I'll Take the Low Road

I'll Take the Low Road

Hans takes a trip through the Lowlands

Travel | 05 Sep 2014 | Issue 122 | By Hans Offringa

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Once upon a time the Lowlands of Scotland were thriving with distilling activities, legal as well as illegal. In the 18th century Edinburgh supposedly hosted more than 400 pot stills, the majority on the wrong side of the law. Then, in the 19th century, the Haig and Stein distilling dynasties poured out huge amounts of Lowland whisky. Those times are long gone. At the time of writing a handful of distilleries are up and - more or less - running. Only two of them produce single malt whisky on

a commercial scale. Let's look at them first.

On the western side of Glasgow, across the Erskine Bridge, sits Auchentoshan, famous for its triple distillation. It's a good half hour from the airport, by car. Don't follow your SatNav religiously, or you will end up in a housing project adjacent to the distillery, which I did. When Auchentoshan was founded in 1823, this part of Glasgow's suburbs might have been a tranquil meadow. After all, this Gaelic name means 'corner of the field' in proper English. The distillery is meticulously well kept by Japanese owner Suntory. It could have been different altogether. Auchentoshan was one of the very few distilleries severely hit during World War II, when a bomb was dropped near the premises and nearly a million litres of maturing whisky burnt in an instant. Luckily it was resurrected and today you can enjoy a fine tour and tasting. Savour the Three Wood! Time to spare in the city? Go to the West End and try The Ubiquitous Chip.

If your plane touches the tarmac at Edinburgh Airport, you might want to steer your rental car 20 miles to the southeast in the direction of Pencaitland. From the city bypass take the A68 south, direction Dalkeith and Jedburgh. After roughly four miles you will see a sign 'Glenkinchie Distillery' pointing to the left. The lowland representative of the famous 'Classic Six Malts' sits near the village of Pencaitland, and is complete with a neat bowling green. Two red brick warehouses (and former malt barns) are Historic Scotland listed industrial buildings and you will see why. Inside you'll be surprised by two gigantic pot stills, some of the largest in the industry. As if to counter-balance that fact, Glenkinchie also houses the smallest distillery in the world, a scale model once built for the British Empire exhibition in 1923. According to legend it even worked for a while. Glenkinchie is a very light, restorative dram. It's also a malt whisky preferred by blenders for many years.

Fancy an interesting literary side trip? Turn back to the A68 and head south to Galashiels. Just outside this border town you will find Abbotsford - the mansion of the late, great Sir Walter Scott who once asked King George IV if he could have his glass after HRH had enjoyed a dram of The Glenlivet in Edinburgh.

Scott received the precious little thing and put it in his pocket. Upon his return to Abbotsford he fell into his armchair, totally exhausted, and smashed the glass to smithereens.

Want to see a groovy place in Edinburgh on the way back? Try Whiski, the award winning whisky bar, or have drinks and dinner in the Canny Man's, an experience you will never forget. Later in the evening, on the corner of Chambers Street, jazz lovers can enjoy some fine music in the Jazz Bar. Don't get upset by the shady entrance, you won't be disappointed when inside. They do have a fine selection of single malts to go with your jazz. Yes, they work well together, at least in my opinion.

However, there is another Lowland distillery worth mentioning. For many years it produced a fine light dram. Sadly it is currently silent due to a disagreement between the owners. We're talking about Bladnoch here, a stone's throw from Wigtown, book capital of Scotland, a title earned due to its many new and second-hand bookstores and the annual literary festival, usually held in autumn.

To get to Bladnoch is quite a chore, but you can turn it into a very interesting historical trip. If you enter the UK by ferry in Newcastle. Once you've found your way from North Shields quay through the city, take the A69 west and turn near Heddon-on-the-Wall on the B6318 westbound and shortly you will drive parallel to the remnants of Hadrian's Wall. My favourite place for a pit stop to take a closer look at what the old emperor had in mind when he tried to keep the Scots out of England is Fort Chester. After your break, continue westward and pick up on the A69 at Haltwhistle, direction Brampton/Carlisle. Take the A689 after Brampton, which segues into the A74. At Gretna Green turn left onto the A75, which will take you meandering along to Wigtown and Bladnoch. This epic journey will take an entire day. The little market town is picturesque with lots of bookshops to explore and the distillery is one of a kind, with a little courtyard. I sincerely hope the owners come to some form of agreement or sell out. Bladnoch deserves to be alive and kickin' again. For accommodation there are plenty of B&Bs and small hotels to choose from.

On your journey back along the A75 eastbound take a little detour along the A755 to Kirkcudbright, a famous artist's colony. The light in this little town is so amazing that it has been attracting painters and writers for centuries. Up the road is Dumfries, which was the home of Robert Burns - In 1877 the town council decided to erect a statue for the man who once wrote "Freedom and whisky gang thegither."

Yes or No

William Grants & Sons operates a large column and a pot still distillery at Girvan. The latter is called Ailsa Bay. Both distilleries are not open for visitors.

On the A75 you might have passed the newly built Annandale distillery. The proprietors would love to see you, but not yet, as can be read on their website: Although we'd like to meet you soon, please don't visit us just yet as we're still in the process of rebuilding, in order to bring the distillery back to life.

The Malt Whisky Yearbook 2014 has Daftmill classified as a lowland distillery, but I beg to differ here, which I seldom do with my revered colleague Ingvar Ronde. The distillery is located near Cupar, in the Kingdom of Fife, north of Edinburgh. This part of Scotland is not recognised as Lowlands anymore.

Some people count Glengoyne Distillery, north of Glasgow as a highland distillery, some as a lowland one. Both groups are right. The Highland Line, which divides both parts of Scotland, runs right through the distillery grounds. At Glengoyne they prefer to be called Highland distillers.

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