As already announced in the report of my last trip to Scotland, we quickly returned for another round of distilleries. As always, going somewhere a second time delivers a mix of familiarity and new influences. We saw places we were before, but learned new things about them. In addition, we saw many new places and I know we still have a lot more to discover, even after this trip. For now, though, here’s a day by day report of our most recent trip around this amazing country.
Day 1: We took a flight to Aberdeen this time, in order to reduce the travel time from where we stayed to the airport. Still, we had a long journey ahead of us because instead of going straight to Dufftown (where we would stay), we bypassed it and went further north towards John o’Groats, where we booked a ferry to take us to the Orkney Islands. On the way there, though, we decided to make a stop in Tain (which was on our route) and take a look at the Glenmorangie distillery.This turned out to be a bit of a disappointment though. The distillery itself was beautiful and very interesting, but the tour was a rehearsed story with no effort at all to teach us something new or interesting about the distillery. Clearly, they do these several times a day and stuff in as many people (30+ in our case) in the tour as possible. A real pity, because I was looking forward to this. No matter, after about an hour of walking along and not taking any pictures (not allowed, as the distillery ‘might explode’) we were back outside and on our way to the ferry. Because we anticipated the tour at Glenmorangie to be more interesting (and therefor longer), we reached the harbor way too early. This meant a long wait in the small and simple, but reasonably comfortable waiting area. Outside it was getting increasingly cold, and when we were finally on the ferry and on our way to Orkney, it wasn’t hard to decide to stay inside the boat and not on the deck. The scenery outside the boat was amazing as we passed many small islands and wildlife. Especially with the sun setting on the horizon, we had a magnificent view on our way to our destination. When we finally arrived in Bella Vista B&B just outside Kirkwall, we were warmly welcomed by Patsy, after which we turned in, greatly anticipating the next day.
Day 2: I considered making a whole page just for this day, because the things we saw, did and experienced on this day can impossibly be put in just one paragraph to do it full justice. Maybe one day I’ll write out everything in full detail, but for now I’ll try and keep it short.
After enjoying a full english breakfast fry up (breakfast for champions), we had a few hours before visiting Highland Park distillery (which was obviously the reason for us going here), so we decided to set off in our car and discover the Island a bit. And what we saw can only be described as magnificent. Our first stop was an attraction called ‘the standing stones of
Stromness’. This was a big grass field with in the middle a few very large lay stones in a circle, with an altar-like stone table outside the circle. These had great significance a long time ago and it’s amazing that it’s still there. Impressed, we continued on further and a little further down the road we reached our next stop. This was another prehistoric site and even more overwhelming than the first one.
It was called ‘the Ring of Brodgar’ and basically it was a similar site as the Standing Stones, except bigger, and simply fantastic to behold. A large ring was formed with, again, straight standing lay stones, most still intact and in good condition. The most amazing thing was that as a visitor, you were allowed to just walk around this site freely. No fences, wires, anything. So we took our time to look around this truly unbelievable place.
After this we continued on the narrow, winding roads of Orkney until we reached the west coast where we had our next stop. Here, we visited the Neolithic site of ‘Skara Brae’. This was a settlement thousands of years ago and unlike the previous two sites, here you could really see that people used to live there. There were houses, formed in a dug out in the dunes, almost like trenches. You could see living rooms, sleeping areas, cooking corners and the likes.
Amazing to see how people already used sections specific for sleeping, living and cooking even thousands and thousands of years ago. A lot of this settlement was still in very good state, which made it all the more impressive. Near the settlement was a large mansion, built for the man who discovered Skara Brae. This suddenly took us into victorian times, which was a strange experience. We felt absolutely overwhelmed when we drove off from here and we were very happy to have seen these fantastic places. After this we still continued on to see more things and ended up seeing st. Magnus church and Earl’s Palace in Birsay. Now it was time to head back to Kirkwall to visit my long dream, Highland Park distillery.
Booking the most expensive tour, this meant we were picked up by coach from our B&B, which then took us to the distillery. There, we were received by our tour guide who then took us around the grounds. It turned out we were the only two people on this tour, so that made for a very personal and informative tour. Highland Park distillery almost look like a small town when you get through the gates, it has a very homely, cosy feel to it. Our guide showed us every nook and cranny of the place and really took her time to tell us all she knew and answering our questions. Unfortunately, we were not allowed into the warehouse, which was a very big minus for me. However, the tasting after the tour made up for that. We were sat down in a beautiful room with old furniture and a long table, on which 7 (!) whiskies were put out for us to try. Our guide went through the tasting together with us, and compared the different aromas we all picked up. She didn’t tell us what we were ‘supposed’ to smell and taste, but asked instead us what we experienced in the glass. This was new and refreshing to us and it made the tasting much more personal and enjoyable. Among the drams were the 25, 30 and 40 year old so they certainly didn’t try to save cost in this tour. After the tasting we both received an official certificate, signifying we were now ‘Connoisseurs’ of Highland Park single malt whisky. A nice gesture. Also, we got a book about the history of the distillery and a nosing glass. All in all this was a great tour and we thoroughly enjoyed it.
After this long and eventful day, we went back to our B&B after enjoying a meal in ‘Helgi’s’, a local pub. We really made use of our time on Orkney and we will never forget the experience.
Day 3: After another hearty breakfast we made our way back to St. Margaret’s Hope to take the ferry back to John o’Groats. After that we had a long drive ahead of us to Dufftown, where we would return to ‘Morven B&B’, to enjoy the hospitality of Rene and Glo for the rest of our stay. After arriving in Dufftown we had our first of many meals in our trusty local pub ‘The Stuart Arms’, which would again become our safe haven after every day. Not much was done for the rest of this day so we took our time to relax and prepare for what was still to come.
Day 4: Today we started our return to Dufftown by visiting the Macallan distillery to join the ‘Precious Tour’. Our guide was Ian, a man who has worked almost all his life for Macallan. He knew exactly what he was talking about so we were in very good hands. We went around the distillery’s brand new and modern visitors centre and learned a lot, especially about use of different woods for the casks. Ian was obviously very passionate about this aspect of whiskymaking so he was very elaborate in his stories. A very interesting tour indeed. The tour wasn’t too crowded, very informal and most of all informative. At the end we had a very nice guided tasting, where (amongst others) the 25 year old Fine Oak was featured. After the tour we took our chance to walk around the distillery grounds, with Macallan house and a great view of the Spey valley.
We had to move quickly to be on time for our next event of the day: Glenfarclas distillery. We signed up for the ‘Connoisseurs Tour’ which was a more in-depth tour than the standard one. As we were waiting for the tour to start, however, a large bus full of people arrived, suddenly making the tour group very large. Luckily, the people at the visitors centre were kind enough to split the group up in two, so that we could all enjoy the tour better. It has to be said; after visiting quite a few distilleries already, we didn’t think we could be too surprised anymore. However, this was such an enjoyable, informative and relaxing tour, much unlike many other distillery tours we had in the past. There were no rules as to where we had to walk, no paths, no ropes or fences, nothing. We could roam freely and take our time to look at everything in the distillery. Picture taking was also no problem (even in the still house!), which for us was a first ever. I guess being private owned (one of the few left) and therefor not having to abide by corporate rules, makes a distillery experience just so much more relaxed and enjoyable. After the tour we had a very enjoyable guided tasting, with a ‘Family Cask’ expression as the cherry on the cake.
Day 5: Today we returned to a distillery we had already been to the year before: Strathisla in Keith. However, this time we were in for a whole different experience from last time. We were to be taking part in the ‘Ultimate `Chivas Experience’, which is the longest, most in-depth tour this distillery offers. Tony was our guide and in the beginning of the tour it wasn’t much unlike any other tour, talking about the history and making of whisky itself, with a round by the mash tun, the wash backs, the stills etc. We did get more information than
normal, though, as a lot of things were distillery specific, and Tony took his time to explain everything and calmly answered all the questions we had. There was obviously no rush on this tour, which makes it much more fun to enjoy. After we had the distillery tour we were taken to the tasting room, where a very special set of whiskies was waiting for us. Of course, we had the ‘normal’ Strathisla single malt of 12 years, and of course the Chivas Regal blend of 12 years (which Strathisla is a main component of), but there was also an 18 year old Chivas blend, as well as a 21 and 25 year old ‘Royal Salute’. Although they were blends (and therefor, in my opinion, less outspoken in taste), these were very lovely to nose and taste. Even if I did knock over my 21 year old…. (Accidentally, of course, Tony made no fuss about it).
After all this we were in for the real treat. Tony took us to the warehouse, where first we were allowed to roam freely, take pictures as much as we wanted, ask questions and touch the casks. When we were ready we were taken into the ‘Royal Salute Vault’, which is a caged back section of the warehouse. In here, there’s a few very special casks, aging the whisky inside of it. One of those was called the ‘Stone of Destiny’, which contained a 40 year old blended whisky (it says 38 years on the cask, but this has to do with the Chinese market. The number 40 is bad luck). Some of the members were involved in opening the cask and pouring the whisky into a decanter. Someone was appointed to open the cask (the hole on top), I myself was invited to dip the ‘dog’ inside and pour the whisky into the decanter and my father was the chosen one to close the cask at the end. From the decanter, everyone got a (really significant) dram of the whisky. We were then given the time to slowly nose and taste the whisky, while talking about it with both Tony and Bo (another
Strathisla employee who joined us in the vault, more about him later). Now as I have made clear on several occasions; I am a single malt man. I like single malts over blended malts, simply because I feel they have more distinct taste, more personality and a more memorable experience. However, this Stone of Destiny blend is one of the most delicious things I have ever tasted. Absolutely sublime stuff. There was lots of talking, picture taking and looking around until it was time to leave. Tony took us out and back in the visitors centre we all received a nice gift bag to take home. It had been over 3,5 hours since the start of the tour. We were overwhelmed with the experience we had today and if I ever return to Strathisla again, no doubt I will be taking this tour.
Day 6: Today we didn’t have something specific planned, but decided to use the backup plan from day 4 (we would have gone here if there wouldn’t have been enough time to go for the Glenfarclas tour): Glendronach. This turned out to be possibly the best decision we made on this trip. We didn’t really know much about this distillery, just that it was open on Sunday, so it was a good option. It wasn’t too far away from Dufftown, but the surroundings were very different and beautiful. This is a more remote distillery, hidden in a valley between the hills of the border between what is still Speyside and what isn’t. When we arrived we ran into a few familiar faces, two German gentlemen who had also been on the Macallan tour with us. We paid for a tour ticket and our guide Karen took us in. She was a real hobbyist, you could tell. She knew everything about the distillery and was so passionate about the whisky making process and the Glendronach brand in particular. She took us around the grounds and showed us the (no longer used) malt floors and working equipment. The distillery was not active at that moment, as they were in the middle of their summer break. This gave us a good opportunity to really look around the place, take some nice pictures and even touch the stills. After all this we went to the warehouse, where the real fun started. This particular tour did not grant us access to the warehouse, strictly speaking, and would give us a small, simple tasting at the end. Karen decided differently and took us inside the warehouse where she introduced us to a range of whiskies, straight from the cask. She opened one cask after another, paying no mind to the official rules of the tour. We had some truly special drams here and were quite a bit intoxicated when we left. But it was very worth it, because this was so much fun. At the distillery shop Karen continued her free thinking way of showing us around; She gave us a sample of the whisky that is meant for sale as a self bottling (a cask in the shop allows you to bottle your own whisky, against a hefty price, of course) to bring home and enjoy at night. As she was very charmed by the presence of my father (that old dawg), I’m sure that was an extra incentive for her to be so forthcoming about everything. She even gave him a free keychain to bring home!
After the wonderful time we had at this place, we decided to drive around Speyside a bit more, since we still had quite some time in our day left. Since it was all not too far from our base in Dufftown, we drove by quite some distilleries. We saw Mortlach and Benrinnes, the nicely located Dailluaine, the well kept Benriach (owner of Glendronach, incidentally), neighbor Longmorn and hidden Glen Moray. That last one was very interesting because it was situated right in the middle of a housing area. So rows of houses with well kept gardens suddenly showed a distillery showing up out of nowhere. Unfortunately, none of the mentioned distilleries were open to visitors, so we just took some pictures, looked around a bit and went back on our way. Still, it is so interesting to actually see these distilleries, where they are located and what they look like, when you only know the name from the bottle you have in a cupboard at home. At night, after another lovely meal at the Stuart Arms, we went back to our rooms and together enjoyed the sample we got from Karen. A great end to another great day.
Day 7: Today marked another return to a familiar distillery: Balvenie. We were here last year and it was one of the best tours we had. Our guide was the same as last year as well, David Mair. He is so knowledgable when it comes to everything that is The Balvenie, and it’s a pleasure to hear and see him talk about his pride. We were in a group with Germans,
Americans, Dutch, so it was well varied and everyone was very nice. After the cup of coffee in the visitors centre we set off to do the tour. As mentioned, this was the second time for us here, so we did already see everything we saw last year. Although, we did have some nice moments with employees at the distillery that answered some questions and showed us what they were doing. This distillery is just a nice place to walk around, and you can really tell there’s a lot of history here. After the tour we had our tasting, which this time featured the TUN 1401, one of my favorite whiskies. So that was a nice surprise. We also acquired another 25cl self bottling of whisky, with a personalized label written by David, which is always nice to have on your shelf.
After the Balvenie we went back to our B&B to unwind a bit before dinner. Of course, the Stuart Arms was where we went for our daily meal. This time we
had quite a big meal so to work some of it off, we went for a walk around Dufftown. The weather was nice so we just set off without a specific direction. We reached a small forrest, which we walked through and ended up in a housing estate. After that we came to a field, crossed it and reached another small forrest. To our surprise we eventually ended up at Pittyvaich distillery (now mothballed) and had a little look around there. This was on top of a hill, so we had to walk back down to reach the town again. We were surprised again as we stumbled upon Dufftown distillery, which is still in operation, and so we had a bit of a look around there as well. After this it was about to get dark, so we went back to Morven B&B to turn in for the night, as we had a bit of a drive ahead of us the next day.
Day 8: We had a two hour drive ahead of us with the town of Pitlochry as our destination. Here the smallest distillery in the world, Edradour, is found. We reached the grounds a bit early so we had to wait a while for the distillery to open. So, we went back to the town centre to have a cup of coffee to waste some of our waiting time. When it was time for the distillery to open, we were one of the first in. Unfortunately, we weren’t the last. A big coach full of people joined us on the tour, so we ended up with a group of around 30 people in the tour. To me, this is always a big downside of any distillery tour. I have no problems with small groups, but 10 people for me is the maximum any tour group should have. How else can you offer a relaxed, informative and interesting tour with everyone’s questions well answered? They understand this at The Balvenie and many other distilleries, but Edradour, Glenmorangie and also Talisker (and I’m sure many others), have more eye for the bigger picture (more=better) and to me this is a big minus. Anyways, we set off on the tour and a nice old man in traditional Scottish attire (another commercial sting right there) showed us around. The tour itself, the things being said and explained, was nothing new to us and therefor not the interesting part. The interesting part for us was the distillery itself. Never have I seen such a small, compact distillery. It’s almost like a hobbit town; The grounds are beautifully kept, like walking through a garden, and the distillery itself exists of two buildings that are no bigger than a barn. Every distillery employee has to know how to run the whole distillery by himself without help of others, because only three people work there and therefor have to operate the entire whisky making business at Edradour. At any given time there’s only one person operating the machinery per shift. There’s one wash still and one spirit still, both which are only slightly taller than myself. The wash back and mash tun are small and stand above each other, everything seems very unorganized, as pipes leak and broken wires or leads are mended with duct tape, but somehow it works. Very interesting to see that no matter how big the brand is and how much product volume you get in a year, in the end the process of making whisky is the same everywhere. The biggest building on the grounds by far is the warehouse, in which the distillery itself can probably fit 3 or 4 times. At the end of the tour we didn’t really see anything interesting in the shop, so we decided to go back. In the town of Pitlochry, however, we did stop for a while at Blair Athol distillery, which is also situated here. No tour though, we had enough of that for a day. Same goes for Dalwhinnie, which we also stopped at for a few minutes.
On our way back we realized we had quite some time left for the day. We didn’t buy too many whiskies to bring home at this point, so we decided to go back to the distillery of which we really wanted more whisky: Glendronach. We were welcomed with open arms by Karen and my dad decided to go for the self bottling of the cask strength, 100% sherry whisky that was offered in the shop. The rule is that the distillery manager has to personally sign off on the label, so Karen called him down to do so. After bottling the whisky by hand, my dad had the opportunity to shake hands with the manager and have a picture moment. A great way to give some extra depth into this whisky. After some small talk with Karen after that, we went back to Dufftown.
Day 9: Another familiar distillery for us today: Aberlour. We were here last year as well, but like we did with Strathisla, this time we chose the more detailed and in-depth tour as opposed to the standard distillery tour. Our guide was Lyndsey and she went through a vast array of interesting facts about Aberlour distillery. Her grandfather was in the whisky making business, so from young she has known a lot about it. The tasting at the end was very unlike anything we’ve done before. Every whisky in this tasting was paired with a specific kind of chocolate, hand picked by visitors centre manager Julian (more about him later). This made the tasting very interesting and unique. After the tasting we had another treat; Lyndsey took us to the warehouse where a special cask was waiting for us and held a dram for every tour member. The whisky was a cask strength sherry whisky, very delicious. The glass in which the dram was poured was a gift for every participant. After this we got the chance to bottle our own 70cl Aberlour Cask Strength whisky with personalized label. We both did this last year as well, me taking the Bourbon cask whisky and my father the Sherry cask whisky. This year we decided to bottle one together, and we chose the sherry. When we went back to the visitors centre shop, we also decided to both chip in for another bottle of the distillery only bicentenary bottling, commemorating the 200 year existence of the town of Aberlour. For the occasion only 200 bottles were made and last year we both bought one. Because it is so special we are both very reserved about opening it, which it why we bought this one together to open and enjoy. We said our goodbyes and went back to Dufftown.
After our (last) meal at the Stuart Arms we went to the ‘Commercial Hotel Hall’, a kind of community centre in Dufftown. We were invited to a blind nosing and
tasting by our B&B owner Rene so of course we went. Inside there were glasses on the table with 5 whiskies poured into them: 4 expressions of the cask strength range of Chivas, being Glen Keith, Scapa, Glenburgie and Miltonduff. The last one was an Aberlour a’bunadh. Hosts of the event were Rene, Bo from Strathisla and Julian from Aberlour. They talked us through each of the five whiskies, sharing experiences, which aromas were in the glass, what they tasted and asked the visitors what they thought as well. After we went through each of the whiskies, we were then each invited to come forward and judge which whisky was which, by just nosing them. The whiskies were poured into blue colored glasses, making it impossible to recognize the whisky by color. This was a tough task! The winner would receive a bottle of 15 year old Aberlour. Both me and my father had a lot of trouble identifying these whiskies separately without looking at the color or tasting it. Luckily we weren’t the only ones, most people there were having a hard time doing it. In the end it was a German lady who won, she had 5 out of 5 correct. All the other contestants, including me (3) and my father (0) had less than 5 correct answers. Even though the result was disappointing, we had such a good time there, talking with Bo and Julian about their distilleries and their whisky experience, and we were very glad to have been invited to this special moment.
Day 10: Just like last year our fun didn’t last forever. Today it was time to go home. We had to wake up early to catch our flight, and when we got ready that morning and made our way downstairs, Rene was waiting for us with a pot of coffee. We had a cup together and with Rene waving us out on the Morven B&B doorstep, we drove off towards Aberdeen to make our way back home. We had another unforgettable time in Scotland. It wasn’t new to us this time, but it was at least as interesting. With a lump in our throat we said goodbye to the country of hills and mountains, rivers and springs, grass and heather, barley and grain, peat and coal, and, of course, whisky… Until next time!