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Whisky: on a Highland fling

Around these parts, you can't toss a caber without hitting a distillery of note

January 24, 2013 | By:

The Highlands is whisky country, and 2013 is the Year of Natural Scotland, making this the perfect time to go and see where it’s made. By Richard MacKichan

The Highlands is whisky country. Its main artery is the River Ness, and damn it flows fast. It’s no place for pooh sticks; drop a twig from an Inverness footbridge and it’ll be halfway to the Moray Firth before you’ve had time to turn around. Before the drams, though, lunch.

On the banks of these Ness rapids sits the Glenmoriston Townhouse, an award-winning hotel and restaurant with an enviable local reputation as providers of the finest fare. Given that less than an hour ago, several of us were crammed on to a 737, the local beef, salmon, hand-dived scallops and such were all the more revelatory.

The whisky was never far away; the bar stocks over 200 varieties. One, the peaty Laphroaig, forms the basis for their famed starter, where it’s added to lobster, Applewood bacon and cheese, dill cucumber and black pepper in a Heston-esque smoke-filled jar to create, well, ‘Whisky In The Jar’ of course.

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Fuelled by this feast, my group heads for the most famous Ness. My bekilted driver tells us that starring roles in Skyfall and Pixar’s Brave (in stunningly animated form) have caused renewed interest in the Highlands, and with 2013 the Year of Natural Scotland, we can look forward to seeing more of their plentiful assets. The plastic Nessie we park up next to is not one of them.

For all its naff monster associations, Loch Ness is one of our island’s most inspiring sights. It’s not quite as large as Loch Lomond by surface area, but it contains more fresh water than all the lakes in England and Wales combined.

You can submerge London’s BT Tower at the Loch’s deepest point and still have room to spare. A winter boat ride across its indigo expanse means particularly low sun and breathtaking views in all directions, if a skeleton-deep chill.

Exploring Speyside

The last of the light fades as we stand atop the ruins of Urquhart Castle, a crucial outpost in bygone clan battles that saw off a 17th-century Jacobite siege, only to be destroyed to stop it falling into unfavourable hands. With the darkness, and temperature, falling, it’s about time for a whisky.

Around these parts, you can’t toss a caber without hitting a distillery of note, and if you fancy following the Speyside trail then do as I did and base yourself at the Knockomie Hotel. This warm, family-run retreat near the town of Forres has a well-stocked bar and rooms named after said liquor landmarks.

A whisky-themed meal begins proceedings, full of Highland venison, more local beef and some obligatory haggis, all with lashings of the good stuff – even with dessert. Then we repaired fireside with a bottle of 18-year-old Glenlivet.

“The best stuff I’ve ever drunk,” claimed our dinner companion, a loquacious Scot named Ian (though, as The Glenlivet’s global brand ambassador, he could’ve been a little biased).

He regales us with tales of smugglers, racketeers and the birth of the modern industry long into the night. Before retiring to The Glenlivet (the room), I persuade Ian to let us visit The Glenlivet (the distillery) in the morning.

On the distillery trail

The Glenlivet distillery, nestled into a wind-lashed moor, maintains many original processes and is run by a surprisingly small staff. Considering they sell a bottle of the stuff every six seconds (it’s the number one single malt in the US), this was not the megalithic industrial sprawl you might imagine. We hike up to the original 1824 site to survey the sweeping heather and gorse-flecked Glen that makes this area such fertile whisky territory.

To avert the chills, we head inside for a tour of facilities and a tasting session that’s as far-removed from po-faced, connoisseur-ville as you could imagine. It’s about enjoyment, interpretation and taste. Amusement too, in the case of the framed 1902 letter from Her Majesty’s Customs informing the distillery that they should cease the practice of “dramming” their staff with grain alcohol.

It’s cold up here, as I may have mentioned, so the effects of whisky are practical as well as pleasurable. Which is why continuing the distillery trail to Cardhu, Glenfarclas, Knockando, The Macallan and Glenfiddich is the perfect way to while away a few days.

The adjoining scenery is spectacular enough that even the drive ranks as entertainment, providing you stay under the limit.

A historical spectre hangs over the Highlands as heavily as the mist. Much of the culture, established by feudal clans, was effectively outlawed for a century by the British government after the Jacobites got unruly. It would be fair to credit whisky as a uniting spirit.

As I made my way back through the quaint Inverness airport, the local malts I was clutching drew various interested comments from security staff and fellow passengers. They care about their whisky in these parts.

My only regret was that I wasn’t sticking around for its starring role in Burns Night. But one piece of advice was passed my way: if you’re toasting Scotland’s Bard, keep the whisky flowing like the River Ness.

The Glenlivet’s Local Legacies campaign unearths Britain’s natural legacies; hidden treasures with meaning, beauty and heritage that hold particular significance. To share your legacy, and vote for others, visit The Glenlivet Land of Legacies.

Video: how to make a Darkest Devotion whisky cocktail

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• Inverness airport is serviced in the UK by easyJet and Flybe. Knockomie Hotel is available for short breaks and exclusive use. The Glenlivet distillery is closed for tours until April 2013.

• Richard was a guest of The Glenlivet and Visit Scotland and transport was provided by Ken Hanley of Small World Tours