A Denouement of Drams

“Too much of anything is bad, but too much good whiskey is barely enough.” – Mark Twain

I arrived in Scotland already resigned to saving distillery tours for a future visit. My travel companion is not so interested. But then a series of coincidences (or were they?) conspired to have me visit four distilleries. Excessive rain and wind limiting outdoor options in Glen Coe, and all of a sudden I was at Oban. Wait, there is a distillery on the Isle of Skye and we’re going to be there anyway? Our friend in London’s spare bedroom isn’t free until the 25th, so we have an extra day to work with? Let’s stop in Speyside between the Highlands and Edinburgh.

Many a tome has been penned on the topic of Scotch whisky, and I am far from an expert. So this post is not an attempt to comprehensively cover the topic. Rather, I will share a few of my experiences, mention some things that surprised me, and also cover in the Practical Info section our night in Speyside and a few tips. I will over-simplify many things, and I will generally use “whisky” only to mean single malt Scotch whisky. And yes, here they spell it without the “e.”

There are five single malt regions of Scotland, though they are not necessarily entirely distinct and there may be some overlap. The five are: the Lowlands, the Highlands, Speyside, Islay, and Campbeltown. To generalize, Islay whiskies are often the most heavily peated and smoky. Speyside are often more sherried. Note that Speyside technically lies within the Highland region, and it is home to approximately half of Scotland’s malt whisky distilleries.

Making whisky is actually a pretty simple process. There are only three ingredients: water, malted barley and yeast. To qualify as “Scotch whisky,” the whisky must be produced at a distillery in Scotland, aged in oak casks for at least three years and carry an ABV of at least 40%. There are countless variations in temperatures, types of casks, time frames, etc., but the basic process is as follows:

  • Barley is malted. This means it is soaked in water, which causes germination. Then it is dried in a kiln to halt further growth.
  • The malted barley is then run through a mill, and the goal is to break down the barley and typically get about 20% husk, 70% grist (grits?) and 10% flour.
  • The entire mixture is then added to the mash tun, where it is combined with hot water to convert the starches into sugars. The resulting sweet liquid is called worts. It is drained and the remaining solids become animal feed.
  • The worts is cooled and pumped into washbacks, where yeast is added to begin the fermentation process. This usually lasts 2-4 days and the resulting wash has an ABV around 8-9%.
  • The wash is then pumped into copper pot stills and the distillation process begins. Scotch whisky is usually double distilled (Auchentoshan is triple distilled), so you will see one or more pairs where one still is larger and the other smaller. The wash first goes into the larger still and is boiled, and since alcohol boils at a lower temperature than water, alcohol vapor is produced. It is then condensed and that liquid is called low wines, usually about 20-25% ABV.
  • The low wines liquid is pumped into the second, smaller still and boiled again and the resulting liquid has a much higher ABV. Distillers talk about the head, the heart and the tail. The first bit of liquid that comes out of the second distillation process has a very high ABV and some unwanted properties, and the last bit of liquid that comes out has a low ABV and also some unwanted properties. So these parts (the head and the tail, aka foreshots and feints) are recycled back with the low wines into the second still, and only the heart becomes the new-make spirit.
  • This new-make spirit is a clear liquid, usually with an ABV around 70%. Most (all?) distillers then dilute this a bit with water (to perhaps 63.5%) before filling the oak casks for the aging process to begin.
  • After the whisky has been aged in oak casks, it is diluted again (usually to 40-48% ABV) before being bottled, unless it is bottled as cask strength whisky.

Among the key variations and nuances in how whisky is made, perhaps the most obvious to the palate is whether peat is burned to dry the barley during the malting process. If so, the resulting whisky will have a smoky taste, depending on just how much peat is used. Examples of very smoky whiskies that I’ve tried include Laphroaig, Talisker and Lagavulin. Interestingly, peat is odorless when raw. If you do a Google search for “Dave Broom flavor map,” you will find maps illustrating where certain whiskies fall on the spectrum between delicate and smoky and between light and rich. Here is an example:

I would say the next most influential difference is what type of cask is used and for how long. Whisky almost always begins in an ex-bourbon cask and stays there for 10-20 years. Sometimes it is finished in a sherry cask for 6-12 months, possibly even a port or rum cask. Occasionally whisky is aged in a sherry cask from the beginning.

Here are a few things I learned:

  • Hardly any of the large distillers malt their barley on-site. Rather, barley is typically malted at specialist facilities and then delivered to the distilleries. There are exceptions to this. I believe Balvenie still does floor maltings, but I’m not sure they cover all their production needs in-house.
  • The huge majority of oak casks are ex-bourbon casks imported from America. There is a simple explanation: by regulation, bourbon casks may only be used once, thus providing a fairly inexpensive stream of oak casks for Scotch whisky distillers.
  • All the color in whisky comes from aging in the cask(s), it is a clear liquid when it enters the cask.
  • The oak casks are porous, and the evaporation rate is usually 1.5-2% each year. This lost liquid is referred to as the angels’ share. This gave me an entirely different appreciation for why older whiskies are more expensive (without opining on whether they’re worth it). Not only are they rarer and require more time in storage etc., but more of the original amount has disappeared. Keep whisky in a cask for 25 years, and you’ll have only half the liquid you began with!
  • Cask strength means whisky that is not diluted before being bottled. I think some alcohol evaporates over time (?), so an old cask strength whisky might be 51-52% ABV vs. a younger cask strength might be 57%.
  • After the wash is distilled, the liquid runs through a spirit safe, which literally has a lock on it, to avoid tax-free diversion of the spirits. I mentioned the head, heart and tail above. To separate these segments, someone manually moves a lever and the liquid falls into a different receiving vessel.
  • I believe that all whisky is aged in a bonded, duty-free warehouse. The taxman must take his, but it would be impractical and unfair to tax the whisky so many years before it could be sold and before all the angels’ share disappears.

It is true that hardly anyone puts ice in their whisky here. They insist that it dulls the flavor, and besides, the mercury rarely pushes up in these parts and whisky is viewed as a warming beverage. However, it is very common to add a few drops of water to a dram. This is said to open up varied flavors and aromas. You might try the whisky untouched, then add a few drops and see which you prefer. If you see me pull out a medicine dropper at the bar, stay calm.

One of the biggest disappointments is price. Because taxes are so high, you will typically pay no less for a bottle at the distillery itself than you would pay at a store in the US. I have not done much research on what you can find in the US if you look hard enough, but I think it is fair to say that you can try a lot of whiskies in Scotland that you can’t easily find anywhere else. And though prices are high, the system is conducive to more affordable tasting. Pours are smaller, usually 25ml, so for £3-5 you can try many whiskies where in the US you’d have to buy a bottle or at least a more expensive, albeit larger, serving.

The four distilleries I visited are Oban, Talisker, Glenfarclas and Glenfiddich. It was interesting that even though Oban and Talikser are owned by the mega-behemoth Diageo, those distilleries were smaller than the other two. Glenfarclas definitely had the most independent feel to it, while Glenfiddich may remain a family business but the distillery is enormous and more corporate feeling. You generally may not take photos on the Oban or Talisker tours and generally may on the other two. I recommend making a reservation even if you read that it is not necessary, as many tours do sell out. I only made it onto an Oban tour because of a kind woman who sold me her ticket. And I’m told Balvenie (and I’m guessing others) can book up weeks or months in advance. I will summarize my visit to each.

Oban

  • Set right in the middle of the eponymous town, apparently because the distillery was there first and the town grew up around it.
  • Signature malt is the 14 year (taste included on tour), a nicely balanced dram with a hint of smoke.
  • The tour costs £7.50, but it (and the other Diageo distillery tours) is free if you become a Friend of the Classic Malts. The tour includes a tiny taste straight from an 11-year-old cask, and also a souvenir glass. Only seven people work in the distillery (not counting the visitor center etc.).
  • At the visitor center there is a little tasting bar where most drams cost £3. This is how I came to try the Lagavulin Distillers Edition and ended up buying a bottle.

Talisker

  • The only distillery on the Isle of Skye.
  • Signature malt is the 10 year (taste included on tour), heavy on the peat smoke with pepper on the tongue.
  • Tour costs £7.

Glenfarclas

  • Owned by the same family since 1865; the tour costs £5 and includes a taste of the 10 year.
  • I think they have the largest mash tun in Scotland.
  • The tour leader told us that a taller still with a longer neck will yield a lighter spirit (such as Glenmorangie or Ardbeg), while a shorter and stouter still will yield a richer/heavier spirit (such as Lagavulin).
  • He also said they heat their stills from underneath using gas. They tried internal coils for a while but found it impacted the flavor, so they switched back.
  • One of the few that uses almost all sherry casks from the start. The flavor will differ significantly from the first-fill vs. a later fill, so they blend the whisky from casks with different fill seniority.
  • They mature all their whisky onsite, and store casks for some others, too.
  • In the midst of a drought, they invited famed BBC weatherman Ian McCaskill to open a new warehouse. It proceeded to rain for months, so Ian now has his own gift cask maturing on site.

Glenfiddich

  • Owned by William Grant & Sons, who also own Balvenie.
  • The world’s top selling single malt.
  • There is a well-reviewed cafe/restaurant on site, called the Malt Barn.
  • A regular tour is free. I did the Explorer Tour, which costs £10, and there are more expensive options. With the Explorer Tour, I got to taste the 12, 15, 18 and 21 year olds. The 12 and 18 are similar in composition, while the 15 is made with a method unique to Glenfiddich and the 21 is finished in a rum cask. Pioneered by legendary Malt Master Dave Stewart, the 15 is “aged in European, American, and New American oak to carefully release the virgin cask flavours, the whisky is then mellowed in our unique Solera vat before being married in Portuguese oak tuns” (emphasis added).
  • While some whiskies begin in bourbon casks and are finished in sherry casks, here for the 12 and 18 year they age the whisky separately and then combine the bourbon-aged and the sherry-aged whiskies in a marrying tun before bottling; about 80-85% bourbon and 15-20% sherry.
  • This distillery is massive, with 24 mash tuns vs. maybe 1-8 at others I saw, and here they’re made from Douglas fir vs. the more common stainless steel. They have 28 pot stills vs. maybe 2-8 at others I saw.
  • A rarity, they have an on-site cooperage. Casks are made only from oak staves, metal rings and river reed which creates the seal, i.e. there is no glue or nails.

Aside from these four distilleries and the various drams I tried therein, the other single malts I recall tasting in Scotland are: Auchentoshan Three Wood; Balvenie DoubleWood 12 year and Caribbean Cask 14 year; Aberlour 10; Mortlach 15; Glenfarclas 15; Glenmorangie; Glenkinchie; Ardmore 10; Bunnahabhain 12; Highland Park 12; Macallan 10; Bowmore 12; Benromach Traditional.

Practical Info

I mentioned the five whisky regions above. The only region that we visited specifically to taste whisky was Speyside, as it was a fairly convenient stop between the Highlands and Edinburgh. Speyside has the greatest concentration of distilleries (I believe Islay is a distant second), and there are many towns where you could sleep and lots of options for guided tours. We stayed in Dufftown, which is home to Glenfiddich and Balvenie. They say, “Rome was built on seven hills but Dufftown’s built on seven stills.” We considered staying in Grantown-on-Spey and drove through Aberlour which looked quaint. I am told the Aberlour distillery tour is among the best.

I did not do any multi-distillery guided tours because Jenni was not interested and it did not seem the right fit for this trip. If you are serious about visiting and tasting, though, it might be a good idea. In addition to a driver and knowledgeable local, you can get access to distilleries that are otherwise closed to the public. The Dufftown Distilleries Walk sounded appealing, but it is not offered on Wednesdays. Conversely, the nosing and tasting evening in Dufftown is offered only on Wednesday, but I skipped it. You might look up the Malt Whisky Trail for some regional info.

In addition to distilleries, there are quite a few castles in these parts.

Transportation: We drove from Ullapool to Dufftown, and Inverness is right on the way but we did not stop. It would be a 3-4 hour drive from Glasgow or Edinburgh. You need a car to get around Speyside, unless you go on a tour.

Accommodation: We stayed at Fernbank House in Dufftown. Karen is an excellent host (she gave me a ride to Glenfiddich as I was pressed for time, and also gave us muffins and fruit for lunch), our room was spacious and nice and breakfast was great. The only negative is it’s a one+ mile walk into town and the road is narrow and windy with no sidewalk. There are B&Bs in town, but these were already booked.

Food and Drinks: The Royal Oak in Dufftown may be my new favorite bar, or at least Pearl is hands-down my favorite bartender. She has been in the pub business for 52 years, and sampling some drams with her advice at this little dive was wonderful. I would like to return with some friends and nobody needing to drive afterwards, and just sit at her bar for hours and hours. Our only meal was dinner at D.J. Chippie, a pretty low quality fast-food joint but with friendly service and, according to our B&B host, meticulous cleanliness. Recommended restaurants in Dufftown include Taste of Speyside, The Stuart Arms and Tannochbrae.

Activities: I covered most of this above. Beyond distilleries, you might look into the Whisky Museum in Dufftown, Speyside Cooperage, the Knockando woolen mill, and castles. There are some whisky festivals that sound fun, and it was a shame our visit (not just here but anywhere in Scotland) did not coincide with a Highland games event.

August 20-21, 2014 (Wednesday-Thursday) (just our time in Speyside)

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