Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Friends New and Old. September 7th, Glen Ord and Dalmore

Sunlight streams through the gap in the curtains of my box-room's window. Keen for the day to begin I leap out of bed. Slightly too fast. Stubbing my toe on the corner of a bedside table I trip over and headbutt the wall, doubtless waking other patrons of the guest house with my choice Saxon utterances and questionings of the architect's lineage and education. After grumbling my way through morning ablutions and checking out of the guest house I find myself basking in yet more astonishing Invernesian sunlight. Hopping into the car I am soon over the Kessock Bridge and on the far side of the Moray and Beauly Firths surging towards Glen Ord.

Glen Ord is an interesting one. It is the 4th biggest Distiller of Malt in Scotland, sufficiently large that they also do all the maltings for their sister distillery Talisker, and with a hefty 70% (ish) of its 11 million annually produced litres of spirit turned into Single Malt, yet outside of the distillery you cannot buy a bottle of Glen Ord Single Malt in the UK. The reason for this is pretty simple - it all goes towards a very thirsty Asian Market - but it still means that Glen Ord is another distillery whose produce I have not previously sampled, which always makes a prospective tour that little bit more enticing...

The reason I didn't visit Glen Ord during my year living in the Highlands was that from the road it
looks like a rather industrial, unattractive affair, with none of the charm I tend to romantically attach to my distilleries. This however, as it turns out, is something of a veil; once you travel down the 'drive' and past the initial dark factory-like buildings you find a very attractive grey stone visitor centre replete with floral decoration. Arriving at 10 I book a tour for 10:45 (there is a coachload of pre-booked tourists who have filled the first couple) and wander around the shop and visitor centre whilst I wait. It's well worth visiting Glen Ord to get a sense of the scale of the Scotch Whisky's international clout - when you consider the 7 pairs of stills on site (of which the tour shows you three wash and 3 spirit) further consider that far more famous distilleries such as Highland Park have only two of each and finally bear in mind that more or less every last drop ends up outside of the UK you can't help but be impressed. And unless you take the trip you are unlikely to taste this spirit, which combines relatively equal amounts of Bourbon and Sherry matured whisky, comes in 12, 15 and 18 year old editions and is detailed below!:

Singleton of Glen Ord 12 yo - Sherry and a touch of oak on the nose backed up by toffee and caramels. Bit of brown sugar and ripe apples. Sweetish on the palate - fairly simple, easy-drinking sort of style. Suspiciously identical in colour to 15 and 18 yo...Honey and citrus late arrivals to nose. Decent, uncomplicated stuff. 40% ABV

And so on to distillery number 2 of the day, which is Dalmore, and this gives me a problem. See here's the thing: in what F.Scott Fitzgerald would call my 'younger and more vulnerable years,' when caramel colouring and chill filtration were not concepts with which I was familiar, when I didn't ever read about whisky and couldn't afford more than a bottle or two of entry-level Single Malt a term, Dalmore was very much a whisky I aspired to. I remember seeing it in the superb Gauntleys of Nottingham and being seduced by its elegant bottle, its silver Stag and its dark orange hue. The 12yo
was at the very upper limit of what I could afford (which gives you some idea about the range of Single Malt I was drinking) and so I only bought it once. But presumably I enjoyed it - certainly it still occupied a very prominent position in my personal Malt hierarchy when I moved to Inverness and visited the distillery twice.

Nowadays of course I am rather better informed, less full of youthful naiveté and more aware of the wider world of Whisky. And with that comes the knowledge of the terms in which Dalmore is described in those corners of the internet where Whisky Wanderers gather to vent their spleen. I realise that the orange hue that first beguiled me is nothing more than a trap for people like the myself of yesteryear, who know relatively little but believe that good Whisky is dark, and that Whisky which turns cloudy with the addition of water must be whisky that has developed a fault. I understand further that the elegant design and majestic emblem are part of a marketing campaign designed to cement Dalmore's reputation as the Rolls Royce of Scotch Whisky; the distillery producing bottles more expensive than houses, and helmed by that most flamboyant of Whisky characters Richard Paterson, who goes by the epithet 'the Nose,' and has
insured his own for more than $2.5million.

All of this does not add up to the sort of distillery likely to be beloved by a low-income Whisky Pilgrim determined to uncover drams offering real value and calibre. And herein lies my problem because, as I admit to myself as the Corsa eats up more of the A9, I have previously loved the Dalmore. Indeed I have in the past ranked it amongst my very favourites, and have sung its praises when asked for Whisky recommendations. And, on the threshhold of tasting it for the first time in years, and for the first time since my real passion for Whisky and thirst for knowledge thereof began, I am worried that this love is about to reach its shattering crisis.

My affections certainly aren't hindered by the Dalmore's location. Its firthside seat on the banks of the
Cromarty is pretty special at the worst of times, and on this most glorious of days makes for a truly dazzling sight. I enjoy a spot of picnic lunch as I wait for the Two O'clock tour to begin, basking in the day's sunlit brilliance. Further massive points are earned by the distillery from the fact that our guide Anne-Marie (who is from my neck of the woods on the Wirral) recognises me from the tour I took over 18 months ago. I've never had a bad experience with a Distillery tour guide, but that really was an incredibly pleasant surprise. Anne-Marie was also an incredibly assured and confident guide; someone who clearly knows the distillery inside out, and was able to rattle off fact after fact about the genesis of the stag, the process of making the juice and the various idiosyncrasies that make the Dalmore unique. Many points there. I also really like the aspect of the Dalmore's tour in which you are able to nose the new-make spirit at its various 'still stages' of alcohol level, from the foreshot, right through the middle-cut and down to the feints. And the warehouse really is a cave of wonders; if you can imagine a style of cask it's probably in there,
from pipe to butt to hogshead. I examined a couple of the wine casks and noticed the name Rothschilde printed upon them...doesn't mean anything in term of creating amazing whisky I know, but let's not forget that my day job's in grape-juice, and I think that entitles me to regard such barrels with due deference!

And then we come to the tasting. Dalmore do their video at this stage of the tour. Back in the day it was Brian Cox (actor not scientist!) narrating 'the story of the Dalmore' - eg cut and paste the Dalmore's name into any distillery video anywhere in Scotland, add a couple of individual accolades at the end and there's your script. However this is now changed, and what you have instead is a video of Mr Paterson earnestly relating his opinion of the best way to taste a glass of whisky in order to derive maximum appreciation. And I actually really like that. Whether or not I agree with his tips or would personally taste in that manner myself there's no denying that it comes across as more sincere and informative than its filmic predecessor. Indeed of all the distillery videos I have now watched, this is the only one (other than the first one I ever saw) to which I can honestly say that I paid attention throughout.

But on to the main event. The fire and brimstone of the internet's purists ringing in my ears I pick up the glass with heart in mouth and nostrils a-tremble to find...

The Dalmore 12yo -  Ok, firstly, don't let your nose be guided by the colour, because otherwise you'll be way off. This is a whisky that can last for decades and decades, so at this infancy the spirit character is big and prominent and fiery and full of bright fruit on the nose in citric, malic (green apples) and mildly tropical form. Robust on the palate with some savoury chocolate and a dusting of coffee behind the vanilla and caramel layers. Returning to the nose there are the very earliest suggestions of sultana and faint Christmas spice. Despite only being bottled at 40% the alcohol jumps out on both nose and tongue. Full bodied. 40%ABV

So. The devil in a dram? No. Between a stunning setting, astoundingly friendly staff and more than averagely interesting and comprehensive tour the Dalmore certainly isn't that. Furthermore I actually rather like Mr Paterson and the cut of his jib; in fact there are few if any people in the world of whisky that I would be as keen to meet in person. And as far as the colouring and chill filtration go - yes they're bad habits, yes
it would be a better dram without them, but are they unique in these habits? No. Numerous distilleries of greater size and equal if not greater prestige than the Dalmore do just the same. Are things likely to change any time soon? No. Not whilst the uninformed link colour to calibre. And that's nothing to do with people being 'idiots' or 'snobs' as the more vitriolic of these practices' critics suggest. It is simply because marketing and the media have created a scenario within which high quality whisky is invariably shown as being dark in colour, so those who wish to take their interest no further than a dram upon occasion (which is a perfectly reasonable attitude encompassing the mindsets of most of the whisky drinking world) will inevitably lean towards whiskies of a duskier hue.

And for what it's worth, the Dalmore, both whisky and distillery, are still very special to me. Is the 12yo the best entry-level on the market? No. Although objectively it is still fairly high up there and a dram with legions of followers 
that will appeal in many many ways to drinkers both new and seasoned. But more importantly it's a Whisky that I love, and if I turn a slightly blind eye to its foibles, well isn't that what love is?

A wonderful day ends with a detour to Fiddlers in Drumnadrochit by Loch Ness, one of my favourite pubs in the world, and with hundreds and hundreds of whiskies on offer a must-visit for all weary Whisky pilgrims. But needing to drive back to Inverness to stay with some old friends I muster the mental fortitude required to limit myself to just one. With a week of exploration and discovery ahead I take this opportunity to return to the comfort of the whisky which means more to me than any other in the world. But which whisky that is is a story for another day.


Wednesday, 16 September 2015

The Long Way Up. 6th September. Dalwhinnie and Tomatin

It's 6 O'Clock on Sunday Morning. I'm brutally jaded and leaning against the old Vauxhall Corsa as I fill up the tank at a deserted Tesco Petrol Station. I'm trying to ignore the little voice in the back of my head telling me that getting up this early just so you can drive 350 miles to make the 1 O'Clock Dalwhinnie tour and have time to squeeze in Tomatin another 50 miles up the A9 just isn't worth it, but it's an insistent old voice.

'By the way,' it goes on, 'don't think I didn't see you packing that f***ing tent earlier. If you think we're doing any more ad hoc camping on this trip you've got another think coming.' I don't know what to tell the little voice - I'm a man on a budget. Between the cost of tours and petrol it'll be as much as I can do to buy food!

The voice is grumbling about my having skipped breakfast when I hit the M6 and begin the long straight line which, but for a minor
wiggle around Glasgow, takes you straight to Inverness. The less said about the monotony of the next 6 hours the better really, and around about half 12 the Cairngorms open up and reveal the familiar friendly face of the Dalwhinnie Distillery.

If I tell you to picture a distillery, the one in your head is probably Dalwhinnie. Clean white walls, pagoda roofs and nestled in a stunning natural bowl in the mountains. It isn't quite the highest distillery in Scotland, as Braeval in Speyside sits at a slightly higher altitude, but it is the highest whose Whisky is available under the Distillery's own label. It is also one of the classic malts, so out comes the 'passport', and that'll be zero pounds thanks awfully! Despite the unbelievably gorgeous weather (not a cloud in the sky!) there's a bit of a nip in the air. Unsurprising given this is the coldest inhabited village in the UK, with snow on the ground
for 9 months of the year.

The guide takes us round the distillery which, true to Diageo form, is very clean, well-laid-out and signposted with pictures of the flavours and aromas they expect you to pick up. Also true to Diageo form they have a nicely trimmed and focussed core range - 15 yo, Distiller's Edition, a 'triple matured' expression and their new 'Winters Gold' which is made exclusively from Spirit distilled in a particular season. Guess which. It's not a big distillery - one wash still and one spirit - but the Whisky is pretty easy to come by, with the 15 year old being available in Supermarkets. It's also one that I would heartily heartily recommend to either seasoned drinkers or those who have never touched a drop of Scotch in their lives - affordable, accessible and most importantly chuffing delicious. (That's an official tasting term.) The distillery is also a great one to visit - sitting literally next to the A9 it couldn't be easier to find, and it
provides a nice 'rest point' on what is otherwise a long and sluggish road from Perth to Inverness. For those with a sweet tooth the tour also includes a delicious piece of Scottish Chocolate to pair with the dram. I certainly know a couple of people who would be keener to join me on my visits if a few more distilleries followed suit...

Dalwhinnie 15yo - Very cold in the cask room where the samples are dished out, so I take mine into the shop and give it a few moments to warm up and get the nose open. Super fresh and crispy when it does - guide Willie reckons vanilla; I would say that ultra-light honey, heather and honeycomb are a touch ahead. White flowers, Granny Smiths and orange juice too, and the minute touch of peat used translates into an almost mineral clarity. Vanilla clearer on the palate. Tiny bit of sweetness, but not cloying - clean and light in body. Great liveliness. Perfect aperitif - the whisky world's answer to Chablis! 43% ABV

I can take my time a little more in reaching Tomatin, but at this point my entire day's sustenance has been a muffin and a coffee snatched at Gretna services. (Oh, and the whisky and a square of chocolate...) I decide, since the only place that serves food doesn't

do anything more substantial than sandwiches, to push straight through and get Tomatin ticked off before Inverness. This is the decision of a sleep-deprived clown, as a result of which I spend a fair amount of time at Tomatin joining the others in the group in looking around for the source of the stomach rumbling noises. (Well I'm hardly going to stick my hand up and say 'I'm the culprit guys.' Pretty sure they knew it was me though.)

I've been a fan of Tomatin for a while now, so it's nice to go back for a visit. I join a large party of French tourists for the tour, one of whom is literally obsessed with barley. I'm not sure he even cares about the end product, just keeps sticking up his hand at intermittent points and asking further barley related questions. 'How big are the grains?' 'How cold-resistant is the barley?' 'Is it two-barley or six-barley?' (I have no idea what that last question means and neither did our beleaguered guide.)

Back in the 70s Tomatin was the largest distillery in Scotland creating 13 million litres of Spirit per year before going into liquidation in the 80s and then being bought and re-opened by a Japanese company. These days it is considerably smaller - something in the region of 2.5 million litres - but the buildings remain their enormous size, and you can see where the old stills used to be. They also have a second (no longer used) mash tun, which they have removed part of the side of, so you can walk in. If it were me I'd install some furniture and use it as an office, though I accept that doing so would be impractical and peculiar. Tomatin is also worth visiting if you want to take photos during the tour. Diageo's Distilleries, and indeed many others have a 'no photos other than in the shop or outside the distillery' policy, but at Tomatin it's all fair game except from right next to the stills, which is reasonable enough.

In edition to the unpeated Tomatin the distillery makes a very lightly peated expression, the Cu Bocan, which is my personal favourite of their whiskies. It's very reasonably priced, but since they only distill peated malt for one week of the year there isn't much of it about. Worth looking up though. They also do a non aged dated whisky, the Legacy which has a cracking nose, a cask strength expression and an age range from 12 to 25. (Plus some special editions here and there.) For my money their spirit is at its best when aged in American casks, but that's just opinion.

Anyway, we make our way around the distillery, warehouse, bottling line and cooperage (one of only 4 owned by distilleries in Scotland) before returning to the bar for that well-earned dram. There are a fair few available to taste, but since I'm driving I stick to the flagship 12, contenting myself with merely nosing the others.

Tomatin 12 yo - A touch muted on the nose, initially at least. Savoury barley, then soft pear and a smidge of chocolate and orange. Oak relatively prominent, accompanied by some attractive caramels and sugars and a forgivable touch of sulphur. Bit nutty on the palate and finish - hazels not walnuts; the sherry influence here definitely second fiddle to the bourbon cask mainstay. Fairly rounded and chewy. Alcohol warming but not too fiery. Medium bodied. 43% ABV

Reaching Inverness has the feeling of coming home, though it's been a year since I visited and 18 months since I lived here. Perhaps it's the gorgeous weather, the familiar walk through the town and the chance meeting with an old colleague at a Starbucks, but after hours in the car and the 2 day journey 550 miles Northwards from Bristol I'm able to think: 'worth it.' Two brilliant distilleries ticked off, holiday officially begun and the clean, fresh scent of the early autumn Highlands in my nostrils. The grumpy little voice is clearly still making itself heard though, because I take one look at the tent and decide 'you know what, no financial saving is worth this.' I'll be staying with some friends from Monday night onwards, but tonight I book myself into the cheapest hotel the internet can find. As it turned out I would have had more room if I'd just slept in Tomatin's empty mash tun!