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.


Dave Lowry said...

Hey Mike. Love this first post on your return to Scotland, Carla and I just read it in our tent and we're really looking forward to reading about the rest of your trip. Was great to bump into you today, thank you for sharing the knowledge and nuggets of information from the tours, keep doing it. We especially love your descriptions on how it tastes and smells, something I personally struggle with doing.

Good luck on the roundabouts here in the U.K. in your wee Peugeot. Hope to bump into you again at another distellery.

Dave and Carla.
(The cycling couple from Aberlour)

Ps. How was 23 year old Aberlour from The Mash Tun this evening?

VT Mike said...

Hi Dave. It was great to meet you and Carla, and nice to be on a tour with someone else who was excited to drink the wash rather than just dip a finger in it. I've been doing this for quite a while and I still struggle with the descriptions. I usually just keep drinking until the words come to me. The 23 year old may have been a bit past its prime, it was pretty oaky. I guess that's the price you have to pay on the hunt for the cracking good ones. Enjoy the rest of your journey.