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Scotland: All things Scotch

Scotland is renowned for its magnificent landscapes that include soaring heather-covered mountains in the Highlands, countless sparkling lochs, waterfalls, and even stunning white sandy beaches that look as if they were stolen from the Caribbean. The sounds of traditional bagpipers, the sights of romantic castles and kilted Highlanders are all part of the Scottish experience. Visitors can hike miles and miles of scenic trails to be rewarded with some of the most epic views, tour battlefields and ancient neolithic sites, golf the world’s oldest course at St. Andrews where the sport was born, and taste authentic Scotch whisky, everywhere from bars and restaurants to distilleries.

 

Edinburgh scotch, scotland

History of Scotch

Whisky produced in Scotland is always spelled whisky without the e, reflecting the original Scots derivation of the word Uisce beatha which means “water of life.” It’s been distilled here for centuries but exactly when it began is unknown. Highlanders may have discovered how to distill spirits from their surplus of barley, or the art might have come from visiting Christian missionary monks. The first written record of whisky appears in 1405 in the Irish annals of Clonmacnoise which documented that a chieftain had died after taking a “surfeit of aquavitae” which is likely to refer to a spirit for drinking. The oldest recorded historical reference for distilling whisky in Scotland doesn’t come until the late 15th century, according to J. Marshall Robb’s 1951 book Scotch Whisky. The author notes an entry in the Scottish Exchequer Rolls in 1494 that reads “eight bolls (an old Scottish measure) of malt to Friar John Cor wherewith to make aquavitae.” Until the 16th century, it’s believed that the use of distilled spirits was largely monastic and used for medicinal practices as a cure-all.

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Edinburgh scotch, scotland

We sat down with Julie Trevisan-Hunter, marketing director of the Scotch Whisky Experience in Edinburgh, to talk all things Scotch.

 

The Scotch Whisky Experience has been operating since 1988 and has been, and remains, one of the most desired tourist attractions in Edinburgh. What highlights have you experienced during your time there?

 

I’ve had an incredible 27 years here and as a result, I’ve seen lots of changes in the organization. When the SWE (Scotch Whisky Experience) opened its doors in 1988, several Scotch whisky distilleries came together to tell the whole story of Scotch whisky – so not just about one brand, one portfolio of brands or one region, but instead, the whole story of Scotch whisky in a completely unbiased way. It tells the story of all five Scotch whisky producing regions, every historical distillery, every blend, every liquor, and every malt, for both an international and local audience.

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An Edinburgh Getaway
Edinburgh scotch, scotland

It sounds like a great way to experience the best of Scottish food, with the whisky, but in an authentic way, rather than a fine-dining environment.

Absolutely. Most of our audience are people here on holiday so we wanted it to be accessible to the type of people we also visit during the day. Of course, we still have locals who come for the evening, but most people who come to the Amber Restaurant are international. The Taste of Scotland is a trio of starters, a trio of mains, and a dessert matched with a whisky. This is especially popular with the North America clients travelling around
Scotland. We tell the story of the whisky, which gives people that feeling of being transported to rural gems across the country – from the west coast and the highlands of Scotland.

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Edinburgh scotch, scotland

And when you’re serving these courses, are stories being told?

Yes, we have a tasting map that comes alongside the meal which is a great way to visualize things. It gives you that reminder of the shape of the country, and the landscape and the regions. Another great storytelling experience is our “Tasting Tales” which is held in a private room with four scotch whiskies, accompanied by four canapes. We match foods like smoked salmon, cheese, venison, and chocolate each with a different whisky, and tell the story of the distilleries and the people. The themes of our tasting tales change; some of our past themes have included coastal distilleries, sustainable Scotch and women in whisky over the centuries which told the story of historical and current women in the industry.

Edinburgh & the Scottish Highlands
Edinburgh scotch, scotland

Of course, you have a huge international market, but do you have a big local audience? Or maybe this has changed over the time that SWE has been running for?

Funnily enough so many things have changed over time, but our market has stayed consistent since we opened our doors, with around 80% international visitors. Scotch is so synonymous with Scotland and we have built a strong brand with great advocacy from our previous visitors. A huge number of our guests come because someone has recommended them to visit. Perhaps the reason that we do not have so many Scottish visitor is due to the fact that Scotch whisky is who we are, part of us, and it’s everywhere. That being said we have a great community connection, and many locals make regular visits to our Amber restaurant.

Edinburgh scotch, scotland

How did you get into the SWE?

I studied languages, and came into it from the tourism side of things. Within a very short time of being surrounded by this fabulous team, I knew I wanted to be in this industry. Having not thought about a career in whisky, I became so passionate about it almost instantly. This is the case for many of our tea, – they come to us with a passion for hospitality and tourism – they are great “people people”, and then the discover Scotch. Almost every distillers company in Scotland has someone working there who started the early part of their career here at The Scotch Whisky Experience. Combining Tourism in Scotch in, in my view, the perfect blend!

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Edinburgh scotch, scotland

It’s rare that you get an industry like that – such a close-knit team.

Yes, and I think there is a reason for that…. In 1850-1860, they first invented blending. This was a new type of whisky as part of the industrial revolution. To create something consistent, they started blending grain whiskies with single-malt whiskies. Now if you’re going to do that, you need to get single malts, which come from your competitors, friends or even ‘the farm over the hill’ or however that looked in the 19th century. Because of blending – (accounting for over 90% of scotch whisky sold globally) collaboration is essential and is the bedrock of Scotch whisky. So, I think that’s why it remains a very collaborative industry. It really does feel like part of a family and that’s the main reason I have stayed in this industry for so long.

Edinburgh scotch, scotland

Scotland has many famous brands. Do you personally have a few favorites and why?

In all honesty, I don’t have a favorite whisky. I usually find that whichever distillery I visited last, has a strong weighting because it’s fresh in my mind and you’ve met the people, and heard the stories behind the whisky. With whisky it really is the people that make the difference and I’m luck to have met some of the warmest and friendliest people on the planet as part of my career. You think of them when you taste the dram they have created.

Some enthusiasts will do blind tastings and do everything to remove subjectivity from their tasting. You can even serve whisky in a special blue glass so you cannot even see the color of the liquid. This is so that it doesn’t influence your brain, and you are just analyzing it objectively. Although that has its place if you really want to study a whisky, I enjoy whisky most as part of great company and great stories so I rarely focus on dissecting a dram!

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Edinburgh scotch, scotland

The industry is very historic. Is there much creativity in it today?

There are so many small startup distilleries on the scene today, and they need to be different. But how can you be that different when it’s a product made of only three ingredients, in the same way by law, that hasn’t changed in centuries? You’d think not many. But in some ways, the tighter the parameters, the more creative you need to be. You can be creative in the ways you run the equipment, the malt you choose, the size of the casks, the previous liquid in the cask. All these things will make a significant difference. Then after the whisky has been produced, there are many ways to be creative and stand out with packaging and branding. There are so many collaborations with artists or designers now, which is amazing. And then even the smallest of brands can be innovative with their marketing and social media presence, which can boost the brand so quickly.

Where to stay in Scotland
Edinburgh Scotland

Where is your favorite place to have a dram of whisky?

The place I drink whisky the most is at home when friends visit. I’ve been entertaining a lot of folks this summer, with friends and family staying whilst they visit Edinburgh. I usually have a whisky at the end of a meal, or around the firepit on a summers evening. Sometimes I start the evening with a whisky sour or an old fashioned, but my cocktail patience is quite limited so nothing too elaborate. One thing I have discovered over my many whisky tastings professional and personal is that it is about the people over the taste, a lot more than you think. We offer a corporate whisky experience and guests often tell us that when we do the whisky tasting before the dinner is served, it sparks connections and gives people so much to talk about. There are there are so many stories behind Scotch that it permeates the rest of the evening.

Where to go in Scotland
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And what about the wider sense. Do you have a favorite place in Scotland to enjoy a whisky?

It’s hard to choose a favorite spot. I love camping in remote places across Scotland – the western isles or the highlands. So a dram with a beautiful west coast sunset and a campfire is pretty unbeatable. That being said, I really do love Edinburgh. It’s a very livable city, we have it all; long beaches, meandering streams and rivers, woodlands in the city, intriguing historic buildings, and even a city-centre build on an extinct volcano. Built on
many hills you are never far from a stunning viewpoint of the city and further afield as far as the Highlands on a clear day. We also have lots of wonderful restaurants, bars and traditional pubs where a great dram will also improve your evening.

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This article was first published in issue nine of the Unforgettable Travel Magazine.

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