Scotland 2013 - Day 5 - Old Relationships

Getting coffee this morning in Glasgow, I realized how much I really love this city. Edinburgh has the charm, the castle, the beautiful streets, and the bustling markets, but Glasgow has the hipster character. If you're thinking European analogies, Edinburgh is the Munich to Glasgow's Berlin. If you're thinking Bay Area terms then Edinburgh is the Upper Fillmore to Glasgow's Valencia St. There's a vibrant art scene, rundown buildings have been taken over by musicians and young students, the bars are ubiquitous and overflowing, and the coolness vibe is resonating loud and clear. It was under these conditions that we sipped our coffee, made the day's arrangements, did a bit of people watching, and headed over for our first appointment.

One of the biggest shocks for us this year was the separation of the Laing company into two factions. Brothers Stewart and Fred have worked together for more than forty years, but have finally decided to take different paths towards the future and divide the assets in half. Our appointment was therefore split into two different meetings with Douglas Laing and Hunter Laing respectively. It's no secret that the Laing brothers have some of the healthiest stocks of whisky in Scotland. They echoed the same message we'd been hearing all week upon our arrival: there is no whisky for sale on the open market for wholesalers. You can only trade for it, much like Des has told us at Signatory. It's no longer about wanting the whisky. It's about being able to get it. Therefore, it's about who you know.

If you had two tickets to the Superbowl and found yourself unable to go, you could do one of two things. You could put them up on Ebay and watch them go to the highest bidder (we've obviously done that with a bottle of Jefferson's Ocean before), thereby assuring yourself the maximum amount of profit. You could do that. Or, you could call up a friend who you knew wanted to go and make a deal with him (normally what we do with our insider whisky list). You know you're going to have no problem selling them. That's not the issue. The question is to whom and for how much? Some bottlers we meet with are opting for strategy number one. Luckily, the Laing's value their relationship with us, as do we with them, so it's more about option number two when we come to Glasgow.

Stewart told us that a potential client from Taiwan had called him this morning. "He told me he was only interested in Ardbeg thirty year old whisky from a sherry butt. Nothing more. I told him I'd get back to him," he told us with a wry smirk. Some people aren't aware of what's going on with the whisky market, much like the guy who wanders in off the street asking for a case of Pappy Van Winkle. Good luck with that, buddy. In a similar vain, if we've got hundreds of customers with whom we've done business with for years then why would we waste those Van Winkle bottles on a guy we've never met before and who might never come back again?

After hours full of conversation, a look through their stocks, and a wonderful Italian lunch, we're very excited about what our relationship with the Laings has blossomed into. It's a genuine admiration for one another based on mutual respect and the fact that we honestly get along with one another quite well. We simply like doing business together. When the Laings have Superbowl tickets they're not the type to put them up on Ebay. They're coming to us with them along with other valued business relationships. You won't believe what's coming on the horizon for K&L under the Sovereign label. Honestly, you wouldn't believe me if I told you here on the blog, so I won't say anything for now. Old stocks of impossible to get whiskies? Yes, you'd be close. Relatively affordable pricing for what they represent? Definitely. Islay? Yes. Don't Beg me for any other hArd facts. It would take 21 years to get that info out of me.

Next on the list was a trip to the head office of Morrison-Bowmore. We're longtime friends with Jamie MacKenzie and Rachel Barrie, so we're lucky enough to be one of the few retailers allowed to select casks privately from the Suntory-owned whisky company's warehouse. Last year Rachel had gone through the Glen Garioch stocks to find some wonderful expressions for us. She was ready for us again this time around.

There were samples dating as far back as 1991 and as recent as 1999. They were all quite tasty and really offered room for various flavor preferences. In the end, David and I both agreed that a 1997 Glen Garioch 15 year old was the clear winner. With water this malt became simply voluptuous, round and fat with pineapple and big vanilla. We touched on this last year in our distillery visit post, but to reiterate: Glen Garioch's short stills create an incredibly oily spirit. Rachel told us that these whiskies had the highest concentration of fatty acid esthers she had ever witnessed as a blender. For that reason, Glen Garioch bottles at 48% abv to help cut through this texture. Adding water to the spirit creates a lava lamp of oily ripples and waves. It's quite amazing to watch.

Unfortunately, the Isle of Arran is still completely out of commission. The ferry is running, but there's no power on the island and the roads are still a mess due to the storm. We're not going to make it out to the distillery, but we hope we can still sequester a few samples to make purchasing decisions. We'll see what happens. Rather than continue southward tonight towards David Stirk and the Exclusive Malts, we decided to head back to the Citizen M hotel in downtown Glasgow and post up in the city. Tomorrow morning we'll meet with David and discuss the various options for K&L in 2013. After that we'll make our way down to Bladnoch where we have two appointments on Thursday.

That's it for now!

-David Driscoll


Scotland 2013 - Day 4 - Downtime

Driving north along the A9 from Tain one can see the rugged coastline of the Northern Highlands as the North Sea collapses upon the rocky shore. There are a few distilleries further north of Glenmorangie. Old Pulteney sits right on the tip of the peninsula near the town of Wick, looking across at the Orkney Islands where the Highland Park and Scapa whiskies are distilled. Between the extreme north and the village of Tain is a small town called Brora.

Though it sits right upon the sea, there are rolling hills and vast fields with livestock just above the town limits. Upon one of those hills sits one very special distillery – one of the most beloved in all the world. Immediately next door are the remains of what was once its partner in crime.

With steam puffing out of its chimneys, the very-modern Clynelish distillery captures the essence of late-60s/early 70s factory architecture: tall glass windows, tan and brown colors, red brick accentuating its facade. Mr. Brady couldn't have designed it better!

The back is no more romantic. Large tanking equipment, a truck stop, and other industrial riff-raff make up most of the scene. While I truly love the whisky coming from the six large pot stills pumping away through the front windows, I can't say that the site of the building sets my heart aflutter. However, turning around from this view shows the entry ways towards another facility.

Follow the pipeline out of Clynelish and you'll spot the warehouses full of whisky barrels. Yet, beyond those buildings lies a pagoda roof and chimney. What's that all about, you ask?

Follow the road around the back of the distillery and you'll come to a gate.

You're not supposed to enter through that gate, but we're in the middle of freakin' nowhere. I don't think there's much private property enforcement in the town of Brora.

Through the gates one can see the neglected remains of the original Clynelish distillery, now more commonly known as Brora – the legendary site of what is now one of the most beloved and collectable whiskies in existance. The stills are still inside. The walls are still standing. Yet, nothing has been distilled at Brora since it was closed by DCL in 1983. Clynelish was renamed Brora after the Scotch Whisky laws determined that two distilleries couldn't maintain the same name (Clynelish I and II had been operating under the same banner once the new distillery was built). When the glut hit the industry at the beginining of the eighties, the decision was made to can the original in favor of the modern addition.

It was fun to visit one of my favorite distilleries and site of single malt royalty. There's not much one can do with whisky on a Sunday because not one of the distilleries take appointments on the weekend, so we didn't get a peek inside. Plus, we really needed to head south to reach Glasgow by the evening, so there wasn't much time to dilly-dally.

Further south, however, lied peril. Despite blankets of snow still paralyzing the south of Scotland, we rolled into Glasgow a few hours ago. Tomorrow we'll visit a few independent bottlers before checking to see if Arran is still in play. The entire island was still without power earlier this morning. We're just hoping the ferry is operational, otherwise we'll have to find something else to do with our Tuesday.

More on actual whisky tasting tomorrow!

-David Driscoll


Scotland 2013 - Day 3 - Glenmorangie Cask Masters

Before shoving off to the local pub for a few pints, we sat in the Glenmorangie house dining room to learn about the new Cask Master series. GlenMo is going to be auditioning three new whiskies for their next private edition release – three whiskies that the public will get to decide upon via online vote.

There are three cask-finished selections to choose from. We should be one of the American polling destinations if all goes as planned, meaning you can come to the store, taste for free, and then make your decision. The whiskies are Burgundy, Bordeaux, and Manzanilla sherry finished. Our choice was quite easy. Manzanilla all the way. But that's just us speaking. You'll have your chance to vote later this year, I believe.

-David Driscoll


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