Tag Archives: whisky

The West Coast Distillery Trail

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Hiking the Juan de Fuca Trail

The West Coast Trail is ranked among the top hiking routes in the world. The 75km trek along the rugged western coast of Vancouver Island is a challenging proposition. The route from Gordon River to Pachena Bay includes river crossings, ladders and cable cars. Only 30 passes per day are issued for each access point during the open season, from the 1st of May until the end of September. Of the 6,000 hikers attempting the trail each year about 1 to 2% require rescue. The remote location may result in a long wait for salvation, therefore a warming island spirit is an indispensable hiking companion.

Before I embark on such an arduous mission, I will need to build up some familiarity with the land and its people, and road test the local spirits to rejuvenate aching legs. I thus ventured forth to discover the distilleries of Vancouver Island that might be able to assist in my quest.

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The beautiful Forsyth stills at Shelter Point looking rather festive

Shelter Point Distillery is a remarkable place. Nestled along the island’s eastern shore near Oyster River, Patrick Evans has converted his farm buildings into a whisky wonderland. The shiny Forsyth stills made in Scotland stand prominently in the high ceiling barn. They feast upon green barley grown right in front of the distillery. The cask strength whisky exemplifies the potential of BC to produce some of the best whisky in the world. Pure water, clean crisp air, temperate climate, the influence of the sea and wholesome grain. The landscape is like the west coast of Scotland, but with more trees!

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‘The Wee Man’ at Wayward

Wayward Distillation House in the heart of Comox valley has created a buzz in BC with its use of honey as a substrate for fermentation. This was the first time I encountered a whole distillery run on bee nectar. The honey is locally sourced and tastes divine. The distillers are honey bears in spirit and commented on how everything ‘gets so sticky… in a good way’. I also liked they way they gave their tanks personalities by naming them, e.g. ‘Wee Man’ for the small spirit receiver.

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The luscious lines of the Arbutus spirit safe

Arbutus Distillery in Nanaimo is notable for its gnarly ‘Babayaga’ absinthe and finely crafted spirits. Michael Pizzitelli, master distiller, with an MSc in Brewing & Distilling at Heriot-Watt University, has a background in natural sciences. This has helped him achieve a quality of spirit that will be welcome on any hike. Upon researching the etymology of ‘Babayaga’, I discovered it’s a supernatural being from Slavic folklore who appears as a demented woman flying around in a mortar and waving a pestle, who lives in a forest hut and has chicken legs… gnarly indeed!

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Spirit offerings at Sheringham Distillery

Lastly, Sheringham Distillery, is the real deal of West Coast Trail distilleries. The distillery is perched on a hill overlooking the wild Pacific in the heart of prime surfing territory near Jordan River. Jason, the founder and head distiller, combines his passion for distilling and surfing in the most sublime of locations. The production facility in a rustic wooden building is where Jason and John produce gems such as Seaside Gin, chocolate vodka and a double distilled new grain spirit. The new grain spirit is a tantalising glimpse into the whisky to follow in a few years time.

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Monkeying around at Mystic Beach

Having completed my mini west coast distillery trail there was time for a warm up hike on the Juan de Fuca trail. A 4km jaunt to Mystic Beach and back with a rope swing thrown in for good measure. As all hardy hikers know, the best part of any hike is a rewarding dram at the end!

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Victoria Distillers – A new life in Canada

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A warm welcome to Sidney BC, complete with totem pole

Two and a half years ago I left the banking industry for the last time not knowing where the distilling journey would lead. All I knew was that being part of the whisky industry is something that I would enjoy every day. I had no idea that I would end up 5,000 miles away in a little place called Sidney. The number plates on local cars proclaim ‘Beautiful British Columbia’ – and they are not wrong. The  west coast of Canada is blessed with gorgeous islands, stunning coastline and an abundance of incredible wildlife. Victoria Distillers (formerly Victoria Spirits) moved from their forested location in central Saanich to the seafront in Sidney earlier this year. The new owner has grand ambitions to grow the brand in Canada and the US. With such an interesting proposition and wonderful location I jumped at the chance to join the distilling team.

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Victoria Distillers production area

Craigdarroch whisky may not be familiar to you yet, but one day I hope my contribution will bring it international recognition as a malt reflecting the character of Vancouver Island. A small batch was released a couple of years ago and sold out almost immediately. The delectable whisky has a lovely banana note. With a new seaside location I hope maturation will bring further coastal complexity to the whisky.

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The distillery has a stunning waterfront location

The new role is a great opportunity to be creative in other areas too. The existing products include Victoria Gin, Oaken Gin, Hemp Vodka, Eau de Vie and a selection of Bitters. This week we have also begun production of a chocolate liqueur and trials of a spiced rum. With all these different spirits the head bar tender has done a great job of putting together a cocktail list to suit all palates for customers in the distillery lounge.

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Laid back Sidney

The lifestyle is very laid back, which suits me perfectly. I live a a simple life with hardly any possessions. I have no car and no bike, my sole mode of transport is my skateboard. I have no TV and no bills to pay as everything is included in my minimal rent. The team at work are great, fun and friendly. I have a free gym pass at work (which I sometimes use), but most of my free time is spent socializing in the local bars or exploring my new surroundings. All in all, life is good in Beautiful British Columbia!

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Having fun at the distillery with random bloke behind me working on still

Feis Ile 2016

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The secret fishermen pools near Port Ellen, Islay

Nick Morgan serenaded us with a whimsical rendition of ‘Riders in the storm’. The Paps of Jura broke through wispy clouds across the Sound of Ila. A festival edition of Caol Ila in hand. How extraordinary. Even more impressive was the Australian gentleman in the crowd who had made the pilgrimage every year for the last eight years…such is the pull of Feis Ile.

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Lagavulin Day in the distillery’s 200th year
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Cooperage demonstration, Lagavulin Distillery

My first ever Islay whisky festival coincided with the 200th anniversary of Lagavulin. A 3 hour queue for the festival bottling was avoided. I made a promise to myself not to get caught up in the buying frenzy and to instead focus on soaking up the atmosphere of this very special occasion. I loved the cooperage display and speaking to enthusiasts from all over the world. So many good stories and so many happy faces. The drams flowed freely from the distillery but also amongst the whisky geeks. Sample bottles emerged from clunking bags and eyebrows raised with interest at each new arrival.

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The Yellow Submarine arrives at Bruichladdich!

At Bruichladdich, the locals came out in force. We were treated to a wonderful performance from the pipeband and a dram of ‘Yellow Submarine’. I took an impromptu tour of the distillery and got acquainted with ‘Ugly Betty’, the Lomond still used for The Botanist gin. The highlight of the day was sampling a 23 year old rare malt Port Ellen which appeared out of nowhere from a friend of a friend. Serendipity and the stuff you can’t plan is the part I enjoy the most about these gatherings of the faithful!

With hitch-hiking proving to be the best way around the island, I headed for Port Ellen maltings. A fascinating peek at the inside of drum maltings and the wonderful smell of peat smoke roaring through the kilns. It proved to be a welcome addition to the distillery events and added an element of  education to the festival experience.

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Beautiful Islay, Port Ellen

I wish I could have stayed for the full eight days but a four day trip had to suffice. I have no doubt I will be back as Islay is whisky Mecca and the Feis Ile is whisky Hajj. To all the Ilachs dedicated to organising such a remarkable festival, I raise a dram to you.  Lang may yer lum reek Feis Ile!

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Camping whisky enthusiasts

The Viking Tour (Part 2)

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Scapa Flow – Beauty and tradgedy

The institute of Brewing & Distilling expedition continued onwards to Scapa Distillery. Orcadian beauty is abundant on the shores of Scapa Flow. The bay reflects the moods of the weather. We were blessed with shimmering water in glorious sunshine. But even the brightest of days is overshadowed by the tragic events that unfolded within view of the distillery. The green buoy in the bay marks the site where the Royal Oak was sunk during the second world war with the loss of 834 lives. 70 unwanted ships were intentionally sunk to form ‘Churchill’s barriers’ in an attempt to prevent further losses for the navy stronghold. The sense of history in Orkrney provides a powerful context for the production of whisky.

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The sign that greets boaters in Scapa Flow

Scapa Distillery recently opened to visitors for the first time so we were excited to get a first peek. Of most interest for me was the Lomond still, the only one used for single malt Scotch whisky. Installed in 1959 it had three internal plates which could be varied to produce 3 different types of spirit. The plates have now been removed resulting in a more standard setup for wash distillations. The spirit still is dwarfed by the beastly Lomond still. A strange couple that work in unison to produce a wonderful spirit. Scapa was also famous for its remarkably long fermentation of 160 hours (compared to 48 hours for most). This helped impart the estery profile to Scapa 16 year old. Unfortunately, recent capacity constraints have led to a reduction in the fermentation time to 80 hours and the discontinuation of the 16 year old. We sampled the new NAS expression ‘Skiren’ at the end of the tour and boarded the bus bound for Scapa’s famous neighbour.

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The impressive entrance gate to Highland Park Distillery
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The Viking chair at Highland Park
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Malting floors at Highland Park

Highland Park is must on any distillery baggers’ hit list. Dominating the skyline on the outskirts of Kirkwall, Highland Park offers the visitor a comprehensive view of whisky production. Locally cut peat, malting floors, mashing, fermentation, distillation, maturation, cooperage… it’s all here. As you pass through the famous gates with their intricate ironmongery you are greeted by a team proud of their whisky and Orcadian heritage. Our guide took delight in retelling the dangers of peat cutting – an unexploded bomb and axe head have been discovered. Further testament to the palimpsest of history unique to these islands. Viking strength is required to maintain the malting floors as the barley is turned every 4 to 8 hours. The result of all their hard work is 44,000 barrels on site, or 9 million litres of spirit. No wonder the entrance gates are so imposing with all those thirsty locals out.

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The ‘Tin Man’ still at Dunnet Bay
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All together at Dunnet Bay (Martin – far left)

Returning to mainland we stopped by a distillery of great contrast, but no less impressive. Dunnet Bay has only been open 18 months but such is its success in the craft gin boom that its latest seasonal gin was sold out even before it left the building. The 500L John Doe still looked like the tin man from the Wizard of Oz and is producing magical spirit. Rock Rose gin is winning many awards due to the dedication of Martin and Claire – a couple who followed their dreams and ditched their former careers. In the last year 35,000 bottles were sold, an incredible achievement for a small start-up craft distillery. Long may it continue.

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The still cathedral at Glenmorangie

The final destination on our epic Viking voyage was Glenmorangie in Tain. The sense of grandeur in the still room was breathtaking. Twelve of the tallest stills (5.1m) in Scotch whisky give the impression that you were in a cathedral of distillation. Necks creek in the same way as they would in St. Giles. Also impressive was the construction of the new Anaerobic Digestion plant at a cost of over £20m. The facility will treat effluent reducing the distillery’s impact on the environment and will produce methane from stillage which can be used to offset energy bills. We finished off with a great tasting that showcased some of Glenmorangie’s more innovative offerings such as Signet, which contains chocolate malt.

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The Viking Tour – Mission Accomplished!

We successfully completed our Viking mission – 5 distilleries and 2 breweries in 3 days. It’s hard work, but someone has to do it!

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%

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……