By the fourth dram, my glow had become a bit warmer and a light fog was settling in. A good single-malt Scotch can do that to you. The Highland Park distillery, on the far northern Scottish island of Orkney, was our third whiskey tour and tasting in three days.
In late September, my wife wanted to see rural Scotland, her ancestral home – and I wanted to drink in the land’s rich bounty. Scottish single malts are on fire – sales have almost quadrupled in the last decade, by catering to style-seeking millennials and those tired of colorless, soulless spirits with names like Goose and Tito.
“We may not get them [drinkers] till they are 25 or 30, but once we do, they don’t leave us,” says Nick Morgan, head of whiskey outreach for Diageo LLC, owner of many single-malt brands.
Conveniently, many of Scotland’s great distillers are tucked away deep in the countryside – amid the bright-green mountains of the Highlands or the beautifully forbidding waters of the North Sea and Atlantic Ocean.
“Distilling in Scotland began as a form of agriculture, so many of the great ones are in rural, farm areas,” says Robert Cassell, founder and master distiller of Philadelphia’s New Liberty Distillery. Cassell studied distilling in Scotland before opening his operation in Philadelphia.
Single-malt distilling seems blissfully simple: There are just three ingredients – barley, water, and yeast. Peat fuels the fires that roast the barley used in many whiskies. Broadly, flavors can be divided into two categories, peated (smoky) and unpeated (you guessed it, non-smoky). Aging in oak casks significantly affects the flavor – as well as the price. Many 25-year-old whiskeys can reach $1,000 per bottle, clearly not the stuff you’d wash down with a can of Schmidt’s.
There are 118 distilleries and five whiskey-producing regions in Scotland. We had neither the time nor livers to see them all. We set out for three regions, trying to hit one or two in each.