The Viking Tour (Part 1)

To ‘go-a-Viking’ means to go raiding for loot. The Institute of Brewing and Distilling annual trip was titled ‘The Viking Tour’. For £250 it was possible to ‘raid’ 6 distilleries and 2 breweries over three days with all accomodation and travel included. A coach filled with 21 like-minded viking raiders headed north with a thirst for knowledge and liquid refreshment.

The first stop was Invergordon Distillery. The industrial scale of the distilling columns and the smell of dark grain processing made an immediate impression. It was my first visit to a grain distillery and it presented a welcome contrast to slick touristic malt distilling operations. Invergordon is the workhorse of Whyte & MacKay, pumping out up to 40 million litres of pure alcohol per annum from a mixture of barely and maize. It’s muscular exterior masked a soft, delicate centre. The 1974 single cask we tried was smooth, complex and had a lusciously long finish. The distillery was also notable for its unusual continuous fermentation system. Reduced downtime and faster fermentations can result in considerable cost savings due to lower energy consumption.

We continued up the A9 to Wick and pulled in to Pulteney Distillery. This northern classic is plonked in the middle of the old town of Pulteney. The surrounding houses and local businesses give the distillery a lovely community feel and give the impression that they are protecting their most prized asset! Most of the whisky is matured on site which is believed to enhance the whisky’s salty, sea air character. As no peated malt is used and Old Pulteney has a heavy coastal character I am inclined to agree. After the tour we were invited to try the 12, 17 and 21 year old expressions. All delicious but the 17 was my favourite on the day.

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UNESCO World Heritage site – The Ring of Brodgar

Day 2 and an early start for a bit of sightseeing around Orkney. The last time I was here was 20 years ago and I was soon reminded of why I loved it so much the first time. A cocktail of neolithic archaeology, war history and rugged, treeless landscapes gives Orkney its unique atmosphere. The Ring of Brodgar, a UNESCO World Heritage site, seemed to trap us in its stoned circular trance. What? Why? and How? Only those alive 4,500 years ago will know for certain. Ask an archaeologist today and you are likely to hear ‘ritual monument’, which is the generic term used whenever they don’t have a clue!

At 9:30am our longboat landed at Swannay Brewery. Beer was served for breakfast in the Viking tradition. Rob Hill, owner and self professed ‘plodder’ has been brewing here with passion for 10 years. When you meet people like Rob you are reminded why the craft revolution is a great boon for the drinkers of today. All he wants to do is make great beer, everything else is secondary. He sincerely said, “As long as you have a good pint in your glass, I’m a happy man”. Here, here Rob!

The now considerably more boisterous raiding party continued to Orkney Brewery. We were welcomed with a delicious selection of beer. I particularly enjoyed the Red MacGregor and the Dark Island Reserve aged in a whisky cask was rich and curious (although something I would not normally drink at £20 per bottle!). The brewery is state of the art with a gleaming brewhouse and fermenters, creating 36,000L per week. Orkney Brewery is a great example to what can be achieved with Viking spirit to all other budding start-up breweries. Tune in again soon for Part 2…..

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10 (Empty) Green Bottles…

…Sitting on the Wall.

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10 empty green bottles that contained superb single cask whiskies

Each empty bottle reflects the passing of time and the true nature of impermanence. Every one of these green soldiers is gone forever. Each a single cask whisky and each like a snowflake – never to be repeated again. Most casks contain only 200-300 bottles and I am unlikely to acquire another. Like the passing of clouds, lightning and morning dew the only constant is change. I could mourn the loss of each of these marvelous drams, stuck in melancholy and attachment to the past. However, I rejoice in the fact that I was alive when mother nature and humankind combined to produce such exquisite, delectable spirits.

I compare the experience of drinking single cask whisky to the creation of a Mandala. Buddhist monks will spend days carefully painting with sand, producing detailed and intricate geometric shapes, only to wipe them away in an instant upon completion. Art is used as a metaphor to be mindful of the transient nature of life.

Every cask’s journey started in the fields and rivers. Water and barley subject to the climatic and environmental conditions of the time. Then, differing production techniques take over. Floor maltings, drum maltings, Saladin boxes, still shapes, fermentation times, heating sources, wooden washbacks, stainless steel washbacks to name but a few. Then, selection of the cask – Bourbon, Sherry, Port, Wine, Rum. The number of variables is limitless. Years pass in a changing world and then finally the spirit must pass its final test….. The Tasting Panel. Only then will it be bottled by The Scotch Malt Whisky Society and made available to members around the world. What an incredible journey, and what a wonderful privilege to experience malts so unique and rare. Single cask whisky rewards the serendipitous adventurer. The senses await in anticipation as to what organoleptic delights the next ten green bottles might bring!

The 10 whiskies were:

  1. 3.226 – Cigar Smoke and Newhaven Fish Boxes – 16 year old Bowmore in a refill butt ex-sherry cask, 1 of 615 bottles, 58.3%
  2. 27.105 – Too Cool for School – 13 year old Springbank in a refill hogshead ex-sherry cask, 1 of 288 bottles, 53.9%
  3. 29.132 – Hospitals and Japanese Restaurants – 21 year old Laphroaig in a refill butt ex-sherry, 1 of 543 bottles, 56.6%
  4. 31.26 – BBQ Smoke by a Rolling Sea – 24 year old Jura in a refill hogshead ex-bourbon, 1 of 262 bottles, 53.6%
  5. 36.65 – Apple Flavoured Tobacco in a Hookah – 15 year old Benrinnes in a refill barrel ex-bourbon, 1 of 208 bottles, 58.6%
  6. 42.13 – Picnic on a Puffer – 8 year old Tobermory (Ledaig) in a refill hogshead ex-bourbon, 1 of 328 bottles, 61.1%
  7. 53.202 – A Bracing Outdoors Loving Character – 17 year old Caol Ila in a refill hogshead ex-bourbon, 1 of 164 bottles, 56.4%
  8. 73.58 – Simple and Seductive – 21 year old Aultmore in a refill hogshead ex-bourbon, 1 of 253, 57.0%
  9. 121.61 – Maggie Thatcher at the Funfair – 14 year old Isle of Arran in a refill barrel ex-bourbon, 1 of 203 bottles, 54.5%
  10. 127.39 – Intensely Tasty – 11 year old Port Charlotte in a refill butt ex-sherry, 1 of 579 bottles, 66.7%

Dirt in Dee, Done Dirt Cheap

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The ‘Dirt’ at The James Hutton Institute

The 2016 Institute of Brewing and Distilling (IBD) AGM took place at the James Hutton Institute (JHI), Invergowrie, a short hop from Dundee, the ‘City of Discovery’. With my £9.50 Megabus ticket, I boarded at Edinburgh bus station. 90 minutes later, Dundee emerged in all its sunny glory. The construction site on the waterfront is testament to exciting times ahead. Urban regeneration and the arrival of the V&A will transform the former capital of Jute and Jam.

Dundee is also a mecca for agricultural science. The Life Sciences department at the University of Dundee is world renowned for its research in molecular biology and the JHI undertakes pioneering work in crop genetics. The Institute’s work in barley and hops is relevant to the brewer and distiller.

7.3 million tonnes of barley were produced in the UK in 2015, worth approximately £1bn to the UK economy. The JHI uses its climate controlled glasshouse and farm trial facilities to improve our understanding of barley genetics. Commercial breeders use this information to be more effective in their pursuit of new barely varieties. The holy grail is to find new varieties with higher extract yields, improved malting characteristics and increased pest/disease resistance. Current projects include improving hot water extract of Winter varieties relative to Spring varieties and targeting genetic markers to improve saccharification of starch in the mashing process. For example, a reduction in arabinoxylan and beta-glucans in cell walls can be achieved by crossing varieties with particular traits, consequently improving enzyme access to polysaccharides contained within the cell matrix.

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Barley trials in the glasshouses at JHI

The JHI work on hops resulted in the first successful trial of Scottish hops last year. There was a small hop industry in Scotland until 1878, but now the majority of the UK’s hops are grown in Kent. UK production is currently less than 1,000 hectares and is approximately 2% of global hop production. With rapid growth in the number of Scottish breweries (currently 93) there is renewed interest in creating an entirely ‘Scottish’ product. Hence the drive to successfully cultivate Scottish hops. THE JHI used a Haygrove polytunnel and drip fertigation to produce a hand-harvested hop with 3.8 alpha-acid content. The aroma is good but because an unregistered fungicide was used during the trial they are unfortunately unavailable for commercial beer production. The JHI aims to progress further trials this year and will hopefully be able to produce a commercially viable crop. I managed to get my hands on one of the 400 bottles of privately produced beer made with the 2015 Scottish Hops. A refreshing pale ale with lots of promise and a pleasant hop taste. As the crop is hand-harvested it is labour intensive. Any help with the 2016 harvest in September would be much appreciated!

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Scottish Hops!

In its quest to cement its position as a global leader in agricultural science, the JHI has submitted proposals to the UK government to create a new ‘International Barley Hub’ (IBH) at the Dundee site. At a cost of £36m the new centre is expected to produce a return of £700m in 12 years. The IBH aims to alleviate global hunger by increasing usable land for crop production from 3% of the world’s land area to 12%. This increase would come from more genetically robust cereal varieties thriving in currently marginal agricultural land. The elephant in the room is ‘GM’. Currently, no GM crops are permitted in full-scale field trials, only laboratory and glasshouse trials.

The JHI is a fascinating place for a visit and it is great to see so many agricultural innovations taking place that will benefit not just Scotland, but the world. On the dirt cheap Megabus on the way home I realised that the dirt in Dundee will potentially affect the whole of humanity in the most positive of ways!

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The first beer from Scottish Hops since 1878?

Solace in Society

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Glenturret, Highland Park, Macallan and Glen Moray all lined up in a row

The Collins dictionary defines solace as ‘comfort in misery or disappointment’. An example is then given of the word in context: it drove him to seek increasing solace in alcohol. So given the threat of ‘Monday Blues’, I took direct action and headed straight to the Scotch Malt Whisky Society in Leith to seek solace in fine whisky and great company. On arrival, I was pleased to see my brother Richard at the bar with his new membership pack in hand. Lydia, Crystal (SMWS Members Room Manager, Mike, Kat (www.whiskydiscovery.com) and Phoebe (SMWS Global Brand Ambassador) completed the table as we sat down to enjoy an evening of entertainment with Lucy Whitehall (Glenturret Brand Ambassador).

Lucy started the proceedings by introducing the ‘Glenturret Haka’. We stood up and participated in a range of movements inspired by the traditional whisky making techniques of the distillery. Think mashing, pitching yeast, cutting the spirit and bunging the cask – use your imagination! With the exercise out the way we then turned our focus to the whisky. Whiskies from Glenturret, Highland Park and Macallan were introduced by Lucy, while Ryan introduced accompanying SMWS drams for comparison. This meant that there were eight drams in total for us to try which isn’t bad for a Monday! In my order of preference:

  1. Glen Moray – SMWS – Cask No. 35.131 – Cherries, Chocolate and Chai – 55.1% – £69.50
  2. Macallan – Black – 48% – $450
  3. Highland Park – SMWS – Cask No. 4.211 – Sun, Sand, Surf and Serenity – 52.2% – $190
  4. Highland Park – Dark Origins – 46.8% – £64
  5. Glenturret – NAS – Peat – 43% – £47
  6. Macallan – SMWS – Cask No. 24.37 – Fruit & Nuts – 59.3% – £?
  7. Glenturret – NAS – Sherry – 43% – £47
  8. Glenturret – NAS – Triple Wood – 43% – £47

All whiskies were drinkable and there were no dodgy disappointing drams. The one that stood out for me  was the SMWS Glen Moray, an exceptional whisky with lovely caramel notes and a long sweet finish. It was a challenge to decide between the Macallan Black (travel exclusive) and the SMWS Highland Park for second but the Macallan just pipped it with its superior balance. Highland Park rarely disappoints and today was no exception. The new 43% abv Glenturret expressions (Sherry, Triple Wood and Peat) were easy drinking but did not match the body and flavour intensity of the the higher abv, unchillfiltered whiskies in the tasting. The peated expression had the most character of the three and would be my top choice of the new Non Age Statement range. The society Macallan was an old bottling distilled in 1987. It was a wee bit flat on the nose but had a decent palate.

All in, a great Monday evening with plenty of laughs and memorable tastes. Solace in the Scotch Malt Whisky Society comes highly recommended!

Scenic Scotch No.9 – Caol Ila in Chamonix

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This is my first altitude experiment with whisky. This 12 year old Caol Ila made it to 3,842m at the summit of Aiguille du midi. When I opened the bottle it popped like Champagne. I was lucky that it didn’t explode given the change in pressure. The bottle also filled with eerie mist, like that from an Evil Dead film. Below is the Chamonix valley at an altitude of 1,035m. The Alps stretch into the distance towards the ‘expense’ of Geneva. The serene scene disguises the strong wind and the -28°C wind chill. I had an image in my head of the bottle flying off the ledge and smashing on the cliff face below. My hands froze in seconds while fiddling with the camera. It was difficult to perform simple tasks at that altitude. I felt giddy and incoherent. Thankfully the warm, strengthening spirit corrected my malaise. I theorise that Caol Ila could form part of an altitude sickness survival pack (along with coca leaves and an oxygen tank). Despite my oxygen deprived brain, I could still taste the strong peaty aromas of Islay. A powerful whisky is needed for conditions such as these. My highest Scotch yet was an interesting experience. Scotch and snowboarding are such remarkable companions. I wonder what else I could try……

Strathearn to Learn

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A selection of casks at Strathearn Distillery. The wee 50L octave casks line the back wall.

The winds of Harris seem to have followed me to central Scotland. I drove to the Forth Road Bridge in hope rather than expectation. My fears were confirmed by a row of traffic cones denying further progress. Storm Gertrude had enough huff and puff to close the bridge completely. So off I went on the long way round to Strathearn Distillery via Stirling. I was minutes away from my destination on the A822 south of Crieff when progress came to a shuddering halt. Flashing hazard lights and men in high-viz vests warned of the fallen trees blocking the road. My teeth began to clench but then I thought of Buddha’s wisdom, ‘It is better to travel well than to arrive’. A detour via Comrie led me down a winding road of dramatic barren scenery and changing light. Beams of bright sunshine shone between the dark clouds, dancing over brown and desolate moorland. One of the most vivid rainbows I have ever seen arched over the road. So despite being 40 minutes late for my appointment it was worth it to discover the delights of a path less travelled.

Upon arriving at Strathearn Distillery, Zack and Liam provided a warm welcome and introduced me to Bella the Stripper….

No, that is not what you are thinking! Bella is one of two Portuguese built Hoga stills used in the production of whisky and gin. ‘Bella’ is a wash still with 1,000L capacity while the spirit still ‘Wee Erin’ is just 500L. They are also the first Hoga stills fitted with steam coils in the pot. With such lovely small stills the production capacity of Strathearn is limited to 14,500 litres of pure alcohol per annum, making it a contender for the smallest whisky distillery in Scotland.

Bella the Stripper
‘Bella’ the Stripper, the 1,000L wash still for whisky production

Everything is done simply at Strathearn, which is refreshing having recently visited some of the more computerised distilleries in Scotland. With small scale production most items can be carried by hand, all you need is a few buckets, small casks and a strong back. The wee 50L octave casks mature rapidly due to the high wood to spirit ratio compared to larger casks. The first whisky will be released after 3 years and should taste just as good as a 10 year old according to our hosts! The distillers are not afraid to experiment with different maturation regimes and wood types. They already have 13 different expressions including virgin oak, sherry and a host of wines.

Strathearn’s gin production was also refreshingly different. Selected botanicals are infused with distilled gin for a week after distillation. This uncommon practice, similar to dry-hopping in brewing, has the unusual effect of turning the heather rose gin pink with the addition of tonic. So if you ever feel like a retro Global Hypercolour G&T then Strathearn gin will certainly please!

Having enjoyed an enlightening tour I made my way back to Edinburgh. The winds had eased allowing the Forth Road Bridge to reopen and a stress free journey back home. Rather than worry about trees falling on my head, I was able to reminisce upon a wonderfully informative visit with enthusiastic young distillers. A visit to Strathearn is a great place to learn about whisky and gin done the craft way.

End of the Golden Road

…and the birth of ‘The Hearach’

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First glimpse of the Hearach

Ensconced in Fasgadh Cottage for one last night, listening to the crackling of logs on the fire, I reflect upon my Isle of Harris adventure. I came to the island to assist in the optimisation of the Harris Gin. I leave with a community close to my heart, valuable distilling experience and memories of spectacular scenery in all weathers.

Perhaps the most valuable teaching from my time here is that ‘life takes time’. Why rush? The journey itself is often the most rewarding part of any adventure. And so it is with much gratitude that I find myself lucky enough to witness the start a new journey in whisky.

‘The Hearach’ was born on the 17th of December 2015. The new make spirit ran from Eva clear and bright. My first nosing revealed a spirit strong in character but with subtle estery notes and an underlying sweetness. I discovered bold sulphury and meaty flavours,  a good hint of peat and creme brulee. The mouthfeel was oily, yet creamy, with stewed fruits filling the mouth with flavour. There is complexity and intrigue in the new make. The makings of a great whisky are present, but only the long wait to maturity will reveal the true nature of ‘The Hearach’.

To celebrate the Tarbert team headed to the Harris Hotel to enjoy a Christmas night out. Turkey, venison and puddings were served and a good dosage of liquid cheer. My favourite part of the evening, however, was listening to the speeches from the visionaries and directors that brought this dream into reality. It was only then that I realised just how much effort, dedication and determination was required to reach this wonderful milestone. In effect, ‘The Hearach’ is already EIGHT years in the making.

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The Golden Road in Harris winding through the rocky landscape

The golden road in Harris was so named because the locals claim it cost so much to build that it must be paved with gold. My journey along the golden road is now over but I will no doubt return in the future to see the next chapter in this whisky story. Memorable will be the day when I finally taste Harris’s liquid gold.

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The ‘Hebrides’ awaits the next load of passengers in Tarbert before returning to Uig in Skye… so long Harris, you will be missed!

Slàinte mhor a h-uile là a chi ‘s nach fhaic!

A Scotch whisky journey