Roll Out the Barrels

Entrance to the Glenmorancie DistillerySampling Highland Park whiskeysTake a Scottish distillery tour
for a taste of whiskymaking history

As vineyard tours are to France or brewery visits to Germany, so whisky trails are to Scotland, connecting around 90 distilleries from the internationally famous to the delightfully obscure, and giving visitors a glimpse at centuries of whisky-making history. Their growing popularity has prompted some Scottish distilleries to open slick tourist centers, complete with interactive exhibits and branded merchandise for sale--but it can be just as much fun to turn up at a distillery where no concessions are made to visitors beyond an impromptu tour of the production facilities and a quick dram with the stillman. Either way, you'll have plenty of opportunities to marvel at how three ingredients--malted barley, water and yeast--can come together in endless variations of smoothness and flavor, according to each distillery's microclimate, water source and manufacturing secrets. Here are some of our favorite sources of liquid gold.

CAOL ILA: One of eight distilleries on the tiny island of Islay, the 160-year-old Caol Ila, tel: (44 1496) 302 760, has long enjoyed a cult following among whisky aficionados for its medium-bodied, slightly floral malt. Production is handled by a team of 11 under the stewardship of distiller Billy Stitchell, a fourth-generation Caol Ila man. Tours of this beautiful boutique distillery are by appointment only.

Scottish CastleLAPHROAIG: Islay's best known malt is the smoky, nutty and faintly heathery Laphroaig, tel: (44 1496) 302 418, produced at a 191- year-old facility. To get the most out of your visit, join Friends of Laphroaig, the distillery's loyalty club. You get your own square foot of land on Islay, and on arrival at the distillery become entitled to collect "rent"--in this case, a dram of Laphroaig's finest.

DEWAR'S: With its slick "Brand Centre," featuring an auditorium, multimedia displays and historical exhibits, Dewar's is the Disneyland of whisky companies. Together with Aberfeldy, the working distillery next door, the center makes up Dewar's World of Whisky, tel: (44 1887) 822 010, one of the central highlands' main tourist draws. The onsite store sells everything from CDs and books to ties and baseball caps--as well as bottles of Dewar's famous White Label blend.

OLD PULTENEY: Mainland Scotland's northernmost distillery, tel:
(44 1955) 602 371, is located on a non-descript road in the fishing town of Wick, but behind Old Pulteney's doors lies a magical opportunity to encounter an intense and complex malt, with unique characteristics ascribed to the distillery's coastal location. Purchase a bottle from the distillery's magnificent single cask selection and it comes with a personalized label.

HIGHLAND PARK: A 40-minute ferry ride from John o' Groats will land you on the Orkney Islands, home to the 208-year-old Highland Park distillery, tel: (44 1856) 874 619.  The history of these remote islands' has a strong Viking connection, and the wildlife (seals, otters, snipe) is abundant--but everyone's here for the drink. Distillery tours run several times a day, seven days a week, in summer months.