Scotland’s Most Intoxicating Places

By Rick Steves
Workers at Scotland's Speyside Cooperage fashion oak casks for aging Scotch whisky. (photo: Cameron Hewitt)
The picturesque seaside town of Oban, on Scotland's west coast, grew up around its distillery, which was founded in 1794. (photo: Cameron Hewitt)

On a recent trip to Scotland, I came to a sobering conclusion: This is a land of booze geeks. Some of my favorite discoveries have been historic distilleries and inviting whisky bars, run by people evangelical about Scotland's favorite beverage. When it rains — as it often does there — the showers elicit a cheery "That's tomorrow's whisky!" from the locals.

Scotch whiskies come in two broad types: "single malt," meaning that the bottle comes from a single batch made by a single distiller, and "blends," which master blenders mix and match from various whiskies into a perfect punch of booze. While single malts get the most attention, blended varieties represent 90 percent of all whisky sales.

Single-malt whisky — just made of water, malted barley, and yeast — is most influenced by three things: whether the malt is peat-smoked, the shape of the stills, and the composition of the casks. But local climate can also play a role; for example, some distilleries in the Scottish isles tout the salty notes of their whiskies, as the sea air permeates their casks.

Taste whisky like you'd taste wine: Use all your senses. First, swirl the whisky in the glass and observe its color and "legs" — the trail left by the liquid as it runs back down the side of the glass. (Quick, thin legs indicate light, young whisky; slow, thick legs mean it's a heavier and older one.) Then take a deep sniff — do you smell smoke and peat? And finally, taste it (sip!). What's the dominant first punch? The smooth middle? The "finish"? Swish it around and let your gums taste it, too.

At one tasting my guide poured a little spring water into my glass. Squinting into the glass, he coached me along: "Look at the impurities gathering in a happy little pool there on top. The water is like a spring rain on a garden — it brings out the character, the personality." Sipping whisky with this expert, I saw how Scotland's national drink can become, as they're fond of saying there, "a very good friend."

Whether or not you like this stuff, a highlight of a visit to Scotland is touring a distillery — and you can choose from more than 100. On my last visit, I toured a half-dozen of them — from the Speyside region (where the popular Glenfiddich and Glenlivet are produced) to the remote and intimate Talisker Distillery on the Isle of Skye.

Each region has its unique qualities. The Lowlands, around Edinburgh, produce light and refreshing whiskies — more likely to be taken as an aperitif. Whiskies from the Highlands and islands range from floral and sweet (vanilla or honey) to smoky (peaty) and robust.

Southeast of Inverness, Speyside is home to half of all Scottish distilleries — including Glenfiddich, Scotland's top-selling single-malt whisky. One highlight was the Speyside Cooperage, where I gained an appreciation of the role of oak in the distilling process and got to watch as the busy coopers made whisky casks. Mellow and fruity, Speyside whiskies can be the most accessible for beginners. Glenfiddich — with a name that means "Valley of the Deer" (hence the logo) — boasts a sprawling but charming factory offering excellent tours and extensive tasting sessions.

It's rare to find a distillery in the middle of a town, but seaside Oban grew up around one. With the success of its whisky, the town enjoyed an invigorating confidence, optimism, and, in 1811, a royal charter. The 200-year-old distillery produces more than 25,000 liters a week, and exports much of that to the US. The distillery offers serious (and fragrant) one-hour tours explaining the process from start to finish, with two smooth samples of their signature product. I found that Oban whisky is moderately smoky ("peaty") and characterized by notes of sea salt, citrus, and honey.

Talisker, an institution on the Isle of Skye, has been distilling here since 1830. This venerable distillery is situated at the base of a hill with 14 springs, and at the edge of a sea loch — making it easier to ship ingredients in and whisky out. You can sniff both peated and unpeated grains; see the big mash tuns, washbacks, and stills; and sample a wee dram at the end. (From the Gaelic word for "drink," a dram isn't necessarily a fixed amount — it's simply a small slug.) Island whisky tends to be smokier than mainland whisky due to the amount of peat smoke used during malting. Talisker workers describe theirs as "medium smoky," with peppery, floral, and vanilla notes.

Whisky is high on the experience list for most visitors to Scotland — even for teetotalers. As you sample the national drink, consider how understanding "food patriotism" here in Scotland — or in any corner of the world — brings out the fun and fascinating facets of each place.

This article is used with the permission of Rick Steves' Europe ( Rick Steves writes European guidebooks, hosts travel shows on public TV and radio, and organizes European tours.