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Wednesday
May162012

Scotland - Day 6: Springbank

The road to Campbeltown is lined with spotted cattle, ancient stone walls, and rolling green hills that follow the coastline down the peninsula.  We loved our visit to Springbank last year and couldn't wait to get back down for another meeting.  Purchasing casks wasn't on the table this time around, but we still wanted to get an idea of what was happening at the distillery.

We met with Jenny and Ranald at the front office before taking a walk through the malting floor.  The whisky school was in full swing at the moment, so there were numerous students preparing the barley for the upcoming malting process.  We had done a full-scale tour last year, so we mostly just chatted and discussed the current industry gossip.  We got a chance to taste some of their new bottlings, including the new limited edition Rundlets & Kilderkins.  It was fantastic, simply packed with butterscotch and sweet toffee.  

With the exception of Bowmore (who only do a small percentage themselves), Springbank is the last distillery in Scotland to make 100% of their whisky from barley malted within the building, using the old traditional floor malting method.  It's entirely inconsistent, not at all cost effective, and completely outdated, yet they soldier on in the name of their heritage.  As we all know, Springbank doesn't really care about the best way to make money.  Seeing a giant tank of barley going through a steep is something you probably won't see anywhere else.

The stills are still magnificant.  Big, fat, flame-powered stills that use a rummager to keep the barley from sticking to the bottom.  There's a little bell that rings every time the rummager makes a rotation.  If that bell stops ringing, you know you're in big trouble.

Even though we couldn't purchase a cask for K&L right now, that didn't mean we couldn't mosey on through the warehouse, pop a few casks open, and make sure our friends at Pacific Edge imports were up to speed on the latest selections.  David sniffed out a cask of 1980 hiding in the corner.  Mmmmm......

The warehouses at Springbank are a terroir of their own.  The local white mold is everywhere including all over the muddy ground floors, covering your shoes at every step.  The flavor of that earthiness often finds its way into the whisky like it does bleu cheese.  Only Springbank can have this particular flavor, which to me makes it quite special.  

This was more of a social call than a true business appointment, but we did get to stay on top of the latest news and happenings in Campbeltown.  Springbank remains one of my favorite destinations and I'm glad we were able to stop by on our way to Islay.  We both really wanted to get into the jewel rack and open the super rare Alfred Barnard book The Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom, which contains the history of the 30+ Campeltown distilleries no longer in existence.  Unfortunately, it's a relic and it's completely off limits.  Right now we're in the small fishing village of Tarbert, just a few miles down the road from the ferry.  We're off at 7:45 tomorrow morning to catch the boat and cut some peat with Lagavulin.  We won't have wifi at our rental, so I'm hoping I can walk over to Bowmore and use their internet as needed.

Now it's time for some fresh fish!  We just saw the boat come in and the word on the street is that our hotel is one of the premier destinations for sea candy in all of Scotland.  I'm ready to eat.

-David Driscoll

Wednesday
May162012

Scotland - Day 6: Leaving Oban

Behind Oban distillery (where that long chimney pipe is sticking up on the bottom left) is a large cliff, upon which sits a colosseum-like structure built by a wealthy resident looking to provide the town with employment.  As bizarre as that sounds, it's quite a beautiful spot to snap a photo of Oban and the bay into the North Atlantic.

One of our favorite things to do when staying in small distillery towns is hit the bar scene to see if we can score some expensive whisky on the cheap.  No one at the pubs ever seems to charge what older bottles are actually worth.  We think it's because no one ever orders something like Talisker 25.  Most of the customers are drinking beer or vodka.  At our dinner stop, David scored a glass of that 25 year old Isle of Skye elixer for a mere six pounds.  I later went through a glass of Glen Elgin for about three pounds.

We're about to check out and drive south.  Should be good weather and some beautiful scenery.

-David Driscoll

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