Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Speyside #3: Balvenie/ Kininvie and Glen Moray

At £35, it ain't cheap compared to some distillery tours. It's also worth every penny. Balvenie may have a reputation as a 'classy' whisky but the tour takes us to all the dusty and damp recesses while coating your tongue with beautiful tasting liquid.

The tour lasts nigh on three hours. Malt is tasted and wash savoured. Practises are explained without too much air brushing. Despite being almost a home boutique distillery, it is admitted that the core expressions for the mass market are tankered off to be bottled near Glasgow.

The kiln
Kininvie new washbacks
In the much vaunted Warehouse 24, visitors get a chance to taste three whiskies straight from the cask as well as bottling a 20cl with your chosen liquid. All are around 12yo with one sherry, one first fill bourbon and one refill bourbon. The first fill bourbon is pretty good. The other two are outstanding. Further to this, members of Balvenie's fanclub, 'Warehouse 24', are entitled to a complimentary dram. 'Not bad' I thought. However, when presented with a dram of a 39yo, distilled in 1974, I was more than happy. A superb and classy aged Balvenie with just a hint of peat. Does life get better?

While on the tour, it was hard to avoid noticing the references here and there to Kininvie - a 'distillery' which I understood to be 'closed'. It is anything but. Whether or not it counts as a separate distillery, I don't know. Maybe it's more like Balvenie's bidie-in that labours away in the background making 'industrial' malt for blending. Whatever, we also get treated to the sight of new washbacks being installed for Kininvie. A statement in itself, no?

At work in the cooperage

Balvenie stills
The tour is rounded off with a 5 dram tasting, including the renowned and expensive Tun 1401. What more could a whisky novice or connoisseur wish for?

As it says on the tin

For us, the whisky day is completed by a visit to Glen Moray. I've always viewed GM as a 'cheap' and perhaps unappealing dram. Possibly because I can recall purchasing a bottle for £14 many years ago and before I my whisky palate had developed. This view changed upon tasting both their peated spirit and 8yo cask-strength Chenin Blanc cask at the Whisky Fringe two years ago.

Their indepth 'Fifth Chapter' tour being unavailable we were nevertheless determined to visit the shop with a view to purchase something tasty. Unfortunately, the 30yo at £70 had sold out funnily enough. However, a chance to bottle a 9yo straight from a Chenin Blanc cask at £45 was too good to pass up. A lovely, mouth-filling and sweet whisky.

Respect to Balvenie and Glen Moray.

Speyside virginity lost
Speyside #2 - Lost and Reborn

Thursday, 24 October 2013

Speyside #2 - lost and reborn

On the road between Ballindalloch, I like it how signs point you to airts and pairts with 'distillery' names such as Benrinnes, Dailuaine, Knockando and Glenallachie. All seem to be closed to visitors though unless you manage to get lucky during the Speyside Whisky fest.

They once were neighbours.
It doesn't stop you from distillery spotting though. And maybe this is the difference between whisky and train aficionados - getting into a distillery, sniffing the mash tuns, viewing the stills and sampling from the cask in a cold dank warehouse must be the equivalent of driving your own steam engine instead of just watching it from the concrete.

We take the road to Dailuaine/ Carron and are soon rewarded by the sight of Dailuaine's warehouses. The product of this distillery that I've tasted has so far been pretty good. Not least the recent offering from Whiskybroker. It's certainly a busy place though even though the industrial appearance of the plant leads one to figure that the 'green meadow' or dail uaine (da-il oo-ine-ye) lies outwith the distillery boundaries.

We follow the steam from Dailuaine further down the glen to find it hanging over the Site Formerly Known as Imperial. Memories of a Gordon&MacPhail 13yo sherry cask Imperial come flooding back. Beautiful stuff, Unfortunately, the status of Imperial went from 'mothballed' to 'demolished' in January of this year.
What remains of Imperial

The dunnage warehouses still stand and perhaps that's a fitting testament to a famous auld whisky. However, a new distillery is rising from the soil. What will it be called? No-one seems to know but one or two locals claim that 'Glen Carron' could be a good bet.

Rising from the ashes - Glen Carron?
One long gone whisky with the parent distillery - buildings at least - still intact is Parkmore. Taking the road from Dufftown past Glenfiddich and Balvenie Castle you soon spot the revived Speyside Railway track parallel to the road. The pagodas of Parkmore stick up from the glen below. Visually, it is a living tourist brochure. Though departed distilleries understandably pull at the heartstrings of many it seems as if Parkmore's product was so poorly regarded that the remaining casks of it were smashed when the distillery ceased distilling. As Whisky Dufftown puts it:
Built in 1894, Parkmore has been silent since 1931 because of problems with its water source. Although the maltings were in use until the late 1960's and the warehouses are still in use today. Parkmore's whisky is no longer available - it is reputed that all the casks remaining in the distillery were smashed when it closed.
Parkmore's postcard view
Fleeting visits are paid to Cragganmore and Strathisla as well though time doesn't allow for tours to be undertaken. Craggamore has a few people in already but the welcoming ladies on duty still offer us a dram anyway. Strathisla is a graveyard with one bored guy staffing the visitor centre. Despite the lack of interest from the public and our interest in products and tours, we don't get offered a sniff. It's a PR win for Cragganmore.

Fortunately, memories of a stingy Strathisla are erased by the following days tour of Balvenie...

#1 Speyside Virginity Lost

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Speyside virginity lost

More or less. Having 'done' Islay as well as the south from Glenkinchie to Bladnoch and the southern and eastern Highlands, my experience of Speyside whisky in its own domain has been pretty fleeting. So, a trip to Speyside for the autumn break beckoned and it didn't disappoint. Even better, the Scottish autumn was glorious.

The road north from Perth through Blairgowrie and Braemar on the way to Srath Spè is a stunning highway to the north. For a whisky geek the only thing that can better the autumnal trees of Perthshire is the glut of well-kent names on the map as you approach Tomintoul.

Speyside sheep block the road to Allt a' Bhainne.
With our but'n'ben sitting in Glen Rinnes, the first distillery encountered was the auld timer of Tamnavulin in the hamlet of Tomnavulin. To the locals a generation or two back, it was Toman a' Mhuilinn - the little hillock of the mill. Unfortunately to whisky travellers, the sign in English said 'closed to visitors'. Despite this, seeing the source of a famous Scottish whisky, in the flesh so to speak, still gives the whisky geek a wee thrill. It's probably like train-spotting. Within a few miles of the house, we had the aforementioned Tamnavulin, Braeval (or Braes of Glenlivet as it was), Glenlivet, Allt a' Bhainne, Tomintoul, Benrinnes and Glenallachie. Cragganmore, Glenfarclas and the whisky metropolis that is Dufftown were only slightly further afield.

As we soon found out, this a feature of travel around Speyside. Especially if you take some of the back roads. Distilleries seem to loom up every few minutes.

Despite most lying in 'hidden' glens it is difficult to find much romance about many of them. Most are simply factories with the kind of architecture you'd expect from factories that were built or re-built in recent decades. For every Strathisla there's an Allt a' Bhainne and Aultmore.

What counts though is the welcome, the experience and the liquid.

First stop for a tour was the famed Aberlour. As the Founder's Tour was all booked, I had to settle for the Aberlour Experience. As experiences go, it's not a bad one. Indeed, for a standard tour it is worth the £12.50. Having been rebuilt after a fire as well as modified and enlarged, the architecture is a bit grim save for one or two buildings of the old 'vernacular' which are more pleasing to the eye. We get a glimpse inside one of the warehouses but that's as far as it goes.

The tasting though is excellent. 6 drams including a decent measure of new-make spirit. We also get the two single-cask cask-strength drams that are available for bottle your own - these are both 16yo with one first-fill bourbon and one sherry. The bourbon has a nose that I could caress all day - the taste and finish don't reach such heights though. The sherry is an all-round stoater. It is purchased and comes with its very own whisky coffin. The 12yo French release at 43% is like juice in comparison. The 16yo follows before we finish with the mighty A' Bunadh.

The next day sees us leave one distillery that is very much alive to encounter two that are in different stages of death-rebirth or even a zombie-like purgatory.