- The Washington Times - Friday, June 6, 2003

BALLINDALLOCH, Scotland — We were barely out of the car, but the distinctive aroma of Scottish whiskey was already hard to ignore, permeating the fresh air — and the parking lot — outside the Glenfarclas Distillery.

The smell, a heady infusion of yeast and malt, was one my husband and I quickly learned to recognize as we traveled along what Scotland’s tourism board calls the Malt whiskey trail.

The route passes through the Speyside region, one of four whiskey-producing regions in Scotland and home to whiskey distilleries, including Glenfiddich, the Macallan and the Balvenie.

Scotland takes great pride in its whiskey — and spells it “whisky” — which is also known as Scotch, and is eager to show off to visitors — even those like me, who are more enamored with the history of the drink, rather than the actual beverage.

Tourist centers are stocked with brochures touting distilleries and other helpful information.

There are also signs on the major roads to help drivers find their way to distilleries, even in areas not known for their whiskey production.

Our first whiskey-related stop wasn’t at a distillery, though, but the Scotch Whisky Heritage Centre, an industry association in Edinburgh, about three hours drive south of Speyside and far from most distilleries. The tour, which costs about $12 for adults and $6 for children, begins with a whiskey tasting (or juice for those too young to drink) and is followed by a high-tech — albeit campy and Disneyfied — tour.

A series of special effects, including a hologram, are used to explain how whiskey is made, the difference between single-malts and blended versions and how techniques and tastes vary from region to region.

The highlight of the tour is a whiskey-barrel ride through life-size dioramas that recount the history of whiskey-making. The tour concludes in the tasting room, where, for a fee, visitors can choose from more than 200 whiskies. If you’re already a whiskey aficionado, the center might be an experience to skip — but it’s worth a stop for those interested in an introduction to the beverage.

The setup at the actual whiskey distilleries was more familiar, similar in many ways to wineries found in California wine country. Many distilleries have visitor centers with snack and gift shops.

For $5 to $6 per person, visitors can tour production facilities and savor a “wee dram” of whiskey before departing. Some distilleries are within walking distance, but in most cases you need a car.

We ended up visiting three distilleries — Dallas Dhu and Glenfarclas in Speyside and Ben Nevis in Fort William in western Scotland.

Dallas Dhu was built in 1899 but is no longer in operation. It went out of business in the 1980s and was bought by the Scottish Trust, a historical society that preserved it as an example of old-style methods of whiskey making. Our self-guided audio tour, which was available in five languages, took us through the distillery and past the various machines used to make whiskey.

Afterward, we watched a video about the distillery’s history and sampled whiskey that had been blended from what remains of Dallas Dhu’s output. The whiskey didn’t particularly impress us, but we enjoyed the tour — particularly seeing a malting floor.

Historically, distilleries processed barley into malt, a key ingredient of Scottish whiskey, themselves. Today, though, the majority order malted barley from outside sources.

The tour was even better, though, at Glenfarclas. We arrived on a quiet weekday morning and, since we were the only visitors around, got a private tour from a three—decade veteran of whiskey making. The distillery had just resumed operations after a summer break (something many distilleries do and a factor to consider when planning a trip), so the operation was not fully running, but there was still plenty to learn.

This tour was more technical, with a focus on the factors that influence a whiskey’s taste, the significance of the Hershey Kiss-shaped stills used to distill the alcohol, and discussion of the whiskey business today.

When it came time to try some whiskey, our guide showed us how to sniff it and identify the smoky flavor that comes from the peat used to make malted barley. Our tasting was delicious, although it also was a blended whiskey. In the Scotch hierarchy, blends are a cheaper, less prized alternative to single-malts, which only use one distillery’s whiskey. As a result, most of the free tastings offered at distilleries are blends.

Our final distillery visit was to the Ben Nevis distillery. More campiness was the order of the day, as visitors were ushered into a small screening room to learn about the legend of “the Dew of Ben Nevis” — the key ingredient in the whiskey’s taste. The film features a giant, aptly named Hector McDram, who narrates the legend of Ben Nevis, Britain’s highest mountain.

Afterward, there is a tour of the facility and a free tasting (well, not actually free; the tour had cost about $3 per person) of one of the distillery’s blends. For a few more dollars, visitors can also sample the distillery’s more premium offerings.

We also stopped at the Speyside Cooperage to get a lesson in the way the barrels used to age whiskey are made.

It turns out the bulk of the barrels are recycled from either the United States, where they were used in bourbon production, or Spain, where they are used in sherry production. The Scottish distilleries can use the barrels more than a dozen times, so there is demand for repair and customization work.

The tour was informative, but if you just want to taste whiskey, it should be skipped.

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