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January 16, 2011

GlenDronach

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

*      *      *      *      *

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

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

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

TOURS PROVIDED:

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

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

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

Distillery Manager's Cask

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November 13, 2010

Knockdhu Miscellanea

Knockdhu

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.Knockdhu tun and view to spirit safe.

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'.

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.Knockdhu stills

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.Knockdhu range

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.

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April 24, 2010

Braemar to Dufftown

Braemar to Tomintoul, 32 miles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

Tomintoul to Aberlour, 26 miles

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

Dufftown to Huntly, 60 miles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

Huntly to Dufftown, 28 miles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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