I’ve been tempted by the tours at the established whisky distilleries, but for some reason I haven’t done one. Maybe it’s because I’ve always thought of whisky being made in the middle of nowhere, on the outer mudflats of the outer isles, by grumpy old Scotsmen whose accents are indiscernible. For the big brand whiskies, there are pamphlets galore in all the tourist centres, and here's a good website for twelve of the best-known.
So when I drove into the slightly delapidated village of Drumchork, and saw the humble sign pointing to Loch Ewe Distillery, partly hidden by some brush, I thought..."perfect!" And it turned out to be one of my top random experiences of the trip so far – and owner Johnny Clotworthy one of the best characters I’ve met.
Johnny used to be in the fire brigade, and his wife a property developer. They wanted to do something different, so they bought an hold hotel with a big garage and started making whisky, illicitly. Seriously. Well, not illegally, but Johnny makes whisky in the old-age tradition, when whisky was prohibited, more than 200 years ago.
He uses small stills and casks, and simple distillation techniques. All housed in an old garage. But if you're thinking that the bigger, flashier distilleries are making better whisky...then think again. Because Johnny's been on the judge's panel for Whisky Magazine, and in 2004 he was voted by the Scottish Licence Trade Association as Whisky Ambassador for the UK...which makes him the most knowledgeable whisky lover on the island which invented whisky.
And his adjacent hotel, which he runs with his wife Frances, was voted Whisky Hotel of the Year in 2001 and in 2006. They stock hundreds of different whiskies.
Best of all, though, for people who love whisky: Johnny runs a course where you can learn to make whisky yourself, under his expert guidance. Sign up here! As Johnny says of the course: "If you’re not Scottish by birth by the end of this experience you will certainly be Scottish at heart!"
"Scotland Forever" reads one of Johnny Clotworthy's tatoos on his arm. He is the UK's top whisky expert, recently voted Whisky Ambassador for the UK.
Loch Ewe Distillery near Drumchork...
After sipping on a few whisky samples with Johnny, I drove on to Scourie, one of the classic highland routes. Because of the rain yesterday I missed some great scenery, but today the sun was breaking through the clouds, and it revealed a smorgasbord of photogenic opportunities - landscape and people.
I drove past Kathy and her friend "Addy" (stands for Admiral). She was walking her bull alongside the road, taking him for a bath - both of them happier than ever.
Another nice surprise was the Gairloch Marine Wildlife Centre and Cruises...they were fully booked, so I couldn't get onto one of their boats for a wildlife tour. But owner Sam French was super friendly, and they have a great visitor centre, with great views (they are presently building a look-out deck). Sam's husband is the guide as well as a qualified marine biologist, and is consistently involved in cetacean research around Gairloch. On the cruises you could see dolphins, whales, porpoises, basking sharks, seals and most seabirds - if you're lucky, hopefully a white-tailed or golden eagle.
Pic courtesy of Gairloch Marine Wildlife Cruises