner, from Mull of Kintyre to the Orkney Islands that are nearer to to Norway than than London.

Want some ideas of what to try?  Michael Jackson's guide (not the singer) is probably the best and most respected whisky taster's bible.   Below are my own, ridiculously oversimplistic recomendations to get you started, but remember that there are eleven distinctive whisky production areas to explore. 

Glenfiddich ("glen fid' ick") and the Glenlivet are the two most widely available single malts.  They are both good "starter" whiskies, with light, almost honeyed flavors.  If you are pleased with these two, work into my all-occasion favorite (and Scotland's most popular), Glenmorangie (in Scotland they stress the second syllable - "glen mor' an gee").  Glenmorangie is handcrafted by the "sixteen men of Tain," a traditional sentiment that doesn't change the fact that there is lot of ambitious activity going on with the owners, Gordon & MacPhail, who have refired the retired Islay stills of Ardbeg, and who have rolled out lots of variant, specialty flavors of Glenmorangie (best to stick to the basic label to start with). 

If you are ready to depart from the safe harbor of these milder whiskies, consider Cragganmore or Highland Park, two whiskies that nicely balance the other earthy flavors that typify more complex whisky drams.

If you then want to see how distinctive a whisky can get, go right to Talisker, Laphroaig (la froyg') or the 16-year-old Islay prince, Lagavulin ("lag a vool' an").  Talisker is untamed like the Isle of Sky where it is made.  It is rich with all the most pronounced flavors of an exotic single malt: smokiness, saltiness, a long peppery finnish.   The Islay whiskies (pronounced "eye' luh") have such a distinctive, peaty smokiness that you may smell it the second the bottle is opened, well before your first sip.  If you have travelled to regions of Scotland where the peat smoke drifts in the air, these whiskies will bring you right back to these memories. 

Outland drinkers of scotch are open to criticism in the native land should they defile a glass of single malt with ice, or soda or anything other than a touch of flat water to bring out the "nose" of the whisky (the smell).  It's a purist's pursuit, and  remember; if you have just one whisky all you've got is a dirty glass.

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Thanks.  Happy trails.

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Last update: 9/5/2006; 8:35:51 PM.