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On the whisky trail: Here's Scotland's very best

On the whisky trail: Here's Scotland's very best

It's impossible to stay clear of whisky from the moment you arrive in Scotland. Visit a few distilleries to discover the process behind the spirit

It's impossible to stay clear of whisky from the moment you arrive in Scotland. Visit a few distilleries to discover the process behind the spirit It's impossible to stay clear of whisky from the moment you arrive in Scotland. Visit a few distilleries to discover the process behind the spirit

What is pale gold in colour, smells of citrus fruits and honey with notes of vanilla and salted caramel, and tastes like heaven? Whisky, of course! And where do you go when you want to explore the best whisky in the world? Scotland, of course! And so it was that I landed in Aberdeen last month and drove to Keith, abode of whisky legends like Chivas Regal and The Glenlivet.

Much like Nessie, kilts, and bagpipes, Scotland is inseparable from whisky, its national drink. Whisky has played an integral role in Scottish life since 1494. The term ‘whisky’ comes from the Gaelic ‘uisge beatha’ or ‘usquebaugh’, (don’t even try pronouncing it!) which means ‘water of life’. For whisky to be called Scotch, it must be made in Scotland. There are other rules too—it has to be made from just three natural ingredients (water, yeast and cereal), and it must be matured in oak casks for a minimum of three years.

So popular is Scotch across the globe that 53 bottles are shipped to over 180 countries around the world every second. Last year, Scotland exported whisky worth £6.2 billion, accounting for 26 per cent of all of Scotland’s international goods exports.

There’s another upside to the popularity of Scotch whisky worldwide—an increasingly large number of people are flocking to its distilleries to discover the process behind the spirit. In 2019, the Scotch Whisky Association reported a record 2.2 million visits to whisky distilleries, making it one of the most popular attractions in Scotland. Most distilleries across the country have visitor centres with in-house guides giving curious visitors tours of the operations.

I joined one such tour to learn more about three legendary brands—Chivas Regal, Royal Salute and The Glenlivet. My first stop was Strathisla—the oldest continuously operating distillery in the Highlands and home of Chivas Regal, as the premium blended Scotch is primarily made up of whisky from this distillery. With its double pagodas, cobbled courtyard and enchanting grounds, Strathisla, established in 1786, seems more like something out of a fairytale than a distillery. It was in 1844 that James Chivas, founder of Chivas Brothers, who was at that time trading in herbs and spices, was granted a royal warrant by Queen Victoria making him an official supplier to the royal household. And that’s where the word ‘Regal’ comes from in the Chivas Regal name, our guide tells us. Legend has it that no task was too small or too big for James Chivas and that Queen Victoria asked him to provide her with a grand piano, a case of whisky and a quiet donkey that she could walk around the estate at Balmoral Castle. It was while sourcing the whisky that he realised that Speyside (the region where Strathisla is located) had great single malts; however, they were not smooth at that time as they were not being matured for long. James experimented and blended grain whisky with Strathisla single malt—which is quintessentially Speyside—fresh, fruity, floral—and ended up creating something greater than the sum of its parts—Chivas Regal. That’s when his brother John Chivas joined the business and in the 1850s they officially became the Chivas Brothers.

The distillery continued to be in private hands for the next 100 years when in 1950 Chivas Brothers finally bought it. In 1953 when Queen Elizabeth ascended the throne, the occasion called for a tribute fit for a queen and so an exquisite blend—Royal Salute, named after the famous 21-gun-salute—was created using whisky from Strathisla. To this day, Royal Salute has marked each significant event in the lives of the British monarchy and is unique as it only ever uses whiskies aged at least 21 years in its blends.

Having heard all the fascinating stories and seeing the process of whisky making that hasn’t changed much in the past 200 years, we moved on to ‘the one that started it all’—The Glenlivet distillery. Not only is it a best-selling single malt, it was also the first legal malt distillery in Scotland, having received its licence in 1824. While whisky was big business, it was all being smuggled by bootleggers. The Glenlivet was the first to apply for a licence and trademarked ‘The Glenlivet’, even cunningly obtaining the King’s endorsement.

The tour makes a stop at the visitor centre warehouse where you can sample one of Glenlivet’s single malts. Here we discover the ‘dipping dog’, a copper tube that was once used by distillery workers to smuggle whisky from casks and back home for personal consumption (you can’t really blame them, can you?).

Except for increased production volumes and more modern equipment, the six-stage process hasn’t changed much since 1824. A Glenlivet is made with only three ingredients: barley, water, and yeast. It all starts with the malting process, which allows the barley to germinate before being heated and dried. This malt is then milled and mashed with water from Josie’s Well, a natural spring. Following fermentation and distillation, the whisky is aged in oak casks.

Our last stop is Dalmunach—a relatively new and modern distillery with gleaming copper stills. Most of the malts being produced here are for blended whiskies exported to countries like India.

In the beautiful environs of Speyside, time tends to stand still and there is no instant gratification. Think about it: the whisky you lovingly sip had been ageing in a cask for over a decade.


The writer was in Scotland on the invitation of Pernod Ricard, which owns brands such as Chivas Regal and The Glenlivet

Published on: Sep 05, 2023, 4:11 PM IST
Posted by: Priya Raghuvanshi, Sep 05, 2023, 2:38 PM IST