scotchodysseyblog.com

scotchodysseyblog

The Whisky Train

Brief Encounter: the Spirit of Speyside ready for departure.

Brief Encounter: the Spirit of Speyside ready for departure.

It is something of a blessing in disguise that I have not yet had time to recount my time aboard the Spirit of Speyside. With four inches of snow smothering everything outside I welcome any opportunity to recollect warmer times.

This is the most northerly heritage railway in the Scotland, although it was not for this reason that I dragged my parents along for an out-and-back rattle between Dufftown and Keith. It touts itself as ‘The Whisky Line’, and so I could not pass it up.

On my squeaky, grim-faced ride from Strathisla back to Dufftown in April the road hugged this single-track line for part of the way, bridges leap-frogging rails and the river Isla for a number of miles. The sun had appeared, and arable, wooded Speyside was showing itself very handsomely. I wanted to see what it was all about, having come across listings in the guidebooks one finds in Bed and Breakfasts.

Highly visible: the proximity of Balvenie and Glenfiddich bolster claims that this is indeed The Whisky Line.

Highly visible: the proximity of Balvenie and Glenfiddich bolster claims that this is indeed The Whisky Line.

A little bit of history first, however. The railway is one of the principle factors explaining why so many distilleries were built in the region. The plentiful raw materials dictated the location of a distillery in the first instance, but the train made distilling economically viable post-Excise Act, allowing the whisky which was ultimately produced to be transported to the markets of Edinburgh, Glasgow, and indeed the rest of the world with relative ease. Many distilleries were built beside, or had sidings constructed for them, from the main branch lines. The Speyside Way follows the echoing clatters of steam trains past, and many bridges over the Spey would have conveyed engines.

Salvaged and run by volunteers, the Keith & Dufftown Railway was opened in 2001, and operates on a dedicated timetable throughout the year. If you are planning your own visit, however, it is always worth checking the website in advance, although booking is not necessarily essential, and wasn’t for us as we pulled into the station at Dufftown on a Saturday in September.

I had been on the station platform before – in April as I left Dufftown on the way to Cardhu following a concerted effort to find out exactly where Balvenie is. Diving down a side road after Glenfiddich, behind some warehouses which had unfortunately collapsed due to the chronic winter weather, I passed under a bridge and then turned left – Balvenie Castle lying to my right – to be met with the various Balvenie buildings. Reflecting on how dearly I would have liked to have been rummaging around inside, I returned to the road, only to notice a puff of smoke from the pagoda heads – they were kilning malt! The best view then of Balvenie in its entirety had been from the platform, and so it was on this occasion.KDR4

Besides the waiting room and information points, there is also a railway carriage (static) kitted out as a cafe, and it serves wonderful scones, if you like that kind of thing. The train itself is not quite steam train romance, but it is comfortable, and feels very authentic. With a screech of the whistle and a shudder of machinery we were away on the eleven mile stretch to Keith.

Balvenie and Glenfiddich are obviously highly visible distilleries from the train track, but so is the silent – but still standing – Parkmore just on the other side of the Fiddich Viaduct – sixty metres above the river in question and one of the most-time consuming and expensive areas of the restoration project. Forest, glades and open fields slide past your window – this is a very leisurely ride. On the left as you aim for Keith is the man-made Park Loch. Teaming with wildlife (they list buzzards, red squirrels, deer and many others on the website) this is a very picturesque section, and one can only imagine the scene in winter when they run their ‘Santa Specials’: for the kiddies, mainly. Other animal life include the inmates of a donkey sanctuary. Look out for them.KDR6 Parkmore

On the approach to Keith, Strathmill is highly prominent, and is the first distillery to sup at the River Isla, which rushes alongside the train for a considerable portion of the ride. At Keith Town station you can either alight and explore Keith (don’t miss Strathisla Distillery) or get out and stretch your legs and savour the relaxing procession back to Dufftown. Please note, it is useful to check which station is that of initial departure. We could have hopped on at Keith, but we would have had to wait a few hours before there would be another train to take us back again. Our journey had a fifteen minute pause at Keith prior to the return leg.

The Keith & Dufftown Railway website.

KDR5 Strathmill

Posted in Odyssey Plenary | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Great Revision: Updating the Odyssey

The world of whisky tourism has moved on, and far faster than a hairy adolescent could keep up on his bike.

Another Scotch Odyssey is required, readers, although I’m afraid the only visions of Scotland and single malts will be virtual and imaginary as I trawl through the websites and phone up some relevant people associated with each of the distilleries I visited this spring. Upon my recent visit to Pulteney I discovered that they have since introduced two more specialised tours, in addition to their standard offering. This was significant and I sent out tendrils in attempt to divine the level of evolution within the Scotch malt visitor centres in the six months since I pedalled away from Bladnoch. (Has it been that long?)

It would appear that the choices available for how you might tour a distillery are becoming as varied as the expressions on their lovingly-arranged shop shelves. From initial investigation, Diageo in particular, receivers of some criticism from me for certain sites, has implemented what can only be described as a complete overhaul of their visitor experience. Prices, features and components have been altered or completely redeveloped. The Discovering Distilleries website has been given a facelift in keeping with this new ambition to provide the interested punter with a more thorough and original encounter.

This, as you can imagine, shall be an ongoing process. It is a necessary one, however, because I wish for you all to know about the efforts being made to make your visit to a particular distillery – and Scotland in a wider sense – as memorable as the favourite dram that may have brought you there. These amendments shall be made directly to the original reviews found under ‘The Tours’ category listing. My own experiences from April and May shall be preserved alongside, for whilst they may have since become out-dated in terms of factual content, I believe that they still have a role to play as a narrative of my travels.

In this way I hope that the Scotch Odyssey Blog can continue to provide all the relevant facts you might need for planning your next trip to a distillery, and make you laugh at the same time.

Posted in Comment, Odyssey Plenary | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

On the Roof of Whiskyland

Ben Rinnes

Of the numerous whisky-centric activities I had hoped to undertake, an ascent of Ben Rinnes was among them, although I held out little hope accomplishing it. The weather had been patchy throughout the week and I have noted a slight weakening of the inclination to stride up hills on the part of my parents in recent holidays. On Thursday night, however, it was resolved that my Dad and I would see how we felt about it the following morning.Ben Rinnes 2

Misty and damp was the answer as we parked in the steep den at the mountain’s foot. Cloud had been brushed from the shoulders of Ben Rinnes and its neighbour, Meikle Conval. We had left the A95 and the civilisation of Aberlour behind to scale the mass of mountain that presides over the whole of Speyside. In our cross-country car ride we had passed Benrinnes and Glenallachie distilleries, and many more have some proximate relationship to the hill.

It is a very steep climb indeed at first which takes you to the summit of Round Hill. This warmed us up nicely. However, as Allt-a-Bhainne sprang out of the glen to our left, and then gradually began to diminish in scale, the bulk of Ben Rinnes shifted and we were pitted against the bared chompers of a vicious Westerly wind. It was this that had been ripping the clouds over the mountain’s scalp like knots of wool over a fence post. The extent of the cloud was very defined, above which we could see nothing.Ben Rinnes 3

Glad of my waterproof trousers and hoodie I passed along the ridge line looking north and east to the Spey plain, defended somewhat from the chill which seemed to be bearing down on us from the region of The Glenlivet. I was reminded of my cycle to this distillery in April when the wind had been similarly ferocious.Ben Rinnes 5

There was no false nature about the summit: it was there, alright, and there is nowhere else on the path at which you might mistake the last of the 841 feet to be. It just takes a lot of bloody-mindedness to get there. The scarves of mist had lifted partially, and I could see the black craggy crown which comprises the summit. The path itself, however, took a most direct route to get there. My Dad urged me to just carry on; he would get there in his own time. Resisting as best I could the by now gale-force winds, I picked my way from blasted boulder to blasted boulder, finally breaking the summit where a bit of shelter was granted by the rocky spurs.Ben Rinnes 6

It was not a vista of total clarity – the cloud returned now and then – but when it parted even briefly the extent of the panorama was astonishing. To the north and west, there was the Spey at Knockando. Beyond that, I could even see to the Moray Firth and the coastline of Inverness-shire. Directly north, the trig-point promised me that that way, ornamented by the names of numerous distilleries, lay Elgin and the bold blue was the North Sea. In the foreground towered the bold brick chimney of Benrinnes distillery. Spluttering, my Dad trudged towards me to share in the achievement. A couple of photographs of each of us looking nonchalent taken, and some shortbread devoured, we descended, bemoaning in a good-humoured way (sort of) how the going down again was often more uncomfortable than the ascent.

We were due back in Aberlour for the Moray food festival, although before we engaged in eating the consensus was that there should be a drink to mark the occasion. Into the Mash Tun for a father-and-son thirst-quencher, then. My Aberlour a’bunadh congratulated me appropriately.

A damn fine way to cap off a damn fine walk.

A damn fine way to cap off a damn fine walk.

Posted in Odyssey Plenary | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

The Small Matter of a Mortlach

 

Do not miss this shop if you are anywhere near north east Scotland. It is relatively accessible (between May and November!) and contains malts and people unlike any others.

Do not miss this shop if you are anywhere near north east Scotland. It is relatively accessible (between May and November!) and contains malts and people unlike any others.

Re-visit Glen Garioch: check; dine at Sandy’s: check – I had been very efficient in my completion of whisky-related objectives so far on my Scotch Odyssey plenary, and with the previous night’s Speyside Platter still handsomely fueling my faculties, we made the journey into the Cairngorms to Tomintoul for my third mission.

As far as whisky emporia which I encountered over the course of my tour, none could match the Drury’s Whisky Castle. For the two days I enjoyed Tomintoul as my base camp, I spent a good deal of time in the shop and not nearly enough money. Mike and Cathy are passionate, generous, and often outspoken, but in the main fabulous ambassadors for whisky – although I don’t expect The Macallan or The Glenlivet to be employing Mike as sales director any time soon, but more of that later.

A sample of the varied bottlings to be found here.

A sample of the varied bottlings to be found here.

Where else could I have gone to purchase a most significant bottle? Who else could more instructively and entertainingly me guide me through the plethora of independent expressions available inside? Mike was my man for Mortlach.

He did not at first understand why I should be so determined to limit myself within the biodiverse jungle of his shop to one species of distillery alone. I had to explain that Mortlach was a special place for me, producing a special dram appreciated by special people. He grabbed a 12-year-old Provenance from the phalanx of sample bottles behind the till and tipped some into the bulbous Whisky Castle tumblers, which worked well for the tasting. I sensed conifer branches and burnt toffee, with plenty of phenolic character. Rich oak and sweet barley sugar emerged, too, along with a little shortbread. It was a clean nose, leading into a big, sulphury palate which filled the mouth with sweetness and a hint of peat smoke. A worthy start, but it hadn’t the guts at 46% ABV that I was really seeking.

This was a thoroughly pleasant way of spending a Thursday morning. I mean afternoon...

This was a thoroughly pleasant way of spending a Thursday morning. I mean afternoon...

Mike’s next suggestion was a Douglas Laing of the same age as the Provenance. At 50% ABV it was approaching the heady heights of raw whisky and certainly propounded plenty of oaky flavours on the nose: vanilla, new oak and a dry sweetness, extra rounded stewed fruit notes appearing after a time with greener fruits behind them. Toffee was present in the mouth, as well as more oak. Chewy and fruity, this reminded me quite a lot more of the 16-year-old official expression, one of my very favourites.

As I was nosing, scribbling and pondering, people were continually being sucked through the door. Whisky drinkers are chatty people – even at 11AM – and what was as a harmless remark on the part of one couple that they had visited The Glenlivet the previous day caught Mike’s attention. Yes, he said, The Glenlivet was a nice place to visit, it wasn’t really very good. He had plenty of malts which could kick the standard bottlings into touch.

‘I’d like to see you prove that,’ was the retort, and while he poured me further Mortlachs, he attended to these new customers and, I rather fancy, he did.

It is Mike’s policy to slyly rub you up the wrong way: juxtaposing your apprehension of the industry with that of his. His experience informs what can come across as incendiary – even sacrilegious – remarks about the state of the industry at present, and such disappointment is derived from his knowledge of better, more exciting days of flavour and distinction; these, he says, are behind us. His argument is that single malt whisky in its readily available, big-brand form, is dull. Not bad, he says, just consistent; uniform. He hurls his invective on chill-filtration and 40% ABV bottlings, claiming it sucks the life out of a once idiosyncratic spirit. He takes issue with the scale of the industry, too, bemoaning the lack of really good wood and this is where the Macallan comes in. The husband of the couple, when asked by Mike what he normally drank so that a suitable challenger could be selected, nominated the Speyside megastar. Mike argued that their wood management, whilst extensive and sophisticated, was dealing fundamentally with a threatened, finite resource and the resulting whisky was not a patch on that being bottled fifteen or twenty years ago. The Fine Oak range was a prime example of how the paucity of good Sherry casks was afflicting the X-factor of the output of distinguished malts today.

With the aid of a single cask 18-year-old Longmorn, the lack of protest from his patrons would suggest that he had made his point.

Meanwhile I had been savouring an Adelphi which Mike had put in front of me which, in his opinion, was a Mortlach. Technically, it proceeded under the rubric solely of ‘Breath of Speyside’ but his suspicion was that it was Dufftownian in origin. Single cask, cask strength (57.9% ABV): this was what I was here for. On the nose, sweet and powerful oak flavours dominated with plenty of toffee and a resinous character. Smooth and chocolatey, its dark richness put me in mind of dunnage warehouses – an instant hit for any whisky. Lightly charred notes came forward, with thick vanilla. Barley sweetness, like with the Provenance, appeared, too, with caramel shortbread. The palate was epically enthralling, evocative of the majestic Flora and Fauna bottling so rich, dark and fruity was it. The presence of more chocolate and toffee made this just the decadent example of Speyside I am particularly partial to.

The A D Rattray 16-year-old could not quite measure up to this delightfully rich mystery dram. Whilst being deeper and fuller, with more resinous dark fruits, it was a little too musty for my liking – very drying indeed. Caramel toffee and orange teased the nose, with some honey and rich barley. Those phenolic notes appeared on the palate with more fruit and vanilla. Nuts and sugar presented an authentic Mortlach experience.

It had to be the rich, sweet, oaky power of the Adelphi, though. Its spirited dynamic exhibition of the best of Sherry cask maturation ensured I would be taking this back home to Northumberland.

Requiring a walk to clear the old head of whisky vapour, my Dad and I wandered in the Glenlivet Estate, the same route we took, in fact, the day immediately prior to stumbling into the eponymous distillery. The weather, just as it had been three years ago, was as delicious as the malts I had been quaffing, and as the track took us beyond the tree line we could appreciate the rugged isolation of the Cairngorms and Tomintoul tucked within them. Scanning the valley bottom, I found the road which I had agonisingly toiled along only five months earlier: blizzard-blasted and hamstrung. All that came after had its steel, optimism and endeavour rooted in that day. My reward then had been an hour in The Whisky Castle, with a super meal at the Clockhouse Restaurant. It was there that we reconvened with my Mother and Aunt for another extraordinary feast.

Tomintoul

Posted in Odyssey Plenary, Tastings | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

‘A Taste of Speyside’ – My Second Helping

This pagoda could just be glimpsed from Braehead Terrace over the three days I stayed there. For me, the distillery shall always recall Dufftown; the whisky Sandy at 'A Taste of Speyside'.

This pagoda could just be glimpsed from Braehead Terrace over the three days I stayed there. For me, Mortlach shall always recall Dufftown, and particularly Sandy at 'A Taste of Speyside'.

Without a shadow of a doubt, it was a good birthday. While certain social pressures preside over turning 21-years-of-age, and may lead to some degree of short-term memory loss next September, the location and the company which my birthday of 2010 embraced were sufficiently distinctive to preserve them in my mind, hopefully forever.

In the style of one who is especially hard to please (although I’m not, really), my gift to myself comprised a return to Dufftown. With my parents driving, of course. I had booked the family (my aunt – saviour of the Odyssey’s first week – had joined us) into ‘A Taste of Speyside’ for dinner, and we chugged into Dufftown, past the gargantuan Glenfiddich on the left and the symbolic still neck on the right, tickled by weak sunshine. A box of Northumbrian goodies sat beside me on the back seat - my Hamper of Limitless Gratitude.

Within said hamper (it was a cardboard box, in truth, although it had once been appropriated by the Doddington Dairy, makers of superb ice cream) were Piperfield Pork bacon, a selection of homemade preserves and an array of products from the Northumbrian Cheese Co. Northumbria’s are distinctive cheeses, and some of the loveliest I have ever tasted. I had hoped these would appeal to Sandy’s passionate interest in local produce, and whilst the topic of many of our conversations in April had been whisky-flavoured, he could acquire plenty of this himself. It would – as indeed it had for us – require quite a commute to purloin these note-worthy, delicious items (Piperfield supply Heston Blumenthal at ‘The Fat Duck’).

One of my very favourite restaurants, as I may have mentioned. Whisky might have brought you to Dufftown - this eaterie will bring you back.

One of my very favourite restaurants, as I may have mentioned. Whisky might have brought you to Dufftown - this eaterie will bring you back.

Our dinner was not as alchemical or psychedelic as one might find in Bray, but just as lauded. Having nipped down the hill to Mortlach for the purposes of yet more distillery photography – I had neglected to capture its eclectic visage when I was last in the area, and indeed my comparative lack of pictorial variety preserved on my SD card is one of my bigger regrets of the tour - I hiked back along Fife Street, passed the Co-op where I had purchased so many highly-calorific morsels to the Clock Tower and Balvenie Street.

Ducking through the front door of No. 10 to witness Sandy holding court before my relatives was tremendous. I had hoped to introduce The Mother to him, but he came to appreciate what I had alluded to in April of his own accord. My dear Mum has enroled herself in an exclusion diet to mitigate symptoms of early-onset osteo-arthritis in the right elbow, an important joint for a chef. Sandy’s menu is fabulously rich in places, celebrating the apparent unpretentiousness of natural Scottish ingredients. The consequences of indulging in flour and dairy my mother agonised over extensively. “I can’t have potatoes, either,” said Mum. “Well don’t have them,” replied Sandy.

Following my Gordon & MacPhail Linkwood 15-year-old (not my wisest choice as an aperitif but they hadn’t any Tomintoul 14-year-old) I had the Cullen Skink – a creamy, potato-laden fish soup – to start, and then the Speyside Platter which amalgamated many of the finest foods from the Spey valley and the Moray coast. As it turned out, they hadn’t any of the rabbit casserole on this occasion, either. Both were extraordinarily delicious: the Skink pure comfort food and the Platter an insight into the diveristy of produce from the area. Smoked salmon, chicken liver paté, smoked venison, herring, oatcakes and cheeses – my designs on rounding off my meal with the cranahan cheesecake had to be redrafted! I haven’t any photos, by the way, because each course vanished too quickly.

As a digestif I indulged in the 21-year-old PortWood from the distillery whose namesake is the street I was dining on. This was wonderfully spicy and rich, with marzipan sweetness and creaminess. The oaking was assertive but deliciously so and the tannic fruitiness mingled with the textures of the crème brûlée I had managed to despatch. Once again, superlative Scottish hospitality had put the world to rights.

So unexpected and plentiful had Sandy’s support and generosity been at the time I first encountered him - a juncture of huge significance and precariousness - that to dine in his restaurant under entirely different circumstances and yet to discover him unchanged, baffled me no end. This man had made self-belief possible at a time when I had lost my way, badly. What I now accredit as my most treasured achievement to date had at one stage been in serious, ignominious jeopardy. Circumstance and despondency had coalesced on the morning of April 27th, but the potentially debilitating and restricting legacy of each had been banished by a simple demonstration of humanity. A change of mentality was desperately required, and duly arrived as a surprise side dish at ‘A Taste of Speyside’. The man himself, of course, continually dismisses his own pivotal role. Be assured, Sandy, it was not ”nothing.”

For the account of my first encounter with the folk at ‘A Taste of Speyside’, please view my original blog post, typed on his computer. For further information about the restaurant, please visit Dufftown’s website. You can also “add them” on Facebook.

Posted in Odyssey Plenary | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Back to the Valley of the Garioch

Glen Garioch

Although I observed many new distilleries from the car, distilleries which the route of my Odyssey had not approached – Dalwhinnie, Tormore, Auchroisk, Glenallachie, Strathmill to name a few – and many familiar ones which our voyaging took us past repeatedly - Aberlour, The Macallan, Craigellachie, Glenfiddich – there was to be only one distillery tour this holiday.

It was shear blind and baffling luck that so many significant people and properties within the context of my tour as a whole should be indigenous to a readily accessible area of some 50 square miles. Had this privileged region been in Caithness then I would still have insisted we make the journey, however. The attenuated dog leg that links Tomintoul, Dufftown and Oldmeldrum was my malt-related magnet and my first significant pilgrimage was to the last of these settlements.

Roughly a month after I hung up my panniers I phoned Glen Garioch and was fortunate enough to have Jane lift the receiver. Thrilled to speak with her again, and doubly so that she apparently remembered me, I promised that we would be up again in the not too distant future and to that end, I asked if she could set aside a bottle of the 1990 Vintage. I was anxious not to miss out on what my subsequent reflections on my Odyssey rendered a highly symbolic, venerated and desired artefact. Several weeks later I contacted her again to book my family on a VIP Tour.

Frankly unbelievably, the weather was ominously reminiscent of my first foray from Moray to Aberdeenshire on the 23rd of April. Whilst we did not encounter snow on the bare tarmac out of Dufftown, rain threatened throughout our race along the A96 and more pleasant sweep along smaller A-roads to Oldmeldrum. So vivid were the reminders of that day, so unnervingly similar were the colour palette and light quality. Every stopping point, every side turning, every enraged bellowed expletive and herd of startled livestock from five month’s ago hovered before my mind’s eye. It was quite uncanny. I doled out pity on my past self as we reached the roundabout at the entrance to Oldmeldrum and navigated the uphill arc of road to the top of the town. Upon arriving I’m aware only of sprinting about the site with my camera, capturing the place in a manner I had neither at first the trust in my equipment’s waterproofing, then energy and finally inclination to attempt in April.Glen Garioch VC

Jane was, suitably, the first face I glimpsed as I entered the visitor centre. The locus of so much surprising joy, I was yet again astonished by how familiar it all was, right down to the paper map of Scotland on the wall, on which I had traced for Fiona and Jane the destinations my tour had still to reach.

From what I could gather, the pre-tour video had been updated. Now there were ample close-ups of the repackaged range interspersed with segments illustrating Glen Garioch’s history and production methods. On the way out of the door to begin our observations of these processes first-hand, Fiona appeared. She was forthcoming, not with a hand to shake, but with open arms. Such is Fiona’s gregarious personality, but also impressive tact: a hug on the occasion of my last visit would not have been at all pleasant.

We left the sustaining glow of the casements of whisky in the visitor centre with Jane as our guide. She turned to me as our little group was ruffled by a blast of Aberdeenshire air, laden with rain drops. “We’re blaming this on James,” she said. “That’s only fair,” I replied.

Whereas previously I had been shepherded across the courtyard and the road to the maltings, Jane had an alternative destination for our party. In the renovated Exciseman’s hut – The Wee Bothy – we were welcomed to Glen Garioch in style, with a nip of the Clearac.

My parents in the charming Wee Bothy, formerly the exciseman's hut. An evil lair converted into a merrier space.

My parents in the charming Wee Bothy, formerly the exciseman's hut. An evil lair converted into a merrier space.

Having been informed that spirit yields at the distillery were pleasing everyone, the distillate pouring through the safe in greater quantities and at a higher strength, Jane produced a bottle of colourless liquid and poured a measure into nosing glasses. I have been fortunate enough over my travels to taste the new make of a number of distilleries and a wander round a still room will introduce every tourist to its distinctive aroma. The Glen Garioch stuff is delicious, though. The fragrance was typical of unaged malt whisky: sweet, fruity and with plenty of squeaky, rounded intensity. Stewed apples and strawberries could be distinguished from this: suggesting themselves from the richness and fullness of the drink’s body and its raw sharpness. On the palate the barley sugar grist is evident. It is very clean and yet mouthcoating, clinging to the tongue and gums with a green apple flavour and despite its strength of 72.5% abv, it didn’t blow your head off. With more aeration, Hobnob biscuit notes emerged on the nose.

The maltings, our next point of interest, appeared a great deal warmer following our dose of new make. They have been mothballed since 1993, when the last batch of Glen Garioch-made malt was shovelled off the kiln floor. After Suntory’s take over, and a tense time for the future of the distillery, the company elected to preserve, re-invest and raise the fortunes of Glen Garcioh. The maltings were cleaned up, and for six weeks in 1999 they operated again to check that all of the machinery still worked properly. It did, so there shall continue be rumours that the malting process could once more take place on-site. There is no small amount of experience as to how it is done within the Morrison Bowmore group, either: Bowmore distillery malts its own, and indeed some of the staff were off to Islay the day after my visit for a change of scene.Glen Garioch Maltings

Our smaller tour group made it easier for Jane to reveal some of Glen Garioch’s nooks and crannies. The first of these was the kiln itself. We were allowed through a low door on one side of the kiln fire and could take in the sooty darkness of the construction, the fine mesh floor and the ventilation fan just visible.

We climbed a highly vertiginous wrought-iron spiral staircase and peeked at the mill, the malt bins and the kiln floor. It was a real privilege to see behind the scenes at a malt whisky distillery, because when its original features are preserved, as they are at Glen Garioch, it is a glimpse back in time.

The mash house and tun room were familiar, as was the little white clothes rack behind the Spirit Still. I pointed this out to my parents, and Jane recounted for the benefit of the other people with us how these stills had performed as a life-saving laundry facility in addition to operating solely for the production of the water of life.

Jane and I reunited in my most unexpected launderette.

Jane and I reunited in my most unexpected launderette.

By now the wind and rain were a little more assertive, and our walk to the warehouse made us glad of its quiet stillness. This was what I had been especially looking forward to, and the sweet mustiness – a combination of earth and exhaling oak – was a glorious re-induction to the realm of the angels. Following its closure in 1995, the warehouses were emptied and two years later, when Suntory decided to open it again, they were deemed unsafe. Three years of upgrade work, and casks could be matured at Glen Garioch again in 2000. Butts, barrels and hogsheads fell away into the fecund shadows, and I doubt I stopped smiling. Glen Grant and Longmorn casks were prevalent outsiders. Five casks from Yamazaki were very foreign indeed. These became visible as we made for the staircase down to the lower warehouse and their reasons for being in Aberdeenshire and not Japan was explained to us. Head office are curious as to what influence locality of maturation has on the final spirit. To that end, Suntory have gone further than experimenting between indigenous and central warehouses in the East and has taken eighteen casks from 2006 to Scotland, distributed between Auchentoshan, Bowmore and Glen Garioch. I would be fascinated to taste the results. Whether there is a conclusive difference only time will tell.

Yamazaki Casks

The final tasting back at the VC was appreciatively thorough. The core range of the Founder’s Reserve (buttery, sweet, malty, clean and fruity) and the new 12-year-old (more citrussy, softer and deeper) were explored first, followed by a measure of the new 1991 Small Batch Release (£65) which had been launched in June. At cask strength, this was dusty and rich on the nose, giving way to more phenolic notes (wood smoke and coal dust-esque and industrial) with water. Dry and warm with firm maltiness on the palate with pungent, spicy peatiness continuing into the finish. I wonder how close my 1990′s profile matches this. I was glad to see it emerge from the back room, all stocks having sold out at the distillery. It had been a wise move to set one aside.

After wishing my favourite ladies all the very best, we departed in the by then seriously heavy rain. As we glided away from Oldmeldrum, conditions now identical to those of the return leg to Huntly on April 23, I looked upon my souvenir of that day and the subsequent weeks made possible by Jane and Fiona’s humour and encouragement, sat in the footwell. It will be a wonderful reminder of those forty-one incredible and challenging days, but it shall also remind me of the return visit which I’m delighted and amazed to assert had an equally powerful, lasting effect on me.

L-R: Fiona, myself and Jane, plus my 70 centilitres of drama, revelation and triumph. It was extraordinary to reflect on my undertaking with the comfort of dry clothes.

L-R: Fiona, myself and Jane, plus my 70 centilitres of drama, revelation and triumph. It was extraordinary to reflect on my undertaking with the comfort of dry clothes.

The Glen Garioch VIP Tour: £20; 90 minutes (approx.) duration

THERE SHALL BE SOMETHING OF AN INDETERMINATE HIATUS AFFLICTING THE SCOTCH ODYSSEY BLOG AND FOR THAT I APOLOGISE. I’VE JUST STARTED AT UNIVERISTY, HOWEVER, AND TIME IS IN SHORT SUPPLY. I HOPE TO BRING YOU MORE ACCOUNTS OF MY HOLIDAY AS SOON AS POSSIBLE.

Posted in Odyssey Plenary, Specialist Tours | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Spey-cial Awareness

Favoured mainly by fishermen, Hollybush Cottage has many points to commend it to the whisky-lover.

Favoured mainly by fishermen, Hollybush Cottage has many points to commend it to the whisky-lover.

Last week, I returned to the Scotch Odyssey. It was not, I hasten to add, for the purposes of jaded, hopeless revival but a different encounter entirely. For seven days I enveloped myself in Speyside and the East, my first opportunity to look once again upon the highways and Highlands that challenged me so ruthlessly, and to reunite with the singular and extraordinary people who so readily and selflessly resuscitated my impetous.

By car and with my parents (not the same spontaneously combustible mixture as it proved on Islay), I beheld new pockets of the region in addition to treading the same roads as I had done four months previously. Dufftown to Elgin was no longer an arduous slog, although this new foreign motor-driven rapidity with which the many miles of the Morayshire were devoured did not, in practise, diminish the scale of my original undertaking. It was instead fetchingly novel not to turn up everywhere mucky and sweaty, yet I was permitted to come to terms with the truth that I had really been mucky and sweaty once upon a time. My resumption of normality post Odyssey had in fact gradually robbed me of total certainty that I had done any such cycle ride. It seems I really did go through it all.

Our holiday cottage in Carron, four miles from Aberlour, was a delight. I awoke each morning to the sight of the Spey, sluicing past not 100 metres from the front door. This was the style of nest I had craved when last here: so dense had the inventory of distilleries to visit been that my appreciation of the locality and its myriad other leisure activities had been impossible to acquire. On this occasion, however, I could and did pack everything in. I ate, I drank, I walked, I shopped, I simply lay on the lawn and greedily, euphorically, consumed this pure Highland air with the pleasure heightened by my sensitivity to all those copper stills throbbing away all about me, and hundreds of thousands of casks mimicking my own fecund immobility just over the trees amongst the mountains.

Cramming so much into seven days required no small amount of forward planning and each day had its objective. I shall devote a post to each day and the key activity which we undertook. Hopefully it will give you a more complete picture of this charming, unique area and convince you that for all whisky is its principal claim to fame, it has numerous qualities besides to commend it.

The River Spey

Posted in Odyssey Plenary | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment