This morning's drive up Scotland's east coast was wonderful. The rain clouds had given way to sunshine and blue skies, the North Sea looking much like the Pacific Ocean outside Santa Barbara. We drove around Edinburgh for about a half hour before we found our way north to the bridge towards Perth, where we eventually turned east to the sea. After Aberdeen the road went northwest towards Huntly and we could see the snow-capped Glencairn mountains to our left. Last year, we mistakenly took the longest possible route to Glendronach, which led us through those very peaks, into the snow, and one of the most beautiful drives of our lives.
For the sake of time, however, we decided to take the major throughway this year, which interestingly enough took us through Inverurie, home to Glen Garioch distillery - the Bowmore-owned brand that we plan on sampling with Rachel Barrie later in Glasgow. Since we might be purchasing an entire cask of their whisky, we thought it beneficial to check the place out. Luckily, they were running tours only an hour after our arrival, so we walked into downtown Oldmeldrum for some lunch and a beer.
At Morris's restaurant I noticed that one of the options was a roast chicken sandwich with cranberry and "mealie." I had to ask what "mealie" was, so our waitress Margaret told us not only what "mealie" was, she also gave us a free sample with her own personal recipe. You take a finely-chopped onion, fry it in oil, and then gently add in some oatmeal. You finish it off in a steamer until the consistency comes together and, voila, you've got mealie. It has a semi-hard texture, almost like Grape Nuts after they've soaked up a bit of milk. Apparently, it's wonderful with chicken dishes as well as with mince and tatties. I can't wait to make it for Thanksgiving this year! Margaret adds bread crumbs as well, so I'll have to try it both ways.
Back at Glen Garioch distillery, Fiona had discovered we were in town and decided to take us on the private tour rather than the general public option, which was fantastic for the other fifteen people. We would have bogged that tour down with technical talk after five minutes, drawing the wrath of everyone who paid their money for a relaxed visitation. Fiona made a fantastic guide and we both learned a ton about the distillery. First off, it's one of the oldest single malts still in production. The current facility was founded in the mid-1790's, but it had been in a different location before. While Strathisla usually claims to be the oldest distillery in Scotland, Glen Garioch could probably make a claim for that title because there has been licensed distillation in Oldmeldrum since the early 1700's . They're simply not sure where the original distillery was, how long it was in operation, or if that licensing applied to the original Glen Garioch owners.
Because the currently distillery is quite old itself, it's considered a historic site, so Morrison-Bowmore has to keep up the facility, even though parts of it are no longer being used. The malting rooms are silent, but they are still pristine.
Before Morrison-Bowmore was sold to Suntory in 1994, there was less structure and less consistency to the whiskies of Glen Garioch. The old regime would often peat some of the whisky, at various levels and at no particular frequency - simply whenever they felt like it with whatever peat was available. The northeast of Scotland isn't particularly laden with peat moss, so they were dependent on what they could get, when they could get it. Suntory has streamlined things a bit and removed the peat completely. However, the whiskies from pre-94 are still blended in with current releases to give them a slightly-smoky edge.
For the people who don't understand what we mean when we say "native yeast" fermentation, this is what you'll usually see in all distilleries - a big bag of commercial, designer yeast. You usually want to know what you're getting, but it is fun to see what happens when you just let nature happen.
Tasting the 1994 and 1991 releases was an eye-opener. I'd had these whiskies before, but going through the distillery and understanding the spirit really gave me a better appreciation of it. The slight peatiness to both malts was very compelling. They taste like better versions of the Glenmorangie Finealta that I loved so much - slight richness and vanilla, but leaner and more medium-bodied with the smoke coming on the backend. An interesting fact about the distillery is that it was forced to close in the 1960's due to a lack of available water. It wasn't until their former distillery manager "Digger" took his digger (see where the name came from?) out to a nearby field one day and discovered a spring that Glen Garioch was able to re-open and continue fermenting malted barley.
We're now at Glendronach, our lovely little Vauxhall parked next to the Brewer's House where we'll be staying. On the kitchen table sits a batch of freshly-pulled samples, placed there earlier today by Alistair and Alan. We've got both Glendronach and Benriach to get through. It's going to be a long night.