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The typical whiskey tour of Scotland begins and ends with the concentration of distilleries along the River Spey. In search of something a bit more off the beaten trail, I set off instead for Scotland’s Far North. Here, the coast is a margin of gently rolling land. The primary elements of this far northern landscape are sky, moor, water and rock. With few trees and the ocean nearby, the sky simply seems bigger here than in other places. Water is a constant, with slate-colored clouds swooping in from the sea, wringing themselves out over the land — the runoff sluicing into bogs, burns, braes and eventually the sea again. For all its rugged isolation, people have lived in the Highlands for a very long time. The slatelike stone of the area is distinctive and ubiquitous. Neolithic people used it for their inscrutable monuments (chambered cairns and standing stones), the lairds built their castles with it, and crofters stuck the slabs upright into the ground for fences. In the mid-19th century, this part of the Highlands was decimated by the “Clearances” (the brutal eviction of tenant farmers to make way for sheep). Sheep still populate the moors, and periodically one comes upon the roofless walls of a ruined croft house, now sheltering nothing more than weeds and bushes. Whiskey is quite literally the distillate of this place. Like the landscape, its constituent elements are few: malted barley, water and yeast. It’s life (fermentation) and time (aging in cask) that make it interesting. Because the recipe for all single malt whiskey is essentially the same, aficionados obsess about the few variables that give whiskeys their distinct flavors. These include the water sources, the shape of the stills, the barrels in which the spirits age and even the surrounding air. Drive north from Inverness on the A9 highway, and you’ll come to Glenmorangie, which sits picturesquely on the edge of Dornoch Firth. At Glenmorangie, the guides point out that their eight stills are the tallest in Scotland. They sit in two rows in the still room, looking like instruments laid aside by a giant’s brass band. Glenmorangie’s flavor and perfumey aroma are also attributed to the hard, mineralized water with which it’s made. Glenmorangie grinds through 171 tons of malt each week. Considering the vast quantities, the 16-man production staff seems small. But this is typical. Whiskey-making is a quiet industry with minimal labor demands. Further up the A9 is Clynelish, just north of the town center of Brora. Because it was built recently, rather than growing up ad hoc over a century or two, Clynelish’s plant is spacious, orderly and a wee bit industrial-looking. But it stands at the foot of a long range of heather-covered hills that stretch down to the sea. One side of the still house is entirely glass, and the six identical copper stills have a spectacular view. As at most distilleries, only a small percentage of Clynelish’s whiskey is sold as single malt. The rest goes into blends. Be sure to snap up a bottle at the distillery, because it isn’t sold in the United States or even at duty-free shops. The northernmost distillery of mainland Britain, Old Pulteney sits quietly on the rather bleak south side of the town of Wick. The pleasure of visiting Pulteney is that it’s small and far off the beaten track. Its water comes from Hempriggs Loch, which is said to impart the distinctly peaty flavor of Old Pulteney. Fans of the malt will point out the hint of saltiness that comes from the ocean air. On the quest for Britain’s northernmost distillery, you’ll run out of land before you run out of whiskey-makers. Reaching the final stop, Highland Park, requires crossing the Pentland Firth to Orkney (as these islands are collectively known). Walk onto a high-speed ferry in John O’Groats or drive onto the slower car ferry, which departs from Scrabster. They say that when the wind stops in Orkney, everyone falls over. Winter winds stunt the islands’ plants, and even in the summer, winds can reach 100 miles per hour. In 1850, a ferocious gale scoured away the dunes at Skaill Bay, revealing an intricate maze of Neolithic dwellings that had lain hidden for over 4,000 years. The site, called Skara Brae, is a must-see, as are the Standing Stones and Ring of Brodgar in between Kirkwall and the picturesque town of Stromness. Across Scotland the silhouette of a pagoda-topped chimney is a common roadway symbol for distilleries. Most are unused relics of the time when distillers malted and roasted their own barley. At Highland Park, however, smoke still curls out of the chimneys as sprouted barley is kiln-dried over peat fires. Only the top and middle layers of peat (along with the odd bit of heather) are used, which gives the barley a fresh and “herby” smell. The casks that hold the final product also lend color and flavor to the 12-, 18-, and 25-year old whiskeys sold by Highland Park. Critic Michael Jackson deemed Highland Park “the greatest all-rounder in the world of malt whiskey.” It’s said to combine the best elements of the island and Highland malts and offers the perfect capper to a tour of the most far-flung of Great Britain’s distilleries. USEFUL LINKS: Highlands of Scotland Tourist Board: www.host.co.uk The Internet Guide to Scotland: www.scotland-info.co.uk/caithnes.htm Golf Highland: www.golfhighland.com

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