Sunday, 1 November 2015

The Race to the Pub. 11th September, Talisker and Ben Nevis (and the Railway Inn)

0700 Hrs
Mission: To drive 111 miles to the Talisker Distillery on Skye, take the tour, drive 105 miles to the
Ben Nevis Distillery in Fort William, take the tour, then drive a further 334 miles to get back to my Family's home on the Wirral. And - and this is the crucial part - I must arrive back home in time to go to the pub with one of my oldest friends, and future Whisky convert, Rob. Why? Principally because these days with me being in Bristol and his being in Warwick we don't see as much of each other as we did when we lived  across the road. But also because a pilgrimage that doesn't end at the pub was not a pilgrimage worth setting out on in the first place. It's not the most exciting pub, the Railway Inn - the draught cider selection in particular is miserable - but it's our local, and that's what counts.

And so, tyres full of air and tank full of petrol my Vauxhall chariot piles past Loch Ness and thunders through yet more Middle Earth-esque splendour as the miles towards Skye tumble away. I've commented before on the jaw-dropping beauty to be found in the Highlands, but the apex is the West Coast, and Skye has some of the best. In my days working for Majestic Wine Inverness I'd occasionally do deliveries out as far as Portree, and it really is the sort of place that you could do nothing but drive around for 8 hours and you wouldn't have wasted the day. Barring a minor instance of nearly being run off the road by an elderly lady in a Volvo I reached Carbost on the stroke of 9:15, and got out of the car to see (and I'm 99% certain it was, and if it wasn't then God knows what it could have been because it was sodding enormous) a White Tailed Sea Eagle soaring in the distance.
Which was really just the cherry on the cake that is Talisker's situ - yet another in the pantheon of gorgeous distillery locations, with the spear-sharp Black Cuillins looming behind and the bay leading out to the Atlantic. Considering the storm-tossed wildness of Talisker's brand image I can't help but feel I'm here on the wrong day; a week of near-flawless weather rounded off by yet another corker.

It's lucky I'm a smidge early, because the distillery is the busiest I've seen since Oban. I book a ticket for the first tour, receive a nice little distillery badge (still pinned to my coat 2 months later!) and after turning my phone off (Diageo!) we crack on. Talisker's a whisky I'm a huge fan of, yet for some reason don't drink all that often. One of those that you come back to and wonder why you don't drink it more. Perhaps it's just me being a snob, because Talisker's another that's pretty easy to come by (so if you haven't yet then pop down to your nearest supermarket and make sure you do) and I'm often after something more off the beaten track, but ever since they sponsored a bloody awesome lunch show at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2012 it's been a pretty special whisky to me and Rachel, and I've wanted to visit for a long long time.

My German companions of the last 5 distillery tours are happily in absence today, but they have been replaced by a new pain in the hole in the shape of a mouthy American. Actually all the rest of his
party are lovely, albeit competing throughout the tour to see who can crack the most wise, but this bloke just keeps interrupting Beth, our guide, and doing quite a lot of showing off. He also has a habit of making a joke of varying levels of quality, and then repeating it several times in case anyone had missed it, and he got pretty unpleasant on being told that he couldn't take photos throughout the tour. I admit I sympathise with the sentiment, but it's Diageo's policy, and not something to take out on Beth. Anyway, we plough on past mash tun and washbacks and into the still house, which is very interesting indeed. Talisker has 2 wash stills and 3 spirit, a hangover from their former days of triple distillation. They're also completely different in shape; the wash stills being tall with onion shaped pots and the spirit stills tiny with pear shapes. Well I think it's interesting! Unfortunately the casks are behind a glass wall from us, so no lovely smells! They're pretty much all ex-American at Talisker, with just a few alternatives for bits and pieces of finishings.

It's near the end of the high season, so they're all out of the 10yo at the distillery, and our taster is of the non-age-dated Storm. My American friend takes umbrage with this as 'I have several bottles of Storm at home - and Dark Storm. Why don't you go and open me something interesting?' Wishing she'd spit in his sample to make it more interesting I crack on with the tasting.

Talisker Storm - (Peatier than 10yo) Charcoal and cured meat at the forefront, followed by a real expression of Maritime place - touch of seaweed and brine. Surprisingly delicate - there's a real wildflower and orange juice zest, and the peat (for those not usually keen) certainly doesn't overwhelm on the nose. Smoke a touch more prominent on the palate, with a touch more savoury wood. As this clears a nice sweet butterscotch vanilla emerges alongside that bright pepper kick. Salt and light peat linger on finish. 45.8%ABV

I linger briefly to ask Beth a couple of production questions - turns out she's from Wells, near my current neck of the woods, and works at Talisker after falling in love with Skye on a holiday - before remembering that I'm against an ever ticking clock, and have 100 miles to cover before Ben Nevis. Irksomely those 100 miles are riddled with slow drivers on windy single carriageways, and more than a couple of roadworks later I realise that my aim of arriving for 2pm isn't going to happen. In fact it is half two when I arrive in Fort William, get my bearings and reach the distillery.

I'm very intrigued by this last stop of the week. Until a few months back I didn't even know there was a Ben Nevis Distillery, and all that I know now is that it is owned by the fantastic Japanese Company Nikka, and that my online mate the Amateur Drammer visited it recently and reckoned it was pretty solid. So I've no idea what to expect as I make my way through the doors and into the rather Alpine decor of the charming visitor centre. The guide Joe kindly shoehorns me into the tour that has just started, though he informs me regretfully that I'll have missed the starting video. I adopt a sad face. Pretty sure it was convincing...

And so begins one of the more bemusing tours I've ever been on (distillery or otherwise!) Joe is absolutely brilliant value, and the tour has more of an air of someone showing us round their house than of anything formal. The family atmosphere becomes even more apparent when we encounter Joe's grandson (think it wasn't a joke!) working
with the mash tun. It all seems pretty laid back - I ventured a question about production quantities whilst walking from one room to the next and I'm told 'oh, just to order.' So far as I can glean production is increasing, and the two spirit and two wash stills would suggest that capacity is around 2 million litres per year, but since details were a bit vague on how much of the year they operate for and what percentage goes towards blends I'm still left in the dark.

Chattering away Joe shows us a selection of different casks outside the cask house, although we don't go in, and then we return to the visitor centre for a dram. However
here we hit a snag. What we're poured is one of their blended whiskies, the 'Supreme Selection Nevis Dew.' Now I'm a massive fan of blended whisky, and I intend to cover it more thoroughly in a blog someday. However the purpose of this pilgrimage is to compare the different single malts that distilleries have to offer. There isn't a bottle of the 10yo open, so I purchase a miniature, but after drinking the blend (which was fairly decent if not earth shattering) I'd be over the Scottish limit if I tried the malt here, so I decided to take it home and evaluate it this evening.

It's now half 3, which gives me five and a half hours to travel the 334 miles home if I want to be at the pub for 9. Firing up the engine I hit the road, and despite a massive cyclathon going on in the other lane I am soon through Glencoe, past Loch Lomond and on the long stretch of Motorway from Glasgow to home. No comment on how heavy my foot was on the accelerator, but the upshot of 300 miles without a break
was that I arrived with twenty minutes to spare - the perfect opportunity to sort out my miniature and round off the tour.

As great as the tour was, the laid back manner, vague answers and ever-so-slightly dirty-looking stills have made me wonder whether the malt would be up to much. The fact I hadn't heard anything about it also suggested that I'd be in for an average tasting experience at best. Which would be a shame after a pilgrimage leg which has involved some of the best entry-level malt that Scotland (and indeed the world) can show. But I pour out the sample (into my Highland Park glass as it happened) and raise it to my nose.

Ben Nevis 10yo - Tasting this whisky at home from my little bottle has been a lesson in humility. Not having heard much about the whisky before and given the slightly ad-hoc nature of the tour I had expected, at best, a par-level also-ran. What I got was a truly excellent entry-level single malt - sweet, fruity and honeyed on the nose and with that light, elegant smoke and salinity which always wins me over. Chewy and salt-toffeed with gasps of coffee on the palate and a finish replete with hazelnuts and a dab more of that heathery smoke, this is a Single Malt deserving of far more widespread recognition than it currently has; a truly magnificent 10 year old and a lovely way to round off this leg of the pilgrimage. 46%ABV

The bottom line is that this is a distillery to be visited both in terms of friendliness of welcome and quality of product. And that not knowing much about a particular whisky is no reason to suspect that it won't be worth drinking. My lesson in preconceptions gloriously over the doorbell rings and Rob and I make our way to The Railway for a well earned pint. Scotland once again has delivered an absolutely sensational week, and in terms of the average quality of the distilleries, not one which I think will be easily matched by any of the legs to come, if at all. It'll be 2016 when I next make my way North; holiday's a non-option now business has entered peak time. But I've earned a short break. 27 distilleries down, 70 or thereabouts to go.


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