If one were to compile a top 10 of the most ubiquitous Christmas gifts for men, a bottle of whisky would surely be right up there with the socks. It may be rather more sybaritic, not to mention more generous than the predictable footwear, but original it ain’t. With a little planning, however, you could give the spirits-loving epicurean in your life something that even the best-stocked drinks cabinet won’t contain – a trip to the source of their favourite dram. For there is no more magical way to secure a spirit in the mind and the palate than by walking the landscape, tasting the water, smelling the air and meeting the people who make it.
Laphroaig, on the wildly beautiful island of Islay off the west coast of Scotland, is one distillery that is well worth making the journey to. Nestled at the water’s edge of a tiny inlet, this cluster of whitewashed buildings is so picturesque (Laphroaig translates as “beautiful hollow by the broad bay”) that it’s hard to believe it’s responsible for producing a global brand that is the world’s biggest-selling Islay malt whisky. On a still day, wisps of peat smoke from the furnace drift lazily over the water beneath a cobalt blue sky, but come the winter, “winds can reach 80mph – then you have to look out for flying seaweed,” laughs distillery manager John Campbell, the soft-spoken Scotsman who has been at the helm for 15 years.
Founded in 1815, Laphroaig is steeped in atmosphere – the experience of standing in the eaves, ankle-deep in malted barley and surrounded by the scent of peat smoke from the ancient kilns below, is one that will be hard-wired into my senses forever. But a visit isn’t confined to the distillery – fans can also clamber across the moorland to the source of Laphroaig’s water, and journey to the peat beds of the west coast to attempt the fiendishly difficult art of peat-cutting. Join the Friends of Laphroaig and you can even stake a flag in your very own foot-square plot of Islay, dram in hand. All this, plus a tutored tasting of the range, can be had for free with the purchase of a bottle of whisky (from £26); but the distillery can also arrange a tasting of rarer bottlings, or a bespoke whisky-matching dinner prepared by one of the island’s top restaurants.
Getting to Islay is a little less straightforward, but this should be viewed as part of the adventure. Arriving by plane affords some fabulous views of Laphroaig and its neighbouring distilleries Ardbeg and Lagavulin – Flybe has one or two 30-minute flights a day from Glasgow. Alternatively you can cross by yacht or luxury cruiser from Oban, a journey of about four hours, taking in sights including the awesome Corryvreckan whirlpool, and the isolated house on the isle of Jura where George Orwell wrote 1984 (contact LA Marine for details of yacht chartering).
An appropriate gift for an adventurer is Orkney’s Highland Park, the most northerly whisky distillery in the world. Situated on the outskirts of the town of Kirkwall, it might not have the wildness of Laphroaig but it has all the myth. It was founded in 1798 by one Magnus Eunson, a colourful chap who preached by day and smuggled by night. Today, his legacy is somewhat more legitimate – Highland Park is one of the most decorated whiskies around, most recently scooping Whisky magazine’s Best New Release 2009 for its 40-year-old malt, which you can sample as part of the distillery’s £75 Magnus Eunson Tour.
Of particular pride to Highland Park is the quality of the casks used to age the whisky, and a walk through the ageing warehouse is a highlight, the gloom filled with the heavy aroma of truffles, stewed apples, toasted oats and boozy fruit.
“We have quite a temperate climate in Orkney,” explains global brand ambassador Gerry Tosh, “which means the whisky ages more gently – making it great for producing older whiskies that aren’t too woody.” It’s for this reason that the distillery has been able to venture into the outer limits of ageing with the release of an ultra-rare 50-year-old whisky this winter. Limited to just 275 bottles (and with a price tag of £10,000), it’s unusual for retaining a remarkable suppleness, despite its age.
And age is all around on mysterious, treeless Orkney, where a mass of shipwrecks, neolithic tombs and stone circles attract history buffs from all over the world. The sights may be primitive, but your accommodation needn’t be – a short boat ride away on its own island is the newly refurbished Balfour Castle, a show-stopping estate complete with private chef and shoot, which can be hired for six to 18 guests.
Of course, if you ask any Irishman they will tell you that the Scots didn’t invent whisky, the Irish did. It remains a moot point, but there’s no disputing that Bushmills in Northern Ireland is one of the oldest distilleries in the world, having first received its licence in 1608. It lies near the north coast, about an hour’s drive from Belfast. And what a coastline it is, dominated by the staggering Giant’s Causeway and all its eerie geometric rock formations – standing there and looking out along the headland cloaked in sea mist evokes a strong sense of the history of the land.
At Bushmills, a private tour is essential if you really want to get under the skin of the place. The people are a large part of the experience – many of the distillery workers are locals whose families have been part of the business for generations. And then there’s Helen Mulholland, who, as a female master blender, is something of a rarity in the distilling business. “It’s wood that is my passion,” says Mulholland, who makes an annual pilgrimage to Spain each year to source the distillery’s casks. “You can fill two casks that are apparently exactly the same, and yet when you come to nose and taste them the whiskies can be so very different. That’s the excitement of it for me,” she says, “and the headache…”
Prices for a private two-hour visit start at £75 per head, beginning with an engaging tour of the distillery (with occasional interjections of colourful local folklore) followed by a fireside tasting of whiskies, including the award-winning anniversary blend 1608, and Bushmills 12-year-old, a distillery exclusive which can, by arrangement, be bottled with your own personalised label.
In order to fully enjoy the drink, you may wish to book a suite at the nearby Bushmills Inn, a historic coaching inn that combines peat fires and gas lights with a Dr Hauschka spa and helipad. Otherwise the hottest option in Belfast is the super-luxe boutique Merchant Hotel, which boasts a new art deco-style wing as well as a world-class cocktail bar.
But distillery visits are not just for whisky lovers – there are some excellent opportunities for gin drinkers to get behind the scenes. One of the best is the Plymouth distillery, which has launched a new Master Distiller’s Private Tour offering the unique opportunity to distil a gin to your very own botanical recipe.
“I want to get people to slow down and think about what they are drinking,” says Plymouth master distiller Sean Harrison, who is full of intriguing insights – such as the fact that the price of the gin flavouring orris recently shot up after Chanel bought a job lot. Sadly, my attempt to combine liquorice powder, juniper berries, Russian coriander, cassia and sweet orange peel produced a gin that was rather on the skunky side, but the insight it gave into the complexities of working with aroma and flavour was a revelation – as was the very enjoyable perusal of Plymouth’s 88-strong gin “library”, featuring brands from as far afield as the States and New Zealand.
Add to this the distillery tour, a tasting of different gin styles and a walk, over 600-year-old flagstones, through gin’s rich cocktail heritage, and the Plymouth Master Distiller Tour really seems a snip at £40 a head – just make sure you ask for Harrison as your guide when booking.
Back in London, bureaucracy still sadly prevents the Beefeater distillery from opening to the general public, but there are alternatives for those in search of a juniper fix, starting with the gem that is the micro-distillery Sipsmith. Tucked away down a residential street in west London, this gin distillery was established last year by ex-Fullers man Sam Galsworthy and his childhood friend Fairfax Hall, formerly a head of strategy for Diageo. “We got the idea in the States, where we saw the incredible groundswell of small, artisanal distilleries,” explains Galsworthy. “They had an ambassadorial, almost evangelical approach to the spirits they were making. And they weren’t just interesting – we also found that the quality was resoundingly superior.”
The result was the creation of Prudence, a petite copper pot still which looks, in the most elegant way possible, like something out of Wallace & Gromit. “It’s about bringing back something that used to be thriving in London,” says Galsworthy, referring to London’s rich tradition of gin distilling – during the gin craze of the early 1700s, one in four households was distilling its own gin.
The distillery now produces a vodka and a gin that are both widely available, but Galsworthy and Hall are constantly tinkering with new flavours and macerations. Recent experiments have included shiso, truffle, maraschino cherry and even Colman’s mustard (brilliant in a Bloody Mary, incidentally), all off-menu delights that are strictly for distillery visitors only. Indeed, with enough warning and for the right price, Sipsmith will even make you something bespoke, which you can have bottled in a traditional hand-blown and engraved glass balloon to take away, or mixed into cocktails for a little party under the gaze of Prudence herself. Lasting two to three hours, visits start at around £500 for groups of up to 10.
And if you can’t make it to the distillery, then get the distillery to come to you. Sacred, an award-winning gin microdistillery in north London, has just launched two pioneering gin-blending kits, available from Selfridges and Gerry’s Wines & Spirits, comprising six 20cl miniatures of individually distilled, fully organic gin botanicals that you can mix and match to taste. The Open Sauce Traditional Collection focuses on more familiar gin flavourings including juniper, citrus and coriander, while the Open Sauce Contemporary Collection ventures into newer territory with the likes of pink grapefruit and star anise (£87.50 per set of six).
Should you wish to expand your palate even more, there are also individual bottlings including plum stone, black cardamom, ginger and tomato stems (£12.95 for a 20cl bottle) – surely the perfect solution for that elusive stocking-filler. Each kit comes with a guide to flavour blending, but if you’re after a little more expertise, Sacred founder Ian Hart can be booked for Sacred tastings and talks on the art of gin distillation. Just be prepared to change the way you take your G&T forever.