In the two-and-a-half years between the light bulb, grand induction moment into the single malt galaxy at The Glenlivet and alighting on to the 09.56 Edinburgh-bound train in April to begin my Scotch Odyssey, only one experience truly volunteers itself as an essential giant leap forward in my appreciation of whisky.
While my boutique (and marvellous) tour of Auchentoshan in 2008 afforded me more time observing the process, it wasn’t until my top-spec potter around Aberfeldy distillery last autumn that I gained privileged and enlightening insight into the mercurial DNA of Scotch malt whisky, contained within its individual casks. Therefore, ahead of my VIP tour of Glen Garioch and the inauguration on Scotch Odyssey Blog of my personal views regarding the many bespoke distillery guided tours available in addition to the basic packages, I would like to tell you about my time at Dewar’s World of Whisky and what single malt, untamed by reduction or filtration, tastes like.
The Aberfeldy Signature Tour [now the Connoisseur Tour and with added bells and whistles] cost me £30 and for that I was granted private access to the fount of knowledge that is Bruce. He guided me through a tasting of the Aberfeldy single malt and Dewar’s blended ranges, and then around the distillery. The climax of the tour – and the reason I had only nosed many of the drams in the gorgeous visitor centre – was the final point on the tour specification. I was going beyond the mesh gate and into the warehouse.
Very sadly, it was not the same breed of ambrosial vapour of The Glenlivet or Auchentoshan that greeted my quivering nostrils. John Dewar & Sons ceased maturing Aberfeldy on-site more than a decade ago and the hundreds of casks to be seen stacked deep into the depths of the gauzy darkness are empty. All bar three, that is.
“Take your pick,” Bruce encouraged, and I concurred with his recommendation, selecting the 24-year-old cask from 1985 in preference to two from 1983. Bruce produced a mallet and a valinch, beating the bung out of hogshead no. 1321 with the former and drawing out a measure of Highland single malt with the latter.
I held my Glencairn glass below the valinch and a stream of sparkling rich gold passed from it to the glass. As I held my sample up to the solitary spotlamp I could see tiny black flecks of charcoal floating like dust motes in the glowing spirit. Tentative sniffs revealed apples, vanilla, and classic Aberfeldy heather honey but nothing more. It was only then that I realised how cold it was in the shadows of the warehouse. My skin felt clammy, as if the thousands of litres of whisky, which had once evaporated from their wooden bonds, were being squeezed from the blackened walls like water from a sponge, trickling over me.
When Bruce kept surreptitiously nosing the hole in the cask I followed his example and warmth returned. My head filled with sweet spicy aromas, partly from the alcohol, partly from the rich firm oak and biscuity, fruity, raw whisky. Each had been interacting with the other since before I was born. It was such a complex, enthralling fragrance – so much more so than even the best whiskies sampled in dull glass.
My dram had been transferred from cask to copita, however, so I dashed back across to the visitor centre where I might warm it up and unlock its character.
Over the next half-hour or so, I fell in love. The weight, muscularity but powerful pungent smoothness that all well-aged malts possess held me; sweet honey and vanilla charmed me, and heather-like aromas intrigued me. Amazingly, there was still much in the way of freshness and cleanness, despite its 24 years. Water pulled out richer caramel and butterscotch aromas.
Cleanliness and firm richness continued on the palate with the addition of wonderful warmth. Vanilla ice cream, nuts, fruit and what can only be described as “honey mist” made for a beautiful gently fading finish. On the Cask Tasting Tour [£12], there is a 25-year-old to sample straight from the cask. It may be the same one, or another very similar to it.
Ever since then, I have been dangerously vulnerable to the attractions of single casks: their focus and power, character and purity. I howled with lust and longing when Diageo announced the Manager’s Choice series. I subsequently howled with rage and dismay when the prices followed. I did put my name down for one of the limited edition Chris Anderson Cask Aberfeldys on the basis of that malt. 18-years-old directly from one cask; so severe was my desire that the asking price of £150 [now £180 at the distillery] didn’t deter me. I suspect my name was not transferred to the official waiting list, however, for I was not contacted again. In the long run, this was probably just as well.
My afternoon at Aberfeldy was an invaluable education, then. Indeed, what I learnt returned to me in April when I had the opportunity to compare it to another single cask encounter, this time at Aberlour. The experience at this Speyside distillery is made doubly astonishing when measured against this previous specialised tour. Aberlour is the only standard tour (besides Glen Moray) to economically reveal the majesty and charm of wild whisky.