Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Orkneyingasaga: Hero Worship and Fond Farewell. September 10th, Highland Park and Scapa

So I'm sat in Scrabster waiting for my ferry as I nurse a coffee in what is undoubtedly the twee-est (real word) cafe in the world. It's the sort of brilliant cafe where no two cakes look the same, and the tea would probably be served in a pot accompanied by a floral cosy. There's even a knitted - knitted! sign in the toilet bearing the rhyme 'if you sprinkle while you tinkle, be a sweetie and wipe the seatie,' beside a second sign written in the same vein about the correct disposal of feminine hygiene products. After a long drive up from Inverness I am at this moment in time an extremely relaxed and contented pilgrim.

I'm even more contented a couple of hours later when the ferry sets sail, and I find myself on deck,
not a cloud in the sky, sun just beginning to dip below the huge and distant horizon and watching the gannets diving and the vast rocks of the Orkneys beginning to loom. The route from Scrabster to Stromness takes us around Hoy, and quite a crowd gathers cameraphones-in-hand as we plough past the Old Man, a massive spear of rock erupting out of the sea to guard the storm-battered cliffs. The ambience is briefly threatened by a chap who has clearly taken advantage of the on-board bar sliding about, crashing into people and loudly shouting 'let's have it in the Orkneys' but happily his bravado and face are irreparably put paid to when, in the act of trying to take a selfie with the Old Man he accidentally flings his Samsung
overboard and into the brine. It's almost a shame he didn't have a second camera just to capture his subsequent facial expression.

We reach Stromness with only the slight hitch of having seen my German stalkers cross the on board bar, and after sprinting through the dark streets in search of an ATM I board the last bus to Kirkwall with seconds to spare. The subsequent journey however is fraught with nervousness. I looked in the boot of my car before abandoning it to board the ferry and found the tent staring back at me with its customary malevolence. At that sunlit moment on the Scrabster Quay I decided life was too short! There would be, I was certain, some cheap hotel or other in Kirkwall which could offer me shelter for the night. However I am now on the bus and the immediate future seems clouded and uncertain so far as where I am going to sleep is concerned. It is pitch black, the internet signal is predictably non-existent and I find myself wondering how comfortable the Kirkwall benches are likely to be. The glittering streetlights engulf the bus, my nervousness reaches
its zenith, and then suddenly - salvation! And in the unlikeliest of guises. My ears must be deceiving me. The nice group at the front of the bus, not a one of whom can be young enough not to have a free bus pass tucked away somewhere can't possibly have just asked whether this is the stop for the youth hostel can they? But yes - they reiterate their question and the driver is giving his affirmation. And a twenty minute walk sees me agreeing a very reasonable rate for a twin room of which I am apparently tonight's only occupant. And the cherry on the cake comes at three in the morning when I drag myself out of bed, haul myself South of the city and drink in the indescribable magnificence that is the Aurora Borealis. I didn't take my camera with me - my phone is charging in my room, so no photos I'm afraid, but that's possibly just as well. No photo ever taken has done the Northern Lights justice, so let this simply serve as a sincere encouragement to you, dear reader, to get yourself in a position to see them for yourself.

The morning sunrise brings with it a view of pagoda roofs from my window. Entirely the wrong direction to be Scapa, which can make it only one other distillery. I check out of the hostel and, following the map, make my way to the building which produces, in this pilgrim's opinion, the best whisky in all the world. The bottle of whisky which means more to me than any other comes from Glenfiddich. The entry level which I rate most highly comes from Springbank. The whisky I consider my favourite is the Aberlour A'Bunadh. But for overall quality of every single expression they make the distillery I have always admired most is Highland Park. If I am a pilgrim, then this remote distillery in the windswept Orkneys is my temple and place of worship. As I pass beneath the gateway and book my ticket I'm actually literally shaking. This place means that much to me. And if that sounds stupid then I would ask English football fanatics how they feel when they go to Wembley, or Welsh Rugby supporters how moved they are by a home game at the Millennium Stadium. I may only follow sport moderately, but Whisky is my passion, and in Whisky terms that's where I am now.

I have to say though, only Glenfiddich can match Highland Park's video for corniness! There's a
particular montage dedicated to the passing of time during which I have to cough a bit to disguise a snigger. But our guide Martin is brilliant, and clearly, like all the best guides, a true devotee of the distillery around which he leads tourists. Inevitably my German 'friends' have contrived to join the same tour as me, but here, in this place, I don't care. We're shown the difference between HP's signature heather-peat and the sort of peat used elsewhere - Martin even opens the kiln to burn a small piece and demonstrate the smell. There's a chalked message 'Swallows back 09/05' on the kiln and Martin explains that the birds return to the kiln rooms to nest every spring, and that their arrival is keenly anticipated by the distillery workers. It's also the first kiln I've ever seen 'in action,' and a fitting tribute to a distillery which still conducts its entire process from barley to bottle on site (albeit only doing 20% of their own maltings due to volume.) The other standout moment for me (tasting aside) comes at the nosing of the casks. The overwhelming majority of Highland Park is
matured in ex-Sherry butts. However of these butts some are made from European oak and some from American. We are shown one of each, both of which had the same Oloroso inside them, both of which have subsequently held the same HP spirit for the same length of time. The difference in aroma, I am here to tell you, was phenomenal. I'll admit to being more than a bit of a nerd where learning about oak and casks is concerned, and this was probably my most interesting and enjoyable practical lesson.

And so to the tasting. I don't suppose a month has gone by in the last 5 years during which I have not sampled the HP12, but of course nothing can beat the experience of trying it 'in situ.' Whilst the German mother drivels away to my right about how in her opinion it's another Scotch that doesn't get near Islay for calibre I just shut my eyes and drown it all out. They even let us keep the glass at the end, and whilst it may not be the biggest in my collection it has subsequently become my go-to dram vessel!

Highland Park 12yo - Heather honey, heather honey, heather honey. Nice saltiness, splash of orange, teensy wisp of smoke. Oh, hang on, I'm getting something. Yes - it's heather honey. Nice bit of zip on the palate, but complexity of flavour and natural oiliness keeps it mellow and smooth. If I had to be really picky there's a smidge of sulphur on the nose after smelling for ages, which does convert into the mildest palate bitterness on the finish, but most people won't notice this. Still my favourite distillery, and for class and complexity only one or two entry levels can compete. 40%ABV

I wander down deserted roads, briefly getting lost as a result of a wrong turning as I head South towards the vast blueness of Scapa Flow. The Germans are in the corner of my eye as I stroll along the curve of the beach, with cliffs and great white distillery walls ahead of me. Highland Park's a tough act to follow for anyone, and especially for me, but one of the distilleries capable of doing so is certainly Scapa. I came across it at University in its 16yo entity through a close friend who cited it as his favourite. My timing really couldn't be better for starting the pilgrimage either; Scapa only opened its doors to tourists in April, and I'm so glad they did, because the view from this place is something else. I've mentioned before that Dalwhinnie might have my ultimate distillery exterior, and that my favourite room is the stillhouse at Glenmorangie. Combine those with what you can see from the immaculate lawn behind Scapa and you have, in this critic's opinion, the recipe for aesthetic distillery perfection!

The visit's tinged with a certain sadness though, because the 16yo which my friend loved so much, and which I have come to love too, is due to be discontinued, replaced like so many other age-dated whiskies with a non-age-dated expression, the Skiren. I haven't tried the Skiren of course, so I can't possibly pass judgement, and the age versus non-age is a debate for another entry on another day, but I do know how I feel about the 16, and I know that its passing is a shame. The distillery is a cracker though, and worth visiting just for the view and for the only Lomond still currently in action in Scotland. No photos allowed I'm afraid, but it basically works the same way as a column still does for vodka, and is a hangover from the old days before Single Malt became fashionable. These days the
spirit is subsequently fed into a more typical pot still, but not before it has induced a heightened rectification and therefore purity and 'cleanness' to the spirit. We peek into the cask house where we learn that all spirit currently made at Scapa is put into casks and matured in Speyside, before returning to the visitor centre for the sombre moment that may be my final taste of the 16 year old Scapa.

Scapa 16yo - First thing that jumps out to me is a tropical fruit character - banana, pineapple. Bloke next to me has been showing off and shooting his mouth all tour, and loudly proclaims there to be no vanilla. He is mistaken - there is lots. Bit of peardrop too, and a whiff of something floral. No salt despite location - more creamy vanilla, honey and coconut on the palate. For me this needs to be
6% stronger - flavours are gorgeous but so much cleaner on nose than palate. Lovely Almond and Marzipan on finish. 40% ABV

Between finally visiting HP and tasting what might be my last ever Scapa 16 I'm in a very reflective mood as I make my way back to Kirkwall bus station and the long journey via bus, ferry and corsa that will take me back to my friends in Inverness. My predominant feeling though is that 24 hours is far too little time to spend in such a remarkable place as the Orkneys. Without a doubt this has been the best day of my whole pilgrimage, and I have no doubt whatsoever that I will be back again. For now though I have one day left of this most magnificent of pilgrimage legs - a day that will take me from Inverness to Skye, from Skye to Fort William and finally from Fort William down the long long road to the Wirral and to home.


Thursday, 8 October 2015

Northern Wolves. Interview with new Distillery Wolfburn

This whole blog idea came about because I wanted to open the eyes of my non-whisky drinking friends to the breadth of what was available. With that in mind my Pilgrimage has only so far been taking me to distilleries currently bottling their own Spirit. But with so much demand for Malt Whisky these days new distilleries are popping up all over the place, and it would be really short-sighted of me not to recognise that and have a look at what we'll be enjoying in years to come.

I'll admit I was first drawn to Wolfburn by the name, which I reckon may have set a new distillery standard! They're based up in Thurso, which means they've taken Pulteney's crown as Northernmost Mainland Distillery, and if you want to try and take that title off them you've probably got about a kilometer or two of wiggle room at the most before your feet get wet!

Unfortunately when I made my recent journey to the distant North I wasn't organised enough to sort out a meeting with the Wolfburn Team, so I'm really thrilled and honoured that they've let me ask their distillery manager Shane Fraser a few questions about the process of setting up the new distillery, and beginning the Whisky production. I'm hugely grateful to Shane for taking the time to provide the answers below, and I can't wait to visit the distillery in person and sample the malt. Happily their general release in March will be before my pilgrimage comes to an end in December 2016, so I'll definitely be heading their way!

Hi Shane. Firstly thanks so much for letting me ask a few questions! So if I could kick off by asking what the backstory is to setting up the Wolfburn Distillery, how you came to be involved and what drew you to the project?
 A: As my career in whisky progressed I gained plenty of experience of managing distilleries - so it was a logical step to help create one from scratch. It was also a huge opportunity - new scotch whisky distilleries aren't born every day, or even every year. From a professional point of view it's been a very enjoyable challenge to create a unique whisky profile
without a template to follow. 

What have been the main challenges involved in setting up a new distillery?
A: There have been plenty! Starting at the beginning it was figuring out what size plant to build, how big the vessels and stills should be, and where they should be located within the stillhouse. It was a completely blank canvas. Then of course - most importantly - we had to work out what kind of whisky we wanted to make, and adjust the milling, mashing, fermentation, distillation - everything, in fact - until we got the desired result. 

And what has been the part you’ve enjoyed most?
A: Achieving the result.  I will never forget nosing and tasting the new make spirit when it first entered the spirit safe, and realising we had produced exactly what we wanted: a beautiful light spirit, with a wonderful malty aroma. It really is something special. 

Obviously the spirit distilled thus far still hasn’t reached Whisky age yet, but what sort of a Scotch can we expect from Wolfburn in terms of the style of the new make, peated/unpeated and what sort of casks you’re using?
A: It's a traditional Highland spirit, smooth yet complex at the same time. There are floral and nutty elements, and just a hint of smoke even in our unpeated expression. We're now doing a few weeks of lightly peated production each year. Nothing heavy, it's only 10 parts-per-million phenol, but it adds a wonderful depth to the whisky. The first batch of this is maturing spectacularly well - it will be ready for release in 2017. 

You’ve had an amazing career with a few other distilleries prior to taking the reins at Wolfburn – are there any whiskies that are particularly inspiring/influencing the Wolfburn style?
A: I think I've taken some lessons learned from every distillery I have worked at for the past 25 years. Wolfburn's spirit is not modeled on any other whisky though. It's unique; it has a profile all of its own. We're very very proud of it.
Several of the best Distilleries in Scotland and indeed the world are in the Highlands North of Inverness and Orkney Islands – do you forsee Wolfburn reflecting its ‘sense of place’ and if so how?
A: You're right, we are in vaulted company in the far north. Our job is to create the best whisky we can. I guess ultimately our success will be for others to judge. But I'm delighted with the reception our spirit has so far achieved; people have said some fantastically positive things about it, which bodes very well for the future. 

Most importantly, when are we going to be able to try some Wolfburn?
A: Come and visit us in Thurso and you can try it anytime*!  We're also exhibiting this autumn at whisky shows in Paris, Frankfurt, Zurich and Amsterdam.  Our whisky will be on general release from March 2016, and will be available worldwide. 

* Please book in advance - 
Finally, what would be your ‘desert island dram’?
A: I think Wolfburn's inaugural release will be something very special. For me, having been involved with it every step of the way, it's probably the most satisfying whisky in the world.  
Thanks again Shane – all the best for the remainder of the project – can’t wait to taste the Whisky and visit the Wolfburn Distillery!

If you'd like to learn a little more about the goings on at Wolfburn then why not visit their website: or follow them on twitter @wolfburn_whisky

Tuesday, 6 October 2015

The Fog Descends. September 8th and 9th, Balblair, Glenmorangie, Clynelish and Pulteney

The sunshine was never going to last. And at least it's not raining, I point out to myself, as the car delves deep into fog thick enough to chew on, and the A9 trundles along for the third day in a row.
I've been too spoilt by the last couple of days though, and have decided that anything short of brilliant sunshine isn't good enough.

Passing through what I know to be gorgeous scenery when you can actually see it I cross the Beauly Firth, the Black Isle and the Cromarty Firth, past yesterday's Dalmore and, ignoring the signs for Glenmorangie (we'll come back to that!) make my way to the small village of Edderton and the Balblair Distillery.

You don't see a huge amount of Balblair knocking about - 85% of the malt goes into blends, but it's
pretty distinctive, as rather than releasing their whisky at specific ages, they label their product by vintage, wine-style, with the current most recent being '03. It's also one of the oldest distilleries, having been established in 1790. Being fairly small and out of the way they only do a couple of tours a day, and there aren't too many people about when I arrive. It's a lovely little distillery, and one whose product I have been a fan of for some time  now, a friend having turned me onto it midway through university. Allison our guide is very knowledgeable, and good fun -
she encourages everyone to sniff deeply at the washbacks. I decline. For those uninitiated, the washbacks are where the fermentation happens, and basic chemistry teaches that yeast plus sugar equals alcohol plus heat plus Carbon Dioxide. Health risks aside it's always fun to watch people jumping back when they've inhaled a bit too vigorously. I don't blame Allison - if I were a guide I'd do the same thing. On
the subject of health and safety, Balblair are also fine with photos being taken throughout the tour, which always earns an extra tick in my book!

We make our way around the distillery, taking it all in, smelling the deliciously aromatic new make (think fruity Werthers Originals!) and taking a look at the cask house in which some of the scenes for The Angels Share were shot, before returning to the visitor centre for the most important part!

Balblair 2003 - All refill bourbon casks. Delicate honey with green fruit and blossoms on the nose. Estery spirity influence. Almost a light touch of mint on the nose behind the restrained oak - very pale in appearance. Oily on the palate, with barley cereal notes and a decent middle-length finish. Lively, but not my 'breakfast whisky' of choice because of the huge size of the malt. Worth looking at the older vintages - a whisky that really grows into its age. 46% ABV

As an addendum I should say that at the time of writing this it is 3 days since the Whisky Show when I was lucky enough to
try the 99, 90 and 83 vintages. Try them - it definitely does grow into its age and they are stunning!

Abandoning Edderton I hop over the Dornoch Firth and into Dornoch itself, where I know from past experience that there is a pub that does a very good lunch. Fool that I am I order a side of garlic bread with my sausages and mash, and two heaped plates later I stagger to the car, having more or less doubled
in weight. (NB the gravy may have been the best I've ever had...)

And so to Glenmorangie (to rhyme with Orangey!) of which I am sure even the most whisky-avoiding of my readers will have heard. Of all the distilleries the pilgrimage has thus far taken me to, Glenmorangie is definitively the most famous and readily available. More or less any supermarket, bar or pub you go into will have a bottle with it's distinctive elegant curves and yellow (they might say orange, but it's definitely yellow) label. And we should all be glad of that. Because Glenmorangie is unquestionably delicious in all of its
many forms, and don't let anyone put you off by sneering at the mainstream. I tend to find that people who claim you can have too much of a good thing are usually people who aren't getting enough of it. 

It's not really surprising that Glenmorangie is owned by French Company LVMH - everything about the brand from the packaging to the look of the distillery itself has a sort of
'chateau' feel about it. Even the tasting glasses look a bit like Champagne flutes. You'll also find a selection of wine finishes, perhaps unsurprisingly, though of their predominant three only one (Sauternes) is French, with the other two being Port and Sherry. What is, in a way, surprising is that their sister distillery is Ardbeg. Whilst the quality of both is unquestionable you will be hard pressed to find two more polar opposites in Scotch Malt Whisky.

Anyway, it's clearly the day of mischievous guides, as yet again
other tourists are persuaded to stick their nose deeply into the washback. I have very little sympathy for one German lady who falls for the trick though - she has thus far spent most of the tour decrying the distillery and even outrageously saying openly that she thinks the guide is not doing a very good job thus far. To be completely clear, the guide hadn't put a foot wrong! The lady just deserved all the carbon dioxide the washback could throw down her nostrils.

I'm too preoccupied to take much notice though, because we are about to enter my favourite room in the Whisky Industry (not
including tasting rooms.) Glenmorangie is famous for producing an incredibly light and delicate spirit, and the main way they achieve this is by having incredibly tall, slender stills, and the house in which these are contained is quite simply breathtaking. This is the third time I have seen them, but the charm just doesn't die away. The long open room with the 6 pairs of towering stills lining the wall is beautiful. There's just no other word for it. Guttingly you can't take photos of them, but I urge you to utilise google images to see what I mean. I promise I'm not just being soppy!

On to the cask house, where we nose a few barrels, learning about 'finishing' in the process. We listen to a short presentation from a lady whose charity is working with Glenmorangie to clean up waste in the surrounding sea, and then it's on to taste number 2 of the day.

Glenmorangie 10yo - Penderyn levels of clean on the nose (though with deference to distillery age we should probably describe Penderyn as being 'Glenmorangie levels of clean'! Really light,
elegant honey with oak, vanillas and a dash of coconut. Malt light and sweet and dusted with tangeriney elements. Also faint traces of vanilla and caramel (not of the colouring variety!) Spicy heat on the tongue dissolving into more of that clean sweetness. Returning to the nose a candied citrus character now making its presence more clearly felt. 40% ABV

I drive back to Inverness and the comfort of my friends' spare room, but a few shared bottles of wine and a good night's sleep later I'm off North again, and if anything the fog is now even thicker! But anyway, I plough through because today's a big day. Today's Clynelish and Pulteney, and those are just two stonkingly magnificent distilleries that most of my friends won't ever have heard of, much less sampled the delights of, so there's just a wealth of stuff for me to lecture them about when I get back.

In fact nothing can spoil the mood. Not even the fog. Not even missing the view. Not even turning up at 10 at Clynelish and being told the first tour's at 11 - no bother, I'll just nip into town and grab breakfast and a coffee. Today is a good day, and nothing can change that.

Something changes that. I return to Clynelish at 11 for the tour, and some other people are there. And not just any other people. Remember the German lady I mentioned, the one who spent the Glenmorangie tour loudly opining that if it wasn't Islay it was a load of old bollocks, and that the tour guide wasn't performing to whatever mad standard she had internally set? She's there. Along with her husband and son, neither of whom seem to be allowed to get a word in edgeways, and also neither of whom at any point show the slightest interest in whisky. My mood is soured.

Which is a shame, because Clynelish is brilliant. It's another in the Diageo portfolio, so it's just 14yo, Distiller's edition, a distillery exclusive straight-from-cask and whatever you can find from independent bottlers. Interesting history too - the original Clynelish was set up in the early 19thC by the Duke of Sutherland, a massive bastard involved with some of the grubbiest episodes of the Highland clearances. He set the distillery up so his tenants could sell their barley and to alleviate his taxes a little, but apparently at the time the locals preferred the illegal whisky the bootleggers were making! But Clynelish endured until the 1960s, when a new distillery was built next door. That distillery then took on the name Clynelish and became the distillery I know and love today. The original was renamed Brora, and ultimately closed in 1983. As is the happy way with Whisky though the drams live on, and Brora is now amongst the most collectable and sought-after of all malts. Albeit pricey and there's not much left...

I digress. I get my Clynelish stamp and we make our way around, not taking photos (Diageo, remember?) and trying to blot out the nonsense and rudeness coming from my fellow tourists. Happily, nothing in the world can detract from the quality of the whisky Clynelish serves up at the end of the visit - honestly one of the best
whiskies on the market for less than £50 - and better than a lot that are over that sum!

Clynelish 14yo - Lovely brown sugars on the nose overlaying an almost earthy barley element. Touch of fruitcake spice and peardrop, then more of that muscovado and honey. Unique mouth-coating waxiness on the palate, and whilst the alcohol is lively the richness of the malt and the depth of the oak together with the extra maturity (by entry-level standards) keep it well in check. Nose becomes more fruity with time and finish more savoury. Superb. 46% ABV

The fog north of Brora is utterly heinous - visibility now probably about five metres. And this presents a problem, because as anyone who has driven the A9 from Brora to Wick will know there is a particular point when a massive downward slope turns immediately
into the tightest of hairpins. It's pretty unnerving at the best of times - they literally have gravel beds to catch errant drivers on either side of the road, but not even being able to see the turn when it happens causes at least a few of my hairs to prematurely grey. And then all of a sudden the fog disappears, and I am once again basking in mysteriously dazzling sunshine, with a shimmering blue sea on my left crashing against high cliffs as I drive the last few miles into Wick.

Confession time. The previous (and only) time I came to Wick I thought it was a hole. I was living in Inverness, on my day off, had no real plans and decided to visit John O'Groats. On the discovery that John O'Groats was the emptiest, grimmest most desolate
vestige of nowhere that would be turned down if it ever applied to be a circle of hell on the basis that no one has ever done something bad enough to deserve spending eternity there I returned to Inverness via Wick, where the clouds had hung grey and heavy, the rain had drizzled and my mood had blackened considerably, not helped by the astonishingly stale and rotten sandwich I was gracelessly served in some cafe where my accent caused a youth to loudly refer to me as something which I would not want my mother to read here. However on that fateful day I had decided to give the Pulteney Distillery a whirl. Not having experienced it before, knowing little about it and feeling a deep sense of foreboding at its somewhat Victorian Workhouse-esque exterior it had been to my immense surprise and delight to discover what was, to that point, the best distillery tour I had ever been on. And so I'm looking forward immensely to Pulteney, and looking forward to Wick not at all.

However today, in this indescribably beautiful weather I have an Epiphany. The town is gleaming, the sea is sparkling and at this moment it's just a perfect, wonderful place to sit. I have a heart-in-mouth moment when I go to Pulteney and am told that their tours are fully booked by a coach arriving in half an hour, but the incredibly friendly guide Kate decides to squeeze me in anyway. (Well, I'm only little.) Soul aglow I pop back outside and drink in the glorious day. And then a car pulls up and I'll give you two guesses who gets out. 'We think you must be following us,' comes their joke. 'No, no, no!' I am screaming internally. 'I've reached all three distilleries first, you're following me and kindly cut it out!' The lovely Kate squeezes them in too, worse luck, but happily the size of the group means that we are split into two tours, and so they wander off with the other half, though not before I've been left practically growling by their comment to their guide of 'I hope you are better than the last one we went to.'   

As for my tour, it is just brilliant. I have now been on so many tours of so many distilleries, and in all but one instance the guides have been absolutely outstanding, so I really can't pay a bigger compliment than to say that Kate was the best guide I've had thus far on the pilgrimage. When she found out what I was doing she took a genuine interest, but she managed to make everyone in what was a very large group feel individually catered for and spoken to. She also really knew her stuff, and was full of interesting Pulteney facts, such as the distillery being the only one in Scotland to have been closed by prohibition when the abstemious citizens of Wick voted in favour of the idea between 1922-47. I also didn't know (though probably should have guessed) that because of the whisky industry 47% of all barrels made in the USA end up in Scotland, or that wort, the sugary liquid converted by fermentation into alcohol is short for 'worthy.'

Pulteney's also worth a visit for its absolutely bizarre looking wash still, which features an absolutely enormous bulb on top of the main 'pot', followed by a very stubby little square-cut swan neck. This peculiar design is replicated in the shape of the top of their whisky bottles, though happily Pulteney allows photos, so you could just look at the one I took! We also went into an absolutely enormous cask warehouse with the barrels stacked 9 high. Needless to say there was a large amount of booze in the air - even more so than in the St George's warehouse!

I've recently been pleased to see Old Pulteney's delicious 12yo available in Supermarkets in England, so there's really no excuse for you all not going out and investing in a bottle. Certainly, based on the tasting described below it won't be long before I go out and get myself another one. (NB their 17 and 21 are spectacular.)

Old Pulteney 12yo - Ok, straight off the bat, only whisky thus far
on the pilgrimage that matches Springbank for saltiness. Slightly custard creamy biscuit too, and as the salt intensifies it brings with it a smidge of tropical stonefruit and a splash of more zesty citrus. Clear honey that matches the unmuddled aroma - no confused, fudgey mishmash here - casks complement malt beautifully. Palate arrives with a bit of vanilla tablet. Less complex than the nose - another 6% ABV would go a long way - but still a deeply impressive dram. 40% ABV

Thanking Kate I hop back into the Corsa and continue my journey North. The last two days have come up with four stupendous distilleries, but at this point I am only thinking of tomorrow. Because lying in wait across the sea are the Orkney Islands. That's where I am going for the first time in my life. And on those storm swept isles sits the distillery whose whisky I admire more than any other in the world. 


Sunday, 4 October 2015

Respecting My Elders and Playing the Field. 3rd October, The Whisky Show

It is 10am or thereabouts. My bus from Bristol, which left at 8 and should even now be pulling into
Victoria Coach Station is stuck at the back end of a 12 mile tailback on the M4, and Google Maps is estimating another 2 and a half hour wait before we reach our destination. Which would mean I would arrive at Victoria at precisely half 12, which is when the Gordon and Macphail Masterclass that I have a ticket for begins at the Whisky Exchange's annual Whisky Show. And I would be miffed to miss that. Quite apart from what I paid for it, the four whiskies lined up to taste exceed, when in bottle, my annual before tax earnings. Principally because one of them is the newly released 75yo Mortlach, coming in at a cool £20000 a bottle. (In a dull hour I worked out that the ml or so spilled down the rim of the bottle when poured would give you a loss of upwards of £30!) Such whiskies rarely enter my day to day life. At this point the total stands at 0. So yes, I would be miffed to miss them.

As it happened, thanks to some bullish driving from our bus driver we made it in time for me to

navigate the hefty Whisky Show queue and reach the masterclass with 5 minutes to spare. And I am a rather excited pilgrim. Finances have dictated that I have never before this point drunk a whisky older than the Highland Park 25 I bought my friend for his 25th, but at this tasting hosted by Charles Maclean and Gordon and Macphail's Stephen Rankin we will be tasting a 1938 malt bottled in the 80s, a 1954 bottled in 2012 and of course the 75yo. My horizons are about to be broadened.

But then a sour note. I mention this fact to a chap in the queue, to which his response is to raise his eyebrows, and with not a note of humour reply 'this'll be a bit out of your league then,' before turning away. I am seething. The English language contains many useful words for dealing with instances such as this, but at this point they all fail me, and I'm not the sort to vocalise them anyway,
at least not to his face. But this, for me, represents the rankest depths of arrogant ignorance. It is the precise reason why so many people outside the whisky (and indeed wine) industry attach to it the mistaken stigma of exclusivity and snobbery. In order to get my ticket for this masterclass (and indeed the whisky show) I have had to set aside a considerable chunk of my monthly salary. Furthermore to secure a masterclass place I had less than a minute's window to click the 'purchase' button, prior to which I spent 5 minutes with trembling hand mashing the F5 key to refresh the screen. Frankly for anyone to get this ticket demonstrates a bloody minded commitment to and love of whisky which deserves more than a sneer and a curt snub. Besides which I believe that all whisky is created for the enjoyment of the consumer whosoever they may be; that once you have the power to put it in your glass it is yours to enjoy as you will and to the extent of your own 'ability.' And it is certainly no one else's business how and with what you do so. Rant over. (Or at least suspended indefinitely.)

My ire is cooled considerably by the sight of the sets of 4 glasses on the tables in the 'classroom.' I
can see quite a lot of the ticketholders walking with an exaggerated crouch to discern which glasses are fullest before picking their seat, but deciding that they're near as makes no odds identical I just plonk myself into an available spot nearish the front. Stephen Rankin introduces himself and the tasting, before Charles Maclean arrives a few minutes late and the tasting begins.

Over the next hour we are taken gradually through the four Mortlachs, three of which are detailed above, and the 4th of which is a 12yo distilled in the 60s. Both Mr Maclean and Mr Rankin are incredibly warm in their welcoming, enthusiastic in their speeches and clearly passionate about their subject. There was a moment when Mr Rankin was doing his introduction during which Mr Maclean was quickly nosing the 4 whiskies privately in the background to reacquaint himself, and such a look of pleasure came over his face that it almost felt intrusive to watch! But lovely and somewhat
inspiring to see that, after so many years, whisky clearly still brings so much joy to him.

And what of the Mortlachs themselves? Well, as expected, my horizons are now broader. There was certainly one (not the 75yo as it happens) which had been too long in its cask, but overall the Masterclass was exactly as it should have been; something astonishingly special - the sort of moment that you don't want to become routine, because then you would have nothing to aspire and look forward to. Would I (if I were able to) pay the bottle prices for any of them? No. Simply because I cannot justify in my head the price tag, despite understanding why it is set as it is. Do I hope to try such whiskies again? Yes. Sincerely and fervently. But not too soon. Just long enough to keep it special when it happens. I did take some notes, but in this instance I'm afraid they're just for me. And that makes them special too.

But today is not just about the Masterclass. It is the Whisky Exchange's Annual Show, with literally
hundreds of bottles available to taste. And so I leave the classroom after the tasting and, in the bewildering labyrinth of whisky stands am unsure where to start. I walk around the room seeking inspiration and taking the whole circus in, and because a close friend recently visited their distillery and a colleague described their 15yo as his favourite I eventually settle on the Glenfarclas stall to draw first blood. Tentatively holding out my glass I request a drop of their 10yo, work my way through the available flight and the day begins in earnest.

If you love whisk(e)y then you must must must visit the Whisky Show. If you quite like whisk(e)y, then you must also go along, because I suspect you will come away again loving it. I'll admit I baulked a little at the ticket price initially (£99 per day or £160 for the weekend, not including any masterclasses) but when you get there and you realise what that price gets you, you realise that it is basically a steal. Quite apart from the 'dream drams,' for which you get one token with your entry price, quite apart from the two-
course meal thrown in and quite apart from the staggering number of bottles open what really got me was the sheer quality of what is available to taste purely as part of your entry fee. Between 1:30 and 6:30 I made my way through 87 individual whiskies, which I reckon was less than a third of what was on offer. And it was a slog. I've done quality control for wine tastings in which I've got through about 100 different wines in an hour or so, but the toll that whisky exacts is just so much more brutal and demanding. 87 was the most that my palate could take - any more and I don't imagine I'd have been able to pick out much difference whatsoever.

But what an 87! I took in Scotland, Wales, England, Ireland, the US, India, Japan, Taiwan and Sweden. I even had my first (and hopefully not last) experience of expressions from France and New Zealand. I tasted several whiskies that I have lusted after for years, rekindled some old acquaintances and managed to surprise myself with my own self discipline in spitting every last drop out. (Much to the chagrin of an elderly chap from Edinburgh who literally grabbed me by the arms and shook me by the Balvenie stall demanding that I drink it
properly, insisting that no one could taste anything after three or four, so you might as well swallow it all and describing me as 'a disgrace' when I proceeded to spit out the 25 year old single cask. Actually, on that particular dram I could sort of see his point...)

Highlights? Well, those Mortlach Masterclass drams rank highly. It's not every day you try a whisky more than three times your age (in fact I'd be curious to know how many, if any, other people have done so) and the distilled in '38, bottled late '80s expression is probably the best nose I've ever experienced on any alcoholic drink. Meeting Mr Maclean and Mr Rankin was also rather special, though I wish I'd had time to actually have a chat. In terms of the whiskies from the main show, finally experiencing Redbreast 21 and the
Octomore fulfilled some long-held dreams, as did the '83 Balblair, the Balvenie 25 and numerous, numerous others. It's always nice to come back to old favourites too, and I very much enjoyed the Springbank/Hazelburn/Longrow flight (my dream dram token went on a SB21 bottled in the 80s) as well as the English Whisky co selection and the new batch of Aberlour A'Bunadh (52). But my particular high point, partially because I had no idea they would be there, partially because I had never tried them (from any vintage) before but mostly because they are just so staggeringly awesome was the full flight of the 2015 Antique Collection from Buffalo Trace. For those unaware these comprise The Eagle Rare 17yo, George T. Stagg, William Larue Weller, Thomas H. Handy Barrel Proof Sazerac (Straight Rye) and Sazerac 18 (Straight Rye.) If you are to any degree a fan of American Whiskey, do whatever you can to try any and all of the above. But you may struggle, because they keep most of it on the other side of the pond, the selfish bastards!

I can't imagine that too many people follow up tastings of whiskies worth up to £20k per bottle by eating a Sainsbury's meal deal and taking the national express home, but that is what I proceed to do, almost immediately falling asleep in my seat and trying not to crush my tasting glass in the process. Arriving in Bristol I blearily pick my way through throngs of Saturday Night Students, and feel terribly old. Almost collapsing through my front door I pour the complimentary miniature each show visitor was given into a glass and sip it slowly, barely registering what's on the television as I do so. But that glass is raised, albeit tiredly and feebly, to the show, to the Whisky Exchange, and above all to the countless distillers, blenders, coopers, craftspeople and representatives whose work went into making such a unique experience possible. I can't wait to visit
again next year.