Words by David Coggins / Photography by Matt Hranek
Three menswear-obsessed friends road-trip to Scotland's outer Hebrides in search of whisky, wild landscapes, and Harris tweed.
"I don’t like the sound of that,” I called from the back of our Range Rover as a rhythmic rubber slapping started up beneath my seat.
The three of us were driving on a narrow, indifferently maintained road along the northern edge of Loch Ness, my friend Matt Hranek at the wheel, doing his best to keep to the left while our pal Jake Mueser, in the passenger seat, navigated with his phone through a thick mist that obscured the late-afternoon sky above the Scottish Highlands.
We’d all been chatting easily, as you do when you let your guard down after hours in a car together, about our shared passion—some might call it a pathology—for classic menswear.
Jake, who owns a successful tailor, J. Mueser, in Manhattan’s West Village, claimed to have lost track of how many shoes he owned after he passed 60 pairs (we’re talking proper leather bench-made shoes, and, at any rate, many more than his wife has). Matt, photographer and Upstate New York boy turned tailoring obsessive, refers to his extensive Barbour coat collection as an “archive,” while I am a men’s style writer whose tiny Manhattan apartment can barely contain my accumulation of knit ties. Our conversation was cut short when our car cratered into a pothole, which was followed by the inexorable drumbeat of a flat. Matt pulled over just beyond some orange road-construction markers.
“Well, boys,” he said, after he’d walked to the back of the car and shot us a tense yet still somehow bemused look. “I believe this is what they call a character builder.” A lingering construction worker in an iridescent-green vest strolled over to assess our plight. “Having a bit of a problem there, are ya?” he asked between drags on a cigarette while sizing up the three men before him in tweed jackets and leather shoes—one of whom (I won’t say which) was in suede loafers, with no socks. “There’s a town about 20 minutes up ahead,” he offered, and wandered off.
Jake was already calling garages. “We are on the north edge of Loch Ness!” he hollered through spotty cell reception. “The overdressed men at the side of the road—you can’t miss us!” Matt, meanwhile, had taken our duffels and garment bags out of the trunk, where he uncovered a full-size spare. Ten minutes of aggressive lug-nut-twisting later, he successfully changed the tire—just as the sky darkened and the mist turned to rain. We’d been driving for a day, but only now did it feel as if our road trip had begun.
Ostensibly we had come to accompany Jake on one of his buying trips, but the object of our journey was not just any cloth. Harris Tweed, made on the Isles of Lewis and Harris in the Outer Hebrides, is revered globally for its durability and warmth, but its production is a local endeavor. The wool is dyed and spun in mills, then woven in islanders’ homes in a 150-year-old tradition; once certified by the Harris Tweed Authority, the fabric is stamped with the iconic logo of a red cross atop an orb. A good Harris jacket of classic herringbone or houndstooth is nearly indestructible, and is a very good thing to have passed down from your grandfather. (The local looms have long supplied tweed to one particular family, the British royal one.) Those without an inheritance scour thrift stores and eBay in search of the Harris holy grail. Matt, Jake, and I are fellow contrarians who relish a certain kind of archaic and analogue craftsmanship. We thrill at the idea of leafing through books of fabric swatches and analyzing whether a tweed contains more shades of wheat than an everyday coat requires. Not surprisingly, men who care about their tailors also tend to care about their whisky. Fortunately, the Scottish Highlands are also the source of some of the world’s finest single-malt scotches, made from centuries-old methods.
It went without saying that we needed tweed coats for our trip. Jake’s firm made each of us a jacket in his house style: unstructured with a light canvas lining for a relaxed fit, but with a high, substantial lapel consistent with British tradition. We hoped we wouldn’t look like aging members of a boy band; still, anyone we encountered would know we were a tribe. We flew to the tiny airport of Inverness and picked up our vehicle with a simple plan: visit a whisky distillery (or three); eat well on the scenic Isle of Skye, in the Highlands; then take a ferry northwest to the Outer Hebrides and the Isle of Lewis, where a 20-minute drive would bring us to the Isle of Harris. There was some discussion along the way that Matt would shoot a stag—it was hunting season—but it was unclear how seriously we were taking that.
The River Spey, which gathers force in the Highlands and becomes a gently winding expanse before emptying into the North Sea, is legendary for salmon and sea trout. Its water also mellows out the Scotch produced in the region’s world-class distilleries. On the road from Inverness, you pass sign after sign for these storied labels—Glenlivet, Glenfiddich, Macallan—and I was reminded of the first time I walked down Savile Row, admiring the names of the legendary tailors in gold on the windows: Henry Poole, Anderson & Sheppard, H. Huntsman & Sons. Like the tailors, many of the distilleries are tucked behind unassuming signs, as if there is a certain authority in not having to announce yourself grandly.
We pulled up to The Balvenie, a compound of old stone and stucco buildings. As with heritage tweed, the charm of whisky is in its transformation; a single-malted barley becomes a glorious drink, what Kingsley Amis (himself a Macallan man) called “quite possibly the best thing you can put in a glass.” The Balvenie is one of the last distilleries to handle every part of the process itself. The barley is grown and malted, then raked across the floor every four hours for five days to germinate. In one large building, the malt is ground and then boiled in large pots of liquid mash; after yeast is added, the mixture is flowed into towering copper stills shaped like huge tagines and boiled again. At this point the new spirit is clear and highly alcoholic, but it gains its magic when it moves to barrels—Balvenie has its own cooperage—where it will sit for eight years or more, taking on the character of the oak cask. That character is, of course, the signature of each distillery.
Our guide, Charlie, led us to one of the property’s aging rooms, lined like a catacomb with barrels, each one stenciled with its lot number and year. He uncorked one, dipped a copper cylinder into the opening, then poured the amber liquid into our cupped hands. As we drank the whisky from our palms, you could smell honey and vanilla mixed with the lingering earthiness of the mash. It had a little bite as it went down, as it hadn’t been diluted with water, but there was something so elemental about tasting the spirit straight out of the barrel that Matt and I instinctively patted the musky last drops onto our cheeks like a cologne. We tried two more casks, each whisky reflecting its age and barrel: Some of them had previously held sherry, others Kentucky bourbon. Charlie poured our favorites into little glass flasks, which we hand-labeled with the date and cask number.
Driving to Lewis turned out to be a pretty extreme thing to do given the narrowness of the roads, so we were relieved to break up the trip with a taste of Scottish hospitality at one of the country’s great traditional lodges. Kinloch Lodge is a small country manor set on a hilly outcropping on the Isle of Skye. Owned and run by the MacDonald family, the landed gentry who first built on the property in the 1600s, the manor has common rooms with marble fireplaces, chesterfield couches, and papered walls hung with ancestral paintings, giving it the feel of a friendly country home. We spent most of our time in the bar room, which had a constantly roaring fire.
The Brazilian-Scottish chef, Marcello Tully, an alum of Le Gavroche and a couple of other top London restaurants, draws a stream of international visitors who come for the finely turned-out dishes, incredibly good wine and whisky lists, deferential service, and other trappings you’d expect of a restaurant that’s been awarded a Michelin star. Everything tasted as if it had just been foraged, caught, or shot. So it wasn’t surprising to see Marcello walking toward the kitchen holding a piece of venison that had just been delivered by a gillie (the Scottish term for a hunting or fishing guide, a cross between a caddie and a life coach), which Marcello seared and served with a little wine reduction.