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January 30, 2012

Blair Athol

When I was not setting, turning, spinning and polka-ing during the Celtic Society’s jaunt to Pitlochry, we had just enough time to visit a distillery. We – or at least I – would have contrived some way of fitting Blair Athol in irrespectively.

My previous visit to the home of Bell’s blended whisky was irritating in the extreme. I had discovered that morning that I could expect little more than a video and a dram at the distillery due to maintenance. I rocked up at the reception and exhibition area, got bored, and decided I had better set off for Edradour if I wanted to make it to Brechin before nightfall. I remember it as a smart plant, with an eager burn washing between the buildings.

Blair Athol Distillery, the home of Bell's.

APPEARANCE AND LOCATION:      ****      The distillery sits beneath the railway line, halfway up the braes that lead in to Pitlochry with the River Tummel at its foot. Beautiful stone buildings house the distillery, which sits within a courtyard. The burn which flows through it provides an extra scenic dimension.

TOURS PROVIDED:

‘Blair Athol Tour’: £6. See ‘My Tour’ below.

‘Flora and Fauna Tour’: £12.50. A  tour of the distillery with a chance to taste the Blair Athol 12yo and two other expressions from the Flora and Fauna range. Mortlach 16yo and Linkwood 12yo are my recommendations.

‘Allt Dour Deluxe Tour’: £25. The distillery tour plus Blair Athol 12yo, Cask Strength distillery-exclusive and four other malts.

DISTILLERY-EXCLUSIVE BOTTLINGS:      A cask-strength, Sherry-matured Blair Athol. 55.8% vol. and £55. I managed to wangle myself a dram of this and found it much lighter than the standard 12yo with more of an insistent creaminess and first. Delicate floral notes could be detected before planed oak took over. The palate was prickly and nutty with a good dose of vanilla but water didn’t help at all. A strange dram, and I would personally go for the standard bottling.

My Tour – 23/01/2012

The Blair Athol reception and exhibition area.

THE RUNNING COMMENTARY:      **

THE PROCESS AND EQUIPMENT:      **

Notes:      The tour commences from the courtyard, climbing up a series of steps into the old floor maltings, which now house the mashtun. Two waters only are required to extract the sugars from the grist, which are drained efficiently back down the hill to the four stainless steel washbacks. A short ferment (50 hours) produces the nutty characteristics required, and from there it is on to the stillhouse. Four tall and proud stills sit in the corners of the room, belching heat and a heavy, intriguing spirit. Standing by the ISRs, I could detect old gym crash mats and biscuit. From there it is across the bridge into the filling store for a cooper recruitment drive (there aren’t enough of them, apparently) and into the warehouse. The tour concludes on the balcony of the shop, with a dram.

GENEROSITY:       (Only the one dram is available as part of the standard tour. Asking nicely is the way to do it.)

VALUE FOR MONEY:        *

SCORE:     5/10*s

The shop.

COMMENT:      What hasn’t already been said about a Diageo distillery tour? I was part of a larger group – many first-time whisky drinkers – who said to me later that the ‘patter’ came across as somewhat formulaic and that they didn’t entirely trust some of the claims made. Having done more than 50 distillery tours, I suppose I have become inured to the ‘patter’ but I found our guide to be clear, informative and friendly. To address those odd ‘claims’, though. I only raised an eyebrow when discussions about blending began in the warehouse, the suggestion was that the blender fiddles around with ex-Bourbon casks because colour is more easily managed. There was some discussion of the vanilla elements ex-Bourbon casks lend to a spirit but the focus returned to colour as a reason for master blenders maturing their whisky in these casks. The warehouse itself was something of a disappointment, separated as we were from the sleeping casks in a sealed viewing chamber. No aroma could penetrate, and I feel many missed out on the mystery and magic of those oak-spirit scents, allowing them to guess at the gentle dynamism at work in a dunnage warehouse. The entire distillery, it must be said, was a little denuded of smell. The washbacks were ventilated, the mashtun airlocked, too. For the home of a major blended brand like Bell’s, I found the decor to be a little mundane and thin. It certainly could not hold a torch to the Famous Grouse Experience or Dewar’s World of Whisky. The blend-single malt focus was appropriate, however, and it was made very clear at the beginning that Blair Athol was an element of Bell’s, and was not the producer of it. We are living in different economic times to when I undertook my Odyssey, and I suppose that £6 is what one must now expect to pay for a distillery tour. As such I feel the expense is justified because Blair Athol and its product are undeniably charming. But if you have the means of getting to Edradour above Pitlochry, I would say that was a better bet.

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January 25, 2012

Wordsmiths and Drinkmongers

I fancy that Scotland owes Robert Burns and his progenitors a great deal. The North-of-Border-Bard supplies a seminal date for two of its finest areas of excellence: literature and whisky. Haggis might well be a third entity to benefit from close association with the ‘heaven taught ploughman’.

A stirring Highland-scape.

January 25th can serve as a seminal date for Scottish poetic expression and the spirit to which so much of it is dedicated. Robin Laing has compiled a charming anthology called The Whisky Muse which contains verse recent and ancient celebrating uisquebeatha’s prominent role in the culture of this beautiful country and the lives of the characters within it. Of course, whisky doesn’t exactly need a date each year on which to be so venerated, but who else can the industry and product cleave to as a figurehead? To favour any particular commercial distiller would be to forget the essential roots of whisky, in the bothies and peat sheds of farmers trying to earn a little more from their harvests. To plump for a politician responsible for a piece of legislation that made our favourite drink what it resembles today would be deeply unpopular and somehow, to miss the point. Burns is a personality to which whisky as the potent blood of Scots-hood may gratefully pin its colours, a high priest to a romantic past resurrected by the whisky-laden breath of every Burns Night makar.

Drinkmonger's inviting exterior.

I returned from Pitlochry yesterday having discovered a new outpost for the contemporary whisky industry. Along the road from the tartan and teek of the Blair Athol distillery is Drinkmonger, an offshoot of Royal Mile Whiskies. Inside, I discovered a retail space a little different to what you might expect of a whisky retailer in such a tourism-driven town. It would not look out of place on Edinburgh’s Princes Street. Wooden-floored with dark shelving, the layout is clean and tasteful. The staff are especially helpful, and I learnt from the sales assistant that the shop had been open six months and they continued, even in the leaner post-Christmas times, to enjoy local interest in their products and services.

The spirits shelves at Drinkmonger.

From what I could see of the range, there can be few complaints. Drinkmonger came into existence to allow RMW to expand into the wine sector but their malt and bourbon selections are tasteful and extremely interesting. I list Bourbon for several reasons: I am deeply keen to try more of this fantastically innovative and complex spirit, and Drinkmonger has the best range of any retailer I have come across in four years of poking around in Scottish spirits shops. Buffalo Trace distillery was very well represented, with the eponymous expression (£24) in addition to Sazerac Rye (delish) and Eagle Rare (£32). Woodford Reserve, Knob Creek and Wild Turkey were also in evidence.

I am a Scotch blog, though, and I gazed lovingly at a bottle of the new Kilchoman 2006 (under £50), in addition to the GlenDronach 14yo Port finish (£33 if I remember rightly). I was assured, however, that through their extensive connections with distributors the store will attempt to track down any special request you may have.

If you are one who thinks that there is a surplus of whisky shops already, I suspect that even you will forgive Drinkmonger. Between their wines, spirits other than whisky (I was pointed towards the rums whilst noticing their impressive selection of gins) and cigar humidor, this is a highly professional outfit with a few gems certain to surprise. I’m saving my money for a trip to the Good Spirits Co. in Glasgow, but under different circumstances I could have spent many an hour and much currency in Drinkmonger.

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January 6, 2012

‘Wet Dog – but in a Good Way’

'Eh?!' 'Mmmmm!'

And then I thought John MacDonald was going to hit me. My tasting note of ‘guinea pig hutch’ had not gone down well.

When nosing and tasting whisky, our brain has a habit of surprising us with a suggestive vista of just what sensory memories we have folded away in the darkest recesses. The conversion by our imaginations of these hints and fragments which those few molecules of distilled, oak-matured malt spirit disturbed when they pottered past our hypothalamus into an image or reel of footage can, however, appear so far removed from anything you might wish to detect in a fine single malt, bourbon or blend once we concretize them in writing.

The exercise of producing tasting notes works on association, putting into a system of signs for mass-consumption and comprehension what is only a deeply private impression. Tasting notes, therefore, work best only for the taster who can unlock the subtext and allusions to the words on the page. This is not quite on the same topic as Keith Wood and I discussed at the beginning of last year whereby particular scenes and whole memories are triggered by a mysterious aroma or flavour but instead aims to broach the subject of the unexpected – but appreciated – when encountering whisky. As I have said before, it is powerfully rewarding when the surface level of our awareness is broken by a whisky, and we can go beyond ‘malty’, ‘honey’, ‘vanilla’, ‘smoky’ in our evaluations to something that challenges how we perceive and contemplate sensory information. When sharing that whisky with others – as should always occur - it can be fun and illuminating to compare our most outlandish impressions, to explain how as individuals in the same sensory world we could possibly have ‘come up with’ that particular tasting note.

To return to that ‘guinea pig hutch’ descriptor above. It referred to the cask strength sample of the new Balblair 2001 and, as I tried to placate the distillery manager, I did not mean it as a criticism. Simply, in that moment my mind had stamped a sign on what I am by now used to finding in younger Balblairs – a sweet cereal character with light wood and a grassy/spicy aroma. For whatever reason, these had combined and reformed into an image of a rodent residence.

Mortlach is another that can generate some fairly unusual descriptors: rotting logs, lamb stock – what are these doing coming out of a whisky? What is important is the atmosphere these objects suggest to me, of late winter forest walks in Northumberland or left-overs from the Sunday roast.

Drams from Islay have more than a little drama to their personalities, with endless interpretations of just what quality of smoke there is in evidence possible. Bowmore Legend pushes out damp cigarettes while Kilchoman blends smoke with peat, which in turn evokes muddy farmyards and cowsheds. Pleasant? Absolutely. The classic case-in-point is ‘TCP’ for the likes of Laphroaig and Ardbeg. Some shrink away in fear of a pungent and oft-abused medicine cupboard, while others revel in the aromatic challenge.

All I would say is, put down what feels right to you. Why play it safe with what you worry you ‘ought’ to notice? You will come to understand the whiskies you come across far more intimately and meaningfully if those deeper and more esoteric responses are not repressed but are instead celebrated. After all, they acknowledge how diverse each of our experiences with food, drink and anything else that might have caught our noses or tastebuds over a lifetime are and with any luck might bring them into the discussion, too.

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