Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Scotland 2017, day 7

After coming up a little short on my goal of visiting many of Orkney’s historic sites on Day 6, I decided to regroup and dedicate some time to a planning session later that night. I was scheduled for the more extensive “Scapa Experience” tour at 2:30 on Day 7, which their website described as being 90 minutes long. That left me a decent amount of time before (and possibly a little time after) the tour for the sightseeing that I was hoping to do.

The Undiscovered Scotland website is a great resource for the type of information I was seeking, as it is essentially an online visitor’s guide of Scotland. Its maps, with links to pages about the individual sites, are especially helpful. There are also links to the pages on the Historic Environment Scotland website, which contains more information about the sites, such as hours of operation (something I only realized out after the fact). Using Google maps to figure out drive times, I was able to plot out a schedule for the day’s activities.

The owner of the B&B where I was staying had informed me that there was a bit of an issue / controversy with visiting cruise liners coming into the port at Kirkwall and flooding the island with huge numbers of tourists. Apparently they all flock to the well known historic sites and essentially overrun them; all while spending very little money during their time on the island. This was enough of a concern that he had a schedule of the planned dockings so his guests could avoid these tourist influxes. I had heard that the liners couldn’t dock in times of high winds and I think that may have been the case this day; in spite of one with 6000 passengers being on the schedule, the sites I went to were only moderately busy at best.

I got on the road around 10:00 and arrived at my first stop, the Broch of Gurness, about 30 minutes later. A broch is a circular defensive tower made of stone and the one at Gurness is encircled by a community of smaller buildings, which is not always the case. Of the roughly 500 brochs spread across northern Scotland, the Broch of Gurness is one of the prime examples.

The upper portion of the tower collapsed long ago, but is believed to have reached 30 feet in height. Amazing amounts of detail can still be seen in the lower portion of the structure, which is 60 feet in diameter. The broch and its surrounding smaller buildings are encircled by a ring of defensive ditches 150 feet in diameter

The entire site was constructed some time before 200 BC, in the middle of Britain’s Iron Age. 700 to 800 years later it was largely abandoned and had been filled in, allowing the site to remain undisturbed until it was rediscovered and excavated in 1929.

My original plan had been to make a counterclockwise circle around the north-west lobe of the island, staying close to the coast. That would have brought me to three more sites; the Brough of Birsay, Skara Brae and Maeshowe. The Brough of Birsay is an abandoned settlement that was inhabited by the Picts and the Norse at various times. The site is on a tidal island that is accessible by a small causeway, but only for two hours before and two hours after low tide. The tidal timing didn’t line up with my schedule and I really didn’t have time to explore four sites before my distillery tour anyway. I was just going to stop by the area near Birsay to check out the coast views.

That plan changed after a chat with the gentleman manning the visitor center at the Broch of Gurness. He explained that access to Maeshowe is tightly controlled, with guided tours leaving every hour, on the hour. I had driven through that area the day before and seen a sign saying the parking lot for the site was closed. A new visitor center for the site, which is a mile or so down the road from the original one, was built recently. Groups leave from the new facility and take a shuttle bus to the old parking lot before walking out to the site. Fortunately this was explained to me at the Broch of Gurness, because there is not good signage for this new arrangement at the old visitor center.

Getting in the car and checking the GPS, I saw that if I went straight to Maeshowe I would arrive five minutes before the noon tour. So off I went, circling back around to the south. Maeshowe (pronounced ‘maze-ow’) is a chambered cairn; essentially an earth covered stone-mound style of tomb.

This looks like a simple grassy mound (24 feet high and 115 feet in diameter) from the outside, but the inside reveals its astonishing stone construction. The entrance passage is only about four feet high and maybe three feet wide, making for a stooped walk down its 36 foot length. This leads to the central chamber which measures 15 feet by 15 feet. Smaller passages in the other three walls of the main room open into smaller side cells.

Exact dating here is difficult, but it is thought that the tomb was constructed around 2800 BC, making it about 200 years older than the Great Pyramid of Giza. Consisting of sandstone slabs weighting up to 30 tons, this is an impressive monument. Estimates of its construction effort range from 40,000 to 100,000 man-hours. Large vertical stones buttress each corner of the central chamber and it is thought that these may have been free standing before the rest of the structure was built around them; they could even have been in the center of a larger circle of standing stones. The entrance passage is perfectly aligned with the profile of the Barnhouse stone, a 10 foot high standing stone located almost half a mile from Maeshowe. On the winter solstice, the last rays of the setting sun pass directly down the tomb’s narrow passage when the sun passes over the top of the Barnhouse stone.

When the site was abandoned after a few hundred years of use, its entrance passage was filled in and sealed off. In 1153 a group of marauding Norsemen broke into the tomb through a corner of its roof, seeking shelter from a winter storm. They carved runic graffiti in the walls, leaving behind the largest collection of such inscriptions known to exist outside of Scandinavia. The modern excavation of Maeshowe in 1861 was done rather poorly by today’s archeological standards. The upper portion of the roof collapsed and had to be replaced by modern construction in 1910. The inner walls rise vertically for four and a half feet before they gradually begin sloping inwards, eventually forming the beehive shaped ceiling. It may have originally been 15 feet or more in height, but the repaired top limits the height to 12.5 feet now.

The only downside to the tour of Maeshowe is that photography is not allowed inside the tomb. By the time the shuttle bus got us back to the visitor center, it was almost 1:00. I was only 15 minutes from Skara Brae, but that was in the opposite direction from the Scapa distillery, so it would take another 30 minutes to get back there. That left me just 45 minutes to see Orkney’s most famous Neolithic site; it would be a quick visit, but better than not seeing it at all.

Skara Brae is a Neolithic settlement that was occupied from roughly 3200 BC to 2500 BC. The site consists of eight clustered houses that were built of stone and sunk into the ground, which provided insulation and structural stability. Passing through the visitor center brings you outside, behind the building, where there’s a modern recreation of one of the Skara Brae houses. Visitors can enter this “model house”, which has a complete roof (unlike the excavated originals) and recreations of many household items that likely would have been in such a place.

From here it’s a walk of five minutes or so, toward the ocean and then along the coastline, to the actual site. The reasons for the abandonment of Skara Brae aren’t known for sure, but everything was covered in sand not long after it stopped being used. The buildings are so well preserved that the site is often referred to as Scotland’s Pompeii.

Each house is a little larger than 400 square feet, on average. Stone furnishings, including hearths, cupboards, dressers, beds and seats remain to this day. The village also has a drainage system which connects to a primitive toilet in each of the houses.

Skara Brae was discovered in the winter of 1850, when a severe storm removed earth from the site and exposed the outline of the village. Partial excavations took place in the 1850’s and 1860’s. The site then laid undisturbed until it was partially plundered in 1913 and one of the houses was damaged by a storm in 1924. Finally the decision was made to protect and further study the site.

The visitor ticket to Skara Brae also includes access Skaill House. This is the 17th century mansion that was the home of William Graham Watt, the man who discovered Skara Brae. My expedited tour kept me from venturing into the mansion, but I had plenty of time to examine and photograph the Neolithic village. I probably wouldn’t have lingered much longer even if I could have, given the blustery weather that day. With a few minutes to spare back in the visitor center, I stopped to watch the short introductory video that I had skipped on the way in, before heading back to Kirkwall for the 2:30 tour of the Scapa distillery.

One of the greatest things about the visitor center at Scapa is that there is a visitor center at Scapa; this relatively new addition to the distillery went online in 2015. Tours were known to happen before that, but I don’t think there was any way to arrange them in advance or to guarantee one at all. From what I had read, the suggested protocol was to just show up and knock on the door. If the staff on-hand had some free time they would show you around. If they were too busy with the matters of making whisky, you’d be asked to leave (politely I presume).

When I arrived just in time for the 2:30 tour, I joined a small group. The other four people were family members who had toured many distilleries and were all quite knowledgeable of the whisky making process. One of the women actually worked as a consultant in the Alcohol sector and was studying energy efficiency and byproduct use in distilleries; finally, someone on a tour who was asking harder questions than I was. We all got along quite well and shared many of our past tour experiences. Eric, our tour guide (who I had met at the pub the night before), did a great job. He was relatively new to leading tours and still learning some of Scapa’s technical and historical details. A lot of tour guides would have been intimidated by a group that already knew so much and asked so many challenging questions. But Eric was happy to absorb some of our collective knowledge, share the interesting bits that he knew, and write down our more esoteric questions for his own research.

We learned that the distillery is currently producing about 1 million liters per annum, with a crew of five still-men. Unpeated Concerto barley is used and 28 ton deliveries are made two to three times per week. Scapa normally operates seven days a week, but one of the five production workers had recently broken his wrist and was unable to work, so they were not running over the weekends at the time.

Unfortunately photography was not allowed on the tour, so I don’t have much to show. We soon learned that Scapa was closed from 1994 through 2004, but that extensive renovations had occurred in 2004 and 2005, increasing the distillery’s production capacity. During the closure period the crew from Highland Park came over and made whisky at Scapa for two months a year starting in 1997. We were told that this only went on for a few years, but looking online I’ve seen independent bottlings of Scapa that were distilled in 2000, 2001, 2002 and 2003, so I think it’s safe to say that there was limited production each year from 1997 through the reopening in 2004.

In spite of the changes made in 2004/2005, the distillery, which dates to 1885, still retains plenty of older equipment and the production processes have not been automated. There are no computers on site, and the Porteus mill is connected to an auger and a dresser which are both housed in wood. Cask filling on-site did stop in 2014 however, and the new spirit in now tankered to Keith for filling.

There are eight washbacks in total; four newer ones of stainless steel and four older ones of corten steel which date to the 1950’s. Each takes a charge of 13,500 liters of wash at 8% alcohol. Fermentation is a relatively lengthy 80 hours, but that figure had been over 100 hours before production was increased in 2005.

Up to the still room, we were presented with beautiful views of Scapa Flow through the area’s large windows. This is a body of water which is sheltered by half a dozen of Orkney’s islands that surround it. There’s a lot of fascinating history here, with Scapa Flow having been home to Britain’s naval fleet during WWI and WWII. The German fleet was scuttled by its own crews here at the end of WWI as the details of the Treaty of Versailles were being negotiated. Our tour guide also talked a bit about the HMS Royal Oak, a British battleship that was torpedoed and sunk in Scapa Flow by a German U-boat in 1939 with a loss of 833 lives.

The two stills at Scapa are quite interesting. The wash still is a Lomond Still. This was a design that came into use in the late 1950’s and these were only employed at a small number (four or five) of Hiram Walker owned distilleries. They look similar to traditional post stills, except that the part above the pot is a constant diameter cylinder which has three plates inside. The angle of the plates could be changed from horizontal to vertical, and they could also be cooled with cold water. This allowed variations in the distilling regimes to produce different types of spirit. Scapa is the only distillery making whisky with a Lomond Still today (Bruichladdich uses a repurposed one to make gin), but the plates were removed in 1978. The Lyne arm comes straight out of the side of the cylinder near its top. That then makes an “S” turn down and out before going into a purifier and on to the condenser. The spirit still has a more traditional tapering upper section and swan neck. The lyne arm is angled slightly up, but it too makes a downward “S” turn before it continues into the condenser.

We made our way out to the grassy area behind the still house for an even better view of Scapa Flow. There’s an old waterwheel out back which presumably once powered the works here. Today the distillery operates on electric motors and steam produced in a fuel oil boiler. It was also nice to see the distillery name in bold, black letters on the side of the whitewashed warehouse facing the sea. This is something that is most commonly associated with Islay’s distilleries.

We then entered one of the four newer warehouses on the site. These have casks in racks that go six high. Several older dunnage style warehouses still stand, but are no longer used because they contain asbestos. Cask filling on site stopped in 2014, and spirit is now tankered to Keith for filling. 30,000 casks from Scapa are stored in Speyside; the 15,000 casks at Scapa are from a variety of Pernod Ricard owned distilleries.

We did see several Scapa casks in the warehouse we toured and the oldest one was from 1993, so there is definitely still some pre-closure whisky yet to be bottled. The distillery does use a very small number of sherry casks, but most of the production goes into bourbon barrels. The majority of that is aged in first fill barrels and destined for single malt, but some goes into second fill barrels and is set aside for blends, primarily Ballantine’s 17 year.

The tasting portion of the tour actually started in the warehouse. There was a tiny, separate room attached to the building that held a single duty-paid cask. Samples were drawn directly from it and deposited in our souvenir tasting glasses. This was a bourbon barrel that had been filled some time in 2004, making it at least 12 years old, and the alcohol level was between 56% and 57%. All of the Scapa expressions I had tasted previously had been chill filtered and bottled at 40%, so it was interesting to see the other side of the house style. This one was big and boisterous; a bit fiery but still with plenty of flavor development.

We then went back to the visitor center for the rest of the tasting, with samples of new make spirit, the flagship Skiren and Glansa, which is the newest bottling. There was a lot of conversation among the group as we tasted, so I neglected to make any tasting notes. Un-aged spirit is something that I wouldn’t want to drink on a regular basis, but it is always nice to have as a reference when exploring the aged expressions. I was kind of unimpressed by the Skiren (non-age stated, 40%) when I tried it on the ferry ride to Orkney two days before, but I found it a bit more appealing on the tour. Skiren does express the light, fruity and heathery house style, but it still comes across as somewhat youthful and lacking balance, especially compared to the 16 year old. Glansa is another NAS, 40% bottling, but it has been finished in casks that previously held heavily peated whisky. It was introduced in the fall of 2016. This expression still has the minor flaws seen in Skiren, but with the added complexity of some delicate peat smoke.

When I wrote about Scapa back in early 2014, I compare the 14 year to the 16 year and speculated about the makeup of each and the future of Scapa’s official bottlings. Our guide told us that there was no sherry cask whisky in the 16 year old, so I appear to have been wrong there (though I still suspect that there might have been a very small sherry cask influence in it). We were also told that it had whisky as old as 18 years in the mix. I had correctly speculated that there was older whisky in some of the batches, as its production years would have otherwise spanned the three years of total closure. My final bit of guesswork was that the 16 year would continue on and be joined by a 10 year old later in 2014 or a 14 year old in 2016. What actually happened was the mid-2015 discontinuation of the 16 year and introduction of Skiren.

Unfortunately, Skiren holds the same price point that the 16 year did, retailing between $70 and $80. I’m guessing that it’s a vatting of younger whiskies (maybe 6 to 9 years old), and I’m hopeful that this strategy will allow them to build stocks and reintroduce some age stated whiskies in the not-too-distant future. A modestly priced one aged in the low teens and a more expensive one aged to the high teens would be nice.

Keeping a close eye on the time, I realized that I would be able to visit one more historic site before the day was over. On the north side of Kirkwall, less than two miles from the Scapa distillery, are Bishop’s and Earl’s Palaces, which are combined as one attraction with a shared visitor center. I got there about 45 minutes before closing time, so my tour was somewhat fast paced, but I did manage to see every part of each building and photograph them pretty extensively. These two buildings are across the street from the St. Magnus Cathedral, which was built over the course of three centuries, starting in 1137. The Cathedral is well light at night and looked quite impressive on my walk home from the pub the night before.

Bishop’s Palace was built in the 1150’s as a residence for Bishop William the Old, the first Bishop of the new Cathedral. The building started as a large, but relatively straight-forward two-story house, the ground floor of which is still largely intact. The building was remodeled with significant additions by subsequent occupants.

King Haakon IV of Norway took up residence there in 1263, shortly before his death. After falling into disrepair, the palace was renovated in the 1540’s by Bishop Robert Reid. This is when the large tower was added. Visitors can climb to its highest level for great views of the Cathedral and surrounding parts of Kirkwall. The palace was next taken over by Earl Robert Stewart in 1568 and further renovated by his son Patrick in 1600.

Earl Patrick Stewart then decided to have something more impressive built and acquired the land next door where slave labor was used to construct Earl’s Palace in 1607. This building remained in use in the death of Bishop Mackenzie in 1688, and then fell into disrepair.

Earl’s Palace is impressive in both scale and design, and is one of the finest examples of Renaissance architecture in Scotland. The upper floors are roofless, but the grandeur of the place is still exemplified by its, huge fireplaces, corbelled turrets, massive windows, and the grand hall.

I found myself back at Helgi’s latter that evening for dinner, and I had to finish with the Scapa 16 year again. I was hoping to taste as many different whiskies as possible during these two weeks, but I knew that I was unlikely to have an opportunity to enjoy this lovely malt again.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Scotland 2017, day 6

I’ll start this post with a quick note about the end of day 5 since that piece ran long, before I get on to day 6.

After the Wolfburn tour I had several hours to kill before catching the ferry to Orkney. A bit of sightseeing was in order, but it couldn’t impose any time constraints (translation: wouldn’t make me late for the ferry check-in). My research brought me to Dunnet Head, which is a small peninsula that includes the northernmost point of mainland Scotland. The open grasslands here are atop 300 foot cliffs that go straight down to the sea. The single track road out to the area ends at a parking lot near Dunnet Head’s lighthouse. A walking path leads to a fenced in viewing area which is about 10 feet from the edge of the cliff, but it’s quite common for people to walk well beyond, where the rest of the drop-off is unsecured and you can go right to its edge (or over if you’re not careful). I was there for the stunning views, but the area is quite popular with bird watchers as well.

If you’re taking a car to Orkney by ferry and don’t want to spend an overnight on the seas all the way from Aberdeen, you have two choices; one goes between Scrabster and Stromness, the other between Gil’s Bay and St Margaret’s Hope. I decided to take one ferry out and the other back to get a variety of views. Dunnet Head is actually about midway between the two departure points, so for the outbound trip I had to make my way back through Thurso and just beyond, to the tiny town of Scrabster. This route has a one-and-a-half hour crossing time and I was on the last passage of the day, departing at 7:30.

I stayed outside on the viewing deck for a bit after the boat launched, then settled into the lounge to enjoy a glass of Scapa Skiren as a preview to my island adventure. After that it was time to eat. Please learn from my mistakes; if you are going to have dinner on this particular ferry, do it early in the ride. The views of the sea cliffs that form the western face of the Isle of Hoy are amazing on a clear day, especially when the sun is getting low in the sky. I should have been topside taking pictures rather than seeing it through a salt laden window while trying to scoff down my Viking Burger.

Once on Orkney, it’s about a 30 minute drive from Stromness to Kirkwall. This is the main city of the archipelago’s largest island and home to its two distilleries, Highland Park and Scapa. I was staying in lodgings that were just a short walk from Highland Park, so once I was settled in I went for a late evening stroll by the distillery. Of course, I hadn’t fixed in on my bearings yet so I turned the wrong as soon as I came out of the driveway, making it quite a bit longer of a walk. Much like I had seen at Pulteney the night before, the distillery was clearly operating and its various scents were wafting through the air. Unlike the previous night though, the entrance gates were closed so my preview was limited to what I could see from the street that bisected the distillery complex.

The next day I took the short walk over to the distillery (short now that I knew which way to go to get there) and passed through the entry gates, coming into the inner courtyard. There were signs directing me to the visitor center, where I soon learned that I’d be the only one on the tour; this is always a welcome bonus for me.

After a brief introductory video, we set out onto the distillery grounds. My guide informed me of the Norse traditions of the Orkneys, explaining that these islands were part of Norway for 500 years before they became part of Scotland. All of the production buildings are easily accessed from that inner courtyard. Stone dunnage warehouses make up most of the perimeter and across the street there are many more warehouses, as well as a station for filling tankers with spirit.

After a bit of conversation my guide realized that I was quite familiar with the distilling process already and set out to come up with some information that would be new to me. He managed to do that almost immediately, mentioning that The Edrington Group had recently (actually just the day before) reacquired the Glenrothes brand from Berry Brothers and Rudd. I had detailed the arrangement of Edrington owing the distillery and BB&R owning the brand back in this post.

The first stop of the tour was the malting floor. Highland Park is one of just eight distilleries in Scotland to maintain traditional floor maltings (if you count Glengoyne, which uses the malting floors at Springbank when that distillery is down for maintenance). BenRiach and Balvenie are the only other two to do so in the northern part of the country and I wouldn’t be touring either of them, so this was my only chance to see the beautiful sight of an entire room dedicated to germinating barley. My guide confirmed what I had heard before; that 20% of the barley used at Highland Park is malted in-house. The other 80% is commercially malted and unpeated; that way all of the peaty flavors comes from the Heather based peat that is hand cut at the nearby Hobbister Moor and burned in the kilns at Highland Park.

Given those percentages I was surprised when we got over to the kiln and saw that they use a combination of peat and coke. I had assumed that they were peating their own malt as heavily as they could to get the desired overall peat level. I may have to follow up with email to confirm the overall peat level and that the commercial malt is indeed unpeated. When I was at Springbank’s Whisky School, they were using a combination of peat and hot dry air (I think it was and electric heater/blower). I had asked how malt would have been dried without peat smoke prior to this modern method, and was told that coke (which is refined coal that burns without smoke) was used. It was cool to see that still happening at Highland Park.

Another thing that my guide pointed out was that the steel grates in both of their kilns had recently been replaced, improving efficiency and reducing kilning time. Unfortunately neither of the kilns was in action on the day of my visit; timing such things for one’s tour is mostly a matter of luck.

For some reason (I not sure why) we skipped the mill room, so next we came to the mashing and fermenting space. This part of the tour seemed a little less “up close and personal” than many other tours; we passed through the part of the room that took us by the stainless steel mash tun and stopped for a look in, but didn’t approach any of the 12 wooden washbacks (a mix of Larch and Oregon Pine) that occupied the rest of the room. Moving on, we had a quick look at the second, older kiln on the way out of the building.

Back across the courtyard, we headed for the stillhouse. This is easy to spot with its condensers on the outside, which presumably reside where the worm tubs once did until that change was made in the 1970’s. Photography was semi-restricted here, only allowed from the entrance doorway. Good views of the four copper pots could be had from there, and I was able to get a photo of the spirit safe from this vantage point as well. This brings up another interesting point that my tour guide mentioned; apparently spirit safes are all made from brass because it is a metal that doesn’t create sparks when two pieces contact each other, allowing the unit to be opened and closed without fear of igniting the flowing spirit.

We made our way over to one of the warehouses next. This had a space that was set up for visitors with displays of cooperage and warehouse tools, barrel head stencils and oak planks. Unfortunately there was a wall of Plexiglass separating us from the aging casks (one of the other distilleries I had been to had a similar setup; I think it was Blair Athol). It just feels a little weird to be in a warehouse but not be able to walk among the casks and smell the Angel’s Share. They did have a few empty casks in that space for nosing though; American Oak sherry and European Oak sherry, as well as a recently emptied cask from 1968 (bottles of that fine liquid were available in the shop for £3000).

We talked about the cask policy at Highland Park and I learned that they use sherry seasoned (for 2 years with Oloroso) casks almost exclusively. A minimal number of bourbon barrels and port pipes are used and only for limited edition bottlings. There were a few other interesting points of note as well. The annual loss to evaporation from the aging casks is only about 1% here due to the minimal temperature fluctuations on Orkney, where it is about 2% for most other parts of Scotland. Also, the 15 year old and 21 year old expressions of Highland Park are soon to be discontinued from the core lineup.

I had opted for the slightly more expensive Viking Hero tour, so three tasting samples were waiting for me back at the visitor center. I started with the 12 year old (at 40%), which is a well known classic. Next up was Valkyrie. This is a new expression which was released (28,000 bottles) just 10 days prior to my visit. This is the first of a series, with Valknut (pronounced val-newt) and Valhalla to follow. It was non-age stated, at 45.9% and aged in a mix of Spanish and American Oak sherry casks along with a few bourbon barrels. It was good; fairly bold and a little different without straying too far from the typical house style. It’s also reasonably priced, at £55.

My guide had mentioned that he’s supposed to pour these in order of increasing strength, but he prefers to finish with the 18 year (at 43%), it being his favorite bottling. I deferred to his logic and was glad I did. This whisky is just stunning. It’s been several years since I polished off the last bottle I had purchased of it, but I may have to pick up another in the near future.

I spent a good bit of the afternoon writing before heading out to explore some of the many Neolithic sites that can be found across the Orkney Islands. I was hoping to photograph them in the more interesting light of the late afternoon / early evening (the sun sets quite late this far north in the spring and summer). I didn’t realize that many of these sites have controlled access and close at 5:00 though. But I was able to spend a good bit of time examining at photographing the Standing Stones of Stenness and the Ring of Brodgar. The former is the remains of an ancient henge and ellipse of standing stones which dates to 3100 BC and the later is a henge and stone circle which dates to between 2500 BC and 2000 BC.

After a late dinner I made my way to Helgi’s, a popular Kirkwall pub. I started off with a Highland Park 15 year, since it’s slated to go away soon. This expression is aged primarily in American Oak, where the 12 year and 18 year are aged primarily in European Oak (all sherry seasoned for all three bottlings), so it is quite a bit different. It wasn’t bad, but I really prefer the flavor profile of the 12 and the 18.

The bartender recognized me and asked if I had been at the Skapa distillery that afternoon (which I had, I stopped in for a quick visit of the shop ahead of the next day’s tour). He told me that he was also a tour guide at Skapa and would probably be leading the tour I taking the next day. Knowing that, I asked if the 16 year Skapa that I was sizing up for my second drink was something we would taste on the tour. He confirmed that it was not, and knowing that it hasn’t been bottled for at least a couple of years, I went for it. I’ve had and enjoyed the 16 year in the past, but it was even better than I remembered it to be and a big step up from the Skiren that I tasted on the ferry the day before.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Scotland 2017, day 5

By the time I made my way up to Wick, it was late in the day and I was pretty exhausted. The plan for the evening was to get some dinner, do a little writing and catch up on sleep. Sitting at a table in the bar area of a local restaurant, I noticed a dozen Old Pulteney bottles on the shelf behind the bar. Feeling excited that they must have the full range as well as several limited edition bottlings, I started to reconsider the idea of not having a few whiskies after dinner. But closer inspection revealed that every one of those bottles was the flagship 12 year old.

I was staying very close to the distillery though, and decided to take a walk around the place. Along with Springbank, this was the most urban distillery that I’ve set eyes upon. While no people were visible, the front gate was wide open and the place was clearly operating; wonderful smells were abundant. I ventured in just a little ways, to the edge of the courtyard, for a quick preview of the tour that I would have 12 hours later. Back out to the road, I started to go around the outer perimeter of the place, which is essentially a ring of aging warehouses. On an unpaved path around back I came to the rear gate, which was also open. From there I could see what appeared to be the worm tubs, with vapors rising into the cool night air. I went a little further around back but the path faded away and the ground became boggy as the buildings started to look more industrial.

Wick itself is looking a little rough around the edges, at least the small part of the town I saw. There were quite a few buildings with boarded up windows and even some with collapsed roofs. I’ve been told that the town never fully recovered from the collapse of the Herring industry, which happened long ago. There was talk of the renewable energy industry soon breathing some new life into the town, and I did see a few old stone buildings enveloped in scaffolding.

In spite of its exterior surroundings, the Pulteney distillery’s visitor center is modern and well appointed. Our tour group was small, five or six people, and our young guide was somewhat unscripted and a bit opinionated. I found that incredibly refreshing. There were also no restrictions on photography here.

The visitor center is located in the former cooperage, and when we walked out into the courtyard out tour guide directed our view back toward that building, pointing out the squares in the wall where upper floor windows had been filled in. She also made note of a recess in the wall where part of a connected roofline used to be (the shadow just left of the drainpipe in the photo). This is where there used to be an elevated walkway over the entrance, connecting the buildings on either side of it. I believe the old barley lofts were above the cooperage and the building that had been connected to that used to house the malting floors.

While we were in the courtyard, our guide also mentioned the large, industrial looking buildings in the back corner of the distillery complex. This is a wood-chip burning biomass plant which provides heat for the stills as well as 200 area homes.

The distillery, which dates to 1826, hasn’t malted its own barley since 1926 and the configuration of the distilling equipment seems to have changed several times over the years. Today unpeated malt from the Inverness area is supplied by Bairds, with 30 ton deliveries coming 2 to 3 times per week. Dried yeast is used here, partly because the location is too remote for liquid yeast to survive the transit.

A Porteus mill deals with the grain, which then goes on to a five ton copper topped mash tun. Six stainless steel washbacks are quite new; the distillery was closed from May through October of 2016 while they were installed, replacing the cast iron units that took over for the wooden washbacks in 1950. The fermentation time is 60 hours.

The stills here are quite unique. The wash still is flat-topped, and as with Dalmore there’s a story about incorrect measurements being taken before the still was delivered causing them to cut off the top and reconfigure the lyne arm. On the spirit still, the lyne arm quickly turns down, then out into a purifier. It emerges from the top of that and quickly turns out through the back wall. Both stills feature reflux bowls, but the one on the wash still is much larger. When I asked out tour guide about the purifier she replied “Oh, that hasn’t worked in years”.

Next we went outside of the still house to see the worm tubs, confirming what I had seen the night before from outside the back gate. These are the rectangular style, but since they were in action, I couldn’t see the configuration of the copper tube inside (some are squared off circles, others run back and forth).

The distillery currently runs 24 hours per day, 5 days a week. It produces 1.2 million liters of spirit per annum, with 40% of that going out for blending and 60% kept for onsite aging, and to be used as single malt or as an ingredient in their Stroma Malt Whisky Liqueur.

We ended in one of the warehouses, which all together have a capacity of 24,000 casks and are currently holding about 20,000. We also learned that the oldest cask on site dates to 1967 and may soon be bottled as a 50 year old.

Back into the visitor center, those who paid for an upgraded tour sampled the 12 year, 17 year and 21 year Old Pulteney. Standard tour participants were given the choice of the 12 year old or the Stroma Liqueur. I was curious about the latter but if I was only going to taste one thing at the distillery, it would be their whisky. I mentioned to the staff that we get the 12 year at 43% back home while it is 40% in most other places (definitely the UK and Canada). I asked if the higher strength version was exclusive to the US and was eventually told that South Africa gets it was well, but they were unsure if there were any other markets it went to.

Another noteworthy point; there were two casks set up in the shop that visitors could fill bottles from. Both were ex-bourbon casks, one distilled in 2005 and the other in 1997. There were available as 70 cl fills, priced at £80 and £140, respectively. I really wish more distilleries would do this. The only slight improvement they could make here would be to have the option of a smaller format, say 20 cl, for those flying home with limited luggage capacity.

I had spent as much time asking questions and taking pictures as I could without making myself late for the tour that I had scheduled next. From Wick it was a drive of a little over 30 minutes to Thurso, where I had arranged to see the relatively new Wolfburn distillery. Their first spirit ran early in 2013, with the first cask serendipitously filled on Burns night. When it was established, Wolfburn unseated Pulteney at the northernmost distillery on Scotland’s mainland. Last fall I started to see their single malt on store shelves in the US, and wrote this post with a little background information about Wolfburn.

The distillery is open to the public, but currently by appointment only. The tour guide, Charlie Ross, lives nearby and has another part time job, but is very accommodating when scheduling tours. In spite of not having worked in the spirits industry before, he is quite well versed in all things Wolfburn; from local distilling history to the story of the modern distillery’s founding and the technical details of its production process.

Wolfburn was founded by a pair of business partners, who, despite having no previous whisky industry experience, seem to have thus far done everything right, including hiring all of the right people. They set about finding a location that had historical distilling significance which might lend them a name. Of course, available land and an accessible water source would be necessary as well. They found all of that on the outskirts of Thurso. I believe that the part about being farther north than any other distillery on the mainland was just a bonus point.

Even though the last wolf there was killed around 1700, the area still has an association with wolves, hence the nearby stream being named Wolf Burn. Part of the foundation of the original Wolfburn distillery can be found nearby, in spite of it having ceased operations more than 150 years ago. It had been established in 1821 and records show that in 1828 it made 12,000 gallons of spirit, not far behind the 17,000 gallons produced at the Pulteney distillery that year. When exactly it closed is uncertain, but there are newspaper clippings from 1860 showing the distillery’s equipment for sale.

The founders spent time in 2011 and 2012 touring Scotland’s distilleries and working on their business plans before they started looking for a master distiller. Shane Fraser, the man who ultimately took the position, started his whisky career at the age of 16 with Royal Lochnager. He moved on to Oban, before making his way to Glenfarclas, where he spent seven years as their distillery manager. That’s quite an achievement for someone who’s still in their 30’s, and for many that would be the pinnacle of their career. But the opportunity at Wolfburn was unique. The owners’ were offering the chance for whoever they hired to design the new distillery and have complete control of the style of whisky that would be made there. That was enough to lure Shane over from the heart of Speyside.

Iain Kerr was hired on as the assistant distillery manager. Work on the site began in September, 2012 and by the end of January, 2013 the stillhouse and two warehouses were up and running. I asked if the still design was influenced by those of other distilleries and was told that it was really driven by the style of spirit they were aiming for. Apparently Shane and Iain sat down with the owner of Forsyths of Rothes and in a matter of a few hours the three of them had worked out all of the details for the new stills.

The goal was to make a gentle floral spirit, and the means to that end include a long mash (5.5 hours) which produces a clear wort, long fermentation times (ranging from 72 to 92 hours) and a slow distillation (4.5 hours through the wash still). They started off using completely unpeated malt, but began working with peated malt on a limited basis in July of 2014. This is done for six weeks out of the year with a moderate peating level of 10 ppm.

While there are no computers or remotely controlled pieces of distilling equipment, this is very much a modern distillery in respect to its layout. The equipment is arranged logically in the order through which the processes go, and all in one open rectangular space. This is quite a contrast to the older distilleries which tend to be more multi-leveled and more compartmentalized, and often have pieces of equipment located wherever they fit, then plumbed to the rest of the system.

Everything here looks very new, and one of my first questions was whether they had sourced any surplus equipment from existing distilleries. There were indeed a few items which had come from Caperdonich, a Speyside distillery that ran from 1898 to 1902, and again from 1965 to 2002 before it was demolished in 2010. These include the malt bin auger, which moves barley from its holding bins over to the mill, as well as two former wash backs. The stainless steel washbacks have been repurposed, one as a storage tank for process water and the other as a holding vessel for spent lees and pot ale. Another interesting feature is a heat exchanger which uses the outgoing pot ale and spent lees to pre-heat the incoming wash still charge, saving energy.

At some point I asked if they were selling any spirit to blenders or independent bottles. Charlie smiled and laughed slightly, going on to explain that every once in a while he’ll get a similar question midway through a tour only to learn that the “tourist” is actually there on behalf of a blender, broker or bottler. He assured me that Wolfburn is keeping everything they make to be sold as single malt. He went on to tell me that the owners were in the fortunate position to have started with enough capital that they could establish the distillery and continue to operate it for up to four years without generating any revenue. This has also allowed them to avoid selling un-aged spirit or gin as a sideline. The big challenge now is managing to balance investment in future growth against their current profits.

Wolfburn started off at 115,000 liters per annum, running six mashes per week through their three washbacks. The first expansion came at the end of 2015, with the building of a third warehouse, half of which is used as their bottling hall. Then, in May of 2016, they added two production employees and a fourth washback. In theory that could put them up to 153,000 LPA, but they are running 6 to 8 mashes per week right now, so it’s probably closer to 134,000 LPA.

After a little time in one of the warehouses, we moved on to a tasting. I started with the unpeated new make spirit. It’s clean and bright with a fruity nose and floral palate. Next up was the peated new make. It had a nice, rounded peat profile. It seemed a bit more phenolic than expected for 10 ppm, but I’m sure a little time in the cask will temper that.

Next up were the two standard bottlings that are currently being offered; Aurora and Northland. They are both made from unpeated spirit which has been aged a little over 3 years and bottled at 46% without chill filtration. Aurora is a marriage of whisky aged in 1st fill bourbon barrels and sherry hogsheads. It’s balanced and rounded, with well integrated flavors. This one certainly seems older than its age. Northland was aged in 2nd fill quarter casks, which previously held peated whisky (we can safely presume that was Laphroaig). The subtle peat smoke on the nose comes through nicely on the palate. This one does, however, show it’s youthfulness a little more readily. I’d love to see where it goes with another year or two in the cask.

Then came the real treat; a cask sample from a sherry hogshead which had been aged for between 38 and 39 months and was at 58-59% abv. In spite of the intensity of its cask strength, this one was very well behaved with absolutely lovely sherry character. It could easily be passed off as a much older whisky. After a few sips I told Charlie about the casks that were set up at Pulteney from which visitors could fill bottles. I continued on to say that if such a program were in place for this cask, I would absolutely have bought a bottle.

I really enjoyed the Pulteney tour so the bar was set high for the day, but Wolfburn met and exceeded my expectations. I’ll likely buy a bottle of Aurora when I get home, and I can say with confidence that this is a distillery to watch in the coming years.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Scotland 2017, day 4

This was the only day of the trip where I squeezed three distillery tours into one day. My intention was to visit all of the distilleries north of Inverness, assuming that I wouldn’t be back in this remote, northernmost part of Scotland any time soon. I was trying to limit myself to two per day, but the timing of the optimal ferry transit to Orkney for the weekend meant that I would have to take an extra tour today if I wanted to make it to all of the distilleries in this area.

The previous night was spent in Tain. I had arrived late in the evening and only went out for dinner and a few whiskies at establishments that were close to my lodgings. It was hard to get a sense of the town from that limited view, but it seems like a decent place with lots of tightly spaced stone construction. Most businesses seem to close quite early here though; nightlife is definitely limited.

Glenmorangie is located in Tain, a short distance from the populated section of the town. Balblair and Dalmore are both within reasonable driving distance. These distilleries have limited space on their tours (some more so than others), so I made sure to book tours in advance. The schedule of tours offered at each of the three varied and it took a little bit of calculating with drive times to figure out how I would make it to each of them. Even though Glenmorangie was very close to where I was staying, probably within walking distance, the most logical way to see them was by making an anticlockwise loop with an 11:00 at Balblair, a 1:00 at Dalmore and a 3:00 at Glenmorangie. From there I would head north to stay in Wick for the night.

Balblair has modern visitor facilities, but the distillery itself has kind of and old-school, working man’s feel to it. Function takes precedence over form here, but I don’t mean that is a bad way. After assembling in the small visitor center we moved over to a different building where the shop and tasting room were located in the old maltings. You could actually see the underside of the old barley steeping tanks as well as the valves that controlled the flow of water into them.

Unfettered photography was allowed at Balblair, much to my approval. So far on this trip that has only been the case at Edradour and Ben Nevis. We were told that the floor maltings ceased in 1976 and that the distillery uses unpeated malt currently. I had noticed a bottle of the 1969 vintage in the shop before we set out and wondered what its peat level might be. When I asked, the guide noted that even when they malted there own barley it was dried with coal rather than peat, but she speculated that if you went back far enough in time it’s like that there was a point where peat was burned in the kilns.

The distillery typically runs 24/7 with its production staff of nine, preferring to keep the production equipment and liquids hot to make the process more efficient. They were cutting back a little this year though, partly to make some repairs and partly because they had over-produced a bit in recent years. I mentioned that I had noticed Balblair being promoted much more heavily in the US in recent years and our guide mentioned that this was a worldwide phenomenon.

There are currently 18,000 to 19,000 casks on site, and they are trying to bring that number down a little. Most years they produce 1.8 million liters of spirit, this year they are shooting for 1.4 million. Of what they produce, 15% goes to single malt and 85% goes to blends.

The fermentation goes for 72 hours in the six Douglas Fir washbacks. We were told that liquid yeast is used to initiate fermentation more quickly. The two bulbous pot stills have a unique look, and it’s reflected in the rounded “B” logo they use.

We got to see casks being filled, which isn’t always happening, and had the opportunity to sample a few drops of spirit that the filling man allowed to drop from the nozzle onto our fingers.

All spirit used for single malt is aged on site and primarily in former bourbon barrels. A few sherry casks come into play as well. All of the bottlings are vintage dated, non-chill filtered and bottled at 46%. We tasted the 2005 vintage at the end, but were told that it’s a little atypical of their house style. Three vintages were available in the shop, as well as a cask set up from which you could fill your own bottle. That had been distilled in 2002.

They also had miniatures of the 2005 vintage and the 1990 vintage. I love miniatures, especially when they are higher-end bottlings. Our tour ran a little long and I had a schedule to keep, so I purchased my minis and got on the road.

The drive from Balblair to Dalmore is quite beautiful and a good bit of it is on single track road. Take the back way rather than the A9 if you have the choice, the routes are equidistant.

I did a little research ahead of time and learned that Dalmore has a very strict policy against photography on their tours; to the point where you are asked to leave cameras and phones in your car or in the distillery shop. My email requests to photograph the stills for journalistic purposes were ignored. Many online reviewers were quite upset by the “leave your devices behind” policy. In my mind that’s not really relevant; photography is allowed on the tour or it isn’t. My phone’s presence in my pocket is meaningless.

Tours here are quite limited; no more then 12 in a group and only three groups go out per day, except for the addition of a fourth in the busiest summer months. I get the impression that they turn away a lot of people who don’t plan ahead. In fact I saw it happen to a few people after my tour; apparently the third tour of the day was fully booked. As luck would have it though, I was the only person on the 1:00 tour.

My guide was very knowledgeable and answered my questions with great care and thought. We even spoke to the stillman briefly, as that part of their process is complex and somewhat unusual.

Current production is 4.3 liters of spirit per annum. Unpeated barley is sourced from the Black Isle (the local area of extremely fertile soil) and purchased from Bairds Maltings. The traditional floor maltings most likely ceased in the 1960’s when production was greatly expanded.

Like Balblair, Dalmore runs 24 hours a day, but they do shut down for 2 to 3 weeks when the salmon are running to ensure sufficient water levels in their source. The mash tun runs on a seven hour cycle, putting 48,000 liters of wash into each of the 60,000 liter wash backs. There are eight of those, allowing for a fermentation cycle of 50 hours. Liquid yeast is used here as well.

The still house is what makes Dalmore really different. There are eight stills, but each of them is unique in shape and size. The original two were installed in 1839. When they were delivered it was determined that the wash still was too tall to get in the building, so the top of the still was removed and a flat panel put in its place. The neck comes out of the side of the upper portion of the still. The spirit still has a copper jacket around its upper portion and in between there is a copper coil that cooling water runs through. This causes reflux during distillation, effectively increasing the height of the still. I’m not sure if this was the intended design or a modification to shorten the still so it would fit in the building but allowing it to produce the desired style of spirit.

A second set of stills was added 20 years later. They are similar in size and shape but not identical. When the distillery expanded in the 1960’s, two more pairs of stills were added. They are notably larger than the first two pairs, but of similar design. Like the older stills, the newer sets are similar to each other in size and shape, but with easily visible differences.

To make a consistent product they use what they call an unbalanced system. Low wines are combined together from all four wash stills before that liquid is used to charge the spirit stills. Then, new make from all four spirit stills is mixed together before it is filled into casks. 20 percent of production goes to single malt and 65,000 barrels are aging on-site. The tour ended back at the tasting room with a sample of the flagship 12 year old. Other drams could be purchased as well, so I had a wee bit of their King Alexander III bottling which sees time in six different types of casks.

The drive back up to Glenmorangie is only about 20 minutes, so I didn’t have to rush out after the tour. The visitor carpark at Glenmorangie is on higher ground to the left of the distillery. The older stone buildings that you see as you walk down the meandering stairway look quite splendid and don’t show any of the mechanical infrastructure that is part of any distillery. That has all been hidden out of site, along with the more industrial looking buildings that only show in the distance from a few viewpoints. It’s the same with the warehouses; the tourist are kept to the end of the grounds where the old dunnage style warehouse are, but further away and mostly out of site are more modern warehouses where barrels are stored vertically 11 high.

I was surprised to learn that photography wasn’t allowed on this tour. When I was at Ardbeg five years ago we were allowed to take pictures without any restrictions. The two distilleries have the same parent company and I had assumed that such policies were made on the corporate level.

The distillery dates to 1843, but has been expanded many times over the years. The original pagoda roof from the old maltings is still there, but the old kiln space is now occupied by the mill. 12 large stainless steel washbacks and the massive stainless steel mash tun that feeds them are located where the malting floors used to be. The building has modern steel construction inside and I believe only the outer walls are original at this point. Barley malting on site ended in 1977. The current malt, which is all sourced from Scotland, is peated to just 2 ppm. The source water is unusually hard at Glenmorangie. We have another example of liquid yeast being used, and the fermentation lasts 50 to 55 hours.

When the distillery was started in 1843 the owner purchased used gin stills, which are tall by design. That style has been followed as more stills have been added through the years, and Glenmorangie now has the tallest pot stills in Scotland. The distillery claims to have an unusually tight spirit cut.

We then made our way down to one of the oldest warehouses on site, which dated to 1843. We were told that almost all of the whisky is aged on site, with just a little extra warehousing in another part of Tain, as well as at Clynelish. Almost everything they make is aged in either first-fill or second-fill bourbon barrels, for a minimum of 10 years. Other casks types are only used for finishes or specialty bottlings. They also had four open casks for us to nose; Bourbon, Sherry, Port and Sauternes. None of the distillery’s production is currently going to blends.

We finished at the tasting room with the 10 year old. There was also a menu of drams available for purchase on an individual basis, so I tried the Tusail. This was a limited release made with floor-malted Maris Otter barley.

I spent a good amount of time wandering around photographing the buildings and grounds to let those samples pass through me before the lengthy journey to my next destination. The drive on the A9 along the coast from Tain to Wick is spectacular, especially at this time of year when the Gorse is in full bloom, lighting up the hillsides with patches of golden yellow.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Scotland 2017, day 3

When I was laying out the route for my journey I had two choices to get from Dalwhinnie to Glen Ord; continuing north on the A9 with a stop at Tomatin or a slight detour down to Fort William with a stop at Ben Nevis. I settled on the latter in part because that route would have me driving along the edge of Loch Ness. I also figured that any future trips to Speyside would have me passing reasonably close to Tomatin.

I stayed up quite late writing on the night of Day 2 and got even less sleep than the night before as I had ambitious plans for Day 3. I wanted to get in some hiking on this trip, something which was absent from my original Scotland trip five years prior. I didn’t plan such activities ahead of time because they are somewhat weather dependent, but it’s been beautiful outside since I arrived and I wanted to take advantage of that.

After a little research online and consulting the locals at the pub the night before, I settled on a hearty walk up Glen Nevis to Steall Falls. The road to the trailhead becomes more narrow and undulating as it goes up. Fields of sheep are on both sides and the mountain views are stunning. Eventually this turns to single track road as it climbs in elevation. The road finally ends at a large parking area where the trail begins. It’s steep and rocky with some precipitous drop-offs, but well constructed. Eventually the trail reached a broad, flat area where it continues with a very modest pitch. Steep mountainsides contain this area and the views are wide open.

Steall Falls can be seen in the distance and the trail eventually comes to the best viewing point of this majestic cascade which drops almost 350 feet. A spur trail includes a wire cable bridge over the nearby stream; it’s not for the faint of heart.

I spent about an hour and a half on the 2.25 mile trail. It took me some time to get down the lengthy road to town, and it was a little after 12:30 when I reached the distillery. Unfortunate the Ben Nevis website didn’t list specific tour times, so I got there five minutes after one started and would have to wait 40 minutes for the next. I considered skipping it, but changed my mind when I was told that photography would be allowed on the tour (and knowing that wouldn’t be the case at Glen Ord).

Ben Nevis is a bit odd in that they seem to heavily promote their similarly branded blends while almost ignoring their single malt. The source water for the distillery comes from high up on Ben Nevis (Scotland’s highest peak) and is collected in a reservoir in the hills behind the facility. Ben Nevis dates to 1825 and its founder, Long John MacDonald was a descendant of a ruler from the clan of the same name.

Unpeated malt is used, and 28 tons of it is delivered by truck three days a week. A two day fermentation takes place in eight washback. Six of them are stainless steel, but two are kept as Douglas Fir for the tourists to see. The distillery produced 1.5 million liters of alcohol last year from its four stills, but a new boiler should allow them to push that figure to 2 million this year.

The big surprise here was when the tour guide mentioned something about the methanol being boiled off. I didn’t catch everything he said and asked him to repeat it and threw in a few follow-up questions. He explained that the distillery takes a first cut from the spirit still and puts that into a separate tank. The heart of the run and the tails are then left together and filled into casks. The heads, which is primarily methanol, is then boiled off as a waste product. This seems quite unusual; all of the other distilleries that I’m familiar with cut the heads and the tails, combine them and re-distill them in the next batch that goes through the spirit still. I’ll have to investigate this further.

After the tour we were given a taste of their Nevis Dew Blue Label Blend. This is aged primarily in Sherry casks, bottled at 40% and contains whisky as young as 5 years old. All of the blends produced by the company have had their names updated from Ben Nevis to Nevis Dew to conform to new regulations that don’t allow blends to share names with single malts. I’ve certainly had worse whiskies, but it was nothing to write home about. I can’t quite figure out why they weren’t pouring their flagship 10 year single malt at the end of the tour. I had actually passed it up at the pub the night before on the assumption that I'd have it on the tour.

Time was tight, but I managed to stop for a visit at Urquhart Castle just before the drive north turned away from Lock Ness. 45 minutes was just enough for an expedited tour, but twice that would do the site better justice. The history is fascinating and the site is incredibly picturesque. If you’re there to photograph it, I’d suggest seeking off peak times to minimize tourists in your photos.

I made it to Glen Ord just in time for the 5:00 tour. This single malt is bottled under the Singleton brand, something Diageo for three of their single malts, each with its own market. The Glen Ord variant is sold only at the distillery and to the Asian markets.

The distillery is quite large, having gone through a major expansion about five years ago, and now produces 11 million liters of spirit per year. We walked through a mashing and fermenting room with one very large tun and 8 wooden washbacks, each holding 59,000 liters. The tour guide mentioned multiple mash tuns in a way that suggested more than one in addition to the one we saw. He also indicated that there were “many” more washbacks in other buildings. We saw the older still house with its six stills, but were told that the newer one houses an additional eight stills. However many washbacks there are, it's enough to allow the relatively long fermentation time of 72 hours.

The stills had a unique condenser configuration, but I’ll have to follow-up with more information about that. Two old pagoda style roofs indicate the former floor maltings, but now all of the distillery’s malt (unpeated) is supplied by the adjacent Glen Ord Maltings; a large commercial facility that supplies many of Diageo's distilleries.

The old dunnage warehouses on site hold 12,000 barrels, but all of the spirit is tankered away for cask entry. Most of it is aged in Diageo’s 3 million barrel facility to the south. The casks in the warehouses here are from a variety of distilleries to spread brand risk in case of fire. Some Glen Ord barrels were there; the guide also mentioned Talisker, and I saw one labeled Mortlach.

I was surprised to learn that only 40% of the whisky produced here goes to blends. It’s amazing that 60% of the production of such a large distillery can go just to the Asian markets. There are three bottlings in the lineup, a 12 year, a 15 year and an 18 year. I was told they are all vattings of sherry casks and bourbon barrels. The 15 is predominantly bourbon barrel aged and the other two are predominantly sherry cask aged, but the 12 year old receives a higher percentage of sherry cask liquid than the 18 year old does.

The tour ended with a taste of the 12 year. It was respectable, but not quite enticing enough to earn a spot in my suitcase. If miniatures of these three malts had been available, I would have snapped them up, probably two of each.

End of the night drams at the Royal Hotel Tain included an Aberlour 15 year at 40% (we get a 16 year instead in the U.S.), a 2006 Glenfarclas at 43% and a Provenance independent bottling of Glen Ord which was an 8 year old at 46%. Details are to follow.