It was a bright spring morning, and a warm one for Scotland, when we set out from Edinburgh across the Firth of Forth and into the fabled highlands in search of the ancient cultures and traditions of uisge beatha, the Water of Life – Scotch whisky. We motored past craggy hillsides looming over verdant glens sprinkled with countless white sheep, and finally, as we neared Pitlochry in Highland Perthshire, we came upon a cluster of tidy whitewashed stone buildings alongside a sparkling burn (stream).
This is Edradour, which proudly proclaims itself to be the “smallest traditional distillery” still operating in Scotland, a ‘farm’ distillery – read, small scale – that produces over 25 distinctive single malt whiskies. We soon met up with our kilted host, one John Galt (yes, Ayn Rand fans, that’s actually his name) and it soon became apparent that John is more than a tour guide – he’s a whisky evangelist. His enthusiasm for Scotland’s national drink is infectious and his presentation wove a sort of magic spell around both Edradour and the spirits produced here.
The process of making Scotch whisky is not that remarkably different from distilling other spirits – but there are unique features. The basics are some kind of grain, yeast, water and a still. In the case of Scotch whisky, the grain is always malted barley and the still is always in Scotland. Other Scotch-like liquids are concocted elsewhere in the world, but – like Champagne from Champagne, France, or Jack Daniels from Lynchburg, Tennessee – the only Scotch whisky comes from somewhere in Scotland.
The barley is malted, which is a complex process of drying, wetting, cooking and cooling that produces a grain chocked full of sugars, perfect for squeezing out lots of alcohol. Heating, or kilning, the barley during the malting process requires fuel, and in Scotland, where there are very few trees, distillers turned instead to peat from the country’s plenteous peat bogs as their primary fuel source. The regional differences in the peat smoke create rather distinctive flavor differences between, say, the whiskies from the Highlands versus the Isle of Islay.
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