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."