We took tours at three distilleries over two days, ambling through forests of copper stills and dank, cask-filled cellars. Our first was Glenfiddich, where the countryside around was full of shaggy Highlander cows. Glen Grant, the second tour, was nestled by a little stream with autumn-brown gardens. At Cardhu, on the day we left the region, the small clutch of stone buildings basically made up the entirety of Kockando village.
The truth is, whisky is kind of a benevolent magic for the towns along the River Spey. In the Cardhu tasting room we were shown a photograph of the distillery's founders. The elderly, craggy-faced husband and wife wore muddy, peasant clothes and worn boots. "They were arrested two or three times before they finally got a liquor license," we were told. Distilling was that kind of game in the 1800's, one for half-outlaws in the highlands with little money and small operations. Today, it's the realm of globalized giants. Not only is whiskey from here shipped and revered all over the world, but the world comes tramping back to Aberlour and Dufftown to take a look. Alcohol tourism is a major boon for the area, and the Speyside distilleries are big local employers.
The sugary liquid is left in the tanks for a day or two while it ferments. When it's done, it's basically a strong beer, at about eight percent alcohol. This frothy liquid is sucked through tubes and spat out into the stills, where the actual distillation process begins.
The stills are heated from below and (I'm oversimplifying) the alcohol inside evaporates and goes up the neck into a cooling coil, where it becomes liquid again. Because alcohol becomes a vapor at a lower temperature than water, more alcohol is removed from the "mash" than other liquids, which stay in the bottom of the still. After the first distillation, the alcohol content of the putative whisky is about thirty five percent. A second run-through, in a "spirit still" raises that number to about sixty five or seventy percent. It's clear, strong, undrinkable stuff. A few years sitting in a barrel mellows the taste, adds color and reduces the strength.
"Nothing secret," our tour guide at Cardhu told us. "But we can't take any chances with electronics." They were worried, as all the distilleries are, about an explosion. The hot liquid flowing through the locked box was new, very-high-proof liquor, and the air was thick with the scent of alcohol. After a few minutes near the box, we began to feel slightly tipsy. Any little spark ("faulty wiring" was what they worried about) could blow up the entire town.
Really, there are few decisions to be made - the whole process almost runs itself. At Cardhu we were told that it's possible for one person to run the entire distillery by themselves, at full capacity, for a whole shift. That includes every part of the process, from the raw grain to the barrel-ready liquor. "We're open twenty four hours, every day," she said. "Even Christmas. Even the royal wedding!"
And then there's the tasting. Every tour included a dram or three, even Glenfiddich's, which is free. Speyside whiskies are generally light, clean and have very little peat - much easier to drink than the smoke and brimstone stuff of Islay.