Wandering Through the Whisky at Edradour Distillery, Scotland

When visiting Scotland, one really should wander by at least one or two of their many, many whisky distilleries (even if you're not much of a whisky drinker) as they are a major part of the country's heritage. Dating back to 1494 as documented in the Exchequer Rolls (records of royal income and expenditure), Scottish whisky evolved from a drink called 'uisge-beatha na h-Alba' which means "water of life" in Scots Gaelic. It's believed whisky-making began in Scotland when wine-making methods spread from monasteries in Europe but with no access to grapes, monks used grain mash instead to produce an early form of the popular spirit. Pretty ingenious, huh?

With over 120 active distilleries spread across Scotland split into five whisky-producing regions - Campbeltown, Highland, Islay, Lowland and Speyside - there are certainly plenty of distilleries to choose from no matter which direction you're wandering in. If you're a whisky drinker already then it's probably much easier to choose which distilleries to put on your list but for those of us who don't regularly imbibe, it's a bit tougher to decide which distilleries to see, but I believe there are some definite 'must sees' including the distillery that is renowned as one of the smallest and most picturesque in Scotland - Edradour Distillery.

Nestled in a pocket glen in the scenic hills above Pitlochry in the Perthshire area of the Southern Highlands, "Scotland's Little Gem" is found in a cluster of whitewashed buildings with red doors looking for all the world like something out of  "Brigadoon" - a mythical Scottish town from Lerner & Lowe's 1947 Broadway play.

Originally called Glenforres when it was established as a farmers’ cooperative by Alexander Forbes in 1825, the first mention of Edradour – whose name derives from the Gaelic phrase: “Eodar Dhá Dhobhar” meaning “between two rivers” – was in 1837 when James Scott and Duncan Stewart became the official tenants of the distillery.

In 1839, the Statistical Account of Scotland shows Edradour – one of seven distilleries in the local parish – producing 90,00 gallons of whisky a year. In 1853, a local farmer by the name of James Reid took over the distillery as James Reid and Company but it wasn’t until 1884, when the ownership transferred to John McIntosh, son of one of the original founders, that the distillery became a thriving commercial venture.

The last original ‘farm’ distillery in Perthshire, Edradour is one of the smallest commercial distilleries in Scotland with production overseen by just three men who employ skills that have been handed down through the generations. Using no automation and the same process since the day the distillery opened, John Reid and his two fellow distillers, David Ramsbottom and James Kennedy, out-put just four weekly mashes producing 480 gallons of wort which will yield only 150 gallons of spirit. At a weekly output of a mere 600 gallons – enough to fill twelve casks – what they make in a whole year is equivalent to what a typical Speyside distillery would produce in just one week.

Guided tours of the distillery are available for £12.00 for adults, £6.00 for children 12-17 years. The tour takes approximately one hour and while you're waiting for your tour to start, you can enjoy a wee dram at the Tasting Bar which has been acclaimed as one of the finest stocked bars in any distillery! Open to distillery tour visitors only, should you like, you can return to the Tasting Bar after your tour and spend as much time as you'd like.

If by chance it's a chilly day, a dram of whisky in a cup of coffee is a great way to warm things up a bit while waiting for the tour to start - or at least that's what my distracted sidekick told me. I was the designated driver so had to behave myself and take a photo of the water pitcher instead as I did plan on enjoying the whisky offered in the tasting and couldn't overdo it, especially as drunk driving laws in Scotland are very, very strict! Oh - and if you get a cup of coffee for £2.50, you can keep the coffee mug as a souvenir - win-win!

When your tour is ready to start, you'll make your way up to the old Malt Barn where you'll watch a video and be welcomed with two drams of whisky by a friendly and knowledgeable tour guide who explains the distinctive characters and flavours of the distillery's whiskies. 

You can chose between either the popular Edradour 10 single malt whisky or Ballechin 10 which is Edradour's heavily peated distillation named for the silent Ballechin distillery located nearby. I tried the peated whisky which has a nose that is herbal and grassy with sweetened smoke giving the palate a spicy and earthy smokiness that definitely lingers on the tongue. Having never tasted a peated whiskey before, I found it to be quite interesting, rather like the smokiness of a Lapsang Souchong tea - but definitely with a kick!

For my other tasting I chose Edradour's Cream Liqueur which even to a non-whisky drinker like myself was very, very tasty! Our tour guide said that it was great introduction for those who aren't familiar with malt whiskies as it's smooth, soft and velvety with a wonderful aroma . The palate definitely has notes of butterscotch and maybe a tiny bit of chocolate. Personally I thought it was even better than Bailey's and I wished there was more in the glass - which is hidden behind my hand in this photo! Speaking of the glass in my hand, you get to keep it!

While you're in the old Malt Barn, be sure to take a look over the fireplace above of which hangs the bottom of the distillery's original still. It makes the perfect decoration for the room! 

Following the video and tastings, the tour sets off on foot around the grounds of the distillery including the aging warehouse where the casks are stored while the whisky matures and the angels enjoy their share. For those not familiar with the process of aging whisky - the "angels' share" is the amount of alcohol lost to evaporation as the whisky is aged in porous oak barrels. The angels' share ends up being about 2% of the total liquid in the barrel so if there are any angels dancing on the head of a pin anywhere inside the warehouse, I bet they're having one heck of a good time!

Edradour uses a combination of carefully selected sherry or bourbon oak casks of different ages for the maturation of their spirits including barrels from other distilleries. As American law dictates that casks may only be used once for bourbon maturation (and it's felt that previously-used casks help add more character to the whisky), it's not at all uncommon to find them in a Scottish warehouse as they are regularly dismantled and shipped to Scotland after that single use.

At Edradour, they age their whisky in a traditional dunnage warehouse which has an earthen floor and thick walls made of brick, both of which allow for more moisture and a higher humidity. As whisky develops 70% of its flavor while in the barrel, the warehouse is designed to provide top-notch circulation with the barrels stacked no more than three high in the same dark, damp conditions as they would have more than a century ago.

From the warehouse you head back across the distillery's pretty grounds towards the heart of the operation - the Still House.

Inside the Still House, the distillery uses a traditional, open cast-iron Mash Tun for mixing the malted barley and hot spring water. In use almost daily, Edradour's 110+ year-old Mash Tun produces roughly 2,300 pounds of wort - a liquid rich in fermentable sugars which will later produce alcohol.

Once the wort comes out of the Mash Tun, it goes into the Morton Refrigerator to be cooled. When the distillery's 1934 cast iron Morton Refrigerator reached the end of its life in 2009, Edradour held on to tradition and commissioned a stainless steel replica of it. Essentially an open trough set on a slight angle, the pipes which carry cold water in the trough are oriented perpendicular to the flow of the wort allowing the heat from the wort to be transferred to the water.

From the Morton Refrigerator, the cooled wort is transferred to the wooden Washback; Edradour has two that are about 50 years old and made from Oregon Pine. The Washback is where all of the alcohol that finds its way into the whisky is produced after yeast is added to the cooled wort and it's allowed to ferment for roughly four days.

From the Washback, it's on to the Pot Stills - the Wash Still and the Spirit Still. Edradour's Spirit Still is the smallest whisky still endorsed by Customs and Excise but it isn't small because it's a small distillery, it's small because at Edradour they feel that the smaller the still, the finer and more distinctive the taste of the whisky. The shape of the still defines the overall character of the resulting whisky: shorter ones create heavier, more full-bodied whiskies while a tall, narrow still creates a lighter, more floral or aromatic whisky.

Behind the Still House is Edradour's 100-year-old Worm Tub - a large pool of cold water with a spiral copper pipe called a 'worm' running through it. Filled by water from the Edradour Burn and part of the condensing system, Edradour is one of only a handful of distilleries in Scotland that continues to use a traditional Worm Tub which cools vapor back to a liquid state helping the spirit maintain a rich and meaty profile that will be the backbone of its flavor.

After visiting the Still House, your tour guide will lead you over to the Distillery Shop and introduce you to over 25 expressions of Edradour Single malt whisky along with a number of single malts from other distinctive Scottish distilleries - many of which are now closed or lost. In addition to the wide range of whiskies, you can also find keepsakes and gifts including engraved tasting glasses, books, clothing, whisky fudge, honey, jam, marmalade, mustard, tea towels and lots more. I guess it is true that all tours end at the gift shop!

Edradour Distillery
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For more information on visiting the Pitlochry region where Edradour is located, be sure to check out My Scotland Voyage written by Graham Grieve who, over the past 25+ years, has traveled the length and breadth of Scotland on camping over-nighters, hill-walking adventures, road trips and random getaways. Graham has accumulated an intimate knowledge of Scotland that he shares on his website which brings hyper-localized information to help visitors cut through the noise and get to the heart of what truly makes Scotland a magic place. It's a great resource that I highly recommend when planning your trip to Scotland!


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