From tours of usually publicly closed distilleries to probing whisky masterclasses and tastings.
‘Do you know what that is?’ asks Mark Fresson, pointing at a strange, small green hill. I hazard a guess of an ancient burial mound. ‘Nope. That’s Imperial.’
It seems churlish to point out to him that I am, sort of, correct. We’re standing in the stillhouse of Dalmunach distillery, Chivas Brothers’ new 10m lpa (litres of pure alcohol) plant on the banks of the Spey, a distillery which, it’s fair to say, is one of the most stunning of new builds. Mark was the architect.
What could have been a shed by a river, a functional box containing whisky equipment, is instead a mix of soft curves and three long arms mimicking a sheaf of barley.
The bowed front of the building is made out of reclaimed wood from Imperial’s washbacks, the massive stills – twice as big as Imperial’s but the same shape – commune in a circle in the massive, glass-framed stillhouse. The impression is of attention to detail, the need for aesthetics, as well as pipework and engineering in an industrial building.
Manager Trevor Buckley pours a dram of the new make which has flowed down a copper waterfall into the receiver. It’s filled with blue fruits and grape skin, blackcurrant and hint of Ribena with a clean finish and just a drying touch of cereal.
Outside, Imperial, that most unlucky of distilleries, slumbers under grass. In the evening, bats will flit above its tomb, snatching gnats from the air and, perhaps, returning to roost in the red-brick cave which Chivas Bros had to build to house them when their former home was demolished. That’s a first for me.
Dalmunach’s hidden away, as is its neighbour, the mighty Dailuaine. They are blending malts, that term which is used, somewhat disparagingly, for whiskies which aren’t commonly bottled as single malts.
That doesn’t mean their make is inferior. In fact, you could argue that one reason they are invisible distilleries is because their make is so highly prized. Speyside is hoaching with sites like these; its past has been built on quiet service.
Clean lines: Dalmunach’s design embraces aesthetics as well as practicality
My next destination was a car park. Admittedly there was a marquee protecting me from the snell wind, but there was no hiding the fact that it was a car park. The Craigellachie Hotel’s car park to be precise.
Inside, Cadenhead’s Mark Watt, all suited and booted, was sitting down with his guests to a food and whisky lunch. Out here, it was cold. Writer, know thy place.
There was, however, central heating in the form of a bodega full of Sherried whiskies which my partner in crime Charlie MacLean and I chatted through for a couple of hours with a tentful of hardy souls huddled in heavy jackets.
A couple of copitas of Sherry (a fino and oloroso) to start with and then into a conversation about wine influence, oak influence, refill, distillery character. We’d been bountifully supplied with cask samples by Bob Dalgarno of Macallan, and Brian Kinsman of Glenfiddich, including a Macallan PX cask, an opaque 9-year-old Glenfiddich from first fill, a gentle 21-year-old from a third fill butt, followed by Rothes ‘78 and a meaty treat of Benrinnes 21.
There was more whisky than glasses, and I had one half-litre of Macallan to share – an astoundingly rich and complex nine-year-old from first fill.
Part of the deal of winning the International Brand Ambassador title is you have to take the gigantic ceremonial quaich with you. No glasses, the need for one more dram, a giant quaich? Sorted. In it went and the sharing cup was passed around and drained, but with due reverence and appreciation.
These were whiskies which would never see the light of day on their own, they were components, adding structure and framework to single malts or blends, the hidden engineering of a whisky, their architects the whisky makers, men and women who don’t need the bright lights of fame, but quietly serve.
There was more to come, with a dash to Strathisla and a two-hour blind tasting on blending. Blind not because I’m a bastard (a term used somewhat regularly as the tasting progressed), but because that removes prejudice and allows you to discuss and understand how flavours exhibit themselves, and then how a blender could use them and fit them into his (or her) creation.
Among our samples a peppy Tormore, all jazz hands and pineapple, a thick, banana cake Strathclyde and more: sherried Longmorn, a relaxed, mature Strathisla, smoky Glenlivet (I know, that was evil) and then a vatting of the malts which go into Chivas Regal 12, then Chivas 18 at cask strength.
It was fun – well, I enjoyed it. The quaich was passed around again, now with a blend in it, elements quietly holding together to make a greater whole. It seemed very Speyside.
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The second day was filled with exclusive distillery tours, a blending class and raucous dancing.