You’ve got to love a state that has its own official dessert. Not just traditional treats, like we have with cranachan or clootie dumplings, but one which has been passed into law by the Maryland government following, I’m sure, many heated debates and hopefully a few tastings, too.

The Smith Island cake is defined by super-thin layers, stacked anywhere between eight and 13 layers high, and traditionally made by women on the islands in Chesapeake Bay, who would send them with their fisherman husbands – the idea being that the frosted cakes would stay fresh.

I’m in Maryland and Virginia – just eight hours direct from Edinburgh to Washington with United Airlines or via Reykjavik from Glasgow with Icelandair.

Here, I enjoy a whistle-stop tour of the most interesting things this side of the US has to offer food and drink fans. After finishing off the super-sweet Smith Island cake at the upscale Blackwall Hitch restaurant ( on Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, I set off to discover the highlights.

Single Malt Whisky

Watch out, the Americans are coming for our drams. The Virginia Distillery, in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, produces real whisky from barley – not the horrible bourbon stuff with the extra “e” made with corn. The distillery uses copper stills crafted in Elgin and their lead blender, the inspirational Amanda Beckwith, spent time in Scotland learning her craft (she’s also a big fan of Glasgow’s Pot Still and Bon Accord bars).

Driving through the forest-covered hills to the distillery puts me in mind of the Dukes of Hazzard: dotted beside the roads, we pass small wooden houses dwarfed by their owners’ pickup trucks, many proudly displaying the Stars and Stripes.

The distillery’s signature Courage & Conviction series uses bourbon, sherry and cuvée casks and are typically 46% abv. Nosing, then tasting them, I am shocked. They are as sweet and smooth as the finest Speyside whiskies. And there’s no greater compliment than that.

Tours available – see

The Herald: Virginia DistilleryVirginia Distillery (Image: free)

Harbour cruise

There’s something special about seeing a city all lit up on a night cruise – its skyline shining in the darkness. All those unknowable lives being lived ashore – especially while you are tucking into Caribbean jerk-braised pork with plantains and black beans on a dinner cruise on Baltimore’s Inner Harbour and Patapsco River. The cruise, from $71(around £60 depending on how badly the British Pound is doing by the time you read this) lasts around 2.5 hours with a buffet and DJ and, of course, with those sweeping views from the open top deck.


Brilliant breakfasts

Breakfast is an institution in the US. The bigger and sweeter the better. Miss Shirley’s in Baltimore, where I am based, is the perfect place to ease your way into the world of fried green tomatoes, grits, collard greens and pancakes. Lots of pancakes. Informal and friendly, Miss Shirley’s shuts each day at 3pm – which shows just how popular its breakfasts and lunches are with the punters.

The mango BBQ shrimp devilled eggs, with smoked bacon, Southern coleslaw and green onion, dusted with Cajun spice will wake your taste buds up, while specialities include the Gravy Train Southern skillet with fried buttermilk chicken breast pieces on a pimento cheese biscuit, with collard greens, stone ground grits, diced bacon, and a sunny-side-up egg. The walls are covered in sports pictures and you’ll probably immediately feel at home – as it’s the sort of diner immortalised in generations of American movies and TV shows.


The Herald: Miss Shirley's Cafe Inner HarborMiss Shirley's Cafe Inner Harbor (Image: free)

Wine tasting

The Winery at Bull Run is the closest winery to Washington DC. It is a working farm vineyard next to 5,000 acres of the historic Manassas National Battlefield Park providing beautiful vistas of preserved 19th-century farmland. Get a glimpse into Virginia’s rich heritage with winemaking techniques from the Civil War era as well as historical buildings and artefacts.

Rye whisky

Like many Scots with working taste buds, I’m left cold by sickly-sweet bourbon but rye is a different beast. It can be traced back to 1750 – decades before bourbon’s invention. It was born in Pennsylvania when Scottish and Irish farmers found rye grew well and it became the grain of choice for hillbilly distillers. It must be made from a mash bill of at least 51% rye grain and bottled at a minimum of 40% ABV.

The new Sagamore Spirit Distillery, in the rapidly redeveloping Baltimore Peninsula neighbourhood, offers anew, purpose-built distillery with a very contemporary take on distilling, which they say includes building partnerships with the Maryland agricultural community and working with local farmers to grow and harvest grain.

Visitors on the daily tours get to sample the whiskies, which are spicy and alive with taste – a world away from bland bourbon. I bring home a cask strength bottle at 56% abv. It’s a blend of straight high-rye and low-rye mash bills aged four to seven years. They say the seven-year-old contributes deeper chocolate, hazelnut and molasses characteristics and the four-year-old adds bright citrus notes and balanced spice.Try a nip and you might be moved to join Don McLean in crooning: “And them good old boys were drinkin’ whiskey in Rye .../Singin’, This’ll be the day that I die.”


The Herald: Sagamore SpiritSagamore Spirit (Image: free)

Upscale dining

Reston Town Center is an interesting place. Designed in the late 1980s, it aims to combine all the elements of the ideal downtown: “the vitality of an Italian piazza and the diversity of a French boulevard with speciality shops and year-round events.” It’s certainly a buzzing place of an evening and is home to the acclaimed Passionfish seafood restaurant. Stylish and upscale, no seafood fan would want to miss it.

Beer heaven

There’s simply nowhere like this in Scotland: 108 draft and four hand cask lines plus 1600 beer bottles and cans from across the world. The staff take real pride in this place – manager Jason shows me his cellar, which is like an Aladdin’s cafe of beer lines. It takes him four hours, every week, just to clean the pipes. Max’s Taphouse, which also serves up barbecued meats, is in historic Fells Point on the waterfront, which has boutiques, bars, restaurants and nightclubs crowding its narrow harbourside streets. We all need a bar like this in our lives.


The Herald: Max's TaphouseMax's Taphouse (Image: free)

Sitting on the dock of the bay

Ultra-relaxed and fun, Nick’s Fish House is an institution in Baltimore. Bubbling with life, it’s set on the waterfront of the Patapsco River, with wooden tables and a casual “have another beer” vibe. It specialises in seafood – from cold platters to creamy chowders. Make sure you have a vodka orange crush – it’s a local favourite.


Where to stay:

ROOST Baltimore, 2460 Terrapin, Baltimore Peninsula

More like a mini-flat (sorry, apartment) than a traditional hotel in the redeveloping Peninsula, it describes itself as “contemporary apartment living paired with luxury hotel-inspired hospitality”. Our one-bedroom came with a modern kitchen, living room, balcony and dressing room. Two and three beds also available. It’s walking distance to Sagamore Distillery and Nick’s Fish House. Beyond that, you’ll need a motor to get around.


The Herald: ROOST BaltimoreROOST Baltimore (Image: free)

The Quirk Hotel, 201 W Broad St, Richmond

For a taste of the South, this is a real treat. A boutique hotel with a stylish main bar, cool roof top bar and its own gallery featuring local artists, it’s the sort of place where locals, young and old, get dressed up to visit.


Five other things to do

B&O Railroad Museum

This Baltimore collection tells the story of American rail and so the story of how this great land was conquered and opened up by European immigrants. It also tells the story of the underground railroad – and how black Americans used the railways to flee north and the racism they faced with whites-only carriages up until the late 1960s.


Shenandoah National Park

Running for 105 miles along Virginia’s wooded Blue Ridge Mountains, its vast network of trails includes a section of the long-distance Appalachian Trail. Home to the elusive black bear. Stay at the Skyland Lodge, which has cabins and a restaurant and bar.


The Steven F Udvar-Hazy Center

The Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum’s annex at Washington Dulles International Airport. It displays thousands of fascinating aviation and space artefacts, including the Space Shuttle Discovery and a Concorde. Free – though they will sting you $15 for parking.


Baltimore Museum of Art

The BMA’s collection of 95,000 objects includes more than 1,000 works by Henri Matisse, as well as masterpieces by Pablo Picasso, Paul Cézanne and Vincent van Gogh. Don’t leave without visiting Gertrude’s Chesapeake Kitchen which preserves Chesapeake culinary traditions especially seafood. and