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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Distillery Tour: Caol Isla (technical)

Our enchanting guide, in the tiny visitor’s center.

I have wanted to visit this distillery ever since I came upon this photograph on the web. With those big windows looking onto the water, the facility struck me as a particularly attractive still house. Being my wife’s favorite single malt, it became a primary destination for our Islay visit.

Caol Isla, a big distillery, is owned by Diageo, a massive multinational. You might expect an experience like we had at Glenmorangie: scripted, restricted, slick but shallow. Well, nothing like that on the shores of the Sound of Islay. We had a fun and altogether rewarding tour, especially the tasting—the Caol Ila Cask Strength Experience. Highly recommended! Sadly, as with the Glenmorangie folks, no photographs were allowed inside. Too many lawyers with these big firms. However, our guide was a really lively, fun local lady, Hazel, who invigorated the experience with wit and panache.

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Distillery Tour: Bunnahabhain

This being a dream come true, I hoped for a good experience. I had a great one. We were picked up after a restful night at our inn (the Bridgend, highly recommended) by Uncle Charlie, the proprietor’s ex-merchant marine uncle. A great guy was Charlie and full of information. He worried me a bit, explaining that Bunnahabhain was getting a bit frayed around the edges He was more animated by the prospect of a new distillery being built on the same one-track road where Bunnahabhain lies.

And on arrival we saw a distillery that looked like distilleries did before they were tourist attractions: a working factory, with the dark grey coating the distilleries get from the odd collection of microbes that flourish around the Angel’s share. And out front, stacks of casks. Besides a crop, I have not retouched the photo. It was that grey and gloomy.

Bunnahabhain, a working distillery. Click for hi-res.

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Distillery Tour — Glenmorangie

I like Glemorangie’s products a lot. They are well-finished, consistent and pure to their style. Their basic 10-year is a smooth dram worthy of quiet moods, some good cheese, contemplation and relaxation. It’s also reasonably priced. Their finished expressions, using port, Sauternes and sherry casks take their 10-year expression and finish for an additional two years, result in intense, well-married flavors. Note to self, I have yet to review these…coming soon.

Main street, Glenmorangie-ville. Shop on right.

It was with some disappointment then that we encountered our first truly industrial-scale distillery tour at Glenmorangie. The tour buses in the vast parking lot should have tipped us off.  The Glenmorangie distillery produces 6 million liters per year, a bit more than the Balvenie. Their tour trade, however, must be many times that of the Balvenie or Glenfarclas. On the plus side, the tour is inexpensive: £7, and that includes a taste at the end. Also, they have a big, modern, well-stocked shop with a lot of special bottlings available. On the down side, the tour is short, with few photo ops, and starts with a healthy dose of marketing.

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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.

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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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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.

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