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Going Beyond the Bottle at Glenfiddich

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In the galaxy of Scotch whisky distilleries there are many stars, but few burn as brightly as Glenfiddich. Nestled in a valley bordering the small village of Dufftown, its 1,200 acre estate sprawls out over rolling hills under endless skies in such a way that at times it feels like there is no need to venture anywhere else ever again. Arresting in its beauty, nearly flawless in its construction, and operating with an attention to detail that goes beyond obsessive; it leaves one with little wonder as to why its whisky has gone on to win more awards than any other. 

From the moment of arrival it becomes clear that this is one slick operation. Pulling into a proper car park with well manicured grounds and a glorious visitor centre is not something one is likely to encounter at too many of Scotland's distilleries, then again there really isn't much that is like this distillery anywhere. The cafe in the visitor centre is offers some of the best food that we had on our trip, and is likely only rivaled by Ardbeg's cafe for honours of the best distillery to grab a bite at. But what really matters is what goes on in the buildings surrounding the public entry point. Those buildings have been producing some of the finest malt whisky to ever come out of Scotland's vaunted stills, and for over 125 years have done so with such consistency that most whisky fans take it for granted, some even considering it boring.  

But consistency in execution is no accident. It is what separates superstars from all the other players in the league, and it was with this thought in mind that we set out to discover just what sets this distillery apart from the rest.

Lagavulin: Icon of Islay

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We set out just after dawn. Our boots steadily scrubbing the well weathered pavement as we crossed the faces of the white wind-rattled harbourfront homes. The sun shone down gloriously from a pristine blue sky as we turned left onto Lennox Street, now heading uphill with a quickening pace. It was a perfect Islay spring day in every way imaginable, and yet somehow all of this was secondary to the destination. 

There were just the three of us alone on that road. Marching over the hills; past the stone-walled fields; beyond Laphroaig. The only sounds: our footsteps, the wind, and the ocean. Then, past the old croft on the left, while rounding the bend to the right around the hill, it came into view. An alabaster visage as though conjured from a dream. Simultaneously surreal and hyper-real. 

We had arrived at Lagavulin.

Gordon and MacPhail Scapa 2000

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One of the most memorable scotch buying experiences I have had was at the world-famous Whisky Shop Dufftown on the last day of the Spirit of Speyside festival last May. The shop was bustling with huge numbers of festivalgoers who had come to participate in the hundreds of distillery tours, tastings, and gala dinners that marked the preceding weekend's celebration of Speyside whisky and culture. 

Innumerable selections line every inch of the store from floor to ceiling, as well as across the tops of the half-dozen empty casks which serve as shelf space and bartops for visitors to sample the spirits. Everyone who had come into the shop was hunting for the perfect souvenir bottles to take back from the festival, and I tasted more than a few before finally hitting on one that spoke to me immediately: a Gordon and MacPhail Scapa from 2000. It was bottled in 2011 from refill ex-Bourbon barrels at 43%.

The Glen of Tranquility

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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.

Master at Work: In the Lab with Brian Kinsman

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LTOC2.jpgI have never seen anything like it. Wall-to-wall whiskies in sample bottles of all shapes and sizes. In the middle, a lab table set up with eight capped nosing copitas waiting. The scene played out as though there was an invisible metronome clacking out a rhythm to pace his movements, and then it ended before I could fully comprehend what I was watching. Eight whiskies nosed in 30 seconds.


Whiskies judged. Decisions made. 

This was Brian Kinsman at work. To him, he was merely wrapping up a small piece of his day: determining via samples how these casks would best be used. But while he did this, we could do no more than exchange looks of amazement and chuckle to ourselves. Clearly, we were going to learn more than we bargained for, as we were about to spend the next few hours in the lab with a Master Blender.

This past week was Dufftown's annual Autumn Speyside Whisky Festival. The town "of the seven stills" plays host to two major whisky-related festivals per year, one in the fall and the other in spring. The Autumn events are primarily based in Dufftown and its immediate neighbours, such as Keith and Aberlour, whereas the Spring festival includes distilleries from the greater Speyside area as well.

Perusing the event schedule for the fall festival, I thought back to my recent trip to the Speyside region this past spring: the highly variable weather, the river Fiddich, the warm and hospitable locals and, of course, the whisky.

Speyside boasts the greatest concentration of distilleries in Scotland with over 50 actively producing spirit in the region. While there is variance in the style among the region's malts, most can be broken down into one of two categories: heavy, rich, and sherried malts and lighter, more floral and honey tinted malts. Both share a tendency to be fruity and sweet although some may have a light peaty character with a puff of smoke. Among the 6 whisky producing regions, Speyside whiskies are arguably among the best selling in the world. 

Eventually, any keen Scotch whisky lover will feel the tug to visit Scotland. So, if you missed out on the opportunity to attend the Autumn Festival, now is the time to start thinking about visiting the Spring Festival that runs from May 2-6, 2013.
Ground Floor Facade.JPGWhen undertaking a whisky journey through Scotland, a stop in Glasgow is a near certainty, and our voyage of Scotch whisky splendor was no different. Where one lays their head has an enormous impact on the quality of one's time in a city, and with this knowledge we booked into Hotel Indigo Glasgow in hopes that we would get things off on the right foot. 

Instead of getting just a place to rest, we ended up with what is a near perfect launch point for any whisky lover looking to explore Glasgow. 

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Recent Comments

  • Isabelle Gurble commented on The Famous Jubilee, Special Edition Reserve:

    This looks amazing, something my husband would love. His birth is coming up soon as well.

  • Ryan commented on Forty Creek Heart of Gold:

    Hi Sherry, I think you might be outta luck on this one. Only 9000 bottles of this delicious whisky were produced and I'd wager most - if not all - purveyors have been sold out for quite some time now. If you're looking to sample it, I'd recommend visiting your local whisky bar and checking their list of Canadian whisky offerings. Your only other option would be to try and track down someone willing to give up their bottle? I've got one 2oz sample tucked away and, sorry, I'm keeping it all to myself! :) Good luck! Let us know if you find a bottle!

  • Sherry commented on Forty Creek Heart of Gold:

    Do you know where I can purchase this item?

    Sherry Boutilier

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