Scotland's Whisky Trail
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A dilapidated home on the border of Scotland and England

A wee bit of liquid gold: Scotland's "Whisky Trail"
By Tim McDonald

BALLINDALLOCH, Scotland – Before I take a sip of the amber-colored liquid, I wave it under my nose and savor the aroma. Then, that ritual done, it makes the short trip to my mouth. The taste is sublime, as I knew it would be, the warmth spreading like the early sun warming a new day. The nose knows, but the tongue has all the fun.

What to do in Scotland

The Scots lay claim to inventing the game of golf and single malt whisky (they drop the "e") and they're equally proud of both, and sometimes combine the two. The inventor of whisky may be up to debate, but it was in Ireland that the first historical mention of whisky is made. That came in 1405 and the distillers, wouldn't you know it, were monks. But, malt whisky was born in the Scottish Highlands, where it was once considered illegal. Now, the "Whisky Trail" is a tourist attraction, with single malt fans coming in from all points of the compass. I happen to be on a golf trip, but the call of the root of the barley beckons and I can rarely resist. A wee dram before dinner aids the digestion.
If you've ever thought about taking a tour of the Whisky Trail, be aware it could take a good chunk of your life – and your liver -- to visit all of the country's distilleries. Also, be aware that this isn't a boisterous party circuit. If you're looking to overindulge, you might want to look for the local pub. The Speyside region is where most of the action is for single malt connoisseurs, but the Lowlands, Islay and Campbeltown also are worthwhile places to visit and enjoy a taste. A bonus is the fantastic scenery, with visits to Highland towns like Newtonmore, Kingussie, Aviemore, Boat of Garten, Carrbridge, Grantown and Nethy Bridge. September is a good month to go, when the whisky festivals are generally held. So, if you have a week or so, here are some suggestions, all in Speyside.

It takes me a while to arrive at the Glenlivet distillery, since it is situated in one of the more remote places on Scotland's Whisky Trail. That was sort of the idea when founder George Smith started the distillery, to steer clear of the "excise men." It's high up here and cold as the tops of the Caingorm Mountains, which lie to the south, and Ben Rinnes, a mountain in the region of Moray, to the North. I bundle up, ready to surrender myself to the warmth of the malt. The distillery was originally built near a place called Josie's Well, which is a natural spring. This is the best-selling single malt in the U.S., and the brand I usually prefer back home.
The Glenfiddich ("Valley of the Deer" in Gaelic) distillery is rather touristy, but since I'm a tourist, I take it in stride. This is a serious operation. They have two tours here, a free one and a paid one, where connoisseurs finish up with a tutored "nosing." I pay up and don't squawk. You might want to consider paying a visit to the nearby castles, as I did, before enjoying the distillery tour.

Speyside Cooperage isn't technically a distillery, though it has "tastings." In fact, this is the only working "cooperage," which involves the ancient art of handcrafting barrels, in the United Kingdom. So imagine my surprise when I'm chatting with a fellow single malt fan, an elderly though elegant Scot who is returning to his homeland after an absence of nearly 20 years, when he tells me that the casks are imported from the U.S. It turns out these casks were used to age bourbon.
A good bet here is to stay in Keith, which some of the locals still refer to as Bannfshire, and take the bus to Strathisla, which is what I do, after checking out the tartan museum. The town, in the northeast of Scotland, can trace its origins back to 1180, and Strathisla is the oldest working distillery in the Highlands. It's also home to Chivas Regal.

This was one of my favorite tours because I got lucky and was shown around on the tour by a "stillman," or "mashman," the actual craftsmen who sometimes act as guides. It isn't as sophisticated as, say the Glenlive ot tour, but I enjoy lounging around the lovely courtyard. I also have a great time just hanging around the River Lossie in Elgin, the capital of Speyside. My only regret is that I haven't brought my fishing tackle: the river teems with salmon and trout.

Another small but worthwhile distillery tour is Benromach in Forres, the smallest in Speyside in fact. There is the ubiquitous gift shop and museum and you can watch a video in the "wee nook." Prince Charles was there for the official re-opening of the distillery, after it had been closed for decades. To conclude your tour – if you're having a wee bout with your conscience – you can always go to the Birnie Church, which claims to be the oldest surviving church in Scotland. It's a little off the beaten path, about three miles south of Elgin, and has beautiful stained-glass windows.

Continue to: Oktoberfest or take a Roman Holiday.

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