Tuesday, 2 May 2017

Epilogue: Reflections in the River Spey

It’s early evening, but the sun has not yet started to set, and bursts its way through grey clouds to tinge their edges rose. On the riverbank flat pebbles are sent skimming across the water and muffled conversation is pierced with sudden laughter as friends and strangers congregate in dribs and drabs; beckoned by the glimmer of mahogany brilliance.

Beyond the clinking of Glencairns; on a dry patch of sand out of the way of bridgeside photographers, I sit with one of my closest friends, and one of the finest whiskies I have ever tasted. My notebook, for once, is closed and in my pocket. Now is not the time for scribbling.

From out of the woods more figures emerge; called by the waters of the river and of life. Men and women, Scots and English. European and American, Eastern and Western. The famous face of Dave Broom is amongst them. I have wanted to meet him for years, but he is closely surrounded, and I am in my own moment.

Speyside was not where whisky was born, but it is the cradle from which the infant truly grew into the industry we know today. I wonder who sat on this beach near Craigellachie 200 years ago, as the shots of gaugers and smugglers rang out across the glens. When men and women risked life and freedom to distil barley into spirit and to spit in the eye of Hanover. What might they have thought, had they seen the beach today, thronged by devotees from four corners of the globe? Would they have believed such a gathering possible? Could they have imagined a whisky such as the one I have in my glass?

Time does not stand still, and nothing lasts forever. Whisky is proof of that. The vast and trunkless legs of Port Ellen and Brora still stand, but one day the last of their barrels will be gone, and only desert will remain. For more than 200 years, distilleries have risen and fallen with the fortunes of the industry. I have no doubt those peaks and troughs will continue.

It is so common to hear bemoanings of a dip in whisky’s overall character when compared to equivalent bottlings of the sixties or seventies. But these great whiskies were made in a time when supply dwarfed demand. When distilleries were closed, and jobs were cut. Terms such as ‘Golden Age’ are all too cheaply thrown around; I doubt that was the language used by stillmen and coopers and distillery managers whose livelihoods were lost to the fickleness of fashion. Perhaps one day there will be another whisky loch, and too few people to drink it. For now, we have over 100 distilleries in Scotland alone; thousands more around the world. They are what you make of them; things could be far worse.

And what, I wonder, would folk on the banks of the nineteenth century Spey make of modern pricings? Of the Lalique Legacy Collection reaching $993,000 for six full-sized bottles and their trappings? What will become of those whiskies I wonder? Will they sit as art in their cabinet, unopened and undrunk? What pleasure will they impart?

I’ve often been outspoken on stratospheric whisky prices, and couldn’t agree more with recent Scotchwhisky.com articles condemning the notion of whiskies as trophies. Since when has discernment been a question of how big one’s wallet is? When did taste and understanding come with a price tag?

Of course your own whisky is yours to do with as you will. But it was made to be enjoyed; to give pleasure. It is a drink – when it flows as spirit from the stills, or into oak casks, no one present expects any future for it but to be drunk; by angels or by men and women. And I wonder, as I sit beside the Spey, whether any of those bottles of Macallan, so dearly bought, will ever offer the same pleasure as the glass of Craigellachie in my hand.

Later that night I am beside the Spey again. Alone this time; lit only by the faraway lights of Aberlour and the gleam of the moon on dark ripples. All I have in my glass is Johnnie Walker Green. But as I sit with salt-stained cheeks and memories of the last time I was in Abelour; what I did and who I was with, I have the most profound moment of my life. And no other drink could have triggered it.

I thought about those moments by the Spey as I walked home, and as I drove the long and lonely 10 hours back to Reading the next day. And they confirmed what I already knew, and had said on Twitter and to my friends. I need to take a break from writing. I need to learn; to understand properly what whisky means and is; has been and can be. I need to move onwards; to push those parts of my life that blogging has caused me to neglect these last two years. There is so much that needs to be done. And one day, at the right time, when I have learnt and understood, perhaps I will pick up the digital stylus once again. In the meantime, I wish everyone who has followed my verbal meanderings the very best. I can’t thank you enough.

The Spey, like the drink crafted around it, will keep flowing. Whisky is not a half-sunk shattered visage, and in my lifetime it never will be. It is just a drink, but in the right moment; in the right place and time, it can cause the brief candle to flare a little brighter for a while. Amidst all the rage and vitriol online, I think that is important to remember. Everyone gathered at Craigellachie bridge that evening had been drawn, first and foremost, by love.

As Will and I began to trudge away to the bus stop, his phone rang; his wife. He apologised needlessly, and we paused. I looked back to the waters of the Spey; to the last stragglers dotted around the bank. Saying nothing, I patted Will on the shoulder and walked back alone. Dave Broom was still in conversation; “and it all happens because of the river,” he is saying.

“I’m so sorry to interrupt. Mr Broom, my name’s Adam. I just wanted to say thank you. Your writing has been a huge influence on me.”

For a moment he looks startled; taken aback by an intruding youth with a serious face. Then he smiles.

“Oh that’s so sweet of you, thank you.”

He holds out his hand. I shake it, and I walk back up the path to Craigellachie and to my friend. Behind me the Spey rolls on towards the sea.

You can’t buy that for 900,000 dollars.


Friday, 2 December 2016

Time to move on...

Well, I failed.

On the 20th July last year, in the windowless Bristol room of a house I shared with two huskies and a man who went on to defraud me (twice) I wrote my first ever post. In it, I confidently set out my stall – I even titled the piece ‘The Purpose of the Pilgrimage.’ Over the next 18 months, I asserted, I would travel to every whisk(e)y distillery in Great Britain and Ireland and taste their entry level expressions.

So on that score, I didn’t come close. Despite thousands of miles by boat and by Vauxhall Corsa, despite hundreds of pounds, nights in tents, hostels and wigwams and despite using every day of annual leave other than those earmarked for Christmas with family, my tally sits at exactly fifty. Not even the half way mark. 

There are mitigating factors, of course. Chiefest being my gross underestimation of the time and expense involved in undertaking such a task. You’d be amazed how many distilleries aren’t a short hop from Bristol, or from my current room in Reading. But the bottom line is that I didn’t get to nearly as many as I would have liked. I didn’t get to Ireland whatsoever, and I only ticked off a Speyside because I popped into Glen Moray on my way through Elgin a couple of months back.

And yet I really don’t find myself regretting much.

The last seventeen months, it strikes me, have been an incredible learning curve. I thought I knew a decent amount about whisk(e)y when I started out. Decent enough to be talked into writing a blog, at any rate. But looking back, what’s really staggering is how little I knew about a drink I professed to love. My regular readers may have noticed the phrase ‘I only tried xyz distillery for the first time a year/six months/three days ago,’ repeated with almost embarrassing frequency in the course of my articles. The Adam of 20th July 2015 was months away from his first Glencadam, and even further from Redbreast. Mortlach was a stranger to him, so too Blanton’s and Paul John and Glendronach and Teeling and Kilchoman and The English Whisky Company and Michter’s. The Adam of 20th July 2015 had only tried Springbank for the first time two weeks beforehand!  

In the last seventeen months I have thrust my nose into a Glencairn hundreds upon hundreds of times. My notebooks are bursting with hastily scribbled musings, and this site groans beneath the weight of 150,000-odd words. (I know my posts are too long). I have been privileged to meet hundreds of whisk(e)y fanatics both in person, and via twitter, where they have been very tolerant of my vacuous drivel about salt and vinegar crisps and the proper size of Kit Kat.

There have been weird moments – the double Willett’s poured into a pint glass stands out, as does my experiment with popcorn chicken... Occasionally there have been irritations, though mostly on the M6 or A9. I have lost count of the times someone has said something patronising about my age, and I’m still fed up of the number of people who don’t show any sort of common courtesy to their tour guides.

Mostly though, it has been an absolute joy, with too many high points to recount. Standouts of course were touring Islay with Pilgrim snr, and giving a whisk(e)y tasting to friends who formerly hated the stuff.

And here’s the thing. I set out to learn a little more about aqua vitae. And I wanted to introduce friends and family to something I’m so personally impassioned by. By and large I think I've achieved both of those.  So although I didn't make it to every distillery, in the last seventeen months I have done what I can, and it’s difficult to think of that as a failure. And it's not as if they're going anywhere. Three more have probably been crowdfunded in the time it's taken to write this paragraph...

Besides, the journey isn’t over.

I’ve often pointed out (not that I needed to) that this site is a mess. It’s about the least user-friendly blog on the internet; scruffy looking, full of obscure titles and pieces that run, at their longest, over 7000 words. I’m a writer. But web-design is well outside of my comfort zone. So when Greg at Great Drams offered me a weekly slot on his stunning-looking and massively informative site I nearly took his hand off at the wrist. Starting from the first week of 2017, that’s where you’ll find me every Wednesday. And far easier on the eye it’ll be too.

The content and style will remain the same, for which I’m massively grateful to Greg. I’ve always tried to make my writing a little bit different; a bit fun, a bit accessible, and at times perhaps a bit too full of garblings about Asterix the Gaul or table football. I’ll probably write a few more reviews than I have done here, but my policy on always calling it as I find it, and predominantly covering my own costs remains the same. In fact there’s not a single whisky written up on this blog that I didn’t put my hand in my pocket for, or swap with a fellow member of the fantastic online whisky community. I’m rather proud of that. 

Whisk(e)y is a wonderful thing. If I have one final thought for The Whisky Pilgrim, before I wind things up, it is this. The internet is full of – often justified – rantings about disappearing expressions and rising costs. Dead distilleries like Port Ellen and Brora are venerated as deities, well above and beyond the adulation they received in life. As the likes of Longmorn, Mortlach, Macallan and even my beloved Highland Park slip ever further out of reach, it is so easy to reflect upon what was – and I sympathise entirely with drinkers who pine for ‘the good auld days’ of a whisky loch to sip from and long-aged bottlings with change from a note.

But what I hope this site has stood for is the whisk(e)y that is still available to those of us whose pockets don’t match our passion. Yes, there are whiskies beyond our financial grasp – and I hate reading the press releases talking about how ‘aspirational’ such and such whisky is – but there has never been greater diversity within the whisk(e)y world, nor such a vast treasure chest to plunder if you take the time to rifle through it. If The Whisky Pilgrim helped someone, somewhere, to open that chest a little further, then I’ll call that a win.

Fellow lovers of medieval literature – we’re massive hits at parties – will know that the pilgrims of the Canterbury Tales never completed their journey. Perhaps they’re still around a fire somewhere between Southwark and Canterbury, spinning yarns of unsavoury characters committing unspeakable acts in pear trees, or sticking unmentionables out of windows. Well, The Whisky Pilgrim never made it to 'Canterbury' either, but this pilgrim will keep on writing. Hopefully for many years to come. Except I’ll just call myself Adam from now on. It’s far easier.

It has been an absolute pleasure and a real privilege to share my thoughts on whisk(e)y with you all. I truly hope that those who don’t already read Great Drams will follow me there for 2017. In the meantime, thank you so much for joining me here. I've always felt a bit of a fraud using the word ‘Sláinte’, the same way it's weird when Englishmen try to wear kilts, so I shan’t break the habit of a blogtime. Instead, and for the final time on The Whisky Pilgrim, I shall simply say:


Friday, 11 November 2016

The Pilgrim and the Drammer. 6th September. Fettercairn and Glen Garioch

My whisky pilgrimage could just as easily be referred to as ‘one man’s hunt to find a cup of coffee in rural Scotland than he actually likes.’ Ok, so I admit to a certain pernickityness (real word) when it comes to my morning mud. If it isn’t stronger than a steroid-addled rhinoceros it isn’t strong enough. That perfect cup still eludes me, but the Ramsay Arms in Fettercairn gets as close as any I’ve ever tasted.

I’m sat in the hotel lobby, sipping my caffeine concentrate and nibbling the complimentary tablet (I love Scotland) whilst various betweeded old Englishmen waving shotguns and chirruping excitedly about pheasants scurry back and forth. Needless to say I didn’t spend the night as a guest of the Ramsay Arms myself. I was berthed in a perfectly serviceable Aberdeen hostel. But the morning has taken me to Fettercairn to visit the eponymous distillery, and as ever I am early. It’s a small village, and the café’s closed. So I’m having coffee with the hotel. Ok? Good. Glad we cleared that up.

Anyhow, I’ve visited Fettercairn before, in my Dundonian days. It’s not the whiskynet’s most beloved malt, and I can’t say it’d make my own ‘greatest hits’ album. Probably not even my ‘most middling hits’ if I’m honest. But I’ve been looking forward to this tour in particular, because I’m being joined for the first time by a fellow member of the whisky blogosphere.

Andy, The Amateur Drammer, started blogging a few months before I did. Key differences being that his website is user friendly, looks good and features articles that are shorter than War and Peace. But we’ve been chatting away on Twitter for a while now; I did a piece for his Desert Island Drams series, and he was good enough to contribute to both the 40 under £40 and the current 50 under £50. Having clocked him as a Dundee native a while back I asked whether he’d be up for a day of pilgrimming when I found myself in his manor. A couple of months later, and here we both are in darkest Aberdeenshire sheltering from the inevitable drizzle and waiting for someone to open the doors.

It’s an incredibly quiet village, Fettercairn, and the distillery seems to have taken its lead from the near-silent surroundings. It actually has a very serviceable visitor centre, but it’s rather understated, and as Andy points out in his own write-up, they’re hardly trumpeting the brand online, despite a recent(ish) packaging redesign which makes the bottles look rather swish. (Contents still what my little sister would describe as 'meh', but we’ll come to that.)

Clive, our guide, does a cracking job showing us around the place. It’s all very casual, as you’d expect with a two-person tour, and having clocked that we’re not exactly first-time tourists he sticks to Fettercairn’s idiosyncrasies, rather than anything generic. The distillery has two wash and two spirit stills, churning out about 2.2 million litres of spirit per year. Of that, 90% goes off to blends, and a good chunk of what’s left heads off to Tesco, who used to have an exclusive on the ‘Fasque.’ (A peek online suggests they don’t any more. Unless Master of Malt and The Whisky Exchange employ highwaymen to hijack Tesco lorries, and I can’t see why they’d go to the effort.)

The chief curiosity of Fettercairn Distillery is on their spirit stills, where they deploy an irrigation ring unique in the whisky industry (to the best of my knowledge.) The rings lie just below the top of the swan neck, and send cold water down the outside of the stills. Essentially it’s an innovative way to promote reflux and copper contact to create a light spirit despite the stills being relatively short. 

Back in the visitor centre Clive apologises for the lack of any Fior to taste, so we’re on Fasque instead. Works for me, since Fasque is likely to be the more easily findable expression and therefore, by Pilgrim rules, the distillery ‘flagship’. Clive leaves us to it as we speculatively sip and scribble, exchanging thoughts as we go.

Fettercairn Fasque – The peat, what there is of it, sits very lightly in the background with a slight bacony inflection. There’s also a mild heathery honey which continues onto the palate. Does take a fair bit of nosing, after which some grassy notes emerge, followed by caramels and a little pear fruit. Twinge of citrus. Very much middle-weight in body and sweetness, with the zip of alcohol hinting at this whisky’s relative youth. Simple stuff. 42%ABV

I’d like to hang around a while longer – after all, it’s not every day someone steps out of twitter and into reality. Unfortunately I’ve another distillery on the menu for the day, so we say our goodbyes and I’m back in the Corsa and heading up the road. It’s been a pleasure to finally meet Andy in person, and hopefully Fettercairn won’t be the last distillery we tour together. Whilst I stupidly forgot to get a photo at the time, we bumped into each other at the Whisky Show a few weeks later and Andy got a picture with fellow blogger The Whisky Lady, which is at the bottom of this article. We’re the ones who aren’t a lady.

The weather takes a turn for the gorgeous as I drive back North through Aberdeen towards Oldmeldrum, where lurks the Glen Garioch Distillery. (Pronounced 'Glen Geery', because Scotland.) This is becoming something of a chorus for me, where East Highland Distilleries are concerned, but Glen Garioch wasn’t really on my radar formerly, besides being aware of its existence. Which I suppose made this East Highland pilgrimage all the more worthwhile. Oldmeldrum is about as far West as you can
go from Aberdeen without starting to climb up mountains. You can see the humps of the Cairngorms to the West, but as the smell makes readily apparent, we’re still in farmland here. 

I had a little sit-down in the visitor centre whilst waiting for the tour to start, as it was rather warm outside and I was feeling the pace slightly. Which must make me the first person in Scottish history ever to go indoors to cool down. Gave me a chance to have a squint at their range though. Rather a lot of pretty reasonably priced special editions dotted the shelves, and I was almost – almost – tempted by a fifteen year old, cask strength ex-Oloroso, but my wallet decided against it. Interesting to see that both of the ‘entry levels’, the Founder’s Reserve and the twelve year old, are bottled at 48% and non-chill-filtered. Well done Glen Garioch.

Our guide for the day was Fiona, who was absolutely brilliant. I was joined on the tour by a Norwegian couple who asked her question after question and she knocked them out of the park. Particularly impressive was her fielding of a ‘what makes you different?’ inquiry. Five minutes later she’d rattled off a comprehensive answer covering barley, stills, water and casks. Nice.

Once upon a time Glen Garioch was peated. Indeed you can still find peated examples of their whisky, as it continued to be made up until 1994 when the distillery was mothballed. Suntory then re-opened it in 1997, and since they owned a peated whisky in the form of Bowmore, they wanted an unpeated double-distillate to contrast with their triple-distilled Auchentoshan. So these days Glen Garioch is unpeated. They still have the old kiln – you can even go inside it – but they no longer malt on site, so along with the malt barn it is now strictly ornamental.

Also ornamental is one of the two spirit stills; Glen Garioch doesn’t make vast quantities of spirit these days, and there’s only one wash still anyway, so they decommissioned the second spirit still. Left it where it was though. For posterity or something I guess. Or maybe it was too much of a faff to move. You can touch it, anyway, which under normal circumstances wouldn’t leave you with much of a hand left.

Since I’m driving, Fiona gives me a sample of the Founder’s Reserve to go. I also buy a miniature of the twelve, as they’re pretty close in price. The twelve is eight years in ex-bourbon and four in ex-sherry, whilst Founder’s Reserve is almost all ex-bourbon. My note below is for the Founder’s Reserve, which, for the record, I actually preferred to the twelve. You may disagree. You’re allowed. Both good value though, and worth taking a swipe at if you find them on a bar shelf. Glen Garioch’s also a distillery well worth seeking out – if you get a guide half as good as Fiona you’ll have a hugely worthwhile visit. And the shop is full of tempting special editions beside their decent core range.

Glen Garioch Founder’s Reserve – Nostril hairs got a singeing – not that I have hairy nostrils, you understand. Youthful and a little fiery, but behind that some good fresh apple along with heathery honey (more pronounced and intense than that found in the Fasque) and a touch of sweet vanilla pastry. Very American oak accent on the palate. Flavours as on nose, but clearer because the booze, whilst still prickly, is controlled by a nice plump Highland viscosity. Great mouthfeel. Some sweet toffee and natural caramel beside the earlier honey and vanilla. Despite youth, not immature – nothing spirit or estery here. Clean. A whisky to wake you up in the morning. 48%ABV

I’ve had a cracking day touring Fettercairn with Andy and exploring Glen Garioch solo. Back to my Aberdeen hostel for now though. Tomorrow will take me to the two distilleries I’m most excited about on this trip.


Thursday, 3 November 2016

Over 20 years, under £50. Tasting the Lidl Special Releases.

I’m meant to be running my stocks down. I was accusingly reminded of this when I returned home yesterday and, in fairness, my accuser has a point. There is, after all, finite space on my desk. At this stage, calling it a desk is rather stretching credulity. But for the three bottles I brought back, I’m inclined to forgive myself and make an allowance.

I have nothing against NAS whisky in principle. Heck, the first article I ever wrote that wasn’t a tour write-up was on the subject. If it’s well made, good value, tasty whisky I’m happy. Just look how much I go on about A’Bunadh. But there is something undeniably profound and special about holding something in your hand that was committed to barrel years and years ago. Something that makes you think back to who you were then, and what you were doing. Perhaps something distilled before you were even born, or thought of. 

I have never owned a whisky older than myself. I have tasted scores of them, of course, and on two occasions I have bought such bottles for friends, but my budget simply doesn’t stretch to that sort of thing. It wasn’t something that especially concerned me – as ought to be fairly clear, I’m fascinated by exploring the more affordable galaxies in the whisky universe. There were more than enough bottles within my budget to prevent me from worrying about those that weren’t. But, as I’m sure there is for any serious whiskyer, there was always that little niggle; that pang at the back of the brain that wouldn’t quite make itself disappear.

Last year, in the run up to Christmas, Lidl, who are not necessarily the first folks you’d think of when the subject of aqua vitae is broached, made some serious waves. In partnership with the Clydesdale Scotch Whisky Company they bottled two single malts: an Islay and a Speyside, and three blended, sherry-finish whiskies. The malts went under their Ben Bracken brand, the blends Glenalba. So far so regular – but then we come to age and price. The Islay was 22 years old, the Speyside 28 years old and the blends 22, 25 and 34 respectively. Prices: £45, £50, £30, £35 and £50.

Naturally there were several sceptics. But reviews from the likes of Malt, Great Drams and Scotchwhisky.com convinced this cynic to take them seriously. Unfortunately, as might be expected given those staggering price tags, anyone who took a couple of moments to have second thoughts missed out on the opportunity to buy the malts. 

Yesterday I was idly scrolling through Twitter (during my lunch hour, I hasten to add) and I noticed that someone had spotted the Glenalba blends at Lidl’s Wokingham branch. In need of a birthday present for a friend, and Wokingham being just a quarter of an hour from my house, I decided to take a punt. So that evening found me hopping in the corsa after work and making a bee-line for the spirits aisle.

Where I discovered, to my great surprise, that the Glenalbas were not alone. I hadn’t even heard that Lidl were relaunching the Ben Brackens, but there, on the top shelf were two sets of very smart
boxes. Single Malt Islay 22 years old said one. Single Malt Speyside 27 said the second. ‘Well ok then’ said the third. Which was me. Not that I'm a very smart box. I didn’t even have the 'should I-shouldn’t I' waver that inevitably pops up whenever I make an impromptu purchase. I added two bottles of Glenalba 22 (one for my friend and one for me) and, following a hideously embarrassing fifteen minute interlude during which the rest of the store was held up as the shop assistant rummaged through the stock room, was back on my way to Château Pilgrim.

Let’s cut to the chase: are they any good? Well, within seconds of being through the door I had lined up three Glencairns, preparing to answer that very question. I began with the 22 year old sherry-finished Glenalba, then the 27 year old Ben Bracken Speyside and finally the 22 year old Ben Bracken Islay, and my tidied-up notes are below:

Glenalba 22yo Sherry Finish – The nose is ever so slightly faint at first (grows considerably with the tasting.) Very sherry – but clean and ripe. Raisins, currants and dates rather than anything dry or nutty. There’s definitely a sense of maturity – some nice rancio elements creeping in, and the lightest, lightest suggestion of smoke. There’s still a liveliness and freshness though – squeeze of citrus fruits cutting through the deeper characters. Palate is very juicy and very sherried. Has taken away an element of potential complexity, but can’t knock the flavours, which are excellent. Datey and slightly pruney. Mild suggestion of cigar tobacco too, and the merest hint of struck match on the finish. It isn’t immensely intense, but there’s plenty going on. Wingback chair in the evening whisky! 40%ABV

Ben Bracken 27yo Speyside – Charming nose. Whistle clean, and
goes like an ‘ex-Bourbon Classic Hits’ playlist. Tropical fruit? Tick. Sponge Cake? Tick. Vanillas and honeys? Tick. Also massive quantities of Apple pie! Surprisingly light on its feet for the age – the fruit is fresh and the malt is crisp. I’m put in mind of things like Tomintoul, Glen Grant and Glencadam. (Though I’m pretty certain it’s neither of the first two, and obviously it can’t be the third.) The palate is silky and middle-weight, with the flavours essentially exactly the same as the nose. Plus perhaps a banana-bread suggestion. Doesn’t lack intensity either despite the ABV. Definitely feels younger than 27, but still a developed and immensely drinkable ex-bourbon Speyside. 40%ABV

Ben Bracken 22yo Islay – What a splendid nose! The peat is distinctly mid-level – just how I like it – and of an earthy, sort of farmyard disposition. Behind that there’s pine wood, medicine cabinet and a truly gorgeous kipper smoke. There’s some sweeter elements of honeys, fruits and vanillas too, but they are very much second fiddle. Far and away the biggest of the Lidl noses. The good things continue on the palate, where there is actually more complexity. Some lifted, almost floral aspects arrive, balancing out the murkier, charcoal depths. A dark chocolate backdrop before the peat – which takes a little while to ‘rev up’ – adds lashings of beach bonfire, maritime seaweed and pipe tobacco. Huge flavour for a chill filtered 40%. My pick of the bunch. Islay fans, and indeed Talisker and Ardmore fans, will find a lot to love. 40%ABV

When I mentioned these whiskies on twitter, and to a few friends, a couple of questions were raised over alcohol level and filtration. And sure, another 6% would do great things, especially to the
Glenalba, and non-chill-filtered would be lovely. (I did chuckle that the Brackens have ‘Chill Filtered’ proudly stamped on the box.) But to be honest, in the face of what you get for the money, such quibbles seem almost greedy!

The Lidl Special Releases are not quite the best whiskies I have tasted for under £50 this year. (Although the Islay and probably the Speyside are top ten.) But to someone like me, who tries to promote affordable and interesting expressions, their value goes beyond the number on the flashy green Lidl price tag. I understand why whisky is hyperinflating so quickly, but beside the pecuniary silliness of the newly launched Longmorns and the nonsense of the Golden Decanters, Ben Bracken and Glenalba stand as something special. Of course I recommend them – I also recommend moving quickly, because once they’re officially announced they aren’t going to last. The Islay is my tip, but for what you pay, none will let you down.

And I finally own a whisky distilled before I was. Which I think adds up to £49.99 well spent. But fine - I'll start trying to run my stocks down again.

No promises, mind...


Sunday, 30 October 2016

"The Finest Whisky Book Ever": A Critique

"The finest whisky book ever," is awfully high praise, especially when the adulator in question is himself one of the most prolific whisky writers to have tramped the third rock from the sun. Yet those are the words of Dave Broom, writ large across the cover of the recent reprint of Whisky by Aeneas MacDonald, as appreciated (in no uncertain terms) by Ian Buxton.

I had heard this quote attributed previously, along with the no less glowing tribute from Charles MacLean which adorns the back of the dust jacket. It seemed as though token apotheosis of MacDonald and his tome are requisite to prominence in the Whisky Canon; even the author of my favourite blog was getting in on it. 

I myself had never formerly read it. Having scarcely been in print since its initial publication in 1930, copies were not exactly thick on the ground. Moreover, I have a lamentable tendency, in the face of such worship, to become slightly leery and suspicious. So I didn't go out of my way to find Whisky. But yesterday, in Waterstones, finding myself faced with a copy, I came over all what-the-heck. Ten quid later I was out on the chilly autumnal streets of Reading clutching my small bag and making a bee-line for the nearest coffee shop.

In fact, the slim volume (only 150 pages, so you've no excuses) was consumed alongside the coffee, and then subsequently a plate of Momo at Reading's unimpeachable Sapana Home, and a pint (not of whisky) in a wingback chair beside the hearth at a canalside pub. By the end of my gastronomic adventure I had polished off Whisky in its entirety, appreciation and all. Having now had twenty four hours to digest it, it falls to me here to examine the thorny question of whether it merits the veneration so lavishly bestowed upon it by such exalted luminaries of aqua vitae.

Let's start off with the contribution of Mr Buxton. I've read, and enjoyed, several of his books, notably the 101 series. His tone, in those works, is rather accessible and certainly personable, albeit with a slightly irritable and curmudgeonly edge at times. (Though that's probably expected of an author whose book titles contain the words 'Before You Die'. Besides, who am I to talk on the curmudgeonly front?) In his appreciation, however, there is a notable difference in how Buxton comes across. For starters, it's more scholarly; there are flashes of Buxton's lighter side, but for the most part it's rather heavy going. Academical, very reference-heavy, and somewhat dry. That being said, the salient points are thoroughly covered; the back-story of Aeneas MacDonald (whose real name was George Thomson) being of particular interest.

Buxton's own deep admiration for Thomson is evident throughout the thirty-odd page introduction. I suppose it would be odd for an appreciation to be written by someone who wasn't a fan, and to Buxton's credit he remains largely objective, particularly when describing Thomson's unsavoury work prior to Whisky. Whilst it is clear that Buxton struggles with the notion of his hero having written some blatantly racist pieces, he makes no attempt to hide the fact. And, as he points out, this racism does not spill into Whisky, and Thomson himself acknowledged and disavowed his former views later in life.

One comment further, before we abandon Buxton for MacDonald. I do wish he had opted for appendices, rather than footnotes. Whilst the notes offer useful and frequently fascinating commentaries on MacDonald's text, pointing out fallacies and indicating where whisky practices of MacDonald's 1930 have moved on (or not) the use of footnotes does distract from the flow of the text. I know you aren't necessarily under any obligation to read them, but human nature being what it is, you're almost certainly going to. And as we will see, the flow of the text is rather important. So I do think that back-referencing at the end, rather than continually 'pressing the pause button' would have been my own personal preference. 

But that's the aperitif covered; on now to the main. Does it justify the hype?

Well, define 'finest'. If you're looking for the lowdown on every contemporary Scottish distillery, with washback counts, PPM specs, histories, cuts and tasting notes then you are to be disappointed. Indeed, if you are looking for a meticulously researched book which presents only accurate facts you are to be disappointed; the work is littered with fallacy. As Buxton points out in his appreciation, we can't even be sure that MacDonald/Thomson visited distilleries. Although he was certainly in correspondence with them; he makes the enviable remark that it is easy enough to write to a distillery with your specifications of age and style, and have the requisite bottles sent your way posthaste. 

Nor is MacDonald anywhere near what you would describe as objective. The book, to a very great degree, is a scream of rage and pain. Rage at the inferior way in which whisky in 1930 was perceived. Rage at the people and practices which he perceived to be responsible for this state. (Many of which would strike a chord today; amongst his chiefest gripes is a lack of transparency in whisky labelling and information.) Most of all though, he rages against grain whisky: "tasteless...neutral industrial spirit.' Indeed he argues against such stuff being classed as whisky whatsoever; for MacDonald, only malted barley distilled in pots is worthy of the title.

Which brings us to another point. Whisky is a somewhat misleading title for MacDonald's work. More accurately, it would be called Single Malt Scotch Whisky: An Opinion. Yes, Irish is briefly touched upon, and yes, blends are mentioned. He also professes a fondness for blended malt (though you have to make your own inferences as to when he is referring to blended malt as opposed to blended whisky) and as we have seen, whisky blended with what he would term 'grain spirit' is dealt with in no uncertain terms. Bourbon, or American whiskey, is briefly sneered at, with the implication that using the term 'whisky' (his spelling) to describe it was causing MacDonald some degree of pain.

So: inaccurate, incomprehensive, predominantly subjective and heavily blinkered. 

And yet.

All of that may be forgiven of Aeneas MacDonald, because at its best, Whisky reads more beautifully than anything written on the subject before or since. The first chapter, in particular is poetry. It's lyricism. It's a rhapsody on what MacDonald believes malt whisky is - can be - should be - must be. From his pen drips the very essence of the Highlands; it is, as much as it is an ode to whisky, an ode to Scotland itself; the peat bogs and rugged coasts and quiet glens where antique smugglers distilled their spirit in secret. It is startlingly evocative, especially to someone who has lived in the Highlands, and spent so long driving and walking around them.

Curiously, MacDonald's prose is often at its best when lambasting; the ardour with which he deplores (he loves saying 'deplores') those who market whisky, those who drink whisky without appreciation and those who indulge in label snobbery is woven into near-rhythm. Here is where Buxton's footnotes become an irritation; here is where you want nothing to break the spell MacDonald weaves. Where difference of opinion becomes irrelevant, and all that matters is the text and the images it evokes.

His mastery is hamstrung slightly when he comes to describe more prosaic subjects; the mechanical processes of making whisky, for example, and 'recent' industry history. But none of that matters when you turn the page and find yourself lost in his outpouring of what whisky is, if you only take the time to listen. Here there are no nauseating notes of purple petunias or demerara sugar or any of the other nonsensical trivialities with which too often whisky is stripped of its identity in our obsessively archivist modern world. This is whisky with passion and soul and purpose and place. An elemental drink; a thunderous orchestra carved from the land itself and transmuted into a glass through copper pots and oak casks.

Of course, the whisky world has changed considerably since MacDonald's work was published in 1930. Distilleries have been built; others have been lost. (Though with no small satisfaction I noticed that Port Ellen was not ranked in MacDonald's top four Islays.) Practices and styles have moved on; new worlds and varities of whisk(e)y have charged our glasses. Single Malt, of course, is now far more available than it was to MacDonald, though the transparency argument rages on. Yet there is so much still to recognise in MacDonald's text; distillery names familiar to us all, ways in which the drink is manufactured - even, if we're honest, many of the groups of people he so poetically and vociferously decries.

If MacDonald were to write his book today, I doubt whether it would be published. His research would have to be more thorough, his personal attacks stripped back. The subjective would give way to the clinical and the objective. The poetry, to a very great degree, would be sacrificed for information. Such is the stark nature of the digital age, in which whisky is often made a creature for dissection; in which being able to rattle off still capacities is rated as highly as sitting in quiet contemplation and letting a glass speak, uninterrupted, of itself. (Perhaps those footnotes are emblematic...) Where currants, sandalwoods and vanillas are flashed across five minute Twitter Tastings (God knows what MacDonald would make of those) and where the crowning of a 'Best Whisky in the World' fires online auction prices into apocalyptic obscenity.

In many ways I imagine whisky writers feel they have their hands tied. I remember reading an interview with Dave Broom in which he commented "I hate scores - but my editor makes me give them." Modern whisky writing is a profession, like any other, and writers are slaves to the demands of their editors, publishers and a market increasingly hungry for distastefully 'quantifiable' information. No, to rage and blast as he does in Whisky, MacDonald would have to take to the internet, where raging and blasting has reached its tumultuous apogee. But what blogger writes with the finesse of MacDonald? In Whisky, rage is made poetry. Online, it is almost invariably crass.

So perhaps all those writers see in Whisky a lofty ideal to which they can only privately aspire. Perhaps they envy a level of written prose with vibrancy, heart and depth which the information-obsessed demands of the public necessarily strip from their own. But I hope that, like me, they simply revel in the beauty of language skilfully used. And in his "mountain torrents and scanty soil on moorland rocks and slanting, rare sun-shafts" remember why they fell in love with whisky in the first place.

The finest whisky book ever? I'm not sure. The most fulfilling I have read? Unquestionably.


Monday, 17 October 2016

I don't know whether I like this Single Malt - and here's why that's a good thing.

You know the feeling. You’re doing some tasting; maybe you’re cracking a new bottle, or making your way around the tables at a festival. Perhaps it’s a sample at a distillery, or something a generous friend has opened up. Whatever the occasion, something about this particular pour just stops you in your tracks. Stands out from any of the others. ‘Speaks to you’, if you like, above and beyond the norm. And then plays on your mind for hours, even days thereafter, as you contemplate the aromas, the flavours, the experience over and over again. No? Just me? I don’t believe it.

By any measure, I make my way through my fair share of whiskies. In fact I probably make my way through several peoples’ fair shares. And over the years I’ve had several such epiphanies. My first taste of A’Bunadh stands out, of course (can it really be six years ago now?) as does my maiden encounter with Four Roses Single Barrel. I’ll never forget my first taste of Springbank – at the distillery, as it happens – nor my first Westland. Nor a couple of dozen other lightening bolt whiskies which have struck me so memorably in my decade-and-a-bit of aqua vitae.

Just the other day I tasted another whisky which I have been completely unable to stop thinking about since. The difference here is that I’m not sure whether I actually liked it.

The whisky in question is the Brenne Single Malt from France, and it was due to appear in the 50 under £50 before I realised that the Master of Malt price was from a little while back, and that they don’t have a full-sized bottle in stock. My American readers can snap up a bottle for around that price in dollars, but a quick look at the only available European pricings suggested I’d be cheating a little were I to include it. In case you’re interested, the price I found was about €65, which in post-referendum Sterling is roughly £10,000. (Or a twentieth the price of what Booker’s Rye has probably gone up to on the secondary market this afternoon.) Whether you’ll want to invest in a bottle (of Brenne, not Booker’s) following this piece is another question.

As is my wont, I didn’t look up the whisky’s vital statistics prior to sampling. It was on my radar insofar as I’d read an article or two, and a couple of interviews with the apparently charming and clearly very business and marketing-savvy Allison Patel, who created and owns the brand. But these were a little mum as to how the whisky tasted, or why it tasted thus. ‘French’ was about as much description as I’d heard. And I’m not going to speculate on what ‘French’ tastes like, as I’d likely find myself in dangerous territory. 

I’ve crossed paths with about 20-25 French whiskies in my time, so I’m a novice at best, but there are a couple of which I’m very fond indeed. I was particularly enamoured of an Armorik I tried which had been matured in local oak. But whilst I’ve not sipped as many as I’d like, I’ve tried enough to know that Brenne is not typical of the style. Indeed, were Brenne to be the first French whisky you encountered, you’d be forgiven for getting entirely the wrong impression of French whiskies in general, because I can say without hesitation that its aroma and flavour profile is amongst the most striking and unusual which I have ever come across on a whisk(e)y, and that I have never tasted anything like it in my life.

I couldn’t quite believe what I was smelling when I stuck my snout into the glass. Indeed I wondered whether I had somehow ended up with a wrong, or contaminated sample. (Not that I would imagine the fine chaps at Drinks by the Dram making such an error.) So I scribbled my thoughts, and immediately went online to see what others had written.

Straight away, the reviews seemed to confirm my own findings. ‘Bubblegum,’ said one – a note I’d made myself. ‘Slightly confected – almost sweet-shop like,’ wrote another. The general consensus was that here was a very distinctive whisky indeed. And if I’m honest, most of the reviews – particularly those written by primarily scotch-focussed sites – were rather damning in their criticism. A friend turned up as I was spooling through the online verbiage, and had a Glencairn unceremoniously thrust under her nose. ‘What on Earth’s that?’ she asked (actually a PG translation of her exact words.) She too was less than a fan.

For my own part, the jury’s still out. But here’s the thing: none of the aromas or flavours are the result of an obvious ‘fault’. For starters, it isn’t sulphured whatsoever – whether or not you subscribe to the ‘sulphur’s a fault’ school of thought. As far as can be discerned, the cut’s fine too – no feints here. And you certainly can’t accuse the whisky of being in any way light on aroma or flavour, despite the minimum strength 40%ABV. Which means that all these flavours – these bizarre, polarising, unforgettable flavours – are the result of casks and malted barley distillate alone.

Some have suggested that the style of cask is responsible. Post-tasting research reveals it to be matured in oak from nearby Limousin, before being finished in ‘wet’ ex-Cognac barrels. (As an aside, I like that it’s all kept local.) One reviewer suggested that the Limousin oak was behind Brenne’s peculiarity, but that doesn’t seem to stack up. Because I’ve encountered a lot of Limousin oak in my chequered drinking career. It’s widely used in Cognac and wine, for starters, and given the worldwide respect commanded by French oak I’d be very surprised if much of the Scotch we know and love hadn’t done at least some of its time in a butchered Limousin tree. Nor is this whisky especially reminiscent of the flavours of any Cognacs - or Cognac finished whiskies - I've come across.

So is it some kind of grand-scale reaction between the two? Does Limousin + Cognac equal the whisky world’s answer to Potassium + Water? Or are the stills responsible? They’re alembic in style, so I’m imagining something along the same lines as those I saw at Eden Mill – the creators of an equally memorable spirit. But Eden Mill’s kit is nothing like Brenne. I know exactly how much I like Eden Mill; when it comes to Brenne I have no idea where I stand. Every aspect perplexes me, maddens me with curiosity; makes me want – need – answers to the questions branded so strongly upon my palate.   

And that is why Brenne is an unqualified success as a Single Malt whisky.

Contrary to marketing spin and the perception of the non-obsessed public; contrary to what you might be told by old men in kilts, or wielding cigars in gentlemen’s clubs, Single Malt is not about the ultimate age, or the ultimate rarity, or the ultimate flavour, or even the ultimate 'quality'. It’s not inherently about reaching a pinnacle or earning points or tasting like Kiwano Marmalade or sun-dried Sneezewort Yarrow. It is, fairly obviously, about creating singularity. A flavour specific to one place. A flavour created – and creatable – nowhere else. About expressing that place through liquid crafted in copper stills and oak casks. Whether you want to call that terroir or not is another question. (I don’t, on the whole, but have no issue with those who do.) What is certain is that Single Malt only truly succeeds if it has a flavour like nothing made anywhere else. Whether that flavour is to your personal taste is virtually immaterial. 

So thank you, Brenne, for reminding me of that. In a sense, for helping me remember what Single Malt actually is. For what it’s worth, although I’m still in two minds whether I’m a fan, I’ll be trying another glass as soon as I come across it. And I recommend, for the expansion of their whisk(e)y universe, that other malt fans do the same. (Though, as I must have made clear by now, it will definitely polarise. I’m not sure many Scotch purists will put a bottle on their Christmas list.) 

And if Allison, or anyone else from Brenne, has time to get in touch – please do. I’d absolutely love a chat. My curiosity is 100% piqued. Single Malt Mission Accomplished.

I never usually attach tasting notes to these pieces, but in this instance I felt compelled to, and they are below.

Cheers! (Or, more appropriately - Santé!)

Brenne Single Malt – Now there’s a nose to conjure with. Jumps out of the glass very gamely, and not like any whisky I’ve ever had before. Very distinctive. There’s a kind of ginger spice and then a real sweet strawberry character. Almost confected. Almost like bubblegum. Bizarrely – and I can’t believe I’m writing this of a whisky – there’s a definite whiff of Jäger bomb!* Certain to polarise – but keeps the attention. Flavours exactly – exactly – identical. Where has this come from? How have they made this? I have never tasted or smelled these flavours on a whisky before, and for that reason alone I’d recommend giving this a whirl (by the glass). Also very clean, and for 40% there’s a big intensity of flavour, though it’s medium bodied. Insane. 40%ABV

*This was also the first thing my friend smelled, completely unprompted. And believe me, she knows a Jäger bomb when she smells one. So it's not just me.

Thursday, 13 October 2016

Brechin and Balmoral. 5th September. Glencadam and Royal Lochnagar

So there I am in Brechin, and as so often is the case on these trips, I haven’t found a proper coffee. Thus you find me gingerly sipping a Tesco Costa whilst sat, of all places, in a graveyard. To one side is Brechin’s football stadium. To the other, behind a wire fence, the dark grey walls of Glencadam Distillery.

At the time of writing (shockingly late after the visit, but it’s been a busy month and a half) it is almost a year to the day since I first encountered Glencadam’s whisky. It was in the form of a miniature of the 15yo presented with other offerings on a tray at my friend Will’s stag. I can’t really offer a photo, as there was also something else on the tray, of a more typical stag-party persuasion. But these whiskies were the first drinks of the day, and despite being in very good company the Glencadam shone. My next encounter was two months later at the wedding, when late in the evening a bottle of Single Cask 35 year old was produced from somewhere. Will and I dutifully gave it a hearing, and since the resultant photo was rather more PG, you’ll find it at the bottom of this article.

From those points on I have made up for lost time where Glencadam has been concerned, and now rank it in my top ten distilleries worldwide. Single Malt is only a very minor concern of theirs in production terms though; about 96% of what they make goes into blends, and they don’t have a ‘Visitor Centre’ per se. Not
wishing to pass by without paying a visit to a distillery I rate so highly, I had sent an email asking whether a tour might be possible, and received a swift reply from Douglas Fitchett, the distillery manager, inviting me to meet him at 10am.

I arrived early, as is my wont, and was met by David, who is Douglas’ assistant. We talked whisky (and the A9) for a while, until Douglas arrived to show me around.

Glencadam has been distilling since 1825. It was mothballed during both World Wars, and in 2000 was closed. Happily, owners took charge in 2003, and decided to release the distillery’s first ever own-label Single Malt in 2005. There are only two stills, but they must be working pretty hard, as they’re pumping out something in the region of 1.4 million litres of spirit a year. As a general rule of thumb, I’ve found distilleries tend to average about 1 million litres per pair of stills, give or take, so 1.4 is a very good amount. Though when you consider that only 4% of this goes to Single malt, the size and diversity of their range therein becomes all the more impressive.

It’s quite a compact distillery, is Glencadam. Purpose-built as a distillery over the stream which acts as its water source, there’s a lot happening in a small area. I suppose it has to really; like Oban or Glen Moray, Glencadam doesn’t exactly have room to spread; tucked as it is into the heart of Brechin. One thing I loved about the tour, and in which respect it differed to every tour I’ve been on, was that it is a working distillery full stop. Now I love a visitor centre. If I didn’t I’d have had a pretty miserable time of it over the last year. But there was something brilliant about a distillery ‘stripped bare.’ No visual aids, nothing ‘for the tourists.’ Just people getting on with the business of fermenting, distilling and blending. A little whisky hive in Brechin, and a wonderful thing to see.

The hive’s going to be busier in pretty short order. Glencadam’s output is growing and growing – Douglas mentioned that they’re hoping to double in size ultimately, which is going to be some undertaking. What this means for their single malt output I’ve no idea, but it’s a nice thought that there’ll also be more Glencadam in my blends. Either way, I’m a happy boy.

The ‘tasting room,’ to which Douglas took me, has to be one of my favourites of the pilgrimage so far. Because it’s not so much a tasting room as a lounge, with squashy upholstered armchairs and the whiskies stored in a little bureau-cum-cabinet in the corner. The sample generosity was fantastic too. Apart from the 10, my note for which is below, we tried the new make, the 15, the 18 and the 14, which is finished in Oloroso and grapples with Kilchoman Sanaig for the title of favourite single malt under £50 I’ve tried this year. As a curious aside, the 18 and the 15 are both ex-first-fill bourbon matured only, yet I totally agree with Douglas’ assessment that the 15 is deeper and richer. Both worth buying anyway.

Glencadam 10yo – Proof that the ‘flavour list’ tasting notes really don’t tell a proper story about the whisky. Sure there are apples, pears, vanilla, honey blah blah. But the take-home here is how dazzlingly clean and fresh this is. It’s vibrant; a beautiful zip from the Alcohol without anything spiky or fiery. Silken mouthfeel. The balance is just right. A crowd-pleaser in the best sense of the word. Could give this to anyone from hard-core malt nerds to people who barely touch whisky, and I’d be confident they’d enjoy it. 46%ABV

My love of Glencadam all the deeper, but my day only half done, I thanked Douglas and was back in the Corsa in the direction of Royal Lochnagar. It’s getting into proper Highland territory here; the drive took me up through banks of fog, onto one-track roads through the chilly foothills of the Cairngorms. Lochnagar itself, however, is more or less on the banks of the Dee, in a green, woody and rather charming glen. A delightful neighbourhood all round, though some nearby residents have been known to lower the tone with raucous all-night Jäger and death metal parties. These days police are stationed outside the gates of that house though, to keep the occupants on their best behaviour.*

Royal Lochnagar is the smallest distillery in the Diageo treasure-chest. It earned its ‘Royal’ by dint of Queen Victoria being a fan, and apparently she took her malt mixed with claret. (Dear Diageo marketers: please don’t do a Bordeaux barrel matured Lochnagar and call it ‘Monarch’s Favourite’. Oh Hell, I’ve put the idea in your head now.) It’s also where Diageo have their ‘brand home,’ to which new ambassadors are trooped for Basic Training in how to nose and taste and bend it like Beckham and so forth.

As standard I’m excessively punctual, and bumped onto an earlier tour. (I honestly have sometimes done the tours I’ve actually booked.) It’s a big group, and our guide for the day is Annie, who on seeing my notebook quips ‘can I tell you something? There’s lies, there’s damned lies and then there’s whisky.’ Duly noted – I’ll be careful what I jot down. 

Being a Diageo distillery, cameras are off-limits, so no on-tour photos I fear. It really is a tiny place, fed by waters from a spring at the bottom of the nearby mountain. Open-top mash tun, á la Bruichladdich/Deanston, with a four-water mash the Lochnagar standard. 

Annie was really excellent at managing such a large group within such a small distillery, though it should be noted that those present were rather less rowdy than similar sized groups I encountered at Talisker and Caol Ila. We’re taken past the fermentation room, which unusually is blocked by a glass wall. That being said, it’s a tiny room with three tuns, so it would have been a rather tight squeeze even if we had been allowed in.

Talking of tiny, the stills are miniscule. Really small and stubby. You’d think that they’d make a rather rich and robust malt, but Annie explained that extra copper contact, and therefore lightness of spirit, is achieved by only partially filling them. Also worth noting is that they still use traditional worm tubs to condense the distillate. Under normal circumstances this would again result in a
more meaty, sulphurous spirit, but at Lochnagar the worms tubs are filled with warm water, to condense the spirit more quickly, thus promoting copper contact and lightness of character. Very unique indeed.

Being the brand home, there’s a warehouse in Lochnagar in which all casks have had their duties paid. It’s full of casks from distilleries across Diageo’s portfolio, both dead and alive. I certainly noticed a couple of Broras and Port Ellens, and more than a few barrels which, were they people, would be applying for a free bus pass. Lucky brand ambassadors. We, however, were not allowed to taste, though a judicious sniff or two of certain samples was permitted. I would have tried to hide behind the door when we all left, but had I done so I’d be dead by now. Even if they’d come back for me ten minutes later. One day, perhaps.

Bit of a moment when Annie asked us all whether we liked younger whiskies. I mentioned how much I admired Kilchoman's kit, despite their usually being only five or so, and some old bloke took it upon himself to tell me that my palate was immature. That’s the second time in as many months that someone has said that. You’d think by now that’d I’d have a witty retort planned. Hey ho. I’d bet a reasonable sum of money that I’ve tasted more whisk(e)y this year than he has in his life. And he’s the one missing out if he isn’t drinking Kilchoman.

Back in the tasting room Annie brought out the Royal Lochnagar 12yo as well as the Distillery Edition for comparison. Since I was driving I took advantage of Diageo’s excellent takeaway scheme, so my notes were made later at a hostel in Aberdeen, and my comments on the 12 are below:

Royal Lochnagar 12yo – Nose takes some coaxing. Certainly some grassy/hay notes. Light for sure. A little bit of currant perhaps; certainly some European oak influence, and a splash of vanilla. Intensity definitely on the mild end of the spectrum. Needs a lot of time to get going. Palate is also light, and flavours follow nose. Medium sweet, and actually fairly juicy. Some honeys and caramels too, with perhaps a touch of pear. Brown sugars and coffee on the finish. OK.

Having not booked accommodation for the night, the rest of the day was spent hunting for a campsite, shouting at my tent, booting my tent, apologising to my tent, hurling my tent into the back of the car again, remembering it was actually my dad’s tent and I should probably treat it better, and then giving up and driving to Aberdeen
to find a tent made from bricks. I’m happy to camp, but on your own it’s purgatory. Conclusions of the day then: I still love Glencadam. I love it even more than I already did. Alongside Kilchoman it’s probably my distillery of the year. As for Lochnagar, the jury’s out. It’s not that I won’t drink the stuff – just try to stop me – but what I’ve tried so far leaves me slightly lukewarm. Possibly I just need to try more.

In the meantime, further East Highland distilleries await. And so does a tour with a familiar face...


*I made this up. As far as I know the Royal Family don’t throw Jäger and death metal parties. And if they do, no one around Lochnagar has complained.