monkey shoulder

Scotland 2018: The Ultimate Whisky Adventure – Part One

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 ONE: Speyside

Signs of Speyside

The world is a big and exciting place full of incredible natural wilderness, mind blowing ancient structures and miraculous modern marvels. However, for a Waffler, there is no greater sight than a smoking pagoda, rising up over a craggy moor. For this view I needed to cross the entire planet, enduring four long flights (and a train ride with no wifi) to finally set foot in the motherland of whisky: Scotland.

So many distilleries, so little time. How could I possibly cover all I wanted to in nine days? The short answer is: I couldn’t – but I could give it my best shot. The first important decision to make was which direction to travel? I finally decided upon: anticlockwise. This catapulted me headfirst into the heart of whisky production in Scotland: Speyside.

While Speyside is known for light, smooth and elegant drams, it is also home to the world’s biggest sherry bombs. And it is with the latter in mind that I begun my journey with a tour booked for a favourite of mine: Glendronach.

Glendronach

I can thoroughly recommend being the only one on a distillery tour – even more so if your guide is the ex-general manager of the distillery. And I was lucky enough to experience exactly that at Glendronach; hearing a range of the best stories from Frank Massie – a wonderful ambassador for the distillery and a top bloke. It summed up my experience perfectly: there’s a lovely touch of the old school about Glendronach. From the big old kiln to the creaky old washbacks to the fact the tasting started with the 18 Year Old… and got better from there! It was a dream come true and did not disappoint.

Nick n Frank

I settled into my accommodation at Speydie’s whisky capital Dufftown, thrilled at the start to my travels and recalling the 25 Year Old cask strength I’d just consumed. It was a quiet night – as the next day was shaping up to be a big one.

Balvenie

It began with the tour of tours: Balvenie Distillery. This experience is widely recognised as a must for Wafflers everywhere and three hours in I could see why. It was the most detailed – and hands on – tour I’ve ever experienced. I risked a dose of monkey shoulder by turning the malting barley and visited the cooperage where a team were working hard to create barrels exactly to Balvenie’s specifications and finish in time for an early Friday knock off. And then I did the the tasting. Wow. How many tours conclude by pouring you a full nip of 30 year old whisky?

Monkey SHoulder

I had no time to dwell on it, however. I was out the door to visit Glenfiddich, Glenlivet, Glenfarclas and GlenCraggonmore. There was no time for a tour at these classic establishments but all came with tasty distillery exclusive drams. The highlight was Glenfarclas – not in the least because their stunning tasting room is the converted interior of an old Australian ship. The drams were superb as well – a 2004 distilled bottling which was like a refined version of the 105 and a port finish which was sweet and juicy and almost certainly all gone by the time you read this, sadly.

Glenfiddich

I finished my day by joining a tour at Aberlour Distillery. The tour itself was fairly standard and I was part of a large group of non-whisky drinkers talking over the top of our guide and asking questions about Johnnie Walker (possibly the most whisky-snobbish thing I’ve ever written – but come on… you know how annoying that would be!). The tasting, though, made it all worth it. After first trying a firey new make spirit, we sampled a straight bourbon cask and straight sherry cask Aberlour whisky – both unavailable as regular bottlings. I loved precisely neither of them; they tasted like ingredients – which is exactly what they were. It was when they combined together that the magic occurred. The 16 Year Old and the (brand new) Casg Annamh were both balanced, full bodied, complex and oh so drinkable. The tasting concluded with the A’bunadh – as classic a cask strength sherry bomb as you’ll find anywhere.

Aberlour

The A’bunadh kept me warm as I made it back to Dufftown for my second and final night in Speyside. The seemingly eternal summer sun cast an orange glow over the harvested barley fields and I could truly see: this place is the warm beating heart of Scottish whisky.

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The day my head exploded in a cloud of smoke: a whisky memory

Posted by: Ted

Ted in armchair

As I sit here in a comfy wingback Chesterfield armchair in the lounge at Lagavulin distillery on Islay, I reflect that this represents the culmination of a very significant journey for me. My being here now was (in part) sparked by a moment in time a number of years ago that changed how I experienced the world.

When we were young, poor and tasteless uni students, we drank whisky without any art or depth of thought. Our main drinking decision was how cheap we could get away with without completely destroying ourselves.

However, one particular night we happened to be out on the town for a friend’s bucks night. Feeling in a generous mood and relatively flush, we stopped in at a bar and decided to order a couple of drams a bit above our usual weight.

Our decision this time was based purely on how cool the name was. Our first dram was the fun sounding Monkey Shoulder, which taught us about finding better blends and which we still enjoy to this day.

The other was a rather mystical sounding dram named the Lagavulin 16yo. Not thinking too much about it I took a decent hit of the dark amber liquid. Suddenly, time stood still and my mind exploded. I had never tasted anything like it.

Billows of hot, medicinal, coastal smoke filled my mouth and roared down my throat, leaving my senses reeling. The others around me were being gripped by a similar reaction. It was love at first dram.

Ted with fireplace

That one moment catalysed within me a yearning for good quality whisky, to try exciting and interesting drams. That feeling simmered away until the finish of uni and the gaining of a job and more importantly, money. Suddenly a whole world of exciting whisky was within grasp.

Eventually the path we had been set upon led to the founding of the number one whisky blog in Tasmania, something m’colleague and I are immensely proud of, and the discovery of a whole community of people just as excited about whisky as we are.

And so here I am on Islay, sitting at the very distillery that kickstarted the whole adventure. It feels slightly surreal to be honest (although if it was truly surreal there would probably be a couple of highland cows sitting on the other chairs smoking pipes and discussing the football results), but at the same time like wearing a favourite old tweed suit.

Ted at Lagavulin

It’s a significant time for both of us actually, as Lagavulin celebrates their 200th birthday this year, a feat to be congratulated. I will no doubt return here again, as will m’colleague and many others besides, hopefully for another 200 years and more, and revel in this glorious, extraordinary whisky.

Sláinte mhath, and keep on waffling.

William Grant & Sons come to Burnie

Posted by: Nick

William Grant & Sons logoI could be forgiven for thinking I’d come along to the ‘Burnie’s Best Beards’ convention, as upon arrival I was met with some of the most impressive facial hair this side of Ulverstone. This could only be a whisky tasting!

But it was no ordinary tasting. We were sampling drams created by the third largest producer of whisky in the world: William Grant & Sons; guided through the evening by Rich Blanchard whose job title literally was ‘Whisky Specialist’. Unfortunately this qualification does not teach him which way round the 1 and the 2 go on the tasting notes, and we discovered that we would be beginning with a 12 year old whisky, not a 21 year old!

Grants in Burnie editied whisky waffle

Rich: “And then you pour it down your throat. I told you this tasting business was easy!”

The tasting consisted of many drops I had sampled before, although never in quite so meticulous an order. Being a Grant’s night we began with the self-proclaimed saviour of single malts: the Glenfiddich. We tasted a range of ages: the famous 12 Year Old (where the pear cliché was immediately rolled out), the 14 Year Old Rich Oak (which, true to its name was distinctly oaky: akin to tasting old furniture), the 15 Year Old Solera Vat (still a favourite) and the 18 Year Old (undoubtedly the smoothest).

We then paused to refill our glasses, and Rich delivered his two minute spiel about how whisky is made – in five minutes. He also told us a little of the history of William Grant, detailing his purchase of stills from Cardhu for his own distillery, which was family built – literally. School holiday projects for the Grant family were a little more serious than building a cubby-house.

Rich then mentioned the mastery of recently retired Grant’s head distiller David Stewart, highly regarded still-man, double-maturation pioneer and generous whisky pourer. I made a metal note to try and meet this man one day.

This brought us nicely to Grant’s other crown jewel: The Balvenie. Again beginning with the 12 Year Old (not the 21) before moving onto the 14 Year Old Caribbean Cask (with no reveal as to the source of the barrels – though we ruled out Cuba!).

The final two drops were undoubtedly the highlights. The 17 Year Old DoubleWood I regard highly, so much so to award it the prestigious ‘Tartan Slipper’ in the 2014 Waffle Awards. Finally was the 15 Year Old Single Barrel: sherry cask. I’d had the bourbon equivalent of this drop before but it had not prepared me for what I found in this one. Could it be… peat?

Rich revealed that, yes, the Balvenie did peat their barley, albeit slightly. It was an intriguing drop and a perfect way to finish the night.

As I left to commence my walk up the hill (always easier after eight drams) I could not help but feel a little bit pleased. A proper whisky tasting in my little home town! A massive thanks must go out to Steve Kons for organising the night and to the people at William Grant & Sons for making the journey to the North West.