Distillery Tour: Aberlour

Aberlour, sited in the town of the same name, caught my eye by the very pretty, old-timey photos of its front gates — such as this one. A really gorgeous little place, their shop (photo to right) evokes an air of Victorian elegance. I have to admit I was taken in. In reality, like any distillery, Aberlour is a factory, albeit one that makes a delightful product. A clean, modern place, there is none of the Victorian funk you might find elsewhere. Although the main range is not one of my favorites, I do enjoy the A’bunadh line and the tasting showed their older expressions in a very good light.

After taking a short break, my wife and I trooped over from the little inn where we had spent the night. I’ll say up front, the experience did not contrast well with that morning’s tour at the Balvenie — what tour could? But they offer a couple experiences we did not get elsewhere, and at the cost (£15), a taste of six expressions. Our guide led us to the main yard and gave us a safety briefing and explanation of the day’s activity. This shot below shows what a compact place it is. I left it at full res, so you can click and spy the ‘Chivas’ van (they are owned by Chivas/Pernod Ricard S.A) and other details.

Aberlour yard. The Fleming Rooms (stone building, center) is the oldest structure.

A quick walk up past the Fleming rooms, which you can see in the center of the shot above, took us to the start of the tour. We were led into a nicely decorated room and here spent quite a bit of time getting the history of the place. I must admit, I was not impressed with the schooltime lecture feel of that part of the tour. Next we passed into a small, white-walled room of no particular interest, where the obligatory passing of the malt and grist was done. We were old hands at this by now but it’s nice they still do it. The next step was more interesting — up to the mash tun and washbacks.

Here things got a bit more interesting. The guide opened up a frothing washback and retrieved some of the wash in a cup, encouraging all of us to poke a finger into the frothy liquid for a taste. That had me feeling a bit like a schoolboy again, tasting something cooking in mom’s kitchen, so not only instructive (the wash has a flat beer taste) but fun. Not for the squeamish, after all, who knows where everyone’s fingers have been, right?

The still room. Don’t tell anyone I took this photo!

You shall not pass!

Next we trooped through the still house, where, as in the wash room, no photography, but I did sneak a shot which turned out well. Outside, we were led to Warehouse No. 1. A bit of a disappointment — the casks are behind glass, you’re in a little walled-off area where, once again, we get a bit of a lecture but not much atmosphere. It was clean and antiseptic, with shiny table-tops on some barrels for another tasting tour. (Later tours — Bunnahabhain notably — we got a lot more up close and personal with the wares. More on that in a later post).

Back out side then off to the tasting room. It is a lovely tasting room, again, clean and neat and lots of wood, and carefully arranged decor. It’s nice but a bit of a stage set. But we were here for the whisky, right? Right. Onward.

An array of flavor awaits

The tasting was the highlight of the tour. First of all, of the six expressions, one is new make spirit. Aberlour is the only place we have been to where the new make is tasted, and I appreciated them taking this step. The tasting starts with the new make, then moves onto the 10-year, an expression we do not see where I live. It’s lively, and single cask with a notable sherry element. Younger scotches can have a bit more personality, and I actually liked it better than the 12-year. I’ve had the 12 and was not tremendously impressed — to me, the Glenfarclas 12 and the Macallan 12 both have more going for them. They are both more expensive, too, but worth it. The Aberlour 12 did not shine any more in its homeland, but the next taste moved up the scale quite a bit, the 16-year double cask matured. That is a seriously good whisky, and the 18 kicked that up a notch. I have to believe that they use better casks in these older expressions. They tout first-fill bourbon in the marketing for the 16. The final taste was the A’bunadh, and at cask strength, most took advantage of the water pitcher for that one. As always, this dragon’s blood serves to deliver a mouthful of intense, undiluted sherry bomb. Good stuff.

We had a great time in the tasting room.

After our tastes — which, by the way, are not full shots, so we were able to walk steadily — we took the walk up the Aberlour burn. The sunny day which had greeted us at the Balvenie had long turned into Scottish gloom, but that did not dampen our spirits. The hike up the burn is a pleasant one, and we wondered at the brown water, and how it made such a clear, white new make spirit. Some filtering must go on, surely. There is a place on the bank from which to watch the waterfall, high above the busy waters below. It would make an excellent picnic spot.

To wrap, the Aberlour Experience Tour has a couple surprises we have not encountered elsewhere, but the big-company feel of the place left us a little cold. That said, it was more intimate than you will find at the huge distillers (Glenmorangie, for example — my next review), the tasting is excellent and the surroundings sublime.

Burn, baby burn.

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Distillery Tour: The Balvenie

Visitor’s center, from the rear.

Our second tour was at William Grant & Sons in Dufftown. At this site are the Balvenie and Glenfiddich distilleries. Where Glenfiddich is nearly ubiquitous worldwide as ‘the world’s best-selling single malt‘ and a high-volume product (13M liters/year, produced from 32 stills), the Balvenie site next door is William Grant’s craft distillery. The Balvenie retains its own malting floor (producing 10% of its malt, much of which is grown locally), and has its own cooperage — a rarity in the Scotch whisky industry. Their output is less than half that of Glenfiddich — but that is still considerable. In fact, they about double the output of Glenfarclas. You may not see the Balvenie Doublewood, their most common expression, in every bar, but you’ll see it in many upscale spots. Not all of the production from this site goes into Balvenie expressions, some goes into Kininvie, a malt used in Grant’s blended whiskies.

I usually end with a bottom line, but this time, I’m starting with one: the presentation and execution at The Balvenie is designed to connote a handcrafted, old-fashioned approach to whisky making. Where Glenfarclas is small and spiffy, the Balvenie is organic, even rustic in character. This is the tour to take if you take only one.

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Book Review: The Golden Notebook

This longish novel by Nobel Laureate Doris Lessing is known as an important feminist work, and that’s why I decided to read it. However, Lessing’s intent was to approach a number of other important subjects, primarily fragmentation of the mind and of society. She certainly swung for the fences; the number of subjects she touches on are too many to mention without driving readers away (I have a list at the end, for the heck of it). From politics (disintegration and rebirth of the British communist party) to existential loci such as the presence of a child as an emotional anchor, to intimately common things like dealing with tampons. The scope of the novel is wide-ranging; so are the settings and characters: along with the protagonist, Anna Wulf, Wikipedia notes 31 characters, all of whom are fully described, fully animated. The two focal points are the protagonist’s early life in Africa during the War (WWII) and her post-war life as a single mother (and Free Woman) in London. Settings are intimate — passages go on for pages often without the characters leaving their apartment. After the African section, primary characters rarely go outside and there are no descriptions of London at all.

Note: page numbers refer to the Simon & Schuster 1962 edition.

So, how is it to read? I found it odd and intensely detailed, often for reasons which are obscure to the reader until much later. The characterizations are superb, as are descriptions, such as: her room, page 52; the privileged of English upper classes, 71-73, beauty and ugliness, pp 132-133, consideration of suicide, page 152. And, or course, Africa, in many places.

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Distillery Tour: Glenfarclas

For this post, a departure: not a whisky review, but a distillery tour review, of Glenfarclas. This was my first tour of a distillery, so the whole thing was new and fascinating. That’s fortunate, as I had planned no less than nine tours for our two-week vacation in Scotland. Frankly, my wife was dubious, but she came to really enjoy them. As we progressed across the whisky-making regions of Scotland, we did six other tours and learned that no two tours are the same. We also discovered aspects of the distillery experience we did not expect, and fortunately, we both found compelling. Onward! (Note, most photos can be clicked for higher res images.)

Glenfarclas Lobby Shop. You can see the entrance to the tasting room at the far end.

Glenfarclas rare bottles. Can’t buy these, but…

Glenfarclas is about 20 minutes south of Dufftown. It’s set in a broad valley, which you can see in a flyover view here, at their website. The entrance is easy to miss driving south, so if you find yourself up among the piney hills, you’ve gone too far.

You’ll gather in a lounge off the lobby. I couldn’t sit for long, I was too busy gazing at all the rare bottles (pic at right) they had on display. Not all were off-limits, there were some old releases (the Family Casks) still available for the (very) well-heeled.

…the Family Casks can be bought. My birthyear bottle was about £3K, if I remember correctly. Click for hi-res.

We were shepherded by our hostess for the morning, Kirstin, and we headed outside to the millhouse. Fortunately, we had a bright, sunny morning, so everyone was in good humor. Our guide proved to be witty, a touch arch and quite refreshing. That was one aspect of our tours we grew to appreciate — at most of the distilleries, the guides felt comfortable being themselves, and they proved to be quite an enjoyable lot.

In the millhouse, we were introduced to the raw ingredients. Kirstin passed around jars of ripe barley and the malted end product. Note, they do not malt on site, so we were in a shipping bay where malt is brought in. But we all had the opportunity to try munching some malted barley, that was exciting. Tastes pretty good.

Next up we met their one milling machine, and I found it surprising that they had no backup for this critical machine. Kirstin explained that these machines were so reliable that the company which made them went out of business. The mill at Glenfarclas is relatively new (1960s model I believe) and kind of bland in appearance. (I have better photos of older mills still in production in future tour reviews.) We passed by a big electrical panel with important-looking red lights and switches. I was impressed that they Glenfarclas folks trusted complete strangers to keep their hands to themselves. As I learned at all these tours, you really climb around in the guts of these facilities.

Up a steel staircase from the mill, Glenfarclas has a lovely malt de-stoner, pictured below. I find this hilarious as I live in a town where cannabis is legal. We could use a de-stoner.

At one time in my life the studious label of the de-stoner would have sent me into fits of laughter. The dresser evokes its name with a touch of attractive woodwork, a hallmark of malt distilleries: custom handiwork.

The mash tun. Nuff said.

Next we marched into the heart of the distillery and met their mash tun. At 16.5 tonnes capacity, this stainless steel beast is an indication of Glenfarclas’s industrial focus: modern equipment, run efficiently. But this is industry at a small scale. At 3.5 million liters per year, their output is a fraction of true giants like Macallan. (I lost many notes when I destroyed my phone later on the journey, but I’m remembering that Glenfarclas brings in about 10 tonnes of malt per week, whereas Macallan would use that in less than a day.) You could call Glenfarclas a boutique maker: they boast modest production levels and focus only on unpeated, sherry-cask-aged releases. They pursue their niche with well-capitalized, modern efficiency. There are no Oregon pine washbacks or bragging about old-time methods. Everything about the place conveys a sense of focus and attention to detail.

Spick and span is Glenfarclas. Underneath the big Tun Room.

The facilities are spectacularly well-kept and clean, as you can see from the photos. Efficiency leads to opportunity; our guide boasted that in the downturns of the industry, the owners of Glenfarclas, a family-run concern ( J. & G. Grant), always expanded their contracts. Their good management is evident in the way they deliver an excellent product at very reasonable retail prices. They find efficiency in bottling and malting offsite. The heart of the process, distilling and aging, is handled here.

No worries taking photos at Glenfarclas.

Next up was the still house (click to expand photo at left.) There was no wash running at the time; maybe that’s why we were able to photograph (other distilleries disallowed photography in their still houses). The wash still reads 28,000 liters. That’s a fairly big still — compare to Caol Isla, no slouch in production whose wash stills are 19,000 liters. The stills are highly polished at Glenfarclas, not a job I would relish. A real industrial work of art, the whole of the still house, and topping all, the pièce de résistance: their spirit safe.

Keep it secret, keep it safe.

Spirit safes, from the grungier facilities like Bunnahabhain (review coming) to spiff places like Glenfarclas, are always gorgeous, the jewel in the crown of any distillery.

If the spirit safe is the heart of a distillery, this is the brain.

Yet I always keep a lookout for organic decrepitude. It’s an aesthetic interest I have: as beautiful as we can make any piece of equipment, the natural wear, tear and grunge that accumulates from time and heavy use adds an air of history and accidental art to ordinary objects. Such a subject is tough to find at Glenfarclas, but find it I did: the control center of their still house. Can’t you just imagine the malt master sipping a cup of coffee as he pores over the temperatures and pressures? I’m leaving this photo at full res so you can click it and zoom in on all the cool buttons and gauges. Check out the gloves under the desk, how all the switches require a key, the old brass padlock. Add a lovely patina of wear and yes, (rare for Glenfarclas) a touch of grime.

Warehouse 1, with guide.

On to the great old dunnage (stone walled, dirt floor) warehouse. We were not allowed to wander about the casks (there’s a rope across the way). Some places let you do that, other distilleries have their casks behind gates and do not allow photography at all for fear of explosion. (I found that a weak excuse after photographing in several warehouses). We had a good view of the place and of some casks dating back to the 1950s.

Barrels stacked 3 high, as per tradition.

On to tasting. The tasting room sports very intricately carved woodwork, as it is all salvaged from an old steamship’s lounge. Click on the photo below for super detail.

A room that is quite…tasteful. Sorry,

We had the basic tour, which comes with two tastes, the 10 and if I remember correctly, the 15. You can see my little bottle there, that’s for drivers.

Two for my baby, and one more for (after) the road.

Altogether, Glenfarclas was a delightful introduction to distillery tours. They have a spit-and-polish air and a no-nonsense approach to production. Their packaging is similarly no-nonsense — nothing fancy, as you can see from the photos of the lobby shop: they’ve had the same style, the Glenfarclas script and Roman font describing the release on a square tan label, their stout-shouldered bottle, for many years.

Is it worth the drive out of Dufftown? Absolutely. We enjoyed the lively guide and cheerful tasting room atmosphere. It was great education and entertainment for about $10 US. And that included a discount certificate in the lobby shop, which helped buy us a bottle of the 15-year-old to take home. As with other distilleries, there are more in-depth tasting tours available. Certainly recommended.


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Whisky and Words Number 30: Highland Park Magnus

Reminds me of 2001, a Space Odyssey.

Another in the NAS series! Again I’ll weigh the stratagem of the distiller, and we’ll see if the malt master and his minions have created value for both distiller and imbiber. In this case, the Magnus is presented to us as a hearkening back to old ways:

A whisky crafted in the old way by a new generation of Vikings, MAGNUS bears the soul of our Viking ancestors and the name of just one – our founder, Magnus Eunson.

Magnus, a chap who set up a still on the Highland Park site in the 1700s, was a descendant of Vikings. I’m reading Churchill’s History of the English Speaking Peoples, and pretty much everyone in the UK and northern Europe in general is a descendant of Vikings. They got around, those Vikings. Anyway, that’s the theme set by the marketing wags. The presentation is heavy on atmosphere, with the opaque black bottle (right) and a distinctive new cap, which is a combo cork/screw-in with a lot of detail embossed (detail below). The screw-in feature is handy if you are too tipsy to push the cork in without letting slip the bottle. Drink responsibly.

New cap, more Viking vibe.

What can we expect from the whisky? They explain they have brought forward Magnus’s “bold and uncompromising approach to whisky making… a single malt whisky, matured in Sherry seasoned American oak casks, that delivers notes of sweet vanilla, overlaid with our distinctive aromatic smokiness.”

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Whisky and Words Number 29: Bruichladdich Islay Barley 2009

We’re off the NAS train for a bit, coming back from the underwhelming Dalmore KA III, back at you with another Bruichladdich. I’ll do a little compare and contrast with the Bruich’ Scottish Barley, AKA Classic Laddie. Note, the Islay malt does have an age statement. On the bottle it states “Distilled in 2009, bottled in 2015. Aged 6 years in oak casks.” So, this has been sitting around in bottles for two years. Similarly, the currently available Islay Barley shown on the Bruich website is from 2010. (Oddly, where the 2009 is redundant stating the time spent in cask, the 2010 bottle is silent on that subject.) So, you wonder, how does a 6-year old stack up to the standards from other distilleries aged 10-12 years? We’ll see below. Let’s see what goes into making this whisky.

Click to expand, you can read their record of provenance.

First of all we have to recognize Bruichladdich as a distiller with an intense focus on how the whisky is made and from what. Not that other distillers are unfocused–I did visit a number of them this year–but these folks really take terroir to a fanatical level. My Islay Barley’s canister (photo alongside) boasts ‘Uber-provenance’ and names the Islay farms from which they sourced their barley. There is a lot of text about what was happening on the farms the year the barley was grown. It’s worth a read. We also find their credo on the canister, they “believe in Islay…in people..in authenticity provenance and traceability. We believe in slow.”

Regarding ‘slow’: the Bruichladdich people don’t stop at focusing on grain. On their website they describe in detail the old-fashioned equipment and methods used onsite: Oregon pine washbacks, Victorian equipment, little mechanization:

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Whisky and Words Number 28: Dalmore King Alexander III

KAIII box rear

This whisky, the Dalmore King Alexander III (KA III forthwith) was a gift, and I am grateful for it. Especially as this retailed for over $300 when our local stocked it (it’s a state-owned store and they rotate brands, it is gone now). That price is definitely out of my ‘I’ll try it on a whim’ range. One wonders at the price, especially for a NAS whisky. What are we buying? There is a fancy box, as you can see (bottom of post), and all those flaps provide lots of inspiring verbiage:

  • A note on the box art, The Death of the Stag, a fine painting at the Scottish National Galleries (I saw it, an impressive painting indeed) on the right inner flap.
  • A note about the Dalmore Custodians, their loyalty program on the left inner flap.
  • Dalmore history, Dalmore’s general approach to marrying spirit, and KA III tasting notes (box rear).

So what does Dalmore bring to the party? Does this hyped-up NAS hold up?

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