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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!

Glendronach



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!


Cheers!