#2.1 A very Scottish summer holiday

A trip to Orkney Speyside et al.
(day 1)

Our first day of our supposed-to-be in Orkney holiday, but actually we went to Speyside. First stop: Royal Lochnagar! 

(Forward to Day 10 / Days 7-8-9 / Days 5-6 / Day 4 / Day 3 / Day 2)

Here we are, almost ready to start our summer holidays, after months of hard work! We decided to avoid unnecessary risks and to stay in Scotland, so despite our stock of Parmigiano Reggiano is finished, we decided not to travel back to Italy to visit our families. Instead, a destination we craved for long: Orkney! But then…PING!

Unfortunately, Gianluigi had a contact with a person who tested positive for Covid (who at the time forgot to get his jab…please trust an epidemiologist: go get it now if you haven’t done so yet!) and at the time the rule was still self-isolation for 10 days no matter what. So, the holiday is “oot the windae” (including visits to Highland Park, Scapa, Wolfburn, and Pultney…). However, we rapidly bounced back: we used the days in self-isolation to regroup, cancel all the reservations and make a new plan. We took advantage of a voucher for a campervan which we were supposed to use for a holiday on Islay last year (first victim of the pandemic) and we rented the vehicle for 10 days. Since Highland Park was fully booked for the period, we changed our destination: Speyside + “let’s see what we can fit in”.

The wee campervan.

We were very excited because it’s our first trip with a campervan, which gave us a great freedom to travel around the country without being worried of not finding a room. We arrived at the rental place in Broxburn loaded like mules, and here we go!

After a quick stop in Perth for gas, a coffee and some groceries, we got to the Cairngorms, which is always a pleasure because of its spectacular landscape. We parked at the Balmoral Castle parking (where overnight stays are allowed and there is also a drinking water fountain), and we bet that by now you guessed which distillery we were heading to: Royal Lochnagar!

The Cairngorms in a typical Scottish summer day.

The distillery was built in 1845, after two previous establishments were burned to the ground, and it gained the Royal Warrant after a visit of Queen Victoria in 1848. Today it’s the smallest in the huge Diageo portfolio, with a capacity of just 500,000 mlpa and, unlike others we recently visited, it’s completely manual. We arrived there after a 20-minute walk, the distillery is made by a bunch of lovely stone buildings, almost hidden in a very picturesque landscape.

The tour started in the former mill room, since today they get the barley already milled. The guide Cara was knowledgeable and although sometimes we felt she was sticking to a script, she was able to sneak in some quite funny jokes. The tour moved swiftly to the next stages of production: mashing, fermentation (two wooden washbacks), and distillation: a magnificent couple of onion-shaped stills.

Teresa in awe in front of the Royal Lochnagar stills.

In the filling store we learn that the most used cask here is refill sherry butts, which (as you can guess) have been previously used by other Diageo’s distilleries. They have around a thousand casks storage capacity on site, the rest goes to the warehouse up in Moray, at Glenlossie.

After briefly visiting the courtyard (btw, nice view of the worm-tub condenser from there), we went to a warehouse space for a sensorial experience: Cara made us dip a few pieces of paper into cask-strength whisky drams, each characterised by different cask or flavour profile, one was a Lagavulin). Unfortunately we could only nose those drams…. But no big deal, as the tour ended with a tasting, which we could both enjoy since we had already parked (hurray!!!).

The old malting floor..and, behind it, the Queen’s estate.

The first dram was their main core range expression, the Royal Lochnagar 12 year old (bottled at 40%). Second, their Distillery Exclusive (batch 1), which includes maturation in first fill European oak and refill sherry and bourbon casks (NAS, bottled at 48%). The last two drams were quite spectacular: the Selected Reserve, despite its 43% abv (NAS but apparently around 20y) and the 175th Anniversary edition, a 17y cask strength (56.3%). Unfortunately, the last two bottles were well above our budget (between £170 and 250), as well as the “bottle your own” (a 14y, 54.9% for £150), so we decided to get the Distillery Exclusive (£90)…and as a travel dram (or “sacrificial whisky”, like two pals of our whisky group taught us) a bottle of the 12y: with the 10% discount it was quite convenient.

A great final tasting!

We slowly strolled back to the campervan, and we barely had time to cook some dinner before it started to rain cats and dogs. So, we took a dram of our other travel whisky, a young but quite tasty Miltonduff from the SMWS…as an anticipation of what was waiting for us in that incredible region that is “Speyside”.

Royal Lochnagar Expressions Tour

Price: £17.50 pp (July 2021)

Tasting: 4 drams (12y, Distillery Exclusive, Selected Reserve and 175th Anniversary)

Target: both whisky novices and more experienced ‘drammers’

Value for money: very good (also, it includes 10% discount on the Diageo range)

Highlights: the buildings and the sensorial experience

Things we did not like: nothing really

Link: https://www.malts.com/en-gb/distilleries/royal-lochnagar

#1.3 Dramming around again after lockdown

A quick escape to the Highlands (Day 3 & 4)


Next in line in our May 2021 Highlands trip: Deanston and Tullibardine. 

(missed Day 2 or Day 1?)

Day #3 started with a 3-hour drive from Muir of Ord to the village of Doune, in the southern Highlands, famous for its castle which was used as a set for popular movies and TV series. Despite not being able to find our coconut shells (probably a swallow stole them from us), we toured the castle anyway.

Doune Castle <>insert coconut shells noise</>.

After that, we checked in to a lovely, local B&B and went straight to Deanston distillery, just a 15-minute walk away. The staff are very professional and welcoming, Brian led us straight to the warehouse where 3 casks were waiting for us and only us (a private tasting, yay!).

The first expression was a 2013 vintage 1st fill ex-bourbon, quite delicious, full of all the notes you’d expect from a great bourbon cask (vanilla, honey, caramel), but very balanced despite the young age. Second up, an incredible 2001 fino hogshead, re-casked from 1st fill ex-bourbon. Brian told us that this cask was supposed to be finished earlier, but because of the pandemic it aged for an extra year or so. It was surprisingly good, very different from a typical sherried style whisky (drier, and orchard fruits notes), which instead came in the form of the last, and delicious, 2004 amontillado butt, a classic sherry-bomb.

The tasting location: Deanston Warehouse 4!

In the store they kindly gave us a wee taste of an ex-calvados and a marsala finished expression (12 and 15 years old), both quite interesting. We were spoiled for choice, but we went with the 2013 full bottle and the 2001 small bottle (too good and peculiar to be left there), plus a plethora of 30ml samples, including the new make spirit. At this point the credit card was crying. As it was a very nice day, we sipped one of the samples (a 2002 vintage ex-port pipe finish) in the beautiful gardens behind the castle, next to a wee stream: a liquid picnic.

Happiness after the tasting at Deanston.

As per the previous day, the rest of the evening was quiet…mostly because the only pub in the village was closed (we were told because of a restrictions breach), so we ended up drinking some previously collected samples in the B&B while re-watching Monty Python and the Holy Grail (of course).

The final day of our trip started with a quick morning visit of the Dunblane cathedral, which was on the way to our next and last distillery: Tullibardine. We were very curious, as despite its presence in local grocery stores, the only expression we know is the (quite nice) 15 y/o, tasted a few months back through our Whisky-Me subscription. In our understanding the distillery is going through some refurbishment, but the visitor centre looks already quite new and spacious. The guide, Gavin, is a veteran: has been working there for 17 years (and as a matter of fact, one of the distillery exclusive bottlings is named after him), and he was visibly happy to have visitors again. We were the first visitors, as they reopened for tours on that very same day. He explained to us that the distillery is owned by the Famille Picard, a French beverage company which, among other things, allows them to access premium ex-wine casks. He first showed us where the malted barley comes through and the milling room. After, we entered a space where it is possible to admire all 3 parts of the process equipment together (mashtun, washbacks and four stills). This was quite unique to us because in most of the other distilleries we visited these are located in different rooms, despite Tullibardine being far from a craft distillery (3mlpa production). Next, we spent some time in the warehouse, which is always among our favourite parts.

Tullibardine distillery.

Finally, the tasting takes place in the shop: Gavin was quite generous, and to our request he was happy to give us one of the Murray range instead of the 15y that we had already tasted, as well as a taste of one Distillery Exclusive, a 12y cask strength Moscatel finish (£95, the other one available was an ex-bourbon cask: same age, same price and cask strength), and a Marsala finish from the Murray series (which we happily bought). This was one of the most engaging tours we had…It was very easy to connect with the distillery “spirit” (in all meanings).

The rest of the day went smoothly. Lunch and a stroll in Perth, followed by a short but enjoyable walk at Loch Leven before driving back to the home base in Leith. As in our previous trips around Scotland, we ended up talking about how lucky we are to live in this gorgeous country, while starting to plan the next trip.

Deanston Warehouse 4 tasting

Price: £35.00 pp (May 2021)

Tasting: 3 drams straight from the cask, 2013 ex-bourbon barrel (£65/25 for 700/200ml), 2001 organic ex-bourbon with 3-4y finish in fino hogshead (£120/35), 2004 amontillado butt (£120/35), and a complimentary glass (high-stem copita)

Target: whisky enthusiasts, geeks, and experts

Value for money: Good

Highlights: the whisky and the friendly staff

Things we did not like: nothing really

Link: https://www.deanstonmalt.com/

Tullibardine Bonded Tour

Price: £30.00 pp (May 2021)

Tasting: 3 drams, Tullibardine Sovereign (43%, NAS but ~7y, wink-wink), a choice of the cask finish series (225 Sauternes, 228 Burgundy, and 500 sherry, all 43% NAS but ~8y, wink-wink), and the 15y (43%), and a complimentary glass (short highball glass)

Target: both whisky novices and enthusiasts

Value for money: Good

Highlights: the friendly guide and “hey, I can see the mashtun, washbacks and stills from this spot!”

Things we did not like: nothing really

Link: https://www.tullibardine.com/

#1.2 Dramming around again after lockdown

A quick escape to the Highlands
(Day 2)

Day 2 of our trip to the Highlands in May 2021, this time we adventured to two Diageo’s workhorses: Clynelish and Glen Ord distilleries.

(go to Day 1)

We were really looking forward to day 2, because our first distillery stop was where they produce one of Gianluigi’s favourites: Clynelish. As usual, we arrived there a few minutes early, among the first ones, so the distillery staff waved from the balcony…nice welcome. The distillery, and in particular the visitor centre, has been recently renovated to be included in the “Johnnie Walker Four Corners of Scotland Experience” (together with Glenkinchie in the Lowlands, Cardhu in Speyside, and Caol Ila on Islay) and the building looks quite beautiful.

The tour started in a dark room, the very experienced guide Daragh seated us along a very big table. As he told the parallel stories of Johnnie Walker and Clynelish distillery (including the ominous Highland Clearances operated by the Dukes of Sutherland), the middle of the table rose up, and each one of us was faced with mysterious drawers. These contain various objects (jar with, supposedly, characteristic Clynelish aromas, wax stamp…) or games (find the Highland Wildcat on the map, 16 pieces jigsaw…) and their opening was connected with coloured hollows with things like the Striding Man, the Wildcat, etc.. While the historical information and context was extremely interesting, we wondered whether such a spectacle was really needed. We would have happily exchanged the “fancy table” experience with an extra dram. Fortunately, things became much more interesting as we went through the distillery’s production (which is highly automated and, to my surprise, works 24/7), although not in the warehouse.

Clynelish distillery stills.

The tour ended in the tasting room, where we had 3 drams (and they kindly provided the sample bottles for the driver), and a pre-prepared cocktail if you wanted to use one of your drams for that. The room is very nice and the view from the balcony quite spectacular. Unfortunately, they could not give us a dram nor a sniff of neither the bottle your own (12y, 51.2%, £120) nor the Distillers Edition (15y, 46%, double matured in oloroso casks, £65). We ended up buying the latter anyway, as the Distillery Exclusive included in the tasting was nice but a bit pricey.

Overall, we were probably not the right target for this type of experience, but we were happy to visit the distillery anyway. We hope that when tourism is fully resumed they will introduce a more “whisky enthusiasts targeted” experience.

After the distillery we made two brief stops, one to check out the impressive Dunrobin Castle (the morning fog spoils the view though), and one for a warm soup in the very cosy Golspie Coffee Bothy.

The magnificent view of Dunrobin Castle from the beach…

Then a quick drive and we arrived at Muir of Ord, home of the Singleton (of Glen Ord distillery) single malt. As this brand is mostly reserved for the South-east Asia market (contrary to the Singleton of Glendullan and Dufftown, respectively reserved to the American and European ones), we were quite curious to taste it. So far, we had only tried very few expressions from independent bottlers. With a production of 11mlpa, this is one of the biggest distilleries we have ever visited. We were also impressed by the malting facility visible from the road, which we were told it serves all the Diageo’s Northern-Highlands distilleries.

After we checked in the visitor centre, we could take a look at the exhibition about the history of distilling and scotch whisky in Scotland, which included some old equipment used during the illicit distilling era.

An old times still and condenser (from the Glen Ord distillery exhibition).

Our guide Dave ably walked us through this massive site, working 24/7 and highly automated as well. The fact that only around 10% of this malt is used in blends surprised us, and contrasts with Clynelish where this fraction is above 90%. The tour ended in a nice tasting room with a window on the warehouse, where only a minority of their casks is stored. As we booked a guesthouse within walking-distance, we could both taste the 3 drams, which we both really enjoyed (a lot of orchard fruits). Deciding which one to buy was a challenge.

Glen Ord distillery warehouses.

The village was very quiet, we quickly got food at a fish-and-chips shop nearby (and which, to be honest, I’m still trying to digest) and spent the evening on an online tasting with the lovely Mark and Kate Watt and their latest releases.

Clynelish The Flavour Journey

Price: £30 pp (May 2021)

Tasting: 3x10ml drams, Clynelish 14y (46%), Clynelish Distillery Exclusive (NAS, 48%, £90), Johnnie Walker 18y Gold Label (40%)

Target: whisky novices and casual tourists

Value for money: not great (but please consider that it includes a 10% discount on the Diageo range available at the shop)

Highlights: the tasting room and the view from it

Things we did not like: no tour in the warehouse, not possible to try (or nose) other distillery exclusive bottlings, too much time on the first part of the tour

Link: https://www.malts.com/en-gb/distilleries/clynelish

Glen Ord The Tasting Tour

£31.50 pp (May 2021)

3 drams Singleton of Glen Ord 15y (40%, £52), Artisan (ex-bourbon and ex-oloroso cask NAS 40%, £90), and Distillers Edition (ex-bourbon cask NAS 48%, £90, but 10y, wink-wink), and a complimentary glass (round tumbler)

whisky novices and casual tourists

Value for money:
OK (but please consider that it includes a 10% discount on the Diageo range available at the shop, including the Singleton of Glen Ord range which is usually not available in the UK)

the exhibition in the visitor centre and the size of the site

Things we did not like: nothing really