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. 


No comments:

Post a Comment