Sunday, 17 October 2010

The beer of Brugge and the Garden of Earthly Delights.

Its amazing to think that some people - Little Englanders? - perceive Belgium as 'boring'. Sure, its a bit flat. But any country that can produce the maniacal genius of Hieronymus Bosch, the beauty of Bruges/ Brugge and the sheer quantity of quality beers is worth respect. Being good at empire building aint cool no more.

Apart from being visually stunning, Brugge has its own Whiskyhuis. I was mildly disappointed that this turned out to be a shop and not a bar but it does sell sample drams at reasonable prices. For 2 Euros, you can try the likes of BenRiach Curiositas or the rum finish as well as many standard malts. For a little more, you can have a 26yo Glenesk or a choice from two Littlemills if closed distilleries interest you. There's a Berry Bros Caol Ila and cask strength miniatures from Arran. I understand that tastings are arranged so keep on eye on their website if you plan to visit and want to taste more than beer.

The beers though are stupendous. I didn't see any Stella Artois in Brugge though other well kent names like Leffe and Hoegarden are so ubiquitous here that they sell it in cans for peanuts. I managed to sample 6 or 7 beers during my stay - three nights aint enough - and the pick of the bunch has to be the typically trappist Achel Bruin which comes in at the relatively light 8%. A thick creamy head lies on a dark brew and gives the drink the appearance of a Gaelic Coffee. The taste though is superb - apple pie with molasses and yet more apples.

The local beer comes from the Halve Maan brewery of which the Brugse Zot is the most widely found. Their best though has to be the Straffe Hendrik Brugs Tripel Bier at 9%. Not to be confused with this is the similarly delicious Brugge Tripel - available in pubs and late night supermarkets. The best option though is to visit the legendary Café 't Brugs Beertje - a cosy wee place that stocks 300 or more beers. On the wall here is a framed memorial to whisky and beer writer Michael Jackson. Another wee howff is the hard to find De Garre. It lies at the end of a tiny narrow close off the street that connects the main Markt square to the Burg. Its well worth tracking down and the house beer of the same name is another dark and strong beauty. I didn't dare ask for the strength. They also serve 'tapas' of cheese in this ancient looking tavern.

Brugge is a gem of a place and well worth a visit. A weekend isn't enough as there's more than enough streets, bars and cafes to keep you entertained if the museums don't get you. If Brugge gets too much, hire a bike and head to the nearby Damme with its own selection of bars. Have a Westmalle Dunkel at 9% and hope that the canal doesn't get you on the return journey.

Monday, 6 September 2010

Aged malts in Kenmore and Glenturret

Another wee jaunt to take advantage of our Indian summer sees us pack the tent and head for Highland Perth/Stirlingshire. We make for Kenmore - the ceann mòr or 'great head' of Loch Tay via the appropriately named Glen Quaich. Quaich of course being the Anglicised form of 'cuach' or 'drinking cup' with which the Scots drank their whisky on ceremonial occasions.

We pitch up near Tom na Moine - hillock of the peat. Gaelic names seem 'romantic' to those with no knowledge of the tongue and whilst some are descriptive in either beautiful or bizarre ways, most are simply mundane. Our own portable peat comes in the form of Caol Ila Distillers Edition and some Longrow CV. The Longrow is a new dram for me but one I'll seek out in future. It's dark and treacly and I start thinking of a fermented blueberry muffin.

We head to the Kenmore Hotel and are pleased to find a well-stocked bar with many familiar and not so well-kent bottles. I go for two Connoissiers Choice. First is Braes of Glenlivet 1975. The date of distillation awes me to no end. I was a wee lad when this went into the cask. The price at £3.60 for a 32 yo stretches that awe a bit further. This is nice stuff - light but with lots of cereal and vanilla flavours. It prompts a discussion on why distilleries like this (as well as Imperial, Rosebank and others) get closed down, or are not at least given a new lease of life in today's malt-friendly times. I have since read that 'BoG' has reopened but is now known as Braeval.

Next up is the CC Caperdonich from 1980. This one is a comparably youthful 27yo but like the former, is a mothballed distillery. Caperdonich has its fans and was recommended to me at the recent Whisky Fringe. Having tasted this and the CC 1969 40yo, I have to admit to being underwhelmed. It's a little spicy with some toffee in it but the wood is a bit too much for me. The finish could be longer too. I still feel privileged to taste this stuff though.

The trip back the next day sees an impromptu visit to the 'home of the Famous Grouse' at Glenturret. The setting is magnificent. I'm also pleased to try another new dram. The sample of the standard 10yo at 40% is pleasing but not overwhelming. However, a visit to the dramming bar sees us try the humongous single cask 14yo at 59.7%. Its earthy but sweet and fills the mouth. Has a long slightly oily finish. I've never seen this before. Is it a secret or do I have a sheltered life? Who knows but at £80odd for a bottle, the price has tempered my enthusiasm. I am left though wanting to keep an eye out for an independent bottling that's more pocket friendly.

The welcome though at Glenturret is warm and friendly. This welcome on top of the some excellent whisky and stunning scenery reminds me of why people come to Scotland. Just as well, given that our national fitba team is currently sweating over possible defeat to Lichtenstein of all nations!

Thursday, 1 July 2010

The best peats?

The better half has just finished taking two dozen German gardening journalists and peat enthusiasts (!) around various topical attractions in Scotland. This included a whisky tasting where the peat enthusiasts, but whisky beginners, got the opportunity to taste the difference peat smoke makes to a whisky.

Let's hope they persist in their whisky adventure. Should they in time develop a liking for peaty whisky then perhaps they might want to try the following. The list of course is far from exhaustive and choosing a numero uno is nigh impossible. But as Gaelic lexicographer Edward Dwelly said at the beginning of his 1911 dictionary, "Se obair là toiseachadh, se obair beatha criochnachadh" - Beginning is a day's work, finishing takes a lifetime.

Here we go...
  • Laphroaig 10 - the standard Laphroaig and one to be found in almost all supermarkets. Despite its rather Presbyterian 40% abv, there's no doubting the quality of this dram.
  • Ardbeg 10 - this lip smacker at 46% used to be found in the supermarkets but its owner, a certain Mr Louis Vuitton , is playing funny buggers with its availability and price - more on this another day. Should you see it at around the £30 mark, go for it.
  • Bunnahabhain Toiteach - tasted this at the Whisky Fringe and was bowled over. Not the usual for this distillery but this one has a fat and full peaty palate, oily texture and a finish longer than a Hibs FC losing streak in the Scottish Cup. 46% abv.
  • Laphroaig 18 - One of the best activities in the world must be to get the Post Bus to Ardbeg and walk back to Port Ellen, visiting the 3 southern Islay distilleries at roughly one per mile. This I did last year and upon entering Laphroaig was asked in a native Ileach accent, 'What'll you have?'. I was recommended the 18yo which had only come out the previous week. I bought it at the low price of £42 - not sure why but its now £60+ in the shops. 48% of peaty warmth with chocolate and toffee and yon hint of Laphroaig medicine.
  • Laphroaig Càirdeas 2010 - limited edition at a reasonable £45 from Friends of Laphroaig. Spicy and dry with a creel full of peat.
  • Ardmore SMWS 66.21 - "I can't believe its not Islay". Great title. It kicks up a whirlwind of molasses and smoke on the tongue. 21 yo and cask strength. Sadly, its all gone...
  • Caol Ila SMWS 53.131 - "Turbuso humo". Coming in at a whopping 67.9% you might expect this to be made by Belgian monks. Coal, chilli and barbecued haloumi. More peat than Barvas moor. Fantastic stuff.
  • Ardbeg SMWS 33.83 - "Oh, for the joys of a long winter night". A low alcohol CS compared to the above. Murray mints rolled in coal dust and given a good sucking while wandering around the peat-infused air of an Uig township - say Bhaltos or Cnip.
  • The Ileach Cask Strength - a Leipziger whisky connoisseur first mentioned this to my partner some years ago. I bought my second bottle in Pitlochry, see previous post, for around £30. Its 58% and reputed to be a Lagavulin. Need I say more?
Others to try or buy if you've still got a job in this banker's midden of a recession...
  • Ardbeg - Airigh nam Beist, Uigedail, Renaissance
  • Caol Ila - Distiller's Edition
  • Talisker 57 North - the best Talisker I've tried
  • Springbank 10
  • Bladnoch 8yo Lightly Peated
  • Benriach Curiositas
  • Bruichlaiddich - Infinity, Port Sgioba
  • Lagavulin - 16yo, Distiller's Edition, 12yo CS - a house without one of these is sad hoose indeed
There's also the gimmicky Ardbeg Supernova and Bruichladdich Octomore marketed at those 'peat extremists' with more money than myself.

Some to avoid buying or at least blag a dram of...
  • Ardbeg SMWS - "A dirty dram for Mary Poppins", the label states that its like 'licking an ashtray' and its not wrong. Not pleasant either.
  • Benromach Peat Smoke - not unpleasant but it just doesn't have the depth or finish.
  • Smokehead - not bad but lacking in something... body, depth and finish perhaps?
  • Port Ellen - hmmmm.... its obviously the closed distillery status that creates the interest here but on the occasions I've tried a PE, I've been underwhelmed. I certainly wouldn't be inspired to part with £130+ for a bottle.
Suggested omissions from the above lists are very welcome!

Sunday, 16 May 2010

Dalwhinnie - the peak of disappointment

Leaving Srath Spè and heading south we stop for a break at the Ralia cafe. It turns out to be a wee whisky haven with several shelves of miniatures. It has quite a serious selection - everything from the usual Laphroaig, Glenfiddich to lesser seen specimens like Benriach, including their peaty ones. I opt for a mini from the defunct Dumbarton distillery, Littlemill. It turns out to be a wee honeyed joy. I find out that it rarely garnered good reviews in its hey-day. Shame as i enjoyed it and while i wasn't overwhelmed, I'd still rather that Littlemill was still with us.

However, it's onto another Diageo giant. It's a part of the country i know reasonably well. Dalwhinnie used to be a major rest-stop for many travellers on the road north or as i did, on past Loch Lagan and Creag Meagaidh towards Skye . Hell, its bleak though and now even the hotel and cafe seem to have gone the same way as Littlemill.

As to the distillery, well, there's not much you can say. Nice setting, good enough whisky but it fits very snugly into Diageo's pristine new world. We get the standard tour with little to really stimulate our interest. Dalwhinnie apparently loses less to the angel's share due the high altitude and the sub-Arctic situation of the local environment. Very good, except that most Dalwhinnie is most likely matured in the somewhat less mountainous and romantic environs of Alloa where several football pitch sized warehouses lie at Diageo's Blackgrange site.

Like it's Diageo cousin down the road in Blair Athol, visitors are allowed a safety-conscious view of one warehouse through a pane of glass. Spirits - ho-ho - are raised when a bottle of new make spirit is produced. However, it's not for tasting and only for rubbing on our hands. Are they scared of swine-flu or something?

The tour ends with a thimble sized 'dram' in the new visitor centre. All in all, the distillery and its staff were friendly and welcoming enough but everything is just too sterile and choreographed. Unfortunately, it would seem that booking onto a 'connoisseur' tour will only entitle you to sample a greater selection of Diageo brands rather than an in-depth tasting from the cask. Perhaps they have something to learn from the aforementioned GlenDronach.

I have since read though that a new manager intends to restore some independent character to Dalwhinnie. Good luck to him.

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.