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Day 4: Tomatin

Before getting into the meat of my recount (or should that be drizzle?), I’d like to alert the prospective traveller to a phenomenon which I call Landlady’s Revenge.

I don’t know quite when the bond between eating in a public space and music became indissoluble, but I first noticed its incursion into Scottish bed and breakfasts during the previous Odyssey. Then, at my third breakfast in Braehead Villa, I had to ask that the accordion-heavy drivel be turned off as I could not bear it any more. Landlady’s Revenge, therefore, is where your host welcomes you into their home, provides you with a comfy bed for the night, clean towels and a binder of things you might like to do in the local area before exacting neat and artful retribution by forcing you to pick at your muesli to the strains of some flutey-voiced, warbly, traditional Scottish musical kitsch. My four fellow guests, Swedes long past retirement age, commented on the aural awfulness, too.

After an especially painful but energetic run-through of ‘Flower of Scotland’ I ran upstairs and packed as quickly as possible. Deciding quite what to wear for the day was a problem, however, for although low cloud abounded above Newtonmore, it wasn’t exactly cold and it wasn’t raining.

Three miles in and just beyond Kingussie, I had to remove the over-trousers. The road was angling upwards and I was set to sweat big time otherwise. This was a good move and the ramps didn’t prove too onerous. However, soon it was time to head downhill and the low cloud was especially thick by this point. On went the over-trousers again and before long the over-shoes had been donned, too.

I’m still unsure whether dampness is worse than a headwind and searing heat combined. Unless it is mid-winter, the constraining clothing means that you perspire aggressively so you are wet inside and outside. The only benefit is that you are wet and warm, which is to be preferred to wet and cold. However, I was trying to make it to Tomatin for 11.45, I was in time-trial mode and the wetness was worsening.

Descending through forest, meeting the odd tour bus coming the other way, life was bearable. By Coylumbridge, however, we had reached saturation point and that very special breed of fine Highland rain that seeps in everywhere. On went the hood and the winter gloves, up went the perspiration levels.

I’m sure the landscape round about me was striking, and looking at the map now I see that I was on the banks of the Spey for much of the way, but I could hardly see. Vile is the word, but you have to keep going. By Boat of Garten, however, I was concerned. Water was low (the irony) and I had to stop for food. It was now that I could appreciate how inadequate my rain jacket had become, with no base layer protecting my chest from the cooling water.

Anyway, it wasn’t until some way after Carrbridge, when the rain became mist again, that I knew I had to make a clothing switch and fortunately I had packed a second hi-vis waterproof. With a rugby jersey on beneath it, I began to warm up and make better progress although I accepted that my 11.45 Taste of Tomatin Tour was long gone.

I rasped my way up to the Slochd Summit, 1315 ft above sea level apparently, which is quite high for a Scottish road, and finally there was another cyclist! I didn’t catch his name but the tanned giant in the saddle was a surgeon from York cycling from Glasgow to Inverness. We chatted about the weather, midges, and Roald Dahl by which point Tomatin had appeared on my left.

Inside, Hannah and Scott did a marvellous job of pointing me towards radiators (my shoes and gloves made it into the still house) while I refuelled and reflected on the horrors of the forty miles thus far. It turned out I was on time for the 1pm Taste of Tomatin Tour, so I paid my £10 and set off with about seven others.

Drizzle, drizzle everywhere...

If Dalwhinnie had been an over-priced geek-free zone, Tomatin spoilt me rotten. Scott, the tour guide, gave us all an immensely thorough run-through of Tomatin’s fascinating history (it was at one point the largest malt whisky distillery in the world, but look up my ‘Tomatin at the Quaich Society’ post for more detail) before sticking his hand into a bag of Maori yeast in the washback room, talking us through distillation with the aid of a real decommissioned shell-and-tube condenser and leading us into the cooperage.

Where there were once 23 stills, now there are 12. Condenser at bottom right.

Unlike other commercial cooperages, where employees are on piece-work contracts, Tomatin’s two full-time coopers are salaried like everybody else which makes for a more relaxed working environment. I loved this section, like a maze of wood, starting with first-fill Sherry butts exhaling generously, to a quadrant of virgin oak casks (used for Legacy and Cu Bocan), a phalanx of Port pipes and a legion of ex-Bourbon barrels, mostly from Makers Mark.

From left to right: virgin oak, Port pipes, a Sherry butt.

Finally it was into a cool, clammy dunnage warehouse where a few more cask types were on display, before back inside the still house to an adjoining room for the tasting. The previous day, £17 had bought me three whiskies (two lots of 15yo, a Sherry finish and a single cask); today, £10 bought me one new make sample, three core range whiskies and two single casks. Tomatin pummels Dalwhinnie in terms of bang-for-buck, intrigue, information and charm. In fact, if you are on the A9 don’t bother with Dalwhinnie at all.

The new make nosed like soft, creamy pear with a skeleton of firm caramel. Water revealed fresh barley, apple jelly and a touch of flowers. Legacy, as it had been in St Andrews in the autumn, was a delight and for under £30 I struggle to think of a single malt I’d rather drink. The 12yo was more appetizing than usual although I do find the Sherry finishing too sweet and grapey for the spirit; drier Sherry inflections would work far better.

The fourth dram was the visitor centre bottle-your-own Bourbon cask which I was very anxious to try. Exuberantly sweet on the nose with caramelised barley, delicate oak, peach and honey. It did become a touch ‘nippy’, however, which is perhaps not surprising for an 11yo spirit out of first-fill barrels. The taste was creamy, light and sparkly and overall very attractive. It’s neighbour was the VC’s Sherry cask which showcased exactly why I don’t like the Sherry influence on Tomatins: all fat sultana, fruit and nut chocolate and creaminess. I wanted depth, but the spicy, Dorrito-esque palate didn’t deliver. Cu Bocan was much as Cu Bocan had been previously: sweet, lightly smoky and well-structured.

As I saddled up, following a wee taste of the 1988 (medium-bodied, bursting with yellow and tropical fruits) and the 14yo Port finish (by far my favourite of the whole lot on the day, the Port adding the dry richness that those Sherry casks seem incapable of doing), the sun appeared. I was buoyed only momentarily, however, as a mammoth storm cloud sat on the mountain top above the distillery.

It took a while to leave Tomatin village, as I hid beneath a farmer’s barn for the clouds to pass. By and large, however, I escaped the worst of it as I retraced my steps back to Boat of Garten and swung east towards Nethy Bridge. I didn’t remain entirely dry, but I could get away without the over-trousers which made a significant difference.

In Nethy Bridge, 58 miles after setting off from Newtonmore, I needed a whisky comfort blanket. The Nethy Bridge Hotel duly obliged with Isle of Skye 8yo on the optic. ‘You want that Glenfiddich’, said the local expert. ‘It’s the same price and you’re getting a single malt’. I replied that I felt like a blend at that precise moment, which baffled him entirely. Sipping my double over the next 40 minutes, I didn’t regret my decision.

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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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Summer of Distilleries 2012: LOWLANDS

The Lowlands of Scotland were where my Scotch Odyssey of 2010 began and, as a cyclist, it’s pre-eminence in my affections was guaranteed by the extraordinarily lovely weather I enjoyed. At the time, it was a somewhat overlooked region; accessible but somewhat ‘vanilla’. However, with a resurgence from Auchentoshan and the enduring individuality of Bladnoch, in addition to Ailsa Bay, Daftmill and building projects such as Annandale in the west and Kingsbarns in the east, the Lowlands is at the forefront of avant-guard distilling with a vast variety of flavours on offer.

Auchentoshan, Morrison Bowmore, 01389 878561 www.auchentoshan.com Open 7 days a week, 10am to 5pm. 

  • From Glasgow: 10 miles (20 minutes) from the city centre; from Edinburgh: 55 miles (1 hour 30 minutes) from the city centre
  • Tours: Ranging from the £6 ‘Classic Tour’ lasting an hour to the £45 ‘Ultimate Auchentoshan Experience’. At 135 minutes this is a tour of serious depth, with a nosing and tasting straight from the cask.
  • Visitor Centre Exclusives: bottle-your-own single cask in the warehouse. Choice of two. At present it is a 1999 first-fill Bourbon cask, 59.9% abv. £100.

 

 

Bladnoch, Co-ordinated Development Services, 01988 402605 www.bladnoch.co.uk Open Monday to Friday, 9am to 5pm.

  • From Glasgow: 100 miles (two hours thirty minutes); from Edinburgh: 115 miles (three hours)
  • Tours: one standard tour. Expect to pay between £3 and £5.
  • Visitor Centre Exclusives: not at the moment.

 

 

Glenkinchie, Diageo, 01875 342004 http://www.discovering-distilleries.com/glenkinchie/ Open 7 days a week, 10am to 4pm (5pm in August)

  • From Edinburgh: 16 miles (30 minutes); from Glasgow: 60 miles (one hour fifteen minutes)
  • Tours: Ranging from the £6 ‘Glenkinchie Tour’ to the £10 ‘Flavour of Scotland’ tour.
  • Visitor Centre Exclusives: ‘Double-treated’ with Amontillado American oak cask, 59.3%. Around £65.
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‘Balblair (vc)’ – Excellent

My malt whisky literature shelf normally expands by at least one volume at this time of year. One would have thought that, between Dave Broom’s peerless World Atlas of Whisky, two editions of the Malt Whisky Companion and a number of other hardbacks salvaged from second-hand bookshops, together with my subscription to Whisky Magazine and the raft of blogs I endeavour to keep up with, any more published works on the subject would be plain extravagance. When it comes to Invar Ronde’s Malt Whisky Yearbook, however, the title of Dedicated Whisky Geek starts to look a little fragile without the latest edition.

As a compendium of every significant development at each of Scotland’s – and indeed most of the world’s – malt whisky distilling sites, it is unparalleled. If there has been a new washback installed, a still neck replaced, or a new bottling released, it will tell you. I flicked to page 90 and Balblair’s entry, mindful of their single-man, automated production regime introduced this summer and the imminent release of a new core range vintage. What I saw in the green sidebar, however, cheered my distillery-touring heart. ‘Status: active (vc)’.

‘At last!’ laughed John MacDonald, Balblair Distillery manager, when I described this moment to him last week. ‘How long have I been going about a visitor centre?’

The unassuming entrance to the new Brand Home.

Earlier, when he had welcomed a cohort of bloggers and drinks journalists, by that point sated by bacon rolls, to the distillery, he had been more circumspect. ‘It’s quite a significant day [for Balblair] and one that I have been looking forward to for a number of years now.’ Balblair, at last, has a dedicated facility to welcome those eager to discover this distinctive Highland malt, and it is my belief, having spent some time at the Brand Home house-warming, that Serge Valentin’s fears were groundless. He praises Balblair as ‘a wonderful little distillery’ with the semi caveat ’where no ugly visitor centre was built (please don’t!)’ in a profile piece written in 2007. It is now 2011, it is still a wonderful little distillery, and you would have no idea that a visitor centre even existed!

The 'snug', single cask and shop.

As I talked about in a post earlier in the year, the investment and the time had been promised to convert the former floor maltings into a space to accommodate, educate and entertain visitors. The finished product is discreet, smart, and entirely in keeping with the functional, unusual nature of the distillery to which it is attached. Divided into two rooms, you will find the shop, toilets, the bottle-your-own single cask and some indecently comfortable chairs immediately through the little red door, and the larger area for tastings and displays in the floor maltings proper.

Andy Hannah, Balblair brand manager, talked about Balblair’s new front room as the ultimate destination for those with ‘a genuine interest’. He said: ‘we’re not about bussing in hundreds and hundreds of people – that will never happen’. An intimate mode of making whisky has been transferred to their approach for educating people about the brand. ‘The physical experience of Balblair is really really key.’ I crowed with joy – inwardly – to hear that. A visitor centre or brand home is not about trading in marked-up tartan, baseball caps or fudge. Rather, it represents both the genesis of a brand identity which must - like the whisky - result from the equipment, personnel and location, and its apotheosis when individuals insist on making the journey to discover where and how those flavours and philosophies originated.

The bottle-your-own from 1992.

Visitors will indeed be richly rewarded. Though not yet confirmed, the tour structure is expected to follow that of Old Pulteney with a standard tour, a further package with the option to taste additional expressions and a deluxe, in-depth manager’s tour when John MacDonald can be yours for the afternoon. John’s knowledge and passion are quite extraordinary, as his weeks of late-night painting sessions leading up to the Brand Home launch testify. Having taken you round the plant, the whiskies he will put in front of you are of the highest calibre, too, and it was on that subject that we were all principally invited.

In conjunction with the Brand Home, Inver House have released the successor to the 2000 vintage. However, there is a more significant departure in the 2001 vintage bottle than the additional year on the label would perhaps suggest. In a move Andy Hannah described as ‘bold’, and in keeping with their radical decision to launch a core range of vintage expressions in 2007, the entry level Balblair joins its older brothers in being natural colour, non-chillfiltered and 46% abv. ‘We think it’s the right time,’ said Mr Hannah, ‘really re-affirming our boutique brand credentials.’ Some small but telling packaging alterations have also been made.

The trendy, atmospheric 'tasting pod'.

We bloggers and journos, sat in the glass, wood and leather luxury of the ‘tasting pod’ as I call it, were fortunate enough to evaluate an undiluted sample, and experience what John described as ‘a taste odyssey’. On the nose my first response was ‘guinea pig hutch’, developing light creaminess, pale oak, buttery toffee and heather honey. The palate exploded with barley sugar, lime and mango. As an introduction to the new spirit, the multimedia system was powered up and we absorbed the ‘sights and sounds’ of 2001 projected onto the pod’s glass panels, making for a very striking and engaging effect. As we went from Harry Potter and the Philospher’s Stone, starring a very junior-looking Daniel Radcliffe, to the election of George ‘Dubbya’ Bush, a little bit of Destiny’s Child teased our ears. This was indeed a ‘Bootylicious’ Balblair. I’m not sure about the extent to which it gave off the impression of the War on Terror, but that’s probably a good thing.

With the 2001 launch discussed and enjoyed, the Balblair representatives of John, Andy, Karen Walker, Derek Sinclair, Malcolm Leask and Lucas Dynowiak could decompress, a job well done, and savour the superb three course lunch. I must give a personal mention to Mike and the team from Good Highland Food who put a trio of delicious plates in front of us. A cold smoked trout and hot smoked salmon terrine preceeded an eye-poppingly superb fillet of Caithness beef, rounded off with a Balblair-infused chocolate torte which was very probably sinful.

It was nothing short of a joy to be back at Balblair in the first instance, but also to see the confident new direction the brand is taking both with their juice, and with their accessibility to the public. There is more than one distillery on the Dornoch Firth worth visiting, don’t you know. I urge you to make the trip – Balblair will make it worth your while.

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Go to Glengoyne – everyone else is doing it

Flocking to the Trossachs National Park, out of Glasgow’s northern back door,  is nothing new. People have been tramping up the hills and cooing at the lochs for a couple of hundred years now since the Victorian fetish for the Highland tableau established the area as a prime tourist spot. It would appear, however, that Glengoyne Distillery has succeeded in luring vast quantities of these souls out of the great outdoors and into its visitor’s book. Maybe the hill of Dumgoyne is the demographically-astute decoy.

The bottle-your-own facility and re-orientated shop.

Ian Macleod Distillers have invested £300,000 in upgrades to the visitor centre and shop to more appropriately welcome the 48,500 people who have traipsed Highland mud and gravel onto their carpets so far this year. More modifications are planned for 2012. These efforts, they say, maintain there position at the forefront of whisky tourism. Between their snug shop, tucked away behind the production buildings, and the sumptuous Manager’s House squatting further up the steep glen, Glengoyne has the facilities to accommodate all levels of interest and knowledge.

In the words of Stuart Hendry, Glengoyne Brand Heritage Manager: ‘The old shop area was very dark and didn’t make good use of space. Our brief to retail design agency Contagious was to create a brighter, more organised shopping area which showed off our award-winning range but without losing the distinct Glengoyne character.

‘I think we have hit the nail on the head and we are extremely happy with the outcome. Feedback from customers has been great and we have seen an increase in sales as a result.’

The alterations are not just in the aesthetic of the facilities, however, Glengoyne have also joined the bottle-your-won battalion. I would argue that there are quite enough single cask Glengoynes sitting, pre-packaged, in the shop already to agonise over, but it is jolly good fun all the same. At the moment spirit is from a first-fill American hogshead, distilled in 2000, and promioses heavy ’tropical fruit flavours’. At £75 it is towards the ‘premium’ end of the pricing structure.

Ian Macleod are fans of inovative whisky marketing and flavour possibilities (Smokehead anyone?) and have not rested on their laurels with their single malt distillery. They have added a raft of new multi-media in addition to their VC spruce-up with a series of films following custodians of Glengoyne’s flavour about their work. Duncan McNicoll is one such individual who can be spotted on screen before the tour and tending the stills during it. Stuart Hendry again: ‘The feedback from viewers is hugely positive. They enjoy getting behind the scenes and meeting the people. Visitors take particular pleasure in speaking to the stars as they meet them around the distillery yard.’

Well done, Glengoyne. With these alterations they can only have improved a whisky tourism experience which was already high up in the Premier League. I welcome any effort to reward fans of the dram who bother to make the journey in search of it with an experience that is just a little bit different. Whisky generally is in a confident place right now. I believe that by re-evaluating the role and character of a visitor centre that confidence can be better translated to the particular brand and those with an interest in it.

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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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