The skies above the castle on the cliff had gone from shooting warming rays of sunlight to pelting me with bursting hail and stinging rain and back again. But despite the elements, and even if it never saw a day of sun again, Edinburgh would have been impossible to dislike. It’s a lofty, laid-back and quirky city. And depending on the results of a referendum in 2014, it could well become the capital of an independent Scotland for the first time in almost 300 years.
But I hadn’t come for the politics. Being of ambiguous Scottish stock, I simply wanted to get a glimpse of my ancestral land and to pay my respects to my favorite whiskies on the peat-covered Isle of Islay. As a companion, I’d brought along a copy of Robert Louis Stevenson’s early travel book Edinburgh: Picturesque Notes, which I’d recently found buried in the recesses of my local library. I thought I’d compare the present-day city to his 133-year-old observations.
From the castle, I ambled down the famous Royal Mile — now stuffed with souvenir shops, overpriced whisky and tourists’ pubs — past the skyscrapers of old and along what was once considered the most densely packed street in the world. As Stevenson lovingly described it: “Houses sprang up storey after storey, neighbour mounting upon neighbour’s shoulders, as in some Black Hole of Calcutta, until the population slept fourteen or fifteen deep in a vertical direction.”
But for all the filth and smoke that marred this congested thoroughfare in ages past, many still considered it one of the loveliest roads in Europe. Among the small alleys (called closes) and lanes (called wynds) that jet off toward private courtyards and the historic Grassmarket stands the 14th century High Kirk of Edinburgh, the so-called mother church of Presbyterianism, more commonly known as St. Giles’ Cathedral. It’s not far from the old house of the two-faced Deacon Brodie, a respected cabinetmaker during the day and notorious thief at night who would rob the houses of his friends and customers and later became the inspiration for Stevenson’s book The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
I turned on Old Fishmarket Close and descended to the subterranean street called the Cowgate, which is home to the BrewDog bar, one of Scotland’s most flavor-forward new breweries. Over a couple of hardy Tokyo Stouts, weighing in at an impressive 18.2 percent alcohol by volume, I got involved with a handful of regulars in a conversation about past English transgressions, the economics of going it alone and how strongly divided the country is on the issue — and, of course, about beer. As Scotland draws its proud descendants, scattered across the globe, BrewDog beckons to global beer geeks like me. Hours later, when the rain picked up again and my head started to clear, I walked off my cheerful, possibly naive thoughts of an independent Scotland on a stroll to the Greyfriars Kirk and surrounding cemetery. Here, in the 1820s, William Burke and William Hare, when not out murdering the city’s disadvantaged, stole recently buried bodies that weren’t guarded by friends or relatives to sell to the surgeon Robert Knox for his lectures on anatomy. Along with shocking the city at the time, these events would later influence Stevenson’s popular short story The Body Snatcher.
I hit a few other sites and then made my way to the northeastern harbor along the Leith Walk, made from a rampart formerly used to keep the English at bay. Much of the area along the way had been rural in Stevenson’s youth, but it soon exploded, eventually became seedy and is now undergoing a significant revival that’s bringing desirable affordable housing, new businesses and more reasons to visit.
I was meeting Patsy Henley, the mother of my parents’ neighbor, at the Vaults, a handsome tasting room for Scotch Malt Whisky Society members and their guests. A member since the early 1980s, Patsy was originally turned on to the society because of the accommodations it provides those visiting Edinburgh and, of course, the rare whiskies it bottles.
Running with the idea that the cask is more important than the individual distillery, the society has been providing members with unique whisky offerings for almost 30 years. Cask 3.183, for example, is called “Beach Rugby With a Hotdog,” while 53.160’s tasting notes include “fresh slimy seaweed, sea breeze and rock pools, tobacco and warm classic car engine.” The society charges about $317 for an overseas membership, assuming that one has access to a UK address for shipping.
After sleeping off a few drams of tasty mystery whisky, I spent the next two days exploring the less touristy neighborhoods of Stockbridge and Dean around the New Town, the city’s many verdant gardens and the other major sites, including Calton Hill, the mini-mountainous Arthur’s Seat and the National Museum of Scotland. Then I met Todd Erven, an old friend, for an evening drive toward Islay, the island where many of Stevenson’s favorite whiskies were born.
We took the northerly route, bypassing Glasgow for Sterling, but still rounding the southern edge of the fanciful Loch Lomond. Construction along the A83 pushed our arrival to the Kennacraig ferry into the late evening, when we found all accommodations taken. The gas stations had closed hours earlier, so we were left to use nature’s restroom and passed the early hours in our stuffy small car and the damp ruins of nearby Skipness Castle.
But that made us first in line for the morning ferry, where we were loaded in a haphazard manner before sleeping the crossing away on the corner couches of the boat’s gaudy, casino-like lounge. Once across the water, we struggled to keep up with the island traffic, cruising at 60 mph on narrow, winding roads. Hugging the nearly nonexistent shoulder, the car lost a hubcap on a bump in the bend, and I felt grateful to Todd for having argued for extra insurance and against renting bikes: Not only would our progress around the island have been slow, but we also could have been killed with drivers like us on the road.
Our first stop, at 10 a.m., was at Laphroaig, on Islay’s southern end. Our tour guide, James Deane, took us through the malting floors and past the peat fires that impart the island’s unique flavor. These earthy notes are what make Islay whisky, and Laphroaig is proud to be one of the only distilleries to still hand-cut its peat from the earth and to both malt and smoke a portion of the barley it uses. In 1994, the distillery received a Royal Warrant from Prince Charles, who became the first Friend of Laphroaig. This club has since expanded to include me, member No. 472,698.
After the tour and a generous tasting, I purchased whisky lip balm and a bottle of Triple Wood, aged first in American oak and then in a quarter-size cask before being finished in Oloroso sherry barrels. The whisky is strong and creamy, with just enough sweet fruit and caramel notes to balance the bonfire ash that I’ve come to love so much. This intensely smoky profile may well have been the reason Laphroaig could be sold medicinally in the United States during the long, dry years of Prohibition.
Unfortunately, we had little time, so we quickly left for Lagavulin, down the road. This basic tour was less involved than the one at Laphroaig but more entertaining, as two grumpy old men barraged our sweet but flustered guide with inane questions that mostly involved only whisky. In hindsight, I should have switched my visits around to enjoy Lagavulin’s warehouse demonstration and barrel tasting before immersing myself in one of Laphroaig’s more involved and hands-on tours later in the day. No matter, we were living the dream, up to our elbows in peat, and continued on to Ardbeg for lunch and to check another distillery off our list.
In the early afternoon, it was a race back north to search for the hubcap and to swing by the island’s other distilleries before they closed at the prohibitively early hours of 5 and 6 p.m. The venerable Bowmore was next, but it proved too salty and rough for my taste. Caol Ila and Bunnahabhain are on the other side of the ferry terminal, so we left them for the next day and looped around the bay toward Kilchoman, the newest distillery on Islay and one of the smallest in all of Scotland, and Bruichladdich. Both are among the few distilleries in the country still independently owned, a fact that Bruichladdich is quick to point out.
In the distressed buildings that house the distillery and tasting room, Todd and I chatted with a boisterous woman pouring samples. Like the 50 other employees here, she has an ownership share in this newly relaunched company that’s pushing boundaries. In an age of global conglomerates, Bruichladdich is aiming to use all organic, Scottish-sourced barley that reflects the history and pride of the land, values that Stevenson would surely have applauded.
While making whiskies with a sense of terroir, managing director Mark Reynier and his crew ended up creating a monster, the Octomore 4.2 Comus. Where most Islay whiskies have 40 to 50 parts per million of phenols (the chemical compounds that provide the smoky kick), the Comus has 167, punching up the flavor of the island and making it the peatiest whisky in the world.
What Stevenson would think of it, I’m not sure. But even before the last wisps of smoke had cleared from my palate, I was ready for another.