I can’t think of anything more quintessentially Scottish than Scotch whisky. It’s right up there with bagpipes and kilts in my imagination and is, in reality, one of Scotland’s greatest gifts to the world. Maybe gift isn’t quite the right term since according to the Scotch Whisky Association, exports earned a whopping £139 every second in 2017.
Whether it is spelled ‘whisky’ or ‘whiskey’ usually depends on where it was made. Scotch whisky is spelled without the ‘e” but American and Irish whiskeys are usually spelled with it.
I’ll admit to not being the biggest fan of Scotch before my September 2017 trip. I’d tried to acquire a taste for it out of a sense of cultural pride and loyalty, but the samples I’d experienced were extremely intense (insert visual of me coughing and choking). I was determined on my first trip to Scotland to give it another go. What follows are a few whisky related experiences from our last trip.
Our Whisky Education Begins
On day 1, our flight landed in Edinburgh at around 8:00 am, and we arrived at our hotel just before 10:00 am. The rooms weren’t ready for check-in until 3:00 pm, so we stored our bags and made our way to the bar 🙂
Being the only patrons at that early hour, we peppered the barkeep with questions about whisky. He assured us it’s ok to order a Scotch with soda (pop), especially a blend, and on his recommendation, we had The Famous Grouse with ginger ale, followed by a wee dram of 16-year-old Lagavulin single malt from Islay. It was quite unlike any of my previous experiences. I realized that the whisky I’d sampled in the past were for the most part blends. I’m not knocking blends, I was just beginning to appreciate how little I knew about the drink.
The word “whisky” is an English corruption of the Gaelic, “uisge beatha” or “usquebaugh”, meaning “water of life”. The following video shows Talisker distillery manager Charlie Smith pronouncing, and explaining the meaning and origins of the words uisge beatha.
Single malt whisky simply means that the whisky comes from one single distillery and 100% malted barley is used along with water and yeast. When making blended whisky, like The Famous Grouse, Chivas Regal, or Johnny Walker, casks of single malts are purchased from other distilleries and then blended together to create a unique spirit under their own label. There’s no such thing as a blended distillery. It doesn’t exist. It’s created in a blending room.
Single Malt Scotch Whiskies traditionally come from five regions: Lowland, Highland, Speyside, Island, and Campbelltown. Each region is known for individual characteristics such as freshness, fruitiness, maltiness, and smokiness.
Single malts are most often enjoyed on their own. Traditionally, you take a tiny sip, hold it at the front of your mouth just over your tongue and let it warm up for a moment before allowing it to escape to the rest of your mouth and down your throat. Once that first sip is finished, you can then add a tiny bit of water to the glass and enjoy another taste, skipping the warmup. In theory, the added water opens up the flavor of the whisky. In my opinion, it’s magical 🙂
I felt quite decadent sipping Scotch in an Edinburgh bar mid-morning on a Sunday while looking out at the gorgeous architecture and giggling like a schoolgirl with my sister.
Whisky is Scotch, people from Scotland are Scottish or Scots.
Over the Sea to Skye
Our Isle of Skye day tour from Inverness with Happy Tours took us into the village of Portee for a lunch break. When we stopped at The Isles Inn Pub on the Isle of Skye and ordered our wee drams, they set out a small carafe of water along with the drinks without being asked. It was a rainy day, and a peat fire was burning as we sipped. The Jacobean bar, flagstone floor, and black Lab sleeping by an open fire really set the tone. I could have comfortably settled in there for the rest of the afternoon.
Wendy had a Talisker (distilled right there on Skye), which has a smokey peaty flavor as well as a maritime taste that’s hard to put into words; try and imagine hints of fresh sea air, and dried seaweed.
Our guide for the tour was from Caithness, where some of my people came from. He suggested I try Old Pulteney which is distilled in Wick. I did, and I loved it. So much so that we are planning to visit that distillery on our next trip. It’s crisp, lighter, and definitely has a maritime flavor.
“Today’s rain is tomorrow’s whisky.” Scottish Proverb
We booked a day trip for a Stirling Castle and Whisky Small Group Day Tour from Edinburgh that took us to Stirling Castle, Loch Lomond, and included a stop at the Glengoyne Distillery, located in Dumgoyne. I won’t go into all the distillery details here, but will say if you have any interest at all in Scotch whisky, the tour was well worth it. We were shown the process and learned of the artistry as well as the mechanics of the craft. The whisky tasting tour enlightened, entertained, and treated us to some outstanding examples of single malt. The gift shop was also well stocked with glassware, souvenirs, and woolens.
Harris Tweed Flasks
I may have a small Harris Tweed addiction. That said, filling a flask that matches one’s bag is a delightfully tasteful indulgence, in both senses of the word 😉
You just never know when a bit of a sip will suit the occasion. My great-grandmother used to keep some nearby, strictly for medicinal purposes. It was supposedly good for her joints <3. We enjoyed a wee nip to help chase the chill away while watching the Military tattoo at Fort George. We also poured a bit of Old Pulteney from a flask over a locket containing Mom's ashes, then drank to her memory while visiting Dunnottar Castle. We honored our mother’s memory, our Scottish heritage, and gained a much fuller appreciation of Scotch.
The Fraser Connection
Fraser of Lovat is a highland clan that originated in France. Outlander fans know that Clan Fraser’s motto is “Je Suis Prest”, French for “I am Ready”. How many also know that strawberry is “fraise” in French? All this brings us to a delicious blend of Scotch and wild strawberry called Frasier of Scotland, created by John Smith (who was previously Head Blender at Glenmorangie).
While shopping on the Royal Mile we were offered a sample. That was all it took. We were sold. Technically, this is a liqueur rather than a whisky. I don’t care what it’s called, it is delicious, and the perfect beverage to enjoy while watching an episode (or season) of the dashing Highlander Jamie Frasier in Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series.
A Toast – Slàinte Mhath
It makes perfect sense that the “water of life” be used to toast to “good health”. Watch the following video to learn how to pronounce it the Outlander way.
All good things
By the end of our vacation, we’d sampled several fine Scotch whiskies, and our appreciation for the drink and the culture had grown immensely. Don’t be afraid to ask a local for their opinion if you are unsure what to try. Every time we did so, we got great advice. We found the Scots to be very warm and friendly in most circumstances, but even more so when you show a genuine interest in their opinion and knowledge of one of their finest contributions to the world.