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The Quaich Society at Aberfeldy

The Quaich Society outside Aberfeldy distillery.

Regular readers will notice a change in structure for this post title in comparison with normal proceedings. Yes, the Quaich Society has finally escaped the confines of St Andrews’ hotel function rooms, overcome the complacenct attitude that top brands must come to us, and bagged a distillery of our own.

As a St Patrick’s Day warm up, eleven eager Society members surfaced early on the Saturday morning in readiness for departure to Dewar’s World of Whisky and the Aberfeldy Cask Tasting Tour. Though some were neither bright-eyed nor bushy-tailed, they took their seat on the bus in anticipation of a momentous event in Quaich Society recent history. They hid their true feelings well, appearing to be sound asleep from Dundee until we turned off the A9.

As we approached the distillery, the bright spring sunshine picked out squadrons of white-water rafters on the gleaming Tay at Grandtully and thick snow still at the summit of Ben Lawers. This was shaping up to be quite a Highland whisky adventure, and – on a personal note – thrillingly reminiscent of my last encounter with that road: nearly two years ago during the first week of the Scotch Odyssey.

A beautiful Highland distillery on a perfect spring morning. Difficult to beat, I can tell you...

Aberfeldy remains as plush and spartan as I remembered it and we all inspected the neat lawns, strident pagoda, and the new lick of paint the rest of the buildings had received while we waited to begin our tour.

Dewar’s World of Whisky divides brand labour remarkably well. The Dewar’s blended story is dealt with first in the opening film and exhibition area in which the Dewar brothers – John and Tommy – are celebrated for their pioneering salesmanship, before one discovers the blender’s art. Once again, I ran out of patience before completing the computer simulation challenge of recreating the recipe of Dewar’s White Label.

The focus of the guided tour, however, is Aberfeldy distillery and its single malt. With speed and clarity, our guide took us from mill to stills and the eleven tourists inhaled deeply at each new process. In the tun room, we could inspect two of the larch washbacks (switchers were on for the others). ‘As you can see by where the wash has been,’ said our guide, ‘this is just about ready to be pumped across to the stillroom. You could quite happily drink that.’ I know that many Quaich Society regulars approve of a pint, and their eyes shone hopefully, but we were ushered down the stairs to the stills with throats unslaked.

Back in the visitor centre, we awaited with glee the arrival of the valinch-bearer who would withdraw a sample from the American oak hogshead which, for the last 29 years, had harboured Aberfeldy spirit. Cameras flashed and saliva ducts filled. First of all, we could savour the Aberfeldy core range, starting with the sweet, biscuity and appley 12yo, before moving on to the more floral, heathery and slightly smoky 21yo. The group were divided in their preferences, although I adored the firm, almost tarry sweetness of the 21yo.

Extracting the 29yo Aberfeldy spirit from its oak nursery.

Finally, we eached received a Glencairn filled with deep orange nectar. Nosing it, deep oak and rounded vanilla appeared first, followed by red apple peel and some smoke or cask char. The oak notes built and carried with them a rich Bourbon flavour, although the spirit clearly had a bit of liveliness about it after all these years.

Soft and rounded on the palate, chunky toffee and dried apple emerged. I was assured that, even though the whisky was hovering around the 55% abv. mark, its smoothness belied its strength. Up to a point, I agreed, but I wondered whether a drop of water might awaken this sleeping beauty. It sure did.

On the nose, I was overwhelmed by white chocolate aromas and dry heather. There was stronger apple now with rich pot ale scents, too. Biscuity and coconut notes. Orange, fruitcake and tablet.

The palate revealed the signature Aberfeldy honey note, which built in one gorgeous, langorous wave. Vanilla-coated raisins with tarry treated pine. Some grassiness at the end.

‘Why don’t they bottle this?!’ one member of the group asked. I pointed out that the cost would be extraordinary, but remembered how eagerly I would have parted with cash after my last Aberfeldy single cask encounter, a 24yo, in 2009.

Whilst refuelling in the cafe, I was told that the reason our cask tasting had taken place in the visitor centre and not the warehouse as advertised was because of interior alterations being made. A strong hint was dropped that Aberfeldy may be about to join the single cask, hand-bottling brigade and that other John Dewar & Sons single malts may also feature in addition to the flagship brand. I will of course let you know more about this when details are confirmed.

All that remains to be said is a massive thank you to the staff at Dewar’s World of Whisky for looking after us so well, and the bus driver who turned a blind eye to the healthy measures of White Label being poured and enjoyed at the rear of the vehicle.

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Undercover Beginners

Karen and Matt at The Glenlivet, one of my picks for a good distillery tour.

If proof were needed that whisky is a convivial drink elevated by the enlightened and considered folk with whom one savours and discusses it, I present to you Karen and Matt of Whisky For Everyone. Since beginning their democratic investigation into whiskies of the world in 2008, they have become my go-to blog for incredibly in-depth reviews, the latest news and always informed comment. With the same zeal today to discover more about the spirit, Karen and Matt are a credit to the industry and those who endeavour to write about it.

Following on from a guest blog I wrote for them earlier in the week, here is the Whisky For Everyone lowdown on distillery touring in Scotland. I was eager to source their perspective on this matter because I must often concede that while the Scotch Odyssey sought to present a picture of Scotland-wide whisky tourism in the recent past, my encounters can be no more helpful than the restaurant critic who only witnesses one service. Tours vary throughout the day according to a myriad of factors, let alone across the country, at different times of the year with different compositions of tour parties.

I find Karen and Matt’s experiences fascinating as testimonies to the diversity of approaches deployed by distilleries throughout Scotland for welcoming visitors. I hope you will, too.

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Through writing our blog, we are in the lucky position of getting the occasional invite to a distillery.  This may be for a number of reasons – they
want to raise awareness of their brand, to launch a new whisky, to open a new visitor centre or any combination of the three. This is great for us and is one of the perks of something that we do not get paid for and write in our spare time. Invariably these visits are a lot of fun and you get to meet some of the people that work there, while getting the ‘access all areas’ treatment.

However, these VIP tours are not what most people will experience when they turn up at adistillery.  This is why we enjoy joining
a general tour – it is by doing this that you truly experience what makes a distillery tick, what it is like when the spotlight is turned away and everyone is not on their best behaviour, trying to get you to write about their whisky brand.  On these occasions we very rarely ‘reveal our hand’ and try to find out as much information as we can by being ‘whisky beginners’.

From our experience, there seems to be two types of distillery tour available to the whisky tourist in Scotland – the ‘sanitised, see what they want you to see’ tour and the ‘warts and all, see how it really is’ tour.  We have been on a number of both types during our occasional holidays to Scotland. The format of the tours are basically the same – arrive, pay, be shown around, have the whisky making process explained, finish off with a dram or two in the visitor centre/shop.  But, this is where the similarities normally end.

The ‘sanitised, see what they want you to see’ tour is normally found at the larger distilleries or those that are the home to well known brands.
These places can cope with large numbers of fans and visitors that their brand generates. This tour will begin with a brand video showing barley swaying in the breeze, water babbling in a stream, an old chap from the distillery pushing a barrel, or scenes of a similar nature.

Coaches at Cardhu, home of Johnnie Walker. Not a bad tour by any means, but a distillery and approach catered towards the larger parties.

You will then be whisked around the distillery, or part of the distillery (normally not in operation), while the whisky making process basics are explained by the tour guide.  Questions of a more advanced level seem to be discouraged and you are also usually asked not to take any photos or video for ‘safety reasons’.  You will then get a dram of whisky, possibly two if lucky, to send you on your way (usually the basic expression/s from their core range), while they deal with the next coach-load of tourists.

The ‘warts and all, see how it really is’ tour is usually found at the smaller or cult distilleries, or those of smaller and less well-known brands.  There will be no corporate video here, just an informative ‘down to earth’ tour that takes you through the sights and sounds of a working distillery and the whisky making process. It will also not be clean and pristine with lots of shiny new metal on show. The tour guides always seem to be more engaging and open to any questioning, be it at a beginner or connoisseur level.  You may even have the chance to speak with a member of distillery staff who always seem happy to have a chat or answer any questions.

You will invariably get to try more than just the most basic whisky from their core range. You will also be allowed to take photos, including putting your camera lens in to mash tuns, fermentation tanks etc.  This leads you to think – either these places care much less about ‘safety’ than the distilleries in the first group, or there are no real ‘safety reasons’ to worry about.  Maybe those that use that as a reason for no photography, just don’t want you to take any …

Naturally, there are exceptions to both types of tour and ultimately, many visitors will leave both types happy.  However, we always look at them with our slightly critical eyes and guess that it depends what you want from the experience – do you just want to tick off a ‘distillery tour’ on your Scotland must-do list or do you want to really learn something about a place, brand or the whisky production process?

One of my favourite distillery tours, too. You see absolutely everything at Glen Moray.

Our favourite distillery tour to date was found at Glen Moray in Elgin.  Here, we rushed to try and make one of the advertised tour times and were late. Despite this, our soon-to-be tour guide (Emma) stopped what she was doing and offered to show us around anyway. After a tour, which involved seeing almost every nook and cranny of the distillery, we felt like we had an affinity with the place.

We were allowed to walk around freely, ask Emma anything we wanted and get in depth replies, speak to the distillery workers about what they were doing and take as many photos as we wanted.  After that sort of experience, the whisky was always going to taste good. We were given a tutored tasting of three whiskies from the core range, plus a couple of special editions (one of which we ended up buying).

A few months ago, we were invited back to Glen Moray as their guests for a product launch and dinner.  As part of this, we were invited on a VIP tour of the distillery.  This tour proved to be exactly the same and as in depth as the regular tour that we had experienced previously.  That tells
you plenty about how Glen Moray value their visitors and some other distilleries can learn a lesson from that. After all, it could be someone’s first ever distillery tour …

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A massive thank you again to Karen and Matt, and I would urge you to follow their discoveries within the whisky world at Whisky For Everyone.

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Aberlour: Warts and All

Welcome to the second instalment of my Aberlour Founder’s Tour review. My justification for cleaving my report in two? So stuffed with glorious details and quirks was the experience itself I worried that with a single post my finger ends might disintegrate before I had related all of the tour’s worthy facets. I covered the relaxed and illuminating investigation of the Aberlour distilling site in my previous post, but today I shall describe our gripping and surprising adventures through the spirit itself.

Middle School science all over again...

In a conference theatre adjoining the Fleming Rooms, and which betrayed the heavy Druidic hand favoured by the marketing department, nosing glasses of suspicious spirit were passed around, the first of which was the foreshot sample. At 67% abv., I couldn’t be certain whether dilution had occurred between spirit safe and our copitas. I doubt it made that much difference in any case.

Below our nostrils was the reason distillers are not exactly OCD about the cleaning of their pipework: a Frankenstein’s monster of a liquid. It certainly smelt somewhat eldritch and Faustian: heavy, metallic cereal notes barged out, with blackcurrant skins underneath and the panicked suggestion of pear drops and apples in the background, as if fleeing from the burning castle. A violent spiciness gripped the nose. Water failed to turn this monster into a princess. Instead the dominant flavour was of intense macerated citrus fruits, creating a thin and cold ambiance. My North American friends recoiled in disgust although I must admit that I was not particularly offended. Maybe I have hung around more low wines and feints receivers than is strictly healthy, but even here I could appreciate malt whisky’s feral beginnings. Yes it was frantically aggressive and uncoordinated, but it could have been much worse, too, for all the microscopic traces of copper sulphate seething within it.

It was with relief, therefore, that we turned to the second sample. At 74% in strength after only half-an-hour’s cautious distilling, we were now exploring Aberlour spirit in its liveliest precocity. Far sweeter and lighter than the foreshots, this offered crisp cereal notes growing to creamy and grassy flavours. Proceedings deepened with a little water, a leafiness appearing together with fruit skins (apple and pear) and a note of emerging caramel which intrigued me no end. Donna, Michele & co. were still unimpressed, however.

Nosing the third cut point reveals a striking trend. If the foreshots were savage and brutal and the new make coherent and vibrant, the feints betrayed the doughty and flaccid death throes of the distilling cycle. Despite its raucous abv. reading of 58%, the tail barely wagged. Notes of banana skin and floor cleaner, followed by firmer, leafy wood notes with water made for a very forgettable spirit. On time, a dimmed floral character developed – something like sunflowers in very late summer – but hardly electrifying. At this juncture in its evolution, the water of life is somewhat stagnant.

The good, the bad and the ugly. But all were appreciated.

Few distillers would have the balls to show there spirit without its make-up on. To so much as come by a nip of the new make – that which will become the single malt output of Distillery X in a few years’ time – is a rare privilege. My American friends dissaproved of the specimens while I was prepared to root out redeeming features; in both cases, however, I’m sure we found the opportunity fascinating. The overall complexion of wash, boiled in copper pot stills, is imperfect, inconsistent and volatile. All the distiller can do with this torrent of flavours as they tumble past him is to snatch at those which meet his requirements.

A truly epic selection, and mighty tasty in more ways than one.

And so to the whiskies themselves, those temperamental juices harvested many years ago and handed over to oak to see what it could make of them.

The first of these was the new make itself, the sample of spirit we had encountered earler when combined with the remainder of the spirit run. At 70% abv., there was an enhanced creaminess over the earlier sample with medium deep fruits and unripe pear lurking quitely in the foreground. The palate revealed leafy, malty notes with more fruitiness. The white chocolate and black fruit chocolate that accompanied it enhanced the creaminess and tamed the alcohol somewhat.

I must admit that at this point I jumped the Good Ship Jonathan. While he described the 18yo as well as the provenance and composition of the four bespoke chocolates gleaming before us, I turned to the golden-coloured contents of the glass on my right. With trembling fingers, I lifted off the stopper cap, brought the glass to my nose with ponderous slowness and… did whatever it is one does when fulfilling destiny.

The latest single cask ex-Bourbon barrel available in Warehouse No. 1 was a 16yo at 54.2% abv. Two years more and 9.1% less than my darling of the previous year. What difference could this make? On the nose this is a heavy and syrupy beast (to my rarefied memory the 14yo was sweet and lithe) with grapeskins (not apples), creamy spice and cardamom (not coconut). I had to make a real effort to quell the accusatory interruptions of that ex-ex-Bourbon, to allow this dram to speak for itself. The alcohol boasted a heady, heavy quality, too, but shifted to reveal an intense grassiness, biscuitiness and – yes – coconut. My golden apples appeared on the palate, together with heaps of caramel and a hint of blackcurrant jam. Creamy fruitiness endured.

‘I’m sorry, Jonathan,’ I piped up. ‘I am following the tasting, it’s just this is the whisky I’ve waited seventeen months to meet.’ Jonathan assured me that this was not a problem and that I should just damn well enjoy myself. 

With the addition of a little water, the nose grew even creamier with Werther’s Original toffees. Coconut leapt out much more readily, giving the delicious impression of hot gorse bushes. Fresh linen appeared, as did more green fruits in the shapes of lime and apple. Thick Glycerine icing sugar – like you would find on a Christmas cake – provided a minty, sugary flavour and there, oh Mamma, there was the Lelandii, the fresh cut pine note from the oak. Marvellous. The oak showed far more boldly on the palate now, in addition to lemon and faintly earthy malt. The ex-Bourbon DNA thrust more forcefully to the surface. The chocolate pairing was less successful, but then this could have been because I had fallen in a swoon.

I know, every blogger has an image of themselves doing this. But that's because it is very very enjoyable.

A word, then, on those other whiskies which would, in any other line-up, inspire eulogies of their own. The 18yo was indeed delightful and worked supremely well with its dark chocolate-coated dried apricot. Gentle and sweetly soft on the nose, there were additional flavours of chocolate coins and red apple, once again on the softer side of things. Malty characters prevailed on the palate with a touch of toasted oak and fruit cores.

My ambition to assemble a cabinet of balance and variety having been irrecoverable scuppered on the Tuesday with my ex-Bourbon Caol Ila purchase, I turned to the single cask ex-Sherry Aberlour, a 16yo at 57.4%, with curiosity and some guilt. This would be the wiser choice, but could I walk away from Aberlour for a second time without a bottle of the ex-Bourbon? I could not. Though deep, rounded and velvety, and with the Sherry contributing plenty of orange notes and cinnamon (paired beautifully with a dark bitter chocolate and candied orange morsel), we repaired to Warehouse No. 1 with my decision firmly made.

When my two French counterparts of last year’s tour set to coordinating their collective extraction of precious Sherry-matured spirit with much chuckling and picture-taking, I had loved spectating on the manifestation of their Scottish holiday momento. It was even more fun participating in the birth of one’s own precious souvenir. I use the birthing analogy only because Bob did so first. I picked up an empty, label-less bottle and held it beneath the nozzle of the verticle glass chamber which would soon dispense whisky once I raised the lever to the right of the valve. Much like the hyrdometers I had been playing with in Balblair, spirit swelled into the tube and with a downward swipe in to the bottle it gushed. Bob would show how best to manipulate the valve so that whisky entered the glass with minimum aeration. From there it was a clamp straight out of the Industrial Revolution to insert the cork, then another for the foil cork wrapper.

Not since primary school have I concentrated so much on my handwriting. As neatly as possible I recorded the cask, the fill, the date of filling, the cask number, the date of bottling, the age, the bottle number and the strength. Jonathan wrapped up my new treasure in swaddling red tissue and encased it in a wooden box. Bob and Chris filled from the Bourbon and the Sherry, and each seemed as delighted with the new addition to their lives as I was.

The bottle-your-own facilities. Haven't the 'sweet shops' of my childhood grown up a bit?

Sadly there was little time to dwell. Our easy pace had delayed our progress somewhat, and Jonathan still had a final treat for us lying, caged and ominous, in Warehouse No. 6. This 8yo first-fill Oloroso butt was a cracker. At 61% its potency could not be ignored, and it blended raw, mouth puckering but sugar-sweet tannins with rich red fruits and toffee. Had Jonathan not locked the beast up again there’s no telling how many laws I may have broken.

While I munched on some exquisitely absorbent chicken and bacon pancakes in Fresh on Aberlour’s main street, I realised that the sense of joy and contentment which prevailed over me was deeply familiar. Scrumptious as they were, I don’t think I can put it down to the pancakes, the company of my family or even the marginal detail that today I was 21 years of age. I had felt exactly the same when alone in my B&B on a non-descript, drizzling April afternoon with the final remains of a chicken tikka pie in my hand. Aberlour distillery had, once again, transformed my day, advanced my single malt understanding and reinvigorated my soul. The Founder’s Tour is the standard by which I shall judge all specialist tours from now on. The bar is giddily high.

Aberlour Founder’s Tour: £25, Wednesdays and Thursdays. Booking essential.

www.aberlour.com

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Coming of Age at Aberlour

I’m not allowed to turn 21 every day. I appealed the decision, but the powers that be stood firm. You would be in complete sympathy with the temper tantrums I managed by some miracle to quash had you too participated in the Aberlour Founder’s Tour on this bright and balmy Speyside morning for as a means of spending a day – indeed as a means of spending everyday - I can think of few better.

Great things await at the end of the Yellow Brick Road.

The honorary Scotch Cyclist taxi service pulled up outside the dapper stone gate house which is the visitor’s first glimpse of the Aberlour experience. I say ‘experience’ and not ‘distillery’ very deliberately. Chivas Brothers have been immensely clever and revolutionary in the handling of their Speyside portfolio: throw open the doors of The Glenlivet for all those who have come to Scotland from afar, drawn by the alluring kiss of one of the world’s most prolific brands; spruce up Strathisla for those who need somewhere tangible to express their love for Chivas Regal; transform Aberlour into one of the most professional, innovative and comprehensive whisky tourism facilities in Scotland for those wom simply traipsing round a distillery is not enough.

Maybe this is really how Aberlour achieves its golden-green apple flavour...

Aberlour’s excellence begins with their staff. The instant you wander into the compact visitor centre and shop you are welcomed by shirt-and-tie-sporting gentlemen who are friendliness and discretion personified. Graduate from the How To Make Your Customers Feel Completely At Ease And Looked After School of public relations on the day of my visit was Jonathan. We exchanged ‘How-do-you-dos’, he handed over my tour paperwork and then we enjoyed a very pleasant conversation about his four and a half years at William Grant & Sons, during which he pitched in at every stage of the whisky-making and tourist-wowing processes, in addition to my own ventures into Scotch whisky. I was very interested in what he had to say and, to his credit, Jonathan looked interested in what I had to say. However, I secretly hoped that there might be other personalities to accompany us on the tour. ’We’ll get underway in just a little while,’ he said. ‘There is a party of four still to join us.’ Fantastic!

Companionship was something I had hankered for on many of my one-to-one tours of 2010 and I was delighted when four completely lovely people, bedecked in active outdoor cum distillery-wear piled through the door within moments. Donna, Michele, Bob and Chris supplied that critical ingredient in tours of this nature: regular conversation. Too often when I book a specialist tour of a distillery I am the sole participant and conversation can grow appallingly technical. I become more concerned with scribbling in my notebook than remaining sensitive to the sheer fun of being in a functioning distillery. My four companions from Boston  ensured I never sacrificed my celebratory mood for recording pernickity details about flow rate and wash densities.

A home away from home, only with (slightly) more sumptuous single malts.

Sticking to the yellow brick road, or rather the tarmac markings intended to ward off rampaging McPherson tankers, our troop entered the distillery via the corporate front door. Jonathan whisked us into the Fleming Rooms, a sumptuous but tasteful hospitality suite which only VIPs are permitted to enter. As Founder’s Tour ticket holders, we five qualified as such. Over an exceedingly flirtatious Aberlour 12yo, Jonathan described the history of the distillery in which we sat (on luxurious leather sofas): its owners, its hardships and its modifications. He made no bones about the automated nature of the present site, and nor did I mind in the least. Times have to be moved with, and on a plant of Aberlour’s size trusting to a computerised system for such junctures as cut points and fermenting makes sound sense.

In the leisurely manner characteristic of the Founder’s Tour (and the Warehouse No. 1 Tour, as I remember) we arrived at the operating buildings themselves. In the plush exhibition area adjacent to the mill, I was more diverted by the wonderful aroma of sweet, fat barley and a richly creamy overtone than the factoid that a Aberlour spirit starts life as Oxbridge and Optic barley.

A glance at the bodacious, if sweltering, stills and we returned to the Fleming Rooms for the truly unique component of the Founder’s Tour. When Jonathan grabbed a couple of bottles that looked identical to some forgotten-about relics from my high school chemistry cupboard, I was eager to explore further – but not to the point of tipping some into my mouth and swallowing. ‘Look at that,’ Jonathan grimaced. ‘We couldn’t get away with putting that on the shop shelves.’ He likened the foreshots sample to a snow-shaker, and with a flick of the wrist spumes of bright blue sediment swirled about the bottle. If you were curious as to quite why distillers have to replace their stills, and where that copper goes, here’s your answer. The other three bottles looked perfectly normal new make, but that wasn’t the whole story, either.

Join me for another blogpost later on when I describe my encounter with three very different beasts which provide a snapshot of the distilling art, in addition to a report on the second unusual element of the Founder’s Tour. And, amidst all the fancy chocolates and caged Sherry butts, could the contents of a particular ex-Bourbon barrel seduce me for a second time?

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Benromach – Behind the Scenes

‘Not every distillery in Scotland could work like Benromach.’

So much became obvious after a only few minutes at Speyside’s smallest distillery, and there was more than a hint of satisfaction behind this statement, made by its manager.

Keith Cruickshank has presided over the Gordon & MacPhail implemented apotheosis of Benromach from the very beginning, as some permanent marker on a wooden beam in the filling store corroborates. He describes with typical animation the unique, semi-paternal pleasure he feels when signing out casks from the warehouses to go for bottling, with the day they were filled clearly in his mind. It says much for Benromach’s dedicated output and Keith’s powers of memory, but chiefly underlines the personal credentials of this pint-sized whisky revolution taking place in North-west Speyside. ’I always say that Gordon & MacPhail own the distillery – but it’s my distillery, really.’

Overseeing production at Benromach.

My Manager’s Tour took place on a muggier, moister day than had my standard tour in April 2010 but the distillery was still as cutely dinky as I remembered it, and the smell of rich breakfast cereal still pooled in the road between the visitor centre and the operating buildings. Inside, 1.5 tons of malt was being mashed, many thousands of litres of wort were gently mutating into alcohol, and two stills were being lovingly polished. The production area at Benromach is a delicious place to be: the handsome copper-domed mash tun cannot contain the steamy aroma of malt mixing with water and there – yes, there it is – is the scent of peat.

In stark contrast to my experiences at Balblair, all wort is fermented for at least four days. Keith explained that they had tried 48-hours in the washbacks but it simply couldn’t supply the rounded fruity requirements for the final Benromach spirit. At 96 hours, the wash undergoes a secondary phase of fermentation as lactic acid begins to build in the heavily apple-scented wash with a bold malty character, too. At the stills, I learnt of the brief for Benromach of 14 years ago: a whisky that will age quickly but also prove itself over and above 25 years in cask. ‘Not an easy thing to achieve,’ I said. ‘Not easy at all…’ came the reply.

The correct interaction with copper is encouraged, with the stills allowed air rests between charges. Once again, it was a decision made with quality of spirit – and not litres per annum – in mind. Gordon & MacPhail wanted desperately to become distillers, but not just any distillers. At Benromach, two hundred years of distilling knowledge, every possible option and permutation, was considered prior to the first batch of malt passing through the mill. That being said, despite incorporating the very latest information related to the making of whisky, this is not distilling by numbers. As Keith happily revealed, they are still tinkering for just the right result.

A social time capsule.

Not content with fully organic whisky, heavily-peated expressions, single barley varietals and wood finishes, there is still scope to explore other aspects of production, with yeast perhaps next on the check-list. If those little critters are as important as the brewing industry says they are, we could be enjoying some very eccentric whiskies in a few years to come.

The Manager’s Tour procures you not just the time and enthusiasm of Mr Cruickshank, but an impressive tasting of Benromachs from pre- and post-G&M. Here are some of my thoughts on them.

Benromach 10yo

Some beautiful Benromachs.

Plenty of woodsmoke and gooey red fruits on the nose initially, before further investigation reveals this malt’s ex-Bourbon DNA: strong wood notes together with syrupy lemon and vanilla. The sherry ageing really shows itself on the palate, with more woodsmoke and satsuma. The finish is redolent with that gentle, complex smoke again, only with a green apple and caramel flavour tacked on.

Benromach Origins

Made with Golden Promise barley and aged in Sherry, both fruitiness and a bold maltiness show on the nose. Rich caramel and malt bins at first with sweet biscuit and jellied lemon peel. The palate is a Sherry bonanza, only not quite as I like them. Mouth-clinging tannins surge in, bringing a dark syrupy quality with it.

Benromach 25yo

A pre-1993 dram, this one, and unusual in the Benromach range with complete ex-Bourbon maturation. The nose was stunningly beautiful: creamy, with golden raisin and lemon. Banana-like malt, shortbread and coconut developed in the glass. The palate bulged with fruits: apple, apricot and white plum. For all there was a clinging sensation in the mouth, I could still find delicate floral notes, too. Soft, moist gingery oak accounted for the finish.

Benromach 30yo

This one was a deep, bold Sherry specimen, all leaf mould, oak, apple and cinnamon. It gradually became more floral, although it did become almost solvent-like: boot polish, if you will. Banana loaf appeared and chocolate. On the palate a Benromach signature began to emerge: plenty of fruity malt with a bit of cling, but primarily soft and toffeed. The finish was slow, gentle and lovely with rich toffee and blackberry.

Benromach 1968

What a venerable gentleman this is. Dense, imperious smoke erupts from the glass, together with soft, rich Sherry tones. Next it is oaky, lichen-covered and earthy, while a heavy menthol note develops with time. The palate was all Sherry, but in such a wonderful way: nutty, fruity with a drying herbal lift. It was malty, too. Peat returned on the finish with an impression of wood stacks. Syrupy and treacle-textured, red apple appeared at the end before the cask-derived richness and sweetness blazed once more, to sink gently below the horizon.

As enjoyable as the tour was, however, my Project was thwarted. I had arrived at Benromach entirely in the dark with regards to their bottle-your-own cask. I had no idea what to expect. For all I knew it could be a heavily-peated batch of organic Golden Promise barley finished in a Sauternes barrique but I was excited by the prospect of siphoning off my own hand-crafted and well-loved single malt. It turned out to be a 9yo Hoggie, and not quite the complex, rip-snorting whisky I wanted. Malty, creamy and zesty on the nose, it also boasted jelly sweets and squashed banana. Dry sweet cereal aromas and a bit of vanilla rounded out a quite tense and dour first impression. The palate was remarkably soft for the strength and youth of the dram with creamy malt and smoke. It started to dry once more, however with faint citrus notes. Happily, the finish offered up a slightly richer experience, with apples and malt. It was too short, however. Water certainly helped matters, the nose growing more biscuity, blending into pastries. I found bracken and heather, as well as toffee and intense floral touches. More vanilla was pulled out. The palate was a fraction bready, with more perfumy flowers.

Maybe in a couple more years this could become a buxom and enthralling whisky, but for now I had to concede that it was a little under-powered for my needs. I will be back, because there is plenty of promise as many separate facets of the Benromach personality mature. Right enough, not every distillery could operate as this distillery does. We should be greatful, therefore, that Benromach has been granted such artistic licence.

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Pulteney – Taking the Plunge with the ‘Maritime Malt’

Just to show us what our delayed flight had deprived us of, Cathy James - the woman on the inside at Inver House and International Beverage by day, press ambassador and chauffeur par excellence by night - took a detour around the harbour on the way to Pulteney distillery.

‘You see that man in the orange? He was going to take you out in that boat.’ We all made quite a charade at tutting and cursing our poor fortune.Old Pulteney VC

An encounter with the Maritime Malt was about as close to the sea as any of us had really wished for. Malcolm Waring was captain of the good ship Pulteney and our first port was the visitor centre, an extremely stylish space formerly the old kiln, converted in 2000. Steering us away from the army of Glencairns, sparkling under the lights and emitting multiple gradations of warming golden glow, we passed into the chilly evening air of the yard.

The distillery is at present operating a twelve-day fortnight. This is not indicative, I hasten to add, of a deficient understanding of time, although I should imagine it would be very easy to lose two days in Pulteney if given the opportunity – but a regime whereby two days from every two weeks are devoted to a thorough cleaning of all the equipment and to give the stills a rest. Our visit coincided with one of these periods. The men would be in and out of obscure vessels, sanitizing steel and copper. We might not see them, however, said Malcolm, they’ll probably try and hide. An unseen cleaning force: pixies distillery-style.

Pulteney employs eight souls on shift, and the joke is that, in Wick, they come in two by two. Malcolm (or Noah, as he is referred to in this particular sketch) described how there were pairs of brothers and cousins, a brace each of Anguses and Michaels. It hadn’t a great deal to do with the whisky itself, but I enjoy hearing about the society that makes my dram.

It also pleased me to note that Malcolm keeps pigs – reared on the distillery’s draff. He has at least one taker should he ever decide to market Old Pulteney bacon…

At the worts cooler we learned that our party numbered nine of the 4,500 people who visit Pulteney each year - the redesignation of the A9 so that it no longer passes through Wick has dented the admittance figures somewhat.Old Pulteney Wash

Much magic happens in the stainless steel washbacks as dried Anchor yeast (‘what else?’) is pitched in at a very specific 36 degrees Centigrade and left for between 50 and 52 hours. With a large cohort of beer drinkers jostling around him, Malcolm fetched a recepticle for the wash, drew off some frothing yellow liquid and passed it round. Only then did he describe how, as a younger man, he partook of maybe a tablespoon too much, the fermenting brew sitting obdurately in his stomach for three whole days rendering him quite unfit for anything at all besides looking green.

Registering no ill-effects initially, we passed through to the still room. My nose quivered with delight at the smell of new make: tinned pineapple with some almond biscuits. The single pair of stills were initially two of six, although it is difficult, contemplating the enormous masses of copper, to see where these other four might have fitted. Despite the purifiers, Old Pulteney new make is famously heavy, the lack of a lyne arm on the wash still one contributing factor. The spirit still is run slowly, for roughly seven hours, and for three of those the middle cut will be taken.Old Pulteney Stills

This new make spirit is filled into fresh Bourbon wood and some Sherry butts at receiver strength – no 63.5% dilution here. Approximately 3,000 casks are filled for single malt each year, to be matured in their own warehouses, a mixture of two racked and three dunnage. Roughly 600,000 litres will end up in your bottle of Grants or Whyte & MacKay among other brands.

As we crossed the road to one such warehouse – formerly a herring curing yard, but now mercifully exuding the aroma only of gently improving whisky – I came face to face with one of my arch enemies: a MacPherson’s tanker. I remarked to Malcolm that Aberlour was a long way to come from to collect spirit in Wick, and that I supposed one of the perks might well be hounding exhausted cyclists on the A9. He replied that theirs was certainly a challenging spot from which to make and market a global product: particularly cruel winters scuppering the intake of raw materials and the export of finished spirit and jeopardising production schedules for weeks. 

Like a mob of five-year-olds released into a sweet shop, the bloggers sped away into the darkest, most fecund corners of the warehouse. The ‘interesting’ questions started from Mark and Jason: what’s your oldest cask and will we get any of it bottled? Malcolm would not be drawn on specifics, but did murmur that something would be released next year. Watch this space.

Happy smiling people...

Happy smiling people...

The tasting was magnificent, although most cumbersome on an empty stomach. I shall go into it only briefly, however – the other bloggers (see previous post for the hyperlinks) will do a far more thorough job of the tasting notes.Old Pulteney Tasting

I cannot sign off my account of Old Pulteney without elaborating on that new make spirit, though. In the debate about chill-filtration, it was a fascinating study. Taken off the still only the day before, this liquid was 68.6% ABV and right enough, heavy. I was rather impressed by it all the same: creamy, with lemoniness, strawberries (from the yeast), with some barley sugar and shortbread. A touch of water sweetened it further, bringing out lemon meringue pie, banana and some spice.

How then, do we arrive at the clean, fruity and fresh 12-year-old? Malcolm told us that, at the bottling hall, Old Pulteney malt whisky goes through more filters than most. In body and texture the two were, as a result, completely different!

The other expressions were the beautifully discreet 17-year-old and the resinous, rich 30-year-old. A sample was also drawn from the 1990 cask, sitting just behind us and available for visitors to bottle for themselves , as Jason did following the tasting – twice. This had been matured in a peated cask and arrived in our glasses at a strength of 57.4% ABV. Perfumy at first – almost reminding me of hair products, the peat soon emerged with barbecue smoke and rich, creamy vanilla. It was superb.

Jason filling a couple of bottles of the 1990 for the lucky folk in his tasting society back in the USA.

Jason filling a couple of bottles of the 1990 for the lucky folk in his tasting society back in the USA.

My pick would be the 21-year-old, however. Non chill-filtered at 46% ABV, a vatting of a third Fino Sherry casks and two thirds Bourbon (Pulteney doesn’t ‘finish’ any whisky: it simply fills new make into various casks and leaves them until the time is right) this was pure deep sweetness. White grapes, jelly sweets, caramel; leafy, soft oak with intense blackcurrant cordial. There was the Pulteney saltiness, though subtle and of a delightful texture. Water pulled out more Bourbon oak and broom flowers as well as tropical fruits, icing sugar, and fudge tablet. Bourbon richness was evident on the palate, with some thick medicinal sweetness and a peppery finish. More, please!

Taking our leave of Malcolm with regret, we piled into the minibus which would take us to Tain and, most importantly, food. I grew into the role of sat-nav, for even in the dark and with a quantity of the Pulteney product within me, I could remember stretches of road from my adventures in May. On the way out of Wick, following Northcote Street, we passed Netherby B&B where inside I knew to be the wonderful Allison and William.

As the bus rolled about the twisting roads of Caithness and then Sutherland, Mark passed round his bottle of the latest Lagavulin 12-year-old. In the blackness of the cabin, the smell hit me first whenever the bottle came within my territory. It was the most wonderful experience.

Not that I needed it, but after an excellent dinner at the Morangie Hotel, for which we were privileged with the company of John MacDonald – manager of Balblair and our guide for the following day – I indulged in a nip of the Glenmorangie Quinta Ruban, which did a fine job of putting me to sleep.

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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.

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