Until you have sipped the real thing by the soft light of a peat fire, you haven't lived. But just how was that wee dram created? Annalisa Barbieri travelled to Scotland to find out
IN THE warehouse where the barrels sleep, the walls are thick and the floors earthen to keep the temperature constant. Here, whisky lies, slowly turning gold. Two per cent of it will be lost to evaporation, the "angel's share". The rest will be drunk, from crystal tumblers in front of fires, or sneakily, from a discreet flask.

In Scotland, there is always an excuse to drink whisky. It is too cold, the fish have not been biting ... If you are new to whisky-drinking, then you should start in the east of Scotland where the whisky is lighter. As you head west, it is "heavier" and more complex, which is when you get to the formidable Ardbeg, Lagavulin and Talisker whiskies that are brought out after dinner with a reverential hush.

My early memories of whisky are not good. A Spanish disco, a cheap blend (of course), and Coca-Cola. It was my first drink and inevitably I was sick, eventually, from too much of it. Hence for years, whisky was passed over for vodka, which had no head-down-the-toilet associations. Then, in January, after fishing the Tay, I took part in a whisky-nosing event and was introduced to the wonders of whisky.

As the provenance of each was explained, I realised each came with a snapshot of its home. In some, I could smell peat or the sea. One distillery used to use peat cut 8ft deep for the fires that heated the kiln in the making of their whisky. That peat was intensely rich and dark and imparted a distinctive flavour; when they cut the peat only 3ft deep, the flavour changed.

Whisky (when from Ireland or the US, it is spelt whiskey) is made from three ingredients: water, grain (barley/rye/wheat/ maize and, at one time, oats) and yeast. A single malt is made from barley; a rye whiskey (like those from Kentucky) must contain at least 51 per cent rye; a bourbon is made from at least 51 per cent maize. A blend can have a little of all of the above, and oats were dropped 20 years ago.

Touring a distillery is a good idea but you will never be able to look at a glass of the stuff again without remembering the malting, mashing process. Most distilleries conduct tours - the Scotch Whisky Association produces a leaflet.

My experience was more holistic. Glenmorangie is Scotland's favourite whisky and number three worldwide. Earlier this year, they opened up the house they used to use for sales meetings for public use. The house sits by the sea, at Tain, in Easter Ross. Here you can eat, sleep, drink whisky, go fishing or riding, relax, read, drink whisky, walk on the beach. The scenery is spectacular and worth going for alone. I put on half a stone there in three days, not helped by the titbits brought after an enormous dinner as you sip whisky by a peat fire and puff on a Monte Cristo (I recommend the homemade fudge). If you want a sea view stay in the Morayshire room; for Arts and Crafts furniture, choose Easter Ross.

I toured the distillery in its silent season, which last four week starting around June. It used to be a time for the barley to rest and when the "16 men of Tain"cut peat to start whisky-making again, a practice starting in 1843. Now maintenance work is done, such as checking the huge copper stills - tallest in Scotland at nearly 17ft.

The first process in making whisky is malting the barley to make it germinate so that it will be rich in soluble sugars which the yeast, added later, needs to feed off to produce alcohol. Malting involves soaking barley in water (which imparts some flavour - Glenmorangie uses Tarlogie spring water which, unusually in whisky-making, is hard and therefore rich in minerals). Then the malt is dried in a kiln over a peat furnace. The malted barley is ground to form grist, and added to progres- sively hotter water. It now becomes a sweet liquid called wort and goes into enormous stainless-steel washbacks, or drums - terrifying things that hold 48,000 litres. You can peer into them via a hatch. Here, seven 25- kilo bags of yeast are tipped in and, after two days of bubbling, the wort becomes the more attractively named wash and now contains 8 per cent alcohol.

The wash goes into big copper stills and is heated, and eventually, the alcohol-rich vapours rise and run into a condenser. It is a two-part process, the first turning the wash into "low wines": alcohol of 25 per cent by volume. The second turns these low wines into three parts, the head, the heart and the tail of the spirit. These vary in alcoholic content, from 60 to 72 per cent. The "heart" will be drawn off, while the head and the tail go through a second distillation process. The strength of the alcohol is reduced to 63.5 per cent by adding more Tarlogie water. The clear whisky gets its colour and character from its barrel, hence the lovely Port and Madeira Wood finishes of Glenmorangie which add another layer of taste. Scotch must be matured for at least three years in oak. At Glenmorangie, the whisky sleeps for between 10 and 18 years. And all that time, the angels are smiling.


tasting whisky in scotland

Getting there

EasyJet (tel: 0870 600 0000) flies to Inverness from Luton from pounds 29 to pounds 89, including tax.

Whisky weekends

Glenmorangie launches its whisky education weekends in January. Three nights' half board and all activities costs pounds 185 per person. This includes a day with the whisky lecturer, a tour of the distillery, whisky-tasting and dinner with some of the "16 men of Tain", followed by a ceilidh. Weekends will be run on 29-30 Jan, 26-28 Feb, 12-14 Mar 1999. Call Glenmorangie House for details (tel: 01862 871671). E-mail: relaxatglenmorangieplc.co.uk.

Usual half board rates are pounds 100-pounds 185 per person, per night, including a four-course dinner with wine, soft and hot drinks and Glenmorangie whisky. Shooting, fishing, golf and horse-riding can all be arranged at extra cost.

Further information

The Scotch Whisky Association (tel: 0131-222 9200 or 0171-629 4384).