Distillery Tour: Caol Isla Cask Experience

In my previous post I covered the technical part of the Caol Isla tour. For the cask Experience, it was only my wife, myself and our witty and vivacious guide, Hazel. Oh, and four casks, from sprightly and newish to seriously grungy and old. The star of the show was the whisky of course but I have to preface this entry to say our host made the day. Hazel is a genuine Islay girl (her dad works at Bunnahabhain, so her Scotch chops are genuine) and unlike the charming Kirstin at Glenfarclas, Hazel actually likes Scotch. We shared the drams with her and had a rollicking time.

We sat in a large, bright room (the sun does come out on Islay) lined on one side with stools along a workbench, while on another wall were a series of bins for barrel staves with a sign admonishing to ‘wear gloves’ just above. The casks were in the center, beyond which two picnic tables had been covered with black cloth. A cherry sideboard and various posters gave that side of the room a warmer feel. Overall, unpretentious and casual—a nice break from some of the more marketing-heavy locales.

We settled in with Hazel and a set of glasses while she chatted about each cask, valinched out a quantity and poured. We had water handy as these were some powerful spirits..

L-R: 1988 ‘forgotten’ Sherry, 1996 Sherry, 2006 Bourbon, 2012 Bourbon. Click for hi res.

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Wanderings – Dunstaffnage Castle

Dunstaffnage Castle from the East

My wife and I blundered upon this lovely little castle pretty much by chance. This was our longest driving day of our trip, and we had to make a long haul and on time – from Fort William, just south of the Loch country, all the way down to Kennacraig to catch the six-o’clock ferry to Islay. Not so many miles, you say, but look at those roads! Single lane each way and sinuous as a hibernating ball of earthworms. So we were careful not to dally too much anywhere along the way. We got out of Ft. William at a decent time, planning to be in Oban for lunch. Dunstaffnage at that point was merely a note in my list of things to see in nearby Oban, and the photos we found online did not impress. Just a little pocket castle. Continue reading “Wanderings – Dunstaffnage Castle”

Wanderings – Loch Ness

If traveling round Scotland with an eye to visit its castles and distilleries, you will face at one point the stretch from Inverness to Fort William, about two hour’s drive on the (two-lane) A82 with no traffic – but expect traffic along here in the summer. One can press on to Oban, perhaps another hour south. So what do you do on the way? Well, you are driving along Loch Ness, and halfway down is Urquhart Castle, just south of Drumnadrochit.

Drumnadrochit was the only place in we stumbled upon during our Scotland trip that brought to mind the term ‘tourist trap.’ At heart it is a pretty little Scottish town, but overlaid with a lot of Loch Ness themed stores, visitor center, crowds of people, etc.

Urquhart. What lies beyond those walls?

The busy nature of Drumnadrochit foreshadowed our visit to Urquhart. The castle looks stately and a little lonely out on its promontory in many promo shots, not unlike my photo at left. But that’s misleading.

I expected the usual experience for Scottish castles: a modest booth at the car park (mostly empty), a small castle shop, perhaps with a few food items or coffee and biscuits. We would tour the stones with a few other folks and enjoy a pleasant walk around ruins and grassy knolls. Even at the big-name spots like Scone we never felt crowded. Sterling was a bit busy but then it is at the edge of a largish town.

My suspicions about Urquhart were raised by the signs to ‘park in town and ride’ to the castle, and as we entered the Urquhart car park they had traffic wardens directing us. That was new! The park there is long and narrow and traffic is one way. There were a number of buses and groups of people speaking various languages wandering about. Inside the visitors center we saw an operation of unprecedented size. The center is a multi level building with a rather plain entrance above and a cinema, gift shop and cafe below. And that place was packed!

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Wanderings–Craigievar Castle

Craigievar Castle. Heartbreakingly gorgeous, and she knows it. Click for hi-res.

Craigievar Castle is hard to find, but a gem. Only about 15 miles west of Aberddon, it is located in idyllic countryside. This country in high summer exactly matched the ideal I developed as a child reading Kenneth Grahame and Pyles’s Robin Hood — the greens are lush, the trees uniform and well-tended, the roads narrow and curvy. When I was planing our distillery tour I presented the wife with a selection of attractions along the route. When she saw that there was a pink castle, it became a must-see.

It was almost a have-to-miss. Using GPS, we ended up literally in the middle of nowhere, a lane bordering a broad barley field a few miles off the A980. We blundered around a bit, found our way off the Old Military Road and back on the A980 and spotted a sign for Craigievar. From there it was a matter of spotting the place peeking through the trees, a pink edifice, like a wedding cake decoration for a princess.

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Wanderings–Inverness

This is not a travel blog by intent but there are a few interesting spots I thought worth sharing on the Scottish whisky trail.

Rodney’s Stone. The wickerwork is to protect it from the coastal winds.

The day after the Aberlour tour, my wife an I left the Speyside region. We had spent two days there, found the town of Aberlour a pretty sleepy place, and even Dufftown, center of the Spey whisky-making region, preternaturally quiet, like an episode of the Twilight Zone. And this was in August–the high season for whiskey tourism, I reckon. Looking for adventure, we headed up towards the more populated areas of Elgin and Inverness — not terribly large towns, mostly two lane roads there.

Just West of Forres, on the A96 is Brodie Castle. There is a shady car park here (pay to park, a few pounds if I remember correctly) and quite decent public toilets. But I mention this more for the quiet diversion the grounds offer. There is about a mile’s worth of trails on flat ground through the old park, making it a great place for a relaxing walk and quiet contemplation. Again, this was high season, and a lovely morning, and there were few others there. We had the park trails to ourselves, and were delighted to get up close and personal with an old Pictish relic, Rodney’s Stone.

Heading West from Brodie we took country lanes past an Army base (with ‘live fire’ flags fluttering at the ranges) and into Fort George. This is an active Army barracks and thus very well-preserved. The ramparts are quite an impressive–complete with huge ditch and drawbridge–and present an intricate example of 18th century fortress science. The public is welcomed (after a cursory safety inspection) to wander all over the grounds, and as you can see from the photo below, it’s picture-perfect for a picnic. We did not have a lunch packed so ate at the cafe, sitting outside on rough tables as various officer’s of the Black Watch sauntered by. The sandwiches were excellent, made with artisan breads and freshly constructed. Much better fare than when I was in the Army!

Ramparts at Fort George