Story and photos by John Blanchette
Then let us toast John Barleycorn,
Each man a glass in hand;
And may his great posterity
Ne'er fail in old Scotland!
By Robert Burns
Piper in the Highlands, calling
the Scottish nation home
dinburgh, Scotland Scotlands greatest poet, Robert Burns,
celebrates his 250th birthday this year, ushering in a special reunion
gala, The Gathering, the worlds largest assembly of
the Clans. Calling all of its ancestry home, in late July the country
will welcome back some of the millions of prodigal sons and daughters
that have spread about the earth for a weekend celebrating all things
Scottish, featuring festivals, concerts, dancing, craft shows and the
Along with its writers and poets, Scotland is known
for its architects and designers, inventors who helped launch the Industrial
Revolution, like Lord Kelvin and James Watt and, of course, its
the home of golf.
I got to the gathering early and decided to celebrate
my favorite part of Scotland, its whisky (spelled with no e
in Scotland, from the Gaelic for water of life).
About five million Scots inhabit the country that caps
Great Britain, along with 20 million sheep and 107 commercial distilleries,
which I did my best to sample.
Are ewe lookin at me, are ewe lookin
at me. With no natural enemies, sheep graze without attendance throughout
I found that I have an affinity for the peaty whiskies
produced in the Highlands, Islay, Speyside and the Islands. There is
no arguing when it comes to matters of taste. Others can enjoy the Lowlands
whiskies with their balanced food-friendly, un-peated caramel
centers, Ill take the smoky giants that distinguish Scotch
whiskies from the rest of the spirit world.
I visited in mid-May. Spring anointed the landscape
with shades of radiant green, yellow gorse was in bloom and the Scottish
national flower, bluebells, carpeted the forests, hills and lake shores.
Scotlands national flower, bluebells adorn
the hillsides, forests and lakes in the spring. Here along Loch Fyne
I was attending the Spirit of the West Whisky Festival,
held on the grounds of the Duke of Argylls castle in Inveraray.
The countrys best single malt whiskies were being tasted and I
threw myself into the task, sampling such great ones as Oban, Talisker,
Ardbeg, Caol Ila, Bowmore, Laphroaig, Lagavulin, Bruichladdich and Dalwhinnie.
Duke of Argyle's Castle
My favorite is one that just become available in the
United States, aged in Bourbon casks and in limited supply, a beautifully
balanced whisky from Kilchoman in Islay, the most westerly distillery
Like American moonshine stills, Scottish distilleries
were primarily erected in remote untraveled areas, not as the whisky
makers would have you believe, for the pure waters filtered through
the stony soils of the highland glens, but more probably to evade the
tax revenuers and government officials. To this day Scotch is heavily
taxed, about 75%, and is usually cheaper to purchase in America than
Quiet country roads lead to hidden away distilleries
American Bourbon owes its existence to early Scottish
settlers in Tennessee and Kentucky who set up stills hidden away in
the rural mountain hollows of Appalachia. They created a distillate
based on corn mash and rye rather than malted barley, which accounts
for the difference in flavor. In 1797 George Washingtons farm
foreman, a Scotsman, set up five pot stills at Mount Vernon, and whiskey
became Georges most profitable product, earning him 60 cents a
I arrived in Edinburgh, Scotlands capital
and a beautiful walking city that is the hometown of Robert Burns,
Sir Walter Scott (who has a grand monument at the beginning of
the Royal Mile) and Robert Louis Stevenson. Georgian architecture
reigns along the major boulevards and cobblestone streets, especially
beside the Royal Mile with its grand view of the city park and
the stone castle, looming above from its craggy peak.
It also happens to be home to the Scotch Whisky
Heritage Center. For about $20 dollars you receive entry into
the museum and a tasting of a number of Scotches at the museum
bar. There are also special whisky appreciation classes taught
at the facility. It was here that I discovered Highland Park,
a beautifully peated Orkney Island whisky that is now my regular
brand. You can also dine at their whisky-friendly Amber restaurant.
The distance between Edinburgh and Glasgow is about
40 miles by road. When you travel by Loch Lomond near Glasgow, look
for Glengoyne Distillery, a good place to learn about Scotch whisky.
They present a slide show at the Visitors Center and a chance
to blend your own personal bottle using whiskies from all the different
areas. Mine had a definite north and west influence. When I open my
bottle it will be with the Scottish toast, Slainte Mhath! Drink
to good health (pronounced slan-ja var).
Scotsmen in conversation and kilts
If You Go
In the large cities of Edinburgh and Glasgow there are hop-on-hop-off
tour buses that are worth the $15 pass (good for 24 hours) to acclimate
to the cities and see all the main attractions before exploring in depth.
If youve got any Scottish blood, you can search
for ancestors at the Peoples Center in Edinburgh, scanning through
church logbooks and computer data.
In Glasgow make a pilgrimage to the Willow Tea Room,
created in 1904 by Scotlands most renowned designer, Charles Rennie
Mackintosh. He designed everything including the windows, furniture,
lighting, even the silverware. You must try the haggis here with the
taters and neeps (potatoes and turnips), $10. Haggis is
the national dish of Scotland; sausage made of ground offal and oats,
spiced like Sheppards pie and cooked inside a sheeps stomach.
Better than it sounds.
Restaurants and Hotels
Hotel du Vin in Edinburgh is a clean, modern hotel with an excellent
restaurant. The lamb was some of the best I tasted on my tour.
Hotel Missoni is an ultra modern Italian-designed building
that has just opened in a prominent location at the head of the Royal
Forth Floor Restaurant in Edinburgh offers traditional
The Inn at Inverbeg has a wide view of Loch Lomond and
nearby Mr. Cs Fish and Whisky Bar has great fish and chips.
Creggans Inn on the shores of Loch Fyne in Argyll serves
lightly kippered herring from the loch's tidal waters. Gill and Archie
MacLellan run the family business, helped by their sweet young children.
They have an excellent chef and the historic country inn has lake views,
a lovely garden and access to free internet.
For a true Highland inn experience head for Balquhidder
Glen, and Monachyle Mhor, which sits overlooking Loch Voil.
This is a spectacular 2,000-acre farm that raises much
of the food served in the restaurant including lamb, pork, fish, chicken,
eggs, beef and the occasional red deer, harvested in the glens as part
of the sustainable management program because wolves were systematically
eliminated in most of Scotland.
Owner Tom Lewis is a legendary chef and raconteur who
will endlessly entertain with his wit and stories. In town the family
also owns an organic bread bakery that uses the farms meats in its pies,
and a nearby fish market and chipper.
In Glasgow, the Malmaison Hotel Arts and Crafts interior
inhabits a former Greek Orthodox Church. It features a Champagne bar
and smart restaurant.
One of the best meals I had was at La Vallee Blanche
in Glasgow on Byres Road near the university. Walk around before or
after dinner and grab a drink at one of the student hangouts on Ashton
There are a number of Celtic music, arts and crafts
festivals held throughout the year. Edinburghs summer arts festival
is renowned and whisky events are always on the calendar. For information
on travel accommodations, special events, sightseeing, dining options,
bargain hunting, etc., contact www.cometoscotland.com.