People will go to extraordinary lengths to travel to Scotland in order to sample the water of life. Scottish whisky is one of the UK’s proudest exports, and we’re so fortunate to have this beautiful country on our doorstep.
One of the most exciting ways to see Scotland is on a British Isles cruise, travelling between the Hebrides and visiting the mainland. If you’re considering a holiday to Scotland, or planning your excursions and need a little help, read on to find out everything you need to know about Scottish whisky.
History of whisky in Scotland
While whisky is a fundamental part of Scottish culture today, the beloved beverage hasn’t always been so welcome. In fact, for some time, production of the beverage was driven underground, leaving its future hanging in the balance.
The earliest documented record of distilling in Scotland is believed to be in 1494 in the tax records of the time – the Exchequer Rolls. According to the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA), the entry states: ‘Eight bolls of malt to Friar John Cor wherewith to make aqua vitae’ (water of life). It’s estimated that this was enough to produce roughly 1,500 bottles of whisky, suggesting that a distillery may well have existed at this time.
It’s believed that due to primitive equipment at the time, and a lack of scientific expertise, the spirit produced in these early days would have been fairly potent. However, by the 16th and 17th centuries, great strides were taken to create a finer whisky.
Interestingly, the disbanding of monasteries contributed to the rise of malt whisky production, as many of the monks were driven from their sanctuaries and put their skills to use at distilleries. Back then, whisky was not savoured as it is today and was hailed for its medicinal qualities, prescribed to prolong life, relieve colic and smallpox.
In the decades since, whisky became an important part of Scottish culture, helping locals through cold winters and bringing them together at social events. However, the Scottish parliament caught wind of the rise in popularity, and slapped taxes on malt whisky in the 17th century, driving distillers underground.
By the 1820s, more than half of the whisky consumed in Scotland was illegal. The 150 years that followed saw battles between illicit distillers and excisemen, and smuggling was rife. Clandestine stills were tucked away in the hills and smugglers created signalling systems to warn each other of officers’ arrivals. By the 1820s, the Scottish Whisky Association estimates that as many as 14,000 illicit stills were being confiscated every year and more than half of the whisky consumed in Scotland was illegal.
To target the issue, the Duke of Gordon, whose land was home to many illicit whisky stills, proposed that the government make it profitable to produce whisky legally. In 1823, the Excise Act was passed, and smuggling died out almost entirely, and paved the way for the industry as we know it today to flourish.
A guide to the whisky regions
Scotland is divided into whisky regions, each producing its own distinct style of blended or single malt whiskies. So your preferred whisky region may depend on whether you like a smoky whisky (made with peat), or a sweeter whisky, such as those distilled in a sherry cask. Here’s an introduction to each whisky-producing region to help you get started.
Characteristics: Light, floral
Lowland whiskies are produced in the Scottish lowlands area, comprising the cities of Glasgow, Edinburgh, Stirling and Dundee. Distilleries in the lowlands tend to create softer whiskies. Triple distilled malts are typical of the region, offering elegant flavours of honey, toffee and cinnamon in their malts, as well as floral notes. Lowland malts are created by distilleries including Auchentoshan, Glenkinchie and Ailsa Bay.
Characteristics: Rich and fruity, sometimes lightly peated
As the most densely-populated whisky region in the world, Speyside is home to many spectacular rivers and glens. More than half of Scotland’s whisky distilleries call Speyside home. Although Speyside whiskies, like all whisky regions, differ greatly, they feature some common characteristics. Fruits such as apple and pear, honey and vanilla all feature in malts from the region. Whiskies from a sherry cask are also prevalent. Notable distilleries include Aberlour, Tomintoul, Glenfiddich and Glenfarclas.
Characteristics: Rich and briny
The picturesque peninsula of the Campbeltown region is home to just three coastal whisky distilleries, however they all pack a punch. Campbeltown malts are very distinctive, with smoke, fruit, salt and toffee notes coming together to create a totally unique whisky. During your cruise through the British Isles, be sure to visit one of Campbeltown’s distilleries. The most prominent are Springbank and Glen Scotia.
Oak, heather, smoke and fruits combine in Highland whiskies. The vast moorland which dominates the landscape creates the ideal environment for mastering peaty drams, while many Highland malts retain fresh, floral flavours. In the northern Highlands, distilleries such as Dalmore provide cereal and honey notes, while fruit and smoke punch through the flavour in Ardmore’s single malts. Popular Highland whisky distilleries are Tomatin, Glen Ord and Dalmore.
Characteristics: Smoky/briny, black pepper, heather
Due to the versatility of the Island whisky distilleries, the resulting single malts can vary, though many feature light citrus notes and smoky, peaty flavours. The isles of Arran, Mull, Jura, Skye and Orkney are packed with maritime notes, reminiscent of the stormy seas that surround them. Talisker, the largest Islands distillery, sits in Carbost on the Isle of Skye and produces a unique malt with briny, smoky notes. While Tobermory offers a fruiter malt with a rich flavour. Jura, another popular Scotch whisky, sits somewhere in the middle with nuttier notes.
Highland Park Distillery
If your cruise ship docks in Kirkwall on Orkney’s mainland, don’t miss out on a visit to one of Scotland’s most famous distilleries – Highland Park. The origins of this unique whisky lie in the fact that one in three Orkney islanders share Viking DNA, with the whisky being crafted in the old way by a new generation. Highland Park first began distilling on this site in 1798.
Founder Magnus Eunson was a direct descendant of early Viking settlers in Orkney. According to the team at Highland Park, Eunson was a butcher and church officer by day, and a bootlegger and smuggler by night, setting up an illegal whisky-making operation at a bothy in High Park overlooking Kirkwall. The distillery remains at this site today. Some 220 years later, the distillery is still using his methods to create its distinctive whisky. Among the tasting notes in Highland Park’s single malts are citrus fruits, vanilla, peppery spices, heather peat, light smoke, dark chocolate, toffee, oak shavings, cedar wood and sea salt. While every bottle has its own unique taste, these notes give you an idea of what to expect from a big whisky like Highland Park.
Tobermory, a picturesque harbour town on the Isle of Mull, is a popular cruise destination. Tucked away amongst the colourful waterfront buildings is Tobermory Distillery, which produces some of Scotland’s finest single malt whiskies. The distillery was established in 1798 and focuses on a small yet exceptional range of whiskies. Two single malt spirits are made here. The Tobermory whisky is unpeated with notes of citrus, sweet vanilla and honey, while its Ledaig whisky is heavily peated, enhanced by similar flavours as the Tobermory whisky. Be sure to visit the distillery during your British Isles cruise stopover.
If you like the sound of a full-flavoured, smoky whisky, Islay may be the region for you. The southernmost island of the Inner Hebrides is home to some of the world’s finest whisky distilleries, such as Lagavulin, Kilchoman and Ardbeg. Islay malts have a distinctively peaty, smoky and briny flavour, and are often highly complex.
A few words of advice from ‘Whisky’s power couple’
Described by World Whisky Day as ‘Whisky’s power couple’, Kirsty and Stewart, the brains behind revered whisky blog, Whisky Corner, have a deep-rooted passion for Scottish whisky. Stewart’s passion for single malts began when he was introduced to whisky at age 18, with Glenmorangie. He was hooked from the start and sought out various whiskies to try. Through attending distillery tastings and visiting Inverarity in Glasgow, Stewart gained access to specialist whisky knowledge and niche bottlings. From there, Stewart made the decision to start a whisky club.
Kirsty was introduced to whisky as a student, as she describes “with standard pub fair, probably a Grouse, it wasn’t an instant hit,” but there was enough to pique her interests in whisky. After sharing a few single malts with a friend and taking a trip to Royal Mile Whiskies, and the whisky fringe, Kirsty was hooked. On social media, Kirsty discovered the whisky club Stewart had started, and the two ran the club together as a couple. Thus, Whisky Corner was born.
“More than anything, just enjoy it. The journey never ends.”
We spoke to the whisky experts to get the top tips for those who aren’t in the whisky world, but are eager to dive in: “For those with an interest in whisky who don’t know where to start, I’ll give some advice the great Charles Maclean once gave during our interview, which was to find either a whisky bar or a bar with a good whisky selection, take some friends and ask for a whisky flight from all the whisky regions. Share them, talk about them, how they taste, what you enjoyed, what you didn’t. Once you narrow down your favourite region(s), take another flight specific to that region and find your favourite distillery, and go from there.
“Another great way is to attend a whisky tasting or festival. Follow blogs, read tasting notes and try the same whisky alongside it and see what notes you can identify. More than anything, enjoy it. The journey never ends, you just learn more and discover more and more whiskies.”
For whisky aficionados, here are Stewart and Kirsty’s favourite drams:
- Kilchoman Loch Gorm
- Laphroiag QC
- Highland Park 18
- Chivas 18
- AnCnoc 12
- G&M – Newly launched 2004 Highland Park offering
- Teeling Single Grain
- Redbreast 12 CS
- Hedonism and Peat Monster by Compass Box
If you just can’t wait to enjoy a dram in Scotland, take a look at our selection of cruises to Scotland. If you’ve already been and have any tips, we’d love to hear from you!
Image credits: Pascal van de Vendel, Highland Park images - Søren Solkær, Adam Wilson