Tipsy Tours of Speyside

Under pagoda-shaped cupolas all along the River Spey, goose-necked stills steam and gurgle.  This is whisky country at its most densely congested - a full half of Scotland's distilleries are found in the Speyside region.  Driving along the roads is like taking a quick tour of a bar shelf: there's Balvenie, here's Glenfiddich, now we're passing Glenlivet and Johnnie Walker.
We took tours at three distilleries over two days, ambling through forests of copper stills and dank, cask-filled cellars.  Our first was Glenfiddich, where the countryside around was full of shaggy Highlander cows.  Glen Grant, the second tour, was nestled by a little stream with autumn-brown gardens.  At Cardhu, on the day we left the region, the small clutch of stone buildings basically made up the entirety of Kockando village.
Of the three distilleries we toured, the Glenfiddich plant was by far the biggest and most commercial.  We were shown a sweeping, highly-stylized video about the founder of the company and the heather-filled highlands around the town (lots of slow-motion, rain effects and mist).  The video was more mythology than nuts and bolts, and made the process seem like alchemy more than industry.
The truth is, whisky is kind of a benevolent magic for the towns along the River Spey.  In the Cardhu tasting room we were shown a photograph of the distillery's founders.  The elderly, craggy-faced husband and wife wore muddy, peasant clothes and worn boots.  "They were arrested two or three times before they finally got a liquor license," we were told.  Distilling was that kind of game in the 1800's, one for half-outlaws in the highlands with little money and small operations.  Today, it's the realm of globalized giants.  Not only is whiskey from here shipped and revered all over the world, but the world comes tramping back to Aberlour and Dufftown to take a look.  Alcohol tourism is a major boon for the area, and the Speyside distilleries are big local employers.
The magical process is really pretty simple, even if it's carried out on a large scale - it's both romantic and mechanical.  "Malted" barley - which is grain that's been allowed to begin sprouting and then dried out - is put into huge wash tanks (called "mash tuns") and soaked in hot water.  Sugar is released from the grain and seeps into the water, which is then pumped into a big fermentation tank, where yeast is added.  Less image-conscious distilleries use stainless steel, but all three plants we visited had wooden tanks, which were almost thirty feet tall (what you can see in the picture is just the very top).  Some of these mammoth things were as old as fifty years; their wood was black and soft with age.
The sugary liquid is left in the tanks for a day or two while it ferments. When it's done, it's basically a strong beer, at about eight percent alcohol.  This frothy liquid is sucked through tubes and spat out into the stills, where the actual distillation process begins.
The deep luster of copper isn't all for show.  The metal helps remove impurities in the liquor, and it transfers heat well… but the dull, orangish gleam is also regally impressive, especially when it's executed at this scale.
The stills are heated from below and (I'm oversimplifying) the alcohol inside evaporates and goes up the neck into a cooling coil, where it becomes liquid again.  Because alcohol becomes a vapor at a lower temperature than water, more alcohol is removed from the "mash" than other liquids, which stay in the bottom of the still.  After the first distillation, the alcohol content of the putative whisky is about thirty five percent.  A second run-through, in a "spirit still" raises that number to about sixty five or seventy percent.  It's clear, strong, undrinkable stuff.  A few years sitting in a barrel mellows the taste, adds color and reduces the strength.
Down in a corner at one end of each distillery was a locked, brass and glass case, about the size of a coffin.  Inside, visible behind the glass, hot, clear liquid splashed and flowed from copper tubes. Beakers and hydrometers filled, emptied, bobbed and gave readouts. These were the most fascinating things, like relics of some fancy, 19th century laboratory - and we weren't allowed to photograph them.
"Nothing secret," our tour guide at Cardhu told us.  "But we can't take any chances with electronics."  They were worried, as all the distilleries are, about an explosion.  The hot liquid flowing through the locked box was new, very-high-proof liquor, and the air was thick with the scent of alcohol.  After a few minutes near the box, we began to feel slightly tipsy.  Any little spark ("faulty wiring" was what they worried about) could blow up the entire town.
The glass boxes are locked by the British government - the distilleries are only allowed to open them if something breaks inside.  "Every shipment of grain we get is recorded," the Cardhu guide told us.  "The government knows exactly how much whiskey we should get at the other end." They can't even taste their product until they've paid the tax.  When I asked the tour guide at Glen Grant about how the distillers knew things were going okay, he told us that it was all computerized.  "There are instruments inside the pipes," he said.  "We get feedback from those, and then we make a few decisions."
Really, there are few decisions to be made - the whole process almost runs itself.  At Cardhu we were told that it's possible for one person to run the entire distillery by themselves, at full capacity, for a whole shift.  That includes every part of the process, from the raw grain to the barrel-ready liquor.  "We're open twenty four hours, every day," she said.  "Even Christmas.  Even the royal wedding!"
At Glen Grant, in the village of Rothes, we took a tour with a group of Welshmen as the evening grew dark.   From room to room, warehouse to storehouse, the smell in the air changed.  In the beginning, the odor was of barley and autumn fields.  By the fermenting tanks and mash tuns, it was deeply sweet, a cross between a bakery and rotting apples.  In by the stills, the air was almost palpably thick with sharp, fiery liquor.  In the aging buildings it was rotting wood, old sherry and damp earth. Even though Glen Grant's a big business (and part of the giant Campari multi-national), it was a reminder of how pleasing the alcohol process can be.
And then there's the tasting.  Every tour included a dram or three, even Glenfiddich's, which is free.  Speyside whiskies are generally light, clean and have very little peat - much easier to drink than the smoke and brimstone stuff of Islay.
Something about distillery tours… they're all the same.  We came to expect everything about the routine, from the jokes about fermented grain waste being fed to cattle ("we have very happy cows in Scotland") to the familiar refrain about the evaporated alcohol that escapes from whisky casks ("we call that 'the angel's share'").  The mash tuns were the same, as were the fermentation tanks, and the stills differed mostly in arrangement.  The tastings had diffrerent styles, but it was the same general idea - swirl, taste, add water, taste again, agree that it was very tasty, say thanks and leave. Essentially, if you've been to one you've been to them all.  Which is to say, definitely go on a tour.  Just don't go to all of them. And don't try to do too many in one day, at least without a designated driver.
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