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Majestic Glenlivet

The word on the street is that there is some sort of royal shindig going on? Lizzie has reigned over us for 60 years and we Brits think that deserves bunting, scones, a few elderly gentlemen playing guitars, that sort of thing. The Macallan has grasped the spirit of the occasion a little better, I feel, with a new bottling from its regal stocks, although it cannot match – at least in terms of years – the Gordon & MacPhail Glen Grant 60yo. Either way, whisky as a fit means of honouring important occasions, usually with a calendrical application, cannot be disputed.

This brings me on to whisky as a fit means of marking notable moments in my life, and The Glenlivet in particular. It shall always be bound up with October 25, 2007, as the distillery I visited on that bright but chilly day and which launched my interest in whisky into the stratosphere. I don’t know whether this fact was consciously recalled by my friends when, in anticipation of my 21st birthday in September of last year, they pitched in for a bottle of The Glenlivet 21yo Archive (I should mention that it has shot up in price since). Upon opening it, I was ever so glad they did. Upon receiving it, I could only marvel at what a tremendous group of people I call friends. Lizzie will, doubtless, enjoy her scones this weekend and today I intend to tell you how much I enjoyed a measure of this whisky recently.

The Glenlivet 21yo Archive

The Glenlivet 21yo Archive 43% vol. £99.95

Colour – Boldly rich and burnished amber. Toffee apple.

Nose – A few choice aromas initially: clean, sweet and creamy ex-Bourbon wood with plenty of vanilla, sugary yellow fruits and fruitcake. With nose in the glass, I found the delivery a little timid at first but it was gentle and medium rich with a lovely freshness. Maltiness eventually appeared which boasted a certain oiliness whilst being wrapped in nougat and caramel. Terrific firmness of body with a fragrance like heather. The aroma seems to become ever richer with toffee and vanilla, in addition to nutty sherry and dark honey.

Water releases the creamy soft barley which makes powerful surges on a bed of vanilla. Peach, syrupy and running with juice, also Scottish tablet. The nose settles into an image of dunnage warehouses and top notch old Bourbon casks. The cereal notes are quite sharp and still somewhat oily. Plenty of nuttiness appears. With more time, shortbread, sweet mash tun and some dunnage again. Full, fresh and juicy malt.

Palate – Sweet, heavy fruits at first before oak and a slight earthiness break in. A malty flavour that combines vanilla and biscuity richness. Nutty oak dominates towards the finish.

Water heightens the creaminess, as it did for the nose. More toffee and sharp cereals. A good deal of weighty oak. A puff of vanilla after swallowing. Prune and almond.

Finish – Semi rich, oaky, but with a dusty floral note. Plum jam/ figgy residue and vanilla toffee. Quite basic and closed.

Water lent the finish real expressiveness. A crystallised sweetness to the malt introduced the oak once more, only on this occasion it had relaxed a fraction, allowing some tropical fruits to emerge: passion fruit, orange. Butterscotchy/ biscuity richness characteristic of the distillery.

So…? This is a whisky that just about succeeds in balancing delicacy and robustness. Some elements are as fresh and juicy as you could wish for with a Glenlivet, while the extra years have granted it a subtle, dark weight. The wood types have been juggled very impressively with controlled emphasis on Sherry oak but with some very high-quality refill Bourbon barrels in there, too. This is a very good whisky indeed, which does not require your full attention all the time but rewards closer inspection, too.

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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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Dufftown to Nairn

Dufftown to Rothes, Via Elgin: 45 miles

Having had my faith in humanity, and myself, reaffirmed by my weekend in Dufftown, I was ready to move on again. The weather could not have been better. Distinctly breezy, but bright and warm.

Oh man: too romantic for words: Highland peat smoke on the fresh, spring Speyside breeze. Said breeze wasn't quite coming from the right direction so I couldn't get a nostril full.

Oh man: too romantic for words: Highland peat smoke on the fresh, spring Speyside breeze. Said breeze wasn't quite coming from the right direction so I couldn't get a nostril full.

On the road out towards Craigellachie, I spotted what I had missed on the way in to Dufftown on the Thursday and consequently since in my walks around the town: the sign to Balvenie. I thought I’d better take a look, and at least cycle round the place if I couldn’t tour. It is quite a site, I must say, and bouncing along the road between Glenfiddich and Balvenie revealed some warehouse damage to the former which was being repaired with many vehicles and red plastic fencing. They were kilning the malt at the time as I returned to the main road. This made me rather more excited than really it ought to but it was stupendous to see those wraiths of peat smoke waft out of the pagoda roof to be snatched and stolen away by the Speyside wind.

Past the cooperage and Craigellachie distillery, over the Spey and then up the hill back past Macallan. The wind would be in my face for the next 7 miles or so but the scenery was so damn gorgeous I really didn’t care. I was relieved, though, when two pagoda rooves lifted their chins above the outline of a ploughed field. See my review of the Cardhu tour below – and my rave about their Highland cattle!

I had the benefit of the wind’s assistance on the reverse leg to Rothes and this ensured it was only a little after 2PM when I made it to my hotel. I phoned up Moray Cycles in Elgin to announce that I would be seeing them that very afternoon and headed off again.

I had by now grown used to the insane levels of traffic on these Speyside roads but that didn’t make it any more pleasant. That said, pagoda rooves appeared everywhere and at one stage, just before a quick descent towards Elgin, I fancied I spotted the outline of the Moray Firth and the Highlands bordering the sea.

The man in the bike shop put my mind at ease. The noise I had been hearing from the front wheel was merely a combination of a slight buckling which wasn’t at all serious and spokes rubbing against each other. It was worth the 18-mile detour for peace of mind.

I said I was going to "cycle around" the distilleries and that was literally what I did with Benriach and Longmorn.

I said I was going to "cycle around" the distilleries and that was literally what I did with Benriach and Longmorn.

On the return journey, with the sun so omnipresent, I stopped off at Benriach - it being practically on the road, and took my mission statement very literally: I cycled round the distillery. It had an inviting feel about it, too, and I would like to arrange a tour. I did the same with Longmorn – visible just a little way further into the glen. It was a privilege – a secret indulgence – to pedal round when no-one else was there.

I returned to my hotel, showered, did a mass of laundry and enjoyed a meal that owed more to chance and improvisation than management. Good fun, though, and my tour was once embued with momentum.

***

Rothes to Forres: 28 miles

Rain. Lots of rain. It isn’t how I prefer to be woken up, and everywhere looks a bit oppressed when it has that watery sheen to it. I had less than a mile to cover to Glen Grant, however, and it ceased on the way.

The route to Glen Moray involved retracing my tyre tracks from the day before. The sun even appeared. Swishing past my privately toured distilleries of yesterday, I made good time into Elgin where I was rewarded by the equally magnificent aroma of cooking shortbread from the Walkers factory. I just caught the 12.30 tour.

A hot chocolate and much food later, I went in search of Forres. I was not going to use the A96, however, and had planned a route of quiet B roads. Miltonduff and Pluscarden Abbey slipped by and I was thoroughly enjoying the warmth and glorious cherry trees. It couldn’t last, though.

The rain made an encore appearance and I had to adopt rain gear. The temperature meant I could do without overshoes and hood but I just got wetter as I passed through Forres – my B&B lying on the northern outskirts. I arrived to find no-one at home. I was quite chilly by this time, pondering how I was supposed to find my dinner and stay reasonably dry. My landlady returned from her walk and everything was accommodated for: a shed for the bike, rags to clean it, a washing machine for my filthy things and an exceedingly comfortable room.

If you like to put away 3000 calories over the course of your evening meal, go to Chapter One in Forres. My burger with all its trimmings was enormous. I left not a speck on the plate, however; much to the amazement of the couple dining next to me. I should have left it there, but the dessert menu looked too good. I ordered the meringue nest, thinking it would be maybe the size of an orange. It wasn’t. It was the size of a rustic country bread loaf. It beat me, it humiliated me. I could only eat a third of it, and regretted forcing in that much. As I waited for the bill, passing in and out of consciousness, a wondered how anyone could manage two courses, if even a touring cyclist couldn’t manage them. Great grub, though.

***

Forres to Nairn: 26 miles

I spun this day out a little. The initial distance suggested less than 20 miles and that would leave me with far too much time on my hands. I wanted to see the sea, in any case, and headed to Findhorn Bay. It is a profoundly beautiful place, and the whole of the landscapes over the last few days had begun to acquire more rugged, wild demeanours. This was no exception. I think I could retire to Findhorn Bay, with Forres nearby for my bowls and Tesco.

My landscapes were all beginning to look rather wild and bleak, and they would only get bleaker. In a good way, you understand.

My landscapes were all beginning to look rather wild and bleak, and they would only get bleaker. In a good way, you understand.

Benromach is a very stylish little distillery and offers one of the best smells from the outside. See my review below.

After I bought my lunch from the above supermarket giant, I had little to do but make my way to Nairn in my own time. I ate the purchased sandwiches on the cycle path beside the Findhorn river.

Nairn arrived a little slower than planned, but I was glad when it did. I had been climbing along single track roads for quite some distance, duking it out with motorists and insects, when the hedges of gorse fell away on my right and there was the Moray Firth. A more dramatic stretch of coastline I had hitherto not encountered. It was jaw-dropping.

I bought a book, an apple turnover and a cup of tea in Nairn, then watched some more snooker. Unlucky, Steve Davis.

Before the football came on I made my way to the beach as the clouds and the setting sun exercised their artistic characters over the sea and the coast which I followed to the horizon with my eyes, knowing that Orkney was at the end of it. Internazionale v. Barcelona evolved into a bit of a damp squib in the first half so I watched Monty Halls in the Uists and went to bed. The Highlands proper demanded my full attention.

Moray Firth at Nairn

 

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Glen Grant

Glen Grant is a true mish-mash of architecture and miscellaneous objects. The still you can see is 'Wee Geordie' from the 1920 plant. Major Grant named it after one of the men who stoked the fires beneath the still, claiming he would have drunk the entire contents of it because it made the sweetest spirit.

Glen Grant is a true mish-mash of architecture and miscellaneous objects. The still you can see is 'Wee Geordie' from the 1920 plant. Major Grant named it after one of the men who stoked the fires beneath the still, claiming he would have drunk the entire contents of it because it made the sweetest spirit.

Elgin Road, Rothes, Banffshire, AB38 7BS, 01340 832118. Campari. www.glengrant.com

THE APPEARANCE AND LOCATION:      ****      They have their own gardens, and the distillery itself blends the traditional with the modern and eclectic.

TOURS PROVIDED:

‘Standard Tour’: £3.50. See ‘My Tour’ below.

DISTILLERY-EXCLUSIVE BOTTLINGS:      Two single cask, cask strength releases: 15yo (59.9% ABV) in a 50cl bottle, £65 and a 17yo, £60. There is also the highly sought-after and collectible 170th Anniversary bottling for £150.

My Tour – 27/04/2010

THE RUNNING COMMENTARY:      **

THE PROCESS AND EQUIPMENT:      **

GENEROSITY:      ** (2 drams: the no-age-statement Glen Grant and the 10YO.)

VALUE FOR MONEY:      **

SCORE:      8/10 *s

The very very smart - gleaming, even - Glen Grant visitor's centre.

The very very smart - gleaming, even - Glen Grant visitor's centre.

COMMENT:      It was an unusual entrance to the distillery: through a wooded glade out of the car park. The VC is very modern and plush with lots of light from the glass roof in the reception area. Most distillery shops are quite dark places! The tour is excellent and incredibly thorough. The exhibition detailing the history of the Grants (not to be confused with William Grant & Sons, Glenfarclas or indeed any other whisky-associated Grant dynasty) is modern in layout and everything has the feel that a lot of care has gone into it. This is another particularly pleasant distillery on the nose. The stills weren’t in operation at the time which made the stillroom a quieter and cooler place but the smell of new make was very strong, nevertheless. We had a peek in to the filling store and casks were being filled at the time. At the warehouse I learnt that it isn’t a case of a handful of casks going in and out of a warehouse on a daily basis. A big batch will go in and then, at a later date, whole floors will be cleared and tankered off elsewhere. For the tasting we got the entry-level Glen Grant (and we could pour as much of it down our throats as we wanted: they simply left us with the bottle.) This is perhaps because it is very cheap on the shelves and rather bland on the palate. The 10YO was streets ahead. As I said above, there is a walk around the restored gardens. I had to get to Glen Moray so didn’t explore but the whole atmosphere of the place suggests a quiet, tranquil experience. Very acessible, very reasonably priced, and very different. Recommended.

Glen Grant Grounds

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