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Monday 19 September 2005

The Nineteen Malts Of Stonehaven


I arrive in Aberdeen on KLM after changing planes in Amsterdam. On the approach, the plane dips and weaves, and the landing is hard. "That's what we call a sporty landing," says the pilot, eliciting titters of nervous relief from the passengers. He explains that, in such conditions, he's mostly concerned with putting the plane in the middle of the runway, rather than trying for a soft landing. He did a fine job under the conditions, in my estimation.

I leave the bulk of my luggage at the airport and take the bus into town. At Ottakar's bookshop, I buy CAMRA's Good Beer Guide 2006 (the most important book in my touring arsenal) and a paperback copy of Peat Smoke & Spirit, by Andrew Jefford, which I intend to use as a guide in Islay. I've read a hardcover edition already--it's a portrait of the island, focusing on its distilleries, but touching on its history, geography, weather, and social make-up. The distillery chapters alone are indispensable reference; the rest of it make it a must-read for any lover of Scotland.

Lunch is at the Prince of Wales, along with a pint of Timothy Taylor's Landlord, my favorite beer. After a year's wait, the pint I have isn't all that good. Ah, well, that's the nature of it. The Prince has only a small handful of malts. I've heard that the place is in receivership, so perhaps standards are a bit down at the moment. Too bad, it's a lovely pub; better days ahead, no doubt.

I take the train to Stonehaven, nodding off on the way. I dream Iím on the plane for Shetland, taxiing on the runway. Awake in a panic, not knowing whether I've missed my stop. I haven't.

My B&B is a short walk from the rail station, and I take a good solid nap. Then I have a walk through town and on the beach. Stonehaven has always struck me as a bit shabby, but it doesn't seem so bad today--still quite a few vacant storefronts, but perhaps it's looking up. The beach is nice, as is the old harbor, where the Marine Hotel stands.

The Marine has in the past had some pretty good and adventurous pub food, but that has disappeared the past couple years, and the meal I have now is rather ordinary. But the pint of Landlord is excellent, making up for the one at the Prince. There are nineteen malts in the Marine. I don't intend to make a list of all the malts in all the pubs I go to, but will do so here, to show how it's possible to have an interesting selection without too many bottles:

OB's: Dalwhinnie, Glendronach, Jura, Highland Park, Laphroaig, Dalmore, Scapa, Cragganmore, Glenkinchie; plus three Glenrothes, '79, '89, and '92.

MacPhail's Collection: Glenturret, Bunnahabhain, Glen Scotia.

Connoisseur's Choice: Clynelish, Strathmill, Glencadam, Littlemill.

Also: Grant's Ale and Sherry Casks, The Antiquary, The Century of Malts, Glen Calder, JW Black, Black Bush, Jameson, Grouse, and Jack Daniel's.

I try a few things. The one that really stands out is the Littlemill, which I order out of sheer perversity, having heard disparaging things about this defunct Lowland plant. Apparently quality control suffered in Littlemill's last struggling years. The dram is indeed a unique experience. Imagine a fairly nice but undistinctive malt; add a few drops of turpentine. Now store the malt inside one of your car's tires and drive for a week or two in very hot weather. There you have it...the worst whisky I've ever had, by far. It ruins the subsequent Clynelish, as well, even with a pint in between.

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The patchwork quilt of Aberdeenshire. Do you suppose some of that down there is barley?


A slightly blurry shot of Aberdeen, from the airport bus. Aberdeen is called the Granite City,
and the architecture is fabulous, but I'm afraid it always strikes me as gray and dreary.


Row houses in Aberdeen, again taken from the bus.


The Train to Stonehaven.


The old harbour in Stonehaven (2000). The Marine Hotel is in the building
with a whitewashed ground floor and bare stone upper storeys.

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