Five months ago I decided that I wanted to fulfil a dream to explore Scotland, and its ancient and hallowed single malt industry. I wanted to visit these grand distilleries, taste their amber nectar, meet the people behind their craft and experience first hand the majesty of this ancient art.
I wanted to share this experience with the world; with the tried and true connoisseurs as well as those just starting their road into the wonderful world of whisky.
On my trip to Scotland I decided to make a point of heading up north to see the Old Pulteney distillery in Wick. The Old Pulteney 12 was once one of my favorite malts. The distillery which used to be the most northerly on the Scottish mainland is definitely worth a visit if you brave the journey up.
It’s still a small and very quaint little place where every element of their operation seems to be squeezed into the cracks and crevices.
I had an excellent tour guild named Susan. She was originally from the Orkney Islands but has settled down in Wick. She filled our group with many story’s of the old distillery.
They of course have a classic old Porteus mill and many other beautiful pieces of machinery, but what caught my eye most were their stills. While every distillery in Scotland has unique copper stills, theirs really were completely different. The top of the low wine still was truncated in order to fit within the small space. While not truncated, the spirit stills neck was not in a graceful curve down like most distilleries, instead it was twisted and turned like a broken arm in order to fit. Their spirit safe was not even in the same room as the stills! After seeing the huge halls that had been devoted to the stills in Speyside and Islay, it was fascinating to glimpse the exact opposite up here in the north.
Our tour finally ended by settling down to a marvelous tasting of their core range.
On my journey up the north east coast I couldn’t resist stopping for a visit at the home of one of my favorite Highland single malts, Dalmore Distillery. I’ve always loved every malt that I’ve tried from Dalmore. They are always marvelously deep in palate, but have a soft complexity unique to them.
The tour itself was very basic but interesting.
Like every Scottish distillery Dalmore has stills that are unique to them but I was struck by how different theirs were. Their spirit stills were particularly distinctive in that they had a second copper pipe scrounging the top of the still. It was explained to me that this is filled with cold water in order to force condensation lower in the still. This in effect allows for a lighter new make spirit without having to have an extremely tall still. The story goes that when the original design was drawn up over 100 years ago the roof of the still house was much lower. Of course now the space is cavernous but they have kept design.
I would like to also mention in passing, that I had the most marvelous luck in running into Richard Paterson, Dalmore’s master blender. I’ve heard a lot about him over the years, and it was a thrill to briefly meet him in person. He’s worked with Delmore for over five decades, and and many of there signature malts really are his baby’s. One of my favorite bottles, the King Alexander III, is entirely his creation.
Since my friend and I were given the opportunity to take two consecutive tours of the Macallan and the Glenrothes distilleries, I thought it would be interesting to discuss these excursions as a comparison. The reason we were given the opportunity to take these two VIP tours was because both Glenrothes and Macallan have the same parent company, the Edrington Group. Apart from this fact though they really are exact opposites.
Macallan is currently the third largest selling Scotch single malt in the world, and their operation shows this. In the last number of years they have created a new state of the art distillery, visitor center, cafe, museum and tasting bar. All of these elements are housed together under a massive, modern freestanding green roof surrounded by glass. The stills and mash tuns are divided into three distinct pods within the space. The whole building is like a sleek futuristic space ship. As a guest you are welcomed in and invited to admire their collection museum space with Macallan bottles going back to the 1860s. Your guide then takes you around each of the production pods. You’re then taken up to another museum space in the building devoted to the maturation of the malt. I was amazed to find out that Macallan contracts out to a small firm in Jerez. This firm will build the casks out of either American or European oak according to what their client wants. The new casks will be filled with sherry and they will be left for about six months. The sherry will be poured out and usually thrown away! These so called ‘sherry casks’ will be immediately sent to Macallan and filled with new make spirit. This is single malt production on a massive industrial scale. The final flourish of the tour was a small tasting within the central heart of the building. The entire experience is sleek, shiny and smelled a bit of money.
Glenrothes is about as different as you can get. The facility is generally not open to the public, so we were very fortunate that we were able to have a private tour organized. There were no sleek visitor centers here, just a beautiful old distillery that had been under license since 1879.
We were lead around by Arnold who was one of the kindest and most knowledgeable men I have met. He has worked with Glenrothes for years and took us to every corner of their operation. Their still house was magnificent, with tall elegant copper giants that create the soft and fruity new make spirit that becomes Glenrothes. After our tour Arnold poured us several full drams from their core range, talking all the while. We spoke at great length about the Scotch industry in general and his life story in that industry.
I personally would take my experience at Glenrothes over that of Macallan any day. I have always gravitated to the intimate and the real. I was however very glad to be able to see Macallan’s operation. It is probably the most modern distillery in the world, and an example of the scale that this industry can assume.
Adam and I decided yesterday to visit Aberlour distillery. It is just down the road where we are staying, in the charming town of Charlestown of Aberlour.
Unfortunately, much of the original distillery has been adapted and changed, partially because of modernization and a series of fires in the early 20th century. There are some pieces of the original distillery left though, including its old gate house, some of the central blocks and its number one warehouse.
The tour itself was quite an education, in no small part due to our tour guide, Emma. She is a native of Speyside, and is from a whisky making family. Our visit was enhanced further by its conclusion, where we were served a tasting from two bottles of Abelour’s core range. We were also served two single casks, one aged in an Oloroso cask, and the other a Bourbon Hogshead cask.
Aberlour’s basic core range has never really excited me. They are soft, sweet and easy to drink, but they lack complexity. They are also chill filtered, which in my book is sacrilege! That being said they do have some exceptional single casks, and a relatively new, non age statement bottle known as the A'Bunadh. It is basically a triple cask finish, bottled at cask strength and non chill filtered. I thought it was excellent and would recommend it to anyone.
My friend Adam and I were delighted yesterday to visit Glenfarclas Distillery, one of my favorite Speysides. Apart from creating magnificent complex malts they are also one of the last distilleries to still be family-owned, the Grant family having owned and operated the distillery since 1865.
We had the good fortune of meeting Callum Fraser the passionate distillery manager who along with his team, has worked tirelessly for the past number of years to ensure quality and excellence. He was kind enough to pour us a dram of a new 2008, first fill sherry, single cask. I of course enjoyed it so much, I had to purchase a bottle.
Adam and I decided to partake in the connoisseurs tour. This more in-depth tour around the distillery was followed by a tasting of a few of their core range, as well as some of their family favorite expressions. These are single cask yearly picks that they have going back to 1953. One of the most notable that we tried was their 1991 family cask pick, which was a beautifully balanced and complex single malt.
One key bit of information that merits attention, is that because they are a family owned business they have the ability to concentrate on excellent taste and consistency in their products. This is in contrast to their corporate owned neighbors, who have shareholder profits as their most important focus. There were a number of examples of this approach throughout their operation. One was the fact that they are one of the few distilleries left in Scotland to still use fire-heated stills, which have to be replaced every 20 years or so at vast expense. Most distilleries have gone over to using coil-heated stills, which are far cheaper and more efficient. The explanation was made to us that whenever new technology is introduced into their process, they have a three-month trial period. If it is found that the new technology negatively affects their flavor, they will immediately go back to the tried and true method that they have used.
We also had a look at their number one warehouse, where they keep some of their most exclusive malts. Another distinguishing feature of Glenfarclas was that they have stocks of casks going back to the 1950s, which is actually quite rare in Scottish distilleries today. The reason for this goes back to the forward thinking grandfather of the present owner, Mr. George Grant. Unlike other distillery owners at the time who sold all of their extra malt to blenders, he could see that having extra stock of much older malts could improve their product for years to come. Finally one other distinction to point out, and one that I feel they should capitalize upon more is that they almost exclusively age in Sherry casks instead of Bourbon casks. While this is more expensive, it creates a distinguished product that I believe is superior to many of their rivals.
On my journey to Speyside I decided to take a days rest from the road and stay in Oban. Of course being the impetus for my Caledonian adventure, I had to stop in and take a tour of the distillery. Oddly enough, Oban is the only distillery in Scotland that I have visited before; I came many years ago and took the tour with my father. I was really interested to see the place again because I honestly could not remember the distillery or the town.
The town itself is an odd collection of Victorian buildings all jammed together in a sheltered harbor. The town, which is quite a bit larger than I remember all grew up around the distillery, and then became a fishing and summer resort center. I was fascinated to see the amount of different people from around the UK and elsewhere who were taking their holiday here.
My feelings on the distillery echo my feelings of the single malt itself. I know the Oban lovers out there will hang me out to dry for saying this, but I feel It has to be said. Oban’s are not bad but they lack a sense of themselves in the way that other malts do. On the one side they lack the strong peat and brine of the island malts but on the other hand they don’t match up with the sweet citrus and oak of the highlands. They occupy an odd space in flavor and geography where they seem to not to be a part of anything larger. What really interests me is how the distillery has stayed alive for so long, being one of the oldest licensed distilleries in Scotland. I’d like to mention that Oban distillery is currently operated by Diageo, one of the largest alcohol producing conglomerates in the world. This is not a bad thing in itself, but I really do feel that with the money and influence that that Diageo possesses they should make Oban into something extraordinary and create an individuality with it, unfortunately as of yet they have not.
The tour of itself was adequate but nothing special. It was pretty much the standard tour; a relatively quick walk around with some explanations and then two drams at the end, a cask pour from a 9 year and then the classic 14.
Laphroaig has always held a special place in my heart. Their 10 year was one of the first single malts that I remember trying as a teenager and it’s wonderful seaweed, peat and salty flavors will always be associated in my mind with the magical aura of the Island. For this reason I felt it would be fitting as my last distillery visit on Islay.
The distillery itself is beautiful but that’s not a rarity here on Islay. I think what does distinguish it from many of its neighbors is an interesting mixture of on one side the rustic history of its 204 year history and on the other side the clean, shiny and international tone brought to it by its present corporate owners, Suntory Beam.
Another strong distinguishing feature of the operation is it’s appointment to the Prince of Wales. It is the only Scotch Single Malt to gain this favor. This is partially due to the princes fondness for Laphroaig but in larger part, it is due to the distilleries commitment to preserve traditional methods of single malt distillation and to give back to the Island. They malt 20% of there own barley on site with plans to increase that number, they use traditionally cut peat and they devote a percentage of their profits to local charities on the island.
Yesterday I made my way over to Bunnahabhain. I’ve always loved their whisky, and as I’ve found that my stay on Islay will not allow me to see every distillery on the island, I wanted to make sure that I was able to see them. I was amazed at how difficult it was to get to them. After crossing the island, you have a long drive down a bumpy, winding, single lane road. I didn’t mind, as it all adds to the wonderful experience; and it of course helped that it was a beautiful day, and all the while you’re seeing the wonderful peaks of Jura to your right.
Finally when I arrived, I found half of the distillery under construction! Apparently they’ve demolished two of the old warehouses to make way for a grand a new visitor center.
The tour itself was relatively short. To me the most interesting part of it was to see their large stills. The stills are the highest in Islay but unlike every other destillery I have seen so far, they are not shined. They mimic the rest of the distillery which has an odd sense of crumbling at the edges. In some ways it makes me want to return, to see what it looks like after its makeover.
I think the best part of my visit was heading down to the shop afterwards to grab a wee little dram. I ended up spending almost an hour talking with the gentleman who poured for me, his name was Scott and he is not an Islay native. Originally from Glasgow, he has lived on the island for almost 10 years. We spoke at great length about the Scottish economy, what it’s like to live on Islay and of course whisky. To me it really is the people that make this country so wonderful.
I was very hesitant to take the Vaults Secrets Tour at Bowmore this morning partially because of its cost and also because I’ve been coming down with a slight chest cold. I was however so glad that I went for it, because it ended up being the best tour I have gone on since my arrival. There were five of us exploring Bowmore, three other gentlemen, myself and our fantastic tour guide Kim. She was easy going, kind, funny and full of information! Our long day is slightly a haze after exploring almost every part of the distillery while enjoying countless drams of exclusive release Bowmores. Some not released yet, and others that have been almost bought out of the market. The final flourish was entering into the ‘number one vault’ that is not only the oldest part of the distillery, but the oldest whisky vault in Scotland. It was where the original distillery started, and is now used as a cellar for their most exclusive casks. After admiring the many Oloroso, Pedro Ximénez, Bourbon, Claret and Japanese oak casks, we were brought to a locked vault within the cellar where two casks sat. Both were first fill from 1999, one an Oloroso cask and the other a Bourbon Hogshead cask. We were invited to pour ourselves a brining full dram of each and decide on one to fill ourselves a 100ml bottle to take home.
I think this tour was so fabulous not just because of the drams we were able to try but because of the relaxed atmosphere provided; there was no time limit and no restriction on pictures. It was like we were exploring the distillery with an excellent guide instead of being pulled through with a tour. I would definitely recommend the experience to any single malt connoisseur!
My First tour on Islay was at Ardbeg distillery. I chose to do the full range tour and tasting which was very informative and allowed for a tasting of their core range as well as there most recent festival release ‘the Drum’.
One interesting piece of information that I received was that they are constructing a whole new set of stills and mash tubs to double there output by next year. This is especially amazing when one considers that they were bought barely 25 years ago by Moet Hennessy for the minuscule sum of 5 million pounds. This was a course after the Whisky Loch era when the scotch single malt industry lost nearly three fourths of its value due to over production and changing tastes. It’s amazing to understand how fast the market can change in such a short amount of time.
I arrived off the Kennacraig ferry in Port Ellen yesterday where I’ll be staying during my week here on Islay. The sun was shining and I was struck by the simple beauty of this storied isle.
My first impression the the town of Port Ellen was how charming it is. There are simple small streets of little stone houses, mostly whitewashed, surrounding a natural little harbor. As it is August, there are a good number of tourists, people who have come from all over to visit Islay. But in this community there are a clear set of residents with a clear culture and accent. I spoke to one gentleman yesterday who told me that his family had been living on Islay for over 200 years.
In Port Ellen there are two good places to eat and get a dram, the Islay Hotel and the Sea Salt Bistro.
I’m staying in the Cala Sith Guesthouse where you can rent just a small room or a little apartment. The young couple that own the place recently bought it and have refurbished it. They both are very kind and hospitable. Last night after I was having difficulty with my WiFi. My hosts took the time to come and change the router in my apartment and just as an apology poured me a dram of Bunnahabhain, very kind people.
In 2000 Mr. Hedley Wright, owner of Springbank distillery set out to rebuild and revive Glengyle. Wright is a descendant of the Mitchell brothers who owned and operated Springbank and founded the original Glengyle.
As I understood it, one of the reasons for this revival of Glengyle was to allow three independent distilleries to exist in Campbeltown allowing it to apply for status as an independent Whisky producing region.
The distillery itself is sleek and modern, just the opposite of its sister Distillery Springbank next door.
The Kilkerran single malt, which is the only whisky produced by Glengyle is actually fabulous. It’s very distinctive with light fruit tones, a light peat and a lot of complexity.
Interesting final fact, the reason they didn’t just call their single malt Glengyle was because the name had already been purchased by Glen Scotia, the third Campbeltown distillery and Springbanks old rival. The name
Kilkerran was adopted as it is the old Gaelic name for Campbeltown.
My first destillery tour on this trip was at Springbank in the heart of Campbeltown. The tour was fantastic; our guild Michael was jovial, relatable, excited and full of information. Springbank is the oldest privately owned destillery in Scotland that still does all of its production on site with traditional methods. It was so exciting to finally see the place after reading about it for so long.
The place really feels like it’s a snapshot of the whisky industry one hundred years ago. Definitely worth ten pounds.
Campbeltown was absolutely wonderful; an extraordinary little center on the
Kintyre peninsula. It once proclaimed it self as the “whisky capital of the world” with over 30 licensed distillery's and many more unlicensed. Unfortunately hard times hit at the beginning of the 20th Century with heavy taxes, lack of rail road access and then the American prohibition. Today only three distilleries operate, Glengyle, Springbank and Glen Scotia. That being said there is talk here of perhaps a couple small craft distillery’s taking shape soon.