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.

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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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Whisky and Words Number 27: Bruichladdich ‘Classic’ Laddie

Known alternately as Scottish Barley and The Classic Laddie, this expression from craft-distiller Bruichladdich is a NAS whisky.

I have to admit a fondness for the place after having visited; I like their style. It was our last day on Islay, and after a busy morning walking from Port Ellen to Ardbeg (more on that later!) we decided to head out into the hinterlands for a drive. We took the road out to Port Charlotte, a tiny village at the end of which the A847 went from two lanes to one. That was all for me, I had had a bellyful of driving on tiny little roads and we headed back the way we came. Portnahaven would wait for next trip!

On the way back, we dropped by Bruichladdich. The distillery had been enthusiastically recommended to us by ‘Uncle Charlie,’ our taxi driver for the Bunnahabhain/Caol Isla visits (more on that later as well). I unfortunately has well tired of photography (and the day was spitting rain as well) so I have no photos, sad to say. Except this one, of some local creatures which had just scurried out of our way:

What, they think they own the road?

Just a dram, please.

It’s an interesting little place, a whitewashed structure and wall, through which you pass into an intimate little courtyard to park. The tasting room is through a brightly painted (turquoise) door, low-ceilinged, liberally provided with couches on which whisky overs lounged in quiet repose. There was the usual display of t-shirts, jackets and the like, and a wide bar where a kindly woman of mature years welcomed us gaily and immediately offered us a taste. Why, of course, why not? I expected the usual: “Here’s our standard, if you want more sign up for a tour.” But she led us energetically through tastings of four expressions (of which I took the tiniest sips, as I was still driving, grr.) We had the Classic Laddie, the Islay Barley (both unpeated), the Port Charlotte and Octomore (latter two peated). Note: though I growl about NAS whiskies, these all lacked an age statement and yet I enjoyed them all.

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