Gordon Castle: Let us whisky you away to Scotland
It was here atop the snow-spattered hills of Speyside in the Scottish Highlands that King Macbeth was said to have met his violent end. According to legend, it was the future King Malcolm III who stabbed him in 1057 (he died several weeks later).
Life in the valleys rising up either side of the river Spey was harsh, often violent and its inhabitants lived a hand-to-mouth existence. So who can blame them for indulging in a spot of home-brewing for Dutch courage when they spotted a rival clan over the hillside, followed by a consolatory or celebratory dram or five?
Whisky is a part of life in these parts; it literally translates as "water of life" (from the Gaelic uisge beatha), and when it was first brewed, it was just as harsh as the world it was born into. Rather like poteen, a potent Irish spirit made from potatoes, it's actually white in its original form; wooden casks give the liquid its warm, oaky hue. But unlike the Irish, who had a licence to distil whiskey from 1608, Scotch as we think of it today remained an underground endeavour up until the 19th century. Brewing whisky – a simple process of boiling up barley – was permitted, but distilling whisky, a far more complex process that results in a cleaner, more potent drink, was not. This meant the water of life back then, if legally procured, was a brutal-tasting drink that most whisky lovers would struggle to identify today.
This clearly wouldn't do for the Scots, and by the 19th century the practice of illegally distilling whisky was so widespread that over half of Scotland's whisky output was illegal.
Then the 4th Duke of Gordon came into the picture.
It was he who made the trip down south to inform parliament that the problem was out of his control. Rather than prohibit his tenants in Glenlivet from distilling whisky, he argued, wouldn't it be easier – indeed, more profitable – to legalise, licence and tax it?
The promise of more tax revenue proved too tempting and an Act of Parliament was subsequently passed in 1823.
The Duke resided in the grand Gordon Castle, which would be my home for most of my trip to the Highlands.
When I arrived, it was drizzling and the sun was setting on its square-edged hedges and officiously-kept gardens. The 15th century dwelling is still owned by the descendants of an ancient clan who were the landowners of Glenlivet valley.
Set in ancient woodland by the banks of the river, there's a family church nearby and it's still fully-staffed. But, as with many stately homes, it has become rather costly to maintain, so the Gordons have turned it into a guesthouse for most of the year, hosting weddings, whisky tourists and a mini-version of the Highland Games.
Its immaculate grounds are best seen from one of the heavily-carpeted reception rooms, packed with antique furniture, maps and watercolours. Angus Gordon Lennox, the current owner whose lineage dates back to the reign of King Robert the Bruce in the 14th century, greets me warmly and gestures towards austere portraits of his ancestors. My room – one of eight – had a fire roaring in the grate, a stack of tartan blankets piled at the end of the bed and an inviting clawed bathtub in the ensuite. There are no locks on the doors, which will either make you feel exposed or like you're just staying at a friend's – admittedly very grand – house. The only signs that the Gordon Estate is a fully-fledged business are the branded shampoos and shower gels dotted around the bathroom.
It was from this castle that the 4th Duke of Gordon drew up his plans to encourage one of his tenants, George Smith, to take advantage of the new whisky laws and establish the first legitimate distillery in Glenlivet.
Today, this formerly illegal hillside enterprise is home to the biggest-selling single malt whisky in the US and the second biggest globally.
As a result, the Glenlivet distillery – around a 45 minute drive from Gordon Castle – saw 50,000 visitors last year: not bad considering how remote it is. It looks like a lodge from the outside, all dark wooden beams and wonky brickwork. But isolation, it turns out, is key to making a good whisky. Ian Logan, Glenlivet's international brand ambassador, says urban heat generated by busy cities isn't conducive to making a great dram because the water used to make it is tastier when it's colder. Similarly, remote locations allow the ageing process to unfold uninterrupted.
As such, Speyside is Scotch central, home to over half (nearly 50) of all working distilleries in Scotland, including Chivas Regal, Johnny Walker, Clan Campbell, Glenfiddich and Aberlour.
When Smith started out in this newly-legal business, his vision was to create the smoothest single malt with fruity overtones, so it would sell to a mass market, transforming this brash liquor thrown together from leftover barley into an easy-going, easily-exportable product. And not much has changed. As I stepped into a vast glass-covered room filled with copper vats, Logan said he hopes to be greeted by the smell of ripe banana or sweet madeira cake in the morning, because that's the first sign the distilling process is going smoothly.
Logan has worked at The Glenlivet for decades – he says that today between 60-70 per cent of visitors to the distillery last year were from outside the UK. Emerging markets, particularly China, have the potential to be big money for the Scots, but they seem to like the idea of whisky more than the taste of it.
"People want to have Scotch whisky over there because it's a status symbol," he says. "Everyone asks for Scotch and a single malt is the best of the bunch. But when it comes to taste, an American bourbon is the entry-level for most people, because it's sweeter, then they tend to move on to Scotch. But we want to break into these places and there's a new style of whisky developing as a result." Indeed, Jack Daniel's honey bourbon became the first flavoured whiskey to sell over a million cases last year.
The Glenlivet, meanwhile, is getting rid of the 12-year-old in the UK that has become a staple in most pubs and supermarkets, replacing it with Founder's Reserve, an altogether more exportable tipple. It harks back to that original, accessible vision, emitting an aroma of sweet orange with zesty pears and "hints of candy and toffee apples".
The last stop on my Scotch tour was also the last stop on the Highland Mainline: Edinburgh. The cocktail scene in Scotland's capital has blossomed in recent years and Bramble, a tiny basement bar on Queen Street, whose only identifier is a small plaque modestly nailed to the wall outside is widely-credited with starting the cocktail revolution.
Everyone's had an Old Fashioned, but co-owner Mike Aikman laid on a Founder's Fizz for me, pouring crushed ice and red berries over the Reserve (red berries and whisky is a foolproof combination, apparently). He said more whisky brands were building partnerships with cocktail bars than ever before and he was quite impressed by how "forward-thinking" many of them are in their search for ever younger, more international markets.
Cocktails aside, it's probably more astounding that a whisky with 200 years of heritage is looking back to its inception to revitalise Scotland's national spirit.
NEED TO KNOW
Flights with British Airways from London to Aberdeen from £79 one way at ba.com.
Rates and booking details at Gordon Castle available from gordoncastle.co.uk or by calling +44 (0)1343 820244.
For more information on The Glenlivet Distillery, visit theglenlivet.com or call +44(0)1340 821 720. The Founder's Reserve is available for £36 from thewhiskyshop.com.