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.

No comments: