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December 24, 2011

The Call of the Wort

Perhaps it is the heavy emphasis on the great indoors, induced by the clammy cold, rain, and days which darken before ever having really brightened, that is to blame for my distillery yearning. It struck at the same time last year when glimpses of the snowy Perthshire Hills provoked a pining for the Valley of the Deer, Glenlivet and the delicate camomile tea light of the West Coast as seen from stillroom windows or a visitor centre cafe.

The new, tasteful extension to The Glenlivet.

I long to subsititute the heat of a radiator for a mash tun, the fragrant smoke of a wood-burning stove for the earthy wisps escaping from pagoda vents and their peat kilns beneath. Christmas cake baking in the oven cannot hope to match the curranty richness of a really excellent Oloroso sherry butt. You can see my problem. Life is simply better in a distillery.

Given the choice, therefore, where would I go right at this very moment? If I had my Christmas wish, it would be an amalgam of the very best, most nose-titillating, mouth-watering and compelling whisky-producing spaces, a Franken-distillery tour if you like. Allow me to take you round.

With snow on the higher Braes and a keen, clean wind ruffling the grass and heather, there can be few more stirring distillery journeys than that to The Glenlivet. I would depart from Tomintoul, pass through Auchnarrow and Tomnavoulin, and skirt the Packhorse Bridge over the river Livet itself before launching into the Cairngorm National Park and trundling into the distillery grounds. I would sprint from the car, up the stone steps to the spacious, warm and welcoming visitor centre which combines the scents of wood and whisky so wonderfully. As this is my ideal Christmas, I can stretch to a bottle from the Cellar Collection prior to the tour.

By some miraculous feat of malty teleportation, I troop up a spiral staircase to the heady, embracing sweetness of the Auchentoshan mash tun. Wood-lined and copper-domed, it dominates the room whilst churning that pure, gentle barley.

I have to negotiate a couple of close-fitting corridors and a flight of metal steps before Aberfeldy’s tun rooms appear, some of the washbacks hidden around the corner. Tropical fruits burst in front of my nose, together with a creamy orange aroma. By happy accident, Glen Grant has some of their vessels in the corner which exhale their juicy apple and biscuity cereal breath, too.

Past the chimney into sensory Nirvana.

Clicking my heels together, I duck through another doorway to the whitewashed still house of Lagavulin. Huge burnished onions squat and sweat in front of me, milking the spirit into their condensers. Like a bullock with a ring through its septum, I’m tugged to my right and the spirit safe. I sag against the pillar and do my level best to drown in that heart-of-the-run fragrance: burnt toast, wood smoke and hedgerow berry conserve. When a decent amount of time has passed – say about a week – Malcolm Waring beckons me outside to a bright Islay south coast afternoon before pole vaulting to Wick.

 

Pulteney manager, Malcolm Waring, in a delicious bonded warehouse.

I’m caught in two states of being, here in the Old Pulteney warehouses. The heavy honey and spicy toffee of so many exquisite ex-Bourbon barrels leaves me slack-jawed – seduced – while the cool, violent saltiness invigorates. A few spot lamps breach the fecund darkness as I caress hoggies and butts, alive now to the sizzling thread of citrus in the air.

Finally, say ten days into my distillery tour, I reach the Balblair distillery office. Highland sunshine slides into the room, adding a gloss to the display cabinets and antique table having bounced off the slick tarmac and the newly-corrugated warehouse rooves outside. John MacDonald has poured a generous measure of the 1978 into my Glencairn – and left the bottle – and I can process its marvellous deep floral aromas, together with honey and dried citrus fruits. I toast Scotland and I toast her whiskies and give eternal thanks that a significant imprint of the former can so readily flow out with the latter no matter where you happen to be.

An exterior shot of a great interior.

Merry Christmas, one and all, and may the new year yield many distillery tours.

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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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Three Years and a Day…

My Metaphor 1

I like to think that, on October 26 2010, I could empathise on a level of singular profundity with Anthony Wills and how he had felt on December 15 2008. Last week I marked my most significant whisky anniversary to date – the obsession conceived with unexpected suddenness and violence in the slender stills of The Glenlivet in 2007 had, by measure of the Scotch Whisky Act of 1988, achieved official ‘whisky’ status.

It is fairly evident that, to persist with the metaphor, my personal cask of single malt curiosity and exploration has been stacked fairly high up in the palletised warehouse. As I have described elsewhere on this blog, I possess two bottles which demonstrate by their associated dates just how extraordinarily Scotch whisky has acted on my consciousness and imagination: hooked as an ignorant 17-year-old (the 10/07 bottling date of my Nadurra manifesting this moment for me), I had circumnavigated Scotland by bike, dropping in on more than forty distilleries before I had reached 20 (the Glengoyne 17-year-old with its personalised label, presented to me at the distillery on May 21 2010). That is one hell of a rapid maturation.

Tragically essay deadlines precluded an appropriate toast – at least on the day in question. The rigours of a Scottish univeristy did not allow me to partake of the Scotch drink there and then, but I was in a pleasantly wistful mood on the 25th and the 26th.

A little over a week later, however, the bung was withdrawn and a liberal sample taken to assess how my dedication, understanding and character were progressing. I returned, as a guest of Inver House Distillers, to areas of the country I had not visited since my tour and some others which I had; I took another peek around Pulteney into previously unseen darkened corners in addition to Balblair and Knockdhu, and mingled with some of the loveliest people I have ever been fortunate enough to encounter. I would urge you to check out the many diverse reports of the two day tour on Edinburgh WhiskyGuid Scotch Drink; Onversneden; Whisky Emporium, and Whisky For Everyone. It was a true privilege to meet the people behind these exceptional platforms, to encounter their passion and expertise and – good-naturedly – disagree from time to time. I hope to bring you my account of the trip in instalments over the week from a Scotch Odyssey perspective. I shall say at this point, however, that it was a fantastic experience, and confirmed that the whisky wood has been having no small influence on my whisky mania contained within. This is a refill hoggie at the least in which I’m ‘casked’. 

I’m still a very young whisky, however, with some rough edges to be smoothed. I have a fixed idea of where I aim to take myself and this blog, however, and if I can attain the heights of the above blogs - Glenfarclases, Ardbegs and Highland Parks in my eyes - then there shall be another IWSC winner, I’m sure.

Fecund and fabulous - I'm very pleased with my progress so far.

Fecund and fabulous - I'm very pleased with my progress so far.

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