Updated: Sep 10, 2019
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Bagpipes, tartan cloth, sheep, mysterious castles, Nessie, haggis, whisky ... so many words to remind a nation full of history!
Scotland, what a mysterious destination for many of us! When mentioning this nation in the north of British Islands, our mind gets full of legends and green landscapes scenery images. And yes, this nation, the most northerly of the United Kingdom, includes a wide variety of mountainous wilderness like the Cairngorms and Northwest Highlands, interspersed with glacial glen (valleys) and lochs (lakes) but also many small islands for which whisky brought reputation: the Isle of Skye known for Talisker whisky, the island of Jura or the island of Islay, famous for its peaty whiskies, from which we can name famous labels like Laphroaig, Caol Ila or Lagavulin.
Like many people dreaming of a traditional Scottish journey, we traveled through the major touristic spots of the country in a rental car to discover the main places that have made the international reputation of this nation. We began with an impressive discovery of a fortification wall built by the Romans between 122 and 127 AD under the emperor Hadrian. This wall of 80 Roman miles long (about 117.5 km) used to mark the border of Scotland with England. Welcome to Lanercost to discover the Hadrian’s wall and enter to the heart of Scotland.
Our discovery tour of Scotland begins with a mix of cities and nature. Let's start with a first stop on the vibrant and industrial city of Glasgow! What a great sighting: this city with its long industrial history and exponential social and demographic development during the 19th century is full of entertaining activities across the streets: pubs, bands of musicians, bagpipe training for the festival to come ...
Oriented towards culture, the city offers many free access museums, that worth a visit from any kind of visitor profile: the Scottish Opera, the Scottish ballet, the national theatre, the cathedral along with its impressive cemetery or the People's Palace. The People's Palace is a museum dedicated to the history of the people of Glasgow and the development of the activities that make the city of today. The People’s Palace will bring you an understanding of why the locals are so welcoming and connected together by a sense of brotherhood.
Even if you're not a big fan of Art, walk past the Duke of Wellington's statue with a construction zone sign on his head and step inside the Greek style temple to see what's new at the Museum of Modern Art at Royal Exchange Square. This port city, crossed by the Clyde River in the lowlands of western Scotland, is famous for its Victorian and Art Nouveau architecture. This architecture is richly inherited from the prosperity of the city from the 18th to the 20th centuries around the trade and shipbuilding sectors. After a walk in the streets, a small gastronomic stop at the fabulous restaurant The Citizen is highly recommended to try locally brewed beers and the famous “haggis”, the sheep's lung presented on a black pudding toast!
Then, let's go for what we imagined of Scotland: green, calm and green ... Welcome to the heart of wildlife while crossing the Cairngorms National Park: valleys, small mountains, forests, cattle with massive horns and sheep as far as the eye can see! Before arriving to the city of Inverness in the north of Scotland, have a stop at Blair Atholl to enjoy bread and scones, freshly baked in a traditional watermill. The entrance is like a museum with objects and informative panels tracing the history of this home-made flour (Blair Atholl Watermill). Finally arrived in Inverness, it is an opportunity to cruise on the famous Loch Ness, searching for the legendary Nessie and then finish your day wandering on the banks of the Ness Walk in the charming city of Inverness and its beautiful castle. The following day will be dedicated to exploring the famous distilleries in the eastern region, in the Speyside area, around the River Spey, not far from the city of Elgin with names of well-known cities (or rather villages) such as Aberlour, Cardhu, Knockando ...
Continue your journey to the famous Isle of Skye for a full programme: ocean, nature, wildlife, long hours of walking to discover breathtaking landscapes such as the Old Man of storr path track. Also, let’s have some tours of famous castles defended from generation to generation by each clan like the McLeod clan in the heart of Dunvegan castle or the opposing clan with the castle of Armadale.
We take the ferry from the south of the island to reach Mallaig and follow a road lined with new landscapes and spectacular views over the lochs. The numerous light variations according to the sun's rays throughout the day and the sunset create an inimitable atmosphere.
Stop along the way to some spectacular spots including the famous passing of the legendary Jacobite steam train (filmed in the famous Harry Potter series) on the viaduct near Glenfinnan Station. Do not hesitate to take a small 'homemade' snack aboard a railway wagon that remains mobile at the entrance to the train station, in a chic second-hand decor for a guaranteed 1960's atmosphere: the Glenfinnan Dining Car. Then, again, plan a stopover around the city of Glencoe. And if you have time, take 2 to 3 hours to make a twisty climb with your hiking shoes to reach the top of "the devil's staircase" path: at the top, a 360 ° view over the lochs is guaranteed with an absolute silence except wildlife ! We end our journey with a 2-day visit to the Scottish capital: Edinburgh and a tour of its famous castle, home to the jewels of the crown and the stone of destiny, as well as its marvellous medieval streets, including the famous Victoria Street. Many small shops with colourful facades, a source of inspiration for the movie Harry Potter. In this period of August festival, the city is full of entertainment, day and night!
Whisky tasting: but how do we produce whisky?
Scotland is also a destination to "live" the production of whisky, whether you are connoisseurs, experts or just learners! Discover this famous spirit. Man or woman, the distilleries are visited by all. This is a great opportunity to develop your nose and your palate. The richness and complexity of the whisky are based on a few fundamental elements: the place remains a key ingredient to the beauty of Scottish whisky, the richness of the terroir shaped each day by the rain coupled with some sun and sea spray... And last but not least, another key ingredient is the pure Scottish spring water.
Thus, there are 3 key ingredients to whisky production: barley, Scotland's purest local spring water and yeast! During one of our visits to a distillery, we learned that more than 100 tons of barley are delivered every day. The barley is then malted, that is to say, thanks to the wet conditions, the cereal will germinate to produce enzymes and sugar and will be dried through a malting process (cereal is malted above fire, either with peat or not - see below for peaty whisky). It is made from "Mash", which will generate starch. Barley is ground (called "grist"). The goal after this step is to obtain sugar thanks to the enzyme activity on the starch. For this, barley is mixed with hot water. It is going through 3 stages of temperature (68 ° C, 75 ° C and 90 ° C) in huge tanks, heated by electricity, to extract the sugar. The sugar will turn into alcohol thanks to the addition of yeast: this stage is called fermentation. It also releases carbon dioxide. Hence, there is a need for an air extraction system which explains the typical architecture of the distilleries with their traditional rooftop vent stack! Before adding the yeasts, water is added at 17 degrees. At this point, some fat and leftovers of unprocessed barley are rejected (no waste, the animals are happy to get fed with the leftovers, according to one of the guides!).
In this distillery, the fermentation takes place in 32 "washbacks" (tanks, often in wood). The Scottish tradition is that we do not change the methods and materials used such as wood for vats and copper for stills as well as the pure spring water. It is each detail of every manufacturing process that will bring a unique aroma to make the whisky specific to each house! It is going then for 3 days of fermentation. From this production step, we get a liquid called "wort": a 9.6% liquor similar to the beer liquid (And yes, until then, the process is similar to the beer process). With the action of the yeasts, the mixture foams strongly in the vats. When the foam reaches the top of the tanks, the engine is turned on to drain and remove the foam. Everything is then cleaned and rinsed with pure water.
Afterwards, the following stage of whisky production differs from the one for the beer process: the liquid obtained is distilled in 15 copper stills. It will be boiled: the evaporation of water is at 100 °C while the alcohol boils at 78 °C. Thus, the liquid evaporates, we recuperate first the alcohol that we immediately condense into a liquid: alcohol comes out into 3 stages named the head, the heart and the tails. The heart of the distillate is the best concentration of aromas in the final alcohol. The heart as it is name is the final product expected for the manufacture of whisky. The other two distillates (the head and the tails) move to a second distillation cycle in order to get the best extraction and avoid any waste. The product comes out with an alcohol level of 70% to which water is added to reach 65% alcohol. After the distillation stage, the liquid will go into storage and maturation phase in old oak barrels. In this distillery, the blend is actually made with 85% in American casks, bringing notes of vanilla and honey and 15% in Spanish Sherry casks bringing aromas of raisin and black cherry. To be legally allowed to label any bottle with the name of “Scottish whisky”, it must be aged at least 3 years in oak barrels. But most of the distilleries will leave whisky age in barrels for more than a decade: here at Glenfiddich, for example, it will be at least 12 years old, bringing light notes of pear-apple. The house is currently testing the project xx made of 20 different oak barrels: 17 barrels of American Bourbon, 2 of Sherry and 1 of Port ... Let’s keep it in mind for future tastings! For 18 years old whisky, additional flavours will develop such as apple, spices, smoky notes and apple pie.
Admire the craft tradition in the distilleries of the copper stills shaped upon the specific request of each house: the advantage of the copper is that it is malleable and the manufacturer can thus give it the desired shape according to willingness of having a more or less important contact of this material with the liquid. The more contact there is, the more the still will be flared and the more the material will bring aromas during the distillation process. For a rounder and softer whisky, contact with the liquid will be reduced with a more conical shape of the still.
Why do some whiskies smell like "smoked"?
The smokiness comes from what is called “peat”, which is used in the drying process of the barley. Indeed, peat is burned and the smoke brings aromas to the barley which we can smell in the final product, the whisky. Peat is a layer of soil formed by the decomposition of soil, richly water-fed (rains are daily, almost). This layer of soil is typical of some Scottish soils, including islands (the island of Islay for example) and is taken just below the lawn. Peat rejects carbon dioxide and is now regulated and prohibited for agriculture purpose. Peat regularly gets formed millimeter by millimeter thanks to the accumulation of rain and the rapid growth of grass.
While visiting distilleries, guides passionate about the history, the terroirs and the chemistry of the manufacturing process will accompany you in the different stages of whisky manufacturing but also to the tasting...
Mike from the Talisker Distillery on the Isle of Skye will tell you that the burning sensation in the palate coming from the tasted Talisker Storm whisky can be slightly changed thanks to chemistry, by adding a simple drop of pure water into the glass: then, explosive aromas of fruit will come out and the sweetness of whisky will slide in your throat ... Enjoy the tasting!
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