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A Traditional Scottish Whisky trip

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Today marks the start of the nationwide celebration of Whisky Month 2014.  Such is the extraordinary range of Scotch whiskies and the variety of distilleries from which they come that a month doesn’t seem long enough for this most magical of spirits. The good news is that there are plenty of fine examples of the water of life available in the shops at our many castles, places and monuments. You therefore have many opportunities to give some of them a test run, especially as they are often available as handy-sized miniatures. I’m really pleased that Historic Scotland has managed to conserve a traditional distillery situated near Forres in Moray in the North East of the country. Dallas Dhu is a wonderful time capsule comprising the key elements of the whisky-making process. It is all beautifully contained within fine buildings which perfectly capture the classic architecture of single-malt whisky distilling in Scotland.

Dallas Dhu Distillery

Dallas Dhu and its historic still

These days many distilleries have modernised to maintain quality production standards. This means some of the most recognisable distillery buildings are no longer used for their original purpose. Although there are some wonderful visitor centres in working distilleries, modern distilling processes tend to hide a lot of the fundamental methods involved, so it’s a thrill to see them properly laid out and explained at Dallas Dhu. For this reason, I tend to have a soft spot for those distilleries with the finest architecture, together with those that have tried to retain some of the more traditional practices. Top of my list are those that have continued traditional floor malting. The most famous of these are on Islay – Laphroaig and Bowmore. Both of these have the added excitement of smokiness brought about by the burning of peat in the kilns when drying the malt. With its exotic coastal location, Laphroaig is a visually stunning treat. Over at Bowmore, I was privileged to meet the distillery’s pest control officer – a grey cat appropriately named Smokey.

Laphroaig’s coastal location and Bowmore Distillery in 1981 (Images © RCAHMS)

Laphroaig’s coastal location and Bowmore Distillery in 1981 (Images © RCAHMS)

Further afield, there are other distilleries who still choose to malt their barley in the traditional way. In my opinion, one of the best is Springbank in Campbeltown on the Mull of Kintyre. A town which once had over 30 distilleries and until 1967 boasted its own deep coal mine at Machrihanish. Other notable examples worthy of a test dram or two are Highland Park, a stunningly beautiful distillery in Kirkwall, Orkney, and Balvenie in Dufftown in the heart of Speyside.

Traditional malting barley at Bowmore (image ©RCAHMS)

Traditional malting barley at Bowmore (image ©RCAHMS)

In the 1990s, there were a number of distillers still using coal-fired as opposed steam-coil pot stills. The sight of the still house with the firedoors open revealing the glowing coals was really quite something. The direct heat from the coal fires created the need for rotating metal chains called ‘rummagers’ to prevent the wart from sticking to the copper sides of the still. I may be wrong, but I believe most or all the coal-fired stills have now gone, having since been replaced by steam coils. It would be interesting to see if the coal-fired whiskies of late 20th century taste noticeably different to those of the steam-heated whiskies of the early 21st century. Returning to the present day, there has never been a better time to visit some modern and traditional distilleries in Scotland to see the process for yourself and of course to sample some of the product in truly authentic surroundings. There are some tremendous visitor centres and trails, and there is also Dallas Dhu – a wee gem which truly captures the traditional methods on which single malt whisky distilling is based. If you make your way over to Dallas Dhu this weekend you can meet some historic distillers yourself at Whisky Galore – slàinte mhath. Whisky Month May 2014

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About Author

Miles Oglethorpe

Miles works in Historic Scotland’s Conservation Directorate and leads the Industrial Heritage team. Its work covers a huge range of sites and activities, and every now and then, involves a foray or two into the world of whisky.

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