How to make the most of Scotland's whisky tourism boom

Brightly painted houses, bobbing fishing boats and a historic distillery: Welcome to Scotland's Tobermory on the Isle of Mull.

This is the year of Food and Drink in Scotland, an event that highlights the country’s food and drink, and we’ve come the portside Tobermory Distillery to learn about whisky.

Established in 1798, it’s one of the oldest commercial distilleries in Scotland and produces two different single malts—the un-peated Tobermory for six months each year and the smoky-flavored Ledaig (pronounced lee-craig) the other half.

Soft drink for kids and whisky for adults at Scotch Whisky Experience in Edinborough.

Soft drink for kids and whisky for adults at Scotch Whisky Experience in Edinborough. (Andy Yemma)

There’s a Scottish saying, A rainy day is tomorrow’s whisky, which expresses hope for the future.  But it also illustrates whisky's importance in Scottish culture. Whisky has been made for more than 500 years in Scotland and today it’s the country’s top export with 115 distilleries shipping over 140 million cases overseas.

Spread around the country are five distinctive whisky producing areas: Speyside, Islay, Campbeltown, Highlands, Islands and Lowlands—each having unique characteristics and entirely different tour experiences.

For example, you may want to see is a small-batch distillery like Talisker, on the Isle of Skye, that has been making whisky since 1830 with the water drawn from 14 underground springs. Or you can follow Scotland’s Malt Whisky Trail that includes familiar names like Glenfiddich and Glenlivet. There are some tours where you can even bottle your own, like at Glengoyne Distillery, north of Glasgow. At the famous Gleneagles Resort, in Auchterarderan about an hour’s train ride from Edinburgh, you can blend your own whisky—and take some home with you, while their Still Room sells many whiskies you won’t find outside Scotland.

Other tours offer tastings paired with chocolate (at Dalwhinnie Distillery near Inverness) or with the chance to try as many as seven different whiskies (Highland Park on Orkney Island).

Guides like Sam Thomson, owner of Edinburgh Tour Guides, and whisky expert Kenny Hanley who runs The Real Scotch Whiskey Guide can arrange tours. Hanley says as whisky tourism explodes, distilleries are getting better at catering to the influx of travelers.

But making the most of your experience takes some planning. Hanley says to first choose one region’s distilleries to explore because too many visitors don’t appreciate the distances involved.

Or if your focus is to hunt down those rare bottles, get ready to pay. “We get people coming from around the world who want a single-cask bottle” – that could cost thousands of dollars, Craig Murray said at Tobermory’s Distillery.

A good place to start on your adventure is at the Scotch Whisky Experience visitor’s attraction in Edinburgh (it’s even kid friendly). You take a “barrel” ride through a distillery as a ghostly figure explains the process. At the end, of course, there is a tasting (with a Scottish soft drink for the kids). This place boasts the world’s largest collection of Scotch whisky—over 3,300 bottles. Afterward, stop in at the family-owned Cadenhead’s, Scotland’s oldest independent bottler of spirits, in business since 1842.

The first thing you’ll learn is that to be called Scotch whiskey it has to have matured for at least three years in oak casks (and most often a lot longer). Single malt whiskey can be made from only one type of malted barley.

Of the distilleries we visited, Tobermory was my favorite.  It’s a small traditional distillery that originally was opened to supply the fishermen in what was a busy port, says Craig Murray, who left a career in financial services to live here and work at the distillery.

The Highland Park Distillery on Orkney (where there are four cattle for every person) is the sixth oldest in Scotland, dating back to 1798. Magnus Eunson distilled whiskey here long before that, hiding the spirits from the taxman under the pulpit at the church where he was a preacher.

This whisky, we learn, is famous for the flavor from the peat that comes from the heather there.

Peat, for the uninitiated, is a mixture of decomposed plant material that is cut, dried and used as fuel, like coal. Drying the malt barley over a peat-heated fire is what gives whisky its smoky taste.

At every distillery, the principal ingredients to make whisky are the same—spring water, barley and yeast. The essence of the taste depends in parts by the malt, the aging barrels and the shape of the copper stills. At Tobermory they are tall and narrow; at Talisker, the top of the stills has a u-shaped bend; at Highland Park, the bottom looks like a giant copper Hershey Kiss candy.

Single malt scotch aficionados know that most Scotch whisky is aged in American barrels that have been used for bourbon, while some scotches are finished in sherry barrels from Spain. Under the law, scotch can’t be put in new barrels. The color and flavors come from the wood in the barrels.

THE PROCESS: The barley is “malted” by soaking in water for 2-3 days, and then dried to stop the germination process. At this point, it may be roasted to add the smoky flavors. The dried malted barley then is ground to become “grist,” a rough mixture that exposes more of surface area of the barley to the water. After it is processed in hot water, the leftover grist – kind of like a soggy porridge—usually goes to feed cows at local farms.

MASHING – A large measured batch of the malted and ground barley (grist) is then soaked in about 320 gallons hot water then “turned.”  After the liquid is drained, another 320 gallons of hotter water is added to the tank. That liquid is mixed with the first batch. A third mixing at an even higher temperature finishes off the grist, but that liquid is not strong enough for to go to the distillery yet, so it is added to the next batch of fresh grist.

FERMENTATION – The “wort,” the non-alcoholic liquid just described, is cooled and yeast is added to it in big vats known as wash backs. We see the mixture bubbling in these huge vats as the fermentation goes on-- it takes 90 hours but the wash is just 7 percent alcohol at this point.

DISTILLATION – Alcohol has a lower boiling level than water so the process continues with the liquid turning to steam, then condensing in the large copper “stills.” After 7-8 hours, you have spirits of about 70 percent alcohol.

BARRELS—The spirits are put into the aged barrels where distillers leave it typically for 10 years or longer. As the whisky ages, a small amount (typically 1-2 percent) is lost to evaporation—this is called the “angels share.”

A tip when you are buying Single Malt Scotch:  The age of the whisky is the time in the barrel, not in the bottle. “If you buy 10 year old whiskey and keep it for 20 years, you still will have 10 year old whiskey,” said Tobermory’s Murray.

Which whisky is the best?  “Ask a dozen people here and you get a dozen answers,’ said Sam Graham, a guide on the Isle of Skye, echoing the common sentiment here.

But one thing everyone will agree in Scotland: Today’s rain is tomorrow’s whisky.