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.


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