Scotland 2013 - Day 3 - Glenmorangie Distillery

This afternoon was quite wonderful – both because we finally got to visit one of my favorite distilleries in the world and because it actually lived up to the expectation. Glenmorangie is one of the most polished single malt whiskies in existance. The facility is no different. It's picturesque, quaint, beautiful, and clean.

I don't really think of Glenmorangie as a coastal whisky but it sits right on the shore of the North Sea, separated only by a railroad track that once transfered the whisky down to the central heart of Scotland. The buildings are stone grey with red trim on the doors, but the main entrance way carries the classic orange and black on the brand.

We mustn't forget that Glenmorangie is quite a huge operation now that it's run by LVMH. They're right there beneath Glenfiddich and Glenlivet. You'd never know if from the outside, but the equipment on the inside is gigantic. Their mashtun carries 48,000 liters of grist and water. It's enormous!

The wash from the mashtun only creates enough to fill one of twelve gigantic washbacks. Fermentation time is fifty-two hours and they run pretty much 24/7, stopping only for maintainance, Christmas, and Boxing Day.

The still house is breathtaking. The twelve stills at Glenmorangie are amazingly tall and are referred to as "the giraffes." There were only six stills as of a few years ago, but the global demand for Glenmorangie whisky required the company to double capacity. Today six wash stills and six spirit stills crank out maximum elegance. Glenmorangie decided to actually add more equipment rather than resort to super-steroid yeasts that bring the wash up to 11 or 12% abv like other distilleries we've visited. Their wash still comes out at a reasonable 8% before distilling the low wine to 21%.

You can see the many warehouses from the window of the still room. However, LVMH has warehouses all over the area. On the way to the distillery from the house we passed three or four large capacity storage units that were all full of whisky. They're spread out from Tain clear up to Brora.

Climbing up the small hill in back of the distillery reveals the railroad (still in use) and the shores of the sea.

The water for Glenmorangie comes from the nearby Tarlogie Spring. The water is quite hard and full of minerals, but clean and refreshing at the same time. It's wonderfully pure.

That's it for now. I was so happy to find that Glenmorangie is actually a world-class operation while remaining romantic and charming. It put my mind at ease.

David, Mark Harvey, and I just went for a cold run along the beach. Now we're showered off and heading down to the pub. Catch you all later.

-David Driscoll


Scotland 2013 - Day 3 - Glenmorangie House

Along the coast of the North Sea lies the Glenmorangie house – a country estate purchased by the company in 1985. No one outside of Glenmorangie was allowed in the house however until 1998 when it was opened to the public. A flurry of guests flocked to the beautiful grounds and it became a major tourist attraction. The house is built on the site of an old farming castle and abbey. The castle walls to the left have been here since 1376.

A road from the house leads down to the beach where a Pictish stone still stands. The Picts lived in this part of Scotland from the 5th century until the 8th century when they completely disappeared. They were known as the painted people and were a matriarchal society – making time to create beautiful jewelry and bracelets. They were also quite fierce.

The Picts where known as the painted people because they wore mostly paint instead of heavy clothing. I'm not sure how the Picts lived here without enormous furs because we about froze ourselves solid on the walk down to the shore.

The dark, cold waters of the North Sea. Can you imagine Viking invaders landing here?

There's not much else around the area. We're quite isolated here.

Despite the wind and cold, we pressed on with long-standing country tradition, much like we've all enjoyed on Downton Abbey. Falconry! We sent these birds of prey in search of small game. I've got a great photo of an owl eating a mouse, but that's for a later date. We're off to the distillery after lunch.

-David Driscoll


Scotland 2013 - Day 2 - A Race Against Time

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!

-David Driscoll


Scotland 2013 - Day 2- Morning Musings

I slept through the night for the first time ever after arriving abroad on one of our many voyages. I can't tell you what a relief that is. There have been trips where I've neither slept, nor gone to the bathroom for days before settling in. Those were rough trips. This one is beginning quite wonderfully!

I thought about going for a run but I can actually hear the cold, let alone feel it. That wind sounds deadly. Nevertheless, I'm going to need my strength. We've got a full day today. Gotta rush over to Glenfarclas and see George Grant. Hopefully we can find something younger to compliment our 1970 and 1979 barrels respectively. From there we need to hit Benriach and tour the facility. We've never been there before, so we decided to meet the boys there rather than our usual stop at Glendronach. They'll have samples pulled from both distilleries to taste when we arrive. After that we're headed to Gordon & MacPhail to see if a once prosperous relationship can be revived. I've noticed a big step up in quality with their expressions over the last six months, so there might be something fun in those warehouses. Once we're done in Elgin we're headed even further north to Glenmorangie where we'll be having dinner with some of the upper brass.

A few things to think about:

The days of affordable casks from the names you know are over. You're gonna have to start thinking outside the box when it comes to value. It's not like we didn't know this already (we've been saying it for over a year), but our run through the Signatory warehouse confirmed it after we saw what some of these things would cost (Des said he had to trade four casks of Longmorn to acquire one cask of Laphroaig. I said I'd take the four Longmorn anyday). Chieftain's told us not to even bother coming because there's nothing they're willing to part with. That's a huge 180 considering how much business we've done with them over the last few years. Think of it like a house. You'd rather keep that house in Burlingame than sell it for $600,000 because you could probably get a million, easily. "But a million dollars is ridiculous for that house!" Tough shit. Go find somewhere else to live then.

The problem with being a retailer in this situation is that we're basically acting as brokers on behalf of our customers, who trust us with not jacking up the price further. Yet, we're working with sellers that are catering to the world market. Why sell to us if a guy in India will pay twice as much? The problem is that we're dealing with a Bay Area real estate market here. While other markets may have noticed a lull in real estate sales, that's not what's going on around us. You're gonna have to shell out if you want to live in San Francisco (i.e. drink single cask Macallan, Laphroaig, or Highland Park). Meanwhile, you can get a nice condo in the outer East Bay for much less (i.e. Miltonduff, Glenburgie, Jura), but still live quite lavishly. We're going to buy property in a number of locations, obviously, but I think there's going to be some sticker shock (for both for us and you). Hopefully, we can find something off the beaten path.

Bottling at 46% is another option. We can reduce the price of any given bottle by lowering the proof, obviously. In some cases this can be the way to go. We proofed down the 10 year old Longmorn and the 10 year old Faultine selections from last year in order to keep them under $60 a bottle. They both taste better with water anyway, so what's the point of charging more? I think the amount of people who actually enjoy cask strength or higher proof whisky is grossly overestimated as is, mainly because most people I talk to don't add water to their whisky when they drink it (they think that's a bad idea). If you ask that question to an internet message board, you'll get an overwhelming majority in favor of full proof. However, those guys represent 2% of our market. Again, we need options for a variety of different drinkers, so a few selections at 46% might be the way to go. There was an outstanding 15 year old sherry butt of Glenlivet at the Signatory warehouse that might do very well at 46%. Des told us: "Either you take it or it's going to Taiwan."

Apparently the Taiwanese market just loves their sherry.

-David Driscoll


Scotland 2013 - Day 1 - Frostbite

We had heard that the weather in Scotland had been quite cold as of late. We had heard about the springtime snow that seemed to appear from out of nowhere. However, while we both packed our thickest, warmest winter clothes into our now-heavy suitcases, I wasn't quite ready for the view I saw out of the airplane window while landing in Edinburgh. This wasn't a bit of springtime snow. This was a freakin' winter wonderland!

Since we didn't have any business with Chieftain's this year (we've already purchased a 22 year old Mortlach first-fill sherry that should arrive around late April), we immediately hopped in the rental car (which we upgraded to a 4WD SUV) and sped north for an hour and a half to Pitlochry. Our favorite warehouse in all of Scotland would be first up this time around. The playground of the whisky gods, the heavenly destination of sweet ancient nectar, the blessed site of so many amazing casks: Signatory's warehouses at Edradour Distillery.

Upon arrival we met with our favorite cask hunter Des McCagherty for a short sitdown chat before making our way into the dungeon. He had a list of barrels he thought we might be interested in, but first why not taste the open bottles available in the shop? Des always likes to talk shop first. How's your business? How's the whisky moving out there in CA? For those who haven't met Des, he's very much like Liam Neeson from the Taken movies. Seeing that I had just watched Taken 2 on the plane, I felt like I was merely continuing where the film had left off. Except instead of manuerving my way through the streets of Istanbul on the run from terrorists, I was meandering through the many barrels of Signatory trying to keep up with all of the samples being pulled. Signatory has some great grain whiskies on site as you can see from the bottles above. We definitely wanted to add some of those to the list.

Signatory has always had a solid amount of very mature and very rare stock. However, replaceing those barrels once they've been sold has been nearly impossible according to Des. Whisky is so hot right now that there's little motivation for cask owners to sell unless they're getting top dollar for their product. He mentioned that Signatory's business with China and Taiwan is through the roof, while Europe continues to be a big player for their barrels. Des said that if India ever lifted the import tax on single malt and blended whisky, he believes that country could drink Scotland dry on its own. For that reason there's no reason for anything at Signatory to move unless the price is right. This was a completely understandable point, but it was also a bit disconcerting. If we did find something we liked, how much was it going to cost us?

See this room? There's another room just like it behind the red door. And in that room there's another red door with another room behind that! All kinds of treasures lurk within these chambers, but we couldn't waste time on the Dallas Dhu, Ladyburn, or Glenugie casks resting quietly within them. We know what these whiskies are going to cost in today's market. We needed overachieving malts that outperformed their reputation. Des knew all the right whiskies and exactly where to find them.

We found a ton of great whiskies today at Signatory that should be within our wheelhouse. We're on the hunt for value this year and you're not going to find value with a Laphroaig cask. Nevertheless, we did taste a 1997 sample that knocked our socks off from a refill sherry butt. Other standouts included a bourbon cask of 1989 Isle of Jura with aromas of toffee and cask frosting, a 1979 Mosstowie that was light and fragrant with fruity highlights. a 1995 Miltonduff with lots of rich Bourbon cask spice, a 1995 Glenburgie that did the same thing as the Miltonduff but with more wood, and a 1995 Imperial with enough round, candied fruit to make me think of Bladnoch. A 1991 Cambus grain whisky is also in play.

There were plenty of great options on the table today.

As we came out of the distillery, fresh snow had already blanketed the grounds. David and I bid Des adieu and headed back into town for dinner. We decided to walk to our meal, but we didn't realize how cold it was actually getting. I'm back in my hotel bed now trying to thaw myself out from the stroll back home.

Tomorrow we're off to Speyside and the Highlands. I'm nodding off while I'm typing this, so that means it's probably time to hit the hay.

See you tomorrow!

-David Driscoll