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.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Scotland 2017, day 2

I should start by mentioning that the drink driving laws (that’s what they say over here, rather than the “drunk driving” we are accustomed to in the States) have changed in Scotland since my last visit in 2012. Back then the legal limit was the same as it is at home (though they measure it with different units, which gets a little confusing), but in 2014 the Scottish government lowered the limit to slightly more than half of what it had been.

Many people here seem outright paranoid about the subject, and some are even a little misinformed. I’ve had a few people tell me that it is “zero-tolerance” and even rinsing with mouthwash can get you in trouble. More well-informed people urge reasonable caution. A man of my weight (which is pretty average) can safely have one drink and still drive. Anything beyond that without waiting some time would be a grey area. At Glenturret they had little plastic to-go containers with lids so drivers could take their two tours drams home. I drank one on site and took the other with me, which seemed to greatly worry the tour guide.

The original plan for day two was to take a morning tour of Edradour, follow that with some sort of hiking in the Pitlochry area, make my way over to Dalwhinnie for the last tour of the day and then on to my final destination of Fort William. My plan changed a little when I learned that the distillery maintains a bar that is well stocked with many of their limited bottlings where drams are offered at very reasonable prices (this is only open to visitors who have taken the tour). From the core of Pitlochry it’s about a 2.5 mile drive Edradour. There is a shorter walking route that follows paths in the woods along the Edradour Burn. Half way up that trail is a stunning waterfall called Black Spout. My new plan was to drive to the distillery, take the tour, have a dram at the bar, hike down to the waterfall and photograph it and then hike back up to the car park.

Edradour is a beautiful little distillery which employs many traditional methods in its whisky making. The tour started in the old malt barn, which stopped being used in the 1970’s. Conventional whisky tours reward you for you patience with a dram or two at the end. Edradour starts you off with them (we tasted the flagship 10 year old, as well as Ballachin, their heavily peated offering). It makes much more sense to let the body process the alcohol during the hour long tour when one considers the new drink driving regulations.

We then proceeded through a cross section of the lower portion of the kiln. We were below the mesh floor; a portion of the metal that used to direct the hot air up had been cut away. This gave a very unique perspective. Our guide was quite new and admitted that she was still learning a lot. She may not have had all of the technical details down, but she did notice my heightened sense of interest and the numbers of pictures I was taking. When she brought that up, I told her that I’d been waiting several years to get there and see the Morton’s Refrigerator, and was very excited to be able to watch it operate and photograph it.

I also mentioned that the old cast iron unit had been replaced with the current stainless steel one about eight years ago. At that point, my guide mentioned that the old one was on display on the upper floor of the old malting barn, and offered to take me up there to see it after the tour. My day couldn’t have gotten any better. Actually, it did; she also got me in for a brief chat with the distiller so I could get a little more historical information.

But the big news at Edradour was that the distillery is expanding. A new building is going up on the other side of the burn, essentially mirroring the current warehouse. I believe this will be a combination still house / warehouse, allowing the historic buildings to stay as they are. The architecture looks sympathetic to the existing structures, and they are replicating all of the equipment, including the worm tubs and Morton’s Refrigerator (the distiller mentioned that the replacement one put in eight years ago cost £60,000). The owner of Forsyths of Rothes has been commissioned to replicate the stills, and when the owner came down to inspect the originals he was able to determine that his grand father had built them by hand.

I finished with a beautiful 14 year Cask Strength, Oloroso Sherry matured offering, then made my way down to the Black Spout Waterfall as planned. I even had a bit of time for some shopping in Pitlochry before making the 45 minute drive to Dalwhinnie. I stopped at a traditional sweets shop to pick up a few items which might expand my tasting notes vocabulary (and have a new love for something called tablet). I also stopped into a liquor store called Robertson’s. It was recommended to me by a few people as it has recently switched over almost exclusively to whisky and always has several bottles open for sampling. I tried a store exclusive, which was and independently bottled Blair Athol that was quite young, I think 7 years. It was quite nice, but I noticed a similar 12 year old that was in a 200 ml bottle. I went with that to conserve suitcase space.

Dalwhinnie is another camera-shy Diageo distillery. I’ll be honest and say that the house style doesn’t suit me (I don’t dislike it, I’m more just indifferent toward it. But it is an interesting distillery and if you’re driving to the northwest part of the country you will go by it on the way; so I decided to stop in for a visit.

The distillery is the coldest and highest in Scotland, with an average annual temperature of 6° C (43° F) and an elevation of 1100 feet above sea level. I was on a tour with a large group from Italy, some of whom spoke very little English. The tour guide was covering the basics slowly for them as we stood in a room with just the mash tun. My eyes and my mind wandered, and looking up I realized that we were in an old malt kiln. It had to have been; there would be no other reason to build the style of roof that would lead up to one of the two pagodas that were visible from the outside. Just as I was about to ask, the guide started to explain what the room had originally been.

I’ve been in a couple of kilns and this one was far larger than the other’s I’d seen. I would estimate in at 30x30 feet. There must have been a second one under the other pagoda as well. Dalwhinnie would have had a large capacity even in its early days. The distillery had burned to the ground in 1934, but was rebuilt soon after, so these rooms would date to the mid 1930’s. Malting in-house ceased in 1968. It has never expanded beyond two stills, but they are quite large (17,000 liters and 16,000 liters) and the distillery’s current output is 1.5 million liters per annum.

The worm tubs are another interesting feature. They are very large, and each has 115 meters of copper tubing. They are the more traditional looking wooden vat style, but that wasn’t always the case. The original ones were rectangular cast iron tanks, but those were replaced with modern shell-and tube condensers during a refurbishment in the early 1980’s. After about seven years it was determined that the change had affected the character of the spirit too much (not necessarily making it worse, just different) and they switched back to worm tubs. Presumably they went to the more visually appealing wooden style of tanks because these pieces of equipment are a prominent feature on the front of the building and abut the visitor’s car park.

After a brief pass through a barrel warehouse we went back to the visitor’s center and tasted two samples. The flagship 15 year old and a relatively new release called Winter’s Gold. This is made from distillate produced between October and March, when the water running though the worm tubs is a little colder and their effect is enhanced (the spirit condenses faster, further reducing copper contact). This bottling is a marriage of sherry and bourbon casks. It bears no age statement, but is said to be less than 8 years old.

The visitor’s center has a nice selection of whiskies on offer for drams to purchase after (or instead of) the tour; the 15 year, the Distiller’s Edition, a distillery only bottling, the Winter’s Gold, a 25 year limited release and a bottle of cask strength (which was filled just for samples, that’s not a bottle that can be purchased anywhere. The 25 year was bottling in 2012, dating it to the period when the worm tubs were absent and making it an interesting anomaly.

I took the last tour at 4:00 and the visitor’s center closes at 4:45. The tour takes about 45 minutes, so there’s no chance for people taking the last tour to sample the above mentioned offerings (unless they had the foresight to do so beforehand). You would think they would keep the place open for 15 more minutes for those who take the last tour of the day.

My evening in Fort William did include a few interesting drams, but it’s late and I’m going to pack a lot in tomorrow, so that will have to wait for a follow-up.

Edit: I should keep tabs on what I drank at the pub each night just to keep a record, even if I follow up later with tasting notes or other details. In the case of night two, I ended up having dinner and a few drinks at a pub called Grog and Gruel, This is on High Street, Fort William’s brick-paved, pedestrian marketplace. After dinner drams included Longmorn, The Distiller’s Choice and Bunnahabhain, Ceobanach.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Scotland 2017, day 1

A Sunday night flight out of Boston and a short layover in Reykjavik, Iceland had me land in Glasgow mid to late morning today (Monday). There were some variables in timing after my arrival that I could not control, so I had planned tours at two distilleries that I was curious about, but would be okay if I missed one of them. These were somewhat obscure distilleries that just happened to be on my path of travel.

My plan to reach the Orkney Islands by the weekend meant that I would meander north-ward by about two hours a day. That had me staying in Pitlochry on the day of my journey. This small, quaint village showcases many old, stone buildings which are tightly spaced on narrow roads cut across the hillside that rises up above the River Tummel. Further north lay the mountains of Cairngorm National Park.

If I slept on my flights over it was for less than five minutes, leaving me a little foggy headed for the afternoon. The line to get through customs at the airport was painfully long and slow, and I could feel it eating into my distillery tour time. Once that was through and my luggage had been retrieved, I was met by a kindly rental car agent who gave me a free upgrade after I regaled him with tales of my intended journey.

Left-handed driving requires a bit of an adjustment period and on the highways around the airport isn’t exactly the best place for that to happen. The roundabouts are particularly daunting. Needless to say, I didn’t make great time as I moved north toward my first destination; the Glenturret distillery. I pulled in just after 1:30, which had been my goal, with the assumption that they gave tours regularly on the half hour. I was correct, and they let me join on to a small group a few minutes after their tour began.

This southern Highland distillery is located in Crieff, a little more than half way from Glasgow to Pitlochry. The guide was quite informative and I learned a lot from her, but I’ll follow up with most of that when I taste the 10 year old miniature which I acquired at their shop. The distillery is owned by the Edrington Group, who also owns Highland Park, Glenrothes and Macallan.

Glenturret is company’s least known and least promoted distillery, but it’s the closest to the population centers of Glasgow and Edinburgh. For that reason, it’s not surprising that the company has made it the home of their Famous Grouse blend. While 90% of the distillery’s output goes into the Famous Grouse, the tiny facillity only makes 170,000 liters per year, so it still may not be the blend’s most prominent single malt. Sadly, a company-wide policy prohibits photography inside their distilleries, so images will be lacking here.

The other interesting fact I learned was that Glenturret uses unpeated barley malt for half of the year and moderately peated (9 to 10 ppm) for the rest of the year. Glenturret single malts are only sold at the distillery, online, and in a few specialty stores. We were treated to small samples of their peated bottling as well as their Triple Wood, which is aged in Bourbon barrels, American Oak Sherry casks and European Oak Sherry casks. Both were quite tasty.

By the time I purchased a few miniatures and took a few pictures around the grounds, it was after 3:00. I pushed the little Peugeot 208 pretty hard along the narrow winding road going north, even giving the passenger side tires a hard rub on the curb when some oncoming traffic got a little too close on a tight turn.

But I did get to Blair Athol just in time to catch the last tour of the day at 4:00. This distillery is on the southeast edge of Pitlochry. Owned by Diageo and an adherent to their strict anti-photography policy, images will again be lacking here (in spite of my attempts to make arrangements in advance). Like Glenturret, this is a beautifully picturesque old distillery with a complex of interconnected buildings.

In this case though, production is much higher, at 3 million liters per annum. Only 0.3% of that is bottling as single malt which equates to 10 to12 thousand bottles per year. Most of that is sold in the distillery shop as a 12 year old.. The whisky from Blair Athol is a major contributor to the Bell’s Blend, with 26% of production going to it (and the rest going into other blends). As such, the distillery is the home to the Bell’s brand, though it’s not promoted there to the same extent that Famous Grouse is at Glenturret.

We tasted the 12 year old distillery bottling at the end of the tour. It was quite nice, but I plan to follow up with another sample and more production details in the future.

Once I’d settled into my lodgings, it was time for a much needed meal. I went to The Old Mill Inn in the heart of Pitlochry, at the suggestion of the B&B owner where I was staying. Wanting to jump right into tradition, I went with the haggis stuffed chicken. A wee little pudding (I say that sarcastically) for dessert still left a little room for whisky. The bar had a well rounded selection of about 40 single malts. Most of them were the flagship offerings of the distilleries they represented, but there was a wide array from the nearby Edradour distillery. Close to a dozen of her specialty bottlings lined the shelf.

I started off with a bottling called The Fairy Flag, which was aged for 15 years and bottled at 46%. It was nutty, malty and sherry fruit driven, as you would expect from the house style. Compared to the Flagship 10 year old, which I reviewed here, it was more full and bold, and it was drier with more of a spice driven character. The spice was fairly dominant on the middle of the finish, but very late in the finish a nutty oaky character came to the fore.

I finished with a single cask, sherry butt matured 10 year old which was bottled at 60%. This one was a beast, with big, brash sherry fruit that came crashing down in waves. Somehow, thought, it kept an even keel. I can’t wait to tour the distillery in the morning.