WHISKY GALORE !
Monday-Sunday, 16-22 October 2006
Monday The ferry leaves Stromness in the dark. The sea is calm, and we sail relatively close to the cliffs
of Hoy. In the first hints of morning twilight, we can just barely discern the outlines of the Old Man of Hoy. It's the
only look Ron will get.
As the sky brightens, we drive east from Scrabster through patchy fog to Dunnet Head, the northernmost point of the Scottish mainland. We'd have a nice view of southern Orkney from here, but for the fog. We stop briefly at John O' Groats, more famous than Dunnet as the end of the road, 874 miles from Land's End in Cornwall. Fortunately, it's off-season, and early in the morning, to boot--it looks to be quite a tourist trap.
At Duncansby, we take a walk along the cliffs to view the peculiar triangular stacks. Then, just north of Wick, we have a look at Sinclair-Girnigoe Castle. We stop briefly in Wick, which looks rather cheerful on a sunny day. I imagine it's rather dreary under an overcast sky.
The Grey Cairns of Camster sit on a moor a few miles inland from Wick. I've been here several times, in good weather and bad; they present a moody aspect in any case. [My camera malfunctions again, which is why the photos below are from 1998.] There are three chambered tombs here, very much like other tombs we have seen, except that two have been covered and joined by the Long Cairn. The other is in a large Round Cairn. Archeologists figure the three chambers were built and used at different times, and the cairns covering them were built up over many years.
A little further down the road is the peculiar Hill o' Many Stanes. This is an array of small stones in numerous rows. No one knows exactly what it's all for, although the usual theory of astronomical observation is often cited. The site is surrounded by flowering bushes that I believe to be gorse. (If anyone out there knows different, please let me know. Botany was never one of my better subjects.)
We drive some miles down the coast to the village of Brora. The Clynelish distillery is there, and I've always enjoyed their product. We don't have time to take a tour, but stop for a look around. A new distillery was built in the 1970's, and for a while the old and new ran side-by-side as Clynelish I and Clynelish II. The older distillery was closed in 1982 and dismantled. Its remaining stock is now bottled as Brora. The old buildings are still there, and no doubt the warehouses are still used. We happen to catch the end of a tour coming back to the shop for a complimentary dram, and the guide invites us to join in. We don't need any arm-twisting.
We're staying tonight in a B&B outside Fortrose, on the Black Isle, which is not an island at all but a peninsula. Fortrose can be reached easily enough by road, but just for fun we opt for the tiny two-car ferry across the mouth of the Cromarty Firth. The cars (or in this case, just the one) are parked on a turntable,which spins 180° as we cross the firth, so that we can drive off the same way we drove on.
After a bit of wandering around, we find our B&B, and then drive into Fortrose for dinner and pints and drams at the Anderson. Jim Anderson of Philadelphia bought this old hotel a few years back, and has transformed it into a mecca for real ale and fine whisky. We meet the man himself and have a lengthy blether in the casual atmosphere of the pub. I like this place a lot, and will earmark it for a night's stay, or maybe two, sometime soon.
Tuesday This morning we drive through Muir of Ord and Drumnadrochit to Urquhart Castle on the shore of Loch
Ness. I've been here several times, but Ron hasn't, of course, and it's one of the must-sees. The weather is not clear
enough for really good photos, nor is it misty enough to be evocative. No matter, the place is always worth a visit.
We drive north along the lakeshore to Inverness, where we spend a couple hours. Most of my time is taken up in an internet cafe, taking care of business, while Ron is wandering about town. Then it's off to Elgin and the famous Gordon & MacPhail shop, the proverbial candy store for the whisky lover. We browse for some time. Somehow I come out with only a half-bottle Bladnoch and a couple of souvenir Glencairn glasses.
We arrive in Craigellachie at about 6:00, check into our B&B, and settle in at the Highlander for dinner and drinks. This is becoming a standard stop on my annual tour, I think. We stay late in the pub chatting with Duncan Elphick, one of the owners. Unfortunately, we will not see Tatsuya Minagawa, the bar manager; he is in Japan, getting married.
Wednesday A dreich and dreary day; good whisky weather. The Speyside Cooperage is our first stop today. It
is one of several commercial cooperages in Scotland. Since Scotch whisky is customarily matured in second-hand barrels,
mostly bourbon barrels from the United States, most of the work here is rebuilding and repairing. As we watch from the
gallery, Ron remarks on the hustle of the workers, who are paid piecework.
We take a stroll around Dufftown and shop the information center for souvenirs and baubles, and then return to the B&B and take a nap. We're both feeling a bit beat. We get up in time to catch the bus to Aberlour. We are booked on the 2:00 tour at the distillery there, and they are reputedly rather generous with the samples, so taking the bus seems prudent.
In the visitors' center, we meet Ian Logan, international brand ambassador for Chivas Brothers, owners of Aberlour, the Glenlivet, and nine other Speyside distilleries. He is on holiday, and apparently has nothing better to do than hang around distilleries. Ian is a bear of a man; by the look of him, I'd say God put him on earth to play rugby. We get a good thorough tour (no inside photography, unfortunately), and have a friendly blether with Ian over the promised samples. There are two casks from which to fill your own bottle in the shop, a sherry butt and a bourbon barrel, and Ron and I each fill one from the latter. The samples we had from each were stunning, but the sherried malt seems not far different from Aberlour's widely-available a'bunadh.
We mention that we have to catch the bus back to Craigellachie, and Ian offers to give us a ride. We accept, and he takes us by way of Glenallachie, giving us a private look around. He asks us what we are planning for tomorrow, and we tell him we are thinking of taking the tour at Glenlivet, having been impressed by several bottlings we've sampled from that distillery. "I'll pick you up at 9:30," he tells us.
We are back at the B&B in time for a short rest before dinner at the Highlander. After eating, we saunter down the street to the Craigellachie Hotel and pop into the famous Quaich Bar for a dram--Glenlivet Nądurra for me. Then it's back to the Highlander, where we stick to pints of Trade Winds.
Thursday After breakfast, I step out into a drizzly Scottish morning, only to spy Duncan Elphick supervising
a workman who is painting the trim on the Highlander.
"They say if you can't golf in the rain, you can't golf in Scotland," I say to him. "I suppose it's the same with painting the trim."
"Do you golf?" he asks me.
"No," I reply, and suddenly the conversation seems a bit silly.
Ian arrives as promised, and off we go. The Glenlivet distillery is high up toward the end of the glen, in as wonderfully Scottish a setting as any distillery I've seen--it's very nearly up on the moor. We don't take a formal tour, but wander around the new visitor's center, where we gain an appreciation of The Glenlivet's unique place in the history of distillation. I've always rather dismissed Glenlivet as one of the two (with Glenfiddich) widely available, and therefore banal, malts, but I've learned from recent tastings that I have badly misjudged it. Very shortly I will learn just how badly.
After a look around the distillery itself, Ian brings us up to the Library--I think of it as the Comfy Room--for a bit of tasting. He produces five bottles: samples of new make, and new make from the sma' still; and bottles of Nądurra, and 1959 and 1964 vintages from the Cellar Collection. The new make is very interesting, fruity and quite drinkable, but the product of the sma' (small) still is an eye-opener. The still itself is a portable one, like those used in the days when distilling was of necessity a portable business. It was found in storage at Glenlivet, and refurbished. Special permission was needed to run it, as the government mandates a minimum size for stills, precisely to make portability impossible. The new make (it cannot legally be called whisky, as it has not matured for the mandated three years) is what the locals would have drunk prior to the legitimization of distilling; maturation was yet unknown. And the stuff is very nice, fruity and oily and not in any way harsh. I'd buy a bottle if I could.
The 1959 is a stunning dram from a bottle I could never afford, and in absolute terms the oldest whisky I've ever had--I was four or five years old when it was distilled. But the '64 blows it away. Ron and I both experience one of those rare moments of utter bliss, sitting in the Comfy Room on a dreary day, sipping on ambrosia. We each have two drams, and Ian doesn't rush us. (Later we will price those two drams at about £75, but at the moment, the value is incalculable.)
When we can no longer justify abusing Ian's hospitality, he takes us to a large storeroom, where we poke through piles of junk, promotional and advertising items, bits of hardware, mounted stag's heads, one complete and very sorry-looking stuffed deer, and the sma' still itself. It has handles, and two men could carry it easily. Ian could probably tuck it under his arm and walk away with it.
Ian then takes us to Strathisla, often cited as the prettiest distillery in Scotland. His office is there. Our first request is a cup of coffee--we need a little respite from the drams. Ian then shows us around, and after, we have a dram of Strathisla 12. It's a nice lively malt, but pales in comparison to what we've been having.
We are introduced to Tommy, a former stillman who now conducts tours. He's exactly the sort of character you'd want to take a distillery tour with, and he tells us several stories which are apparently hilarious; we have a bit of trouble with his accent. The one story I caught goes back to the days when the distillery workers were given daily drams, new make spirit to get them through the day. At one point, Strathisla's two stills were fired by different methods--one by coal, the other by steam. The men much preferred the product of the coal-fired still, and when Tommy one day gave them their drams from the steam-fired one instead, they complained bitterly. In fact, he said, he has not yet heard the end of it, even though both stills are steam-heated now, and most of the workers have long since retired.
Ian then takes us on a tour of Chivas distilleries. The first is Allt-a-Bhainne. Later, we will hear it said that Caperdonich is the ugliest distillery in Speyside. For my money, the antiseptic monstrosity of Allt-a-Bhainne takes the prize. It was built in the '70's to provide bulk for blends, and is rarely seen as a single malt. The architecture of the place reminds me of ten thousand ugly strip malls I've seen, with its faux mansard roof. That said roof is covered with real slate only heightens the hideous incongruity of it. It's not fair to criticize, I suppose; the malt was never meant to be tasted on its own, and the place was never meant to be seen.
We then have a look around the mothballed Glen Keith. My impression is that it's a plant that will need some sprucing up if it is to reopen.
We do drive-bys of Glen Grant (a former Chivas property), Caperdonich, Glenrothes, and the disappointingly functional shop of Forsythes of Rothes, Scotland's foremost builder of stills. Ian drops us in Craigellachie at 2:30pm, and we spend the remainder of the afternoon in quiet reflection (okay, we slept) before dinner at the Highlander. We have a quiet night, with one dram at the Quaich Bar (a Rare Malts Brora for me) and retire early. We have had a splendid day, and cannot possibly thank Ian Logan enough for it. Chivas Brothers have chosen well --he is the epitome of an ambassador. We look forward to seeing him again, whether in Speyside or somewhere out in the wide world of whisky.
Friday We are off to Edinburgh this morning, and start by driving up the valley of the Spey. Along the way,
we pass the impressive Tormore distillery, and stop long enough to photograph it from the road.
We have in mind to take the railway up Cairn Gorm, but the weather is not suitable. We spend an hour strolling in Aviemore instead. I was hoping that this would be a reasonably attractive outdoor center, like Callander, but it turns out to be an ugly little strip mall of a town. Okay, now I know.
Later, we stop in Pitlochry, a very touristy little town, but pleasantly so. We walk up and down the main street in search of the peculiar confection known as Scottish tablet. I find several different kinds.
We arrive at our guest house in New Town in Edinburgh just ahead of afternoon rush hour, and I am able to find a parking space that will serve for the weekend. A few spaces away, by the curb, is a large rubbish bin--a mini-dumpster, I guess--that one may open by stepping on a bar. The unloved chčvre from Schiphol, which has traveled from Gretna Green to the Brough of Birsay and most of the way back, finally finds a home.
After a short rest, we have a pub meal at Milne's on Rose Street, a ten-minute walk from the guest house. Then we head up toward the Bow Bar, off the Royal Mile, but rain forces us into the Guildford Arms for another pint. Shortly we are ensconced, most happily, in the Bow. The uni kids we met in Plockton told us they'd try to meet us here tonight, but, not surprisingly, they don't show. To our delight, Nick and Kenny, our Whisky Magazine forum mates (last seen in MF2MoG 2005 Pt 3), do. We find a table and proceed to have a marvelous time, taking turns buying rounds. I have a Douglas Laing Bunnahabhain; a Gordon & MacPhail Cask Old Pulteney (Kenny has the same, and we are both horrified by the burnt popcorn overtones, which persist into the following drams); A Cadenheads Highland Park; a Dormant Distilleries Glenglassaugh (redolent of cherries); and a Douglas Laing St Magdelene. The highlight of the evening, though, is being introduced to the delightful Susan Webster, another forum member and employee of independent bottlers Douglas Laing. She is charming and fun and thoroughly tolerant of four drunken bozos.
Nick wisely goes home when the Bow closes. Ron, Kenny, and I end up in the Standing Order, where we have a thoroughly unnecessary pint. Somehow we all find our respective beds.
Saturday A foggy day. Ron and I somehow make it to breakfast, and peruse the short menu. The standard full
cooked breakfast is listed as "The Cookie", and we each order one. The guest house seems to be staffed entirely by young
women from France, and the very pretty blonde who brings our food leans over the table, a plate in each hand, and says,
"Two Cookies for you?" Um, okay.
We spend a quiet couple of hours strolling around the Royal Botanic Gardens, a short walk from the guest house. In the afternoon, we walk up to Edinburgh Castle and poke around for a while. We have a pub dinner, after which Ron retires early. I have a couple of quiet pints at the Bow before following suit.
Sunday A lot of walking today, up to the mile and down to the parliament and back up to the Scotch Whisky
Heritage Centre, for starters. We take the tour at the SWHC. We expect it will be geared to the general public and not be
of great interest to such knowledgeable persons as ourselves, but we want to see what it is about. It's about what we
thought, a broad overview of Scotch whisky, replete with generalizations and simplifications and a strong bias toward the
virtues of blended whisky. It was worth seeing.
We walk back to the guest house, and then on to the Scotch Malt Whisky Society's facility at the Vaults in Leith.
Ron is a member, and we sit in the lounge and sample four drams. Mine are a lemony Pittyvaich, bottling 90.7; a sooty
Inverleven, 20.22; a Glenglassaugh, tasting of cherries again, but not as much as the DD Friday night, 21.25; and a chalky
Bladnoch, 50.24. They are all very good, and the Pittyvaich is excellent.
We walk down to the Leith waterfront and have dinner and pints at the Old Chain Pier. Then it's back up to the Mile again, via the guest house, for pints at the Bow. I have a D Laing Clynelish as well, a lovely soft dram. We head home early, but decide to have a final pint at a pub near the guest house. Still, we are in bed at a decent hour. Tomorrow we will be off early to drop Ron at the airport in Glasgow.