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...


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