Scotland Day 1: Spirit of Speyside
Technically, this is day two of the 2018 Scottish Journey. Day 0-1 was a tough travel day including an hour long line at immigration and a race to the soon closing flight to Glasgow only to find it delayed (unannounced) some 30-40 minutes. Enough time at least to stop and have a beer in terminal 5. I sat down next to cheerful Scottish gentleman who said he'd been ferried back and forth between Glasgow and Heathrow over the last several weeks for training as bar manager at airport. He'd just been on the phone with his wife who'd informed him that it was BLAZING hot in Glasgow -an unprecedented 14 degrees on May 1st. Unbelievable.
I was excited and prepared for the forecasted chilly temps and raining gloom, but when we stepped off the plane in Glasgow we were met with blue skies and a beautiful warm afternoon. This was not the end of my days travel. I hopped in the car and raced up the A9 toward Speyside, stopping only once for a quick bite in Pitlochry as the dark night set. As I passed Dalwhinnie, an indescribably beautiful moon began to rise from behind the Cairngorms. The Highlands shimmered in the pale moonlight, a good omen of things to come perhaps.
3 hours later, I pulled into Aberlour at half past 11 and searched desperately for the little cottage I'd rented. This week is Spirit of Speyside and my presence completely unrelated to the festivities is an extra burden for my suppliers. They'd nonetheless warned me early of the impending lack of accommodations. Indeed there were no hotels open and nothing available in any surrounding villages. Speyside has a distinct lack of hotel capacity, so when tourist season begins things get tight. This led me to the wonderful Roy's Croft. The little house near town complete with working farm is as cozy and well appointed as its owners are gracious. Some Advil PM and a quick check of emails and I was out like light.
This morning was equally magnificent with a brilliant blue sky, but with a strong chill setting in. The perfect highland morning. I had plans to meet one of my favorite people in this industry, George Grant owner and sales director for the Glenfarclas Distillery. It's not only George's incredible knowledge and experience that endears him; he's a genuinely a fun guy and basically an open book. His family has owned Glenfarclas in Ballindaloch for nearly 200 years. It remains one of the few independent distilleries in Speyside. It's not a small operation and the Grant's have incredible stocks that go back decades and upward of 70k casks aging.
Their whiskies are widely considered some of the finest in the country and him and his father share ownership outright. He’s one of the few people in this industry who can make a decision about his brand without consulting a marketing department, financial teams, or anyone else for that matter (for the really big stuff he’ll run it by Dad I’m sure). Considering the assets and reputation of his distinguished brand, you'd expect the guy to be totally up his own ass. But, he’s just not. He works hard to make his brand better and reach more people, but not through gimmicks or chicanery. He’s just simply committed to producing the best possible product with no apologies.
Whether it's his family's work ethic or just a cultural thing, George is down to earth, unassuming and generous. I've learned a lot about Scotch from the man, but he's taught me even more about life. We discuss family and friendship as much as business. This guy has got stories, most of which I can’t repeat here. He's been everywhere. He could do anything, but he honestly believes that there are things more important than making money. Doing business with people you actually respect? That's good lesson to live by. Don't burn your bridges just to build a castle Another sage takeaway. Don't tell someone to do something that you don't know how to do yourself. That one was contributed by the John Grant via George.
Needless to say, the Grants don't need our business. Honestly, the relationship is not perfectly reciprocal. I NEED Glenfarclas in my life on a personal level and I desperately want more Glenfarclas in my store on a professional level. So with that imbalance at play we set out to dig through the stocks accompanied by Tommy the warehouse manager -a "new hire" coming up on his 36th anniversary at the distillery. There’s only one person who might know the warehouses better than George, so when Tommy talks we listen. We examined casks young and old. We sipped the '53 vintage from cask, easily worth more than a million pounds alone. Next 1969 -a master piece. The extra special and unusual 1979, which David and I had bottled a cask of a few years earlier. The renowned 1994 and many more. Tasting through the family casks in cask is nothing short of transcendent. Add this to my list of moments to be grateful for.
After lunch we were back at it -now looking for things that a normal human might afford. The most striking realization throughout the afternoon was the relationship between first and refill barrels. Tommy explained that with great wood, often their goal was to get the whisky out as quick as possible (maybe around 10 years) so they could start a second maturation which everyone agreed was producing a more nuanced, complex and delicious product. These days you'll pay $1000 for a sherry butt (only $70 for bulk first fill bourbon purchased in Scotland) and they're basically made to order. They have been seasoned for 4-5 years before being dumped and sent here. There's no access to great old botas like you would have had decades earlier, but that old wood can still deliver.
We tasted a whole series of refill 10 year olds that Tommy recognized as barrels purchased in 1994 a vintage that he proclaims to be his favorite. Incidentally the '94s are not for sale, but the 2008 vintage might just be. Right now its gorgeous and with another 5-10 years in cask they might be legends. You can see the two lighter glasses here are both first fill from the same series as the two darker refills. They don't have good answers for what the hell is going on. Another take away from Scotland, you may never get all the answers. Off to Aberlour, Elgin, Dufftown tomorrow, hoping and searching for something special. Stay tuned...