#26 Winterfest or Dramfest?

A day out at Deanston


TL;DR: In early December 2022, we spent a day at Deanston distillery for their Winterfest. Many drams were sipped throughout lots of fun whisky activities. Definitely a day to remember, and hopefully to repeat next year! 

The first weekend of December, right after Gianluigi’s birthday and to celebrate the passing of huge deadlines for both, we were looking for some whisky activity. At first, we thought about going to the West Highlands, Ardnamurchan or Mull, but then we decided to postpone this trip: we would have had to rent a car, book accommodations…We wanted something simpler. However, having visited most of the distilleries in the area, it wasn’t easy to pick something new. But well, who said that it had to be new? The solution was there all along: Deanston, Warehouse 4 tasting. We figured the casks would have definitely been different from the ones we had sampled from in May 2021. When we checked out their website though, there was no availability for the day. Unlikely, a bit strange, but oh well. It’s after some snooping on their website that we found out that something different was going on: the Winterfest! Tickets were £50 pp, for a tour and some tastings, plus a snack and a meal. Couldn’t believe it, so off we went!

Third time, lucky again.

So, there we were, on a cold Saturday morning, jumping on train at Waverley (train we almost missed, thanks for the n-th time to Lothian Buses), direction Stirling, similar to our January 2020 trip. And if here you are asking: “wait, January 2020, May 2021…is it the third time you visit Deanston?”, the answer is yes, and probably won’t be the last. Anyway, we had some time to kill before the bus to Doune, so we had a quick pie and a coffee. The bus was on time and in about 20 minutes it brought us to Deanston (on the bus we bumped into Rachel from The Grail Tastings, which we’d seen only on screen before!).

When we arrived, the shop and café were already full of people ready to start the day at the distillery, some were from the Friends of Deanston Facebook group, others from the East Linton Whisky Society. We checked in (to find out that our badge names were Teresa…and Teresa 2, ahah) and joined one of the three groups. Ours headed off to the production plant, where we did an in-depth visit, including the water turbine.

The open mashtun.

This time we paid more attention to the open mashtun and to one interesting characteristic: there is only one receiver where low wines, foreshots, and feints mix together. For the non-geeks: the low wines are the result of the first distillation (usually around 20%abv) in the wash still. The second distillation, in the spirit still, is what produces the new make spirit, which will be put into cask and matured. However, not all the product is kept, only the middle part (or “heart”). At Deanston, it is taken between the abv of 75% and 67% (the “cuts” or “cut points”). The foreshot (or “head”) is the first part of the distillation which contains a lot of methanol so no good for drinking, while the feints (or “tail”) are the end of the second distillation, too low in abv and containing some undesirable compounds. These two don’t go to waste, they are distilled again. At Deanston, they mix it with the next batch of low wines, and the receiver tank never goes empty: according to their master distiller, this is the reason why the spirit is so waxy. Very fascinating.

A beautiful warehouse.

When the tour finished, the guide took us back to the café, where breakfast was served: coffee (or tea) and a yummy morning roll. After this half-hour break, we started the second activity of the day, a warehouse tasting…nope, not the usual Warehouse 4, but Warehouse 2. Here, they gave us a tote bag with plenty of gifts (funnels, glasses, etc.) and we started the tasting. Unlike the Warehouse 4, the Warehouse 2 tasting consisted of three bourbon-matured drams of Deanston directly from the cask: one young-ish (5y old, can’t remember the abv), one a bit older (12y, 57.2%), and finally a 21y (54.3%). The aim was to understand how the cask affects the whisky, which was a great purpose, very educational (similar to what we did at Lagavulin). The 12y old sample probably came from a very active cask, as it was much darker than expected, darker than the 21y as a matter of fact, but all three were delicious.

Bourbon bombs in Warehouse 2.

After a short break, we went to Warehouse 4, for yet another tasting: this time the drams were four, and they were all matured or finished in sherry or other casks. We started with a 10y finished in an ex-Lepanto brandy cask (59%), followed by a vintage 2004 in an ex-amontillado butt (58.7%) and an organic distilled in 2001 and matured in an ex-fino hogshead (55.3%). We finished with a sublime 29y (vintage 1993) which spent 11y in an ex-bourbon cask and 18y in an ex-port wine cask (47.5%).

Los tres amigos.

They were all delicious, and very happy to have tried them (unfortunately, once back to the visitor centre, we noted a steep increase in single cask bottling prices since our 2021 visit…probably a bit more than what would be caused by inflation alone). The variety of the drams we tried was huge, and we could see how Deanston’s spirit can deliver in ex-bourbon casks, and how it holds up in stronger casks, like port or sherry: a chameleon of a spirit, and we’re very happy to confirm so after these tastings.

Valinch ready to go in Warehouse 4.

Then, the three groups got together, and we headed to a big tent outside (someone joked: “like the Dothraki in Game of Thrones”) where we enjoyed a full meal, including a delicious soup, coffee, etc. Once finished, we were asked to wait a few minutes to clean the tables and prepare the final tasting (yes, another one!). This time, the tasting was hosted by the Master Distiller Brendan McCarron, who’s always very funny and insightful to listen to. We tried four cask-strength drams (this time 10ml only, fortunately for our livers). We started with the (at the time) newly released Deanston Virgin Oak cask strength (57.5%), a celebration for the 10th anniversary of the visitor centre. It was followed by an Organic 2000 vintage (50.9%), a 2009 Bunnahabhain Coterie (Winter 2022), finished in Amarone casks (59.7%), and by a peated dram, a Ledaig Ink Doublewood (Winter 2022, 53.8%).

Listening carefully to the Master.

We left the distillery soon after the tasting (thanks Ronnie for the lift back to Edinburgh!), not that tired, but definitely happy. What a day, probably one of our best whisky-days so far. Deanston is one of those distilleries that we didn’t fully appreciate at the beginning, it was not immediate “love” like Tobermory/Ledaig or Glen Scotia. However, over time it grew on us, so much to become one of our favourites.

Until next time, slainte!

Deanston Winterfest

Price: £50 (December 2022, inclusive of tour, three tastings, breakfast, and lunch)

Duration: All day

Tasting: SO MANY DRAMS (see above)

Value for money: Very, very good

Highlights: Great atmosphere, great whisky, very friendly staff

Recommended: Absolutely

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

#22 Goodbye 2022, see you soon 2023

A very dramming year


TL;DR: As usual this period gives us a chance to reflect on the year about to end. It has been an intense one for us, particularly the second half. Whisky-wise, we had some very fantastic experiences, some disappointing, and a few average ones. While we are looking forward to “dramming around” in 2023, here our 2022 highlights.  

Aaaand…It’s December, and we are finally on holidays. By the time you will be reading this, another Christmas will have just passed, we hope you had a great day of celebrations with your loved ones, and that you are now bloated and relaxing on Boxing Day (or St. Stephen, as it is known in Italy).

Because of our jobs, we both arrived at the end of the year very tired. However, it was also a year full of fantastic whisky experiences, that we hope to repeat next year. In 2022, we visited 19 (Gianluigi) and 20 (Teresa) new distilleries (17 in Scotland and one in England together, Gianluigi visited one in Canada, Teresa one in Ireland and one in England). We also had the chance to revisit some good old acquaintances, like GlenAllachie and Deanston (amongst our favourites). We were able to go to Orkney (hurray!) to catch up with both Scapa (aye!) and Highland Park (nay!).

Sheep grazing with Scapa in the back.

And, finally (FINALLY), we visited Islay for the first time, after our March 2020 trip was cancelled by you-know-what. What a crazy holiday that one, our rented campervan broke down on day 1, half-hour away from the ferry terminal. Although we had to get last-minute accommodations and move around by taxi, we managed anyway! And what a visit, we have to say that whisky tourism on Islay is something really different. Take the Laphroaig tour for example, the token system to pick the drams for your tasting at the end makes it much more flexible than most of the other tours, so that can be enjoyed by both novices and experts. Moreover, Bunnahabhain (best warehouse tasting ever…just the bottling prices a bit too steep), Lagavulin, and Kilchoman rewarded us travelling there by including no-core range drams, all limited ones, which made the experience truly special. We wished other distilleries on far-away islands would do the same… We can’t wait to go back to Islay, to catch up with the other distilleries, and revisit some.

Moments before the best warehouse tasting ever.

Other than Islay we had some incredible whisky experiences, like the Deanston Winter Fest (coming up soon in the blog), or the GlenAllachie tour during the “Speycation” (coming up soon too).

Deanston WinterFest: that’s happiness after three tastings.

This word was brilliantly created by our friend Cath, and greatly implemented by  Justine (Kask Whisky): over the weekend we visited 5 distilleries (+ 1 being built) and did a few tastings, including one in the now closed Coleburn distillery, and one in the Strathisla’s warehouse. A couple of weeks earlier, we were again in Speyside for the Dramathon, and of course we visited (or revisited) a few distilleries: Glenfarclas (new visit), Glen Grant and Glen Garioch on the way back (both revisits).

The direct-fired Glen Garioch spirit still.

Some of the tours we did were OK, a bit standard but nothing to complain about: we’d say that usually you get what you pay for. Disappointments came from distillery-exclusive bottling prices. In some cases, instead of rewarding you for visiting the distillery (and already paying for a tasting or a tour), they put a 20-30 quid premium on those. Not nice. The only distillery experience that was really a disappointment and we regret paying for was Highland Park. Despite avoiding the basic tour (£30, already not cheap) we opted for the improved one (£75, the most expensive tour we did so far) to be denied any dram of distillery exclusives or other limited bottlings, and just taste the core range which we could have done in Edinburgh anytime. An expensive tourist trap, we won’t go back there (sorry James, you were a superstar guide though!).

A nice but waaaaay to pricey Blair Athol (£120!!!).

With the Covid19 restrictions behind our back, we could attend our very first whisky festivals, the Fife whisky festival in March and the Whisky Fringe in August – we had a lot of fun, let’s see if it’ll be the same with bigger events.

Enjoying a break between the two Fife Whisky Festival sessions.

In-person tastings came back too. We did a few organised by our friend Justine, of course, as well as others by Mark, Murray (both at Kilderkin) and Colin at Tipsy Midgie. We had some cracking drams, including a 20y Dutch single malt from Zuidam, a fantastic Doorly’s rum (from Foursquare distillery) and some cracking Daftmill-s and Bruichladdich-s. Also, SMWS events came back, including our favourites: Outturns and Distillery Visits (an event where you can taste whiskies brought by a distillery representative together with some provided by the SMWS). This year we did the Glen Moray distillery visit with Iain Allan connected remotely and the Distell one (Deanston/Tobermory) with the very funny Brendan McCarron: both cracking events with awesome whiskies! Gianluigi also decided to become an Aqvavite Youtube Channel Patreon: Roy’s content and entertainment are really priceless, and this was long overdue. We also attended a very funny blind tasting in Glasgow where we finally met all those whisky folks we’d only seen on screen until then.

Awesome Aquavitae event in Glasgow!!!

By writing this up, we realised 2022 was intense not only because of work, but because of whisky too! We hope to bag more distilleries in 2023, although we’ll probably try to be more selective when picking tours and experiences. We are also starting to organise whisky tastings: the first will be towards the end February and will be Port-cask related (we got the idea during our fantastic trip in Portugal…tickets here), but the following ones will involve bottles we picked up in our travels, not necessarily at distilleries, eheh…Stay tuned! Overall, it’s still a very long way to become whisky geeks, but we’ve learned a lot this year and we hope to continue the trend!

Not just whisky for us…coming to a tasting soon!

Happy holidays and see you next year! Slainte!

#10.4 Whisky in Edinburgh and beyond

Lost and found distilleries in the Lowlands


A Sunday trip with Justine around the Lowlands looking for lost distilleries (this time, requiring a car and a very knowledgeable friend!) 

(Missed the other trips in and around Edinburgh? Here they are: One/Two/Three)

There was a time when the Lowlands had less than a handful of single malt distilleries left, mainly Auchentoshan, in Glasgow, and Glenkinchie, near Edinburgh. Until it was purchased by Richard Prior in 2015, Bladnoch had a very tormented history, with many stop-and-go. Other very popular distilleries closed during the whisky loch, such as Rosebank (closed in 1993), Littlemill (1992), Inverleven (1991), and St. Magdalene (1983). While the first is in the process of being rebuilt, the other ones are gone forever.

Many grain distilleries experienced a very similar fate. During the whisky loch and in later years Caledonian (closed in 1988), Cambus (1993, now Diageo’s cooperage), Dumbarton (2002), and Port Dundas (2011) closed down, while the production got progressively concentrated in the few remaining, like Cameronbridge (Fife), North British (Edinburgh), Strathclyde (Glasgow), Starlaw (Livingston), and Girvan (Ayrshire).

Scottish whisky went through several ups and downs in its history, and already during the 19th century saw massive plants closing down. One of these was the Kennetpans distillery, near Alloa.

Hidden sign of a hidden story.

This distillery was funded by the Steins family in the first half of the 1700s, and was followed a few decades later by the Kilbagie distillery. The two plants were massive for the time. They were connected by a canal and a railway, and were the first exporting bulk spirit outside of Scotland. The family was related through marriage to the Haig, of Cameronbridge, and the Jamesons, of the famous Irish whiskey. Following an increase in duties on spirit in the late 1780s and after a bribe attempt, John Stein and his family fell in disgrace, and the Kennetpans distillery was sequestered, sold, and finally closed in 1825, probably made obsolete by the invention of the Coffey column still. For you history buffs, there is a great website dedicated to Kennetpans (see here or below).

We were totally unaware of this “ancient” history, until a Sunday in September 2021 when our friend Justine (Kask Whisky) proposed to go there. Had already done our weekend run, we happily joined her! The site is a few km from the village, kind of in the middle of nowhere. We left the car a few hundred meters away, and we slowly explored what is left of the building. It was not possible to get very close because of safety fences, and the thick vegetation partially covered the building. However, it was possible to get a sense of the size of the plant, which at the time must have been massive indeed! As it was still early afternoon, and having being lucky with a very sunny and warm day, we decided to stay a bit in the area and take our exploration further.

Lost distilleries, theory and practice.

The trend of distilleries shutting down slowed down in the late 1990s and it was actually reverted in the 2000s, in particular for single malt distilleries. In 2007 the gigantic Ailsa Bay distillery was commissioned and built in just 9 months (12 millions of alcohol liters per annum produced). This is owned by Grant & Sons and is on the same site as the Girvan grain distillery. Almost a decade later, it was followed by a plethora of new distilleries, opening all over the place south of the Highland line. We already talked about a few of those, such as Holyrood (Edinburgh, 2019), and the Borders (Hawick, 2017). Another one, the Falkirk distillery, had been in plans for almost a decade, and in 2020 finally started producing spirit. We drove there, and we were able to take a few pictures from the gate. We found the building quite beautiful, with the few remaining works mostly limited to the parking lot. We are definitely looking forward to visit it!

Open soon to visitors, please!

Not far from there, another distillery that will be firing its stills soon is the missed Rosebank, still in Falkirk. Ian McLeod (already owners of Glengoyne and Tamdhu) purchased the trade mark back in 2017 together with some old stocks, and the construction is happening as we write. On that day we could just see the skeleton of the building, which didn’t look much like a distillery yet. Now works are well ahead, as you can see from their social media accounts.

Rosebank or…when whisky makes building sites interesting.

Fourth and last stop of the day was the old St. Magdalene distillery, in Linlithgow. It closed down in 1983 and, similarly to Caledonia and Dean distilleries in Edinburgh, was made into flats a decade later. However, the structure of the building, including the pagoda roof and the warehouse, is still admirable from the street. Being in Linlithgow, we decided to stop at Du Vin Bouchers, a very nice wine and whisky bar, for cheese and drams. The bar is very cosy, and the choice of whiskies is excellent, in particular from the Dram Fool independent bottler range. They also host Jolly Toper tastings. As the day was getting to an end, Justine slowly drove us back to Leith, ending this day full of whisky history!

A bunch of flats that used to be St. Magdalene distillery.

Thinking about all this whisky history, made of ups and downs, and of spirit first flowing, then stopping, and now flowing again, many questions popped in our heads. One is, how many of these new distilleries would survive a potential whisky loch? How many distilleries are too many? And, once maturity is reached, will these spirits be different enough for each to find their ecological niche in the whisky landscape? These questions are just food for thoughts right now, and they are not definitely ours to answer. At the moment we feel extremely lucky to witness a new golden era of whisky, and being spoiled for choice! Long live the Lowlands malt, slainte!






#10.3 Whisky in Edinburgh and beyond


Dramming in
Glasgow and Fife

Another couple of distillery trips right outside Edinburgh: Clydeside and Kingsbarn

(missed Part 2 or Part 1?)

Being in a new golden era of whisky, recent years saw a plethora of new single malt distilleries being built around Scotland and the rest of the world. A few new ones are in the Lowlands. Here, distilleries opened really all over the place: in Fife (remember our trip to Lindores Abbey?), in Edinburgh (someone said Holyrood?), in the south of Scotland (ehm-ehm, Borders), and in Glasgow. One of the most recent here, is the Clydeside distillery, which opened in 2017 and started producing new make spirit in 2018. We visited it back in November 2019, at a time we were getting more and more involved into whisky. We spotted an event in the SMWS website which included the distillery tour plus tasting and bites. What else could we ask?

Coincidentally, a couple of friends of ours were visiting, so we gladly involved them in the visit (we’re still unsure whether they really wanted to get involved, but they didn’t say “no”). Being a time when people used to go every day to the office, Teresa was already in Glasgow, and the three of us reached her in the late afternoon. At the time the distillery was not quite easy to reach by public transport from the city centre, so we grabbed an Uber. The distillery building is beautiful, a mix of modern and industrial architecture, right on the side of the Clyde river (well, the distillery name kind of gave it away, I guess…). There is a whisky shop inside the visitor centre, with a wide selection of whiskies.

The tour was very nice, we had to translate it in Italian for our friends, so we ended up not taking any pictures (and tbh, at the time the blog idea was not there yet…), but we enjoyed it nonetheless. We were very happy to try the newmake spirit at the end of it. Being a SMWS one, the rest of the tasting was quite great as well, and there we could try a single grain whisky distilled a couple of days Gianluigi was born! The bites were a bit underwhelming, so to calm our hungry stomachs we had to get a (very typical late night in Glasgow) kebab when we were back in the city centre, before our train back to Edinburgh. At the time they didn’t have any official release yet, but now that they have, we are waiting for the right occasion to go back to Glasgow and try something tasty!

Arriving at Kingsbarns!

Among the most prolific areas for new distilleries, Fife could almost be a region on its own now. We recently visited Lindores Abbey, but among the new distilleries we can count for Aberargie, Daftmill, Eden Mill, Inchdairnie, and Kingsbarns. We visited the latter in March 2020, right before the pandemic. The event was organized by the Fife Whisky Festival, and consisted in the projection of the Amber Light documentary, featuring Dave Broom, and the tour of the distillery. To attend this event Gianluigi had to turn down a free ticket offer for a Scotland rugby game at Murrayfield, where it was playing against France. His epidemiologist instinct suggested avoiding big crowds, since Covid was already spreading across Italy and, in his mind, it was just a matter of time for it to get to Scotland.

Reaching the distillery in a combination of train and buses turned out not being the cheapest, we ended up spending more money than what a rented car would have costed at the time. However, it paid off as the distillery is situated in a very beautiful spot of the Fife coast, nearby the sea and meters away from golf courses. The projection of the movie was not the best, due to the initial technical problems and a very low audio volume.

A very focused Teresa!

The distillery was built in 2014 on an abandoned farm originally from the 1800s, of which they retained the main structure (including the pigeon house and, as many newly built distilleries, they have a café, where you can have food and tasty cakes. The very enthusiastic tour guide walked us through the production stages, and tested our ability to recognize flavours and aromas in a dedicated area. We understood that the intention was to release single malt at a young age, therefore commonly to others they use lots of shaved, toasted and recharred (STR) casks. They started making newmake spirit in 2015 (the first cask is exposed in the visitor centre), which we could taste at the end of the tour, together with a first core range expression, Dream to Dram (46%, ex bourbon and STR casks), and the Family Reserve: a similar expression but bottled at cask strength. The distillery is owned by the Wemyss Family, which is an independent bottler as well, so we were also offered a Velvet Fig 25y/o malt from their range. We particularly liked the Family Reserve expression, however at the time we had a 10-day trip to Islay scheduled for the end of the month, so we didn’t buy it and we got a couple of Wemyss blended malts miniatures instead…fortunately we could find that bottle months later, since that trip to Islay never happened.

Shiny happy mashtun holding mash!

In spite of the young age, the drams we had were both very tasty. We recently attended a Kingsbarns vertical tasting at the Tipsy Midgie, in Edinburgh, which confirmed how promising their whisky is, when matured in a range of casks as well. Overall, getting to know these new distilleries is very exciting: all of them can offer a unique take on single malt, and unlike many of their older brothers, the new and family-owned ones have more freedom to experiment and provide innovation in the category. Being able to reach them (more or less) easily is definitely a big “plus”!

Until the next adveture, stay safe and sláinte!

Whisky Activities Links


#10.2 Whisky in Edinburgh and beyond

Dramming by bus


Other whisky things to do easy to reach from the capital of Scotland. 

(missed Part 1?)

There was a period when we were poorly experienced drammers, and our search for new distilleries to visit was done through the good (although it could be improved) Visit Scotland map or with the map we got from the Scotch Whisky Experience in Edinburgh. The brands we knew better were the ones we could find in grocery stores or the super classics (Oban, Lagavulin, Macallan, etc.), so we didn’t have much clue about many of the distilleries around Scotland. In this context, we started looking out for places to visit in daytrips. One of the first ones we spotted, and quite isolated with respect to others, was in a village called Hawick, the Borders distillery! So, on one sunny morning in November 2019 we decided to head south and go!

The same morning was actually the day of the Rugby World Cup final England – South Africa, so we already woke up early to find a pub showing it in the city and to get breakfast. We ended up at the Black Cat, in Rose St, where we fully enjoyed the game, including that two incredible Springboks tries.

Finished the game, we moved toward the Edinburgh bus station, to find out that our pronunciation of “Hawick” was definitely very wrong. The bus ride was about 2 hours long, including a 10-15 minutes stop in Galashiels to change coach. The landscape with rolling hills and lot of green was not as dramatic as others in the country, but it was beautiful nonetheless. Once in Hawick we went for a short walk to check out the village. It looked like a nice and quiet, nice to visit for a day or maybe two, but not much more. We then went to the distillery, situated in a late 19th century building that used to be an electric company, a great example of recovered industrial architecture. At the time it was very new: renovated in 2016, it started producing new make only in 2018. On the side they produce gin and vodka, and yes, we bought a bottle of the latter at the end of the tour, argh!!!

Nosing around before the tour.

Our guide for the day was David, which looked very invested in the project and gave us a very nice tour, delving into the details of their whisky and other spirits production. It finished with a tasting in a very cozy bar above the visitor centre. The taste included their new make spirit, Kerr gin and Puffing vodka, and one of two scotch whiskies, both sourced: the blended malt Lower East Side and the blended whisky Clan Fraser. Of course, we tasted one each, and although pleasant, we decided to wait for their own single malt. After the distillery we conceded ourselves a coffee and cake in one of the nice little cafes in Hawick, and we took the bus back to Edinburgh, to end a very nice day.

We found ourselves into a similar situation a couple of months later. It’s early January 2020, a friend was visiting us from Italy for a few days…A friend that, being from the north-east of Italy, appreciates spirits and is very curious about whisky. After the a quite lame Hogmanay’s celebration, we decided to take her to visit a scotch whisky distillery…Clearly just out of courtesy, not because we wanted to!

When your friend is busy…

We didn’t have enough time for a big trip, but still enough to go outside Edinburgh, so we figured out that Tullibardine or Deanston would have been good options. We picked the second option, for no special reason other than a better combination of train timetable and timing of the tour.

Quite a unique distillery building!

We woke up quite early to take the train to Stirling, and from there we took a bus that very conveniently left us in front of the distillery. Our friend had never seen a distillery, so we decided to do a standard tour (we caught up with the Warehouse tasting later on).

The building looked quite different from other, more classic distilleries. We understood why at the very start of the tour, when the guide covered the history of the distillery and told us that the building used to be a cotton mill until the mid-60s. Before moving to the production area, we could take a wee look at the turbine that produces power for the distillery from the river Teith.

The open mashtun!
Shiny stills.

The tour was quite informative and interesting, with two highlights: the huuuuge open-top mash tun (we were all impressed!) and a cask in the warehouse signed by the cast of The Angels’ Share movie…because yes, part of the movie was filmed here!

The Angels’ Share troupe was here!

We finally moved to a nice tasting room, where four drams were waiting for us: the classic 12y, the Virgin Oak, the 18y, and the 14y Spanish Oak Finish, all 43.6% except for the latter (57.9%). The drams were paired with delicious chocolate. To be honest, our palates were not that developed at the time to fully appreciate the quality of these whiskies. We definitely do now, and Deanston is one of our great favourites!

The tasting bottles.

After the tasting we browsed the shop (which btw offers a lot of 35ml bottles), but very briefly because it was already time to head back to Edinburgh. We would have hanged out a bit longer, but we’d decided to bring our friend to the SMWS in the evening to put a cherry on the top of her full-on whisky day. She still drinks whisky, so we consider her initiation to the water of life a great success. Stay tuned for another couple of car-free whisky adventures in the next post, meanwhile, as always, Slainte!


#9 A daytrip visit to Pitlochry: Blair Athol

Raindrops keep falling…in my dram


A rainy day trip to yet another Diageo workhorse distillery (and a wee rant about bottles pricing).

Over the last three years, we embraced the dry January tradition. After over a month in Italy, this year felt even more necessary to regenerate our livers for a few weeks…and, as usual, they were the slowest of the year.
For this reason too we were particularly thrilled when we woke up on a rainy Sunday morning in February for our first distillery trip of the year! It was an old acquaintance of us: Blair Athol, in Pitlochry. We had already visited it in July 2019, although only for a tasting in their unique bar (a former copper mashtun IS the bar). Since then, we tried a number of Blair Athol expressions, mostly from the SMWS, and were never disappointed.
When planning the trip we were quite happy to realise that we could do it in a day using public transportation. The return bus ticket was less than £20 each, more environmentally friendly and way cheaper than going by car. Pitlochry is just about 1h and 40 minutes away from Edinburgh, and if it wasn’t for a 15-20 minutes stop in Perth, the bus trip would have matched that duration.
We woke up quite early and walked our way up the Leith Walk to the bus station, only stopping to grab a coffee and a roll at the Snax Cafè (W Register St), just a few minutes away from the station: the only one open at 7.30am on a Sunday (and probably the cheapest in the area). We can’t say the bus ride was exactly smooth, as the table was vibrating so much that we couldn’t leave our coffees on it until we hit the highway. But in a figurative sense, it was a smooth ride indeed. Once in Pitlochry, we had enough time for a second breakfast, espresso and (a very yummy) cake this time, in the very cosy Escape Route Café, while hiding from the rain.

Feeding our minds…and our stomachs.

With an extra half-slice of cake in the stomach, we were definitely ready for the tour! Since we were here in 2019 the tours offer has changed a bit. When we booked there were three experiences available (at the time of writing they added a fourth: Blair Athol Cask and Cocktail experience, for £75): the Signature Tour (£16, “guided distillery experience” with three drams), the Allt Dour Tour (£35) and the Managers Tasting Experience tour (£65). According to their webpage, the latter two included 6 drams, so we inquired about the difference and learned that while the Allt Dour Tour features a mix of Blair Athol and other Diageo’s distilleries’ drams, the Managers Tasting Experience is an exclusively Blair Athol tasting, with two samples from casks and two distillery exclusives. We chose the latter, of course.

Ready? Ready!

Our tour guide was David, whose kindness didn’t betray the fame Canadians have. Commonly to other distillery guides we met, he moved there when about to retire and decided to pick up a part-time job at the distillery. We both agree that it sounds like a very good plan.
As the tour started David told us that the 99.7% of Blair Athol single malt goes into blends, mostly Bell’s. We knew it, but not to that extent. We were also surprised by how the production process is still very manual, in contrast with other Diageo workhorses such as Clynelish, mostly automated.

The still room.

There is no filling room, as the new make spirit is loaded into tankers and put into casks at the main Diageo facilities near Alloa. We moved to one of the few dunnage warehouses they have on site, which keeps casks dating back to the 60s…Awesome smell!

We felt younger in here.

After the tour, we moved to a very small but cosy room accessible from the courtyard, where five drams were waiting for us. The first one was the Blair Athol 12y Flora and Fauna. We discovered that it comes from only first-fill ex-sherry casks and is not artificially coloured (which makes sense, given the former). We wondered why they don’t put it on the label. The second dram was their Distillery Exclusive. The age is not stated, however it is a bit higher in abv (48%) and from “refill, rejuvenated and American oak ex-bourbon casks”. Very buttery and sweet dram, we thought more ex-bourbon casks than sherry ones were in the vatting. The third was a cracking dram: Blair Athol 23y (58.4%, 2017 special release, cracking price as well, unfortunately). Then, we had two samples from the cask, a 2009 vintage from an ex-bourbon barrel and a 1993 vintage from an ex-sherry butt.

Directly from the cask!

While both lovely, the bourbon was truly great, a shame it wasn’t for sale. Finally, David gave us a wee sample of the 11y bottle-your-own expression (56.2%, full maturation in ex-red wine casks)…Maybe it was the 6th dram, although the “we are gifting this” feel of it was not great since it was advertised on the website and in the email.

A quite nice tasting.

As the tour ended, we were conducted to the distillery shop. To be honest it felt a bit rushed, with most of our samples still in the glass…Fortunately we had empties with us.
We returned to the village to look for food, which we found (in good quantities) at the Old Mill Inn: the lamb Sunday roast was particularly tasty! The rain didn’t stop however, so except for a wee walk up to the local church courtyard, we spent the rest of the afternoon in a pub, watching the England rugby team smashing Italy yet again.

Happiness before post-rugby depression.

The bus was perfectly on time and took us back home while we were happily sipping the leftovers from the tasting.

The glasses they gave us at the distillery turned out to be handy.

It was a nice experience to revisit a distillery we had seen in the early days of our whisky journey. The liquid did not disappoint, as well as the staff, nice and welcoming. However, here we need to have a bit of a rant about distillery bottle pricing and offering (***). Blair Athol is the fifth Diageo distillery we visited in the last year, the others being Clynelish, Ord, Lochnagar, and Cardhu. All of them had a Distillery Exclusive (all 48% and non-age statement), priced at £85 or £90. All except Ord, if we recall correctly, had a bottle-your-own expression: single cask, naturally presented, usually around 11-12y, in all cases £120. First, in our opinion, both distillery exclusive and bottle-your-own are overpriced. We are prepared and willing to pay a premium for special expressions and distillery exclusives, and we are also aware of the current prices’ madness. However, it needs to be somehow justified. 120 quids for a 11-12y naturally presented is quite steep, 30 quids above single cask expressions of similar age at other distilleries (Glenallachie or Auchentoshan). Furthermore, how is it possible that all these cask permutations come always at the same price? Talking about the Distillery Exclusive range, these are decently sized batches (6000 bottles), still non-age statement whisky and not cask-strength: how come they cost £85/90? As an example, the Glenlivet bottle-your-own, a small batch as well, came for a much lower price (£55 for the 12y, £70 for the 15y, both cask-strength). We find really hard to explain the logic behind prices, it looks almost like they want to take advantage of whisky enthusiasts, which is not great, in particular considering the very convenient price of the entry level expressions in their core ranges. We can see why new and independent distilleries would push prices a bit, but here we are at decades-old sites backed by a huge multinational company. It is a shame because, in spite of the nice visits we had at these distilleries, this left us a bitter taste, and we probably won’t rush to go back and check out new bottlings.

Blair Athol – The Managers Tasting Experience

Price: £65.00 pp (February 2022)

Tasting: 6 drams, BA 12y (F&F, 43%), BA Distillery Exclusive (see below), BA 23y 2017 special release, BA ex-bourbon cask sample, BA ex-sherry cask sample, BA Bottle your own (see below)

Target: whisky geeks

Value for money: a wee bit pricey

Highlights: the single cask drams

Things we did not like: the sampled drams not for sale, and see rant above (***)

Distillery exclusive: BA bottle-your-own (11y, ex-red wine cask, NC, NCF, 56.1%, £120) and BA Distillery Exclusive (NAS, 48%, £90)

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

NAS: non-age statement, NC: non-coloured, NCF: non-chill filtered

#6 Lindores Abbey Road

Last of 2021 but not least


The last distillery visit of the year was in a very special place: Lindores Abbey! 

And, as quickly as it came, Christmas 2021 was gone, with the usual few pounds added to our waist, giving us a goal for the first months of 2022. We finally came back to Leith, what we now call “home”, and as we arrived, we felt relieved. Staying in Italy for over a month was really nice, but definitely an overkill.
We were eager to come back also because we had planned a visit to a new distillery: Lindores Abbey! The distillery is in Fife, just about an hour away from the city. We could have visited it in other occasions, but because of its wider historical interest, we wanted to wait for someone visiting us to make the trip. Occasion that finally arrived, as Gianluigi’s friends Roberto and Cecilia, with their wee one, were in town to spend New Year’s Eve with us!

Gianluigi and Roberto left early to pick up the car in a small rental place in Tollcross, a bit far from Leith but the only one applying a decent rate for an extra driver – Roberto was eager to try driving on the left side for the first time. After a small breakfast, we were on the road! The ride was smooth in a nicer weather than forecasted, Roberto had no problem adjusting to the different side of the road. After we left the Forth Road bridge and the M90 and right before driving into the village of Newburgh we spotted another distillery on our left: Aberargie. This is a new one as well, owned by Morrison Distillers (Carn Mor series, Old Perth, Strathern distillery) – from the road the building looked very nice, and we could even see the stills.

Warm-up pictures before the distillery visit.

We arrived at Lindores Abbey a few minutes later. The distillery is in a very nice setting, surrounded by hills and looking towards the water. We will learn that the barley used by them comes from the surrounding fields. The distillery was carefully designed in 2015, while production started in 2017, with their first single malt released just a few months back, in 2021.

We checked in, and after a wee while the tour started. First stop, the “table room”, just in front of the visitor centre hall, with (as you might have guessed) a huge table in the middle. Here, our guide Matt delved into the history of the site, starting from the Abbey, built in the 12th century and one of the centres of religious (but not only) power in the Middle-Ages Scotland, which was also visited by a number of kings and queens. Destroyed during the reformations, a farm was then built on the site. The history is made very interesting by a draw of the abbey reconstruction, and an actual wall of the original building wall still standing a few metres outside the window. And the old spirit line, dividing Lowlands and Highlands, was even closer.

Lindores Abbey now…
…And then.

We moved to production, first into the milling room, where, of course, they could not possibly have a Porteus mill as most older distilleries, because Porteus were making such fine machines that they went bankrupt during one of the few whisky downturns. Similarly to few other distilleries (Tullibardine being one), mashtun, washbacks and stills are in the same space.

What a shiny mashtun!

Here, there is also a remember of Dr. Jim Swan, the whisky guru who helped Lindores Abbey (among many other distillery) set up and passed away prematurely just days before their first spirit was produced. Back to the stills, there are one wash still and two spirit stills – a peculiarity is that the latter two work in parallel, not in sequence, so the spirit is distilled twice, first in the wash still, then half in one spirit still, and half in the other one.

Distilling lesson nr. 1 for the wee one.

The stills are very close to a huge window on the old abbey remains, but on the other side is also possible to spot the site where, a few years back, it was found a small crater which seems to confirm that distilling was actually happening in the Middle Ages, well before 1494, date of the king’s aqua vitae order to Brother John Cor. Unfortunately, the dig area was covered with a big plastic tarp for conservation reasons, and Matt told us that samples are being dated. This was quite exciting news, as the results could change the history of distilling in Scotland!
We moved to the warehouse, where many different casks were displayed on the metal racks: ex-bourbon barrels, ex-port pipes, hogsheads, quarters, octaves, and so on. Thanks to the Grattamacco visit, we could more easily spot (what we thought were) the ex-french red wine casks. Clearly, a lot of experimentation is going on here!

Uh uh, these are taller than me!

Finally, the tasting! First dram, their main single malt, the MCDXCIV (or 1494), slightly over 3 years of age, non-coloured and non-chill filtered, made up with 3 different types of cask: ex-bourbon, ex-sherry, and STR (shaved toasted and re-charred, one of the many legacies of Jim Swan in the whisky industry). Second dram, the aqua vitae, a similar recipe to the one Friar John Cor used, but without some ingredients to avoid losing the “spirit” nomenclature. The smell and taste reminded us a hybrid between a grappa and an amaro – not our cup of tea honestly, but it might be very good in a cocktail.

The tasting.

After the tour we decided to have a snack at the distillery’s cafeteria, ordering a charcuterie board to share and thinking: “we will have something later”…however the plate was so abundant (and delicious) that no other meal was needed until dinner! Definitely recommended!

Back in the car, direction St. Andrews, as our friends had never been. The village was very quiet with that typical atmosphere of the days before a party. We did a long stroll between the university buildings, the cathedral and castle ruins, and our favourite part, the pier and the beach. As it became dark, we got back to the car and slowly drove back to Leith.

It’s getting dark in St. Andrews…

This was our last distillery visit of 2021. The year started with lot of uncertainty, but in spite of that we somehow managed to do some great whisky trips and visit quite a few distilleries all over Scotland. Still, there is a quite big gap in the whisky trips: Islay! Maybe 2022 will be the one….?

For now, sláinte, and see you soon!

Lindores Abbey Tour & Tasting

Price: £15.00 pp (December 2021)

Tasting: 2 drams, the MCDXCIV single malt (46%, NAS, NC, NCF*) and the aqua vitae (40%)

Target: casual tourists and whisky enthusiasts

Value for money: good

Highlights: the history of the site

Distillery exclusive expression: cask strength ex-sherry cask #18/95 (61.4%, NAS, NC, NCF)

Link: https://lindoresabbeydistillery.com/

*NAS: non-age statement, NC: non-coloured, NCF: non-chill filtered

#4 Tales from a Tuscan detour

Wine not?


For the first time we visited a winery in the Bolgheri area in Tuscany…with a Scottish connection!

Because of you know what, we haven’t visited our families for over a year, skipping the Italian Christmas for the very first time in 2020. Almost unforgivable!

This year, we made up by staying over a month between Piacenza (in the Emilia-Romagna region) and Florence. Both areas are famous (well, one more than the other…) for great food (of course, the lesser famous is the one with better food…Teresa might disagree with this statement) and delicious wine. This makes visiting our families even nicer. The only problem is the lack of whisky distilleries, with the next whisky trip planned weeks ahead. Nonetheless, we found a way to keep our palate trained with a different kind of experience.

In scotch whisky, red wine cask finishes are a relatively recent trend. Surfing the web, we realised that for more experienced whisky aficionados this might be still an unusual, and not always welcome, finish/maturation. Instead, for people like us that have been into whisk(e)y for a few years only, this feels pretty normal. Indeed, we were able to connect more easily with many red wine cask finished drams, such as the Arran Amarone cask, the Port Charlotte MRC, the Ledaig Sinclair Rioja finish or the Longrow Red(s). In our experience, French wine casks seem to be the most prevalent, but we are seeing more and more Italian wine casks.

The Bolgheri village gate.

Two drams that recently surprised us came from GlenAllachie: the first was a widely distributed 11y single malt, bottled at 48%; the second was again 11y, but cask strength and only available at the distillery (click here for more about that trip!). Both were finished in red wine casks from the Grattamacco winery, located on the hills in the Bolgheri area (Livorno Province), an officially recognized wine geographical denomination. In recent years (well, recent in “scotch time”) Bolgheri wine has become really popular, with over 60 wineries now active in the area. All of this just to say that one morning we woke up and said: “Why don’t we just try to check that out?” “Wine not?” (wink-wink).
So there we go! We booked a tour, took the car and drove! We left Florence quite early and after a quick stop for gas and to allow Gianluigi a second breakfast with a delicious pistachio custard croissant, we were on our way to discover a new place! The ride was almost two hours but quite smooth, in fact we arrived early. We thought about taking a walk, but after realising how frickin’ cold it was, we just rang the winery’s bell.

Taking pictures of the vineyard while freezing.

Michela, our guide, was already waiting for us. After our vaccination passes’ check, the visit started in the tasting room, which featured an amazing view on the hills and the Tirreno sea. Michela told us the story of the winery, which was founded in the late 70s by a guy from Lombardy, and sold in 2002 to the Colle Massari company. Compared to other wineries in the area, the estate is at a slightly higher altitude (around 2-300m on the sea level), therefore with a slightly different micro-climate.

The fermenting vats of the Grattamacco winery

After the introduction, we moved to the main production building. They harvest several grapes: Cabernet-Sauvignon (which is the main component of their red wines), Cabernet-Franc, Sangiovese, Merlot and Vermentino. Grapes are mechanically soft-pressed and cleaned to get the must, which is fermented in two types of vessel: metal big tanks or wooden 500 litres open vats (which smell great!). Then, we visited the cellar, where the casks are stored, divided by vintage. All casks are from the Taransaud tonnellerie (cooperage) and are of course made of French oak (Quercus robur)…the smell down there was amazing too! We could also take a look at what Michela called “the library”, where all the vintage bottles (starting from the early 80s) are stored. They use the casks up to four times, before selling them to other smaller wineries or to distilleries to make awesome whiskies (like the GlenAllachie). The vinaccia (leftover of the wine production) is sent to a distillery in Veneto region to produce Grattamacco grappa, and they also grow olives to produce olive oil.

The cellar.

And now, the wine tasting. First off, a white wine, made 100% with Vermentino grapes. We were both pleasantly surprised by how good it was (both not huge fans of white wines, but this one…WOW!). Second, the Bolgheri Rosso, made with four grape varieties (Cabernet-Sauvignon, Cabernet-Franc, Sangiovese and Merlot), fermented in the metal tanks, and aged 5-6 months. The third and fourth were the stars of the tasting: l’Alberello, single vineyard (less than 2 hectares, Cabernet-Sauvignon and Cabernet-Franc grapes) and aged for almost 18 months. Finally, the long awaited Grattamacco: fermented in oak vats, aged 18 months, mostly Cabernet-sauvignon (~65%) with an addition of Merlot and Sangiovese, with the percentages varying each year. These two wines were both sublime, and it was really hard to decide which one was the best! Anyway, thanks to this visit we sorted out a number of Christmas gifts.

The tasting!

Before going back to Florence, we had a nice lunch in a nearby restaurant (an “agriristoro”, actually), with delicious local food: wild-boar and beef roast. We slowly drove to the (quite small) Bolgheri village, where we took a walk, had a coffee and another glass of wine for the non-driver (Gianluigi): the mighty Sassicaia (mighty also for the price).

Definitely happy to try something different!

Overall, this was an amazing day and no less fun than the trips we usually do, the ones where we end up saying: “we should do this again asap!”! Being our first winery, we felt like total newbies again, but it was a great educational experience (btw, please correct us if we wrote anything wrong!). We have learned so much about this amazing nectar which has been on our families’ tables since we were kids. And the wine spoke for itself!

Grattamacco Winery Tour and Tasting

Price: 35.00 EUR pp (December 2021)

Tasting: 4 glasses of wine – Grattamacco Vermentino (white), Bolgheri Rosso (red), L’Alberello DOC single vineyard (red), Grattamacco Bolgheri (red)

Target: anyone

Value for money: looked good to us, but we can’t really tell as this was our very first winery tour

Highlights: the view from the tasting room, the tour in the cellar and the wines…pretty much everything!

Things we did not like: nothing

Link: https://www.collemassariwines.it/estates/grattamacco/