We’re off to see Scotland’s Isle of Skye – taking yet another path through the Highlands – and whiskey distilleries are on the way! I’m excited: I love learning experiences. First stop is for whiskey, in the small town of Pitlochry. Just outside the town is Blair Athol Distillery, which makes a 12-yr old single malt – but in very limited quantities. Almost
all of the production of this smooth and mellow scotch is used in their Bell’s Blend whiskey, probably the most popular blend in the UK – it’s prominently featured in all the bars. Like almost all Scotch distilleries, pictures of their internal processes are forbidden, but I’ve included a picture of two of their stills (above ) from their website. I’ve described the process of making Scotch in an earlier post (“Oban, and the Highlands I“, Aug 31, 2015).
But wait! There’s another distillery nearby, the Edradour Distillery, the smallest in Scotland. It’s maybe an hour walk uphill, through woods, and off I go (Ginger opts out since the skies are threatening). It’s a great walk through pretty woods and includes a side
trail to the “Black Spout”, a nice waterfall (shown above). The fields here are beautifully pastoral, and in this gloomy light are not just green but impossibly green.
Edradour Distillery is as charming as a distillery can be, nestled in a picturesque setting in the middle of nowhere. It’s one of the few independently owned distilleries left in Scotland, and prides itself on using a minimum of machinery. Unlike other distilleries, this one allows photos! So now I can show you the interior! The first two pictures below show the two-story vats where mashing and fermentation occur. The vats are wood! I’ve only seen stainless before. Fermentation goes to about 8% alcohol (and has a strong beer aroma). The fermented “wash” then undergoes double distillation. The two
stills in the following pictures (stills for the 1st and 2nd distillations) have noticeably different shapes. The first distillation produces a “low wine” condensate, alcohol content around 20%. That picture of glass chambers shows where the condensate from the second still is separated into “cuts” – the stillman physically throws a lever to direct the flowing distillate to different places. The lower alcohol 1st cut (the “head” and the higher alcohol 3rd cut (the “tail”) are returned to the still for further distillation; the middle “heart” cut is the good stuff, which goes to American bourbon barrels to age for about a decade. One of the distillery’s clever use of resources is the creek that zooms through their property. It’s the source of their water, of course, but it’s also used to form the still’s condensate; the cooling pipes from the still are looped into the steam’s running water. Now, with yummy
Scotch in my tummy, there is a nice downhill walk home through that luscious green landscape.
We travel onward, and we’re back in the Highlands for sure, at the base of Cairngorms National Park. It’s beautiful, but also stark, treeless, barren, empty. Further on, still at the edge of Cairngorms, what do we find? Whoppeee, Dalwhinne Distillery! It’s one of the highest in Scotland (at 1200 ft above the sea, Scotland thinks it’s high. But let’s be clear; it’s not much higher than Cleveland). Another whiskey tour, another tasting,
another great learning experience! Good stuff.
On! On! We’re now on a broad plain, but mountains beckon in the distance. As we enter a hilly region, we encounter our first coo, a hardy breed of shaggy, red-coated cattle that survives well in these hostile Highlands. With their long hair and rakish look they’re adorable! Not often one can say that about a cow.
We’ve left the national park, but the landscape keeps getting more beautiful, with lakes and rivers everywhere.
We come to a long lake (Loch Laggan? Lochy?) and decide to take a short hike. It’s pretty, with birch trees, ferns, moss and even a small waterfall.
As we travel further there are even more lakes, but in the distance we begin to see the bare, spare hills of the Highlands.
And then we’re in a Highland moor, defined by its openness, poor drainage, and
ubiquitous heather. It has a rugged, other-worldly beauty. Have you noticed that the skies are threatening in all of the pictures in this post? Apparently that’s the norm; the inn shown above has a brochure that reads “And when you’ve had a long day on the hills, you can relax in warmth and comfort in our lounge and whisky bar … and get a refreshing night’s sleep while your equipment dries off, ready for the next day’s activities.” My italics.
More Highland scenery.
In the early 1200’s the Eilean Donan Castle was built on a small island at the strategic junction where 3 sea lochs meet, likely as a defense against Viking raids. It became a stronghold of the MacKenzie Clan and their allies the MacRae Clan. Today it’s one of Scotland’s more beautiful castles due to it’s picturesque location; indeed, it has become
an iconic image of Scotland. It comes with some history (of course; this is Europe). When James IV of Scotland tried to exert his authority over outlying clans in early 1500, sending an Earl and garrison to take Eilean Donan, they were defeated by the Mackenzies (10 years later son James V was peacefully hosted at the castle). In 1539 Clan MacDonald sent 50 ships against Eilean Donan, attempting to claim “King of the Isles”, but just 3 men within the castle repelled the attack (two surviving). In 1719 Eilean Donan was used as a supply base for the Jacobite army and a garrison for its Spanish allies, but government frigates (48-gun and 44-gun) bombarded it, captured it, took the castle’s own gunpowder and blew it up; a month later the Jacobite army was defeated just a few miles away. 200 years later a MacRae descendant restored the castle to its present state. The pictures below show a peek inside.
These last pictures show Loch Alsh and the mountains (big hills, really) of the Isle of Skye in the distance.
Next post – the beautiful Isle of Skye!