David and I had planned to wake at seven in the morning to be on the road by 8:30. We wanted to catch breakfast and hit Glenfarclas for a 10 AM appointment with George Grant. What we didn't know, however, was that a huge blizzard was scheduled to hit Pitlochry in just a few hours and that if we didn't leave right now and make it over the Cairngorm mountains immediately, we might be stuck. YIKES! We downed our coffee, paid our bill, scraped the ice off the windshield, and hit the road north on the A9. The weather turned quite dicey at Dalwhinnie and the snow drift began to fly all over the road. I was a bit nervous. We made it over the hill alive, but an hour after we arrived at Glenfarclas it seemed a giant truck jacknifed right where we had been and blocked the highway in both directions. Had we left any later we wouldn't have made it.
Glenfarclas was quite a different sight this time around. The mountain of Benrinnes was completely covered in white with what looked like quite a storm brewing at the peak. The powder was being whipped off the hill at around forty miles an hour in between the distillery buildings. We braved our way into the office to grab our samples.
We had gone over a list with George Grant about what we were looking for and, since we had packed our day full of appointments, he knew we couldn't stay so he prepared a to-go container for us. We piled them into a box and made our way back out towards the car.
Walking through the warehouses I don't think we could have tolerated more than twenty minutes or so had we planned to taste directly from the casks. It was absolutely frigid.
Aberlour is on the way out from Glenfarclas, just northwest as you head towards Elgin. We took a quick detour to check out the cute little buildings and property. I got a copy of the new Malt Whisky Yearbook at the gift shop, so the time was well spent.
Next on the list was Benriach, a distillery that we both love, but had never visited. We usually stay at Glendronach and taste the Benriach samples there, but this time we reversed the appointment. Awaiting us at the distillery were samples of both whiskies with all types of variation in age and cask type. We found what we think are two top quality Oloroso butts of Glendronach – a 1993 and a 1995 that we'll have to decide between. The Benriach samples were quite spectacular. Their whisky is absolutely terrific in quality and there's such a variety! You might taste a peated Bourbon cask, then move on to an unpeated sherry butt, before tasting a rum-finished ex-hoggy. I about died when tasting an 18 year old Bourbon cask from their number two peated formula. Spectacular.
After tasting through the samples we met with Ewan George, the warehouse manager for Benriach, and took a tour of the facility. There's an amazing fact that I didn't know about Benriach: it opened in 1898 and then immediately closed two years after during the Pattison crash. A brand new distillery sat dormant for sixty-five years until 1965 when it was reopened by Glenlivet distillers. Ewan told us the only reason it likely wasn't demolished is because nearby neighbor Longmorn used the floormaltings at the facility. Had Benriach not had the extra space for the barley malting, it likely would have been bulldozed into oblivion. Yet here it sits more than 100 years later, now owned by the Benriach group that also owns Glendronach. By the way, the photo above is not a closeup of Jupiter, it's the wash being fermented at the distillery.
While my in-store customers know how fond I am of Kilchoman's new make whisky (I think they could bottle it on its own and I normally hate white whisky), I couldn't believe how delicious the wash was at Benriach. Very beery, but quite sweet on the finish. When we tasted the new make spirit afterward I was quite impressed with how faithfully it represented the beer. They're putting something in that wort that makes it quite tasty.
Benriach has four stills – two fat low wine stills and two spirits stills. It's a cute little facility they've got going.
The barrel room still has whisky dating back to 1966, the year after it reopened, but Benriach is being quite careful about its cask sales today. They realize they can't keep up with the growing demand for their booze and are holding some of it back for that reason.
Longmorn is just a stone's throw away in the distance. Another of our favorite Speyside distilleries.
After leaving Benriach, we continued on to Elgin and the home of Gordon & MacPhail – the independent giant with whom we once did much business. Upon arrival the folks at G&M had a very familiar story to tell us: they don't have enough booze to offer us much. Wow! Maybe this isn't a giant plot by retailers, distributors, and corporations to screw everyone over!
We met with Derek at the head offices to sit down and taste what barrels were available, as well as shoot the breeze a bit. Derek had a ton of great information. I had never really thought about the fact that the 1983 closures have so much to do with the lack of older casks on the market. If they were making less whisky thrity years ago, it makes sense that there wouldn't be much 30 year old whisky on the market. Duh! No wonder no one has anything old to sell us. One of the things that makes Gordon & MacPhail such a unique operation is the fact that they still have valid, grandfathered-in filling contracts with many of Diageo's main distilleries (i.e. Mortlach and Caol Ila). This means they don't feel as much pressure to purchase casks on the currently arid market, but rather can sit back and wait for their own stocks to age. It also means that they're not settling for whisky that was originally slated for a blend, but ended up in some forgotten warehouse and really isn't all that good as a solo expression (sure, it says 18 year old Macallan, but it's in a freakin' fifth-fill hogshead and tastes like nothing!). That's what many of today's releases are – leftovers. G&M also ages on site at their own warehouse where they get very little evaporation, which leads to high proofs and higher volume. When you get a selection from G&M it's usually quite good and their dedication to intended single barrel expressions has a lot to do with that. We tasted a few possibilities: a young Caol Ila, a fun Ledaig, and a tasty Strathisla. We'll have to see the pricing before we know how good they are, however.
We're now at the Glenmorangie house, away from the snow, but getting absolutely pummeled by 50 mph winds. I'll show some photos of the site tomorrow. That's it for now!