Whisky is a key part of Fèis Ìle, an annual celebration of Gaelic history, poetry, song and dance.
From the Editors
Shorts from our editorial team
31 May 2016
Looking back on my first Fèis Ìle, I think two things in particular surprised me: the funnels; and the abundant sunshine. For anyone who visited the festival this year, the latter – barring one damp, midgy afternoon on Jura – needs no explanation. We’ll get to the funnels later.
Even Jura had its moment in the sun. The decision to split its distillery day in two paid off with a glorious Wednesday. Everywhere else, from the exuberant birthday celebrations at Lagavulin to the practically tropical Ardbeg Night shindig a week later, had no reason to complain. ‘You should have been here last year,’ said one veteran Fèisophile with a sad shake of the head. ‘Hideous. Absolutely hideous.’
Every distillery does it slightly differently during Fèis. As ever, there were queues, most notably at Bowmore, where the fervour to get hold of this year’s bottlings had the dizzy air of the January sales or the first day at Wimbledon. Manager David Turner left the distillery on Tuesday night at about 9.45pm, to be greeted by a dozen hardened Bowmore groupies, desperate to get their hands on one of the 200 Vintage Edition bottles the following morning.
Others played it differently; there were queues at Lagavulin and Kilchoman, sure, but there were also sufficient quantities of whisky available to satisfy everyone (I think). Ardbeg and Bunnahabhain put their Fèis bottlings up for sale on the Monday; Ardbeg’s and Jura’s will also be sold more widely afterwards.
There’s a debate to be had here: at one end of the spectrum, the desire to give festival-goers something special and exclusive – but what if you end up disappointing hundreds, who queue for hours only to come away with a bottling from the core range, a fridge magnet and a baseball cap?
On the other hand, why bother to come all the way to Islay to snag that Fèis bottling if you can order it off the internet a few days later? Somewhere between these two poles, a happy medium must exist.
Night and day: Ardbeg’s open day was perhaps the most inventive and original
There were one or two other gripes among the dedicated festival-goers. While some distilleries made a clear effort to innovate and offer new attractions and activities to keep things fresh for long-time visitors – Ardbeg being perhaps the most shining example – others stuck to the same formula as before. There’s a fine line between ‘tried and tested’ and tedium.
Contrast this feeling with the buzz surrounding this year’s Spirit of Speyside festival, where visitors were spoilt for choice, with hundreds more events taking place in a much shorter period than the Fèis. Is it just that more distilleries = greater competition = more creativity and dynamism?
Accommodation is another issue. Of course Ileach business owners want to make the most of their busiest week of the year, but when the punters decide that hiring a camper van is a cheaper and better option than taking a room, something’s gone slightly awry. Reports of vacancies and cancellations reinforce the point, as does the sight of mobile homes trying to edge past each other on the narrow roads to Kilchoman or Bunnahabhain.
At the end of what was almost entirely a joyous and sun-filled week, these might sound like ungracious quibbles, but an event like Fèis has to keep asking itself difficult and searching questions to become even better than before, and to keep those utterly passionate whisky nuts flocking to this small island from all over the world.
And the funnels? I first spotted them at Jura, then they resurfaced at Bunnahabhain when, as a masterclass concluded, the two people either side of me surreptitiously decanted the remains of their cask samples into sample bottles (always best to use a funnel when you’ve had a few drams), carefully inscribing them with a handy marker pen.
Beyond recalling Islay's proud smuggling heritage, it also prompted me to wonder what will become of these whiskies. Retasted later, at leisure? Or taken home to Germany, Finland and South Africa, to be squirrelled away and then dug out again at some future date – Islay malt's bootleg tapes?
Either way, it illustrates the kind of near-obsessive fascination that this annual whisky extravaganza inspires. Only at Fèis…
24 May 2016
‘There’s a slow food festival in the Burren next weekend.’ Leslie Williams was giving me the hard sell. ‘You should come…’ The last night of talk at Ballymaloe followed the same pattern as always when gently lubricated friends sit round the table. You don’t want things to end… a few more days are needed to finish conversations and deepen relationships. Time runs away from our plotting and scheming.
His idea was a good one – stopping off at the festival, then hiring a boat and bobbing under the Cliffs of Moher eating the Burren Smokehouse’s wild salmon and sipping whiskey. It might have been the wonderful, and rare, Alicante wine he was dosing me with, but for more than a second I swithered.
Islay was calling though, and I had to get there as quickly as I could, which turned out to be not as quickly as you might imagine. Drive to Cork, train to Dublin, bus to Dublin airport… and a wait. Things did take a turn for the better when I asked for a Bloody Mary at the bar and got two. Maybe it’s the accent – and you can take that whatever way you wish.
In any case, I slept all the way from Dublin to Glasgow. As I sat waiting for FlyBe to consult their Bumper Book of Excuses and choose one to apply to the inevitable delay to the Islay flight, I mused that with a bit more planning I could have grazed my way up the Wild Atlantic Way trail to Ballycastle, then get a RIB across to Islay. Next year.
It would have been appropriate. The sea was the great roadway of the past, carrying wisdom, goods, warfare and the gospel. Islay’s place names are a mix of Norse and Gaelic, evidence of the meeting of sea-faring cultures from the north and south.
Distilling could have nipped across from Ballycastle to Islay with the Macbeathas at the start of the 14th century. Islay is not remote, or isolated, but a crossroads, a fulcrum in terms of geography, politics and knowledge.
When I finally reached Port Ellen, I looked down the street to where the red ‘T’ of the Ardview shone in the gloaming like a blood stain, beckoning me. I like the Ardview: it’s one of those old west coast pubs which seems to be part boat, a place of creaking wood and hidden rooms, its windows battened down, sheltering the drinking crew from the storms of life raging outside. The door to the lounge bar is painted shut as if to say: ‘This is a public place.’
Final destination: The pink-and-blue dawn at a revitalised Port Ellen
Big Margaret’s curry house has been transformed into the very smart SeaSalt Bistro. Soon there was a clattering midden of scallop shells beside me. All for a minuscule price, with free hairdressing advice thrown in.
Men in kilts wander past – a sure sign of overseas visitors. The bar of the Islay Hotel is bouncing with music as drams are drunk and elbows are bent again and again, the fumes of peat wreathing themselves around the room. Port Ellen, after years of decline, is alive once more.
Now it’s morning. The loch is calm, a pink-and-blue dawn as housemartins and jackdaws fuss about the eaves. In a few hours I’ll wander along the road to Laphroaig and then up to Lagavulin, where I’ve been promised some unusual cocktails.
23 May 2016
There is a noted phenomenon in the world of food and drink called ‘The Ballymaloe Trickle-Down Effect’. A thought, or philosophy, or technique starts at Ballymaloe House Hotel and Cookery School in Co Cork and slowly permeates culture in Ireland, then globally.
Every year, when the skies are cornflower blue and the feeling of potentiality is bursting from the ground, Ballymaloe hosts a Litfest of Food & Wine, to which the migratory birds of the culinary and libatory world flock in order to discuss and debate.
It’s a place which links people, creates connections. On Saturday night, for example, the talk was of psychobiotics and kimchi, kefir, the Viagra-like potential of nettles, and olive oil production on Lesbos. The conversations drifted from wine to gin to stovies, all underpinned by a belief in provenance, diversity, tradition, modernisation and a fierce love of the local. Is whisky part of this? Damned right it is.
Yesterday afternoon I spent an hour co-presenting a class with Kevin O’Gorman, Irish Distillers’ master of maturation (yes, that is his job title). We were talking wood, oak type, flavour, mechanisms and the effects on single pot still whiskeys.
He and the team had done the heavy lifting, I just rambled on about the drams. Give me a Redbreast and I’m happy. It was the last whiskey, though, which opened up a new world.
IDL’s Midleton Dair Ghaelach is finished in Irish oak casks. It’s more than that, however. It’s the product of a six-year programme which covered sourcing, coopering, maturation and then releasing a whiskey which not only named the type of oak used, but which forest it came from, and which specific tree was used.
Oak is central to Ireland. Dair (oak) was the seventh letter of the Ogham alphabet, it gives us Derry and Kildare (church of the oak), it formed the sacred groves of old, and it gave timber for ships, houses and palaces.
The only reasons why distillers in Ireland and Scotland use second-hand casks is because the native forests were clear-cut. If they had been managed, then the whiskies would have been significantly different.
From tiny acorns: Could anyone in Scotch emulate Irish Distillers’ innovation?
The first issue faced by Kevin and his colleague Ger Buckley (Ireland’s number one cooper), therefore, was finding the oak. Ireland has the second smallest coverage of forest in Europe – a mere 10%, only 1% of which is native woodland. Although there is a reforestation programme under way, there’s not a lot of mature oak about.
Certainly a dramatic change from the days, Kevin claimed, when it was said that a monkey could swing its way from Kinsale to Derry without touching the ground. I’m still not quite sure what’s more surprising: the extent of the forest, or the fact that there were once Irish monkeys.
They sourced 10 trees from Ballaghtobin Estate in Co Kilkenny which, followed by Ger, were coopered into hogsheads in Spain, given a medium toast, then returned to Ireland to be filled with a blend of three types of American oak-matured pot still whiskey for a 10-month period of finishing. The casks from each tree were kept separate.
The first batch were all Quercus robur, but Ireland’s terroir makes this wider-grained, with more tannin, higher extract and a different flavour profile. They have subsequently felled, or identified, Quercus petraea and Quercus cerris (aka Turkey oak) from other forests.
Traceability, provenance – and different flavour profiles. Forget single estate, we’re now in the realm of single tree. Only Buffalo Trace has gone further in terms of wood research, I suspect.
The result? A whiskey with pot still’s unctuous nature, but a completely new flavour profile – there’s added roasted nuts and spices and a heavy chestnut honey element, allied to blackcurrant, clove and dried soft fruit. A whiskey which makes your knees tremble.
So, once again, the Irish have got there first. I know Glengoyne did a Scottish oak years ago, but not to this level of forensic detail. Could Scotch do something similar to Dair Ghealach? Scotland’s forest is in a poor state, but not as low in terms of coverage as Ireland’s, and there is a target for 4,500ha of native species to be planted every year, helping to reforest 25% of the country by the middle of the century.
So in theory, yes, there could be a Scotch equivalent, adding further profound links between land and spirit. Irish Distillers is doing it, Japanese whisky-makers are managing the tiny amount of mizunara forests and are replanting to give it a sustainable future.
If Scotch is serious about provenance, it would be daft not to explore this area. From tiny acorns, ideas trickle down.
17 May 2016
We live in an age when every element of a brand’s image is constantly and painstakingly controlled, fine-tuned; this press release picked apart by an in-house committee of sceptics, that new label endlessly trialled in focus groups.
Each potential association or partnership is carefully vetted – will this project chime with our target consumer? Does that celebrity share our brand’s values and reinforce its core strengths?
But you can’t control everything. Take the case of the Russian doping scandal and Chivas Regal.
In a jaw-dropping New York Times article last week, former Russian anti-doping chief Grigory Rodchenkov lays bare the scale and sophistication of that country’s alleged doping programme, especially in the run-up to the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics.
Years of planning, cloak-and-dagger stuff involving the FSB (successor to the KGB), swapping urine samples via a hole in the wall to ensure drugs cheats escaped detection. Russia finished top of the medals table. No athlete was caught.
Since named as the lynchpin in Russia’s allegedly state-sponsored doping programme, Rodchenkov was forced to resign and fled to Los Angeles (while two of his former colleagues died suddenly shortly afterwards in Russia).
Head start: Did Russia's athletes use drugs (and Chivas Regal) at the Sochi Winter Olympics? (Photo: kremlin.ru)
The intricacies of the Russian programme, he claims, took many years to perfect, particularly his favoured cocktail of performance-enhancing substances, which involved three anabolic steroids – metenolone, trenbolone and oxandrolone – designed to aid recovery and maintain peak performance.
But it’s the method of delivery that interests us: to accelerate the absorption of the substances and to reduce the window within which detection was possible, Rodchenkov dissolved the drugs in alcohol to a precise recipe – 1mg of steroid cocktail per 1ml of alcohol.
Given that this is Russia, you might have thought a patriotic shot of vodka would do the trick, but no… Chivas Regal Scotch whisky for the male athletes; Martini vermouth for the women. Discerning choices perhaps, but listen carefully and you can hear the heads of the respective brand managers hitting their desks.
Then again, come to think of it – a dram for the men and a nice glass of Martini for the ladies? I’m not sure what’s most shocking here – the allegations of a massive doping programme and cover-up… or the casually sexist way in which it was perpetrated.
11 May 2016
Have you ever considered the multitude of coffee that’s available? There are over 30 different drinks, from espresso to Americano, plus options to go skinny, Mocha, iced and now even the trendy cold brew.
Starbucks UK sells 19 different types of coffee bean including blends, flavoured batches and single origin varieties from exotic countries. I couldn’t be bothered to count all of Starbucks USA’s offerings, but help yourself – the list is endless. Just calculating the number of options available at the chain’s UK outlets alone you’re looking at around 2,000 coffee combinations, and that’s without factoring in syrups. There are 152 varieties of latté alone; has anyone tried them all?
This isn’t a free advert for Starbucks – far from it. Having too much choice is overwhelming, and according to American psychologist Barry Schwartz in his book, The Paradox of Choice, can actually make consumers feel less satisfied with their decision than if they were given fewer options.
Ironically most people choose the same coffee regularly (mine’s a white Americano if anyone’s buying), perhaps as a result of this coffee besiegement and a lack of comprehension of the various styles – anyone know the difference between a latté and a flat white?
Coffee confusion: can too much choice be a bad thing? (Image: Starbucks)
The same confusion exists over single origin coffee and single estate. Unless you’re a hipster or coffee buff you probably won’t know the difference, which is why some Scotch whisky producers’ recent adoption of the latter term could be a dangerous move.
During the Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival I was given a tour of the relatively new Ballindalloch distillery by owner Guy Macpherson-Grant, whose family owns several acres of arable land and the nearby Ballindalloch Castle. Since its inception in 2014, Ballindalloch has maintained a USP as a ‘single estate’ distillery. In Macpherson-Grant’s view, because the distillery processes barley grown on the family’s estate it qualifies as single estate. Except for the fact that the site doesn’t malt its own barley. Neither does Arbikie in Angus, which has recently begun distilling barley for its own ‘single estate’ whisky. One might argue that malting is the first step in the whisky production process and if it’s conducted elsewhere then how can a distillery claim to be single estate? (NB to Ballindalloch’s credit it doesn’t mask the fact that its malting is done elsewhere).
This is just an example of two separate Scottish farming families moving into whisky distilling using crops that already belong to them. However, with the number of small, artisanal farm distillery planning applications on the rise, the Scotch whisky industry could very easily be joined by a wave of ‘single estate’ distilleries soon.
Single estate? Ballidalloch's barley is harvested from the estate, but not malted on-site
As far as whisky is concerned, the term ‘single estate’ hasn’t been defined (the new ‘craft’, perhaps?). In respect of tea, coffee and cocoa it refers to produce grown on one single plantation, or a collective of local farms. And therein lies the problem.
If consumers, eventually, come to understand single estate as referring to produce from one farm, how can it be applied to a distillery, and even then, to a distillery which doesn’t control 100% of the process? Particularly when new distilleries that do malt their own barley come online.
Furthermore, if the debate surrounding the effect barley terroir has on flavour continues (and it will), we could eventually see an influx of farm-specific whisky on the shelves. Bruichladdich from Sunnydale Farm, anyone?
I’m all for innovation and broadening choice of flavour, but it must be done with purpose and not simply for the sake of establishing a USP. Even so, the danger of inaugurating too many ‘single estate’ whiskies that have varying definitions could – like coffee – end up overwhelming consumers and encourage them to stick with what they know, ultimately leading to – in Schwarz’s view – dissatisfaction with their choice.
04 May 2016
It’s fair to say that Vic Cameron’s article for this website – Does barley variety affect whisky flavour? – provoked a reaction. Thanks to the dubious pleasures of (anti-)social media, that reaction was not always either elegantly expressed, or free of personal prejudice against Vic, and/or the company (Diageo) for which he used to work.
For the record, I’ve no reason to doubt Vic’s credentials or his honesty. Of course, that doesn’t mean he’s right, either – so let’s have the debate, but let’s keep it civilised. That ok with everyone?
Anyway, it seemed somewhat serendipitous, given the subject matter of Vic’s piece and the affiliations of many of those who spoke out against it, that I should happen to be visiting Bruichladdich on Islay last week.
If ever there were a place to explore the counterpoint to the Cameron view, this was it. Bere barley, organic barley, Scottish barley, Islay barley… never mind fermentation times or cut points, the raw materials themselves are the hot topic here.
So did I discover an answer to the questions raised by Vic’s piece and the reaction it sparked? You’ll have to wait a few weeks to find out in more detail, but here’s a suitably ambiguous teaser: yes and no.
The discussion at Bruichladdich was not so much about barley variety as barley origin: isolating and making whisky from batches of the same strain, but grown in different locations. The Black Isle, Aberdeenshire, Lothian.
Nosing new-make spirit from all three, then cask samples of them after one year in first-fill Bourbon, one thing was clear: they were different. Not vastly different – I’ve had vodka flights with more diversity – but different nonetheless.
Enigma variations: Bruichladdich has distillates sourced from barley grown in different regions
That variation answers one question, but prompts others, and one in particular. Why are they different? Is it, to borrow a French winemaking term much used at Bruichladdich, down to terroir? Is it just because the growing season in 2015 (or 2016) was a bit wetter in, say, Lothian than in Aberdeenshire?
We’ll need years more of experimentation, data-gathering and careful analysis before we can even begin to identify the character of Black Isle barley versus Lothian barley (assuming that there is one), leave alone the impact this might have on your glass of Classic Laddie years after that barley has been harvested.
(And, as the chief engineer of this parish has noted, it’d be nice to see the spirit go into some refill, rather than first-fill, casks, minimising the wood influence and allowing the grain to speak more clearly over time.)
Anyway, it’s potentially ground-breaking stuff. Potentially. Crucially for Bruichladdich, it plays well to the company’s audience: literate whisky lovers with a more than passing interest in the way their spirit of choice is put together.
For these Laddie-ites, it’d be great if, years down the line, they could do a horizontal tasting of a flight of ‘regional’ 10-year-old Bruichladdichs, noting every nuance along the way. But, even if that isn’t to be, the journey promises to be fascinating and, if nothing else, they’ll have a bit more information about the origin of the whisky in their glass.
A bit more transparency, if you will.
02 May 2016
There’s a mountain in my legs. For the past eight years, the Sunday of the Spirit of Speyside Festival has seen a walk up Ben Rinnes. On the summit there’s a toposcope attached to the trig point which points out all of the distilleries which you can see (memo to self, Ballindalloch and Dalmunach need to be added). It’s a chance to catch up with like-minded masochists and learn a little more about the area.
The Ben is a focal point; a triangular extrusion of pink granite among the folded hills whose flanks provide water for many distilleries. Distilleries emerge slowly as we head off. Allt-a-Bhainne on one side, then Glenallachie on the other, next The Glenlivet in the distance, and as the first saddle is reached we see Macallan, then Rothes and on to the coast.
On we tramp, seeing raven, curlew, grouse, and mountain hare. The talk is of old smuggling days and the slow repopulation of parts of forgotten glens. There’s snow too, a mighty drift near the top which has to be traversed before the wind-blasted summit is reached. We’ve lugged the giant quaich up [presented to Dave at the start of the festival – Ed] and pour in some drams, diluting them with snow.
Treat at the top: Alan Winchester pours a dram at the summit of Ben Rinnes
Beneath us is Speyside, bounded on one side by the white Cairngorm massif to the south-west, on the south-east by Bennachie and the Buck, and the Moray Firth grey to the north. Weather is flying in from the south-west, veils of rain falling on towns which slowly disappear: there goes Dufftown, Rothes, Craigellachie, Elgin, Archiestown. Then the clouds begin to break and one settlement is lit up. Sunshine on Keith.
The walk is followed by another tradition, a tasting in Edinvillie village hall where I choose drams from distilleries you can see from the top and try and make connections between them. We went back in time from Dalmunach via Glenallachie, then Glenrothes, Craigellachie, finishing with a double bill of hefty old-style whiskies: Macallan (Edition No.1) and Benrinnes. It told Speyside’s tale in reverse, of how its styles evolved and of the region’s diversity.
It is this reach which is both the region’s advantage and, to some extent, disadvantage. It is impossible to see everything, visit every distillery, attend every event at the festival. There’re 500 of them (probably more). Are there too many? Should there be a festival hub – Dufftown or Craigellachie? Is the festival’s growth limited to the number of beds available? All things that the organisers will address for 2017.
Keep up, Broom: The Glenlivet's Alan Winchester takes a solid lead
Thankfully, by this stage of proceedings stories of other events emerge as people bump into each other like dancers doing a Strip the Willow. The Copper Dog running out of beer at the stramash, barrel-rolling down the streets of Dufftown, a remarkable day-long Mortlach experience which ended up on the battlements of Drummuir Castle; and many more.
The airport is calling, however. There’s just time to slip into the Highlander Inn for a farewell pint. Tatsuya Minagawa pours me a wee deoch and doras of his latest bottling, Oishii Wisukii (delicious whisky), a 36-year-old blend. It is indeed oishii, a rich and elegantly mature unfolding of textures and rich fruits. A blend seems to be the right way to end.
There’s the team from Chichibu in the corner alongside some Germans. A party from Washington DC invite us to have dinner with them, there’s Dutch being spoken in one corner, Swedish in another, all linked by whisky’s remarkable ability to bind people together.
The spirit of Speyside indeed.
01 May 2016
‘Tusitala’, the t-shirt said. It means ‘Teller of Tales’ in Samoan and was the name given to Robert Louis Stevenson when he moved there in his final years. It – the t-shirt, that is – was made by Elgin firm www.smadug.com, whose wares I heartily recommend for both design and quality (and yes, I did pay for the new garment).
It seemed somehow appropriate, not that I am in any way comparing my wretched scribblings to RLS’s lofty prose. As my friend and mentor Nick Faith once told me: ‘Remember, dear boy, we deal in higher-level bullshit.’
I bought it at The Glenlivet Open Day, a mini-festival within the festival, with local traders, drams, and the sma’ still puffing away outside. Behind the warehouses is a huge hole that can probably be seen from the moon. This will be the location for the new distillery which is being added to the site, bringing production up to around 20m litres.
Over in Dufftown, there are new stills going into Glenfiddich, while on the hill opposite Aberlour, Macallan’s Hobbiton is being constructed. Speyside is witnessing the distilling equivalent of a nuclear arms race.
Tusitala: Both Dave and Alan Winchester have earned the moniker 'Teller of Tales'
The t-shirt really should have been worn by Alan Winchester, with whom I sat in the afternoon, occasionally prodding him with questions as he wove stories around the passing of time at The Glenlivet.
Using drams from six decades as reference points, he spoke of old managers and owners, the adaptations in production techniques, casks, overseas travels and the importance of community, and how through all of these changes the character of the spirit had remained the same.
‘Fruity, floral, toffee,’ was repeated like a mantra through his talk, and was echoed in the six glasses in front of us. Expansion doesn’t mean loss of character. Or shouldn’t.
‘You know, Dave,’ he said as we sipped on the 1959, ‘we’re the old ones now.’ It’s true. We’ve been yarning with each other for decades now – and it probably felt like that for the audience, for which I apologise. Sort of.
How times have changed, from days when whisky was hard to sell, to now, with gigantic building sites and a feeling of confidence as people of a new generation from around the world come to this nexus point of whisky-making to learn.
‘Time,’ as Dylan Thomas wrote, ‘passes. Listen. Time passes. Come closer now… Only you can hear and see, behind the eyes of the sleepers, the movements and countries and mazes and colours and dismays and rainbows and tunes and wishes and flight and fall and despairs and big seas of their dreams. From where you are, you can hear their dreams.’
Here, on Speyside, you can taste them as well.
30 April 2016
‘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.
29 April 2016
It might not seem like it at times, but a certain degree of preparation goes into a masterclass. While a degree of improvisation is preferable – the roads less travelled are always more interesting than the main highways – a sort of structure does help.
It also helps to have tasted the whiskies you are talking about. There’s improvisation and there’s sheer recklessness. Which is why at 9.30am I’m sitting in Strathisla with 10 drams in front of me. These are for two classes, one of which is blind, so don’t expect me to divulge what they are. They are all, however, great.
Being at Strathisla also allows me to have a quick snoop around the Chivas Brothers Archive, run by the estimable Chris Brousseau. It is, sadly, only relatively recently that firms have realised how important the past is to their brands.
Living history: The industry is belatedly waking up to the importance of archives
No matter what efforts are being made now, the fact remains that until the industry realised that the past is important, the meticulous written records were more often than not consigned to bonfires or landfill.
‘That’s it?’ I ask. ‘Yeah, but…’ and his eyes light up, ‘it’s the first book – there’s the date and time of the first filling.’ It’s not a lot, but it’s something.
Chris shows me a letter from Charles Dickens praising Glenlivet, one from John Smith, Charles Doig’s original plans for distilleries, the legal document which enshrined The Glenlivet’s prefix.
There’s bottles galore, some real, others fake… Anyone fancy a ‘Balentye’s’ from Casablanca? Archives are a vital role in combatting counterfeiting.
‘We’re running out of space,’ he says. This is good. That means there is a realisation of the importance of history. Archives – and archivists – are a forgotten but vital component in whisky’s future.
Bottles galore: Just a few of the items in the Chivas Brothers Archive
Then it was time for the ‘light lunch’ proposed by my dear buddy Mr MacLean, over which we could discuss our Sherried whisky class. (You see? Preparation).
‘Light’ in MacLean’s lexicon can often tend to mean what other folks call ‘boozy’, but moderation was the watchword on this occasion, although in these days of the ‘just water for me’ culture, beer and wine might be seen as wildly excessive.
Lunch was taken in the Copper Dog, the marvellous, stone-flagged pub in the basement of the newly refurbished Craigellachie Hotel. Upstairs, Lyndsey Gray and her team run the Quaich bar with its serried ranks of bottles rare and fascinating, cocktails and views over the Spey.
The Craig’s revival has created a focal point for quality, like the village in which it sits, a hub. The Quaich Bar is no longer a hidden, small, dark green nook, accessible only to members of the Church of Drams, but open to all, bright and proud.
It’s not alone. On a whim, Mr MacLean and I then decided to spend the rest of the afternoon stravaiging around the higher-end drinking establishments of Speyside (thankfully, we had a designated driver).
First stop was the Dowans in Aberlour. It’s a hotel I’ve long loved though, like many of its kind, was always one where an eyebrow would be raised if you didn’t have a faithful hound with you when you checked in. A sporting place, stuffed with fishing rods and the smell of cordite and dog hair.
Now it is transformed into a stylish, modern hotel, with a sleek silver-and-black cocktail bar and another, The Still, with a wall of whisky, a club and regular tastings.
I didn’t ask if dogs were welcome. No longer do you enter through the back door, trailing mud. Now the entrance is at the front, giving you a sublime view over the river.
We drifted on to the four-star Station Hotel in Rothes, another establishment which has been gutted and redesigned, and now boasts two bars – Toots as the public, and a main bar.
There’s copper everywhere – you could make a sma’ still from the coasters alone – which is no surprise since it’s owned by the genial and humble Richard Forsyth. There’s another wall of whisky, but Dutch bar manager Bert Macor has smuggled in a fine selection of genever – which is where Charlie and I start.
Wall of whisky: The bar at the Station Hotel, Rothes
Tourism is important to the region. Forty percent of the visitors to the 2015 Spirit of Speyside festival stayed for six nights, but it isn’t just for this time of year. People come all year round; distillers bring in guests.
The issue for many years was a lack of bed space, a need for more hotels, restaurants and fine bars – quality, in other words. Offer all of that and people don’t come for a day trip, they stay, they spend, they sit and drink, and talk. These hotels are vital to a new, confident Speyside.
In many ways, what they are doing is learning from the past, from people like Alexander Edward, the young tyro who built the Craigellachie Hotel (and most of the village, and a distillery or two).
He saw the middle classes coming up by train to the Highlands and gave them a reason to stay by building a hotel. The new generation are doing the same. The past, you see, is always alive.
Today, Mr MacLean and I are doing our Sherried whisky class featuring two Sherries and eight drams, then comes a blind tasting on blends, and finally I am being deposited on a (hopefully fictitious) desert island to choose some drams.
For those of you up here already, a few of us are wandering up Ben Rinnes on Sunday morning. Meet at 10am on the Edinvillie road (Glenrinnes end).
Now… breakfast. If I hurry, I can squeeze in a visit to Dalmunach.
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Our festival special ends with Bunnahabhain, Caol Ila, Jura, Kilchoman, Lagavulin and Laphroaig.
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Away from the distillery days, Fèis offers an array of tastings, masterclasses and charity events.