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.

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