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Day 5: Speyside and Spokes

Perhaps it was my super-abundance of full cooked Scottish breakfast, perhaps it was a moment of madness to leave it behind the wheel of my hosts’ car in the first place, but I was four and a half miles beyond Nethy Bridge, about to join the A939, when I realised I had left my bike lock at the Coire Choille bed and breakfast. Fortunately, Jan and Allan Goodall are wonderful people (cyclists themselves) and they were willing to down tools and drive out to meet me with the lock.

While I waited, I could appreciate the stark beauty of this upland landscape as the low cloud began, mercifully, to lift. I also heard a cuckoo. The rest impaired my ascent of the 20% gradient up to the main road, however, which was a fairly upsetting obstacle so early in the day. It would get worse.

When cycling to Tomintoul four years ago, I had snow and the Devil’s Elbow up to the Lecht ski station to contend with; as I pedalled towards sunshine I began to recognise that the road I was on concealed challenges of its own. Bridge of Brown is the settlement perched above a sheer drop and some hairpins. As the gradient warning signs appeared, a flashback occurred to me from having driven in this direction with the parents maybe six years previously.

My first problem was controlling the bike on the abhorrently steep descent: with all the weight, braking achieved only so much. Soon, though, I could whistle to the glen bottom and begin the ascent up the other side which was, if anything, steeper. The hairpin innards were nigh-on verticle, and even in bottom gear I had to stop at flattish sections to hyperventilate before carrying on. Eventually, I hauled myself up to the summit and could appreciate a gentler descent into a sunlit Strathavon.The remainder of the road into Tomintoul was hardly plain sailing, but it was spectacular. Indeed, one section recalled the panoramic photograph that illustrates southern Speyside in Dave Broom’s magnificent The World Atlas of Whisky.

By the time I rolled through the village the sun was rather fierce and what I really needed to do was cool off in the company of Mike Drury in the Whisky Castle. Bombastic as ever, Mike combined a diatribe against the vacuity and rapacity of the modern whisky industry with greetings to locals and taking delivery of consignments from said modern whisky industry.

‘Where were we?’ I asked, as the shop cleared again. ‘Somewhere between truth and non-truth?’ he replied. He then poured me a dram, an extravagantly creamy Dewar Rattray 18yo Braeval which was good, but not £90 brilliant. ‘I’ve sold one hundred and sixty bottles of that!’ Mike blustered.

We then touched on the reasons why the whisky industry is in ‘the shite’: the lack of good quality, old casks. Mike and his wife Cathy are single cask, single malt fanatics and they bottle whiskies under their Whisky Castle label when they find something great. Mike confessed that the casks simply haven’t been up to scratch of late, so he hasn’t bothered bottling any.

The accelerated wood programmes of most distillers, using virgin oak, first-fill Bourbon barrels whose staves hadn’t been air-dried properly in the first place and bottling younger expressions were all exacerbating the dearth of quality single malts. Doom and gloom, therefore. It’s true that the industry has to think very hard about where the oak is coming from to encase the many millions more litres of spirit being produced, but I’m not about to shed any tears just because the heart-stoppingly beautiful single cask Ardbegs, Glenlivets, or Braevals for that matter – and which only ever pleased a handful of enthusiasts – are growing scarcer. Investment in whisky is across the board, from distilleries to bottling plants to cooperages. Distillers are grappling with the problems of the supply chain and I believe that, five to ten years from now, we will be looking at more consistently tasty expressions available from more companies than we enjoy currently. The only question that remains concerns how much we shall be expected to pay for them.

Leaving the Whisky Castle behind, I pedalled off into the Glenlivet Estate below a scorching sun. Soon, I glimpsed the steam chimney of The Glenlivet, ’the single malt that started it all’, and for me in particular. The last time I cycled past a blizzard swept down the glen to engulf the distillery and me; now I was worried about heat stroke.

Late (very late) for my rendezvous with Brian Robinson at Ballindalloch Distillery, I carried on past The Glenlivet following the Avon once again. As I passed a field of cows, on a flat smooth stretch of tarmac, I heard a disconcerting, metallic ‘ping’. Fearing the worst, but carrying on anyway, I reached the A95 and turned down towards Cragganmore and the Ballindalloch Castle Golf Course, where a wee distillery was being built.

The gorgeous location of the Ballindalloch distillery.

Dismounting, I discovered that I had indeed snapped a spoke, two in a week, and my plans for the afternoon were going to have to change. That lovely Imperial 23yo on the Speyside Way? Scratch that, I was going to have to get to Dufftown and try to find the bike shop in Elgin I’d used last time to get the rear wheel structurally sound again.

With mechanical matters in mind, I maybe wasn’t as attentive or curious on my tour of the site with Brian as I could have been. However, key points that emerged were that Ballindalloch, when it opens to visitors (hopefully by September) will not be like other distilleries and visitor centres; the plan is to bring a flavour of the ancestral home of the MacPherson Grants at Ballindalloch Castle into the distillery. Mrs Russell, who has lived in the Castle for 65 years, will oversee interior design.

The VC was some way behind the rest of the distillery, but it will be a space dedicated to making visitors feel very cossetted and special. Brian was at pains to emphasise the love and dedication shown to the project by the local builders, carpenters, electricians, etc. The final say for the build goes to the family at the Castle, however. ‘If they say they want this room to be pink, it will be pink’.

Charlie Smith will be head distiller, and his brief was to produce an oily, weighty spirit. Working backwards, worm tubs were required, squat slender stills installed, a long-ish ferment and cloudy wort will be established. The traditional approach to whisky-making starts with the barley which will be grown on the Ballindalloch estate, but malted in Inverness, and continues to the copper-domed mash tun and those brand new worm tubs. A unique element of the build is that the filling store and warehouses are ‘inside’ the distillery building – guests will be able to fill a cask as they go round on the tour before rolling it into the warehouse.

As I left I spectated on the worm tubs’ installation before getting on the bike. I knew, despite my anxiety, I needed to get some serious calories in me and the Delnashaugh Hotel, just beneath the curl of the A95, was closest. I actually really enjoyed my time there: from the helpful waitress who found me the number for Bikes & Bowls in Elgin, to the huge plate of mac ‘n’ cheese, garlic bread and chips had outside on the patio area, I began to feel more in control. Also, the range of single malts behind the bar is pretty impressive. Stop by if you’re in the area.

Full to the gunnels with carbohydrates, I managed to power through to Aberlour, then time-trial up the hill to Dufftown. I was just in time to catch the bus from the clock tower to Elgin, but I couldn’t travel with the whole bike. This meant I had no choice but to repair the bike tomorrow morning, and that put GlenDronach and Glenglassaugh in jeopardy.

I was despondent for as long as it took to shower, change and visit Sandy at Taste of Speyside. Once again I was bowled over by the Highland hospitality, the venison casserole, and the G&M Glentauchers 1994. I could reflect that, even if the bike wasn’t 100% fit, I had still made it to the malt whisky capital and that wasn’t such a bad place to be.

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Scotch Odyssey 2: A Daft Prologue

The gorgeous Daftmill distillery.

Having said I wouldn’t be updating ‘live’, here I am. In truth, I cannot wait another two weeks to give an in-depth account of my time at Daftmill distillery (and I have access to a computer, photo-editing software and a strong cup of tea, so why the hell not?).

If my Scotch Odyssey was the Tour de France, today would be the Prologue, that weird mini time trial right at the start to shuffle the riders into some semblance of hierarchy and provide a stable location for a bit of a party. I left St Andrews at 8.40; I returned at 12.30. I went as far as Daftmill Farm, just beyond Cupar, to meet Quaich Society patron and vanguard farm distiller Francis Cuthbert.

Since its establishment in 2004, Daftmill distillery has kept a low profile. So low in fact, that I had some difficulty in finding it. After darkening the doorstep of someone’s house, I pedalled back to the main road to find another turn off and sailed right on past the correct one. Eventually, I tracked down the discreet pagoda and donned civilian gear.

The mash tun.

Francis adjusted the mash tun while I took photos, then the tour commenced. He has been rather busy this month showing ‘maltheads’ around, usually as they journey to Speyside or Islay. Germans and Swedes are especially keen to have a look round, with whisky-making happening in between times. Below the mash house are ten wheelie bins, filled with grist made from Daftmill’s own concerto barley. Having long grown barley for other distillers, Allied in the old days and Macallan currently, the journey to distilling his own spirit began after much discussion and interrogation. For the Cuthbert family, it was not a decision rushed into. They ‘ummed’ and ‘ahhed’ about installing a mill but chose to forego the expense and have their grist brought in. 100 tonnes (the smallest batch Crisp Maltings in Alloa will service) is sent away and comes back ready to be distilled.

While I was there the first mash of the current season was in progress. Francis likes to recirculate the worts to ensure clarity – as I was reminded over the course of the visit, Daftmill wants to produce a fruity, clean spirit and that all starts in the mash tun. Distillers yeast is then added, and fermentation takes between 72 and 100 hours. If the wort is crystal clear, fermentation goes off like a rocket and the switcher blades are forced to work overtime to control the rising froth, not always successfully. Francis told me that much of the alcohol has already been created after 48 to 50 hours, but longer ferments promote lactic acid build up as dead yeast cells are consumed, again generating those fruity flavours. Ideally, the wash should taste faintly sour or bitter as it is pumped across to the still house: distillation will recover that sweetness.

The Daftmill stills.

Why these stills, Francis? ‘We just picked a shape we liked,’ he replies with a shrug. Francis prefers to determine house style through his manipulation of the stills, rather than trust the shape to influence matters. Daftmill’s short, and very pretty stills are run slowly to maximise copper contact, and after each wash and spirit charge the man-doors are opened to allow the copper to rejuvenate. At every point, he is zoning in on the desired spirit character.

Half of a wash back’s contents goes into the wash still, producing 800-900 litres of low wines at 22-23% ABV. Into the spirit still, then, for a stately distillation. The aim is to capture some lovely succulent oils, but a seven-minute foreshot run clears out the fat and grease from previous feints which is, obviously, not wanted. The spirit cut is tiny, and impressively high: from 78% down to 73% ABV. I can only think of The Macallan and Glen Garioch that have a narrower middle cut. Water is added and the spirit is reduced to 63.5% (‘with the paddle’ – a lumped of wood rest on top of the spirit receiver) before being pumped across to the warehouse which is the final side of the courtyard.

Inside the warehouse.

When I arrived I imagined I smelt fermenting going on. Francis suggested it could the Quaker Oats factory nearby but I think it could be all the fresh Bourbon casks maturing behind the rich green doors. Inside, I was met with that dunnage warehouse aroma that I know and love so dearly: two floors hold Daftmill’s hundred or so casks (there is another warehouse elsewhere on the farm). All of the production from the past ten years stood in front of me and after fielding a farming-related phone call, Francis grabbed a valinch and set to work.

The vast majority of casks are from Heaven Hill in Kentucky: all first-fill ex-Bourbon. In recent years, due to oak demand, some have had to be sourced from Makers Mark and Jim Beam. Francis pulled out a shining measure of liquid from a 2006 barrel before pirouetting and breaking open a Sherry butt from the same year.

The two cask samples.

I nosed the ex-Bourbon sample and was met by a gust of lightly-bruised spearmint, Werther’s Originals, the creamiest, juiciest vanilla I’ve ever come across and sparkly, fudgey malt. The malt character reminded me of some Larks I’ve tasted: a combination of light, smooth and sweet malt and powdery shards of crystallised green fruit. It also bore some similarity to a single cask Kilchoman Peter Wills brought to the Quaich Society recently: clean, fresh and attractive. ‘You’re in good company,’ Francis said. ‘Charlie Maclean reckoned he could smell mint, too’. The palate presented a different face to Daftmill; still clean and fruity, with the spirit resisting the oak, before rich cereal notes entered together with butter on burnt crumpets. A real mouthfilling whisky, this one. Time in the glass revealed fat corn from the oak, lemon posset and banana chips.

The Sherry cask had contained Oloroso and the colour, as you can see, is spectacular. The nose was as clean and pure as the ex-Bourbon example, but with glace cherry and candied red apple before sultana flapjack and jellied grapefruit appeared. I professed astonishment that the spirit had not been bullied by the first-fill Sherry. Again, the thickness that registered on the palate was impressive: toasty oak with jelly beans and an oily weight. There were some aromatic notes arising from the tannins, like tarragon and bike chain oil (or that could have been me).

Francis hopes to release single casks initially (precisely when, he declined to comment) before bringing a few casks together and bottling at 46%, a la Kilchoman. He confessed that the young Islay distillery’s policy of finishing a vatting in Sherry casks appeals to him but did not say that this would be Daftmill’s approach. Over the whole visit, however, Francis emphasised that while he is still trying to perfect his distillation regime, nothing is unequivocally off-limits. Peated Daftmill may be trialled in future, other casks may be brought in, but for now he is waiting to see how the world will respond to his take on the Lowland single malt style. I’d wager it will be a hit.

I pedalled off in the light rain forecast, my left knee resuming its complaint from the ride in. This is worryingly similar to the pain I suffered from in the run up to the last Odyssey four years ago. That went away with some dedicated rest. Hopefully whatever is wrong can continue healing tonight. The odd thing is that the pain goes away after a few miles so hopefully it is just a temperature problem and a question of getting warmed up. I’d rather not be popping Paracetamol for the next two weeks.

This will be my final blog post for a while, but a lot of the action will hopefully be related on Twitter (@WhiskyOdyssey).

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Countdown to Scotch Odyssey 2

Incredibly, I may just be in a position to take on a second circumnavigation of Scotland in search of Scotch whisky distilleries to visit.

If April was chock full of coursework, May was the domain of exams, and you can’t memorise the finer points of Kelman, Stevenson or Self (especially Self) if you are physically knackered. Training, therefore, has been rather more opportunistic and far scarcer than it was four years ago, when my ‘Fit For the Glens’ weekly posts updated progress from ten weeks prior to the Grand Depart. No such lead-in this time. I covered about 660 miles in training ahead of April 12 2010; this time we are maybe looking at half that figure, possibly a little more. I have had, as they say, my doubts.

However, I’m presently fed and showered following a 57-mile day of training, which suggests that – when I pedal off in a northerly direction towards Pitlochry on Tuesday – distance shouldn’t be a problem. Neither, it must be said, should inclines scare me. Over the course of recent weeks I have been impressed/dismayed by just how hilly Fife is. Seriously, the kingdom is like a heart rate monitor reading. If you want to acquire solid cardiovascular fitness, Fife is the place to cycle, lurching up single-track precipices and screeching down the other side repeatedly.

It’s also bloody windy. If you manage to get to the top of a hill, the breeze blowing out to sea is something you must contend with. Often this week I have been crawling along into the molars of a gale.

In summary, if the quantity of training cannot match 2010, perhaps the quality is a shade higher. I’m hoping so, because I have more than 900 miles filling 17 days, meaning that what I covered today is my average – average – for the tour as a whole. I’m going to need some carrots to get me through all of those, and fortunately the whisky industry has obliged.

I will begin close to home, at Francis Cuthbert’s Daftmill distillery. Long have I wished to poke about in this wholly-independent farm operation and possibly taste something interesting. It is rare these days to be taken round a plant by the person who makes the spirit. From there it is up the A9 to the distilleries which my overly ambitious itinerary ruled out last time: Dalwhinnie and Tomatin. I only hope Dalwhinnie is as pretty on the inside as it is to look upon, hurtling by on the main road. Tomatin are releasing stellar whiskies at the moment; hopefully I’ll be able to get a taste of what is on the horizon.

If you can't have Balvenie, then a single cask Imperial from the year you were born is definitely the next best thing.

Speyside is next, a region where I had a very high hit rate four years ago. Sadly – nay, tragically – I have repeated my feat of being too late to book a tour of The Balvenie. I gave them two weeks’ notice in 2010, one month this time. Nothing doing. If you want to get round before the end of the year, my advice is book now and cross your fingers. You’d think it was El Bulli. Of course, I have an excellent fall back option, the soon-to-be-complete single estate distillery at Ballindalloch Castle (like them on Facebook). After that, I’m going to repair to the Speyside Way with an apt dram. A 23yo Imperial, bottled by Hunter Laing, fits the bill nicely. From there I shall peddle gently on to Dufftown to say hello to, and eat the fine food of, Sandy Smart at Taste of Speyside.

Already the mileages start to increase, and the next day I leave for GlenDronach and Glenglassaugh. Sunday is a distillery-free hike west and then north, before my triumphant return (all being well) to Balblair. I’m banking on Clynelish being open on a Monday, but the site is being expanded so maybe not. I’ll phone ahead this time.

The next section has me petrified and hyperactive with excitement all at the same time. I will have distance, ferry timetables and the whims of the West Coast weather systems to trouble me as I cycle across to Ullapool for a boat to the Outer Hebrides. It is quite a trek to get to Mark Tayburn’s Abhainn Dearg, but if everything runs smoothly it should be spectacular. Long days in the saddle are necessary to get from Stornoway to the bottom of Harris in time for a ferry to Uig, before peddling down the spine of Skye for another stay at the Ratagan Youth Hostel.

From Loch Duich I more or less retrace 2010′s tire tracks to Fort William before omitting the islands (with regret) and pitching up in Glasgow for Auchentoshan. Fired with triple-distilled gorgeousness (but not too much, obviously), I wend homewards with a night in Stirling before stopping off at Strathearn Distillery (another small-scale operation) by way of a rest on the homeward stretch to St Andrews.

If you are travelling in Scotland during the next two and a half weeks, do look out for me. I’m the tall, lean be-spectacled cyclist smelling faintly of wash and pot ale, amongst other things. I’ve decided to pack a bottle of Compass Box’s Great King Street Experimental Peat in the hope that I’ll make some new friends. The blog will be silent during that time, but do check Twitter for up-to-the-minute events (@WhiskyOdyssey). I shall expand my experiences to more than 140 characters upon my return. I welcome any comments or queries you may have!

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On the road again…

Back in the saddle again in June 2014.

The terrific thing about wrapping up a semester is that you can turn your mind to fun future projects, cogitate a little more about what you want them to be, what shape and purpose they will have, and get a jump on making them a reality. That happened to me over the weekend regarding a mission of mine which has been incomplete since May 2010.

As those of you who followed my original Scotch Odyssey three years ago will know, I couldn’t make it to every distillery on my itinerary. The reasons for this were numerous: bike/boy breakdown, an overambitious route, misread opening times etc. etc. I had unfinished business with about eight distilleries in Scotland – and then a bunch of passionate people set about building more!

In June next year – all being well – I’ll graduate from the University of St Andrews. Between the formal termination of my final semester here in Fife and Graduation Week there are a few days begging to be capitalised upon and I feel I really ought to finish what I started prior to entering higher education in 2010. With the aid of Google Maps and the mega-litres of whisky experience I gained last time I packed my panniers and pedalled to the glens I have compiled a second route round Scotland which will see me cover nearly 1,200 miles in 20 days and visit thirteen malt whisky distilleries old and new.

The Scotch Odyssey Part II will begin here in St Andrews with Daftmill and Kingsbarns distilleries before I head north over the Tay to tick off Dalwhinnie and Tomatin. From there I wend my way into Speyside for the distillery I shouldn’t have missed last time round but did: The Balvenie. Then I swing by the Aberdeenshire distilleries of The GlenDronach and Glenglassaugh before skirting the Moray Firth on my journey to The Dalmore. I did visit this distillery in 2010 but in the meantime the visitor experience has been dramatically overhauled and I feel I really ought to spy those famous stills on the Cromarty Firth in this new light. Next I head to Balblair for my first tour as a punter, despite working there for a week in the summer of 2011.

I continue north to Clynelish which famously does not open for tours on a Saturday in late April. Then it’s time to head westwards: catching the ferry from Ullapool I visit the most westerly Scotch whisky distillery of them all, the spirit of Lewis, Abhainn Dearg. I will cycle down through Lewis and Harris to Tarbert before another ferry desposits me at Uig, Isle of Skye. From here it is an identical route to previously as I pedal off the island to Fort William. There will be a few long days in the saddle before I reach Clydebank and the Auchentoshan distillery. After a few more I hope to visit Annandale – if it is open to receive me – before wending my way back up to St Andrews.

Knowing what I know now about cycle touring I’m hoping to extract maximum adventure from my trip and I’ve invited any friends who wish to accompany of a leg or legs of the journey to do so. The real logistics of B&Bs, ferries and tour bookings have still to be made, and the fitness regime will have to start fairly sharpish. The Scotch Odyssey of 2010 is an undertaking I think about every single day and with every whisky I drink. I have high hopes for the next pilgrimage round Scotland’s beauty spots and barley-boiling stills.

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Spirit of Speyside

The modern connotations attached to ‘festival’ embrace many things, but mud, masses of people, inadequate sanitation and probably a youth with a guitar all feature in peoples’ minds’ eye. The true root of the custom, of course, is celebration, and a mighty big one is taking place in Speyside at the end of this week.

If you were to believe some of the pronouncements made by those whom I have overheard once or twice in recent years, you would wonder what the good-for-nothing-but-blends region had to celebrate. Incredibly, there are people who dismiss two-thirds of the Scotch single malt industry as grassy, fruity, honeyed and dull. In response, I urge them to do what thousands of international whisky fans are on the cusp of: visit.

Morayshire, Banffshire and Aberdeenshire boast magnificent landscapes (and seascapes), wonderfully varied and high-quality foods and of course, mighty malt whiskies. The Spirit of Speyside Festival touts them all. In past years, Glenfarclas have taken groups up Ben Rinnes, fuelled by their richly sherried liquids; this time around Glenfiddich will host a ceilidh in one of their warehouses.

Delighted with the uptake in tickets, Mary Hemsworth, festival manager, will preside over more than 370 events over the four days. Speaking of the number of enquiries from non-UK attendees, she said: ‘The Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival is one of the key events in Homecoming 2014, and we hope this trend will lay some very strong foundations on which to grow our international profile and that of Speyside Moray in a very important year for Scottish tourism’.

While in Dufftown last month, just in the one (superlatively excellent) Taste of Speyside I encountered Australian, Dutch and German whisky fans, while three Taiwanese gentlemen had preceeded me around the BenRiach distillery. The latter example demonstrates that it is not just the likes of The Macallan, Glenfiddich, Glen Grant and The Glenlivet that they are coming to see, but as many of the diverse and dynamic distilleries in the area as they can.

Once again, the normally secretive Mortlach will open its doors to parties over the festival, while the Tamdhu fete sounds especially interesting. The distillery will celebrate its return from the brink of rigor mortis with a ceilidh, whisky tastings, tours and a treasure hunt on May 4th.

Not to be outdone by the IWSC, the ISC, the WWA and numerous others, the Spirit of Speyside bestows its own accolades: the Roving Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival Whisky Awards. In a departure from the norm, recipients of the RSOSWFWAs will be decided by those who live, work and visit Speyside, rather than the old hands of an expert panel. Six drams will be judged across three categories (12yo and Under, 13-20yo, and 21yo and Over) by anyone who can make it along to a judging venue with £12 still in their pockets. Tomorrow nosing will take place at the Glenfiddich Distillery; on the 2nd at the Sunninghill Hotel in Elgin; Forsyth’s Coppersmiths in Rothes, and the Aviemore Highland Resort on the 3rd; the Grant Arms in Grantown and Aberlour’s Aberlour Hotel on the 4th. Winners will be announced at a three-course lunch held at Tamdhu on the 5th.

The Speyside community – it should go without saying – rests at the core of this eponymous gathering. On Thursday evening, the Festival will kick off with an Opening Gala and an auction which every connoisseur and collector of Speyside malt whiskies ought to attend. Fourteen rare and limited edition whiskies from the region will go under the hammer to raise as much money as possible for the Moray Immediate Care Scheme, the Festival’s chosen charity for 2013.

Just some of the whiskies include bottle #2 of a 1,000 bottle release of Limited Edition Tamdhu 10yo, a G&M Glen Grant from 1965 not previously on sale in the UK, a three-litre bottle of Glenfarclas 105 and a couple of bottles of Glenfiddich’s Eeu de Robbidou whose non-traditional maturation regime means it is not technically Scotch whisky at all. Commendably, this is whisky’s attempt to give something back to the region.

The events are as numerous as the distilleries, and I would dearly love to forget about revision for a week and get stuck in on Speyside. If you are at a loose end for what to do this week, check out the website at www.spiritofspeyside.com or keep up to date on twitter (I know I will be) with the handle @spirit_speyside.

Experience the beating heart of the Scotch whisky industry for yourself, and encounter the warm hearts of the people who live and work there.

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My Speyside Reboot

BenRiach Distillery on a tempestuous day.

I think we would all agree that 14 months is a ponderous age to be without the means of indulging in your chief passion. That length of time without football, an easyJet flight to somewhere warm, the use of a working television, or sex would try the patience sorely. I had endured 14 months without setting foot in a whisky distillery and righting this wrong last month wreathed me in smiles.

Wriggling from under the barbed wire cage of three assignments in as many weeks, I beheld the prospect of a period of time in which I could plant a project or two. Operation Sniff A Washback was go.

For various reasons, Speyside is my favourite of all the whisky ‘regions’. Not only is it far enough away from the Central Belt to impress upon me a suitably Highland ruggedness, but the density of high-class, diverse distilleries cannot be bettered. One hopelessly romantic train journey through the snow drifts of Aberdeenshire later and I alighted in Elgin, chilled but thrilled to be back in Morayshire. Thanks to the help of Stewart Buchanan and Ewan George, I knew that there was a whisky hearth of brilliant warmth awaiting me at BenRiach.

One very short hop on the 36 bus brought me to the swift S-bend on which BenRiach sits, the black bulk of the maltings showing up well against shards of snow driven into the grass by the determined wind. I was sent to the stillroom to warm up while Ewan finished off some recurring paperwork where I chewed the stillman fat with Fraser, custodian of the BenRiach spirit for the last four years. The quartet of copper pots pelted me with heat as Fraser told me about the various family members employed within the industry, one as far away as Laphroaig. That brought the discussion on to the peated BenRiach production regime and whether the quality of the final whisky represented satisfactory redress for the clinging cigarette smoker fragrance no worker can escape when the smoky stuff is being distilled. Like the gents at Balblair, Fraser prefers the less aromatically-invasive unpeated production.

The stills at BenRiach.

Trotting in Ewan’s wake, once his ‘t’s had been crossed and his ’i's dotted, we headed into the warehouses. Here I could Get My Geek On with a quick game of ‘Name That Cask’. Hoggies, butts, puncheons, and more than a couple of Port pipes could be discerned in the tepid gloom, teeming with the scents of perhaps the industry’s most heterogeneous whisky stocks maturing. I asked Ewan which of Billy Walker’s discoveries had most excited him when they emerged from dunnage obscurity. ‘To be honest, the Solstice stuff I thought was fantastic. I’d gone off peated whiskies for a few years, but that whisky is top class’.

'Under 25'? Hardly.

With the tour over, Ewan was kind enough to furnish me with one of the missing pieces of my BenRiach puzzle. Stewart had told us in St Andrews that more senior BenRiach acquired a tropical fruitiness, and I wanted to put his claim to the test in the shape of the award-winning 30yo. I found this to be a deeply unusual dram, a class apart from those other whiskies I have tried which can also claim to have been three decades in development.

Red fruit sweetness and rich honey came through at first on the nose, but despite its age there was a remarkable zest and life. Lime pickle came next, and then – right enough – the tropical fruits. I found banana and passion fruit were most evident, with grapefruit in time and a toffee’d weight. To taste, this was full with a spicy attack before the experience lengthened with malt, honey and plenty of vanilla. The 50:50 wood contribution between ex-Bourbon and ex-Sherry lent this whisky plenty of richness and complexity, but also enough body and freshness to demand a lengthier sipping session.

Ewan had one final ticket for the BenRiach Bandwagon, however, and when I nosed the second release of the Solstice Heavily Peated Port Finish, I leapt aboard.

BenRiach Solstice 17yo 50%

Colour – toffee apple red: clear and bright.

Nose – surprisingly fresh breezy smoke, like a wintry wind blowing the peat smoke over barley fields. It is a soft (though bold and unmistakable) smokiness, like the last stages of kilning. Beneath is a citrussy cleanliness, then the Port gives a firm base of cooked strawberries and morello cherries.

Palate – tickle of peat, then mouth-coating Port flavours. Flavour everywhere especially heavy, industrial peat. There is a clean, light toffee’d malt for balance.

Finish – drying all the time on black, thick and growly peat. Garden fire fragrance. Some tiny pieces of dried strawberry. Clean green apple on the tail.

With water, the nose hinted at the kiln even more, with fat, dry barley. More of the fruits inherent within the spirit emerged: orange and ripe Comice pears, all beneath a veil of smoke. With that dash of water, the palate was more focused with heat and smoke. A trace of creamy, nutty oak heralded a singeing sweetness in the middle of the tongue: pear drops and strawberry jam. Kippery smoke appeared on the finish with citrussy oak, a satiny sweetness and the sooty smokiness of a fire grate.

At the time, I laughed out loud: by rights, it should not taste as good as it does. The Port finish is so well-executed, and the smoke such a joyous mixture of textures and aromas. Having missed my bus on to Aberlour, I contented myself with buying a bottle, the immediate rapture of my dram at the distillery fortifying me against a fierce – but not unwelcome – blizzard outside the distillery. Though certainly not a summery dram, we were hardly experiencing summery conditions. Irrespective of the time of year, however, the bizarre brilliance of this whisky will make itself felt. I am now besotted with BenRiach.

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BYOB: Bottle Your Own Booze

Someone working on behalf of The Dalmore thought I might like to know that the Whyte & MacKay-owned Highland distillery has been beasting the competition as far as value growth is concerned. The ‘luxury brand’ is outstripping the other top 25 global single malts, with 69% year-on-year growth playing 12%. Consumers would appear to be fully prepared to throw lots of cash at rarer, more ‘deluxe’ bottlings from The Dalmore over and above other competitors, which is what I take ‘value growth’ to mean: the sumptuous packaging, the clever brand story, the astronomical performances at auction, would appear to be netting those managing the Cromartie Firth distillery vast amounts of money.

To double back and tackle the packaging issue, however. The Trinitas expression could boast crystal, rare woods, and enormous quantities of expertly-wrought silver, all of which nudged the whisky up towards that knee-knocking figure of £100,000. Yes, the whisky inside was doubtless rather special, but fostering the idea that a crack team of craftsmen had exhausted hundreds of hours of labour to manifest this specialness visually seemed to be important.

However, there is a counter-culture sweeping the visitor centres of Scotch whisky distilleries and it is the ‘bottle your own’ phenomenon. Aberlour, on Speyside, has perhaps the highest and longest-standing profile with respect to offering their visitors the chance to get their hands wet and fill, cork, seal and label their own bottle of whisky. Indeed, it was the first distillery at which I got up close and personal with raw whisky to take away.

Aberlour Warehouse No. 1 and the hand-bottling area.

The list of distilleries at which this gimmicky but fun and unusual process can be undertaken is a long one. Over the coming weeks, I hope to have factsheet posts for all of the Scotch whisky regions and sub regions detailing the visitor experience on offer, but for now here are those which I know accommodate hand-bottling: Aberfeldy, Aberlour, Auchentoshan, Balblair, Balvenie, Benromach, Bruichladdich, GlenDronach, Glenfiddich, Glengoyne, Glen Moray, Pulteney, and Tomatin. The spirits available typically hail from ex-Bourbon or ex-Sherry, but some may have occupied an exotic wine cask. They will vary in age and strength, but none are cheap. My Aberlour was £65, and at Auchentoshan you pay up to £100 for the privilege of infiltrating the warehouse and drawing your 70cls.

 

My 'whisky handshake' moment at Aberlour last September.

Why do we stand for it, if we are doing all of the manual labour? Of course, it is to experience that connection with the whisky-making process we have just observed. To see golden spirit exit the cask in front of us constitutes a timely reminder that depsite the often sanitized environments of modern distilleries and the gargantuan bottling lines by which our favourite single malt lands in Tunbridge Wells or Taiwan, whisky can be understood in terms of 250l hogsheads, and can - when emerging from oak - pungently enter the light and air of our personal atmosphere before slipping into a glass bottle. As we hold that bottle steady, and as its proportions slosh with spirit, it is like a whisky hand shake. We see, feel and hear before we taste and smell the personality of the whisky, uniquely developed in its wooden nursery, in a way we cannot do when picking up a bottle from the shelves of our local spirits store.

Distilleries lay on a special batch of spirit, and the tools to capture it, so that we can mark our moments in them. We can get involved, cut out the middle men, and escort off the premises a measure of the place itself. The label will bear not only the name of the distillery, but your signature, too, placing you in a new relation to your favourite dram. As far as the distilleries are concerned, I think it demonstrates that they similarly want to establish a new relation to their customers. The life of a cask is enriched by the 200-odd names, from all over the world, who drew spirit from it which I think is a powerful means of appreciating the lengths many whisky drinkers go to for their favourite whiskies, and the stories behind them. When that bottle sits, pride of place, on the shelf in Brussels or Beijing, there will exist a personal connection directly back to a few square feet of Scotland: not bad going for less than a litre of distilled beer.

Keep watching the Scotch Odyssey Blog for precisely what single cask, tasty morsels Scotch whisky distilleries will be offering the visitors this summer. Alternatively, I have found my way onto Twitter, and you can follow me via @WhiskyOdyssey. See you there.

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A Master Blender Bonanza: Part 2

Fruitcake, Frivolity, and Figs

A fraction over a week ago I was to be found skipping through the streets of Edinburgh with Chris Hoban, ducking into coffee shops and chocolateries, trying to recover a sense of our own humanity. Events which took place a larger fraction over a week ago explain why.

John Ramsay marshalling the Q&A.

With our whisky ration cards long since frittered away in various corners of the Scotch Whisky Experience, a halt was called to the Master Blender Meet-and-Greet. I just had enough time to return Chris’ measure of Johnnie Walker Platinum (full and voluptuous with no small amount of smoke and plenty of coconut-laden grains) to him before we were herded up yet more stairs.

I had long since began to suspect my legs, uncertain as to whether they were working with me or against me, but the room into which we plodded revived my spirits. A vaulted ceiling allowed plenty of the last of the Edinburgh light in, and a striking stained glass window at the far end reminded all guests of the route by which those whiskies we had tasted already that evening had arrived beneath the noses of the master blenders, before they passed them along to us. The blenders themselves were sat along the high table to face the room. Only Richard Paterson, however, got to his feet. The show must go on.

In our glasses panted the juicy, dark and rich beauty that is The Dalmore King Alexander III. As chance would have it, this was the whisky I ordered following my first tour of the Experience, poured by Mr Hoban if memory serves. Paterson wanted to unlock the full spectrum of this immensely complicated whisky, which had seen the inside of six different specimens of cask before its tasteful glass bottle with silver embossing, via strong black coffee, fruitcake and dark chocolate. In a performance that blended at least six potent characterstics of its own to match the whisky, ranging from the ebullient to the outrageous, Paterson encouraged us to approach a single malt like never before. We were discouraged from following his lead, however, and hurling the first measure onto the carpet.

The Dalmore food matching tasting, minus the coffee.

‘Mm mm mmmm… Mm mm mmmm… Mmm Mmm MMMMMMMMMM. And swallow,’ he urged, holding the spirit on his palate for a tingling age. Then chocolate followed fruitcake which followed coffee in rapid fire ingestion. I wasn’t convinced. I don’t view the addition of food to a dram as ‘messing around’ but I have yet to come upon the right combination. Though at many turns in his lecture Paterson had the room gasping in disbelief, my scepticism for the food matching exercise could not be dispelled.

Tutored tasting over, Master of Ceremonies for the final portion of what had been a joyous, insightful evening so far, John Ramsay, took the microphone to the audience. The first question probed the panel with regards to their favoured drinks, a fairly uncontroversial line of inquiry one would have thought, until Paterson rebuffed Caroline Martin for pinning her colours to the Johnnie Walker mast. The Whyte and MacKay man paid tribute to David Stewart, and the Balvenie 21yo Port Wood in particular as a whisky of stupendous interest and beauty.

A lady on our table wanted to know next how the master blenders could keep track of the multitude of flavours they encountered on an hourly, never mind daily, basis. Could they offer any tips, she asked, for improving our own olfactory skills? Gordon Motion fielded the debate, asking the questioner how many windows she had in her flat. After a brief flurry of arithmetic an answer was provided. ‘Now how did you go about counting those windows?’ Motion asked. The lady replied that she could see them in her mind’s eye. ‘I do the same thing,’ said Gordon, ‘I have a set of images for certain flavours. For example, peaches will always remind me of a holiday in France when I was young and we were given a bowl of peaches by the roadside.’

As anyone who has read my collaborationwith Keith Wood on Whisky Emporium a little over a year ago will know, this is precisely what fascinates me most about personal encounters with whisky. My hand shot up when the ‘last question’ call came. What, I wanted to know, was the most powerful moment the panel could remember in which they were transported back to an earlier sensory memory when tasting whisky?

Richard Paterson regaling the room.

Chris Morris answered first, stating that the strongest impressions he can receive from nosing Bourbon is of the rickhouses at Woodford Reserve. ‘That’s warehouses for the rest of us,’ interposed Ramsay. David Stewart’s fifty-plus years around the spirit could flag up no particular instance, although he spoke with quiet pleasure of his apprenticeship with single malt Scotch whisky. Angela D’Orazio’s testimony came directly from the heart as she described peat-cutting on Islay. In addition to the peats, Angela noticed the little wild flowers that grew on the bog, and when she had a sip of Islay whisky later, echoes of those floral characters surged back to her.

Caroline Martin focused on ‘lightbulb moments’ in connection with the distilleries she works for. The instant someone told her that Clynelish was a waxy spirit, manipulating it and understanding it became a far easier task. A childhood growing up in Coleraine, near to the Bushmills distillery, abided with Billy Leighton. When going to school or playing with friends, ever-present was ’this smell’. Entering the industry later on, certain Irish whiskeys could successfully evoke that formative atmosphere. Gordon Motion, whose point about the peaches had inspired my question in the first place, related to us a nosing session in which a particular spirit yielded with irresistible potency the garden centre at B&Q. ’Fencing panels was all I could think of,’ he said, ‘but I couldn’t say that, it sounded stupid.’ But a fellow taster noted ‘tarry wood’ in the same sample, and Gordon was galvanised to supply his tasting note. ‘Just write down what you smell,’ he urged us.

The Japanese blenders had been silent for the majority of the questioning, but Koshimizu-san accepted the microphone. He described his experiences in Japanese, and his translator assisted afterwards. The result was a statement of gentle, thoughtful brilliance. In his day-to-day encounters with whisky, every so often a sample will radiate the aroma of figs. Koshimizu-san has not eaten a fig in the last fifty years, not since one particular day at his grandmother’s house where she always had an abundance of the fruit. Nevertheless, that single flavour – when discovered – reconstructs that house, that person and that moment. ‘It is as if time has vanished,’ said the translator.

John Ramsay concluded the evening and told us of how his days in the maltings when he first started with Edrington assisted him as master blender as, for one distillery, the re-occurrence of that green malt aroma signalled that the spirit was on track. Several rounds of applause later, we all had to sadly make tracks of our own. The master blenders had been supremely generous with their time, but the 9am start and hundreds of whiskies looked to have taken their toll by the end. Outside, while raffle winners collected their bottles, a line for the lift formed involving some of the whisky world’s most significant and talented noses and palates who were all deservedly heading to their hotel rooms. For Chris, Chris and I, however, we were off to Bramble Bar, but that will have to wait for another post.

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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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