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December 24, 2011

The Call of the Wort

Perhaps it is the heavy emphasis on the great indoors, induced by the clammy cold, rain, and days which darken before ever having really brightened, that is to blame for my distillery yearning. It struck at the same time last year when glimpses of the snowy Perthshire Hills provoked a pining for the Valley of the Deer, Glenlivet and the delicate camomile tea light of the West Coast as seen from stillroom windows or a visitor centre cafe.

The new, tasteful extension to The Glenlivet.

I long to subsititute the heat of a radiator for a mash tun, the fragrant smoke of a wood-burning stove for the earthy wisps escaping from pagoda vents and their peat kilns beneath. Christmas cake baking in the oven cannot hope to match the curranty richness of a really excellent Oloroso sherry butt. You can see my problem. Life is simply better in a distillery.

Given the choice, therefore, where would I go right at this very moment? If I had my Christmas wish, it would be an amalgam of the very best, most nose-titillating, mouth-watering and compelling whisky-producing spaces, a Franken-distillery tour if you like. Allow me to take you round.

With snow on the higher Braes and a keen, clean wind ruffling the grass and heather, there can be few more stirring distillery journeys than that to The Glenlivet. I would depart from Tomintoul, pass through Auchnarrow and Tomnavoulin, and skirt the Packhorse Bridge over the river Livet itself before launching into the Cairngorm National Park and trundling into the distillery grounds. I would sprint from the car, up the stone steps to the spacious, warm and welcoming visitor centre which combines the scents of wood and whisky so wonderfully. As this is my ideal Christmas, I can stretch to a bottle from the Cellar Collection prior to the tour.

By some miraculous feat of malty teleportation, I troop up a spiral staircase to the heady, embracing sweetness of the Auchentoshan mash tun. Wood-lined and copper-domed, it dominates the room whilst churning that pure, gentle barley.

I have to negotiate a couple of close-fitting corridors and a flight of metal steps before Aberfeldy’s tun rooms appear, some of the washbacks hidden around the corner. Tropical fruits burst in front of my nose, together with a creamy orange aroma. By happy accident, Glen Grant has some of their vessels in the corner which exhale their juicy apple and biscuity cereal breath, too.

Past the chimney into sensory Nirvana.

Clicking my heels together, I duck through another doorway to the whitewashed still house of Lagavulin. Huge burnished onions squat and sweat in front of me, milking the spirit into their condensers. Like a bullock with a ring through its septum, I’m tugged to my right and the spirit safe. I sag against the pillar and do my level best to drown in that heart-of-the-run fragrance: burnt toast, wood smoke and hedgerow berry conserve. When a decent amount of time has passed – say about a week – Malcolm Waring beckons me outside to a bright Islay south coast afternoon before pole vaulting to Wick.

 

Pulteney manager, Malcolm Waring, in a delicious bonded warehouse.

I’m caught in two states of being, here in the Old Pulteney warehouses. The heavy honey and spicy toffee of so many exquisite ex-Bourbon barrels leaves me slack-jawed – seduced – while the cool, violent saltiness invigorates. A few spot lamps breach the fecund darkness as I caress hoggies and butts, alive now to the sizzling thread of citrus in the air.

Finally, say ten days into my distillery tour, I reach the Balblair distillery office. Highland sunshine slides into the room, adding a gloss to the display cabinets and antique table having bounced off the slick tarmac and the newly-corrugated warehouse rooves outside. John MacDonald has poured a generous measure of the 1978 into my Glencairn – and left the bottle – and I can process its marvellous deep floral aromas, together with honey and dried citrus fruits. I toast Scotland and I toast her whiskies and give eternal thanks that a significant imprint of the former can so readily flow out with the latter no matter where you happen to be.

An exterior shot of a great interior.

Merry Christmas, one and all, and may the new year yield many distillery tours.

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December 11, 2010

The Scotch Odyssist’s Handbook

If you are tired of waiting for me to produce the definitive tome to the world of Scotch whisky tourism (and I know I am) then please allow me to do the next best thing and point you in the direction of two men who have done just that.

Not content with contributing to a thorough, and to my mind successful, revision of malt whisky’s seminal work – the Malt Whisky Companion of Michael Jackson - Gavin D. Smith, in partnership with Graeme Wallace, has released a gem of a book which does not follow the whisky out of the distillery to the bars and shops, but stays behind to take a closer look around.

Discovering Scotland’s Distilleries may have been the subject line in my correspondences with Scottish Field prior to their publishing an article of mine in October, but I learnt earlier this week that it is also the title of a pioneering work concerned with informing the whisky enthusiast of how he or she might get the most out of their time amongst the towns, hills and pagodas of Scotland’s whisky landscapes. I am delighted to see this work appear, because it confirms in my mind how the attentions of the industry, and of the whisky-drinker, have become increasingly focused on the idea of provenance. Nothing was more crucial to me when I elected to sit on a slender saddle for six weeks and pedal to as many distilleries as possible. We now wish to make a journey and plenty of discoveries beyond the drinks cupboard and the nation of Scotland is eminently well-euipped to accommodate such urges.

Rather than the ‘coffee-table books’ you may find lauding the Scottish landscape and the romantic, artisanal industry within it, this is a slender volume (195mm by 120mm) to be thrust into an overnight bag or coat pocket for use out ‘in the field’. The rigidity of its thick card cover would suggest it would withstand even my abusive shovings into backpacks and panniers. In fact, I rather wish I had had it to hand prior to and during my Odyssey.

Divided into a general introduction covering whisky history, the geographical regions which, for all the concept has been questioned of late, is still highly relevant to the traveller, and a very evocative passage on the present state of distillery tourism. Congratulations are in order to Gavin Cunningham and company at Tullibardine who lured in the most thirsty tourists during 2008.

There follows a series of thoughtful suggestions as to combining a distillery visit with a general excursion in Scotland, focusing on the major cities and also outlying rural districts. Some of these I undertook by bike: the accessibility of the ’Eastern Perthshire Trail’ I can attest to - even on two wheels! Together with how you might work your day around a peep at Glenturret and Tullibardine, for example, are listings of bars, hotels and eateries. These sections really are fine pieces of research, although I’m quite certain they do not cater for the budgetary considerations I was obliged to observe!

Both this and the section detailing those distilleries which offer tours take a counter-clockwise route around the country (in much the same manner as I did). From the relatively accessible malts and distilleries of the Lowlands, the book is structured to reflect the increasingly intrepid nature of getting to the far-flung birthplaces of some of the other malts you may have encountered. For each distillery with a regular tour in operation (fifty are listed) there is a double-page spread with information, on the left-hand leaf, regarding ownership, the malt itself and the production, in addition to distillery and local history. The right-hand page deals solely with the ‘Visitor Experience’ with an extended prose commentary in addition to listings of times and tour specifications. It is all so up-to-date it is quite unnerving, and proves my suspicion that many distilleries were set to upgrade the tourist experience shortly after I passed through.

The remainder of the book approaches the other half of the industry which, officially, don’t provide an established tour. However, there is the suggestion that, with perseverance and charm, you may be able to arrange a look around.

I’m still waiting on some page proofs from the publishers to illustrate much of what I had to explain above, and when they arrive I shall return and slot them in. Of course visitor centres function, on the most basic, cynical level, as the most immediate and stylishly-furnished extensions of the owners’ marketing departments, but there has been a committed, coordinated response to the increased interest in where one’s whisky comes from, and as a result there are some truly memorable experiences on offer to cater for all tastes – and which the Scotch Odyssey Blog can still help you to distinguish between!

Discovering Scotland’s Distilleries is available from Amazon and Waterstones at GBP £9.99.

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