A line from my favourite British comedy series, Little Britain, keeps coming into my head: "If you're thinking of going on holiday and the Arctic is fully booked, why not try Scotland?" As the rain blurs the windshield into a grey-green smear, the sentiment seems spot-on. True to the spirit of Scotland, we've decided the best way to handle such a dismal day is with booze, and plenty of it. However, as my Glaswegian uncle turns in at the gates of the Glengoyne distillery, about 25 kilo metres north of Glasgow, I wonder if our choice of liquor was the right one.
My Irish granddad always used to prescribe a nip of whiskey to cure whatever was ailing me. I was probably a bit of a disappointment to him, since I never did acquire a taste for the stuff. But Glengoyne, in the Campsie Hills east of Loch Lomond, bills itself as "Scotland's most beautiful distillery", and even on a sodden morning such as this I can easily believe it's true. Nestled beside the lush, rolling hills of the Scottish Highlands, the whitewashed buildings of the distillery glisten in the drizzle like a string of pearls. So maybe the whisky's not going to enchant me, but how bad could a distillery tour be with scenery this gorgeous?
We make our way to the reception centre, a red brick mansion crawling with ivy. The leather chairs creak as we sit and are greeted by our tour leader, John Ponting, who speaks with a disappointingly English rather than Scottish accent but wins back a few points with his wisecracks and tacky tartan trousers.
I sniff at the taster he hands me and then risk a sip. It goes down surprisingly smoothly. There's none of the burning, eye-watering agony I've come to expect from sampling rye and bourbon–just a warming sensation and a rich, sweet aftertaste. This is the real thing: 10-year-old single-malt Scotch.
The reception centre looks out over a small, tranquil lake called a lochan, the water from which is used to cool Glengoyne's stills. The distillers here say they make their best whisky in the winter because that's when the temperature of the lochan is exactly right. In fact, they consider their summer whisky so subpar that they sell it to companies that blend it.
At this point, Ponting wants to make sure we know when to choose a run-of-the-mill blended whisky over a top-of-the-line single malt.
"If you want to add a mixer, you use blended whisky. Never put pop in with single malt," he says, waving around a bottle of the 10-year-old. "So what can you put into a single malt?"
"Water," offers an Englishman at the back of the room.
"Water's fine," Ponting agrees. "But whatever whisky you try, always taste it before adding water. Water can ruin it. What else can you add to single-malt whisky?"
"More whisky," suggests my uncle. Ponting approves of this answer so much that his only response is to pour another couple of inches into my uncle's glass.
Although the Irish and the Scottish have long argued over who invented whisky, the drink is unquestionably entwined with Scottish heritage. According to Ponting, in the old days, most Scottish farmers distilled their own barley spirit. People paid their rent and took their wages in whisky. However, increasing taxation through the 18th century forced most stills underground, and of the 18 illegal stills in the Glengoyne area, only one survived, which evolved into the distillery that stands today.
We head out into the yard. The pagoda-style roof, the distillery's most distinctive feature, is used to draw hot air up and dry the just-sprouting barley, which, along with water and yeast, is one of the basic ingredients in any whisky. This natural drying process is unusual, as most Scotch distilleries use peat fires to dry their barley. Glengoyne credits this lack of peat for its whisky's clear, bright, distinctive flavour.
The dried grain is ground up and run through with hot water, which passes into one of six large wooden containers called washbacks. It's then combined with yeast, which eats the malt sugars in the barley and produces alcohol. In the yeasty fog of the washback room, Ponting explains that Glengoyne's washbacks are made of Oregon pine. Other distilleries use stainless-steel washbacks, he says, but the good bacteria on wooden washbacks help the process.
The process also produces carbon dioxide, which, at industrial complexes, is used to carbonate soda. At Glengoyne, the surrounding trees use the CO2, which helps maintain the lush forest surrounding the distillery. The leftover barley, called grist, has vitamins added and is used as cow feed.
"This is Scotland," explains Ponting. "Not much is wasted here." The same reason, perhaps, why Scottish distillers skip that "e" at the end of whisky?
He opens the lid of one of the washbacks and urges us to take a whiff.
"A good deep breath," he says with a wink. You can tell the people who don't follow that instruction–they bob back up murmuring "Mmm”¦" as they catch a slight yeasty, beery aroma. The suckers who breathe deeply come up coughing from the blast of searing, sinus-clearing gas.
The next step is distillation, which Ponting describes as "the sexy bit", owing, I suppose, to the curvy silhouette cut by the copper stills. The vapours from the alcohol rise, move through the pipe, are cooled by lake water, and turn back to liquid. Glengoyne claims to have the slowest distillers in the industry, which take up to three-and-a-half hours to complete the process.
Finally, the spirit is casked and sits for 10 years. Glengoyne's oak casks come from Portugal and Spain and have all previously held sherry for a minimum of three years. This allows the clear spirit to draw colour and flavour from the sherry and the wood. It also becomes infused with the flavour of Scotland: whisky distillers nationwide say that during the whisky's time in the cask, it picks up the spirit of the country. At Glengoyne, the whisky takes on the flavours of the barley and the oak, the water–which travels through the southern Highlands and is filtered through the hills beside Glengoyne–and even, they say, the wind that blows through the glen. Maudlin, certainly, but irresistibly romantic, too, and somehow, wholly Scottish.
Up to two percent of the casked spirit is lost each year to evaporation. The master blenders at Glengoyne call it "the angels' share".
Back in the tasting room, Ponting tells us that whisky doesn't improve once it's out of the cask and in the bottle. "If you buy a bottle of 10-year-old Scotch and keep it for 10 years, you won't get 20-year-old Scotch," he says. "So what's the best thing to do with a bottle of 10-year-old Scotch?"
"Drink it," my uncle calls out.
So we do. This time I'm looking forward to my taster, and Glengoyne's 17-year-old single-malt, voted the world's best Highland malt by Whiskey Magazine, helps smooth away the final rough edges of the morning. Whisky's not difficult to drink after all, I discover. You just have to drink the good stuff.
ACCESS: Glengoyne Distillery offers several tours, beginning at the equivalent of about $10 for a tour with a single taster and ranging up to about $225 for the comprehensive Glengoyne Masterclass. The tour described above cost about $15 and included two tastings. For more information, visit Glengoyne's Web site at www.glengoyne.com/