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D-Day: Drumochter and Dalwhinnie

It’s an especially chaotic but liberating feeling, waking up in a youth hostel knowing all that is required of you for the day is getting to your next bed. What happens in between is entirely your responsibility.

After map-buying, baguette-sourcing and much knee-stretching, I returned to Pitlochry’s high street and spun north. Butterflies had not yet checked out of my stomach for the route that lay ahead, what one Diageo brand ambassador described as Scotland’s answer to Mordor. When driving to Speyside for week holidays here and there, my family and I always follow the A9 north to Boat of Garten before swinging right onto the A95 past Grantown on Spey towards Aberlour. Sat in the back of the car, I have always been conscious of the scrappy bike track which runs alongside the motorway, clinging to it all the way to Inverness as the arterial route comes to terms with the wild barrenness of central Scotland.

Google Maps, my platform of choice for working out directions for the Scotch Odyssey, has come on a good deal since 2010. Consequently, I knew that the climb from Pitlochry to Dalwhinnie was nearly 1,200 feet. On exposed roads. With next to no pit-stop opportunities. The road was certainly stretching upwards as I made it to Blair Atholl but became gentler as I found myself on a well-surfaced, two-lane cycle path.

By this stage, about 14 miles in, the only cause for concern was the enormous black cloud above me, which every left turn convinced me was passing over and harmless, and every right turn had me contemplating the waterproof. It just hung there, all morning, without making its intentions clear.

Before very long at all, the single-file concrete and fine gravel cycle path arrived. What I couldn’t appreciate from the car was how it swooped down to the river bank and the railway line before lurching back up to the main road on an annoyingly regular basis. Plus, there were bridges to contend with, all sporting brutal potholes at either end as you left and rejoined the main path. Progress was less than continuous.

Mercifully the sun emerged alongside Loch Ericht but very soon my physical powers were put to the test by a vicious headwind. My mental toughness was also examined, since despite the wind the black clouds in the south seemed to be gaining on me. How was that possible? Soon it was the gates requiring opening and shutting that were enraging me: having to dismount and wrestle a lump of ironmongery in a gale while keeping a heavy bike upright is not much fun.

With the sky darkening, I spotted a sign to Dalwhinnie, the distillery visible from two miles out. Still, however, progress wasn’t straightforward as the wind strengthened and traffic increased. After not too much swearing, however, I arrived and could reflect on the wisdom of my decision four years ago in Braemar where I had chosen to skip Dalwhinnie and Tomatin. I simply couldn’t have managed it.I signed on for the next tour, deciding to capitalise on one of the additional ‘tastings’ offered – tasting ‘A’, which meant three Dalwhinnie’s paired with chocolate. Foolishly, I thought the price quoted was inclusive of the tour. It wasn’t, so my Dalwhinnie experience was going to cost me £16.99 (£8 for the tour, £8.99 for the tasting).

The tour itself showed improvements on the last time I was visiting a Diageo facility. As always, the tour guide is very friendly and informative although not all guests had their questions answered. The distillery itself is very pretty and exceedingly fragrant, the massive modern mash tun sat beneath one of the bronzed pagodas visible from the motorway and the wooden washbacks lending a heady, fruity aroma. The stills are large and working at full capacity. All Dalwhinnie produced goes to single malt and their now reasonably legendary 15yo.

In the warehouse, things became a little more hands-on. First of all, kudos for even letting us in there; secondly, hurray for a nose of the new make and a single cask sample. All good stuff. Next door there is a display of how colour accrues in different casks over time and here we received our 10ml of 15yo Dalwhinnie, together with a little fingernail-sized piece of chocolate truffle.

The 'Three Tastes' option at Dalwhinnie. I wouldn't recommend.

Forty minutes after leaving the visitor centre I was back again and this was where the problems started. I approached the ‘bar’ to offer my ‘three tastes’ ticket and receive said tastes. Being on a bike, I asked for a spittoon or similar so that I could remain on the right side of the law. ‘I’m sorry, we don’t have anything that can be used for that,’ said one member of staff. ’Whisky’s supposed to be drunk’, came the reply of another. ‘Have you a bottle you could use?’ said the first. I find this a) flabbergasting and b) irresponsible. How can you advertise a distillery tour and tastings to passing trade who are 99.9% using cars to get to you and not provide for spitting-out?

In the end, I did have an empty Volvic bottle and set to work. What did I find as part of my £8.99 tasting? Another 15yo! I was really irritated now. Why charge people for another dram of what they have just had? Surely it is in your interests to give them something else to try, which the customer may go on to buy as a result? Essentially, therefore, my £9 was for two ‘new’ whiskies and a repeat of what I had only nosed five minutes ago. Great stuff, guys. And again, abiding by the 10ml measures. Four Iain Burnett chocolates retail for about £7, but 30ml of whisky? I think Diageo are making a killing.

The other drams, then: the Distillers’ Edition 16yo, finished in Oloroso Sherry, and a single cask from 1997 – the same one that had been passed round to nose while in the warehouse. The Distillers’ Edition was very good, as it happens, and worked reasonably well with the chocolate. The single cask was a bit feisty and closed and tasted younger than the 15yo, the meatiness of the spirit - created in the worm tubs – not quite at its apotheosis.

I left Dalwhinnie seething gently, which was maybe why I couldn’t quite find the cycle route. I did manage another shot of what is a beautiful distillery before finally discerning the little blue sticker. The wind was a constant enemy for the final 11 miles into Newtonmore, and though only 43 miles were clocked for the whole day, it felt like a lot more.

Dinner was at The Letterbox restaurant on Newtonmore’s main street which I heartily recommend. Their two course offer was very compelling and the rest of the menu looked delicious. I wasn’t about to buy a third Dalwhinnie 15yo so stuck to Appletiser.

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Talisker at the Quaich Society

The five Taliskers on show recently at the Quaich Society.

With twenty-eight distilleries to cherry-pick from, it was perhaps a surprise that David Sinclair of drinks industry giant Diageo arrived in St Andrews with the product of only one of their distilleries. Then again, given Diageo’s recent investment in single malt brands – most notably regarding their Speyside dark horse, Mortlach – the decision to showcase all that is new and interesting in the world of Talisker was understandable.

Back when I first succumbed to whisky’s compulsive charms the extent of the Talsiker ‘core’ range was the iconic 10yo, the devilishly hard-to-find but stunning 18yo and the Amoroso-finished Distiller’s Edition. However, over the last twelve months we have seen a feisty no-age statement Storm, it’s brooding cousin Dark Storm and even a Port-finished offering, the punningly-named Port Ruighe (the Gaelic name for the capital town of the Hebridean island of Skye, where Talisker is made). David – somehow or other – managed to procure two bottles of the 2009 30yo release as well, so it wasn’t just a blooding of the youngsters.

Talisker’s production process is, quite rightly, the place to start when appraising any of the whiskies from this cult distillery. Today using medium-peated barley from the Glen Ord maltings, once upon a time Talisker was triple-distilled; indeed, the still house still boasts the extra copper which would have been used to further refine the spirit back in the old days. These stills are unusual in themselves, with purifiers in the wash stills connecting the u-bend lyne arms back to the body of the stills. All condensation takes place in worm tubs. Basically, this is complex distillation, building in weight and power to the spirit.

There can be no better demonstration of this than in the 10yo: idiosyncratically peppery, with a bit of savoury seaweed on the nose, the whisky has mellowed slightly with generous vanilla and spice from the oak casks used to mature it. This was the first time in years I’d tried the core expression and, to be honest, it wiped the floor with the next two interlopers.

Talisker Storm – or ‘drizzle’ as one wag I spoke to dubbed it – is supposed to be a more potent rendering of the house style, building in extra spice and peat with the use of heavily-charred, rejuvenated American oak casks. These impart no flavour from the liquid which was originally in the cask and allow the fresh oak to penetrate the spirit. I maintain that this is actually quite a soft, floral and mild Talisker by comparison with the 10yo and while not an unpleasant dram by any means, it cannot hide its blatant limitations of depth.

I have stated elsewhere that I am a big fan of Port-finished whiskies – in fact, last night I tearfully savoured the last of my BenRiach Solstice which I bought almost a year ago at the distillery. This is a symphony of dry, aggressive peat and thick hedgerow berry sweetness from the Port. I found the Talisker Port Ruighe disjointed and flat in contrast - the house style, after between three and six months in Port casks, had been consummately butchered, a suspicion only underlined whenever I returned to that bombastic 10yo.

David Sinclair talks us through the impressive 30yo.

This is not to say that Talisker and wine casks ought always to be kept well clear of each other; the Amoroso Sherry-retouched Distiller’s Edition is and to my mind always has been a delight. The peat and spice of the spirit meld with the drier elements of the wine while overall the effect is of fullness, sweetness and decadence, but in balance.

Our final whisky was a rare treat. I last sampled a 30yo Talisker at Edinburgh Whisky Blog’s Movember tasting – again courtesy of David. I described it as a lady’s boudoir extruded through the ashes of a peat fire. This one was marginally less sophisticated and surprising but still impressive. The nose offered a pronounced creaminess with some candied zest. Behind came a perfumed smokiness and tropical fruits with a growing spice and coconut character. A trace of cedar oil ramped up the aromatics. The palate, even at cask strength of 53.1%, was leathery and amazingly rounded. I detected almond milk, menthol and eucalyptus and a more overtly herbal finish with plenty of invigorating barley sugar. Excellent.

In the past it hasn’t always been possible to go ‘vertically’ through a Diageo distillery’s range. When there are three or four to choose from the latter drams are normally prohibitively expensive and elusive. To see Talisker in its many costumes was hugely instructive for me, and I know a number of others found the flavour bridge they’d been searching for between smoke-free and heavy peat whiskies. The Storm and Port Ruighe just didn’t do it for me, but I look forward to more experimentation with this powerful and versatile spirit. Hopefully David Sinclair will be able to come by again and curate them for us.

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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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A Master Blender Bonanza: Part 1

I don’t go in for hero worship. Irrespective of how many Tours de France they have won, how many people they have performed in front of or how many Michelin stars they hold, they are still human beings beneath all the Lyrca, cymbals and cauliflower foam. However, at a recent event held within the Scotch Whisky Experience (SWE), Edinburgh, I must confess that I could finally empathise a little with Beatle Mania, or whatever it is all those teenage girls succomb to whenever anyone mentions Justin Bieber.

The master blenders and ISC panel.

Together with Chrises Hoban and ‘The Tiger’ White from Edinburgh Whisky Blog, I milled about in the refurbished SWE shop together with many other bright-eyed, excited members of the public for the fun, games and knowledge to begin. For the first time in 17 years, the International Spirit Challenge has devolved from London to Edinburgh. This, to me, seems only right for various coincidences of geography and whisky-producing heritage. As a further innovation, the panel agreed to meet with whisky fans for one night only, talking ticket-holders through one of their bottlings before a whisky and food matching presentation with Whyte & MacKay’s Richard Paterson (or R-Patz as C. Hoban insisted on calling him), to conclude with a Q&A. Courtesy of Mr Hoban, I learnt of the event just in time. Another arrangement for which I am deeply grateful comes courtesy of Mr Hoban as well, and that was permission to crash on his sofa afterwards.

Industry legend John Ramsay kicked off the evening, introducing the decorated individuals to the waiting throng. As they stepped out of the wings onto the new mezzanine floor, my easily-suggestible mind confected a Juliet-on-the-balcony comparison, but I was also struck by how – in this, a peerless collaboration by the Scotch whisky industry – the people responsible for so many of the smartly-packaged whiskies surrounding us on the shelves should also be in full view. Ramsay’s successor at Edrington, Gordon Motion, was introduced first, followed by Caroline Martin of Diageo, Billy Leighton of Irish Distillers, the great David Stewart who will complete 50 years of service for William Grant and Sons in September, R-Patz, Seichii Koshimizu of Suntory, Tadashi Sakuma from Nikka, Mackmyra’s Angela D’Orazio, and Chris Morris from Woodford Reserve. With head spinning, we were ushered upstairs where the chatting and dramming commenced.

Chris Morris, all the way from Woodford Reserve, Kentucky.

I have described previously the awe inspired by stepping into the Diageo Claive Vidiz Collection, but skipping between soaring cabinets of seriously old, seriously rare Scotch whisky – both blended and malt – there was added significance as I contemplated meeting the individuals resposnible for continuing the legacy of those brands which were so well-represented all around me. However, my first port of call was outside of Scotland. Since the beginning of the year my fascination for all things Bourbon has mooched into the kind of territory once upon a time open only to the likes of Lagavulin and The Glenlivet. With a recent pub in my local town boasting Buffalo Trace Antique Collection releases – the William Larue Weller expression I had tried a couple of days before – I wanted to learn from one of the masters.

With a big smile and a cheery How-do-you-do? Mr Morris poured me a measure of Woodford Reserve Distiller’s Select. Though hardly an uncommon Bourbon, even in my less than cosmopolitan drinking circles, to sip and listen to an exposition from the man who makes it trumped all previous tumblers of this rich, spicy and floral whiskey. At 43.2% the spirit spoke eloquently of glorious American oak and six to eight baking Kentucky summers. In fact, that was the analogy Chris used when trying to differentiate Bourbon from Scotch in the maturation stakes: in the rackhouses, the intense heat forces the spirit into and out of the oak, and exacts an Angel’s Share of 7% per annum. Though Woodford goes into barrels at 55%, it comes out again at 63%. Chris revealed that he had even found a cask whose long tenure unnoticed had seen alcohol by volume reach 90%. It was, of course, ‘undrinkable’.

The mashbill for Woodford Reserve is 72% corn, 18% rye from Dakota and 10% malt. Mr Morris revealed that a new expression would be on the market in the US soon, and will eventually make its way to Europe. He has taken batches of fully-matured Woodford, reduced the spirit back down to 55% and put the whiskey back into Chardonnay casks for 6 months to a year. The result is infinitely darker than the standard expression and reviews so far are highly complimentary.

Richard Paterson in suitably rarefied surroundings with the new Cigar Malt from The Dalmore.

I headed over to the Edrington stand where the quietly spoken but forthright Gordon Motion introduced me to the Famous Grouse Wade Decanter. Constructed to celebrate the pre-eminence of Grouse in the UK market for the last 30 years, I found it to be a very gingery, biscuity spirit, with clean cereals and a hit of earthy smoke. I rather liked it, but appreciated the conversation I overheard between Gordon and Charles Maclean regarding his new film star status still more.

I managed to catch The Nose as the last of his consignment of the latest The Dalmore Cigar Malt disappeared. He had just put in an order for a replacement when the MC tapped him on the shoulder – the next stage of the evening had to begin promptly. He just had enough time to tell me that my date of birth and body mass index could provide vital clues as to how a blend personalised for me might taste (and to pose for a photograph) before strutting off upstairs.

The tutored tasting and blenders’ question and answer session would take place next, but that is for another post.

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Blair Athol

When I was not setting, turning, spinning and polka-ing during the Celtic Society’s jaunt to Pitlochry, we had just enough time to visit a distillery. We – or at least I – would have contrived some way of fitting Blair Athol in irrespectively.

My previous visit to the home of Bell’s blended whisky was irritating in the extreme. I had discovered that morning that I could expect little more than a video and a dram at the distillery due to maintenance. I rocked up at the reception and exhibition area, got bored, and decided I had better set off for Edradour if I wanted to make it to Brechin before nightfall. I remember it as a smart plant, with an eager burn washing between the buildings.

Blair Athol Distillery, the home of Bell's.

Perth Road, Pitlochry, PH16 5LY, 01796 482003. Diageo. http://www.discovering-distilleries.com/blairathol/

APPEARANCE AND LOCATION:      ****      The distillery sits beneath the railway line, halfway up the braes that lead in to Pitlochry with the River Tummel at its foot. Beautiful stone buildings house the distillery, which sits within a courtyard. The burn which flows through it provides an extra scenic dimension.

TOURS PROVIDED:

‘Blair Athol Tour’: £6. See ‘My Tour’ below.

‘Flora and Fauna Tour’: £12.50. A  tour of the distillery with a chance to taste the Blair Athol 12yo and two other expressions from the Flora and Fauna range. Mortlach 16yo and Linkwood 12yo are my recommendations.

‘Allt Dour Deluxe Tour’: £25. The distillery tour plus Blair Athol 12yo, Cask Strength distillery-exclusive and four other malts.

DISTILLERY-EXCLUSIVE BOTTLINGS:      A cask-strength, Sherry-matured Blair Athol. 55.8% vol. and £55. I managed to wangle myself a dram of this and found it much lighter than the standard 12yo with more of an insistent creaminess and first. Delicate floral notes could be detected before planed oak took over. The palate was prickly and nutty with a good dose of vanilla but water didn’t help at all. A strange dram, and I would personally go for the standard bottling.

My Tour – 23/01/2012

The Blair Athol reception and exhibition area.

THE RUNNING COMMENTARY:      **

THE PROCESS AND EQUIPMENT:      **

Notes:      The tour commences from the courtyard, climbing up a series of steps into the old floor maltings, which now house the mashtun. Two waters only are required to extract the sugars from the grist, which are drained efficiently back down the hill to the four stainless steel washbacks. A short ferment (50 hours) produces the nutty characteristics required, and from there it is on to the stillhouse. Four tall and proud stills sit in the corners of the room, belching heat and a heavy, intriguing spirit. Standing by the ISRs, I could detect old gym crash mats and biscuit. From there it is across the bridge into the filling store for a cooper recruitment drive (there aren’t enough of them, apparently) and into the warehouse. The tour concludes on the balcony of the shop, with a dram.

GENEROSITY:       (Only the one dram is available as part of the standard tour. Asking nicely is the way to do it.)

VALUE FOR MONEY:        *

SCORE:     5/10*s

The shop.

COMMENT:      What hasn’t already been said about a Diageo distillery tour? I was part of a larger group – many first-time whisky drinkers – who said to me later that the ‘patter’ came across as somewhat formulaic and that they didn’t entirely trust some of the claims made. Having done more than 50 distillery tours, I suppose I have become inured to the ‘patter’ but I found our guide to be clear, informative and friendly. To address those odd ‘claims’, though. I only raised an eyebrow when discussions about blending began in the warehouse, the suggestion was that the blender fiddles around with ex-Bourbon casks because colour is more easily managed. There was some discussion of the vanilla elements ex-Bourbon casks lend to a spirit but the focus returned to colour as a reason for master blenders maturing their whisky in these casks. The warehouse itself was something of a disappointment, separated as we were from the sleeping casks in a sealed viewing chamber. No aroma could penetrate, and I feel many missed out on the mystery and magic of those oak-spirit scents, allowing them to guess at the gentle dynamism at work in a dunnage warehouse. The entire distillery, it must be said, was a little denuded of smell. The washbacks were ventilated, the mashtun airlocked, too. For the home of a major blended brand like Bell’s, I found the decor to be a little mundane and thin. It certainly could not hold a torch to the Famous Grouse Experience or Dewar’s World of Whisky. The blend-single malt focus was appropriate, however, and it was made very clear at the beginning that Blair Athol was an element of Bell’s, and was not the producer of it. We are living in different economic times to when I undertook my Odyssey, and I suppose that £6 is what one must now expect to pay for a distillery tour. As such I feel the expense is justified because Blair Athol and its product are undeniably charming. But if you have the means of getting to Edradour above Pitlochry, I would say that was a better bet.

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A Visitor Centre Timed to Perfection

Welcome to Balblair. Come in...

Welcome to Balblair. Come in...

There have never been more people positively inclined to pop into a Scotch whisky distillery. Interestingly and encouragingly, these people are perfectly normal and in many instances find themselves on distillery doorsteps throughout Scotland courtesy of straightforward mercurial curiosity as opposed to the single-minded manic obsession of the likes of Alfred Barnard and yours truly. Today, stillrooms and bonded warehouses constitute a viable attraction for holiday-makers in Scotland with just as much sight-seeing merit as medieval castles or the mountain scenery.

Balblair distillery, Ross-shire, is the latest Scotch whisky site exploring the possibility of taking in not just malt and yeast but tourists, too. During my week in Edderton recently, manager John MacDonald talked me through his hopes for the former maltings and the developed concepts suggest that Balblair is set to please whisky anoraks and newbies alike. The shop and cask display are standard commercial and aesthetic features, and the single cask bottle-your-own facility is certain to be popular.

The interior of the Balblair ex-floor maltings as they are now.

The interior of the Balblair ex-floor maltings as they are now.

However, if there was one facet of the visitor experience most of the centres I dropped in on last year were enthusiastically experimenting with it was multi-media. Be it the really rather good brand films of Glenfiddich and Highland Park which whetted the visitor’s appetite ahead of the tour, or the virtual grouse ‘flight simulator’ at Glenturret which comprised the irreverent conclusion of it, marketing had prescribed lots of moving pictures to hypnotise the paying public. The plan is for Balblair’s AV garnish to be a little more subtle: a glass-panelled oblong between the central pillars will accommodate tastings and corporate meetings while chronologically-relevant images which contextualise the Balblair vintages are projected onto the walls.

With space at a premium, the completed visitor centre is sure to be a snug and intimate venue in which to browse and buy. Of course, the tourist will discover a theme emerging as they are guided through the petite, contained distillery. It is fairly ironic that although Balblair was not constructed in an era which had the needs of prospective visitors in mind, it is a perfect site in which to demonstrate the manufacture of whisky and simultaneously impress the intrinsic personality of single malts.

A 2011 report by 4-consulting showed that 1.3 million people wandered into Scotland’s whisky distilleries last year and for all that 49 of those visits were conducted by a sweaty teen on a bike that is still a significant number. Diageo has reported nearly 20% more traffic coming through the doors of their twelve visitor centres in the last two years and has renovated the Discovering Distilleries website in addition to beefing up the inventory of tour specifications. A steady 6,000 souls a year sample the delightful hospitality at Glen Garioch which prompted a £40,000 refurbishment of their visitor centre earlier this year. Distillers increasingly recognise the exponential returns possible by allying their liquid with bespoke, high-end visitor facitilites in which the experience of purchasing whiskies can be rendered more educational, entertaining and personal, and they are making the necessary investments. Little wonder, is it, when the SWA drops a figure that dwarfs the initial outlay: in 2010 Scotch whisky visitor centres pulled in £30.4 million.

Inver House have picked an extremely healthy moment for the industry in which to roll out the red carpet at Balblair. Across Scotland there are plenty of tourists to go round themselves and the 52 other visitor centres, and such is the nature of single malt whisky that they boast the unique history and distinctive flavours to lure them in on their own merit, too.

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Diageo on the Beach (at the Quaich Society)

Diageo at the Quaich Society

The Quaich Society here in St Andrews has acquired a considerable quantity of momentum so far this term. A number of factors put paid to the final portion of last term’s itinerary but so far in 2011 the drams and learned conversation have been liberally flowing. This Thursday (the 10th), Diageo came to town, and I could not miss my chance to appraise how the world’s largest drinks producer goes about conducting tastings. As it happened, they are rather good indeed.

There could have been no more appropriate ambassador to address a bunch of students than a man who looked as if he had only just graduated himself. Duncan opened his talk with an allusion to just this happy circumstance, promising that he was relishing the change in demographic our forty-or-so strong crowd presented.Duncan McRae

With his six key points of discussion, and a special al fresco stunt planned for us at the end of the evening, Duncan’s task was a hefty one. Constraints of time are rarely too strictly observed at the Quaich Society, however, and we lapped up all of the information Duncan put before us. And the prevailing bias of the tasting was just that: information. The only thing ‘hard-sell’ about Duncan was his sincere love for his job and Scotch whisky, and putting the free Talisker scarves and ‘rocking glass’ to one side, gimmickry was notable by its absence. He expressed his personal views on such matters as terroir and centralised warehousing, basing many of his statements on the science of distilling, in addition to the simple realities of economics.

To those six factors, therefore: facets of the Scotch whisky product Duncan felt it most necessary to know. He accompanied each individual whisky with a spiel relating whichever of these categories that whisky could most interestingly illustrate, the first of which was Glenkinchie. Now this little Lowlander receives a fair amount of flak from some quarters, but I happen to be a fan of its sweet, dry, herbal characteristics. On this occasion I found more of the tight spiritiness of younger whisky with a great deal of vanilla and ginger cookie dough. Duncan partnered this with the distillery’s history. When the phylloxera virus decimated Cognac in the 1800s, two Edinburgh businessmen saw an opportunity to supply drinkers south of the border with spirit. However, it had to be different from their past encounters with the potent, heavy qualities of Highland Scotches. Sited close to rail links and raw materials for efficient production and access to market, Glenkinchie today continues to provide much of the freshness and zip in blends such as Johnnie Walker.

DiageoWe covered Dalwhinnie next, a preferred dram of mine in the right circumstances. Creamy and peachy with honey and smoke, the flavours did not disappoint or surprise. Duncan illuminated the story of Dalwhinnie with a word on the journey required to reach it. ‘You know when you head north of Pitlochry on the A9, when everything starts to look as if you’re in Mordor? That’s Dalwhinnie.’ Meaning ‘meeting place’, I can empathise with Duncan’s description. Unfortunately this was from the comfort of a car instead of a bike but that is what the next Odyssey is for…

Dram no. 3 was introduced in a highly novel fashion: ‘OK, who has beef with the Singleton of Dufftown?’ Hands shot up. Duncan’s explanation of why Diageo markets three different malts in three different territories in exactly the same style went some way to pacifying the dissenters in the room. Glendullan for the States, Glen Ord for Asia and Dufftown for the UK and Europe are each intended to occupy a given location on the Flavour Map, which was also wheeled out a couple of times during the evening, hence the identical labelling. Duncan conceded that, as a trio, they did not garner the greatest critical acclaim. However, he then dropped in the little nugget that the Singleton was the fastest growing whisky and in the world. Fair enough – Diageo don’t stay where they are at the top of the tree by refusing to give the general drinker, and in this case new drinkers, what they want.

With a word on maturation regimes for the Singletons (almost exclusive Sherry maturation) we arrived at the ‘big boy whiskies’. Duncan’s passion for Talisker and his eloquence on the subject of whisky generally was extremely powerful. ‘Why is whisky favoured around the world? Why is it romanticised in the way that maybe vodka isn’t? Why, when you type Talisker into Google do you come up with endless pictures of dogs?’ We awaited his answer, and – for me – it was the right one. ‘Because of the place.’ Talisker, as I have said before, is the most awesomely-situated distillery in Scotland. Duncan endeavoured to explain how Skye and malt whisky had the power to conspire and embed sensory sensitivity in the overcome visitor. How the locality and force behind the whisky could return to you, when you least expected it, over a Talisker anywhere in the world. That was what the tumblers and scarves were for. Duncan intended to lead us down to the beach, pour out some 57 North and let the magic happen.

Caol Ila and Lagavulin were somewhat hastily guzzled in anticipation of this jaunt – unique in my experience at the Quaich Society. Whilst to describe Lagavulin is superfluous by now (I am deeply saddened that my 20cl bottle is nearly dry), my encounter with the Caol Ila 12yo after what must be nearly two years of hiatus was keenly savoured. When I first entered the room I must confess I had been rather rude to my companions as I slumped on the table with my nose dipped, immovable, in the glass. It is such a magnificent aroma, such a majestic house style: so sweet, fresh, clean, oily and smoky. When Duncan told me that they had recently launched the Caol Ila Moch, I took note. An exclusive for the Friends of the Classic Malts, Moch is non-age statemented, vatting together 8-15 year-old Caol Ila for a medley of qualities. Money, where are you?Diageo

After satisfying his raffle-drawing duties, Duncan marched those of us intrepid enough and devoted enough to Talisker to brave the ferocious wind and cold to the shoreline. In the dark, the cask strength hooch flowed into waiting tumblers. Beneath the stars, we warmed ourselves on malty lava from the Isle of Skye. Unfortunately, I was left somewhat cold by the 57 North. It could have been the temperature, it could have been the lack of water to cut the spirit, but I found it too one-dimensional with a rigid dark oak note which strangled the body of the whisky. Rather than that irresistable Talisker peat fire burn which builds and builds, the whole thing just tasted slightly burnt – like salted caramel left on too high a heat.

Though the whisky was not to my taste, it was a highly innovative idea on Duncan’s part – not something he could have done in Manchester or Leeds, for example. The stars and my fellow Quaich Sockers were magnificent company at any rate.

I think this picture adequately demonstrates our gratitude to Duncan, and the Quiach Society committee, for laying on another fabulous evening.

Raising a toast with Talisker.

Raising a toast with Talisker.

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Clynelish

      I was wet, I was cold, and I was not prepared to accept when faced with a darkened and locked visitor centre that it was my fault for not reading the opening information properly. On a filthy day from Culrain to Helmsdale discovering that Clynelish was closed was almost too much to take. I debated how much trouble I would get into if I broke into the distillery and showed myself around. I elected to abstain from breaking and entering, and squelched on to Helmsdale for cake and something hot and sweet. My itinerary meant that I couldn’t double back on myself to tour Clynelish when  it opened again on the Monday. I had to get to Orkney.

*      *      *      *      *

Clynelish in white and Brora in grey.

Clynelish in white and Brora in grey.

Brora, Sutherland, KW9 6LR. 01408 623000. Diageo. http://www.discovering-distilleries.com/clynelish/

TOURS PROVIDED:

‘Clynelish Distillery Tour’: £5. A tour of the distillery (including a visit to the warehouse), with a dram of the 14yo to finish.

‘Taste of Clynelish Tour’: £10. The same tour, with a tasting of three Clynelishes at the end: the 14yo, the Distiller’s Edition and the Cask Strength Distillery-Exclusive.

‘Taste of Brora Tour’: £20. This sounds to me like a superb tour in which to participate. There is a tour of both distilleries on the Clynelish site: Clynelish itself and the now cult Brora. It is in the latter that the visitor is treated to a tutored tasting of the Clynelish range (as for the ‘Taste of Clynelish Tour’) with the edition of the 2009 and 2010 Brora 30yo Special Releases.

DISTILLERY-EXCLUSIVE BOTTLINGS:      A cask-strength, non-age-statement at 57.3% ABV, £45 approx.

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The Great Revision: Updating the Odyssey

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

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

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

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

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

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For Whisky, like Women; Is the Question of Age Still Off-limits?

It seems I am quite low down on the whisky blogger pecking order, but higher than I had suspected. Forty-eight hours or so after the debates began on What Does John Know? and the Edinburgh Whisky Blog amongst others, the press release concerning Chivas Brothers’ new consumer education campaign dropped into my inbox.

This is a fascinating topic, one that is both timely and crucial for the industry’s future. Experimentation and innovation are circling like a Viking mob whisky’s (and especially Scotch whisky’s) ancient castle keep with tradition, protectionism and legislation its bricks and mortar. Not only are people coming up with new ways of making and marketing whisky, but they are finding increasing popularity and plaudits for their efforts. Time, then, for the old guard to reassert some long upheld “truths”.

Let it be known that I am not enacting unreasonable militancy against the big corporate players. Without them, we would not have reached this glorious peak of single malt variety. I cannot help but feel, however, that Chivas, a branch of Pernod Ricard, are reacting in a rather heavy-handed way to the recent spate of no-age-statement bottlings proliferating on our retailers’ shelves. They commissioned a survey of 2,000 people who had purchased whisky in the previous month. They found that 94% believed that age was an indicator of quality; 93% believed that whiskies with a higher age statement were of a higher quality, and 89% look for an age statement before contemplating buying. Yet only 10% knew what the age statement referred to in relation to the contents of the whisky they sought to buy. Where has this prejudice come from, and who is responsible for further light not having been shed on the benighted 90% of the public? It is the whisky makers themselves in both cases.

Think about it, if the men in high office decide that they are going to commence stating an age, with all the legal requirements that such a declaration entails, they are going to devise an effective piece of marketing to coincide with it. Rather than necessarily inform the consumer what it means with bold exactitude, they are more likely to reassure the man or woman browsing the shelves that it means a better whisky for him or her. On my distillery tour, I encountered many casual tourists who, despite the best efforts of various guides, still had some trouble digesting the true definition behind the age statement. I cannot see how this is anyone’s fault bar the companies themselves. The misleading belief that older equals better suits them just fine.

So why are Chivas trying again now? As I mentioned above, the conservative approach to whisky marketing and labelling has taken quite a beating as smaller companies have whipped up serious committed followings for the younger products of their distilleries. The Glenmorangie Company is the inevitable case study, with both the Ardbeg and Glenmorangie ranges boasting NAS bottlings. Their success (with Rollercoaster, Uigeadail, Corryvreckan and Signet) would call into question the extent to which the attitudes found in the Chivas survey actually signify a devout adherence to age statements – shunning all others; or whether vague suspicions are not quite enough to deter some from purchasing one of these new and much-hyped whiskies of indeterminate age. My guess is that it is the latter, and this is why Chivas are pumping money, time and awareness into reviving the old prejudices.

Another reason for drawing the consumer back to age statements is that all of their needs could be satisfied by those brands in the Chivas stable. They style themselves as “the world’s leading producer of luxury Scotch whisky” and I’m fairly sure they base this on the fact that their portfolios contain bottles whose age statements reach and exceed 25-years-of-age in the case of Chivas Regal and The Glenlivet. An awful lot of Chivas whisky comes with a number on it. The perceived ignorance of the legal definition of age statements is a great opportunity to remind people of all the fine age-statemented whisky they have available.

The video on The Glenlivet website states the latest position of their owners loud and clear: “A guarantee of age. A guarantee of quality.” These are slogans, not truths, and they have not addressed the dearth of understanding, rather perpetuated the misconceptions. This is no time to aim for aphorisms for one cannot impart total understanding on this subject in a soundbite. In their press release they put forward the scenario that because “one of the greatest influences on the flavour of a whisky comes from maturation,” (no arguments there, this is consistent with the chemistry behind whisky making) “it follows that the longer the maturation period, the more complex the whisky.” Now this is frankly dangerous territory. In a piece of publicity with semantics such as “luxury”, “quality” and ”premium”, the word “complex” adopts connotations of desirability; perhaps inflated connotations. The implication is surely that older is better. Words have been used, and I suspect will be deployed again in the “point-of-sale materials, advertising and public relations” that will drive this campaign, to sell an idea about whisky, as opposed to deliver the low-down on the facts.

I won’t deny that it is a fairly reliable guide, but it does not always “follow” that complexity comes with age. I tried a single cask Caol Ila at 30-years-old that was very straightforward ex-Bourbon oak in flavour. The Kilchoman Second Release is one of the most complex malts I have tasted for quite some time and it is only a toddler at just over 3-years-old.  You must arm the consumer with more than this simplistic correlation masquerading as a rule if you are to set him or her away into the expanding and evolving world of single malt whisky. Say Consumer X starts out with Chivas Regal 12yo, moves on to Aberlour 10yo, then The Glenlivet 18yo and, having enjoyed this initial journey so much, maybe starts reading a few blogs, magazines or books, and decides he would like to pick up a single cask bottling at 21-years-of-age… and hates it. Say Consumer X is undetered and plumps for a 30yo from a distillery he has heard good things about, a special treat… and he hates that one, too. He has not, as Christian Porta of Chivas Brothers Ltd. asserts, been “empowered with knowledge”, at least, not the knowledge he needed. Why should it be the agenda to convince Customer X about “the value of what [he is] buying” in preference to the make up and process behind what he is buying? Only with that can Customer X work out why his 21 and 30yos were not to his taste, and make a different choice next time round. If his central, indeed sole, tenet is that older is better, where is he to go after his traumatic experiences? Most likely he will head straight out of this confusing, intimidating drinks sector and into another. Let’s not risk alientating new-comers by serving them absolutes. It is the drinks equivalent of “Teach a man to fish…” Whisky production is a complicated, unpredictable exercise all the quirks and foibles of which no-one truly understands. I appreciate that it is hardly effective marketing to proceed with the “ifs” and “buts”. I also accept that new customers want certainty, indeed, the very “transparency and authenticity” of which Porta speaks, so create a campaign that steers clear of the subjective and vague and sets out in more detail the true nature of the beast from the off.  That this topic has spawned the levels of discussion that it has demonstrates that this is not something a logo can clear up.

Just as the wood is “one of the greatest influences on the flavour of whisky”, the age is only one of the facts we need to be told to make a truly informed purchase. I would like to see information on the age, cask type, number of fills of cask, proportion of malt matured in each different cask (if there is more than one), peating level, filtration, colouring. If I was being really pernickety I would want to know if any and if so what proportion of whisky had been matured centrally or at the distillery itself. There is a long way to go but if the industry is committed to enlightening its customers then these steps will eventually be taken, and others feel the same. See Steffen Brauner’s comments on the WDJK? post.

Notice that I have not come out and denounced age statements themselves. I believe they are crucial information. It should be said, of course, that all whiskies have a minimum age, but this again depends on your knowledge of whisky laws. Nothing can be called whisky unless it is a minimum of 3-years-old. Anyway, the age statement helps me in my browsing because I know that an 8-10yo whisky will be quite bold and basic in its palette, with a liveliness. 18yo+ will probably be mellow, deep and, yes, complex. However, this is only as a result of past experience, not what any brand has told me. In addition, this is only what I expect age to have done to the whisky’s character and body. I don’t know what it will taste like. Novices may see an 18yo Laphroaig (a fine malt) and buy it believing it to be complex, and having been told that complex equals quality, quality equals good. But what if they don’t like complexity in the shape of peat, seaweed and oak? I think there needs to be a joint effort across the industry, began by Diageo’s Flavour Map, to classify by the sensory appreciation of a malt, not the obscure theoretical discrimination of quality care of maturity.

Lastly, I would keep age statements at all costs because that number, when properly understood, tells me, if nothing else, of the time and heritage behind what I am sipping. I’m still in a position where I can affordably drink whisky older than I am, and that is quite incredible when I think about it. I respect my elders, and a 25yo malt is something to savour and appreciate. Its creation and the means by which it has come to me were not carelessly left to chance and are not to be dismissed. It is in this sense that I agree with the “Investing in Age” section of The Glenlivet site. It is true that “there are no shortcuts in this process. Nothing can be rushed.” If the sole achievement of your campaign is that this is more widely understood, then you have done a great service to the industry, Chivas. I might not agree that “The Age Matters”, but age itself unquestionably counts for a great deal.

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