While falling off the whisky trail (and I can't believe that's not noded yet) in the Highlands is not easy, seeing as how the distilleries dot the landscape with great frequency, we've somehow managed to achieve it in between one ill-marked country road and a well-concealed fork in another. Looking on the map, it seemed we were within rock-throwing distance of at least 3 distilleries, none of which our planned next destination, so we chose the one with the interesting name and the claim of being "the nearly oldest". It also was the one that didn't involve having to turn around on. While my left-side driving skills were nearly complete, turning around on hedgerowed, narrow two-lane roads with a brook on one side and a forested hillside on the other was not really my forte.


Fettercairn is located between Glen Esk and the North Sea, about 35 miles south-southwest of Aberdeen; the multimap claims Aberdeenshire, but other sources Kincardineshire. To the East lies the A90, one of the main North-South arteries, and to the West...is not a whole lot other than the Cairngorns, which is rather the point. The town itself is tiny, not even boasting a Town Centre but instead a surprisingly solid stone gate, perhaps the only remains of a town wall long ago.

The distillery is right at the edge where town gives way to hills, on aptly named Distillery Road. You will drive right by the maturation storehouse first, and park in the small car-park just around the corner. It's obvious that more than 10 visitors at a time would overwhelm this diminutive distillery, and our small party is the only one there, although a car departs when we arrive, and one arrives right as we leave - coincidence? The tour is minimal, consisting of a brief, but informatively thorough film on the process of whisky making in the small visitor center (located in what was previously the stables), a wee dram of the 10 year old and a brisk walk through the small facilities. It's worth noting that Fettercairn still allow their barley to germinate naturally¹, unlike bigger concerns (like Glenlivet, the other distillery we visited for contrast) which use an accelerated artificial process to do so, using hot air blowers to heat, dry, and stir the grain, and cranking up the heat to stop the germination process later. While this cuts the process of germination from several days to six hours, I can't help but wonder if it also doesn't change the taste...

Ah yes, the taste. Being a Highlands Scotch whisky, I expected it to be on the burly, manly side. Strangely, Fettercairn is quite possibly the lightest, most airy and downright giggly single malt I have ever had, and that's just the 10 year old; the 12 year old, being traditionally smoother, defies imagination. While this may not endear it to the more demanding Scotch drinker, I still found it to be pleasant, if not quite as full of character as some others. If Scotch whisky is liquid smoke, then Fettercairn is a mere puff of spring grass and fresh citrus. Feel free to shoot me for that pretentious description.

The final reason that Fettercairn stands out to me from the three distilleries I've visited (Glenlivet and Cardhu are the two others) is their claim to have invented the Scotch whisky snifter glass, the equivalent of its brandy counterpart. It is the shape and size of a small pear, open at the top; the bottom is bulbous and narrows towards the open top, about 3 inches from the solid base. They sell this elegant glass at a modest price (under 10 squids, if I remember correctly), and I wouldn't consider drinking Scotch whisky from anything else. Obviously, the design funnels the aroma, although it is not as conducive to warming the glass as the brandy snifter.

Some dates, from the site: Contact info:
Distillery Road, Fettercairn, Kincardineshire, AB30 1YB
+44 (0)1561 340205
Tours: May-September, Mon-Sat 10.00am - 2.30pm (Last Tour 2.00pm)

¹ The "natural" process consists of leaving the soaked barley spread out in the malting room for a few days, tossing it occasionally with giant spatula-like doohickeys as it builds up heat. The barley is then heated in kilns to stop the germination process; the characteristic pagoda tops seen on distilleries are the vents for these kilns. If you see one that's smoking, they're probably using the traditional method; unfortunately it's not so easy to get proof negative, however. Except for asking the tour guide.

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