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Friday, 29 December 2017

Octomore OBA Whisky Review!

Just what is an OBA, you ask? This, dear readers, is Octomore Black Art! I've saved a very special dram for this review, and since it's almost New Year's Eve there's no time like the present!

Bruichladdich fans will be familiar with the Black Art series, which have all been un-peated Bruichladdich bottlings, mostly distilled in the late 1980s and early 1990s and released at 20+ years of age. The crucial thing with Black Art is that the cask type/s and size/s are never divulged, so you never know the recipe of the whisky inside it's opaque black bottle. Most releases are widely believed to have mostly used wine casks, but nobody really knows except those that made it, and they're not telling. This concept was the brainchild of former-Bruichladdich master distiller Jim McEwan, after someone assured him that he wouldn't sell a whisky if he didn't tell anyone what was in it. Naturally in true McEwan and Bruichladdich style he proved that person wrong, because these mysterious bottlings have a large cult following, despite being quite expensive. Although they're actually quite reasonably priced if you consider the age you're getting in the bottle, and if you consider the prices of some of the competition, but the last two releases have jumped up significantly in the price department.

Glancing at the photo below, you may notice there's no mention of 'Black Art' anywhere on the packaging. What is there instead is a very convoluted "Octomore OBA Concept OBA/C.0.1" which essentially means Octomore Black Art Concept 01. So Bruichladdich haven't quite committed to calling it Octomore Black Art for some reason, but we'll let that slide for the moment. This "concept" came about during the distillery's open day masterclass during the 2016 Feis Ile, where head distiller Adam Hannett presented a rather mysterious Octomore in the tasting line-up, which he later revealed was Octomore Black Art. Naturally this created a huge amount of interest, and a few months later Bruichladdich sent out an email offering pre-orders of Octomore OBA, due to be released a few more months later in April 2017. It was limited to 2 x 500ml bottles per person on the website, and only 3000 bottles were sold in total. It was also delayed quite significantly by the production of the smaller 500ml bottles and tins, still in the Octomore style, but to Bruichladdich's credit the pricing was really quite reasonable at 95 pounds each including the VAT. Considering the demand there was for this precious stuff they probably could have doubled or even tripled that and it still would have sold out, so they really should be commended for that.

Contrary to Bruichladdich's usual MO, we don't know much about what's in this bottling. There's no ppm level stated like there is in all other Octomore releases, because it's a mix of different vintages and hence different production batches, and there's no age, vintage or cask type stated either, because it's a Black Art. But Bruichladdich have taken a page out of Compass Box's book with a few of their recent NAS bottlings as part of their transparency campaign, so one could enter a code into the distillery's website and get a little more information in return. Basically OBA is a vatting of ten casks of six different types, with the youngest being distilled in 2008, and the oldest being distilled in 2002, not long after the first Octomore batches were produced. So this means that some of the younger contents is 9 years old, which is already old for an Octomore (beaten by only the two 10 year old releases), and the oldest is 14-15 years old. The only other way to taste Octomore of a similar age is to head to Islay for a warehouse tasting at the distillery! Given that it's significantly older than most Octomore bottlings, we shouldn't expect the big peaty punch that the 5 year old bottlings provide, but there's still going to be some smoke in here.

We do know that all of the barley used for this release came from the Scottish mainland, which makes sense seeing as all of those casks involved easily pre-date the first Islay Barley Octomore (6.3, reviewed here). We don't know the cask types or cask sizes used, but after tasting this delicious dram I highly doubt that many of those ten casks were your typical ex-bourbon barrel. And just check out that colour! Speaking of which, I'm sure many were expecting OBA to be presented in an opaque black bottle, but since most Octomores are presented that way, I'm glad they went the other way with the frosted glass and the bright orange tube. It really stands out! Being a Bruichladdich it's all natural colour and is non-chill filtered, and it was bottled at cask strength (59.7%). Which is actually unusual for an Octomore, they're usually slightly reduced before bottling. As with all Black Art releases though, the proof is in the pudding! Let's get to it...

Bruichladdich OBA Concept 01 (Octomore Black Art). NAS, 59.7%. Islay, Scotland.
Vatting of 10 casks of 6 different types. Youngest distilled in 2008, oldest distilled in 2002, all from Scottish mainland barley. Non-chill filtered, natural colour. 3000 x 500ml bottles.

Colour: Dark polished bronze. Gorgeous.

Nose: Bloody fantastic! Rich & fruity, dense & sweet. Smoky apricot jam, golden syrup, dusty cigar leaves, a little brine and marzipan (sweet almond paste). Very sweet berries with a little cream, warm buttery pastry, with a beguiling earthy peat underneath. Some gorgeous old oak and a little fizzy cola with more time.

Texture: Heavy weight, thick & oily. Jam-packed with flavour! No heat at all, just excellent.

Taste: Boom! Flavour explosion! So much going on at once. Heavy, oily almost acrid smoke hits first, then masses of sweet stone fruit, thick buttery caramel, some berry compote and fresh salt. Lovely big, fresh earthy peat, a little soft old leather.

Finish: Very long. More delicious fresh earthy peat, cigar smoke, bitter tannins and a little rubber bringing the sweetness down, with more of that smoky apricot jam. Then some more berries but they're much less sweet now. Soft old leather again, some charred salty smoked meat, and burnt stewed stone fruit.

Score: 4.5 out of 5.

Notes: Wow, what a whisky! Very nearly gave this one a 5 out of 5. So absolutely packed with flavour and character, with masses of fruit and surprising sweetness alongside some wonderful salt, peat and smoke. But it's not your typical Octomore by any means, and I'd say that was the idea, so if you go in looking for the 'normal' 5-year old Octomore experience you may be disappointed. But lose those preconceptions and you'll be blown away by the sheer volume of flavours that are on offer. The nose on this Black Art (let's just call a spade a spade) is amazing, almost transcendent, and the palate is almost an out-of-body experience. The peat and smoke are still there, but they're more refined and more mature in the OBA. They're less dominant and confrontational than they are in most younger Octomores, instead they're more supportive and more in harmony with the rest of the experience. And what an experience it is!

Seriously amazing stuff here. OBA is already commanding a high price on the auction circuit, especially considering it's a 500ml bottle, but honestly if you're a Bruichladdich and/or Octomore fan then you've just got to taste this at least once. Just make it happen. The original asking price from the distillery was an absolute bargain, and Bruichladdich really should be commended for that. So if you were lucky enough to score one (or two), you should be counting your blessings and thanking the 'Laddie for their generosity. I know I am.

Will we see a properly-declared Octomore Black Art in the future? Or a Port Charlotte Black Art? Time will tell, but here's hoping! Come on Adam, you know you want to...

All the best for the new year folks, see you in 2018!

Sunday, 10 December 2017

Gordon & MacPhail Ledaig Hermitage Finish Whisky Review!

What? A wine finished Ledaig from G&M? Yes please!

Ledaig, pronounced "Led-chig" or "Le-chayg", is the heavily peated whisky from Tobermory Distillery on the Isle of Mull, which is off the western coast of Scotland, north of Jura and South of Skye. The distillery sits right on the harbour in the island's main village of Tobermory. The distillery was originally named Ledaig in 1798, but wasn't officially licensed until 1823, and was renamed Tobermory in 1979 after a very tumultuous past with a number of ownership changes and closures. In fact the distillery has been closed for two 40 year periods on separate occasions in its history, along with a few shorter closures, the most recent of which was in 1982, when the warehouses were (sadly) converted into holiday apartments, before the distillery was purchased and rescued by Burn Stewart in 1993.

Burn Stewart is now owned by South African company Distell, who therefore now also own Bunnahabhain and Deanston distilleries. Deanston, north of Glasgow, is apparently where most of Tobermory's whisky is matured, since there is no warehousing on-site on Mull. Distell seem to be investing considerable funds into these distilleries, with Bunnahabhain undergoing a large-scale refurbishment in the near future, and Tobermory is currently inactive for the same reason, being due to come back to life in March 2019. It's unfortunate to see a distillery shut down for two years, and the gap that this is going to create in their future maturing stock will be significant, but at least the visitor's centre is still open, and there's still plenty of Ledaig whisky available for the moment, although stock of Tobermory 10 & 15 has all but disappeared. Interestingly this two year closure and refurbishment, which will even include replacing the stills themselves, will not include any increase in production capacity (800,000 litres annually), which I find a little strange. Apparently most of the planned work is intended to "improve the visitor experience".

Ledaig is a bit of an underdog in the peated whisky world, and I'm a big fan. Their 10-year old entry level bottling offers excellent value for money and is a real challenger to the entry level bottlings from the Islay heavyweights, and is definitely helped by the 46.3% minimum strength and lack of chill filtration and colouring. The sherry finished official 18-year old is excellent as well, and enjoys those same advantages, albeit at a much higher price tag than the younger variant. There are quite a few independent bottlings of both un-peated Tobermory and Ledaig around, usually on the younger side, but that doesn't mean they're lacking in flavour or in quality.

This particular bottling of Ledaig is from independent bottling royalty Gordon & MacPhail. It has been aged or around 9 years in ex-bourbon casks before a 26-month finishing period in Hermitage red wine casks from Guigal vineyard in the Rhone region of central France. We don't know exactly which wine variety these casks held previously, but given that most Hermitage wines are of the Syrah variety (known as Shiraz in Australia) I think we can safely make that assumption. This is not G&M's first foray into wine finished peated whiskies, since there have been both Hermitage and Sassicaia cask finished Caol Ilas in recent years, and those same cask types are also used in G&M-owned Benromach Distillery's wine finished expressions.

I must admit the bottling strength of 45% in this one has me a little concerned, and it was the same with those aforementioned Benromachs and wine finished Caol Ilas. Why not just go up to 46% and lose the (assumed, but most likely) chill filtration? **EDIT: G&M tell me that despite being bottled at 45%, this and their other wine finished whiskies are not chill filtered! Great stuff guys!** G&M's Cask Strength bottlings aren't chill filtered, so I can't see it being a bottling line issue. G&M don't add any colouring to any of their whiskies though, so we know that's not an issue. There have been some excellent sherry finished & sherry matured Ledaigs bottled recently, so let's see how that delicious dirty, coastal peaty style works with a French red wine cask! The sample for this review came from G&M and Benromach's excellent Australian importer and distributor, Alba Whisky. Thanks gents!

Gordon & MacPhail Ledaig Hermitage Finish 2005. 45%. Mull, Scotland.
Heavily peated whisky from Tobermory Distillery. Distilled 2005, bottled 2012. Matured in ex-bourbon casks for 9 years and finished for 26 months in Hermitage French red wine casks. Non-chill filtered and naturally coloured. 4100 bottles. 

Colour: Bronze with red tinges. 

Nose: Interesting, it's quite muted. Sweet and slightly musty red fruits - juicy red apples, berries, some plum jam. Some cinnamon sugar and clove spice, very lightly meaty. Sweet concentrated fresh oak, and some sweetened grape juice. Opens up a little more with extra time in the glass, but it's not a very expressive dram. 

Texture: Light, and a little flat and sulphury. No heat at all. 

Taste: Still strangely flat and muted initially. Some dirty (which is a good thing) peat here, but it doesn't stick around long. More spicy, sweet and oaky red wine, and more sweet red apples. More musty red grapes, slightly meaty again, and hints of earth and salt. 

Finish: Medium. Very chalky though, and a little sour. That chalky-ness really coats the mouth and doesn't let go, and I'm thinking it's sulphur since there's an egg-y sour quality to it. Not overly unpleasant though, just very weird! The peat returns later on, but that chalky, musty mouth-coating sulphur doesn't let go until the very end and just dominates everything. 

Score: 3 out of 5. 

Notes: A very interesting dram, and quite a challenging one! Certainly one of the milder Ledaigs that I've tried, and it seems like either the cask has dominated and then faded a little, or the cask & spirit have clashed and neither recovered properly. I had high hopes for this one and was very excited to try it, but it hasn't quite lived up to my expectations. The typical Ledaig profile is very hard to spot in places, and it's a little flat and muted on the palate, and then that very strange chalky, musty sulphur note on the finish was very dominant, and didn't sit right with me. Maybe a higher strength would have helped, but I'm not sure. Still a nice dram though, the nose is very enjoyable if again a little muted, and it certainly improved and opened up with more time in the glass. A big thanks to Alba Whisky for the sample!

G&M's lower strength bottlings are typically quite light and balanced, which is still the case here, but I do prefer the G&M 'Connoisseurs Choice' Ledaigs that I've tasted. They were bottled at 46% to boot and were slightly older, and still kept that lovely meaty, dirty and peaty character that I look for in a dram of Ledaig. They're more traditional in that sense, and don't push the boundaries as far as this Hermitage finish does.

Kudos must be given to G&M for trying something different here, and it's still worth a try. In fact all of their private label bottlings seem to push boundaries and take risks, and might even pave the way for others to try the same. For instance the red wine cask-finished G&M Caol Ilas seemed to be quite successful, and lo and behold the current Caol Ila Distillery Exclusive official bottling has a few red wine casks in the mix, which to my knowledge is a first for a Diageo official bottling. I can't say that G&M influenced that of course, but just maybe...


Sunday, 3 December 2017

Distillery in Detail: Benromach and Gordon & MacPhail!

The last distillery visit of my recent pilgrimage to Scotland was a very special one, and it was also one of the highlights of the whole experience. Benromach has been one of my favourite mainland distilleries ever since I tasted the two versions of their delicious 10-year old bottling (reviews here). The distillery is located near the town of Forres, around 20 minutes drive west of Elgin, or around 50 minutes drive east of Inverness. It's actually the smallest distillery in the Speyside region, with an annual production capacity of under 250,000 litres, and the distillery itself is beautiful with a very nice visitor's centre, and a very well-stocked shop (including a distillery exclusive bottling!). In fact in my experience this is one of only a few Speyside distilleries where you can still get a sense of traditional and careful production, and painstaking manual labour, all in the pursuit of excellent quality single malt.

The distillery was originally built in 1898, and passed through a number of hands and quite a few closures until winding up under the ownership of DCL, one of the companies which would later form Diageo. While in the hands of DCL the distillery was mothballed in 1983, and it sat silent for 11 years, often being raided for parts and equipment, until it was rescued by Elgin-based family owned independent bottler Gordon & MacPhail, otherwise known as G&M, in 1993. G&M then spent over five years carefully refurbishing their new distillery, even replacing the stills, before production began in 1998, when it was officially reopened by HRH Prince Charles. The goal from the outset was to produce a classic Speyside whisky. And by "classic" they mean old style: medium bodied, rich and lightly peated (to 10-15 ppm) spirit, with the idea being to get as close as possible to a pre-1960s Speyside whisky. And although owned by an independent bottler, none of Benromach's whisky goes into blends, it's all bottled as single malt.

Despite Benromach's ethos of producing a classic Speyside whisky, they're certainly not afraid to also try new things. For example, they produce a delicious heavily peated (up to 67 ppm) whisky, not a commonly found thing in Speyside, which is aptly named Peat Smoke; they're bottling one of the world's only completely certified organic whiskies (which is a hugely difficult thing to do) and they were the first to do so; and they've recently released a triple-distilled Benromach made from the same lightly-peated barley, which to my knowledge is the only peated triple-distilled Scotch whisky currently on the market. All of which is not a bad showing considering they've only been distilling for 19 years since re-opening!

Alongside these new and unusual releases they've managed to stay traditional and "old school" when it comes to production. The distillery uses only the aforementioned lightly-peated barley in all but one expression (the aforementioned Peat Smoke), and it's all Scottish barley by the way, and uses both brewers and distillers yeast in their wooden washbacks, along with long fermentation and slow distillation, and everything is done by hand. There's no automation software or computer assistance involved in the production at any stage, which again is not particularly common in contemporary Speyside. They only use first fill casks to mature their whisky, generally using ex-sherry and ex-bourbon casks, so there are no refill casks involved, and they're only using traditional earthen-floored dunnage warehouses to store those casks. You certainly do get a sense of this small-scale traditional production inside the distillery, with all of the production equipment being housed in a single building, including the shiny stills with their downward-angled lyne arms which are obviously crucial to Benromach's heavier and more characterful style of spirit.

The distillery offers a range of tours, priced from 6 pounds for a basic tour and tasting of the 10-year old, through to 125 pounds for a personal tour with the distillery manager which includes a bottle of the distillery exclusive to take home. While there is no photography permitted inside the distillery buildings, all tours do take a look inside a dunnage warehouse, which is often not the case on many distillery tours and is an absolute must see in my opinion. These cold, dank, and often dirty & dusty warehouses are an essential part of the process and should be celebrated as such!  

I was lucky enough to catch up with Alastair Milligan, export representative for Gordon & MacPhail, at Benromach, who very generously showed me around the distillery, before a quick tasting in the visitor's centre. It may have been a quick tasting, but it was very, very special since I was lucky enough to taste the then-new triple distilled Benromach (review coming soon!), the current distillery exclusive bottling, and one more... Benromach 35 year old! We started with the new triple-distilled, which is bottled at a higher strength than most of Benromach's expressions at 50% ABV. I'm not usually a big fan of triple-distilled whisky, I often find them too light and a little lacking in character, but this is definitely one of the best that I've tasted. While I'm sure the lightly-peated malt and first-fill bourbon casks help, I'd say that it's also the heavier, more robust Benromach spirit that is largely responsible for that. It's a very fresh, fruity and lightly smoky dram that was way down on the acetone notes that I usually find prominent in triple distilled whiskies, despite being only eight years of age. Which is yet another testament to the skill of the distillery team.

Next up was the current distillery exclusive bottling, which was a 15-year old ex-bourbon single cask bottled at 59.9% ABV. This one was very nice, again it was fresh and fruity, with plenty of character, and the typical Benromach "touch of smoke" was amplified nicely with the high strength. But the star of the show was definitely the 35-year old. This very special whisky is beautifully presented in a dark wooden box, and still carries hints of that excellent Benromach packaging design. Obviously this whisky was distilled long before G&M took ownership of the distillery, and there's not many casks left from that era, and it was fully-matured in first-fill sherry casks. Although bottled at a relatively low 43% it was full of character and flavour. Liquid toffee apples in fact, with a little wax, and some leather and oak mixed in. It wasn't dominated by the sherry or the wood either, which is quite an achievement for a whisky that was matured in first-fill casks for 35 years. Absolutely delicious! That was the end of the Benromach part of this incredible afternoon, and like all of the best distillery visits do, actually seeing, touching, and smelling the working distillery, and then tasting the results, on site at the distillery, gives you a new degree of appreciation for the whisky you find in your glass long after the experience itself has ended. It's a gift that keeps on giving!

But that's not all folks! Alastair was also kind enough to show me around Gordon & MacPhail's headquarters in Elgin, including an incredible warehouse and an absolutely mind-blowing tasting. After a quick drive-by of Diageo's massive Roseisle distillery plant to give me a sense of scale (and did it ever!), we toured the famous George House, before finishing up in the original Gordon & MacPhail shop in the centre of Elgin. What a way to spend an afternoon!

Gordon & MacPhail started out as a grocery store and whisky brokerage in 1895 in Elgin (so pre-dating Benromach Distillery by 3 years!), and the company is still privately owned by the fourth-generation descendants of John Urquhart, who joined the company in 1896, and went on to become a senior partner in 1915. It was Urquhart who began purchasing new make spirit from various distilleries and filling it into his own casks, which were then matured at their place of origin, with the intent to either use them for blends or to bottle them as what we now call single malts. G&M produce a huge range of bottlings, including both blends and single malts, perhaps most famously the Connoisseurs Choice and Cask Strength ranges.

G&M strongly believe that the wood makes the whisky, and after visiting one of their incredible warehouses I could easily see that being put into action over many decades of hard work. Unfortunately no photography was permitted inside the building (for understandable reasons), so you'll just have to take my word for it, but this was like an Aladdin's cave of extremely precious whisky. Thousands of casks were sitting quietly in this massive racked warehouse, waiting for their time in the spotlight to finally come. I can't go into specific details here, but I'd wager that G&M have the largest range of very old casks still maturing than any independent bottler, and quite possibly more than many distilleries as well. After a quick walk through the bottling hall and packaging area, which is responsible for bottling both G&M and Benromach products and shipping them all over the world, I was led up to the incredible new tasting room for a dram.

This tasting room itself has to be seen to be believed. The fittings & fixtures are truly beautiful, including light fittings made from barrel hoops, and the walls are lined with Urquhart family portraits, a copy of the original trading license from 1895, and lots and lots of whisky! One end of this large room is home to hundreds of cask samples, and this alone could easily be mistaken for a whisky museum. 1952 Ardbeg anyone!?! But that's definitely not all, because on the other side of the room, in a very pretty (and very secure) display case you'll find four extremely special bottles of whisky. We're talking about a 75-year old Mortlach, two 70-year old Glenlivets, and a 70-year old Mortlach. These are the longest matured single malt whiskies that have ever been bottled, so we're in some serious company here!

Obviously these aren't exactly open for tasting, but Alastair had selected a few extremely special drams to finish off the visit to these hallowed grounds, which just happened to include the oldest whisky I've ever tasted! We're talking a 15-year old Linkwood, a 21-year old Mortlach, a delicious 23-year old Glen Scotia, and then the stars of the show: a 52-year old sherry cask Glen Grant distilled in 1961, and a 56-year old sherry cask 'Speymalt' Macallan distilled in 1950! Both of these were absolutely incredible, as you'd expect, with the Glen Grant still being full of fruit and not at all overly oaky, and the Macallan (labelled as Speymalt by G&M) being full of dark chocolate, fruit and spice. Somebody pinch me!

All five drams were very balanced, as is G&M's goal with all of their bottlings, and it has to be said that compared to some official bottlings these very old G&M whiskies are actually quite reasonably priced. I know that sounds silly when you're talking about $30,000 and upwards for 700ml of whisky, but compared to similar very old whisky from the big brands that are on the market, which are considerably younger to boot, it's actually quite reasonable!

After this phenomenal tasting we were off down the road to Gordon & MacPhail's shop for a quick look around. Which is still the original shop that first opened in 1895, located on the other side of Elgin. What's amazing here is that the shop is still a working delicatessen, a grocery store, and a wine & spirits store, as well as having a dedicated whisky section with over 1000 bottles on the shelves! The shop often has exclusive bottlings as well, which at the time included an 8-year old Bunnahabhain and a 19-year old Mortlach, both bottled at cask strength. While there's obviously a huge range of G&M bottlings available there's also a massive range of official bottlings from various distilleries, Scottish and otherwise, and all are priced very reasonably. Unfortunately it was now after closing time and I was holding everyone up, so I panic-bought a miniature Connoisseurs Choice Ledaig (which was delicious) and got out of the way. But it was incredible to get the chance to look around this 120+ year old shop, which is still family owned, and to see it still operating as a 'normal' shop with such history is pretty amazing. I highly recommend stopping in here on your way through the Highlands, and I suggest you save some luggage space for the occasion!

With that it was on the road again, still beaming from the whole experience! If you'd told me that morning that by that evening I would have tasted a 35-year old Benromach, a 52-year old Glen Grant and a 56-year old Macallan, after looking at & touching some casks that are older than my father, I'd have laughed at you. What a way to spend the day! Gordon & MacPhail have long been one of my favourite independent bottlers, and this visit has of course reinforced that feeling. They do consistently good work through both their independent bottlings and their beautiful distillery, and long may it continue. A massive, massive thanks to Alastair for showing me around and truly going above & beyond, it's very much appreciated mate! And thanks to Benromach and Gordon & MacPhail for having me. I can't wait to get back over there and do it all again!

Since this is also the final part of the pilgrimage write-up, there's another more sombre experience which deserves a mention, and which definitely deserves a visit if you're making this pilgrimage yourself: Culloden Battlefield. We stopped in on the way back to Inverness, and although the visitor's centre had closed for the day we could still walk the tracks. This meant it was practically empty which certainly added to the already heavy atmosphere. Culloden Moor was the site of the last stand of the failed Jacobite rebellion in 1746, and it's now regarded as a war grave. Over 1500 outnumbered Jacobites (mostly Scots) were killed on this field, compared with around 300 British army troops, and the battle itself lasted less than an hour. It's a very sobering, sombre and almost spooky place, especially so in the dying light of a cold evening with mist rolling over the hills. There are flags on the field that mark the lines of both sides, along with memorial stones dedicated to the various Scottish clans that were erected in 1881, along with a memorial cairn. The battlefield and visitor's centre is only around 15 minutes from Inverness, and I highly recommend that you visit. It's all too easy to forget about Scotland's tumultuous history and past hardships when you're touring distilleries and drinking glorious whisky, so if you ask me this should be on everyone's itinerary when visiting the Highlands. Personally it served as a reminder that this stunningly beautiful, friendly and welcoming country hasn't been treated too fairly in history...


Sunday, 19 November 2017

In Detail: Edradour Distillery!

The first distillery experience on the mainland during my pilgrimage to Scotland was a very special one. For quite some time Edradour was the smallest single malt distillery in Scotland, and it's still positively tiny when compared to 99% of its fellow Scots. Located in a small valley in Perthshire, around 2 hours north of Edinburgh and 10 minutes south-east of the very pretty town of Pitlochry, the distillery tours and visitor's centre are quite popular with tourists, no doubt thanks to its very scenic surroundings, the very well equipped gift shop, and the separate tasting bar that is open to touring visitors, boasting a very large range and very reasonable prices. In fact Edradour is one of the most visited whisky distilleries in Scotland, and after my visit I can certainly see why. Thanks to Edradour & Signatory's Australian importer The Whisky Company I was lucky enough to get a personal tour from distillery manager Des McHagerty, who graciously gave me a very close look at both the distillery and its equipment, and the whiskies they produce!

Edradour was founded in 1837 as a farm distillery, and after a few changes of ownership the distillery ended up in the hands of the Pernod Ricard group of companies. But in 2002 it was deemed surplus to requirements, since Pernod had acquired Chivas Brothers and their distilleries not long before. It was snapped up by Andrew Symington, who along with his brother Brian owned independent bottling company Signatory Vintage, and had been keeping a close eye on what was (and still is) one of his favourite distilleries with the hope of eventually buying it. The distillery really is postcard-level beautiful, especially on a rare sunny day, and is very much what you imagine when you think of a small-scale traditional and 'romantic' Scottish whisky distillery, so I can see why Andrew first fell in love with the place! If you're not venturing too far from Edinburgh, I highly recommend stopping in here for a tour and a dram, it was definitely one of the highlights of my time on the mainland.

Edradour's still house, home to all of the production equipment!

While no longer growing its barley on site (it's now mostly sourced from Bairds Maltings in Inverness), the original farm buildings are still home to the distillery's equipment, and the distillery remains very "old school" and as original as possible, which certainly adds to its appeal. As much of the production process as possible is done by hand, despite there only being 2-3 production staff, and you'll find a very traditional setup in that old original farm building. The distillery uses wooden washbacks, an open-topped cast iron mash tun, very small copper pot stills with worm tub condensers and a spirit purifier (as does Ardbeg), and a Morton refrigerator (heat exchanger) which is used to cool the wort before yeast is added.

Above you can see the 4200-litre wash still on the left, and the 2200-litre spirit still on the right. For a point of reference here, the Islay giant Caol Ila Distillery's three wash stills are 19,000-litres each in capacity, while each of the three spirit stills hold 12,000-litres, so these really are very, very small! These small stills with their downward-angled lyne arms, and the two worm tub condensers, give Edradour's spirit a lovely oily, chewy and sweet spirit that works very well with a range of different casks. The distillery also has its own bottling line on site, which is quite uncommon in the industry, and negates the need for both Edradour and Signatory Vintage whiskies to be shipped in tankers to industrial-scale centralised bottling facilities.

One of Edradour's wormtub condensers. It was great to finally see one of these in action!

The small scale of the distillery is largely down to spacial restrictions, with all of the production equipment located in a single building, one of the original farm buildings in fact. As such there's only two washbacks and a single pair of stills, but there is a second distillery being built on site, which is on the other side of the Edradour burn (creek) that runs through the site. This new facility will have its own pair of small stills, to the same design and size as the originals, including the worm tub condensers and spirit purifier. It will be very exciting to see what Andrew and his team do with this new capacity, and I'm sure there are big things ahead!

The new second distillery being built on site, which should come online shortly.

This additional distillery has been very carefully designed to offer the same characteristics as the current one, but on a larger scale with six new wooden washbacks and an additional larger racked warehouse. The new distillery will initially produce around 200,000 litres of new make spirit per year, which will bring Edradour up to approximately 325,000 litres per year, with the potential for further production increases in the future. That's still tiny by Scotch whisky industry standards, but is a substantial increase for this little Highland distillery. The new distillery was still being setup during my visit, and it was a real treat to see the shiny new stills and equipment sitting in place waiting for the proverbial switch to be flicked.

The shiny new stills in their protective plastic wrapping.

Edradour use a large range of cask types to mature their whisky, including a lot of uncommon wine and fortified wine casks, such as Chardonnay and Madeira, Bordeaux and Sauternes casks, and crucially the vast majority of Edradour bottlings are fully matured in those casks, rather than being "finished" or "double matured" in those casks for short periods. There are around 5000 Edradour casks stored on site, along with around 1000 Signatory Vintage casks from various distilleries, and neither entity produces any whisky for blends, it's all bottled as single malt, often even from a single cask. The majority of warehousing on site is traditional earthen-floored dunnage style, although the racked warehouses are still earthen-floored and are typically only stacked 4-5 casks high, so they're essentially a combination of both styles. Edradour do remind me of a smaller scale Bruichladdich in a lot of ways, from the totally manual and very "hands on" production, to the open-topped iron mash tun and wooden washbacks, and especially in their use of uncommon wine casks and unusual limited bottlings. They also don't add any colouring to their whiskies, and aside from the entry-level Edradour 10-year old which is bottled at 40% ABV, none of their expressions are chill filtered, which is great to see.

    One of Edradour's dunnage warehouses, also home to some Signatory casks.

There are over 25 Edradour expressions in the current range, including the heavily peated (to 50 ppm) Ballechin expressions (10-year old reviewed here) which were first distilled in 2003 and are named after a long-extinct farm distillery that was located a few miles from Edradour and was known for its peated whisky. I was lucky enough to try quite a few of these drams at the incredible tasting bar at the distillery, staffed by Alan, a very friendly and helpful gent that was very accommodating. These drams included some very rare and unusual bottlings of both Edradour and Ballechin, and I was able to take a few tasting notes and first impressions after the tour. The gift shop also offers a couple of different distillery exclusive single cask bottlings, so naturally I had to try some of those as well! 

I started off with the very nice 15-year old "Fairy Flag" sherry cask-finished expression of Edradour to get into the mood, then went for the one pictured above, a 12-year old "Straight From the Cask" (SFTC) Edradour that was fully matured in a single Chardonnay wine cask, and was bottled at cask strength without any colouring or chill filtration. Extremely rich, sweet and fruity, the Chardonnay cask had really worked well with the heavy, oily Edradour spirit, even at "only" 12 years of age. This was an absolutely fantastic drop, and I just had to stop in and buy one of these on my way past the distillery at the end of the trip!

Next up was one of the oldest Edradour expressions to date, a 21-year old that was matured in ex-bourbon barrels for almost 10 years, then transferred into Oloroso sherry casks for a further 12 years. So "Oloroso cask finish" doesn't really tell the full story! This one was also bottled at cask strength, and was also very rich and fruity, but with a darker character and a lovely musty, spicy flavour from the sherry casks that was just delicious. And having the opportunity to taste a 21-year old cask strength whisky, at the distillery it came from, is not something to be taken lightly!

Then I was treated to something pretty special and very unusual. While this is an un-peated Edradour whisky, it was matured in a cask that previously held a heavily peated Islay whisky, hence the "PTM" acronym: Peated Through Maturation. But that wasn't just any Islay whisky cask, it was a Signatory Vintage Port Ellen cask! Now that's not something you see every day! The Edradour spirit spent 14 years in that ex-Port Ellen cask before being bottled at cask strength, and it made for a delicious combination of the sweet, oily Edradour spirit with soft influences of coastal peaty-ness. And what an idea!

Then we were in to the heavily peated Ballechins, starting with this Straight From The Cask bottling that was fully matured in a single Port cask for 13 years, before being bottled at cask strength with no colouring or chill filtration. This was yet another delicious dram, with sweet strawberries balancing with a musty, earthy peat and a very nice waxy red fruit finish. These SFTC expressions are also 500 ml bottlings, which helps to keep the cost down to a very reasonable level.

Then we were into the first of two distillery exclusive single cask Ballechin bottlings. This expression pictured above was fully matured in a Sauternes dessert wine cask for 10 years, before being bottled at 58.5%, without any added colouring or chill filtration. Despite being a cask strength 700 ml bottling that was fully matured in an exotic wine cask, this was very reasonably priced at just 69 pounds from the distillery shop. It was a very interesting dram too, and was a lot dryer than I had expected with the sweet wine cask maturation. There was a lot of musty white grape on the nose, with the peat hidden away until you took a sip, when it showed itself as a lovely ashy smoke alongside the fruit.

The last dram of the visit was the second of the distillery exclusive Ballechins, and was my favourite of the range. This one is another 10-year old cask strength bottling, naturally coloured and non-chill filtered, and also selling for a very reasonable 69 pounds from the distillery shop. The difference here is that this one was fully matured in a single Madeira wine cask, before being bottled at 59.1%. And it was absolutely delicious, and dangerously drinkable! Sweet and thick on the nose with roasted nuts and lightly burnt caramel, the palate was also gorgeous, with dark maple syrup sweetness and a little soft smoke and earthy peat behind. Unfortunately I couldn't squeeze one of these into my suitcase, so I went for the smaller Chardonnay-matured Edradour instead, but I'll be leaving some more room in my luggage on the next visit!

As you can probably tell, this was one fantastic distillery experience, and I can't thank Des, Andrew and Alan enough for their hospitality, and for all of their hard work in general! And a huge thanks must go to Craig from The Whisky Company, the Australian importer of both Edradour and Signatory Vintage, for organising such a brilliant visit to this little gem of a distillery. Craig has a great range of Edradour, Ballechin and Signatory bottlings on his website, so make sure you check them out! Naturally I also highly recommend that you check out Edradour Distillery if you're making your pilgrimage to Scotland. It's a unique experience and really gives a close-up and approachable view of the entire whisky making process that is somewhat easier to relate to than its bigger, more industrial cousins. I'm already looking forward to the next time!


Sunday, 12 November 2017

Rest & Be Thankful Octomore 2009 Whisky Review!

What's this, some unusual independent bottling of Octomore? Why yes, that's exactly what it is! Not something you see every day hey?

Taken from the shore at Inverary, but looking towards Rest & Be Thankful... you get the idea!

Rest & Be Thankful is owned by the England-based blender & independent bottler Fox Fitzgerald, and is a relatively new brand, only arriving in Australia in 2016. They have made an impact though, bringing us one of only a few independent bottlings of Bruichladdich's super-heavily peated Octomore whisky that are available in the world, and the only one so far that is officially distributed in Australia, in this case thanks to Baranow's Emporium. The slightly awkward brand name on this bottling refers to the "Rest & Be Thankful" viewing area & rest stop located near the highest point on the A83 road in western Scotland, not far from Loch Lomond, which is the road you'll take if you're driving from Glasgow (or Edinburgh) to Campbeltown or Islay. Although I only passed it on the bus, just rest assured (pun intended) that it's a very, very beautiful area.

As you can probably guess by the fact that they've been able to sell Octomore as an independent bottler, Fox Fitzgerald have a close relationship with Bruichladdich, and are bottling both Bruichladdich, Port Charlotte and Octomore spirit under their Rest & Be Thankful brand. Rumour has it that they managed to purchase a large number of privately owned mature casks during the purchase of the distillery by Remy Cointreau, along with some mature casks from other distilleries not very often seen in independent bottlings, such as Macallan, Arran, Highland Park and Springbank. Most carry age statements and cask details on the label as well, and are bottled at cask strength, without chill filtration or added colouring. When comparing these Octomore bottlings to their official cousins, you may notice a number missing: the ppm measurement, which Bruichladdich quote on most of their Octomore expressions. But we do have a 'vintage', as in year of distillation, which in this case is 2009, so we can assume that these casks were filled around the same time as the official 6.1 (which was bottled in 2014 as a 5 year old), which weighed in at 167 ppm. Not that it really tells us a whole lot anyway, so like all Octomore we can safely assume it's going to be seriously peaty.

This particular bottling I'm looking at today was fully matured, not finished, in a single ex-red wine cask from the Pauillac region of Bordeaux, France. So we don't know the grape variety or the vineyard responsible for that red wine cask, and there are half a dozen famous wineries in the area, but that's OK, since that's also how Bruichladdich often operates with their official bottlings. That single ex-red wine cask yielded a total of 300 bottles, at a cask strength of 66.9%, and an age of approximately 6 years & 3 months. These Rest & Be Thankful bottlings are not exactly cheap, with the Octomore releases retailing at around $500 AUD in Australia, which is around double that of the more expensive official bottlings such as 7.2 & 7.3. But then they are older than those official Octomores, they are higher in strength, and of course there are far fewer bottles available. The sample for this review came from the Australian importer for Rest & Be Thankful (among others), Melbourne-based Baranow's Emporium. Let's get to it!

Rest & Be Thankful Octomore 2009, NAS, 66.9%. Islay, Scotland.
Distilled 11/2009, bottled 2/2016. Matured in a single ex-red wine cask from Pauillac, Bordeaux, France. Cask number 2009004312, 300 bottles. Cask strength, non-chill filtered, natural colour.  

Colour: Deep gold.

Nose: Fresh, meaty and quite citrus-y. Lemon rind, bitter oranges, meaty & salty fresh natural oysters on a plate of rock salt. Yes really! Sweet red fruits come out with time, and does a little damp oak, some wood spice incense, and a soft hint of crumbly, earthy / muddy peat.  

Texture: Heavy weight, thick & meaty texture. Some heat as well, but it's 66.9% remember!

Taste: There's the peat finally, but it's really subdued for an Octomore. Meaty & spicy, like Moroccan-style spiced grilled red meat. Then becomes sweet with red berries and thick dark toffee. Then a little of that citrus and incense spice from the nose.  

Finish: Medium length. Hot & spicy initially, and drying. The wood spice incense note is very dominant for much of the time, when it tapers off the citrus and a little smoke comes out, and that spiced meat note again with a little salt. 

Score: 3 out of 5. 

Notes: This was a tough one to call. It's really quite hot, but not in a completely unpleasant way. And at 66.9% that comes with the territory really. Yes I could have added water, but I don't usually do that for any other reviews until after I've scored the dram at hand, so it wouldn't be fair. I love the nose on this Rest & Be Thankful, and the palate was nice too, but the finish didn't quite float my boat personally. I'm not a big fan of dominant spice notes in a whisky (Ardbeg Kelpie, for example), so that incense note didn't really gel with my palate. But the nose does help to make up for that, and this is definitely one of those drams that you could sit with for a long time without even taking a sip. 

It's all too tempting to compare this with the official bottlings from Bruichladdich, and let's be frank, they are much cheaper than this one is. Let's also remember though that they are often reduced, albeit only slightly, from the natural cask strength, while this one is really packing a punch. Whether that's a good thing or a bad thing in this case is hard to say, but the distillery obviously has a reason for reducing the strength of their official bottlings of Octomore or they wouldn't do it. This Rest & Be Thankful bottling is also a year older than most of the official releases, although still a young and fresh whisky, so that would make a difference as well. 

I know I'm harping on about the price a little, and an independent bottling of Octomore is not such a commonly seen thing, so we don't have a lot of other examples to refer to, but there's no denying that this is a seriously expensive whisky. Despite it's limited and single cask nature, $500 AUD (and upwards) is quite a number for a 6-year old whisky. One could easily buy two bottles of the official bottlings for that, even two of the delicious 7.3 Islay Barley at the moment. But this is a single cask bottling, and it's a different take on the make, with far less peat and more spice, so it doesn't really replicate any of the official line-up. For me though, it's a little hard to get past that spice, and that price. 


Sunday, 5 November 2017

Laphroaig 30 Year Old Whisky Review!

Now that's not something you hear (or read) every day! A 30-year old Laphroaig? Yes please! This is the first of a few special reviews that will honour the favourite distilleries from my pilgrimage to Scotland, and what better to start with than my beloved Laphroaig!

Following on from the excellent 32-year old limited release that hit the shelves in 2015, this 30-year old bottling was released in 2016. Both were bottled at natural cask strength without added colouring or chill filtration, and were presented in very pretty white wooden boxes and clear bottles. While the 32 was fully matured in Oloroso sherry casks and sold out very quickly considering the investment required, this one was fully matured in ex-bourbon casks, and seems to be mostly sold out. It was also more expensive than it's older predecessor, around $500 AUD more expensive in fact, but then it is also significantly higher in strength at 53.5% compared to 46.6% in the sherry cask bottling, and it was released a year sooner. There has since been a 27-year old bottling released earlier in 2017, and that one was down to 41.7% (still bottled at cask strength), but it is almost half the price of the 30 year old we're looking at here. I wonder what they're going to come up with next year!

This 30-year old bottling was distilled in October 1985 (wow!) and bottled in May 2016, and was "double matured" in all ex-bourbon barrels, both refill and first fill. Given the age of this whisky I'm assuming it was mostly matured in refill ex-bourbon casks, and then finished or double matured in first fill ex-bourbon casks, but it could have been the other way around. Although it doesn't say so on the packaging, I think we can safely assume that it is naturally coloured and non-chill filtered, and the texture of this beautiful stuff reinforces that assumption for me. I love the packaging too, a nice simple clear bottle and white label, and that wooden box is very pretty. They could have easily put this whisky in some ridiculous and over-compensating packaging and tripled the price, but there's no crystal decanters and fancy hand-crafted lacquered boxes here, just an understated label and box, and a relatively reasonable price considering what you're getting. Great stuff!

Older Laphroaigs tend to be quite refined, sweet and gentle. But the aforementioned 32-year old was surprisingly peaty considering its age and the sherry casks that were involved, since both age and assertive casks tend to reduce peating levels, so this one will be very interesting, particularly with the significantly higher strength. I wasn't even one year old when this whisky was distilled, so let's see if it's aged better than I have!
Laphroaig 30-year old, 53.5%, 2016 bottling. Islay, Scotland.
Distilled 10/1985, bottled 5/2016. "Double matured" in both first-fill and refill ex-bourbon casks. Natural colour, non-chill filtered. 

Colour: Deep gold. 

Nose: Super soft and gentle, no sign of any alcohol at all. Sweet, juicy oranges & apples, dusty light honey and toasted oak. Some salted licorice, and marzipan (sweetened almond paste)! Dried herbs - sage, a little rosemary, and sweet dried flowers. Surprisingly fresh and bright for the age, this is already a winner!

Texture: Very nice. Medium weight, and well balanced. No sign of any heat at all.

Taste: Sweet and light on entry, builds slowly to a lovely dry, ashy peat that quickly fades again leaving salted licorice and fruit. Dried fruit now though, apples & oranges again. More of those dried herbs too, and an almost grape soft drink / soda-like sweetness. 

Finish: Long, and comes & goes in waves. Typical Laphroaig grapefruit here, but it's less sweet and less intense here, more of a dried grapefruit. Lots of dried tropical fruit in fact, papaya too. A little cigarette ash, strong aniseed, wood spices and powdered ginger. Then cinnamon sugar on a flaky sweet pastry, and a little warm oak.   

Score: 4 out of 5. 

Notes: A delicious whisky of course, as can be expected from Laphroaig! It's certainly far less peaty and more subtle & refined than I remember the 32 year old being, but there's still a lot going on here, and there are still traces of that Laphroaig DNA that we all love. I really like the flavours that are on offer here, it's like a gentleman Laphroaig in a three-piece suit. Very refined and gentle, softly spoken but also very expressive and confident. Very, very impressive, as always. And yes, I'd have to say it's aged better than I have...

Like I've said in the past about the 25-year old and 32-year old, if you're a Laphroaig fan and you have the disposable income necessary to buy in to one of these much older expressions, you can't go wrong. If I was in the market myself for a whisky of this age, Laphroaig would absolutely be my first port of call. And what an honour to be able to taste these drams!   

Speaking of which, a big thanks to Beam Suntory & The Exchange's Australian national brand ambassador, the legendary Dan Woolley, for the sample. Lots of love mate!


Sunday, 29 October 2017

My Pilgrimage to Scotland, Part 4: The mainland!

Well here we are, the final instalment in my pilgrimage write-up! Part 1 covered my travel tips for whisky geeks embarking on this pilgrimage themselves, and a little of London and a little of Islay, Part 2 covered more of the paradise that is Islay and a few distillery tours, and Part 3 covered the rest of my time on the island, and a few more distillery tours. Now in Part 4 we're on the mainland, looking at Edinburgh and Inverness, and what is probably the holy grail for most un-peated whisky fans: Speyside!

After the long journey from Islay to Edinburgh by the ferry and two buses, and with the added downer of already missing Islay, I was feeling a little rough around the edges when I arrived. But Edinburgh turned out to be a great experience with plenty of character, and basically the entire city is just dripping with history. And also whisky shops, which doesn't hurt! The Royal Mile is probably the most well known attraction, which is basically the main road through the CBD, stretching from the entrance to Edinburgh Castle at one end to Holyrood Palace (the Queen's residence in Scotland) at the other. Edinburgh Castle by the way is well worth a visit, especially if you line up to see the Scottish crown jewels, and if you time your visit to coincide with the firing of the 1 o'clock gun, a practice dating back to 1861 as a time-keeping aid for the city's mariners. The Royal Mile itself is home to plenty of modern tourist attractions, pubs and souvenir shops, as well as a few very old churches and very dramatic-looking alleyways, and there are a few whisky-related gems as well. The Scotch Whisky Experience shop was surprisingly well priced and well stocked, as was the 'Amber' bar downstairs (I didn't bother with the cask ride / tour or the collection viewing), and Royal Mile Whiskies have a few gems available, including a few exclusive bottlings. But one of the main attractions for me was always going to be Cadenhead's.

This is the main retail outlet for Scotland's oldest independent bottler of the same name, which is owned by J&A Mitchell, who are also behind Springbank and Glengyle (Kilkerran) distilleries. Don't bother looking for a fancy website or online store here, this surprisingly small store has almost no frills. But the windows are full of dusty & very old Cadenhead's bottles, and there are quite a few hidden gems on the shelves with some very reasonable pricing, including "the cage" in the corner that contains small bottlings of "cask ends", which are the leftovers of single casks from Cadenhead's bottlings. The stock levels of these obviously fluctuates, and there wasn't anything available that tickled my fancy at the time, but there was something else that certainly did: the casks on the other side of the room! These are blended malt whiskies, separated by region, that you can hand-bottle straight from the casks in the store! They're all served up at cask / blending strength, are non-chill filtered and naturally coloured, and you can choose from 100ml, 200ml, 350ml and 700ml bottles. I tried both the Islay and Campbeltown blends, and was very impressed with the Campbeltown blend in particular, especially for asking the price. I (stupidly) went for the 200ml bottle since I was worried about luggage space, which cost me a ridiculously good sum of 14 pounds. For a delicious blended malt bottled at over 59% ABV, and reportedly containing Springbank and Longrow malts, this was an absolute steal. So I highly recommend you visit, and save some luggage space for the occasion!

As for whisky bars, I tried a few along The Royal Mile, but with the exception of the SMWS' Kaleidoscope tasting bar (the downstairs bar is open to non-members), most were more restaurants than bars and were extremely busy (even on a Tuesday night), so I went searching for one that was a little off the busy tourist strip and that had been recommended to me: The Bow Bar. This was a very small and unassuming bar located on Victoria st. around 300 metres from The Royal Mile, and they had an incredible whisky selection with some incredibly reasonable prices, including some amazing independent bottlings. I had quite a few drams here, which probably wasn't the best idea after skipping dinner and having an early start in the morning, but I just couldn't resist trying as many of these unusual whiskies as I could! Highlights were a cask strength 24-year old Hart Brothers first-fill sherry cask Mortlach, and a 6-year old Laphroaig and 15-year old Highland Park from The Exclusive Malts (by Creative Whisky Company), both of which were matured in refill sherry hogsheads and were bottled at cask strength. In fact I tried a total of four drams from that bottler on the night and all were very, very good. I hope they get an Australian importer soon!

That early start the next day was a 5 hour drive to Inverness in the Highlands (plus the mind-numbing 1.5 hour stuff-around for our rental car at Waverley train station - you'll need to allow extra time here if you're following suit), including an incredible tour & tasting at Edradour Distillery in the beautiful town of Pitclochry, around 2 hours drive north of Edinburgh. But there's a separate and more detailed write-up of this little gem coming soon, so for now let's just say it's absolutely worth a stop-in and a tour & tasting. I had planned to stop at Tomatin Distillery as well, but it was closed by the time we got up there (it's another 1.5 hours from Pitlochry), so we headed straight into Inverness. It's a very scenic drive as well, although mostly highway there's plenty of Scottish postcard-worthy scenery to admire on the way. The drive around the edge of Cairngorns National Park in particular was absolutely stunning, which is also where you'll find the pretty-looking Dalwhinnie Distillery.

Inverness is the largest city in the Highlands, and is widely acknowledged as the capital of the region. It's a reasonably sized and quite pretty city with all the facilities you'd expect, and is split in half by the River Ness, which runs from the famous Loch Ness to the south-west to the Moray Firth in the north east. Inverness was to be the base for my visits to Speyside, and I had planned out a pretty intensive itinerary, but in the end we missed a few destinations due to time constraints. But there were still a few must-dos, and I managed to do all of them plus quite a few quick stops, and very luckily I had a designated driver for this part of the trip! The main goals for me were the in-depth tour & tasting at Glendronach in Huntly, which is around 2 hours & 20 minutes from Inverness, a tour & tasting at Benromach in Forres and a visit to Gordon & MacPhail in Elgin, which are around 50 minutes and 70 minutes from Inverness respectively, and a tour & tasting at Aberlour in the heart of Speyside. I'll cover Benromach and Gordon & MacPhail in another separate and more in-depth post, since that was another phenomenal experience, but we'll cover Glendronach, Aberlour and a few quicker visits right now!


There's only one two-lane road going east of Inverness, and it's often very busy until you pass through Elgin, especially if you're stuck behind a logging truck or tractor (which will happen), so it was a bit of a stressful drive to Glendronach in the morning peak-hour traffic. But the destination was well worth it! As my favourite un-peated distilleries, and my absolute favourite "sherry bomb" whisky, Glendronach was on the top of my list of must-do distilleries on the mainland, and it did live up to my expectations. Although a very popular whisky, the distillery is actually quite small, with a very basic visitor's centre that includes a video presentation  (boo!) and the usual range of nice merchandise, although they were sold out of branded Glencairns during my visit (boo!). They also offer a hand-filled distillery exclusive bottling, named 'The Manager's Cask', and usually also an older distillery exclusive single cask bottling, but this also was sold out during my visit.

The Manager's Cask changes frequently, and is generally on the younger side, but is always cask strength, non-chill filtered (like the vast majority of Glendronach) and naturally coloured (like all Glendronach), and reputedly always of excellent quality. It had changed only a few days prior to my visit to a Pedro Ximinez sherry cask, an 11-year old whisky at 56.1% ABV, from a first-fill PX sherry puncheon (500-ish litre cask), selling for around 90 pounds. While still a delicious whisky it was definitely lighter on cask influence than most single cask Glendronachs I've tried, and it isn't quite the sherry bomb you'd expect from the make, although admittedly I did taste it immediately after the excellent 18-year old Allardice and 21-year old Parliament 'core' bottlings which may not have helped. Still, a hand-filled Glendronach is not an easy thing to come by (once again, apart from the inevitable secondary auction), and it was still an excellent whisky, so it was still a must-buy for me.

But what about the tour! The distillery is quite pretty, and the tour covers the now disused malting floor and kiln, (they were decommissioned in 2002, and the distillery was closed for 8 years prior to that) the mash tun and wooden washbacks, and the still house. It doesn't cover a warehouse unfortunately, but you can (just) see a little portion of a dunnage warehouse through a window in the distillery shop, which is also where you watch the video that covers most of the distillation process. I must admit I don't like this approach too much, I'd prefer to have a tour guide explain the process in front of the corresponding equipment, and our tour guide was very knowledgeable and friendly so I can't see why the video is necessary at all. And unfortunately this is one of those distilleries that doesn't allow any photography inside any of the distillery buildings, and although the still house has a glass front it's not very photo friendly from the outside. Nonetheless it was very cool to see the old malting floor, which was tiny - even smaller than Kilchoman's - and the kiln where there was once a small amount of peat mixed in with the coal fire. I'm not sure what the actual proportion of floor-malted barley was compared to the commercially-sourced barley in the pre-closure bottlings, but it must have been a very small number given the size of the malting floor and the fact that a single man looked after the whole process.

Glendronach's four now-indirectly heated stills are interesting, they're quite bulbous in shape with thick necks, and the wash stills have a different-shaped lyne arm to their smaller counterparts, with the spirit stills having a typical downward-curved straight arm, and the wash stills curving sharply downward and bend into horizontal before meeting the condensers. You can also peek through the lower windows of the still house above (from the car park) and see the now disused fireplaces underneath each still that were in use they were directly heated with coal fires, which is a very uncommon thing these days (they were converted to internal steam coils in 2005). After that it was back to the shop for our tasting, and I had gone for the 20 pound 'premium tasting tour' which included a dram of the 18- and 21-year olds and the current hand-fill exclusive bottling. As great as this distillery is, I do wish they'd had some more stock of the distillery exclusive single cask, and the damned branded Glencairns!

After that it was back on the road again, headed for Dufftown, a 40 minute drive from Glendronach. We only had two full days to cover what is quite a large area, and Speyside is filled with distilleries, so I could only do a quick visit at most of them. Thanks to good timing and the fact that their restaurant (and tasting bar) is excellent, Glenfiddich was our lunch stop, and it's a very pretty and well maintained distillery that doesn't reveal its massive size from this angle. The tasting bar also included a few distillery exclusive hand-filled bottlings, but they were a little too pricey for me at the time so I went with the 'Distillery Edition' 15-year old 51% bottling, which was delicious.

After lunch and a quick look at the distillery's resident highland coos (cows) it was on the road again, but this time it was a few minutes down the road past the distillery to Balvenie Castle. I'm sure you can guess which distillery owes its name to this historic site, which dates back to the 12th century. While it's not exactly in working order it's actually in good shape for over 800 years of age, and is well worth a visit.

A few minutes north of Glenfiddich you'll find Balvenie Distillery, which is a little less polished than its larger stablemate, with the visitor's centre being a tiny shop around the size of your average bedroom. The shop didn't have anything special available that caught my eye, but the distillery does offer hand-filled exclusives as an extra add-on to your tour. The grounds are well kept though, and the distillery tours are widely acclaimed, so I may have to spend a little more time here on the next trip. From there we had an impromptu stop at Speyside Cooperage, which is an impressive facility that you can navigate to by spotting the mountains of casks sitting alongside. The cooperage does offer tours and has a nice gift shop with plenty of local items made from disused casks, but thanks to the day's tight schedule it was just a quick wander around for me. It's a very impressive and busy place in a very pretty area, and it's easy to imagine the cooperage supplying most of Scotland's distilleries with casks with the mountains of staves, lids and hoops lying around, and the pallets of completed casks awaiting shipping.

Next up was Aberlour Distillery, around a 10 minute drive from the cooperage and located right on the highway, where I was booked in for the 2pm tour & tasting. I'm a huge fan of the NAS A'Bunadh expression, and I consider it to be one of the best value "sherry monster" whiskies around, but I was also looking forward to Aberlour's distillery exclusive bottlings, of which there's usually an NAS cask strength vatting and an age-stated single cask bottling available. Unfortunately though both of these were sold out at the time of my visit, which was very disappointing, and there was nothing else available that I couldn't buy from my local bottle shop on the other side of the planet. The distillery itself and the surrounding area is very pretty, despite the clouds of midges we had hanging around on the day, but unfortunately the tour left me a little cold.

While our guide was again friendly and knowledgeable, the presentation seemed very scripted, and the tour itself was very polished and almost artificial in feel. Once again there was no photography permitted in any of the distillery buildings, and we had to keep to the yellow safety lines and weren't allowed near the stills or in an actual warehouse, although there is a viewing room with a few examples of casks inside. Unfortunately it seemed like the health & safety people had had a great time here. There was even a gigantic corporate poster hanging in the still room, which took great pride in declaring how few workplace accidents there had been and how important safety is to the parent company and its employees. Which is exactly the kind of thing that you do not want to see in an almost 140-year old whisky distillery in the heart of Scotland, and was a real mood-killer for me. At least hide the damn thing away when tours are running guys!

The post-tour tasting was nice enough, while I really shouldn't complain since the whole "Aberlour Experience" cost 15 pounds. But since they were sold out of all of the exclusives, we were only able to taste the regular 10, 12, 16 and 18-year olds, all of which are low in strength and are chill filtered and artificially coloured, and the always great A'Bunadh. Which was the only redeeming feature of the tasting, aside from the new make spirit which was very interesting to taste, and is an extremely uncommon inclusion to most tastings. In fact that was one of only two chances that I had to taste a distillery's new make spirit over the entire trip, but I still think the "Aberlour Experience" tours could use a little work to get a more authentic and welcoming feel. Or at least just get rid of the damn poster and the yellow lines!

From here we went on to Glenfarclas, around 10 minutes south of Aberlour, and Glen Grant for a quick look around and a few photos. Although Glenfarclas was very busy at the time it was a very pretty thing to look at. Another one to spend some more time at on the next visit! Glen Grant had a beautiful garden as well, despite the weather closing in at the time, although the distillery itself was a little industrial and commercial in appearance.

Next up was Macallan, which is around 10 minutes from Aberlour, crossing the River Spey and looping back to the distillery. This was the last stop of the day, since it was getting late-ish and we still had the 90-minute driver back to Inverness ahead of us. Unfortunately Macallan is a bit of a construction zone at the moment while they build their massive second distillery, so a lot of the site was closed off at the time of our visit. But some of the original buildings and the visitor's centre were still accessible, and it was very striking to see the size of the new facility. We were directed past the new warehousing on the way to the visitor's centre, and they were absolutely huge buildings, easily the size of aircraft hangers, and there was at least half a dozen of them all painted bright orange. So I can only imagine how much spirit this new distillery is going to be pumping out.

The visitor's centre was a much more inviting  place and was well worth the visit, with a good range of whisky, and reasonable pricing for their tastings. I went for the 2 dram tasting with the 12-year old Sherry Oak (the 40% version) and the extremely expensive 'Estate Reserve' NAS bottling, which were both very nice, particularly the Estate Reserve, but could do with losing the chill filtration in my opinion. With that it was back past those massive orange warehouses to the A-road for the drive back to Inverness, with the final distillery visit of the trip approaching the next day...

But not before stopping at one little distillery for a quick photo-op: Benriach. Another one of my favourite mainland distilleries, unfortunately Benriach doesn't offer tours unless you have a group of four, and it was late in the day anyway. It was also raining at the time, but it's still a very functional-yet-pretty distillery. I managed a drive to Loch Ness the next morning, which was absolutely beautiful despite the grey gloomy day and bus loads of tourists. Then after a quick lunch it was back on the road west to Forres, the home of one of my favourite mainland distilleries: Benromach!

But I'm saving that, and the corresponding visit to Gordon & MacPhail, for a separate write-up. Which means we're basically at the end of the Pilgrimage write-ups, since I was on a train back to London the next afternoon! They've been a pleasure to write, and I hope you haven't found them too long or too arduous. I also hope they've helped you plan your next trip to Scotland, or maybe reminisce about your own first pilgrimage to this magical place. Thanks for reading, and keep an eye out for the next few posts! I have some very special whisky to review in the near future, and two very special "Distillery in Detail" write-ups on the way!