Monday, 3 September 2007

Whisky Tour 2 etc

Last week began the second epic whisky tour, this time with Brother and Gaura as willing tourists along with Fisher and me. It kicked off in Ben Nevis, after a fantastic meal at Russell's Hotel in Spean Bridge the night before, and a pretty, characterful B&B. The distillery itself was a bit of a joke. Fort William is definitely the poor cousin to Oban, catering to shallow pocketed backpackers and clueless foreigners in search of the Little Britain model of Scotland. The tour kicked off with a video featuring Hector McDram the giant, who formed the mountains with his bare hands, scooped out lochs, and accidentally stumbled across uisge betha by pissing in a pot of barley ... or something. Anyway, after this slightly excrutiating but nevertheless entertaining video, we then had the bog-standard distillery tour and a tasting.

And what did they choose to bestow upon us?

A 4 1/2 year old blend. Ben Nevis is clearly so unenamoured of its own product it doesn't wish to let members of the public taste it.

We left, unimpressed.

Our next stop was a couple of hours northwards, beyond the Black Isle, to a distillery closed to the public but, when I phoned, very willing to give us a private tour. It was called Balblair - a picturesque distillery in Edderton which took a little finding and proved well worth it. Gordon Bowie, the assistant manager, gave us a lucid tour and then parked us in front of several excellent drams. Brother and Gaura bought a couple of bottles - one for Gaura's father, the others to begin their belated wedding present collection - while Fisher and I snapped up the 1997 bottling. I find it a round, easy-drinking dram, yet rich enough to satisfy my tastes. I really don't like the gentler whiskies and can't bear blends at all. From this trip, I think I've learned that it's the grain whisky I can't abide, which are only found in blends.

After Balblair we headed to our second place of rest - 2 Quail in Durnoch. It was a real shame we couldn't have supper there, as the tables were booked up, but we enjoyed the comfort of cosy rooms stocked with books ("Feel free to look at the books" said the slightly crazy lady, rather pointedly, as we looked at the books in the sitting room. "Er ... thanks," said I, thinking why the hell would they be here if we aren't allowed to look at them? But I think she was a classic British B&B owner - she knows she should be friendly and hospitable, but actually she doesn't really like people touching her stuff! To be fair, I imagine people are constantly nicking books and it pisses her off - but we weren't about to walk off with Churchill's bloody History of the II World War tucked under our arms). We had tea and a quick bite in a local café, which was very good, and a few hours later we were ready to have supper in the Castle Hotel - which was fine.

Next day, after leaving 2 Quail with a brief interrogation over a missing book ringing in our ears, we took a trip to Glenmorangie - where we failed to take the tour and were therefore forbidden the fruit of free tastings. We bought a couple of drams, but I don't think they were impressive enough to prompt the buying of a bottle. Off we went again, and our final destination before reaching Speyside was Dalmore. Our mini-guide told us Dalmore wasn't open to the public, but we dropped in on the off-chance and found it had changed its mind. A sleek little visitor's centre has been opened, complete with learned-by-rote tour guides, and we took a quick tour before enjoying a dram or two. It was good stuff - and particularly interesting was the white spirit which the girl allowed us to taste by pouring it into our hands. Why we couldn't have a glass I don't know. Maybe she didn't want the washing up? Anyway, the raw spirit reminded me very much of grappa. It wasn't unpleasant, just a little raw. The whisky was excellent, I thought - very rounded, fruity and honeyed, with a good kick.

Our next port of call was Dallas Dhu, a place our guide book referred to as an old distillery now made into a museum. We thought it would be fun to look at how they made whisky over 100 years ago ... but it turned out Dallas Dhu actually closed in 1983! We watched a more informative video than the usual tat, though, and did get a taste of Roderick Dhu - the blend into which the remaining Dallas Dhu is going.

That was our last distillery before entering Speyside, heartland of Scotch. Alas, with 3 distilleries under our belts already, we were ready for a break and decided, instead, to have a look round Johnson's of Elgin. I can't say it was something that filled me with anticipation, but I was perfectly happy to tootle along and look at the pretty cashmere. It turned out to be more interesting than I'd expected, with a tour of the working factory floor and the chance to see the machines in action. Oo - and we had some tea in the café before moving onwards.

I'd wanted to visit Linkwood owing to the fact it had the highest tasting score in my mini-guide - a 5 - of all the Speysides. The score doesn't refer to quality but instead to potency and how much, according to Collins Gem, your pallette has to have been developed before you'll enjoy it. Most patronising. My pallette isn't very developed at all, but I've always loved stronger whiskies to weak blends. And by 'developed' I have a sneaking suspicion they mean 'utterly dessicated from drinking too much.' My taste buds haven't been the same since university. Anyway, Linkwood wasn't to be as it isn't open to the public and I couldn't get anyone to guide us, so we headed down the way to Glen Grant. Brother had noticed it boasted gardens, and thought it would be a good place for the poor neglected poochies to have a walk. He would have been right, had Glen Grant not been shut and the gardens blocked off. Boooo! Mean old buggers.

It being too late to gain entry into any Speyside distilleries, we headed to Aberlour and The Mash Tun where we had rooms for the night. I'd been looking very much forward to this little place, thinking it looked right up our alley. It was whisky themed, had a bar and restaurant beneath the rooms, and on the website the rooms looked remarkably luxurious. Actually, what they'd done was slightly sneaky in that they'd put only photographs of their best rooms on the website, despite it looking like they were showing a suite and an average room. Still, it was comfortable enough - perfectly adequate.

Before supper, Fisher, Gaura and I went for a long-ish walk with the dogs in search of the Fairy Knowe. Gaura helpfully pointed out that, as it was fairies, it was probably invisible so we'd never know if we found it or not. We did, on the other hand, see a distillery called Glen ... something too small to see. We decided to make the same walk the next morning and visit Gelnsomethingtoosmalltosee, and with that in mind, headed back to The Mash Tun for supper where brother had been reading the papers from cover to cover on a squashy sofa, with a couple of restful pints of beer.

Supper was good, simple pub grub and a welcome break from heavy hotel fayre. We tasted several other malts - a Knockando, a Balmenach - and then retired to bed.

On the morrow we were roused by the hotel manageress knocking loudly, demanding to know whether we were going to have breakfast or not. Fisher and I said a bleary 'not' but Brother went down to nibble on some toast. Eventually we got up and prepared for our walk to Glensomething ... Alas, after about 500 metres I realised that the new boots I'd bought for our walk on Skye were rubbing something awful and had already opened an extremely unpleasant blister on my heel. Considering I'd searched everywhere for a pair of boots the exact copy of my last pair and ended up ordering them from somewhere in Sussex, I was gutted. I returned to the car and said I'd meet everyone at the distillery. It turned out to be closed to the public anyway, but a sister distillery to Aberlour - so we headed there instead.

Fisher and I had fond memories of Aberlour from the last jaunt, and I wasn't disappointed on my return. We tasted three drams, courtesy of the friendly chappie behind the bar who talked us through them. First came the standard ten year old. Very nice. Honeyed, easy drinking, light on the tongue. Next we were treated to the a'bunadh - the cask strength little number I'd so enjoyed last time. It hadn't diminished over time. At 59.6% it blew my head off as hard as last time, but was worth every drop. Then, as we merrily agreed to buy both bottles, the canny salesman nipped out the back saying:

"Now I really shouldn't do this, but ..."

He came back with a medicine bottle of whisky and began pouring drams. It was the bourbon cask whisky you usually bottle yourself if you take the 2 hour tour. It's not available to buy from their website, or from any of the whisky websites I've tried (out of curiosity) - and was utterly delicious! Spice, honey and caramel, with a lightness directly in contrast to the a'bunadh's kick. We had to get a bottle of that as well, which boosted the wedding case considerably! Things were looking good.

Unfortunately, the rest of the afternoon wasn't quite so much of a success - apart from a very interesting look around the Speyside Cooperage, where we watched burly, hirsute men bashing iron bands onto barrells with mesmerising skill. I'm sure I would have broken my hands at least once every hour, but seeing as the apprenticeship is 4 years, I suppose you'd learn the basics like not smashing the hammer onto your hand.

After learning about the barrells used by all the whisky companies, we headed into Dufftown for some lunch at a cray-zee café called Noah's Ark ... for some reason. Inside, it was chocka with tat - overflowing with lamps, bric-a-brac, potplants and brightly coloured paintings. I saw no evidence of any animals going 2 by 2, though, so the name still remainds a mystery. The menu looked varied and interesting, though, with an emphasis on 'whole food' which was a relief, because I'm so fed up of being served half food. I ordered home-made paté and got given the most enormous slabs of the stuff, of which I could really only manage a pathetic portion. Obviously I'm not woman enough for whole food. Brother ordered a steak burger and the waitress looked at him like he'd just shat in her shoes. He got a thin, curling
piece of steak in a brown bun. That was it. No garnish, no salad. Just a dry bun and some meat. Serves him right. Cow murderer.

After this slightly bizarre experience, Brother phoned Balvenie distillery to see if we could just turn up and taste, rather than go through the whole tour. The woman he reached said we couldn't really just have a tasting - but we could watch the video and then taste. This sounded fine, so off we went to seek out Balvenie - Brother's whisky of choice.

Alas, when Fisher and I arrived there ahead of Brother and Gaura, we encountered a baffled looking man named Dave who informed us he'd heard nothing about such a thing, and that Balvenie was only open to visitors by appointment. The problem was that the switchboard of Balvenie goes straight through to sister distillery Glenfiddich, so even though Brother mentioned Balvenie to the receptionist she clearly didn't listen and thought we were talking about Glenfiddich. Shame. Despite us making the biggest eyes possible, Dave was unyielding in his resolve to keep us out of Balvenie ... but eventually took pity and told us to go to Glenfiddich, where we could mention his name and have a free Balvenie at the bar. Jolly good. Ailsa then promptly forgot his name - but luckily I have a memory for names that lasts more than 30 seconds and we got our freebie. Glenfiddich was at least a very picturesque little place.

Unfortunately, due to the faff and a slower lunch than originally planned, we were now very pressed for time. We had a relatively long drive down to Pitlochry that evening, and it was 4.30. Most distilleries have, if not closed, then at least stopped doing tours by that time and were therefore not likely to let us in for a tasting. I was also cross because Fisher had told me we could take any road south, but the one we found ourselves on was utterly devoid of any distillery at all and seemed to take us 3 times further than any of the others. After a suitable grump, I then discovered a place called Tomintoul in my Collins Gem which ... hey ho ... wasn't open to the public. Never mind, I thought, I'll give them a try anyway.

So busy was I with trying to find a last distillery before declaring Speyside a bit of a bust, that I completely failed to register the beauty of the road Fisher had chosen. I took a moment to drink in swooping hills, sparkling burns and sunshine before phoning Tomintoul. I reached a woman who said she didn't know if we could come by for a tasting - she had to ask Tom. Tom of Tomintoul. I felt like I'd stumbled into an Ivor the Engine story. I wondered if the whole distillery was peopled by men called things like 'Jock the Mash' and 'Old Rab Stillman'.

Eventually a gruff male voice came on the line. I told him we'd had a bit of a disappointing day in Speyside and were hoping very much we could stop by for a taste of Tomintoul to cheer ourselves up. The last thing I heard before the mountains cut me off was:

"Aye, reckon that wid be a very good idea ..."

I took this to mean we should just rock up, so with crossed fingers I directed Fisher to lead our little convoy deep into the countryside in search of Tomintoul. Ominous signs promising roads closed ahead did nothing to deter us, and we wound our way through some of the prettiest countryside you ever did hope to see. The sun shone, my head span from all the whisky of the day, and my crabbishness evaporated with the first sight of our destination. The distillery itself is nothing to look at - large, white and pretty charmless, but its surrounds more than make up for that. (This picture is an example of the surrounding countryside - not a pic of the actual distillery.)

On arrival, I nipped inside to make sure we were expected and I hadn't been the victim of an elabourate hoax. Luckily, Tom of Tomintoul was there waiting for us - a tall, dour man in his mid fifties. He was dressed in overalls, with a distinct no-bullshit odour about him. He took us through to a room which looked like any cheap, modern office room and sat us around the cheap, modern office table in cheap, modern office chairs.

"This is it," he said. "There's no-one here dressed in full highland dress. There's no nineteenth century tasting room with oak tables made out of old whisky barrells. It's just me, this room, this table and chairs. And," he added, wopping out a bottle, "the whisky!"

His undisguised excitement at the thought of a tasting was underlined by the shaking of his hand as he poured a couple of drams for the 4 of us to share, and a hearty measure for himself ("I'm no' driving!").

The first was a standard 10 year old which, in Tom's own words, "isn't bad." Tomintoul is known as "the gentle dram" and it is, indeed, very easy drinking. The ten year old slipped down very easily. Brother remarked that he likes his whisky to have some bite, just to remind him to be careful. The Tomintoul 10 year old had no bite at all, just sweet, slightly spicy warmth. It was rather frightening to think how many drams could slip down the hatch before I remembered how potent it is. I was cautiously reserved, though, and enjoyed a couple of sips.

Then it was on to the 16 year old. This was a fuller version of the 10, better at filling the mouth, but with the same delicious caramel and spice. Brother had resorted to minimal tastes accompanied by much sniffing, as he was driving, while Fisher wasn't having any at all (driving also) and Gaura barely had enough to notice. The drams started piling up, all but untouched, and I felt a slight obligation to make an impression - so the tiny sips became a little larger.

Thirdly we were offered the 27 year old. This was a different kettle of fish. Dark, rich and woody, Tom of Tomintoul gave his minceless opinion that it had been left in the cask too long. On tasting, I did quite like it - but the minute ToT mentioned the wood I saw what he meant. A definate oakiness permeated the overall taste, and left the wersht sensation of stewed tea. The overall sweet, richness wasn't enough to overcome the woodiness, and we turned instead to the final offering. ToT had been more than keeping pace with us, taking a good double measure each time we had our paltry sips, and the shaking hands had steadied a little as he brought out the final offering.

This was rather an interesting one, being a peat smoked bottling called Old Ballantruan. As part of his 'no-bullshit' style, ToT had dismissed the notion of peaty water, or salt air, bearing any relation whatsoever to the end result. I'd wondered if, by taking a cask of west coast whisky and leaving it on the east coast would actually make any difference, as some distillery guides would have you believe. He made a sound like an exploding bull and dismissed such nonsense. Aparantly there are only 3 things that matter when it comes to making whisky: the ration of yeast to ... something ... and, er, two other things. Oh, shut up. There was quite a bit of whisky in my system at this point. I think one of them was water purity, which Tomintoul has by taking their fresh water from local wells near what is the highest village in the Highlands. They had no mains water at all for the distillery, and the water we tasted was, indeed, very pure. ToT pointed out that streams have dead sheep in them, as well as farm run-off and any number of other things polluting their ways. Wells can remain untouched. Anyway, I do remember him saying that the notion of rocks leaving deposits in the water, or the sea air infusing the barrels, was utter balderdash. Peat taste comes from parts per million of peat in the water, which comes through the smoking of malt over peat fires to stop germination. You can use as little or as much peat as you like, depending on the distiller's whim. This is what they did for the Old Ballantruan - and the combination of Speyside sweetness, roundness and richness with the addition of peat smoke was wonderful to me! The peat was in imitation of Laphroaig, and it was certainly as smoky as any Island malt I've tasted - but without the antiseptic. Delicious. I bought a bottle, and so did Brother - who also snapped up a 16 year old. By buying straight from the source we saved at least a fiver, so that was nice, too!

A word ought to be said about the bottles themselves. Both the ten and sixteen year olds have cream labels with a sketch of some countryside scene on the front. To catch the eye, the lid foil is in purple. Tom waved a hand in their direction and asked us what we thought of it.

"Er ..." said I.

"I suppose they catch the eye ..." Brother began, at which ToT flapped a hand at him.

"I'm no' interested in what you think!" he grumbled. "This is one fur the ladies."

"O ... k ... " I whimpered, not wanting to say I found the whole design pretty dire. "I like purple. It's my favourite colour." To his credit, ToT didn't pat me on the head and offer me a lollipop for my nursery school answer, but instead turned his attention to Fisher and Gaura and they blethered something about understanding how the colour would definitely leap off the shelves at you and you'd be able to locate it with ease. Personally I thought they were scraping the bottom of the American oak barrel at this point, but ToT lapped it up. Apparently, Tomintoul's marketing deparment had designed the labels specifically for the female market in Spain, where the "Gentle Dram" is wildly popular. Therefore it's all girly colours and pretty pictures. I refrained from comment, which I think was good of me.

"Where is your marketing department?" Brother enquired. Tom of Tomintoul jabbed a finger at the opposite end of the table.

"There. That's where me and ma mate Frank sit on a Friday night!" He gave a broad, proud grin and we laughed merrily. Later, Brother suggested that Frank was a purple-scarfed, floppy-haired indvidual who pranced into the Tomintoul office every Friday night with a warbling: "Hellooo Tom darling" and together they took the world market by storm while drinking their way through three bottles of home-distilled hooch apiece. A nice image, I think.

We left Tomintoul well pleased with the detour, bidding farewell to Tom of Tomintoul and the two receptionists (Elsie the Telephone? Heather the PowerPoint?) with gratitude. I think I weaved slightly, and clutched Old Ballantruan to my chest like a baby. One final wave and we were off.

The road to Pitlochry proved one of the highlights of the whole trip. We scooted over the Grampians in beautiful sunshine, glorying in the bright purple heather and shining braes. Mountains surrounded us, with only the occasional ski-station to marr the view. It took a couple of hours to traverse the back route, but time well spent. Brother and Gaura managed to keep the top down all the way - some kind of miracle in Scotland - and we all arrived at The Pine Trees Hotel feeling more than merry.

Pine Trees is a pretty, tucked away country house hotel on the edge of Pitochry, boasting 4 stars from the Scottish Tourist Board - 3 stars from everyone else - and seemingly entirely run by Poles. We were told firmly that we had to go straight to supper as 'the staff are waiting for you.' It was 8pm. Supper was served from 6-9pm, so I was a bit miffed with the guilt-trip. We weren't there for the staff's conveniece, but were paying for the privilege of our own, thank you very much. However, we were all pretty peckish so we made it down by 8.15 anyway.

Supper was fine, and Fisher and I were very pleased the dogs were allowed into the hotel. For the last few nights they'd been sleeping in the car - an arrangement that bothers us much more than it does them!

After a relaxing dram or three at the bar, we turned in. We took the dogs for a final pee in the gardens, then up to the room where Bridie proceeded to drink two whole bowls of water! We felt awful! Fisher then suggested she take her out again, last thing, but quickly agreed when I sleepily said "she'll be all right."

Famous last words.

2.30 am, I'm woken by the insistent whines of Bridie, followed by several sharp yips when she saw my eyes open. Blearily I got to my feet and started hunting around for clothes in the pitch black. I couldn't find anything but my shirt. It was touch and go as to whether I went down bare-arsed, but I know what my luck is like, so I spent another 5 minutes searching. Eventually I was dressed and ready, at which point Baffie started squawking as well, so I had to unhook her lead from its secure anchor around Fisher's bedside table. Bridie was going ape by this stage - and when, at long last, I managed to get them out onto the stairs she just couldn't wait. I felt her stop suddenly, and before I knew it a dark puddle was spreading out over the carpet. There was nothing for it but to wait until she'd finished. Baffie then started sniffing at it in an "oh, is there a toilet here?" sort of way, so I dragged them furiously through the unending corridors and out into the garden. Baffie peed happily, but Bridie just sat there staring at me in miserable trepidation. She knew she'd done wrong, and that I was angry - but her refusal to move at all didn't exactly improve my temper. Nor did ending up on my hands and knees at 3am scrubbing at the carpet with a soap-soaked towel - or the fact I simply couldn't get back to sleep afterwards.

It was a very pie-eyed me that came down for breakfast the next morning, but the sleep I did achieve at least put me in a better humour and I looked on our final day with pleasure. First of all we went to what looked like an entertaining display at Dewar's World of Whisky - a museum as well as distillery - and tasted a couple of drams. The museum was better than the whisky, although the White Label was definitely the nicest blend I've come across.

Next, we headed back to Pitlochry via the Pass of Killiecrankie where we gave the dogs a very quick leg-stretch down to Soldier's Leap and poked about in the visitor's centre shop a bit. Our final distillery of the tour was the one I thought the best of the bunch last time - Edradour. But before we embarked on the Last Tasting of the Trip, we had lunch at the lovely Moulin Inn and popped our heads into the Moulin kirkyard to say hello to the Fergussons buried there. Then it was off to Edradour's pretty whitewashed buildings for a nose and a taste of their finest offerings.

On the barman's suggestion we bypassed the 10 year old, which he admitted was nothing special really, and tried a dram of Sauterne finished 12 year old. I think I recall Brother and Gaura liking it very much, but I can't say it was to my taste really. A little winey - which is the point, but actually gave it a bit of a medicinal quality, in my eyes. Much more to my taste was the unchillfiltered 10 year old, and the 10 year old cask-strength. However, I must say that Edradour - while still excellent - is no longer my favourite! I think that title has now been blown wide open by this trip, where my pallette has been beaten into submission and now picks up nuances previously unnoticed. I think the a'bunadh may be up there as a serious contender, but actually I'm not sure I can pick a favourite at present.

A quick visit to the shop saw Bother and Gaura's wedding collection reach 8 bottles in total, and then we were back in the car, heading home. The whisky tour was done! The weather had been most gracious, the craic excellent, and the whisky eye-opening. Now it was back to Fife, where such things as tennis tournaments, book groups and the gathering of pals were to be happily anticipated. I was very much looking forward to seeing Arrow and sharing some of our new aquisitions with him, as well as seeing Spartan and Blarney who were coming up for the tennis tournament on Sunday. Not, of course, to mention Janus and Phid, who were the only other people apart from me to have actually made the effort! Phid was even passing up the opportunity to go to Mohammed al Fayed's hunting cabin with Wheeler in order to do so! Gold star to that girl!

Unfortunately, the arrival of Sartan and Blarney a day early and my suggestion we all meet up for a drink after book group was over caused the ultimate collapse of said book group (much to Spartan and Blar's surprise as they turned up to a house full of people, when they'd only been expecting to see Fisher, Brother and Gaura) so god knows what I'm going to do with a head stuffed full of the history of satirical literature in Russia - not to mention themes of sensuality, freedom of spirit, and the complexities of good and evil. The same as I do with all my academic knowledge, I suppose: forget it almost instantly.

Anyway, aside from the disappointment of not getting fully to grips with Bulgakov - about whom I remain, despite all my research - utterly bewildered, it was a great weekend. We played poker til the wee hours (Blarney cleaned up) and tasted all my pre-tour whiskies. Fisher gallantly offered to cook and had to go out and buy a shed load of shopping owing to us having not nearly enough in the house to feed the extras. She made teriyaki beef ... mmmmm ... with accompaniments of pak choi, fried seaweed and prawn crackers. Next day, the sun shone, I lost at the tennis before the watching eyes of my friends (typical. I played like boak and injured my wrist in the process) and we parted fondly. At 4.30 we had to shoot back to the house because The Politician was arriving. In typical Politician fashion he'd asked to come and stay about 3 minutes before showing up. I don't know why I put up with it - I really don't. Having said that, it was wonderful to see him looking tanned and healthy.

On Sunday night we all went out to The Seafood Restaurant for slap up nosh, kindly bought by Brother & Gaura, and had some excellent white wine that I've forgotten the name of but will definitly stock up on when I remember. The Politician was entertaining, the evening flew by, and we returned for a final dram and a bit more poker. The Politician seemed a little unsure of it all to start with, but ended up enjoying it rather a lot - despite being the unluckiest player I've ever seen! He had 2 pairs ... Brother had 2 higher pairs. He had a pair of Queens, Fisher had a pair of Kings. He had a Straight, Gaura had a Flush ... it was quite ubelievable!

But with that final hand of poker, the weekend drew to a close. The Politician left the next morning, Brother and Gaura around noon. The house descended into quiet, Fisher and I drew deep, calming breaths - and then entered the general fray that is our life together. Today I've dedicated to organising myself for the trip to Skye, but have done nothing but finish writing up this blog and run a few errands. I've got a million and one things to do ... and I can't seem to stop writing! Arrg!


That is all.

The end.