Making Scottish Single Malt Whisky
Published: April 2009
By Alexandra Marshall
The Scottish Lowlands, distilled into a weekend of learning how to make single malt.
Despite my Scottish heritage, I've never been wild about tartan. Braveheart bored me to tears, I haven't exactly yearned for haggis, and it only takes a few bars from a bagpipe to set me reeling—toward some Excedrin. But after my father died, two years ago, and I spent some quality time with his dear elder brother, I began to feel the old country's pull at last. A passionate amateur genealogist, my uncle had painstakingly assembled a loose-leaf binder full of information about my ancestors, including Robert Marshall, who, like so many other poor Scots, sailed to Prince Edward Island in the late 18th century. Robert was a weaver and a teetotaling Presbyterian deacon. Had he known that I, his descendant, would trek to Dumfries and Galloway in Scotland's southwest—the native land, according to my uncle, of all Marshalls—not to find God or plaid but to learn how to make whisky, he certainly would have sent some fire and brimstone my way.
Whisky (no "e" in the Scottish version) is the country's most widely appreciated tradition, but it's not exactly self-evident why someone would visit the southwest of Scotland for it. Although the country has four recognized whisky regions—the Highlands, Islay, Campbelltown, and the Lowlands—Highland distilleries get all the glory, not to mention most of the market share. (There are only four Lowland distilleries, compared to dozens in the north.) But the dry, delicate, very lightly peated Lowland single malts, which are subtler than their knock-you-out up-country cousins, should not be overlooked, and no one is better disposed to prove it than Raymond Armstrong, the voluble owner of Bladnoch Distillery, Scotland's southernmost producer. Located on the river Bladnoch, right next to Wigtown in the southern Machars (near the old Marshall stomping grounds of Dumfries, Kirkcudbright, and now-defunct Maxwelltown), Bladnoch was established in 1817 to produce single malt for drinking, blending, and exporting to the English, who preferred the lighter taste of Lowland scotch. After a century of independent production, Bladnoch was bought and sold by company after company, until 1994, when Armstrong, a Belfast native of southern Scottish descent, snatched it up as a vacation property. At first prohibited from production, he was allowed to refire the still in 1998 and brought on master distiller John McDougall, late of the Laphroaig, Springbank, and Balvenie distilleries, to help him develop his grassy, citrusy signature style. Last year, the distillery put down only 40,000 bottles; Armstrong hopes to double this yield soon.
Thanks to distillery tours, tasting events, and the twice-yearly Whisky School, which is unique in its intensity and hands-on teaching style, Bladnoch now draws about 25,000 visitors a year to an area that otherwise attracts mainly Robert Burns devotees bent on retracing the Bard of Scotland's every pit stop. But the velvety green, gently undulating hills and meadows of Dumfries and Galloway, dotted with sheep and divided by fences of rough-hewn slate, are some of the most achingly beautiful countryside I have ever seen. The pastoral calm is balanced by a craggy coastline and dark forests of ancient, knotted trees. There are no roadside billboards or modern real estate developments, and flame-topped pheasants dart across the deserted roads more often than pedestrians.
As a result, locals can spot enrollees in Armstrong's Whisky School—a jolly weekend of mashing, brewing, distilling, discussing, and, finally, tasting single malt scotch—rather easily. When I was pulled over for erratic driving after our second session, Galloway's finest instantly recognized my complimentary lab coat and allowed me to talk my way out of a DUI with an entirely true tale of having spent the day absorbing stillhouse fumes. The 12 other students, all of them men and most of them middle-aged, had trekked to Bladnoch from places as far away as Canada and Denmark. Some were spirits retailers; all shared an advanced-geek level of knowledge about "the water of life" (the meaning of uisce beata, or whisky, in Gaelic) that put mine to shame. They hadn't paid $1,000 apiece just to drink, after all. "Here we learn the small details," Erik Hansen, a fiftysomething carpenter from Denmark, said. "When we clean equipment and why; to what degree we heat the water for mashing; what to do with the steam from the stills. The people who come here are another kind of people."
And then there was me. Day One began at 8 a.m., when the boiler was turned on, but I got lost on the distractingly scenic seven-mile drive from my stately manor inn in Newton Stewart, Kirroughtree House (on whose grand staircase, legend has it, Burns used to recite poetry). By the time I stumbled in, the group was already touring the washback tuns, enormous pine barrels full of sugary barley extract and water just pumped from a steel mixing tank called a mash tun. There Armstrong began the impromptu discussions that would fill the weekend: how to tell if the mash tun is draining properly into the washback (watch the texture of the foam); how to ensure consistency in the still after you've pumped in the two-day-fermented beer (distill slowly); how to make sure the cows don't get drunk off the fermenting mash pumped back out as their feed (carefully squeeze it out so as to extract the sugar water). Whatever Bladnoch's stillman, an affable bear of a man named John Herries, would have to do in a normal weekend—check levels, open valves—we would do, too. Every student would become part owner of a keg set to age eight years, and on Day Three, the last day, we would fill and rack our shared barrel—and stock up on hooch from the gift shop.
Despite the generally brisk pace at Whisky School, there is downtime. And so the gents and I could warm up our peppery mutton pies on the still; loll among the daffodils on the riverbank; shuffle around reading the snatches of Burns's poetry that Armstrong had posted on the grounds; sample the clear, fiery, 150-proof new-make spirit (unaged whisky) that is like grappa made from freshly mowed grass; and then, perchance, pop on the stillhouse's novelty tam-o'-shanter (called a See You Jimmy hat), climb into an empty 10,000-gallon still, and clang around. I am only the third woman to have participated in that time-honored Bladnoch ritual. It's a little like spelunking through a metal cave, perfumed by eau de hangover.
Though my fellow students seemed most focused on their wash still journals, it was the tasting, on Night Two, that I was looking forward to. For what good is all the discussion of peated malt versus unpeated malt, of aging in bourbon versus sherry casks, if we couldn't then sample the difference?And so, as McDougall led us through about 10 different bottles, we discovered that a young bourbon-casked malt was reminiscent of musty sneakers, and an immature heavily peated experiment gave off a whiff of kippers. By the time dinner was done—yes, they served haggis—the piper was called in, the See You Jimmy hat was passed around, and suddenly Armstrong ordered me up to the front of the room to recite "The Brownie of Blednoch" into a microphone. A 62-line poem written in 1825 in Scottish dialect by William Nicholson (a.k.a. the Bard of Galloway), it's about a touchy troll seeking handyman work from Bladnoch's long-ago villagers. "Rob's lingle brak as he men't the flail/At the sight o' Aiken-drum," I croaked. If old Robert Marshall could have heard me, that night's many drams would have been the least of his troubles. My classmates, however, seemed to love it.
On my last few days in the area, at my uncle's behest, I puttered around Galloway looking for Marshalliana. Ancestral tourism is big in Scotland, as the ladies working at the tiny Stewartry Museum in Kirkcudbright confirmed: they get about 40 people a day—mostly MacLellans, formerly the bigwigs of the area. (There was one Canadian MacLellan monopolizing the 18th-century census records I was hoping to scour, but, not looking to restart the clan wars, I waited my turn.) I came up empty everywhere I looked, and decided I was willing to leave the minutiae of the birth and death records to my uncle. This generation of Marshalls is motivated by more sybaritic passions, I concluded as I hopped up the Burns trail to Ballantrae, one constabulary north in southern Ayrshire, for a night at Glenapp Castle, a regal hotel set in wildly majestic gardens, filled with Colefax and Fowler prints, polished French antiques, and more truffle honey and artisanal cheese than even I could manage. My travels through Galloway had made me immensely proud of my origins, but the time had come to start a few new traditions of my own.
Alexandra Marshall is a Travel + Leisure contributing editor.
Wigtown, one mile from the Bladnoch Distillery, is a two-hour drive from Glasgow.
What to Do
Bladnoch Distillery Whisky School
Two-and-a-half days of tastings and hands-on instruction in single-malt production. 44-19/8840-2605; bladnoch.co.uk; $1,000 per person, including three lunches and one dinner.
Where to Stay
Ballantrae, Ayrshire; 44-14/6583-1212; glenappcastle.com; doubles from $835, including breakfast and a six-course dinner.
Newton Stewart, Wigtownshire; 44-16/7140-2141; kirroughtreehouse.co.uk; doubles from $266, including breakfast and dinner.
Note: All prices include accommodations and meals.
The Jura Fellowship
Four-day course on one of Scotland's most remote islands (Jura is a two-hour ferry ride from the mainland town of Kennacraig). Students are housed at the distillery's Jura Lodge, which opened last year and features eclectic interiors—vintage fridges, gazelle antlers, Bakelite phones—by Parisian interior designer Bambi Sloan. The course includes three dinners with tastings and the option of having the distillery age a cask of single malt you help bring to the barrel stage.
44-149/682-0385; www.isleofjura.com; $2,000 per person.
Springbank Whisky School
Weeklong program at a still-operating 1828 distillery in Campbelltown, a historic whisky town (it was home to more than 30 distilleries in its 19th-century heyday) on the Mull of Kintyre. Unlike most producers, Springbank malts all of its own barley, and it also does all of its bottling on-site. Students are put up at nearby Feorlin Guest House, a six-room bungalow owned by a local couple.
44-158/655-2009; www.springbankdistillers.com; $1,750 per person.
Three-day course at a seaside distillery on the Isle of Islay that also includes evening trips to the pub, live folk-music performances, and informal talks on local history. Face time with the operators in charge of each step of the whisky-making process is a main thrust of the program. Basic accommodations are provided (for four nights) at the recently refurbished Distillery House.
44-149/685-0221; www.bruichladdich.com; $1,600 per person.