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Tuesday
May152012

Scotland - Day 5: From Pitlochry to Oban

We knew today was going to be packed, so David and I both got up early, went for a run through beautiful Pitlochry, had a hearty breakfast, and pulled up to Edradour early - just as they were putting the final touches on a new pagoda roof for the malting house.

Dez met us out front as he tried to help navigate the forklift.  We were ready to get started.  No need to tour the distillery, no need to taste through the newest expressions - we'd been here before.  Signatory used to be one of our biggest independent brands, but we haven't carried anything new for almost eight months.  The warehouse at Edradour is like a giant candy store.  They have thousands of casks tucked away and David and I were ready to run like two little kids up and down every aisle.

As always, Dez was a great sport.  He's incredibly patient and I think he secretly gets a kick out of watching us jump up and down and scream.  I don't think the other retailers who pass through are nearly as fun (or as loud and obnoxious).  We went through a ton of amazing casks.  Of course, as soon as I start writing about how value is now leaving the single cask market, we find a few gems at what should be an affordable price.  Barrels of younger Longmorn, Braeval, Benrinnes, and Glentauchers showed impressively.  All were under fifteen years of age and all were quite lovely.

The crazy thing about Signatory is that they seem to have casks from the absolute rarest of the rare.  I've never even seen a bottle of Glenlochy before, let alone a cask.  Part of the 83 Diageo shutdown that wiped out Port Ellen, Brora, and Banff, among others, Glenlochy was a neighbor to Ben Nevis on the isolated northern west coast.  This barrel of 1980 was probably one of the best whiskies I've ever tasted.  David and I were practically crying.  Can we pry it loose from the warehouse? We also went through a few North Ports and some other Diageo sacrifices before heading to more practical selections.  There are so many casks to think about it almost makes my head spin.  Can't wait to get the pricing!

After leaving Edradour, we began our three hour drive west towards the coast and the town of Oban.  While we knew we were going to be late for our appointment at the distillery, the sheer beauty of the drive helped relieve the stress quite a bit.  This picture above doesn't do the scenery justice.

One minute we were driving next to a giant mountain and it was snowing, the next minute it's sunny and we're coasting along a glorious Scottish loch.  What a crazy place.

Oban distillery is tucked right into the town center, blending in seamlessly with the local businesses.  It's an integral part of the downtown area and it's quite small.  Because there's absolutely no room to expand, the distillery produces less than 800,000 liters of whisky per year.  We were excited to get inside.

The distillery manager Ronnie took us around the facility, beginning with the four wooden washbacks.  He explained that the soft fruitiness of Oban is primarily due to a very slow fermentation that takes up to ninety hours.  Compare that with the fifty hours at Glenfarclas and you're looking at a whisky that takes twice as long to make.  A more rapid fermentation results in a spicier character in the malt.

Oban distillery is really tiny on the inside.  Taking pictures was quite difficult because you can never get far enough away from anything to capture it in the frame.

I had to hike up a steep staircase to take a photo of the two stills.  One spirit still and one wash still that, like the fermentation, run at a snail's pace.  Oban makes little whisky compared to other Diageo distilleries, which is why it is the only malt in their portfolio of over thirty distilleries that does not go into Johnnie Walker or any other blend.  Diageo's head was recently quoted as saying that the company does not make single malts for the single malt drinker, but rather for their blending team to make their Johnnie Walker selections.  Oban is the exception to this rule.  It is not featured in any Diageo blend.  It is the only distillery entirely devoted to single malt, hence why you'll never see an independent cask of Oban.  They have no reason to trade or sell it and precious little of it for themselves.

Even though Oban is roughly a rogue within the Diageo system, there's always a friendly reminder from the empire nearby.

We had a fantastic time with Ronnie and got to actually sample some young 2003 Oban straight from the cask (our first time since there's absolutely nothing at the independent warehouses).  Our hotel over looks the waterfront and the bay leading up to the town center.  It's time to walk into town, grab a bite to eat, and take a load off.  It's been a long day.

Campbeltown tomorrow!

-David Driscoll 

Tuesday
May152012

Scotland - Day 5: A Quick Word About Water

After going for a run at Glendronach the other morning, I came home, filled a glass with water from the tap, and quickly quenched my thirst.  After smacking my lips a bit, I realized that the water tasted very much like the earthy, peaty note one often tastes in whisky.  I figured that it had to be residue in my mouth from the previous night's tasting session, but as I continued to drink water from the tap I kept tasting the same flavors.  This morning I went on another run, through the country outside of Pitlochry, and came back to a much cleaner water profile.  There is a big difference between the water being used by Glendronach's guest house and the hotel we're staying in now.

I'm guessing that the water from the tap at Glendronach is probably from the same source they use to make their whisky.  I remember when I first started learning about whisky and water, I assumed that the producers were talking about the water used to proof down the whisky afterward.  Last year's visit taught me that all distilleries have to find a source for water nearby that is clean enough to go untreated when making the wort.  The grist and yeast cannot be added to water that has been cleaned or altered, it must be natural.  That means that the spring water will have the flavors of its natural source embedded within it.  These flavors will also be distilled when the wort is boiled and evaporated, so the inherant flavors can be quite important to the end result.

A natural spring source is so important that a distillery's survival can depend upon it.  Fiona told us at Glen Garioch that they had once run out of water and it wasn't until the distillery manager at that time, "Digger," went out and found a new local spring that they were able to continue operations.  I'm going to start drinking the tap water at every distillery from now on to see if I can taste the differences, as well as pick up any similar flavors in the whiskies themselves.  

Off to breakfast and then Edradour/Signatory!

-David Driscoll

Monday
May142012

Scotland - Day 4: Glenfarclas

Just outside the town of Aberlour, not too far from the mighty river Spey, sits Glenfarclas distillery - one of the last family-owned, independent single malts in Scotland.  The Grants have owned the site since they purchased it in 1865 for 511 pounds and we were driving in to meet with George, son of John, who currently runs the operation.  He had agreed in advance to let us run rampant through the warehouses, open every barrel in sight, and take what we liked.  With more than 55,000 casks on hand, we knew it was going to be a tough job, but somebody had to do it.  

Although technically a part of the Speyside region, Glenfarclas is known to me as a Highland malt (although they do put Speyside on their label in small font).  Up until about forty years ago, the region was actually known as Glenlivet, and Glenfarclas was recognized as a part of this appellation.  The confusion between the regional name and the distillery Glenlivet was eventually deemed too confusing, however, so the the Speyside region was created to ease the possbile misunderstanding.  As long as a distillery is withing a certain distance of the river Spey, they can use the name Speyside.  Some distilleries, like Macallan, choose not to and claim the Highland label instead.  After passing Aberlour distillery, we turned off from the river Spey and took the road towards the facility.  Driving up the path to the buildings the hill of Benrinnes stands starkly in the background, brooding and solumn against the dark grey sky.

Hanging in the distillery upon entrance is a painting from 1791 that shows the distillery and the farm that once accompanied it. Although Glenfarclas was legally founded in 1836, the Grant family is unsure as to when it was actually built or who even built it!  According to the artwork, the distillery exisited at least forty or so years before its foundation, likely because the original owners did not want to pay the tax that came with whisky production.  It's therefore quite possible that Glenfarclas could be much older than we know.

Although Glenfarclas is one of the smaller distilleries in Scotland, they still pump out way more juice than Laphroaig, Lagavulin, or Highland Park.  With about 3.5 million liters of production a year, the distillery uses about two truck-fulls of barley every ten hours - over sixteen tons.  Their mash tun is huge, mixing up grist with hot water and yeast in gigantic amounts.

Glenfarclas uses metal washbacks instead of wood because they believe it causes fewer problems with the fermentation.  Like any proper scientist, the Grants have experimented with wooden vats, but found that bacteria could be hiding in the wood and sterility was generally more difficult to maintain.  They're able to get about 10% abv on their wort, which is quite high compared to other distilleries.  George praises the conductive ability of the tanks to maintain heat, helping the yeast eat more of the available sugar.

Apparently, stones often get caught in with the barley, which constitutes the need for a de-stoner (cough, cough).  We had fun with that name.  

The stills at Glenfarclas are heated by direct flame underneath, a rarity these days for a distillery.  The flame causes the barley to stick to the bottom, like rice in a hot pot, so rummagers are needed to keep stiring the grain. Much like their experiment with the washbacks, Glenfarcas at one point did try a steam-heated coil to power one of their spirit stills, but the whisky tasted flat and without the usual sweetness.  They immediately tore it out and put the flamethrower back in. 

This is the only way to taste whisky!  In a proper Scottish lounge, complete with leather chairs and mahogony tables, with the Grant family tartan adorning the carpeted floors.

George busted out his massive list of casks, printed on paper fresh from the late 80's.  

We tasted some of the Family Cask releases to get an idea of what we liked in the meantime.  Vintages with whisky are not at all like wine, where the crops vary in quality depending on the weather.  Other happenings affect a vintage for whisky, such as who coopered the barrels that year.  It wasn't until 1990 that Glenfarclas began using the same wood on an annual basis, so the cask quality can be better in certain years.  Oil shortages in the 1970's slowed production and cork shortages in the 1960's affected casks, both affecting how the whiskies were produced.  The vintages at Glenfarclas are all very different, yet casks from a certain vintage are remarkably consistent with one another.  

One vintage that was very consistent and incredibly delicious was 1979 - the year of my birth.  All of the casks from this year were fourth-fill sherry, so the influence of the sweet wine is mild at best.  The complexity of this whisky absolutely blew my mind.  David and I grinned at each other while George searched out the location of other 1979 barrels in the many warehouses.

Deep inside the dark, dank barrel houses we tasted.  And tasted.  And tasted.  For hours we popped corks, dipped into some bungholes, and sampled whiskies from 1965 up to 2000.  It took incredibly stamina and endurance to keep going (I'm being entirely serious!).

And what did we come away with?  We came away knowing that Glenfarclas is one f-ing awesome distillery and that George Grant is a top-notch guy.  Some of our favorites, besides the 1979, were quite old and quite expensive, which left us torn.  While we continued to search through the younger casks in search of a hot deal, those whiskies just weren't ready yet.  They still need time, or they will need to be blended.  There was no amazing twelve year old cask that could blow the standard Glenfarclas 12 out of the water because, at that age, it can't stand on its own yet.  We figured out that, for the price, there was little reason to fool with the younger vintages.  The blenders are already doing an outstanding job with the current selections we have at K&L, so it would be best to just supplement those with exciting, higher-end options.  

In the car ride over to Pitlochry, where I'm now lying on my hotel bed typing this, we knew our strategy had to change a bit.  Last year we came looking for deals because we didn't know how much we could sell.  This year we know we can sell it, so we shouldn't just worry about the price - we simply need to choose the best casks available and get them to K&L.  At Glenfarclas, the best whiskies were expensive, but trust me - they were absolutely unreal.  Best of all, there's nothing that tastes like them on the U.S. market.  Whatever we choose to purchase will be exceptional and will be sought after worldwide once the word gets out.

Off for a bite to eat!

-David Driscoll

Sunday
May132012

Scotland - Day 3: Distillery Drive & Duncan Taylor

We weren't meeting with Duncan Taylor until 2 PM, so with five hours to kill, David and I decided to go on a drive in search of some lost distilleries.  The town of Banff was only about twenty miles north of Glendronach, right on the northern coast, so we thought we'd investigate the site of the former legend.  Having been gutted by a fire in the 80's and then demolished completely back in the early 90's, there wasn't much left to find, but we still wanted to see it. You can understand much about a distillery from its surroundings.  Banff is a quaint fishing village right on the sea, so stereotypic that you almost expect a few peg-legged men with bushy white beards to be dominating the scene. 

After driving a few times through the town, we stopped at a local grocery store that looked like it could have been built over an old distillery site.  No one inside knew anything about Banff as they were all in their early twenties, naive to the fact that their hometown once housed a great single malt producer.  I finally asked one older gentleman who did know where the old site stood, but it turns out that Banff distillery wasn't located directly within the town of Banff.  We needed to drive two miles out of town, look for a string of caravans, drive over a small bridge, and the old wreckage would be on our left.  True to his word, we found what remained.  The skeletons of old warehouses and a pile of demolition.  Nothing more remains, just that fantastic 1975 barrel that we imported last year.  What a pity.

We still had a ton of time before the appointment, so we headed over to Keith and tried to locate Strathisla distillery purely by gut instinct.  Claiming to be Scotland's oldest distillery, the site is immaculate and well-groomed.  Nothing is really open on Sunday, so it was more about photo opportunities than substantial visitation.

Right behind Strathisla (and connected to the distillery via an underground pipeline) is the now defunct Glen Keith distillery, which since 2001 has provided wash to Strathisla, but has not distilled anything on site.  From the front it looks quite stately.

We snuck around back, however, and it's a different story from that side.  It appears they're going through a remodel. Word is that rather than continuing with the mothballed state of the distillery, Pernod Ricard is going to revamp Glen Keith and begin production as soon as its finished.  How exciting!

Since we had made it to Keith, we had might as well keep going on towards Craigellachie and Dufftown.  We drove to Macallan, which looks like a giant factory, passed Craigellachie proper, crossed over the majestic river Spey, and continued on towards Dufftown where we found Balvenie right next door to the mothballed Convalmore facility.  We drove around to Glenfiddich, which was open and packed with visitors, and kept on.

We passed the 70's-styled Glendullan plant, maker of the popular-in-Redwood-City Singleton malt, before landing on top of Mortlach, one of the most prized Speyside institutions, albeit without a visitor's center.

Finally, we completed the loop and headed back to Huntly for our appointment with Mark at Duncan Taylor.  We helped Mark write a few tasting notes, while jotting down some of our own concerning the available casks (which did not include more Banff, for those of you begging us to find more).

Did we find anything?  A few fun possibilities indeed.  There was a splendid 1990 Bladnoch, full of fruit and richer than last year's Cheiftain's bottle.  We both thoroughly enjoyed a 1998 Linkwood, the fantastic Diageo-owned distillery known for super-drinkable potions.  The Octave program presented us with some older Bunnahabhain samples, along side a 1992 Caperdonich (demolished by Pernod Ricard instead of Glen Keith) and a 1996 Longmorn, one of the most respected and beloved distilleries in Scotland.  We need to get some pricing before making a decision, but these look like wonderful candidates.

Right now were at the Huntly Hotel, having a few pints and watching the final Man City game of the year.  Who will win the Premier League?  We'll know in another hour.  

Until later.

-David Driscoll

Sunday
May132012

Scotland - Day 2/3: Unexpected Results

Last night, while having dinner at the India Cafe in Huntly, David and I discussed the current speculation that we might be in a whisky bubble.  I compared it to real estate, in that while the prices of homes had been inflated, whisky was more like the rental market - the rents had remained stable, while demand only kept going up.  Much like my current Bay Area rent, I don't think prices will ever be going down again.  Do Manhattanites believe that one day all lower West Side studios will again drop to under $1500?  Heck no.  So why should we whisky drinkers think that now, after the internet and our globalized world has made the appreciation of whisky bigger than it's ever been, we should expect prices to one day fall back into a more affordable range?  There's an insatiable thirst for brown booze right now and the distilleries in Scotland are feeling the pressure to produce.  Yesterday at Glen Garioch, Fiona told us that the million liters they produce each year are a paltry offering to the actual demand.  Much like we've talked about the growth in the East Asian market, Fiona is speculating that India is about ready to pop as well.  The available properties in the Scottish whisky portfolio are drawing more offers than ever, so why would these landlords ever lower the rent?

David brought up an excellent point halfway through our lamb vindaloo.  He said that the overcrowding and demand in sought-after housing markets always leads people to develop other new areas.  Brooklyn has become quite hip over the last decade and I've had many San Francisco friends head over to Oakland for relief.  Even Dogpatch, a once run-down neighborhood between the ballpark and Hunter's Point, is experiencing an injection of young blood and entrepreneurship.  This analogy translates perfectly to whisky.  When the prices for big names and desired bottles become too inflated and ridiculous, it's time to look elsewhere for more realistic pricing.  We've done well to find independent bottles of Ardbeg or Brora in the past, but even the independents are getting quite pricy.  At this point, we can't base our business on finding the big names or the lost casks in some forgotten warehouse because that's not a sustainable plan.  We need to find the deals that others are missing.  We need to use our palates to determine quality in places where others don't taste it.  Little did David know, his metaphor couldn't have come at a better time.  

Glendronach is a fantastic distillery.  We came back to the haunting grounds just as the sun was beginning to set and took a brief walk before getting back to taste the samples.  Along side our set of older sherry casks were two Bourbon casks of ten year old malt and a slew of ancient Benriach samples.  Oh yeah….Benriach.  Before purchasing Glendronach in 2008, the South African ownership group began with the Speyside's Benriach distillery in 2004, rejuvenating the former Seagrams-owned plant that had been moth-balled in 2002.  Benriach is nice, I thought.  I really like their 12 and 20 year old expressions and a new peaked PX cask I had recently tasted had been fantastic.  Why not think seriously about a cask?  After a few mediocre samples our optimistic enthusiasm waned.  The 1985 PX barrels were too sweet and a port-finished cask completely overdone.  However, we needed to be professional and finish the samples with the same precision and dedication with which we had begun.  Didn't we just have an earnest talk about developing new products?

Then it came out of nowhere.  Wham!  My eyes widened and my heart began to race.  "Taste this!" I screamed and I slid the bottle of 1984 Benriach over to David.  I could see the shock in his face as the whisky passed over his palate.  "This tastes amazing!" I exclaimed.  "This tastes like Brora!" David yelled.  What the heck was going on?

After doing a bit of research, we discovered that Seagrams had begun to produce a peated Benriach beginning in 1983.  These two sherry butts were some of the earlier experiments from that process and they had held up incredibly well over the last 28 years.  The first cask was magnificent.  It began with rich, yet savory, sherry notes and a smattering of phenolic accents before evolving into more sherry and an incredibly long, peaty finish.  It was absolutely stunning.  David leapfrogged over me and moved to the second cask while I was still handling my notes from the first.  "Jesus," he said, "I think this one's even better."  He was right.  It was better, but the quality wasn't nearly as obvious.  It was like watching two pitchers throw a perfect game and then debating which player had the better performance.  Cask one had all the flashy strikeouts and the swing-throughs, but cask two had thrown fewer pitches.  The entry was pure, integrated sherry with enticing layers of toffee and cake bread that peeled away over each sip.  The peat was still there, but not until the finish where it seemed to take a handoff from the sherry.  It was like a beautiful song that flawlessly changes tempo mid-stride.  David was right about another point - it did taste like exactly old, peated Brora - the most sought after single malt in the whisky geek world, and one of the most expensive.

I can just see the rolling of the eyes from other retailers and super enthusiasts when we tell our customers they're getting a glimpse at what peated Brora once tasted like, albeit for much less than what they would normally have to pay.  It's a pretty bold statement that sounds like a selling point, which could easily be the sign of two young spirits buyers looking to cause a stir, yet lacking the requisite experience to make such a call - a signifier of brash naiveté, nothing more.  I can guarantee you that we'll be called out for saying this and we'll undoubtedly be bashed by numerous critics who will laugh, "HA!  Brora?  Please.  I've met peated Brora, David Driscoll, and you sir have nothing like peated Brora on your hands.  How daaaaaaare you compare the lowly Benriach with the likes of such nobility!"  We wouldn't say it unless we really believed it.  Snide remarks and sarcastic quips aside, our K&L customers are going to freak out over this.  Whether or not you know what peated Brora tastes like, as long as the idea of an old, sherried, peated Speyside from a single barrel at a drinkable cask strength sounds good to you then you're going to love this.  It could end up being the great find of the trip - a distillery-direct, 28 year old relic from the Benriach cellar.  Who would've thunk it?  

Now we just have to figure out how much it costs.  Gulp.

As for the Glendronach, we also tasted some spectacular samples.  However, the one we want the most will be the most expensive - a 1990 21 year old sherry butt that just makes you close your eyes and smile.  The two un-sherried Bourbon expressions were good.  Maybe even better than good, but we don't know how much the 10 year olds will cost at cask strength.  Price will play a factor in how much we like them.  

I've now been up since about 3:30 AM, reading and writing.  The sun starts rising at about that time and all the birds outside my window started chirping.  The birds outside at home function as my alarm clock, so there was no way I was going to go back down.  I fell asleep at around ten, and I slept a ton the night before, so I think I'll be alright.  At quarter to six I strapped on the New Balances and hit the road uphill from the distillery and into the forest.  I got a bit creeped out after a mile and a half, so I turned around and headed back for a shower.  Running on narrow roads with little reaction time for a possible oncoming driver, coupled with the cold and the isolation, makes me a bit uneasy.  There's a certain Twin Peakish character to the area, something sinister lurking in the atmosphere, but I actually really dig it.  I think it's actually colder in the guesthouse than outside because I am freezing.  Right now I'm fully dressed, but under a thick blanket, pouring over the Malt Whisky Yearbook, trying to familiarize myself with all the small distilleries we might run into when tasting over at Duncan Taylor later today.  We don't have internet here, so I have to type it all up and get it ready for when we hit the wifi signal in Huntly.

More later.

-David Driscoll