Thursday, 13 August 2015

Pilgrims Plural, and The Way Home. July 9th and 10th. Auchentoshan, Glengoyne and Glenkinchie

So I wake up, and if I'm honest it's with mixed feelings. On the one hand I'm not in a tent or my car and am at the house of one of my best friends Will. I've properly met his lovely fiancee Alison and their baby daughter Jessica, who I successfully managed not to drop. On the other hand, I'm not sure
about today's distilleries. Don't really know much about Gelngoyne, though as I've discovered with Springbank, Glengyle, Aberfeldy, Blair Atholl, Tullibardine and Deanston that doesn't necessarily mean anything, but I have encountered Auchentoshan before, in its 'triple wood' form, and if I'm honest it didn't really float my boat. Also Will and I, who are both in the Wine Trade and used to do blind tastings for each other when we were revising for our WSET got heroically drunk the night before when Alison took Jessica to her mother's house, and the world's still a bit unsteady.

Auchentoshan, when we reach it, is another rather fetching distillery. There's someone on traffic directing duty in the car park, which seems a bit overkill, but Alison drops us off (she is acting as
chauffeur today, the star, but Jess seems very unhappy that she's not being taken on the tour!) and we buy our tickets. Stephen, the guide, is an absolute hero. We're with a family of Germans on the tour, none of whom have a word of English, but he faultlessly guides us the entire way round switching from one language to the next without missing a beat. He also apparently has fluent French and Lithuanian (!)

For those lucky enough to be taking their first steps into whisky, the chief USP of the Auchentoshan distillery is that they are the only Whisky Distillery in Scotland who triple distil everything. Basically in your usual distillery the fermented wash at 8%ABV is fed into the first 'Still' and emerges around 25%ABV. It then goes into the second
still and the spirit they take out to use as whisky is about 70%.ABV. At Auchentoshan they use a distillation process through three stills, with the spirit emerging at 18%, 54% and finally 81%ABV respectively. This removes more of the esters from the spirit resulting in a 'purer new make.' I am given a tiny sip of this 81% spirit. It is not for the faint of heart!

Like most other Distilleries Auchentoshan's casks are mostly ex-bourbon, with a few sherry and unfortified wine butts and hogsheads here and there. Will, who is a very talented photographer takes a few pictures, and then we are in the tasting room. As I mentioned the Three-Wood and I were not the best of bedfellows when I encountered it a year ago, but I have to say that I was really impressed with the 'American Oak', and when Stephen gave me a taste of the Distillery exclusive straight from cask Chateau
Legrange matured Whisky I was blown away. I can pay it no bigger compliment than to say that it is the first unfortified wine-matured whisky that I would happily buy with my own money. I didn't though, as at the time I had barely any left!

Auchentoshan American Oak - Spirit character really coming through in pear drop and green apple form. Got a sweetish white chocolate too. Slightly flatter palate initially - (40%ABV...) Easy drinking and smooth despite youth. Bourbon oak comes through more on the palate than the nose though, and grows in the glass with time, the coconut distinctively emerging after a while. Very different to Tullibardine because of that pronounced, triple-distilled spirity character, but influenced by the cask in a similar manner. 40%ABV

We eat lunch with Alison at a lovely Lochside pub, next to a Cafe entertainingly named St Mocha. (Turns out he's actually a bona fide Saint, though jokes about St Filter Coffee, St Flat White, St Nespresso Machine etc flowed fairly freely.) Afterwards we made our way to Glengoyne, and I'm in for a shock.  This distillery, of which I have heard almost nothing beforehand is hands down the most gorgeous to look at that I have ever encountered. And I say that despite my beloved Arran and Edradour being achingly beautiful themselves. Apparently Glengoyne was used for exterior shots in The Angel's Share, and I am not surprised. It is what I want my future mansion to look like. (Future architects take note - I'd also be on board with you installing a mash tun, a washback, and some stills. Actually, you know what, I just want to move into Glengoyne.)

Less beautiful is the sight of two coachloads of tourists arriving at the same time as us. There is only one tour left in the day, so they're absolutely rammed - apparently these coaches are late - but the staff respond admirably, and we are all split into several smaller groups for the journey round. We watch the generic opening video (I swear to God the same script is used in every one of these, they just chop and change the names - 'our water is the purest, we're the most patient, we're tucked into the most peaceful glen etc') and we sip the 12 year old Glengoyne (which I love love love) before the tour. I ask a guide about the casks used in the 12yo and am told 20% 1st fill sherry, 20% 1st fill bourbon and 60% refill. This comes as a surprise to me and Will, who had been remarking on the wonderful clarity of the Sherry character. Fans of Sherried Speyside Malts, I heartily recommend this as a super

The guide is full of interesting facts about Glengoyne, and considering it's so late in the day and he's leading a big party he's brilliantly tolerant of my nosy questioning. Amongst other things he tells me that Glengoyne have the slowest distillation process in Scotland and that they do a 100 hour fermentation (about twice as long as a lot of other distilleries). I also learn that it takes 100 litres of water to make one litre of whisky and about one kg malted barley to make a bottle of Scotch. Well I found it interesting anyway, so you can all stop laughing.

Glengoyne 12yo - Lots of sherry aromas on the nose. Bags of fruit. Apple and pear with floral topnotes. Still fresh and youthful. Malt quite clear in the background with some tasty sugars going on too. Good warmth, touch of pudding spice and baked apple. Toffee and white pepper on the finish. Teeniest teeniest whiff of ignorable sulphur, but that's me being picky about a wonderful malt that is new to me and that I recommend to anyone as a whisky starting point.

After a couple more photos we drive back to Will's house, my apprehensions of the morning having been demolished as swiftly as last night's wine.

I'm up early the next morning, as Will has to go to work, and I have a lot of driving to do to get to Glenkinchie. The journey takes me past Edinburgh, my favourite city in the world, but I don't have time to visit, but merely pass it by as I meander along the country lanes to the south leading to the consummate 'Lowland Lady.' Glenkinchie is another I know very little about, beyond the fact that it is another of Diageo's classic malts, and that I thus have free entry once again! There's a bowling green just outside the distillery, and the scenery is much more rolling hills and woodland country than crag and pine - I could almost be in England, though the good folk of East Lothian won't thank me for saying so!

They've got a very nice model distillery which I peruse as I wait, after buying my girlfriend some shortbread from the shop. (I promised her some when I came up here, but completely forgot until today, so I'm glad they stock it!) It's another small group on the tour, and the guide takes us quietly around explaining the workings and the history. As I've come to expect from Diageo's distilleries open to visitors it's all very well laid out, with informative poster boards in each room meticulously explaining the processes. Glenkinchie goes for a light, delicate style of whisky, achieved in part by having the largest (though not tallest) stills in Scotland. The casks again are entirely Bourbon, though like many other classic malts they have a 'distiller's edition', in this instance finished in Amontillado Sherry. I haven't tried it (yet), but that seems to me to be a highly appropriate style of cask to finish the Glenkinchie in, and doubtless works very well.  We did however try the Glenkinchie 12 yo, and my note is below.

Glenkinchie 12yo - White flowers on the nose with lemon, granny smith apple and light notes of
vanilla from the bourbon. Spirit character still present in fruity, estery pep. Much more about the oak on the palate - very light and delicate - but the barley still happily playing its part. Caramel not overwhelming and pleasant zip of alcohol. 43%ABV

And with that I'm done. There's still Bladnoch in the lowlands left to do of the distilleries currently bottling whisky, but since they're closed to visitors at the moment I decide to leave them for another time. I'm tired, and I've done 13 distilleries in 6 days. The enormity of the task that I have set myself has impressed itself massively upon me, and it will be a long 18 months before I am done, but it is with the most positive (if weary) feelings that I look back on my week as the M74 becomes the M6 and I cross back into Bristol. I have encountered so many distilleries, whiskies and people over the brief start of this pilgrimage, and it has been a hell of an adventure. I honestly know so much more for having done just this first part, and my love for Whisky has deepened greatly.

So which was my favourite? Well of this trip, Springbank. It blew me away to a degree that only two or three whiskies in the world have previously done with its complexity and elegance, and I will be drinking malt from that distillery for the rest of my life. But this trip, this adventure was not about finding my favourite, but about finding the right whisky for everyone and anyone. With that in mind I will happily and honestly summarise by saying that there was not a single distillery on this trip who I would not warmly recommend, and which does not deserve legions of followers just as dedicated to them as I am to that whisky temple in Campbeltown. And I cannot wait for the next dram, the next distillery and the next adventure.


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