tSilence is everything. That’s the best reason I can come up with to explain why it wasn’t even 11:30 a.m. that we’d set up barricades at the park. Monster Distillery with three beers and a whiskey in front of us. “This just arrived yesterday,” our guide Connor says as he pours a glass of drama, “so you picked a great day to be here.” Resistance is futile.
Many distilleries start making gin while waiting for their whiskey to mature (Scotch must do so for at least three years to be classified as such), but at Uile-bheist they started with beer, which, when you consider that the two are made from the same starting material (barley, yeast and water), makes sense. The sleek, glass-façade building here is just steps from the River Ness, which supplies water not only for drinks but also for electricity – the on-site power center produces enough electricity for both the distillery and the adjoining hotel.
This is the first new distillery in Inverness in 130 years – and my first whiskey tour where the good stuff hasn’t even been bottled. While it feels quite daring to offer whiskey tours when all they have is a mix (not produced on site) and a variety of beers, the enthusiasm and honesty of everyone involved as well as the distillery’s small size give Uile-bheist the feel of a dynamic yet humble startup; In the end, I felt as if I had revealed a big secret.
And the beer is amazing: whether it’s Ness water or because it’s led straight from the tank to the bar, the five products – craft beer, pale ale, IPA, white IPA and stout – are incredibly fresh and crisp. On top of that, Uile-bheist is fully committed to a sustainable model, so the used grains are returned to the local farms where they are grown for fodder. The company’s plans are primarily to keep things low-carbon, small-scale and Highlands-based, rather than dominating supermarkets around the world.
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Then we emerged – somewhat hazy – into the daytime and wandered along the wide, shallow River Ness while seagulls squawked overhead, sensing every mile of the hundreds we had placed between us and London in the Caledonian Sleeper last night.
Uile-bheist isn’t the only company that puts sustainability at the heart of its business – in fact, it’s a word that adorns our days in this small Highland city, where just 48,000 people live: at river house, on the other side of the river, we eat the freshest oysters we’ve ever had, from a low-impact oyster farm in the far northwest corner of the mainland; and we sample even higher quality beer at accredited B-Corp Black Isle . BreweryChurch street bar. It’s made just a few miles north of the city, where the on-site farm grows many of the ingredients for their amazing pizzas.
While admittedly there aren’t many “big” attractions in the city, Inverness offers the best kind of getaway in the city – one where there’s no pressure to do everything. That said, it’s dolphin season – so there’s at least one must-do activity. On Monday afternoon, we went on a two-hour RIB tour with spirit dolphin and within half an hour of watching a school of small bottlenose dolphins trace the shores of the Black Island, crossing the Moray Firth from the city, our small group of adults dropped to joyful, childlike exclamations.
Then our captain took us further along the river, where we spotted countless seals sprawled on the sand, like ungainly fang-toothed mermaids. By the time we got back to base, the wind had picked up and the waves hit the side of the boat and drenched us so violently that water dripped steadily down the inside of my waterproof jacket. As I blinked back into the saltwater, I caught a flash of movement beside me: two common dolphins, sleek and gray, their bodies undulating in sync with the waves. With every boat bump and splash, the dolphins disappear and reappear, as if they were leading us back to the harbor, until we finally lose track of them, like the graceful white lines of Kessock Bridge looming in the distance.
Even though we just got drenched, the water is the biggest attraction here. Following the river south from the harbour, past an astonishing number of old majestic churches (many of which have now ceased to exist), the city seemed to be molting and the real sense of the Plateau began as the trees surrounded us. We spent about an hour avoiding showers in Botanical garden, where we seemed to be the only non-locals, sheltering under the giant palm leaves in Tropical House and chasing butterflies through meadows of wildflowers. We then make our way back to the center past the towering fir and fragrant pines of the tranquil Ness Islands, linked by a number of graceful old bridges, reluctant to believe we are still in the city.
“There is a really strong sense of community here,” Connor told us at Uile-bheist. We feel it most clearly in the evenings, shoulder to shoulder with beers in hand and tapping our toes to the folk music of the Church Street Shuffle at the Hootenanny (a.k.a. “Hoots” affectionately) and while sitting friendly with the bartender at malt room, discuss our whiskey preferences, and sniff the bottle to find our next favorite TV series (Port Charlotte, if anyone asks). In fact, it was such a laid-back, city-friendly feel that we spent the evening jumping from place to place: to the music in and out of Hoots and MacGregor’s a few times; sample Vietnamese-inspired espresso martinis (and great late-night donuts) at EXTRA WORKSHOP; and down the river to admire the endless sunset of a midsummer Central Highlands.
Travel without flights
It’s hard to pass a morning downtown by the Caledonian Sleeper, which runs nightly (except Saturdays) between London Euston and Inverness.
travel by air
Smart, new AC Hotel enjoys a prime riverside location just north of lively Church Street, with simple rooms at their best overlooking the water and verdant hills beyond. From £99, B&B.
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