Saturday, 26 December 2015

Looking Out and Looking Back. The 2015 Pilgrimage

Well, it's the Feast of Stephen, the night grows darker and whilst the snow may not lie round about (at least not where I type this at
my parents' house on the Wirral) the wind is certainly blowing stronger. And so, like the eponymous Czech King I find myself looking out, metaphorically speaking, and allowing myself a spot of self-indulgence (it is Christmas after all) as I think back on my Wanderings, both literal and theoretical, through the World of Whisky in 2015.

For me it has been a year of discovery and of eyes being opened, which really began on St David's Day when, having nothing better to do, I drove from Bristol to the Penderyn Distillery in South Wales only to find that all tours were fully booked. Not wanting the journey to have been wholly wasted I perused the gift shop and picked up a copy of Jim Murray's Whisky Bible 2015. I can
honestly say that if I had not made that impulse buy the character of my year would have been entirely different. Regardless of any views on Mr Murray's style, attitudes and opinions, what I got from the book was a sense of how small a corner of the Whisky Universe I had hitherto been occupying, and how big that Universe was if only I took the time to explore it.

Which I feel I can say I have done. Since buying that Bible every day of  holiday I have taken has been dedicated to driving to Scotland to visit distilleries. I have travelled to Norfolk to visit the
English Whisky Company and I have returned (successfully this time) to Wales to tour Penderyn. Despite living more than 400 miles from my nearest Scottish Distillery, nor working in the industry I have visited 27, and have timetabled my holiday next year to fit in over 70 more. At every distillery I have made notes not only on the character of the whisky, but on the equipment, style, history and idiosyncrasies of the distillery itself. I have tasted at tours, at festivals, in bars and in the comfort of my own home something in the region of 450 different whiskies from fourteen different countries - this time last year I hadn't tasted anything from outside Scotland or the USA. Through
writing this blog I have written (thus far) more than 25,000 words on the subject, which is about a quarter of a decent sized novel, and I have read exhaustively every book I could get my hands on. All whilst working a full-time job and directing a play for good measure. I'm rather glad of the Christmas break.

Before the New Year arrives and I fire up the Corsa once more to recommence the pilgrimage I thought I'd look back on some of the most memorable of the whiskies and moments that 2015 has given me, and these are detailed below. Which leaves
me with nothing left to do but to say thank you so much for following me for the last 6 months. Further and better adventures and misadventures lie ahead, and I hope you'll join me as the Pilgrimage continues in 2016. In the meantime, Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, and wherever you are and whatever you're drinking -


My Favourite Distillery of the Year:
Springbank. From seeing my first 'in action' Malting Floor to encountering what is now one of my 'Desert Island' Whiskies, this place had the full package. I hadn't slept a wink the night before thanks to a shoddy tent and atrocious weather, and Springbank improved my mood immeasurably.

My Favourite 'Flagship Expression' of the Year:
I was just going to write 'see above,' but  couldn't get the English Whisky Company out of my mind. So I retasted both the Springbank 10 and the English Chapter 14, and in purely subjective terms there's no way I could live on the difference. I'll be coming back to both for years! 'Honourable Mentions' to Clynelish 14, Pulteney 12, Dalwhinnie 15 and Ben Nevis 10 amongst others.

Favourite Moment of the Pilgrimage:
Going into the Highland Park Distillery fulfilled a long-held Whisky Dream. In fact that whole 24 hours - the ferry crossing, the Northern Lights, the gorgeous weather, the Scapa Distillery and Scapa Flow combined with visiting HP added up to one of the most special days of my year.

Favourite Whisky Moment Outside the Pilgrimage:
Easy peasy. The Gordon and MacPhail Generations Mortlach Masterclass at the Whisky Show in October. 75yo drams don't come round every day, and nor do whiskies of the calibre and rarity of the other 3 we tried. Not soon to be forgotten or (since my wallet would protest mightily) repeated.

Favourite Bottle Purchased this Year:
The English Whisky Co. Chapter 16. Flavour and Aroma Profile might as well have been written to a 'what does Adam like in his whisky?' recipe. Longrow 18 and Four Roses Single Barrel ran it close though.

Favourite Whisky Bar of the Year:
Until a couple of weeks ago I'd have said The Woods in Bristol. But then my friend Laura took me to The Vaults beneath Milroys in Soho. And who doesn't like to push open a bookcase to find a whisky bar behind it? Introduced me to the Glendronach Single Puncheon PX range too. Laura is a bad influence.

Favourite Guide of the Year:
An important one - haven't come across a single tour guide at a distillery who has been less than brilliant. However Kate at the Pulteney Distillery went so far above and beyond in looking after every one of us in her (pretty large) group that I had to single her out. She also shovelled me into a tour that was technically full, and having learned why I was there, checked whether I had any questions at the end and stayed behind to answer them.

Favourite Whisky of the Year:
Funnily enough, not the 75yo Mortlach, but the Mortlach we tasted
2 drams beforehand - the Gordon and MacPhail bottled expression distilled in 1938 and bottled in the '80s. Having never tried a whisky anywhere near that age before, or from anywhere near that decade it gave me my most unique experience of the whisky-tasting year as well as the best nose I've ever smelt on any sort of drink.

Friday, 20 November 2015

Christmas Spirit: 10 Finance-Friendly Drams for your Festive Consideration

Well, another year, another Whisky Bible, another 'Top Five' made conspicuous by the absence of a Scotch. (Though don't worry - best Single Cask went to a Glenfarclas from 1957, so if you've got the same sort of money spent on my car to put towards a bottle, then you're sorted. Good luck finding it mind.) Anyway, this isn't going to be a blog about Mr Murray or this year's champions - congratulations incidentally to Crown Royal - but more about a few whiskies that I have enjoyed immensely over the last 12 months and which I'd like to humbly recommend so far as picking out your Christmas bottle might be concerned.

I mention the Whisky Bible Champions simply because a quick look at the list suggests that my readers may have a difficult time getting their hands on any of the top 5. The Whisky Exchange doesn't currently have the Crown Royal, the Pikesville or the Yamazaki. The William Larue Weller is about to land in the UK, and you'll probably have all of about 3 hours to snag a bottle, though only if you have £145 to spare, and the Midleton Dair Ghaelach is about the same price.

A few of the guys and gals in my office (and out of it) have been asking me for suggestions on their Christmas Whiskies recently, and the budget generally seems to be between £40-£50. Since this is also my own usual spending range and encompasses a huge number of wonderful bottles from all over the world, it's what I've used as a rule of thumb in putting this list together. (Though I've stretched it to £55 so I can include two of the Whiskies which I have enjoyed most.) All are currently available through various channels and (I hope) encompass a broad enough range of styles and flavours to satisfy any taste. Obviously restricting myself to just 10 has meant that I haven't been able to include some of my favourites, and bottles such as the Penderyn peated and indeed Madeira finish as well as whiskies from Pulteney, Glenfarclas, Dalwhinnie and many more have also given me immense pleasure, but the following 10 have stood out particularly to me for myriad different reasons, and I hope that amongst them you will find something to make your festive season a little more special.

So, in no particular order, my top 10 drams for less than £55 for Christmas:

Clynelish 14 Year Old - A real favourite of mine amongst Distillery Own-Label expressions, and a joy to return to when I visited on that foggy day in September. I love the balance that Clynelish offers, with its rich, waxy body, brown sugar and orange and that tantalising whiff of smoke to keep you honest. (Though for those less fond of peat - it really is just a smidge, we're not talking Islay or even Highland Park levels here.) Tips the scales at just over £40 and is worth every penny. 46% ABV

Amrut Fusion - In a year during which I've had my first whiskies from Taiwan, Australia, New Zealand, France and Sweden this beauty from India was a real standout. The 'fusion' is its blend of unpeated Himalayan barley and peated Scottish malt, and I liked it so much that I bought my friend a bottle for his 26th. Contains its ABV well amidst beautifully plump and chewy flavours of fruit and trifle. If you're looking for something a bit different then look no further. 50% ABV

Four Roses Single Barrel - In a year full of terrific Bourbons (including my first experience of the Buffalo Trace Antique
Collection) this was comfortably my favourite for the money. Properly rich and fat with all the fruit and honey and vanilla you could wish for, there really aren't many (if any) whiskies in the world that offer more at this price point. A couple of friends of mine who used to sneer at anything outside of Scotland have been turned for good by this Kentucky Cracker, and rightly so. 50% ABV

Ben Nevis 10 Year Old - My reason for including this on the list was because it gave me one of the year's most memorable Whisky moments. Having expected it to be average at best it gave me an
utterly delightful nosing and tasting experience and a valuable lesson in not pre-judging. Youthful and lively, so admittedly not the most 'Christmassy' of malts, but a really excellent, well-rounded dram from a distillery worthy of far greater recognition than it currently has, and also at under £35 the most affordable on this list! 46% ABV

Redbreast 12 Year Old - It's taken me until this year to really get into Irish Whiskey, but once I'd gone down that particular Rabbit Hole I found myself in a Wonderland that I am in no hurry to leave. I'm barely scratching the surface of what this astounding Whiskey
Nation has to offer, but my favourite thus far is Redbreast. My first experience of Single Pot Still Whiskey and what an experience it was - an absolute flavour bomb which demonstrates just how fruity a whisk(e)y can be, whilst locking it all together with sugars and spice and all things nice. If you want to cure someone of Cognac and get them onto a real spirit I suggest you start them here. 40% ABV

Ardbeg Uigeadail - One of two whiskies on this list which made me stretch the 'budget' to £55, because I just couldn't leave this one out. My father and uncle may disown me for saying so, but the peat monsters of Islay aren't always my thing. That said it is impossible to deny the pedigree and class of this objectively stunning dram, which drinks as a bit of a lesson in how to put together a quality whisky. The sherry casks also do a lot to soak up the more aggressive elements of the peat whilst adding a leathery fruitcake character. Don't be under any illusions though - this is still a smokehead's wet dream, with all the meat and peat and smoke-muscle one expects from the trio of Distilleries along the Kildalton coast. A Scotch Whisky legend and one of the most complex expressions out there. 54.2% ABV

Nikka Pure Malt (Red/Black/White) - I've enjoyed a lot of great Japanese Whisky this year, but none so much as the flight of Nikka Pure Malts my next door neighbour unexpectedly laid on for me a month or so ago. The man loves a Nikka (his favourite is 'From the Barrel') and I don't blame him - it's one of the premier league names in modern Whisky, even if they do need to bring their standard bottle size up to 7cl... In fact since Nikka own Ben Nevis
this is a double-entry for them, and deservedly so. All three are rounded and velvet-smooth with juicy fruit and grain aplenty. Lovers of unpeated - the red is your friend here. Peatheads, give the black and white a whirl. I didn't want to pick a favourite, so I'm recommending them all here. If you're looking to branch out from Scotch this is a delicious and brilliant value stepping stone. (And leagues ahead of the famous Scottish blended Malt 'Monkey Shoulder'.) 43% ABV

Springbank 10 Year Old - Unquestionably my 'distillery of the year.' At the start of 2015 I had never tried Springbank - since my visit in July I am now an absolute devotee. Longrows, Hazelburns I worship them all. But it's the flagship that won me over - the entry level whisky I have enjoyed more than any other this year. For its lemon freshness, streak of near-mineral salinity and seductive curl of smoke I have fallen completely in love with Springbank. In fact - I'm going to say it and never thought I would - pound for pound it is the only distillery in the world I treasure as dearly as Highland Park. The 10 year old is another 'aperitif' whisky (or 'breakfast whisky' as they call it up North) but quite honestly malt of this quality can be drunk at any time of the day or year. 46% ABV

English Whisky Company Chapter 16 - Peated and in Oloroso Sherry, this was my first ever experience of English Whisky, tried the day before I visited their stunning and wonderful distillery. I've fallen hard for all of their output that I've tried thus far, but none as hard as I fell for this one. Oranges, dark chocolate, raisins, bonfire
smoke - this might have been made to a 'what does Adam like in his whisky' recipe. The highest praise I can offer this expression is that it's the closest I've ever come to repeat-buying a bottle for myself that wasn't A'Bunadh. And I still might. In purely subjective terms this is probably my favourite new whisky of the year. And as far as its flavour-profile goes I can't think of a better-suited dram to a long evening before a winter fire. 46% ABV
(NB This has just won Murray's European Whisky of the Year, and there's not much of it about anyway, so my advice is to move quickly for this one!)

Aberlour A'Bunadh - I can't not include this one. I just can't. The only bottle I've bought for myself more than once and, for me, the best value-to-price Scotch Whisky on the market. If you love the rich, fruity, spicy flavours of perfect Oloroso butts, if you like your whiskies massive and rounded and unpeated then you have no
excuse for not investing in this one. Sip with caution - it's Cask Strength after all - but if you want to drink the same whisky as me for Christmas then this is the one for you. I cheat on the A'Bunadh all the time - I flirt and form trysts and affairs with other expressions and distilleries and countries, and often I stay away for months - years even - but I always come back. My all-time favourite and my one true love. My Christmas Spirit and doubtless what I'll ring in the New Year with too. 59+% ABV (batch dependent.)

Look forward to hearing what your own winter's dram is, in the meantime:


Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Pilgrim's Ponderings Part 1: With Age Comes Wisdom. (ish)

So here's the thing. I'm a Whisky Nerd. Fact. That's a given. And with that comes the time-consuming necessity of combing the internet in search of knowledge, debate and understanding. And in this search, this quest, no issue seemed more hotly contested, more vociferously fought over than the
question of the NAS. Or for those uninitiated, the No-Age-Statement Whisky.

The debate, frankly, could fill a book. It probably has. If not a printed book then certainly a metaphorical digital one. And it's worth debating. Because for years - decades even - casual consumers and critical connoisseurs alike have been accustomed to Scotch Whisky being sold (and particularly priced) on the merit of how long the spirit has sat maturing in its oak cask. You will note that I single out 'Scotch Whisky' in this instance. And in my opinion it's fair to do so. Yes Whisky from the USA and Canada and Japan and New Zealand and heaven knows where else is often labelled by age, but not exclusively so. Not 'necessarily' so. Because in these warmer climes the oak takes its telling toll upon the spirit more swiftly; the extraction more emphatic and aggressive. Hell, even Norfolk sees its barrels robbed by angels at more than twice the rate that the most Southerly Scottish Distillery experiences. Scotch Whisky, as every hammy Distillery tour video will assure you, needs time. Time for the wood to exert an influence and impart a character to balance the fire of the new-make and provide that 60+% of the product flavour of which old statistics proudly boast. But is it being given enough?

The problem lies in the demand. Sure Scotland produces a hell of a lot of Whisky. It has over 100 distilleries churning out the stuff, and with newbies popping up seemingly every month and production increasing even at the biggest of big boys there's never been more about. But there's also never been a thirstier market. The sun just does not set on the Scotch drinker nowadays, and we're an impatient bunch. Distilleries and bottlers might want to wait 10, 12, 15, 18, 25, 30, 40, 50 years for their product to reach its peak. We don't. I don't. Fuck you - my glass is empty. Fill it up. And whilst
you're at it sort out my millions of mates ready for their next dram.

Once upon a time we had a 'Whisky Loch'. A beautiful excess of Single Malt - so much that we could wait as long as it took before it was bottled. Or rather my father and his generation could. That's been drunk now. What next? There may be millions of barrels across Scotland full of maturing spirit, but we want something now, so Whisky companies had better get creative. And to their credit many a distillery and conglomerate has answered the call. The Ardbeg Uigeadail or Corryvreckan need no introduction, nor does the Glenfarclas 105. And I'll never forget that day in Delhi Airport when I first clapped eyes on the bottle that was to become my friend, my companion in times of trouble, my one true Whisky love, the only bottle I have purchased more than once - the Aberlour A'Bunadh.

Thing is though, right, these are just four examples. And from where I sit, four examples can't hold up the most famous whisky-distilling nation in the world. A nation producing a whisky so iconic that the word 'whisky' becomes unnecessary, and we simply call it 'Scotch.' But even that's not enough. Especially when all around it more fortunately located countries are upping their game and upping the ante. And when I look at my list of age-dated whiskies vs NAS it gives me pause for thought. I prefer Talisker 10 to Talisker Storm. I prefer Deanston 12 to Deanston Virgin Oak. The less said about Dalmore Spey Dram the better. And that's just three. And hang on - what about all the bad habits that NAS whiskies usher in? We know that the average Scotch Drinker looks at colour as a key factor. We also know that barrels in Scotland's chilly
atmosphere only impart much colour after extensive maturation. And so Scotch Whisky turns to the dreaded caramel to hoodwink the unwary. The potential result for we passionate disciples? A fudgy, over-youthful cocktail of smothered spirit and artificiality. A slippery slide towards the drink we love becoming little better than the grain equivalent of Cognac, with flowery marketing guff on the back-labels of bottles attempting (successfully more often than not) to convince us that it was worth the same money as the age guarantee of yesteryear.

It's a bleak picture that's painted, of a world that I certainly don't want to be part of, and so I decided to conduct an experiment to see whether the move towards NAS whisky was really the death-knoll suggested by the more emotive corners of the whisky-net. Happily the majority of my friends fall into the 'interested but still learning' category where whisky is concerned - the potential unwary consumer if you will - and so I invited one of them, my sartorial Sensei Ben (whose inestimable blog on tailoring can be found at: - promised I'd plug in exchange for his help, but genuinely worth reading anyway!) to join me at the wonderful Bristol-based Whisky bar 'The Woods'
for a blind tasting. My plan was to present him with two pairs of whiskies, each pair comprised of an age dated whisky and an NAS of the same style and price (roughly) and simply to ask which he preferred, whilst also coming up with my own evaluations.

I arrived early to choose the Whiskies from The Woods' selection. (The bar is dangerously close to work, and I'm now regular enough to be invited along to a couple of their closed tastings.) Instinctively I wanted to pick the Talisker 10 and the Port Ruighe, but Ben sadly has yet to embrace peat, so I had to look elsewhere. For the first pair I picked the Auchentoshan 12 Year Old to set against the Auchentoshan 3 Wood, but my search for a second pair was stymied by the lack of a represented distillery from which The Woods had an equivalent-priced Age Dated and NAS example. However, knowing Ben to be an utter fanatic where James Bond is concerned (the man saw Skyfall at the cinema 15 times) and thus knowing his dedication to the Macallan I decided to pick their 'Amber' to set against the Glenfiddich 15.

On his arrival I didn't tell him the identities of the two whiskies in front of him - simply asked which he preferred and why. Having nosed and tasted the two Auchentoshans beforehand I'd come to the personal conclusion that the 12yo needed a tad more oomph on the ABV and that the 3Wood had more complexity on the nose, but Ben unknowingly announced the 12yo to be his preferred dram on the basis of 'its smoothness and balance.'

I then lined up the Glenfiddich 15 next to his beloved Macallan Amber. The Macallan's actually a smidge more expensive, and it's more intense on the nose certainly, but I'd go for the 'Fiddy every day of the week for complexity and elegance. (Though 6% more ABV wouldn't go amiss.) Ben raised them both to his nose, took tentative sips, considered carefully and then announced the glass containing the Glenfiddich to be his preference. Before I had a chance to reveal the four drams he did me the helpful service of ranking the lot. (Auchentoshan 12, 'Fiddy 15, Macallan Amber, Auchentoshan 3Wood.)

Which left me with some pretty inconclusive results. As far as the blind novice consumer was concerned the age-statement whiskies had cleaned up, which should certainly satisfy the whisky-net firebrands. But I had been torn. The Glenfiddich 15 had beaten the Macallan Amber, but the Amber hadn't been bad, and its nose was a wonderful thing. And after several re-noses and re-tastes I had been certain that I preferred the Threewood to the Auchentoshan Twelve. As I say - inconclusive. I never was much of a scientist.

As far as I can see the bottom line for No Age Statement Whiskies is a two hander. On the first hand, we can't hold back the tide. Whatever I might say (and my opinion counts for precisely nothing), however much the whisky-net might rail, however much more venerated personalities; the Murrays and Valentins and MacLeans and so on might campaign, money always talks. And whilst certain noble and notable exceptions might stand against the tide of NAS, they cannot hold it back. Demand has demanded, and the sad replacement of the Scapa 16 with the 'Skiren' (still not tried it - really want to!) is but the latest in a string of overhaulings which will not abate so long as Whisky holds its well-earned crown as the aristocrat of the Spirit world. 

And yet. And yet. And yet and yet and yet. Hope remains. All is not lost. The fact stands that whilst for most distilleries marketeers and vast conglomerates hold the purse strings and sign the dotted line the manufacturing and creation of Our Spirit remains in the hands of men and women to whom the
Aqua Vitae means more than these rude words can describe. Sure there are several NAS whiskies which badly need to come up to scratch, but that could have been said of a fair few Age-Dateds back in the day. There will always be peaks and there will always be troughs, but on the evidence of tonight, on the evidence of the last year or two of my tasting the New Era may not be the bleak hinterland we fear. The success of the NAS whisky will hinge upon the calibre of the base malt emerging from the stills. It will hinge yet further upon the careful selection of casks (another thorny issue which I will light upon in an article yet to be written.) Most fundamentally it will hinge upon the ingenuity, craftsmanship and talent of the distillers, coopers and master blenders upon whom the responsibility rests to create the drink we love. It falls to us to put our trust in them. It falls to them to understand the weight of that trust. But do not doubt that great NAS whisky can, will, must be made. It exists. I have seen it. I have nosed it. I have drunk it. The challenge now is for the Scotch industry as a whole to master it.

A final word on the subject, but one which I think offers real hope. As I had covered the cost of the blind tasting, Ben, whose top two had both been age-dated, stood me a round before we left. His malt of choice? Dalmore's King Alexander III. Nope, I didn't see an Age Statement on that one either.


Sunday, 1 November 2015

The Race to the Pub. 11th September, Talisker and Ben Nevis (and the Railway Inn)

0700 Hrs
Mission: To drive 111 miles to the Talisker Distillery on Skye, take the tour, drive 105 miles to the
Ben Nevis Distillery in Fort William, take the tour, then drive a further 334 miles to get back to my Family's home on the Wirral. And - and this is the crucial part - I must arrive back home in time to go to the pub with one of my oldest friends, and future Whisky convert, Rob. Why? Principally because these days with me being in Bristol and his being in Warwick we don't see as much of each other as we did when we lived  across the road. But also because a pilgrimage that doesn't end at the pub was not a pilgrimage worth setting out on in the first place. It's not the most exciting pub, the Railway Inn - the draught cider selection in particular is miserable - but it's our local, and that's what counts.

And so, tyres full of air and tank full of petrol my Vauxhall chariot piles past Loch Ness and thunders through yet more Middle Earth-esque splendour as the miles towards Skye tumble away. I've commented before on the jaw-dropping beauty to be found in the Highlands, but the apex is the West Coast, and Skye has some of the best. In my days working for Majestic Wine Inverness I'd occasionally do deliveries out as far as Portree, and it really is the sort of place that you could do nothing but drive around for 8 hours and you wouldn't have wasted the day. Barring a minor instance of nearly being run off the road by an elderly lady in a Volvo I reached Carbost on the stroke of 9:15, and got out of the car to see (and I'm 99% certain it was, and if it wasn't then God knows what it could have been because it was sodding enormous) a White Tailed Sea Eagle soaring in the distance.
Which was really just the cherry on the cake that is Talisker's situ - yet another in the pantheon of gorgeous distillery locations, with the spear-sharp Black Cuillins looming behind and the bay leading out to the Atlantic. Considering the storm-tossed wildness of Talisker's brand image I can't help but feel I'm here on the wrong day; a week of near-flawless weather rounded off by yet another corker.

It's lucky I'm a smidge early, because the distillery is the busiest I've seen since Oban. I book a ticket for the first tour, receive a nice little distillery badge (still pinned to my coat 2 months later!) and after turning my phone off (Diageo!) we crack on. Talisker's a whisky I'm a huge fan of, yet for some reason don't drink all that often. One of those that you come back to and wonder why you don't drink it more. Perhaps it's just me being a snob, because Talisker's another that's pretty easy to come by (so if you haven't yet then pop down to your nearest supermarket and make sure you do) and I'm often after something more off the beaten track, but ever since they sponsored a bloody awesome lunch show at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2012 it's been a pretty special whisky to me and Rachel, and I've wanted to visit for a long long time.

My German companions of the last 5 distillery tours are happily in absence today, but they have been replaced by a new pain in the hole in the shape of a mouthy American. Actually all the rest of his
party are lovely, albeit competing throughout the tour to see who can crack the most wise, but this bloke just keeps interrupting Beth, our guide, and doing quite a lot of showing off. He also has a habit of making a joke of varying levels of quality, and then repeating it several times in case anyone had missed it, and he got pretty unpleasant on being told that he couldn't take photos throughout the tour. I admit I sympathise with the sentiment, but it's Diageo's policy, and not something to take out on Beth. Anyway, we plough on past mash tun and washbacks and into the still house, which is very interesting indeed. Talisker has 2 wash stills and 3 spirit, a hangover from their former days of triple distillation. They're also completely different in shape; the wash stills being tall with onion shaped pots and the spirit stills tiny with pear shapes. Well I think it's interesting! Unfortunately the casks are behind a glass wall from us, so no lovely smells! They're pretty much all ex-American at Talisker, with just a few alternatives for bits and pieces of finishings.

It's near the end of the high season, so they're all out of the 10yo at the distillery, and our taster is of the non-age-dated Storm. My American friend takes umbrage with this as 'I have several bottles of Storm at home - and Dark Storm. Why don't you go and open me something interesting?' Wishing she'd spit in his sample to make it more interesting I crack on with the tasting.

Talisker Storm - (Peatier than 10yo) Charcoal and cured meat at the forefront, followed by a real expression of Maritime place - touch of seaweed and brine. Surprisingly delicate - there's a real wildflower and orange juice zest, and the peat (for those not usually keen) certainly doesn't overwhelm on the nose. Smoke a touch more prominent on the palate, with a touch more savoury wood. As this clears a nice sweet butterscotch vanilla emerges alongside that bright pepper kick. Salt and light peat linger on finish. 45.8%ABV

I linger briefly to ask Beth a couple of production questions - turns out she's from Wells, near my current neck of the woods, and works at Talisker after falling in love with Skye on a holiday - before remembering that I'm against an ever ticking clock, and have 100 miles to cover before Ben Nevis. Irksomely those 100 miles are riddled with slow drivers on windy single carriageways, and more than a couple of roadworks later I realise that my aim of arriving for 2pm isn't going to happen. In fact it is half two when I arrive in Fort William, get my bearings and reach the distillery.

I'm very intrigued by this last stop of the week. Until a few months back I didn't even know there was a Ben Nevis Distillery, and all that I know now is that it is owned by the fantastic Japanese Company Nikka, and that my online mate the Amateur Drammer visited it recently and reckoned it was pretty solid. So I've no idea what to expect as I make my way through the doors and into the rather Alpine decor of the charming visitor centre. The guide Joe kindly shoehorns me into the tour that has just started, though he informs me regretfully that I'll have missed the starting video. I adopt a sad face. Pretty sure it was convincing...

And so begins one of the more bemusing tours I've ever been on (distillery or otherwise!) Joe is absolutely brilliant value, and the tour has more of an air of someone showing us round their house than of anything formal. The family atmosphere becomes even more apparent when we encounter Joe's grandson (think it wasn't a joke!) working
with the mash tun. It all seems pretty laid back - I ventured a question about production quantities whilst walking from one room to the next and I'm told 'oh, just to order.' So far as I can glean production is increasing, and the two spirit and two wash stills would suggest that capacity is around 2 million litres per year, but since details were a bit vague on how much of the year they operate for and what percentage goes towards blends I'm still left in the dark.

Chattering away Joe shows us a selection of different casks outside the cask house, although we don't go in, and then we return to the visitor centre for a dram. However
here we hit a snag. What we're poured is one of their blended whiskies, the 'Supreme Selection Nevis Dew.' Now I'm a massive fan of blended whisky, and I intend to cover it more thoroughly in a blog someday. However the purpose of this pilgrimage is to compare the different single malts that distilleries have to offer. There isn't a bottle of the 10yo open, so I purchase a miniature, but after drinking the blend (which was fairly decent if not earth shattering) I'd be over the Scottish limit if I tried the malt here, so I decided to take it home and evaluate it this evening.

It's now half 3, which gives me five and a half hours to travel the 334 miles home if I want to be at the pub for 9. Firing up the engine I hit the road, and despite a massive cyclathon going on in the other lane I am soon through Glencoe, past Loch Lomond and on the long stretch of Motorway from Glasgow to home. No comment on how heavy my foot was on the accelerator, but the upshot of 300 miles without a break
was that I arrived with twenty minutes to spare - the perfect opportunity to sort out my miniature and round off the tour.

As great as the tour was, the laid back manner, vague answers and ever-so-slightly dirty-looking stills have made me wonder whether the malt would be up to much. The fact I hadn't heard anything about it also suggested that I'd be in for an average tasting experience at best. Which would be a shame after a pilgrimage leg which has involved some of the best entry-level malt that Scotland (and indeed the world) can show. But I pour out the sample (into my Highland Park glass as it happened) and raise it to my nose.

Ben Nevis 10yo - Tasting this whisky at home from my little bottle has been a lesson in humility. Not having heard much about the whisky before and given the slightly ad-hoc nature of the tour I had expected, at best, a par-level also-ran. What I got was a truly excellent entry-level single malt - sweet, fruity and honeyed on the nose and with that light, elegant smoke and salinity which always wins me over. Chewy and salt-toffeed with gasps of coffee on the palate and a finish replete with hazelnuts and a dab more of that heathery smoke, this is a Single Malt deserving of far more widespread recognition than it currently has; a truly magnificent 10 year old and a lovely way to round off this leg of the pilgrimage. 46%ABV

The bottom line is that this is a distillery to be visited both in terms of friendliness of welcome and quality of product. And that not knowing much about a particular whisky is no reason to suspect that it won't be worth drinking. My lesson in preconceptions gloriously over the doorbell rings and Rob and I make our way to The Railway for a well earned pint. Scotland once again has delivered an absolutely sensational week, and in terms of the average quality of the distilleries, not one which I think will be easily matched by any of the legs to come, if at all. It'll be 2016 when I next make my way North; holiday's a non-option now business has entered peak time. But I've earned a short break. 27 distilleries down, 70 or thereabouts to go.


Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Orkneyingasaga: Hero Worship and Fond Farewell. September 10th, Highland Park and Scapa

So I'm sat in Scrabster waiting for my ferry as I nurse a coffee in what is undoubtedly the twee-est (real word) cafe in the world. It's the sort of brilliant cafe where no two cakes look the same, and the tea would probably be served in a pot accompanied by a floral cosy. There's even a knitted - knitted! sign in the toilet bearing the rhyme 'if you sprinkle while you tinkle, be a sweetie and wipe the seatie,' beside a second sign written in the same vein about the correct disposal of feminine hygiene products. After a long drive up from Inverness I am at this moment in time an extremely relaxed and contented pilgrim.

I'm even more contented a couple of hours later when the ferry sets sail, and I find myself on deck,
not a cloud in the sky, sun just beginning to dip below the huge and distant horizon and watching the gannets diving and the vast rocks of the Orkneys beginning to loom. The route from Scrabster to Stromness takes us around Hoy, and quite a crowd gathers cameraphones-in-hand as we plough past the Old Man, a massive spear of rock erupting out of the sea to guard the storm-battered cliffs. The ambience is briefly threatened by a chap who has clearly taken advantage of the on-board bar sliding about, crashing into people and loudly shouting 'let's have it in the Orkneys' but happily his bravado and face are irreparably put paid to when, in the act of trying to take a selfie with the Old Man he accidentally flings his Samsung
overboard and into the brine. It's almost a shame he didn't have a second camera just to capture his subsequent facial expression.

We reach Stromness with only the slight hitch of having seen my German stalkers cross the on board bar, and after sprinting through the dark streets in search of an ATM I board the last bus to Kirkwall with seconds to spare. The subsequent journey however is fraught with nervousness. I looked in the boot of my car before abandoning it to board the ferry and found the tent staring back at me with its customary malevolence. At that sunlit moment on the Scrabster Quay I decided life was too short! There would be, I was certain, some cheap hotel or other in Kirkwall which could offer me shelter for the night. However I am now on the bus and the immediate future seems clouded and uncertain so far as where I am going to sleep is concerned. It is pitch black, the internet signal is predictably non-existent and I find myself wondering how comfortable the Kirkwall benches are likely to be. The glittering streetlights engulf the bus, my nervousness reaches
its zenith, and then suddenly - salvation! And in the unlikeliest of guises. My ears must be deceiving me. The nice group at the front of the bus, not a one of whom can be young enough not to have a free bus pass tucked away somewhere can't possibly have just asked whether this is the stop for the youth hostel can they? But yes - they reiterate their question and the driver is giving his affirmation. And a twenty minute walk sees me agreeing a very reasonable rate for a twin room of which I am apparently tonight's only occupant. And the cherry on the cake comes at three in the morning when I drag myself out of bed, haul myself South of the city and drink in the indescribable magnificence that is the Aurora Borealis. I didn't take my camera with me - my phone is charging in my room, so no photos I'm afraid, but that's possibly just as well. No photo ever taken has done the Northern Lights justice, so let this simply serve as a sincere encouragement to you, dear reader, to get yourself in a position to see them for yourself.

The morning sunrise brings with it a view of pagoda roofs from my window. Entirely the wrong direction to be Scapa, which can make it only one other distillery. I check out of the hostel and, following the map, make my way to the building which produces, in this pilgrim's opinion, the best whisky in all the world. The bottle of whisky which means more to me than any other comes from Glenfiddich. The entry level which I rate most highly comes from Springbank. The whisky I consider my favourite is the Aberlour A'Bunadh. But for overall quality of every single expression they make the distillery I have always admired most is Highland Park. If I am a pilgrim, then this remote distillery in the windswept Orkneys is my temple and place of worship. As I pass beneath the gateway and book my ticket I'm actually literally shaking. This place means that much to me. And if that sounds stupid then I would ask English football fanatics how they feel when they go to Wembley, or Welsh Rugby supporters how moved they are by a home game at the Millennium Stadium. I may only follow sport moderately, but Whisky is my passion, and in Whisky terms that's where I am now.

I have to say though, only Glenfiddich can match Highland Park's video for corniness! There's a
particular montage dedicated to the passing of time during which I have to cough a bit to disguise a snigger. But our guide Martin is brilliant, and clearly, like all the best guides, a true devotee of the distillery around which he leads tourists. Inevitably my German 'friends' have contrived to join the same tour as me, but here, in this place, I don't care. We're shown the difference between HP's signature heather-peat and the sort of peat used elsewhere - Martin even opens the kiln to burn a small piece and demonstrate the smell. There's a chalked message 'Swallows back 09/05' on the kiln and Martin explains that the birds return to the kiln rooms to nest every spring, and that their arrival is keenly anticipated by the distillery workers. It's also the first kiln I've ever seen 'in action,' and a fitting tribute to a distillery which still conducts its entire process from barley to bottle on site (albeit only doing 20% of their own maltings due to volume.) The other standout moment for me (tasting aside) comes at the nosing of the casks. The overwhelming majority of Highland Park is
matured in ex-Sherry butts. However of these butts some are made from European oak and some from American. We are shown one of each, both of which had the same Oloroso inside them, both of which have subsequently held the same HP spirit for the same length of time. The difference in aroma, I am here to tell you, was phenomenal. I'll admit to being more than a bit of a nerd where learning about oak and casks is concerned, and this was probably my most interesting and enjoyable practical lesson.

And so to the tasting. I don't suppose a month has gone by in the last 5 years during which I have not sampled the HP12, but of course nothing can beat the experience of trying it 'in situ.' Whilst the German mother drivels away to my right about how in her opinion it's another Scotch that doesn't get near Islay for calibre I just shut my eyes and drown it all out. They even let us keep the glass at the end, and whilst it may not be the biggest in my collection it has subsequently become my go-to dram vessel!

Highland Park 12yo - Heather honey, heather honey, heather honey. Nice saltiness, splash of orange, teensy wisp of smoke. Oh, hang on, I'm getting something. Yes - it's heather honey. Nice bit of zip on the palate, but complexity of flavour and natural oiliness keeps it mellow and smooth. If I had to be really picky there's a smidge of sulphur on the nose after smelling for ages, which does convert into the mildest palate bitterness on the finish, but most people won't notice this. Still my favourite distillery, and for class and complexity only one or two entry levels can compete. 40%ABV

I wander down deserted roads, briefly getting lost as a result of a wrong turning as I head South towards the vast blueness of Scapa Flow. The Germans are in the corner of my eye as I stroll along the curve of the beach, with cliffs and great white distillery walls ahead of me. Highland Park's a tough act to follow for anyone, and especially for me, but one of the distilleries capable of doing so is certainly Scapa. I came across it at University in its 16yo entity through a close friend who cited it as his favourite. My timing really couldn't be better for starting the pilgrimage either; Scapa only opened its doors to tourists in April, and I'm so glad they did, because the view from this place is something else. I've mentioned before that Dalwhinnie might have my ultimate distillery exterior, and that my favourite room is the stillhouse at Glenmorangie. Combine those with what you can see from the immaculate lawn behind Scapa and you have, in this critic's opinion, the recipe for aesthetic distillery perfection!

The visit's tinged with a certain sadness though, because the 16yo which my friend loved so much, and which I have come to love too, is due to be discontinued, replaced like so many other age-dated whiskies with a non-age-dated expression, the Skiren. I haven't tried the Skiren of course, so I can't possibly pass judgement, and the age versus non-age is a debate for another entry on another day, but I do know how I feel about the 16, and I know that its passing is a shame. The distillery is a cracker though, and worth visiting just for the view and for the only Lomond still currently in action in Scotland. No photos allowed I'm afraid, but it basically works the same way as a column still does for vodka, and is a hangover from the old days before Single Malt became fashionable. These days the
spirit is subsequently fed into a more typical pot still, but not before it has induced a heightened rectification and therefore purity and 'cleanness' to the spirit. We peek into the cask house where we learn that all spirit currently made at Scapa is put into casks and matured in Speyside, before returning to the visitor centre for the sombre moment that may be my final taste of the 16 year old Scapa.

Scapa 16yo - First thing that jumps out to me is a tropical fruit character - banana, pineapple. Bloke next to me has been showing off and shooting his mouth all tour, and loudly proclaims there to be no vanilla. He is mistaken - there is lots. Bit of peardrop too, and a whiff of something floral. No salt despite location - more creamy vanilla, honey and coconut on the palate. For me this needs to be
6% stronger - flavours are gorgeous but so much cleaner on nose than palate. Lovely Almond and Marzipan on finish. 40% ABV

Between finally visiting HP and tasting what might be my last ever Scapa 16 I'm in a very reflective mood as I make my way back to Kirkwall bus station and the long journey via bus, ferry and corsa that will take me back to my friends in Inverness. My predominant feeling though is that 24 hours is far too little time to spend in such a remarkable place as the Orkneys. Without a doubt this has been the best day of my whole pilgrimage, and I have no doubt whatsoever that I will be back again. For now though I have one day left of this most magnificent of pilgrimage legs - a day that will take me from Inverness to Skye, from Skye to Fort William and finally from Fort William down the long long road to the Wirral and to home.