Finding the Best Single Malt Scotch in Scotland

many castles in Scotland

In 1994, we lived in NY and decided to try a home exchange. Agreeing to exchange our home just north of NYC with a family living in Scotland required reaching a compromise on our trip objectives: for Maggie, it was seeing castles, churches, and tartan fabrics. My goal was to discover the best scotch whisky distilled in Scotland and to not be overwhelmed with castles, churches, and fabrics. Spoiler alert: the trip was a success.

In 1994 the Internet was no big deal. There was no Airbnb and VRBO did not exist. However, a well-functioning postal-oriented alternative called the International Home Exchange not only existed but had evolved an effective process over 20-30 years. The calendar was a key driver and it worked like this: First, you became a member, paid your annual fee, and completed a one-page information sheet on your home. It was a form that allowed for a single house photo and restricted information to details such as the number of bedrooms, size, features, and interesting sights that could be easily visited in the area because a month or so after the deadline, a booklet was mailed to all members. The publication contained several hundred pages of homes available for exchange that year – one page per home. They were arranged by region, with sections for Europe, the USA, Asia, Africa, etc. After pursuing the listings, members were encouraged to send letters to a half- dozen or so homes appearing to be a good fit. A tornado of letters crossed in the mail and soon, your mailbox was filled with letters from people wishing to exchange their homes with yours.

Unlike the very limited data you could publish in the book, the “pitch letters” that were put together to entice someone who had a home where you wished to stay had no limits. As a result, the half-dozen letters we sent out included 6-8 gorgeous photos of our New York home, all of its attributes and conveniences, clothes washer and dryer, microwave oven, dishwasher and televisions as well as train schedules into New York City and the many enticements there.

One of the first letters we got was from a dentist, his wife, and two teenage daughters who wanted to exchange their home on the outskirts of Edinburgh, Scotland with our home in Croton-on-Hudson, NY. Before saying yes, we spent a long time agonizing over another wonderful letter we received from a couple in South Africa. After including highly illustrative photos of their beautiful estate and describing many interesting activities, they admitted they had none of our highly automated appliances such as washing machines, microwave ovens, and other modern conveniences. Besides, there was another real downside they confessed would only be fair of them to disclose. They wrote: “Unfortunately when we go on vacation, we also take that opportunity to give our staff on the estate that time off as well. So, we will be leaving you with a bare-bones staff consisting of a cook, one housekeeper, two drivers, and a yardman. Everyone else will have the time off.” Wow, that place sure sounded like it could have been fun. However, we finalized an exchange with the Scottish family.

When our son Eric had been so sick, Ginger had grown accustomed to living with her cousins in Phoenix. The Stickney family was as much her family as ours. Knowing how she and our nephew Robert, who was four years older than she, played so well together and thinking they would keep each other entertained during the trip, we invited Robert to come to Scotland with us. Then, of course, we worried that all Maggie and I would be doing was babysitting, so we extended an invitation to Ginger’s favorite babysitter in the whole world, Melinda Wood from Los Angeles, to join us as well. The house had a plethora of bedrooms and lots of places to play outside, so we weren’t worried.

We learned that most Home Exchange people coordinated travel so they crossed in the air and never actually met each other face to face. Since we were new at this and nervous about turning our home over to strangers, we arranged to pick our visitors from Scotland up at the airport the day before we left, took them out to dinner and then brought them home with us, all spending a night in our home before we left for Scotland the next day. It worked fine, and we did not anticipate any problems after meeting them, although our suspicions that the liquor cabinet might be somewhat depleted when we returned, were spot on.

The dentist’s home in Scotland was clean and nice. While older, it was quaint and cozy, exactly the sort of house you’d expect for that country – comfortable, warm, and friendly. They’d put vases of cut flowers throughout the home to welcome us. The yard and gardens, on the other hand, were just amazing and an over-the-top experience. Situated at the end of a long driveway, the house was surrounded by flower gardens, walking paths, beautiful trees, and patios. In addition to the house, there was a separate garage and a stable and corral for a horse. Our hosts had arranged for a neighbor to come by daily to care for the horse and a young man who worked as a gardener on the property was quick to introduce himself, indicating he would be around every third day, or so, to mow, weed and manage other yard related activities. Besides everything in the home, the homeowner had left keys to the family’s late model Volvo station wagon and instructions for using it, such as being sure to fill it with diesel, not gasoline.

Soon our days were filled with all the sorts of things tourists do in Scotland. As I suspected, visiting the Edinburgh Castle didn’t put a dent in Maggie’s desire to see more castles. Compelling options to her included all the classics not far from where we were staying – Stirling, Craigmillar, Lauriston, Balmoral, Glamis, Dundas, Dirleton, Eilean Donan, Dunnottar, Midhope, Cawdor, Tantallon, Culzean, Inveraray, Urquhart, Dunrobin and Duart Castles. I so feared having to see them all.

Fortunately our ground rules called for visits to scotch distilleries, not just castles and churches. My first distillery visit was to Glenkinchie Distillery, right near Edinburgh. This was a fortuitous place to start on several levels. It turns out, when it comes to scotch, the taste is very different depending on where the distillery is located. There are five distinct geographic scotch flavor regions in Scotland. The Lowland scotch distilleries are the closest ones to Edinburgh and one of the most famous is Glenkinchie. It’s also the scotch to which many scotch drinkers and scotch aficionados get their start. Lowland scotches are famous for being gentle malts with notes of grass, ginger, apple, cinnamon, and toffee with an occasional citrus edge. They’re light, breezy and easy to drink. So, this was a terrific place for me to begin my quest to find the best tasting Scotch in Scotland and my education on single malt scotches. The tour was great and I loved the 12-year-old bottle of Glenkinchie I brought back to the house.

Although I was just beginning, it was apparent I would need help, and so I stopped at a liquor store in Edinburgh. I filled the proprietor in on my quest to discover the very best scotch in Scotland and asked for his help. While we had an entertaining conversation and I left with 3 half-bottles of presumably great scotches to try, I began to feel that relying on shopkeepers may not be a winning strategy.

Late that afternoon I ended up having a conversation with the gardener for the property. Having a couple of bottles of new scotch in the house, I offered him a glass and we sat on the patio after he’d finished his yard duties. We had a “wee dram” as I learned more about his life. My Scandinavian aunties would have described him as a “strapping young lad.” He was medium height, wiry, and strong with deep blue-eyes and curly dishwater blond colored shoulder-length hair. His life, as best I could make out through his thick accent, involved maintaining the gardens of a half-dozen or so homes in the area, playing “football” with his mates, going to the pub to “lift a pint” once or twice a week and staying on good terms with a number of “fair lasses,” along his gardening route, not all I came to believe were unmarried if his nods and winks were properly understood.

Before our conversation ended and we’d finished our third glass of scotch, I had outlined my mission and tested his willingness and qualifications to join me in my quest. Requirements of him would be straight forward: he’d need to commit to spending several evenings during the next couple of weeks with me, sampling the spirits I would bring back to the house, and aid me in selecting which one was the ultimate, best-tasting, most-delicious scotch of them all. Perhaps unremarkable in hindsight, I found I needed to expend very little persuasive energy to gain his agreement. So, now I had a plan and an expert assistant. I was ready!

Scotland “taste” regions.

Our first overnight trip from Edinburgh was to Inverness. The kids wished to see the Loch Ness monster, Maggie had a list of a fabric shops, castles and churches she wanted to visit along our route and I could see our trip would take me through the Highlands and into the heart of the famous Speyside distilleries – The Glenlivet, Glenfiddich, and The Macallan Estate and perhaps the Glenmorangie Distillery if we had the time. In our two days, in addition to castles and churches, we got to visit The Macallan, Glenlivet and Glenfiddich. We also did a quick stop at Aberfeldy in the Highlands on the way up. We did not go on tours in all of them, but we did visit each gift shop and came away with a bottle or half-bottle and, occasionally a special cask strength bottle when it was available.

These whiskies, east of Inverness, along the River Spey, are full of fruity, nutty flavors and are less peaty than some scotches, so again, good for beginners. They’re very distinctive with a classic, rich, oaky flavor that becomes almost creamy with almonds and spice on the palate after you swallow.

The two areas where I had to be content with just buying an example bottle were the Island Scotches and those from Islay. Islay, in the far south, is land pounded by the elements all year long. Whiskeys from that area can be medicinally smoky and heavy with peat flavors. Brands like Laphroaig, Arberg, Bowmore, and Bruichladdich are the ones you hear the most about. While appreciating their complexity, I did not find I liked them as much as the Speyside and Highland scotches.

Our route to visit Loch Ness and the distilleries.

The northern island scotches like Talisker from Skye, Jura, and Highland Park also had an intense smoky flavor that didn’t instantly appeal to me. The salinity of the sea brings out the minerals in the peat. It leaves the palate feeling of warm spices, orange peel, heather, and honey. While they are clearly from this area, they are also unique and each island produces an unmistakable flavor. Only 3 bottles made it into my unscientific final testing group from the Islands.

I am certain, if I’d continued to drink scotch beyond the ten years or so after our trip, my tastes would have developed to the point at which I would have enjoyed these more complex, peaty or smoky scotches. I’ve found that true of most dedicated single malt drinkers. Once one of these scotches gets a hold of your palate, not much is going to satisfy you other than that one scotch.

Once back to our place near Edinburgh, I lined up my bottles on a long bar, with a stack of 3X5 note cards. Pouring a “wee dram” of one of the bottles into a glass, I would head out on the patio, sip the scotch, watch the kids climb the large tree in the back and record my tasting impressions, slipping the cards under the appropriate bottle when switching from one scotch to the next. Every few days my new gardener friend would join me and we’d sit together, tasting and testing, debating and arguing, admiring, and ranking, often times, late into the night. Can you imagine a better time?

One day the gentleman taking care of the horse caved to Ginger’s persistent requests to ride the horse. He finally agreed he’d let her sit on him, which she did. Take a look at the photo below. The man holding the reigns is over six feet tall. This was one very big horse.

Most nights we ate at home, meals Maggie prepared after trips to the grocery store. Occasionally, we’d go out for a pub meal (ever tried haggis?), but we worked hard to keep expenses low. Our budget had allowed us one, super-nice, fancy meal on the trip. After getting recommendations from the locals, we headed about twenty miles out into the countryside to find a restaurant within a castle. It was beautiful and fun. The dining room was nearly the size of a good-sized barn with exceptionally high ceilings. We were seated on one of the raised platforms that ringed the dining area and had a great view of the inside of the castle. After being given ample time to examine the menu our waiter came to take our order. The kids ordered first, then Maggie ordered the rack of lamb. I said I’d have the pepper steak and instantly felt a kick under the table. Maggie leaned in to me and whispered, “Order one of the lamb dishes.” I raised my finger signaling our server to wait, but couldn’t find a lamb-based offering that appealed to me, and so went back to the steak. Maggie leaned over and said quietly, “Okay, but I’m not giving you any of mine.”

When our meals came, I found my steak had come not from a slaughtered steer, but instead had been acquired by taking the bottom of someone’s old boot or shoe and serving it on my plate, covered with a thick sauce full of pepper. Maggie eventually relented and extended her fork with one nice sized bite of lamb on it for me to taste. It was exquisite and not because it was such a contrast to what was on my plate. This bite just melted in my mouth with a burst of flavor. After tasting it, my mouth began to water. But all I had on my plate was the bottom of someone’s boot. No ordering error since has ever come close to the horrible mismatch of these two dishes.

On the way home, as I verbally kicked myself, Maggie gently explained that beef was not a big thing in Scotland, and they were much better at lamb. How had I missed this? The kids listened in the back as she explained that so far on our trip, there was ample evidence of sheep everywhere, but cows, not so much.

The next day, on our way to Inverness, we had barely gone a half-hour when Ginger piped up from the backseat. “Hey, Dad, what are those puffs of white up on the hills? Are those little tiny clouds? Oh, oh, wait, I know what they are, Dad. They’re sheep!” Everyone in the entire car began to laugh hilariously – except me, remembering my shoe leather from the night before. Less than an hour later, approaching a small town we passed a sign urging us to slow down as there was a sheep crossing ahead. Again from the back seat: “Did you see that Dad? A sheep crossing sign! Not a cow crossing, not even a crow crossing? It’s a sign to slow down for sheep!” Again the car erupted with laughter as I thought of my “steak.” Let’s just say, for the rest of our trip, every possible way to make a joke about cows and sheep led to raucous laughter.

Eventually, the day of reckoning came. Our glorious trip with its perfect weather – it hadn’t rained once — was over. We were leaving Scotland the next morning. We’d spent the day packing and getting the house in perfect order for the owners for when they would come home. We wanted to be sure it was in better shape than we’d found it. We learned later from the Home Exchange company that this compunction was not unique to us. Most everyone makes this same attempt.

But I still had a major issue. Too many half-full bottles of scotch and while I had clearly developed some favorites, no single one had emerged as a clear winner. Fortunately, my assistant was scheduled to show up that night and I knew he was committed to working the problem with me until the early hours of the morning, if that was what it took, to find a winner.

The champion emerged sometime after 2 AM. We were both bleary-eyed, never having considered spitting between tastes. We’d whittled it down from the top ten candidates to just three scotches sometime after midnight. We both agreed any of the three could easily justify a claim to the title. But we knew we were not done – the rules clearly stated we needed to arrive at a single winner.

We went back and forth for another hour over the three finalists, comparing notes of this and that. No clear winner. Just as a well-reasoned and articulate argument was made to crown one the best, an equal number of good points would be made for one of the others. And then my young Scottish friend held up one of the glasses, looked at it through bloodshot eyes, smiled warmly and said to me in his deep accent, “Don’t cha know, if it was my best girl, naked, right out of the bath – or a bottle of the Macallan, I’d have to go with the Macallan,” and he took a sip and looked at me, and I knew. We were done. I’d found the very best Scotch in Scotland, I had a great story, and had a better understanding of a true Scotsman.