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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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Spirit of Speyside

The modern connotations attached to ‘festival’ embrace many things, but mud, masses of people, inadequate sanitation and probably a youth with a guitar all feature in peoples’ minds’ eye. The true root of the custom, of course, is celebration, and a mighty big one is taking place in Speyside at the end of this week.

If you were to believe some of the pronouncements made by those whom I have overheard once or twice in recent years, you would wonder what the good-for-nothing-but-blends region had to celebrate. Incredibly, there are people who dismiss two-thirds of the Scotch single malt industry as grassy, fruity, honeyed and dull. In response, I urge them to do what thousands of international whisky fans are on the cusp of: visit.

Morayshire, Banffshire and Aberdeenshire boast magnificent landscapes (and seascapes), wonderfully varied and high-quality foods and of course, mighty malt whiskies. The Spirit of Speyside Festival touts them all. In past years, Glenfarclas have taken groups up Ben Rinnes, fuelled by their richly sherried liquids; this time around Glenfiddich will host a ceilidh in one of their warehouses.

Delighted with the uptake in tickets, Mary Hemsworth, festival manager, will preside over more than 370 events over the four days. Speaking of the number of enquiries from non-UK attendees, she said: ‘The Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival is one of the key events in Homecoming 2014, and we hope this trend will lay some very strong foundations on which to grow our international profile and that of Speyside Moray in a very important year for Scottish tourism’.

While in Dufftown last month, just in the one (superlatively excellent) Taste of Speyside I encountered Australian, Dutch and German whisky fans, while three Taiwanese gentlemen had preceeded me around the BenRiach distillery. The latter example demonstrates that it is not just the likes of The Macallan, Glenfiddich, Glen Grant and The Glenlivet that they are coming to see, but as many of the diverse and dynamic distilleries in the area as they can.

Once again, the normally secretive Mortlach will open its doors to parties over the festival, while the Tamdhu fete sounds especially interesting. The distillery will celebrate its return from the brink of rigor mortis with a ceilidh, whisky tastings, tours and a treasure hunt on May 4th.

Not to be outdone by the IWSC, the ISC, the WWA and numerous others, the Spirit of Speyside bestows its own accolades: the Roving Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival Whisky Awards. In a departure from the norm, recipients of the RSOSWFWAs will be decided by those who live, work and visit Speyside, rather than the old hands of an expert panel. Six drams will be judged across three categories (12yo and Under, 13-20yo, and 21yo and Over) by anyone who can make it along to a judging venue with £12 still in their pockets. Tomorrow nosing will take place at the Glenfiddich Distillery; on the 2nd at the Sunninghill Hotel in Elgin; Forsyth’s Coppersmiths in Rothes, and the Aviemore Highland Resort on the 3rd; the Grant Arms in Grantown and Aberlour’s Aberlour Hotel on the 4th. Winners will be announced at a three-course lunch held at Tamdhu on the 5th.

The Speyside community – it should go without saying – rests at the core of this eponymous gathering. On Thursday evening, the Festival will kick off with an Opening Gala and an auction which every connoisseur and collector of Speyside malt whiskies ought to attend. Fourteen rare and limited edition whiskies from the region will go under the hammer to raise as much money as possible for the Moray Immediate Care Scheme, the Festival’s chosen charity for 2013.

Just some of the whiskies include bottle #2 of a 1,000 bottle release of Limited Edition Tamdhu 10yo, a G&M Glen Grant from 1965 not previously on sale in the UK, a three-litre bottle of Glenfarclas 105 and a couple of bottles of Glenfiddich’s Eeu de Robbidou whose non-traditional maturation regime means it is not technically Scotch whisky at all. Commendably, this is whisky’s attempt to give something back to the region.

The events are as numerous as the distilleries, and I would dearly love to forget about revision for a week and get stuck in on Speyside. If you are at a loose end for what to do this week, check out the website at www.spiritofspeyside.com or keep up to date on twitter (I know I will be) with the handle @spirit_speyside.

Experience the beating heart of the Scotch whisky industry for yourself, and encounter the warm hearts of the people who live and work there.

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The Mon-Stramash

A Weekend of Whisky with a Difference

Full credit must go to anybody with sufficient passion and organisational nouse to get a whisky festival off the ground and into the congested air space of dramming jamborees. Little short of knighthoods beckon for those singular people who achieved such success first time around that they are back for a second offering.

Darroch Ramsay and Scott Martin are not your average whisky enthusiasts, and their Whisky Stramash – to be held once again in The Surgeon’s Hall, Edinburgh – is not your average whisky jolly. I was fortunate enough to bump into these straight-talking Glaswegians at the Edinburgh Whisky Blog birthday in February 2012 when their early summer event still precipitated some anxiety. However, with impressive careers working front of house and behind the scenes for many decorated Scotch whisky brands, they boasted the expertise – not to mention wit – to deliver two days of high-octane, multi-sensory whisky experiences.

The Stramash returns on Saturday May 25th and Sunday May 26th. The press release describes the ethos behind the event as ‘mad cap pioneering and ridiculous secrecy’. ‘The Stramash combines the opportunity to try a huge array of amazing drams with fantastically eccentric experiences and installations to tantalise the senses’. Staggering in a roughly clockwise direction around a room stuffed with tables covered in whisky the Stramash is not. There was even a murder mystery going on at the Jura stand last year (see Tiger’s review on Edinburgh Whisky Blog here).

Next month, expect Glenfiddich’s portable Warehouse 47 experience, an interactive photo wall from the folks at Deanston Distillery, a pop up speakeasy and cocktails – but as Heston Blumenthal might envisage them. Many more down-the rabbit-hole diversions are guaranteed. How much for this singular and esoteric encounter, you ask? Experience four hours of serious Stramashing for £26 (sessions are from 12pm-4pm and 5pm-9pm on the Saturday, 1pm-5pm on the Sunday).

Tickets are available here: TicketSOUP

More information abounds at www.thewhiskystramash.com as well as on Twitter (@whiskystramash) and Facebook.

I wish Darroch and Scott the very best of luck for their follow-up Stramash and I have every faith that you can expect wonderful whiskies coupled with, of course, winning weirdness.

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’101 World Whiskies To Try Before You Die’

What would 101 days of Christmas be like? This question is not purely rhetorical, of course, due to the militarised encroachment of Festive cheer (or perhaps uninterest, verging on febrile rage) into the month of September or even earlier. How fortunate we are, therefore, that Ian Buxton has a solution should tradition ever be rewritten to reflect consumerist reality; he has provided an itinerary a good deal more delicious – if less catchy – than the Patridge-In-A-Pear-Tree variety in the shape of his latest book, ’101 World Whiskies to Try Before You Die’.

I caught up with Ian at a recent talk here in St Andrews to promote the new tome, which follows on from ’101 Whiskies to Try Before You Die’ (‘Police Academy II’ as Ian dubbed the sequel). Although it is not a title I own, it was responsible for initiating a whisky-based friendship with a Swedish gentlemen who was sitting next to me on one of my many train journeys to and from university and reading all about Compass Box. I have since associated Mr Buxton’s work with my favourite kind of whisky fellowship, and having met the man himself I can confirm that he is every bit as sociable and engaging as his Twitter account (@101Whiskies).

For an hour and a half, Ian waxed lyrical about whiskies at home and abroad while little morsels of those he has listed in his books appeared before our lips. It was a struggle to cling onto our thimbles and juggle the various props Ian circulated throughout the room, in addition to paying close attention to the torrent of fact and opinion he produced.

Beginning at the beginning, Ian’s point of departure from the traditional heartland of whisky production focused on the explosion of farm-scale distilling in America. He eulogised about the potential for flavour innovation these start-up distillers symbolise. In subsequent correspondence, Ian revealed the fun he had had exploring Swiss and Finnish whisky. When I asked which book he had preferred writing – this one, or its predecessor – Ian replied that both had been a lot of fun, but with the latest focus on whisky counter cultures, he hoped to ‘open a few people’s eyes to the great quality and great value that’s out there if you step off the ‘big brand luxury’ path for a moment (though that delivers some surprises too).’

The final reveal of the whiskies we had been sampling took a few by surprise, including myself. I had selected the final whisky as my favourite, as had my neighbour Doug Clement who could announce on the night that Kingsbarns Distillery had at last secured the financial backing necessary to begin its own farm distilling story. Dram #5, however, hailed from an operation that is more than 210 years old: Highland Park.

Ian holding court - and an empty bottle of Highland Park.

Of greatest curiosity – and supplying what was tantamount to a committee of world whiskies in one bottle – was Orbis. A blend of whiskies from Canada, the US, Ireland, Japan and Scotland, the nose was lemon-accented before heavy brown grist appeared and took the whisky in a different direction. Aromas of oregano, tomato puree and red wine materialised, before a hint of peat smoke made its presence felt. On the palate, there was blackcurrant juice and chocolate, with a return of the gristiness and the peat. I had thought this was Scotch – an unusual and young Bunnahabhain perhaps. How wrong I was.

Some days after the tasting, I solicited the Buxton perspective on tourism in Scotch whisky distilleries – the raison d’etre for the Scotch Odyssey Blog, after all. Ian has worked as a consultant on projects such as Dewar’s World of Whisky and the visitor centres at Highland Park and Glenfiddich; curiously enough, all of these feature in a list of my top 10 whisky visitor attractions in Scotland, with Highland Park picking up the top gong, and Glenfiddich not far behind with their supreme (and free) standard tour. Ian’s advice: “to thine own self be true”. Don’t try to position your whisky or your distillery into a gap in the market which they are not destined to fill, but with any marketing activity remain faithful to a core and authentic principal. ‘When building and operating a centre you need to engage and seduce the visitor, not beat them to death with branding,’ he says, ’People know where they are and why they came, so you don’t need to ‘sell’ to them. Get the right people working there and let them engage with the visitors, then those visitors go away as ambassadors and bring more visitors.’

His own picks for distilleries to visit include The Macallan with their revolutionary presentation on the subject of all things wood, and also Bruichladdich for the commendable reasons that it is ‘so down to earth and a faithful representation of the brand, company, place and people’.

Another ’101′ format book in the offing, maybe? I should warn him that the Scotch Odyssey Blog will defend its niche – even if ’42 Whisky Distilleries to Visit Before You Die’ hasn’t quite the same ring to it.

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Glenfiddich Age of Discovery

I discovered Glenfiddich remarkably late, which probably doesn’t make me the sort of pioneer the marketing guys at William Grant & Sons have in mind with their latest campaign. Despite the uniquity of the exhaustively-awarded 12yo in bars and pubs, my energetic beginnings in the world of single malt embraced many obscure distilleries before output from the independently-owned, world-renowned Dufftown behemoth finally passed my lips. As I sought new flavours and stories, I overlooked (wrongly and naively) the distillery largely responsible for ploughing the single malt furrow, without which those whiskies I had been sampling may never have come to my attention. In my age of discovery, I had forgotten the original pioneer.

The Glenfiddich distillery.

Glenfiddich have extended their remit in recent times to champion, on the back of their world-leading sales figures, the pioneering spirit. Courtesy of long-running schemes like their Artist in Residence programme and global gatherings such as the One Day You Will Summit of last year, the distillery has sought to provoke discussion around human creativity and endeavour. With the Summit, the mission statement focused on raising awareness internationally for how food and drink are produced, how they interact with their consumers, and how we can build for the future. In a similar spirit, but one which nods to how they went about their business in the past, the Age of Discovery expression was released.

At 19-years-of-age, this whisky presents a wise face to the world. While the spirit was maturing, the Kyoto Protocol took shape, issues of climate change and environmental sustainability entered the mainstream and, of course, the single malt category exploded again. Attitudes to how we eat and drink have evolved, as has a consciousness regarding where our food comes from and how it reaches us. This Glenfiddich supplies a case in point: I think about the Scottish barley grown in the North East, the distillery itself with those 28 squat copper pot stills, the cooperages of Kentucky and Tennessee from which those hogsheads hail, and the final ingredient from wine caves of Portugal: Madeira casks. As you can see, Glenfiddich have done remarkably well in teasing out an ideological nexus for this expression, incorporating a very contemporary conscientiousness for provenance, ethics and craftsmanship. But the proof is in the consumption, after all.

Glenfiddich 19yo Age of Discovery 40% £89.95

Colour - light toffee with shades of bruised apple.

Nose - fairly solid and chunky oak at first and rather dark. Creamy vanilla and blackcurrant jam. Hard honeycomb with some biscuit crumb maltiness. Weighty, heathery floral notes emerge together with poached pear. Underneath is simmering honey. Pale oak with a spicy depth. After a time some aged rum character develops.

With water the delivery is slightly denser with treacle sponge. Demerara sugar in abundance and rich pear. After dinner chocolates emerge and soon there is the accompanying coffee, lending a rich and dry aromatic quality. With more time there are dunnage hints and a vibrant jellied fruitness with rough, dark malt for balance.

Palate - Spicy oak swings in first before a lemon-accented maltiness enters. Slight hint of marzipan to offset this freshness.

With water the oak is tamed and heather honey, leafy and malty notes can move about more freely. Raspberry. Orange peel replaces the lemon from the undiluted palate. Creamy tablet lends a lovely texture.

Finish – light coffee notes from the oak. Lemon peel. Perfumed at the end.

With water chocolate milk, a little more lemon, sticky toffee pudding. Quite long with a rich, firm maltiness on the end.

So…? I enjoyed and felt a touch frustrated with this malt in equal measure. While some of the rich cereals and deep fruit notes satisfied me, the overall delivery lacked warmth and friendliness. Rather like the old explorer, whose pioneering days are behind them, crouched in an armchair recounting tales from former frontiers, the zeal and immediacy of such endeavours felt distinctly second-hand. I’m not even certain a higher ABV would have helped. A curious whisky, therefore, the like of which I have not had before. I would not discourage you from following in my footsteps, but be careful not to assume to much of this idiosyncratic dram.

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Size Matters?

Gargantuan Glenfiddich.

Gargantuan Glenfiddich.

From whisky’s commercial beginnings, success has meant going large: more equipment equals more liquid which equals more profit which equals more equipment. As businessmens’ wallets expanded so, inevitably, did their distilleries.

Miniature Edradour.

Miniature Edradour.

Today, however, we find a subtly changed model. Like the tiny birds which munch their lunch from the hides of rhinos and elephants, there are those whose comparatively diminutive size ensures their survival and prosperity. Fluttering in the wake of the industry’s behemoths are flocks of boutique operations flourishing thanks to the robust health of their enormous counterparts. Liberated by their small-scale natures to offer something particular, distinctive, unusual – maybe even personal – these distilleries cultivate a following of devotees which, though often equally as minute, are enough to sustain a brand and a philosophy. Small, for increasing numbers of ambitious and passionate people, is the whole point. But is boutique best? In the following paragraphs my aim is not exactly to answer this question. I want instead to ponder how whiskies differ on a level beyond – or perhaps it would be more correct to say beneath – flavour. The means by which Springbank journeys to your drinks cabinet contrast with those of The Glenlivet; which dram, therefore, speaks most faithfully of the provenance, process and people behind it?

This train of thought chugged into motion with the Benromach press release published yesterday. However, I should say that the thrust of this article is not innovation. Rather, I want to interrogate the principal bottlings from the likes of Glenmorangie and Macallan and evaluate whether they are as honest as they could be. Has their extraordinary volume compromised their identities as discernible in the final product? Could distillery character be more vividly captured and engaging with less output? Does spirit from smaller sites taste somehow more authentically like itself?

Giant Jura.

Giant Jura.

My tentative belief is that with fewer litres produced, requiring fewer casks and therefore with perhaps a smaller spectrum of oak-derived (or oak-perverted) flavours available, the creation of a new core expression presents the master blender with fewer alibis – whisky special effects. When putting together a 12-year-old, for example, he or she hasn’t the diverting inventory of casks with particular qualities which might in other conglomerates be brought to bear on the vatting with ameliorating, distorting consequences. I know that, with the larger companies, whole floors in warehouses are exhumed to contribute towards the next bottling run, many hundreds – even thousands – of litres many years older than the age statement that will finally appear on the bottle lend colour, fragrance and structure which may have been lacking in the youngest stock. This practise is not misleading exactly, just obscuring. Also, when releasing a subsequent batch of ’12-year-old’, the boutique master blender may be unable to maintain consistency with the previous release at the volume demanded by head office. Theirs will rather be a whisky for and of the here and now. They cannot replicate the character of a single expression, they can only construct a whisky that reflects how the Edradour or Royal Lochnagar spirit has coped with and embraced those variables which are at the heart of whisky manufacture.

Titchy Arran.

Titchy Arran.

I compared the scores given in the latest Malt Whisky Companion to the principal – or only – bottlings from the eleven smallest Scottish distilleries in output terms with those of the eleven largest. They were, once I had calculated an average, to all intents and purposes identical (80 plays 79 respectively). This, of course, tells me very little. Were the MWC published on an annual basis, however, and were the bottling habits of the likes of Kilchoman, Arran and Benromach to become de riguer for all boutiques, I would expect their scores to fluctuate, whilst those of the giants remained constant.

Not to conclude, therefore, but rather to adjourn for now, what about flavour exploration? Is fluctuating whisky better whisky? For me, I would bellow ‘Yes!’ I have enormous respect for how the big boys put out consistently tasty stuff year after year, but right now I yearn for variety, digression and different shades in my drams. I want to explore the products of those whose business models and above all artisanal attitudes empower them to shout about something really great when they find it, instead of having to surrender those drops of transient magnificence into the uniform ocean of brand continuity. To my mind, master blenders must too often sacrifice wonderful malts to function as a kind of whisky airbrushing tool; our omnipresent malts are merely beautified – they are not truly, idiosyncratically, beautiful.

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The Whisky Train

Brief Encounter: the Spirit of Speyside ready for departure.

Brief Encounter: the Spirit of Speyside ready for departure.

It is something of a blessing in disguise that I have not yet had time to recount my time aboard the Spirit of Speyside. With four inches of snow smothering everything outside I welcome any opportunity to recollect warmer times.

This is the most northerly heritage railway in the Scotland, although it was not for this reason that I dragged my parents along for an out-and-back rattle between Dufftown and Keith. It touts itself as ‘The Whisky Line’, and so I could not pass it up.

On my squeaky, grim-faced ride from Strathisla back to Dufftown in April the road hugged this single-track line for part of the way, bridges leap-frogging rails and the river Isla for a number of miles. The sun had appeared, and arable, wooded Speyside was showing itself very handsomely. I wanted to see what it was all about, having come across listings in the guidebooks one finds in Bed and Breakfasts.

Highly visible: the proximity of Balvenie and Glenfiddich bolster claims that this is indeed The Whisky Line.

Highly visible: the proximity of Balvenie and Glenfiddich bolster claims that this is indeed The Whisky Line.

A little bit of history first, however. The railway is one of the principle factors explaining why so many distilleries were built in the region. The plentiful raw materials dictated the location of a distillery in the first instance, but the train made distilling economically viable post-Excise Act, allowing the whisky which was ultimately produced to be transported to the markets of Edinburgh, Glasgow, and indeed the rest of the world with relative ease. Many distilleries were built beside, or had sidings constructed for them, from the main branch lines. The Speyside Way follows the echoing clatters of steam trains past, and many bridges over the Spey would have conveyed engines.

Salvaged and run by volunteers, the Keith & Dufftown Railway was opened in 2001, and operates on a dedicated timetable throughout the year. If you are planning your own visit, however, it is always worth checking the website in advance, although booking is not necessarily essential, and wasn’t for us as we pulled into the station at Dufftown on a Saturday in September.

I had been on the station platform before – in April as I left Dufftown on the way to Cardhu following a concerted effort to find out exactly where Balvenie is. Diving down a side road after Glenfiddich, behind some warehouses which had unfortunately collapsed due to the chronic winter weather, I passed under a bridge and then turned left – Balvenie Castle lying to my right – to be met with the various Balvenie buildings. Reflecting on how dearly I would have liked to have been rummaging around inside, I returned to the road, only to notice a puff of smoke from the pagoda heads – they were kilning malt! The best view then of Balvenie in its entirety had been from the platform, and so it was on this occasion.KDR4

Besides the waiting room and information points, there is also a railway carriage (static) kitted out as a cafe, and it serves wonderful scones, if you like that kind of thing. The train itself is not quite steam train romance, but it is comfortable, and feels very authentic. With a screech of the whistle and a shudder of machinery we were away on the eleven mile stretch to Keith.

Balvenie and Glenfiddich are obviously highly visible distilleries from the train track, but so is the silent – but still standing – Parkmore just on the other side of the Fiddich Viaduct – sixty metres above the river in question and one of the most-time consuming and expensive areas of the restoration project. Forest, glades and open fields slide past your window – this is a very leisurely ride. On the left as you aim for Keith is the man-made Park Loch. Teaming with wildlife (they list buzzards, red squirrels, deer and many others on the website) this is a very picturesque section, and one can only imagine the scene in winter when they run their ‘Santa Specials’: for the kiddies, mainly. Other animal life include the inmates of a donkey sanctuary. Look out for them.KDR6 Parkmore

On the approach to Keith, Strathmill is highly prominent, and is the first distillery to sup at the River Isla, which rushes alongside the train for a considerable portion of the ride. At Keith Town station you can either alight and explore Keith (don’t miss Strathisla Distillery) or get out and stretch your legs and savour the relaxing procession back to Dufftown. Please note, it is useful to check which station is that of initial departure. We could have hopped on at Keith, but we would have had to wait a few hours before there would be another train to take us back again. Our journey had a fifteen minute pause at Keith prior to the return leg.

The Keith & Dufftown Railway website.

KDR5 Strathmill

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Glenfiddich

No photo can communicate the scale of this site. It is preposterously huge. However, walking around the well-tended grounds with the hills all around, it is quite charming.

No photo can communicate the scale of this site. It is preposterously huge. However, walking around the well-tended grounds with the hills all around, it is quite charming.

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

APPEARANCE AND LOCATION:      ****      As distilleries go, they don’t come much bigger than Glenfiddich. Its like looking out on a city of warehousing when observing in the Craigellachie direction. However, the buildings of the main plant are utterly beautiful with perfectly-pointed stonework, pristine paint and those charming squat pagoda heads. The visitor centre and the restaurant are housed within the buildings originally built by William Grant and his stone mason in 1886. The surroundings hills are certainly large, too, but gentle. Sitting on a picnic bench outside the brand centre on the Sunday as I waited for 12 o’clock and opening time, the smell of the malt bins, the wort and the mash blown about and blended by the Dufftown breezes was too perfect for words.

TOURS PROVIDED:

‘Standard Tour’: FREE. See ‘My Tour’ below.

‘Connoisseur Tour’: £20. More in-depth, lasting 2 and a half hours. There are four Glenfiddichs to nose as well as the new make. You get taken to Warehouse 8 to investigate the famous Solera Vat.

DISTILLERY-EXCLUSIVE BOTTLINGS:      A bottle-your-own facility in the distillery shop. At present [02/02/11] it is 15yo and a vatting from various different cask types in the one barrel, £70.

My Tour – 25/04/2010

THE RUNNING COMMENTARY:      ***

THE PROCESS AND EQUIPMENT:      **

Notes:      Despite its size, the owners wish to keep the distillery as traditional as possible. Very few computers are used and all of the 20 or so washbacks are wooden. A really interesting quirk is in the stillhouse. There are three different-shaped stills: a wash still and two alternative spirit stills, an accident of circumstance which dates back to when William Grant first built the distillery. With very little money he could not buy all of his stills the same shape. The warehouse tour is utterly marvellous and as we shuffled in the rain began, pattering on the slate roof and heightening the romantic atmosphere so much I forgot I had to walk back to my B&B in it.

GENEROSITY:      ** (Three drams, the 12YO, 15YO and the 18YO.)

VALUE FOR MONEY:      **

SCORE:      9/10 *s

A lot of fuss has been made about this dram. I would like to come back and do the Connoisseur tour because in my head I get the sense that Glenfiddich ages very well. Living proof here.

A lot of fuss has been made about this dram. I would like to come back and do the Connoisseur tour because in my head I get the sense that Glenfiddich ages very well. Living proof here.

COMMENT:      I arrived at 11.30am on the Sunday, too early. I read the paper on a picnic table outside the brand centre and was enchanted by how the smell fluctuated between stored malt, sweet wort and fruity mash, all blown about on the breeze around the town and its gentle surrounding mountains. As 12 noon approached, the floodgates of tourists opened. For the introductory (and very professional) film in the ‘Theatre’ there were more than 30 people. For the tour we were split into three parties (two standard, one for the Connnoisseur tour) and all of us were taken round at once. That should intimate the scale of the place. If that doesn’t, how about their using 90 tonnes of malt a day, their 24 washbacks and the 140 million litres of spirit maturing on-site. Fergus is our guide and he is unflappable. The whole experience is tremendously professional, with an emphasis on the traditional: wooden washbacks and long fermentation time. Computerisation is kept to a minimum, too. Into Warehouse #1 and what an adorable place. At one end is a video about coopering, accompanied by an excellent explanation and at the other are casks to nose: find the Sherry cask. I thought I’d be good at this but I got it wrong! They confused me by the age of the cask I picked: a 36-year-old Bourbon. The other two were an 18-year-old of the same wood and a 20-year-old Sherry. I must have had an off day. Rain pattered on the roof, making for a very atmospheric experience. The three drams at the end were a huge bonus, all served in Glencairn glasses. The shop is a must-see, with lots of Balvenie, too. My favourite was the cafe, where I had soup, a sandwich and a scone – all delish. In the same part (the malt store for the old distillery building), there is a bar with many Glenfiddichs to try. I would recommend this as a first tour, and then spend the extra money visiting Aberlour. With only 6 miles between them, it sounds like the perfect day to me.

I like to see a bit of pure wild water flowing to a distillery. The reason I discovered this view was because water started falling from the sky and I ducked under a piece of masonry beneath the shop.

I like to see a bit of pure wild water flowing to a distillery. The reason I discovered this view was because water started falling from the sky and I ducked under a piece of masonry beneath the shop.

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My Half-Term Report (including the hiccoughs)

I am, surprise surprise, beyond halfway now. That juncture was passed on the Saturday night in Helmsdale.

From a fairly precarious outlook in Braemar a fortnight previously, I have entered and exited Speyside (notable highlights being Glenfiddich and Aberlour on the distillery side, Sandy and everyone at A Taste of Speyside in the way of general, unlikely angels), and journeyed up the north-east coast to Wick and beyond to John o’Groats where the concentration of cyclists increased dramatically with those starting or finishing their Lands End to John o’Groats attempts. I’m behind in relating all of these stages to you. Forgive me. For now, I am attempting to ease the backlog of distillery tours – there have been many, and I still need to bring you my views on 11 of them. Yikes!

I am in ‘Whisky Magazine’, after all. There isn’t a picture so I might not be able to use it as a passport for free entry to my following tours but it was a thrill. Unfortunately it reminded me that this blog is not quite the outfit I had hoped, and which one might expect to find mention of in a quality publication like ‘WM’. It also means that the amateurish nature of this site is most likely known to even more people – and perhaps the very whisky enthusiasts I had meant to contact in the first place. I’m sorry guys: no pictures yet and irregular updates. I haven’t my own computer with me so I am very much at the mercy of the IT facilities at my hostels. I shall be spending much time on it once I return home, however, which is two weeks on Saturday. Patience, please, because I’m having quite an adventure up here.

I feel it my duty to explain that between telling Mr Allanson (editor of ‘WM’) of my travels and details of said travels appearing in the magazine, I actually undertook those travels. Certain distilleries have had to be avoided or were closed to me, so that figure of 49 is no longer accurate. Here are the casualties and why:

Blair Athol – Unexpectedly closed, their silent season having been brought forward. There will be no tours of the distillery until July.

Dalwhinnie – I would have died trying to get there. The post dealing with my journey to Braemar will contextualise my exact condition at the time.

Tomatin – See above.

Glendronach – Following my 60-mile slog in the rain, my bike was in a pretty poor state. The cleaning of it and sourcing of oil (and general pulling of hair) left too little time to head out east for Forgue and still make it back for Strathisla.

The Balvenie – It seems I should have booked weeks in advance. I phoned on the Friday to book a tour on the Monday (the 23rd for the 25th) and discovered that they were fully booked until nearly a week into May. This was even before the festival. Be advised.

Dallas Dhu – I elected not to tour this distillery on the advice of the guide at Cragganmore. She said that its museum nature was a rather tragic contrast to the working distilleries and was unlikely to show me anything I had not already encountered.  Also, omitting it saved me time and money. If you are interested, though, it is a self-guided tour round the old production areas, then a video and a dram.

Clynelish – Having struggled along the A9 in the rain under the assumption that the distillery was open (all of my reading and research had said that they were open on Saturdays), I found it to be shut up entirely. This was annoying. It seems they are open on Saturdays… as of next month. No literature or website told me this. I should have phoned ahead, but as I said, I didn’t think there would be any problem.

So not a full tour in the slightest anymore. I am still covering the miles and getting a sense of the regions, however. As I have (quite happily) come to realise over the course of this tour, though: Scotland isn’t going anywhere. I can plan another tour which encompasses the missed distilleries from this loop, as well as returns to those which have made a real impression on me, which at present include Tullibardine, Royal Lochnagar, Aberlour, Glenfiddich, Glen Garioch, and Highland Park, which I toured today.

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Fit For The Glens: 11 weeks to go…

You catch me at a calculated crisis in my training. Over recent days I have not been sculpting my body, efficiently recovering and appropriately refuelling. Exercise has taken the form of tramping around the Newcastle conurbation firstly on middling quantities of alcohol and secondly on negative quantities of sleep. Refuelling amounts to lager,

This jacket is so hi-vis it, ironically, blinds you.

This jacket is so hi-vis it, ironically, blinds you.

a  homemade curry, fast-food fries and sandwiches carefully selected for their non-aggravating fillings. And I have plans to repeat all of this tonight.

In short, it is the perfect time to ignore the question ‘What Would Lance Armstrong Do?’ I knew I couldn’t put off any more a visit to two of my friends at university in the Newcastle area. I also knew that the birthday of one of my very best friends was more than likely to fall on the same date it always has. For someone pursuing the fitness level required to cycle in excess of 1300 miles in a very bumpy country, it perhaps wasn’t ideal to fit both into three days. But I’ll only know for sure if it really was too stupid with the benefit of hindsight so Newcastle, here I come! Er… again.

I’ll give some treatment to tonight in next week’s post but in the calm between the two storms I can now reflect on the aftermath of the last one.

Armed with sleeping bag and toothbrush and together with Ross, I took the bus to Gosforth. On the way down anticipation and acute anxiety made a toxic cocktail in my innards. The last time I spent the night near the Tyne for very little of it was I horizontal. Instead I was slouched like a discarded doll on the floor of a Gateshead bathroom I still see sometimes in my nightmares.

Such memories of being flamboyantly unwell returned to me after we met up with Stevie C, arrived at his student digs and were in the process of cooking a chicken korma. This, with rice and naans, went down very well, although I think the salmonella incubation period is very soon to expire…

It was a good night, though, having infiltrated both the Newcastle and Northumbria student unions. In the latter I was asked by Adam, a Northern Irish guy I’d heard a lot about and whom I can now attest to be a magnificent bloke, what whisky he should try. Anxious for him not to have a bad experience, I pointed to the trusty Glenfiddich 12-year-old. He liked it. And tried the Glenmorangie Original sat next to it behind the bar to make the comparison. A convert!

At our next port of call, I quickly saw that I’d be making no such recommendations to an interested party. The Gate, a collection of clubs, restaurants and cinemas, is the exact antithesis of anything I could claim to be comfortable with. Affecting a more exaggerated drunken stagger to fit in with the ”mortal” hordes, I was deeply relieved when we found the quieter clubs to be closing and the bigger, stickier ones full to bursting. The half-hour walk back to Gosforth in the freezing cold sobered us up nicely.

Sadly, this didn’t make for a fuller night’s sleep. There exists in me a dichotomy which I cannot explain and which upsets me a lot. I’m devoting nearly six weeks and far too much money to touring Scotland and hunting out its whiskies but drinking alcohol with the masses and far from home makes me less relaxed than I would be on the rougher streets of  Basra. Petrified of getting queasy in front of people and fully aware of how little my system likes alcohol at the wrong times (it won’t tell me when these are); unenamoured by sensations of drunkeness but surrounded by expectation, a depressingly high percentage of nights out are endured rather than enjoyed. I must be the only teenage whisky fanatic who hates getting drunk and expects to throw up long before he is.

But to discuss the tour itself. Ringing round all of my hotels and B&Bs proved to be a shrewd exercise. A couple of dates had to be adjusted and my call reminded one place that they really should transfer my details, made a note of in the back of  last year’s diary, into the pages of this one’s.  I have also bought two of the items of apparel I estimate shall be most in demand come April and May: the jacket (see above) and waterproof over-trousers. Now I’m just waiting on a couple of base layers and another pair of shorts and, clothing-wise, I’ll be able to tough-out anything my travels have to throw at me. Outside cycling should be possible before long. Although having said that, whilst writing this the wind has switched to now come very determinedly from the North and snow flurries have made intermittent re-appearances. Great…

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