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Tale of Two Whiskies: A firewater-fuelled trip through the Scottish Highlands

Famous for its bucolic farmland settings and boisterous pub culture, for its history-soaked towns wrapped up in legends and myths (e.g. the Loch Ness Monster), majestic bagpipes and men dressed in kilts, Scotland — located in the northernmost part of the UK — is perhaps, above all, best known for its gargantuan whisky production. (It’s the biggest producer of whisky in the world, in fact.) Scotland’s contrasting topography has resulted in myriad whisky regions, each producing a distinct bouquet of the staunch spirit, from the peaty and smoky whiskies of the Highlands to the light, grassy varieties of the Scottish Lowlands.

It is, of course, impossible to hit even a fraction of the more than 120 distilleries that dot the nation in a one-week tour, but seven days is enough to satisfy your curiosity of this beautiful perch in the northern UK and dive into the heart of its whisky-distilling traditions; to explore whisky production as intertwined with the region’s history and ecosystem; and, of course, to sample your way through some of the finest single malt whiskies in the world on a boozy tasting trail — precisely what we did on a recent trip hosted by Edrington Group, owner of The Macallan and Highland Park, two leading Scotch distilleries.

Whether you’re a recreational drinker or a whisky aficionado, one of the best ways to acquaint yourself with Scotland is through its distilleries, each one showcasing its own unique character and history, and a connection with the local agriculture and people. Your best bet is to rent a car and do a one-week road trip of the area on your own, stopping to sip, sample and sate your thirst whenever, wherever. For our brief foray into Scotland, we focused on the northern whisky-producing regions, making stops at the new Macallan distillery in Speyside, and at Highland Park in the Orkney Isles, to gain a better understanding of these two fine whisky brands.

The Macallan: New home, same spirit

Discerning whisky connoisseurs will no doubt already know of the launch of the new distillery and visitor centre for The Macallan on the historical Easter Elchies estate, touted as an architectural marvel costing a cool £140 million pounds (that’s HK$1.4 billion) to build. The Easter Elchies estate has been home to The Macallan since 1824, and is now equipped to take on thousands more visitors per year as spirits lovers descend on this dazzling new whisky mecca: a project four years in the making, and the highlight of Edrington’s £500 million pounds investment in the next phase of The Macallan.

To be one of the first in the world to visit the highly anticipated new distillery (which officially opened to the public on 2 June), we boarded a plane from London (serviced by direct flights from Hong Kong) to Aberdeen; from there, it was a 1 1/2-hour car ride to Elgin. A quaint countryside town, Elgin is home to other famous distilleries including Glen Moray and Gordon & MacPhail, and includes a number of historic sites such as the famed Elgin Cathedral. A shell of its former self — once considered to be the most beautiful church in all of Scotland — the Elgin Cathedral retains its haunting beauty, making for an intriguing afternoon of scoping out the exhibits scattered throughout the narrow, spiralling staircases and wandering through cracked gravestones in the neighbouring cemetery.

The ruins of Elgin Cathedral, once considered the most beautiful in all of Scotland.

If you find yourself with half a day free, take a quick cab ride to neighbouring Lossiemouth, a charming seaside town with a beautiful white sand beach stretching miles along the coastline. Spend the morning walking the length of the beach, submerging your toes in the frigid water for a refreshing wake-up call, before exploring the quaint cafes and gelato shops along the main stretch of town. Back in Elgin, head for dinner at a local pub: We recommend The Drouthy Cobbler, where we enjoyed a local meal of bangers ‘n’ mash, haggis (Scotland’s national dish), and our first (of many) tastes of famous Scotch whisky.

If you’re staying in Elgin, a 20-minute journey will take you to the new Macallan distillery, a behemoth building built into the slope of the lands to appear almost like a subterranean structure. The first of its kind, the incredible distillery was conceived by internationally acclaimed architecture firm Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners, which led a team of 25 contractors and more than 400 workers specialising in various trades to bring their vision to life.

Is there a cuter breed than the Scottish cow?

Before visiting the distillery, we were invited to dive into the history of the brand, enjoying a cocktail reception on the lawn in front of the iconic Easter Elchies House. It’s hard to imagine a more Scottish setting: the Scottish cattle, distinguished by their straggly hair and sweeping horns grazing in the pastures nearby; a kilt-donning bagpiper carrying a patriotic tune; and a selection of tasty canapés provided by El Celler de Can Roca, long-time partners of Macallan who even have their own limited edition expression, Edition No.2.

The iconic Easter Elchies House.

Following an incredible light show projected on all sides of the Easter Elchies House, we grabbed our glasses and made our way across the cobbled laneway, finally approaching the site of the new distillery some 400 metres away.

The impressive roof is the first thing you notice: an undulating, hump-backed structure meant to mimic the natural shape of the Scottish hillocks. Built from 1,800 single beams, 2,400 separate roof components and more than 380,000 more individual parts, the Macallan Distillery roof is described as the most complicated timber roof structure in the world — the crown jewel of the vision brought to life by the London-based architecture firm, whose commission included, amongst other points, creating a working distillery to increase Macallan’s whisky production by up to one-third.

A sight to behold: the undulating rooftop of the new Macallan Distillery.

Inside, the structure is equally magnificent. State-of-the-art exhibitions include the ‘six pillars’ — interactive moving pillars designed to take you through the key tenets of the brand; a museum of 398 never-before-displayed Macallan bottles; and a grand, vertical glass-walled exhibition holding 840 Macallan bottles to greet you at the entrance. A special room also houses a sound and light show in a cellar lined with Macallan casks, while the central tasting bar is available for sampling exclusive expressions of the spirit — if you’re not one of the VIPs to be invited into the private room, that is.

Sample exclusive expressions at the central bar inside the Macallan visitor centre and distillery.

Then, of course, there’s the working distillery itself, which showcases 36 copper stills from long-time supplier Forsyths; the stainless-steel washbacks; and the 17-tonne mash tun, the largest of its kind in Scotland. Tours through the distillery are limited to 12 per group for a more intimate and interactive experience through the whisky-making process.

While the exterior of the Macallan Distillery blends into its natural environment, with a surface dotted in grass and Scottish wildflowers, the interiors are the peak of modernity, seamlessly blending a dazzling contemporary visitors’ exhibition with a working distillery featuring the “curiously small stills” that Macallan is known for.

Macallan’s ‘curiously small’ stills.

Whether you’re an avid whisky connoisseur or an intrepid traveller in search of new experiences, a trip to the new distillery is not to be missed, if just for its sheer scale and ambition. Half-distillery, half-museum, the Macallan Distillery is an investment not just in its own brand, but in the Scottish whisky industry as a whole. Creating numerous local jobs and with 95% of its energy drawn from renewable resources, the distillery is paving a way for the future of whisky tourism (a US$2.5 billion dollar industry worldwide and one of Scotland’s key economic drivers), thanks to a brand that’s known not just for its excellence in whisky production but also for its cutting-edge spirit.

Macallan’s new home paves the way for the future of whisky tourism.

A traditional trek through the Orkney Isles

While The Macallan has its sights set on the future, Highland Park sits in stark contrast as a heritage brand tied closely to the traditions of ancient whisky-making. A spirit rooted in its folklore-driven, Orcadian origins, the very essence of Highland Park is blended in the wind- and sea-swept lands of the Orkney Isles — where resides the distillery in close proximation to the crop of 4,000-year-old peat giving the whisky its distinct honey-sweet aromas.

Kirkwall, the capital of the Orkney Isles and the home of Highland Park.

To reach the home of Highland Park, we boarded a short flight from Aberdeen to Kirkwall Airport and found ourselves greeted by a gust of salty sea air right off the tarmac. Sitting off the northern coast of Scotland, this archipelago of 70 islands is marked by a magnificent, raw landscape: from the jagged clifftops to the dramatic plains and rolling hills — an easy step back in time to the age of Vikings and the myths and legends of yore. We were instantly swept away by the charm of Kirkwall, the fishing port capital of Orkney, with a population of just under 9,000 people.

In Kirkwall you’ll find a treasure trove of neolithic wonders — enough to pack in a full day of sightseeing if your schedule allows — from the remarkable Ring of Brodgar, one of the oldest stone henges in the world, dating back to the 3rd millennium BC; to the Stones of Stenness, another prehistoric stone circle cloaked in the mystery of ancient rituals; and the Maeshowe Chambered Cairn, a tomb built into the Scottish hillside more than 5,000 years ago, carved with runic graffiti from mid-1100’s Norse crusaders.

The magnificent Ring of Brodgar, one of the oldest stone henges in the world.

Other remnants of the area’s prehistoric past remain to be discovered, but our favourite journey was to the Yesnaby Cliffs, with its dramatic sea stacks and red sandstone rock formations, sculpted for thousands of years by the incessant crash of the strong oceanic tides. On a stormy day with the ocean raging below, you can almost imagine you’re standing at the very edge of the world here.

The dramatic sea stacks of Yesnaby Cliffs.

As much as we would have liked to explore more, our trip was for one purpose only: whisky. We hopped on a bus to the site of the Highland Park distillery, arriving at the iron-wrought gates set between two dark-grey stone buildings — not unlike a scene out of Harry Potter — just a quick 5-minute journey from the town centre.

Highland Park is one of Scotland’s oldest distilleries; officially licensed in 1826, the brand claims that its very first whisky was distilled all the way back in 1798. Fittingly, the site seems etched into the history of the land with its faded cobblestone façade, 18th-century lampposts, and the scent of smoky peat furling up from the chimney tops.

The Highland Park Distillery: a site steeped in history.

Touring the Highland Park grounds was an absolute treat, from viewing the malting floors where workers still engage weekly in the labour-intensive process of raking and turning the wheat; to viewing the stainless-steel mash tun, stills and washbacks where fermentation takes place; the hot kiln where dry peat is used to fuel a roaring furnace; and the maturation room, lined with expensive sherry casks, which are favoured for their infusion of richness, colour and spice into the spirit.

The maturing spirits are left in warehouses fashioned in the old ‘dunnage’ style with earthen floors, allowing for a cool and even maturation in Kirkwall’s temperate climate. There, the spirits are matured for different lengths of time to produce different expressions.

The roaring kiln fuelled by dry Orkney peat.

During the tour, we learnt the legendary story of Magnus Eunson, Highland Park’s notorious founder — the tale of which inspired one of the brand’s latest expressions, ‘Dark Origins’. A local church beadle in the 18th century, Eunson fell from the priesthood to become an illicit moonshiner, distilling and smuggling whisky from his cottage, now the site of Highland Park’s distillery. As the story goes: When Eunson’s cottage was raided by the local officials, he hid the last kegs of whisky beneath a white cloth around which his family prayed, pretending it to be a funeral. When a mourner muttered the explanation “smallpox”, the tax collectors quickly took their leave for fear of catching the plague.

Spanish sherry casks impart vibrant colour and spice into Highland Park whiskies.

We also met with distillery manager Marie Stanton, who told us of the special peat which gives Highland Park its distinct aromatics, a blend of the local terroir comprised of sweet heather, dried grass and plants, which burns hotter and cleaner than peat from Islay in southern Scotland. Later, we made a visit to those 2,000 acres of peat land on Hobbister Moor, where the brand is slowly but surely dwindling away at its supply of precious peat — the natural resource at the very heart of Highland Park — with 300 tons of peat harvested every year. While the distillery seems small and self-contained, at least to the passing visitor, Highland Park is actually producing 2.1 million litres of spirit per year, with 26 warehouses holding the maturing liquid.

While the new Macallan revels in glitz and glamour, there was something undeniably captivating about our trip to Highland Park: from its history intertwined with Viking mythology and Norse gods; the old stone buildings set against the misty Orcadian sky; learning about centuries-old methods of whisky making; and a surrounding landscape with treasures harking back to the dawn of civilisation. There’s something to be said for history and tradition, and a golden liquid that’s as much an expression of unique local terroir as any fine wine of the Old World. If you ever find yourself in Orkney, a visit to Highland Park — with perhaps a bottle of 18-year-old to take home — is not to be missed.

Leslie Yeh
Editor in Chief
Having worked as a lifestyle editor for almost 10 years, Leslie is thrilled to be writing about the topic she loves most: wining and dining. When she's not out pounding the pavement for the latest new restaurant opening or tracking food trends, Leslie can be found at home whipping up a plate of rigatoni vodka and binge-watching Netflix with a glass of Sauvignon Blanc in hand.