Friday, 23 April 2010

Doric drams - Ardmore, Glen Garioch and Glendronach

The journey continues and as we get further into Aberdeenshire, the landscape flattens out. Its kind of pleasant but not exactly dramatic. To call it 'Highland' is akin to comparing Glenkinchie in East Lothian to Sgurr nan Gillean. Nevertheless, Ardmore, Glen Garioch and Glendronach are all Highland malts and they are somewhere to be found in the maze of roads on our map - a spaghetti junction compared to the simplicity of the Braemar highways and byways.

We eventually find Ardmore in the sleepy, and probably 'close-knit' village of Kennethmont. The distillery is certainly tightly knit as far as visitors are concerned. Not a soul is to be seen and phone calls and emails from my business-frau partner went unanswered. You can certainly smell the activity on the breeze though and we counted at least 22 maturation sheds on one side of the road. Shame it is closed to whisky tourists as we would've liked a deek at the source of this interesting dram. One of the best drams I've had was a heavily peated Ardmore at the SMWS which went under the title of 'I can't believe its not Islay'. We later learn that a visitor centre is currently being constructed at Ardmore.

We then have to ask directions to Glen Garioch at a friendly bakers in Insch. Aberdeenshire is the source of the oldest written Scots Gaelic but today the lingo of the proles and peasantry is Doric or at least heavily accented Scots English. Whatever, its a pleasure to hear. For some reason though, Garioch is pronounce 'geerie'.

We find Glen Garioch tucked behind rows of houses and narrow streets in the town of Old Meldrum. Indeed, 'Distillery Road' passes through the complex. Garioch is owned by the same people who run Bowmore and Auchentoshan. Whoever they are, the people we meet here are warm and friendly. They're also whisky enthusiasts and not just tolerant sales people/ tourist guides. We don't get to see the warehouses unfortunately and anyway, like many distilleries, most of the product is shipped off elsewhere to mature. We do get to taste the Garioch 12yo and Reserve. Unfortunately, there's a heavy oak undercurrent in both expressions which puts me off the dram a little. On the plus side, they're both bottled at 48% and are unchillfiltered. I'd love to try one straight from the cask. A great welcome was had here and i hope Garioch goes from strength to strength.

It's not far to Glen Dronach. The distillery has a kind of 60s factory appearance, a bit like Caol Ila. They're expecting us and we're quickly ushered onto a tour that's already underway. The guide is a local lass - mare Doric tongue - with an obvious love for whisky and good sense of humour. The tour is detailed and informative though the only glimpse of any casks is through a Diageo-style window in the shop/ dramming room. Another two locals are on the tour and the craic is great though getting 3 or 4 drams to sample certainly helps to break the ice. Again, this East Highland oakiness is present in GD though i certainly like the Grand Cru expression which was released especially for the Danish market.

Of particular interest to my partner in dramming is the chance for visiting whisky tourists to go on the 'connoisseurs' tour. This involves been taken around by the ex-distillery manager of 40 years experience and getting 6 drams, some drawn straight from the cask. Looks like a return is on the cards. GD is owned by BenRiach and several of the BR range are on offer here too.

We aim to hit Cragganmore on the way to our next bed in Nethy Bridge but we are disappointed to find that this Diageo distillery shuts its door at 4. Never mind, we stand around gawking at the collapsed warehouse/ shed which seems to have flattened one car and damaged a forklift too. Meanwhile, I'm still breathing Glen Dronach.

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Onwards to Dark and Royal Lochnagar

Leaving Pitlochry behind, we continue onwards towards Braemar. This takes us through Highland Perthshire and Aberdeenshire with some amazing landscapes. This is Scotland at its best - distillery tours, glorious scenery and April sunshine. A stunning clash of ancient environment and and an auld culture, though both have been scarred. The Braemar region is where the last speakers of Aberdeenshire Gaelic were recorded in the 1980s and the indigenous tongue has left her footprints everywhere here.

Today though, this republican Gael and East German child of the DDR are heading to Royal Lochnagar, one of crown jewels of the Kingdom of Diageo. This is a small distillery and neither of us have visited it before nor tasted the malt. Iain Banks praises the place in his book Raw Spirit and sure enough, it's a cute and almost perfect distillery. You could imagine a Saxe-Coburg wife or Phil the Greek using the place as their local when on holiday.

We expect another well manicured and impeccably safe Diageo clone-distillery. Expectations sink further when we are greeted by a rather stiff lady with a royal accent and grey Thatcher style bouffant helmet. We guess that for women of a certain age in Royal Deeside, this is the height of cool. We don't flee but persist in our quest. The tour however is pretty good and we get an informative look at almost all aspects of production, including an aerial view into their open mash tun.

In Dutyfree Warehouse 1, there is a selection of casks from each of the Diageo family of distilleries. Our mouths water as we eye a cask of Lagavulin. Unfortunately, we are not invited to 'get intae them' but are allowed a sniff of Lochnagar from the cask. Apparently, there is a large group of Diageo employees visiting Lochnagar on the malt advocate course and the casks are there to further their tutelage in the art of tasting and blending. Its strictly off-bounds to even the local employees, nevermind eager visitors.

The free dram of Royal Lochnagar 10yo at the end is a good one. We get the opportunity to compare it to some spirit and are talked through the flavours. We are told that there is no cask strength available to buy and very little ever makes it to independent bottlers. However, we spy a self-bottled RL at 46% in the nearby George Strachan grocery in Braemar. On return to Auld Reekie, we are delighted to discover that the proles in Cadenheads had liberated a cask and were selling of bottles of the RL single-cask 12yo at 58% for a very reasonable price to any horny-handed son of toil who wished one. Excellent stuff.

We retire to our hostel, dreaming of a whisky republic.

Friday, 16 April 2010

On the road - Blair Athol and Edradour

After a most satisfactory wee jaunt to Bladnoch in the depth of Lowlands, myself and interested partner head north to sample some of the highlights of the Highland whiskies. First stop is...

Pitlochry (Gaelic: Baile Choichridh). Population 2564. Average age 73.
The interested partner is actually present in a semi-professional capacity as she is scouting potential distilleries to add to whisky tours. She is looking for something different but still authentic and natural with which to impress whisky connoisseurs from the continent. Can we find this at Blair Athol? How will a distillery with a delicious malt present itself in a town of woolen mill shops that is a mecca to grey haired tourists?

Blair Athol has long been a major part of the Bells blend. This itself comes under the considerable wing of Diageo and as such raised suspicions. However, upon arriving, we find a building yard and some serious repair and maintenance work underway. It appears that Blair Athol is closed to the public until July. Never mind. We're given a brief tour of the highlights. Everything is geared towards whisky tourists. Blair Athol is not so much a working distillery as a spotless example of health and safety regulations followed to the letter.

My partner wonders if the potential whisky tasters will be shown the warehouses. Sure. We are then lead into a kind of glass tardis built inside one of the warehouses. The casks are there for viewing but are strictly hands-off.

On the plus-side, Blair Athol does cater for connoisseurs and on its 'special tour' will furnish the whisky lover with a dram of the Flora and Fauna 12yo, a 15yo cask strength and a chance to draw a dram straight from a sherry-butt that's been laid aside for the purpose. Sounds good.

The downside to Blair Athol is this:
  • why keep this beautiful malt a secret? Apparently 98% of BA goes into the Bells' blend. The meagre remainder is bottled as a single malt - mostly for the Flora and Fauna expression. The F&F at 43% is superb. But even this is in short supply. We were told that at one point last year, the Blair Athol distillery had NO bottles of its own malt for sale in the shop. Other expressions seem to be running out fast and independent bottlers too are getting little or nothing.
  • bitching. Apparently, war has been declared on nearby independently owned Edradour. It is not clear to us who was the aggressor but neither distillery did much to sell itself to us in terms of PR. Does the interested visitor want to hear their guide or barman gurning about the big/small competitor up the road? No. Keep it to yourselves. If we want whinging, we'll tune into Eastenders or put it in our blogs.
From Blair Athol, its up to the hidden glen in which Edradour resides. Here, we find a new charge of £5 for the pleasure of accessing the site!!! This is not a charge for the tour but for actually setting foot on their land, entering their well stocked bar and shop! Has Edradour gone Diageo?! The Edradour tour has been free up until a few weeks ago. And while we can understand a modest charge being made for a tour, this seems to be born of sheer greed.

We gatecrash anyway and head for the 'tasting bar'. This is a gem. A range of malts from both Edradour and the Signatory range are offered at decent prices. A peated BenRiach single cask is a mere £2. A similar single cask offering from a closed distillery such as Linlithgow, Brora or Port Ellen is £6. The downside here is the rotund and surly barman - he that apparently fired the first salvo in anger at Blair Athol down the road. 'Ceud mile failte' as it says on Pitlochry's sign? Not here. We get given a dram that we didn't order, that isn't even on the menu but funnily enough, costs more than twice the price. Not the end of world but its an aspect of our tourist market that should have died out. So, for what its worth, Edradour should:
  • drop the entrance fee altogether or charge something that fits the short-lived experience you get with Scotland's smallest distillery
  • give your employees higher wages and/or more free booze - whatever it takes to make them appear cheerful and welcoming. Maybe give yon dour barman his retirement and sign him up to the cast of Eastenders where he can whinge and gurn to his heart's content.
Pitlochry though has an excellent whisky shop in the form of Robertsons in Atholl Road. Friendly service from well established locals and an excellent stock of all the usual bottles as well as many interesting independent bottlings. A bottle of the superb Ileach Cask Strength at £33 - apparently a Lagavulin - was enough to restore my faith in Perthshire's hospitality.

Sunday, 11 April 2010

Bladnoch - whisky of the Gall-Gael

Bladnoch is the most southerly of the Lowland malts. Its home of Galloway is the land of the foreigner-Gael which makes reference to the Norse-Gaelic population that used to reside here. Non-Scots still make up a sizable percentage of the population. One in particular has made a notable contribution to maintaining local traditions in the form of whisky distilling.

Irishman Ray Armstrong first considered buying the mothballed distillery with a view of turning the site into a housing development. The distillery was previously owned by United Distillers who were later subsumed by the not always benevolent Diageo. UD wanted the distillery closed due to perceived unprofitability but at the same time were reluctant to allow someone else to operate the business in competition. Eventually in 2000, 6 years after purchasing the distillery, UD allowed Armstrong to start distilling whisky again.

UD also left behind 11 large warehouses which are currently used to mature casks for the likes of Arran and Loch Lomond. As production of Bladnoch currently seems to be limited to two months of the year, renting out the space in these aircraft hangers is a valuable source of income.

Bladnoch still have old stock from the UD days which is bottled as 16, 17, 18 and 19 year olds. The 19yo sherry cask was our favourite over the bourbon. There are already a number of bottlings from the new era at 8yo, some at 46% and some at cask strength. There's also a peated 8yo at CS which marries the smoke and slight oily feel to more typical Lowland flavours. If it was a choice between this and the Benromach Peat Smoke, Bladnoch would take it. Pick of the bunch though is the Distiller's Choice - a very smooth and tasty 3 year old bottled at 46%. Unbelievably smooth for the age.
Bladnoch also offer a range of their own independent bottlings at CS. These are available to anyone willing to join their forum. Compared to the prices offered at SMWS, Bladnoch are very reasonable. A case in point being a delicious 25yo Caol Ila at 54.3% at £44. SMWS had a price tag almost double this a on a similarly aged Caol Ila recently. Also offered to forum members are the likes of Benriach, Glenburgie and Linkwood as well as some single grain offerings from Cambus and Invergordon.

So, get enrolled on the forum then get yourself down to the oft-neglected Wigtownshire, sample and buy.

Bladnoch Distillery, Bladnoch, Wigtown. Scotland. DG8 9AB

Btw... Royal Mile Whiskies have an interesting piece on their own visit to Bladnoch.