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Christmas Crackers at Luvians

If you feel like leaving Santa more than milk and shortbread this Christmas, I’m sure the bearded North Pole dweller would point you in the direction of Luvians Bottle Shop, stuffed like an M&S turkey with delicious festive offers. For the purposes of this post, I have only space for a fraction of the whisky deals available, never mind the masses of discounts to be had on their wines and the gins and vodkas they’re so excited about.

A whisky lover's grotto on Market Street, St Andrews.

Stocking most distilleries’ principal outfit, Daniel told me that Luvians also favour the independent bottlers. Adelphi is a darling of theirs, and they also have some of the Cooper’s Choice range on the shelves. A little harder to keep on those shelves at present are SpringbankArdbeg and one of my aboslute favourites, GlenDronach. Plainly the bolder favours are ‘in’ this Christmas.

But what have they for that special whisky-drinking someone in your life? When you consider the breadth of drams which have benefited from Peter Wood’s holiday cheer  with a drop in price, you might think it more prudent to buy your own Christmas presents and get them a nice tie, instead. All of the Glenmorangie wood finishes have £10 off, as has the Old Pulteney 17yo and Glengoyne 10yo. There’s a whopping £20 off the Gordon & MacPhail Mortlach 21yo at £45.99.

Elsewhere, the Bunnahabhain 12yo looks an absolute steal at £22.99 and Gordon & MacPhail Glenburgie and Miltonduff are all under £20. The ravishingly pure and sweet anCnoc 16yo is less than £30 and at that price, my private pledge to make my next spirits purchase something other than Scotch is in dire jeopardy.

However, in this season of austerity one can be forgiven for bowing to bang-for-buck considerations, and the Luvians boardroom has anticipated this. ’Why should we give our customers one whisky when we could give them three?’ they may well have asked. Consequently, my pick for this Christmas is their Glenfarclas bundle, which includes not only the stonkingly expressive 15yo, bathed in fine orange-accented sherry tones, sweet fruit and floral characters in addition to velvet-smooth toffee malt, but also miniatures of the 21yo and the 25yo. Add a really good bar of dark chocolate from the Luvians cafe further along Market Street and you’re still looking at less than £42.

Also, if you are in the town on the 23rd of December, head along to the store where Gregg Glass will be conducting a Compass Box tasting. My advice would be to add just that little bit more Hedonism to your Christmas countdown.

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A Moustache-tickler of a Malt

November is something of an oddity, ecologically speaking. On the one hand, the last of the leaves are falling to earth in stunning heaps of biodegradable fire, and yet at the same time new growth is appearing. A frenzy of foliage is breaking out over top lips everywhere.

At this time of year, the Gregorian calendar is upstaged by allusions to facial hair. Movember is the charity mo-vement raising awareness for all matters concerning mens’ health, harnessing the power of the ‘tache to fight prostate and testicular cancer. Both genders can get involved in sporting some eccentric style of face fuzz and sponsoring others in their pursuit of the most outlandish, striking beards imagination (over and above good taste, usually) can conceive.

The charity has raised more than £106m globally so far and online whisky retailer Master of Malt, together with the very gentlemanly Speyside distillery Glenfarclas, have decided to lend their characteristically good-humoured muscle behind this year’s campaign. A 9yo bottling from two Oloroso sherry casks, at cask strength, is available now to purchase with £10 from the £39.95 RRP going directly to the charity. MoM promise that both parties are working at cost price to maximise donations for Movember. You ought to buy it anyway (do so here), but in case you were swithering, here are my tasting notes.

Glenfarclas 9yo Master of Malt Movember Bottling 2011, 53% abv.

Colour – Toffee apple red.

Nose – Straight away a pleasing toasted sweet malt aroma emerges. It wields a sticky fragrance reminiscent of the Whey Pat, St Andrews’ premier whisky pub: it’s all rich clean malt, polished wood, leather and nacho spice. Sticking your nose in further you encounter a bold - but not brazen – Oloroso sherry punch with an icing sugar-like sweet core. Marmalade is in there, too, along with heathery, big dark honey flavours. Mostly, though, that rich, ginger biscuit malt, with a touch of toffee, steals the show.

Water renders this dram even stickier: toffee and baked red fruits. Lovely candied citrus (orange and lemon) skips out with a bit more time. The oakiness builds, too, with floor polish. It is one lively whisky.

Palate – Playful across the palate at first with blueberries, redcurrents and strawberries. Then there is a light cling from the oak imparting vanilla, Spanish oak raw sweetness and prune.

With water the palate keeps the floor polish headiness, with a lick of sherry cask. Then the softness returns with orange-accented, smooth and rich maltiness. Fire lighters in the background. Punchy oregano and tomato sauce in the empty glass.

Finish – Jaffa Cakes, sticky dark sherry notes and treacle-like malt round off a stonking little dram. With water it is winey and oaky.

So…?     This was always going to be a winner with me. Previous experiences with cask strength Glenfarclases have not disappointed, and the closer one gets to a solitary cask bottling, the better they become. I hadn’t expected it to be quite so charming and assured, however. The maturation is absolutely perfect: not overpowering but still with enough intense Oloroso notes to create the true Glenfarclas experience. It was more coherent and personable without water, I would say, but either way a delightful and delicious reunion with this consistently excellent distillery.

Many thanks indeed to the guys at Master of Malt for sending me the sample.

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Glenfarclas at the Quaich Society

Glenfarclas rangeThe penultimate tasting of the academic year finally arrived after a two-week Spring Break intermission, and we Quaich Soc’ers were delighted that the supremely high calibre of outfits pitching up in St Andrews for the purposes of sloshing the water of life around a bit was to be maintained following March’s superlative visit from Compass Box.

Glenfarclas is, as some of you may know, one of my absolute favourite whiskies. My first heavily-sherried whisky was their multi-award winning 15yo – a firm favourite of Michael Jackson and Jim Murray. I found that, straight out of the bottle, there was an aroma of sweet, treated wood and a velvety, clinging mouthfeel which were unlike anything I had come across in whisky until then. More time spent in its company revealed a rich fruitiness, balanced as it was by an earthy spiciness. Only latterly did I appreciate the wonderful dark nuttiness and fat vanilla flavours. I was satisfied with my tour of the distillery, keen to escape the caprices of violent wind and hail which had been coiling about Ben Rinnes that day. Peter Donnelly, brand manager, was on a mission to bring some of this heritage, critical acclaim, unique location and strong family values to bear upon us students, through a mightily impressive inventory of whiskies with the final three far older than anything that has been put before the Quaich Society this year.

After some very brief background, Peter was anxious that we should be drinking some of his whisky. We all turned to the 10yo, one I have had before and was quite impressed with. Surrounded on all sides by its older siblings, however, it came across as somewhat limp: a clean, sweet nuttiness, grassiness and vanilla all that could really distinguish it. Not a bad whisky by any stretch of the imagination - and as Peter asserted, it is more of an introductory malt – but the guests in the Scores Hotel function room were keen to continue exploring.

The 15yo I effectively described above, and I shall only add here that in a comparative context, much more biscuity flavours emerged on the palate and finish beside the richer, older expressions.

Peter Donnelly

Peter Donnelly

Of especial interest was Peter’s emphasis on the maturation process, and how it is uniquely influenced by the microclimate generated in and around Ben Rinnes. It cannot be ignored. As I alluded to earlier, even in mid-April it is possible to experience a disorientating white-out as snow and sleet bucket out of the sky. Winter temperatures at the distillery can be as low as minus 22 degrees Celcius – extreme is the only word for it. Glenfarclas, however, have stuck by their traditional maturation techniques. Thick, ancient, stone-walled warehouses with slate rooves and earthen floors ensure that the worst of the heat and cold is avoided and provides the perfect consistency of ambient conditions to aid in fully-interactive maturation with minimal evaporation. Indeed, Glenfarclas can boast some of the lowest evaporation by volume in the industry. Strength is largely unaffected, too, as the extraordinary proofs many of the very old Family Casks have retained demonstrates.

To the wood, though, and this is where little, family-run Glenfarclas has to muscle in alongside the big boys - the likes of The Macallan, Highland Park, Laphroaig – all of whom want top quality Sherry casks in which to mature their drams. Demand of such casks vastly outstrips supply and hence why so many distillers have switched to ex-Bourbon barrels, more plentiful and crucially, much much cheaper. When the Grants head over to Spain each year, each cask will cost them between 600-700 euros. That Glenfarclas nevertheless abstains from charging Highland Park and Macallan prices, however, is what is so remarkable, considering the quality of the product that leaves those venerable, dear, Sherry butts.

Our next whisky was the 21yo, one I have not previously come across and was grateful to do so here. I found it rather unusual for a Glenfarclas, with a lightness to it as to which I’m still unsure whether the pronounced mulchy earthiness balanced. Initially, I found planed oak, quite spicy and sweet. Then came fragrances of a damp ornamental garden: sweet earth, wet waxy leaves and lush grass. Potato peelings yielded to white grape notes and then a toffee yoghurt character. On the palate there was more sweetness, with an assertive dryness. Earthy again, the experience concluded with floral and fruit notes. Peter revealed that the 21yo batches have become much more consistent, and of a higher quality, now that they have sourced casks from a smaller, more artisanal producer. I was intrigued by this whisky, but not wholly won over.

In stark contrast, the 25yo came blustering along with a challenge painted on its richly-hued face. This was the first of Peter’s ‘occasion whiskies’ – not for everyday drinking but a damn good thing to have tucked away. I couldn’t agree more. Marvellously focused, I discovered more of the apple notes than I had been able to with the others, together with oranges. Lush grass melded into a firm, spicy oakiness. The experience moved into the panelled library, with old books a suggestive aroma. Finally, crystallised orange peel confirmed the age and the Sherry behind this excellent dram.

On the night, the 25yo even outshone a whisky which had for a long time been remembered as one of those ‘Malt Moments’, when your immediate surroundings have no other recourse than to take a back seat as the dram in your hand moves centre stage. That had been the 30yo when I had it at the Scotch Whisky Experience in 2009. Though still impressive, the 25yo showed it a clean pair of heels for pace and agility.

What came next was to be possibly the oldest whisky the Quaich Society has ever seen at its tastings, but before I move on to that, Peter related a fascinating story of the oldest whisky Glenfarclas has. This is not one of the Family Casks – it isn’t even for sale. During the 1980s, a call was patched through from America. The caller had discovered a case of Glenfarclas whisky behind the chimney fixtures of his late father’s house, and offered the Grants the opportunity to buy back their stock, if they so wished. Further investigation through distillery records revealed that what was being described was not old whisky in terms of the spirit (between 8 and 10 years at most) but it had been bottled before Prohibition even got going. For three quarters of a century this whisky had been tucked out of sight, but sadly no-one had got round to drinking it. Perhaps they had forgotten where they had put it. The plain white case is now in the keeping of J & G Grant.

But, to that mature gentleman in our final glass. Peter had treated us to their 40yo, at £300 a bottle far out of reach of most of the tasters in the room that night, even with a misappropriated student loan, but as we couldn’t help recognising, considerably good value for money. Aware that lots of and lots of heavily-sherried whiskies might exhaust my olfactory senses, I had in fact turned to this dram first and discovered an intense, sherried red fruitiness with a creamy and rich sweetness. Dried cherries were in there, together with sweet spice, soft leather and heathery peat. The palate was rich, dark and tongue-coating, with peach and plum. Returning my nose to the glass revealed an added nutty sweetness with hedgerow berries. A touch of water brought out vanilla and big, boozy and juicy fruitcake. Oaky resin emerged, together with delicate heathery smoke. Big, but soft red apple rounded out a very rich and fruity nose. The diluted palate was very drying and rich with a spicy earthiness and somewhat too short finish. I had expected more from this whisky, I must confess. I feel it could have benefited from a little more abv, just to give it a bit of life. Who am I to argue with the wishes of John Grant, however, the one who put the whisky together? If he feels the best of the whisky is drawn out at 43% abv then so it shall be.

For a family-run business, Glenfarclas are hardly cautious in the big bad world of whisky. Peter described the dramming session of 2007 which would result in the release of the Family Casks. ‘So,’ says one, ‘what is the oldest whisky we’ve got?’

‘Ah well,’ says another, ‘I think there are a few casks from 1952.’

‘Huh… And what’s the next oldest after that?

’1953.’

‘And after that?’

’1954.’

Peter Donnelly with the 175th Anniversary bottling.

Peter Donnelly with the 175th Anniversary bottling.

In short, they discovered that they had casks from every year between 1952 and 1994 so what did they do? Rather than feeling rather smug and secure – as they had every reason to do – the cry went up: ‘Release ‘em!’ Peter makes out that this move was made ’just for a laugh – honest to God’. He reasons that the folks behind Glenfarclas have ‘made their money a long time ago’, and if they could offer something different, they ought to. No sooner was the release announced that 14 complete sets were immediately sold – that’s 43 individual bottles, the most expensive of which is nearly £1100. It has been phenomenally successful, the aim being to supply spectacular whisky, at prices that people can manage. Glenfarclas all over, really.

For the raffle, as Glenfarclas 105 circled about the room, Peter had a special prize for the first ticket out of the cannister: a bottle of the 175th Anniversary. A vatting of 18 casks from across five decades, bottled at 43% abv - just 6,000 bottles are available worldwide. Again, the whisky was intended to be the star of the show, hence packaging that is no different to the standard range – affordability ‘over crystal boxes and chandeliers and all this nonsense.’ The winner certainly looked happy with himself, and my three strips of tickets utterly redundant.

Many thanks go to Peter for breaking out the seriously rare stuff for us, and for the Quaich Society team for putting together another sell-out tasting.

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Glenfarclas Family Cask 1990

When the online retailers Master of Malt announced last year that they were to launch a constantly expanding and varied range of whisky samples alongside their regular operations, I and many others sat up and took note.

'Drinks By The Dram' from Master of Malt.

'Drinks By The Dram' from Master of Malt.

‘Drinks By The Dram’ is a dedicated service on the part of Master of Malt to allow whisky fans to try before they buy. For folk such as myself, single cask, cask strength independent bottlings which would normally retail at around £75 can now be experienced for a fraction of the cost. However, with tasteful and considered little touches with regards to the packaging with their red wax-dipped tops and faded old-effect paper labels, these 3cl samples powerfully exude the ’boutique’.

In order that word of these products could be more widely circulated, who better to approach than whisky bloggers already familiar with the sample-style trappings of pre-release whiskies. I have to thank Natalie from Master of Malt for my sample: one from a range of single cask vintage releases produced by one of the few truly independent Scottish distilleries that put Diageo’s Managers’ Choice to shame.

To my delight and relief, my 3cl sample of the Glenfarclas Family Cask 1990 made it through the snow to my door and so becoming a object was it to behold and to contemplate that I abstained from breaking the wax-covered seal until I sensed my olfactory faculties were firing on all cylinders. It was worth the wait.

This particular bottling of Glenfarclas from 1990 is sold out, but a sample from the Fifth Release of the Family Casks is available here.

Master of Malt on Facebook.

Master of Malt on Twitter.

Read my tour review for Glenfarclas here.

Look at the colour! So full and buxom is the body that a translucent residue was left on the rim of the glass - as if I had been wearing lipstick.

Look at the colour! So full and buxom is the body that a translucent residue was left on the rim of the glass - as if I had been wearing lipstick. Which of course I hadn't been.

Glenfarclas Family Cask 1990 Sherry Butt 9246 58.9% ABV

Colour - Blood red. Very striking.

Nose - Careful nosing from a distance reveals velvety soft Sherry influence: darkly nutty with stewed fruits. The biting claws of the high proof are withdrawn and it is possible to enjoy the heavy, spicy-rich vanilla reminiscent of some Bourbons I have had recently (Buffalo Trace comes to mind). It is so sweet with orange, cinnamon, tropical flowers, marzipan, redcurrant and cherries.

      Water lightens the experience with raw malted barley sweetness. Rich, soft toffee and oak notes which reminded me of the heat and woody spice notes which pervaded the Speyside Cooperage. The European oak is medium-dry and intense. More vanilla appears, in addition to dried fruits and fruitcake. There is an impeccable balance between the rich and the sweet, with the heavy juiciness and malt notes of Glenfarclas standing up to the wood.

Palate – This was a first for me. Despite the strength there was ne’er a prickle. The whole thing was delightfully rich and smooth with oak and malt. Mouth-coating and heavily-sherried, it was plain that not much had been done to this from leaving the cask. The texture was astonishing, as it felt as if raw sugar or red liquorice was being sprinkled on my lips.

      Water enhanced the smoothness slightly, and the Sherry, oak and caramel notes remained. Orange appeared, however, as did added dryness. Biscuity with tablet notes, this was unmistakeably Scotch, and Glenfarclas.

Finish – Jam-like and syrupy with such softness and smoothness. Superbly complex and evocative. Rich fruit skins and creamy almond. Orange and mango. Book binding.

      Water revealed more of the nutty sweetness, as well as rich toffee. Dark and smooth maltiness melded into a toasty, rich spiciness. As things began to simmer down, heather, thick clear honey and latterly beeswax appeared. An extremely glossy and sophisticated malt.

So…? I will unquestionably be using the ‘Drinks By The Dram’ option again, and sampling more of the Family Casks. This was one of the most involving and exciting whiskies I have tasted for a long while. Unusually, I left a malt feeling grateful for the wonderful diversity within Scotch: how I can savour the fruity sweetness of Balblair one moment, the fragrance of Linkwood and Longmorn the next, the island power of Lagavulin and Ardbeg afterwards, and the rich complexity of The Dalmore and Glenfarclas at the next convenient opportunity.

This 1990 release had the presence, the depth and the authenticity at cask strength to transport me back to my forays around the Ballindalloch/Aberlour area last year. Especially undiluted, the finish acted like a well-serviced and rapid cable car: tugging me between the rough russet grass and heather of Glenfarclas at the foot of Ben Rinnes, and the rich, leafy mystery and delight of Warehouse No. 1 and the banks of the Spey itself in Aberlour. The wild and the sensuous were epically combined and evoked a particularly auspicious time on the Scotch Odyssey as I began my assault on Speyside. I had the remote and beautiful Glenfarclas all to myself on the Wednesday while I witnessed the wonder of excellent Sherry casks at Aberlour on the Thursday morning. With water the semi-dry spicy and dark leafiness recalled the mellow, fragrant bowers of the Speyside Way. Riverside and heathland in one glass, with the presence of deciduous lichen-clad forest a common quality. I have yet to be disappointed with Glenfarclas, and this is the fourth encounter.

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Moments for Malt

Some of my favourite pre-dinner malts: perfect delicacy but also full-on flavour.

Some of my favourite pre-dinner malts: perfect delicacy but also full-on flavour.

You wouldn’t take a howler monkey to Wimbledon. You wouldn’t show up at work on Monday morning wearing only your swimming trunks (or would you?). You wouldn’t eat beef bourguignon for breakfast. Time and Place is the discrepancy in operation here, and particularly in our Western society the failure to observe what is appropriate in any given circumstance is liable to invite ridicule upon oneself. There are things which are simply not done and if you are unfortunate enough to be caught doing them you are castigated as tactless, benighted - even a savage.

Equally, there are pairings which share an indestructible complimentary tie, combinations which are both wholesome and pleasing: Stephen Fry and any television programme with a cultured or intellectual subject; Emma Watson and Chanel; English football on the international stage and crushing, embarrassing disappointment. These work.

It is the same with malt whisky, only the time and place for a dram is not prescribed by social stigma but by deep personal discoveries. As I’m sure a lot of malt lovers can appreciate, after a certain point some brands and expressions become mainstays of a special hour in the day or location in the world. Treating them like Steven Gerrard and playing them out of position simply comes over all wrong.

Very recently I reached this juncture myself. In his Malt Whisky Companion, Micheal Jackson speaks of the “particular” pleasure of the stuff: “the restorative after a walk in the country or a game of golf; the aperitif; even, occasionally, the malt with a meal; the digestif; the malt with a cigar, or with a book at bedtime.” I have sampled whisky in all of the above situations (although stroke out golf and cigars) at some point and can now declaim that, for me, a dram pre-dinner is my absolute favourite ‘Moment for a Malt’. The exploration of flavour in liquid form is a marvellous prelude to the more substantial main event. The olfactory and digestive mechanisms, in moist anticipation, make to intensify the properties of whichever whisky I’m sipping. This is especially true on Sunday evenings when my malt has medicinal qualities, too (even when it is not an Islay), remedying the fever symptomatic of the atrocities endured over the course of a Sunday Lunch shift at the pub where I work. At such a time, the delicate, smooth, captivating sweetness of youthful Speysiders is highly prized. The Glenlivet 12-year-old and Tomintoul 16-year-old used to do the job in the past. These now long empty, I look to my bottle of the superb Longmorn 15-year-old and the majestic Linkwood 12-year-old. Vanilla, oak, flowers and fruit, and a touch of peat compose an irresistible flavour profile.

Perhaps still more extraordinary, however, is Caol Ila. Although memories of cycling around the gorgeous distilleried stretch between Rothes and Elgin endows these two malts made on the Lossie with more favourable significance, I rate Caol Ila an unbeatable aperitif. The balance of soft fruity sweetness, crisp, deep peat and supreme malty delicacy is wonderful. At present, I find the Distillers’ Edition with little or no water a joy to drink.

Of course I shall continue to experiment. I suspect my dearth of support for a post-prandial malt is because I have so few bottles whose contents fit the bill. I haven’t many aged, Sherry-matured bruisers. Dark and bewitching cannot be readily applied to the inductess of my drinks cabinet. Mortlach 16-year-old works well with music after a meal but less so with television; Ardbeg Uigeadail demands commitment and certainty to be poured and savoured; the Auchentoshan 1978 is very powerful indeed at 59% ABV. All are complex malts, but haven’t yet seemed to marry with my after dinner moods. The 30-year-old Glenfarclas, however, could without a doubt address matters, and the Gordon & MacPhail Strathisla 49-year-old Sandy poured me in Dufftown to round off my fillet steak and clootie dumpling was revelatory. This last is of course a ‘Malt Moment’ in its own right.

As for whisky with a meal, testing has proven inconclusive. Glenfarclas 15-year-old with dark chocolate? Not a winner. Oban 14-year-old with salmon? Well, I’ll try almost anything once. Auchentoshan 3Wood with Christmas cake? Scoreless draw. Whisky and food pairing is an avenue many are keenly striding down, and there are some persuasive articles around to tempt me, but I feel that, for the time being, I won’t risk spoiling the impact of my whiskies when the inclination to have one arises.

The Dalmore 15-year-old: a Twilight Whisky.

The Dalmore 15-year-old: a Twilight Whisky.

If the evening is wearing on, however, now may well be the time for another malt. Though not as appealing as aperitifs, “Twilight Whiskies” can be fantastic. The Dalmore 15-year-old is an astonishingly lovely and easy-drinking dram. I adore its opulent, richness, firmness, nuttiness, fruitiness and light dab of ground coffee-esque peat. For a late-night malt, it is without equal and indeed I polished off my bottle, with regret but with friends, earlier this week. Highland Park 12-year-old is a steely competitor, though, as the light dies from the sky. I sipped some as Iniesta secured the World Cup for Spain and delighted in the echoes of my drizzly Orkney causeways which slid out of my glass.

Of course, these are no more than hunches, and most likely are all subject to change. I welcome modification, in fact, because there are few simpler joys than a blissful half-hour with just the right-tasting malt – whenever and with whichever style of whisky that happens to be. If tomorrow I discover that my precious Longmorn actually works rather splendidly immediately after a mid-morning chocolate croissant then for such future occasions shall I reserve and savour it. Although maybe I ought not to make a habit of doing so, and definitely it should be out of sight of disapproving parents. When are your favourite Moments for Malt? Have they evolved over the years? I’m made dizzy by future possibilites for my whisky-drinking: Ardbeg Corryvreckan with Power Bar energy gels post half-marathon? You never know how mood and malt may conspire to create sensory wonderment.

So then, for means of reflection, conversation, restoration or an endless list of other purposes, at any time find an excuse for a wee dram. Even if it is in the manner of those monkeys slapping at typewriters, you may hit upon the perfect marriage of whisky and circumstance. It is so very rewarding. Houseman wrote: “and malt does more than Milton can. To justify God’s ways to man.” Meditating on that aphorism alone would be apt inspiration to root around in the cupboard for something tasty.

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Glenfarclas

Not the prettiest distillery, but certainly a uniquely precious outlook on Benrinnes and, from behind the still room, the Spey valley. Wonderful.

Not the prettiest distillery, but certainly a uniquely precious outlook on Benrinnes and, from behind the still room, the Spey valley. Wonderful.

Ballindalloch, Banffshire, AB37 9BD, 01807 500257. J & G Grant. www.glenfarclas.co.uk

APPEARANCE AND LOCATION:      *****      After enduring the extra wind created by all the tankers and articulated lorries heading towards Aberlour, and avoiding a tractor coming the other way down the single track road to the distillery, I needed the tranquility and sparseness of Glenfarclas. One of the events for the Speyside Whisky festival was a walk up to the water source on Benrinnes.

TOURS PROVIDED:

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

‘The Ambassador Tour’: £15. A more in-depth experience with four drams to sample, including some of the Family Casks. Restricted to July and August.

DISTILLERY-EXCLUSIVE BOTTLINGS:      N/A

My Tour – 21/04/2010

THE RUNNING COMMENTARY:      **

THE PROCESS AND EQUIPMENT:      *

Notes:      The stills are not only the largest on Speyside, but gas-fired. This approach means that a rummager is required to stop bits of wash and yeast sticking to the bottom of the stills and burning. Tradition is in evidence at this stage, although they do have stainless steel washbacks. I’m one of those people who doesn’t believe the tun material makes a difference to the flavour, but the wooden ones have far more personality (the old ones look their ages) and are supremely tactile. For all I didn’t see in to a warehouse, they are dunnage, and have metal rails leading into them which the casks are pushed along. When you are dealing with 500 litre Sherry butts, you need all the help you can get.

GENEROSITY:      *

VALUE FOR MONEY:      *

SCORE:      5/10 *s

These stills are the largest on Speyside and are as individual and handsome as the spirit they create.

These stills are the largest on Speyside and are as individual and handsome as the spirit they create.

COMMENT:      I was a little disappointed with this tour, and it wasn’t the guide’s fault. I guess I had just hyped up the “independent distillery” experience a little too much. The distillery is in a gorgeous location, almost on the slopes of Benrinnes, and from the room with all the spirit vats there is a brilliant view straight down the Spey valley to Aberlour and Craigellachie. I would have loved to have ventured into the dunnage warehouses but sadly it wasn’t to be. The stillroom is profoundly handsome, and I even got to stick my head in one of the low wines stills. It was empty, of course. These are still directly-fired by gas and as a result “the rummager” is encountered and explained. You don’t see it, but it is intended to aggravate the bottom of the wash stills and stop the yeast burning. How it used to be done in the olden days. It was also a bit of a shock to see a blue mill. Hitherto I had been greeted at the start of each tour by a red one. This one wasn’t made in Leeds but in Switzerland!

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Braemar to Dufftown

Braemar to Tomintoul, 32 miles

And so quickly this tour has become a salvage operation. How do I continue to capitalise on the tour as planned, despite the hiccough? I had my room booked in Tomintoul, thank goodness, and so all I had to do was get there.

The hostel had emptied on the Sunday morning, and whereas there had been six fellow sleepers on the Saturday night, it was just me in a cavernous dorm. I woke up reasonably cheery. Until I saw the white stuff outside.

Hardly auspicious conditions. I knew the road got higher (much higher) before I reached Tomintoul and didn't like the look of this one bit.

Hardly auspicious conditions. I knew the road got higher (much higher) before I reached Tomintoul and didn't like the look of this one bit.

Throughout my time in Braemar there had been snow flurries, but nothing had lain, even on the lawns surrounding the hostel. This was different. When I get the chance, I shall show you the scale of it just before I set off. The weather news in Tomintoul was better, however, and there was the promise of something hot to drink in the ski resort. I set off.

The snow mercifully stopped as I followed the banks of the Dee. I’d taken off my overtrousers and hood and conditons were rather good. I knew the road I was due to cycle, though, and it filled me with dread.

The main road runs from Ballater to Tomintoul. I had taken the little one. The higher I got, the more it snowed. I reached the top of the main climb – over little hump-backed bridges and rolls of steepness – and it was blizzard conditions. I couldn’t entertain doing anything other than continuing, however, because where could I bail out? I was in the middle of nowhere.

At the top of the steepest stretch, I stopped to rip into the cheese and ham sandwiches I had made for myself. Was that the sun? It certainly was trying to peep through. This felt like a supportive presence and I carried on. I reached the next summit, and there was Donside. And the Lecht.

After a hot chocolate and some soup, during which I appreciated just how freezing I really was, I made my attempt. The first ramp was 20%. I had to stop in the area they normally reserve for turning gritters. Normally, they get to that point and don’t bother about the rest. It’s the hill and road that is always closed from about November to March.

This is one of the most breathtaking views of the entire tour, and thanks to the gradient I had to survive to reach this point, I was literally wheezing and spluttering to begin with.

This is one of the most breathtaking views of the entire tour, and thanks to the gradient I had to survive to reach this point, I was literally wheezing and spluttering to begin with.

 (They closed it again temporarily the following day.) I had another break before the top, and the view was astonishing. Then it was the bald stretch to the ski station and one last awful incline. A motorist (on his way down) gave me a gentle toot and a thumbs-up.

After gobbling a Mars Bar, I limped to Tomintoul. The snooker was on, and I just vegged out. I must mention Mike and Cathy at The Whisky Castle. I walked in and had a chat with Cathy, who then proceeded to pour samples down my throat. It is just the most incredible shop, with awesome stock and there is nothing the pair of them haven’t tasted or visited. There appreciation of the industry as a whole is remarkable, and after Mike’s good-humoured carping, I’m a convert to the “No chill-filter and 46%!” crusade. If it’s single cask then all the better.

***

Tomintoul to Aberlour, 26 miles

Having done The Glenlivet the previous day (see review) I was now completely back on schedule. It was hard to leave Argyle Guest House – they had looked after me so well – but one can’t travel by staying in the same place.

My first proper glimpse of the Spey and the gorgeous, gentle fields and hills it sloshes through. Here be whisky, alright.

My first proper glimpse of the Spey and the gorgeous, gentle fields and hills it sloshes through. Here be whisky, alright.

I reached Cragganmore just as it began to rain and left just when it started again. The tour I have treated in the previous post.

I don’t like the main road to Aberlour. Every HGV in Northern Europe seems to be using these Scottish A- roads. Maybe I’ve been unlucky and the ash crisis is creating extra traffic. Glenfarclas appeared, rather ostentatiously, on my right. I shall review the tour shortly but what a lovely environment. It is possible to taste the independence: right down to using a blue Swiss mill!

I made it to Aberlour without becoming a road accident statistic. In ‘Fresh’, the recommended cafe, I took stock with tea and a slab of carrot cake. And I mean slab. ‘This is why I’m doing this, then,’ I may have said to myself.

***

Dufftown to Huntly, 60 miles

I’m condensing, folks. I had gone from Aberlour to Dufftown the day before but it was a short trip and the distilleries were the talking point, not the journey. This, on the other hand, was a mixture of both.

Having been following it for the last week, now, just outside Tomintoul, I was officially on the Malt Whisky Trail.

Having been following it for the last week, now, just outside Tomintoul, I was officially on the Malt Whisky Trail.

A few miles out of Dufftown it started snowing. I passed into Aberdeenshire and it started to rain. I prefer snow. Huntly didn’t look too promising in the dank wetness. I was deeply cold, and well aware that I had far to go. I checked into my hotel room to leave some things behind while I completed a couple of errands about the town. Less than enthusiastically, I set off for Glen Garioch.

If I thought the A95 was bad, the A96 is by far and away worse. If you are a cyclist, do not bother. I had ten miles of it not to so much endure as survive. In the spray, with all the Aberdeen-bound traffic, I don’t know how some of the enormous trucks didn’t send me through those pearly gates (assuming all of this demon drink isn’t an insurmountable stain on my character). They just refused to give me room, slow down, or even wait until oncoming vehicles had passed. On one instance I was forced over a catseye by a gargantuan flat-bed and thought my time was up.

The motorway swelled and fell, and I felt every incline which the oil boys in there cars barely noticed, judging by the anti-social nature of their speed and disinterest. I knew they were oil-connected because ever second car was an Audi.

At long last the turn off to Old Meldrum manifested before my sodden eyes. 10 miles. OK. I had to be careful. My gloves were saturated and I was getting low on fuel. Could I make it to the distillery before I froze, or did I stop and eat, and freeze? I risked it and just buried myself.

The routes around this part of the country are mostly flat and very very staright. When yet another US-style ruler of tarmac presented itself, I confess I swore loudly. The sheep and lambs were startled.

Full of lively whisky and super-knowledgeable, and just as lovely, people.

Full of lovely whisky and super-knowledgeable, and just as lovely, people.

Old Meldrum: I’d made it. Well, maybe not quite. There was still a mile and a half to Glen Garioch, as the brown signs made it, and I was in a less than cheery mood when I got there. I was soaked to the skin (and a good way below that, I fancy) and all I could do was beg the lady behind the desk for some radiators. She did better than that. She sent me to the still house. Behind the spirit still I found a clothes rack and so draped my drenched gear over that. It would all be dry by the time I finished my tour – for all I extended the time by chatting to Fiona and Jane, as I would come to know and love them.

Jane made me a cup of tea while I wolfed down my lunch. Fiona took me on my tour and as guides go, she tops all I have come across so far, and not just because of her maternal care for a poor droonded waif. Her sense of humour was sparkling. She had been surprised to see me half-naked in the still house when she brought her previous tour in. She debated whether to improvise and say that my presence was essential to the final flavour of the spirit.

The tour over, I just discussed my plans. Their enthusiasm and support were the only things which preserved me back to Huntly. I can’t believe I covered those last 22 miles. I promised before leaving that should I complete this tour – and I will confess that at times it has been a case of “If” instead of “When” – I would come back to the distillery and buy myself a bottle of the 1990. On the way back I added to my plans the purchase of a Founder’s Reserve which I could get them both to sign. I’d drink the 1990! It was the perfect antidote to the weather and fatigue, and once more reaffirmed what can overcome what. In the game of rock/paper/scissors, whisky and people beat rain and exhaustion. I can’t describe the pride I felt in myself when I returned to the Huntly Hotel, whose relatively sparse and tatty-round-the-edges nature did not matter one jot in this new haze of accomplishment.

***

Huntly to Dufftown, 28 miles

I woke up sobered. I felt those 60 miles now, and looking at my bike, so had it. It was filthy, and all the squeakings of yesterday now seemed unavoidable. I had to deal with this.

A phone call to Breezes revealed my incompetence as far as maintenance is concerned. When Mark had said that on-the-hoof maintenance wasn’t really necessary, he obviously assumed (as he had done with puncture repairs) that I knew to do the basics: clean the chain and lubricate it regularly. I hadn’t been doing that and yesterday’s rain had washed the last of the grease of it. I was advised to try and get as much muck off as possible, then try and get some oil. When I asked about WD40 I got the same response as I had when I voiced my idea to pressure wash the bottom bracket: “No!” I spent 40 minutes with some rags and soapy water, then tried to find a garage. I didn’t find a garage but I did find an unlikely good samaritan. As I stared glumly at the lightless interior of the garage, a man appeared. I only understood maybe 10% of the words that came out of his mouth (and there were a lot) but he was eager to help and got me some 3-in-1. This did the trick. I was off again. I didn’t do Glendronach for my equipment issues had cost me lots of time. Disconsolately, and contemplating the ridicule I’d get for throwing the towel in now from all my readers, friends, employers and colleagues and how I was generally a weak human being, I headed for Keith and Strathisla. Yesterday I was on top of the world, believing that I could conquer anything now on my itinerary. Now I was riding in fear of my machine simply capitulating. I couldn’t see a future.

After the tour I had my Mum source some phone numbers for local bike shops. Everyone over the last few days had said that Elgin was probably the closest. Not great because it isn’t that near, but there’s nothing I could do about it. I spoke to the folk at Moray Cycles and they promised to look at it if I passed through. They also recommended some different oils which I found in a car DIY shop in Keith. I felt much better.

I returned to Dufftown, then, and after a shower, headed out for my dinner. I wanted to cheer myself up and vowed to spend the money that would have gone on the Balvenie tour on some really good grub. I was no longer after budget calories. I’m one of these people whose moods are dependent on their stomachs and so went in search of other Dufftown eateries. I arrived at ‘A Taste of Speyside’. The beginning wasn’t auspicious – they were out of rabbit! They couldn’t get hold of any. I can recommend a garden in Northumberland that has a surplus. I elected for the pork and was not disappointed. Lovely big portions full of richness and flavour. The ethos of the restaurant owner is locally grown, and in season. Plates are simply presented and ingredients confidentally, though sympathetically, prepared. This Scottish produce can speak for itself.

Probably my most favouritest restaurant in the whole entire world: fabulous food and super, unprecedented people.

Probably my most favouritest restaurant in the whole entire world: fabulous food and super, unprecedented people.

I had the muffin to finish and what a splendid shot of endorphins that was. I finished replete, and very satisfied with my decision to reward myself for my endeavours. I got chatting to Sandy, the owner and chef, and what a unique man. We discussed my previous dining in Dufftown and as we were on the computer, I showed him my blog. When he heard of my strife with internet access, he insisted I sit down and update away. I said I hadn’t my notebooks. He said I should go and get them then. I said what if I don’t come back. He said he knew where I was staying. And so here I sit, still typing because what a week it has been. Fortunately, with a cup of tea inside me, I have a renewed appreciation of the values still held by other foodies and the capacity of others to help out where they can. Sandy and his team have gone above and beyond on this occasion, and it is thanks to them that you are largely up to date with my movements. As I have said before, it is my encounters with people such as Sandy (and Liam at the Old Cross Inn, and Gavin at Tullibardine, and Jane and Fiona at Glen Garioch) that elevate my day-to-day workings and struggles. Off the bike, it is coming into contact with them that appeases and silences any negativity about when I’m going to call it a day on this trip, to simply give up. Their hospitality, genuine interest and generosity are priceless and my will to enjoy more similar encounters trumps the dejection of exhaustion.

So I do have my dark times, and I’ll be honest I still cannot envisage cycling into Glasgow in a few weeks, but there is always some glorious person spurring me on, when I’m least expecting it. If nothing else, I shall take that with me from this incredible, and incredibly challenging, journey; whenever my reserves of fight and passion seem to have been utterly spent. I hope to carry on for a few days yet, though. 

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