November 9, 2011
My malt whisky literature shelf normally expands by at least one volume at this time of year. One would have thought that, between Dave Broom’s peerless World Atlas of Whisky, two editions of the Malt Whisky Companion and a number of other hardbacks salvaged from second-hand bookshops, together with my subscription to Whisky Magazine and the raft of blogs I endeavour to keep up with, any more published works on the subject would be plain extravagance. When it comes to Invar Ronde’s Malt Whisky Yearbook, however, the title of Dedicated Whisky Geek starts to look a little fragile without the latest edition.
As a compendium of every significant development at each of Scotland’s – and indeed most of the world’s – malt whisky distilling sites, it is unparalleled. If there has been a new washback installed, a still neck replaced, or a new bottling released, it will tell you. I flicked to page 90 and Balblair’s entry, mindful of their single-man, automated production regime introduced this summer and the imminent release of a new core range vintage. What I saw in the green sidebar, however, cheered my distillery-touring heart. ‘Status: active (vc)’.
‘At last!’ laughed John MacDonald, Balblair Distillery manager, when I described this moment to him last week. ‘How long have I been going about a visitor centre?’
The unassuming entrance to the new Brand Home.
Earlier, when he had welcomed a cohort of bloggers and drinks journalists, by that point sated by bacon rolls, to the distillery, he had been more circumspect. ‘It’s quite a significant day [for Balblair] and one that I have been looking forward to for a number of years now.’ Balblair, at last, has a dedicated facility to welcome those eager to discover this distinctive Highland malt, and it is my belief, having spent some time at the Brand Home house-warming, that Serge Valentin’s fears were groundless. He praises Balblair as ‘a wonderful little distillery’ with the semi caveat ’where no ugly visitor centre was built (please don’t!)’ in a profile piece written in 2007. It is now 2011, it is still a wonderful little distillery, and you would have no idea that a visitor centre even existed!
The 'snug', single cask and shop.
As I talked about in a post earlier in the year, the investment and the time had been promised to convert the former floor maltings into a space to accommodate, educate and entertain visitors. The finished product is discreet, smart, and entirely in keeping with the functional, unusual nature of the distillery to which it is attached. Divided into two rooms, you will find the shop, toilets, the bottle-your-own single cask and some indecently comfortable chairs immediately through the little red door, and the larger area for tastings and displays in the floor maltings proper.
Andy Hannah, Balblair brand manager, talked about Balblair’s new front room as the ultimate destination for those with ‘a genuine interest’. He said: ‘we’re not about bussing in hundreds and hundreds of people – that will never happen’. An intimate mode of making whisky has been transferred to their approach for educating people about the brand. ‘The physical experience of Balblair is really really key.’ I crowed with joy – inwardly – to hear that. A visitor centre or brand home is not about trading in marked-up tartan, baseball caps or fudge. Rather, it represents both the genesis of a brand identity which must - like the whisky - result from the equipment, personnel and location, and its apotheosis when individuals insist on making the journey to discover where and how those flavours and philosophies originated.
The bottle-your-own from 1992.
Visitors will indeed be richly rewarded. Though not yet confirmed, the tour structure is expected to follow that of Old Pulteney with a standard tour, a further package with the option to taste additional expressions and a deluxe, in-depth manager’s tour when John MacDonald can be yours for the afternoon. John’s knowledge and passion are quite extraordinary, as his weeks of late-night painting sessions leading up to the Brand Home launch testify. Having taken you round the plant, the whiskies he will put in front of you are of the highest calibre, too, and it was on that subject that we were all principally invited.
In conjunction with the Brand Home, Inver House have released the successor to the 2000 vintage. However, there is a more significant departure in the 2001 vintage bottle than the additional year on the label would perhaps suggest. In a move Andy Hannah described as ‘bold’, and in keeping with their radical decision to launch a core range of vintage expressions in 2007, the entry level Balblair joins its older brothers in being natural colour, non-chillfiltered and 46% abv. ‘We think it’s the right time,’ said Mr Hannah, ‘really re-affirming our boutique brand credentials.’ Some small but telling packaging alterations have also been made.
The trendy, atmospheric 'tasting pod'.
We bloggers and journos, sat in the glass, wood and leather luxury of the ‘tasting pod’ as I call it, were fortunate enough to evaluate an undiluted sample, and experience what John described as ‘a taste odyssey’. On the nose my first response was ‘guinea pig hutch’, developing light creaminess, pale oak, buttery toffee and heather honey. The palate exploded with barley sugar, lime and mango. As an introduction to the new spirit, the multimedia system was powered up and we absorbed the ‘sights and sounds’ of 2001 projected onto the pod’s glass panels, making for a very striking and engaging effect. As we went from Harry Potter and the Philospher’s Stone, starring a very junior-looking Daniel Radcliffe, to the election of George ‘Dubbya’ Bush, a little bit of Destiny’s Child teased our ears. This was indeed a ‘Bootylicious’ Balblair. I’m not sure about the extent to which it gave off the impression of the War on Terror, but that’s probably a good thing.
With the 2001 launch discussed and enjoyed, the Balblair representatives of John, Andy, Karen Walker, Derek Sinclair, Malcolm Leask and Lucas Dynowiak could decompress, a job well done, and savour the superb three course lunch. I must give a personal mention to Mike and the team from Good Highland Food who put a trio of delicious plates in front of us. A cold smoked trout and hot smoked salmon terrine preceeded an eye-poppingly superb fillet of Caithness beef, rounded off with a Balblair-infused chocolate torte which was very probably sinful.
It was nothing short of a joy to be back at Balblair in the first instance, but also to see the confident new direction the brand is taking both with their juice, and with their accessibility to the public. There is more than one distillery on the Dornoch Firth worth visiting, don’t you know. I urge you to make the trip – Balblair will make it worth your while.
, Distillery Tours
, Good Highland Food
, Inver House Distillers
, Malt Whisky Yearbook 2012
, New Releases
, Single Casks
, Visitor Centres
October 24, 2011
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.
, Ian Macleod Distillers
, Visitor Centres
September 3, 2011
If the maxims of my single malt creed are not crystallised by now, I’ve no doubt the style in which I report the fourth batch release of single cask vintages hailing from the GlenDronach distillery, Aberdeenshire, will clarify a few items of my faith.
Independently-owned by the BenRiach Distillery Co., GlenDronach has for a long time been a cult make enthralling devotees with its bruising muscularity and rich fruitiness, enhanced by diligent sourcing and filling of prime sherry casks. Since new management introduced their singular philosophy to the range, beginning in 2008, this sub 1.5 million litre-per-year distillery has enjoyed resurgent fortunes. A veritable spate of special wood-finished malts in the 14/15-year-old region, though modest when compared with the quantity escaping from partner distillery BenRiach, conveyed diversity while the re-mixed 15yo in the core range garnered 90 points in the latest Malt Whisky Companion. Add to this innovative marketing ploys such as the Cask In A Van tours of Belgium and the revamped visitor centre with hand-bottling facilities and it is plain that those responsible for GlenDronach care passionately about reconnecting with pre-existing enthusiasts in addition to winning new fans for the brand. Their strategy for achieving this is simple but powerfully effective: invest time and expertise hunting out those stocks which demonstrate GlenDronach at its GlenDronach-y best.
Enter, therefore, six single casks which span the age spectrum from a formidable 40-years-old to an energetic, ebullient 17-year-old. All six were exclusively matured in either Oloroso sherry butts or Pedro Ximenez sherry puncheons. One of the latter housed GlenDronach spirit since 1971, endowing it with spicy notes, dark berries and coffee aromas with Mediterranean fruits on the palate.
There is something intoxicating about excellent single cask bottlings from Sherry butts. I would put this down to the increasing scarcity of the wood itself and how few spirits can withstand such highly-tannic attentions for a meaningful length of time. I must confess to being sorely tempted by the 1992 vintage with a nose which promises ‘complex toasted oak aromas with an almost earthy presence’, together with ‘treacle nuts and wild honey’. The palate is said to provide ‘a solid platform of sherry spiced fruit and toasted nuts with a surreal balance of vanilla and honey’. At 59.2% abv., there is enough depth to explore, too.
The other issue concerning sherry-matured whiskies is their asking prices. While not excessive in anyway, that 1992 is £80 and therefore on the farthest reaches of what I personally am prepared to pay for a whisky right now. The 40-year-old is £430, however, which is altogether very reasonable indeed (if you aren’t me). The other vintages are the 1972 (£385), the 1989 (£89), the 1990 (£83), and the 1994 (£70). Single casks are by their very natures finite entities, and the 1971 puncheon yielded a respectable 582 bottles. The 1971 butt coughed up just 464. Available internationally, each market can offer only a percentage of those totals and Loch Fyne Whiskies, in the UK, are expecting their contingent soon.
I have still to visit the GlenDronach distillery, but their commitment to releasing characterful, individual drams means I am very much looking forward to what I might find when I finally get there.
, BenRiach Distillery Co.
, Single Casks
, Vintage Whiskies
May 4, 2011
The 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.
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?
‘And after that?’
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.
, Highland Park
, Single Malt Whisky
, St Andrews
, The Macallan
, The Quaich Society
February 23, 2011
The first I heard of Glenglassaugh’s tour schedule was at the Glen Garioch distillery last April where I also discovered that a change in their own policy, unbeknownst to me, equated to the Oldmeldrum distillery opening for tours on Saturday after all. Both pieces of news were greeted with a mixed reaction: in the case of the former it was another distillery I could have visited but now wouldn’t, and in the case of the latter I had spent a morning rejiggling logistics some time in October in order that I could make it to Glen Garioch by the Friday for nothing. As it turned out, of course, the effort and stress were more than made up for in other unforeseen respects and Glenglassaugh, from the looks of things presently, isn’t going anywhere soon.
* * * * *
The distillery from the north, over the Moray Firth. Quite a setting.
Portsoy, Banffshire, AB45 25Q, 01261 842367. Glenglassaugh Distillery Co. (Scaent Group). www.glenglassaugh.com
‘The Spirit Tour’: £7.50. Conducted around the plant with one of the workers (in my opinion the folk most qualified to tell you about the equipment they operate, in addition to possessing a hefty reserve of hilarious anecdotes), the tour ends after the spirit still, newly returned to gushing torrents of life (as in the water of life). It is some of this that will be offered to you in the form of a complimentary dram. One of the Spirit Drink range can be sampled which, though not legally whisky yet, is Glenglassaugh in its truest form – its DNA.
‘Behind the Scenes Tour’: £30. In the capable hands of a senior manager, the ‘Spirit’ experience is on offer in addition to an exploration of the obscure nooks and crannies one finds in old distilleries. The dusty corners may not see a huge amount of the action now, but whisky-making in its earliest days was never a wasteful process, and these forgotten spaces can tell you much about the provenance and history of the place. Pace the closed malting floors, imagining barley from the local fields spread upon them quietly turning to malt. Then head to the warehouse for a rarer privilege: the nosing of whisky-laden casks and encounter the silent but intense process of maturation. After the tour, enjoy a dram from the Spirit Drink range in addition to the 26yo and 30yo single malt whiskies.
‘The Ultimate Tour’: £80. This sounds like a lot of money, and it is pitting itself against the likes of the Magnus Eunson Tour at Highland Park and the Cask Idol Tour at Glengoyne. The stops do appear to have been pulled out, however. Distillery manager Graham Eunson will take care of you on the route of the Behind the Scenes tour to the spirit receiver vat where a lesson in recording alcoholic strength awaits. I am given to understand that there is more to it than giving you a sample of the new make and waiting for you to say ‘Phwoar! That’s strong!’ or similar. Take a peak at racked warehouses 2 and 3, then the bottling hall and then assume your honorary position on the Glenglassaugh cask selection scheme. Your opinion is desired on a range of single cask samples to assist in the decision of the next Glenglassaugh release. The tutored tasting includes the drams as for the Behind the Scenes tour in addition to the IWSC Trophy-winning 40yo. Regarding this last, should you decide to buy a bottle of it there and then, the cost of your tour will be refunded.
DISTILLERY-EXCLUSIVE BOTTLINGS: N/A
CASK OWNERSHIP: That there are no distillery exclusives is a bit disengenuous: there is the opportunity to own your very own cask of new make Glenglassaugh and watch it mature with the Octave programme. Unpeated (£500) and Peated (£600) Glenglassaugh spirit is filled into a 50 litre Octave cask make from staves previously used to mature Scotch whisky at 63.5% ABV. The filling process can be done by a distillery employee or by yourself. Choose the inscription on the cask head and you are presented with a certificate of ownership in addition to a photograph of your cask to take away with you. Progress is monitored annually, with a sample sent to you. Better yet, phone ahead and visit your cask in person/ As to how long your cask rests in Glenglassaugh’s coastal warehouses is up to you but when you do decide to bottle your whisky (at natural or reduced strength is also your decision), Glenglassaugh are there to hold your hand with their on-site facility. It is even possible to design your own label, although this must be formally approved. With the whisky now bottled, the Octave vessel is yours to keep. I can imagine it working very well, turned on its head, as a side table for supporting your evening dram.
, Moray Firth
, Scaent Group
January 16, 2011
Awaiting an official visit by me, this is the first of the other nine distilleries throughout Scotland offering tours for whom I haven’t any official details but shall be amending in time for the distillery-touring season. This Highland distillery has experienced quite a ‘Revival’ in recent years since it was taken over by the folk behind BenRiach. Their range of single casks and special releases are impressive and their 15-year-old was one of the most sensuous drams I tasted in 2010.
* * * * *
A handsome distillery producing some handsome malts under some very dynamic ownership.
Forgue, Aberdeenshire, AB54 6DB, 01466 730202. The BenRiach – GlenDronach Distillers Co. Ltd. www.glendronachdistillery.co.uk
‘Standard Tour’: £3. A tour of the distillery, excluding warehouse visit, although there is a viewing window in the VC. A dram of the 12yo is included.
‘Connoisseur Tour’: £20. An in-depth tour of the distillery, followed by a tutored tasting of the GlenDronach range in the company of Frank Massie. Mondays and Wednesdays only, booking essential.
DISTILLERY-EXCLUSIVE BOTTLINGS: The Distillery Manager’s Cask: a bottle-your-own facility from a single cask chosen by distillery manager, Alan McConnachie. The particular cask on offer will change as each is emptied, but to gain an insight into the calibre of whisky on offer, current as of October 2010 was an Oloroso sherry cask from 1993 at 58.4% abv. £54. There is also a 1996 single cask (no. 197) priced at £52.
Tags: BenRiach Distillery Co.
November 13, 2010
Spurring each of us on through the miserable murk and drizzle which had clung to us since Tain were each of the green signs sited along the A96, my favourite thoroughfare as you all know, indicating a diminution of mileage twixt us and Knock, and Knockdhu distillery – or anCnoc single malt. Perhaps it was on account of this multiple personality disorder that we were put off the scent of the place somewhat. Whether it was the emissions of the many mash tuns located all around us, or simply the character of late autumn afternoons, but darkness fell in cahoots with a thick gleaming mist. Under these aerial conditions, the hill from which our sought distillery takes its name was indeed black. They were moody, broody conditions, under which anyone, when they have been driving a pack of spirited whisky bloggers around the north and east of Scotland for a day and a half, could be forgiven for doubting their internal GPS.
Halfway down a gravel-strewn farm track, Cathy had a slight crisis of confidence as to our direction. Carrying on, as it turned out, was easier than three-point-turning the minibus, and so proceeding, while hoping for a hint of a main road, what should appear first but the dinky, charming, buildings of Knockdhu distillery, the smallest in the Inver House group. Cathy’s instincts had been right.
It was to be a very speedy tour of the place, and this was a crying shame for the idiosyncratic neuks and crannies of the distillery, together with those of manager Gordon Bruce’s irrepressible personality, could easily have satisfied the rest of the evening and night. Gordon maintained the impossibly high standards of hospitality and good humour set by Malcolm and John; prompting a specific mention in a later email of mine to Cathy after the bloggers had disbanded remarking upon how fortunate Inver House are to have secured the services of such engaging and passionate people.
The two-day tour was obviously co-ordinated in an attempt to disseminate the Inver House single malt brands more widely throughout the ether, but what I take away from it, and wish to pass on to the readers of the Scotch Odyssey Blog, is a reaffirmation of the calibre of folk making the whisky you drink on one level, but in so doing also making the whisky experience to be had at their distilleries, and throughout the sector as a whole, such an intriguing and rewarding one. Once again, I was struck by the incomparable, unique and privileged insight into a distillery and distilling that one can only gain from being shown around by those who actually carry out the process first-hand, and have done for many years. Like Robert at Bunnahabhain, Gordon simply belonged in his distillery, and while sharing his company the feeling was that we had been inducted beneath the skin of single malt.
At the now cold and dark kiln fires, Gordon explained that distillers were suckers for hoarding things, the mysterious objects secreted here and there – none more inexplicable than the pair of Wellies dangling from a grains chute above our heads – a testament to this. The complex engineering credentials of his new malt intake machine and state of the art de-stoner (‘like the starship Enterprise’) pleased Gordon to such an extent his grin, as he explained the various modifcations and functions to us, was wider than the Pulteney washbacks had been and he could not suppress a little Highland jig. Plainly this is someone who cares about the How and the Why: substance and functionality over faddish style – the DIY distillery clock is a case-in-point.
Gordon with Knockdhu's only 'computer'.
Upstairs we were encouraged to wander about the floor of the mothballed kiln, Gordon jumping enthusiastically up and down on the metal mesh in order to dispel any doubts we may have had as to the resilience of its contruction. I stood near the entrance door, leading back into the distillery -not, I must stress, because I doubted his confidence - but because this allowed me to fully appreciate the remarkable properties of the pagoda roof and chimney design. Air was being forcibly sucked from over my left shoulder directly upwards into the dark. This is how peat smoke would have been efficiently drawn through the barley in the past at Knockdhu, and how it still operates for Bowmore, Highland Park, Springbank et al.
Elsewhere I learnt that Gordon considers spirit drawn from the stills in winter to be of better quality, the distillery being much easier to manage; that too much raking in the mash tun will create a cloudier wort and so inhibit the cultivation of certain esters in the washbacks, and that for the peated anCnoc spirit, produced for a few weeks a year, the boundaries at which the middle cut is taken sinks somewhat.
Time was getting on and we hadn’t the chance to explore one of the warehouses. The impossibly hard winter had claimed the three dunnage structures which formerly stood adjacent to the distillery: too much snow and no wind had left the warehouses covered for more than a third of the year. Without such freak conditions, they would have provided safe service for many more years. Rubble is all that remains of them, although Gordon promised that they would be rebuilt to their former specification. Inver House’s wealth of warehousing space ensures that there will be no need to erect racked facilities instead which are, to Gordon’s way of thinking: ‘horrible, soulless, godless places.’ I’m inclined to agree.
Our gang clustered round a table in the office spaces of the distillery, and I’m afraid far too many expressions of anCnoc were circulating at any one time and I failed to keep up. Every one that passed my nose and lips, though, was either clean, fruity and fresh with lots of sweet hay and barley sugar; or richer and spicier with more buttery notes. Never having tasted the single malt from Knockdhu distillery (not to be confused with KnockANdo) before, I was suitably impressed. I shall certainly take the opportunity, should it come again, to hunt out some of the vintage releases.
Gordon’s commitments switched from us and his distillery to his daughter, who needed ferrying to a parents’ evening. We all signed the guestbook, exchanged cards, shook hands and dolefully left Knockdhu behind. If you are in the area, do not be put off by the lack of an official visitor centre. In Gordon’s own words, ‘no-one is turned away’ so phone ahead and treat yourself to a first class education in Scotch.
Our route to Aberdeen airport persisted with the ‘horrible, soulless and godless’ A96. I was delighted, however, that it furnished me with the opportunity to contextualise for my fellow bloggers what that singular day in April had entailed and how it had affected me. I was also doubly contemplative of just how that day, half a year away, had made my previous two possible. Distillery personnel on that occasion had fortified my spirit and urged me on, and Malcolm, John and Gordon had simply upheld the glorious traditions of fine treatment I seem to have been fortunate to receive in distilleries.
Mine, then, was a humble and obsequiously grateful countenance for the remainder of the drive back to Dundee, where I was to be dropped off. I was enormously thankful for Lukasz’s invitation and the many hours of creative stress that must have been required of both he and Cathy to have made the tour the triumph it was. In the process of working backwards, I offered yet another vote of appreciation to Fiona and Jane, superlative emissaries of the wonderful whisky characters I met during the tour, and I thanked George Smith for having established The Glenlivet distillery almost two hundred years ago so that I could wander into it on the 25 October 2007 and get the journey underway.
, Inver House Distillers
, Whisky Blogger Press Tour
November 10, 2010
This was my view of the gorgeous little distillery as I passed on the road on my way to Culrain in late April.
‘In Tain, no-one can hear you scream…’
I passed a most refreshing night, waking up no earlier than my alarm and in my own room. As I would learn at breakfast, this isn’t necessarily a formality for some, but it really isn’t my place to say anything further…
It was with some portion of guilt that I passed through the drinks lounge in order to get to the dining room; the reason why I sought the forgiveness of the two bottles of Balblair sat accusingly behind the bar (emptier as a result of our stay) was having preferred their local rival as my own digestif the previous night. Atonement was required and atone I certainly did.
It was only slightly unfortunate that the weather was not of equal majesty to the last time I beheld Balblair Distillery. It is a gift of the Scottish Highlands that even in dour and driech weather, it can still capture one’s soul: or maybe I’m conceited and it was simply because whisky was in the offing.
Disgorging from the minibus, the blogger photo frenzy occupied a number of minutes and John MacDonald appeared when he decided that any greater exposure to our flashbulbs might blind the angels lovingly in residence. The locality in which Balblair sits is reputed to have the cleanest air in Britain, and if a good proportion of that is evaporating Balblair spirit, then this stands to reason.
John has been rattling around the distillery since 2006, jumping at the chance to manage this little-known Highland gem when the position became available. After 17 years at Glenmorangie, he was as intimately attuned to the area as he was its whiskies and had been for some time mystified as to quite why Balblair’s profile had not risen to something like its neighbour’s dizzying heights.
Mr MacDonald, Cathy had assured us, was a dab hand at promotion. As he recounted some of his many varied experiences of the industry, together with the (impressive) facts and figures of the distillery, one couldn’t help but be struck by his immense passion and brand-flattering articulacy. To my mind, he is a hybrid between production manager and ambassador. I was educated and amused in equal measure.
John MacDonald in his Balblair element.
Big plans and grand schemes are jostling in John’s brain: chief among them for the present is a visitor centre for the distillery. I think this is a terrific idea, and couldn’t be better situated. Less than an hour from Inverness, just off the A9 and with an access road no more hazardous than Ardbeg’s – and certainly not a patch on the hair-raising routes to Bunnahabhain and Kilchoman – you could certainly pull in the punters. If the tourists have already made it as far as Glenmorangie for a peep around, then Balblair is hardly going to put them out any further. Also, as far as Inver House are concerned, their sole official visitor centre is Pulteney’s – in Wick! In the shape of the old floor maltings, John has an extremely versatile space on which to capitalise (look at Glenkinchie and especially Aberfeldy for how these types of enclosures can be harnessed to best effect), plenty of parking, and a distinctive brand to peddle. With the right personnel – and John would fill the desired role in the ‘Manager’s Masterclass’ format perfectly – this would be by no means a redundant operation. John, you have the full support of Scotch Odyssey Blog!
Forty years ago, there was no space for a visitor centre, the floor maltings being fully operational. Now, we could walk upon the concrete floor covered only in fresh paint. Display cases filled with Balblair bottlings and ancient distilling knick-knacks gave some
The intended situation for the Balblair visitor centre. If we are lucky.
idea of what John has in mind. The floor-to-ceiling banners for each of the vintages so far were handsome, also. In such environs we were informed as to how the VC would be a continuation of Balblair’s apotheosis into a new single malt power. The new packaging, which has received much attention – not least within this year’s Malt Whisky Yearbook and an article by Dominic Roskrow – takes its inspiration from the Edderton Stone, a Pictish monolith jutting proudly out of the turf and cow pats a stone’s throw from the distillery. A detail from the ancient carvings is duplicated in the embossed glass-work of every bottle.
I was particularly fascinated to learn about the composition of the three vintages released in 2007. John and his team personally shortlisted 81 casks from more than a thousand which they felt displayed Balblair spirit at its best at that moment. This was a bold move for a hitherto overlooked distillery in a world of age statements. It worked out for them, however. Thirty casks were vatted to create the 1997, 36 for the original 1989 (there is now a second release) and 15 for the 1979, these last being snapped up very quickly indeed. 15% of production will be bottled as Balblair Single Malt, and John hopes to produce more than 1.3 million litres this year.
The longer fermentation time from 48 – 73 hours over the weekend, is a significant factor in the distillery character. John believes that giving the deliberately clear wort (liquid drawn from the mash tun) that little bit time to evolve makes for more ‘pronounced’ aromas later on in the process.
The stillroom did a very wonderful and rare thing: it reminded me of Glen Garioch. Beside the two fat copper stills which churn out all those millions of litres was one quite redundant, but very handsome with its stylish copper rivets. This was an original still from 1949, cold and silent since 1969. As Jason remarked, in a world where everyone seems to be straining to squeeze every last millilitre (AKA, penny) out of their facilities, it was refreshing to see a space given over to a bit of attractive history. When John expressed the belief that it would fit in very nicely with the decor of his VC, I suggested that a hot tub, using water from the condensers, might go down well with the tourists if installed in its stead. I don’t think I was taken seriously.
In the warehouses, to dodge the persistent enquiries from Jason and Mark about ‘oldest’ and the next release, John fed us the same intriguing line that had been served seventy miles away in Wick: ‘watch this space’.
As was the case for Pulteney, I shall defer the authority on relating the tasting as a whole to the other bloggers in the group (I’d recommend Keith’s notes). I tasted the 1997 at the beginning of the year and loved it; I’d tried the 1989 a few weeks ago and loved it, and I’d had the 2000 at the Scotch Whisky Experience in Edinburgh during the Festival and you know what, I loved it, too. The 2000 still held its own, even against the deep and mammothly complex 1978. With just a little water, it was all sweetness and light: almond pastry, butterscotch tablet, heather honey and perfumed. Simply gorgeous.
After making our way through as much of the lunch spread fit for an army of kings as we could, it was back on the bus, and on to Knockdhu.
Unwrap Balblair, I tell you - it's well worth it.
, Inver House Distillers
, The Edderton Stone
, Whisky Blogger Press Tour
June 10, 2010
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.
‘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.
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.
, Ian Macleod
June 4, 2010
I apologise, but it is very difficult to find an alternative angle for photographing the distillery.
Well Close, Campbeltown, Argyll, PA28 6ET, 01586 551710. J & A Mitchell. www.springbankdistillers.com
APPEARANCE AND LOCATION: *** I missed the lane that has the distillery at the end of it on the way out of Campbeltown. I didn’t spot the Chinese restaurant the man in Cadenheads had given me as a key landmark. I found out where the Co-op was, though, and on the way back down I saw the sign on the inner wall advertising the whereabouts of one of Scotland’s best-loved and most prestigious malts, attempting to keep the Campbeltown appellation alive by itself with three different malt epxressions and the newly re-fitted Glengyle. It is tucked away in the very heart of commercial and residential Campbeltown, but feels like a pocket of the past, so traditional and functional is every courtyard and space.
‘Standard Tour’: £6. See ‘My Tour’ below.
‘Tour and Tasting’: £10. The standard tour but, when you return to Cadenhead’s you receive four malts to taste and a miniature.
‘Silver Tour’: £15. When back in the comfort of the Cadenhead shop, you are taken into the Tasting Room and are met with 6-7 drams, plus a miniature.
‘Gold Tour’: £20. This involves a tour of both Springbank and nearby Glengyle. Then it is back to the Tasting Room for 6-7 drams.
DISTILLERY-EXCLUSIVE BOTTLINGS: N/A
My Tour – 19/05/2010
THE RUNNING COMMENTARY: **
THE PROCESS AND EQUIPMENT: ***
Notes: This had to be the most interactive tour of the entire odyssey. Obviously, it helped that I was the sole recipient of the tour for the first time since Highland Park. Jim, my guide, said I was very lucky to tour when I did: the Springbank team is comprised of six men who malt the barley over the course of a week, and then distill. I toured at a time when distilling was taking place and malt was to be seen on the floors, as well. The maltings are airy and smart, with artwork adorning the walls. A panel was removed when we got to the mill and this was my first peak at the machinery’s inner workings. There isn’t much to report: it’s as you would expect it to be, but a worthy addition, nonetheless. Then I was allowed to dip a finger into the underback and appreciate just how sugary wort is. From the mash tun, which much of my clothing was propped up against following my hellishly damp ride to the distillery, we moved into the still room and the ajoining tun room. The smell was remarkable, and frustratingly I can’t pin point why. It just smelt more organic and “traditional”; dusty and musty with a real punch of sweet, pungent alcohol. It caught my attention, at any rate, which must count for something after 38 distillery visits. They were making a spirit run using local barley, the first time they have bought and used malt made from Campletown farmers since 1966. Ten years from now, there will once again be a Springbank Local Barley expression, and I got to stick my finger in the spirit safe as the middle cut was running. Again, it was quite powerful stuff, with a steely edge and sweetness. I wasn’t completely won over by it. They ferment for a very long 70 hours and the resulting wash is charged into the wash still which is fired with a direct oil flame. That which runs off the spirit still may not be called Springbank. If it was made using unpeated malt, and distilled three times, it is Hazelburn. Two-and-a-half times distilled with a phenolic count of 12-15ppm is the eponymous Springbank. Longrow is kilned over peat fires for 30 hours, resulting in malt of 50-55ppm of phenols but is distilled only twice. In the warehouses, casks are filled up to three times, and all casks vatted to create an age-statemented bottling will be the same age. This surprised me. As is well-known, when marking on the bottle an age statement, that is the youngest whisky in the bottle but there may well be portions within it that are significantly older. According to Jim, and I double-checked with him on this, your 10YO Springbank will be 100% 10-years-old. The moistening of my index finger hadn’t stopped with the spirit safe. Jim took me deeper into the fecund murk of the warehouse where there was a cask with a bleeding wound on its side. This was a 4YO Springbank, and tasted very authoritative indeed. There is a Springbank whisky school which allows you to come and work in the distillery for a week, gaining a practical insight into every stage of the process. There was a crowd of Americans in residence while I was there who seemed to be enjoying themselves immensely on the malting floors.
VALUE FOR MONEY: **
SCORE: 9/10 *s
COMMENT: Despite the truly disgusting conditions (both meterological and terrain-wise) I perked up considerbly thanks to my tour. Jim was very enthusiastic and knowledgable and his attempts to fashion a launderette out of the mash tun were admirable, for all they fell a long way short of the Glen Garioch still room. It was a relief to get out of the wet stuff, even if only 40% dried effectively. Springbank is another independently-owned distilling enterprise and is super traditional in its design and approach. Nothing is superficial or unnecessary. The whisky produced is commonly said to be a malt-lover’s malt. Well, for the distillery aficionado, it presses all the right buttons, too. Worth the journey from wherever you happen to be, and as you can see, they have no qualms about amateur photography.
, J&A Mitchell and Sons