The plane from Glasgow banks gently to the right as it starts its descent into Islay's airport, giving the passengers on my side of the aisle a breathtaking view of the island's rugged coast. Competing with the blue-green water and craggy cliffs, however, are some equally eye-catching man-made features: the names of world-famous whisky brands – ARDBEG, LAGAVULIN, LAPHROAIG – emblazoned in huge black letters on the walls of shoreside distilleries. Sea views and single malts are trademarks of Islay, which is almost as rife with top Scotch makers as it is with gulls. And while I appreciate dramatic vistas, I have flown in more to sip than to sightsee, one of the growing number of whisky fans seeking to savour the spirit at its source.
All over Scotland, whisky distilleries have become major tourist draws, attracting around 1.5 million visitors in 2014, according to the Edinburgh-based Scotch Whisky Association. My own single-malt pilgrimage, which will stretch from the Highlands to the Inner Hebrides and end in the town of St. Andrews, begins some 300 kilometres northeast of Islay, on a platform at Edinburgh's Waverley station. It is from there that I set out on a four-hour train trip to Inverness, then travel another hour by car to Tain, a 1,000-year-old town in the Highlands and the home of Glenmorangie, the venerable distillery with the tallest whisky stills north of Hadrian's Wall.
As this trek suggests, it takes some effort to reach Glenmorangie, but the trouble is well worth it. Pronounced glen-morangey (the last part rhymes with "orangey"), the company's name is derived from the Gaelic word for "valley of tranquility," an apt description of the distillery's bucolic setting on the south shore of Dornoch Firth. In the words of Dr. Bill Lumsden, Glenmorangie's head of distilling and whisky creation since 1998, the firth's "moist, salty air creates an environment that's perfect for long, slow maturation," which at Glenmorangie can last as long as 28 years (by law, all Scotch whisky has to be aged in oak barrels for at least three years) and takes place in flavour-enhancing casks that once contained everything from bourbon to sherry (Nectar d'Or, part of Glenmorangie's core range, is matured in French barriques that formerly held Sauternes, giving it a rich, spicy sweetness).
During my visit, I take in row upon row of said barrels, which the company never uses more than twice, and wander among those towering stills – elegant copper monoliths with necks rising more than five metres tall (or, as the distillery points out, "the same height as a fully grown adult giraffe"). According to my guide, the extra-long necks ensure that only the lightest, purest vapours make it to the top, turning the water and malted barley that are piped into them for distillation into a "smoother, more elegant" spirit. Of course, the proof is in the tipple, so I conclude my tour with a tasting of Glenmorangie's greatest hits, from the bestseller known as The Original to the aforementioned Nectar d'Or.
Matured for 10 years in air-dried bourbon casks from Missouri, The Original is complex yet mellow, while the Nectar d'Or, which boasts a luscious citrusy finish, is like dessert in a glass. Ultimately, I retreat to my hotel just outside Inverness with, among other vintages, a bottle of 18 Year Old, which is first matured in American white oak casks for 15 years, then partially transferred to oloroso barrels from Spain. The two batches are blended back together to create the final product, which is simultaneously floral, nutty and sweet.
The following day, I am tempted to prolong my stay in the Highlands to explore nearby Loch Ness, but the whisky tour must go on, so I hop on a train bound for Glasgow and, after a night in that city's Malmaison hotel, board that plane to Islay. After touching down near Port Ellen, a town on the island's southern coast, I head immediately to the Ardbeg distillery, where the whisky produced is markedly different from anything at Glenmorangie. Whereas most mainland whiskies are distinguished by their floral, spicy or malty notes, Islay's offerings – especially those from distilleries on the southeastern coast – are known for their pronounced peatiness. This earthy, smoky quality is a result of the peat fires long used locally to dry the malted barley that makes up the spirit's base. At Ardbeg, where the whitewashed distillery buildings are topped with distinctive pagoda-style roofs, options range from "lightly peated" to "heavily" so. Personally, I like smokiness, a real mark of terroir, which is why I drop perhaps a little too much in Ardbeg's gift shop (among my unplanned purchases is a tartan-patterned necktie).
Before the day comes to a close, I also travel to a churchyard a few kilometres up the road from Ardbeg to see the Kildalton Cross, a 1,200-year-old relic considered the finest surviving Celtic cross in Scotland. Two years ago, Ardbeg released Ardbeg Kildalton, a limited-edition whisky created in support of a charity that shores up fragile rural communities. Although relatively remote, Islay itself is far from threatened, having a thriving whisky industry and a covetable lifestyle. As much as I would like to experience more of it, though, I have plans to be at the British Open in St. Andrews, so I reluctantly make my way to the local airport for the short flight back to the mainland.
The following afternoon, I am in a hotel room in the birthplace of golf, the green expanse of an adjoining course unfolding outside the window. For whisky buffs, St. Andrews offers numerous spots in which to enjoy a dram, from the Road Hole Bar at the Old Course Hotel (more than 300 whiskies on offer) to Kittocks Den at the Fairmont St. Andrews, where I am staying. For the time being, though, there is no need to leave my room. I have a bottle of Glenmorangie's The Original at hand, so I uncork it, splash some into a glass and survey the links outside as a misty fog rolls across them. It doesn't get more Scottish than this.
With its white-washed walls and pagoda roofs, Ardbeg stands out on the Islay coast. Visitors can take a tour, dine at the Old Kiln Café and bunk down at the on-site Seaview Cottage. www.ardbeg.com
FAIRMONT ST. ANDREWS
Accommodation options at this Fairmont property include cozy rooms with tartan blanket-topped beds and two 4,000-square-foot four-bedroom manor homes. Day visitors can sample local single malts at the hotel's Kittocks Den bar. www.fairmont.com
The Glenmorangie Distillery offers a range of public tours that include visits to Tarlogie Springs, the operation's dedicated water source. Overnight visitors can book into the 17th-century Glenmorangie House. www.glenmorangie.com
With locations in 13 U.K. cities including Edinburgh and Glasgow, Malmaison's boutique properties offer upscale accommodation in unique, often historic properties. www.malmaison.com
ROAD HOLE BAR
Located inside the Old Course Hotel in St. Andrews, the Road Hole Bar stocks more than 300 whiskies, including a Tullibardine, its own single malt. Food options include sandwiches of Scottish smoked salmon and local rib-eye steaks. www.oldcoursehotel.co.uk