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Day 6: Cullen Shrink


By the time 08.20 arrived I knew the bus wasn’t coming. I picked myself and my rear wheel up off the pavement and walked from the clock tower back to my B&B. If I couldn’t get an 8AM service into Elgin, I was going to have to ride in. Quite why the timetable didn’t explicitly tell me there was no service at 8 o’clock on a Saturday morning, I have still yet to deduce.

With the exhortation ‘Don’t get squashed under a distillery lorry!’ ringing in my ears from my landlord, I rolled off into the warm sun. Climbing out of Dufftown was less onerous than I had expected, made lovelier by the enduring integrity of my back wheel. The descent into Craigellachie was swift and problem-free, and I could reflect on how the Munro of casks outside the Speyside Cooperage was now more of a Corbett.

Joining the A95, I braced myself for the heavy traffic my landlord had predicted. However, I glided into Rothes by the banks of the iridescent Spey with only cars for company. The hill past Speyburn was long, sticky and very hot, but once I reached the summit a tailwind took me in its talons and didn’t let go until Elgin. At times I was progressing at 19mph with very little effort. Longmorn: hello, goodbye; BenRiach: hello, goodbye. The decision to set off for Bikes & Bowls on two wheels proved inspired as it wasn’t until a mile outside Elgin that the 09.05 36 bus service from Dufftown overtook me. I’d come 17 miles in less than an hour.

Bikes & Bowls proved not to be the shop I had frequented four years ago. It was at the end of the high street, and apparently had been there for the last 25 years. My good Samaritan in 2010 had, it turned out, proved a bit of a cowboy, fleeing town a few months after I darkened his doorstep. The chaps inside inspected the bike as I related my tale: two in a week but no problems whatsoever in four and a half years.

‘The spoke nipples may be rusting,’ said the guy I’d talked to on the phone. ‘The wheel can’t flex when that happens. This may be the start of the whole lot going. We’ll have a look for you, though.’

With this life-affirming piece of news to mull over, I went out into a sweltering Elgin having vowed that the next time I cycled for more than a day at a time I would have spare spokes and know how to replace them.

I bought maps and repaired to a café to plot my route to GlenDronach. Having failed to get to this distillery four years ago, on a Saturday, due to bike problems, I was going to sacrifice Glenglassaugh and see about reaching Forgue. If I could get going again by 10.30, there was a chance…

Staring at the OS Maps every which way, however, I could tell that a 17-mile detour north-west was just far enough to render GlenDronach-Buckie a ride of epic proportions. More epic than I believed was feasible – or indeed, sensible – as the mercury continued to rise. Swearing under my breath, I had to admit that GlenDronach, like Balvenie, was playing hard-to-get.

Back at the shop, the bike had a new silver spoke inserted and the good news was that the remainder of the wheel looked fairly sound. ‘Hopefully the rest of your trip will be injury-free,’ the mechanic said as I prepared for my departure. Do not miss Bikes & Bowls if you are in dire need when in the Elgin (or indeed Dufftown) area. This father-and-son team have a way with bikes, and even though my Odyssey did not carry on for as long as advertised, it was injury-free.

National Cycle Route 1 recommenced nearly on the doorstep of Bikes & Bowls and while following it I was ushered to north-east Elgin and the fast-track to the sea. Beautiful, quiet, tree-lined roads cut through farmland and little villages, before dropping me at Portgordon and – barely credible in Scotland but a not uncommon sight – turquoise surf.I ought to have stopped for lunch earlier or at least found some shade. The sun was beating down and my tailwind of the early morning was now squarely in my face. Plus, the cycle route signs pointed at mental instability – combined with absent-mindedness – on the part of their designer. I was getting a bit lost and more than a little bit irritated.

Cycling through Buckie, I marvelled at how the little blue signs took me here, there and across innumerable roads, behind industrial estates, through supermarket car parks (practically) and eventually onto a disused railway line. I followed this as far as Portknockie before joining the A98, believing it to be quicker and better-surfaced. This hunch turned out to be true, but I didn’t factor in busier, hotter and madder. The road takes you down to sea level, through a thronging Cullen (home of Cullen Skink which is far more appetising than it sounds) and back up to the cliffs. The steepness, heat and wind defeated me, and I stopped at a convenience store for liquids and food.

Feeling quite mad by this point, the interminable wait in the cool interior helped a lot. I sunk a whole bottle of Lucozade Sport, hopped back on the bike, sweated to the top of the hill and then fought the wind for the next four miles until I spotted some serrated roofs on the left.Glenglassaugh has a wonderful situation, sat amongst green fields, looking out to a bluer than blue Moray Firth. When I arrived everyone in the little community seemed to be mowing lawns. Certainly there wasn’t anyone else trying to tour the distillery.

Having spent a good ten minutes getting my breath back in the shade of the visitor centre, I went inside to meet the youngest VC attendants ever. Lauren and Karen were holding the fort and were just the down-to-earth conversationalists I needed to recover from my mild heatstroke.

It was Lauren who took me round the cool, silent distillery. Production only runs Sunday night to Friday morning, so there was no noise or heat emanating from mash tun or stills. Much of the original Glenglassaugh buildings still stand and still have a use. Lauren told me that the take-over by Billy Walker and the BenRiach Distillery Co. had led to significant investment in upgrades, repairs, and just a much-needed lick of paint. We were about to head upstairs to the tun room when Karen appeared, with two people in tow. ‘Time to practice your French,’ she said, before heading back to the visitor centre.

Glenglassaugh’s production regime meant that the only ‘live’ action was taking place in the washbacks, the tops of which were more than a metre and a half above iron grating floor level. Lauren opened each lid so we could nose the differences in each fermentation stage, via rickety wooden steps.

At the stills we nosed unpeated and peated new make, the peated especially catching my attention. Much like the Glenturret peated spirit at the Whisky Stramash, I wouldn’t have minded a dram of that particular liquid. By this point I was attempting to resuscitate my A-Level French and translating words rendered unintelligible by Lauren’s Aberdeenshire brogue. Unfortunately, whisky-making didn’t feature on my high school syllabus so we didn’t get very far.

In the warehouses, we somehow got on to the alcohol minimum pricing; a forged gamely on but my vocabulary was hopelessly inadequate. Monsieur, eying the private octave casks, suggested we could sneak a taste and blame it on ‘des anges’ – the angels. I think that’s been tried before.

In the VC, the tasting was illuminating. Karen had suggested that Evolution may be up my street, as I am partial to a Bourbon-matured malt. The Revival, when I tried it last year, just didn’t do it for me. Evolution proved a feisty, thick and ‘hot’ dram at 50% ABV, but water pulled out some buttery corn-on-the-cob and an insistent sweet maltiness. There was also Torfa for our delectation, which the French couple ended up purchasing. I have to say, even though I am partial to youngish peated whiskies (see the anCnoc Peaty Collection), Torfa was rather good.

In common with most of the distilleries I visited, there were casks on display from which visitors could draw their own flask. The ex-Bourbon octave, distilled in March 2009 and weighing in at 60.5% ABV, was rather closed and oaky. It grew on me, but the real star was the ex-Sherry octave (from September 2009) and fractionally weaker. The integration of dry, rich, fruit-laden oak and the Glenglassaugh malt was exceptional and £35 for 50cl is pretty good value. Meanwhile, Mr and Mrs Martin (as I now know them) were quizzing me on Scotch whisky more generally; what did I think of x, or y? What about wine?

Saluting Lauren and Karen, who had been great company, I left soon after the Martins and eased into the wind back towards Buckie. This time, I followed NCR1 all the way, and could appreciate the late afternoon sun on a truly spectacular coastline. Residents of all the villages I passed through were doing likewise, perched on benches, lounging in back yards with a can of something.

Things got rocky and dangerous as I neared Findochty but I persevered. Rosemount B&B arrived after mile 58 and I could cool off in a very long shower with my loft room Velux wide open. An even more arduous day awaited come morning.

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Countdown to Scotch Odyssey 2

Incredibly, I may just be in a position to take on a second circumnavigation of Scotland in search of Scotch whisky distilleries to visit.

If April was chock full of coursework, May was the domain of exams, and you can’t memorise the finer points of Kelman, Stevenson or Self (especially Self) if you are physically knackered. Training, therefore, has been rather more opportunistic and far scarcer than it was four years ago, when my ‘Fit For the Glens’ weekly posts updated progress from ten weeks prior to the Grand Depart. No such lead-in this time. I covered about 660 miles in training ahead of April 12 2010; this time we are maybe looking at half that figure, possibly a little more. I have had, as they say, my doubts.

However, I’m presently fed and showered following a 57-mile day of training, which suggests that – when I pedal off in a northerly direction towards Pitlochry on Tuesday – distance shouldn’t be a problem. Neither, it must be said, should inclines scare me. Over the course of recent weeks I have been impressed/dismayed by just how hilly Fife is. Seriously, the kingdom is like a heart rate monitor reading. If you want to acquire solid cardiovascular fitness, Fife is the place to cycle, lurching up single-track precipices and screeching down the other side repeatedly.

It’s also bloody windy. If you manage to get to the top of a hill, the breeze blowing out to sea is something you must contend with. Often this week I have been crawling along into the molars of a gale.

In summary, if the quantity of training cannot match 2010, perhaps the quality is a shade higher. I’m hoping so, because I have more than 900 miles filling 17 days, meaning that what I covered today is my average – average – for the tour as a whole. I’m going to need some carrots to get me through all of those, and fortunately the whisky industry has obliged.

I will begin close to home, at Francis Cuthbert’s Daftmill distillery. Long have I wished to poke about in this wholly-independent farm operation and possibly taste something interesting. It is rare these days to be taken round a plant by the person who makes the spirit. From there it is up the A9 to the distilleries which my overly ambitious itinerary ruled out last time: Dalwhinnie and Tomatin. I only hope Dalwhinnie is as pretty on the inside as it is to look upon, hurtling by on the main road. Tomatin are releasing stellar whiskies at the moment; hopefully I’ll be able to get a taste of what is on the horizon.

If you can't have Balvenie, then a single cask Imperial from the year you were born is definitely the next best thing.

Speyside is next, a region where I had a very high hit rate four years ago. Sadly – nay, tragically – I have repeated my feat of being too late to book a tour of The Balvenie. I gave them two weeks’ notice in 2010, one month this time. Nothing doing. If you want to get round before the end of the year, my advice is book now and cross your fingers. You’d think it was El Bulli. Of course, I have an excellent fall back option, the soon-to-be-complete single estate distillery at Ballindalloch Castle (like them on Facebook). After that, I’m going to repair to the Speyside Way with an apt dram. A 23yo Imperial, bottled by Hunter Laing, fits the bill nicely. From there I shall peddle gently on to Dufftown to say hello to, and eat the fine food of, Sandy Smart at Taste of Speyside.

Already the mileages start to increase, and the next day I leave for GlenDronach and Glenglassaugh. Sunday is a distillery-free hike west and then north, before my triumphant return (all being well) to Balblair. I’m banking on Clynelish being open on a Monday, but the site is being expanded so maybe not. I’ll phone ahead this time.

The next section has me petrified and hyperactive with excitement all at the same time. I will have distance, ferry timetables and the whims of the West Coast weather systems to trouble me as I cycle across to Ullapool for a boat to the Outer Hebrides. It is quite a trek to get to Mark Tayburn’s Abhainn Dearg, but if everything runs smoothly it should be spectacular. Long days in the saddle are necessary to get from Stornoway to the bottom of Harris in time for a ferry to Uig, before peddling down the spine of Skye for another stay at the Ratagan Youth Hostel.

From Loch Duich I more or less retrace 2010′s tire tracks to Fort William before omitting the islands (with regret) and pitching up in Glasgow for Auchentoshan. Fired with triple-distilled gorgeousness (but not too much, obviously), I wend homewards with a night in Stirling before stopping off at Strathearn Distillery (another small-scale operation) by way of a rest on the homeward stretch to St Andrews.

If you are travelling in Scotland during the next two and a half weeks, do look out for me. I’m the tall, lean be-spectacled cyclist smelling faintly of wash and pot ale, amongst other things. I’ve decided to pack a bottle of Compass Box’s Great King Street Experimental Peat in the hope that I’ll make some new friends. The blog will be silent during that time, but do check Twitter for up-to-the-minute events (@WhiskyOdyssey). I shall expand my experiences to more than 140 characters upon my return. I welcome any comments or queries you may have!

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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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My Speyside Reboot

BenRiach Distillery on a tempestuous day.

I think we would all agree that 14 months is a ponderous age to be without the means of indulging in your chief passion. That length of time without football, an easyJet flight to somewhere warm, the use of a working television, or sex would try the patience sorely. I had endured 14 months without setting foot in a whisky distillery and righting this wrong last month wreathed me in smiles.

Wriggling from under the barbed wire cage of three assignments in as many weeks, I beheld the prospect of a period of time in which I could plant a project or two. Operation Sniff A Washback was go.

For various reasons, Speyside is my favourite of all the whisky ‘regions’. Not only is it far enough away from the Central Belt to impress upon me a suitably Highland ruggedness, but the density of high-class, diverse distilleries cannot be bettered. One hopelessly romantic train journey through the snow drifts of Aberdeenshire later and I alighted in Elgin, chilled but thrilled to be back in Morayshire. Thanks to the help of Stewart Buchanan and Ewan George, I knew that there was a whisky hearth of brilliant warmth awaiting me at BenRiach.

One very short hop on the 36 bus brought me to the swift S-bend on which BenRiach sits, the black bulk of the maltings showing up well against shards of snow driven into the grass by the determined wind. I was sent to the stillroom to warm up while Ewan finished off some recurring paperwork where I chewed the stillman fat with Fraser, custodian of the BenRiach spirit for the last four years. The quartet of copper pots pelted me with heat as Fraser told me about the various family members employed within the industry, one as far away as Laphroaig. That brought the discussion on to the peated BenRiach production regime and whether the quality of the final whisky represented satisfactory redress for the clinging cigarette smoker fragrance no worker can escape when the smoky stuff is being distilled. Like the gents at Balblair, Fraser prefers the less aromatically-invasive unpeated production.

The stills at BenRiach.

Trotting in Ewan’s wake, once his ‘t’s had been crossed and his ’i's dotted, we headed into the warehouses. Here I could Get My Geek On with a quick game of ‘Name That Cask’. Hoggies, butts, puncheons, and more than a couple of Port pipes could be discerned in the tepid gloom, teeming with the scents of perhaps the industry’s most heterogeneous whisky stocks maturing. I asked Ewan which of Billy Walker’s discoveries had most excited him when they emerged from dunnage obscurity. ‘To be honest, the Solstice stuff I thought was fantastic. I’d gone off peated whiskies for a few years, but that whisky is top class’.

'Under 25'? Hardly.

With the tour over, Ewan was kind enough to furnish me with one of the missing pieces of my BenRiach puzzle. Stewart had told us in St Andrews that more senior BenRiach acquired a tropical fruitiness, and I wanted to put his claim to the test in the shape of the award-winning 30yo. I found this to be a deeply unusual dram, a class apart from those other whiskies I have tried which can also claim to have been three decades in development.

Red fruit sweetness and rich honey came through at first on the nose, but despite its age there was a remarkable zest and life. Lime pickle came next, and then – right enough – the tropical fruits. I found banana and passion fruit were most evident, with grapefruit in time and a toffee’d weight. To taste, this was full with a spicy attack before the experience lengthened with malt, honey and plenty of vanilla. The 50:50 wood contribution between ex-Bourbon and ex-Sherry lent this whisky plenty of richness and complexity, but also enough body and freshness to demand a lengthier sipping session.

Ewan had one final ticket for the BenRiach Bandwagon, however, and when I nosed the second release of the Solstice Heavily Peated Port Finish, I leapt aboard.

BenRiach Solstice 17yo 50%

Colour – toffee apple red: clear and bright.

Nose – surprisingly fresh breezy smoke, like a wintry wind blowing the peat smoke over barley fields. It is a soft (though bold and unmistakable) smokiness, like the last stages of kilning. Beneath is a citrussy cleanliness, then the Port gives a firm base of cooked strawberries and morello cherries.

Palate – tickle of peat, then mouth-coating Port flavours. Flavour everywhere especially heavy, industrial peat. There is a clean, light toffee’d malt for balance.

Finish – drying all the time on black, thick and growly peat. Garden fire fragrance. Some tiny pieces of dried strawberry. Clean green apple on the tail.

With water, the nose hinted at the kiln even more, with fat, dry barley. More of the fruits inherent within the spirit emerged: orange and ripe Comice pears, all beneath a veil of smoke. With that dash of water, the palate was more focused with heat and smoke. A trace of creamy, nutty oak heralded a singeing sweetness in the middle of the tongue: pear drops and strawberry jam. Kippery smoke appeared on the finish with citrussy oak, a satiny sweetness and the sooty smokiness of a fire grate.

At the time, I laughed out loud: by rights, it should not taste as good as it does. The Port finish is so well-executed, and the smoke such a joyous mixture of textures and aromas. Having missed my bus on to Aberlour, I contented myself with buying a bottle, the immediate rapture of my dram at the distillery fortifying me against a fierce – but not unwelcome – blizzard outside the distillery. Though certainly not a summery dram, we were hardly experiencing summery conditions. Irrespective of the time of year, however, the bizarre brilliance of this whisky will make itself felt. I am now besotted with BenRiach.

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BenRiach and GlenDronach at the Quaich Society

All aboard for six of the best from Scotland's Highlands.

Bens and Glens characterise the Scottish landscape. Bens are the high bits, and the glens the gaps in between them. That’s Scotland pretty much explained, geographically. As far as Scotch whisky is concerned, Bens and Glens can cover an equally wide spectrum, as Stewart Buchanan demonstrated when he introduced the Quaich Society to BenRiach and GlenDronach. The expression goes that there is a whisky out there to suit every one; as it happens, chances are you will find it in one of the ranges of these fine distilleries.

Weighing down Stewart’s car were three separate releases from BenRiach (the 16yo, 15yo Madeira Finish and Septendecim) and three from GlenDronach (15yo, 18yo and Cask Strength). We were not short of liquid, and it became apparent immediately that that liquid was of a very high quality indeed.

Stewart directed us to the 16yo, a dram ‘designed’ by Billy Walker from the 28,000 casks he and his South African business partners inherited when they acquired the distillery, sited just below Elgin on the A95, in 2004. Five cask styles are used and while I didn’t catch them all, each play their part in the final flavour. And what a flavour. I make no secret of my preference for a pretty, delicate, sweet and intriguing Speysider as a gutsy aperitif, and this may just be the ultimate example of this species. Pear drops, vanilla, lemon sherbet and banana emerged on the nose while the palate was sweet, round and tickled the tongue with spice. It was delightful.

‘Can anyone detect the peat?’ Stewart asked. ‘Some can, some can’t.’ Billy Walker puts peated BenRiach in to the mix, just to add that subtle complexity. This is seriously intelligent cask management and whisky construction, and while I couldn’t find any smoke on the night,  can attest to the quality of the dram.

Former BenRiach manager, Stewart Buchanan, was full of facts and anecdotes.

The Madeira Finish came next, and Stewart confessed regret that it will soon be discontinued. Each time I returned to this whisky I began to partake in Stewart’s affection for it more and more. Having been anxious to try the Septendecim after giving a big thumbs-up to the Curiositas 10yo, I was left marginally disappointed. The crunchy peated malt aromas, together with honey and lemon, were all very pleasant. However, I had hoped for more depth. As an aside, I have recently discovered that BenRiach offer another 17yo peated whisky which is almost hysterically brilliant – but more on that in a later post.

On to GlenDronach, the dram of choice for the discerning lady of the night in 19th century Edinburgh. James Allardice  may no longer peddle the products of his Forgue-based copper still in Scotland’s capital, paying his way in potent clearic, but since Walker’s acquisition of GlenDronach in 2008 the Aberdeenshire whisky has been finding a whole new appreciative audience. I fondly remember the 15yo from a couple of years ago as big, meaty and rich. In St Andrews, it still makes best use of full Oloroso Sherry maturation to lend a caramelised nuttiness to proceedings. The malt spirit is inherently sweet and powerful. It’s older brother strides out in full Sherry regalia at 18yo, but possibly to exaggeratedly.

I was very curious to try the new Cask Strength, which Whisky For Everyone thoroughly approved of when they sampled it in January. It tasted pretty special in February. A nose of orange, tablet and juicy malt, it had a leathery weight with plenty of spice coming through from the Oloroso casks in the shape of nutmeg and paprika, together with plum jam, cinnamon and star anise from the Pedro Ximenez maturation. The palate – even at full strength (54.8%) – was rich, smooth and sweet with creamy malt and chocolate powder. How to pick a winner between this and the 16yo? Though at opposite ends of the tasting spectrum on the night, they came together in terms of exceptional quality.

Stewart led a tasting as relaxed as it was informative. The Quaich Society committee thank him for the calibre of stock he brought with him, and the plethora of gems he left behind for our WaterAid Raffle prizes. To the new owner of a BenRiach Horizons 12yo, congratulations. There was one matter which Stewart did not clear up, however; having hinted that Billy Walker had seated himself on one side of another negotiating table, he declined to drop the disputed distillery’s name. Of course, now we know that joining BenRiach and GlenDronach in Walker’s single malt stable is the Portsoy plant of Glenglassaugh.

He said: ‘We’re really delighted to buy Glenglassaugh, a renowned Highland single malt with a rich and distinguished heritage. It’s an excellent complementary fit with our existing BenRiach and GlenDronach brands. Part of its attraction to us is that it isn’t too large for our portfolio but its potential in contributing to the group certainly is.

‘It’s our intention to bring this iconic distillery fully back to life by giving it the investment, commitment and care it deserves. I believe our whisky expertise, proven brand-building ability and strong routes to market will help take Glenglassaugh to the next level.’

Last week I returned from Speyside with a visit to BenRiach under my belt and a miniature of Glenglassaugh Revival from the Whisky Shop Dufftown in my pocket. Little did I guess that the two were linked by more than the coincidences of my personal whisky travels. I can’t wait to see what Billy Walker will find lurking in those seashore warehouses…

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A Pat on the Back for BenRiach & Co.

I make no secret of the fact that independent whisky producers have my approval. Independent whisky producers who capitalise on their minimal-strings business models to do something different are the subjects of my most blissful dramy daydreams.

BenRiach: showing the Speyside old dogs some new tricks.

The people behind the purchase of this Speyside distillery in 2004 have lifted the lid on this previously shy dame: there is a lot going on just off the main road between Rothes and Elgin. In 2008, GlenDronach joined the stable and dazzling standard together with bespoke bottlings have appeared in gratifying number. The BenRiach 12yo is as clean, soft and fruity as you could wish a Speysider to be, and its peated Curiositas 10yo takes peat in utterly new directions. I adore the complexity and power of the GlenDronach 15yo, and one of their single casks from a couple of decades ago is on the shopping list for next autumn.

From Batch #4 of the single cask releases, this highly praised specimen is out of my budget.

GlenDronach might stick to its guns with bruising, darkly fruity Sherry monsters, but the BenRiach portfolio is kaleidoscopic with triple distilled spirit having been produced since 2005. They have also reinstated the floor maltings. I can only imagine how extraordinary a heavily home-peated malt will taste like in a few years.

Of 2011, however, Managing Director for the two distilleries, Billy Walker said: ”we have been very fortunate to win a couple of top awards this year which reflect the passion our people bring to the art of whisky creation. They are also testament to the huge amount of time and energy we dedicate to our wood management programme.”

The awards he alludes to include the 2011 Malt Maniac Awards, the logistics of which I learnt from Keith Wood and that these are dedicated, passionate and discerning people singling out areas of the industry for special mention there can be no doubt. In addition to two gold, four silver and three brinze medals, the GlenDronach 1972 #712, from Batch 4 of the single cask releases, stood head and shoulders above the rest of the candidates.

Praise came not only from the collective of the whisky appreciation world but one of its solo grandees. Jim Murray was especially complimentary about the company’s products. Billy Walker’s response was:

“Jim made a number of very kind comments in his new book, but the highpoint was his singling out GlenDronach as the distillery with the most consistently impressive output throughout 2011.

“He very generously concluded by saying: ‘If there was a Whisky Bible Scotch Malt Whisky Distillery of the year, GlenDronach would be it.’ That was very special.”

Between the pair of distilleries, they claimed nine awards at the International Wine and Spirits Challenge, two of which were top gongs and went to the BenRiach 12yo Sherry-matured. “For a small independent distillery like BenRiach, to win two trophies for the same single malt is astounding,” said Alistair Walker, Sales Director. “IWSC is the one every whisky producer wants to win.”

Congratluations, then, to the men and women behind these rejuvenated distilleries, whose products have always been recognised as distinctive, but are only now coming before a global audience.

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GlenDronach – New Releases

GlenDronach 1971 VintageIf the maxims of my single malt creed are not crystallised by now, I’ve no doubt the style in which I report the fourth batch release of single cask vintages hailing from the GlenDronach distillery, Aberdeenshire, will clarify a few items of my faith.

Independently-owned by the BenRiach Distillery Co., GlenDronach has for a long time been a cult make enthralling devotees with its bruising muscularity and rich fruitiness, enhanced by diligent sourcing and filling of prime sherry casks. Since new management introduced their singular philosophy to the range, beginning in 2008, this sub 1.5 million litre-per-year distillery has enjoyed resurgent fortunes. A veritable spate of special wood-finished malts in the 14/15-year-old region, though modest when compared with the quantity escaping from partner distillery BenRiach, conveyed diversity while the re-mixed 15yo in the core range garnered 90 points in the latest Malt Whisky Companion. Add to this innovative marketing ploys such as the Cask In A Van tours of Belgium and the revamped visitor centre with hand-bottling facilities and it is plain that those responsible for GlenDronach care passionately about reconnecting with pre-existing enthusiasts in addition to winning new fans for the brand. Their strategy for achieving this is simple but powerfully effective: invest time and expertise hunting out those stocks which demonstrate GlenDronach at its GlenDronach-y best.

Enter, therefore, six single casks which span the age spectrum from a formidable 40-years-old to an energetic, ebullient 17-year-old. All six were exclusively matured in either Oloroso sherry butts or Pedro Ximenez sherry puncheons. One of the latter housed GlenDronach spirit since 1971, endowing it with spicy notes, dark berries and coffee aromas with Mediterranean fruits on the palate.

There is something intoxicating about excellent single cask bottlings from Sherry butts. I would put this down to the increasing scarcity of the wood itself and how few spirits can withstand such highly-tannic attentions for a meaningful length of time. I must confess to being sorely tempted by the 1992 vintage with a nose which promises ‘complex toasted oak aromas with an almost earthy presence’, together with ‘treacle nuts and wild honey’. The palate is said to provide ‘a solid platform of sherry spiced fruit and toasted nuts with a surreal balance of vanilla and honey’. At 59.2% abv., there is enough depth to explore, too.

The other issue concerning sherry-matured whiskies is their asking prices. While not excessive in anyway, that 1992 is £80 and therefore on the farthest reaches of what I personally am prepared to pay for a whisky right now. The 40-year-old is £430, however, which is altogether very reasonable indeed (if you aren’t me). The other vintages are the 1972 (£385), the 1989 (£89), the 1990 (£83), and the 1994 (£70). Single casks are by their very natures finite entities, and the 1971 puncheon yielded a respectable 582 bottles. The 1971 butt coughed up just 464. Available internationally, each market can offer only a percentage of those totals and Loch Fyne Whiskies, in the UK, are expecting their contingent soon.

I have still to visit the GlenDronach distillery, but their commitment to releasing characterful, individual drams means I am very much looking forward to what I might find when I finally get there.

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The Spirit of Unity

Whisky ‘News’  and the latest releases are ordinarily entities I leave to other bloggers, preferring to focus instead on the distilleries behind the products. On this occasion, however, I think you will agree that this is more than your everyday expression and Scotch Odyssey – with ambitions one day for a Japanese Odyssey – would like to join others covering this dram.

Seven ‘craft’ Scotch distillers are contributing one cask each from their warehouses for the purposes of blending the contents and selling the doubtless delicious result in support of the relief efforts which still continue in both Japan and Christchurch following the recent earthquakes. All proceeds from this unique blend, dubbed the Spirit of Unity, will go to those countries battling to recover from the dreadful infrastructural and above all human costs.

Arran, BenRiach, Bladnoch, GlenDronach, Glengyle, Kilchoman and Springbank will contribute their singular characters to the blend whose marriage will be overseen by BenRiach Distillery Co. Master Blender, Billy Walker.

The relationship between the Scotch whisky industry and that in Japan has been long-established: Masataka Taketsuru studied the art of whisky distillation in Speyside and Campbeltown during the 1920s - regions here represented by BenRiach and Springbank/Glengyle – before shaping the establishment of Yamazaki and founding Nikka. The outturn of this vatting is expected to be in the region of 2000 bottles, 1200 of which are reserved for the UK and the benefactors hope to raise around £50,000 from the sale of these almost certainly unrepeatable bottles.

Royal Mile Whiskies and Loch Fine Whiskies are already taking preliminary orders through their websites, with the batches due to be dispatched into their stores by the end of this month with an expected price of £59.

The Scotch whisky industry has endured some tumultuous times over its history in the shape of bankruptcy, over-production and global recession, but is now in a position to lend its strength to others. With this and many other contributions from all over the world we can hope that Japan and her distilling traditions will swiftly bounce back.

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GlenDronach

      Awaiting an official visit by me, this is the first of the other nine distilleries throughout Scotland offering tours for whom I haven’t any official details but shall be amending in time for the distillery-touring season. This Highland distillery has experienced quite a ‘Revival’ in recent years since it was taken over by the folk behind BenRiach. Their range of single casks and special releases are impressive and their 15-year-old was one of the most sensuous drams I tasted in 2010.

*      *      *      *      *

A handsome distillery producing some handsome malts under some very dynamic ownership.

A handsome distillery producing some handsome malts under some very dynamic ownership.

Forgue, Aberdeenshire, AB54 6DB, 01466 730202. The BenRiach – GlenDronach Distillers Co. Ltd. www.glendronachdistillery.co.uk

TOURS PROVIDED:

‘Standard Tour’: £3. A tour of the distillery, excluding warehouse visit, although there is a viewing window in the VC. A dram of the 12yo is included.

‘Connoisseur Tour’: £20. An in-depth tour of the distillery, followed by a tutored tasting of the GlenDronach range in the company of Frank Massie. Mondays and Wednesdays only, booking essential.

DISTILLERY-EXCLUSIVE BOTTLINGS:      The Distillery Manager’s Cask: a bottle-your-own facility from a single cask chosen by distillery manager, Alan McConnachie. The particular cask on offer will change as each is emptied, but to gain an insight into the calibre of whisky on offer, current as of October 2010 was an Oloroso sherry cask from 1993 at 58.4% abv. £54. There is also a 1996 single cask (no. 197) priced at £52.

Distillery Manager's Cask

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One For The Road

When an email from GlenDronach dropped into my inbox I was quite excited. Maybe they were inviting me up for a top-line deluxe super-dooper tour, such was their disappointment that I couldn’t visit them first time around? Maybe they were sending me samples? Maybe they wanted to pay me lots of money to get back on my bike and spread the word about this rejuvenated distillery from one of my very favourite micro-regions? It turned out to be none of those. In fact, the details within the correspondence couldn’t have had less of a bearing on me at all.

However, I know I have at least one Belgian who drops in from time to time to browse the site and my fledgling views on all things single malt, as well as a fair number of Germans and even the odd French person so this, mes amis, is for you.

At the end of next month some people from GlenDronach distillery, near Huntly, will drive a little van containing lots of their juice - most in bottles, but some in a whole cask - around Belgium. From the 21st to the 25th of September they will pull up at various towns and cities to educate, entertain and (responsibly) water the Belgian whisky-drinking public.

Had this over-taken me on my (mis)adventures around Huntly I may have been compelled to brave the A96 again and haul my creaking clanking bike to the distillery.

Had this over-taken me on my (mis)adventures around Huntly I may have been compelled to brave the A96 again and haul my creaking clanking bike to the distillery.

“We’re taking the brand “on a journey of re-discovery” around Belgium, one of our fastest-growing markets,” declared James Cowan, Regional Sales Director for GlenDronach. 

“Following the phenomenal success of last year’s tour, which was a huge hit with Belgian whisky fans, we’re proud to announce details of our new 2010 tour.

“Once again we’ll be out in force with our special liveried van offering Belgians a unique chance to taste and purchase a truly excellent GlenDronach single cask whisky – this time it’s a 2002 release, which has been matured in a Bourbon barrel. In addition, we’ll be offering tastings of our award-winning 12, 15 and 18 year-old core range.

“Like last year, people will be given the opportunity to fill their own bottle of GlenDronach straight from the cask…charcoal, sheep’s hair and all! As it’s a limited edition, it’s going to be a highly collectable item.”

I tasted the new 15-year-old this week and I liked it a lot. If you are roughly in or near the Benelux area I would recommend you check it out. GlenDronach is owned by the same group of people who have brought such success to BenRiach, minnows when compared with Diageo and most of the other companies and this, I rather think, works to their advantage. Driving a little van around Belgium is something the above conglomerates could finance easily, but the point is they don’t. The BenRiach Distillery Company is both shackled and ingeniously (given the right way of creative thinking) liberated by their smaller marketing budgets. They are the modern day Tommy Dewars: heading to new territories with samples stuffed into suitcases and vehicles, making a genuine and personal connection with their customers. Well done. The list of tour dates (they sound like a jobbing rock band, don’t they?) is below:

Tuesday 21/09 Tasttoe – Kampenhoudt; Wednesday 22/09 Whisky on Wheels – Erpe Mere; Thursday 23/09 Anverness – Antwerpen; Friday 24/09 Tasttoe 2 – Wondelgem-Gent; Saturday 25/09 afternoon Jan Vissers – Geel-Westerlo; Saturday 25/09 evening Whiskyhuis – Zottegem

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