Posted by: Nick
In July 2018 I realised the ultimate Waffler’s dream and spent nine days travelling whisky’s motherland. I did not waste a moment.
9 days: 20 distilleries.
PART TWO: Highlands and Islands
Whoever said that Scotland is freezing, windswept and rain-lashed has obviously never been to Speyside in the summertime. I was a little sad to leave what was clearly a sunny paradise and head further north, so decided it was not possible to get too much of a good thing and called into two more distilleries on my way out – and boy, these two could not be more different.
Macallan have recently opened a new visitor centre in the heart of Speyside – and it is an architectural masterpiece. The walls were all glass, revealing vistas of the distillery beyond or encasing infamously rare and valuable bottles. All this was sealed beneath a dramatically curved green roof (although in the height of summer it was more of a… well… brown roof). The whole complex was breathtaking – and yet I didn’t like it. Not one bit. It lacked the soul and warmth I love about Scottish distilleries. It was stunning but cold; glamorous but unwelcoming.
The complete opposite was the case at my final Speyside stop: Glen Moray. While the buildings themselves were nowhere near as spectacular as what I’d just seen at Macallan, the staff (master-distillers wife Fay, champion drinks pourer Kier, and tour guide extraordinaire Caitlyn) were among the nicest and most welcoming in the whole of Scotland. And the whisky? Wow! If you considered the Glen Moray range to be cheap and cheerful, then a visit to the distillery would reveal a few stunners that have been left a little longer in barrels. A personal favourite was the 1988 port cask matured, however the 1998 PX cask was also exceptional. I’ve always had a soft spot for Glen Moray – and this visit just made it softer.
Just as I thought my Speyside journey had come to an end I spotted a sign for Benromach and duly turned off the main road. Though I had not booked a tour the kind staff showed me around and let me try some of the varied wares.
Sadly, though, this was all I could squeeze into my Speyside trip; it was time to travel to the opposite side of the country. A trip to Scotland would not be complete without the compulsory failure to spot Nessie on the shores of a certain Loch, so I called into Drumnadrochit on my way to the west coast. While there was no monster to be seen, I was able to stumble upon a Whisky Waffle favourite whisky bar: Fiddlers. While there I sampled some local drams: a 25 Year Old Tomatin (business class whisky – you can taste the extra legroom), an Edradour matured in ex-Port Ellen casks (who could resist such an intriguing combo?) and finally a Balblair so dark is could have been black (so sherried it was almost undrinkable – naturally I loved it).
Before leaving Fiddlers, owner Jon Beach arrived and called me over for a chat – whilst pouring me a dram of Port Ellen as casual as can be. Seriously, this bar – cannot recommend highly enough.
While the west highlands of Scotland are absolutely stunning, there is one region of the country which is even more spectacular: the Isle of Skye. And this island is home to Talisker Distillery – a Whisky Waffle favourite from our early days of whisky tasting. On my only previous visit to Scotland, I was prevented from visiting Talisker by a freak hiking accident (no whisky was involved) so I was in no way going to miss out this time around. My guide, David, was not only a whisky fan, but also a chef and shared his Talisker BBQ sauce recipe with us while we had a dram of the Amarosso finished Distillers Edition. It was a tasty drop – certainly a step us from the Talisker NAS releases and even pipped the 10 Year Old. I was also able to revisit an old favourite and get my palate roasted by the winter warmer that is the 57 Degrees North.
Upon leaving the Isle of Skye I had a long drive ahead of me. And yet I couldn’t resist making it even longer by stopping into a beautiful town along the way – and it just happened to contain a distillery!
The town was Oban and I slotted onto a lunchtime tour to check out yet another stillroom. What struck me about Oban was its size – or lack thereof. Of course, it’s miles ahead of the Tassie distilleries I’m used to seeing, but compared to the rest of the Scottish establishments it was rather quaint. This is demonstrated in their cask usage – Oban are the masters of the refill cask – everything they use has been already used by one of Diageo’s other distilleries to mature whisky in for ten or more years. When it gets to Oban it is re-charred, repurposed and ready to go. This is partly why a whisky 14 years old was for so long this distillery’s staple – and partly why the Little Bay is pretty light on for flavour. The real x-factor for Oban is its coastal location imparting a delicate salty layer upon each bottle in their range.
The cherry on the top of my visit was one final dram – from under the bar came an unmarked bottle containing promisingly dark liquid. I was sure it had been aged for longer than most Oban whiskies – and sure enough, it was a 20 year old: straight from the cask. I was assured by the friendly Oban staff it would be unlike anything I’d tried so far on my trip – and they were right, it was absolutely phenomenal. Sadly, though, after concluding this warming and delicious tasting I had to leave Oban in a hurry. You see, I had a ferry to catch…