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


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


Scotland - Day 2 continued: Driving North

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.

-David Driscoll


Scotland - Day 2: Some Thought

First off, let me say that Edinburgh is a fantastic city.  We'd never spent any time here, usually landing at the airport, hitting the meeting with Chieftain's, and then bolting for the country.  Last night, however, we had some extra time to walk around, visit a few whisky shops, and take in the beautiful architecture and the stark contrasts between the dark grey stone and the ultra-green hills.  We found a lively restaurant for dinner, almost too good to be true called The Outsider, which served big glasses of Pappy 20 for eight pounds, as well as delicious food, and then walked back through the rain to our hotel downtown.  I actually slept through the night for the first time ever, so now I'm up at six ready to go for a quick run, snap a few photos, pack up, and drive north.

One thing that David and I talked about last night at dinner was the price of single cask whisky.  One of the most frequent email subjects I receive from customers deals with the cost of all the barrels we've been finding - namely, that they wish we could find some less expensive options.  The problem with single cask whisky is that it's limited, and it's at cask strength - two qualifiers that raise the price of single malt.  It's simply easier to make the whisky less expensive by making a larger batch of it and lowering the per-bottle cost.  We're definitely open to the idea of doing a batch whisky while we're here.  If Glendronach or Bruichladdich want to put together a blend for us, I'd be over the moon.  That's a lot of work, however, so I would never expect it.  Single casks are easier to deal with.

The point is that $70 is going to always be the low end price for the single cask whiskies we're finding here.  $100 per bottle will likely be the average.  We can't always find amazing deals like the Faultline Cragganmore for $75, but we're trying.  I hate alienating customers who don't want to pay $100+ for these exciting new finds, but it's just the reality of the pricing.  The new Laphroaig cask we just bought is quite a good value for $130, but it doesn't help the person looking to spend $50.  Here's to hoping we can pull something off, however!

More from the road later.

-David Driscoll


Scotland - Day 1: One Cask in the Bag

Well, we haven't been here more than a few hours and we've already got one barrel secured.  Upon landing in Edinburgh, David and I rushed to the baggage claim where my magic suitcase came through once again!  Four flights so far with this blessed bag and four flights where my suitcase has been the first one out on the conveyor belt.  Chieftain's was closing at 5 PM, so we snuck in right at 4 PM to do a quick tasting with John and the available casks.  Pickings were slim this year as bottlers are currently tightening their belts to keep up with demand.  Nevertheless, we did find one outstanding cask we think will be a big hit later this year.

While last year's trip was marked by the complete void of any smoky, Islay single malt for our K&L selections, this year's visit will hopefully make up for that.  Right off the bat we found this 18 year old hogshead of Laphroaig, singing its wonderfully peaty tune at a beautiful pitch.  Even at 55% the whisky is quite gentle.  Soft hints of salt and brine make their presence, but take a backseat to the phenolic action, which itself is somewhat restrained.  We think we can retail this for about $130, which would make it $10 less than the fantastic 18 year old Laphroaig from Hart Brothers we've been selling (a whisky that is not from a single barrel, nor at cask strength).  

There were some other intriguing options in the room - 18 year old Longmorn, 18 year old Linkwood, and a super oily 1982 barrel of Inchgower.  In the end, however, they were good, not great.  We have big shoes to fill after last year's unexpected surplus.  We want this year to be even better, so we're going to be more scrupulous than ever before.  Hopefully, that doesn't leave us with just this one cask!

We're absolutely drenched right now, sitting in our hotel lobby, attempting to dry off after the deluge that opened up onto us.  Time for a beer and some much needed rest.  Tomorrow we drive north.  Glendronach and Duncan Taylor await!

-David Driscoll