Friday, 28 June 2013

Day 4 in Speyside!  Aberlour and a VERY Special Tour of Gordon & MacPhail's warehouse!

It's Thursday now and our 4th day exploring Speyside and it's a very special day!  Today we get to visit Gordon & MacPhail after our visit to Aberlour.

Now Aberlour is a distillery that produces one of my favorite cask strength whiskies: Aberlour Abunadh.  Stupidly affordable at roughly $100 it's one of those bang for buck whiskies, consistently excellent and reasonably priced.  Also Aberlour 10 year old was one of my first single malts, again a very reasonable priced whisky.  Roy had also told me that he felt that the Aberlour Founders tour was a very good tour that was excellent value for money and on top of everything else friends of mine who'd visited Aberlour and really enjoyed the tour.

However I was pretty darn sure that the highlight of the day was going to be our private tour of Gordon and MacPhail's private warehouse, something that has had Roy excited our entire trip, and something that's very special as the warehouse isn't open to the public for any sort of visiting at all.  My personal goal today was to find a cask of Port Ellen, Brora, or Rosebank!

Roy picks us up at the normal time and we head straight off for the village of Aberlour where the Aberlour distillery is located.  We're running a little early so Roy shows us the sights, talking about the schools, nursing homes, hospitals, the people who live there and work there, the history of the village, EVERYTHING.  It is very cool and drives home once again that pretty much everybody in Speyside knows everybody else.  It's interesting talking to Roy because he paints a picture of a different world, a world that I've never seen.

A world where you never lock your doors, there is no road rage, everyone knows everyone else and is always willing to extend an helping hand when you need it.  It's a beautiful picture.

As the time to our arrival at Aberlour draws near we start heading that way and as we pull up I'm struck by how quaint the Aberlour distillery looks.  The visitor center is this small little building with a main entry area that carries bottles of whisky from Aberlour and other distilleries owned by Chivas.  There's some offices off to the side.

Inside the entry room we meet Peter who is our guide and the two other groups of people joining us on our tour.  A Canadian couple and a couple of guys from the Netherlands.  Roy bids his adieu informing us that he'll see us after our tour as usual.

We head outside and towards this building with big windows, and once we head in we see the tasting area!

We're actually going to start the tour off with a dram of Aberlour 10 year old.  As everyone sits down in this living room style sitting area Peter tells us the history of the distillery, showing us bottles from the 20's, 30's, 40's, and on up.

At this time the gentleman from Canada asks how much it would cost to buy one of those bottles and looks a little deflated when he's informed that they're not for sale, they're part of the history of the distillery.

We sit and listen to Peter for about 20 to 30 minutes by which time if you were going to drink your dram (My wife and myself didnt) you had and if you hadn't it was obvious that you weren't.  We then get ready to explore the distillery!

We start a little tour inside this building where they have malt and other examples of whisky from Aberlour, as the rain crashes down on the roof, rocking the windows at times.  My wife and I explore a wee bit on our own as Peter talks to everyone, going into more detail about Aberlour and how whisky is made.  We're not ignoring him because he's boring or anything, but we've done so many distillery tours lately, going into so much depth that we just don't see the need to it.  However he's definitely worth listening to as he tells some entertaining stories, as we strive to hear over the pounding rain.

Eventually the rain abates a bit and we head out into the elements in order to move to the next building, where we actually see the equipment used in distilling and producing whisky.  We see the malt mill first as is standard, the tun room is next with a quick nip of the wort, chatting with Peter as we explore.  The still room is last as is usual, but stifling hot, so very hot.  I actually start struggling here as it's so hot and I'm wearing a sweater.  Off comes the sweater, but the panting stays.  I'm grabbing photos for the albums, but also to help and try and distract me from the heat.  Finally we're outside where all of us except my darling wife take a nice big breath of fresh air.

It's drizzling now as we head back to the tasting room building, where a series of whiskies to taste awaits us.

First though Peter has 3 different samples for us to nose, but as we approach these glasses he stresses again and again to PLEASE don't grab them and take a sip as it can cause blindness or possibly even death.

These are samples of spirit taken from the distillation run: the foreshots, the heart or middle cut and the feints.  The foreshots and feints are not meant for drinking, in fact drinking the foreshots can cause blindness or death.  The heart or middle cut is what's used in making whisky.  The foreshots and feints are actually used in the next distillation to produce more whisky.

We're allowed to actually take a nose and to smell the difference between these three different variations in the spirit.  After which we sit down for our tasting, which is comprised of 4 different whiskies and the new make Aberlour.  Aberlour 12 year old, Aberlour 18 year old and the two self fill casks that Aberlour does, a bourbon barrel aged whisky and a sherry barrel aged whisky (If I recall correctly they're roughly 15 years old or so)

Along with the whiskies there is a chocolate pairing to go with each whisky.  We work our way through the tasting with Peter explaining the different pairings, answering questions, chatting whisky.  He actually comments at one point about the way I drink whisky, pointing out the different way people will consume it (I chew mine) and we start chatting the different styles of whisky, Canadian, American, Taiwanese, etc and how they differ from one another.  He then remarks to everyone how this is why he enjoys doing tours, you meet all sorts of people from all sorts of backgrounds.

Once we've finished the tasting we head upstairs in order to bottle your own whisky, and as I'm taking pictures of everything left, right and center, the unthinkable happens.  The camera deletes the memory card, losing roughly 4000 pictures from the last 2 and a half weeks.  My wife and I strive desperately to save the pictures, but it looks like it's lost.


Time to bring out the second memory card.

We chat whisky with the Canadian couple and then once everyone has their bottle filled we head into the warehouse (not allowed to take photos in this one!) where Peter grabs a glass for each of us and then pours us straight from the cask a 6 year old whisky.


I am SUPER excited about this, very awesome!  Nothing cooler then cracking a cask open and drinking from it.

The wife in the Canadian couple asks why this is so cool at which point I explain that this is so awesome because you'll never taste a whisky QUITE like this one, it's a one in a billion, you can never put your foot into the same river twice, kind of whisky.  And we're getting it straight from the cask!


She's not quite convinced, but that's ok!  Once everyone has their dram we head on out and back to the office, this is the end of the tour, we head back to the very first building where we get our keepsake glasses wrapped in bubblewrap and I grab a photo with both the Canadian's who decide they need a picture with their new whisky friend, and Peter.

It's back to Elgin for us for a quick lunch and then the special tour at Gordon & MacPhail!

Now I knew it was pretty special being invited to visit Gordon & MacPhail's warehouse, but it wasn't until the week in Speyside where it REALLY sunk in HOW special it was.  Roy had been informing all the tour guides of my love for whisky and let them know I'd been invited to visit the G & M warehouse.  It was THEIR reactions that let me know I was really in for a treat.

Roy had informed me that pretty much the only people admitted to the warehouse were people who were purchasing casks from G & M, that it was very special and every time another guide heard about the upcoming visit they'd do a visible start and say "you've gotta know somebody in the business then!"

By the time the day for the visit came I was panting and quivering in excitement.  My wife and I decided to call it an early day once we hit Elgin as the G & M warehouse is only a 10 minute walk from our bed and breakfast.

We grab a quick bite to eat and then we head on over.  God I'm so excited!!  What are we going to see?!  What's it going to be like!?  What's going to happen!?

When we arrive at Gordon & MacPhail we head up into this little waiting room and we let them know that we're here for the tour.  Out comes a lovely lady named Julliette to do our tour.  She informs us that we won't be able to take photos (not a problem!) and we'll need to stick close as this is a working environment.

We enter into the building next door where the warehouse is located and you immediately know that it's a working environment, there's a little assembly line with bottling and packaging going on, cables snaking along the floor, it's noisy, people left and right are doing things that I recognize, things I can only guess at and the odor of whisky is in the air.

In short it is Very Cool!!

We head towards this opening, this black cavernous opening as our Julliette talks to us about G & M and out of the blackness comes a couple of guys wearing hardhats.  We're allowed to go in.  We each grab a hard hat and into the darkness we go.

There are rows upon rows of casks, going 16 casks deep we're informed, and high up in the ceiling are a few lights.  It is VERY dark.  We move further into the warehouse, staying on the main path and as we do so we're passing casks from all sorts of distilleries and all sorts of years.  Glenlivet's from the 1940's, Glen Grants from the 1940's and 1950's, BenRomachs (not too surprising since G & M own the distillery), Caol Ila from 2002, more and more casks.  I ask if we'll see any Port Ellens, Broras, Rosebanks, etc.

Julliette says that she knows that there are casks of all of those in the warehouse, but she's not sure where in the warehouse they are.

We reach another main path that will allow us to move away from the outer wall into the inner warehouse.  About halfway down this lane there is a forklift and you're able to see better as a light shines directly down onto the lane.

Julliette and us chat a bit more about G & M and she then asks what do we think as we stand there?

I look around and then work up my nerve to ask

"Can I go into the rows?"

She replies back "sure, but there's no light you won't be able to see anything"

Before she can even finish her sentence I'm off like a bolt into the row closest to us.

It's tight, with just a few inches to either side and immediately the light fades to almost nothing, I'm squinting, head close to the casks in order to make out what cask I'm looking at in the oh so thin watery light.  My wife stays back with Julliette and I hear them say that they can no longer see me.

I quickly settle on a moment of brilliance!  I can't take photos but I can use my phone as a light source!

I turn it on, set the light source at maximum and now I've got a mini flashlight!

I'm quickly moving down the row, phone light held aloft as I scan all the casks around me, calling out distilleries and years to my wife!

Mortlach, Balblair, Glenglassaugh, Benromach, BenRiach, Caol Ila, more and more whiskies pass by my eyes, whiskies from the 60's, 70''s, 80's, 90's, 2000's, I see them all, as the aroma of the Angel's Share fills the room and my nostrils.

I'm almost running up and down the rows now as Julliette and my wife stand there patiently, waiting for me to run out of steam.  I hear them talking to one another in muted voices and I was later informed by my wife that Julliette commented that she'd never seen anyone get so excited about whisky, it was like a little boy in a toy store.

Oh sweet Jesus!?   I found one!  I FOUND ONE!!!!!!!

A Rosebank from 1979!!!  I found a cask of Rosebank from 1979!??!

I stop for a moment, running my hands reverently along the cask's sides, so beautiful, so serene.  A silent distillery, a distillery who will never produce whisky again, a cask that once emptied can never be replaced.

It's worth a quiet moment or two.

I eventually move on, I don't know how long we'll have to wander so I want to make the most of this visit while I can!

More rows, more casks, Glenlivet, Glen Grant, Caol Ila, more and more casks and then on my last row before I arrive at the forklift, the very last cask in the row I see it.

Port Ellen 1979.  A peace comes over me as I lay my hands on this cask, this very special cask.  This is a cask of whisky from a distillery which caused the following to be uttered at one point.

"When Port Ellen closed, that day grown men cried"

I understand that feeling, that statement, as a tear slowly slides down my cheek.  It's beautiful, this Port Ellen as the smell of it's Angel's Share mingles with the other aromas, the cask splintery and yet smooth beneath my fingers.  I kneel down and lay my head along it's side as I just stop and suck in this moment, this tiny sliver in time when my life has changed in a small, yet irrevocable way.

Finally both Julliette and my wife call out that it's time to go so I come back out of the rows, and we head out back towards that cavernous entrance.  Julliette asks my thoughts on what I saw and I'm close to speechless, such a tiny moment in time, but such a profound impact.

But our tour isn't done yet.

When we go back to the bottling area Julliette walks us over to a machine where a gentleman is removing all the char from a whisky that's due to be bottled soon.

We take a wee nip of the whisky (Caol Ila Yum!) and we chat a few minutes with him, joking how often they need to change the filters as you can see how much char is in the casks.  The char is pretty cool, sweet and smokey and I suggest using it for a BBQ as it would be delicious!  He asks if I want it all at which point I have to lament the fact that Australia probably wouldn't let me import it.

We move further on after saying good bye to my filtering friend, and move down the bottling line a little bit as our Julliette explains more of the process to us.  We're only there for a couple minutes before we leave G & M where Julliette asks what we thought.  I can not express in adequete words what that visit meant.  We chat for a few more minutes, talking about Silent Distilleries and the prices of the bottles, but the tour is over.

We thank her for her time and the visit(!) and then head back to our bed and breakfast in order to prepare for the next day: Macallan!

A quick aside: A MASSIVE THANK YOU to Ian and Derek, Julliette (and the entire team!) at Gordon & MacPhail for that tour!  Such a massive impact on me!  THANK YOU SO MUCH!!  It was VERY MUCH appreciated!!

Monday, 24 June 2013

Our Third Day in Speyside: 
Visiting Glenfarclas, Speyside Cooperage, Ballindalloch Castle and a Special Encounter!

Roy arrives to our bed and breakfast on time our third day exploring Speyside, however there's a problem!  We've overslept and haven't had time for breakfast.  Crap!  We're supposed to be at the Speyside Cooperage in just a little bit.

He swings by McDonalds for us so that we can grab a bite to eat and then we're on the way!  Another beautiful drive through the countryside as we head to the Speyside Cooperage.  Again rolling grasslands, forests, vibrant green land and as always too soon we're there.

However we are about 10 minutes later then we should have been thanks to our sleeping in.

We roll up to the cooperage, looking at all the giant casks upon the lawn, and as we arrive about 2 minutes behind us rolls a big old tour bus.

Roy urges us to hurry, to get in before them.  We follow suit, taking pictures as we walk to the entrance of the cooperage where we're greeted by our tour guide, who actually winds up being the father of Glenfarclas tour guide as we're soon to find out.

We start the tour with a video, a 10 minute video describing how casks are made, what trees they come from, how many casks can be made from a single tree, how they're put together, everything.  In the background in the hallway we can hear the arrival of the tour bus with it's hordes of people.

Once the video ends we head on out and are once more greeted by our guide who walks us up to this hallway with glass windows stretching the length of it.  Down below there are about a dozen workers putting casks together, all of the casks in different stages of being built. 

Our guide walks us through the processes of putting a cask together, how there are no nails or joiners in them, how it's done by just plain experience, how the guys all make very good money, and are paid by the number of casks they build each day, and how each style of cask is worth a different amount of money.  How a young guy will apprentice for 2 to 4 years, earning an hourly wage, before becoming a fully fledged cooper who is paid by the cask.

We stand there for about 20 minutes, taking dozens of photos as we're soon judged by the tour bus, before we move on and attempt to put some miniature casks together ourselves, just like the guys below us were doing.  I'm able to put the majority of the cask together before it falls apart.  However my wife with some guidance from Roy quickly puts her cask together.  What can I say?  She's more talented then me!

Once she finishes putting the cask together it's time for us to run!  We've got to get to head to Glenfarclas now for our Connoisseurs tour.

We're on this tour by ourselves, just my wife and myself and our guide Susan, who it turns out is the daughter of our Speyside Cooperage tour.  She comments that we're late and I explain that my wife and myself have been running late all day and I apologize.  She laughs and suggests that I should have just blamed it on her father.

We get started on our tour and since she knows that we've been on quite a few distillery tours she keeps the information relevant, how is Glenfarclas made different from other Speyside whiskies, the history of the distillery.

She walks us through the distillery, from the mill to the tun room (we take a wee nip from one of the mash tuns, yummy tastes like a Belgian Strong Ale) to the Still house.  Along the way she explains how the differences in the way they distill, using direct fired stills (which is much more costly) and how they've sent samples of their spirit to be tested, samples from both direct fired and unfired distillations, to labs to see what the labs think.  Every single time she says, the lab comments on the traditional way going "keep doing what you're doing, this is Glenfarclas to a 't'"

It's a nice little distillery, being the only family owned distillery in Speyside and honestly Scotland, and it shows, as they control all aspects of their distillery, from where the malt comes from, to where it's bottled, referencing past events where the distillery has done business and released control of the process with other businesses, only to be burned.  They've learned and so they maintain control of the entire process in order to ensure that they'll be able to pass the distillery onto the next generation.

It's very cool hearing the history and how it's influenced decisions made in the past, the present and how it'll affect them into the future.  I ask about how does the future supply of whisky look, are they worried about dwindling stocks as so many distilleries in Scotland are, due to the massively increased demand for whisky around the world.

Her reply is one that makes me grin.

"Most distilleries have one of two problems: they either have a surplus of stock or a surplus of cash, but not both, however due to the family's history we have both.  During times when the demand for whisky dipped we kept up production, not slacking at all."

Interesting.  Very interesting.

At a time when many distilleries are looking at No Age Statements and other ways to try and make the current stock last, and to get them over age humps, Glenfarclas doesn't care, because for them stock isn't an issue.

We then head onto the sacred area, the warehouse.  It is BEAUTIFUL!  Immediately as we walk in we see casks for upcoming Family Casks, dating back to the 1950's, including a sexy bad boy of 1981, my birth year.  I literally take hundreds of photos, asking if we can go further back into the warehouse.

Susan says go for it!

I am immediately running around ducking in and out of the rows of casks, snapping photo after photo, giggling like a little kid as I find some new hidden gem from the 80's, 70's, 60's, 50's, as my wife and Susan slowly follow.

I hear Susan comment at one point to my wife "I've never seen anyone show such childlike glee over whisky"

It's a comment that we'll hear again and again during our trip.

and my wife's reply "he's a kid in a candy store"

Another comment that I'll hear again and again during our trip.

At another point Susan comments that she's actually never been this deep into the warehouse before.  I'm moving further and further in, trying to find out how far back it goes, how old is the oldest cask I can find, moving down these lines of casks that trail off into the distance.

Finally after about 20 minutes or so our patient tour guide Susan and my even more patient wife are ready to move on regardless if I'm ready or not hahaha.

So we head on back and get ready to begin our tasting.

Now since we're doing the Connoisseur's tour (runs at 25 pounds per person) we get to taste 4 different whiskies instead of the standard one dram.  We go into the boardroom which is beautifully done up, very classy and tasteful with stained hardwood, glass cabinets, absolutely gorgeous.

We sit down and there's a surprise for us.  There are 4 tasting glasses and one of the glasses contains our birth year Family Casks, 1981 for me and 1985 for my wife.  Roy had requested information for when we were both born and now we get to see what it came to!

I've always wanted a Family Cask from my birth year and not only do I get to buy one now, but I get to taste it before I buy it?!  AWESOME!!!

The other three glasses are empty, and on the mat there is a spot for all of their whiskies up to the 40 year old.  This is a little embarrassing.  I've already tried all of these whiskies.

Susan asks which ones we haven't tried and would like to sample and I inform her of this dilemma.  I love them all, but I've also tried them all.  But this isn't a problem!

Susan informs us that's fine, why don't I follow her and see what whiskies they have that I haven't tried.  We move behind this counter where there are dozens of bottles and then we start looking.  The first one that catches my eye is the 175th Anniversary bottling.  This bottle goes for about $200 AUS and contains whiskies from every decade from the 1950's to the 2000's.  I have not tried this whisky yet, but I'm keen to.

She says done!  It's in the tasting line up now.  How about a few more whiskies?

We finally settle on an additional two whiskies: Glenfarclas 25 year old aged in Quarter Casks, bottled at cask strength and a very special bottling of Glenfarclas 40 year old, cask strength which would have sold at around 900 pounds.

Now for those who are unsure when a whisky is aged in a quarter cask it ages MUCH faster.  So to be aged for 25 years you're honestly looking at 35, 40 years of aging.  And to be cask strength, oh my god!

So our Glenfarclas line up sits at a whisky that holds whiskies from all the way back to the 1950's worth over 100 pounds, a 30 year old cask strength whisky from by birth year which runs roughly 250 pounds, a 25 year old cask strength whisky aged in quarter casks (so it's much older) and I have no clue as to how much it runs as I can't find it anywhere online, and a 40 year old cask strength special bottling worth about 900 pounds.

All of this for a 25 pound tour.

Holy crap!

We sit down and start taking photos of all these sexy whiskies and then tuck into these very sexy whiskies.  This insanely special tasting.  We enjoy these whiskies which get better and better the further in we go while chatting with Susan about life in Scotland and the whisky industry.  The famous people she's worked with and the tantrums they've thrown, how it's not uncommon to work for many different distilleries and independent bottlers over your lifetime, how her husband works for Diego.

It's great insight into the whisky world in Scotland and it really makes you reconsider the way the distilleries actually view one another (They're not all enemies like you might think.)  While we're enjoying these oh so lovely whiskies another group of people come in from their tour.  It looks like they've done just the basic tour and so it's just a single dram for them.

My wife comments that they keep looking over at us, as we sit with Susan with all of these whisky bottles on the table, and the many glasses.  They keep peeking over at us, moving so far as for one of them to nonchalantly saunter on by us to "look" at some plaques on the wall, all the while sneaking peeks at our whisky table.

Roy comes in at around this time, asking what we're tasting and then giving us a grin when he hears what we're sampling.  Sadly all too soon the whiskies are gone and only the memories remain, with the thought that I need to pick up a Glenfarclas 40 yr old cask strength and 25 year old Quarter cask, cask strength.

I already know that I'm grabbing the 1981 Family Cask!  Even cooler is that my dram was the last dram in the bottle, so I ask Susan if it'd be ok for me to take the bottle home with me.  Not a problem she says!

We grab a glencairn, my Family cask (while I'm doing this an older American man comes in, offering to trade his baseball hat for some whisky samples, this makes me very sad as he argues with them a bit that he always does this, sigh), a photo with Susan, and then we head on out to our next stop.  We're going to go see a castle!

Ballindalloch Castle to be exact!

As we drive there Roy points out ruins, nothing fancy, just ruined houses and barns and such, dating them for us by the way they're built.  That is until we start getting close to Ballindalloch Castle where he pulls over to show us some standing stones, and again give us more of a history on standing stones, what it would have looked like 700, 900, 1200, 1500 years ago.  It is VERY cool and once more I'm snapping photos left and right.

We continue driving up to the Castle and it is stunning!

Now Ballindalolloch Castle is a real life, lived in castle.   Almost 500 years old, it's situated on these lovely grounds with the mountains in the distance, surrounded by forest with these massive, sweeping grass lawns with flower beds.  It's huge! 

Roy and us sit down for lunch while Roy tells us a little bit about the history of the castle, how the house is still owned by the original family who live there and have most of it open for the public to come and see.  After lunch we sit down for a short video that talks abit about the history and even talks about a friendly ghost haunting the grounds.

This isn't a good thing as my poor wife is quite superstitious!

She looks at me with a wee bit of horror in her eyes.  Uh oh.

We head into the castle and it is amazing, definitely lived in, but very beautiful and classy.  It's filled with history of the royal family who are related to the lady of the castle, a Mrs. Russell.  We crawl through all the floors that are open, living room, dining room, bedrooms, climbing these extremely steep stairs up into the towers where the servant quarters were located.  It's so steep and narrow that there's a rope that goes along the wall of the tower leading up for you to hold on as you climb the stairs and it's so narrow that there is no chance of anyone passing on the opposite side.  The entire time my wife is holding my hand in fear of the ghost.

Soon we've seen most of the castle, but my wife's nerves are getting the best of her and she asks if we can leave.  Not a problem, I guess it is kind of creepy up here in the towers.  Now we've not taken any photos inside the castle as the owners don't want the inside of their home photographed and posted everywhere.  So when we get outside it's photos galore!

Soon we're ready to head out though after a quick stop in the gift shop for some clothes for my wife and a charity bottle of cask strength Glenfiddich for me.  The next stop is Whisky Shop Dufftown for my next purchase of the day.

We drive, through valley's and glens, through passes, and quickly I'm totally turned around and lost.  I have no idea where I am, nor any idea on how to get to where we want to go.  Thankfully Roy does though!  We see some spectacular views, cameras clicking away the entire time as Roy talks us through the history of everything that we pass. 

Eventually we arrive at the whiskyshop located in Aberlour where I meet the owner, Mike, who's a great guy!  Hundreds of whisky bottles, of all regions and styles.  He's got dozens of open bottles so that you can try before you buy, but I already KNOW what I'm getting today.

Highland Park 30 year old.

I'd heard that the distillery was running out of older stock from friends of mine that I trust so I'd decided on my trip over to Scotland that I was coming home with at least one bottle of older Highland Park.

Once the purchase is done it's time for dinner!

Roy has suggested that we head to the legendary Highlander Inn located in Craigellachie.  This is a whisky bar with hundreds upon hundreds of whiskies, mainly Scotland and Japan (thanks to the influence of a Japanese bartender)  A massive whisky menu awaits us!

My wife and I sit down and immediately snag a couple of drams of Japanese whisky and enjoy some very delicious food!  I grab the haggis with nips and taters which is absolutely delicious, my wife grabs some yummy chicken.  While we're eating and drinking (now I'm on a Rosebank 21 year old cask strength) we hear some American voices.  The couple next to us is over from the states and we get to chatting about whisky and Scotland.  They're driving themselves all the way around and we mention how happy we are that we hired Roy to take care of us.  They comment that they wish they'd done the same.  The roads are confusing and you have to be very careful about how much you drink if you're also driving yourself.

We wind up taking photos all around of our new whisky friends and just as we're getting ready to go, David Mair comes in with David Stewart.  For those who don't remember David Mair is the Balvenie distillery ambassador and David Stewart is the Malt Master of Balvenie!!!!

Oh my god!  I'm speechless!  This is the guy who designs all the Balvenie we drink!  David Mair comes over and says hello and says that we should come over and say hello to David Stewart, he'll introduce us.

Oh my god this is like meeting a movie star!!!

I head over after we finish our drinks to introduce myself to the gang, which is comprised of brand ambassadors from all around the world, stopped into the Highlander for a dram and a meal.  David Stewart gives me his card after I ask him if it's possible to do an email interview with him sometime, tells me to drop him a line.

Holy cow that is so awesome!!!!!!

(You've correctly guessed that there will be a David Stewart interview in the future!)

We head out of the inn and drive back to Elgin, ready for some much needed sleep.  Tomorrow is going to be a massive day.  We visit Aberlour for the Founders Tour and then we get to go inside Gordon and MacPhail's private warehouse!!

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Our Second Day in Speyside: 
Visiting Glenglassaugh and Exploring the Countryside!

Roy, our driver and guide, picks us up at 830 in the morning our second day exploring Speyside.  Today on the itinerary is Glenglassaugh and a special treat: a couple of very special seaside villages!  We've got a bit of a drive ahead of us so we need to get moving a little bit earlier then we did the day before.

Now when I'd originally booked Roy I'd had a list of distilleries that I'd wanted to visit.  Glenglassaugh was not one of them.  Not for any particular reason, but just because I'd never tried their whisky before due to the price point that they run at out here in Australia (entry level sits at $115 AUS for a NAS, the Glenglassaugh Revival) and their scarcity, I've never seen one in Perth before, I know they exist, but I've never seen them!)

However Roy had suggested that we visit them and that we'd probably enjoy the Glenglassaugh Ultimate Tour which ran at 80 pounds a person and allowed us to taste some very old whiskies, 40 plus years old.  After the distillery tour we'd grab a bite to eat and then explore some seaside villages.

As we drive towards Glenglassaugh Roy shows us and talks to us about the sights.  We pass a Maltings which is a building where the majority of the Speyside distilleries get their malted barley, we stop and I take some photos as Roy talks about when it was built and who all gets their malt from there.

He seems to know everyone, their routine, as we drive along he'll say something along the lines of "and we should be seeing a truck from Chivas come by in about 5 minutes" and bam! Within 5 minutes or so we're passing a Chivas truck coming back from Glasgow and Edinburgh for more spirit.  It is very cool.

We're driving along the ocean shore right now as we head over to Glenglassaugh, going through these seaside villages.  Roy discusses the different architecture, when it dates to, what it signifies, informing us that tourists wouldn't want to stop for a drink in these pubs (that he also would be classed as an outsider).  He talks about the people in the villages we drive through, this village is generally considered populated by people VERY religious, this one isn't.  It is a very cool drive to the distillery with MANY photos taken along the way.

We pull up to the distillery and it's lovely.  Located right next to the shore, it's right near the shore, with you being able to see the ocean and beach from certain viewpoints around the distillery and we head in.  A nice little visitor center, with many older Glenglassaugh's for sell and a couple of casks where you can bottle your own whisky. 

Shortly after we arrive our guide comes out and introduces himself, it's Ronnie, someone Roy has been telling me about for weeks.  I've been informed that while all the tour guides at Glenglassaugh are great, Ronnie is the best.  Roy is soon proven correct on the fact that Ronnie is brilliant.

When we inform Ronnie that we've visited distilleries before he keeps the tour to relevant details: the distilleries history and how it's different from other distilleries in what it produces, interesting tidbits that highlight the differences with trivia as we explore old malting rooms and buildings with him.  He takes us to a little spot on the distillery land where we can see the ocean and talks about the crazy surfers who surf in the harbor every winter.  It's brilliant.  I wind up taking hundreds of photos.

We wander through the old malting room, which may wind up becoming a cask storage space, the mill (laughing about how Porteous produced mills so reliable that the company wound up going out of business because the distilleries never needed to repair them) the tun room (stopping off to taste a wee sample of the wort (beer)), the still room (always my favorite room!) talking with the couple of guys who are working, talking about the Glenglassaugh whisky details.

We then head into the warehouse, that beautiful magical place where all of the stuff we love is aged.  Ronnie is a hoot and almost as excitable as me,  He goes from cask to cask for samples for us, trying to find one that he thinks is brilliant enough.  He also starts cracking different casks open that have previousely held different spirits and wines so that we can see the difference between them, cracking open ex-bourbon casks, Amoroso sherry, Oloroso sherry, Pedro Ximenez casks, and allowing us to take a nose.  They're great and the Pedro Ximenez is clearly mine and his favorite!  We are now bung hole sniffers he informs us!  We then move onto the search of a great whisky to try.  

We start this search with an unpeated Glenglassaugh that is young, very young, 3, 4 years old and then we move to a peated Glenglassaugh, again very close in age to the first one we've tried.  But still this doesn't have Ronnie satisfied, he wants a bad boy for us!

Finally he finds a cask that he thinks will be right up our alley, a 40+ year old whisky from 1972 from a refill sherry cask.  It is LOVELY!  Absolutely sexy.  While we're savoring this whisky Ronnie who pretty much does quality control and helps decide casks to be used, tells us about some of the best whiskies that he's ever had in his life,  now I'm taking my time with this 40+ year old whisky.  It's so lovely and you just don't rush a whisky like this.  Especially since my wife is sharing hers with me.  However this is causing a problem as we haven't even started our official tasting yet. 

Ronnie seeing this saves the day for me, offering to bring out sample bottles so that I can take these whiskies with me to be enjoyed at my leisure.  Oh thank you god!  As I type this I'm actually giving this sexy whisky a nose.  I immediately take him up on his kind offer.  The three of us head into the tasting room where there is a whole series of sexy whiskies.

Glenglassaugh Revival, Glenglassaugh Evolution, Glenglassaugh 26 year old, Glenglassaugh 37 year old, Glenglassaugh 39 year old Muscat finished and Glenglassaugh 45 year old, both the last two whiskies at cask strength await us.

Holy crap!

Even better is that he's got sample bottles for me to take samples of all of these.  They are LOVELY and both my wife and I are very impressed, enjoying these whiskies and then bottling samples of each of them.  Reviews of ALL of these whiskies including the 1972 will be forthcoming!

We even wind up killing the bottle of Glenglassaugh 45 year old which is in a lovely decanter.  I wind up asking Ronnie if it'd be ok if I took the bottle home with us, not a problem he says!  However I'm moving way too slow, I'm causing us to run WAY behind schedule if we want lunch before the next part of the day.

We wind up shopping in the distillery center for a bit, putting us even further behind schedule, but my wife and I are both so thrilled that we kind of blow up our budget, picking up a Glenglassaugh pitcher, glencairns a bottle of the 26 year old Glenglassaugh which by the way you can actually look up in the Whisky Bible under the Glenglassaugh 21 year old (Ronnie and I chat about him working with the whisky greats, Jim Murray, Cadenheads, etc) and then they give me a wee nip of the fill your own, which is 35 pounds for a 500ml cask strength.  It's only about 4 years old though.  I also grab a bottle of the Glenglassaugh Evolution which is a special whisky that was aged in ex George Dinkel bourbon barrels and is absolutely delicious.

Yeah it's safe to say I blew up the budget here, and went way past the recommended time to leave as any minute now all the cafes and restaurants were going to start closing.  We grab a last minute photo with Ronnie and run out.

And due to me we're late.

We're hungry and every place is closed.  We drive to all of Roy's places that he knows, nothing's opened, we start just stopping at restaurants, nothings open. See in Speyside there really aren't any fast food joints, no McDonalds, no Subways, none of that.  It's all little cafes and restaurants and business is going to be slow after 1ish so they close until dinnertime.  Good job SquidgyAsh!

Roy asks us if we want to continue on and see a couple of little seaside villages and keep looking for food?


He takes us along these little backcountry roads, no traffic, at times it feels like there is no one for miles around and I'm immediately lost.  The countryside becomes more and more rolling fields, lovely grasslands, some minor hillsides, but no trees.  We drive and drive for about 30 minutes and then all of a sudden we're overlooking some cliffsides, we're near Crovie and this is what we see.

This little village that's literally been hacked in the cliffside.  An insanely steep hillside leads down into the village.  There is no room to park your car and the residents take their groceries down into the village by wheelbarrow.  It is something to behold.  Roy tells us the history of this beautiful hidden gem, discussing with us how when the Scottish landowners in the late 1700's decided that sheep would be the more profitable use of the land, more so then people, that the tenants were kicked off the land.  This is where some of them settled, a little fishing village literally created out in the middle of nowhere.  Roy tells us stories of major storms hitting the village with boulders, literal boulders being washed into the homes of the villagers.  He recounts a story of when he was a boy and his father was called out to help with the village in removing a boulder from a house.  The sea had washed it into this guys house and it was so big and heavy that the villagers had to take pickaxes and remove it piece by piece.


We only view this village from the cliffside as it's so steep that we can't possibly get down there in our vehicle.  When we're ready Roy says we'll head to another similar village.  He's taking us to Pennan.

More back country roads, twisting and winding with not a soul to be found and once again I'm quickly lost.  Again rolling countryside with grasslands surround us and after 20, 30 minutes or so we're overlooking Pennan, another coastal village, created around the same time as Crovie.  A small little community, maybe 60 houses, if that, however a little more space on this one, room enough for a few cars. 

This is what we see here.

Another perfect village, so perfect in fact that there's a movie based off it (sadly it wasn't perfect enough to have the restaurant open when we came through).  Local Hero.  A movie about an American company coming in and buying out the locals, so that they can have the perfect life, however the joke of it is, they're already leading the perfect life.  Roy tells us about the movie, pointing out what buildings in the village were what in the movie.  The red phone booth was very famous in the movie.  It's beautiful and we go down into this village and walk through it.  It's like you're transported into another time, another life, where road rage, locking your doors at night, these things don't exist.  It's enough to bring a tear to your eye.  Through these two villages we take hundreds and hundreds of photos.  Sadly the pictured photos are not mine as our camera deleted itself 2 days after this day.  I have pulled these photos off of google for anyones information.

We start to head back to Elgin, our base of operations.  As we head back Roy talks to us, discussing the sights we've seen, the plan for the following day, history of the area, answering all of the questions that I throw at him.  It's a long drive home, probably taking us a couple hours all told and along the way we manage to find a little cafe that's open where we grab a bite to eat.  Roy talks about Scottish cuisine, suggesting I give Haggis another shot (I do the following day!)  We wind up passing Glenglassaugh after about 50 or so minutes and I realize at that moment (although I'd realized it before) that we'd made a very good decision hiring Roy as there was no way in the world we would have even had an idea about these two lovely villages.

Would my wife and I visit Glenglassaugh again?  Definitely, without a doubt.  It was lovely with delicious whisky and completely worth the 80 pound price tag per person!  At this point this has been the best tour that we've done while we were in Scotland.

Tomorrow we visit the Speyside Cooperage and Glenfarclas!!

Sunday, 16 June 2013

Our First Day Touring Speyside: Benromach and Balvenie

We now move forward 8 days from our visit at Glengoyne.  My brother, sister in law and brother in law all have moved on from Scotland.  My brother back home to the US and my brother and sister in law onward in their trip to explore Europe.  It's now just my wife and myself.

We were staying in this little bed and breakfast that was located in a building over 200 years old.  A quaint little building, but ran by very lovely people.  This is where I've decided to stage out of for exploration of the Speyside whisky region.

Now I'd decided to hire a guide based on what friends of mine who'd been to Scotland before had to say about the roads.  I'd been told that they could be VERY windy and narrow, to the point where it was just one car width wide with no passing space.  I'd also been informed that many times distilleries that looked close to one another on the map would oftentimes be a good distance apart, sometimes requiring an hour to get to, even if it was just 5 or so miles apart.

The person I hired was Roy Mathers from About Speyside tours (  I'd talked to quite a few tour guides based all over Scotland trying to figure out what it was going to run me to hire someone for a week to drive us around (remember I've got lots of distilleries planned!) and what I quickly found out was that it was going to be expensive, around the lines of 300 to 700 pounds per day, not including gas, overnight accommodation, etc.  So it was very pricey, but I was determined that we would benefit from a guide.

Roy Mathers from About Speyside stood out quickly due to a couple of reasons.  First was price, roughly 270 pounds per day, which was much more affordable for us then the 700 pounds a day that some of the tour companies were charging.  But even more important was that he was a local, being born and raised on The Macallan distillery estate.

I had emailed Roy a couple of times back and forth and he sounded pretty good, but I finally decided to give him a phone call.  We wound up talking for almost 2 hours about whiskies and the Speyside region!  I told him what I wanted to do, which was way too much for the time I had (something like 18 distilleries hahaha yeah not going to happen) Even better is that after naming the distilleries I informed him that I didn't want the entire time in Speyside to focus on whisky, we wanted castles and some other things to do as well (see I am crazy)

He kindly made some suggestions that I wouldn't have thought of and informed me which were the great tours, which ones were ok and which ones really weren't so hot.  After 2 hours on the phone I knew I was going to go with him.

270 pounds a day wound up being the most expensive planned part of our trip, even costing more then both our airfares, running more then the hotels for the entire trip and I was very nervous about meeting him as while someone can sound great over the phone or email it can always be a very different story.

Making me even more apprehensive was that Roy's mother had passed away just a few days before we were supposed to meet up and that is ALWAYS a strain on anyone.  He'd informed me that not to worry he'd still do a wonderful job for us.  Even with all the reassurances there was a little worry.

I shouldn't have!

He picks us up promptly as the bed and breakfast at 9am sharp and after introductions we get on the road.  Really friendly guy we chat as we drive along, talking whisky and history (another passion of mine) when all of a sudden as we're driving along he informs us that we'll probably like what he has to show us.

It's a giant standing stone, just along the lines of Stonehenge, but dating from MUCH further back in history raised by the Picts.  He tells us about how they can be found everywhere, their history, everything.  It is VERY VERY awesome!  We take heaps of photos as it is very beautiful and then we're back on the road to BenRomach, the smallest Speyside distillery, run with just 2 guys.

I'd never had a Benromach before so I was quite keen as I'd been hearing things about the distillery for a while, how they were playing around with different styles of Speyside whisky, smoking malt and peat, brand new casks that had never held bourbon or sherry in them, so I was looking forward to the tour, but had no idea of what to expect.

We arrive with plenty of time despite our detour and take a look around the visitor center which is quite nice, but nothing fancy.  We don't have to worry about paying anyone or doing anything as that was already taken care of when I paid Roy weeks ago when I booked with him so we just admire the whiskies, some of which are quite old and very pretty bottles.

The tour starts and we sit down for a quick video which is basically a quick run down on the history of the distillery and Gordon & MacPhail who own the distillery and then we're ready to start the tour.  We're joined by an older couple from Canada who are quite lovely people.  Our guide Jimmy at this stage has been informed a wee bit by Roy about my passion for whisky and so we chat a bit as the tour is in progress.

We're led from the mill to the tun room (where we try some wort, which is essentially beer that is eventually distilled into whisky) all the way through the still house and ending up in the warehouse where we get a chance to take a quick look around.  We've been allowed to take photos for almost the entire tour, except the warehouse (which many of the distilleries won't let you take photos of)

Jimmy is a fun guide, engaging and friendly, answering questions left and right, explaining to those who don't know about the different types of woods used in casks and from which country they come, how whisky gets it's color, what flavors the different types of casks impart.  He seems to be directing all the questions at me and it makes me a little bit nervous.  Here's the big whisky geek, how will I look if I start answering wrong?

Not to fear I'm informed by Jimmy, I'm doing great! (Whew!!)

We end up the tour once more in the distillery center where he has two whisky samples for us, Benromach 10 year old and then I'm asked what I'd like to try next.  Benromach Smokey, which is a peat smoked whisky, but VERY different from the Islay styles that you may be more familiar with is the next one on the menu.


He then asks if we'd like to try another one?

Heck yeah!

He asks which one I'd like to try, take my pick from the range, as long as I don't go too crazy and try and choose a 500 pound bottle, etc.

I settle on Benromach Organic, a whisky that he'd talked a bit about.  An experiment, 100% organic, fresh casks that have never held anything in them before.

Lovely, absolutely lovely.  We enjoy our drams with the Canadian couple, chatting with them about their trip through Scotland so far, and I answer questions about the blog and whiskies for the Canadian gentleman.  Finally we're finished and my wife and I decide that we need to get something.  Possibly something for her father who enjoys the Islay style whiskies so we settle on Benromach Smokey which we both enjoyed, I grab a photo with Jim who then leads us back to the cask warehouse for a quick photo taken outside the warehouse as I've told him I would love some for the blog (Thanks Jim by the way!)

We then head over to Roy, who's been waiting for us and head on out.  Our next stop is lunch at the Glenfiddich cafe and a 1 pm tour at Balvenie.

Seeing my enthusiasm about the local history as we drive along Roy points out sights left and right, talking about the local history, this has been here so long, the locals use the building over there for that, anything that catches my eye, he can answer questions about.

We're driving along when all of a sudden he looks across at me and grins.

"You're going to love this!"

He pulls us onto this little country road, one that you wouldn't have thought to go up in a million years and drives us up it.  Only room enough for one car, no passing space, sheep on my side, a country wall on the other side, he drives until we reach a gate and a little stone building.

It's a little church, sitting on a hill top, overlooking these grasslands with forests spread out before us and a mountain looming in the background.

There's no one in the church, but Roy walks us right on in.  Inside the only thing I can say is that the atmosphere is one of serenity and peace.  I'm not religious at all, but you can feel the ages weighing down on this building, this building has seen everything it feels like.

We're then informed that it has.  This church is roughly a thousand years old.  It feels it.  There's pews and some BEAUTIFUL stain glass windows.  A tiny PA system has been added in you can see, but this building just radiates peace.  In the corner near one of the windows is a small bell.

Roy informs us that this bell, this misshapen bell is a hand beaten bell dating back over a thousand years that was used to ring in church.  I'm grabbing photos the entire time left and write.  There is a sense of peace about this place that settles in on you as Roy describes the history of this little building.  He then pays for a couple postcards that my wife and I have grabbed and leads us out into the cemetery where we stand there looking at graves 3, 4 hundred years old (that's the oldest ones that you can identify.

Wow, just wow.

It's with a sense of awe that I get back into the van.    We continue driving towards Glenfiddich and Balvenie (they're right next to one another)   As we drive the winding country roads I'm left thinking to myself (Thank god I hired a driver because Thao and I would be so lost by now).

We arrive at Glenfiddich which is PACKED!  People everywhere, left and right.  Beautiful visitor center and nice restaurant.  We sit down for some food and sadly my wife's first 2 choices are sold out.  It's been THAT busy over the course of the day.  We see busloads come and go while we eat.  Good food though and reasonable prices!

While at the restaurant I take a look around to see if I can find my favorite Glenfiddich, the Snow Phoenix!

Hahaha nop, Not a chance!  I'd be surprised if any store was sitting on any right now.

Roy informs them that we're booked in for the Balvenie tour so if they can put a rush on our food so that we can enjoy a leisurely lunch it would be much appreciated.  And they do.

Like I said very yummy food.  I wind up enjoying what's called a "Cullen Skink" which is a type of smoked fish soup that is famous in the Speyside region.  Absolutely delicious and it makes such an impression on me that I wind up ordering it just about every time I see it in our trip through Scotland.

As we walk over to Balvenie after lunch we notice that the trees are black, actually black.  Not the leaves, it's just the bark, but they are black.  It's a beautiful contrast between the vibrant green of the leaves and the stark blackness.

Roy informs us that it's caused by the alcohol vapors in the air.  EVERY distillery in Scotland (and I'd honestly guess the world) has it occur.  It's literally the Angel's Share in action (that's the evaporation of the alcohol in the casks that occurs as whisky ages for those who are unsure of the term).  I ask Roy if it's anything to be wary about and he informs me it's completely safe, in fact Scotland's distilleries have some truly heinous regulations that they have to work around in order to produce whisky (case in point I was informed by several distilleries during our visit that the water they return back into the water sources, streams, rivers and such is actually much cleaner then what comes into the distillery)

We see this tree blackness again and again on our journey and as I said it's actually very lovely, to the point that my wife and I still talk about it to this day.  You'll notice it out to maybe 100 yards away from the distillery so it doesn't travel very far.

There's pretty much no distillery center for Balvenie, which is more then fine, it's the sister distillery of Glenfiddich, opened a few years later after Glenfiddich was opened.  There's a couple of small rooms, a waiting room, a tasting room and a small office where you can buy whisky.

We sit in the waiting room with a couple of other groups of people.  A couple of guys from Norway who are walking their way through Scotland and an older couple from Canada.  We're waiting for a couple of guys from America and then our tour is ready to begin.

Now Balvenie does only 2 tours a day, they run at 35 pounds per person.  No idea what to expect other then the fact that I enjoy Balvenie quite a bit, owning 2 different bottles at home, the 12 year old Doublewood and the 21 year old Port Wood (SEXY!)

While we wait we're offered food, coffee and tea and we're introduced to our tour guide, David Mair, who I'm actually informed after the tour is THE Balvenie ambassador.

After waiting 10 minutes or so David decides that we're just going to start the tour and they can join us as they're able.  First off we put on reflective vests to wear as we move about the distillery (remember that ALL of these distilleries are WORKING distilleries, so in some ways it's just like taking a tour through a lumber yard or construction site, you have to be careful!) and then we set off.

The tour starts out a little different then all of our other tours as Balvenie actually does a small portion of their maltings on site.  Now maltings for those who don't know is basically malted barley.  When you malt it what you do is you spread many tons of barley across a wide floor and then you let it get wet, not too wet, not too damp, in order for it germinate or sprout.  This is done over about 5 to 7 days with the barley being turned every couple of hours in order to encourage starch to develop on the barley which then turns to sugar.

Now almost NO distilleries left in Scotland do this on site as it's a VERY intensive process requiring a good bit of man power as the barley HAS to be turned every couple of hours and in the old days used to cause a physical disorder called Monkey Shoulder (yes the whisky is named after that).  This is done over the entire day, for 5 to 7 days, so there is no break.  Even though there are now machines that do this it is still a time intensive process.

The other reason why most distilleries don't do this anymore is they can't malt fast enough to keep up with demand.  You're going through megaton lots in a week so it's a HUGE undertaking.  Most distilleries get their malt from companies that specialize in maltings, they'll gather the barley that you need and malt to your specifications on smoke, peat, etc.

Balvenie however still does some maltings at their distillery, not much and it's more for visitors to see, but they do it.  Sadly they weren't doing it when we arrived, but as we arrive in the malting house there are these MASSIVE mounds of barley just waiting to being the process of making whisky.  Huge massive piles of barley.

David says that if we want to touch any we're more then welcome to.  We all stand outside the malting area, handling the little bits of barley that are there, but everything in me screams to go jump into a pile of the barley.  My lovely wife says that she doesn't think that David meant that when he said we could handle the barley.

David then informs us that that is indeed what he meant.

I'm over the little barrier so fast that you wouldn't believe it, heading to the mounds of barley, running my hands through it as my wife laughs and takes photos.  David talks about the barley and is an engaging speaker, which is a very difficult thing to do considering that almost every single distillery makes whisky the exact same way with only the details changing.  It's VERY hard to keep it fresh for someone who's been through distillery after distillery.

Right around this time we're joined by the missing Americans and we start moving through the distillery, actually seeing how the malt is dried, heading by the mill, the tun room where we try some more wort (whisky beer!) the still house, taking photos the entire way!  Once we're done with the still house we're informed of something special!

Balvenie and Glenfiddich are SO massive and go through so many casks that they have their own onsight cooperage that they use to repair casks after use.  We get to watch it in action.


We hope into a little vehicle and drive over to the cooperage which is running flat out with maybe a dozen guys repairing casks in all stages of repair.  It is VERY cool.  Actually it's insanely cool!  I take several hundred photos of just the cooperage and repairs having already taken several hundred photos throughout the distillery.  I'm asking David questions left and right and he answers them all without fail, after about 10, maybe 15 minutes David, after confirming that everyone has seen what they want to, calls for a move on.

It's time for the big game, the cask warehouse!

Now we're informed by David that this is the area of the tour where we're not allowed to take photos (remember what I said about the distilleries and this, TECHNICALLY it's supposed to be due to Occupation Health and Safety running wild).  He however lets us take photos from outside the distillery through the door.  I grab a few and then eagerly head in!

David, my wife and I chat as we wander through the warehouse with the other tourists wandering through the warehouse.  It's beautiful!  Casks from the early 70's, 80's, 90's everywhere.  You can smell the whisky in the air my friends, it's the Angel's Share.

As my wife, David and I walk through the warehouse he asks me if I'm a member of the Warehouse 24 club.  For a minute or two I'm trying to figure out what he means....Warehouse 24?  I'm a member of the Balvenie Club, having signed up about a year ago when I signed up for every distillery's club in Scotland who's whisky I enjoyed.

He then describes the club, seeing my confusion.  YES!  I am a member of the club.

At that point he informs me with that being the case there is a VERY special cask inside of the warehouse which has whisky in it for me.  A cask that was 39 years old from 1974.

Oh my god!

This was a cask selected by David Stewart, the Malt Master of Balvenie, for club members to sample while they were visiting the distillery.  There are no words to describe the way I felt at that moment.  My wife just had a GIANT grin on her face and me, I was speechless.

We head into a lower level of the warehouse where the rest of the tour group has gathered.  At the end of the room are 3 different casks, different ages, pretty much 14 to 17 years or so old, that people can bottle for a 200ml bottle if I recall correctly for around 25 pounds.  You get to dip the dog (the item used to pull whisky out of a cask for sampling) and bottle it yourself, char and all!

Very cool!

David then hands my wife and myself a bottle, dog, and funnel and informs the group that because we're Warehouse 24 members we get to bottle a 39 year old whisky for sampling.  However unlike them we can not TAKE this whisky off the property, it must be drunk there.  If they're lucky we'll be kind and share it with them he says.

Everyone looks on with envy as my wife and I head back upstairs to bottle the whisky, which takes me a couple minutes to figure out how to do, however it takes my wife just a minute or so to figure out how to do this and the rest of the time is spent explaining it to me (hey I've said I'm an idiot before :D)

We come back down after bottling this sexy looking 39 year old single malt which comes from a 2nd fill bourbon barrel and join the rest of the group who are bottling their 16 year old whiskies, which Thao and I then try all the casks.  Very nice whiskies, but right now I'm budgeting like you wouldn't believe to make sure my money will last throughout the trip.

Once everyone has their whiskies bottled we head into the tasting room, hang up our vests, and sit down for a most excellent tasting.  On the table are 5 different whisky samples, Balvenie 12 year old Double wood, Balvenie 14 year old Caribbean cask, Balvenie 15 year old Single Barrel and Balvenie 21 year old Port Wood.

We sit down for a tasting as David walks everyone through all the whiskies, tasting notes, cask finishings, etc. I try and tune everyone out as I've poured the 39 year into glasses for everyone, with a bit more left over for me for seconds.

This is a 39 year old CASK strength whisky, poured straight from the cask, into my bottle, bits of char and imprefections and all.

It's lovely to behold.

I have tried most of the Balvenie line, love it, the major exception which normally would have had me super excited was the Caribbean cask which I'd heard rave reviews about.  But right in front of me was a 39 year old cask strength Balvenie.  NOTHING AND I MEAN NOTHING was going to distract me from this bad boy.

I spent the entire tasting focusing on this whisky (Review coming later) and all I can say is that it was a CRACKER!  David walked the rest of the group through the tasting, providing notes on what they might expect to nose and taste, how much water does he add to his whisky, etc as he answers questions for everyone.  I pour another round out of my 200ml bottle of 39 year old whisky for everyone who wants some more and it's awesome to watch immediately the change in people.  When we'd started my wife and I'd seen a couple people treating these lovely whiskies like rotgut, downing them in shots, and at the end people are nosing the 39 year old, taking cautious sips, enjoying it, savoring it with the respect it deserves.   

During the tasting of the 39 year old Roy has joined us, waiting for us to finish our tour.  He takes a nose of the whisky and calls it lovely (it REALLY is!) and helps take a photo of David and myself together.  We take a look through Balvenie's little whisky shop which has whiskies from their standard range up to the 21 year old Port Wood (Remember my friends that's sex in a bottle!)

A brilliant day, two brilliant tours.  The only issue was the 39 year old cask strength from Balvenie.  I would have happily paid 100 pounds for that 200ml bottle (For the Americans that's roughly 4 shots of whisky) in order to be able to enjoy it at my leisure.  I totally understand why they didn't let me take it, and considering that it's completely free to join the Warehouse 24 club and try some AWESOME whisky for free when you visit (took me less then 5 minutes), but I still would have loved to have purchased a bottle of it to enjoy at home for a full fledged proper review.

We end the day with Roy driving us back to our bed and breakfast where we grab a bite to eat in Elgin and crash, watching tv in bed and prepping for the next day: Glenglassaugh!

Would we do either distillery tour again?  Hell yeah!  I'd pay for a more indepth tour at Benromach happily, they go up to about 60 pounds for a fill your own bottle tour and around 40 pounds for your normal highend tour, but considering the fact that we paid roughly 5 pounds for our tour and they gave us 3 whiskies to try (technically they were only supposed to give us one from what I understand) we'd happily go back again.  In fact the bottle of Benromach Smokey that was supposed to be for my father in law is now mine :D

As for Balvenie excellent tour again for the price point and being a warehouse 24 member makes it stupidly awesome with the ability to pour a bottle for yourself to sample on the premises and again for the price a steal!  I'd definitely do both of these distilleries again and in fact plan on it when we head back with my brothers and friends!

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Glengoyne: The First Distillery!

The first distillery that we visited was Glengoyne, a Highland distillery located near Glasgow.  I chose this distillery for a couple of reasons.  First off the first week or so of traveling in Scotland my wife and I were traveling with her sister, her brother in law and my brother.  After the first week people started heading back home or off to other parts of Europe and there is no way you can visit Scotland and not go to a distillery!

There are two distilleries within a reasonable distance of Glasgow, Auchentoshan, which is a Lowland distillery and Glengoyne, a Highland distillery.  I was already familiar with Auchentoshan and had never tried Glengoyne which was a point in it's favor and then there was Glengoyne's Masterclass tour.

This was a 5 hour tour which ran 125 pounds per person.  In this tour you went on the distillery tour, getting a chance to go into the warehouses, have a light lunch, try the 12 and 18 year old, along with 3 different cask strength whiskies, 6 different sherry samples and then create your own 200ml bottle of blended whisky.

I ran it past everyone along with tours being hosted by Auchentoshan and everyone said that the Masterclass sounded absolutely brilliant!

I contacted Glengoyne about booking spots for the 5 of us and they were very helpful in arranging it, and even more helpful when I requested that both myself and my brother in law were interested in add the tastings for the Century of Glengoyne tour which ran 175 pounds and featured the Glengoyne 40 year old and the Isle of Skye 50 year old.  They offered to let us add the 2 whisky tastings onto our tour for just an extra 50 pounds which was more then fair in our opinion!

Over the next few months we had fun discussing what sort of whisky we'd blend up, cask strength whiskies and different sherry finishes and we'd get to take it home!  How cool was that?!  I personally was insanely excited and this was the distillery tour that had me panting the most as I imagined all the different flavor profiles I might be able to create.

Come the big day we catch a taxi out to the distillery which was about a 30 minute ride from Glasgow, about 25 pounds worth and it's a pleasant ride, going through villages as we head out into the quasi countryside.

When we roll up to the distillery it's very pretty and quaint, with rolling hills near by and as you walk up to the distillery once you pass the visitor center there is a beautiful lush foresty area with a waterfall in the distance that you could hear and if you chose to, you could visit.


We pay for our tour tickets and head into a private tasting room.  Inside there is a couple and LOTS of whisky.  The first thing that we see upon entering the room is a series of bottles, probably between 20 and 30 whisky bottles, plain with just a simple label stating "Islay" "Speyside" "Highland" etc along with a series of fluted tasting glasses in front of each place setting.

The guide after introducing himself starts off the tour with each of us going around the table and introducing ourselves briefly and then jumps into it with a brief nosing session.  There are a series of 20 different small glasses with a cotton ball with different aromas on each one.  We're going to play a game 'Identify the aroma!"  With about 5 minutes to do it in there's a mad dash among everyone at the table grabbing bottles and opening them, nosing frantically and writing down what we each think it is.

At the end we compare notes on what each of us picked up and then points are awarded on how accurate you were.  Lots of fun and everyone really enjoyed it.

We then try some Glengoynes, specifically the 10 year old and the 18 year old.

We then move onto our distillery tour, we're led through the distillery, through the milling area to the tun room to the still house.  We're allowed to take photos throughout most of the tour except the still house.  Then we're led into the warehouse where we wander amongst the casks, seeing casks from the 1980's, the 1990's, sherry casks, bourbon casks, hogheads, casks galore.  It is VERY cool!

We head back into the distillery and the tasting room where our guide goes over a bit of the history of the distillery and then we break for a light lunch, food's not bad, not great, but not bad.

After lunch we try 3 different Glengoyne cask strength whiskies, a bourbon barrel aged, a sherry barrel aged and then a vatting that is a very special bottle, chosen by the guys at the distillery picking their favorite casks and blended together.  It is lovely, but sadly is more expensive then I'm able to afford in my budget line up, coming in at 250 or so pounds.  It however adds up to over 250 years if you add each whisky's age that goes into it together.  There's a slight moment when our guide informs us that he has to pour our samples pretty quick as the shop will likely need them pretty quick for customers to try.  At this I look over at my wife in a little bit of puzzlement.  I thought part of the point of this tour was having the chance to try the 3 cask strengths that no one else would get to try...?  Shortly after he says this one of the reception staff come in for the 3 bottles for the front.

We then start a video slide that goes through how whisky is aged, how different wine types (or bourbon) casks will influence the way a whisky will taste, how whisky ages, everything, our guide is absolutely brilliant.  My wife and brother who knew nothing about whisky that they walked away feeling like they were reasonably educated about distilling and how whisky was made.

Our guide then brings out 6 different sherry samples from Oloroso sherry to Pedro Ximenez sherry (my personal favorite!) and then we're informed that it's time to blend our own whisky!  After this lead up with the discussion on cask finishes and different casks that the whisky is aged in and then the sherry samples to really drive it home, I'm thinking this is going to be GOOD!

Alas I was completely wrong.  We look around the table at the different bottles with whisky in them and as I mentioned they were labeled 'Glengoyne 10 year old' 'Islay' 'Speyside' 'Lowland' 'Island' 'Highland' and two grain whiskies 'Invergordon' and 'North British', with a brief tasting note underneath them.

We're informed that these are the whiskies that we'll be blending our whisky with, and no we're not allowed to taste the whiskies as the blenders don't taste the whiskies when they blend.  These whiskies come from the mother company, McLeod's which buys casks of whisky from different distilleries for blending and then bottles the excess and sold as an unnamed 8 year old supermarket single malt.  On top of this since most blends are half grain whisky because it's much cheaper, 100mls of our 200ml bottle must be grain whisky.

What in the world!?

Seriously we're not going to be doing any blending with any cask strength Glengoyne?  We're not going to even be blending with anything other then the Glengoyne 10 year old?!  On top of that we're not allowed to taste any of mixing whiskies?  You can say fruity, floral for Speyside, but is that Glenlivet fruity, floral or BenRomach fruity floral? Or a smokey peaty Islay but is it Laphroaig smokey peaty or a Caol Ila smokey peaty?

Each of us make our own whiskies and most of the group have a bit of fun, but this is clearly not what we thought we were getting into.

Once the bottles are made up and labeled and signed my brother in law and I start our extra tasting of the 40 year old Glengoyne and 50 year old Isle of Skye.  It takes the guide about 10 minutes to locate the bottles as it looks like these are the last bottles for the tasting.  After the last part of the tour, the blending, I'm REALLY inclined to back out, what if this is a total bust as well?  That's almost 200 pounds, over $250 AUS/US that I'll have just wasted.

I waffle back and forth unable to make up my mind as to whether I speak up or not, which is very unlike me, and then the guide comes back in with more tasting glasses and the bottles of the 40 and 50 year old.

He pours each whisky into it's own specific, a glass labeling which whisky is which.  My brother in law and I spend the next 40 to 50 minutes chatting with the guide and one another while we slowly savor these very beautiful whiskies, the 40 year old running at almost 4000 pounds and the 50 year old running at roughly 900 pounds (it's a blended whisky).  They're both extremely enjoyable and whiskies that I'm very happy that I tried.

The guide asks what we thought of the tour and we tell him that we enjoyed it, however I mention that the blending is nothing like we thought it would be.  He seems a little bit surprised when I comment on what we thought the blending would be, so much so that I wonder if I misread the description (I checked again as soon as we arrived back at the hotel and had my brother and wife look over the description, they also thought that the implication was that we'd be blending with cask strength Glengoyne).

How was the Glengoyne tour?

It honestly is a nice little distillery and like I said our guide was friendly and very knowledgeable, but the blending part of the tour was a HUGE  let down.  Finding out that pretty much anyone could try the cask strengths (which were the fill your own bottles casks out front) was also disappointing.  Sure we got our samples in an official tasting glass instead of a tiny plastic sample cup and we got a bigger serving, but I thought we were paying for a really high end connoisseurs tour, something that whisky geeks would be able to sink their teeth into.

Instead what I found was a blending station that honestly I could easily have set up at home, with nothing but cask strength whiskies covering everyone of those regions, including grain whiskies.  Whiskies that I would know.

The 40 and 50 year old whiskies were good, in fact the 40 year old was great and I'd be happy to enjoy them again, but to pay 125 pounds for the blending tour and walk away with a generic little blend that we indeed did create was a massive disappointment.

Glengoyne wound up being our most expensive distillery tour, coming in at 45 more pounds (not taking into account the additional 50 pounds for the 40 and 50 yr old samples) then the next most expensive distillery and sadly was the distillery that we walked away from most unhappy.

When I mentioned my concerns to the Glengoyne staff even, they were indifferent and unresponsive to emails, which also disappointed me.  Would I visit them again?  Sure, but I would be doing one of the cheaper tours, probably paying no more then 50 pounds which covers their tour that lets you try whiskies in the warehouse.

Or I might just pay the 7.50 pounds and ask to try the fill your own bottles for free.

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

I'm Back!

Well my friends my wife and I are back from a 3 and a half week trip to the Promised Land, the land of whisky and peat.  Scotland.

During this trip we drank more whisky then we have at anyone time in our lives.  On average I probably had 5 to 10 whiskies a day depending on the day.  We visited quite a few distilleries including Glengoyne, Glenfarclas, Macallan and Talisker to name just a couple, with quite a few very special experiences.

Over the next week I'm going to be writing a brief blurb about our expeniences with each distillery and at the end of the week I'll be doing write ups on some of the whiskies that I managed to take notes on.  These will include a Glengoyne 40 year old, a Balvenie 39 year old, and quite a few Glenglassaughs. 

Now you might wonder why so few reviews.  The hard part is that when you know a special whisky is coming, a 30+ year old whisky, especially a whisky that might not be part of a distilleries normal range, you've got to take special care not to destroy your pallet with other whiskies before hand, which tends to lead you to not participate in any of the other whisky tastings.

The other reason is that because I was recently reading a post by a whisky blogger where they made the point that too often we focus on tearing a whisky apart, nose and palate, etc that we oftentimes forget to just sit back and enjoy the experience, and after reading that I realized that indeed he was right.  Sometimes I forget to just sit back and enjoy the whisky so Scotland and Singapore was more about enjoying the whiskies then worrying about tearing it apart and writing notes down on all the whiskies.  That being said you'll see a slew of Glenglassaugh whisky reviews as the distillery was kind enough to let me take my entire tasting away in sample bottles to be brought back to Australia.

Tomorrow I'll be doing a write up on Glengoyne where we did the Glengoyne Masterclass which ran 125 pounds per person and then added a tasting of the Glengoyne 40 year old and the Isle of Skye 50 year old.