The hard disk crash I wrote about in log entry #139 proved to be pretty serious - a malignent virus had infected my computer and the hard drive was declared a 'total loss'. Consequently, it has taken me a few months to prepare this report about our recent trip to Scotland. But with the reconstruction of Malt Madness well underway I can start trying to make sense of the pile of garbled notes I made during our pilgrimage. I've added a bunch of pictures to the report, shot by various maniacs. Check out Serge's website for more pictures of the trip.
Note: Davin and Krishna have written E-pistles of our trip as well. (See the official matrix for the big picture.)
Scotia Malt Mania 2003 - Day 1 (Friday, May 30)
After last night's session I awoke with an empty stomach and a heart filled with anticipation.
Around 10:00 AM I arrived at Schiphol Airport - seriously overpacked and virtually shaking with excitement. This would be my very first visit to Scotland. I had hopped over to the UK by ferry several times before, but somehow I always ended up in the London and Canterbury area. On a hitchhiking trip in August 1985 I made it as far north as Newcastle but shitty weather made me flee back to the south. Had I known about the wonderful world of single malt whiskies at the time, I would probably have continued my track north in good spirits.
However, that was not the case - in those days of ignorance I only knew about Glenfiddich.
Sure, I liked it - but not nearly enough to endure rain and insects for 100 more miles.
This time, things are very different, though...
I still don't care too much for Glenfiddich, but since the 1980's I've discovered there are many more reasons to visit Scotland. Thus, I found myself en route to Scotland - sadder, wiser and almost twice as old as in 1985. And this time I didn't have to make the journey by boat amidst hurling, sea sick tourists; these days you can get from Amsterdam to Glasgow and back for less than 100 Euro's by EasyJet. That basically meant there were no more excuses to put off my pilgrimage to Schotland any longer.
I had some time to kill at Schiphol Airport so (obviously) I dropped by the tax free liquor store. The 'tax free' part is actually bogus; since a few years you actually DO pay taxes on all goods when you travel inside the EU, making the bottles in the disappointing collection considerably more expensive than in your average Dutch liquor store. A 70cl bottle of the new batch of Laphroaig 10yo Cask Strength (green tube with red stripe) was priced at 57.50 Euro's. Last time I checked, Ton Overmars in Amsterdam offers a full litre at 47.50 Euro's - you do the math... So, value-conscious malt maniacs don't have to bother dropping by this shop. That's especially true 'en route' to Scotland. Only worth a visit if you desperately need to unload some euro's.
The airplane took off around noon and after a relatively painless flight my feet touched Scottish soil for the very first time about an hour later. Being an all-around good guy like myself is a major advantage at airports - I must project an aura of goodwill or something because I never ever get checked. Even with 20 kilo's of excess baggage and two dozen 125ml samples of Scotch clearly popping up on the X-Ray machines I arrived in Glasgow without any troubles. After a swift busride along the docks I arrived at Glagow's beautiful Central Station around 14:00 and found Davin and Krishna waiting for me in the Coopers bar. That was the first highlight of the trip right there and then - meeting Davin (from 'Canadia' - his own words) again and Krishna (our Indian maniac) for the very first time. Within 10 more minutes Serge from France arrived as well, completing the team of four malt maniacs that would drink their way north to meet up with maniac #5 (Craig from Australia) near Inverness later on.
The next highlight came just a few minutes
later when Krishna unpacked his big bag. He
pulled out a huge pile of truly great gifts: the
first batch of official Malt Madness T-shirts.
They were absolutely wonderful - supreme
quality thick cotton, the MM 'logo' on the
front and Davin's slogan on the back;
'www.maltmadness.com - Where malt
whisky is explored, explained, exposed,
exalted - maniacally.'
They are truly great and you'll find them in
many pictures of our expedition. Krishna had
brought at least half a dozen shirts for each
maniac - so we wouldn't have to worry about
getting whisky stains on them during our trip ;-)
The funniest thing about the shirts was their size.
When we heard the shirts were being manufactured in India we were afraid that they might be too small for us. That makes sense, doesn't it? A shirt that would fit the medium-sized everyman from India might stretch a little too snugly around our western waists. At least - that's what we thought... Almost every maniac had ordered his shirts in sizes XXL and XXXL, but as it turned out the manufacturer in India had already taken the size issue into account. Maybe he figured: the medium-sized everyman from the west might have a somewhat plumper build that that of the average Indian - let's make them a bit bigger. As a result, the XXXL shirts could also be used as our very own Malt Madness nightgowns. Fortunately, Krishna had forseen this and brought some sizes S, M and L as well. XLNT initaitive, Krishna!
After a Scottish ale and a stroll through the centre of Glasgow the four of us got in Serge's rental car and headed to our next stop: Edinburgh . We could have visited the Glengoyne distillery near Glasgow but the team agreed a distillery that bottles such mediocre malts just wasn't worth the effort. As we headed east, the drizzle cleared and by the time we reached the famous Royal Mile (supposedly THE street to visit if you're a whisky lover) the weather had turned positively cheerful. Unfortunately, the staff at our first stop (Royal Mile Whiskies) was notably less cheerful. Granted, we arrived at 17:45 (just fifteen minutes before closing time), but I have to say I expected a warmer welcome for four malt maniacs with piles of cash burning in their pockets. I think Davin summed up the atmosphere pretty well; 'We want to see your money or your backs'. Since neither the prices nor the selection of malts were quite what I'd expected, I only bought a bottle of 'Isle of Arran' blonde beer and some magazines. None of the other maniacs seemed particularly inspired to spend a lot of cash there either, so around 18:00 we found ourselves back on the street. Fortunately, the Oddbins just a few yards down the road was still open - and not in any hurry to close down. What's more, they offered an impressive collection and their prices seemed reasonable enough. My first purchase of the trip was an Aberlour A'bunadh Batch #9 (60%, OB) for around 35 GBP, which makes it cheaper than in Holland. I haven't seen it in Holland yet and I was anxious to try it against batch #6, #7 and #8 after I returned home. I also picked up a bunch of miniatures for future investigation. After perusing the stock and prices the Edinburgh Oddbins got an official 'thumbs up' from the malt maniacs.
Around 'sevenish' we decided it was time
to check into our hotel, the Hilton Grosvenor.
Like the city itself, the hotel seemed like it
had been sandblasted with atmosphere. If it
hadn't been for the electric lights and the
escalator you could easily imagine you were
back in Victorian days - like a character in
one of the Arthur Conan Doyle mysteries.
Perfect conditions for a a dram and a pipe, eh?
Unfortunately, the Hilton bar staff behaved
like mystery characters as well - we dropped
in for a dram but the staff managed to stay
out of sight until we decided we'd better try
our luck in a pub. So, we strolled into town,
thoroughly enjoying the company, the local
architecture and the record-breaking weather.
The picture at the right shows (from left to
right) yours truly, Indian maniac Krishna,
Canadian maniac Davin and French maniac Serge.
(That's Edinburgh castle in the background.)
After soaking up some of the local atmosphere in a pub we went on a search for food. In the international spirit of things we ended up in a pizzeria instead of a traditional Scottish restaurant. None of us felt ready for a confrontation with the haggis just yet... In the pizzeria we enjoyed our very first 'official' dram of the tour - Serge's special vatting of a bunch of Islay malts. I remember it was pretty darned good (I'd score it somewhere in the upper 80's), but I neglected to make notes because we didn't have proper nosing glasses and our vivid discussions absorbed most of my attention anyway. For me, one of the greatest things about an international gathering of open-minded spirits such as this trip is the free flow of fresh opinions and perspectives. We discussed anything from international politics to the lamented lost distilleries of Scotland.
With our brains and bellies bulging from everything we ingested during the meal we returned to Krishna's hotel room for a drop of an 'exot' he brought from India for the occasion: the McDowells NAS Single Malt Whisky (42.8%, OB) - 'oak matured'. It was something different, that's for sure. The combination of a bad nose day and the lack of proper nosing glasses didn't allow me to give this one a solid score, but I ended up with a preliminary rating of 'F' . That corresponds with a rating somewhere in the upper fifties. I'd say it's no contender for a good Scotch single malt but bang-for-your-buck wise it blows pretty much any blend out of the water. Davin, Krishna and Serge all gave it scores in the 60's, so I think they would agree with me.
We may have done some more dramming, but I don't have any notes on that and my memory fails me.
I DO remember sleeping the sleep of the innocent and waking up wholly refreshed for...
Scotia Malt Mania 2003 - Day 2 (Saturday, May 31)
We reconvened at breakfast to plan our day.
Our next stop would be Pitlochry, but we had
plenty of time to get there. The weather was
glorious, so we decided to take another stroll
down the Edinburgh Royal Mile to try and find
some proper nosing equipment. We wanted to
give Royal Mile Whiskies another chance, but
sadly enough the shop was still closed around
10:00 AM, so we left with nothing more than
the picture at the right. Bummer...
Fortunately, RMW isn't the only whisky store
on the Royal Mile. Far from it, actually. Just a few
yards downstream you can find the Oddbins we
visited the day before and at least a dozen other
tourist shops offer some single malts as well.
None of the shops had a very exciting single malts collection, but that didn't bother us much.
If you're not allergic to an extremely touristic environment it's good clean fun to browse through all the Scottish paraphernalia on offer. On the Royal Mile you can find bagpipes, kilts, tartan cloth, claymores, rugby shirts, flags, puppets, whisky fudge, cans of peat - the list is endless.
But let's not forget why we were here:
single malt whisky! Obviously, we wouldn't
want to miss the opportunity to drop by
what's probably the best whisky shop in
Edinburgh: Cadenhead's. It's located
near the far end of the Royal Mile,
but well worth the walk.
For me personally, it was the first store
that really excited me. Their collection
was excellent and the atmosphere was
very friendly. Sadly enough we don't have
a Cadenhead's store in Holland yet, but
Mark Davidson told me that the rumours
about a shop due to open in Amsterdam
were true. Great! That meant I wouldn't
have to carry the dozens of intruiging
bottles that were taunting me from
Well, except for one very special bottling; the Ardbeg 1991/2002 (62.2%, Cadenhead's Bond Reserve, Bourbon Hogshead, 306 bottles). Cask strength bottlings of Ardbeg are pretty rare and I've never tried one. Serge (a.k.a. 'The Hunter') picked up a very rare bottling (a Springbank 12yo 100 Proof, 57%, OB) and Krishna secured a Flora & Fauna bottling of Benrinnes 15yo. Most importantly, we all got ourselves some proper glassware for the upcoming sampling sessions. It was well over an hour later when we emerged from the Cadenhead's store - time for a quick Scottish ale in the pub. No whisky? No, it was still a bit early for most of us and quite frankly it was too darned hot as well. Temperatures around 30 degrees Celsius are quite unusual for Scotland, but we weren't complaining - especially after we had left Edinburgh and started to make our way north into Perthshire where it was slightly cooler. We had a very enjoyable journey and arrived in the beautiful town of Pitlochry around 16:00 PM - just in time to catch the last tour at the Blair Athol Distillery nearby.
Most maniacs had visited distilleries before,
but for me this was the very first time I set
foot in one of these temples of the water of
life. And I wasn't the least bit disappointed.
Blair Athol may not be one of the top names
in maltland, but the distillery itself is beautiful.
Blair Athol is a picture of picturesqueness with
ivy and black fungus ('Torula Compniacencis')
covering the buildings and a babbling brook
running across the distillery grounds.
A veritable feast for the eyes.
What's more, I thought the standard tour was
pretty good. Maybe the 'generic' part about
whisky production wasn't too exciting for
visitors who've already heard similar stories
at other distilleries, but our guide Sandy
(the guy in the red sweater) took his time
answering all our questions. And believe me
when I say those questions went quite a bit
further than what he was used to...
Hey - they don't call us maniacs for nothing!
It was particularly interesting to hear an eyewitness account of the devastating floods that swept over Speyside last November. Many distilleries, including Blair Athol, are located near rivers and streams. As a result, some stillhouses and warehouses in Speyside were up to their ankles in flood water. I shudder to think what the effects of such a bath are on the casks at the bottom of the warehouse. An imposing wall running across the distillery grounds looked just as ancient as the other buildings, but turned out to be less than a year old. It was erected to divert future floods. Anyway - I could fill this entire page with the things I learned about whisky production in general and Blair Athol in particular, but this report is getting long enough as it is.
After a dram of the Flora & Fauna Blair Athol 12yo we said
our goodbyes to our friendly guide Sandy and drove back to
Pitlochry for some serious shopping. Serge recommended
'Robertson's' - a grocery store on the main road with a
very good whisky collection and very friendly owners who
had no problems staying open for a while longer just to
accomodate us. Serge was right, this is a great place.
I think all of us picked something up there - I went for a
very odd 'bastard malt', Stronachie 12yo (43%, OB*).
There actually used to be a real Stronachie distillery, but
this is a 'replica'. (Watch this log for a tasting report in the
near future.) We also took the opportunity to stock up on
some miniatures; there were plenty of rare bottlings and
Allan and Isla didn't mind giving discounts to big spenders.
The prices at Robertson's are quite reasonable to begin with,
which explains our big grins in the picture at the right. Scotland is no Walhalla if you're looking for the best prices on whisky, but there are a few places with collections to make the trip worth the effort and this is one of them. It's very easy to find as well; in the centre of Pitlochry directly on the main road that runs along the river Tay.
With full bags we left the store to check into our hotel - or so we thought.
As it turned out, 'our' hotel was overbooked and without any pleasantries
we were directed to 'an alternative of comparable quality'; 'The Poplars '
family hotel on Lower Oakfield. Our shelter for the night turned out to be
a strange victorian building that combined features of 'Falty Towers', the
hotel from 'Psycho' and the house in 'Braindead'. The owners were quite
an odd couple as well, so when darkness fell on Pitlochry we were in no
hurry to turn in for the night. Instead, we had ourselves a quiet little
tasting session in my hotel room. We started of with another dram of
Serge's special vatting of eight Islay malts - the same we tried last night.
I still wasn't in good nosing form, so all I could get from the nose in the
Cadenhead's glass was peat. Somehow it felt old and 'austere'. The palate
was very good, but maybe a tad on the bitter side for me. I gave it 86 points.
We proceeded with an Ardbeg 8yo 1992/2000 (43%, Signatory Vintage) I had brought over from Holland. I like this one because it's an affordable straight shooter - one of the very few pre-teen malts that can go head to head with the big boys. The nose had salt, smoke and peat - but beer and sweat as well. The taste was very dry, with lots of salt and pepper. Iodine as well of course. I gave it 83 points and so did Davin. Krishna went for 82 points while Serge liked it the most with his score of 85 points. Next up was a donation by Serge, the Talisker 8yo 1988/1996 (Milroy, 45%). The nose was not at all what you'd expect from a Talikser: Oily aroma's and the dusty, grainy aroma I always assoiciate with the attick of a grain warehouse. Fruits later on; peach and water melon mostly. Then finally, I found the trademark peppery pinch. The taste was much more in the traditional Talisker vein; dry and peppery with a big, long burn. Dry finish. I may have underscored it a bit when I went for 82 points , because Krishna gave this Milroy's Talisker 86 points while Davin and Serge both went with 88 points.
We finished the evening with a 'Japanese' sample from Serge; the Nikka White NAS (43%, OB).
This is a vatted malt whisky from Japan that may or may not contain some Scotch single malts as well. This exot surprised us all by showing off quite a lot of peat in the nose. Wow. Then it became sweeter with intruiging hints of fish, spices and herbs. It grows even sweeter with time, but remains interesting for a long time. This one is certainly smoother and sweeter than the Talisker we just had, but I felt it also showed some pepper. It became slightly bitter and herbal towards the finish. My score was 80 points and none of the other maniacs deviated more than 2 points from that. And on that harmonious note I kicked the other maniacs out of my room to get myself some sleep. The whisky made me forget all about the potential dangers of psychopatic axe-wielding hotel owners...
By now you may start to wonder why you've seen so few tasting notes in this report.
Well, first of all I neglected to take notes on all our drams during the first two days of our pilgrimage. More importantly, we were saving most of our samples until Craig would join us on Day 4 for the Speyside part of our tour. Rest assured there will be plenty of tasting notes coming up.
Scotia Malt Mania 2003 - Day 3 (Sunday, June 1)
When we woke up, we were greeted by the most glorious weather imaginable.
After an English breakfast with eggs and black pudding (during which I tried to explain to Davin that in Europe it's not 'bon ton' to chat up to the waitresses ;-) we felt ready for the trip to our next target: the Edradour distillery. Some of you may be surprised that we included Edradour in our travel plans, because the bottlings we tried so far are among the bottom dwellers on the matrix. But these scores apply to the bottlings that were released by the previous owners; Pernod Ricard. Scotland's smallest distillery was purchased last year by Andrew Symington. Given his track record with Signatory Vintage, he could be taking Edradour in an entirely new direction - and we wanted to witness it first hand. First proof of Andrew's new approach was the hiring of whisky legend Iain Henderson.
The hostess of the hotel (who turned out not to be a psychopatic axe-wielding maniac after all) advised us to travel to Edradour by foot and that seemed like a good idea. Actually, it turned out to be an excellent idea, because the brisk three mile walk across the green hills of the Midlands was a wonderful experience. But as much as we enjoyed the weather and the countryside, we were glad to see the Edradour Distillery appear on the horizon by noon. None of the pubs on the way had been serving drinks yet...
Just a few minutes after we arrived at the quiet little distillery, we spotted a fellow in overalls scurrying across the grounds. What a surprise - it was the 'junior employee' of the distillery himself: Iain Henderson. Amazing; just a few days after being 'retired' at Laphroaig he started a new career at Edradour (as one of only 3 employees) and
here he was busy at work - on a Sunday, no less! What's more, he was happy to take a lengthy break to talk with a bunch of deranged malt groupies like us about all kinds of liquid matters. We've met many friendly people during
our trip, but Iain made it to the top of our christmas list. When it was time for Iain to get back to work and we pulled out our camera's, he insisted on taking off his overalls, revealing... a Laphroaig polo shirt.
How's that for loyalty, eh?
Next, we were taken for a tour by Donald, on of the other three employees. (We didn't get to meet employee #3, or Andrew Symington himself for that matter.) At the start of the tour we were served some version of the Edradour
10yo, but it wasn't quite clear what version we tried. I'm not sure if it was the local atmosphere or the tumblers the
whisky was served in, but this seemed much better than the latest Pernod Ricard bottlings I've tried. In fact, it seemed much more similar to the older, plain, tall bottle that was on the market in the 1990's. I've never been a big
fan of that bottling, but a score of 70 points is nothing to be too embarrassed about.
I think I would even go as far as 74 points for this dram - below average, but just barely.
Anyway, after a movie and a drink we were whisked along for a closer look at the distillery. It looks much more like
a 'working distillery' than Blair Athol - actually, it looks more like a big farm. We stumbled around on the picturesque
attic and had a look at one of the six remaining (traditional) 'worm coolers' in operation today. Edradour uses optic
barley for their malts and distills twice - the first distillation takes place at 64 degrees, the second at 80 degrees. The available storage space at the distillery is limited, so these days Edradour uses warehouses at Dalmuir for
maturation of the casks. Yep, that's the kind of things we asked about...
They don't call us 'maniacs' for nothing, you know!
Around 14:00 PM it was time for us to leave - we had to be in Inverness by nightfall and we still had a brisk walk back to Pitlochry ahead of us. So we went on our own merry way, only stopping to try some wild rhubarb when our stomachs started to rumble. That wasn't a great success, so we paused for a quick lunch in a pub along the way. I wasn't feeling particularly adventurous, so I passed up the opportunity to taste my first proper haggis. Instead, I went for smoked, poached and grilled salmon - which was among the best pub food I've had in the UK. Reunited with our motorised mode of transportation we resumed our tasting trek North. North, always North... Describing the landscape of the Grampian Mountains as 'stunning' would be an understatement. At several points along the way, we just had to stop and smell the proverbial roses - in this case heather and sheep dung...
Along the way we spotted several abandoned cottages, surrounded by rolling hills.
Although they lacked the pleasantries of modern life like electricity and a proper sewage system, the cottages seemed to offer basic shelter and there was plenty of running water nearby. I could easily imagine myself living a secluded existence there, at least until I shared my dream with the other maniacs. They pointed out that the atmosphere might not be quite as hospitable in winter. Furthermore, without internet access I'd have to travel many miles to the nearest internet cafe if I wanted to keep Malt Madness updated.
Hmm... good point. Well, one can always dream...
Because of our dilly-dallying around Pitlochry we
had hardly any time to hang around our next stop
along the way; the Royal Lochnagar Distillery.
Apparently, the distillery is closed on Sundays,
but as you can imagine such trivialities are not
enough to deter a bunch of malt maniacs like
ourselves. We prowled the grounds and made
sure to closely inspect and analyse everything
in sight. As the picture at the right shows, we
(or in this case Davin) don't mind getting our
hands dirty in the course of an investigation.
After gathering all the information we could
we continued on our merry way North.
That merry way lead us along the river Avon into the Speyside region.
Our final stop before Inverness was The Whisky Castle & Highland Market in Tomintoul, Ballindalloch, Banffshire. Serge insisted this little store was worth a little detour and as it turned out he was right. It's a bit off the beaten track, but the interesting collection and friendly proprietors will guarantee your entertainment.
Mike & Cathy Drury took over the store just
a few weeks ago and they (especially Mike)
were virtually bursting with enthusiasm. The
shelves carried plenty of interesting bottles
and while we were browsing his stock Mike
just didn't stop talking for a single second.
And why should he - before he became a
malt monger he's led quite an interesting
life and he has many tall stories to tell.
We were offered a dram from the 'local'
distillery; the Tomintoul 16yo (40%, OB).
It's a brand new bottling I haven't seen
in Holland yet. I couldn't pick up a great
deal from the small plastic cups, but my
first impression was convincing enough
to buy myself a big bottle. Anyway, if
you want to know more about the store,
just browse to www.whiskycastle.com
or call (UK) 01807 - 580 213.
We stuffed at least a dozen more bottles in the trunk of our trusted Ford Mondeo before we took off on the final stretch of our trip to Inverness. We checked into the Glen Mhor hotel, located on the banks of the river Ness. There's no apparant relation with the lost distillery of the same name, but as we would dicover later the run down terrace is great for midnight dramming. After a quick shower we assembled again for a late dinner. Krishna was eager to introduce us to Indian quisine, so we went to Tandoori restaurant 'Shapla' on Castle Road, just a few hundred meters downstream. Krishna offered to order most of the dishes and it seemed all of us were very satisfied with the food we were served, except for Krishna himself. After the arrival of each course, he adresses the poor waiter in a stern voice, explaining how to prepare the dish 'properly'. Properly prepared or not, even the mildly spiced Korma dishes turned out to be a bit hot and heavy for the atlantic palates at the table. Considering we had another sampling session ahead of us it might have been more prudent to choose a restaurant with a less expressive kitchen, but hey - we were on holidays!
It's a good thing the summer evenings in Scotland last as long as they do, because it was well past 11:00 PM when we finally found ourselves back on the small terrace of the Glen Mhor Hotel for a midnight sampling session. Serge performed the opening ceremony by pouring us a very special dram indeed. It came from two casks of grain whisky distilled at the Moffat distillery in 1969. The distillery at Moffat (near Airdrie) was founded in 1965 and produced the 'Garnheath' grain whisky, as well as the 'Glen Flagler' and 'Killyloch' single malts - all in different sets of stills. The casks matured at Moffat for more than fifteen years before they were shipped to France. There, they were stored in the cellars of the Humbrecht wine estate for several more years before being bottled at (roughly) 47% in 1990. (You can find more background information about this very special bottling in Krishna's E-pistle about this tasting session.)
So, how did the Garnheath 21yo 1969/1990 (47%, The Rarity Hunters, 75cl) perform?
Nose: Grainy, but infinitely more complex than any grain whisky I've ever tried. Very subtle.
Delicate flowery and grassy elements. Vanilla? Very light. Smoother than younger grain whiskies.
Taste: Surprisingly powerful. Sweet and a little bit woody in the start and centre. Then more sherry.
Vanilla (which Serge told us comes from the 'vanillin' in the wood). Dry, slightly bitter finish.
Score: 85 points. Just perfect for a hot summer night on the banks of the Ness.
All other maniacs scored it in the lower to middle 80's as well.
We proceeded with the Glen Garioch 12yo (43%, OB, Bottled for the National Trust for Scotland), a sample provided by Davin. Other Glen Gariochs I tried were very fruity and this was no exception.
Nose: Lots of fruit and a hint of spirit or grain. Sour pears. Chloride. Not very complex.
Taste: A weak start grows stronger towards the end. Sweetish. Flat and fruity. Youngish.
Score: 75 points . I don't have any strong feelings about this malt - so, an 'average' score.
The scores from the other maniacs ranged between 75 and 80 points.
Serge provided the next sample; the Tomatin 21yo (43%, Culinara).
Nose: Very complex. Sweet. Some sherry. Grapefruit. Citrus. Cattle feed. Slightly oily.
Taste: Malty, sweetish start, evolving into a coffee bitterness. Not very powerful.
Score: 84 points. You wouldn't tell from my brief notes, but this one is very, very nice.
It's just that we were discussing loads of stuff and I often forgot to make notes.
Once again the maniacs were in agreement with scores between 81 and 85 points.
Our next candidate was the Ardmore 11yo 1992/2003 (43%, Signatory Vintage).
Nose: Spices and some chloride. Hint of peat, growing stronger with time. Well balanced.
Taste: Malty. Liquorice and a pinch of salt. Slightly bitter. Dry finish. Not very pronounced.
Score: 80 points. It seems fairly MOTR to me, but it's a very elegant whisky. Nothing wrong.
Maybe I underscored it - all other maniacs scored it at least a few points higher than me.
The last dram of this midnight session was once again re-imported to Scotland by Serge.
I had the pleasure of sampling the Rosebank 20yo 1979/1999 (60.3%, UDRM) before. In december 2002 it performed quite well with a score of 86 points; on the banks of the river Ness it did even better.
Nose: Grain attick. Lemon drops. Pineapple. Vanilla. Salt. Menthol & some smoke.
Hint of peat and pepper? Very expressive - the nose warrants a score in the 90's.
Taste: Heavy. Sweet with a peppery prickle. Lemony. Tangerines. Orange skin.
Score: 87 points . Yep, I think it deserves an extra point for the great nose.
The other maniacs liked it even better; 88 for Serge, 90 for Davin and 92 for Krishna.
It was around 2:00 AM when we finished our last dram.
Maybe you can't tell from my unembellished tasting notes,
but this was one of the major highlights of our tour so far.
A great day (during which we got to meet a living legend)
was crowned by a great night with spectacular weather.
I think it's safe to say the overall winner of tonight was
the Rare Malts Rosebank, but if I had to pick one single
dram that made the strongest impression it would have
to be the Garnheath. The bottle had a wonderful story
behind it and it was by far the best grain whisky I ever
had the pleasure of sampling. In fact, it was the ONLY
grain whisky I've ever truly enjoyed.
And that concludes my report on another day of dramming in Scotland - another wonderful experience...
Scotia Malt Mania 2003 - Day 4 (Monday, June 2)
When I entered the breakfast room of the Glen Mhor hotel the following morning I was greeted by light-hearted banter from the fellow maniacs and a heavy, smoky stench. As it turned out, gastronomical daredevil Krishna had
ordered 'kippers' for breakfast. Kippers are salted and heavily smoked herrings, served in a puddle of grease,
apparantly. How quaint. You may be able to re-create (or at least mimic) the circumstances if you take an old cigar, dip it in some old frying fat, light it and then have a long hard look at the picture below...
Repeat the experiment around breakfast time if neccessary.
I usually enjoy lightly smoked fish like salmon and eel,
but the very smell of the kippers at breakfast time was
enough to make my stomach turn. Those of you who are
familiar with my fellow Dutchmen's filthy habit of eating
their herrings raw might be surprised by such qualms, but
I always like to give my stomach the opportunity to wake
up slowly before submitting it to heavy dishes like this.
Be that as it may, Krishna was enjoying his brains out.
Good for him, but I decided to refrain from torturing
my stomach and stuck to toast and marmelade...
Our malt mania reached a new crescendo just an hour later when we met up with yet another certified malt maniac; Craig Daniels from Australia. Craig (accompanied by his lovely wife Rosemary) had been investigating the Islay and Campbeltown area's for the past few weeks before taking up residence in a cottage in Carrbridge. Because Craig and Rosemary had to literarily fly to the other end of the world they made the most of their trip and visted a huge number of distilleries; Allt a'bhaine, Ardbeg, Ardmore, Auchroisk, Balmenach, Ben Nevis, Benriach, Benrinnes, Braeval, Bruichladdich, Bunnahabhain, Cardhu, Cragganmore, Craigellachie, Dailuaine, Dalwhinnie, Edradour (yes!), Fettercairn, Glenallachie, Glencadam, Glendronach, Glendullan, Glenfiddich, Glen Garioch, Glenglassaugh, Glengoyne, Glen Grant, Glen Keith, The Glenlivet, Glenlochy, Glen Moray, Knockando, Lagavulin, Linkwood, Lochnagar, Lochside, Longmorn, Macallan, Mortlach, Oban, Springbank, Strathmill, Strathisla, Tamdhu and Tormore. That's a whopping 45 distilleries! Together with the distilleries we would visit together (Benromach, Glenrothes, Glenfarclas and Aberlour) the counter stands at 49. Than means Craig and Rosemary managed to cross well over half of all malt whisky distilleries in Scotland off their list in a single big tour. Talk about malt mania!
Anyway, our meeting up at the Benromach Distillery in Forres was yet another highlight of the trip. I had the pleasure of meeting Craig before (five years ago in Amsterdam), but Davin, Krishna and Serge greeted the malt oracle from Australia for the first time in real life. After expressing our joy with a big backslapping contest, we were welcomed by Derek Hancock, Export Marketing manager of Gordon & MacPhail. Had I known about the VIP treatment we would receive at Benromach (and later on), I would have dressed better...
The Benromach distillery (located in Forres, Moray) was founded in 1898 and fell silent in 1983.
Fortunately, it was rebuilt in 1989 and purchased by independent bottler Gordon and MacPhail in 1993. (G&M itself was founded in 1895, making it the only independant bottler to own a 'younger' distillery.) Benromach remained silent for a few more years until it was officially re-opened in 1998 by prince Charles. Benromach may be Scotland's second smallest distillery (right after Edradour) with a production of just 600 litres a day, but condidering only two people are working in the actual distillery (manager Keith and a brewer) it could very well be the distillery with the smallest workforce in Scotland. As small as Benromach may be, G&M has big plans for the future; brand new floor maltings were opened just a few weeks ago and G&M plans to release a 5-6yo NAS bottling soon.
Derek (at the far left in the picture above) took us for an excellent tour of the distillery, following the entire production process step by step. We started at the 'de-stoning machine' that is used to clean the freshly harvested barley from stones and gravel. The Benromach recipe contains Optic and Golden Promise barley with a phenol level of 8PPM. After adding a mixture of brewer's yeast and distiller's yeast, the wort stays in the washbacks for 4 days at 20 degrees Celcius. Next, the 'wash' (+/- 7% alcohol) is distilled in one of Benromach's pair of stills, the wash still. The 'low wines' are then distilled again in the other still; the spirit still. The freshly ditilled spirit runs through the spirit safe (rescued from the dismantled Millburn distillery) into the Oregon pine spirit receiver. Finally, the spirit is filled into Babadillo sherry casks that are imported (whole) from Spain.
The tour ended in one of the warehouses near the distillery where we had our picture taken with the first cask of 'new' Benromach, signed by prince Charles - which is even better than having your picture taken with prince Charles
himself, if you ask me... Next, we were off to the visitor centre to sample the product.
Derek poured us our first dram of the day; the Benromach 18yo (40%, G&M OB, Bottled +/- 2002).
Nose: Polished. Malt & citrus. Tangerine. Sherry. Spicy. Pleasant and accessible.
Taste: Malty and slightly bitter. A fine malt, but it could do wth some more personality.
Score: 80 points . Our drams were served in tumblers, so my impressions were a bit vague.
The other maniacs went for scores between 77 and 80 points as well. Definitely above average.
The Benromach 1973/2001 (40%, G&M OB) was circa 28 years old, although the label didn't explicitly say so.
Nose: Subtle. Light. Creamy. Some oil. Pine. Hint of peat. A bit 'Lowlandish'.
Taste: Sweet and malty, but a tad thin. Over time a big burn develops.
Smooth, but after a while it feels very powerful indeed. Dry and bitter finish.
Score: 82 points . All other maniacs agreed it was better than the 18yo; Davin and Serge went for 82 points as well and Krishna even pulled 88 points from his hat. I wouldn't go that far - it's a tad too soft-spoken for me.
And the fun was far from over.
We hopped into our cars and followed Derek to
the Gordon & MacPhail Headquarters in Elgin,
just a few miles to the East. The maniacs were
allowed to wander about G&M's huge warehouse
while Derek answered all our questions. We were
utterly impressed by the circa 5,000 casks that
surrounded us, but as it turns out G&M stashed
another 5,000 casks at warehouses elsewhere.
Derek told us that G&M mostly uses their own
casks that are shipped to the distillery of choice
to be filled on location.
Davin asked Derek a question I've been dying
to ask myself: Why does G&M always bottle its
single malts at 40%? Apparently, the reasons
for this are purely economical. Apart from the
heavier taxation on 'stronger' whiskies, the G&M
management used to feel their single malts were
easier to sell at 40%. That's right; 'used to feel'.
All maniacs were delighted to hear that G&M has
a new philosophy on the 'ideal' bottling strength.
Derek explained that G&M now agrees with what
seems to be the general consensus amongst the
maniacs as well: different malt whiskies perform
very differently at different alcohol percentages.
We greeted Derek's announcement that G&M will
start to bottle its whiskies at either 40, 43 or 46
percent this year with loud cheers and applause.
Good initiative! Because I personally enjoy most
of my malts a little more at higher strengths I'm
quite sure some of these new G&M bottlings will
find their way onto my shopping list.
After the grand tour of the warehouse Derek showed us around the G&M headquarters and poured us a very generous dram of the Brora 1972/1993 (40%, Connoisseur's Choice) in his office. As a 'grand finale' we got to chew the fat with Ian Urquhart, member of the family that owns G&M. What a wonderful conclusion of a wonderful tour. In fact, I think this was the very best tour we had so far - thanks to Craig's excellent arrangements and Derek's willingness to put up with a bunch of maniacs like us for hours on end. And if it wasn't for the fact that we had another appointment in the afternoon, we probably would have stalked Derek for another few hours. But we couldn't. So we didn't. Derek dropped us off at the Gordon & MacPhail store in town and we said our goodbyes. Thanks a lot for a highly entertaining and informative experience, Derek!
We did some speedshopping at the store before we hopped back into our cars to race to our next appointment. (Don't worry; the drivers spat out the whisky they had been tasting - well, most of it anyway ;-) We managed to lose eachother in traffic but thanks to the miracles of modern technology (in this case cellular telephones) we met at 13:59 on the driveway of Rothes House . We were warmly welcomed by Ronnie Cox, Brand Development Director, The Glenrothes, (part of Cutty Sark International), Marion Ferguson (a very knowledgeable PR lady) and three massive piles of sandwiches. What a thoughtful gesture - in our rush to get to Glenrothes we had missed lunch and by now I was almost feeling hungry enough to eat kippers...
Rothes House and its gardens are a veritable feast for the eyes.
We enjoyed the sandwiches, the wine and the wonderful sunshine view from the terrace while our gracious hosts entertained us with colourful stories about laylines and ghosts. I did make some notes, but I'm afraid I forgot most of the juicy details about the relation between the two private companies that control Glenrothes; Berry Brothers & Rudd Ltd. and the Edrington Group. Berry Bros (a 300 year old wine merchant based in St. James's St., London) have built a reputation with their Cutty Sark brand, while Edrington is famous for their Famous Grouse blend.
If I recall correctly, the original owner of Glenrothes was 'Highland Distillers'.
Until recently HD was a public company but it was bought back into private hands by the Edrington Group in 2001. Since 1936 the Edrington Group had been involved with Berry Bros. & Rudd in the supply of whisky for Cutty Sark and, more recently, the Edrington Group formed a combined venture (Cutty Sark International) with Berry Bros for the long-term development of both Cutty Sark and The Glenrothes. The Edrington Group also owns Glenturret, Highland Park, Macallan and Tamdhu. Their portfolio used to include three more distilleres; Glenglassaugh (mothballed in 1986), Bunnahabhain (recently sold Burn Stewart) and Glengoyne (recently sold to Ian McLeod).
After our stomachs were satisfied, it was time to treat our brains. Ronnie and Marion took us on a tour of the nearby distillery (conveniently located next to an old graveyard) and told us everything we wanted to know about
the history of Glenrothes. The Glenrothes Distillery used to have only two stills - one wash still and one spirit still -
but today they have five of each. It all starts with Chariot and Optic barley. Quite a lot of it, actually; the floor maltings at Tamdhu (5 miles away) provides Glenrothes with all its malt (a capacity of 8 tons per week.) The
distillery can produce 6,000,000 litres of malt whisky each year. Glenrothes is (and has historically been) an important component of many of the best known blends - and not just the blends of Berry Bros.
Ronnie explained that blenders in Scotland have a neighborly tradition of swapping casks to satisfy their need for different malt whiskies and that in the Speyside region Glenrothes, Glenlivet and Macallan were the three whiskies in most demand by the blenders. It was the demands of the blenders that encouraged the growth of these distilleries, but Glenrothes is no longer a mere 'blenders malt'.
About a decade ago the owners decided to increase the profile of Glenrothes as a single malt.
As most of the older whisky had been sold to blenders there was little to choose from in the warehouses and from this (together with the fact that Berry Bros. was a wine merchant) the Glenrothes Vintage concept was born. Glenrothes is the only distillery that offers only vintages. Ronnie put it very eloquently when he said that the 'terroir' is A) Mother Nature (cask type) and B) Father Time (length of maturation).
Casks are selected and rejected according to the requirements of one particular year's vintage.
Twelve vintages have been released since 1971, five of which are now extinct.
After the distillery tour we were shown to the visitor centre for some serious tasting.
We started with a Cutty Sark 25yo blend that had a hard time convincing me on this relative bad nose day. Oh boy, I really missed my big cognac bowls on this trip! The nose of this old Cutty Sark seemed quite restrained; a little spirity with some grainy notes as well. The character is 'malty' like a malt whisky, but on this occasion the nose seemed to lack the individuality and complexity of a malt. The taste seemed a little bitter and relatively flat. But once again I must stress that I'm not a 'blends' guy. I must be allergic to grain whisky or something ;-)
Fortunately, we continued with a proper single malt; the Glenrothes 1989/2000 (43%, OB).
Nose: Sweet and malty - everything you'd expect from a good single malt whisky.
Maybe a hint of oil. Soft organics? It didn't respond very well to a splash of water, though.
Taste: Sweet and malty. It also showed something that reminded me of beer.
Score: 79 points . Yes, this is very decent indeed - a good malt whisky, no question about it.
The only thing that keeps it out of the 80's on my personal Hit List is the absence of any obvious unique characteristics. But that's just me - Craig, Krishna and Serge all scored it in the 80's. And please keep in mind that I was a bit 'handicapped' because I didn't bring my big cognac bowls.
The Glenrothes 1979/2002 (43%, OB) was next.
Nose: Very rich. Sherry, but a hint of pine as well. A little oily, just like the '89.
Taste: Many different layers of wood - the multiplex malt. A tad too bitter for me.
Score: 80 points. Reccommendable, and I'm quite sure I underscored it a bit - Craig and Serge both went with 87 points and Krishna even thought is was worth 88 points. Clearly my nose wasn't working at full capacity...
That's why I didn't even bother with a 'final' rating for the Glenrothes 1973/2000 (43%, OB). To me the bouquet seemed very light with a hint of shortbread. I didn't make any notes on the taste and my 'indicative' score is D. Better than average, that's for sure - once again most other maniacs scored it in the upper eighties. That being said , all my previous encounters with bottles from Glenrothes ended in a score of 79 or 80 points. Nothing to be ashamed about, but not at the top of my Hit List either. Maybe the 'vintage' concept prevents the Glenrothes OB's from showing too many extremities - and that's precisely what I'm looking for in a single malt.
You may not be able to tell from these tasting notes,
but we had an absolute blast at Glenrothes. Our cracious
hosts Ronnie and Marion showed us some great hospitality
and we learned a lot about the back end of the industry.
But all good things must some to an end, so we had to say
our goodbyes at the end of a wonderful afternoon. It was
time to head to nearby Carrbridge where Craig had rented
us an excellent cosy cabin: Tormore Cottage.
After we set up camp we enjoyed a light dinner with some
smoked Scottish salmon that tasted much better than the
seafarmed stuff we get in Holland. To promote the digestive
process I thought I'd have a go at the Isle of Arran Blonde
Premium Ale I bought in Edinburgh. It was a light, 'pilsner'
type of beer. It was too thin and flat for my tastes. Serge
thought it smelled and tasted a bit like mash; the 'whisky
beer' that will eventually become whisky.
We were in no particular hurry, so it was already late in
the seemingly endless Scottish summer evening when I
pulled out the batch of Pandora blind samples I brought
with me for the occasion. With five malt maniacs in one
room this would be a wonderful opportunity to add some
'obscure' single malts to the matrix. What's more, since
the samples were served 'blind' this would be the ideal
opportunity to 'calibrate our ratings. Or so I thought.
As it turned out, our scores (given 'blind' as well)
matched up almost perfectly on many occasions.
So, we're not completely insane after all!
The first blind dram was the Allt-A-Bhainne 1989/1999 (50%, Milroys).
I found fish and oil in the nose. Spirity, grainy and a little herbal. The 'fishy' element grew stronger and it also showed a hint of peat and smoke - more so after adding some water. I found the taste woody - but not unpleasantly so. Bitter with a hint of liquorice. I scored it at 77 points and Craig, Davin and Serge all went for 78 points. Krishna was slightly more pleased and proved it with a score of 80 points. Amazing, eh? And remember - every maniac had to finish his glass and write down his rating before we revealed our scores.
Four out of five maniacs agreed the Balmenach 10yo (43%, Scottish Wildlife) was a reccommendable dram. Serge went for 81 points, Davin and Krishna for 82 and Craig even liked it 85 points worth. This makes me think my own score of 67 points (given to the first few drams from the bottle over a year ago) needs conformation. I found the nose oily and lemony with a soft hint of peat. Some dust as well. The bouquet grows more powerful with time. The taste was dry and sober with clear vanilla notes popping up. From these glasses I couldn't find a justification to change my rating just yet, but I've got some more in the bottle at home. For now my score stands.
The story with the Banff 18yo 1980 (43%, Chieftains) was pretty similar.
As it turned out, four maniacs scored it in the 80's; 81 points from Davin, 83 from Serge and 85 from Craig and Krishna. My rating of 64 points was based on the first dram from the bottle during the 2002 Walpurgis session and now that I've tasted it again it seems to be unfair. The nose is polished and refined with plenty of sherry and spices . The taste had elements of sherry and beer. Woody and dry with a bitter finish. This time I'd give it something like 75 points, but I'll do a proper 'revisionist sampling' when I'm back home with my big glasses.
The four other maniacs rated the Glenlossie 10yo 1989 (43%, McGibbon's Provenance) significantly higher than I did as well. Craig and Davin went for 77 points, Serge and Krishna for 78 points. But this time I see no reason to change my existing score of 68 points . I found the nose too grainy and spirity. It showed some pleasant organics and it had something that reminded me of wort, but in the end it doesn't have the 'weight' I seek in a malt. This might as well be a Lowlander. I found peat and sweet coffee in the taste. The pleasant sweetness disappears in the bitter finish. It's not a bad whisky at all, it just doesn't seem to fit my personal preferences. However, I've got another bottle at home and I'll open it just to make sure. Yeah, that's how mad I am...
Our feelings about the Lochside 10yo (40%, MacNab) were slightly more divergent.
I've sampled this many times before so I stand by my own personal score of 65 points, but Davin went for 75 points and Craig (83), Serge (82) and Krishna all thought it's a recommendable dram. The nose has some nice fruity elements (passion fruits) but it's too oily for my tastes and the finish has an aspirin bitterness I'm not too crazy about. (Once again I must stress the personal nature of my scores!)
The last Pandora dram was the Teaninich 1982/2001 (40%, Connoisseur's Choice) and once again my own score of 70 points was considerably lower than those of Craig, Davin, Krishna (all 78 points) and Serge (79 points). All I can say is that it just doesn't have enough nose for me. And the relatively small nosing glasses we had in the cottage made sure many subtleties were lost on me. I've grown accustomed to my own colossal cognac snifters to compenate for my frequent bad nose days. As a result, I may have underscored some bottlings - looking at the ratings by the other maniacs that may have been the case. I will investigate further in Holland.
After the six Pandora blinds were polished off, Craig pulled out a few samples from down under.
Erm... I don't mean he had kept them where the sun don't shine, just that he had brought a few antipodal whiskies distilled in Australia, Tasmania and New Zealand. Let's call them the Downunda-Drams.
Downunda-dram #1 was the Sullivan's Cove 2yo (40%, OB) from Tasmania. It may not be a 'proper' whisky by Scottish standards because it hasn't aged for the legally required minimum of three years, but it did very well for a spirit this young. I got rice crackers, stock cubes and sulphur from the nose. The taste was rather strange; something rotten, but not unpleasant. Peculiar sweetness. Salt. Beer. Very odd. I went for a score of 69 points - very impressive for a whisky (?) this age; I'd choose it over the Glenlossie and Lochside if I had to. Davin and Krishna went for scores in the 60's as well, but Serge hated it 50 points worth. Craig (who went with 70 points) told us the 'Tasmania Distillery' where they used to produce Sullivan's Cove is currently under administration and has been silent for over a year now. Too bad, because I kind of like it.
I wasn't quite as enamored with the Lammerlaw 12yo C/S (50.5%, OB) from Wilson's Distillery in New Zealand. The distillery has been dismantled and existing stocks were bought by Preston Associates and bottled as Milford Single Malt. The nose was extremely fruity. Spirity as well. I got a hint of peat in the nose, but not much more. The taste was very spirity as well. It's certainly not unpleasant, but I liked the 'standard' 10yo bottling better and I wouldn't go higher than 65 points myself. Serge wouldn't either and gave it 60 points. Davin (73), Craig (71) and Krishna (67) all liked it better but none of them rated this one above average either.
Our third and final downunda-dram was the Great Outback NAS (40%, OB), a single malt whisky from Australia. Craig told us that unverified reports indicate it was distilled by some Italian winemakers in the Mudgee wine district and that it was distilled in 1983 and bottled in 1998. lt was also mechanically filtered and put through charcoal filters to remove impurities before bottling. Maybe it's that charcoal filtering (also used for bourbons) that left the nose rather neutral and spirity. The taste was extremely fruity - like an Austrian strawberry liqueur or something. Under these circumstances I felt that 67 points was appropriate. Krishna felt the same with 66 points but Craig and Davin were slightly more enthusiastic with 70 and 72 points respectively. Serge liked it better with 80 points.
It was almost 2:00 AM and Krishna and I had already retreated to the terrace to finish the session with a Cuban cigar when we were called back inside to finish the dramming in fabulous style. I'm not exactly sure which maniac brought the Bunnahabhain 25yo 1964/1990 (46%, Signatory Vintage, Distilled 30/11/1964, Bottled 2/90) but I'm quite sure this one was a winner. The nose reminded me of the sour mash and washbacks we had been sniffing during our distillery visits. Yoghurt and passion fruit. Wonderful organics. Delicious. The taste was bloody great as well. With my score of 87 points I'd say this is highly reccomendable. Serge and Davin agreed with scores in the upper 80's and Krishna's 83 points is nothing to be ashamed about either.
And that concludes the report on another day of hard work.
Just one more day of high impact dramming left...
Scotia Malt Mania 2003 - Day 5 (Tuesday, June 3)
I awoke amidst the cheerful chirping of some feathered friends.
Dawn was just setting in and the other maniacs were still fast
asleep in their beds. It wasn't even 6:00 AM yet so I expected
them to snooze for a while longer. No problem, because I had
been looking forward to the opportunity to have myself a brisk
walk through the rolling hills surrounding Carrbridge anyway.
From the back of the cabin a small path headed into the hills.
I decided to follow where my feet would lead me and headed
eastwards. Although the sun was already doing its warm-up
for some serious action in the afternoon, the rays were not
able to reach the shadowy valleys just yet. Whenever the
path lead downhill I had to stumble across slippery patches
of ice, risking life and limb. However, the fabulous Scottish
vista's that rewarded me whenever I reached the peak of
another hill made it more than worth it. Across the violet
sky just a few fluffy clouds made their way north, pulling
curtains of shadow over the hills covered with heather,
blueberries, pine, birch, hazelwood and European oak.
In fact, the flora wasn't all that different from that
of the woods surrounding our house on 'De Veluwe'.
When I returned from my invigorating stroll the other maniacs were just starting to wake up.
Craig and Rosemary served us some Australian specialties for breakfast and then we were off to the next target on our list; the Glenfarclas Distillery in Ballindalloch, Banffshire. We were warmly welcomed by George Grant, member of the family that has owned the distillery since 1865. Even today the family still lives next to the distillery near Benrinnes mountain, the water source for Glenfarclas. George wasn't able to show us around the distillery himself because excise and customs officers had picked today for a suprise visit to the distillery. He left us in the capable hands of Jock who took us for a tour of the Glenfarclas grounds and buildings.
Until 1960 Glenfarclas grew its own barley, which was malted at the distillery.
Jock fondly recalled the time when the cement floor was covered in 10 centimeters of malting barley. In the old days they used a combination of 50% coal and 50% peat from Benrinnes, but after 1960 they switched to malt from specialised maltsters. These days, Glenfarclas uses Prisma barley. Jock showed us the Swiss malt mill (with a capacity of eight tons per hour) and the 15 ton stainless steel mash tuns. Here, hot water (74 degrees Celcius) is added to the grist (= milled malt), which starts to convert the starch in the barley to fermentable sugars.
The tour continued past a soviet-style control console from 1973 with a clock that had stopped keeping up with the times long ago. Somehow this seemed stangely fitting in a distillery where they have found a comfortable balance
between respect for traditions and a no-nonsense attitude towards whisky production. The next stop of our tour was one of the big washbacks where the mash is fermented. After 48 hours, the result is 'wash' at circa 6% alcohol
volume. The wash is distilled twice in the biggest stills in Speyside, after which the spirit is casked and added to the
60,000 casks already maturing in the Glenfarclas warehouses. Some 75 percent of these casks will eventually end up in blends, but the rest will be bottled and shipped to malt lovers around the world.
Most of these bottles en up in Germany; the biggest market for Glenfarclas.
After the end of the tour Jock returned to his duties and Ian McWilliam invited us for a tutored tasting session in the fabulous 'Ships Room'. It's beautifully decrated with the original oak panels from the First Class Smoking Room of the 'Empress of Australia', an ocean liner that sailed in the early 20th century. (Vist the Glenfarclas website for a brief history of the ship and the carved oak panels.) You can imagine how excited Aussies Craig and Rosemary became when they heard they had an empress ;-)
Ian started the tasting with a sample of the fresh spirit - probably a little over 70%.
The nose was fruity, grainy and spirity - it reminded me a bit of Serge's home-made 'beer-whisky'. The taste was very sweet indeed - while Serge's fresh spirit tasted mostly sour, if I recall. We proceeded with an 8yo sample from a bourbon cask, again around 70% strength. The nose was a bit grainy like the fresh spirit, but it had gained some spicy elements as well. The taste was still quite sweet. The 8yo sample from a 1st fill Olorso cask than came next was very woody in comparison, but not unpleasantly so. Most bottlings in the Glenfarclas range are vattings of bourbon and sherry casks, so Ian invited Rosemary to mix a vatting of the two 8yo samples. A simple experiment, but very effective - most maniacs seemed to agree the vatting was better than either one of the single cask samples. Because everything distilled at Glenfarclas is 'all natural colour' we got to have a good look at the mysterious alchemy involved in the vatting; the yellowish, straw-like bourbon casked sample and the reddish sherry casked sample married and produced a golden whisky with a faint orange hue. Very nice.
Next, we started our investigation of the 'proper' Glenfarclas range with the Glenfarclas 10yo (40%, OB). The nose didn't seem quite as expressive as either one of the 8yo samples, but that could be attributed to the lower alcohol percentage. The palate was very well integrated and based on this sample I'll stick with the score of 79 points I gave to an earlier batch bottled in the 1990's. Our next dram was the Glenfarclas NAS '105' (60%, OB). I didn't take any tasting notes, but I went with a score of 80 points for this recent batch - as opposed to 81 points for a batch bottled around 1997. They seem to bottle a pretty consistent dram at Glenfarclas.
From these young and brash whiskies we made a quantum leap to more mature stuff.
The nose of the Glenfarclas 21yo (43%, OB) had the sherry/malty distillery character, but also showed something oily and lemony. Maybe even a hint of pine. The palate appeared sherried and woody with a bitter finish. I gave it 82 points on this occasion but I'll stick with the 83 points I gave to my big bottle as my official score. The nose of the Glenfarclas 25yo (43%, OB) was more sherried and smoother than the 21yo with hints of furniture polish. The taste had lots of 'oomph', together with a distinctive combination of orange skins and rock salt. A very good malt whisky with a well-deserved score of 85 points . The final and finest dram of this session (all maniacs agreed on this) was the Glenfarclas 30yo (43%, OB). The nose showed even more sherry than the 25yo, but it still fits well within the overall profile. It's extremely rich - and that goes for the taste as well. 86 points. Lovable.
In notably higher spirits we said our goodbyes to
George, Jock and Ian and went on our merry way.
We left Glenfarclas and headed northeast to visit
the last distillery on our list. We passed Dailuaine
and followed the river Spey for a few miles until
we reached our destination; the Aberlour Distillery.
Unlike most other distilleries we visited, Aberlour
turned out to be a surprisingly small outfit. As you
can see from the picture at the right, the designer
cleverly combined a stillhouse and warehouse into
a single, compact building. They even managed to
squeeze some toilets and a tea room in there...
This shows that the recently published plans for
an all-round entertainment centre to be erected
around the Tullibardine distillery aren't really all
that novel after all...
Obviously, I'm just pulling your leg here.
We came across this charming little construction
on our way to the actual Aberlour distillery and we
just couldn't resist the photo opportunity. I'm very
pleased to report that the real Aberlour distillery
looks more attractive than the shed at the right.
Especially the entrance of the Aberlour distillery is quite beautiful. Just past the imposing gates there's a charming little shop with a nice selection of luxury items; whisky, books, clothing and even some golf stuff. I just couldn't resist picking up a snug little Aberlour Polo-shirt. Next, our guide Mary (the lady in the tartan skirt) led us down the long driveway and invited us for the 'connoisseurs tour' of the distillery. A very interesting tour with plenty of background information, although it may dig a little deep for the average novice.
I learned quite a lot on the tour but when we got to the nosing & tasting part I had to excuse myself. Like I wrote
earlier, Scotland was experiencing record temperatures and inside the distillery buildings it was even hotter than outside. I suddenly understood why most distilleries shut down for a few months in the summer - the working stills
turn the still room into a genuine sauna. At some point I just couldn't stand the steaming heat anymore and I decided to take a stroll on the distillery grounds to cool down while the other maniacs remained inside to sample a
bunch of Aberlours. A gentle breeze brought some welcome relief and I decided to use this opportunity to look for the famous 'St. Drostan's Well' that's depicted on the label of all Aberlour OB's. After half an hour my core
temperature had returned to safe levels, but I still hadn't found that darned well.
No wonder; I later learned that the well itself doesn't exist anymore.
The current water source for Aberlour is the Lour Burn, a small stream that runs past the distillery and the picturesque graveyard downstream. Oddly enough, Glenrothes also had a beautiful graveyard nearby. That makes
one wonder what came first; the distillery or the graveyard. Either Scotsmen prefer to be buried near a 'spirity' place or the whisky produced here has decimated the local population. I assume the first explanation is the right
one - I've sampled plenty of bottles of Aberlour so far and the last time I checked I wasn't dead yet.
When I returned from my futile search for St. Drostan's Well the other maniacs had just finished their sampling session and were busy filling their own personalised bottles of Aberlour by hand. That may not sound all that exciting to normal people, but for malt maniacs like us these kinds of incentives really make a trip worthwile. In a thousand years time, archeologists that are digging around in the ruins of some long forgotten distillery may discover an old, weathered bottling log. And when they open that log and decipher the notes for June 3 2003, they will find our shaky signatures and the proud statement 'The Malt Maniacs Were Here'.
We could have hung around for much longer, but father time kept pushing us forward.
After dropping by a few more liquor stores (nothing worth mentioning, I'm afraid) we headed back to our cottage for a quick dinner and one final night of serious dramming. Tomorrow four maniacs would break up camp and head back south towards civilisation. We could have enjoyed ourselves for much longer, but our lives in the real world beckoned. So, tonight was The Big Night we've all been saving our 'extra special' samples for.
We started with the Springbank NAS 'Private Bottling' 2003 (no ABV, OB*, Bottled for distillery visitors in 2003) Craig brought over from the distillery. The nose showed sherry, coconut, hazelnuts, organics, spices and vegetables. The taste was sweet and quite sharp. When we revealed our scores it turned out that all maniacs thought it deserved 79 points. Better than average but not quite reccommendable.
Craig already sent me a sample of the Glenfarclas 22yo 'Millennium' (43%, OB) last year but I was delighted I could have another go at it. The nose is extremely rich and complex; sherry, cookies, smoke, fruit cake, oriental spices and bouillon. It's not just complex - everything is balanced and well integrated as well. The palate has a solid sherried undercurrent without being overpowering. Quite hot in the back of your throat. Score: 88 points . Davin and I liked it better than the 'normal' 25yo and 30yo but Craig and Krishna preferred the older bottlings.
The Macallan 18yo 1976/1995 (43%, OB) was one of the first 'expensive' bottlings I ever bought and by the time I had reached the bottom of the bottle I liked it 91 points
worth. Serge brought a sample from France so I could give it another go. It seems Macallan only used first fill Oloroso casks for this bottling. Well, it shows in the nose;
sweet and sherried with playful sour fruit notes. Organics and soy sauce. Sulphur. The palate was weaker than I expected but grows stronger. Woody and sherried. Sweeter towards the centre. Even though I finished my bottle
some five years ago I'm quite sure my own bottle showed more sweetness on the palate. It had more 'body' as well. On this occasion I awarded 87 points to this sample, but because I suspect different batches to be involved
here I won't change the score for my big bottle.
The other maniacs scored it between 85 and 90 points.
Our next dram was the Fettercairn 25yo 1970/1996 (57%, Signatory Vintage, Distilled 10 September 1970, bottled January 1996, Cask #4709, bottle #114 of 202), brought over all the way from Australia by Craig.
At first the nose appeared grainy and quite harsh. Over time it grew bolder and sweeter. Slightly oily with something fishy in the background. Milk powder? Quite interesting. The taste at c/s was flat and numbing. With some water more woody elements emerged. Dry finish. My score: 76 points. The opinions about this bottling varied a lot. Davin thought it was worth 76 points as well, but Craig, Serge and Krishna went with 85 points.
Davin picked up a 5cl miniature of the Glendronach 20yo 1970/1990 (56%, Signatory Vintage Selection, Casks #513-518, Distilled 2/70, Bottled 7/90, 2400 5cl bottles) a few days ago and it turned out to be a big hit. The nose was very rich with sherry, organics, furniture wax, leather, prunes, plums, gravy, bouillon, cow stable, Shezuan sweet & sour sauce and even some rock salt. Absolutely stunning. The palate wasn't quite as overwhelming, but after a relatively flat start it opened up into a long sherried centre. Woody finish. With a palate to match the fabulous nose it might have reached 94 or 95 points, but at it is I went with 91 points . So did Serge, while Davin even thought it was worth 92 points. Craig went with 89 and Krishna with 90, so this turned out to be one of the overall winners. Great shopping instincts, Davin!
The Tomintoul-Glenlivet 30yo 1966/1996 (52.7%, Signatory Vintage, Bourbon Cask #709, Bottle #60 of 249) that Craig brought did pretty good as well. I found the nose a bit grainy in the start - it somehow reminded me of bourbon. I got dust, milk powder, pine, menthol, camphor and even olives. Although it sweetened up with water, it's not really my kind of profile. The taste was surprisingly sweet and powerful. Hot, not burning. Turkish delight. Very pleasant. My own personal score was 84 points, but the other maniacs liked it quite a bit more. When they revealed their scores they all ended up around 90 points. So, this turned out to be a crowd-pleaser as well.
The Brora 1982/1999 (40%, Connoisseurs Choice) was a bit of a let-down after the surprising Signatory trio. With an ABV of just 40% it was the 'weakest' whisky on the table. Especially after a few cask strength malts most of us struggled a bit with this one. The nose was quite mellow, although it showed some grainy elements as well. All in all it wasn't very expressive. I found some peat on the palate, but it wasn't as prominent as in other Brora's. Apart from the surprisingly peppery, hot finish I didn't find a lot to get excited about it. I went with 78 points and Craig, Davin and Serge all came up with similar scores. Krishna liked it a lot more with 86 points.
We had ourselves a quick break before we continued with five Islay samples I had brought over from Holland. Our first Islay dram was the Bruichladdich 11yo 1986/1998 (46%, Murray McDavid). The nose started off rather flat and restrained. I found some leather and peat but overall it seems a tad uninspired. The palate was hot and sweet. A big burn with a hint of lemon drops. Not bad at all. It didn't really work for me tonight, but I see no reason to change my final rating of 78 points for this bottling. None of the other maniacs got very excited either and this 'Laddie ended up with the lowest average score for the evening. Not a real shame when you look at the distinguished company it had to compete with in tonight's session.
The Bruichladdich 1983/2001 'Ceramic' (46%, OB, 600 ceramic jugs) did considerably better. This was a special bottling for a German customer. In the interview Mark Reynier told Serge that this wouldn't happen again. I found the nose slightly spirity, but not without depth. Quite sweet with flowery elements as well. The taste was hot and powerful, clean and woody. I didn't enjoy it quite as much as I usually do, but I saw no reason to change my 'solid' score of 83 points. All other maniacs scored it somewehere in the lower 80's as well.
The Ardbeg 24yo 1975/2000 (50%, Douglas Laing OMC, 713 bottles) went down pretty well with the group. There was plenty of iodine, peat, tar and leather in the nose. Fish and brine as well. Wonderful development of organics. It's a dry and serious Ardbeg with little of the sherry and fruity notes found in some of the OB's. The palate revealed salt liquorice, peat and smoke. Rubber as well. It grew sweeter over time. Fabulous stuff. I'm as stingy with my scores as I am with my money so when a malt reaches 92 points that says quite a lot. Except for Craig (who can be a bit picky at times as well ;-) all other maniacs rated in the lower 90's as well.
The overall winner of this evening was the Ardbeg 27yo 1973/2000 (50%, Douglas Laing OMC, 240 bottles). The nose was smokier than that of the 24yo, but still quite subtle - like smoked cheese or smoked eel. Medicinal. Leather. The complex organics grow stronger over time. The palate had just about everything; sweet, salt and sour. I didn't get any bitterness at all - and as far as I'm concerned that's a very good thing. Leather. smoke. horse stable. Liquorice at the end of the long finish. Sweeter with a splash of water. Simply stunning. We really took our time with this one and I finally arrived at a score of 93 points , just like Krishna. Davin and Serge both went with 94 points and we even managed to pull 92 points from 'grumpy old man' Craig ;-) He liked it so much that I promised to bring one of the spare bottles in my reserve stock for his 50th birthday in 2007.
We officially finished the evening with the Lagavulin 12yo Cask Strength 2002 Release (58%, OB). The Ardbegs were a tough act to follow, but I still managed to get peat, salt, bandages, oil and sweat from the nose. My notes
for the palate say: 'Peat, peat, peat!'. Fleeting sweetness. Iodine, bandages and other medicinal elements as well. I know you can't really 'taste' these things, but those were the associations I got. I decided on
90 points but the other maniacs were slightly less enthousiastic with scores in the upper eighties.
Still a highly reccommendable dram, though.
That concludes my notes for the official part of this session. Craig pulled an old G&M bottling of Balblair 10yo from
his hat, but at this stage (+/- 1:00 AM) all I could get from the nose was peppermint. No basis for even an indicative score, but I won't argue with the score of 77 points I gave this 1990's bottling a few years ago.
Scotia Malt Mania 2003 - Day 6 (Wednesday, June 4)
After sleeping the sleep of the innocents we enjoyed our last breakfast together.
Serge, Davin, Krishna and I packed our bags and thanked Craig and Rosemary for their excellent hospitality during our stay in Tormore Cottage. We loaded our suitcases and the spoils of our plunderings in the trunk of our trustworthy Mondeo and headed south. But not for long... Less than half an hour after we left Carrbridge, near Aviemore, we were startled by a sudden BIG BANG that shook us in our seats and set off all airbags.
As it turned out, there had been an 'incident'.
After the smoke had cleared we discovered
that our Ford Mondeo had just experienced
a close encounter of the wrecking kind. The
Scottish spirits must have been smiling on us
(like they had been all week), because if we
had been hit just a fraction of a second later
the consequences could have been far worse.
A direct hit in the flank would have been very
unpleasant, but probably still better than the
effects of another car crashing into our trunk
loaded with the spoils of our trip: a few dozen
bottles of highly flammable whisky. And those
bottles were the first thing we worried about
after we established that everybody was OK.
Well, everybody in our car - there were a few
broken bones in the other vehicle but nothing
too serious. The emergency services were on
the spot within minutes and it soon became
clear that most damage was mechanical.
Our relief was enhanced by the fact that everybody turned up clean on the alcohol test. For a moment we were afraid that traces of yesterday's drams could still register on the equipment, but it came up with a clear zero. That's a good thing, because we certainly wouldn't want to get ourselves a reputation of drunk drivers. Actually we had very little to worry about - although we sampled about a dozen drams last night they were quite small (I guess less than 10ml), so each of us had about a sixth of a bottle in his belly last night. Our experienced livers should be able to deal with that on a good night's sleep. Phew - our loot was safe and our conscience was clean. This little fender bender could have ended up much worse, so we decided we were obliged to make a liquid offering to the Scottish spirits later that night.
After we left our mark on the roads of Scotland in such spectacular fashion (pilgrims should still be able to find the skidmarks in a few years time), Davin and the passengers of the other vehicle were driven to the hospital for a quick check-up. Meanwhile, Serge, Krishna and I were escorted to the local police station to have 'a word with the constable'. Our fears about being thrown in a Scottish dungeon to be buggered by some hairy bagpipers turned out to be unfounded. The policemen of Aviemore proved to be very friendly and understanding - a lot like like normal Scottish people, actually. After some paperwork we were out of there in no time, so we could pick up a replacement car and Davin at the hospital. Our lingering worries about Davin and the passengers were lifted when we learned Davin was fine and the driver of the other car had nothing more serious than a broken collar bone. He was released just when Davin's tests were done as well and the least we could do was give him a lift home.
Our moods were getting better all the time, especially when we learned that the guy didn't mind too much about his injury - he also saw the bright side of six weeks of paid vacation during the best summer Scotland has seen in decades. We almost felt like our day couldn't get any better when the discussion drifted in the direction of Scotch whisky - and single malts in particular. The only Scotsman in the car admitted that he'd sampled a few single malts in his day but that it wasn't his drink of choice. Such a lukewarm response shook some of us maniacs to the core and destroyed our fairy-tale image of a nation of heavy-drinking Scotsmen filling their days with dramming and sheep fondling. We immediately assumed he just hadn't tried the right single malts, so we just started throwing distillery names at him. Macallan? Highland Park? Springbank? Linkwood? Laphroaig?
None of these 'big' names managed to produce look of recognition on our hapless victim's face.
In fact, his expression became ever more puzzled until one of us finally mentioned Ardbeg.
'Yeah, I know Ardbeg' he replied, 'Awful, innit?'
Lesser people than us might have thrown him out of the car right there and then, but we just assumed the crash must've temporarily influenced his judgement. However, we decided it might be best to steer the discussion away from whisky towards less controversial topics. That worked just fine, so we delivered our victim at his home without further incidents. The rest of our trip back south to Glasgow proceeded without further incidents and we arrived just in time to have ourselves a last meal together in a swanky Italian restaurant. The mediocre food was spiced up by our lively discussions about the adventures of the past week and all in all it was a fitting finale to a fabulous trip through the heartland of Scotch whisky.
Finally, it was time to say our goodbyes to Serge who had to catch a plane from Prestwick in the evening. Davin, Krishna and I had one final night of dramming ahead of us (not to mention making libations to the Scottish spirits), but I feel this report has been droning on long enough now - so I'll spare you the details. We spent one final night under the Scottish skies (in the roomy, affordable accomodations of Glasgow University - highly recommendable) before we had to fly back home to try and pick up our mundane and ordinary lives again.
Not for long, though. We've already made plans for upcoming international 'conventions' in December 2003 (Amsterdam & Alsace), 2005 (Islay) and 2007 (Australia). We've already planned some of the drams.
So, the malt madness continues...
P.S.: If you're interested in more tall stories about our adventures, check out the reports by Davin and Krishna. You'll find many more pictures in the 'Picture Book' on Serge's website.
Click HERE to read more reports from my Liquid Log.
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