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A Taste of Scotland (Pt.IV)

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Welcome to the fourth and final installment recounting our incredible buying trip to Scotland.  Our third day in the Highlands was scheduled to be busy and it was hard to imagine things going any better than they had thus far.  But...

We opened our day with a 9:30 am visit with George Grant, Director of Sales and sixth-generation in Grant family ownership at Glenfarclas. Prior to our trip, George informed us that his distillery does not ordinarily work with independent bottlers like ours, but he welcomed us to visit anyway.  After a splendid tour of his gleaming plant, George next led us to one of the dunnage warehouses, which, like the crisp distillery, was quite clean and organized.  It is clear this family values a clean, well-run operation.  Whatever they are doing, it clearly shines through their spirit, which is renowned for its warm, sherry-forward characteristics. At the far end of the room containing the distillery’s massive wooden washbacks, there is a large picture window overlooking the valley of Glenfarclas, which gives the distillery its name.  George walked us over to the picture window, where he made a grand sweeping motion with his arm as he indicated that the valley laid out before us bore the Gaelic name “Valley of the Tall Green Grass.”

George next led us into the offices, where we took up temporary residence in the regal Tasting Room, which was well appointed with leather lounging chairs, a wet bar and, around the corner, a beautiful tasting room with a large, round custom-made table and matching custom chairs, constructed of clear-coated light wood with swirls of chocolate rings running through it. The chairs were constructed of branches and had smaller knobs of branch elbows jutting off, retaining the natural bumps and shapes of the wood. The room was encased in rich wooden paneling and one wall contained a mirrored bump-out at waist-height that contained about 35 – 40 bottles of Glenfarclas Family Reserve selections.  George asked for our birth years and proceeded to pour generous drams for each of us, each bottled in the year of our respective births.  This was one occasion upon which I took no offense at admitting I am older than my partners!

We took George’s invitation to sit comfortably in the leather lounging chairs while he joined us with a soft drink and looked over our sales sheet.  We were astonished [censored]. Now, don’t get too excited... [censored].  Oh, and the drams were heavenly!  We were probably sitting on [censored] between the three of us.  This was [censored] start to our day.

Finally, as we alighted from the business portion of our meeting, we headed toward the gift shop, where I was later to purchase a UK-only bottling of the Glenfarclas 15-year.  Back stateside, I treasure this creamy, long-finishing malt and recount with every deliberate sip our day at the distillery.  On our way from the tasting room to the Visitor’s Centre, we descended the office stairwell past a small landing between staircases. Displayed in a nice frame upon that landing is a collection of renderings of the five generations of Grants to found and then own this glorious independent distillery. It was quite a thrill to realize we had just shared rare drams with the sixth face to likely adorn this impressive plaque someday.  It was even more thrilling to [censored] with the members of Single Cask Nation!

We were scheduled to meet Ronnie Routledge over at Glenglassaugh at 2 pm, but we had some time to kill in between.  Jason had the foresight to schedule a detour to see our friend and Distillery Manager Gordon Bruce at Knockdhu, an Inverhouse Distillery.  Knockdhu bottles the AnCnoc [pron. a’knock] label.  It is a rustic distillery, replete with a distinctive red pagoda-shaped chimney cap above the kiln.  Gordon gave us a fine tour, including a walk through the brand new dunnage warehouse they just constructed on the site of an older warehouse that was brought down by the severe snow storms of 2009-10.  Clearly Inverhouse is looking to expand capacity in coming years; a good sign that the industry is expecting a healthy bounce back from recession.  Gordon is friendly with the local clergyman who, as a gift to the distillery, recently presented Gordon with a beautiful stained glass window to adorn the front eave of the new warehouse.  The glass panel is a rendering of the red pagoda chimney that sits high above the warehouse roof on that site.  It was great visiting with Gordon and it was neat to see all the good work he has done – and to hear of new plans going forward – to update the old plant with sustainable energy practices.  One funny and memorable aspect of the trip involved the two distillery dogs who wound about our feet as we walked through the offices.  One of these dogs had a surefire way of commanding attention: this genius dog had figured out that his head was at just the right height to poke his prominent proboscis painfully at the privates of his male patrons, and he would poke repeatedly until the perturbed patron took a playful pause to rub the profligate pooch’s head. Fortunately the AnCnoc 16-year was just the soothing salve that, when administered orally, distracted the soul from this maniacal mongrel.  Classic.

Having narrowly escaped the Hell Hound of Knockdhu’s Snout of Doom, we turned our attention to our final, prized destination: Glenglassaugh in Portsoy, on the North Sea.  Sprawling on a beautiful green bluff overlooking a white crescent-shaped beach that curves gradually to the picturesque fishing village of Sandend, Glenglassaugh was a highly regarded distillery, shuttered as a casualty of recession in 1986. In 2008 an independent ownership group purchased the distillery (along with the rights to fewer than 400 casks of pre-1987 whisky in the warehouse) with the intent to revive this revered plant.  The revival is led by Managing Director Stuart Nickerson, Sales Manager Ronnie Routledge, and their capable team who all have copious whisky industry experience.  After a splendid tour led by our good friend, Ronnie, we laid down an ex-bourbon octave cask, which we were able to fill on our own.  We look forward to sharing this with you as a commemorative limited release on the fifth anniversary of the formation of our nation (because an octave cask only holds about 70 bottles of spirit, there is a higher ratio of spirit contacting the wood, which tends to accelerate the maturation process).  While I do not wish to give anything away, [censored].  Another [censored.].

We had to leave Portsoy for Elgin in order to get ready for our approaching dinner out.  Ronnie drove out ahead, showing us the shortcut back to Elgin, where he was to join us for dinner.  Iain Allen (from Glen Moray) was also to join us.  We stopped at Ronnie’s lovely house first, where the extreme fortune of our day was destined to continue (if you can believe it).  Ronnie broke out a superfine 1976 Longmorn from his personal collection and Iain had brought along a sublime old Glen Moray that was absolutely exquisite.  It was truly a test to choose between these incredibly smooth, unbelievable whiskies! So we didn’t.  We each downed a couple drams of both selections!  We then set out on foot for a nice restaurant in town.  After we treated to dinner, Ronnie and Iain treated once again to some fine drams at a well-stocked hotel bar.  On our final leg of the journey, on the crisp winds of a heady Elgin night, among friends old and new, it was easy to observe that life is good.

It is said that parting is such sweet sorrow.  Back at the airport I determined to sooth my anticipated malaise by paying a visit to the Duty Free shop for one last crack at a whisky not available in the States.  As I wandered about, unsure of what to select, Josh called me over from around the corner of a display unit.  He had located a unique bottle that he knew I would like: a litre bottle of Balblair Vintage 1995, blended and bottled at 46% ABV, and priced reasonably at about £53.  This mellow, fruity ex-bourbon matured spirit is a nicely spiced departure from some of the heavier drams we had sampled on our trip.  I really like this whisky and thank Josh for the good call.

I had come to Scotland with two friends and business partners, with the express intent of purveying fine whiskies for our fellow society members.  We were treated to a diverse array of varied breathtaking views (from the windswept splendor of Islay, through the coniferous forests of Argyle and past immense lochs, to the calming, deep green glens and impressive heights of Speyside), to the world’s finest whiskies, to the hospitality and friendship of some amazing folks, to the rarified air of spending quality time with the very top players in the big little whisky world. Our business was a smashing success as measured by any standard, and we hope you all will be the beneficiaries of our good fortune.  It was good to get home to the wife and kids after this epic whisky adventure, but the day will not soon enough return that brings me back to Scotland. 

Cheers!
Seth

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