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The Water of Life of Luxury

For a number of years, whisky – and single malt whisky especially – has cultivated an aura of exclusivity, luxury and extravagance. Who has not encountered the gentrified still-life of a mahogany-hued dram, sipped in a moment of leisure picked out in leather, oak, and expensive curtains? It has come to symbolise the finer things in life, but if a recent visit to the Scotch Whisky Experience in Edinburgh for the inaugural Whisky Luxe is any guide, it would appear that there are the finer things of the finer things.

My invite to this ‘exclusive event’, in which I would surely ’indulge’ myself in ‘the most iconic whisky brands’ peddling their ‘esteemed whiskies’, fortuitously came with a 40% discount on the price of admission. Had it not, this evening of super-premium posing at the more moneyed mutation of the Whisky Live series of events would have been beyond my means. As it was, I could just about stretch to £75 for a pre-birthday beano.

Red carpet treatment at the first Whisky Luxe, Edinburgh.

Bagpipes, a red carpet and glamorous ladies in frocks greeted me at the summit of the Royal Mile on Friday. A typical Thursday night tasting at the Quaich Society this was not. I ducked into the Scotch Whisky Experience to receive my black giftbag which contained a wodge of Whisky Magazine-related freebies and my purse of little gold coins which would purchase my whiskies. To my dismay, they hadn’t included a pair of size-10 shoes that fitted with any comfort, but that is a separate cautionary tale.

I had hoped to play the seasoned whisky event attendee: swan about inspecting the stalls and constructing a list of must-tries. However, no sooner had I arrived in the Castlehill Room than I could not resist arrowing across to the Balblair stall to commence with the luxurious liquid. Andy Hannah, brand manager for Balblair, and Lukasz Dynowiak were on hand to answer my questions about the distillery and their hopes for the evening. The new online community they have established, The Gathering Place, was high on their agenda. With the 2002, 1989 3rd Release and 1975 2nd Release in attendance, though, top quality drams were a chief priority, too.

The Dewar's stand.

Other highlights on the top floor was the Dewar’s stand, where a little cask filled with ‘flavoured’ whisky dispensed a sweet, smooth spirit with a pleasant tannic bite on the palate. This is one of the many experiments emerging from the blended whisky brand in tribute to new archive research.

My next port of call was Whyte and MacKay in the Amber Restaurant. Here I met and had a splendid conversation with Graham Rushworth who described his blustery new year on Islay, the cheeky swig of The Dalmore Trinitas he enjoyed in Richard Paterson’s office and the new all-singing all-dancing distillery tour available on the shores of the Cromarty Firth before eventually and most enjoyably, talking me through The Dalmore 18yo. Another whisky that benefits from the best of W&M’s extraordinary wood stocks, I found this pleasantly fresh for an 18 with grassy sweetness, plum, and coffee on the nose. The accumulated weight of oak registered on the palate, however, with rich chocolate and dried fruits all accented with creamy vanilla.

The Auchentoshan stand.

After catching up with Paul Goodwin on the Morrison Bowmore stand – an extremely self-contented corner of the room following a host of gongs from the latest Icons of Whisky Awards (Distiller of the Year, Distillery Manager of the Year and Ambassador of the Year) – I pottered about the venue a little more. This took me to the McIntyre Gallery where I spoke with Andrew Shand of Duncan Taylor over a delightful measure of Octave Cardhu 22yo. The planned distillery in Huntly which I read about a couple of years ago is still in the pipeline, although investment is proving difficult in these straightened times. Of more immediate excitement is their new Rarest range, represented on the night by a very special bottling of the Macallan. In a bespoke decanter and with the presentation box constructed from the cask in which the whisky matured, this was a visually stunning product. Sadly there was none to taste.

Drams of Glen Garioch 1995 and Smokehead followed, but the unexpected star shone in the Claive Vidiz Collection Room. I tagged on to a tasting led by Dr Kirstie McCallum of Burn Stewart who was explaining the Bunnahabhain 25yo with the kind of passion and knowledge you would expect from a global brand ambassador. As I nosed this deep, rich and sweet delight, my mind trickled back to the Sound of Islay and this beautiful, character-packed distillery. Sea salt and candied orange tickled my nose, but when we were asked for our thoughts I blurted out ‘exotic handwash – but in a good way!’ Kirstie replied that she was unlikely to forget that particular descriptor.

Emma Smith and Graham Rushworth for The Dalmore.

A hastily-grabbed dark chocolate and whisky mousse was the last tasty morsel of an enthralling evening. All exhibitors praised the relaxed and congenial atmosphere, and they relished the opportunity to properly discuss their products rather than simply dispensing them which appears to be the modus operandi for the majority of whisky functions. Huge congratulations must go to Chloe Leighton who organised the event, as well as all visiting ambassadors and Scotch Whisky Experience staff. I thoroughly enjoyed making the acquaintance of some of the most desirable whiskies in the world – but will wear another pair of shoes next year.

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Bunnahabhain

Bunnahabhain from the ferry.

Bunnahabhain from the ferry.

Port Askaig, Islay, Argyll, PA46 7RP, 01496 840646. Burn Stewart Distillers. www.bunnahabhain.com

APPEARANCE AND LOCATION:      *****      Bunnahabhain has a bit more room to spread out than Caol Ila, a mile or so down the rocky, bumpy coast. This is still tucked in to a cleft in the cliffs but is greener and a little tamer than the site for its peatier neighbour. This is another distillery with a treacherous, frankly dangerous track leading to it. From the main road at Keills, it is single-track, twisting, descending and ascending. If you meet a Carntyne articulated lorry, you had better hope their is a sizeable passing place nearby. As my guide said, drivers arrive often very much in need of a restorative dram.

TOURS PROVIDED:

‘Standard Tour’: £4. See ‘My Tour’ below.

‘Manager’s Tour’: £25. Robert didn’t give me a name for it, but if you phone up and book you can have 2 and a half hours of the manager or one of the senior members of staff’s time, a nip into the warehouse and four drams, including the 12, 18 and 25YOs and a Festival bottling.

DISTILLERY-EXCLUSIVE BOTTLINGS:      N/A

My Tour – 13/05/2010

THE RUNNING COMMENTARY:      ***

THE PROCESS AND EQUIPMENT:      *

Notes:      Bunnahabhain is dubbed the “gentle giant” of Islay. Robert, the guide, says that this is due to the size of the distillery’s equipment, and not its employees. The mash tun is huge, the washbacks ginormous. The stills are almost bronze in colour and the biggest onions you will ever see. Yet it all makes one of the lightest, most easy drinking whiskies I’ve come across. Tragically, and in some irony given the news at Caol Ila earlier in the day that they were about to start full 24/7 production, Bunnahabhain has been reduced to only three mashes per week. Burn Stewart is less able to ride out the effects of the recession than Diageo. As such, we didn’t see any production actually taking place. Robert, our guide is also head stillman, and has been working at Bunnahabhain for ever. He doesn’t run his stills based on a given temperature or time, but on flow rate. The middle cut, therefore, runs off the stills at 10 litres per minute. The flow rate for the low wines is twice that at 20 litres per minute, and the low wines strength is incredibly between 28 and 35% abv. I also received my first explanation of how the mash tun/underback pairing actually works. There are two floors in your typical mash tun, held apart by a layer of water. The waters in the mash tun are drained off slowly, so that this layer is maintained and a vacuum isn’t created, which would affect the quality of the wort drawn off and hence the sugars extracted. Four waters are used at Bunnahabhain for the mashing of of the 12 tonnes of grist they can fit into the vessel. Amazing.Bunna Stills

GENEROSITY:       (1 dram)

VALUE FOR MONEY:      **

SCORE:      6/10 *s

COMMENT:      If you are off for a tour of Bunnahabhain, pray you get Robert Morton to take you round. Initially it seemed I was the only one on the tour, having phoned up from Caol Ila worried I wouldn’t make it along the four bumpy miles to the distillery for the last tour of the day, the 3.15PM. I did, and I had this big, genial, moustachio’ed and boiler-suited bear of a man waiting for me. I had a cup of tea and we discussed the efforts of another worker to help repair the bike chain of a damsel in distress. 3.15PM arrived, and we left the little reception area with all the Black Bottle merchandise (Bunna is the “heart if Black Bottle”). We encountered a continental couple and then a party of Americans were making their way along from the car park. It was quite a full tour, then, but did Robert care? He was in his element, this despite having said (and I thought it came across as modesty and self-deprecation at the time) that he was a stillman, not a guide. On this basis, every stillman should be obliged, by law, and with considerable pay bonuses, to do tours. He was brilliant. I was cold, wet and tired, and this was my third tour of the day, but I hung on that man’s every word. The anecdote about the Japanese tourist’s expensive camera coming to grief on the steep metal stairs descending from the tun room to the still house caused much hilarity: “he tried to take a picture on the move, lost his balance, the camera fell to the grating at the bottom of the stairs, smashing into a million little pieces and he landed on his backside. Being trained in First Aid, I laughed my head off because it looked so funny.” The moral of the story was, hold on to the bannister, and if you have to take a photo, stand still. Little gems of information tripped off his tongue. As he said, he’s been working here so long he knows his plant. It is this insight, from the people who actually make your dram, that adds real value to visiting precisely where they make it. His company over a dram in the shop at the end was fantastic, too, and his opinions about the industry, how whisky should be drunk and why a lot of people come to single malt a little later in life , usually against their vow that they would never touch whisky again following unfortunate nights of excess in their younger days, were all not in the slightest condemnatory or prescriptive, but had huge doses of humour and common sense. He wished me luck on my travels, and I left profoundly glad I’d fought my way over the lumpy terrain and through the rain.

It might not have been beautiful weather, but this spot on the pier was one of the most peaceful settings I had yet experienced. It didn't want to go!

It might not have been beautiful weather, but this spot on the pier was one of the most peaceful settings I had yet experienced. I didn't want to go!

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