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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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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 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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