Rob B’s Speyside Spectacular

In recent months, my palate has changed. I’ll admit, this came as quite a shock to me. If you’d have told me a year or two ago that I’d have this unquenchable thirst for sherried whisky, I’d have thought you were a fool. I was so peated, I was probably about 200 ppm. So, when my better half suggested that we go back to Edinburgh in the Easter holidays, the place where our romance began, I made the less romantic suggestion of her driving me around Speyside for a couple of days, while I drank copious amounts of whisky. Luckily, she said yes! So, I spent the next few weeks meticulously putting together a five day itinerary, starting in Speyside and finishing in Chester, via Edinburgh. (Chester was tagged on to the end so we could use our free Chester Zoo tickets, given to us because Storm Doris ruined a visit earlier in the year. This will be the only mention of Chester, as it is not whisky related.) With distillery tours and accommodation booked, we set off on what was to be a week of whisky nirvana.

 

Day one: an impromptu stop at Glenfarclas, the Strathisla tour and The Craigellachie Hotel.

I was adamant that the journey to Scotland was to be as painless as an eight hour drive could be. So, we left home (Birmingham) at 5:00 and, with empty roads and a lead foot, we were in Carlisle, eating a bacon sandwich, just after 8:00. From then on, the journey was a blissful drive through stunning scenery and Top Gear-esque  roads. As we drove through the Cairngorms, I started to get all fanboy, as we past numerous signs which pointed in the direction of names which, until now, I’d only seen on the side of whisky bottles. Our first destination, before going to our accommodation, was the home of Chivas: Strathisla. However, as we got closer to Keith, we rounded a corner and I saw the entrance to Glenfarclas.

With only two days to cram in as many distillery tours as possible, I had originally planned to tour Glenfarclas. However, it had to make way for other tours this time. I hadn’t cancelled the tour yet, so I decided to pop in and tell them in person that I couldn’t make it. It also gave me the opportunity to have a look in the distillery shop and possibly make my first purchase of the trip.

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After a brief look around the visitor centre, I spoke to Matthew, who was working behind the desk, and told him that I was unable to attend the tour. He complemented me on making the effort to tell them in person, then muttered the immortal words: Would you like some whisky while you’re here? I was taken to a small bar and asked what the oldest Glenfarclas I had tried was. At this point, I felt quite smug. A few weeks previous to this trip (see my earlier blog about the Midlands Whisky Festival), I had attended a Glenfarclas masterclass, which was hosted by George Grant, the sales director and 6th generation family member of Glenfarclas, where I tried six 40 year old expressions, to celebrate his 40th birthday. So, my reply to Matthew was: “Actually, I tried a few 40 year olds with George a few weeks ago, to celebrate his 40th birthday…” He was unmoved. He then pulled out the Family Collector Series V. “You tried VI at the tasting with George, have you tried any of the other expressions from the series?”

 

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What a dram. A clear 5/5 and it was my first dram of the holiday. It was at this point that I realised that this trip was going to be special. But Matthew wasn’t finished with me yet. “If you like that, try this…”

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He then poured me a sample of the 2001 Family Cask, of which there were only 291 bottles. This heavily sherried dram was one of the most popular family casks, according to Matthew, and was now hard to find. It was a real sherry bomb, with big, dried fruit flavours and a slight woodiness to it. I preferred the previous dram, but it was like choosing between a date with a blonde supermodel and a brunette supermodel. The pressure was on Strathisla.

At this point, it was time to get going. I grabbed a bottle of Glenfarclas 17 on the way out. I’d not tried this expression before and for £55, I thought it was worth the gamble. Arriving in Keith, I popped into Tesco to grab a quick sandwich. While in there, I thought it would be rude not to check out the whisky section, for research purposes, of course. I was curious to see what they stocked in a supermarket in whisky country. The range was much larger than at any Tesco I’ve seen before. I managed to pick up a Tullibardine Burgandy finish (to complete my collection of this range) for £28 (which I thought was a bargain) before heading to Strathisla.

 

IMAG0115I’m not a big fan of Chivas. Just the thought of Longmorn, Glen Keith, Strathisla etc. being blended into nothingness makes my skin crawl. So why Strathisla? Because I love it and I love Glen Keith. Both single malts are magical and, even the slightest possibility that I might get to try a great expression of either of these was worth the risk.

The distillery is truly picturesque. Considering the modernity and corporate feel of everything Chivas do, Strathisla has managed to maintain a real old-fashioned feel.

The tour itself was strange. The guide seemed very knowledgeable, but lacked the charisma to really deliver a tour which kept me interested.

IMAG0116The most interesting part of the tour was looking around one of their warehouses. Their collection of casks was more random than I imagined it would be. Several old casks of Macallan, Glen Grant and other distilleries were nestled amongst the rows of old Longmorn, Strathisla, etc. I asked the tour guide what they planned to do with them, given their value, and whether the named distilleries had tried to buy them back at any point. He didn’t seem to have an answer, so I guess there are no plans for them as yet.

After the tour was over, we moved on to a pretty basic tasting of two core Chivas expressions (Chivas Extra was pretty poor; Chivas 18 is an easy drinking dram), Strathisla 12, which I love, but have drunk plenty of, and a 12 year old grain whisky.

IMG-20170424-WA0010Then, it was into the small distillery bar, to try some of the Chivas Distillery Cask Strength range. First up was a dram of the Strathisla 26 year old cask strength, courtesy of Chivas brand ambassador Lauren Mustard, who organised the tour for me. This was more like it. All of the grassy, summertime sweetness of the Strathisla 12, but with bigger balls.

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This was followed up by a Glen Keith 17 year old cask strength, which I bought a bottle of, and a Glenallachie 14 year old cask strength, which my girlfriend thought was her favourite dram of the week.

First tour under our belts, it was off to our accommodation to freshen up before dinner and more drinking. We stayed at Broomhead B&B, which I can’t recommend enough. I’d happily stay there during any other visit to the Speyside area. The owners were brilliant, even offering to give us lifts to the local restaurants and bars. Plus, the breakfast and fresh coffee more than dealt with any fuzzy-headed feelings I had in the morning. And who doesn’t want to eat their breakfast at a table with a distillery view?

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Refreshed and ready for food and more whisky, we headed off to the Copper Dog pub at the Craigellachie Hotel. I’m going to go as far as to say that the ribeye steak I had there was in the top 5 steaks I’ve ever eaten. They hotel has a few of its own bottlings of whisky, as do many of the bars and hotels in the area. These included a Speyside blend named after the pub: Copper Dog. For less than £30, this was one of the best blends I’ve tried. It was really fruity, with a gentle spice and it had a really pleasant, nutty finish.

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After washing down dinner, we headed upstairs to the Quach Bar. With a selection of over 900 bottles, this was the perfect place to end what had been a great first day. A ten minute delve into the colossal menu led to the construction of a five dram flight:

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The Springbank 2007 blend wasn’t the best Springbank I’ve ever tried and the Glendronach Sauternes finish was sweet, like apple puffs. I’m a big fan of Benrinnes and I own a few different bottles, yet I’d never tried the Flora and Fauna expression. It was typical Benrinnes, sweet plums with a slight minty taste. Clean and refreshing. The Bruichladdich Ancien Regime was excellent: sweet toffee apples with szechuan pepper corns. Finally, a young Bunnahabhain, full of coastal brine and BBQ seafood. A great way to finish a great first day.

 

Day two: Aberlour, Dufftown, Balvenie and The Highlander Inn.

First on the agenda was a tour of Aberlour. I’m a late comer to Aberlour, but I think that (similarly to Glenfarclas) it represents real value for money. A lot of their core range is available for reasonable prices, with the 16 year old being, in my opinion, one of the best sub £50 drams around.

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The tour itself was much better than Strathisla, despite both distilleries being under the Chivas umbrella. Our guide was both knowledgeable and likable and I would never have guessed that she had only been working there for three weeks. She helped me work on my whisky pronunciations:  I learned that you don’t pronounce the ‘dh’ in A’bunadh, and that the ‘our’ in Aberlour is pronounced ‘our’ like the word, not the sound from words like ‘pour’. All of this appealed to my English teacher geekiness….

The tasting which followed the tour represented the best value for money of any of the tours we did. For £15, we got to taste five drams, three core expressions and two distillery exclusives.

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I’ve already discussed how much I think of the core expressions. All three were great. It really amazes me that you can get Aberlour 10 in supermarkets for less than £25. However, the stars of the show were the hand filled distillery exclusives. It really disappointed me that they had stopped allowing people to fill their own bottles (apparently, for health and safety reasons??), as this was a great addition to the tours I did later on. The 13 year old bourbon cask was great, light vanilla and buttercream, but the 16 year old sherry cask was the standout dram; A full on, christmas cake, smack in the face. So good that one had to come home with me.

 

Aberlour done, we headed to Dufftown for lunch, so I could pop into the famous Whisky Shop Dufftown.

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When I walked into the shop, my first impression was: I’ll be here a while. Now, I hate over attentive shop staff. Sometimes you need to be left the fuck alone. However, when it comes to whisky, the best times I’ve had shopping have involved great whisky banter with staff, a few samples of things I’ve not tried (suggested by them) and feeling part of a really immersive experience. Unfortunately, this was not to be the case today. After browsing for about five minutes, I was told to ask if I needed help. I looked round and the shop assistant was glued to their laptop. I found a couple of bottles that really took my fancy, and I was ready to spend money, but the cold, quiet atmosphere had really started to put me off. Eventually, I asked if I could try two samples, to help aid my decision. The assistant duly obliged, pouring both, before returning to their laptop, without any suggestions, conversation or acknowledgement. At this point, I decided that I wasn’t going to buy anything here, despite really enjoying the Linkwood 15 year old, which was really well priced. I left disappointed. I’d been looking forward to shopping here and maybe I’d built it up a bit too much, after reading about the shop online. Nevertheless, it didn’t live up to its reputation on this visit.

Not to be downhearted, I journeyed on up the road, to take part in the second tour of the day. I needed a pick me up, and I got one!

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When we walked into the Balvenie visitor centre, we were met by David (the visitor centre manager) and Charles (our guide for the day). The immortal words were spoken and I was given a dram of the distillery only 14 year old sherry cask. “You’ll get to fill one of those yourself, later.” David told me. I was blown away by this dram. It was raisins, citrus peel, figs and sticky toffee pudding. Gorgeous. At this point, we were the only two people there and I was beginning to believe we’d have the distillery to ourselves. At this point, David told me they were waiting on a party of six – a stag party from America. My heart sank. This was not what I had in mind. More fool me for judging a book by its cover. The six men who accompanied us around the distillery were great guys and we had a great time talking about their tour of Scotland, which was to continue to Islay the following day (lucky bastards).

The tour was far and away the best of the lot. With the tasting, it lasted just over three hours.

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We were shown around the floor maltings; Balvenie are one of the few remaining distilleries to malt their own barley on site.

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Balvenie also peat their barley one the first day of malting. They believe that this adds another layer of flavour to their whisky, which separates it from that of other Speyside distilleries.

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We visited what can only be described as Cask City: rows and rows of sherry and bourbon casks, waiting to be repaired and filled. Look at those lovely sherry butts!

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We were also shown around the cooperage.

 

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The last stop before the tasting was the famous Warehouse 24. Here, we were given the opportunity to fill our own 20cl bottles and I finally got my hands on my own bottle of the 14 year old sherry cask. The other choices were a first and second fill bourbon cask. Both drams were great, but to me, not a patch on the sherry cask. Before we could bottle them, were given the opportunity to try all three. As there were no glasses around, we drank from our cupped hands. Magical times. Bottles signed out, we headed to the tasting room. On route, we were shown the cask from which our special Warehouse 24 members’ dram would come from: a 1974, 43 year old refill bourbon cask.

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The tasting included six drams: Doublewood 12 year old, Single Barrel 12 year old, 14 year old Caribbean Cask, 21 year old Port Wood, 30 year old, and the before mentioned Warehouse 24 dram. Despite the romance of the Warehouse 24 dram, the standout dram for me was the 30 year old. An amazing mix of apple strudel and marzipan. A complex, wonderful dram.

 

Tasting over, we parted company with our new American friends and headed back to base to freshen up, before setting out to the Highlander Inn for food and, you’ve guessed it, more whisky.

After eating, I began to take a look around the bar. They had easily the greatest collection of Japanese whisky I’ve ever seen in the flesh. Literally, thousands of pounds worth of whisky, just casually sitting in a quiet corner of the bar. After I’d taken that in, it was time to drink. Billy, the legend behind the bar, created a Gordon & MacPhail flight for me:

IMAG0185 It was a splendid journey through some really great whiskies. However, the standout dram was the Cask Strength Glentauchers; Terry’s Chocolate Oranges and mulled wine. The Highlander Inn proved to be the perfect place to spend my last night in Speyside. A real treat, if you visit Craigellachie.

 

Day three: Glendronach, off to Edinburgh and my favourite bar in the world.

The reason I couldn’t go to Glenfarclas on Wednesday was because I had decided that I needed to visit the Mecca of sherried whisky instead: Glendronach. A forty minute drive led us to what seemed to be a completely deserted distillery.

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Luckily, this is the way it stayed. There is no better feeling than having a distillery tour all to yourself. Karen, the visitor centre manager, was our guide for the day and she was brilliant. Funny, full of anicdotes and very knowledgeable, not just about Glendronach, but also the Speyside area as a whole. If only we’d met her earlier. The tasting was small, but made up of some wonderful drams:

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Up until now, my favourite Glendronach had been the 18 year old Allardice. I’d tried it alongside the 21 year old Parliament before and always favoured the 18 and not really rated the 21. Today, the 21 really shone through. I was disappointed with the Cask Strength Batch 6. I’d heard lots of really good things about it, but the 21 was much better, so who knows how it would compare to the 18.

However, the star of this show was the distillery manager’s cask. Today was truly my lucky day, because a new cask had been opened that morning. So, not only was I the first non-employee to try it, I was the first person (after Karen and the distillery manager) to get their hands on a bottle.

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Bottle in the bag, it was time to say goodbye to Speyside and all its wonders. A 3 hour drive along the coast, and we arrived in Edinburgh, for the second leg of our trip. Honourable mentions go to The Hanging Bat and The Beer Kitchen, for providing us with much needed drink and food that afternoon/evening, before it was time to resume the whisky extravaganza.

 

My favourite bar in the world? The Black Cat in Edinburgh. Why? On our first trip to Edinburgh, my girlfriend and I stumbled into this bar and its 200+ bottles of whisky, Alannah Myles, Black Velvet was playing, and I tried my hardest to convince my non-whisky drinking girlfriend that we could find a whisky she would like. We didn’t, but it was an amazing night, which sticks in our memories, nonetheless. This trip didn’t disappoint either. The two bar staff were great. We talked whisky, discussed the origins of Ileach and Port Askaig, and drank. Lots.

All three drams were wonderful . The private cask Kilchoman was a real treat. One of the best expressions of theirs that I’ve tried. When they have whisky that’s 15/16 years old, it’s going to be insane! Bruichladdich Black Art was great value at around £10 a dram, considering its rarity and value. The big surprise of the night was the Tomatin 14 Cabernet Sauvignon finish; fruity, jammy and full of honey sweetness. Beautiful. The traditional Scottish band were still playing when we left, well after midnight, and my third dram of Tomatin….

 

Final day: A SMWS double bill.

I joined the Scotch Malt Whisky Society in October 2016. When I planned this trip, I also booked a tasting at the Queen Street branch of the society, as I thought it was only right to pay them a visit while I was in town. Nevertheless, I couldn’t wait until the evening before visiting the shop. So, once the hangover had subsided, we headed off there to do some shopping.

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The sheer array of whisky they had on sale blew me away. I was in there for twenty minutes before I even made it to the bar. Here, I tried two different drams, 71.43 and 77.43. I found the Glenburgie to be a great, young sherried dram. However, it was a little one dimensional. The Glen Ord was really intriguing; orange, coconut and plums. Lots of talking points. A dram you can sit and think about. So, a bottle joined my collection.

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The most interesting point of the morning came when I spotted these bottles in a half-open cupboard, behind the bar:

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I didn’t care what it tasted like, even though I really liked the description and I like Glenrothes; the name sold it to me. However, after quickly shutting the cupboard, the barman insisted that they weren’t for sale. Apparently, they should have been on the April outturn, but their ‘inappropriate name’ had led to their withdrawal. So, I admitted defeat, and headed out to get some lunch. Imagine my surprise when, an hour later, I received an email saying that there were some new casks on sale…and there it was, the bareback duck! Bottle purchased online, we ate a fabulous pizza at The Hanover Tap, before shopping and getting ready for the evening’s tasting.

 

On the menu tonight was a chocolate and whisky collaboration, between the SMWS and Pacari Chocolate. Five drams matched with five chocolates = ten drams for me and ten chocolates for my girlfriend. Tonight was going to be a good night.

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If ever you get the opportunity to visit 28 Queen Street, I’d highly recommend it. It was more of an experience than a tasting. The venison pie supper halfway through the tasting was incredible, the chocolates and whiskies were matched so perfectly that each one brought out the main characteristics of the other. Not forgetting the whisky, all five drams were splendid. 71.43 was back, but this was the youngest and least expensive of the five. 39.140, a 27 year old Linkwood, kicked us off, with an intriguing Thai lemongrass note on the palate. 50.92, a 26 year old Bladnoch, was next; the red wine finish really adding flavours of raisins, to an earthy, almost mushroom like finish. After supper came 29.181, a 20 year old Laphroaig. This was the first Laphroaig that I’d tried from the SMWS and it didn’t disappoint. They regularly bottle 20+ year old Laphroaig for around the £120 mark, which represents real value for money, compared to some of their core range. This did what it said on the bottle, delivered salt, sweet, peat and smoke. The standout dram of the night, for me. The final dram of the evening was 36.127, a 12 year old Benrinnes. I’ve already expressed my love for Benrinnes, but this sweet, delicate dram didn’t stand a chance, coming after the Laphroaig. I’d like to try it again, because I’m sure its great, but I need to give my wallet a rest before I buy anything else.

 

And so ended what had been an extraordinary few days in Scotland. I brought home enough whisky to last me for months (or a very interesting few weeks….). Without doubt, I will be returning to Speyside soon. As long as I’m in sherry bomb mode, my heart will belong to this region.

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