MOUNTAINS AND MALTS
Just go with it
To establish a deeper connection to a place, you can’t beat having a sip of locally distilled whisky after a day’s walking. Julien Willems has his top picks of trails, mountains and malts to suit every outdoor and whisky enthusiast
PHOTOS: JULIEN WILLEMS, PETER SANDGROUND AND MIKE WILKINSON
Imagine a beautiful landscape laid on a canvas that can only be fully brought to life by a sip of the local whisky, providing the ultimate brushstroke to nature’s work as the whole picture finally comes together. In a nutshell, fresh air, a trail and a dram are all we need, and for one fleeting moment there is a spark of perfection. I would even go one step further and argue that when it comes to a place and time for whisky, few things quite measure up to savouring a well-deserved tipple after bagging a Munro (Scottish hill over 3000ft/915m) or completing a long-distance walk. Or better yet, how about sipping your malt while meeting its makers, even if that literally means going the extra mile?
Scotland is blessed with so many trails and sensory experiences to discover all year round, it’s hard to know where to start. In general, I look at a map, pick whichever trail or mountain I would like to bag next and with a bit of luck, there will be a nearby distillery to visit too. I often think that the only thing that separates a Society member from a whisky pilgrim is a sturdy pair of boots. So, while you dust off yours, let me walk you through a few itineraries I selected for this occasion. From easy strolls to more arduous hikes, there’s something for every level.
IMAGE: David Monniaux
1 ARTHUR'S SEAT AND HOLYROOD DISTILLERY
Take in the spectacular views from the highest point of Edinburgh in Holyrood park and bask in a sun-fuelled olfactory overload from blossoming gorse and sea air laden with grassy and floral scents. When you have had your fill of sunshine, descend towards St Vincent’s Hill and Holyrood distillery for a well-deserved refreshment, and why not discover their sensory approach to whisky production while you’re there? For an easier walk, just follow Queen’s Drive and enjoy the scenery.
Distance: 5km • Terrain: good path all the way then streets• Shops: all around Holyrood park and near St Vincent's Hill walk • Ascent: 70m (via Queen's Drive) / 279m with the summit of Arthur's Seat
2 BLACK SPOUT AND EDRADOUR DISTILLERY
An easy and relaxing stroll through woodland, across a burn and along fields with forest and pine scents, mushrooms, wildflowers, hedgerows, and tilled earth. A good sensory warm-up for a visit of Edradour distillery. On your tour the cereal scents of mashing, the heady vapours from the stills and the earthy, rancio, and old wine laden atmosphere of their dunnage warehouse await. Then complete the loop back to Pitlochry. Take this opportunity to discover Blair Athol distillery if walk #8 isn’t your idea of a good time.
Distance: 5km • Terrain: woodland paths and minor roads all the way, well maintained • Shops: Pitlochry and distilleries • Ascent: 145m
3 CRAIL AND KINGSBARNS DISTILLERY
One for spring or summer. Make your way to Crail and enjoy an early lunch of freshly caught lobsters and dressed crab on the pier of the old fishing harbour. Take a seat at one of the picnic tables and pair the local delicacies with your favourite Oily & Coastal dram. After you’ve wet your whistle, follow the Fife coastal path to Kingsbarns along the stunning shores of the North Sea and relish in the scents on the breeze with seaweed, long grass, wildflowers and the occasional waft of gorse. From Kingsbarns walk another mile and a half south to the distillery. Buses take you back to Crail or St Andrews.
Distance: roughly 12km one way • Terrain: coastal paths, then minor road • Shops: Crail and refreshments at Kingsbarns • Ascent: negligible
4 DUNBLANE TO DEANSTON DISTILLERY
With easy transportation to Dunblane from Glasgow, Edinburgh (and even London if you’re really in need of fresh air… and whisky) just lace your boots, hop on the train and prepare to stretch your legs. From Dunblane station, head towards Doune crossing meadows while taking in the floral and grassy notes of pastures, hawthorn, and pines. Top it off with a Southern Highland malt at Deanston Distillery, then retrace your steps back to Dunblane.
Distance: roughly 16km for the round trip • Terrain: paths and minor roads all the way, well maintained • Shops: near Dunblane station • Ascent: negligible
Allan Water running through Dunblane beneath the cathedral
5 ARRAN'S GOATFELL AND LOCHRANZA OR LAGG DISTILLERIES
At daybreak, head to Brodick Castle to take on Goatfell, Arran’s breathtaking 874m summit. First, breathe in the pine forest scents, then higher up heather, mosses, peat, and sea air provide a heady and refreshing cocktail. The summit is best enjoyed with a single sip of peated malt from the island. Let it take over your palate and evolve, your gaze lost in the glittering blue waters of Brodick Bay. Once back down, hop on a bus for a warm welcome and a great time at Lochranza or Lagg distillery.
Distance: 10.5km • Terrain: good path all the way (final rocky ascent) • Shops: Brodick and refreshments at the start of the walk • Ascent: 874m
6 BEN LUI ON YOUR WAY TO OBAN DISTILLERY
If you’re planning a summery stay in Oban and fancy a serious adventure along the way, dust off your toughest boots, gaiters and waterproofs. Past Tyndrum, Ben Lui awaits with its extensive views over Glen Lochy to Loch Awe and beyond. To conquer this summit, ford a river and brave a steep boggy ascent through firs and pines. Breathe in the damp forest, earth, and peat scents, with a fair amount of fresh maritime wind from the West Coast. This is a challenging hill, so watch your step, particularly near the summit and on the way down. Once back at the car head towards Oban for a very informative distillery tour. Finally, sit back and sip your well-earned dram looking over the “little bay”.
Distance: 10km (5 to 7 hours) • Terrain: rough, grassy, boggy, steep • Shops: Tyndrum before or Inverawe Smokehouse further towards Oban • Ascent: 1,078m • Pro-tip: keep a change of clothes and spare shoes in your car
7 BEN MORE AND TOBERMORY DISTILLERY
For the early birds, this one requires a car, and time. The local sheep have a very loose interpretation of road signs and codes so drive carefully! Ascend the mountain following a burn with crystal-clear water and waterfalls. The sea breeze progressively trades its floral, peaty, and grassy scents for more mineral and salty notes. Once at the summit indulge in the breath-taking vistas over the Isle of Mull and the surrounding islands including Staffa, Ulva, and Iona among others.
Distance: 9.5km (5 to 6 hours) • Terrain: boggy and rocky track then rocky access to the summit • Shops: none near start (closest found at Craignure/Tobermory) • Ascent: 945m • Pro-tip: keep a change of clothes and spare shoes in your car
8 BEINN A'GHLO AND BLAIR ATHOL DISTILLERY
It is true, you could just bag Ben Vrackie, a smaller summit accessible from Pitlochry and be done with it, but what’s life without a little challenge? Spice things up with a beast of a summer walk on a long ridge comprised of no less than three Munros providing extensive views over the area and triple the satisfaction for completing it. A bowl of fresh air with a seductive blend of herbal and heathery scents. Make sure you start very early (6am would do) to allow time for some well-earned dramming at Blair Athol distillery. Plan ahead and stay in Pitlochry.
Distance: 22km (8 to 10 hours) • Terrain: good paths with rougher steep sections • Shops: Pitlochry • Ascent: 1,239m • Pro-tip: keep a change of clothes and spare shoes in your car
Blair Athol: Lipstar
9 MILNGAVIE TO GLENGOYNE DISTILLERY
A short train journey from Glasgow will take you to Milngavie (that’s pronounced “mull-GUY”, just because). From there, transition from a suburban setting into countryside along well-trodden paths. Then journey through wooded areas, along small lochs, and fields to Glengoyne distillery. If you are on a day trip, enjoy a tour and retrace your steps to Milngavie train station. For the more adventurous, your next distillery visit is 154km away. Continue your journey onwards to Drymen or Balmaha and the bonnie banks of Loch Lomond. Then finish the West Highland Way and on to walk #10.
Distance: 22km - 25km (5 to 6 hours) • Terrain: good and well-marked path • Shops: Milngavie • Ascent: 210m
10 BEN NEVIS AND BEN NEVIS DISTILLERY
If you chose to brave the elements and wear down your soles, five or six days after your tipple at Glengoyne (walk #9), you should have reached the end of the West Highland Way, congratulations! Alternatively, starting at Fort William after a good night’s rest, take on the UK’s highest summit and walk back down to enjoy a visit to Ben Nevis distillery. Relax with a dram while reflecting on your journey, your achievement, and how whisky tastes even better than you remember.
Distance: 8km + 17km (7 to 9 hours) • Terrain: good and well-marked path • Shops: Fort William • Ascent: 1,352m
As a rule, travel light, no need to over-fill your hipflask if you are just out for the day. Just pour in enough for a dram or two provided you are not driving and don’t skimp on the water. For long distance walkers, a couple of hipflasks with different malts offer a bit of variety, especially if you are wild camping for several nights. As for contents, it has become clear that my taste buds don’t enjoy the same things on a long day out as when I’m sat on my favourite couch. When outdoors, simplicity is key. Try something bolder and simpler than you usually would. For tougher winter ascents, try a younger Highland malt with lots of cereals, lemon, and spice, it’s a good pairing with the flapjacks you’ll need to keep your energy levels in the green (and if possible, pick a whisky with an appropriate name!)
On longer and warmer days, malts from the Juicy, Oak & Vanilla or Sweet, Fruity & Mellow or Lightly Peated profiles shine with plenty of water and complement a bite of a fresh fruit perfectly. But this is after all a matter of taste, so follow your instincts… and stay safe.
On a side note: Keep in mind that walking is not risk free. Always plan ahead, check out the local forecasts, know your fitness level and plan in extra time just in case. If you feel like a celebratory tipple at the summit of a hill, let it be a tiny sip. To walk safely in the wild and on difficult terrain requires a healthy knowledge and respect of your environment… and of course adequate equipment.