When we think of Scotland, we immediately think of the Highlands. Rugged mountains, mysterious lakes, tartans, clans, and…. whisky. Lots of whisky. About one quarter of Scotland’s whisky is produced in this vast, sparsely populated region. Rob Roy hailed from the Highlands. So did William Wallace. And, of course, James Bond.
What fascinates me about the Highland distilleries are the stories that come from the ancient buildings, the colorful past, and the characters that formed the industry. Like the Glenturret Distillery, in Perthshire. Founded in 1763 by the Drummond family, it was originally called the Hosh Distillery, and eventually became the home of Famous Grouse Whisky. But perhaps even more famous than the grouse is Towser the cat. From 1963 until 1987, Towser was in charge of rodent control at the distillery and her mousing count of 28,899 is officially recognized by the Guinness Book of Records. A bronze statue of Towser is located in the distilleries visitor center.
One of the smallest distilleries in Scotland is Edradour, the last remaining farm distillery, established in 1825. Its water source is a salmon stream which passes directly beside the distillery and powers several water wheels. Edradour, during the 1930’s produced the world’s most expensive and rare blended whisky – House of Lords. It was so popular and sought after in the United States during prohibition, that owner William Whiteley smuggled it in by filling fake torpedos and launching them onto the beaches, where U.S. smugglers collected them and bottled the product for sale. In fact, in the late 1930’s, several unfired whisky-filled torpedos were discovered on the British Schooner, Rosie MB. Gives a different slant on the expression ‘getting bombed’.
If you want to talk about whisky lore, then look no further than the Glenmorangie Distillery, located in, you guessed it, Glen Morangie. In the 8th century, the area was ruled by the Picts, an ancient tribe that migrated from Scandinavia. The Picts are best known for their body art and stone carvings. The best known of these is the Hilton of Cadboll, the earliest known evidence of Christianity in Scotland, and currently a widely used part of Glenmorangie labelling.
Other cool facts about Glenmorangie include the Men of Tain, who, for generations, have carried the distilling secrets of the whisky. Also, of course, their 36 foot-tall stills, the most famous in Scotland. It all adds up to a superb range of products, which is a classic representation of Highlands whisky.
The original Hilton of Cadboll (left) and the Cadboll image (right) on a bottle of Signet
There are so many other Highland whisky stories, like the famous Dalmore tale of the head of the MacKenzie Clan who, in 1263, saved King Alexander III from the horns of a stag elk. In return, the MacKenzie Clan were awarded a tract of land, where the distillery now stands, and a 12 point stag crest, which every bottle of Dalmore now displays.
And then there’s the Aberfeldy brand. Built in the 1800’s in Perthshire by the Dewar brothers, Aberfeldy is nicknamed ‘The Golden Dram” because of the high gold content in the water supply. Production started off small until younger brother, Tommy Dewar, began an aggressive marketing campaign throughout Briton and on his famous round-the-world tour. During his visits to 26 countries, he established a global distribution network for the Dewars brand. Upon his return, Tommy also became the Sheriff of London, the Justice of the Peace for Kent, and a British Member of Parliament.
So, the next time you’re enjoying a dram from the Highlands, do a little research of your own and find out the stories behind their great brands. Next, we’ll head to Speyside to examine some of the stories, legends, and tall tales of the whisky and the people who made it. Cheers!