Aberlour Distillery

My final distillery tour while visiting Speyside was at Aberlour. Situated in the south of Aberlour (the town with which the distillery shares its name) and just off the main road (A95), Aberlour is easily accessible to anyone traveling throughout Speyside. Only minutes from my lodgings at The Mash Tun, Aberlour was the perfect stop before I returned to England. Although, knowing that I had over five hours of driving ahead, I was unable to fully participate in the extensive tasting that concluded the tour.

Before I begin with the details of the tour, I’d like to share to little a couple of little points that stood out during the tour. Firstly, Aberlour translates into  “mouth of the chattering burn”, as the distillery is nestled along the banks of a picturesque stream. Secondly, after being established in 1826, Aberlour suffered not one, but two major fires before the turn of the twentieth century. Unfortunately as a result of these fires, very little of the original distillery survived.

The tour began in the gift shop, just off the main road. By the time everyone taking the tour assembled, there were seven of us set to tour the distillery. I spent a fair amount of time chatting with a couple from America – Florida if I recall correctly – and the other members of the tour seemed to keep to the themselves. We began by walking down the driveway which followed the path of the chattering burn, and made our way into the first building. Inside was a display paying tribute to James Fleming, the founder of the distillery, and the work that he had done for the community. After his passing money was left to the community for the construction of a hospital cottage. There were also funds left for a suspension bridge over the River Spey, as a result of a child’s tragic drowning.

We were now in the distillery itself, and made our way up and down a series steps and staircases. This is certainly isn’t a tour for anyone afraid of heights, but it sure is a good way to burn off your full Scottish breakfast. As we stood in the still house we were advised that we had to refrain from taking pictures until we had made it into the tasting room.  The still house contained two sets of stills, which certainly doesn’t class Aberlour as a large distillery, but large enough to produce over three million litres of new make spirit each year. New make spirit is what comes directly out of the stills and is placed into casks for aging. A spirit can only be refered to as Scotch Whisky if it meets the following criteria: It must be distilled and aged in Scotland, and it must be aged for a minimum of three years in oak casks. Interestingly enough, the spirit that comes out of the still is clear, and it relies on maturation in the cask to gain its colour.

Now it was time for the our tasting to begin. We were given five whiskies, and a sample of new make spirit, something that you will not find at many distilleries. Located in Warehouse No.1 , the tasting room was actually located at the end of an actual warehouse, separated only by a glass wall. We began with the new make spirit – which I had to try – and it was actually quite sweet, but at the same time, it was very potent. I continued around the board to the first two whiskies, they were each cask strength and available to be bottled on site. Having already bottled my own at The Balvenie the day prior, I passed, but the couple from America took advantage to pick up a couple of bottles as souvenirs. The fourth and fifth whiskies were standard expressions, Aberlour’s 12 and 16 Year Old bottlings. These two whiskies were very smooth, and had I not had the littlest of tastes,  I’m sure I would have enjoyed them even further. The final dram was Aberlour a’Bundah, another cask strength whisky that is released in limited batches with an alcoholic content in the range of 55%-60%. The single, tiny sip I sampled of this whisky did enough to demonstrate its sheer strength. My lips and gums tingled, and my throat and stomach gently warmed, certainly a man’s whisky if there ever was one.  It was heart-breaking to leave so much whisky on the table, but I had a half a day of driving ahead of me, and wasn’t willing to take any unnecessary risks. That, and it gives me a good excuse to return, because I plan on returning to Speyside someday to try some new whiskies and visit with some old friends.

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The Balvenie Distillery

Having spent a lovely morning touring The Macallan,  I made the short trip down the road to my second tour of day at The Balvenie. Now for a quick note; before the introduction of trademarks and copyrights, anyone could use a name to sell and market a product. That’s why a good number of distilleries use the word “The” infront of their names, to seperate themselves from the other illict distillers that were trying to pass off their whisky under someone else’s name. I arrived at the distillery and made my way towards what looked like an old cottage. I peered into the window, and a figure stood up, waved, and made his way to the door. With a firm handshake and a slight smile the gentleman introduced himself, welcomed me into the house and lead me into a fancy sitting room. Inside the room there were a couple of soft leather sofas, a fireplace and tray with tea, coffee, and the nicest Scottish shortbread cookies I’ve had in some time. As I took a seat, David introduced himself, as he has the enviable position of being the distillery ambassador. With all the formal introductions out of the way, we were ready to begin the tour, but first we sat down for a quick chat.

David began by telling me that I was the only person booked for this afternoon’s tour, and then began with some questions to gauge what sort of background I had with whisky and distillery tours. I told David which distilleries I had visited, some of my favourite whiskies, and some of the experiences I’ve had on other tours. There was a small pause, then David burst into life, and he told me that he wouldn’t bore me with the whisky making process, as I had seen it often enough to understand the basic principals, but rather show me the little things that make The Balvenie so special. I now had a sense that this tour was going to be something to remember, and I sure wasn’t disappointed.

We began by visiting the malting floors. Only a small number of the malt whisky distilleries in Scotland continue to use a malting floor, as the process is very time consuming and very labour intensive. Now most of the barley is malted by a handful of companies in large machines that are quite similar to clothes dryers and transported to the distillery. Even those distilleries that have malting floors (like The Balvenie and Highland Park), can only malt upwards of twenty percent of their barley and rely on purchasing the rest from the malting companies. On the floors, wet barley is spread out and dried to allow for germination which will then allow for fermentation later in the distilling process. In order to make sure that all the barley dries evenly, it needs to be turned. This is done with large wooden paddles, sometimes as many as four times a day. Having looked at the malting floors I told David that on my trip to Highland Park, I had my picture taken turning the barley. Well, no sooner had I said that, and David handed me a paddle, known as a shiel, and snapped a couple of pictures. I’m sure the maltmen weren’t impressed with the mess I left, but it’s certainly an experience I’ll cherish for many years to come. From the malting floors we made our way to the kiln, where they dry the malted barely before milling. On the main floor sits an fire, much like a fireplace in someone’s home, and directly above is a grated floor on which the barely lays. Beside the fireplace is a chalkboard indicating when this batch began, and at what time fuel needs to be added to the fire. The Balvenie like a number of distilleries uses peat to flavour their barley, but unlike the Islay distilleries they only use a very small amout, for a very short time. David looked at me, and within seconds I was placing some peat on the fire. It was now time to move on, and we made our way over to the wash and still houses.

We made our way through the wash house, complete with traditional wooden washbacks, and arrived at the still house. The copper stills used in the distillation process have just as much of an impact on the flavour of the spirit as the ingredients and the casks in which they mature. Any alteration to the shape or a size of a still will alter the spirit inside, so The Balvenie relies on a coppersmith to repair and maintain their stills. Unlike many distilleries who contract out such work, The Balvenie has their own coppersmith on site everyday to make sure that the stills are in prime condition. After the spirit has passed through both the wash and spirit stills, it needs to be aged, and for that we need oak casks. It was time for the next portion of my tour, and we made our way out to the cooperage and Warehouse 24.

The cooperage is where all the casks are stored and prepared for use. Once again, this is a practice that most distilleries source to outside agencies, but The Balvenie feel that it’s crucial to the final product, and place their trust in seven coopers who work all day repairing and rebuilding casks. It was quite a sight to see how the coopers fixed up old damaged casks with tools that haven’t seemed to have changed in the last hundred years. When each cask was finished, the ends were painted black and they were stacked onto pallets to be sent off to the filling station. Seeing all this attention to detail, I began to understand how passionate the workers are of their spirit, and what it means to them to produce a whisky of exceptional quality.

The second last stop on the tour was Warehouse 24. Although Warehouse 24 is an old stone warehouse from many years ago, most of the aging process takes place in larger, modern warehouses. A couple of winters ago, the snowfall was so heavy that throughout Scotland several warehouse roofs collapsed  under the extreme weight. At The Balvenie, it was decided that easiest way to repair the roof was to build a new building around the existing one, and to leave the original warehouse untouched inside. Thankfully Warehouse 24 was uneffected, as it was another highlight of my tour. Inside the door lay three barrels: a sherry cask, a port cask and bourbon cask. David walked over to the first cask and dropped a copper pipe on a chain through a hole in the top and waved me over. He asked if I would like a sample, but if I did, I would have to drink it out my hands. I couldn’t say yes quick enough and before I knew it, I was lapping up the whisky from the palms of my hands. We repeated the same process for the two remaining casks and I was asked to choose a favourite. It was a touch choice, but in the end I chose the first cask, the sherry butt. What came next was simply amazing. David gave me the opportunity to fill my own bottle directly from the cask. He gave me a little glass bottle, 200mL I believe, and passed me his copper pipe. I dipped it through the hole in the top of the cask and listened to sound it made as it filled with the spirit inside. When it was full, I gently pulled up on the chain and with a steady hand, poured the whisky in the bottle. I placed a cork in the top and held it up to admire my accomplishment. David filled out a tag and placed it around the neck of the bottle, detailing from which cask the whisky came, the date, and the alcoholic strength (59.5%). Finally I placed the bottle in a box, and had officially done one of the coolest things ever.  With my bottle in hand, we left the warehouse and made our way to our final stop, the tasting room.

Inside the little cottage we sat down at a beautiful oak table and David began pouring some drams. We began the tasting with a personal favourite of mine, the 12 Year Old Doublewood, and moved along to the 12 Year Old Signature. Up next was the Balvenie 15 Year Old Single Barrel, followed by the 21 Year Old Portwood. I was in heaven, each of the whiskies were so smooth, and so mellow, it was beginning to become apparent that all the small things The Balvenie does in order to maintain their exceptional level of quality were paying dividends. Finally, it was time for the fifth, and final whisky of the afternoon, The Balvenie 30 Year Old. Bottled at a slightly higher strength than most whiskies, it warmed on the way down and left a gentle tingle on the gums, it was sheer delight. With that my tour was over, and I no matter how many times I thanked David, it wasn’t enough, for I had just taken the best tour ever. I’ve had the chance to take some tours elsewhere, Highland Park will always be special to me as it was my first tour (it’s also my favourite whisky), and Glengoyne’s Masterclass was unbelievable, but having spent the afternoon with David at The Balvenie, I can honestly say that was an experience I shall hold dear to myself  for the rest of my life. Now it was time to head back to The Mash Tun for a well deserved meal, and a quiet night’s rest.

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The Macallan Distillery

Resting high on a ridge above the banks of the River Spey lays The Macallan Distillery, the first of my three tours while visiting Speyside. The Macallan, known to many simply as Macallan is one of the premium spirit producers in the world, and is widely regarded as the benchmark on which other single malts are judged. I arranged to take the “Precious Tour”, which included a tour of the distillery, a visit to Warehouse 7, and a tutored tasting featuring four of Macallan’s classic malts. 

When I arrived at the visitors centre, I was warmly greeted and told that another group was on route, and that the tour would commence once they arrived. To fill my time, I had a quick look through the gift shop and admired the vast collection of whiskies, with some prices ranging far into the thousands of pounds. Not wanting to leave empty handed, I picked up a hand carved keychain made of wood from a retired Macallan cask. Within minutes the other members of the tour arrived, two gentlemen and one lady, all from Italy, and we were off to begin the tour.

The tour began at the visitor centre and worked its way outside to the new atrium. It was at this point we were advised that we were not able to take any pictures inside the facility, but were more than welcome to take as many as we wanted of the outside and the surrounding grounds. Prior to my tour at The Macallan, most of the distilleries I visited were small, and had no more than two pairs of stills, so here at The Macallan, I had my first opportunity to see whisky mass-produced on a grand scale. With seven wash stills and fourteen spirit stills, The Macallan was by the far the largest facility I had ever seen. This allows for the production of nearly eight million litres of spirit a year, which is four to five time more than can be distilled by the other distilleries I had visited. Now, usually mass production is associated with poorer quality, but here-in lies the genius. Since The Macallan produce such a vast amount of spirit, they can pick and choose only the best for their products, and sell the rest for use in blended whiskies.

As we began the sensory portion of the tour, we were joined by another young woman, who if I remember correctly was born in Winnipeg and now lives in New York.  Initially, we walked past eight or nine pots, each of which included a scent that is associated with whiskies. Initially we took a blind sniff, not knowing what was in the pot, then flipped the sign to see what was inside and sniffed again. Some of the scents included chocolate, marzipan, citrus, and iodine, all of which are used by connoisseurs to describe whisky. This lead to a small discussion on the type of oak casks used to age whisky, and how the wood from different regions affect the aging process. The Macallan use former sherry casks to age their whisky, and similarly with their spirit, they only choose the best of casks, as only the best casks will allow them to continue to produce their world renowned whisky.

After a brief stop in Warehouse 7, we made our way back to the visitors centre. My friends from Italy took their sample of The Macallan 10 Year Old and began browsing the shop, and the young woman who joined us late, and myself were led into the tasting room. Sitting at a beautiful oak bar, we were presented with four drams, and our tour guide began by playing a little powerpoint presentation. By the time the tasting was finished, I had sampled The Macallan 12, 18, 21, and 25 Year Old expressions, each one lovelier than that last. I made my way out to the parking lot, and as the pale grey sky began to clear, I waited for my lift to The Balvenie for my afternoon tour. At first I was a little disappointed and thought I should have booked The Macallan as the second tour of the day, as how could it get any better than this, but only time would tell.

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Dalwhinnie Distillery

Having spent a lovely morning touring the Glenkinchie Distillery, I made my way north into the Scottish highlands and set my sights for Dalwhinnie. Roughly 100 miles north of Edinburgh, the Dalwhinnie Distillery sits in the hamlet of Dalwhinnie. Located directly off the A9, this tiny community is found among the peaks and valleys of the Scottish highlands, which provide some of the best scenery Scotland has to offer.

As this was my second tour of the day, I allowed myself plenty of time to make the journey between the distilleries. Having made great time along the A9, I made a brief stop at a small cafe in Dalwhinnie itself, as I had not had anything to eat since my early breakfast and it was soon approaching 2:00pm. John,the gentleman running the cafe was tremendous, as he set out a proper place setting at my table, complete with knife, fork, place mat, coaster, and so forth. As he waited for the bacon to cook for my sandwich, he told me stories of the local area, and what it was like to work and live in Dalwhinnie. After I finished what was one the best bacon butties I have ever had, I made my way to the cash and noticed a book on the counter. Dalwhinnie: A Hamlet on the Great Road was a book that was put together by a group known as Dalwhinnie Past and Present. Of the group, John’s wife was an active member and had made contributions to the publishing of the book. I had a quick flip through the pages and was sold. Every page was loaded with photographs: school photos, local scenery, old maps, and of course the distillery. I made no hesitation and purchased the book, as a fitting souvenir to my visit. With my book in hand, I made my way up the road to the distillery.

When I arrived at Dalwhinnie the parking lot was nearly empty, and I had high hopes that I might get my second personal tour of the day. I went inside the visitor centre to let them know that I had arrived and was ready for my tour. They took my new passport given to me at Glenkinchie and stamped it. 2 down, only 12 to go. I was told that I was quite early for my tour and that there would be one starting in roughly 10 minutes if I’d like to go at that time instead. Not seeing anyone in the gift shop, I agreed and went outside to take some pictures before the tour began. As you can see the it was a beautiful day, the sun was shining and blue sky stretched as far as the eye could see. I was just on my way back into the visitor centre when a bright yellow tour bus pulled up, and nearly twenty people piled off ready for their tour. Well, two personal tours in a day would be asking too much.

Our tour group featured quite a selection of people. There were four Swedish college students, three young couples from Australia, and two rather large families from Japan. Seeing as how no one else had ever been to a working distillery, our tour guide made sure to take his time and thoroughly go through the distillation process. Having a basic understanding of the whisky making process, I was looking for those little stories that allow you to distinguish the brand from other distillers. With the tour coming to its conclusion we returned to the visitor centre where we were given a wee dram of Dalwhinnie 15 year old, the brand’s core expression. This is a lovely whisky, so light and warm, yet there is not a hint of peat. Much like Glenkinchie earlier in the day, Dalwhinnie has a soft straw-like colour, and is very gentle to the senses. It is certainly a single malt whisky that I would recommend for anyone who is looking to discover the world of whiskies.  Now my day was done, I had just finished my second distillery tour,  and I was ready to head back to England. I couldn’t have asked for anything more.

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Glenkinchie Distillery

A week after visiting Auchentoshan, I made my way north up the A68 towards Edinburgh, and the Glenkinchie Distillery. Located about 15 miles from Edinburgh city centre, Glenkinchie is nestled among the small villages and rolling hills of the south Scottish countryside. Much like my previous tour at Auchentoshan, Glenkinchie is one of very few lowland distilleries still in operation today.

My visit to Glenkinchie was the first of two distillery I had planned for the day, so I had arranged to take the first available tour, which was 10:00am. After parking across the road, I made my way through the grounds, and past the lawn bowling green to the visitor centre. Inside was a well stocked gift shop, with a bountiful supply of whiskies, books, and souvenirs. As I paid for my tour, I was told that there was a group on their way, and that once they arrived, the tour would begin. I was shown through to an area full of displays and exhibits on the history of Glenkinchie, and the of the local area. I was told there was a meeting place at the other end of the room, and that would be the point from where the tour would commence.

As I began to stroll through the exhibits, I saw old pictures of the distillery, old bottles from years gone by, and so much more. The most fascinating display was a massive scale model of a distillery. It included all the stages of the distillation process, and provided a step by step account of whisky making from milling the barley to filling the casks. Having had time to sit and study the model, I am now have a greater understanding when taking tours as to what is happening at a particular stage in the whisky making process. Another interesting exhibit was that of a local farmer who began buying the left over mash for use as cattle feed. Apparently the leftover mash once all the liquid has been drained away was full of nutrients not found in traditional cattle feed, and from all accounts, the cows enjoyed the taste too. This farmer began to enter his herd into local and county fairs, and for a good number of years was awarded best in show, and he credited it to the feed he received from the distillery. Selling mash to farmers is now something that happens at most distilleries, as it provides an efficient disposal for the distillery, while giving the cows a tasty, nutritious feed. During my tour, I was informed that the displays set up were actually sitting on the old malting floors, a process which like most distilleries, Glenkinchie abandoned a number of years ago.

Once I reached the end of the exhibits, I took a seat and waited for the missing group to arrive. Roughly five minutes passed, and a young woman poked her head through the doorway and introduced herself as Amanda. She explained to me that the group were unable to make it on time, therefore, I was fortunate enough to have a private tour of the distillery. She began by asking what sort of knowledge I had about Scotch, and the distillation process, and I responded by explaining my love for the sweet nectar, and which tours I had taken previously. This gave a frame of reference for Amanda, and she was able to spend a great deal more time talking to me about Glenkinchie itself, rather whisky making in general. We made our way around the mash house, and still houses, and ended up in my favourite place, the warehouses. Although they are dark, damp, and cold, the smell of a traditional stone warehouse is a scent that is so warm and comforting. The warehouse which we visited was right across the courtyard from the visitor centre, and it was obvious by the low ceiling and beautiful, intoxicating aroma that this was one of the original warehouses from many years ago.

Now came time for what is usually my favourite part of any tour, the tasting room. Glenkinchie aren’t know for having a wide range of age expressions, as they sell a majority of their whiskies for use in blends. In fact, if I recall correctly, I believe upwards of 5% of Johnnie Walker Red Label is made up of whiskies from Glenkinchie. This left me what I thought would have been a small selection from which to sample (which was good seeing as how I was driving all day) but never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined the selection before me. I had the customary dram of Glenkinchie 12 Year Old, and it’s light, golden body went down a treat, and it wasn’t yet 11:00am. Amanda then pointed to the large selection of bottles on the shelves behind and asked if there was anything else I would like to try. I nearly cried, the thought of all those whiskies just waiting to be sipped, but I informed Amanda that I was driving to Dalwhinnie for a distillery tour that afternoon. At first I thought she didn’t like what I had said, as she simply turned and walked away. Not sure what to do, I began to gather my things when she made her way out of the backroom. In her hands was a little faux leather passport, and in it were a list of distilleries. She explained that if I signed up to be a friend of the “Classic Malts”, I would be given free admission to each distillery, and for every distillery I visit, I would get a stamp in my passport. Should I visit all 12 distilleries, I could send my passport away and I would get a token of their appreciation. It was free to become a friend of the “Classic Malts”, and it just so happened that my next stop, Dalwhinnie, was one of the participating distilleries. This day was just getting better and better, and aside from the fact that I had to turn down so many lovely drams, I couldn’t have asked for anything more. I had a personal tour of a distillery, and I now had a free pass to 11 more. I would not hesitate to go back to Glenkinchie again, I just hope I could have Amanda again as my tour guide, and have someone else come along to be my designated driver.

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Auchentoshan Distillery

The Auchentoshan Distillery is located just outside the centre of Glasgow, and is one of very few lowland distilleries still in production. Situated on the north side of the River Clyde, it’s a quick ten minute drive from Glasgow International Airport. As I discovered on my tour, Auchentoshan means “corner of the field”, as the distillery literally sits in the corner of a field.

To reach Glasgow, I had a two hour drive north from Carlisle up the M6 and A74 in the most miserable of weather conditions. At one point the rain was so heavy, and the reduction of my visibility was so severe had the car in front of me not been bright yellow, I would have had to pull over, assuming I was able to find the shoulder.  Even though the weather was certainly not cooperating, I was still looking forward to my afternoon at Auchentoshan.

Upon reaching the visitors centre,  I was greeted by a very friendly member of staff and I booked to take the next available tour. Prior to the tour beginning I was shown a small ten minute film on the history of Auchentoshan, and was offered tea or coffee along with a piece of authentic Scottish shortbread. By the time the film came to an end, there were a number of others waiting for the tour to begin, and away we went.

Much like every tour that I have taken, we were led from the mash tuns, to the washbacks and eventually to the still house, but once we arrived at the still house we were shown the one thing that separates Auchentoshan from every other Scotch distillery. Traditionally, when whisky is distilled in Scotland, it passed through two stills, much like giant kettles. First the liquid is boiled in the wash still, the larger of the pair, and then distilled a second time in the spirit still. Each time the liquid boils inside, it passes through the neck and collects in a massive drum where it comes into contact with copper pipes full of cold water. Once the steam from the still makes contact with the cold pipes it turns back into a liquid, and it’s this liquid that is put into casks and aged eventually becoming whisky. At Auchentoshan they distill their whisky three times in three separate stills, one wash, and two spirit, something that is rarely seen outside the production of Irish whiskey. The result is a much mellower and light bodied whisky, which will take a greater influence from the casks in which it’s stored.

Now came for the part of the tour where the group was to make our way across the grounds to one of the original warehouses. Did I mention it was raining? It was still raining very heavily, so our tour guide took it upon herself to hand out some umbrellas specifically reserved for visitors. By the time we reached the entrance to the warehouse (roughly 100 yards away), everyone on the tour was wet, very wet, and each of the umbrellas were now inside-out and useless. We spent a good ten minutes in warehouse learning about the different types of casks, their sizes, and the types of wood used. By the time our tour was ready to head for the tasting room, it was just our luck that it had stopped raining long enough for us to make back into the main building.

Our tour concluded with a dram of Auchentoshan 12 Year Old and a dram of Auchentoshan Three Wood. I must say, the 12 Year Old was an instant favourite. It was so smooth, and its beautiful ruby hue was a hallmark of the sherry barrels used in the aging process. Afterwards, I had a quick browse through the gift shop and picked up a jar of marmalade made with whisky from Auchentoshan, and a small set of bottles that is known as the Stillman’s Collection. In three 50mL bottles, there are samples of new make spirit at three different ages. The first was the day it was placed in the cask, the second was one year later, and the final was two years after being placed in the cask. It is amazing to see how much the spirit changes color in the first year, and how much more again in the second year. I picked it up as neat souvenir, but it has come in handy when I have been attempting to describe the whole maturation process.

Putting the weather aside, I really enjoyed my day at Auchentoshan. I was touring another Scotch distillery and was able to sample some of their wares, and picked up a couple neat gifts along the way. For any whisky enthusiasts visiting the Glasgow area, you need to take the time and head to Auchentoshan. Another excellent tour with a most hospitable staff, I couldn’t ask for anything else, except maybe a stronger umbrella.

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Glengoyne Distillery

My second tour of a Single Malt distillery was at Glengoyne, which sits roughly 16 miles north of Glasgow, Scotland. Having thoroughly enjoyed my tour at Highland Park, I made the effort to take part in another tour on my next visit to the UK. I made enquiries at numerous distilleries, and made my decision to visit Glengoyne based on their Master Class tour.  The Master Class tour has won numerous awards for having the most in-depth distillery tour, and I certainly wasn’t disappointed.

Lasting over 4 hours, the Master Class tour begins in what was once the residence of the master blender. It begins with a casual conversation with the tour guide and a tasting of Glengoyne 17 Year Old. After an introduction to the other patrons on the tour, we were led into the distillery for the traditional distillery tour. As with any tour, we followed the process for making whisky, starting at the mill, making our way through the washbacks and mashtuns, and finishing in the still house. It was at this point, we learned of a very interesting characteristic of the distillery. For those of you who do not know, there are four major whisky producing regions in Scotland: Lowland, Highland, Speyside and Islay. Glengoyne has the distinction of being a Highland whisky, yet their whisky matures in warehouses across the road, on the other side of the whisky line, making it Lowland territory. As for the warehouses, this was the first time I was able to see how mass production and modern influences affected the distillation of whisky.

Typically on a tour, you are taken to one of the original stone warehouse where the casks sit on racks, as was the process for many years. Now, with scotch whisky being sold throughout the world, distilleries need larger warehouses to house their casks. By the time of my visit, Glengoyne had established new warehouses, which were much more modern than the old stone warehouses for which distilleries are famous. In the these warehouses, stacked eight high, were pallets of casks sitting on their end and packed from wall to wall.  In these casks was whisky that was more than likely to be sold for blended whisky as opposed to being used for Glengoyne Single Malt. It was intriguing to see the scale of the operation, and to see what type of changes the scotch whisky industry was undertaking to continue to supply the increasing demand around the world.

After returning from our tour of the distillery, we were provided with lunch consisting of sandwiches and  home-made pastries. Now for the rest of the Master Class. It began with a very in-depth tutorial on how to identify the types of scents found in whisky. We were given twenty different jars containing common scents found in whisky, and we filled out a little quiz as we identified each scent. Some scents such as smoke, peppermint, and anise were easily identifiable, but there were some that I never would have guessed, especially the eucalyptus. But all this training lead to the final task of the day, blending our own whisky to take home.

In this picture you can see six bottles with red tops, and two larger bottles with little black caps. The bottles with the blacks caps contained grain whiskies, which would be the base for our blend. In those bottles with the red lids, we had six malt whiskies. One Highland, one Lowland, one Speyside, one Islay, one from the Islands (which is a smaller region of the Highlands) and one from right here at Glengoyne. These whiskies would be the ones that add flavour and character to our whisky. We were given a sheet, and had to document the measures of each whisky we used to create our final blend. It was a challenge to sit there and think about the flavour profile I wanted from my whisky, but after forty minutes of blending and nosing, my whisky was complete. After being blended, we had to name our whisky – I named my bottle Highland Crown – and we handed our recipes back to Glengoyne, so should we ever wish to purchase another bottle, they had our exact blend on file.  One of the other members of the tour named his “Last Resort”, so I think that shows what confidence he has in his blending skills.

And that was the end of another amazing tour. I gained such a greater depth of knowledge about the whisky industry itself, not to mention the detail involved in the craftsmanship, I have been able to have a better appreciation for the tours I have since taken. I have yet to try my bottle of “Highland Crown” to see how it stands up against other whiskies, but I think I might let it sit for now, and leave the whisky making to the experts.

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Guinness Brewery, St. James’s Gate

Guinness is without question one of the most recognized and trusted brands around the world. A brand that was established over 250 years ago, and a business that helped an entire nation prosper, it seems like as good a place as any for my first brewery review.

I have always had a fondness for Guinness. It’s not a beer that I would order if I was out having a session with the boys, and I wouldn’t recommend one a blistering summer day, but for the right occasion, nothing beats a Guinness. It was always a goal of mine to travel to Dublin and visit the fabled St. James’s Gate Brewery, and in April of 2011, I did just that. I was on vacation in the north-east of England when I took an unbelievably cheap flight from Newcastle to Dublin. To put the cost into context, it was cheaper for this return flight than for a taxi from Pearson to the downtown core.

I had never been to Ireland, and had no idea quite what to expect, and I was told two things: Everyone is very friendly and helpful, and that I’d have a great time at Guinness. When I arrived at the hotel, I asked the young girl at the desk which would be the best way to get to the Guinness Brewery, and she gave me a map with the bus routes I needed to take, and made change for me so I would exact fare for my trip. I boarded the first bus outside the hotel and had to make one change in the centre of Dublin before arriving at the brewery. As I waited for the second bus, a nice lady pointed out that I was at the wrong bus stop, and that the stop I needed was about 100 metres down the road. I was told everyone was friendly, and so far, I couldn’t have asked for anything more. As I boarded the second bus, I double checked with the driver to make sure I was on the correct route, and he said he’d give a shout when we reached the stop for Guinness. Only a handful of minutes had passed before the driver hollered, and as I exited, he showed me the quickest path to the brewery.

Finally, I was there, home to one of the longest living brands, and home to that sweet, velvety stout. When I arrived, I made my way to what looked like ATM’s. The tour at Guinness is very self-help, as you may only see three or four employees during the entire tour, and a couple of them are in the gift shop and bar.  I purchased my ticket, placed it in the automatic gate and made my way into the Guinness Gift Shop. I was in so in awe of the shop itself, I nearly forgot about the tour, and then it happened. Fire Alarms began blaring, and employees wearing hi-vis vests came bursting in from all different directions and escorted all the tourists through the emergency doors. Once outside, we were all taken to a secure car park as the facility was evacuated. We were told we would be outside for ten, maybe fifteen minutes, but once half an hour passed, things took an even weirder turn. Three or four heavily armed vans rolled up to building and a dozen soldiers stormed out. All the patrons in the parking lot were taken inside to a small seminar room and awaited further instruction, and yet no one knew what was happening. About an hour and half after we first left the building, we were allowed back in. Apparently someone had made an anonymous call to the police stating that one of the destinations that Queen Elizabeth II was to visit on her tour of Ireland was compromised. Now let’s be fair, if you were making your first trip to Ireland, wouldn’t you want to go for a tour of the Guinness Brewery?

With all the dramatic scenes behind us, I made my way back inside and began the self guided tour. This tour is so much more than the method of brewing beer, or the number of kegs produced a day, but the history of the brand, and what it has meant to Ireland. Along the tour, I came across an old miniature locomotive that was used to move the barley around the brewery on a private railway. On display are countless numbers of old advertising posters, slogans, and mascots. The orignal harp, that gave inspiration to the trademark Guinness Harp is also on display in a glass case. As you make your way from floor to floor, you see a giant glass structure in the centre of the building. At the bottom, buried into the floor is a copy of the famous lease that Arthur Guinness signed back in 1758, for an astonishing 9000 years. But the top is where it all comes together. When you get to the top, and have a look down you can finally see that the glass structure is a giant pint glass, and now, you’re at the top, where you find that rich, creamy head for which Guinness is so famous. Upon reaching the top, you enter a bar, with only one beer on tap, and a breathtaking 360 degree view of Dublin. Upon handing your tour ticket to the barman, he begins to pour you a complimentary pint of Guinness. It takes 119.5 seconds to pour the perfect pint as the bar man fills three-quarters of the glass, and allows it to settle before topping it off. He explained that if poured correctly, a pint of Guinness should taste the same anywhere in the world, but I couldn’t disagree more. That was the best pint of Guinness I have ever had. Period.

I sat in the bar enjoying my pint and looking out into the dreary Irish weather when a couple of young girls went to the bar for their complementary pint. Not knowing if they would like it, they split one pint between themselves. By the reaction on their faces, it wouldn’t take a genius to figure out that they weren’t fans, but they politely offered me their spare ticket, so I graciously accepted, not wanting it to go to waste. I could have sat there all day, but with no more free pints coming way, I made an exit, and headed for a meal in the city centre. I had no idea what to expect when I arrived, but the hospitality afforded to me by everyone was beyond anything I could imagine. Should the chance arise again, I’d love to go back and look out over Dublin, sipping the beer so firmly entrenched in its history.

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Highland Park Distillery

Before I begin, I need to let you know three things with regards to this tour: Firstly, Highland Park is my favourite Single Malt, period. Two, this distillery tour was the first I had ever taken. And three, it was not the easiest place to which to travel.

Highland Park is a scotch whisky distillery in Kirkwall, on the isle of Orkney, which is roughly 250 miles from the Scottish capital of Edinburgh. In order to get to Kirkwall, you have two choices, a very long drive followed by a short ferry ride, or a one hour flight on a small commuter aircraft. I chose the latter, as time was a factor, and I have never had a fear of flying, until then anyway.  Departing from Edinburgh airport in the early hours of September 28th 2012 was uneventful as an any other flight on which I have travelled, it was the arrival into Kirkwall roughly 75 minutes later that had me slightly concerned. For anyone who knows me, I regularly take flights across the Atlantic, and never once have I been full of concern, but nothing could have prepared me for the landing our flight had this morning. As Orkney came into view, I could feel the plane moving from side to side as the pilot made his final approach, yet with the strong northern gales, the plane bobbed from side to side and upwards and downwards as we came into land, and the fact that the plane landed on one set of rear wheels before the other had me a little concerned, but within seconds the plane had come to a stop, and I was ready for a drink. Well, for that I was in the best possible place. 

As I mentioned above, Highland Park is my favourite Single Malt, and this too was my first distillery tour. Having just stepped off the plane, I was greeted by a member of the Highland Park staff who had come to the airport to transport me towards to the distillery. When I booked the tour a couple of months ahead of time, I was told that their top tour provided transport to and from the airport , and this instantly became a selling point. I booked the tour, known as the Magnus Eunson tour, which also provided some other benefits I was to learn about later in the day. At the distillery I met a good friend, Aussie Tom, who happened to be in the area on business, and he graciously provided me company on the tour.

The tour began in the visitors centre, where we watched a small film on the history of Orkney, the history of Highland Park, and some of the accolades the distillery had recently been awarded. The film ended with the simple phrase “The best spirit in the world.”, an award bestowed upon them in 2005. Now it was time for the actual tour, and to see from where my favourite libation was born. Our guided tour began with the malting floors – a practice only used by a handful of distilleries today – and given the chance, I jumped into the drying malt and turned it by hand. The tour then made it’s way to drying ovens, and I had a photo taken with me warming my hands by the open fire.  After walking across the courtyard, we made our way into the still house, and had a first hand glimpse of the Highland Park stills. The final part of the tour took place in an old stone warehouse, where most of the rarest  and precious whiskies lay in casks to mature. The smell of that warehouse is a scent I will never forget, as it simply fills your nose with the sweet smell of whisky as it escapes the cask.

With the actual tour of the distillery finished, we were off to the best part, the tasting room. As I said earlier, there were benefits to booking their Magnus Eunson tour, and here they were. Instead of having a small dram of the “ordinary” Highland Park 12 Year Old, we were given seven different whiskies , ranging from limited releases, to aged whiskies as rare as Highland Park 40 Years Old. The tasting began with two cask strength whiskies, Hjarta and Saint Magnus, both of which were well over 55% alc/vol. Then we moved onto the core expressions of the range: 15, 18, 25, 30, and 40 Year Old. As we savoured each dram, I couldn’t help but be anxious to try a whisky that had been sitting in cask well before I was born, and well before my parents had even met. I was not disappointed. Now I will never be the type of drinker that can distinguish scents and flavours and use them to describe a certain drink, but this was just one word, glorious. It was so smooth and warming, and I’m certainly glad I had the chance to try it, because I don’t see myself having the money to buy such a magnificent bottle.

The afternoon finished with us being dropped off by the waterfront in Kirkwall so we could experience authentic Scottish Fish and Chips, before being whisked back to the airport for our evening flight home.

So that’s it, my first review on my first distillery tour. I would wholeheartedly recommend this tour to anyone who is a lover of Single Malt, or to someone who isn’t but is visiting Orkney, it’s a must see for sure.  I have to give it five stars, it was everything I expected, and so much more. The flight in was a little bumpy, but to be fair, I can’t say I remember much about the flight home.

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Over the past number of years I have the privledge of taking some unbelievable  distillery, brewery, and winery tours. As time passes, I will post a review about each tour, where they were located, and a picture or two of the facility.

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