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A Taste of Scotland (Pt.III)

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In the first installment of this series, I detailed the bottles we purchased on the first leg of our journey through Scotland. In Part Two I detailed our travels on Islay. This will pick up where we left off; our travels through Speyside in the northern Highlands.

After our stay over in Inverness, we made our way to Glen Moray, where we were treated to a fantastic tour and some sampling in the warehouses with Iain Allan.  Iain worked at The Macallan visitor centre before coming to Glen Moray and designing its breathtaking visitor centre. He and Distillery Manager Graham Coull remained on at the distillery after LVMH sold it to LaMartiniquaise in 2008, and they are doing all the right things.  The visitor centre features a dramatic, gated corner with a Pour-Your-Own cask and all the labeling and corking materials. Iain led me through my own bottling of the Glen Moray 1998 Cask No. 6499, a First Fill Bourbon Cask, bottled at 58.6% ABV (117 Proof).  I labeled my own bottle, including handwriting the details on the label.  After the tour, Graham joined us for a tasting of some cask samples they pulled for our consideration. As the tasting bar sits adjacent to the bottling corner, Graham hand-signed the back label when I was through corking my bottle.  I highly recommend a visit to Glen Moray if you’re ever in Speyside.  It is beautifully kept and museum-like in quality, situated on a bucolic grassy knoll astride the River Lossie.

Page 136 of the 2010 Malt Whisky Yearbook notes that recent independent bottlings of Glen Moray are rare (owing to the fact that the distillery was owned by Glenmorangie for some time and was used primarily to supply vatting spirit).  On the facing page there is an interview with Graham Coull. Asked what his hopes are for the future with the new owners, Graham replies, “The new owners are keen to develop the Glen Moray brand. I hope that now the Distillery is independent many more people will be able to experience Glen Moray and find out for themselves how good it is!”  We couldn’t agree more and are quite excited to purvey some single cask expressions from this fine producer for our members over the coming years. Who knows? We may just have a dazzling cask already picked out for our first release. Stay tuned…

Our next stops were BenRiach and GlenDronach, two sister distilleries in Elgin, Morayshire and Forgue, by Huntly, Aberdeenshire, respectively.  Alan McConnochie is the Distilleries Manager for both, while Stewart Buchanan is the Production Manager at BenRiach.  Stewart gave us a cracking tour of BenRiach, where we learned that this distillery once malted barley for many of the distilleries in the region, and delivered it by a private light rail train that ran along the central roadway through the distillery grounds.  The malting house tour was amazing and gave us a real appreciation for Scottish ingenuity and design, employing an Archimedes Screw grain elevator, a long conveyor belt and grain dispersal system using strategically placed chutes along the conveyor path, and even a mechanical grain spreader that looks like a chariot and can only be described as a Grain Zamboni. We were excited to learn that BenRiach’s plan is to renew its maltings in coming years, with a mix of peated maltings to be planned in between regular maltings. BenRiach runs its washbacks through four cycles instead of three, producing an exceptionally sweet spirit that is distinctive in this regard.  Tasting many casks in BenRiach’s dunnage warehouses was a truly memorable experience and we are quite pleased with the samples we brought home for further exploration on behalf of the membership.

We were honored to have Alan McConnochie lead us about the fabled GlenDronach Distillery later that afternoon.  This nostalgic distillery has a sparkling clear brook running right through it, and houses some impressive rack warehouses on site.  Pulling up to the visitors parking, we were greeted by a window wall exposing the distillery’s four tall stills, graciously perched like copper monuments to the whisky craft.  This distillery houses a massive mash tun and six classic wooden washbacks.  Well regarded for its big, voluptuous malts, we were quite pleased to take a large selection of cask samples home for sampling.  Though co-owned, it is interesting to note the significant distinctions between these distilleries. It is amazing how all whisky distilleries employ the same three components (malted barley, water, and yeast), and essentially the same processes, yet they each have their own distinctive character. And character would well describe both BenRiach and GlenDronach.  "Watch this space" for a release from one of these sister distilleries soon.

After a tough day touring incredible distilleries and sampling amazing expressions of whisky and spirit from casks and from glass flasks (tongue planted firmly in cheek), we headed to our accommodation. The Lodge in Elgin is a charming, medium-sized inn with breakfast included. Our good friend Ronnie Routledge of Glenglassaugh (a resident of Elgin) referred us to this excellent retreat, which was to be our base for the days spent touring the Highlands.  As a pleasant welcoming surprise, our host, John, treated us to a dram of 10 year old Aberlour on the first night of our stay.  But we had nary a moment to lose, as we were scheduled for a special meeting with whisky legend, Bill Morgan at the famous Mash Tun whisky bar in Aberlour.

If you are unfamiliar with Bill Morgan, this is a true sweetheart of a man, well regarded not only for his whisky knowledge, but also for his wonderful, friendly demeanor. Prior to retiring to his Charlestown of Aberlour home on the River Spey, Bill led a dream career in the industry, having served in the role of Relief Manager of many fabled distilleries, including Tamdhu, Glenrothes, Glenglassaugh, Bunnahabhain, Glenturret, Highland Park and Glengoyne (you can read Bill's Stories of the Good Ol’ Days of Whisky here).  He spent 26 years with Highland Park.  Joshua and Jason had met Bill in the past and Joshua interviewed him for the blog.  But my first encounter with Bill, at the famous Mash Tun whisky bar in Aberlour, was a terrific honor and thrill.  Within minutes it felt like I had known him for years.  He brought us all commemorative pins from the recent bicentennial celebration of Charlestown of Aberlour, which took place the previous week, and we reciprocated, buying his draft from the bar.  I broke down and tried haggis for the first time, and Bill was there to witness it.  I actually really like the stuff, and Bill later friended me on Facebook, where he sent me a funny photo of a fake, hairy beast, quipping that this is a picture of the animal I ate at the Mash Tun.  It looked like a live version of John Madden’s turducken (turkey-duck-chicken).  Or, worse yet, like the Jabberwok.  Back to that night at the Tun, Bill was genuinely interested in our whisky nation and wished us the best of luck, imparting a few soft suggestions that would assist us in accessing some of the finest whiskies in the world.  Here’s to you, Bill! Slainte!

We spent a lovely visit with Bill, then bid our adieus so we could meet our friend Sam Simmons (Global Brand Ambassador for The Balvenie) over at The Highlander, another famous whisky bar just a few miles down the road from the Tun.  Sam is a big fan of Joshua’s blog (as we are of Sam's blog, Dr. Whisky) and he put on a killer Balvenie tasting at our temple a couple years ago.  He’s been very supportive of our efforts, but he pulled a fast one on us on this occasion.  We assumed we were in for a mellow night catching up with Sam over a couple drams.  Instead, Sam had placed us in the middle of a special dinner honoring Master Blender David Stewart.  The Balvenie crew had been assembled on the occasion of breaking in some new international brand ambassadors, but this training junket coincided with a special private filming to celebrate David’s 50th anniversary of blending malts for The Balvenie!  Not only did we meet a bunch of cool people including the new Balvenie Brand Ambassadors to France, Russia, Chicago/Midwest, and others, but we got to chat with David Stewart for about a half-hour, troubling him for a picture at the end of it! We were all pleasantly surprised to learn that David hails from Ayr, which is Jason’s hometown.  Plus, we were able to nose and taste a few great drams from The Highlander’s illustrious collection.  Sam treated me to a dram of 17 year old Lagavulin which was very pleasant and delivered just what you would expect from a Lagavulin.  He bought a nice Longmorn for Joshua.  Jason took a hit for the team, as he was driving.  He’s a top bloke.  We wished Sam and his wife a hearty Mazel Tov on moving into their new home in London, then we had to go, in order to rest up for another unbelievable day to follow.

The fourth and final installment of this series will detail the rest of our successful journey.  Look for it this coming Tuesday.

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