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.

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