But let me start at the beginning.
Scotland has always appealed to me. Its wild places — its mountains, moors, lochs and islands — speak to my Scotch-Irish heritage. I'd love to take a month off and hike the high mountains and walk the deep green glens of the Highlands, then cap that off with a month of island hopping, sailing to as many of the Scotland's windswept isles — there are more than 700 — as possible.
Who has that kind of time or money? Not I. So I went for a week instead, taking in as much as possible. My plan would take me to the Highlands; I'd spend a day peering into the unfathomably deep waters of Loch Ness, plunge into the milieu of the Middle Ages within the historic stone walls of Scottish castles and hop across the water to see an island or two. I'd also try to learn a bit more about one of the nation's most famous exports: its smooth, mellow malt liquor.
Scotch may not be America's favorite hard liquor — vodka holds that title — but Americans manage to knock back more than 100 million bottles a year, from inexpensive blends to high-brow varieties with prices to match. Michael Jordan's favorite, the Macallan's 25-year-old single malt, costs about $600 a bottle off the shelf.
U.S. bars that cater to Scotch drinkers, such as the Daily Pint in Santa Monica, stock hundreds of varieties; members of the Los Angeles Scotch Club (www.lascotchclub.com) work hard to sample their fair share. "We're a small but very dedicated community," says Andy Smith, who puts out a club newsletter to a mailing list of 350.
Like a growing number of Scotch drinkers, they prefer single malts — the product of one distinct distillery — rather than blends. "We're snobby," Smith says.
I didn't know enough about Scotch to be snobby. But Scotland has more than 100 distilleries, and half have visitor centers. They're happy to show tourists around and treat them to a "wee dram."
So why not combine tasting with traveling? "I have to make sure I don't sample too much," I jokingly told a colleague before I left on the trip last month, "or I might spot the Loch Ness Monster or see a ghost."
Little did I know.
The Whisky Trail
In Perthshire, about an hour's drive north of the Edinburgh airport, I tried to shake off my jet lag at the Gleneagles Hotel. Gleneagles is the kind of place where croquet wickets are a permanent lawn fixture and the valet wears a kilt. I skipped golf, tennis and the indoor pool to try my hand at falconry, a popular resort activity.
"Don't worry about his beak," instructor William Duncan told me. "Worry about his talons." Easier said than done when a Harris hawk's beady brown eyes are staring at you, its beak a mere 5 inches from your eyes. He was perched on my forearm, which was covered with a heavy leather glove. I leaned away from the hawk. "You don't look real comfortable," one of the other students said.
The hawk ignored me; he was well trained even if I wasn't. When I moved my arm in a sweeping motion, he flew away. When I put my arm back out, he returned to perch on it. "OK," I squeaked at the instructor, "you can take him now. He's a nice hawk, but I think I'll go play croquet."
If I needed a little liquid courage, I didn't have to look far. The countryside is laced with distilleries, and the next day, I visited my first, Cardhu, home of Johnnie Walker (www.discoveringdistilleries.com), said to be the world's largest-selling blended Scotch. Cardhu, set in a scenic rural area and surrounded by rolling green hills, was established in 1824 and is known for its sweet, smooth, mellow malt. I joined a tour, saw the pot stills where Scotch is created, tasted a bit, and then took a stroll outside. On a hillside nearby was a famous local resident, a highland cow, which looked up at me through its fringed bangs.
More distillery visits would follow. Scotch is a $10-billion a year industry, one of Britain's top exports. More than a million visitors tour Scottish distilleries each year, many of them tourists like me. I'd arrived in a region of the Highlands called Speyside, site of the Scotch Malt Whisky Trail. Although 90% of the Scotch produced is a blend, single malts account for most of its recent growth. About 50 distilleries line the banks of the River Spey on the eastern side of the Highlands; a marked trail (www.maltwhiskytrail.com) points the way.
The region may be famous for its Scotch, but I tried to focus on its other charms too. The Spey River winds lazily through the countryside, its tranquil waters reflecting the green hillsides, villages, well-tended farms, ancient castles and grazing sheep and cattle.
I roamed the area visiting distilleries: Strathisla, home of Chivas Regal (www.chivas.com) and one of the oldest and most picturesque distilleries in Scotland, the Macallan, (www.themacallan.com) and the Glenlivet, (www.glenlivet.com), where I ran into some fellow Californians.
Gary Goodson, a former superintendent of San Gabriel Unified School District, was on a two-week tour of Scotland. "It's fun to walk around the distillery and talk to people about Scotch and life and liberty," he said. His wife, Marian, interrupted and said with a laugh, "Don't get him started. He's had three shots already; he'll go on forever...."