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’101 World Whiskies To Try Before You Die’

What would 101 days of Christmas be like? This question is not purely rhetorical, of course, due to the militarised encroachment of Festive cheer (or perhaps uninterest, verging on febrile rage) into the month of September or even earlier. How fortunate we are, therefore, that Ian Buxton has a solution should tradition ever be rewritten to reflect consumerist reality; he has provided an itinerary a good deal more delicious – if less catchy – than the Patridge-In-A-Pear-Tree variety in the shape of his latest book, ’101 World Whiskies to Try Before You Die’.

I caught up with Ian at a recent talk here in St Andrews to promote the new tome, which follows on from ’101 Whiskies to Try Before You Die’ (‘Police Academy II’ as Ian dubbed the sequel). Although it is not a title I own, it was responsible for initiating a whisky-based friendship with a Swedish gentlemen who was sitting next to me on one of my many train journeys to and from university and reading all about Compass Box. I have since associated Mr Buxton’s work with my favourite kind of whisky fellowship, and having met the man himself I can confirm that he is every bit as sociable and engaging as his Twitter account (@101Whiskies).

For an hour and a half, Ian waxed lyrical about whiskies at home and abroad while little morsels of those he has listed in his books appeared before our lips. It was a struggle to cling onto our thimbles and juggle the various props Ian circulated throughout the room, in addition to paying close attention to the torrent of fact and opinion he produced.

Beginning at the beginning, Ian’s point of departure from the traditional heartland of whisky production focused on the explosion of farm-scale distilling in America. He eulogised about the potential for flavour innovation these start-up distillers symbolise. In subsequent correspondence, Ian revealed the fun he had had exploring Swiss and Finnish whisky. When I asked which book he had preferred writing – this one, or its predecessor – Ian replied that both had been a lot of fun, but with the latest focus on whisky counter cultures, he hoped to ‘open a few people’s eyes to the great quality and great value that’s out there if you step off the ‘big brand luxury’ path for a moment (though that delivers some surprises too).’

The final reveal of the whiskies we had been sampling took a few by surprise, including myself. I had selected the final whisky as my favourite, as had my neighbour Doug Clement who could announce on the night that Kingsbarns Distillery had at last secured the financial backing necessary to begin its own farm distilling story. Dram #5, however, hailed from an operation that is more than 210 years old: Highland Park.

Ian holding court - and an empty bottle of Highland Park.

Of greatest curiosity – and supplying what was tantamount to a committee of world whiskies in one bottle – was Orbis. A blend of whiskies from Canada, the US, Ireland, Japan and Scotland, the nose was lemon-accented before heavy brown grist appeared and took the whisky in a different direction. Aromas of oregano, tomato puree and red wine materialised, before a hint of peat smoke made its presence felt. On the palate, there was blackcurrant juice and chocolate, with a return of the gristiness and the peat. I had thought this was Scotch – an unusual and young Bunnahabhain perhaps. How wrong I was.

Some days after the tasting, I solicited the Buxton perspective on tourism in Scotch whisky distilleries – the raison d’etre for the Scotch Odyssey Blog, after all. Ian has worked as a consultant on projects such as Dewar’s World of Whisky and the visitor centres at Highland Park and Glenfiddich; curiously enough, all of these feature in a list of my top 10 whisky visitor attractions in Scotland, with Highland Park picking up the top gong, and Glenfiddich not far behind with their supreme (and free) standard tour. Ian’s advice: “to thine own self be true”. Don’t try to position your whisky or your distillery into a gap in the market which they are not destined to fill, but with any marketing activity remain faithful to a core and authentic principal. ‘When building and operating a centre you need to engage and seduce the visitor, not beat them to death with branding,’ he says, ’People know where they are and why they came, so you don’t need to ‘sell’ to them. Get the right people working there and let them engage with the visitors, then those visitors go away as ambassadors and bring more visitors.’

His own picks for distilleries to visit include The Macallan with their revolutionary presentation on the subject of all things wood, and also Bruichladdich for the commendable reasons that it is ‘so down to earth and a faithful representation of the brand, company, place and people’.

Another ’101′ format book in the offing, maybe? I should warn him that the Scotch Odyssey Blog will defend its niche – even if ’42 Whisky Distilleries to Visit Before You Die’ hasn’t quite the same ring to it.

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The Quaich Society at Aberfeldy

The Quaich Society outside Aberfeldy distillery.

Regular readers will notice a change in structure for this post title in comparison with normal proceedings. Yes, the Quaich Society has finally escaped the confines of St Andrews’ hotel function rooms, overcome the complacenct attitude that top brands must come to us, and bagged a distillery of our own.

As a St Patrick’s Day warm up, eleven eager Society members surfaced early on the Saturday morning in readiness for departure to Dewar’s World of Whisky and the Aberfeldy Cask Tasting Tour. Though some were neither bright-eyed nor bushy-tailed, they took their seat on the bus in anticipation of a momentous event in Quaich Society recent history. They hid their true feelings well, appearing to be sound asleep from Dundee until we turned off the A9.

As we approached the distillery, the bright spring sunshine picked out squadrons of white-water rafters on the gleaming Tay at Grandtully and thick snow still at the summit of Ben Lawers. This was shaping up to be quite a Highland whisky adventure, and – on a personal note – thrillingly reminiscent of my last encounter with that road: nearly two years ago during the first week of the Scotch Odyssey.

A beautiful Highland distillery on a perfect spring morning. Difficult to beat, I can tell you...

Aberfeldy remains as plush and spartan as I remembered it and we all inspected the neat lawns, strident pagoda, and the new lick of paint the rest of the buildings had received while we waited to begin our tour.

Dewar’s World of Whisky divides brand labour remarkably well. The Dewar’s blended story is dealt with first in the opening film and exhibition area in which the Dewar brothers – John and Tommy – are celebrated for their pioneering salesmanship, before one discovers the blender’s art. Once again, I ran out of patience before completing the computer simulation challenge of recreating the recipe of Dewar’s White Label.

The focus of the guided tour, however, is Aberfeldy distillery and its single malt. With speed and clarity, our guide took us from mill to stills and the eleven tourists inhaled deeply at each new process. In the tun room, we could inspect two of the larch washbacks (switchers were on for the others). ‘As you can see by where the wash has been,’ said our guide, ‘this is just about ready to be pumped across to the stillroom. You could quite happily drink that.’ I know that many Quaich Society regulars approve of a pint, and their eyes shone hopefully, but we were ushered down the stairs to the stills with throats unslaked.

Back in the visitor centre, we awaited with glee the arrival of the valinch-bearer who would withdraw a sample from the American oak hogshead which, for the last 29 years, had harboured Aberfeldy spirit. Cameras flashed and saliva ducts filled. First of all, we could savour the Aberfeldy core range, starting with the sweet, biscuity and appley 12yo, before moving on to the more floral, heathery and slightly smoky 21yo. The group were divided in their preferences, although I adored the firm, almost tarry sweetness of the 21yo.

Extracting the 29yo Aberfeldy spirit from its oak nursery.

Finally, we eached received a Glencairn filled with deep orange nectar. Nosing it, deep oak and rounded vanilla appeared first, followed by red apple peel and some smoke or cask char. The oak notes built and carried with them a rich Bourbon flavour, although the spirit clearly had a bit of liveliness about it after all these years.

Soft and rounded on the palate, chunky toffee and dried apple emerged. I was assured that, even though the whisky was hovering around the 55% abv. mark, its smoothness belied its strength. Up to a point, I agreed, but I wondered whether a drop of water might awaken this sleeping beauty. It sure did.

On the nose, I was overwhelmed by white chocolate aromas and dry heather. There was stronger apple now with rich pot ale scents, too. Biscuity and coconut notes. Orange, fruitcake and tablet.

The palate revealed the signature Aberfeldy honey note, which built in one gorgeous, langorous wave. Vanilla-coated raisins with tarry treated pine. Some grassiness at the end.

‘Why don’t they bottle this?!’ one member of the group asked. I pointed out that the cost would be extraordinary, but remembered how eagerly I would have parted with cash after my last Aberfeldy single cask encounter, a 24yo, in 2009.

Whilst refuelling in the cafe, I was told that the reason our cask tasting had taken place in the visitor centre and not the warehouse as advertised was because of interior alterations being made. A strong hint was dropped that Aberfeldy may be about to join the single cask, hand-bottling brigade and that other John Dewar & Sons single malts may also feature in addition to the flagship brand. I will of course let you know more about this when details are confirmed.

All that remains to be said is a massive thank you to the staff at Dewar’s World of Whisky for looking after us so well, and the bus driver who turned a blind eye to the healthy measures of White Label being poured and enjoyed at the rear of the vehicle.

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Encounters With Wild Whisky

Aberfeldy

In the two-and-a-half years between the light bulb, grand induction moment into the single malt galaxy at The Glenlivet and alighting on to the 09.56 Edinburgh-bound train in April to begin my Scotch Odyssey, only one experience truly volunteers itself as an essential giant leap forward in my appreciation of whisky.

While my boutique (and marvellous) tour of Auchentoshan in 2008 afforded me more time observing the process, it wasn’t until my top-spec potter around Aberfeldy distillery last autumn that I gained privileged and enlightening insight into the mercurial DNA of Scotch malt whisky, contained within its individual casks. Therefore, ahead of my VIP tour of Glen Garioch and the inauguration on Scotch Odyssey Blog of my personal views regarding the many bespoke distillery guided tours available in addition to the basic packages, I would like to tell you about my time at Dewar’s World of Whisky and what single malt, untamed by reduction or filtration, tastes like.

The dunnage warehouses at Aberfeldy, Perthshire. Sadly, they are empty, but a few gems were left behind.

The dunnage warehouses at Aberfeldy, Perthshire. Sadly, they are empty, but a few gems were left behind.

The Aberfeldy Signature Tour [now the Connoisseur Tour and with added bells and whistles] cost me £30 and for that I was granted private access to the fount of knowledge that is Bruce. He guided me through a tasting of the Aberfeldy single malt and Dewar’s blended ranges, and then around the distillery. The climax of the tour – and the reason I had only nosed many of the drams in the gorgeous visitor centre – was the final point on the tour specification. I was going beyond the mesh gate and into the warehouse.

Very sadly, it was not the same breed of ambrosial vapour of The Glenlivet or Auchentoshan that greeted my quivering nostrils. John Dewar & Sons ceased maturing Aberfeldy on-site more than a decade ago and the hundreds of casks to be seen stacked deep into the depths of the gauzy darkness are empty. All bar three, that is.

“Take your pick,” Bruce encouraged, and I concurred with his recommendation, selecting the 24-year-old cask from 1985 in preference to two from 1983. Bruce produced a mallet and a valinch, beating the bung out of hogshead no. 1321 with the former and drawing out a measure of Highland single malt with the latter.

Aberfeldy Cask

I held my Glencairn glass below the valinch and a stream of sparkling rich gold passed from it to the glass. As I held my sample up to the solitary spotlamp I could see tiny black flecks of charcoal floating like dust motes in the glowing spirit. Tentative sniffs revealed apples, vanilla, and classic Aberfeldy heather honey but nothing more. It was only then that I realised how cold it was in the shadows of the warehouse. My skin felt clammy, as if the thousands of litres of whisky, which had once evaporated from their wooden bonds, were being squeezed from the blackened walls like water from a sponge, trickling over me.

24-year-old, single cask Aberfeldy: divine.

24-year-old, single cask Aberfeldy: divine.

When Bruce kept surreptitiously nosing the hole in the cask I followed his example and warmth returned. My head filled with sweet spicy aromas, partly from the alcohol, partly from the rich firm oak and biscuity, fruity, raw whisky. Each had been interacting with the other since before I was born. It was such a complex, enthralling fragrance – so much more so than even the best whiskies sampled in dull glass.

My dram had been transferred from cask to copita, however, so I dashed back across to the visitor centre where I might warm it up and unlock its character.

Over the next half-hour or so, I fell in love. The weight, muscularity but powerful pungent smoothness that all well-aged malts possess held me; sweet honey and vanilla charmed me, and heather-like aromas intrigued me. Amazingly, there was still much in the way of freshness and cleanness, despite its 24 years. Water pulled out richer caramel and butterscotch aromas.

Cleanliness and firm richness continued on the palate with the addition of wonderful warmth. Vanilla ice cream, nuts, fruit and what can only be described as “honey mist” made for a beautiful gently fading finish. On the Cask Tasting Tour [£12], there is a 25-year-old to sample straight from the cask. It may be the same one, or another very similar to it.

Ever since then, I have been dangerously vulnerable to the attractions of single casks: their focus and power, character and purity. I howled with lust and longing when Diageo announced the Manager’s Choice series. I subsequently howled with rage and dismay when the prices followed. I did put my name down for one of the limited edition Chris Anderson Cask Aberfeldys on the basis of that malt. 18-years-old directly from one cask; so severe was my desire that the asking price of £150 [now £180 at the distillery] didn’t deter me. I suspect my name was not transferred to the official waiting list, however, for I was not contacted again. In the long run, this was probably just as well.

My afternoon at Aberfeldy was an invaluable education, then. Indeed, what I learnt returned to me in April when I had the opportunity to compare it to another single cask encounter, this time at Aberlour. The experience at this Speyside distillery is made doubly astonishing when measured against this previous specialised tour. Aberlour is the only standard tour (besides Glen Moray) to economically reveal the majesty and charm of wild whisky.

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Aberfeldy

Aberfeldy is a clean, handsome distillery with an excellent visitor's centre and cafe.

Aberfeldy is a clean, handsome distillery with an excellent visitor's centre and cafe.

Aberfeldy, Perthshire, PH15 2EB, 01887 822010. John Dewar & Sons. www.dewars.com

APPEARANCE AND LOCATION:      ***      The scenery around Aberfeldy is especially rugged to the West with numerous Munros. Schiehallion was the one I climbed but Ben Lawers which sits comfortably in the ten highest mountains in Scotland, is not far away. To the East it is nicely arable and deeply attractive. 

TOURS PROVIDED:

‘Standard Tour’: £6.50. See ‘My Tour’ below.

‘Cask Tasting Tour’: £12. The standard offering with the addition of a sample of a 25-year-old straight from the cask.

‘Deluxe Tour’: £18. The standard tour with the addition of a more in-depth whisky tasting of four whiskies: 12YO, 21YO, Dewar’s 12YO and one other. A free tasting glass is yours to take away.

‘Connoisseur Tour’: £30. A tutored tasting of the 21YO, the new 18YO Single Cask, Dewar’s Signature and the cask tasting in the warehouse. Again, you are given a tasting glass. I can personally recommend this one, and to read about my formative experiences with mature whisky drawn straight from the cask, click here.

DISTILLERY-EXCLUSIVE BOTTLINGS:      The Chris Anderson Cask, an 18yo single cask bottling of Aberfeldy limited to 248 bottles, £170.

My Tour – 14/04/2010

The view from the stillhouse out across the Tay (invisible here) to the hills behind, within which is hidden JK Rowling's country pad.

The view from the stillhouse out across the Tay (invisible here) to the hills behind, within which is hidden JK Rowling's country pad.

THE RUNNING COMMENTARY:      **

THE PROCESS AND EQUIPMENT:      * 

Notes:     

GENEROSITY:      (Choice between Aberfeldy 12YO, Dewar’s White Label and Dewar’s 12YO.)

VALUE FOR MONEY:     *

SCORE:      4/10 *s

COMMENT:      This is one of the best-smelling distilleries, as a little aside. Locking the bike up to the railings before you enter the visitor’s centre in the lea of the defunct kiln, the aroma from the tun room is delicious. The VC itself is very impressive, with lots of nice displays for the well-packaged offerings in the Dewar’s stable. There is a film about the history of Dewar’s in a mock period theatre, then an exhibition which recreate’s Tommy Dewar’s study. There is also Robert Burns’ desk, a worthy point of interest for anyone interested in poetry. I’m not sure it is all his graffiti, though. The Tour then proceeds with tasting. You have a choice of the 12YO, Dewar’s White Label and Dewar’s 12YO. The distillery is well laid-out and the process is easy to follow. In the tun room I appreciate for the first time the heat produced during fermentation. There is a very thorough explanation of the maturation process in the filling store. No filling or maturing happens on site, and for all there is a view into the warehouse through perspex, there is nothing sleeping in those casks. A shame, because it is a really fetching site, and a very approachable Highland malt, perhaps with more terroir in the 12YO than it has a right to with lots of heather, charred vanilla oak and burnt heather. Recommended.

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