We’re on the road to the Glen Grant distillery. The passing hills and mountains bump the sky, as bare as knees. Wind turbines gyrate together in a little group on one hill, like an aerobics class. The weather offers the odd moment of faded sunshine, to tempt the unsuspecting out of doors, before smashing them with vicious rain. Even in the sunlight, the rain is at large. On the plains, the sun catches a faraway downpour hanging in ropes from the sky.
The distillery has the feel of a National Trust manor house, with gardens and a coffee shop. We have to wait in the gift shop for fifteen minutes until the next tour, and this means that we are bored of the souvenirs before we have bought them. There are seven of us on the tour. The tour guide will always look as if she is mentally sorting through index cards, although her deep pink lipstick and her little kilt that resembles a school uniform, will give her an oddly – and no doubt accidentally – girlish appearance. We are led into the foyer. The guide at first struggles to project her voice and she talks at us very swiftly, so that we are being rinsed with quiet facts.
Every whisky must be invented or championed by a grand old local character. “The Major” James Grant, who inherited the distillery and tutored it into maturity, sounds like a hero from boys’ fiction. A veritable Professor Calculus, he introduced all of the latest inventions to the Highlands, including electric lighting and the motor car. He went to Africa to shoot crocodiles and, of course, he brought home an African tribesman to be his butler. Alas, his headquarters, Glen Grant House, and its collection of hunting trophies are no longer with us, although the visitor to the distillery can still walk around his immaculate gardens.
In the next room, we dutifully handle labelled samples of grain, as if Glen Grant was on trial and we were the jury. We troop up some steps into the interior of the distillery, to inspect a mash tun – gigantic kettle full of scum. I peer through carefully – if my glasses fell in, Glen Grant would have to destroy thousands of litres of stock. Or perhaps my glasses would turn out to be a revolutionary new ingredient, a breakthrough in the history of whisky production.
We are taken into a chamber of wash backs, fat tubs made of Oregon pinewood. Photography is prohibited in certain regions of the distillery, and I cannot remember whether we are allowed to take photos here. There is a general feeling that the couple with unconvincing French accents who are hanging about at the back of the tour are industrial spies. The guide is now speaking very quickly, and in great detail. Perhaps it would be a kindness to interrupt her and explain that nobody here cares remotely about what she is saying. But I suppose that it would be rather eerie if she led us silently from room to room.
It must be good to work here – the operatives probably sit about for days on end playing solitaire on their computers, whilst they wait for the whisky to be ready. The grand hall greets us with a spectacular tableau of copper stills and virtuoso plumbing. We glow in the warmth of a bakery and the thick smell of whisky. If this was a cartoon, I would dance up a long ladder in a rhapsody and frantically turn a little wheel in the controls until the pressure accelerated and the stills bulged. The exploded distillery would rain warm whisky on the neighbouring town of Rothes for three days.
In the warehouse, everybody grows reverent before the casks of ageing whisky, as if we were in the presence of holy relics. The casks are stored in a dank dungeon, behind iron bars, and I cannot help speculating upon how to empty the warehouse in the dead of night. You would need an armed gang with blowtorches and several white vans. By the time that the guide comes to usher us out, I have still not thought of an innocuous enough question about the security.
We are taken into a sort of laboratory to taste the whisky. Everybody looks very responsible, and perhaps we should show off by exchanging extravagant comments about the aroma of the whisky and then spitting it out after we have tasted it. Yet they are playing Billie Holliday and we are given two glasses of whisky each – more if there are women or drivers with you who cannot drink two glasses – and so the mood brightens. I only ever drink whisky with cranberry juice, but I think that the guide would start foaming at the mouth if I told her this. A drop of water will “bring out the taste.” I was anxious that the guide would stand there and watch us drinking the whisky, so that we would all have to pay tribute to it, but she discreetly busies herself.
It turns out that the Major did things rather better in his day. His guests were invited out into his beautiful garden and they all made their way to a waterfall, where a bottle of Glen Grant was concealed in a “safe” somewhere in the rocks. The whisky would be mixed with the waters from the Major’s estate, whilst presumably that African butler, who I like to imagine wearing a headdress and carrying a spear, would take away the empty glasses.
[Tourist Review previously visited St Peter's Seminary. Ed.]