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.