I HAVE long maintained that malt whisky is the quintessence of Scotland. For me, it conjures the land of its birth in all its seasons with every sip – flowering machair in spring, warm beaches and heather pollen in summer, wayside berries and orchards in autumn and the reek of winter peat ("reek" here being the term for distillers used to describe peat smoke).

As my friend, the songwriter Robin Laing, puts it in one of his songs: "It's the pulse of one small nation – so much more than just a dram – [evoking] the people and the weather and the land: the past distilled into the present."

Malt whisky does more than evoke the place in which it is made – it arises from it. According to whisky philosopher Dave Broom: "Scotland's landscape has formed the industry in multifarious ways, from dictating where distilleries could be built, offering places to hide and then places to prosper ... There is even the tantalising possibility that early distillers tried to capture the vivid scents of hot gorse, fresh flowers, heather and bracken in their whiskies." He describes this as "cultural terroir". Elsewhere he expands the notion, explaining that life in the Highlands is a compromise "between man and land", and suggests that many fail in their enterprises because they forget that the land has the upper hand. Whisky, however, has survived and continues to thrive because it is pragmatic. Broom says that it is as though the distillery workers have concluded that whisky making is something that they can do in this environment and what's more, "because we have done it for generations it reflects where we are, who we are and what me make".

It is an interesting concept. When French winemakers use the term "terroir", they do so to describe the profound influence of geography, climate and geology upon the flavour, style and quality of their wines – ultimately to describe the very soil in which their grapes grow. The concept cannot be applied in precisely the same way to whisky distilling, but it does appear that somehow the subtle influences of local geography, combined with tradition, process and plant, act to differentiate the whisky made in each distillery and every region of Scotland, in ways that are still not fully understood by science.


The Edradour distillery is in the hamlet of Balnauld, sitting above the town of Pitlochry. It uses water that stems from Moulin Moor, which is rich in peat and granite. The old lime-washed and red-painted farm buildings that make up the distillery are home to the smallest stills permissible under Customs and Excise regulations.

For decades, Edradour was the smallest distillery in Scotland and although it can no longer claim this distinction, it remains one of the neatest, most compact and most traditional. It is not surprising that such an attractive place is among the most visited distilleries in Scotland, attracting around 60,000 people each year.

Edradour is a classic example of the size and style of the "farm" distilleries found all over Scotland until the whisky boom of the 1890s, when larger units were required to meet demand. The distillery was built in 1837 by a group of seven farmers on a strip of land beside the Edradour Burn, which they had leased from the Duke of Atholl. One of the group was Duncan Forbes, who had established a tiny distillery in 1825, possibly on the same site.

Descendants of the founding farmers owned the distillery until 1933, when they were forced to sell because of dramatically falling cask sales. The new owner was William Whitely & Co and the price was £1,050, including two cottages. Whitely was a tough Yorkshireman who had started work as a sales representative for a wine and spirits company, but was dismissed for "going beyond his remit". In 1914 he had bought the Leith wine and spirits merchant, JG Turney & Son, selling mainly to export markets. Turney’s was a key customer of Edradour and used the whisky in its House of Lords and King’s Ransom blends – the latter was introduced in 1928 and was allegedly shipped round the world before being offered for sale. On account of this it was reputedly the most expensive Scotch of its day.

In 1920, Prohibition arrived in America, which was Turney’s leading market, but William Whitely was unperturbed. He appointed gangster Frank Costello as his "US Sales Consultant" on an annual salary of £3,300. Costello was a leading mafioso (he was the model for Mario Puzo’s The Godfather) and a major bootlegger; he controlled numerous speakeasies and clubs in New York City. Costello may also have been responsible for naming Whitely "the Dean of Distilling". In 1937, Costello’s sidekick – Irving Haim – bought JJ Dailey & Sons, the holding

company for William Whitely & Co, using funds provided by a mafioso group that included Costello. This made him owner of the distillery. As far as the whisky was concerned, Haim left things as they were (except for installing electricity in 1948), as did his successor, Campbell Distillers, who acquired Edradour in 1986. The single malt was first bottled by its new owners in 1990.

In 2002 Edradour was bought by Andrew Symington, owner of the well-known independent bottler Signatory Vintage Scotch Whisky. He has made many improvements to the site, including building a bottling hall (2007) and a large new warehouse (2010) incorporating ‘Caledonia Hall’, a function suite. However, he has not changed Edradour’s ancient stills (the wash still dates from 1881) or worm tubs and the distillery has the only remaining Morton Refrigerator.


Dalwhinnie is said to be "the meeting place" of the drove roads coming out of Strathspey and those from the northwest Highlands. They combine here to head south to the great cattle markets at Crieff and Falkirk. The rough tracks used by the drovers were transformed into military roads in the 1730s by General George Wade, who held the auspicious title of "Commander in Chief of His Majesty’s forces, castles, forts and barracks in North Britain".

Dalwhinnie lies 326 m (1,070 ft) above sea level, in a glen surrounded by the Monadhliath Mountains, the Forest of Atholl, the Cairngorms and the Grampians. It is probably Scotland’s coldest distillery, with an

average annual temperature of only 60C (430F) and has often found itself snowbound for several weeks during the winter. Long known as "the highest distillery in Scotland" (though in reality Braeval now beats it by a couple of metres), it sits in a remote spot and was once notably described by a visitor as a "desolate, wind-sliced, rain-lashed patch of Highland wilderness". Despite this – or perhaps because of it – the whisky made here is named spiorad sitheil, "the gentle (or peaceful) spirit" and the distillery’s location is extremely romantic, surrounded as it is by high, heather-covered hills in an archetypically Highland setting.

The distillery was built by a small consortium of local men, who collectively called themselves the Strathspey Distillery Co Ltd and was designed by Charles Cree Doig, the famous distillery architect. It went into production in 1898, but closed almost immediately, owing to the general downturn in the industry. It was sold in 1905 to Cook & Bernheimer, the largest distillers in America at the time, becoming the first Scottish distillery to come under foreign ownership. They handed operations to their subsidiary company, James Munro & Sons Ltd, but in fact only

owned the distillery for 14 years, before selling it to the well-known blenders Macdonald Greenlees. In 1926 it was acquired by the Distillers Company Ltd (DCL).

Dalwhinnie’s two stills are unusually large: the wash-still is charged with 17,500 litres (3,850 gallons) and the spirit still with 16,200 litres (3,560gallons), providing plenty of contact between the alcohol vapour and the

copper, making for a light spirit. This lightness is counterbalanced by the vapour being condensed in worm tubs, which deliver a full-bodied spirit. In 1986 the traditional worm tubs were replaced by modern shell-and-tube condensers – as happened with most distilleries in the post-war period – but this so changed the style of the spirit that the worms were reinstated in 1995.

This is an edited extract from Spirit Of Place: Whisky Distilleries Of Scotland, by Charles MacLean, photographs by Allan MacDonald and Lara Platman, published by Frances Lincoln Ltd, £25