Its 10:30 PM on a mild May night in the highlands of Scotland, and I am gazing out towards the North Sea as I stumble in the dark through the walled garden of Glenmorangie House. Picking my steps carefully in the wet grass, a camera tripod in one hand and a wide tumbler of Ardbeg Uigeadail in the other, I am grateful for the wellies I have been provided by the staff as my fellow travel companions get situated for some stargazing and photography. It is our last real night in Scotland, the end of a whisky odyssey that began 12 days earlier, and has taken us from the tasting lab of The Whisky Exchange in London to the Spirit of Speyside festival in Dufftown, from the island distilleries of Islay and Jura to the peak of Ben Nevis, and ended here at the Glenmorangie House outside Tain.
The Glenmorangie House is a 17th century country home 45 minutes north of Inverness, situated among the ruins of Cadboll castle, which is now owned by the Glenmorangie Distillery and provides guests with luxury hotel amenities in the atmosphere of a relaxed country house party. For a whisky traveller, Glenmorangie House represents the pinnacle of Highland hospitality, receiving visitors with open arms and offering an unmatched experience of stunning landscape, Scottish tradition, and opulent comfort. Not to mention the full range of Glenmorangie and Ardbeg whiskies to be enjoyed, paired skillfully with locally sourced, Michelin-star cuisine. Our group was generously offered the opportunity to experience a stay at the house before our tour of the distillery itself the following morning, where we would witness the production of the spirit itself.
Coming at the end of such a truly whirlwind tour of Scotland, and with a tight itinerary which necessitated constant movement and sometimes barren lodgings, the prospect of our spending the final days of the trip in elegant seclusion seemed like unbelievably good luck. Like the titular character in Robert Louis Stephenson's poem "The Scotsman's Return from Abroad", we were worn from our travels, haggard, and in dire need of respite. The reception we received then, upon reaching this majestic location, was overwhelming.
After a dramatic train journey through the northern highlands, past the many imposing offshore oil platforms which speak to the evolving economic character of the region, we arrived in the small and ancient borough of Tain, to be received by our driver, a chap named John who would drive us to the house itself. On route he treated us to a brief history of the village and its environs and told of us the area's role during the Second World War, in which British and American airmen alike trained for the great undertaking. Some of the conning towers and landing strips from this period are still visible amongst the rapeseed fields which dominate the landscape.
Set far apart from any other signs of civilization, Glenmorangie House is a striking property resembling the country home of some great aristocrat of centuries past, with secluded gardens boxed by low stone walls and meticulously laid out fields surrounding the whitewashed building. We were greeted by the manager of the house, Martin, who showed us first to our rooms, and then into the exquisitely peaceful garden where we enjoyed a simple lunch of sandwiches prepared at one of the local cafes. Here, we decompressed from our journey and absorbed by the perfect silence and stillness afforded by our surroundings. We were all struck with a feeling of true serenity as we adjusted to the dreamlike beauty of the place.
Having acquainted ourselves with the immediate grounds of the house, we then to set out on a walking tour to pay a visit to the famed Hilton of Cadbol stone. Now a carefully designed replica, the original Cadbol stone is a magnificent cross slab, dating from the period of the Christianisation of the Picts in early medieval period. To reach the site of the stone, we were provided with sets of deep rubber boots and waxed jackets, useful for traversing the deep mud and chilly sea air we encountered along the way. We made our way down the path towards the seashore, to our left were fields of absurdly bright yellow, contrasted against the steel blue-gray of the ocean, while our right was flanked by a low field of grass with a single, inscrutable stone structure set halfway between the house and the shore.
This small, two storey stone hut is a Dovecote, a building designed for the trapping and housing of pigeons or doves, where the birds could be drawn in to nest and later be collected as a food source--a curious reminder of the Glenmorangie House's historical legacy. Moving past the Dovecote, we continued towards the shoreline and reached the footpath which wound through thick brambles of an unusual local plant called whin or gorse. Whin is a thorny, evergreen bush with bright yellow flowers that carry the distinctive aroma of coconut, and grows wild on the seaward hills of the area.
After taking in the impressive site of the great stone, we wasted no time in returning to our accommodations to prepare for the evening. Each of us retired to separate rooms which were, to put it simply, astounding in their appointments. Massive four post beds, antique desks, arm chairs and all other manner of rich furnishings marked each bedroom, all featuring beautiful upholstery and meticulously carved wood. Rich red throw pillows, embroidered with the Coat of Arms of Canada, lay on my bed. I could not help but wonder if somewhere in the house there was a selection of nationality-specific linens ready to be deployed to suit any international guest. As improbable as such a level of pampering seems, nothing else I experienced during my stay at the house would lead me to conclude otherwise.
As an added touch, crystal decanters of Glenmorangie whisky also awaited each guest, which were enjoyed as we unpacked and settled into our surroundings, the stunning view of the North Sea visible from our bay windows. More than anything else, however, one feature of each room was more of a gift than any other: the stunning, spacious bathroom with its high-powered, marble-lined shower.
After changing from our travelling clothes into dinner jackets, we gathered one by one in the library, which featured bookcases of literature including many books on the history of the region, and a cabinet bar stocked with ales and a selection of fine single malts from Glenmorangie and Ardbeg distillery. We were then greeted by Peter, who expertly prepared cocktails for us as we passed the pre-dinner hour. On offer was an old fashioned, as well as a cocktail featuring flamed orange zest and Glenmorangie Astar, both prepared expertly and dramatically before our eyes by the barman. Both cocktails displayed the versatility of the Glenmorangie, teasing our taste buds as we observed dusk set in over the coast from the vantage point of the beautifully lit morning room.
We then moved into the small dining room, with much excitement, to begin a unique experience: a "sonic" tasting of the Glenmorangie Signet which was complemented by an unusual audio experience. We gathered around a dimly lit table and were provided with pairs of headphones, through which were piped a sensory experience to guide us through the tasting. Instructions on nosing and whisky appreciation were accompanied by a hypnotic voice providing tasting notes and evocative suggestions, as well as atmospheric sound effects of crackling wood, running water and other sounds designed to enhance enjoyment of the whisky's flavours. The effect was admittedly disorienting at first, being guided on tasting a whisky by some unseen, ethereal voice. Over time though, the sound effects and intimate setting created a sort of frisson which was a pleasant accompaniment to a stellar whisky.
Dinner itself was an exercise in refined excess: freshly baked rolls were served alongside appetizers of delicate quail and crab, the two dishes paired with Glenmorangie Artein and Lasanta respectively. This was followed by a spiced lemon sorbet soaked with Glenmorangie Original. Then, the main course of tender venison loin, foie gras and wild mushrooms with Quinta Ruban reduction au jus, and a dram of the Quinta Ruban itself. Finally, a custard cream dessert set with Sonalta PX and a glass of the PX cask Glenmorangie rounded out the menu. Each dish was perfectly seasoned and well matched to the whisky pairings, and we dined with enthusiasm, pausing only to comment on the flavours of the dishes and restock our plates with more crusty rolls or an extra dollop of jus.
Sated, we retired to the lounge to enjoy some coffee and sweets around the fireplace, and perused the bar where we were invited to help ourselves to a nightcap. Argbeg Corryvreckan and Uigeadail provided the bold peatiness that perfectly punctuated the exceptional meal, and provided the necessary warmth for venturing outside the house for a last look at the striking night sky of the northern Scottish coast.
I awoke from the most peaceful sleep I had enjoyed during the trip to the smell of a delicious breakfast buffet and gathered, slowly, back in the dining room for freshly prepared eggs, local salmon, pancakes and bacon. We ate leisurely, savouring our last moments in the comfort of Glenmorangie House before John arrived to escort us over to the distillery. There, we spent the afternoon observing the impressive whisky making operation, which includes 11 stills, all of them the tallest in Scotland. Glenmorangie's more than 8 meter whisky stills force the evaporating spirit to climb so high before condensing that only the very lightest spirit makes it though, giving the whisky its soft, elegant character. Our tour also included a visit to the famed warehouse 13, which lies the closest to the sea of all the warehouses at the distillery. Built in the traditional style with stone walls and a low slate roof, this dunnage warehouse maintains a consistent temperature year round--good conditions for the hundreds of casks maturing inside.
The Glenmorangie House is truly a dream destination for both seasoned and novice single malt enthusiasts. Whether traveling with a single companion or in a large group, the House is available to afford travellers with the very highest level of quality service, fine dining, and five-star hotel amenities, while preserving the character and unique charms of a traditional highland country house. It is the combination of those pleasures with such a comprehensive whisky experience however, that makes Glenmorangie House unique. Where else could you find such exquisite single malts paired not just with food but with sound, followed by immediate access to the distillery where it was produced? The opportunities for advancing one's whisky education here are abundant.
The simple act of friends gathering to spend a night in, filled with fine whisky, food and conversation is what has driven Scotchblog for over four years. For one night, Glenmorangie House became Scotchblog's home away from home, our castle on the North Sea. I am deeply grateful to the staff of The Glenmorangie House for their unceasing enthusiasm to please their humble guests, and to the whole Glenmorangie Company for providing this whisky traveller with the memories of a lifetime.