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January 26, 2011

The Balvenie

      Bitter disappointment does not come close to describing my feelings having phoned up The Balvenie Distillery from my room in the Huntly Hotel to be told that their tours for the forthcoming week – and indeed most of the next month – were fully booked. Having been assured by a fellow tourist at Macallan that it was a most singular single malt experience (and at £25 for a three hour tour, I should think it would be) I saw what a gaping hole its loss left in the fabric of my Odyssey. At the time, I cycled round the buildings, reflecting on the plumes of steam, metropoli of warehouses and wraiths of blue-brown smoke coughing out of the pagoda vent. It was set to achieve four stars for the production process alone – providing as they do a chance to view the coopers at work in addition to the floor maltings. I also happen to be very fond of the drams they make. Next time… 

*      *      *      *      *

The eclectic Balvenie site, as viewed from the Spirit of Speyside carriage on the Keith-Dufftown Railway.

The eclectic Balvenie site, as viewed from the Spirit of Speyside carriage on the Keith-Dufftown Railway.

Dufftown, Keith, Banffshire, AB55 4DH, 01340 820373. William Grant & Sons. www.thebalvenie.com

TOURS PROVIDED:

‘The Tour’: £25. A three hour experience at the home of ‘the handcrafted malt’. A coffee and a summary of the distillery’s history begins the tour in the Distillery Office before a thorough investigation of the plant occurs. Maltings, mashing, fermenting, distillation and coopering are all included, as is a trip to the warehouse. I’m not promising anything, but the chap I met outside The Macallan boasted of having sampled malts straight from the cask – two, in fact, and both from his birth year: in the 1960s. There is a tutored tasting of The Balvenie range, ascending from new make to the highly prized 30yo back in the visitor centre. BOOK EARLY, I CANNOT STRESS THAT ENOUGH.

DISTILLERY-EXCLUSIVE BOTTLINGS:      Whilst on the tour there is the opportunity to bottle your own 20cl measure of single cask Balvenie from a choice of three casks. The visitor may nose each of the samples from the three and make their selection – or alternatively they can bottle one of each! At present this trio are all from 1996: a first-fill Bourbon, refill Bourbon, and a first-fill Sherry. £20 each. Also, once back at the visitor centre the shop will be opened for you and then there are two exclusives to choose from: Rose, £100, and Tun 1401, £150. The shop is only accessible to those who participate on the tour.

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May 9, 2010

Highland Park

It rather took me by surprise; seemingly jumping out of nowhere after my latest gruelling climb. It was a pleasant surprise, though.

It rather took me by surprise; seemingly jumping out of nowhere after my latest gruelling climb. It was a pleasant surprise, though.

Holm Road, Kirwall, Orkney, KW15 1SU, 01856 874619. Edrington Group. www.highlandpark.co.uk

There were no issues with aggressive germination on the day I visited: it was freezing!

There were no issues with aggressive germination on the day I visited: it was freezing!

APPEARANCE AND LOCATION:      ****      I was expecting to see some pagodas down in the centre of the town so was rather surprised when I turned my head to the right and there they were: the twin kilns of Highland Park, one of which was smoking merrily away. From the warehouses there is a brilliant view to the soft, rolling hills to the north and west, while the harbour is visible from the road outside the distillery. Highland Park is on its own hill, surrounded on its northern side by housing estates. Kirkwall itself is a bit of a walk away.

TOURS PROVIDED:

‘Standard Tour’: £6. See ‘My Tour’ below. Incredible!

‘Connoisseur Tour’: £35. An in-depth tour with a senior guide. It takes two hours and there are four whiskies to sample in the tasting room or the 12, 15, 18 and 25YOs. Transport is also provided: even if your staying in the hotel next door they will provide a taxi to take you and bring you back!

‘Magnus Eunson Tour’: £75. Named after the founder of the distillery, this is equally in-depth and you are taken by the manager around the distillery to areas usually off-limits. You taste all the whiskies as in the Connoisseur Tour with the addition of the 30 and 40YOs. You are given a certificate and a the distillery book, which retails for £25 normally. Again, transport is laid on and if you book the tour, only you and other members of your party will be taken round.

‘Silent Season Tour’: £5. The Highland Park silent season is throughout June, July and August. You watch the film and take the tour, if possible. At the end their is a taste of the 12 and 18YOs.

DISTILLERY-EXCLUSIVE BOTTLINGS:     The Hjarta caught my eye, a cask strength 12YO available only in the distillery shop and Scandinavia, £67. The remaining two distillery-exclusives are also cask strength 12yos: the Saint Magnus (part 2 in the Magnus trilogy), £87, and The Sword. This is a version principally for Taiwan but the visitor centre succeeded in withholding a few cases for visitors, £62.

My Tour – 04/05/2010

THE RUNNING COMMENTARY:      ***

THE PROCESS AND EQUIPMENT:      ***

Notes:      Together with Bowmore, the most complete distillery tour to be had, as far as following the process is concerned: floor maltings, to the kiln, to the mash tun, washbacks, stills and finally into the warehouse. Tremendous. It has been making whisky on the same site since its inception in 1798. They have five malting floors and the figure I was given is that it is 2.5 times more expensive to oversea the malting of your own barley than it is to buy it in. This barley comes from Black Isle way, the barley on Orkney neither the right variety nor in the correct quantities. They smoke the barley over their peat for 16 – 20 hours and finish the drying process over coke for a maximum of 20 hours. Casks can be used up to four times – they must be good, then.

Ah! Warmth! And my first taste of how those famously smoky whiskies attain their character. A very special moment.

Ah! Warmth! And my first taste of how those famously smoky whiskies attain their character. A very special moment.

GENEROSITY:      * (2 drams: the 12YO and the 15YO. Only one star because 2 into 6 makes three: spot on generous.)

VALUE FOR MONEY:      **

SCORE:      9/10 *s

COMMENT:      It may have rained all the while I was on it, but Orkney is a very special place. I don’t know who said it was flat, though. I got over the last big hill and suddenly there was Kirkwall. I began scanning for pagoda rooves down in the town and was startled out of my wet skin when they appeared right in front of me. It was very special free-wheeling in beneath that wrought-iron name sign. The tour was with Dagmar, a lovely young Danish woman (they’re all from the Viking lands up there). She knew the distillery supremely well, and plenty of anecdotes about the distillery’s history. That Magnus Eunson sounds like quite a character – hiding his casks from the excisemen under shrouds in the church so when they went looking for them all they found were “coffins” and a grieving community. Genius. The history of the place is self-evident. The stonemasonry is exquisite and speaks of age. The floor maltings were amazing to see after so many videos and explanations. Dagmar said that lots of people say afterwards that their understanding was improved by having visited. I entirely see why: when it is there in front of you and not some effort of the imagination, of course it is easy to comprehend. The reason distilleries all give for abandoning malting on-site is cost, and when you hear that it is 2.5 times more expensive to malt your own than buy your malt in, you can see what they mean. Highland park carry on regardless and the visitor benefits as a result. The kiln was fantastic, too, and not just because I was shivering to death. One firing is done using  their uniquely heathery peat from Hobbister Moor (no trees on Orkney, remember) and the second using coke. On the way round I wondered what sort of details the more expensive tours go in to if they declare themsleves to be in-depth. All questions were answered on the standard tour before I had so much as conceived them. The warehouse was a stand-out section. They have the most dedicated wood policy in the industry – £2 million a year on casks and wood management. This is more than the rest of the industry combined. This was the first I’d heard of it. When it comes to wood, it is Glenmorangie which toots its horn the loudest. Well, like Glenmorangie, Highland Park has its own forests in America where they harvest the wood, lend them to the Sherry industry, then bring them back to Orkney to mature Highland Park. There are no Bourbon barrels in the place, just American oak seasoned in Europe in addition to European oak. It takes seven years from cutting down the tree to that wood coming into contact with Highland Park spirit. There is a Spanish oak butt and an American oak butt to smell and much to distinguish between them, though both only seasoned with Sherry. There was a Spanish oak cask to nose back in the VC – an ex Ambassador Cask, no less. Again, quite a contrast. The 12YO I knew well when I came to taste it, but as has been the case throughout this tour, they always come across differently when you sip them in-situ. The American oak used in the making of the 15Yo was a startling deviation from what I’m used to: creamier and herbal with warm nettle notes. The next time you sip your 12YO, remember this: when the last batch of 12YO was being put together, the oldest whisky used by the master blender to bring harmony to the vatting was more than 35 years of age. What a tour, and so worth the £6 to get in, the £14 to get there on the ferry, the 20 miles of wet cycling and every one of the previous 700. Spectacular.

The bike (you can see it through the gate) and myself having completed two of the four whisky compass points.

The bike (you can see it through the gate) and myself having completed two of the four whisky compass points.

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