Thursday, 26 May 2016

Campbeltown Open Day Part One. May 18th. Glen Scotia

If I end this year with one whisky regret I suspect it will be that I didn’t make it to the Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival. I missed out on Feis Ile too - in fact I am missing out as I type! - but given I got a week on Islay and Jura with Pilgrim snr in March it’s difficult to care too much on that score. Actually I had a cracking weekend whilst Spirit was going on; I was busy sweeping all before me in an underground table tennis bar for a friend’s 26th, and later heading to Southwold to visit the alchemists of Adnams. Besides, Speyside’ll still be there next year.

But I’d had it flagged as a possibility before my friend’s birthday plans popped up, and there was a part of me that looked with envy upon the twitter feeds of those who made the trip. So it’s a particularly excited Pilgrim who hops into his faithful Corsa on the morning of the 17th of May and points its nose Northwards in the direction of the Campbeltown Whisky Festival.

And then points its nose Westwards, because before I can make the ponderous drive across the border I’ve a morning of work to do, would you believe? A pretty hefty morning of work as it turns out, because colleagues have picked the same days to go on their own jaunts, which leaves me to man the guns and batten the hatches
solo. By the time the hypothetical lunch bell dings I’m bursting to be away – the moment the clock hits 12:30 I’m through the doors like a scalded rat and on the motorway with all the speed my valiant vessel can muster. (Which is just about the speed limit if we’ve a strong wind behind us and a downhill gradient.)

As usual the less said about the next 7 hours the better. The M6 is about as kind as it ever is, which is to say that Stoke to Manchester is a nightmare and everywhere else is passable. Other than a quick stop at the unparalleled Westmorland Services to refuel (me, not the car – their sausage rolls are without equal) I don’t take my foot off the pedal until I hit Strathaven, just South of Glasgow, where I’ll be staying the night with my partner in tasting crime Will.

As is tradition, forged in the fires of our WSET revision days back up in Inverness, we’ve both brought bottles of vino for the other to blind taste. Custom dictates that these are selected from the ‘you’ll never guess this in a million years’ end of the rack, (past offerings have featured Indian wine and a light, unfortified Pedro Ximenez from Chile) but we’ve clearly softened with time, because Will comes within a sniff of nailing the Brunello (an Italian red) that I’ve supplied, and in a great departure from usual form I get his Albarino (a Spanish white) spot on. Though honesty forces me to admit I’d actually had one a week earlier. 

The blind tastes don’t end with wine of course – the night is still young, and the spirits have yet to emerge. When they do, after a random drop of Fino Sherry, we see off a veritable buffet of distilled alcohol; mostly whisky, though the sadistic rotter did at one point hand me a glass of what turned out to be grappa. (‘Smells like a grappa/catsick blend’ was my uncharitable comment before he unmasked its identity. In its defence it was actually ok so far as grappa goes, but that’s still like accusing someone of being ‘only slightly murdery.’) Some time later we’ve visited Aberfeldy 18, Redbreast 12, Glenlivet Nadurra Peated Cask, Tincup Colorado Whiskey, Stronachie 10 and Four Roses Small Batch. We toy with
giving the A’Bunadh a hearing, but decide wisely that at this point the hearing would fall upon deaf ears, so we turn in instead.

The next day, after fortification with my standard coffee (‘strong as an angry ox and black as the Earl of Hell’s waistcoat’ as I once heard a fantastic old nutter say in a teashop) I’m back in the Corsa and speeding towards Campbeltown. As anyone who has ever driven in Scotland knows, once you pass Glasgow the motorway melts into hundreds upon hundreds of miles of the best scenery in Britain. Frankly I’d happily spend days doing nothing but driving about up there – or better still, being driven and watching the view. The clouds are hanging low over Lomond, but the Loch itself is mirror smooth, and as silver as I’ve ever seen it. This is the third time I’ve driven through Argyll on the pilgrimage, and the fourth time in my life, and it simply never gets tired. However I’m only half-sure that the Argyll folk could tell you with any degree of accuracy what colour the sky is; ‘good weather’ in that part of the world translates as ‘mid-level downpour.’ And indeed the windscreen wipers are getting a workout as I sweep around Loch Fyne and down the A83. 

The clouds are starting to disperse as Tarbert disappears behind me and the long, straight stretch of Kintyre rolls out ahead, waves breaking on the beaches and rocky shores to my right. Less than an hour later I’m finally arrived, 530 miles from my blast-off point in Reading. The one-time whisky capital of the world, the home of perhaps my favourite distillery and the smallest independent whisky region in Scotland. Campbeltown.

My initial reaction upon reaching this hallowed whisky ground is exactly what it was last July. Namely ‘bugger, there’s no signal. Why didn’t I google where I needed to go beforehand?’ After some fifteen minutes of aimless wandering I conclude that dumb luck isn’t going to get me to Glen Scotia any time soon, and I throw myself upon the mercy of the Cadenhead’s shop staff to point me in the right direction. Which with hindsight I suppose is along the lines of getting an Evertonian to show you the way to Anfield.

At any rate, the chap at Cadenheads takes pity upon me, and a short walk later sees me outside the gates of the one Campbeltown distillery which I had not, to this point, ticked off. Gates are wide open, and a few stalls have been set up. ‘Right,’ thinks I, ‘here’s where it is. Jolly good.’ And with that I turn around and go back the way I came. It’s lunchtime, and food is required. After a burger and a pint (gosh, it almost felt like I was on holiday...) I returned to Glen Scotia to begin the trip in earnest.

I hadn’t booked any of the tastings or masterclasses for Glen
Scotia’s open day, but I did of course have my eye on one of the free tours. Correctly assuming my morning start would be too leisurely to get me to Campbeltown for the one at half 11 I’d set my sights on the afternoon tour at half 2. There’s still an hour to kill, so I mill around in the ‘courtyard,’ successfully preventing myself from burning too much money at the stalls, and then pop into the Visitor’s Centre to see what’s what.

I must have looked like a little lost soul amidst the groups who thronged the shop. Germany was very well represented, as it usually is when you visit a distillery, and there was an American bloke in heated debate with a staff member about import-export laws. As you’d expect on open day the shop was more than a little crowded, and I found myself a corner to tuck into, where I could read up a little more on the distillery and examine their core range. Glen Scotia, as I imagine it is for many whisky drinkers, is the Campbeltown Distillery with which I’m least familiar. I’ve only had a few of their whiskies in the past, so I’ve been itching to get stuck in today. And help is at hand! A kind chap, no doubt taking pity on the bescruffed youth lurking in the corner, invites me to taste the open day bottling, which is a single cask, first fill, ex-bourbon 15 year old bottled at cask strength. We chat a little about the distillery and the sort of whisky it goes for, and the open day bottling leads to a taste of the Victoriana, which is the ritziest of Glen Scotia’s core range, and well worth seeking out next time
you’re in a whisky bar.

My benefactor’s name turns out to be Callum, and he’s also the guide for today’s tour, which begins about 20 minutes after the Victoriana has disappeared. Needless to say, a large group has gathered. It’s only recently that Glen Scotia has offered tours, which is why I didn’t make my way around in July, and a free tour on open day is too good an opportunity to pass up. To the best of my estimation there are upwards of 40 people gathered outside the distillery door – certainly more than twice the numbers I’ve encountered on a visit previously. All of the doors of the distillery are open too, so even more delicious smells are wafting from the building than usual.

I have to say that given the size of the group Callum did a phenomenal job marshalling us all. He was aided probably by the fact that everyone present was a proper enthusiast and therefore keen to pick up every scrap of information he had, but the job he did of moving us through the distillery at a good pace, making himself heard at all times and keeping us all together was absolutely first class. Glen Scotia is a pretty small distillery – one wash still and one spirit still, and both are very little indeed in the
great scheme of things. They only peat for six months of the year, with the focus being primarily on unpeated whisky, and all their casks are matured on site (though the whisky goes to Ayrshire to be bottled at present.) The oak focus, as can be seen when we move to their warehouses and are shown both dunnage and racked, is on ex-American. That said, they’ve a few other casks knocking around, including the PX used to finish their ‘Double Matured’ whisky – the most affordable in their range.

A lucky accident occurs whilst we’re in the warehouse. A previous tasting – a pairing of whisky and food – had not been fully attended, and there are a good number of plates left out. Callum offers the group a free run at them, and we don’t need a second invitation. If I’m honest I only have a very little bit as I’m pretty stuffed from lunch, but I’m sure the other guys more than made up for me!

I thank Callum, and make my way back to the Visitor Centre. Given the open day bottling, Distillery Exclusive Single Cask and Victoriana are all open to taste I get a slightly surprised look when I ask if it’s possible to try the Double Cask, but the lady behind the desk kindly furnishes me with a sample, and I retreat to my quiet corner to make my obligatory note on the distillery’s signature expression.

Glen Scotia Double Cask – Spirity notes first to jump out of the glass – still a little young, perhaps a smidge of feint. Lots of juicy
berry fruit quickly follows though, with touches of vanilla. Mid-prominent nose – certainly don’t have to look too hard for it! Nice element of savoury/farmyard in the background too. A peppery palate initially – slightly less complex than the nose. Alcohol making itself known. Sweet fruit in behind – cooked apples moving towards a touch of sultana. Light to medium bodied. I’d be interested to try this without the PX. Strikes me as a potential aperitif whisky looking to dress up as something else. Interesting though – one to look out for. 46% ABV.

My Glen Scotia experience has certainly lived up to expectations. I’m resolved to look out for the 15 year old, which was the only one of their core range I didn’t try today. I’m billeting in Campbeltown for the night, so I grab my bag from the car and dump it on a bed in the backpacker’s hostel, before making my way out again. I return to the pub I had lunch in, where I bump into Callum and talk whisky with him for a few minutes, then grab a pew to watch the Europa League final. Whilst Liverpool’s second half collapses about them I find myself chatting to a terrific bloke called Robert, who’s in Campbeltown on business but has wisely taken the opportunity to make his way to Glen Scotia, and has even picked up their open day bottling. Since he’s here on expenses he very generously covers my two pints, and we natter away whilst Sevilla storm to victory. Oh well, there’s always next year. No, wait, hang on...

I’ve heard tell on the twittersphere of a particularly fine whisky bar
at a hotel somewhere in Campbeltown, and decide it would be rude not to look it up before returning to the hostel. Once again my initial exploration is thwarted by my lack of google maps, so I phone Rachel and she, taking pity on me, consults her laptop and, like some remote mission control, walks me through the late evening streets of Campbeltown to the Ardshiel Hotel.

They weren’t kidding on the twittersphere. There must be hundreds of bottles, mostly of malt, lined up on the bar behind me. Somewhat faint-heartedly I decide that I’m only in need of one this evening, which means a long stretch of deciding, redeciding, changing my mind, second guessing myself, asking for recommendations, ignoring recommendations, looking at the bar again, umming, ahing and playing eeny-meeny-miney-mo. The distilleries whose bottles dominate the bar are Ardbeg, Dalmore and Springbank. I decide that it wouldn’t be cricket not to pick a local boy, and eventually settle on the 16 year old local barley, which I dithered too long to buy in bottle when it was released a few months back. The bar is awash with the sound of skirling bagpipes from the speakers, but I find the closest thing to a quiet spot and slump over my Springbank to reflect upon a day which – whilst wonderful in Campbeltown – unfortunately featured some
very sad news from home. I nurse the dram for half an hour or so, and then head back to the hostel dormitory, pull the drapes around my bed, flick through a few pages of John Cleese’s autobiography and gradually drift off.

The Campbeltown Whisky Festival's off to a cracking start, and I can't wait for tomorrow. No new distilleries to visit, but a huge day nonetheless as I return to that temple of whisky which may well be my favourite in the world.

Cheers!



  

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