There’s no other way to explore a place whose culture is so intertwined with fine beverages than through a glass. That’s especially true of Scotland from both a whisky and beer standpoint.
For me, a trip is a complete failure if it’s so over-planned that I don’t actually learn anything during the journey. I’d rather be surprised, in a good way or even in a bad way. It’s all a part of the experience. Luckily, there were unexpected twists and turns as I traversed the Highlands and the Lowlands in search of a really good drink. I returned to the states a bit wiser having learned…
“Legally drunk” is now 0.05% BAC in Scotland.
Quite a sobering thing (pun intended) to learn when you’re driving from distillery to distillery and brewery to brewery. It’s a recent change and not a particularly fair one. It’s still 0.08% in the rest of the United Kingdom. Scotland always gets the shaft. I was still able to have small tastes here and there. But on my last stop, Glengoyne Distillery, the tasting room guy told me that under the new law you could have a single pint of beer (of typically low-ABV British beer, mind you), drive a half hour later and be breaking the law. I found that highly suspect. But even though I didn’t feel it, I probably broke the law every day for a week straight. Of course I didn’t see a single cop the entire seven days.
There is no better way to visit distilleries and breweries than driving.
Sure, Edinburgh has a shuttle bus to Glenkinchie and Glasgow offers service to Glengoyne because those are uncharacteristically close to major cities. The rest are in the middle of nowhere. I originally planned to travel around by train. That would’ve been a completely naïve thing to do (not to mention very disappointing).
That’s not the easiest thing to do in January.
On each day’s road trip, I’d drive through rain, snow, sleet and a few weather conditions that meteorologists probably haven’t even named yet. Plowing is virtually non existent. An entire lane of a motorway would be completely undriveable with a mere three inches of snow on it. And that’s if I was lucky enough to be on a two-lane road. Many of the routes to distilleries were on treacherous rural paths that wrapped around the sides of steep hills. At one point while I was en route to the Cardhu distillery in the Speyside region, a small boulder that had rolled down a cliff onto the road in front of me. There was no way to get around it without driving off the road to my likely demise, so I had to get out of the car and push it out of the way—it probably weighed 400 pounds.
For that reason, no one else is visiting distilleries.
Even when I didn’t set up an appointment to meet with a distillery manager, I got a private tour. They just seemed happy to see another human being.
Breweries are happy for the company, as well.
Black Isle Brewing Co. is situated on a remote farm 15 or so miles from any semblance of civilization where black sheep far outnumber humans. The tour guide/tasting room manager enthusiastically greeted us in a manner that I would guess is not unlike the welcome an astronaut would get at the International Space Station from a cosmonaut who’s been there on a year-long solo mission. When we were leaving, our car skidded off the snow-covered dirt road and got stuck on top of yet another rock. (I may or may not have had my hands off the wheel while I was eating a small cup of honeycomb-flavored ice cream—yes, in winter—that was for sale in the tasting room.) Fortunately, this being a farm, there was a tractor nearby and one of the farmers was able to tow us off of the rock. Black Isle’s 100 percent organic beers are quite good (particularly the Blonde and the Porter) and pretty easy to find throughout northern Scotland.
And speaking of beer, real ale is alive and well.
Despite the virtual ubiquity of products from notoriously anti-cask BrewDog, cask-conditioned ales are still very much the norm throughout Scotland, even among the new craft outfits that have popped up over the past decade or so. They’re all very proud of their real ale culture—even the brewers I’d characterize as millennials—so the notion that those in the younger generation think real ale is “granddad’s beer,” is a complete fallacy, at least in Scotland (England is another story entirely).
But it’s nothing compared with the whisky.
58.7% ABV Edradour Straight from the Cask 11-year-old Sherry Finish. Wow. Just wow.