Coast to coast

Coast to coast

You don't tend to think of Glasgow and Edinburgh when it comes to whisky. But if you dig about a bit and travel over to Campbeltown to the west there is plenty to enjoy

Travel | 01 Jun 2007 | Issue 64 | By Rob Allanson

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We have a map hanging up at home that shows Scotland’s distilleries, but it is hopelessly out of date. It is one of malt whisky’s greatest ironies that while the liquid requires a great investment in time, the distilleries open, close and change hands faster than a poker player changes cards.So there is a sadness about my map, which I can’t quite bring myself to throw away.A close look at the southern region stretching from east coast to west and over to the Campbeltown region reveals a swathe of distilleries that no longer exist. They represent a different era, one that will never return, and they are apoignant reminder as to how quickly the tides of fortune can change direction and leave their victims washed up on the shore.We shouldn’t get too hung up on this of course. After all, we all know that the industry is in one of its healthier periods and is heading in another direction, with new openings and expansions being more the norm these days.But it’s still a shame, and while it’s easy for the whisky enthusiast to have their attention pulled north and eastwards, it pays to reflect on the Lowland and Campbeltown region from time to time.And indeed, if you take the time and trouble, there is an interesting and ultimately rewarding whisky journey to be made from east and west, making a diversion south and then travelling round Lochs Lomond and Fyne to end at one of Scotland’s true whisky-making gems.So let’s start way over east at Glenkichie, less than an hour from Edinburgh. It is well worth making the journey for, both because it is a pleasant and stylish distillery in its own right, and because it is home to the Museum of Malt Whisky Production.The distillery offers tours, with the price being deducted from any purchase of whisky should you make one. And the distillery is open all year apart from around Christmas but check hours on the website as they vary depending on the time of the year.As you’d expect with a Diageo distillery, the standard of tour is high and the staff pleasant and well-informed. For the more anoraky visitor there is the added attraction of highly unusual cast iron cooling worms as part of the production process. The gingery and sophisticated 10 year old Glenkinchie at the end is something of a treat, too.The museum is housed in the old floor maltings and offers a fascinating insight into whisky production’s history. There is a collection of old tools and some of the copper dogs that were ingeniously invented to help staff siphon off some whisky for personal consumption. These include thin pipes that were put through the cask bung hole and then carried inside the trouser leg, and a double skinned breast plate that was hung round the neck with string.Glenkinchie lies in an area that was very much Scotland’s Eastern front. Invading armies preferred to march up this side of the country and so battle sites are plentiful. The area is also rich in golf courses.There are no distilleries in Edinburgh but both the Scotch Malt Whisky Society and the Scotch Whisky Experience are here, and there are a number of good whisky shops around the centre and on the Royal Mile.The Scotch Malt Whisky Society is a members’ club with two bases in Edinburgh, one down in Leith and one more centrally situated, in Queen Street. The Society does some outstanding independent bottlings, bottled without name but with a big clue to their identity, and some of them can be sampled at the excellent Queen Street bar.There is also a highly respected restaurant.The Scotch Whisky Expereince is situated close to the Castle at the top of the Royal Mile and is an excellent starting point of any journey into Scotch whisky. It’s recently been upgraded and refurbished, boasts one of Edinburgh’s finest restaurants, and stocks malts from most of the nation’s distilleries.There is enough here to keep the children entertained, too, so don’t be put off if you have young ones. Edinburgh also has some wonderful whisky shops so it’s well worth searching them out.Rightly or wrongly the West Coast tends to be more associated with whisky than Edinburgh, and Glasgow can certainly offer a little more on the distillery front. It boasts two: Auchentoshan, which is situated up near the Clyde Bridge, and Glengoyne strictly a Highland distillery and not a Lowland one, but close enough to Glasgow to be reached by taxi but far enough out to give you an easy to reach pretty rural distillery experience.Glengoyne excels at the visitor experience, offering a whole raft of different opportunities for the visitor, ranging from your standard tour and a dram to a master blending school which lasts half a day, but which allows you to explore the subtleties of blending and to make your own whisky. It’s open throughout the year and has its own shop.Auchentoshan is unusual in that the whisky here is triple-distilled, and although this is a Lowland malt the water is pumped in from springs in the Highlands some miles away.This is one of the cosiest and most welcoming distilleries you’ll find, with a pleasant visitor centre and meeting area, and informal and modern shop. Owners Morrison Bowmore has also invested in conference and meeting facilities and so the whole distillery has a modern hotel feel about it.There is too little space here to even touch on the vast array of other attractions that Glasgow has to offer, though if you’re going to do a family activity my suggestion is to get a ferry from the river in central Glasgow (you’ll find details through most tourist websites) and travel down the Clyde to Braehead, the modern shopping centre.There you’ll also find Clydebuilt, a museum dedicated to the history of shipping on the Clyde. The journey down past all the disused shipbuilding docks and the museum experience itself will go a long way to understanding how great this city once was, and what an important lifeline it provided for among others the whisky producers, who used its ports to send blended whisky across the Empire. On this sweat, industry and sacrifice whisky become the global success story it is today.Scotland’s most southerly distillery is Bladnoch, an outstanding Lowlander. To reach it requires a considerable journey but the area is rich with castles and history, and the distillery itself is a fine example of tradition and style. Bladnoch has its own whisky school which runs at certain times of the year and it conducts organised tours. Check its website for details as opening times vary throughout the years – If you’re in the mood for further long treks to some of malt whisky’s remotest nirvanas, then let’s end with Springbank way out west.This is not strictly in the Lowlands region but our regional definitions effectively exclude it.And what a gem to exclude!Springbank is a labour-intensive traditional distillery with its own floor maltings and a whisky to die for. Actually, three malts for the price of one – the earthy, coconutty Springbank, the heavily peated and extremely limited Longrow, and a triple-distilled malt called Hazelburn. The owners of the distillery are also producing at nearby Glengyle once more.It’s not the easiest distillery to visit but it does do tours by appointment and has extended these from summer to all the year round.I have long believed that the area below Glasgow and Edinburgh is often neglected.But as the area that Rabbie Burns grew up and wrote in, with the large number of literary sites and because of the large number of castles spanning the English border area, it is worth exploration all of its own. And the ideal pillars to hang the rest of the trip on are the distilleries from Glenkinchie to Glengoyne, Bladnoch to Springbank. Happy hunting.
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