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The art of making whisky

From issue 9 • Words/images by David Schloss

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Thick and sweet, the air settles around my shoulders like an embrace. They call this the “angel’s share,” an intoxicating and tantalizing aroma that makes the air rich and flavorful and exotic.

I can almost feel the alcohol in every breath I take, feel myself getting lightheaded and giddy as I stand amongst row after row of oak casks stamped with the name, “Balblair Distillery.”

Here in the Scottish Highlands beside the Dornoch shore I have come to sample single malt whisky (not “whiskey” mind you, as that’s the Irish spelling and a completely different beast) and to try learn as much as I can in a weeklong process.

I am not, when I arrive, an expert on whisky by any stretch, but by the time I leave Scotland (begrudgingly) I will have acquired an appreciation—nay, a love—of the ancient art of turning a simple grain into a magical potion as complex as the history of this land.

I’ve come to Scotland to scout and to photograph it along with my friend, Jim Richardson, a National Geographic photographer that is also a bona fide expert in all things whisky. Richardson has promised to give me a crash course on the finer art of adding a “wee dram” of single malt to my life, and there’s only one place to do that: the Scottish Highlands.

When I meet up with Richardson it is in the town of Kirkwall in the islands of Orkney, located in the extreme north of Scotland. Though I am jet lagged and tired, Jim suggests we drive around the port town.

We first bump into a ceremony unique to the region called a Blackening. To celebrate impending nuptials, groomsmen capture the groom-to-be, cover him in molasses and then throw him off the dock into the port’s water. The group we run into are also covered in molasses and are very drunk. While they happily pose for photos they guzzle Tennent’s Lager and douse the groom—who is by now secured to a lamppost with saran wrap—with booze.

They drive off in the back of their work trailer for a ceremonial loop around the harbor while the bride helps the groom escape.

In town we wander into one of Jim’s favorite stores, essentially a haberdashery with one of the finest collections of whisky I’ve ever seen. Here it’s entirely possible to buy a pair of pants, a pack of diapers and a $300 bottle of single malt all in the same place.

As the sun sets we drive out to look at the Ring of Brodgar and my mind is blown. Atop a ridgeline (with the warm blaze of a setting sun in the background) stand more than 20 stones dating back to around 2,500 BC. I’ve been to Stonehenge before but this is much more magical.

There are no ropes around the rocks, no paths to guide tourists and no one giving out pamphlets. There’s only a strong headwind, the rustling sound of tall grass and a ring of these massive slabs of rock that have stood in place for more than four thousand years. They have seen more than 1.5 million sunsets.

Back at the hotel I’m poured several drams of different local whisky as I hear about different flavors and production methods.

Regulations prohibit it being called whisky if it hasn’t been aged at least three years, but it’s hard to find a one here that didn’t spend ten or more years in a cask first.

Scotch is usually distilled twice and is made from malt. A “single malt” has only one variety, which is often smoked with peat, which gives it a distinctive flavor that aficionados cherish.

As a wine drinker I can taste different flavors in the glass. Some are more vibrant than others, some more subtle and some are masked (to me) by the quick buzz I’ve developed.

Food in Scotland is, by and large, “local,” so the waiter apologizes that the lamb isn’t from Orkney but instead is from his family’s farm. When I ask how far this “imported” lamb has travelled he says that they drove it up in their car today from the farm about sixty miles away.

The next morning we arrive at Balblair Distillery. There are just a handful of people working when we arrive at the facility. It’s large without being commercial and the ancient facade gives way to modern fermenting tanks and machinery inside.

Here we watch as the whisky is blended from batches into the year’s production and it’s here that I first encounter the “angel’s share” in the distillery’s cask warehouses. As the containers are not airtight they slowly allow some of the aging whisky to evaporate through the cracks, filling the air with a sweet and potent aroma. When the casks are opened years—or decades—later they contain less than when they started—taken, of course, by the angels.

We stop to set up a photo shoot where a worker is filling casks with just-distilled whisky. Along the walls are tools of the trade: wooden hammers, wrenches and bung openers that haven’t changed in centuries. We taste the freshly distilled hooch and it’s sharp and painful. God bless the first human to put this stuff into an old barrel and let it sit a while.

Back inside the main building we’re treated to a tasting by distillery manager, John MacDonald
(@balblairwhisky on Twitter) who pours us each a generous amount of 10-year, 16-year and a special-edition whisky called Elements.

Personally, I’m partial to the 16, though I wouldn’t kick the bottle of 10-year out of bed. As Jim and his photo assistant admire the whisky out loud, John provides us with a few bottles of a special batch for the road.

We spend some time in Craigellachie, “Speyside” (a spey is a creek) working on our video and photo shoot and hole up at the Highlander Inn. It’s nowhere near as nice as the neighboring Craigellachie Hotel, though it has a nice bar and it’s here that I first try haggis—but that’s a different article.

The roads are wonderful here. Rising up to the mountains and down into the valley I see the occasional roadie and mountain bike go by. I long to ride up into the hills and then finish off my day beside the fire with a pint and a good glass of whisky.

Saving a treat for me, Jim has booked dinner at the Craigellachie Hotel so we can spend time at the bar. It’s an encyclopedic collection of whisky. Along the walls is displayed an array of bottles in alphabetic order; I am amongst some of the finest whisky in the world. To reach some bottles the bartender steps out to the seating area and climbs the back of a couch.

I have begun to develop my preference in whisky deployment, favoring either a single ice cube or a touch of local water to bring out the flavors.

This does not stop me from sampling the Glenrothes Select Reserve whisky straight up, likewise with the Highland Park Reserve. As we await dinner we order an array of samples, passing them around.

I’m astounded at the different flavors. I can tell, for example, that I prefer a whisky that’s full of peat flavors. We pass around phrases that are familiar to wine aficionados: earthy, smokey, apples, honey, blackberry, vanilla, grass and so on.

The highlight of the trip comes as I sample a whisky that was actually produced in the lowlands but from a distillery that closed in 1983. The contents of the bottle were aged thirty years, making the one glass of whisky the combination of more than fifty years of history.

Our final distillery is Glenfiddich, which is as large and modern as you can get. (Glenfiddich refers to the glen near the River Fiddich from which the water comes to produce the whisky.) Copper towers crest above the roof and the massive complex sits in a valley as green and picturesque as you could imagine. Everyone wears kilts—the first I’ve seen since my arrival—and a massive educational center and shop are hallmarks.

Despite the size and scope of the operation it still has a small-scale feel. We walk between the glistening copper kettles and watch as the mash of grains are turned into alcohol. In one room the malt is turned over by hand in the old-fashioned method of production. Grass sprouts from every crevice and crack in the wall thanks to the humidity in the air. It smells instantly familiar to anyone who has been around beer—toasted malt wafts from the ground.

We stop at a working coopery on the premises where they still hand-create barrels for their whisky and gin production. It’s fascinating to watch as descendants of the same families that have worked here for decades turn out wooden barrels at an incredible pace using rudimentary tools.

We have one last stop and that’s at a small Speyside bar called Fiddichside that’s been in the family for decades. Hidden from view by a hairpin turn in the road, this is the kind of place you’d only come to if you were a local. The small white stucco building has vibrant red trim. I can imagine people ducking into this place after elections, football matches, church services; it looks like the sort of bar where guys get lost on their way home to do chores.

Naturally it’s got a great selection of whisky but it’s also got an Ironhorse downhill mountain bike parked outside. The owner, who gives me tentative glances at first, warms as I chat him up about his gear. Just as I thought, the hills are alive with trails. He and his friends carved many of them after they were “made redundant” at plants and now they spend their days riding in the woods and finishing off with a single malt whisky in the evening. He doesn’t seem upset about his recent change of fate.

As we pull away I say to Jim casually, “I could tell that last whisky was a sherry casked one.” He smiles, my education is just beginning but I’ve clearly reached the first milestone. Only fifteen more years of this and my tastes will be as mature as the whisky I’m drinking.

From issue 9. Buy it here.