National treasure: how and where real Scotch whiskey is made

Scotch is made from barley, but it's not the main ingredient. Much more important is Scottish air, water and courage

Vokrug sveta traveled to the Highlands to taste the components of the famous whiskey separately and together.

– On the way from the airport, you must have seen Aberdeen Angus cows, the very ones from whose meat the best marbled steaks are cooked all over the world. They were bred here in Scotland in the 19th century. Our lamb is just as good, —Ken Lindsey, dressed in a festive kilt with a tailcoat and a bow tie, sits at the head of the table, getting used to the role of the hospitable owner of the Linn House castle. Ken, a whiskey specialist with 30 years of experience, can tell you everything about a noble drink. But right now he's more interested in food.

So, our chefs select the best cuts of lamb and… throw them in the trash! And from what remains, haggis is prepared.

The joke is a success, but the laughter quickly subsides when the chef brings out the main dish of Scottish cuisine. A swollen ram's stomach sways on a snow-white napkin. Scraps of the esophagus and duodenum tied with twine. Not without pleasure, Ken reports that the shaking, dirty gray bag is full of giblets (otherwise the guests suddenly thought it was meat).

To try haggis, you need to catch the courage. Everything is ready for this: in front of each eater is a quake – a low copper bowl of 50 milliliters filled with whiskey. Ken explains the procedure step by step. Holding the quake in front of you at chest level, you need to shout out “Slanzhe va!” – something like “Your health!” in Gaelic (Scottish). Then you should drink whiskey in one gulp, shake the inverted cup over your head and kiss its bottom. Guests from Russia liven up. Such rituals are close to us: exhale, overturn, have a bite. “Slangie wa, Ken, cut your haggis!”

But it's too early to cut, the Scot has not finished the performance yet. He wants to read us an ode to haggis written in the 18th century by Robert Burns. I'm sitting on the corner of the table, closest to Ken, and in a trained voice he hammers incomprehensible Gaelic words right into my left ear. Pulling out a dagger from behind the golf, he rips open the stomach with one movement, from which the floating gray minced meat falls out onto the napkin. Ken does a couple of ballet steps, gets behind me and puts a dagger to my throat, growling something about the enemies of Scotland.

Here is an immersive performance for you. I did not serve in the special forces, and I do not have a developed reflex to throw the attacker over the head and carry out a finishing move. What if there was? However, the Scots are not shy guys.


We are standing in an open field in the middle of the hills. The plaque on the stone says that here in 1824 George Smith founded the distillery The Glenlivet. Slush underfoot, gloom overhead, wind penetrating, drizzling rain – not the best place for walking. The solitude of this region was used by the first Scottish distillers. Whiskey has been illegally produced in the Highlands for centuries.

A national treasure: how and where real Scotch whiskey is made

There has always been a demand for alcohol in this region. Still, with such a climate! The production of spirits was heavily taxed. In order to properly pay tribute, the distillers of the densely populated Lowland (South of Scotland) drove whiskey hastily in colossal quantities. The fire drink had almost no taste, but it pleased the common people and filled the royal treasury with coins.

In the hilly valley of Glenlivet, whiskey was made slowly, for themselves and for their own. Taxes were not paid – tax collectors rarely got to these places. Local distillers could afford to experiment with the recipe. They made aged whiskey without chasing volume, and the drink turned out to be soft, fragrant. Illegal carriers distributed the product among connoisseurs.

Despite the conspiracy, the rumor about soft Highland whiskey spread throughout the British Isles. In 1822, during an official visit to Scotland, King George IV demanded that a drink be brought to him from the Glenlivet Valley.

“Lord Conynham, the chief chamberlain, looked everywhere for pure Glenlivet whiskey, the king drank nothing else,” the writer Elizabeth Grant recalled in Memoirs of a Highland Lady. Shortly thereafter, the monarch turned to the Excise Chamber with a request for leniency towards whiskey. At the same time, the Highland landowners were urging Parliament of their ability to take control of the region's alcohol market and legalize it.

Tax breaks did not appeal to distillers and smugglers accustomed to absolute freedom, and the region turned into a hot spot for some time. The old-timers did not want to cooperate with the authorities and did not let the “right” newcomers into their lands. George Smith, the founder of the first legal distillery in the Glenlivet Valley, always carried a pair of pistols in his belt and often used them.

Today, the “Smuggler's Trail” is just a tourist route with a start from the same stone with a sign. Those who are not afraid of cold and damp can walk through the hills and appreciate the beauty of Scottish nature, its unusually rich colors. The flowers are dark yellow, like amber illuminated by the sun. The grass is dark green, like it's fluorescent. The slopes are strewn with white “dandelions” that suddenly start moving and turn out to be sheep.

A national treasure: how and where real Scotch whiskey is made

National treasure: how and where real Scotch whiskey is made

A national treasure: how and where real Scotch whiskey is made

National treasure: how and where real Scotch whiskey is made

A national treasure: how and where real Scotch whiskey is made

National treasure: how and where real Scotch whiskey is made

Translated from Gaelic, Glenlivet means “valley of gently flowing”. The gently flowing River Livet empties into the Avon, a major tributary of the River Spey, which gave the Speyside region its name. It is one of the six whiskey producing areas in Scotland, very modest in area, but leading in the number of distilleries. Here they produce the most famous varieties in the world. Overall, little Scotland produces most of the world's whiskey. Why is she? Because it can. There are few other places where you can find such an amount of suitable water.

Octane number

Even single malt whiskey is blended from dozens of barrels before bottling. This is how manufacturers achieve a uniform taste of the drink from different bottles and batches. The stronger the drink, ripening in the barrel, the more flavor it takes from the tree, but the more volume it loses during evaporation. The “gold standard” is considered a fortress of 60 degrees. Before bottling, whiskey is diluted with ordinary water to the traditional 40 degrees. Although there are also undiluted varieties labeled cask strength.


“If you don’t like the weather in Scotland, just wait five minutes,” Ken retells the old joke, and before our eyes the rain turns into sunshine, and after a couple of moments it starts to drizzle again. Water in the Highlands seems to be everywhere: underground, in lakes, in the air. And this is very handy: a large distillery requires 10,000 liters per hour.

To make whiskey, you need two types of water: drinking and technical. The first is in direct contact with barley and yeast, absorbs alcohol and aromatic substances. The original taste of water is practically not transferred to whiskey. But the yeast must like it.

Yeast converts sugars dissolved in wort into alcohol, while they themselves need calcium and magnesium. The law governing the formulation of Scotch whiskey prohibits the addition of special nutritional components for yeast to the water, which means that minerals must be present in it initially. Raindrops filling underground sources pass through the thickness of soil rocks and are saturated with minerals.

“Why do you think whiskey is expensive?” Ken asks. even has its own name: Josie's Well, or “Josie's Spring”. Today it is a local landmark with a fence and a sign.

Technical water is needed primarily for cooling alcohol vapors after boiling in a distillation cube. The cube is the same moonshine, only large, and its cooler is similar: a copper pipe-coil is immersed in a container with running cold water. The volume of this “aquarium” can be significant, a million liters or even more. Cooling water does not come into contact with whiskey, and you can take it not only from a well, but also from a river or lake, and return it there.

National treasure: how and where real Scotch whiskey is made

Water temperature must be stable. It determines how quickly the vapor turns to liquid in the coil and how long the product is in contact with the copper. This greatly affects the taste of whiskey. On the rare occasions when a relatively hot and dry summer comes to the Highlands, distilleries are shut down and closed for maintenance.

Having bypassed the pond and touched the water (brr!), we go into the barn, where almost ready whiskey is gaining taste in barrels. Light seeps through the cracks in the wooden walls. There is no wind here, but the nose itches from the cold air.

— Did you think to warm yourself here? Whatever it is,” Ken chuckles. Now the air has to do its job.

Long process

A national treasure: how and where real Scotch whiskey is made

1. Sprouting
Barley grains contain starch sealed with cell membranes and protein structures. A series of soakings and dryings mimics the spring thaw and the grains germinate. Starch is released to nourish the sprout.

2. Drying
In order not to use up all the starch, the growth process must be stopped. Grain is gradually heated up to 90 °C in special ovens.

3. Crushing
Sprouted and dried grain is ground to obtain malt. At the next stage, the crushed seed husk will serve as a filter, and the quality of the grinding determines how saturated the wort will be.

4. Getting the wort
Malt is poured with hot water. It activates natural enzymes that break down starch into sugars. The procedure is carried out at least three times. The first water has a temperature of about 62 ° C, the second – 75 ° C and the third – 95 ° C.

5. Fermentation
Yeast is added to the wort, which converts the sugars into alcohol. The resulting mash resembles beer.

6. Distillation
Braga is heated in an alembic. Alcohol boils and evaporates before water at 78.4°C. The vapors are cooled in the coil and become liquid again. After the first distillation, the product acquires a strength of about 20–30 °C. The second distillation brings the degree to 60 and above.

7. Excerpt
Scotch whiskey is legally aged in oak barrels for at least three years. At the same time, barrels can be very different: from American or European oak, from bourbon, sherry and even wine.


— We call this ancient device the copper dog (copper dog), —Mr. Lindsey demonstrates a golden top hat dangling on a chain. —I'm going to drop it into a barrel of whiskey and we'll take a sample. Attention, I ask for complete silence!

National treasure: how and where real Scotch whiskey is made

Ken closes his eyes and gently lowers the cylinder into the whiskey. Music is coming from the barrel! It was as if someone had played an arpeggio on the marimba or rang a dozen bells. These are gas bubbles hitting the cylinder like small hammers. Where do whiskey bubbles come from? The drink contains volatile components that evaporate over time.

– This is the “angel's share”, – explains Ken. – Every year, 3% of the volume of whiskey leaks through the pores in the wood of the barrel. Guess why aged drinks are so expensive? And we also have to plan demand for 15, 20 and even 30 years ahead. Who knows how much people will love whiskey three decades from now?

The substances escaping from the barrel are replaced by air due to the pressure difference. When the drink interacts with oxygen, acids are formed, and those, in turn, react with alcohol and turn into esters – carriers of fruity taste.

Changeable weather contributes. When the air in the barn warms up, the wood pores expand, and the whiskey itself slightly expands in volume, snuggling closer to the wood. With a cold snap, the pores shrink, and the tree assimilates the whiskey it has collected, stimulating numerous chemical reactions.


Finally, we walk through the barley fields. We don’t run, we don’t run, we don’t wrap ourselves in hoods: a person quickly gets used to any weather, including Scottish. We are thinking of following the path of smugglers: some two hours through the hills.

– Guess why Scotch whiskey is made from barley? – even taking off his kilt and bow tie, Ken Lindsey continues to play the role of toastmaster and entertain guests with riddles . – Yes, it's just that other cereals do not grow in such a climate. If there was wheat, they would be driven from wheat, if there was corn – from corn. Grain is the tenth thing.

A national treasure: how and where real Scotch whiskey is made


Scotland Square (including islands) 77,933 km²
Population5,500,000 people
Population density 71 people/km²

SIGHTSEEINGEdinburgh Castle, Loch Ness and Loch Lomond, Glasgow Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum. , nips and tattis (mashed baked rutabagas and potatoes), black pudding.
TRADITIONAL DRINKS whiskey, wee-heavy (special beer for drinking whiskey), irn-bru.
SOUVENIRS Edinburgh crystal, quake, kilt, Scottish dirk dagger.

DISTANCE from Moscow to Aberdeen – 2400 km (6 hours 20 minutes in flight excluding transfers )
TIME is 2 hours behind Moscow in summer, 3 hours in winter
VISA British
CURRENCY pound sterling < em>(1 GBP ~ 1.25 USD)


Material published in the magazine “Vokrug sveta” No. 10, October 2019, partially updated in May 2022

Sergey Apresov

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