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November 10, 2010

Unwrapping Balblair

This was my view of the gorgeous little distillery as I passed on the road on my way to Culrain in late April.

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.Balblair 1

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.

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.

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.Balblair Old Still

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’.Balblair Warehouse

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 - it's well worth it.

Unwrap Balblair, I tell you - it's well worth it.

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November 9, 2010

Pulteney – Taking the Plunge with the ‘Maritime Malt’

Just to show us what our delayed flight had deprived us of, Cathy James - the woman on the inside at Inver House and International Beverage by day, press ambassador and chauffeur par excellence by night - took a detour around the harbour on the way to Pulteney distillery.

‘You see that man in the orange? He was going to take you out in that boat.’ We all made quite a charade at tutting and cursing our poor fortune.Old Pulteney VC

An encounter with the Maritime Malt was about as close to the sea as any of us had really wished for. Malcolm Waring was captain of the good ship Pulteney and our first port was the visitor centre, an extremely stylish space formerly the old kiln, converted in 2000. Steering us away from the army of Glencairns, sparkling under the lights and emitting multiple gradations of warming golden glow, we passed into the chilly evening air of the yard.

The distillery is at present operating a twelve-day fortnight. This is not indicative, I hasten to add, of a deficient understanding of time, although I should imagine it would be very easy to lose two days in Pulteney if given the opportunity – but a regime whereby two days from every two weeks are devoted to a thorough cleaning of all the equipment and to give the stills a rest. Our visit coincided with one of these periods. The men would be in and out of obscure vessels, sanitizing steel and copper. We might not see them, however, said Malcolm, they’ll probably try and hide. An unseen cleaning force: pixies distillery-style.

Pulteney employs eight souls on shift, and the joke is that, in Wick, they come in two by two. Malcolm (or Noah, as he is referred to in this particular sketch) described how there were pairs of brothers and cousins, a brace each of Anguses and Michaels. It hadn’t a great deal to do with the whisky itself, but I enjoy hearing about the society that makes my dram.

It also pleased me to note that Malcolm keeps pigs – reared on the distillery’s draff. He has at least one taker should he ever decide to market Old Pulteney bacon…

At the worts cooler we learned that our party numbered nine of the 4,500 people who visit Pulteney each year - the redesignation of the A9 so that it no longer passes through Wick has dented the admittance figures somewhat.Old Pulteney Wash

Much magic happens in the stainless steel washbacks as dried Anchor yeast (‘what else?’) is pitched in at a very specific 36 degrees Centigrade and left for between 50 and 52 hours. With a large cohort of beer drinkers jostling around him, Malcolm fetched a recepticle for the wash, drew off some frothing yellow liquid and passed it round. Only then did he describe how, as a younger man, he partook of maybe a tablespoon too much, the fermenting brew sitting obdurately in his stomach for three whole days rendering him quite unfit for anything at all besides looking green.

Registering no ill-effects initially, we passed through to the still room. My nose quivered with delight at the smell of new make: tinned pineapple with some almond biscuits. The single pair of stills were initially two of six, although it is difficult, contemplating the enormous masses of copper, to see where these other four might have fitted. Despite the purifiers, Old Pulteney new make is famously heavy, the lack of a lyne arm on the wash still one contributing factor. The spirit still is run slowly, for roughly seven hours, and for three of those the middle cut will be taken.Old Pulteney Stills

This new make spirit is filled into fresh Bourbon wood and some Sherry butts at receiver strength – no 63.5% dilution here. Approximately 3,000 casks are filled for single malt each year, to be matured in their own warehouses, a mixture of two racked and three dunnage. Roughly 600,000 litres will end up in your bottle of Grants or Whyte & MacKay among other brands.

As we crossed the road to one such warehouse – formerly a herring curing yard, but now mercifully exuding the aroma only of gently improving whisky – I came face to face with one of my arch enemies: a MacPherson’s tanker. I remarked to Malcolm that Aberlour was a long way to come from to collect spirit in Wick, and that I supposed one of the perks might well be hounding exhausted cyclists on the A9. He replied that theirs was certainly a challenging spot from which to make and market a global product: particularly cruel winters scuppering the intake of raw materials and the export of finished spirit and jeopardising production schedules for weeks. 

Like a mob of five-year-olds released into a sweet shop, the bloggers sped away into the darkest, most fecund corners of the warehouse. The ‘interesting’ questions started from Mark and Jason: what’s your oldest cask and will we get any of it bottled? Malcolm would not be drawn on specifics, but did murmur that something would be released next year. Watch this space.

Happy smiling people...

Happy smiling people...

The tasting was magnificent, although most cumbersome on an empty stomach. I shall go into it only briefly, however – the other bloggers (see previous post for the hyperlinks) will do a far more thorough job of the tasting notes.Old Pulteney Tasting

I cannot sign off my account of Old Pulteney without elaborating on that new make spirit, though. In the debate about chill-filtration, it was a fascinating study. Taken off the still only the day before, this liquid was 68.6% ABV and right enough, heavy. I was rather impressed by it all the same: creamy, with lemoniness, strawberries (from the yeast), with some barley sugar and shortbread. A touch of water sweetened it further, bringing out lemon meringue pie, banana and some spice.

How then, do we arrive at the clean, fruity and fresh 12-year-old? Malcolm told us that, at the bottling hall, Old Pulteney malt whisky goes through more filters than most. In body and texture the two were, as a result, completely different!

The other expressions were the beautifully discreet 17-year-old and the resinous, rich 30-year-old. A sample was also drawn from the 1990 cask, sitting just behind us and available for visitors to bottle for themselves , as Jason did following the tasting – twice. This had been matured in a peated cask and arrived in our glasses at a strength of 57.4% ABV. Perfumy at first – almost reminding me of hair products, the peat soon emerged with barbecue smoke and rich, creamy vanilla. It was superb.

Jason filling a couple of bottles of the 1990 for the lucky folk in his tasting society back in the USA.

Jason filling a couple of bottles of the 1990 for the lucky folk in his tasting society back in the USA.

My pick would be the 21-year-old, however. Non chill-filtered at 46% ABV, a vatting of a third Fino Sherry casks and two thirds Bourbon (Pulteney doesn’t ‘finish’ any whisky: it simply fills new make into various casks and leaves them until the time is right) this was pure deep sweetness. White grapes, jelly sweets, caramel; leafy, soft oak with intense blackcurrant cordial. There was the Pulteney saltiness, though subtle and of a delightful texture. Water pulled out more Bourbon oak and broom flowers as well as tropical fruits, icing sugar, and fudge tablet. Bourbon richness was evident on the palate, with some thick medicinal sweetness and a peppery finish. More, please!

Taking our leave of Malcolm with regret, we piled into the minibus which would take us to Tain and, most importantly, food. I grew into the role of sat-nav, for even in the dark and with a quantity of the Pulteney product within me, I could remember stretches of road from my adventures in May. On the way out of Wick, following Northcote Street, we passed Netherby B&B where inside I knew to be the wonderful Allison and William.

As the bus rolled about the twisting roads of Caithness and then Sutherland, Mark passed round his bottle of the latest Lagavulin 12-year-old. In the blackness of the cabin, the smell hit me first whenever the bottle came within my territory. It was the most wonderful experience.

Not that I needed it, but after an excellent dinner at the Morangie Hotel, for which we were privileged with the company of John MacDonald – manager of Balblair and our guide for the following day – I indulged in a nip of the Glenmorangie Quinta Ruban, which did a fine job of putting me to sleep.

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November 6, 2010

Whisky Bloggers Check-in

‘It took me three weeks to get from Edinburgh to Wick the last time,’ I said to Keith somewhere over Perthshire.

So joyously exuberant was I being on a plane, flying to Wick, in the company of some of the most respected and dedicated bloggers out there, with two days of tastings and tours to commence upon landing, that I didn’t care one jot that, according to the itinerary, we should have already arrived.

When Lukasz Dynowiak of Alembic Communications (and Edinburgh Whisky Blog) contacted me at the beginning of last month it took significantly less time for me to say yes to his proposed two-day tour of the Highlands care of Inver House Distillers than it did getting to the airport in the first place. Crashes, road rage, low sun – I’m not sure why the roads around the Forth Bridge were snaggled up but I was adamant that I was not going to miss my flight on their account and told my taxi driver so. He rose to the challenge magnificently, and while happier in mind, though lighter in pocket, I arrived at the departure terminal - wondering as I strolled into the check-in area whether our faces would appear on a forthcoming episode of Traffic Cops for our improvised passage through the tailbacks.

We all took it rather well, I thought, and World Duty Free profited, too. L-R: Keith Wood, Mark Connelly, Jason Johnstone-Yelling, Karen Taylor and Ben Ellefsen of Master of Malt. Chris and Matt are absent from the photo.

We all took it rather well, I thought, and World Duty Free profited, too. L-R: Keith Wood, Mark Connelly, Jason Johnstone-Yelling, Karen Taylor and Ben Ellefsen of Master of Malt. Chris and Matt are absent from the photo.

The seductive knowledge of World Duty Free and a bacon roll lured me upstairs. After the latter and a rather degrading passage through the millrace of airport security, I could indulge in the former. Indeed, I had three times the period of time I had been anticipating in order to do so.

Ordinarily I would not be so perturbed by a two hour delay to a flight. There is nothing the put-upon traveller can do but sit and wait it out and this was as true this week as in any other instance. However, I’m not normally inducted into an intensive itinerary of whisky-centric diversions, and a two hour delay would effectively tear up Lukasz’s lovingly-crafted timetable and cast it into Wick harbour. The boat trip around the Caithness coast, or lunch, was in jeopardy.

After circumnavigating the shelves of the World Duty Free, so was my bank account. On the Monday I had successfully handed in all three of my first cycle of essays for university and was feeling rather good about it, keen to reward myself in the only fitting manner with a tasty but modestly-priced dram. A Strathisla from Luvians had been top of the list, but it could no longer compete with the duty-free wondrousness. The prospect of the Dewar’s 18-year-old, which I had had at the Aberfeldy distillery the previous autumn and been nothing less than astonished by it, with £15 off was simply irresistable, and before we eventually boarded the plane, it was clutched in my mits.

There were some seriously lovely items to be glimpsed here - certainly not for my budget. The Balvenie 40yo is perhaps the highlight.

There were some seriously lovely items to be glimpsed here - certainly not for my budget. The Balvenie 40yo is one of the highlights.

Chris and Lukasz were exchanging texts and phonecalls as the situation worsened and, unaccountably, every so often improved. While Lukasz and Cathy chopped, changed, and wrung their hands in Caithness, it was the perfect opportunity for a young blogger wishing to find out how it is done to pick the brains of the illustrious souls slumped alongside him in gate 10. In addition to Chris of Edinburgh Whisky, Matt and Karen of Whisky For Everyone, Jason of Guid Scotch Drink, Keith of Whisky Emporium (he had flown in from Munich to make the connection to Wick) and Mark from Whisky Whisky Whisky and the Glasgow Whisky Festival were near at hand. There was a hell of a lot of ‘Whisky’ floating around and the joke was made that if the plane went down a significant percentage of the whisky blogosphere would be lost to the North Sea. When we weren’t exchanging our meal vouchers for paninis and croissants, we all got to know one another and what a fascinating, hilarious bunch of people.

Myself, Mark, Keith and Jason descended on the sample bottles at the front of the duty-free store, half of us trying the Highland Park 1998, the other the new peated Bunnahabhain. Mark couldn’t resist picking up a bottle of the latest Lagavulin 12-year-old cask strength, and this he very kindly donated to the whole group as we sped from Wick to Tain that night.

The call to board, when it finally came, was something of a surprise to me. I had been having quite a splendid time as it was. Squeezed into the body of the plane was our blogging party and a band of Scousers who slept as we chatted. I found Keith, my neighbour across the aisle, still more diverting than the Scottish coast. His approach to whisky and sensory descriptions for it mirror my own quite closely and his project to taste whisky from every distillery still or only just beginning to produce was, to my mind, a most noble cause. He was the first, simply in the act of talking, to offer me some advice to my advantage and, most gratifyingly, appeared impressed by my own undertaking.

With a jolt and heave, the plane smashed through the clouds to reveal Caithness at its most visually arresting, drowning in golden sunshine. It was the most glorious spectacle as we banked, swooped, and barrelled in to land: the red cliffs, the sage green fields; Wick harbour and the faint vision of John o’ Groats: all too briefly beheld as we now made our approach. Upon touching down the captain applied the brakes with no small amount of urgency before the plane’s momentum carried us to Scrabster. The freshness of the air once released from our sardine tin revived me, and the informal nature of baggage reclaim was rather charming, too.

With a rainbow dangling from the clouds like a silk bookmark away to the north, we entered the ‘terminal’ to be greeted by Lukasz and Cathy, looking uncommonly chilled out, and endeavoured to make up for lost time.

For the varied and entertaining accounts from the other participants on the tour, check out their exemplary blogs: Edinburgh WhiskyGuid Scotch Drink; Onversneden; Whisky Emporium, and Whisky For Everyone.

Let business begin...

Let business begin...

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