While oenophiles wax poetic about the terroir of vineyards, aficionados of another stripe prefer the coldest, dampest, and grayest areas of northern Europe in their quest to find the perfect combination of peat, grains, and barley.
In Scotland, where I took up graduate studies at the University of Edinburgh, it's called whisky trails—tours that bring visitors to the distilleries of Speyside in the northeast, the Highlands, the southern island of Islay, the nearby coastal town of Campbeltown, and the few that remain in the Lowlands.
While the Irish are said to have invented whisky in the twelfth century, the Scots are believed to have perfected the process of fermenting the mashes of cereals. The earliest reference to distilling whisky (spelled without an "e" only in Scotland) was in 1494, in a document listing "eight bolls of malt to Friar John Cor wherewith to make aqua vitae."
As the "water of life," the term "Scotch whisky" is protected by law in the U.K. Only whisky made in Scotland can be called Scotch whisky even if whiskeys manufactured elsewhere can be imported into the UK.
Scotch is the constant accompaniment on Burns Night, the January holiday honoring Robert Burns, the national poet and icon of the Romantic Period. Scotch is splashed into the famous but disparaged haggis, and used in the finest kitchens of Edinburgh and Glasgow in recipes like salmon escalopes with whisky cream sauce. Farmers in the Highlands also place a "wee dram" of whisky in their morning breakfast of steel-cut oats.
Of course, not all Scotches are equal. They are made either of grains or malts, with malts being the more refined. Single grains are 60 to 85 percent grain whisky. Slightly upscale is blended malt whisky, which is composed of different single malts from different distilleries and, most importantly, does not contain grain whisky. The majority of Scotch, however, is blended, which is a combination of grains and malts.
The many combinations speak simply of craftsmanship. Just as vineyards distinguish their varietals with blends of grapes stored in special casks to capture their particular terroir, whisky makers incorporate the different flavors of grains and malts and age them in many types of oak barrels.
Malts are made of barley that steeps in water, germinates, and then dried to use for fermentation. The whisky maker can layer and control levels of smokiness by using peat fires during the drying process of the barley. Dried malts are then ground into grist and mixed with hot water as barley starches convert into sugar. This mash is then cooled, combined with yeast, and allowed to ferment. It is then distilled and strained into what we know as Scotch.
On top of an average fermentation period of three years, some regions of Scotland repeat the distilling process for up to three times to achieve higher alcohol content and a cleaner taste. Like wine, the longer the Scotch stays in the oak barrels, the more complex the taste. Bottles are usually aged between ten and 30 years. Just taste a twelve-year Scotch and you will feel a longer finish, a fuller range of flavors, a more delayed bitterness, and a more mellow sweetness on the palate.
The Speyside Trail just outside of the royal residence of Balmoral is home to dozens of independent distilleries scattered alongside the banks of the River Spey. Particularly between April and September, when the sun doesn't set until well after dinner, it is possible to rent a bicycle and spend the afternoon pedaling through the trail with stops at the tasting rooms of distillers of brands like The Glenlivet, The Macallan, and Glenfiddich.
The Isle of Skye, located farther northwest, is home to Talisker, a distillery dating back to 1830. It offers a thorough tasting experience, complete with the vaunted vertical. Tastings occur only on weekends, requiring you to drive your own vehicle to the remote town of Carbost. However, the trip is worth the trouble as Talisker has consistently received the highest rating in Wine Enthusiast. In 2007, Talisker 18 Year Old was named the Best Single Malt in the World by Whisky Magazine's World Whiskies Award. The distillery is also within walking distance of The Cairngorms, the most picturesque of Skye's hiking destinations.
Visit Scotland in April and May before the summer tourist season begins. Or, do so at the end of September, when crowds thin out after the August Edinburgh festivals. The sun sets after nine at night and, best of all, the weather is perfect for jaunts across the Speyside Trail, the Highlands, and the wonderful Scottish countryside.
Photographs by Pat Mateo
This story first appeared in Vault Issue 2, 2011.