I thought it was the water that gave Scotch whisky its unique character. The whisky has often been imitated but never equalled. The water does play a vital role but there is more to it than just that, as I found out on my recent visit to Speyside.
This was my first trip to Scotland. The land of kilts, haggis and whisky is different from its southern neighbour. It is friendlier, remote but not isolated and spectacularly beautiful. Scotland has a population of only five million. You can drive for miles and not see a soul, only sheep. My flight landed in Aberdeen, once a fishing port. These days the city's economy is dependent on the oil rigs in the North Sea. It's a rather drab place where everything, including the roads, is built of granite, grey and dull. But it is a good springboard for visiting the distilleries.
On a warm and sunny day, I passed through picturesque rolling hills. The barley had just been harvested and it gave the empty fields a fine, golden tint. The road meandered through pretty villages, forested hills and past ancient castles. Spey, the river that gives the area its name, turned out to be little more than a stream by our standards. It has an abundance of trout and salmon if you like to fish.
I stopped at Elgin to take in the ruins of what was once Scotland's most beautiful cathedral. The cemetery holds the grave of Sir Mountstuart Elphinstone who was the British Resident in Satara 200 years ago. The cathedral seemed too exalted a burial place for a minor official of the Raj.Speyside is a sub-division of the Highlands. It is the heart of the whisky region with over 50 distilleries. Most of the famous ones are here. My first order of business was at Strathisla, an old-fashioned distillery in Keith and one of Scotland's oldest. The building itself, with a gabled roof and twin pagodas, has an attractive look. The distillery is small with two stills and yet manages to produce 2.5 million litres of whisky annually. Their 12-year-old single malt is nice and fruity. It is sold under the Strathisla label but you will have a hard time finding it. This distillery has been the spiritual home of Chivas Regal since 1950. Almost all its whisky goes by tankers to Glasgow where it disappears, together with grain whisky, into bottles of that famous brand.
I learnt something new in Scotland. They do not blend whiskies in the Highlands. They concentrate on producing malts, only malts, fermented and distilled from barley. All the blending, bottling and packing is done in the plains. Why do they blend whisky? A good question. Blended whisky is a combination of whisky made from barley and whisky made from other grains, usually maize. Blending does bring the price of the bottle down since maize is cheaper. But there is more to it than that.
The people in Scotland have been producing and drinking malt whiskies for centuries. In the rest of the world it is a recent craze. The first single malt bottle was sold in London only in 1965. Until then, everyone outside Scotland drank only blended whisky. The Scots thought the robust flavour of the malt whisky would be too much for foreigners unless it was softened by mixing it with whisky made from other grains. Nowadays, both kinds of whisky thrive together, though blended continues to outsell malts by a wide margin. It has 90 per cent of the market.
My next stop was the Glenlivet distillery in a narrow valley in a far corner of Speyside. You have to make an effort to get to this idyllic setting but the ride is worth it. The site was originally chosen because it was perfect for distilling moonshine, illicit whisky, and that is exactly what George Smith, the owner, did until he went legal in 1824. Today, the distillery produces six million bottles. Glenlivet is the world's second largest selling single malt. Unlike Strathisla distillery, Glenlivet has a substantial industrial unit clad in shining steel. There are ten copper stills within the complex, shaped like lamp shades with broad bottoms and long narrow necks. I was told that their shape results in Glenlivet's friendly, smooth taste. The bottles range from 12 to 25 year olds.
The distillery hosts over 200,000 visitors a year. The tour is free and so are the tastings. The profit comes from those who buy a bottle or two, or souvenirs, on the way out.
I visited four distilleries altogether; one was Aberlour, another single malt establishment though its label is nowhere as nearly famous as Glenlivet's. The other was Glenburgie, further north, that restricts itself to supplying malts for Ballantine's, a blend that is beginning to hit the Indian market. All the four distilleries have one thing in common, they are close to a steady supply of excellent water from wells, springs and streams. And it is not just any water. Now, let me tell you a thing or two about water they use in making Scotch.
When a new distillery is planned, the character of the water available nearby is the prime consideration in the choice of the site. There are a number of reasons why whiskies from different distilleries do not taste the same. Water is one of them. Water is used to germinate and ferment the barley. It is added later to lower the strength of the whisky after it is distilled to bring it down to a more drinkable level, around 40 percent alcohol. The water that ends up in the distillery would have travelled underground from granite mountains, through peat, moss, and land rich in minerals. If it has passed through heather-growing moorlands, the distillery that uses it is likely to produce a whisky with a somewhat floral taste.
Of course there are other factors that influence the taste. The shape of the still is one of them. It is also helpful that Scotland grows some of the world's best barley. The Scots are very selective. Any grain that does not meet their approval is discarded and ends up as animal feed. The manner in which the whisky is aged is extremely important. The barrels the Scots use are always oak and not just any oak. They import barrels from United States, Portugal, Spain and France after they have been used to store and age bourbon, port sherry or cognac. The whisky acquires added flavours this way and also its colour, since the stuff that comes out of the stills is colourless.
The trip was a learning experience but also fun. I stayed two nights at Archiestown Hotel in Speyside. It was more of an inn than a hotel with only 11 rooms. The service was personalised and very hospitable. I had a superb dinner of Angus beef. Afterwards, the guests retired to the lounge with the couple who own it for an impromptu party. Someone introduced himself to me, rather shyly, as being born in Poona and educated at Lawrence School in Lovedale. This was when it was meant exclusively for children of British army officers.
It was a rousing night. We exchanged ribald jokes and flirted while my friend, Alex Robertson, ordered a bottle of Lochan Ora, a delicious but elusive whisky-based liqueur. We drank till the wee hours. Next morning, I had a breakfast of kedgeree, a traditional British dish from its colonial past. It is their version of our khichdi. And is made with rice, curry powder, pieces of smoked haddock and topped with a fried egg. Delicious. As the world knows, give a Gujarati khichdi, or something resembling it, and he is in heaven!
Drinking the right way
In Scotland they take their whisky neat, on its own at room temperature, or they add a little bit of water. The Scottish climate is very different from ours. Indians prefer to add club soda and ice to blended whisky. I see nothing wrong with that as long as you don't dilute the whisky too much. My personal preference is to drink it on the rocks, with just ice. As for single malt whisky, never, ever, drown it in club soda. Add a few drops of ice cold water. That will tame some of the spirit's fire and help bring out the aroma and flavours. If you must, add one ice cube. One only! I am making the allowance for our weather.
When to go
Between May and September, the weather is at its best. Daylight lingers past 9 pm.
There are no direct flights to Scotland. Change planes in London or hop on the train. There are bus tours to the distilleries from Edinburgh, Inverness and Aberdeen but the bus may not get you to the distillery of your choice. It's best to rent a car.
Where to stay
Archiestown Hotel in Archiestown village is in the heart of Speyside. It has comfortable rooms and a superb restaurant. (Phone: 44-1340 810218). If you prefer to stay in a town, Dufftown has nine distilleries around it with hotels and bed and breakfast places to suit all pockets.