Text: Robert Smith • Photography: Robert Smith, Nick Vallario, Susan Vallario

"Glenlivet it has castles three,/ Drumin, Blairfindy and Deskie,/ And also one distillery,/More famous than the castles three!" It's not Glenlivet we're visiting on our Edelweiss Royal Tour of Scotland, but tiny Cardhu in the village of Knockando on the River Spey. The tour buses have disgorged at the famous Glenlivet, just down the road, while Emma, our kilted guide, takes our small party around Cardhu's nineteenth-century distillery.

Crime doesn't pay, goes the adage. But moonshiners have successfully evaded the excise man over the centuries, often building thriving and eventually legal businesses. When whisky smuggler John Cumming started distilling at Knockando in 1811, his wife synchronized her cooking with the operation of the still to disguise the telltale smoke. In 1872, Elizabeth Cumming took over the 50-year-old family "enterprise," and such became the reputation of The Cardhu that one John ("Johnnie") Walker of Glasgow came calling and bought the business. Cardhu remains a "single malt" distiller, in which only malted barley is used for fermentation, and the spirit is never "married" to other malts.

As we walk between the vast, conical, copper stills, Emma tells us that Cardhu's unique flavor comes from two distillations and the liquor's storage for 12 years in American oak barrels The casks may be used up to five times, so many here are over 60 years old. She also says that when tasting malt whisky, it's important to add a bit of water to bring out the smooth, smoky taste, "but never ice!"

In and Out of the Trossachs

Six days earlier, our small party - Doug and John, a nephew and uncle from Florida, Nick and Susan from New Jersey, me, Michael our tour guide, and the support vehicle driver Claude - had assembled at the stately Norton House hotel just outside Edinburgh. Edelweiss's seven-day Royal Tour offers access to many of Scotland's most interesting sights, and though the nightly destinations are fixed, we soon discover that the route outlined in the roadbook is just a suggestion. Having guided this tour a number of times, Michael has some great off-the-grid roads in mind for us if we're game - and, of course, we are!

We depart the next morning in a downpour, but fortunately I'm wearing an outfit that's perfectly waterproof. Once Michael leads us through the suburban sprawl along the north bank of the Forth River, a mighty stone fortress appears out of the gloom, towering over the valley below. Besieged at least eight times, Stirling Castle fell under English and Scottish control at various times, as the fortunes of the "auld enemy" (the English) waxed and waned. The last siege was waged by Bonnie Prince Charlie in 1746, before the Jacobites' final rout at Culloden. The fifteenth-century castle looks like a work-in-progress, with wings, halls, fortifications, and outbuildings added on over the centuries in a mishmash of styles.

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For the complete touring article, including facts & information, map(s), and GPS files, please purchase the November/December 2007 back issue.