Small Plant Becomes Tourist Attraction : Quaint Scotland Distillery Home to Tall Tales


Donny McLeod, the taciturn, 41-year-old manager of Scotland's smallest legal whiskey distillery, has just completed his first season as a tourist attraction.

For more than a decade he made whiskey near here at the picturesque Edradour Distillery in the foothills of the Scottish Highlands without realizing that he was doing something remarkable.

Then a French company, Pernod-Ricard, bought the place and realized that it was sitting on a piece of Scottish history that was a marketing dream.

The 150-year-old distillery is not just quaint and unspoiled. There are tall tales associated with it, involving wrecks of sailing ships and bootlegging to the United States.

Literary Mention

A blend of Edradour whiskey is mentioned in a recent book called "The English Godfather," by Graham Nown.

It describes at length how it was the favorite tipple of men with delicate palates like Owney Madden, a British-born hood who made it big in Prohibition New York. Madden and his chums apparently went to considerable lengths to get hold of the stuff.

All of which explains why this year Donny McLeod found himself playing host to 60,000 complete strangers, many of them intent on having him pose for photographs, sign autographs and answer a lot of questions.

He and his two co-workers--John Reid, 40, and Ken Hunter, 34--seem to have adapted to the invasion.

Gotten Used to Crowds

"You couldn't say it was just perfect, but we are now acclimatized, and we are able to do jobs around about them," said McLeod in his soft Highland brogue.

Four times a week they have a "mash," which means they fill up a Jacuzzi-sized tub with a mixture of malted barley and water from a natural spring bubbling close by.

They heat the mixture so nutrients in the barley suffuse the water for a couple of hours, filling the room with a musty smell, before siphoning off the water into another tub and adding yeast.

Fermentation takes about 50 hours. In the meantime, they distill the fermented "wash" from two days before in two copper stills, each about the size and shape of a big man with a beer belly. This produces a clear "spirit" which goes into specially imported barrels, used once before--in Spain--to mature sherry.

After that, the men wait eight years or so for the spirit to mature into whiskey.

Six Barrels a Week

Every week, the three produce about six barrels of spirit--equivalent to 2,000 bottles--unless a summer drought dries up the spring water. And in the whole year they make about the same as another, more typical distillery a few miles away makes in a week.

That distillery, like most others, has its own excise officer--the government's representative--to check the output, but at Edradour the excise officer visits twice a week. Sometimes the officer is a 55-year-old woman who struggles three miles uphill on a bicycle from the small town of Pitlochry.

All this Mcleod explains patiently, with a wry smile.

"We distill very traditionally, very slowly," he said.

It is into this slow and easy rhythm of life that the tourists come, on buses usually, with tight schedules.

Free Tour, Free Drink

First a free tour of the distillery. Then a free drink. Then a video describing the history. Finally, the gift shop.

But sometimes visitors arrive when the place isn't so crowded. They can relax with a glass of whiskey in front of a peat-log fire in the converted malting barn, slow down to the rhythm of the magnificent countryside and hear a few stories.

"During American Prohibition in the '20s and '30s, New York gangsters like Owney Madden were so anxious to get hold of whiskey from here that they had it shot in torpedoes into Long Island," said Paul Hick, the marketing manager of House of Campbell, a Pernod-Ricard subsidiary.

Exiled King's Favorite

Then there is the tale about the former European king who would drink nothing but Edradour whiskey to ease his time in exile, and the one about the sailing ship loaded with the elixir that foundered off a Hebridean island.

"The astute locals managed to salvage the whiskey from the ship and hide it from the customs men," said Hick.

That was the inspiration for the Compton Mackenzie novel "Whiskey Galore," which was made into a film, shown in the United States under the name "Tight Little Island," he said.

He added, "When Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin met at the Potsdam Conference in 1945, a blend of Edradour whiskey was the only whiskey on the menu."

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