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December 7, 2011

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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October 24, 2011

Go to Glengoyne – everyone else is doing it

Flocking to the Trossachs National Park, out of Glasgow’s northern back door,  is nothing new. People have been tramping up the hills and cooing at the lochs for a couple of hundred years now since the Victorian fetish for the Highland tableau established the area as a prime tourist spot. It would appear, however, that Glengoyne Distillery has succeeded in luring vast quantities of these souls out of the great outdoors and into its visitor’s book. Maybe the hill of Dumgoyne is the demographically-astute decoy.

The bottle-your-own facility and re-orientated shop.

Ian Macleod Distillers have invested £300,000 in upgrades to the visitor centre and shop to more appropriately welcome the 48,500 people who have traipsed Highland mud and gravel onto their carpets so far this year. More modifications are planned for 2012. These efforts, they say, maintain there position at the forefront of whisky tourism. Between their snug shop, tucked away behind the production buildings, and the sumptuous Manager’s House squatting further up the steep glen, Glengoyne has the facilities to accommodate all levels of interest and knowledge.

In the words of Stuart Hendry, Glengoyne Brand Heritage Manager: ‘The old shop area was very dark and didn’t make good use of space. Our brief to retail design agency Contagious was to create a brighter, more organised shopping area which showed off our award-winning range but without losing the distinct Glengoyne character.

‘I think we have hit the nail on the head and we are extremely happy with the outcome. Feedback from customers has been great and we have seen an increase in sales as a result.’

The alterations are not just in the aesthetic of the facilities, however, Glengoyne have also joined the bottle-your-won battalion. I would argue that there are quite enough single cask Glengoynes sitting, pre-packaged, in the shop already to agonise over, but it is jolly good fun all the same. At the moment spirit is from a first-fill American hogshead, distilled in 2000, and promioses heavy ’tropical fruit flavours’. At £75 it is towards the ‘premium’ end of the pricing structure.

Ian Macleod are fans of inovative whisky marketing and flavour possibilities (Smokehead anyone?) and have not rested on their laurels with their single malt distillery. They have added a raft of new multi-media in addition to their VC spruce-up with a series of films following custodians of Glengoyne’s flavour about their work. Duncan McNicoll is one such individual who can be spotted on screen before the tour and tending the stills during it. Stuart Hendry again: ‘The feedback from viewers is hugely positive. They enjoy getting behind the scenes and meeting the people. Visitors take particular pleasure in speaking to the stars as they meet them around the distillery yard.’

Well done, Glengoyne. With these alterations they can only have improved a whisky tourism experience which was already high up in the Premier League. I welcome any effort to reward fans of the dram who bother to make the journey in search of it with an experience that is just a little bit different. Whisky generally is in a confident place right now. I believe that by re-evaluating the role and character of a visitor centre that confidence can be better translated to the particular brand and those with an interest in it.

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December 23, 2010

The Glengoyne Experiment

As one of the few independent whisky-makers in Scotland, producing some very lovely drams in a wide variety of styles as well as providing some mighty fine distillery tours in the process, I felt their latest release was worth a mention.

The first of four annual single cask releases - from the same cask.

The first of four annual single cask releases - from the same cask.

When I visited in May, it was self-evident that Glengoyne are not afraid to try something new. The distillery shop devotes an entire wall to single cask bottlings; some of these I listed in my write-up for the distillery and may still be available if you make the fourteen mile trip north out of Glasgow. However, it seems Stuart Hendry, Brand Heritage Manager, wishes to push the envelope still further and to that end 100 bottles of The Glengoyne Christmas Cask shall be available at the distillery on the 28th of this month (December, just in case there are some of you who are temporally challenged and have not been able to equate the wintery weather and the incessant Christmas commercials to a fixed point in the year).

This is, say Glengoyne, a world’s first. Instead of draining a whole cask at once for a single cask release, they shall draw off 70 litres at a time for the next four years to demonstrate how a whisky evolves within the cask. Personally, I love this idea. Mr Hendry knew the nature of us whisky enthusiasts when he said, ‘we at the distillery are able to taste caks as they mature, witnessing their highs and lows, their flavour peaks and troughs as they wind their way towards maturity. What if we were able to share that with our anorak-wearing whisky chums?’ I cannot take offence at the anorak label, having waltzed into The Glenlivet for my first ever distillery tour three years ago sporting a nice green one.

However, this is an experiment not just in a whisky’s flavour development, but maturation more generally. As an excellent article by Ian Wisniewski in the latest Whisky Magazine explains, the ‘headspace’ is normally sacrosanct, subject to the mores of maturation atmosphere and the occasional master blender’s valinch. The practise is not normally to remove such a proportion of spirit at any one time. The whisky world, therefore, in addition to Glengoyne aficionados, shall be monitoring the developments of First Fill Oloroso Sherry Butt Cask 790, filled in 2002, closely. Allegedly ‘rich, with hints of rosehip syrup, cocoa beans, oak and spice’ at present, ‘it still clings to the last of its spirited youth, but delivering plenty and promising much more.’

Glengoyne is not unfamiliar with the concept of single cask releases.

Glengoyne is not unfamiliar with the concept of single cask releases.

Available only at the distillery, this inaugural release is priced at £100. I only hope they do little sample bottles, too – that would be truly scientific, and mean that I might stand a chance of trying some!

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July 10, 2010

Sacred Spirit

Will I be a collector when I grow up? Prior to my Scotch whisky odyssey I would have dismissed such a probability with a contemptuous “not on your nelly”.

Perhaps as a consequence of the style of my initiation into the spirit at The Glenlivet, I left the distillery in 2007 with a devout enchanted appreciation of the craft, passion and personality at the core of Scotch malt whisky. That the legacy and struggles of those first amateur distillers bore no relation to predominating concerns for economic fluctuations or sober accrual and display, which motivate some consumers today, was a belief from which I could not be negotiated. Big ideas and big personalities had shaped the fortunes and flavours of the distilleries behind the iconic malts of now. Why had they persevered through economic disaster, World Wars, devastating accidents and destruction; why had they innovated and invested to create the best-tasting spirit possible for us, and in so doing intertwining their own histories, hopes and characters with the drink, only for it to sit on a shelf untouched and incarcerated: an ornament instead of an elixir; a relic instead of a companion?

I may have waited for the opportune moment to open and enjoy the bottle of 18-year-old Glenlivet we purchased that day in 2007, and I liked to read about old and rare bottlings, but my principal goal was connoisseurship: the quest to discover nuance, power, antiquity, youth, to learn how to distinguish the great from the good. What use, then, was a sealed bottle of whisky to me? It fell tragically short by at least 80% of realising its full sensory potential. So synonymous is Scotch whisky, for me, with Scotland and the Scottish, so intuitive and indisputable did that sip of The Glenlivet in the dramming room demonstrate said link to be as I imbibed the distillation of place, history and art, that I could not be content with appearances and myth alone. I needed to experience whisky and all that it related to for myself.

And now, having gone so far to do just that already, one of the results seems to be an urge to acquire, to set aside, to enshrine. It appears I want to start a collection. It suddenly and unexpectedly makes sense. After having visited so many distilleries and spied out further sites diligently, quietly making malt, the proud traditions and idiosyncracies of whisky manufacure in Scotland are more comprehensively understood, more colourfully evoked and more ardently valued. I feel a need to recognise and venerate the industry; the past present and future of which is contained in every bottle. I also want to manifest in precious amber liquid some of my fondest and most unrepeatable encounters and experiences. A bottle of malt is again a distillation, albeit cerebrally, of my favourite malt moments. I will still drink and evaluate the stuff, of course – I love the flavour exploration, a journey in its own right – but I am going to experiment with my new inclination to preserve.

Three months’ ago I would have agreed entirely with a statement found in a Whiskeria (the magazine for The Whisky Shop and full of excellent articles from leading whisky writers, free in-store) article from the Summer 2009 issue. Within ‘To Drink Or Not To Drink…’ the author advanced the drinkers’ creed: “…it’s criminal to take a product that was lovingly crafted using skills honed over generations, put it in oak more than 100 years old, mature it for 25, 30 or 40 years and then stick it under the stairs. It is a drink, they [those in favour of drinking] say, and it should be drunk. Any other fate for it is disrespectful.” Now, however, I can see that this inventory of the credentials of whisky’s heritage and artisanal quality can still stand as supporting evidence for the other side of the debate. I am ignoring for the purposes of this article that the preservation of rare and unusual bottlings can be an altruistic act, making it possible for those with curiosity (and money) enough in the future to taste what whisky was like in the dim occluded past, and I am also going to largely overlook the trade in exclusive whiskies for substantial profit. I think setting some precious bottles aside shows tremendous respect for the time and skill required to create fine malt whisky: it demonstrates, in my view, an appreciation, a reverence even, for whisky’s alchemy, tradition and significance. It is an entity built to last like high art, jewellery and architecture. It is not disposable like so many other things in our culture and collections recognise that. We do not devote rooms and our hobbies to the mundane and mediocre.

Expressions from The Dalmore had appealed to me as the focus of a collection on account of their beauty. After this 15yo the prices spike upwards pretty steeply, though.

Expressions from The Dalmore had appealed to me as the focus of a collection on account of their beauty. After this 15yo the prices spike upwards pretty steeply, though.

Of course, whisky’s shelf life makes it a prime candidate for delayed gratification. If you never rip the seal, release the cork and pour the malt into your tumbler/copita/ubiquitous Glencairn glass you can “savour it, enjoy the anticipation of it.” It will be there for that “very special occasion” or you can pass it on, “sell it to someone else who will get to share in the pleasure of ownership.” (Whiskeria) If you collect and buy rare whisky you become part of a very special chain of human interest and acquaintance stretching maybe decades back in time. You are snagged in a web of connections, for collectors keep exhaustive archives of the history of their star expressions, with one particular bottle of whisky, whose life and character you have contributed to, at its focus. As a recent post about a Ladyburn bottling on WDJK? demonstrated, this web can include us more than once and is always liable to surprise.

But to get specific about my personal ambitions for a collection: what would I rather survey than swallow? What is better in the bottle than my belly? What will get my mental juices flowing but maybe never my mouth’s? It is the final query which harnesses the crux of the matter. I am not interested in stashing away whisky for the sake of its age, its rarity or a slight imperfection in its packaging. The whiskies, or more correctly the distilleries, I wish to preserve all have special meaning for me. The two malts below have especial significance on account of the key dates related to them. The Glenlivet Nadurra was the first malt in my collection and came to be so by accident. I had bought it with the full intention of drinking it but upon getting it home I realised the date of its bottling: the 16-year-old Speyside had reached its full potential and been sealed in glass in October 2007. My own obsession with whisky began at the same distillery in the same month of the same year. The Glengoyne was presented to me unexpectedly when I arrived at the distillery. Its label reads: “Specially bottled for James Saxon on the occasion of his visit to Glengoyne distillery. 21st May 2010.” The journey from October 2007 to 21 May 2010, the penultimate day of my recent single malt adventure, is quite an extraordinary one, and it shall be commemorated by these two bottles.

The Glenlivet Nadurra and the Glengoyne 17YO: the first bottles of my collection.

The Glenlivet Nadurra and the Glengoyne 17YO: the first bottles of my collection.

I want to hunt out further bottles which represent an encounter, flavour or motif of my travels. Single cask Bourbon-matured Aberlours will always take my fancy, for example. I would also happily drain my bank account for cask strength Lagavulin. So perfect a microcosm of Speyside was Aberlour and so picturesque, relaxed and romantic was Lagavulin that their spirit will forever more have the singular spiritual overtones of my journey.

There are two distilleries most of whose bottlings I will aim to source. That Glen Garioch is one of these will come as no surprise to those who read my blog while I cycled round Scotland. As it happens I will be in the Speyside/Aberdeenshire neck of the woods at the beginning of September to take the VIP Tour of the distillery, catch up with Fiona and Jane and make the purchase I promised I would in the presence of these ladies as I clattered back out of the VC into the rain for the return leg to Huntly. I am after a special Glen Garioch, symbolic of my first visit, the hardships faced before and after and of having completed the journey with Fiona and Jane’s notable touching encouragement. Following the re-branding of the distillery’s range, the first two of their new “Small Batch Releases” comprised the 1978 (30-year-old) Cask Strength and the 1990 (18-year-old) Cask Strength. The latter, as it shares my birth year, is a most apt acknowledgement of my greatest achievement to date, some of the most extreme 24 hours within it, and of two of the loveliest people I have ever stumbled upon.

The other uber-distillery is Mortlach, Speyside’s “secret star” according to Michael Jackson. For the three nights I spent in Dufftown, Mortlach was a stone’s throw from my B&B. When I walked to the shop for supplies each morning, the pagodas, silver smokestack and steam were visible down in the hollow and the smell of mashing and worts intoxicating when the wind was right. It also turned out to be the favourite whisky of the demi-god of my adventure: Sandy from Taste of Speyside. He grew up beside Mortlach, and the 16-year-old is a whisky he recommends to all of his patrons. In my experiences with this malt Before the Tour (BT) I had been impressed but hadn’t raved. Now I find the earthy smokiness and dark Sherried richness nothing short of enthralling. For me, it evokes a more traditional Speyside flavour profile and that it is closed to visitors so that it might better get on with producing whisky adds to the mystery and pure, serious, aura. Its different-shaped stills and complex distillation run is charmingly quirky and the recent release by Gordon & MacPhail of a 70-year-old proves its venerable nature. This is a distillery of antiquity: it is for eternity. Of course, if I wish to amass a complete collection of Mortlach it will mean £10,000 for this last expression. Rather a lot, really.

When back up in Speyside in late summer I intend to celebrate Mortlach’s significance to me with another purchase and I shall return to The Whisky Castle in Tomintoul, my favourite malt emporium run by the unmissable Mike and Cathy, to make it. I’m looking for an independent bottling, 14-20 years old, Sherry-matured and possibly cask strength. Research on their website has unearthed a Douglas Laing, a Dewar Rattray and an Adelphi which fit the description. I shall try and taste each and make my choice as to which shall be a cupboard stalwart, my 70cl Ambassador for Mortlach, Sandy and Speyside.

Neither the 1990 Glen Garioch nor the Mortlach should be over £70. They are not, therefore, unjustly expensive (the key barrier at present for seriously embarking on this collecting business and I cannot afford to buy two of anything so that I might have the best of both worlds, but everyone has to start somewhere) and this is because they are not particularly rare. In my possession, on my shelf, though, they shall exude the pure, complex light and bearing of precious memory and times past. On the subject of “anticipation” and delayed gratification, however, they may yet contribute to magical moments to come, shared with someone I feel comfortable writing in to my developing whisky saga. Never say never.

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June 12, 2010

The Plaudits Post

I’m back now, and whilst I may miss my simple, if at times seriously debilitating life on the road, I am in a position to appreciate and marvel at the world of Scotch malt whisky on an entirely separate astral plain. You want to know (I assume) what was good, bad and indifferent, and where you can be guaranteed an unfeasibly large slice of chocolate cake should you be pondering an attempt at something similar (and you really should).

Therefore, this is a plenary post, an awards bash, for what really shouldn’t be missed if you are within 100 miles.

AT THE DISTILLERIES

Drams of the Odyssey

The Glenlivet Nadurra 16YO, 54.2% - Floral, honeyed and teeming with butterscotch and vanilla. A superbly bold Speyside from the more delicate side of the family.

Aberlour 14YO Single Cask First-Fill Bourbon, 63.3% – Full and intensely sweet. Freshly-sawn pine, wood oils, toffee. The malt by which I shall judge all other Bourbon-matured whiskies, and indeed single casks.

Benromach 10YO, 43% – Sweetly heathery, malty and peaty. My kind of whisky.

Ledaig 10YO, 43% – Properly, evocatively peaty. The first heavily peated malt I had tasted since Talisker, and an auspicious herald of the peaty monsters shortly to come.

Laphroaig Quarter Cask, 48% – Awesome. Perfectly assertive oaking, seaweed, smoke and power.

Lagavulin 12YO cask Strength, 57.9% – I was assaulted by this malt. It butted me in the ofrehead then kneed me in the groin. But I loved it. Smoke and sweetness. I need to find this again.

Longrow CV, 46% – Oily, wood smoke. Enormously complex.

Guides of the Odyssey

The Longer Shortlist:

Clare at Royal Lochnagar; Chris at Aberlour; Dagmar at Highland Park.

The Shortlist:

Gavin at Tullibardine – What more can I say about Gavin that I haven’t already? He is one of the most enthusiastic and friendly people I met on my travels. I phoned up the distillery once I returned to research exclusive bottlings in the VC and he remembered me after I mentioned that I had been the boy on a bike. He was brimming with admiration and congratulations, and eager for me to head back to Blackford. I’m just as keen.

Jim at Edradour - For being just a very funny man. His jokes were equally appreciated by the other twenty memebers of my monster tour party. As dry a Scottish sense of humour as you could wish to find.

Fiona at Glen Garioch - Fiona was another guide with an irrepressible sense of humour. Together with Jane, she gave me the much-needed kick up the backside, and in my darker moments thereafter, the thought of being in a position to roll up to Old Meldrum some time in the future and say “I did it,” kept me going.

John at Ben Nevis – It is very difficult to describe where John Carmichael fits in to the architypal breeds of distillery guide. He is  most definitely not the wide-eyed seasonal student; nor the passionate but casual part-timer, nor a member of the production team. He is, however, a complete professional, and a tour with him around the distillery (and he is the head tour guide so chances are good) is not to be missed. He is the second generation to have been in the industry all his days and it shows. His humour (dry), knowledge (supreme) and demeanour (you would think it was his distillery) are all compelling qualities. I learnt more from him about whisky, whisky hospitality and whisky history than from anyone else. It is plain, when he speaks of industry luminaries such as Richard Paterson, that he too enjoys a niche within the inner circle of people whose passion and experience are a good few rungs above everyone else. 

Ruth at Lagavulin - My tour of Lagavulin was perhaps the most relaxed and somehow intimate of my whole odyssey. It was a lovely warm day, the distillery was ticking over nicely and the tour group wasn’t too enormous. Ruth was spectacularly informative and was able to root out a bottle of the 12YO CS, something I’m very grateful for.

Henrik at Glengoyne - Henrik has kept in touch since I met him last month. Another very professional and passionate guide, he took time out of his regular duties to shoot the breeze with me after the tour. He said that he hoped I had enjoyed my tour with the “sweaty Swedish tour guide.” I assured him that these tours were my personal favourites. Michael, the Australian walker I shared a room with in Glasgow, had toured the distillery with Henrik, too, and he praised  his character and performance, as well.

A special mention to Martin at Bladnoch – not technically a tour guide at all but he delivered a top class performance anyway. I don’t think there was a dusty corner of the distillery I didn’t get a glance at. Obviously, his  chauffeuring was an added bonus, but if he does choose to follow his dad into distilling, the future of Bladnoch and distilling in Dumfries and Galloway is in extremely good hands. Thanks again.

And the Winner is…

Robert at Bunnahabhain – As I waxed in my post for the distillery, despite everything that had drained, annoyed and bored me that day, I hung on Robert’s every word. This can’t have been his first tour of the day, but the pride for his plant couldn’t help but shine through so brightly. Hilarious, and with the insight that only comes from actually making the stuff, Robert was by far the best guide of the tour – and he insisted he was “only a stillman.”

Tour of the Odyssey

To win this accolade, it is vital to show the visitor unique insight into the whisky-making process, accommodate them comfortably and stylishly and dram them well. Bowmore, Kilchoman and Springbank would qualify under the first requirement; The Glenlivet and Tullibardine are notably superior exponents of the second, and Aberlour and Glenfiddich are streets ahead in terms of the whisky handed over. There can only be one winner, however.

Highland Park – The emotions triggered when I think back to my visit are wonderful, unique, inexpressible. The location; the unusual logistics of getting there; the typical difficulties with the Scottish weather; the one-to-one tour; the maltings; the spitting, sparking kilns; the warehouses; the video; the beautiful VC; the drams – it was all deeply special.

 Highland Park 2

***

Cafes of the Odyssey

‘The Arch’ in Fettercairn; the wool place on the road between Strathdon and the Lecht Ski resort, ‘Fresh’ in Aberlour; the cafe on the A9 bridge in Helmsdale; ‘Morag’s’ in Wick; the chocolate shop in Tobermory; ‘The Kitchen Garden’ in Oban; ‘The Craft Kitchen’ in Port Charlotte; ‘Fresh Bites’ in Campeltown.

Restaurants of the Odyssey

‘The Ramsay Arms’ in Fettercairn; ‘The Clockhouse’ in Tomintoul; ‘Taste of Speyside’ in Dufftown; ‘Chapter One’ in Forres; ‘The Red Poppy’ in Strathpeffer; ‘The No.1 Bistro at the Mackay Hotel’ in Wick; ‘The Port Charlotte Hotel’ in Port Charlotte.

Locations of the Odyssey – the Best Places to Cycle

Between Gilmerton and Aberfeldy in Perthshire; Angus; Between Forres and Inverness; The North-East coast to John o’Groats; Orkney; Skye; Mull; Arran; Dumfries and Galloway.

Beds of the Odyssey

Stirling Youth Hostel; Pitlochry Youth Hostel; Kishmul B&B in Fettercairn; Argyle Guest House in Tomintoul; Norlaggan B&B in Aberlour; Milton of Grange B&B in Forres; Carbisdale Castle Youth Hostel; Netherby B&B in Wick; The Picturehouse B&B in Ard Dorch, Skye; Inverasdale B&B in Oban; The Carradale Hotel in Carradale; Lochranza Youth Hostel; Glasgow Youth Hostel.

To be Avoided

It would be remiss of me to not warn you of the less rewarding components in the Scotch whisky family.

The Distilleries that Could Do Better

Glenturret (too expensive); Old Pulteney (too expensive and your questions won’t be answered); Oban (never mind too expensive, this is highway robbery); Caol Ila (disinterested guide and not much on show).

***

If you have any questions about anything you have read, or there is anything which you feel I haven’t fully described or made clear, just drop a comment and I’ll do my best to help out. Scotland is an unspeakably beautiful, pleasingly accessible and thrillingly complex country made for exploration, just like the unique spirit it creates.

 

Pagodas, sea, sky and a bike. Just right now I can't think of a more stirring combination.

Pagodas, sea, sky and a bike. Just right now I can't think of a more stirring combination.

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June 10, 2010

Glengoyne

The picture doesn't show it, but I was battling a coach-load of new arrivals and the relentless traffic to gain a clear shot. The distillery sits on a very busy road indeed.

The picture doesn't show it, but I was battling a coach-load of new arrivals and the relentless traffic to gain a clear shot. The distillery sits on a very busy road indeed.

 Dumgoyne, Strathblane, Glasgow, G63 9LB, 01360 550254. Ian Macleod Distillers. www.glengoyne.com

APPEARANCE AND LOCATION:      *****      The area around the distillery could be described as semi-Highland. It has grandeur, space and elevation, gradations of colour and mountains, but manageable. It is quite an adorable little place on the edge of the Trossachs national park and very well-serviced by roads. The distillery is on one side of the busy road, the warehouses on the other, technically in the Lowlands. A large, bulbous hill rises behind the distillery, and there is a waterfall walk to take advantage of the beautiful wooded glen that extends towards the hill.

TOURS PROVIDED:

‘Standard Tour’: £6.50. See ‘My Tour’ below.

‘A Wee Tasting Tour’: £8.50. The standard tour plus a tasting of the award-winning 17YO. One hour.

‘Tasting Tour’: £15. A tour of the distillery and an in-depth tutored tasting in the Club Room of the 12, 17 and 21YOs. One and a half hours.

‘Master Blender Session’: £30. After a dram of the 10YO and a toour of the distillery, guests are taken to the Sample Room where thyey contruct their own blended whisky. A taste of the Langs Select blend and the Glengoyne 17YO get you in the mood. Your blend is bottled in a 100ml sample bottle and you are given a certificate. One and a half hours.

‘Cask Idol’: £70. The tasting notes and evaluations provided by you over the course of this tour will help to decide the next Glengoyne single cask release. An in-depth tour of the distillery leads on to a visit to Warehouse No. 8 you are taken back to the distillery and tutored through the last three Glengoyne Single Casks, and asked to give your opinion on three samples drawn straight from maturing casks. Whichever one you choose as the best could be bottled with your name and tasting notes on the label. Two hours fifteen minutes.

‘The Masterclass’: £100. “The most in-depth and comprehensive distillery tour in Scotland,” says the website. At this price, and with a duration of 5 hours, it had better be. Following a tour of the distilleries, you are taken into the warehouses, return to the distillery, taste the 12 and 17YOs, three single casks, and six samples of sherry. A light lunch is laid on, which I think is a good move, for you then construct your own blend, 200ml of which will be bottled for you and handed over together with a Masterclass certificate and Glengoyne commemorative book.

‘A Century of Whisky’: £150. An in-depth tour is followed by a dram of the 10YO, the 40YO and the Isle of Skye 50YO, served in crystal copita glasses which you take home. Two hours. 

DISTILLERY-EXCLUSIVE BOTTLINGS:      The Glengoyne Christmas Cask (see here), and numerous other single cask releases. There is a whole series of single casks to be found; ranging from 15 to 21-years-of-age. The dearest is an 18YO “Robbie’s Choice”, from 1989. This is a Port Hogshead and commands a price tag of £220. There are also the Lost Drams, more single casks for £200 each. By way of a more economical distillery exclusive, though, there is the 14YO Heritage Gold, a 1 litre bottle for £45. There is also the option to buy a whole cask.

My Tour – 21/05/2010

THE RUNNING COMMENTARY:      ***

THE PROCESS AND EQUIPMENT:      *

Notes:      I wouldn’t normally include the detail that the mash tun and stills are in the same room, but on the day I visited it was more like the Seychelles than Scotland and the distillery a sauna. At 2PM, with the sun directly overhead, this was no time to be inspecting heated metal vessels. As Henrik, our excellent Swedish guide told us, it isn’t exactly ideal conditions for making the stuff either. The distillery was besieged by tourists, to compound the truncated, slow pace of the afternoon, and we had to wait around in the baking courtyard, then the mash house, then the tun room, for the preceding group to move off so that we might take their place. The distillery itself is neatness personified, as well as being full of light and charm. The washbacks are all wooden and what better time, with an Indian Summer gripping us and plenty of time at each piece of equipment, to go into some detail about how fermentation in such circumstances must be controlled. On hot days, it is not only difficult to condense the distillate, but if the worts are too hot, the yeast will expire soon after pitching and fermentation will not have occurred optimally. They then add the yeast when the worts have been cooled to 12 degrees Centigrade. This makes for a slower, but more complete and efficient, fermentation. The smell of apples at the spirit safe is extremely pronounced, and Henrik claimed that even if the stillman couldn’t take samples or see into the spirit safe, he would know by the intensity of the Cox’s Orange Pippin aroma that the heart of the run was then in progress. Perhaps for reasons of health and safety, we did not cross the roads to visit the warehouse, which would have been a most welcome relief from the heat. The shop, however, was cool enough. The explanation of the maturation given instead of the opportunity to see it ‘live’ is first-rate, however.

GENEROSITY:       (1 dram)

VALUE FOR MONEY:      *

SCORE:      5/10 *s

An Aladdin's Cave of single cask wonders.

An Aladdin's Cave of single cask wonders.

COMMENT:      After all of the traumas endured earlier in the day, I wasn’t about to miss this distillery, the cover star for Iain Banks’ Raw Spirit. Famous for its tours, I wanted to see for myself. When I arrived, I was stressed, hungry, thirsty and very very hot. The waterfall walk looked tempting, if only so that I might have doused myself under it. There is the distillery, the shop, and the visitor centre at various points on the path up the hill, and of some disgruntlement was the distance between where I had to tie up my bike and whichever building I was required in. I made it for the 2PM tour, and everyone seemed pretty dozy and laid back. The dark and cool of the shop was profoundly welcome, the secluded video room even more so. Trying to stay awake, however, as we shuffled around the site in the clinging heat was not easy, but Henrik chased away any sleep impulses. He is Swedish, but has been in Glasgow for a few months, long enough to become fluent and even cultivate something of an accent. Some words had a Scandinavian inflection, but most were unmistakably Scottish. Bless him, he knew his stuff, and he was exceptionally friendly and thorough, but he suffered. Once inside the distillery, the Glengoyne blazer came off, and with each new piece of equipment, the swallow-and-deep-breath routine before he launched into the next explanation showed just how much effort he was putting in to fighting the noise of operating machinery and the heat. Evidentally passionate, he elevated what was a fairly bog-standard tour. The sheer volume of punters I’m sure didn’t help. At one stage there seemed to be four tours taking place simultaneously, with nearly as many guides floating around as tourists. Everyone was so very friendly, and when I was presented with my personalised 17YO, a service they do for both the 10 and 17YO expressions which comes in a black cannister with your name and date of visit on the label of both bottle and tube, I was rather overcome. I had been chatting with Henrik after the tour, all about my travels and experiences of Glasgow in particular. He seemed to enjoy relating what would almost certainly happen to me if I got very drunk and wondered into a shady area alone. I’d said my goodbyes to him, and was refilling my bottles for the parched journey back to the city centre, when another guide took me back into the shop and asked if Mr Saxon’s bottle was ready. Obviously I had no room for it at the time, but it was a lovely gesture.

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May 21, 2010

Epilogue: the Bottom of the Glass

Firstly, dear reader, I am still here. My tour has not ended in ignominy and I am licking my wounds privately in Northumberland (there is still time, though). I’m typing from the spacious, if sweltering, lounge of the Glasgow Youth Hostel.

The reasons I have for not posting since almost a fortnight ago are numerous, and shan’t all be explored now. Suffice it to say that I hadn’t access to a computer until Wednesday night in Lochranza but by that stage I was in such a state of anxiety concerning the following day’s stage from Arran to the centre of Glasgow that any composition on my part would not have yielded anything even slightly coherent. Indeed, the logisitcs and itinerary of this last week leave little space for anything besides fretting. Plus, the sensations arising from this unique tour, whose experiences have represented unprecendented challenges and opportunities for me, have been ones I have wished to ruminate over before sharing with you. In short, my head is at many obscure places and journalism is quite impossible. I’m still around, though, and the culture shock after five weeks in Scottish wilderness to one of the busiest cities in the UK (or anything else for that matter) has not done me in.

Tomorrow I go to Dumfries and Galloway courtesy of a hideously early train out of Glasgow Central. Tomorrow night I ought to be back home where internet access is largely unlimited (siter proving accommodating, of course). It is to this end that I haven’t been updating towards the end of this week, despite the internet rate I’m enjoying right now of £1 per hour. Grrrrr… As of Sunday, I hope to revise my posts with all those lovely photos and update the shop contents as far as I can remember them. I may phone up and ask, just for you all.

Regrettably, I must finish on a negative. I could not restrict the casualties to the seven I listed below during my Half-Term Report. Auchentoshan could not be fitted in today. I have rather a good reason for that, however, my truist Mark Beaumont moment so far. By the time I left for Glengoyne I was three hours and £120 out of pocket. Both of the above were needed for my bike to carry on working. I shall go into it in greater detail later on when I come to type up this leg of the journey but all I will say was that had I not forked out for a new crank, I know not where I would be right now. I certainly wouldn’t be in a position to cycle to Wigtown tomorrow.

Apologies again that this tour has fallen short of my (and possibly your) expectations. Let’s hope for a glorious denouement tomorrow then, eh?

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