In the first of a few guest blogs I have lined up, I have the pleasure in introducing Charles Steinberg from the prestigious Brandy Library in New York. I was more than happy to help him with the planning of his whisky trip to Scotland last winter, and in return he graciously offered to write a summary of his trip for our blog. It is always good to see Scotland through the lens of a visitor, and I hope you will enjoy. Over to you Charles -
My exploration of the Distilleries of Scotland was a whirlwind motor-cross through a wintry countryside. It felt more like a race to reach as many distilleries as possible in a 5 day period for some noteworthy prize. Nonetheless, it afforded some singular moments of an industry culture that seems, at times, to live as much in the past as it does the moment. My initial destination was Aberdeen, since it would put me up near Speyside, the distillery capitol of the world. It was dark and rainy when I arrived, which only mattered because I was driving in Britain for the first time and the conditions would only add to the difficulty of driving on opposites. The drive to Dufftown, where I was graciously being put up by the Glenfiddich Distillery, was fairly direct. This was fortunate. I was given the warmest of Scottish countryside welcomes by the only remaining staff member on the grounds and was shown to the accommodations, which were top shelf…and warm. In the morning, I was greeted by grazing mountain cattle with their red winter coats and a surprising day-lit view of the old Balvenie Castle ruins directly outside my door. The main objective of my trip was to visit distilleries and the tours were to be a little more special for me because they were arranged for ahead of time and private. I began, of course with Glenfiddich and Balvenie, essentially on the same grounds and Balvenie being the more romantic of the two with its old suit-stained stone buildings. I spent the afternoon just up the road in Rothes, at the secluded and low profile Glenrothes Distillery. Their stills room had some of the same majesty of the old Penn Station in New York. Everything in Speyside is fairly close together, so jumping from town to town is easy for tourists and common, I gathered, for locals. As such, I hopped over to Elgin for supper on a rainy evening and retired on the early side, as I had a full day of driving ahead of me – almost entirely across the Highlands to Islay off the Southwest coast.
I was warned that the drive to Kennacraig, the ferry port to Islay, would take the better part of the day, so I got an early start, with hopes that I would be able to stop off at a couple of locations on the way to take photographs. There were many, and I had to resist the urge to pull over on several occasions, thinking it better to press on. If I had missed the last ferry to Islay that day, I would’ve had to wait until 1pm the following afternoon. This was Winter in Scotland and with the sun ducking down at around 4:30, I had to make the most of the daylight hours. A stop along my diagonal surge west took me through Aviemore, and it was suggested to me (thanks David) that I take a look at Loch An Eilein in Glenmore Forest. Had I more time to explore, I would have started the approach to the Cairngorm Mountains, but as it was, I took a short turn around the “loch of the island”. The weather was positively ideal with bright sun and crisp air with no wind. The Loch An Eilein Castle made for a couple of nice photos but before I got too carried away into the woods, I about-faced it to get back on the road. This was a shame because it was the best afternoon for a hike that you could hope for in the Highlands.
It was getting on in the day as I continued on westward towards the coast. The trademark grey sky began to diffuse the sun and I would occasionally drive through pockets of icy rain. I passed through Fort William, where I had once hiked when I lived in Edinburgh, and began my southward descent toward Oban, my leg-stretch and recon stop. The roads turned progressively tighter along the coast and began to twist and bend. Oban seemed quite lively for a late winter day. The people in a sandwich shop were polite to point out that it wouldn’t hurt to check to see if the ferry to Islay was still set to depart that day. It had been windy enough during the past two for a couple to be cancelled. The ferry was indeed ready to set out at 6pm sharp and I made it with fifteen minutes to spare, having driven, for the most part, since 11 in the morning from Speyside. Eighty five pounds ain’t cheap for a round trip to Islay with automobile, but it makes sense. I embarked on a two and a half hour boat ride to an Island that is a charming enigma; at once old fashioned and independent of contemporary society and yet welcoming towards it’s current recognition. There is a growing awareness of it’s spot on the map and the resulting swell in tourism due to, among other things, its signature smokey whiskey producing distilleries, has allowed for some modernity. That being said, I found one place serving dinner at 9:30 on a Saturday night and had to push it to the west of the Island on an empty tank because there were no open gas stations. I was staying in Port Charlotte, right by Bruichladdich Distillery. After having a couple drams of Its product at the Inn, I was greeted by my B&B host, Graham, who was in full kilted garb, though he insisted that he doesn’t normally dress like that to welcome guests. He was on his way to a party, and I to bed after my mad dash across Scotland.
As no Distilleries are open on Sundays in Islay, I did my best to discover a place with few signs of life on the day of rest. Loch Finlaggin, once the center of the Lordship of the Isles, was where I began and it was a fitting place to be introduced to the Island in daylight. You really get the sense of the proud and honored past of the land even standing next to the fragments of remains, nestled at the seat of this massive Loch. Even though Bunnahabain was a ghost town, I thought it might be nice to drive up the east coast a little and see it from the outside. It was actually a prime day for photographs, with the sun peeking through moving, shifting cloud formations. Auspicious for me, as it had been lousy weather for a week prior to my arrival. Though I was told of a huge cargo ship wreck on the shore of the Sound, I never saw it. Bunnahabain was quiet and I can sum up the next couple of hours with a warning to all my fellow infrequent drivers out there to never drive down a road that doesn’t look like it’s been driven on much unless you have four-wheel drive. Let’s just say that my guardian angel happened to be out for a Sunday drive with wife and kids. After surveying the depth of my back wheel in the mid-road trench, he told me to allow for a half hour while he went and got his pick-up truck! He returned in two thirds that time with his kids, still peering at me through the back window of their car like I was a martian that had just crash landed into earth. After I was freed, easily, I had precious little sun-light left and so headed back to Port Charlotte and the cozy B&B that awaited. I looked forward to the following day of Distillery activity.
Though it felt like I spent more time the next morning driving back and forth between distilleries, I managed to take in some distinctive ones: Ardbeg, with it’s renovated lustre, Bruichladdich with it’s museum like tour, revealing every stage of the whiskey production chain – even a slick tech bottling room - and a quick gander at Laphroaig, with it’s two malting floors that gave off that trademark pungent aroma. I shared my Bruichladdich tour with a couple of nice chaps who had seemed to just meander onto Islay somehow. One was from Argentina and the other was a Scot who lived in London. Jim McEwan, the master distiller there, came out for a chat in the end and the subject of whisky barely come up in the conversation, though the consumption of it happened most certainly (moderately). I got to try the newest version of the peatiest whisky currently on the market – The Octomore, Orpheus. Again, feeling as if I had to rush along right as I was getting comfortable with my location, I raced to the ferry, this time leaving from Port Ellen. A view from the bow showed me the coastline north of the distillery cluster which puts Lagavulin just up the road from Ardbeg and Laphroaig. I only wish I had more time as I witnessed the terrain elevate up into majestic sets of craggy mountains with snow caps. The sea winds bit at me as I filmed the sun setting on this incredible skyline and told myself I would surely return some day. After all, I had yet to see Caol Isla, Bowmore, Kilchoman. Bunnahabain and Lagavulin!!
After an hour’s drive off the ferry to Oban, I enjoyed a quiet night of cable TV, fish n’ chips and a couple of miniature bottles of laphroaig quarter cask. I got an early rise and was the first in the dining room to have my proper Scottish breakfast before I hit the road. I needed to make Pitlochry by 10 a.m. to see if I could visit Edradour and Blair Athol, before returning to Speyside in the Afternoon for a tour of Glenfarclas. Again, there was a fair amount of driving to do, so the prospect of fitting in three distilleries in one afternoon was grim. The last tour of Glenfarclas, back in Speyside, was at around 2:45, so my visit to Edradour had to be efficient. They weren’t even giving tours at that time of year but Desmond, the distillery manager, recognized the Brandy Library Spirits Bar where I work in New York and kindly made time to show me around. I must say that Edradour is one of the more visually interesting distilleries in Scotland. All the vessels of whisky production are located in one room, connected in a very Dr. Seuss’s factory sort of way. After viewing and sipping a couple of Edradour’s vast array of bottlings, from a variety of wine cask finishes which rarely reach America – I made off for the final leg of my journey back to Speyside. It was wintry up at Glenfarclas and I can see why the constant chill in the hills of its surroundings keeps its casks at the lowest evaporation rate in the industry. I got into a rather amusing conversation with this whisky generation’s George Grant , who gawped at my cross country expedition in such a short span of time and gave me a shot of 1953 Family reserve, which had a magnificent mossy quality.
On my last night in Aberlour, I visited the Highlander Whisky Bar, where I had a 1977 Glen Elgin that was almost a perfume. The Bar Keep was Japanese and intensely dedicated to Single Malts. Though my standards weren’t quite so high, I began to see that there is an entire world of treasured casks and bottles that average whisky drinkers will never encounter, unless they search; There is some absolutely divinely made and aged spirit out there and you see what all the fuss is all about when sipping some of it for a couple of minutes. I had been encouraged to visit Strathisla on my way out of town in the morning, if only to see it from the outside. So, I did, and stopped at the Speyside Cooperage en route. Here was where most of the casks of the regions distilleries were reassembled and thoroughly prepped for holding whisky. For the privilege of one of the better paying manual labour jobs you can find, one has to apprentice for four years. I marveled at the routine. Strathisla was beautiful indeed and I even managed to sneak in for an unauthorized look around. At this point though, I realized that my time had come to an end. There was time left only for a drive, of course, to the Aberdeen Airport.
As I had my final dram on Scottish soil, an Auchentoshan 18yr. from the Lowlands, I reflected on once again failing to wander through them. My Scottish ancestors are from the Lowlands and it is an absolute crime that I haven’t yet visited the town (Lead Hills). “One day”, I thought and bid farewell to a land I will surely have many occasions to drop in on in the future. I’m just hoping the next one isn’t such a blur.