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A Wee Dram

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.

John offered me a handful of the raw malted barley to sample. I was skeptical, but I found the grain had a delightfully sweet crunch, and I could get a little preview of the end product in that taste. The barley and spring water are combined in a large vat called a mash tun. (If this is sounding familiar to you beer-brewing hobbyists, it’s basically the same process only without the hops.) The resulting fermented liquid, called a wash in the distiller’s trade, is then transferred to the pot still where it is heated to evaporate the alcohol which is cooled and captured – twice in the case of a single malt Scotch, more often for other spirits.

The copper pot stills at Edradour, like the rest of the distillery, are old and traditional. Once the liquid starts to come out of the worm tubs that contain cooling coils, it runs through the spirit safe where the distiller can examine the output of the still and determine the heart of the run – the prime distilled spirit: too early and the spirit is harsh; too late and it’s weak.

From here, the whisky goes into an oak cask where it can age for anywhere from three years to decades. It’s here in the barrel that almost everything that gives the whisky its unique character happens, like color and flavor. As the whisky ages, it also evaporates losing around two percent of its volume every year. The aroma given off during this process – which distillers have dubbed “the angels’ share” – is sublime, almost ethereal, quite unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before.

At the end of our tour, John took us into the tasting room where we sampled two or three of Edradour’s finest single malts. They ranged from bold to more subtle. It was here that I was educated about the real differences between a single malt and a single cask Scotch. And that was just one of the many secrets that has changed entirely my outlook on the Water of Life.

Getting there: Pitlochry in Perthshire is about a two hour drive from Edinburgh.

Cost: The distillery tour is £10 ($14)

The Glenlivet Experiences

For a contrast head to the home of The Glenlivet near Ballindalloch in Moray, in the far flung corners of the Scottish Highlands for the next experience. The Glenlivet Distillery is tucked away in a narrow valley through which the River Livet flows along the backdrop of the dramatic Scottish countryside. It was in 1824 that founder George Smith acquired the first legal license to distill in the glen beside River Livet, hence the name “The Glenlivet.”

Safe to say, it is considered to be one of the most iconic Spey-side malts. As a visitor to The Glenlivet Distillery, you can opt for a variety of experiences, all of which maintain the leitmotif of showcasing “the glen” and how the area enhances the quality of the malt.

While you are encouraged to visit the distillery, the museum and the visitor’s center, we would advise purchasing a ticket for one of the “smuggler’s trails” that are walking tours of the Scottish countryside. The trails range from four to seven miles and are staffed by a guide who narrates interesting anecdotes from the history of The Glenlivet.

Among these, the Malcolm Gillespie Smugglers trail – named for the exciseman who commanded respect from all corners – is not for the fainthearted. The terrain is particularly challenging. It spans six and a half miles through rocky pathways and forest land, where animal lovers could get lucky with sightings of red deer, roe deer, mountain hare, curlew, snipe and grouse.

If you aren’t so outdoorsy, you can book ahead of time to share the Legacy Tasting Experience for tastings of the rarest and most exquisite single malts produced at the distillery, such as The Glenlivet 21 year old, The Glenlivet 25 Year Old and The Glenlivet 50 Year Old from The Winchester Collection 1964.

Getting there: Ballindalloch is about a three-hour drive from Edinburgh.

Cost: Smuggler’s trail walks are free. The Legacy Tasting Experience is priced at £60/$80 per person.

The Pioneers Tour

Glenfiddich has an immersive experience for the whisky lover at its distillery in Dufftown, Scotland. Founded by William Grant in 1887, this is one of the last independent distilleries remaining in the country. An old-world charm emanates from its stone warehouses, copper tuns and historic facilities.

The tour takes you back decades to understand the “craft” behind Glenfiddich. A comprehensive tasting session follows where you can sample a wee sip of  Glenfiddich 12 , 15, 18 and 21 Year Old single malts.

Next is a pitstop at Warehouse 12, which houses the uber-exclusive Malt Master’s Selection. Here, in the company of a malt master – the whisky equivalent of a cellar master – you explore a curated selection of four exclusive casks chosen by him. As a souvenir, you’re gifted a small bottle, which you can fill from any one of the four casks showcased. It comes complete with a little commemorative booklet.

If you don’t mind burning a small hole in your pocket, head on over to the Malt Barn Bar, which features the largest collection of Glenfiddich in the world. Here you can taste the Glenfiddich 1958 whisky that is priced at a casual £1,250/$1,650. You could even have a personalized label for your bottle of Glenfiddich from the in-house boutique.

Getting there: Dufftown is about a four-hour drive from Edinburgh.

Cost: The Pioneers Tour is priced at £99/$130. Malt Barn Bar prices depend on what you order.