#17.2 A first taste of Speyside

Walking and blending

 

TL;DR: The last two days of the trip were dedicated to less standard whisky experiences. First off, a walk through the village of Dufftown and its distilleries. On the last day, we did a blending experience at Strathisla, learning the hard way how difficult it is. Overall, definitely a great trip! 

(missed Part 1?)

The morning of the third day was quite open, so we went back to Aberlour, officially for a walk to the Linn waterfalls, behind the Aberlour distillery, but we sneaked in a second visit to…no, not the distillery, to the Walker’s cookies shop! Just to pick up Christmas gifts for family and friends, and because Gianluigi loves cookies indeed! We had some take-away food from a local shop, before our afternoon activity: a walking tour of the 9 distilleries of Dufftown! If you’re asking yourself why 9, just stick with us…

A cute meeting point for the walking tour.

The tour was organized by Michelle, a local guide living in the village. We and another young couple met her at the clock tower. First, we walked towards her house, where she very professionally gave us a glencairn and a yellow vest: at the end of the day we were about to walk through a few whisky producing plants, most of them not open to visitors. To start with, we walked towards the site where the now demolished Pittyvaich distillery used to be (close to the Mortlach Parish Church). While looking at some of the old warehouses, Michelle poured a taste of a 25y Pittyvaich from a Diageo release. A bit down the road, we then stopped at Dufftown distillery, owned by Diageo.

Best shot at Dufftown distillery.

This is one of the three distilleries making the Singleton (Singleton of Dufftown), sold mostly in the UK and Europe. Moving on with our tour, walking along the Dullan Water, we found the third distillery: Glendullan, another one from the Singleton series (this one distributed in North America, while the third one is from Glen Ord and is distributed in the Asian market). One exception was the House of Tully Singleton, part of the Game of Thrones range, which we had a taste of after a wee look at the still room. Next stop was a popular one, Mortlach, which we were very curious about for their quite complicated 2.71 distillation process. We saw their third still (from the outside), called the Wee Witchie, where the last 0.71 of the distillation happens (in our understanding, but not so sure…).

The beast of Dufftown and us.

In this case, the dram was a Gordon & MacPhail 25y from the distillery label range, paired with homemade shortbreads, which were fantastic! It took a bit to get to the next stop, this time walking along the Foiddich. During the walk Michelle showed us the building where another silent distillery was, Parkmore, closed too long ago to get a sip. We were already acquainted with the next working one, Glenfiddich, but not the next ones: Kininvie and Balvenie.

Balvenie, the beautiful.

Unfortunately, during this trip we hadn’t managed to book the latter (although we caught up almost a couple of years later), so we were very curious to see it. As we walked past the malting floor, we saw smoke coming out of it, meaning it was working! Michelle was very excited as well, she had seen it only a dozen of times. We walked past Kininvie still room (the mashtun and washbacks are at Balvenie). The final distillery was another silent one, Convalmore, now used as warehouses. This is where Michelle’s husband was waiting for us in a van to bring us back (it was quite dark at that stage). It was a great experience, a bit different from a regular distillery visit, definitely worth it! We ended up having dinner at the Commercial Hotel and, again, a couple of drams at the Seven Stills.


Sunday was the last day of our wee holiday. We had a very nice conversation with Linda and her partner, who drove us to Keith for the last whisky activity of the long weekend: Strathisla. The distillery looks very pretty, in particular as you walk in from the parking through the courtyard. Like Aberlour, it is owned by Chivas Brothers (a subsidiary of Pernod Ricard), and it is the core malt of one of their most popular brands, Chivas Regal. The 12 year old expression is present in almost all aunties’ and grandmothers’ houses back in Italy too.

Iconic Strathisla.

For this tour, Teresa picked something different: the blending experience. So, after the tour of the distillery and the warehouses (where we had a dram of Chivas straight from the cask), we were guided to the blending room. It looked like a fancy version of a high school chemistry lab, with all the glass equipment, but instead of burners there were bottles of whisky. Our task was to create a blend of 5 whiskies: fruity (Strathisla), citrusy (Glen Keith), smoky (Allt A’Bhaine), creamy (Longmorn) and floral (Strathclyde, a grain whisky distilled in Glasgow). Of course, as we were making it, it was like: “it’s going to be super tasty”, but when a few months later we opened our 20cl souvenir bottle of our very own blends, it clearly was kind of crappy. Well, blending is more of an art, and the blenders job is definitely one of the hardest in the sector! Definitely a fun activity though, although we both agreed that one time was plenty.

As we came out, we had over an hour to wait at the Keith “station” (a porch) for the train to Aberdeen. We couldn’t really walk around because of the backpacks and the heavy rain, so we just sneaked in a walk to Glen Keith distillery, right in front of Strathisla.

Glen Keith distillery under the rain.

On the train back we came up with the idea of a whisky blog. It would have taken over a year to kickstart it, but this trip is the culprit! It substantially improved our knowledge and made us even more enthusiastic about scotch whisky. Speyside is one of those places where every time we visit, we say to each other: “we should get a house here”. This was the first trip to this magical region, with many more just about to come!

Until the next story, slainte!


Strathisla Distillery Tours
https://www.maltwhiskydistilleries.com/strathisla/

Michelle’s Dufftown Distilleries Walk
https://www.dufftown.co.uk/prov_attr_detail.php?id=153

(Because this trip happened almost 3 years ago, we are not compiling the distillery visit evaluation box.)


#17.1 A first taste of Speyside

A birthday surprise

 

TL;DR: in December 2019 Teresa organised a surprise weekend for Gianluigi’s birthday, so we travelled to Speyside for the first time. One of the few times we travelled by train, it wasn’t easy to reach all the places we wanted. Nevertheless, in the first couple of days, we managed to visit four distilleries in Elgin, Aberlour and Dufftown. 

2019 was a weird year for us. Because of an intense period at work, Gianluigi could take very few leave days throughout the year. But it was also the year where something changed for us about whisky: we became members of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, we started listening to whisky podcasts, reading books, and visiting distilleries more often. So, when December arrived, going off on a wee whisky holiday was a very easy decision to take. It was also Teresa’s gift to Gianluigi for his birthday…so for him the destination was a surprise!

In the morning, first train to Aberdeen, then another one to Elgin, so Speyside, which we’d never been before! This is home to over 50 distilleries, without doubts the biggest producing single malt whisky region. Although not all of them are open to visitors, a good bunch are. Which ones then? Still a mystery to Gianluigi.

Happy faces, and we were not even drunk!

The first distillery was only a 20-minute walk from Elgin train station: Glen Moray. We are now very fond of this one, probably underrated because of their entry-level expressions available in supermarkets. Thanks to a few very tasty SMWS bottlings, however, at the time we had already started to appreciate it, so Gianluigi was very happy! Because of time constraints we only did a tutored tasting at the distillery’s café. We chose different flights, the travel retail (with the Elgin Heritage NAS, 12y and 15y, but all bottled at 48% and not chill-filtered) and the distillery casks (2008 ex-rye cask finish, 2001 2nd fill ex-oloroso, 2014 peated ex-gamay cask). We loved these expressions, in particular the 12y in the travel retail range and the 2008 Rye cask finish, but we felt it was too early in our trip to buy anything (much regretted decision).

Glen Moray tasting.

From there, we took a cab to another distillery, completely unknown to us: Benriach. Together with its sisters GlenDronach and Glenglassaugh, it had been recently sold to Brown-Foreman (aka Jack Daniel’s).

After seeing a malting floor for the first time.

At the time the visitor centre was just a small room with a couple of sofas, table and chairs, and a small shop. The tour was intimate (only 6) and quite in depth. We were guided throughout production, including their malting floor (first time we visited one), and we tasted the wash (someone said: “like a bland and watery beer, basically an English ale”). It was before the revamp of their core range, so we tried their 10y, 10y peated (Curiositas), the magnificent 12y triple-sherry cask, and the travel retail 10y triple distilled (of which we were able to grab a bottle only a few months ago), and another couple of older distillery exclusive expressions, including a peated ex-port cask. Truly a great tasting!

What a line-up at Benriach!

By the end of the tasting, it was dark outside (December…), and we almost missed the last bus to go to our final destination for the day. Fortunately the driver saw us waving at him in the dark. We arrived in Dufftown, where we stayed at the Conval House, a lovely B&B run by the very kind Linda. After the check-in, we had dinner at the Stuart Arms (not open anymore) and a couple of final drams at the Seven Stills.


The next day we woke up a bit dizzy, how so? (wink, wink). This didn’t prevent us to move on with our mission, and after breakfast, Linda generously drove us to the next distillery: Aberlour, in the near village of… Aberlour!

Ready to start day 2.

It was just us on the tour, definitely not high season for them. The guide gave us a dram straight away (the 12y), which we enjoyed before another really in depth tour. The distillery sits in a marvellous location, surrounded by woods and near the Linn Falls waterfall.

Linn Falls waterfall.

Again, the final tasting was quite generous, with samples of the newmake spirit, the 16y, the Casg Annamh, and two 14y single cask, one from an ex-bourbon barrel and another from an ex-sherry butt. Unfortunately the A’Bunadh, which we hadn’t tried yet, was not in the line-up, but we would have caught up later that day.

After a quick stop at the Walker’s cookies shop in Aberlour, we caught the bus, next stop: the Speyside Cooperage. It was a very cool experience, and very different from a distillery. To be honest, the guide did not say much (a bit shy?), but was available to reply any questions. However, as whisky novices we didn’t have that many. The walk in the production area was very interesting: we could admire the toasting process and the coopers doing their magic rebuilding the casks.

The sky is blue above the Speyside Cooperage.

Finally, the last stop for the day: the Glenfiddich distillery. This is a massive operation with a capacity of over 22 million litres of alcohol per year. The tour started with an introduction video. After that, we parted from another quite large group of people, as only the two of us went for the in-depth tour. It was the first time we visited a distillery of that size: the two huge lines of stills striked us!

So many stills at Glenfiddich!

At the end of the tour and after a wee look at the bottling line, we were ready for thetasting. We had the 12y, the 15y, the Project XX (the best of the bunch, in our opinion), the Fire and Cane, the 18y and finally the 21y rum finish. When we visited the warehouses we could try a tiny sip of the 15y cask strength form one of their huge solera-style vatting tubs – very tasty but pricey (at the time 120 quids at the visitor centre).

Our day ended with a nice dinner at A Taste of Speyside restaurant (now unfortunately closed), and another dram, only one this time (the Aberlour A’Bunadh) at the Seven Stills. What an intense day!


Distillery (tours) links

https://www.glenmoray.com/our-distillery
https://www.benriachdistillery.com/en-gb/distillery-tours/
https://www.maltwhiskydistilleries.com/aberlour/
https://www.glenfiddich.com/en-gb/distillery

Speyside cooperage
https://www.speysidecooperage.co.uk/tours.php

(Because this trip happened almost 3 years ago, we are not compiling the distillery visit evaluation box.)


#16 A Canadian single malt with a Scottish soul

Visiting Glenora Distillery

 

TL;DR: Gianluigi went on a work trip to Nova Scotia, Canada, and sneaked in a visit to the first single malt distillery in North America: Glenora! Although a bit expensive (compared to Scotland prices) the visit was definitely worth it and the whisky had its own very fruity character. If you find yourself in the area, it’s strongly suggested. 

(This post is written in first person by Gianluigi, since he was the only one on this trip)

In the academic world, one of the last things to come back after Covid were in-person international conferences, of course. Hundreds of researchers coming from all over the world and staying together in closed spaces for a week, what could go wrong?!? In my field of study, infectious diseases epidemiology, people have been particular cautious…guess why. So after 2020 and 2021 without meetings, in August 2022 I finally went to my first in-person conference in Halifax, a quite touristy city in Nova Scotia, on the Atlantic coast of Canada.

Once flight and accommodation were booked, I looked for activities to do in the couple of days before the conference. And what I really mean, is “whisky activities”, or even better “whisky distilleries to visit”. I found out that Nova Scotia has some relative recent ones (Caldera, Authentic Seacoast, among others), but the one that grabbed my attention was Glenora Distillery, located in Cape Breton Island, the north of Nova Scotia province. The mighty David taking down the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) Goliath.

Slowly getting there…

For those who don’t know the story: Glenora Distillery was founded by Bruce Jardine, a local entrepreneur, and it was the first North-American single malt distillery, during a time when distilleries in Scotland were still shutting down following the whisky loch. He decided to go back to his Scottish roots, and start producing the most iconic Scottish product in a province literally called “New Scotland”. He moved for over a year in Scotland to learn the nitty and gritty about distilling, in particular at Bowmore, and after coming back to Nova Scotia he acquired the land and built the distillery. After an unfortunate start which saw the distillery change owner twice, in 2000 they released their first single malt (an 8-year old), the Glen Breton Rare. Proudly advertising it as the “only/first single malt in Canada/North America” didn’t prevent the SWA to sue them over the use of the world “Glen”. But well, they are literally located in a “glen”, and the village is called Glenville. After 9 years of trials and appeals, they had the last word and could keep the “Glen”.

Almost there…

So, you could understand my excitement to visit them! However, the visit almost didn’t happen, because of the shortage of cars for rental in the whole region. That meant zero cars available at the airport, despite looking 4 months ahead. After bothering a number of people through emails (taxi/shuttle companies, Nova Scotia tourist service, hotels, etc.), I was about to give up the trip, but then I decided to try Turo. This is a company that hires private car, like Goboony does for campervan, but they aren’t a scam like the latter. So, I booked a car, not cheap but what the hell, when will I be in the area again?

Unfortunately, another challenge was behind the corner: the disastrous situation of Toronto International airport, where I had my layover, which I learned a mere 10 days before the trip. And in fact, my first flight was almost 2 hours late, but the second was 75 minutes late as well, so I didn’t lose the coincidence. This meant to change the time of the rented car pick up though, and when I called the owner to ask him to come later, he blathered some excuse and said he wasn’t allowed to hire cars anymore. I called Turo, which very professionally (unlike Goboony, sorry if I stress this but they are really terrible) provided me a different car and covered most of the price difference. So, finally, at 9.20pm local time, I was on a car directed to a B&B not too far from the airport.

Finally there!

Because of the jet lag, I woke up quite early, and after a good breakfast I was already on my way to Cape Breton Island. I arrived at the site around 2.30pm, ready to check in for the night: I didn’t tell you already, but at Glenora they have a hotel on site and a lodge just up the road, where I stayed. They also run a pub and a fine dining restaurant on site, so I was all sorted. The distillery offers two tours, the regular (CAD 7.00 + taxes, one dram) and the VIP, which I signed up for.

The tour started at 3pm, and it was conducted by Donnie, the manager of the hospitality side of the business. He is a huge malt whisky fan, so the tour was extremely entertaining and all the information really in depth. We started outside the shop building near the stream where they source their water from (first time I am bothered by bugs during a distillery tour).

The source wee stream.

The shop is topped by a pagoda roof, but it is just for aesthetic purposes and was never meant to be a kiln. In fact they source their malted barley from Sasquetwchan, but until the early 2000s they were buying it inScotland (some peated as well). My visit happened in their silent season, which goes from the late spring to the Fall, and during which they mostly run the hospitality side. For this reason their production is currently about 50,000 mlpa, although Donnie later told me that they could easily crank it up. All their equipment came from Scotland, including the two Forsyths stills. Differently to many distilleries, the wash and spirit still are of the same size, approximately 5,600 litres. A particular difference is that they fill their barrels with 70% newmake spirit, unlike the greatest majority of distilleries we visited which fill at the standard 63.5%.

Scottish equipment on Canadian soil.
The still I’m hiding looks the same as the other one, I promise!

We moved to the dunnage warehouse, one of their three, and for the first time the air was warm and humid instead of cold and humid: what a difference! Donnie explained us their maturation process: they source the barrels from Kentucky (we could see many Buffalo Trace’s ones) and they rarely mature for less than 10 years. Apparently they don’t re-use them, so all their barrels are first fill ex-bourbon. They had used sherry and other casks in the past, but for very specific releases. We tried one sample from the cask of a 26y/o, which was very creamy and quite fruity, in particular after adding water (collected from the stream!): after 26 years it was still 64%! Donnie said their angels’ share (the % lost to evaporation) is still 2%, similar to Scotland, although with huge seasonal variation. They bottle everything on site, without adding artificial colouring nor chill filtering.

The dunnage warehouse.

We moved the tasting room, near the restaurant, where 5 drams were ready in front of us: we started with the newmake spirit (at 70%!), which after the 64% in the warehouse wasn’t too hard to drink, followed by the Battle of the Glen, a very sweet and balanced 15y (43%) celebrative of the victory of the trial vs. the SWA. We moved on to the 12y Ice (43%), finished for a short time (average 3 months) in ice wine casks. I was totally unaware about ice wine before this tasting: it is wine made with grapes harvested in February, and the frozen water allows the sugar to be retained to make a very sweet dessert wine (I bought a 5cl at the airport, I’m very curious to try it!). They also have 10y and 15y cask strength versions of the Ice in 25cl bottles (the latter available at the Halifax Airport). The final two drams were distillery casks: a peated 18y old, still made with Scottish barley, and an unpeated 12y, both cask strength. These two were the standout of the line-up, in particular the peated one.

Happy kid with the tasting.

As I was by myself, Donnie joined me over dinner for a nice chat, where I bought another couple of their drams (they were selling by the half-ounce, 15 ml): their main expression (the Glen Breton Rare 10y, 43%), and the 14y, which was truly delicious (still 43%). Not too late, we called it a day and a driver took me to the lodge.

I was very satisfied with the visit to Glenora, it was a very different experience to our usual trips around Scotland. Being a very touristy area, and isolated from other whisky distilleries, I could see how this makes them more of a tourist attraction, almost a “boutique distillery”, if you want. I could fully appreciate how good their single malt can be though, starting from one of the best newmake spirits I tried so far. The hot/cold maturation process definitely influences the whisky compared to most Scottish malts, but probably other factors are important too, like filling the barrels at 70%. I am really having a hard time comparing their prices with other tours or other whiskies, as during the whole time I spent in Nova Scotia, I felt that the cost of living is just much higher. Nonetheless, if you are travelling to the area or nearby, as I did, it is a must-do experience for any whisky lover.

Until next time, slainte!


Glenora VIP Tour and Tasting

Price: CAD 125.00 pp + taxes (total CAD 143.75, August 2022)

Duration: 2-3 hours

Tasting: in the warehouse, sample from the cask (26y, ex-bourbon barrel); in the tasting room, new make spirit (70%), the Battle of the Glen (15y, 43%, *NC, NCF), ICE 12y (43%, NC, NCF), Barrel #67 2010 (12y, 59%, NC, NCF), Barrel #132 2004 (12y, 59.0%, NC, NCF)

Target: whisky lovers and geeks

Value for money: Good+

Highlights: everything

Distillery Exclusive: Barrel #67 2010, Barrel #132 2004 (see above, CAD 125/375 for 25/75cl), Barrel #129 1995 (27y, 65.4%, NC, NCF, CAD 250/750 for 25/75cl)

Link: https://www.glenoradistillery.com/

*NC: not artificially coloured, NCF: non chill-filtered
+at the time of the visit 1 GBP = 1.55 CAD. If compared to Scottish distilleries tours it was pricey, but after a few days in Nova Scotia and on Cape Breton Island I think that it reflects the high prices in the province.