The word “whiskey” comes from the Gaelic “uisge beatha,” which means “the water of life.” You squeeze life, whiskey comes out. At least it does in Scotland. It’s probable that the stuff was first discovered (great things are never invented, they lie in waiting in some pre-invention limbo for a genius to come along and stumble upon them) when some genius stumbled upon the bright idea of distilling ale. He undoubtedly realized immediately that this was just the stuff to make the Scottish climate bearable.
Today, there are about one hundred distilleries in Scotland, and many of them can be visited. The tours of the distilleries inevitably include a visit to the wash tuns, which are very, very, very big barrels (in the way that whales are very, very, very big dolphins) where snickering tour guides invite unwary visitors to get a nose full of carbon dioxide, and a visit to the warehouses where the casks are kept for anywhere from three years (cut rate blended swill) to thirty years or more, for the unmentionably expensive contents of special commemorative bottles and the like. In between is a visit to the pulsing heart of the distillery—whatever distillery it might be—the still room, consisting of a number (usually four to eight) of stills. These are elegant contraptions, up to eighteen feet tall, made of gleaming copper and sporting swanlike necks that taper away in alcoholic elegance. The heart of the still room is the spirit safe, a clear glass cabinet through which the distilled spirits flow in charming little waterfalls under the gaze of the master distiller. The spirit safe is locked with an official padlock from the Customs and Excise authority. This is always a big, flashy affair with all kinds of official-looking things engraved into it. Lions and such.
Some distilleries have made their tours into genuine tourist attractions. Glenmorangie is an excellent highland whiskey, the most widely drunk single malt in Scotland and one of the few that doesn’t lend its wares to the blenders. Incidentally, it’s pronounced “GlonMORangie,” as in rhymes with “orangey,” and accepts buses full of tourists, escorting them around with full-time guides and leaving them in the distillery’s shop where one can buy all kinds of twee little things, like Glenmorangie hats and T-shirts, as well as enough whiskey to get Inverness drunk. No easy task, that.
Some distilleries, though, haven’t worked out the tourist thing. They don’t seem to grasp the business potential here. This is a good thing. There’s a place for the big tourist gigs—after all, one really should go up the Eiffel tower once. However, there’s also a place for the nontourist thing (which, in a fit of semantic existentialism, therefore becomes the tourist thing, but such reasoning leads to headaches). Mr. Sinclair, at the Dalmore distillery, has not figured out the tourist thing, and the Dalmore should therefore be visited.
The Dalmore makes a dark, solid whiskey. Some whiskey drinkers find it relatively unexceptional, though very pleasant, but according to Nessie’s Loch Ness Times in 2002, a group of unspecified whiskey experts declared its twenty-one-year-old as the best whiskey in the world over twelve years of age. I wouldn’t know, I can’t afford stuff that old. Either way, it’s not the whiskey itself so much as the place.
Mr. Sinclair is the manager of the Dalmore. He has been working there for over thirty-five years, and now is a shareholder in Dalmore’s parent company, Whyte and Mackay, which also owns a few other distilleries. He is the kind of older gentleman whom you would peg as a genteel Scotsman from across the street in Katmandu. It’s not that he wears a kilt or a Tam O’Shanter, it’s just that he radiates a certain Scottish aura. Kind of like fog.
Since there are no tour guides or buses or visitor’s centers (not to mention shops) at the Dalmore, Mr. Sinclair himself will take you around to visit the distillery—a place that is clearly as dear to his heart as the Sistine Chapel is dear to the heart of the Pope. He will show you the stills with their unique water jackets, he will discuss the intricacies of different types of wash tuns, he will take you to the warehouse, where he seems to know the history of each cask, and may even take the stopper out of a cask of forty-year-old whiskey so you can smell it (not taste it, mind you). Then he will take you back up to a wood-paneled living room to sample a few of the distillery’s creations.
There, if you’re very, very lucky, he may let you in on a neat trick. Mr. Sinclair can show you how to make money in bar bets by saying that you want your whiskey in a glass with water (a sin in normal times) but you don’t want them mixed because you’d like to drink the water first and then the whiskey. Upon hearing that this is impossible you then proceed to pour it yourself, for there is a way to do so in which the whiskey floats on top of the water, with a clear line dividing them. You can then stick a straw through the whiskey, drink the water off, then down the dram. The best part about this trick is that once you’ve fleeced your barmates you can say “Och aye, ’twas Drew Sinclair up at the Dalmore who showed me that. Fine man, he is.” Or, you can just send me five bucks and I’ll tell you how to do it, and then you can lie about Mr. Sinclair.
The only thing that jars a little bit about the distillery, which is set in a series of low, gray buildings overlooking Cromarty Firth, is the oil rigs. OK, they’re not exactly in front of the distillery, but a bit down the road towards Invergordon. I, for one, had always been of the impression that offshore oil rigs were to be found a little further off the shore than these, which are almost onshore oil rigs. You drive right past them to get to the distillery (assuming you’ve first gotten lost) and one can hardly help but stop and gaze at them in horrified wonder as they squat menacingly in the water—as though they just needed to run into the surf to take a giant steely pee. They spoil an otherwise perfect view, but then again they are filling the tank of the car you’ve so flippantly driven around to do nothing more important than visit a charming little distillery and learn a neat trick from dear Mr. Sinclair.