Travel - Whisky galore!
Claire Sawers visits Scotland’s equivalent of the Champagne region and is happy to learn that whisky isn’t just for the pipe-and-slippers brigade
In almost any bar in Paris or Barcelona, you’ll spot young females drinking whisky. Not old men in tweed bunnets, swirling heavy tumblers and singing to themselves but young, fashionable women. A whisky-cola may be a very popular ladies’ choice in clubs and pubs in Europe, but in Scotland, while we’re au fait with rum, vodka and gin, the Water of Life seems to have fallen out of favour.
When a friend suggested a trip to Speyside, the heart of whisky country, I was all for it. Ruairidh is a fan of his single malts, and knew I was an enthusiastic amateur. He rolls his eyes when I order my usual whisky and ginger, and is eager to teach me the finer points of whisky appreciation.
He mentions a bar in a Speyside country house hotel, which boasts 700 different bottles of single malt - one of the biggest collections in the world. It’s a bit like Mecca for whisky fans, and every year tourists arrive from all over the world to sniff, swirl and sip the drams on offer. We packed a few bottles of Irn Bru for the journey and set off.
The drive east towards Scotland’s equivalent of the Champagne region is a twisting, picturesque ride, ending at the banks of the River Spey. Just now the tumbling green fields are full of spring lambs and ramblers are out in force, winding along the Speyside Way, a 70-mile-long path, which runs from the Moray Firth south to Aviemore. Barley has been grown and distilled in Speyside since the 18th century, and most of the household names - Glenfiddich, Glenlivet, The Macallan, Aberlour - begin life here. Dufftown and Speyside are home to 58 distilleries altogether, more than half the total in Scotland. The rest of Scotland’s whisky is produced in the Highlands, Lowlands and Islay, where sea air or peaty soil gives a saltier, smokier edge, compared to Speyside’s lighter, more delicate malts.
We find the Craigellachie hotel (pictured) right in the heart of whisky world, perched a few hundred metres above Thomas Telford’s iron bridge. We fling open our hotel room curtains for picture-perfect views across the Spey, but before I have time to get my camera out for scenic snapshots, Ruairidh reminds me why we are here - the Quaich Bar.
With its tartan settees and patterned carpet, the Quaich looks like your typical cosy Highland snug. But after taking one look at the walls - stacked to the ceiling with shelves of bottles - I worry Ruairidh might kneel down and kiss the ground. Like a kid in a very grown-up candy store, he scans rows of black-coloured drams, exclusive Japanese malts, sherry, ale and port casked whiskies and cigar malts, to be enjoyed with a smoke. I get the feeling ordering a Famous Grouse and Diet Coke in here would be like snorting cocaine off a pew in the Vatican.
The most expensive whisky will set you back a credit card-choking £275. That’s per dram, so although guests are allowed to pick bottles up, the butter-fingered may prefer to leave them alone. Following advice from the Keeper of the Quaich, who points out the most attractive 18- and 25-year-olds (and some good rare double matured malts too), we begin appreciating the whisky in earnest. I pick up tips on nosing, a far more delicate business than just shoving your face into the glass and taking a snort: the first sniff lets the nose adjust; a second allows alcohol fumes to enter the nostrils; a third lets the whisky begin its full assault on the senses. After half an hour’s practise, we are identifying dried fruit, cinnamon, caramel, sherry and - my own personal addition - Magic Marker pens (that one was a Laphroaig).
The people we chat to in the bar have come to follow the Malt Whisky Trail, a signposted walk which takes in eight distilleries and a cooperage. We’ve only got a weekend, so pick the Glenfiddich distillery - the largest in the area - for an overview.
Like me, the whisky industry is a bit worried about the drink’s fusty, pipe and slippers image. Companies such as Jon, Mark and Robbo’s Easy Drinking Whisky have helped steer the image away from heather and bagpipes, losing the waffle and telling people to ‘stop worshipping’ the whisky, while Glenfiddich recently pumped £1.5m into sprucing up its distillery and visitor centre area, transforming it into a user-friendly introduction to the drink. Unlike larger, soulless grain distilleries elsewhere in Scotland, the family-owned Glenfiddich business is a romantic operation: dusty warehouses and shiny copper stills give the site a cute, cottage industry feel. At the end of the hands-on tour, rich with the reek of yeast and the clatter of coopers’ hammers, we go to the bar for a tasting session. Die-hard purist Ruairidh goes for a neat tipple in a cut crystal tumbler, while I try out a sweeter triple malt blend called Monkey Shoulder, served with half a can of cola and a few chunks of ice.
We pop into the café for a bowl of tomato soup before heading for the Speyside Way, which cuts very conveniently past our hotel. Walking south towards Dufftown, we catch occasional wafts of whisky on the wind. It’s not the smell of our breath - just a reminder of the 2% of alcohol which evaporates from whisky barrels into the air. Whisky makers call it the Angel’s Share.
Chuffed that I can now correctly identify brands of whisky on appearance and smell alone, I am ready to expand my whisky menu beyond ginger beer. The distillery has passed on recipes for whisky cocktails involving tequila, pear liqueur, honey and lemon juice, which will prove useful in convincing the doubters among my friends. Who knows where my new-found knowledge will lead me? I might even start ordering a nip at the bar.
Double rooms at the Craigellachie Hotel (www.craigellachie.com) from £135 per night. The Glenfiddich distillery (www.glenfiddich.com, 01340 820 373) is open Mon-Fri, 9.30am-4.30 pm and tours are free. Connoisseurs Tours with a tutored nosing cost £20. The Spirit of Speyside whisky festival (www.spiritofspeyside.com) runs from Thu 3-Mon 7 May.
50ml malt whisky
1 tablespoon of runny honey
3 orange slices
Soda water (optional)
Fill a rocks glass 3/4 full with ice and add honey and orange slices. Stir well before pouring in the whisky, add a dash of soda if you’d rather drink it long, then stir and serve.
50ml malt whisky
Dash of Angostura Bitters
1 lump brown sugar
Slice of lemon
Orange peel, burnt
Pour the bitters onto the sugar cube. Using the back of a spoon, gently muddle the sugar cube with a splash of still water. Add some of the whisky and a couple of ice cubes and stir for two minutes. Pour in the rest of whisky and ice and keep stirring. Strain everything into an ice-filled glass, garnish with a twist of lemon and a slice of burnt orange peel.
Boldly going where no-one else really wants to …
• This fortnight, Baggage is concerned about carbon emissions. The ongoing budget airlines versus environmental lobbyists fight got another shot of adrenaline this month after an Institute of Public Policy Research report recommended that aeroplanes ought to carry warning stickers along similar lines to those currently printed on cigarette packets (pictured).
• Both this story and EasyJet’s angry rebuttal claiming that budget airlines were unjustly being made into scapegoats for the carbon emission problem got buried under Ryanair’s latest headline-grabbing announcement. Return flights to the US for $12 by 2010? It’s probably worth noting that that scandalously cheap price doesn’t include tax or in-flight meals or entertainment, never mind the new air-passenger duty. However, this announcement refocused the debate on the responsibilities of budget airlines to the environment. ‘If persuading people to ignore the lure of Italy and France was hard, with six cities in America now on offer for less than a wet weekend in Cornwall it will be a real struggle to encourage people to holiday at home,’ observed Hilary Osbourne on The Guardian’s travelblog.
• Meanwhile, amidst all the raised voices and shocked headlines, Eurostar quietly announced that it intends to reduce carbon emissions by 25% by 2012. The company has also unveiled plans to become the first carbon neutral rail company by November this year, investing in offsetting the emissions caused by every single passenger journey and promising customers that ‘it won’t cost a penny more’.
Baggage would like to see the trains sporting a range of stickers of their own. How about one reading, ‘Travelling by rail is much better for the environment and your conscience. However, it can also increase levels of smugness by up to 50%.’