There’s nothing quite like a ‘wee dram’ for lifting one’s spirits!
Whisky tasting is one of life’s great pleasures especially when you find yourself in the heart of Scottish distillery country in Perthshire.
A whole world of whisky awaited me as I strolled from my hotel in Aberfeldy and headed up the road to the impressive Dewar’s distillery which sits on a waterside site close to the River Tay.
Dewar’s trademark pipe band leader welcomes visitors at the start of the tour which is split between a self-guided trip around the museum and a guided visit around the distillery.
In the summer a real piper is usually outside playing the bagpipes but I couldn’t blame him for staying away today – the weather was cold and bracing with snow flakes fluttering around in the Easter sunshine.
Taking the tour
The distillery is one of several with tours in the Aberfeldy and Pitlochry area although this is the best I’ve visited to date.
For the first time I understood the process of whisky making which has often been explained in a confusing way on previous distillery visits to Scotland.
First stop on the self-guided tour is a short film show followed by the museum which offers an interesting meander through the history of the Dewar family and its whisky business with loads of old photos, advertising posters and archives.
The ‘whisky family’
The Dewar story is remarkable in itself. Middle class entrepreneur John Senior opened a small whisky business in Aberfeldy in the late 1880s from where his two sons – John Junior and Thomas – expanded the operation into a world-class company.
The current distillery in Aberfeldy was built in 1898 close to the river and railway line – in fact you can still see the small whisky train outside in the grounds.
Tommy Dewar had an astute advertising brain and travelled the world spreading the word about Dewar’s whiskies with great success. His promotional stunts included pipe bands, parties, and what is thought to be the world’s first TV advert for whisky.
This early ‘ad man’ was a well-known raconteur with a penchant for witty phrases like: “A philosopher is a man who can look at an empty glass with a smile.”
He sounds like a man after my own heart. Tommy followed a philosophy called ‘Dewarism’ which argued that success could be achieved without compromising a joyful life. I’ll certainly drink to that hedonistic lifestyle!
Behind the wit and wisdom lay a shrewd business man.
The whisky museum has a reconstruction of Tommy’s plush London office and library – it was from here that he planned the Dewar’s domination of the world whisky trade.
Tommy laid the foundations for movie adverts – and in later years, Hollywood stars like Sean Connery would be filmed enjoying his Dewar’s ‘Scotch on the rocks’.
Elsewhere the museum has some fun interactive displays, geared up to adults for a change.
There’s a great smell machine which pumps out different aromas at the push of a button, from leather and liquorice to heather and honey.
My guesses were pretty accurate, perhaps because I’d tried this type of smell test before with wine tasting – or should that be ‘wine smelling’?
The guided tour starts outside by the former malthouse where the strong, sweet aroma of whisky is all-pervasive and strangely sickly and inviting both at once.
At this point whisky addicts will be salivating madly!
Once indoors the tour takes you through the grist room to the distillery mashing room with its gloopy liquids churning away in the ‘mash tun’.
I was intrigued by the numerous signs on the walls warning ‘Do not light flames’. I’d forgotten how flammable the whole process can be!
Then it’s upstairs to the washbacks where the next stage of whisky making is underway.
The wort from the mash tuns is now fermenting and looks a lot smoother in texture. At this point there’s a chance to sniff the pale liquid which smells strangely like yeasty beer.
We learn that the main components of whisky are Scottish barley, water and yeast, and that the basic process has changed very little over the last 200 years.
To produce the finest whiskies, though, the devil is in the detail.
The art of whisky making goes back to Irish and Scottish monks in the 1400s although it was only when Aeneas Coffee (what a great name) patented modern methods using a still that whisky making took on its modern form.
Back in the distillery, we return downstairs to walk through the stills room where the temperature is hot and there’s a load of special distilling equipment with thermometers, dials and pipettes which conjure up images of the laboratory of a mad scientist.
The warehouse has some great examples of barrels of different shapes, sizes and woods. We also hear about the evaporation process which for many years puzzled the medieval monks.
They thought that somebody was stealing a bit of their whisky as the quantity kept on diminishing, so they blamed the angels, hence the phrase ‘the angel’s share’.
‘A wee dram’
Back in the visitor centre I was more than ready for my free tasting of malt whisky in pleasant surroundings where visitors can happily loll around after several ‘wee drams’.
With the choice of two blends and a single malt I opted for the most expensive option – the Aberfeldy Single Malt which was 12 years old.
This is a sweeter, heathery whisky which is more to my taste than the more austere varieties, and this sweetness is a trademark style of the Dewar’s Aberfeldy distillery.
After my wee tipple, I was in need of a lie-down back at the hotel so I headed back into town with a happy smile on my face.
What a fun way to spend an afternoon – discovering the true spirit of Scottish whisky!
What the guide books don’t tell you
Dewar’s World of Whisky is a very easy walk from Aberfeldy. It takes around 12 minutes to walk the half mile route from the town along the main road which runs along the riverside. If you’re travelling by car there’s plenty of free car parking too.
Although it’s a little unclear on the Dewar’s website, individuals and small groups can simply show up for the museum visit which incorporates a guided tour around the working distillery.
The tours aren’t timed – the staff simply come and get you from the museum or shop when they have a decent-sized group. The last tour is an hour before closing time. The distillery is open 10:00-16:00 in winter (except Sunday) and 10:00-18:00 daily in summer (also Sundays 12 noon -16:00).
One of the things I liked about this trip is that this is a working distillery with a logical layout. This has the advantage that the tour takes you through each linear stage of the whisky production process in its correct order rather than dotting around, making for a very clear explanation compared with some other distilleries.
Worth knowing – wear sensible shoes if you’re going on the tour as they don’t like high heels or open-toed footwear inside the distillery.
Don’t forget the gift shop which has an excellent selection of presents including miniatures and full-sized whisky bottles to please all pockets. Happy drinking!
Also in the vicinity…
Combine a trip to Dewar’s distillery with a robust morning walk around Aberfeldy’s Birks, a famous woodland park with waterfalls. Don’t forget to take walking boots or shoes as the walk is steepish in parts.
Alternatively, for those who prefer a sedate life, there’s the award-winning independent book and coffee shop, The Waterside in Aberfeldy town centre where you can spend a couple of hours browsing and eating home-made cakes.