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Edinburgh Whisky Stramash 2014

The day is surely not so far away when ‘to stramash’ will be a universally-recognised verb with a highly specific meaning: to spend four hours in Edinburgh at the Surgeons’ Hall sampling exciting whiskies in often exciting ways.

Saturday ushered in the third outing for Scott Martin and Darroch Ramsay’s madcap, monumental whisky festival with a difference – that difference chiefly being a sense of humour. Many of the biggest Scotch whisky brands were in attendance, some of whom were keen to show attendees something out of the ordinary. The world’s best-selling single malt, Glenfiddich, had their ‘Family run since 1887′ installation, essentially a recreation of their warehouse tour at the distillery in Dufftown. This – as it turned out – was what everyone in front of me was queuing to sign up for, meaning that I cannot report on how successful this simulation was after every slot for the 12-4pm session was booked up.

The Black Grouse were offering something called a blending bar (more on that later), Balvenie curated their barley to bottle process in another part of the venue and Drambuie were breaking bad. Having failed to drop in, I don’t know what any of that entailed. Word spread over the afternoon that Bowmore had some single cask samples stashed away somewhere, and that I did manage to infiltrate.

First dram? That I can vividly remember: the new BenRiach 16yo Sauternes Finish. Syrupy, rich and dense, it was impressively fruity and complex. It’s neighbour, the 20yo, has been around for some time but I have never got around to sampling it. I can report that it was a revelation: oodles of fresh American oak and jelly sweets on the nose with a clean, vanilla-rich and shortbready textured palate.

The BenRiach/GlenDronach/Glenglassaugh stand.

Between that and the Glenglassaugh 35yo, finished in a Sherry Hogshead, I signed up for the Black Grouse demonstration. Having detested it the first time I tried it, I was hoping for a more successful introduction this time around. But what of that Glenglassaugh? A mighty popular bottle on the stand, and no wonder: still quite fresh and clean for all its years, with a floral finish.

Life speeded up a little after that, or at least I stopped concentrating quite so hard. The neighbouring building housed many more whiskies than we had first realised, as well as the Dewar’s Theatre and the Drambuie exhibitionism on the ground floor. Here we found Morrison Bowmore and, what piqued my interest, Suntory. Hibiki 12yo (stunning stuff) was available, but so too were the company’s two newest single malts: the Hakushu and Yamazaki Distillers Reserves. I bought the Hakushu a month or so ago on the strength of online reviews and it is delightful, but I wanted to see how the red wine casks had impacted upon the Yamazaki. This is one figgy dram, as it turns out, but very smooth and deep. The younger whiskies take away the spiced poise of the 18yo, for example, but I was mightily impressed.

Across the way, Glen Moray had something of a scrum around them. Much of the core range featured, but my eye was caught by an unlabelled bottle. Allegedly, this is to be a new, non-age statement Port-finished whisky. I can confirm that it is delightful: the wine provides a blackcurrant jelly impression which balances wonderfully with the fresh green apple note from what is clearly a pretty young overall vatting. I preferred it to their 25yo Port Finish, in fact, which to me and my companions tasted too strongly of wood.

Lucy Whitehall unravelling the Black Grouse.

By this point, our turn had finally come for the Black Grouse Blending Bar. Global Brand Ambassador Lucy Whitehall steered us through the component parts of the Black Grouse with a great deal of charm and insight – some of it geeky. I can divulge, for instance, that North British is currently running on 100% maize. Good to know, eh? Before sampling the Black Grouse for ourselves, nosing glasses were passed round of Glenturret new make: the standard unpeated version and a gloriously smoky rendering called Ruadh Moar. I begged a dram of this and it is superb. Of course, only a tiny amount of Glenturret goes in to Famous Grouse but it’s good stuff that makes the cut. Three cask samples followed, showing the affects of European, American and first-fill oak. And what of the Black Grouse? How did we get on? I must say it impressed me far more than initially: a composed, toffee-laden dram with only a smidgen more smoke than the standard Grouse, but attractively so.

My friends and I wended our way back to the BenRiach/GlenDronach stand, this time to sample some of the latter. I wasn’t overly impressed with the latest batch of the Cask Strength (too strong, not enough of the boozy sherry from the first batch with an American oak presence that was a tad cloying) but I adored the 21yo Parliament. This is Rolls Royce stuff if ever a whisky deserved such a billing. Not on the stand, but very near it, was Craig Johnstone, a dear friend of the Quaich Society and a great guy generally. He is enjoying his time in Dubai, working in the whisky industry on the sales/distribution side. Craig confessed that there is much to be learnt from working alongside whisky in the UAE, something that has ramifications for me as I shall disclose in a future post.

If it weren’t for Darroch himself putting a word in my ear, I may have missed the “secret” Bowmore blend-your-own-Small-Batch session happening nearby. I managed to secure our party places on the reserve list, and Bowmore ambassador Ali generously granted us entrance through what turned out to be mock-ups of the Bowmore No. 1 Vaults’ doors. The atmosphere inside was less saline than Islay’s oldest maturation warehouse, but it was warmer and the whisky fug was nearly as potent. Our mission – which we chose to accept – was to recreate the Small Batch which lay breathing in a glass, together with pipettes, measuring cylinders and two sample bottles, on the casks in front of us.

The professionally put-together dram smelt of clove and minerally peat with plenty of leafiness (mint and broom) and charcoal. Clean and lush to taste, with a generous dollop of ex-Bourbon barrel, we had to combine our first-fill and our refill Bourbon samples to approximate this flavour. I could immediately tell that the first-fill would require careful usage; it offered thickness with fudge and coconut, the Bowmore character restricted to soft peat and orange oil. The taste, however, was mostly Bourbony spice and char. I much preferred the second-fill sample. Even at 60.2% ABV the Bowmore soft smoke emerged together with a creamy, ferny character. I also detected Cointreau and porridge. Delicious! Mouth-coating and smoky, I wrote down ‘dense rice pudding’ but I’m not certain what I mean by it. Our trio, after some bickering, presented a version that only narrowly lost out. Too strong apparently…

The Bowmore single cask samples.

We retired from the improvised Vault to find the Stramash winding down. Last pour had been called while we were blending and, if I’m honest, this was definitely a good thing. The cask strength Bowmore had obliterated my palate, not to mention much of my self-awareness. It was with a slack but content grin that I traversed the city back to the New Town for a spot of dinner, completely and utterly stramashed.

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Undercover Beginners

Karen and Matt at The Glenlivet, one of my picks for a good distillery tour.

If proof were needed that whisky is a convivial drink elevated by the enlightened and considered folk with whom one savours and discusses it, I present to you Karen and Matt of Whisky For Everyone. Since beginning their democratic investigation into whiskies of the world in 2008, they have become my go-to blog for incredibly in-depth reviews, the latest news and always informed comment. With the same zeal today to discover more about the spirit, Karen and Matt are a credit to the industry and those who endeavour to write about it.

Following on from a guest blog I wrote for them earlier in the week, here is the Whisky For Everyone lowdown on distillery touring in Scotland. I was eager to source their perspective on this matter because I must often concede that while the Scotch Odyssey sought to present a picture of Scotland-wide whisky tourism in the recent past, my encounters can be no more helpful than the restaurant critic who only witnesses one service. Tours vary throughout the day according to a myriad of factors, let alone across the country, at different times of the year with different compositions of tour parties.

I find Karen and Matt’s experiences fascinating as testimonies to the diversity of approaches deployed by distilleries throughout Scotland for welcoming visitors. I hope you will, too.

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Through writing our blog, we are in the lucky position of getting the occasional invite to a distillery.  This may be for a number of reasons – they
want to raise awareness of their brand, to launch a new whisky, to open a new visitor centre or any combination of the three. This is great for us and is one of the perks of something that we do not get paid for and write in our spare time. Invariably these visits are a lot of fun and you get to meet some of the people that work there, while getting the ‘access all areas’ treatment.

However, these VIP tours are not what most people will experience when they turn up at adistillery.  This is why we enjoy joining
a general tour – it is by doing this that you truly experience what makes a distillery tick, what it is like when the spotlight is turned away and everyone is not on their best behaviour, trying to get you to write about their whisky brand.  On these occasions we very rarely ‘reveal our hand’ and try to find out as much information as we can by being ‘whisky beginners’.

From our experience, there seems to be two types of distillery tour available to the whisky tourist in Scotland – the ‘sanitised, see what they want you to see’ tour and the ‘warts and all, see how it really is’ tour.  We have been on a number of both types during our occasional holidays to Scotland. The format of the tours are basically the same – arrive, pay, be shown around, have the whisky making process explained, finish off with a dram or two in the visitor centre/shop.  But, this is where the similarities normally end.

The ‘sanitised, see what they want you to see’ tour is normally found at the larger distilleries or those that are the home to well known brands.
These places can cope with large numbers of fans and visitors that their brand generates. This tour will begin with a brand video showing barley swaying in the breeze, water babbling in a stream, an old chap from the distillery pushing a barrel, or scenes of a similar nature.

Coaches at Cardhu, home of Johnnie Walker. Not a bad tour by any means, but a distillery and approach catered towards the larger parties.

You will then be whisked around the distillery, or part of the distillery (normally not in operation), while the whisky making process basics are explained by the tour guide.  Questions of a more advanced level seem to be discouraged and you are also usually asked not to take any photos or video for ‘safety reasons’.  You will then get a dram of whisky, possibly two if lucky, to send you on your way (usually the basic expression/s from their core range), while they deal with the next coach-load of tourists.

The ‘warts and all, see how it really is’ tour is usually found at the smaller or cult distilleries, or those of smaller and less well-known brands.  There will be no corporate video here, just an informative ‘down to earth’ tour that takes you through the sights and sounds of a working distillery and the whisky making process. It will also not be clean and pristine with lots of shiny new metal on show. The tour guides always seem to be more engaging and open to any questioning, be it at a beginner or connoisseur level.  You may even have the chance to speak with a member of distillery staff who always seem happy to have a chat or answer any questions.

You will invariably get to try more than just the most basic whisky from their core range. You will also be allowed to take photos, including putting your camera lens in to mash tuns, fermentation tanks etc.  This leads you to think – either these places care much less about ‘safety’ than the distilleries in the first group, or there are no real ‘safety reasons’ to worry about.  Maybe those that use that as a reason for no photography, just don’t want you to take any …

Naturally, there are exceptions to both types of tour and ultimately, many visitors will leave both types happy.  However, we always look at them with our slightly critical eyes and guess that it depends what you want from the experience – do you just want to tick off a ‘distillery tour’ on your Scotland must-do list or do you want to really learn something about a place, brand or the whisky production process?

One of my favourite distillery tours, too. You see absolutely everything at Glen Moray.

Our favourite distillery tour to date was found at Glen Moray in Elgin.  Here, we rushed to try and make one of the advertised tour times and were late. Despite this, our soon-to-be tour guide (Emma) stopped what she was doing and offered to show us around anyway. After a tour, which involved seeing almost every nook and cranny of the distillery, we felt like we had an affinity with the place.

We were allowed to walk around freely, ask Emma anything we wanted and get in depth replies, speak to the distillery workers about what they were doing and take as many photos as we wanted.  After that sort of experience, the whisky was always going to taste good. We were given a tutored tasting of three whiskies from the core range, plus a couple of special editions (one of which we ended up buying).

A few months ago, we were invited back to Glen Moray as their guests for a product launch and dinner.  As part of this, we were invited on a VIP tour of the distillery.  This tour proved to be exactly the same and as in depth as the regular tour that we had experienced previously.  That tells
you plenty about how Glen Moray value their visitors and some other distilleries can learn a lesson from that. After all, it could be someone’s first ever distillery tour …

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A massive thank you again to Karen and Matt, and I would urge you to follow their discoveries within the whisky world at Whisky For Everyone.

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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 Moray

It almost appears to be the power station or water treatment works for the new housing estate above and beside it. Don't be put off by first-impressions, though: there is an exemplary tour on offer here.

It almost appears to be the power station or water treatment works for the new housing estate above and beside it. Don't be put off by first-impressions, though: there is an exemplary tour on offer here.

Bruceland Road, Elgin, Morayshire, IV30 1YE, 01343 550900. La Martiniquaise. www.glenmoray.com

APPEARANCE AND LOCATION:      ***      Whilst it is not quite the approach one experiences when visiting The Glenlivet or Talisker, this is about as ‘urban’ a Scotch whisky distillery as you can get and what is a rather nice housing estate in reality does not detract too much from the experience of the single malt quest. Glen Moray occupies snugly its own little plateau and has many redeeming features, not the least of which is passing the Walker’s shortbread factory on the way in. Once you turn on to the A96 (should you be appraoch from Rothes as I did), have the window wound down.

TOURS PROVIDED:

‘Standard Tour’: £3. See ‘My Tour’ below.

‘Fifth Chapter Tour’: £15. Sample five decades of Glen Moray single malts with distillery manager Graham Coull.

DISTILLERY-EXCLUSIVE BOTTLINGS:      They have what is essentially a range of distillery-exclusives; the first is a single cask available in the visitor centre to bottle for yourself. When I visited it was a refill Sherry Butt, £45. There is a also a 14yo Port finish from 1995 and cask strength, £60; what was duty-free but, due to stocks selling out, is now only available at the distillery: the 30yo, £180; a 42yo from 1962, the result of stocks reacquired following the recent management takeover, £395; the 15yo Mountain Oak (matured in virgin wood and cask strength), £90, and finally the Distillery Manager’s Choice, a single Sherry cask from 1995 (cask strength) for £70.

My Tour – 27/04/2010

THE RUNNING COMMENTARY:      **

THE PROCESS AND EQUIPMENT:      **

Notes:      The production process itself is not startlingly different, but how they approach the maturation process so that the visitor might understand it better certainly is. They take you to a palletised warehouse and then a traditional dunnage warehouse where there are different casks to smell in and even casks with glass heads to show the whisky’s interaction with the wood.

GENEROSITY:      ** (2 drams: a choice of Classic, 12YO or 16YO to compare with a sample of the 14YO single cask Sherry.)

VALUE FOR MONEY:      **

SCORE:      8/10 *s

COMMENT:      From less than auspicious appearances (it does look a little grotty on first approaches) the tour received was flawless. And I mean that. I think it may even have been the manager that took me and two others round. He definitely had a complete grasp of every stage of the process and emphasised some of the more practical aspects, such as how the foreshots effectively clean the pipes into the spirit safe. The plant itself isn’t the prettiest, with stainless steel washbacks and lots of tight, grid-floored walkways. The educational side of things really ramped up when we visited the warehouses, though. First we were shown palletised warehouses: walls of casks, floor to ceiling. If one leaks, you of course cannot get to it, but the cost-effectiveness with space being at a premium is greater than the loss of one cask. To compare, we were taken across into the traditional dunnage warehouse. Completely different smell and atmosphere awaited us in here. We could nose, from the bung-hole, a still-maturing 10YO Bourbon cask and also nose a Burgundy finishing cask. This latter was quite wonderful. They also have casks with glass ends to show whisky in the wood. Two casks sleep side-by-side, both filled on the same day into the same fill of cask. One is toasted, while the other is heavily charred. Incredibly, the toasted cask is darker. The visitor centre is magnificent. It is very modern with a brilliant cafe and an unbelievable range of stock. If you are in Elgin, this is not to be missed. Maybe under new owners it can gain the profile I believe it deserves.

The marquee tent thing isn't a regular structural feature. When I visited everyone was beginning to gear themsleves up for the imminent festival.

The marquee tent thing isn't a regular structural feature. When I visited everyone was beginning to gear themsleves up for the imminent festival.

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