The following morning we took a cab out to the Dublin Airport, our driver looked a quintessential Irishman, short and stout and burly with bricklayer’s hands and a boxer’s nose. Jimmy was his name and he asked us about our gun laws in the U.S.. “Why the hell do you need so many guns? What are you afraid of?” He blazed through traffic like a champ, and we made it in plenty of time to make it through security before our flights.
We shared a final Irish Breakfast together in the concourse of the terminal. I actually ate some salad, they had beets and spinach in the little cafe. The Irish weren’t so much into salads, they needed body fuel for cold weather, not summer fare. Haggis (sheep or calf’s offal mixed with suet, oatmeal, and some seasonings and boiled, traditionally in an animal’s stomach,) neeps (mashed turnips,) and tatties (mashed potatoes,) were stand-bys on most countryside menus.
Angus was flying back to L.A. as he was just days away from opening another new bar there. We were bummed at having to split up, as the White-Knuckle team had been having one hell of a good time. We hugged it out and he headed for his flight while Andrew and I took advantage of the decent wifi connection to catch up on emails after a week of being out of the loop.
Aer Lingus whipped us on the baggage charge for the flight to Scotland, we actually had gained bottles in Ireland, despite all of our gift-giving. We paid over $100 for the extra weight on the short flight in a small plane over the Irish Sea. Some people have real problems. We had too much whiskey.
We landed in Aberdeen and the North Atlantic Summer was sustaining, we had seen some rain in Dublin the last couple of days, but the majority of our Ireland trip had given incredible weather. A Scottish lady on the airplane exclaimed, “It’s sunny in Scotland! That never happens!”
Jeff was waiting for us at the car rental, excited and electric. He had spent the night before in Glasgow, having beers bought for him and dancing with a bunch of Brazilians. Aberdeen was an oil town, with off-shore rigs and wealthy internationals walking through the airport. We searched for our rental car in a lot full of nice rides.
Andrew rallied the rental and we were straightway toward Dufftown, the heart of Single Malt Heaven. The sky was spotted with cumulous clouds that caught the sun like bright sails. Dufftown was 52 miles away according to the GPS, but time was of no matter as everything was brand new to us. The road poured through the countryside and color was everywhere, purple heather and red clover, fields of gold barley, sloughs of green grass. White-Knuckle Driving, Part Two, was on. Again, I was to be the navigator.
Some bikers came screaming up behind us, shredding through the winding hills on skinny roads. We caught up to them at a construction stop:
Dufftown’s town square was on an ascent of a small hill, Fife Street was it’s axis, our B&B just down the block of row houses. The Tannocbrae was a really nice little Inn, with a whiskey bar hidden downstairs in what used to be a waiting room for a surgeon’s office.
We checked in and then strolled down the way to the nearest bar, The Royal Oak. It was a shoebox of a place, with a billiards table in one end and a big screen TV in the other. The bar faced the doorway in the middle. Some young locals were watching Scottish Reality TV. Nicola, the blonde bartender, looked to be in her early 20’s and was very entertaining. She asked us where we were going, we told her that we were supposed to tour the Glenfiddich Distillery the next day. “Well, you should have Royan show you around. She works there.” Pointing at another blonde that was sitting a couple stools down at the bar.
Royan was really cool, and promised that she would try to get us into the blending room at Glenfiddich, once we explained to that we desired to go beyond the standard tour and gain a deeper understanding of why whiskies taste the way they do.
Nicola told us we would have to come back later in the evening to meet the owner, John, who was a big whisky enthusiast and curator of the impressive shelves of Single Malts behind her. The place had a great selection, dozens of Scotches unavailable in the states, and many we had never seen before.
We ate dinner up the road at the Stuart Arms, a good restaurant with a big Sunday crowd. Peter and Anne were the owners, and were very cool. Peter showed us the back bar and we sampled some whiskies that we would not be able to find in the U.S. The Glenfiddich Malt Masters, which could only be purchased at the distillery: Broth and chili, marshmallow and lemon custard on the nose, milk chocolate and lemon zest on the tongue.
ade our way back down Fife Street to the Royal Oak, which took about two minutes (Dufftown is a small town.) Yvonne, one of the owners was bartending, and we told her we were hoping to meet John. “Are you the guys from L.A.? Nicola said you would be coming. I’ll go get him!”
John came out from the back room, wiry and smiling, and the whiskey tasting was on. John was passionate and enthusiastic, he wanted to learn about whisky and share what he knew with his guests, same as us. His was like a brother, giddy in sharing his secret stash of rare delights. We tasted the Glenkeith 17yr. Cask Strength: a lingering arc of maple syrup over pancakes, apple cake and molasses, bridging to cheddar, berries, and butterscotch. The Glenfiddich 21: Lemon-mint and menthol, dark sugars and oak. The Mortlach 16yr (distillery right down the street, no public tours,) Oatmeal and saltwater taffy, green apples, butter and brown sugar, brownbread and cardamom. There were some private bottlings offered, Cadenhead had a Glenlivet 43 yr which was intense and dark, swirling with linen and caramel, mint and raspberry, strawberry vinigrette, plum and black walnut.
We swaggered back up the street to Stuart Arms where they had soccer and NFL highlights on the TV in the back room. Andrew is a huge Seahawks fan, and Seattle was playing the Sunday night game in the U.S., but alas we were so far ahead in time that it would be 2 a.m. before the pre-game would even start. We rolled back down the hill to the Tannocbrae.
Breakfast at the Tannocbrae was served by the owner Alan and his wife, Alan gave us the history of the building, toured us through the back bar. No time to drink, (we could of had some whisky on our porridge, it was on the menu there too,) but we had to get to the distillery. Clean digs, we felt like we were staying in some nice families’ beautiful Victorian house. We checked out and headed for Glenfiddich, about 5 minutes away. Barely enough time for the knuckles to grow white.
Tanker trucks were leaving the enormous spread that is Glenfiddich, the largest Single Malt Distillery in the world. The Distillery was stunning, set amongst hills of in the Valley of the Deer, with threshers running up the sunny hillsides harvesting barley. The visitor center featured a great room where groups checked in and then were invited into a large screening room to watch a short video about the history of the distillery. Visitors could get headsets offering translations in dozens of languages.
We were welcomed by Sue Wiles, who is in charge of teaching all of the Glenfiddich Tour Guides, and she took us across the way to a building that had used to be a dunnage rackhouse, but was now transformed into another great room with adjacent banquet rooms. This was the kind of place people would come to get married in Scotland. Elegant, but laid-back. The last of the family-owned big-boy Scotches, the place had large oil paintings of several generations of the Grant family on the walls.
Sue had noted when she saw us, “Oh, there’s three of you.” This was the second time in 24 hours that we had heard that, reception at the Tannocbrae said the same thing. Andrew and I shot each other a look. Obviously, in the manic last days before our departure, we had forgotten to let the folks at William Grant that our numbers had changed. We originally thought Angus was coming with us, then it was going to be Andrew and myself, and then Jeff was coming along. Crossed wires in the email string. But Sue played it off like it was nothing, she whispered in the ear of a passing tour guide and suddenly there were more glasses at the table. A little later, when we were walking around in Rackhouse One, we turned a corner and poof! There were 3 barrels lying on stands with their corks out, a copper theif, nosing glasses and three empty bottles ready to be filled from the barrel of our choosing, as if some brilliant whisky elf had set the whole magical scene up, and knew exactly how many of us there were going to be. Jeff had no idea that we had screwed up, which was good. He was having a great time.
After lunch in the distillery cafe (which was great!) Sue had to take off for a few minutes. I think her title was Senior Brand Home Associate or something, but it was almost like she was the Distillery Manager. She seemed to be in charge of the whole place. At one point, someone came running up to her while she was walking Andrew, Jeff and I around and said, “Sue, there’s a leak in Still 6. It’s spraying a bit.” And Sue rushed off, like she was personally going to go fix the still or something, which she probably could. Sue seemed to know everything about whisky making there was to know. She showed us grains and the miller, the mash tuns and fermenters, the stills and spirit safes, and a couple of rackhouses. (Though there had to be way more tucked away somewhere near, amongst the trees in the hills, for the amount of whisky these guys are putting out.)
When Sue got back, she walked us further onto the property to where Balvenie Distillery was in operation. We saw the on-site cooperage where the crews were banging together barrels, they even had a machine that could auger out the inside of a used barrel, where then they could take it over to another area where they could fire it up and re-char it, in essence making a new bourbon-style barrel that they could age whisky in.
Sue had shown us the Marrying Casks and Solera Casks in a rackhouse back up at Glenfiddich, unique among single malts. Giant barrels where the 15yr expression would be taken from, that they never let get less than half-full, allowing older whisky to meld with the new 15yr they would be adding. At Balvenie, Sue took us to the Peat Kiln and up onto the Malting Floor where they would turn the malting grain as it was dried by the kiln. Watch Jeff shovel some grain:
Glenfiddich was putting us up in a stone cottage house on the distillery property, after the delightful double-tour Sue had led us on, we thanked her and gave her a bottle of the Eagle Rare, Seven Grand Select. We bought some presents in the gift shop before going to drop our bags at the house.
There was still enough light in the late afternoon that we could do some driving around, we were excited to visit more distilleries, and there were plenty within short range. We streaked sideways through the hillsides and got to Glenfarclas just after the last tour of the day had started. We caught up and tagged along with the tourists, but the stills in the stillhouse were quiet. Surprising, knowing the growing popularity back home. Orange and Chocolate, a lot of our guys were introducing it to first-time Scotch drinkers as an easy way in. How were these guys going to keep up with demand, with the world whiskey craze at hand? I think the Tour Guide said it was the dry season and that they were out of water, we had heard of other distilleries closing down for certain weeks within the year, but we took a walk after visiting the gift shop and saw a reservoir behind the facility that was full of water. Perhaps the water they used for the fermentation was different from the water pulled from the reservoir used to cool the equipment? As usual, the more you know, the more questions you have.
We barreled onward, hoping to get to Aberlour before they closed. The gift shop was open, we bought some pins, tokens of thanks for the staff back home. They had a copper thief (used for extracting whisky from the barrel) for sale, but it was spendy and we still had a trip in front of us. We took a purposeful wrong turn toward the distillery, pulling out the visitor parking, and did a quick drive through. The place idyllic, nestled with green trees all around, but we couldn’t tell if they were running their stills. We bailed back toward the Stone House at Glenfiddich.
Jeff busted out his bottle of Glenfiddich 1995 that he had pulled from the cask in the rackhouse, it was 121 proof, with salted maple, almond toffee and peach syrup. We sipped and soaked in the twilight feeling grateful before ambling back down to Dufftown. There was a war memorial in the wooded old cemetery, and a funky antique store that we knocked around in before returning to the Stuart Arms for supper.
We, of course, gravitated back to the Royal Oak, Yvonne was bartending and John welcomed us in. We picked up where we left off the night before, exploring more marks that were not usually available to us in the U.S. Aberlour, Mortlach, Glenfarclas, (John had his own bottling, he was planning on hiking Mount Kilimanjaro for a charity event in October, and had bought a barrel to commemorate the occasion. The bottles had a picture of Mount Kilimanjaro on the label.) John wanted to do a blind tasting with me, saying he had a cask sample, and wanted to know if I could guess what it was. He retreated into the kitchen and come back with a wee dram, eyes expectant: “Tell me what this is.”
I stuck my nose in the glass, breathing slowly in through my mouth. Maple, ginger, bell pepper, big orange. Dense. I smelled again. Slowly, slowly. “Dalmore?” I guessed. John’s eyes grew wide. The oak was deep with sherry, thick in the nose. I was guessing he was pouring something very old and rare. “Dalmore. Over 30 years old. Dalmore 35?” not that this was any expression that I had ever heard of. John turned pale. Then I sipped. Orange and Maple, long on the linger, delightful, but there was something wrong on the finish. A slight waxiness that didn’t seem part of the whisky. “Are you storing this in plastic?” I asked. John closed his eyes, rubbed his forehead and walked back to the kitchen, returning with a plastic water bottle with a little dark liquid swirling in the bottom of it. “Dalmore 35! I don’t believe it!” he said, shaking his head, the boys roared their approval. We laughed and gave cheers. A lucky guess, to be fair, we once had the honor of hosting Richard Patterson at Seven Grand, he schooled us, splashing spent drams of whiskey to the floor as he tasted us, but the Orange-Maple DNA of Dalmore was specific and memorable. John wanted us to come to whiskey tasting the following night at the bar, a rep from Cadenshead was to bringing in a bunch of their private bottlings, it promised to be a memorable night. John insisted on driving us back to the cottage, his hospitality was unstoppable. A wild Scotsman raging through the late night of tiny Dufftown.
Andrew and I stayed up late at the Stone House sipping Glenfiddich and listening to classical music off his phone. Andrew is an afficionado with a stout education for the classics, he used to have a blog that reviewed movie soundtracks. I had made fun earlier when they wanted to listen to the ‘Braveheart’ soundtrack while we were sipping in the house at sunset. Andrew totally schooled me in the late-night, playing the soundtrack again, really making me slow down and listen and then a couple of Wagner librettos, ‘Parsifal’ and ‘Tristan und Isolde,’ both amazing and sublime.
Woke up to the smell of Jeff cooking everyone breakfast in the kitchen downstairs. We all ate and packed, loaded up and headed for Ardmore Distillery, about 45 minutes away.
The Ardmore Distillery is not open to the public, they do not offer tours. We were to be shown around the facilities by the distillery manager, Alistair Longwell, and rushed to get there on time for our meeting.
There were guys rolling empty barrels into a warehouse and the wind was strong coming off the fields behind the distillery, large rainclouds were threatening. We checked in at the front office, and Alistair was there going over some paperwork. He showed us to a small room adjacent to the office that had some paintings, photographs and memorabilia from this historic old distillery. Ancient label stamps, bronze tools for measuring alcohol content, and tax ledgers. Ardmore is the main ingredient in Teacher’s Whiskey, and is in some of the most famous Scotch Blends in the world. Often at the bar I will ask a guest what is the usual whiskey that they drink, trying to show them to a new friend that is familiar, but brand new. If someone tells me they drink Johnnie Walker Black, I will try to turn them on to the world of Single Malts by pouring them Ardmore 10yr. Grassy, light smoke, cereal and honey, pear and stonefruit. Solid, quintessential Highland style.
This was the kind of tour that really blows your mind, because it is so personal. Alistair was taking time out of his day, running the distillery, showing us his life, and the life of those who worked there, not the polished Tourist Trail. We tasted “Joe,” distiller’s beer snaked from the fermentation tuns. Slightly sour, sweet and malty, waiting to be distilled. Check the video:
We walked through this big old distillery, 8 huge copper stills, a rusty railway running right along it’s backside, massive malting floors, and a steam powered engine that once powered the entire operation. They no longer do their own malting on-premise, and there were remnants of an olympics of sorts in the broad open warehouses. Chalk marks on the floor denoting a shuffleboard score, a mini-bowling set up, a Holiday Party Employee Game Room...
The dunnage houses were stacked with barrels of all sizes, used Bourbon, Punchen and Hogheads, Quarter Casks, Sherry barrels. The surrounding town was built up around the distillery, cottage houses spanning out across the street from the dunnage houses that used to be home to the distillery workers. Back in the day, employees would line up for their morning dram before work, (it’s cold in the morning!) would work until lunch and get another dram when that break ended, and then another dram at the end of the work day. That didn’t stop the workers from getting a little more take-home pay in the form of whisky. Alistair showed us several “dogs,” various cylindrical flasks that one could drop into the bung hole of a barrel with a chain to retrieve some juice. Some were as simple as a salad dressing bottle on a string, occasionally they still find them knocking around in old barrels, evidence of failed withdrawal by someone who was “walking the dog.”
We sampled straight from the cask with Alistair in the dunnage houses, some truly mind-blowing tastes, syrup and grass, sherry, coffee, smoke and caramel, citrus. Alistair gave us bottles of the Ardmore 100 Year anniversary edition to take home, a treasure in a bottle. We thanked Alistair and the crew for their hospitality, and gave Alistair a bottle of the W.L Weller 107 Seven Grand Single Barrel.
One of the main goals of this trip for me was to create a relationship with one of these distilleries in which we could buy Single Barrels from Scotland at a price that we could afford to put in the well at Seven Grand. I didn’t know of any bar in the U.S. that was doing it, but I had been wanting it since I first fell in love with Single Malts as we were first opening the bar. The logistics of doing it is prohibitive, I was hoping Ardmore might be the one, Alistair understood our passion, we will see what happens. Crazy dreams.
We headed Southwest down through the hills toward Kildrummy Castle, where they were putting us up for the night. We never did make it back to the Royal Oak to go to that Cadenshead tasting. Our apologies to John, Big Love to Dufftown! We want to come back soon!
Kildrummy Castle Hotel is located in the hills outside Aberdeenshire, an area known for pheasant and grouse hunting. Falconing classes were offered on roadside signs. The hotel sits adjacent to the ruins of the old castle, and is immense and immaculate, the hotel itself was an old castle. Suits of armor in the hallway, lion heads carved in the staircase bannister, a walled courtyard overlooking the old ruins. We rolled in before dusk, checked into our room, made dinner reservations, and settled into the bar in one of the many Great Rooms, and started sipping some scotches and beers. Elise, who had checked us in, served us our first round. There was an art exhibition going on in the hotel, big pieces were hanging everywhere. Harim Al Karim, an Iraqi artist who lives in Dubai had insanely awesome large prints of blurred women’s faces with the eyes left clear, but their mouths covered. Disquieting and effective, they added to the haunted vibe of the place in a big way. We had an incredible meal, carousing with the tourists that were in the dining room. Andrew and I stayed up late after closing with Elise, sipping whiskey, (she may have been drinking Cognac.)
I shot some pictures and video and posted them on Instagram, but for some reason they never appeared, adding to the haunted castle vibe. My mind was racing with the idea of this place. The castle had been under siege many times it’s history, from the 1300’s on, battles had been raged, people had fought and died on these grounds. It was really late, we walked out onto the courtyards and beyond in the darkness, just feeling the nature of the place. It was wild and windy, but with a surprising warmth. We were surrounded by deep green forest, listening like animals to the sounds around us.
When we came back inside Elise gave me a drunken tour of the basement wine cellar, so medieval and cavernous. I thought of all centuries of servants who had spent their lives going up and down those stairs.
We got up late and missed the breakfast service but Elise and Claude, her mother, loaded us up with hot coffee and warm chocolate croissants for the drive. No photos, no video, but the memories were incredible. We stumbled through the loading of the car, spun round in front of the castle, and headed toward Old Meldrum, grouse running in the trees around us.
Oldmeldrum wasn’t far, only about 40 minutes to the Northeast in Aberdeenshire, winding white-knuckle style through the Highland Hills. We were to be meeting Kenny Grant, Distillery Manager at Glen Garioch, but first we had to check in over at the Redgarth around the corner. We dropped our bags and had a quick bowl of potato leek soup at the bar, served by our bartender/hotel manager, Jack, before heading to meet Kenny.
We were on time again, thanks to the White-Knuckle Driving technique. We browsed in the gift shop adjacent to the greeting center until Kenny came and got us. Kenny looked like someone who worked in a distillery, strong and stocky, with thick hands, he looked like he could wrestle a hundred barrels or shovel a mountain of barley. He also knew everything there is know about whiskey. He was a third generation distillery man, his father and grandfather having worked there before him. We walked through stone buildings that housed the malting floors and the smoking kilns, and he explained all the minutae of making Glen Garioch: Double-soaking the Barley, then turning the malt for a week as it greened, 2 days in soak, and 7 days on the malting floors. 10 tons of green malt per week, 4 tons per mash batch, slow smoking the malt with peat for 12 hours, then using a gas kiln to dry the malt for 35 hours, taking it down from a 48% moisture content to 4-5%. The peat is local, from right up the road in New Pitsligo, they mill the husks of Barley to a 70/20/10 Husk-to-Grist-to-Flour ratio using their in-house mill. They’ve been using Optic Concerto varietal of Barley, as does almost everyone in the business, having switched over from the Golden Promise varietal in 1994. Two 20 lb. bags of yeast for 22,500 liters of wash, it takes 48 hours to ferment to 8% alcohol, then the wash is pumped into the stills. The Still gets fired up, the alcohol starts to steam off, The Head Cut starts at 75% Alcohol-By-Volume (ABV.,) and three hours later they make the Tail Cut. Double-distilled. They have 8,500 barrels on site and produce over a million liters of whiskey per year. Torrid stream of scribbles from my writing-while-walking notebook, while trying to shoot pictures and video. I felt like I needed 6 more arms, all with faster fingers.
Kenny then took us to a tasting room remodeled within one the old world stone cottages connected to the distillery. Much of the town seemed connected to the distillery, rows of cottages huddled together, grey rock walls uniting everything. Construction was being done. A new visitor parking area was being built next to the building we were in. School kids were walking home in their uniforms, uphill on the cobblestone street outside. It seemed like a happy town, and it was about to get happier, at least for us. We sipped on the Glen Garioch 1986, a peated 109 proof aged in first fill used Bourbon casks. Banana and Berries, Lemon Drop Candy, Dark Caramel, Golden Promise Barley. The Glen Garioch 1995, Lavender and Lemon Mocha, Banana Toffee. The Glen Garioch Virgin Oak, with no age-statement, offered Rose and Oak Char, Grass and Dark Chocolate. Kenny gifted us bottles of the Founder’s Reserve and as we were giving thanks and saying our goodbyes, a worker walked up with a large beeker full of whiskey, an experimental blend of barrel samples. Kenny let us steal a sip in the street.
We went straight to the restaurant at the Morris Hotel, as the online menu promised fresh local produce. We were looking to stay healthy after all this whisky. The food was great and we diverted from there into Jock’s Bar, within the same hotel, a legendary traditional old-school pub that was full of local characters.
It was early and we took seats at the bar, we had at looked at our suitcases while back at the Redgarth, and realized that we didn’t have enough space for all of the bottles we had been gifted, despite our giving of of Seven Grand Single Barrels at every stop. We were trying to give whiskey away. We still had way too much whiskey.
We were carrying three bottles of Glen Garioch with us, and in a move I would soon regret, we gave two bottles to the bartender, as a friendship offering. A bad move if Kenny ever heard of it. But we wanted to make friends, we met a boxer who had the nose and hands to prove his past. We sipped Glen Garioch and beers as the bar started to fill up.
An old regular came in, and everyone called out his name “Artie!” and made way for him, someone gave up their stool at the bar. The bartender delivered a mighty shot, at least four fingers of Scotch in a Collins glass and a pint of beer to the honored guest. A local told me the old man was 94. I gave up my seat at the bar, as there were locals piling up behind us, and got into a political conversation with a guy who had such a thick accent that I had a hard time following what he was saying. Maybe it was the whisky. We were talking about Scotland becoming independent from the United Kingdom, a hot topic with the referendum coming up this year.
Jeff was fading and caught a ride back to the Redgarth with someone who was leaving. Andrew and I stayed late, leaning into the experience, soaking up the night with the locals, finally walking back to the Redgarth in the wee hours.
Andrew put on Tschaikovsky’s 6th Symphony “The Pathetique,” and told me of the history behind it. Normally I would have Punk Rock cranking on the iPhone at this time of night while traveling, maybe Henry Rollins’ podcast just to remind me of home. But I was locked in the alien, lying transfixed on a hotel bed in Scotland, paralyzed by one of the most heartbreaking pieces of music I had ever heard. I felt infinitesimal. Lost within sadness despite all the good whisky, travel and company, the music floated futile out of the phone speaker, all was quiet outside. I thought about Tschaikovsky, who committed suicide just days after conducting it’s premiere, then Kurt Cobain and his suicide in the weeks following the release of “Nirvana Unplugged.” The tragic conclusion of “Pathetique” fell over me as I lost consciousness.
We got up at the crack of dawn because we had to drive all the way to Glasgow. White-knuckling down the East Coast, passing Aberdeen, Dundee, Perth, Edinburgh on the way. We were headed to Morrison-Bowmore to meet Iain McCallum, Master of Malts, and Rachel Barrie, Master Blender of Auchentoshan, Bowmore, and Glen Garioch, and to check out the blending lab! The drive was inspiring, racing in the morning sunshine, ocean in the distance.
We got into Glasgow before lunchtime, the Morrison-Bowmore Blending and Bottling facility was massive, and we immediately got lost in it, wandering into the employee cafeteria by accident. All of a sudden, we saw a man running down the hallway through the glass corridor, waving at us, as it was obvious we were out of place. It was Iain, he ushered us back out of the factory and offered to take us to lunch. Johnnie the Scot’s father was supposed to be meeting us as well, and as if on cue, he came driving into the lot. We piled into two cars and headed to a sprawling Dim Sum place in the industrial district. We got to know Iain and Johnnie’s dad, Jim, waking up with the Oolong Tea following our journey.
After lunch we headed back to the factory, Iain took us into the blending lab. Rachel Barrie was working in her lab coat, dozens of cask samples in glass flasks lined up on the counter in front of her, thousands more on shelves in an adjacent archive room. Rachel is the only female Master Blender in the business, and is regarded as one of the best noses in the world. Once the Master Blender at Glenmorangie, I’d heard that she has nosed over 300,000 barrels in her 20+ year career.
The blending lab is where it all goes down, where legendary expressions are created. Smell Chart posters on the wall, glass cabinets storing beakers, books, and scales.
Glenmorangie had released their wine cask-finish line of Quinta Ruban, Lasanta and Nector D’or, during Rachel’s tenure there. Now Bowmore-Morrison was entrusting her to guide them through what was coming to the world of whiskey: the end of age statements and the rise of extra maturation.
Rachel described the presence of over 400 active compounds in whiskey flavor profiles, and how some single malts mich contain over 150 in one bottle!
She tasted us on the newest expressions of the Auchentoshan line- The Auchentoshan American Oak using first fill Bourbon Casks, a hybrid of sorts, Fresh Cut Grass on the nose, Peach, Caramel, Light Peat, Orange and Vanilla on the tongue. The Virgin Oak offered more of that with Cinnamon, Lime and Strawberry coming into the mix. Bowmore Small Batch Reserve brought Green Grass, Campfire, Cinnamon, Dark Chocolate and Lime. Delicious. Then we got to try the Devil’s Cask, dark and mysterious with Tobacco, Bell Pepper, Cognac and Butter. Curl up with this lover.
Rachel took us back into smaller lab rooms crammed with testing equipment of all types, gastro-spectra-chromographs and centrifuges. She let us hang out and ask her questions for hours, exhausting the rest of her workday. We gave our thanks to Iain and gave Rachel a bottle of Eagle Rare, she was leaving at the same time as us. We parted ways in the parking lot. A good hard rain was falling out of the gray Glasgow sky.
Johnnie “The Scot” Mundell is our local Morrison-Bowmore rep in L.A., we’ve been doing Whiskey Society events together for years. He was the one that helped hook up our tours at Glen Garioch, Bowmore and Auchentoshan, and was kindly (or crazy) enough that he had sent his father, Jim, to come hang out with us, through Dim Sum to tasting with Rachel, and now he was going to drive us to the family home in Ayershire, to have dinner and stay the night at their family home. We dropped of our rental car at the airport and packed all of bags in his Land Rover.
Jim was so kind, smartly dressed but casual, with strong-looking hands. He drove us up into the hillsides overlooking Glasgow, winding through wet gravel roads between fenced pastures, past a small lake, riders on horseback. He and Anne have a beautiful farmhouse and some land, Jim was a retired farmer, he still kept a massive vegetable garden. Anne was tall and vibrant, she was still working in the hospitals.
They led us to a sitting room overlooking the hills gently descending from their back yard, we had chips and beer, walked the grounds as the sun was going down, the Isle of Arran was visible to the West. We ate an unforgettable home-cooked meal, full of fresh picked vegetables from the garden, and ended up fireside sipping whisky. We ventured outside to look at the stars, it was cold and rainy, wet and refreshing.
Jim showed us his paintings, landscapes of Scotland, and gave one as a gift to Andrew. They were amazing hosts, welcoming and at ease, as if it was normal for a band of gypsies to show up at the door without warning, if you were the parents of Johnnie “The Scot.” We talked late into the night, but it had been a long day, and we would have to get up early, as our next morning would be our last in Scotland for this trip. We said our goodnights, and our goodbyes to Anne, as she would be off to work before we would be up.
Once again the video wouldn’t upload because of spotty wireless service, the small price of being in such beautiful environs. The pictures posted, though:
Jim made us breakfast in the morning, I was feeling sentimental, I didn’t want it to be over. I wanted to stay there at the farmhouse, I just beginning to feel truly at home in Scotland. To eat the food of the land, and drink the water of life from it’s grains, all while taking in the colors and sounds of your natural surroundings. To slow down enough to really savor the moment.
We finished our coffees and loaded Jim’s rig with our bags. We were to be getting on a plane for Dublin out of Glasgow in the evening, but first it was to Auchentoshan distillery for a tour with the Distillery Manager, Alistair McDonald. Jim drove us down into Glasgow through the country backroads of Ayershire, mist falling all around.
They served us coffee in the gift shop at the distillery when we arrived, the visitor center was new and experiential, with jars of barrel wood and citrus peels, spices, grain, blown-up photographs, a little video screening room.
Alistair arrived, and took us down the hall to an initial tasting room full of old Auchentoshan memoribilia, we sipped a wee dram, and Alistair told us the history of the distillery, which had been opened in 1823. Auchentoshan is Gaelic for “Corner of the Field,” and the juice has been known as “The Glasgow Malt,” and the “The Breakfast Whisky” among Scots. Triple-distilled, sweet, light, and sippable, we weren’t that far past breakfast.
We continued into the distillery, which seemed to have a dram waiting for us around every corner.
We walked through the fermentation room housing the mash tuns- 6.825 tons of malted grain per mash, 2000 liters of water is added at 63.5 degrees, steep for a half an hour, add yeast when it gets down to 36 degrees, bring down to 20 degrees. 2nd water comes in at 72 degrees, final water at 92. 8 hour wash. 65/25/10 Husk-Grist-Flour ratio. Simpson’s Malt, 35 Kg of yeast to 38,000 liters of mash, 48 hour fermentation, and suddenly we’re sipping Auchentoshan 18 year at a stand-up drinking table. Then onto the floors overlooking the stills that were working as we spoke, the distillery engineer manning a control board and watching the copper pots rumble.
We roamed across the property that lingered up the hillside, dunnage houses painted white with black rooftops. Wandered down to a barrel sampling area, then back up to an tasting/education classroom back in the visitor center. Alistair let us try several more marks, The Valinch, the 21 year- Graham and Vanilla, Tobacco, Lemon and Milk Chocolate.
We gave a bottle of Fighting Cock to Alistair, some fiery shooting Bourbon, and thanked him for the tour. Definitely a great stop if you’re ever in Glasgow.
We were off to meet Iain for lunch in the city. I believe Johnnie had told us Iain had become the youngest Distillery Manager in the history of Auchentoshan, when he was only 33. And he was taking us to lunch down on Carlisle Street, where some cool little pubs abided.
The place was rich with characters day-drinking in the bars. We ate lunch and sampled some whiskies and cocktails in a mini-bar crawl. I didn’t take notes or take cards, I just enjoyed the final hours of our Glasgow trip. We gave Iain and Jim both bottles of Bourbon, thanked Iain for the incredible hospitality, and we split up, Jim was driving us to the airport.
We hugged it out with Jim, we couldn’t thank him enough for chaperoning us for two days, and for inviting us into his family home. Deepest gratitude.
Looking down on Scotland from the air, Glasgow glowing with a million golden lights beneath us, the River Clyde a black snake writhing toward the ocean. Perspective, alleviation from the slings and arrows of life, the deep long worries we all have- aging parents, lost loves, the health of friends- a flight from it all with whiskey doing the lifting, at least for a while. We can do the same for each other, if we are willing to take the time. Solace and warmth, thank you for the love, Scotland.
We checked into a hotel near the airport, shared some Stouts and shots in the lobby bar. It had been a wonderful trip, Jeff would be flying on a separate flight as Andrew and I, as we had arrived at different times. Toasts to good travels and better company, and we headed to our rooms.
We left Dublin with a priceless souvenir, a painting by Jim Mundell. Landscape of the rolling hills of Ayershire. Feeling so grateful, I felt the need to be quiet, as if these good times and travel had silenced the usual roaring and nawing I felt inside and that I saw in the faces of people around me. Grace, if only for a moment, is worth the trip. We were headed home.
The first signs of the States, the intercoastal waterway, waved to us as we passed over toward Philadelphia, where we would catch a plane to L.A. 12 distilleries in 14 days, a whirlwind of whiskey and experience. My head was spinning. And we had a Whiskey Society meeting slated for our first night back.
Go see what we’re talking about, be sure to hit them up on Trip Advisor::