Wednesday, 29 July 2015

'The Blended Belt'. 7th July, Glenturret, Aberfeldy, Edradour and Blair Atholl

It's gone half six, and I'm in Pitlochry. Inevitable rain is drizzling on me, the midges are tucking their napkins in and with 4 hours of sleep in total over the last two nights I'm not relishing the prospect of pitching the tent again.

I'm rather fond of Pitlochry. In the days when I worked in Inverness it was the last real outpost before the emptiness of the A9 stretched through 100 miles of mountains to the 'Capital of the Highlands', but at the moment it is a careworn and slightly damp pilgrim who trudges along the main road,
picking his way through the crowds who have gathered to watch a band of bagpiping infants, and wondering where he is going to sleep and eat.

The budget for this adventure is pretty strict. Petrol is the main expense with food a close second. I'm pondering another night in the passenger seat of the Corsa, when my eye is drawn to a sign for a hostel. £17 per night it reads. I do some quick financial maths, and the bit of my brain that says 'you've spent three times as many hours driving as you have sleeping over the last three days' wins a convincing victory.

And I am so glad that it did. The manager, Lynne politely overlooked the empty, maniac stare of the woefully sleep-deprived, and cheerily talked me through the housekeeping, before I collapsed into a sofa in the common room with a cup of tea. Minutes later an Australian, a Scot and a couple of French girls had ascertained that I worked in the booze industry, and this earned me points. It transpired that the Scot, Brian, was working as a tour guide at Blair Athol. This earned him points. An evening of reckless drinking games was proposed, but I gracefully bowed out. Poor form I accept, but at that point I was about 2 sniffs of alcohol away from a coma.

The funny thing about three of the four distilleries I visited the next day is that their visitor centres are branded as a showpiece for a blended whisky: 'The Famous Grouse Experience,' 'Dewar's at Aberfeldy,' 'Blair Athol - the home of Bells Blended Scotch Whisky.' Now I love a blend as much as the next Whisky drinker, and am very much in agreement with Mr Jim Murray when he says in his inestimable Whisky Bible that you can't love Scotch Whisky without loving blends (or more eloquent words to that effect) but I think it's important that these three single malts should not be overlooked. A lot of people I know who aren't (yet) fond of Whisky cite its overpowering nature - I think we've all seen someone, or several someones, take a sniff of the glass, wrinkle their nose, make some expression of horror and write the water of life off altogether on that basis, but here in the 'Scottish Midlands' we have some beautiful smooth drams, altogether more approachable than many of their counterparts, and a delicately flavoured tonic, in this critic's opinion, to the nay-sayers.

I've actually been to Glenturret before, with an old friend who now earns his crust acting in New York. Which perhaps makes this distillery appropriate, as it actually won a Bafta for its interactive visitor experience. Those planning on visiting a distillery as part of a general Scotland tour should certainly consider some of these 'Midlanders' - most have a restaurant, a well-appointed visitor centre, and all the trappings of civilisation. Glenturret also has several novelties, amongst which we find the largest bottle of Whisky in the world (228 litres - the size of  a cask of Bordeaux wine, though this is just coincidence.) There is also a statue to the distillery's former cat, Towser, who holds the world record for mousing at 28,899, making me wonder which poor Guiness Employee
followed the beast round counting the piles of rodents.

More pertinently, so far as the whisky making is concerned, they are the only distillery which still creates the wort by hand, using a device called a 'rouser' to 'plunge' the mash tun. I can only imagine how tired the operators are afterwards, but it's a lovely thing to see! Some interesting information is also passed on about the whiskies included in the Famous Grouse blend, Scotland's most beloved Whisky, although the exact constitution is naturally a closely guarded secret!

And then we come to the tasting. I have a try of the 'Black Grouse,' a smokier version of its more Famous sibling, before turning to the Single Malt. My purpose in this pilgrimage as you know is to examine the flagship malt of the distillery, which in Glenturret's case is the delicate, lemony 10yo. I have had it before, and as a matter of fact it is the favourite malt of a close friend of mine, but today we hit a snag. A massive order has been put in for Glenturret 10yo, and they have none left in the distillery! Full of apologies, the guide produces instead a bottle of the straight-from-cask exclusive which they sell in the visitor centre shop. It is an £80 single-cask Oloroso matured whisky which is not sold anywhere else. I am inclined to forgive him!

Glenturret 'Fill-Your-Own' Sherry Cask Matured - Huge fruit on the nose. Layers and layers of Christmas cake backed up by oranges and dark chocolate. Oak naturally prominent but backed up by really sterling malty barley. A little younger than many straight-from-casks, so alcohol pretty forward, but still very much my cup of tea, and not a trace of sulphur. A treat! 58.6%ABV
Other Range - Their flagship 10yo. Also some experimentation with peat.

The Aberfeldy Distillery, when I reach it, goes even further with the visitor centre experience. From the road the distillery almost has a steampunk look, a great grey building with a mighty chimney and
glass walls to the still-house through which the copper pots gleam. Inside I buy my ticket, and am directed into a cinema for another 'about the distillery' film. I am also given a device rather like an 80s telephone, and as I leave the cinema I find myself in an interactive walk-through experience. There is a large room done up in the style of a 19th Century Laird's study, with drawers I can open, a desk covered with papers and inevitably a decanter of the distillery's finest. Somewhat bemused I make my way through, pressing the relevant buttons and learning how Dewars and Aberfeldy came to be. This completed I am directed to the bar for my dram of the Aberfeldy 12 year old. The barman is incredibly friendly and happy to answer all of my nosey
questions concerning the range, the use of caramel colouring and various other aspects. To be honest we're only half concentrating though - to my left a rather beleaguered looking guide is patiently failing to communicate to an American Tourist that even though the distillery is owned by Bacardi they take no responsibility for the production of rum.

Aberfeldy 12yo - Really fresh and lively on the nose. Interactive tour and barman have used the phrase 'heather honey' relentlessly, and that element certainly comes through. To that I would add a gentle touch of green fruit (pear mostly) and the happy influence of bourbon via vanillas, sugars and very light coconut. Touch of caramel and tablet too. I generally prefer a few extra degrees of alcohol, as this usually accentuates flavours, but to be fair Aberfeldy keep this one very accessible at the minimum 40%ABV 
Other Range - A 21yo and a duty-free 18yo as well as some seriously excellent cask-strength kit.

I follow dutifully around the tour of the distillery at the back of a fairly large group, before hopping back in the car. I'm already a couple of whiskies down for the day, and with a couple more to go I'm rather glad they're within (fairly long) walking distance of each other and the hostel. It's not far from Aberfeldy to Pitlochry, and soon I am at the inestimably beautiful distillery of Edradour.

Confession time: I find it difficult to be objective about this distillery or their whisky. Granted it doesn't fill me with the dumbstruck awe of, say, Highland Park or Springbank, and I'm not in love with it in the same indefinable way that I am with Dalmore or Aberlour, but the Distillery is just so charming, and I feel its output reflects that. Tucked in its little woodland corner with the gentle stream running through it, the juice it bottles feels like a real interpretation of itself. And if that makes no sense to you then you're probably a right-headed well adjusted sort of person who enjoys distilled beverages the appropriate amount.

Until recently Edradour was the smallest distillery in Scotland, and it has been privately owned for the last decade and a bit. It's operated by three people using very traditional equipment and they have the only Morton-Refrigerator (device that cools the wort pre-fermentation) in Scotland. Being privately owned they can do whatever they like as far as their expressions are concerned, and believe me they do. The guide mentions 26 different expressions, most of which are finished or matured in weird and wonderful casks, from Chateauneuf to Marsala and (via a lot of Italian Red wine) everything in between. Obviously this results in rather a large number of flavours for the Whisky Explorer, of which you may naturally enjoy all, or only some.

Case in point the two I am given at the start of the tour; the flagship 10yo, and an expression matured in Supertuscan casks. The guide announces in a booming voice that he is particularly partial to the Supertuscan option; I'm afraid it simply isn't to my taste. Certainly worth trying for the red fruit, leather and undeniably different flavours, but to my palate there is a little more than a touch of sulphur, and I personally prefer the 10yo.

Edradour 10 yo (Sherry cask) - Nice chewy notes of brown sugar and citrus fruit with growing complexity and more than a little sweetness as it lingers in the glass. Soft, light, approachable - again might benefit from extra ABV but a great starting-point for those looking to explore the effects of Sherry on Whisky. 40% ABV
Other Range: If you can think of it, they probably bottle it. If you can think of it and they don't bottle it, write to them and they'll probably make it especially!

I'm tired when I reach Blair Athol; hours of walking, then standing, writing notes and being blasted by heat taking their toll. I've also forgone lunch in my effort to make it to all four distilleries, and was stupid enough to wake up too late for breakfast, and let's not forget I've had five whiskies by this point, one of them straight-from cask. Ally this to the fact that a man is loudly proclaiming his wisdom in all matters spirity, berating the poor guide for not answering his questions before they have even been asked and declaring his palate to be 'the best in the vodka business,' and I am more than a little irritable as I make my way around the 4th distillery of the day.

Blair Athol is where Bells wave their flag. It isn't one of Diageo's 'classic malts' but I still get free entry and a stamp in my passport (thanks again Diageo!) The association with Bells is rather appropriate; despite having an output of around 3 million litres of spirit a year, only 0.3% of what Blair Athol produces ends up as single malt. Which keeps things simple when it comes to their range - outside of independent bottlings you can have the 12yo or you can go thirsty! Compared to Glenturret and Edradour it's heavily computerised, with metal washbacks (which you can't smell the inside of - marks deducted there I'm afraid) and a slight factory feel on the inside. You can also only view the casks through a glass window, and that's a few more points lost. Let me explain, for those uninitiated in distillery tours; for me, the best two moments (tasting aside) are both smell based - the yeasty tropical fruit of the fermentation in the washbacks, and the oaky vanilla and earth of the cask houses. I honestly can't describe how good these smells are, and how much sense of place they give a distillery, so I won't bother to try. Go to a distillery yourself and find out!

Blair Athol 12yo - (Matured in Oloroso) Honey, sugars and caramels are the first impressions, followed by tangerine and spice. Rich, almost slightly syrupy on the palate, with some nice spicy notes, possibly of ginger/cinnamon. Not the cleanest malt in the world; suspect bit of colouring, and the malt is less prominent than in some, but good flavours here; a Scotch for a blustery autumnal evening, and another that should provide a good gateway for new drinkers. 43% ABV

In a mirror of the evening before I slump into the sofa the minute I reach the hostel, only to bounce out again with renewed vigour at the news that new friend Brian is hosting a FREE WHISKY TASTING at the pub next door. I love all three of those words, so I head along and receive another taste of the Blair Athol 12 along with the Singleton of Dufftown Sunray and the Caol Ila Moch. My whisky tally for the day having now reached 9 I eat the first food I've had since I woke up, and return with Brian to the hostel, where in a moment of reckless abandon we join the Aussie and the French girls in a few rounds of forfeit Pool. I am not a good pool player, but thankfully the others aren't great either, so the upshot is that we all end up looking stupid, and a few hours later, when the last remnants of the enforced makeup have been scoured from my face I call it a night.


Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Whisky Wanderings Part One. (July 5th and 6th 2015) Arran, Campbeltown and Oban

I've just got off the motorway along which I've been making my tedious way for the last several hours. Not even at my first distillery yet, and already the best part of 500 miles are under my belt since I left my current home city of Bristol.

Happily I am now past Glasgow, onto the A-Roads and storming past Loch Lomond and Loch Fyne through some of the best scenery Britain can show. Less happily the fog and the rain have descended, as they are wont to do on the West Coast, and all the scenery is hidden. I also have a truck in front of me and an impatient BMW behind, neither of whom are improving the mood.

Some time later it is 4 O'Clock. My sustinence thus far today has been a bag of crisps and a Costa Coffee, so as I pull into Tarbot at the Northernmost point of the Kintyre peninsula I am ready for some food. Several pubs beckon, but as I am on a strict budget I get the makings of sandwiches from a Co-op and crack on to Claonaig 20 miles away, which is where I will be getting the ferry to Arran tomorrow.

An hour later I am sitting in my car, looking out at rain, at midges and at a weirdly large boat in
Lochranza bay. There is a tent in the back of my car, but looking at the clouds of insects and the clouds of actual clouds I decide I don't fancy it. The evening is spent making various phonecalls, fashioning a whisky tumbler from the bottom of a Highland Spring bottle (low moment!), reading Jim Murray's Whisky Bible and Michael Jackson's Whisky Companion, and failing to fall asleep as I regret not looking Claonaig up before I arrived. (It is just a car park and a jetty...nice view though.)

The next morning I am full of excitement, despite the lack of sleep. I'm on the jetty looking impatiently out for the 10 O'Clock Ferry and chatting to a friendly chap full of useful tips on how to dispose of your waste if you've wild-camped in a motorhome for three days. A Rover arrives, and a chap with a tweed jacket and cravat hops out, waving binoculars and pointing at the big boat in Lochranza Harbour. Apparently it is no less than Roman Abramovich's private yacht. I am disposed to accept this fact. Chaps with tweed jackets, cravats, wild hair and binoculars usually know their stuff when it comes to boats. (I would also have believed anything he had told me about planes, vintage cars or grouse.)

The ferry arrives, and we're off. I join the other passengers in photographing the yacht, but my mind is full of excitement for the distillery, and for going to the Isle of Arran itself. So many of my family holidays have been here, and it was at the Arran Distillery, then a fledgling producer of Whisky, that I watched goggle-eyed as my father undertook the blind tasting. But I've not been back myself since I could legally take part.

The distillery is just a short walk from the ferry, and I arrive, book my tour and wait in the gorgeous visitor centre with its cafe overlooking the beautiful mountains on which nest the Golden Eagles that characterise the Arran Malt's label. As a side note, if you want to do just one Whisky tour, do consider the Isle of Arran. Whether the Whisky is the stuff for you or not their visitor centre is absolutely A1, and it really is a smashing experience.

Which begins for me as our guide, Richard, announces 'welcome to Arran, one of the youngest, one
of the smallest and - I'm going to say it aren't I? - one of the best distilleries in Scotland!' We are led into their cinema to watch the generic start-of-tour film, and again the attention to detail is fantastic. It's designed as an 18th Century Crofters hut, the sort in which illegal distilling would have taken place, and it's a wonderful place to sit and savour the 14 year old Arran Malt we are offered.

The Arran Malt 14yo - Initial Malty Barley. Rounds out to vanilla, fruit and honey with a few moments. Bags of honey! Great liveliness. Nose and finish seem to show more than the mid-palate but a lovely complexity here. Some salt showing on second and third tastes. Good balance - oak certainly not overwhelming the malt, which is clean and not at all cloying. 46%ABV
Other Range: Lots! 10yo, 16yo and 18yo. Cask finishes (Amarone (I covet this greatly!), Port, Sauternes.) Also peated 'Machrie Moor'...list goes on!

Richard then shows us around the small distillery. All the production takes place in the same room, and the two stills pump out half a million litres of spirit per year. At the end of the tour we are given a tasting of The Arran Gold, which is the distillery's cream liqueur. These sort of drinks really aren't for me, but fans of Baileys should definitely get involved! As ever the shop is calling to me at the end, but mindful of the budget I resist. I have 12 more distilleries to get through this week and a lot of petrol and food to buy!

I ferry back across to Claonaig and rejoin the A83 towards Campbeltown. About 5 miles away I find a campsite, but no one is at reception. I phone the provided number. No response. Slightly worried that someone will come along and angrily boot me out I pitch my tent at the far end, parking the car in such a way as to block the wind.

It doesn't help. Another sleepless night in the tent as the wind howls, the rain batters and I mope in my sleeping bag. I like to think of myself as an adventurous spirit, but clearly I am no great shakes at camping. I admit defeat at half 3 in the morning, head off to the showers, and leave the campsite, arriving at Campbeltown at 4. After 6 hours of roaming directionlessly around like a morose zombie I am ready for my tours of Springbank and Glengyle.

Campbeltown was once the 'Capital of Scotch Whisky.' Back in the day the town had more than twenty working distilleries, but these gradually mothballed and closed until only Springbank and Glen Scotia remained. Threatened with losing their classification as an independent Whisky region they pointed out that the Lowlands had only three distilleries at that point, and Springbank re-opened the defunct Glengyle distillery, bottling its product under the name Kilkerran.

Unfortunately I didn't manage a tour of Glen Scotia, for the simple reason that they don't currently hold them. I will be having a chat with the guys there, and I hope to drop by within a year and a half, but today I stuck to Springbank and Glengyle. The tasting notes are below, but I will be dedicating an independent post to the experience for the simple reason that my tour of Springbank was head and shoulders the best Whisky Tour I have ever been on, and that their 10yo expression was, to this point, the Scotch Whisky of its age that I have most enjoyed.

Springbank 10yo - First off, smells like the sea! Properly salty with a whisp of smoke in the air. Touch of vanilla and almonds, almost Marzipan, but more savoury. Citrus fruit; lemon for me, rather than orange. Even more salt on the finish. Delicate, elegant, complex. 46% ABV
Other Range: 12 yo, 15yo, 18yo, 21yo. Also Hazelburn and Longrow ranges.

Kilkerran 'Work in Progress' Sherry Matured - Very youthful. Tiny bit of salt but more about fruit here. Touches of charcoal and orange. Light in character but more warming than Springbank, as alcohol understandably still integrating. Decent long finish. Very much looking forward to the finished article! 46% ABV

My only regrets as I leave the distillery is that I didn't get to try from the Hazelburn or Longrow ranges that Springbank also make (Longrow is heavily peated, Hazelburn unpeated and triple distilled) and that I couldn't justify buying a bottle! Happily they gave me a minature to take away, and it is a happy pilgrim heading North out of Kintyre on the road to Oban.

Oban, when I reach it, is a wonderful surprise. Don't know what I'd expected, but it is a charming,
bustling harbour town, busy with July tourists. A good couple of Whisky shops (and independent shops of all other natures) and the town is heartily justifying its title of 'Gateway to the Islands.' There are various ferries departing to the Islands off the West Coast, and I wish I had time to look around, but I have to be in Pitlochry on the other side of Scotland this evening, so I ask a friendly native for directions to the distillery, and make my way there.

As a rule I prefer my distilleries rural; there's something very charming about the sight of them nestled in a Glen! Obviously Oban is built into the shops and restaurants around it, and it is also the busiest I have ever seen a distillery. This has the unfortunate upshot of corralling us into pretty large, impersonal groups, but I edge my way to the front, clutching my notebook!

Oban is one of the 'Classic Malts' - a name bestowed by owners Diageo, who comfortably control the largest share of the Scotch Whisky Industry. This means a couple of things. Firstly a large portion of spirit goes off to make up part of the blends Diageo owns (most notable Johnnie Walker, the world's best-selling Scotch Whisky by a country mile) and secondly that you are given a little passport which gets you into the other classic Malt Distilleries for free. In context, this will save me over £100 by the time I'm done. Diageo - I approve!

Oban is another quite small distillery - one wash still and one spirit still, and their range is limited to the 14yo, though like a lot of Diageo's distilleries they also make a 'distiller's edition', for which their spirit is finished in another sort of cask. (Fino in Oban's case.) If you find yourself drawn to any of the Diageo whiskies I heartily recommend these distillers editions. A couple of them are really outstanding! Oban's 14yo malt is completely matured in 2nd fill Bourbon, and they're pretty emphatic about what they want you to taste. In pretty much every room of the distillery is a picture of 4 things: Salt, Smoke, Honeycomb and Orange. Worth trying just to see if you agree - as I say, they're pretty vehement!

Oban 14yo - Touch of heathery smoky honey and citrus on the nose. Smooth palate; slightly oily. Trace of salt on a rather quick finish. The flavours are pleasant but quite simple. Lightly warming. A good whisky to start off with if you don't want your flavours too aggressive or your peat too intense. 43% ABV
Other Range: Distiller's Edition. (Finished in Fino Sherry Casks.)

I'd definitely like to spend more time in Oban, and I recommend a visit to the town (and indeed the distillery) if you're ever up that way, but it's already 5:30 and I have a long drive ahead, so I make haste to leave. (So much haste that like an imbecile I forget the rather nice complimentary glass they give you at the end of the tour.) I've been eaten alive by midges, battered by thunderstorms and completely deprived of sleep for two nights, but the 4 distilleries I've bagged so far have made my days on the West Coast well worth it. Pitlochry awaits as I barrel past Loch Awe in my trusty Vauxhall Corsa, and so do the distilleries of the Scottish Midlands...


Monday, 20 July 2015

The Purpose of the Pilgrimage

My fascination with Whisk(e)y began with my first meaningful memory of the stuff, which is of being a restless little oik of about 10 years old on a distillery tour watching my father perform a blind tasting and thinking he had just pulled off a magic trick.

15 years and many many drams later I am irretrievably in love with Whisk(e)y in all its myriad guises and nationalities, and it is my heartfelt ambition to convert as many more to the cause as I can. Hence this blog. There are over 100 distilleries across the United Kingdom currently distilling, maturing and bottling their own product, and each is unique in character and in flavour. Which means that there must be a Whisky out there for everyone! Perhaps your favourite dram will be a rich, fruitcake-flavoured Sherry matured drop, or perhaps you'll take to the silky vanilla and coconut that comes from American ex-Bourbon barrels. Possibly your calling is a light, lemony lowlander like Glenkinchie, a round, creamy, fruity Speysider like Aberlour or Macallan or on the opposite side of the flavour spectrum you might thrill to the intense smoke and seasalt that is the hallmark of so many great Islay malts like Laphroaig or Ardbeg. It may be that, like me, you find yourself looking for a dollop of all of the above, and that the Highland Parks or Springbanks of this world are what keep you happiest, or perhaps your perfect dram doesn't come from Scotland at all, but from Ireland, from England or from the superb still of Penderyn in Wales.


What if, standing in a Supermarket or Specialist Liquor store you find yourself faced with row upon row of bottles, each claiming to be unique in purity and character, but each using much the same Marketing Strategy to entice that well-earned cash from your wallets. And let's not beat about the bush - Single Malt Whisky is not, for most of us (emphatically including myself), a small outlay. And if you light upon a bottle that is completely not to your taste then you could be forgiven for shying away entirely and looking to more affordable and reliable drinks.

So this is where I come in. The Whisky Pilgrim. Over the next 18 months I will endeavour to visit every Distillery in the UK and Ireland and taste its flagship expression. My tasting notes won't be accompanied by scores - they are simply designed as flavour maps for you, dear reader, so that you can pick the malt that sounds most enticing to you specifically. Because the objective 'best' may not encapsulate the tastes you're after, and that is by far the most important, indeed the only reason that you should invest in a bottle of Single Malt. There is no point drinking something you don't enjoy purely because a critic, however respected, experienced or insightful, has deemed it superior to all others.

Obviously there are hundreds of Whiskies which this blog won't cover; as I mentioned it's the flagships we're after. Because these whiskies are the most commonly available, the most affordable and the most indicative of the overall style of a distillery. And once you've figured out where your loyalties lie you can explore the wider (and more expensive) range that your chosen distilleries have to offer without risking vast sums on a bottle you may not enjoy.

So without further ado, let's crack on. There are 5 countries to visit, thousands of miles to travel and many many whiskies to drink. I'm looking forward immensely to the journey, and I hope you'll come along on it with me.