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A Taste of Scotland (Part I)

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As you know, Josh, Jason and I just returned from a trip to Scotland, where we held business meetings with some of the wonderful distilleries of Islay and Speyside, in search of incredible single cask whiskies. We had unprecedented access to some of the most exciting new, old, and revived distilleries and the single cask expressions we have in store will put our nation on the proverbial map. But apart from tasting some fine whiskies for potential cask purchases, we also took the opportunity to sample some warehoused casks while touring, to drink some special drams with good friends, and to enlarge our private collections with some whiskies that are not available in the US. In this series of posts I will share the sensory descriptions of our successful journey across Scotland, as recounted through the drams, the bottles, the inns and the distilleries encountered along the way. This column will run as a series in four parts.

We started our trip in Glasgow. Having never visited the city of Glasgow beyond the airport and the highways, I unfairly assumed it would be a dank, dirty old industrial city. I was wrong. I was quite surprised by the beauty and allure of this metropolitan and culturally diverse financial center. There was a very pleasing mix of old and new architecture; a mix of stone and metal not found in the States.  We had five days of hard travel ahead of us, so we made a stop at our friend Mark Connelly’s The Good Spirits Co. on Bath Street, where Josh purchased some “nightcap whisky.” We’re big fans of Isle of Arran Distillery.  In honor of what we have in store for the membership in our first set of expressions, Josh selected the Arran Premium Sherry Cask for the UK, which was a beautiful, light-hearted dram to carry along. I picked up my copy of the 2012 Malt Whisky Yearbook while there.

The gatekeeper at Loch Fyne WhiskiesOur way northwest from Glasgow to catch the ferry to Islay took us past the lovely Loch Lomond and through the breathtaking pine forests and steep hillsides of Argyle. We took a slight detour into the world-famous Loch Fyne Whiskies in Inveraray. There we met owner Richard Joynson, a real character who treated us to a special find: a limited release Cragganmore 14 year old that Josh spotted among the throngs of bottles lining the packed shelves. During the feeling-out process, where the wily Joynson efficiently sized up his quarry within moments of our entrée into the shoppe, Josh immediately proved his worth by noticing this mismatched Crag that stood out as not belonging to the distiller’s standard range. Our credentials satisfactorily established, Richard turned on his best charm and busted out some fine bottles for us to sample, all the while extricating intel from us about the nature of our visit. I would bet there is not much about the whisky scene in Scotland that eludes this highly observant merchant. Hence, the story behind the 2010 Crag 14: According to Richard, this light, enticing expression fell between the warehouse cracks until his keen eye spotted the batch of 13,000 bottles buried on a stock sheet.  By special arrangement Richard was able to corner the run for exclusive sale in his shoppe.  I added that 86 Proof, honey-laced, banana crème brulee whisky to our knightcap collection. It was a steal, at only £35.

As between the two shoppes we visited, The Good Spirits Co. had a clean, minimalist metropolitan flare that complemented its small, well-provisioned cigar humidor and featured a stunning central floor-to-ceiling case to show off some truly splendid bottlings in a handsome display.  In stark contrast, Loch Fyne Whiskies is a small, cozy if not cluttered store with a Ye Olde Curiosity Shoppe feel.  Some great whiskies are crammed unassumingly on cramped shelves, with nothing in particular standing out.  A £36 bottle could be residing on a sway-backed shelf, shoulder to shoulder with a £350 bottle, with no regard paid to American-style merchandising techniques.  If the guest is unpracticed in selecting a suitable bottle, Richard is there to entertain and provide samples as he guides the patron to just the right bottle.  He is a real Scottish gem and has the gift of gab, making the overall experience quaint, charming and fun.  We had stopped in for a moment and forty minutes later emerged into the fine mist of Inveraray’s main street, striding to our car to catch the ferry to Islay.

Cream yeast lorry ahead of us on the ferry

The ferry to Islay picks up at Kennecraig and discharges at Port Askaig, where a single, narrow road winds its way up a huge hill, forming a snake of vehicles whenever the ferry unloads. It was fitting for us to be stuck behind a large cream yeast lorry (truck), which ground through its many gears all the way up the hill, but set the tone for our visit to Islay.  Time is less important on that island. And the lorry was delivering one of the primary components of the process that brought us here in the first place.  The laboring truck served as a powerful allegory for what landed us on Islay: the ageless craft of whisky distillation and maturation.  It takes a very long time to develop some of the world’s greatest whiskies, from malting and yeast infusion, through distilling and, the longest part, cask aging.

While on the ferry, I had a wee nip of the Black Bottle, which is tipped in an automatic server behind the small onboard bar.  The Black Bottle is a blend composed of a sampling from each of Islay’s fabled distilleries, and the smoky dram made a great warm-up to our Islay adventure. The bartender was a friendly bloke, the ship (the MV Finlaggen, built in Poland) was beautiful, modern and quite comfortable, with good food onboard.

While on Islay we stayed at Skerrols House, a charming and luxurious small inn with a fabulous innkeeper (Ann), an incredible Scottish country breakfast, and a perch atop a hill with spectacular views of the island farmscape.  The porridge was out of this world (Ann slow-cooked it overnight), the beds were downy and plush, and the shower was opulent by European standards.  Our hostess even called over to a local restaurant to ask them to accommodate us as late diners, and upon our return, she had a nightcap ready for us by a warm, crackling fire. Get this: the unassuming little nightcap she laid out was none other than the awesome Kilchoman Inaugural bottling, released in September 2009. This was a truly dazzling introduction to Islay and I would highly recommend this accommodation if you have the pleasure to visit the island.  We later learned that our hostess, Ann, is the wife of one of the directors at Kilchoman, which reaffirms just how small a community it is that occupies this special island (and explains how Ann came to be sitting on a rare Inaugural, lo these many years since its release!).

This ends the first installment of the series detailing our trip. Be sure to check back on Tuesday to catch Part Two, where I will describe our sojourn about Islay.

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