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Making Scottish Single Malt Whisky

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.


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