Sure, I messed around a few times – kissed the rims of a few whisky glasses in my fifty-something years, took a few sips — but I didn’t know what I was doing.
In my everyday world, most of my experience was with wine, gin, and hard cider. I really can’t have much else due to an intolerance for wheat and alcohol made from grain. But scotch whisky is made from barley, so our trip to Scotland within sight of the Speyside Whisky District provided a prime opportunity to experiment and branch out into a whole new area of sensual delights.
My friend and I visited two distilleries in the Highlands during our week together: Glen Dronach in the town of Huntley, and Strathisla in Keith. As with most sensual experiences, my first at Glen Dronach, was the most memorable.
Glen Dronach is renowned as a “distiller of richly sherried single malt whiskies of inimitable and individual character” (according to their web site). Our tour guide, Karen, explained that unlike other distilleries, their whisky is aged in barrels that were once used to store sherry in Spain. The flavor of the sherry seeps into the wood, and seeps back out into the whisky stored in them.
Karen, our distillery tour guide.
The distillery was in full production mode, so we were able to see all the processes, from the malted barley being ground into flour, to the brewing, fermentation, and distillation. The smells of all those processes were earthy and wondrous. I was impressed by how huge the vats were in comparison to a gin distillery I recently visited back home in Minnesota.
As we walked out of the distillery and into the visitor center for our tasting, Karen pointed out an American flag on the lawn amongst several others. She said the flag was new and represented the fact that Glen Dronach and its parent company were recently acquired by the parent company of the Jack Daniel’s brand of whiskey. Others on our tour expressed fears that the new company would come in and change everything. Karen said she hoped that wouldn’t happen. “Why buy something that you like and then change everything?” Those Highlanders and their traditions. I expect that even if the new company wants to change things, they’ll run into a bit of resistance. 🙂
An interesting thing we learned on the tour is that while it is aging, some of the scotch evaporates from the barrels. This is unavoidable. The disappearing drams are called the “angels’ share,” since it’s the angels that get to drink it. Karen said she’d like to be one of those angels someday.
Onto the tasting. I chose the basic tasting, which featured eight-, twelve-, and eighteen-year-old scotch samples. My friend (who was our driver) took the driver’s tour, which, alas, featured no on-site tasting, but she was given a dram of twelve-year-old scotch to take home. Since the distillery is sort of in the middle of nowhere, it makes sense that they would offer this option because the only way to get there is by driving. I suppose there are legal reasons, too.
As I was sampling, my friend asked our guide what her favorite whisky was. Karen said when she has company at home, she brings out the twelve-year scotch. “But,” and here she cradled a bottle between her breasts like a child, “for my family, I save the eighteen-year scotch.”
She was right to save the oldest for her closest kin. The younger whiskies were fine, but when the eighteen-year-old version touched my tongue, I felt things I never had before. (Smirk.) No really, the flavor was so much more full-bodied and warm. The whisky assaulted my entire tongue, not just a part of it. Tastes of sherry, oak, barley fields, Highland air and Speyside water made me stop and take a step back from the table.
“Oh, that’s good,” I said, promptly ignoring the dregs of my other two whiskies, and concentrating on the eighteen-year-old.
We talked for a while more and then a blond-haired gentleman walked into the room. Karen introduced him as Billy, the master distiller. She told him about my reaction to his eighteen-year-old scotch. He smiled and looked pleased that he obviously still had the right touch.
Of course, now that I’m back in America doing research for this posting, I find out that Billy (Walker) is pretty much head of the whole frikin’ company. I can’t believe we met him!
We left Glen Dronach with a good feeling about the family atmosphere of the distillery, and with a supply of scotch to celebrate that night’s Solstice back at Crovie Cottage #13.
Strathisla Distillery in Keith, Scotland.
A few days later we visited Strathisla (pronounced Strath-ila), the oldest operating distillery in the Highlands, and the spiritual home of Chivas Regal scotch. Like Glen Dronach, Strathisla was purchased by an American company that had already been using Strathisla’s single-malt scotch as the basis for its blended whisky products. Strathisla’s parent company also owns The Glenlivet and Aberlour distilleries.
Unfortunately, the distillery was down for cleaning, but we decided to take the tour and do a tasting anyway since we had time. The size and scope of Strathisla were similar to Glen Dronach. But at Strathisla, we had the additional experience of going into one of the warehouses to see where the barrels rest. We learned that distilleries often warehouse other distilleries’ barrels as a kind of insurance in case some disaster befalls the parent distillery.
Another fact our tour guide mentioned is that there are 20 million barrels of whisky in Scotland. Wow! Even though there’s so much of it, it has to age at least three years before it is used. She said the distilleries are having a hard time meeting demand for their product worldwide, and that China is home to most of that demand.
All but one of the whiskies offered at their tasting was blended with grain alcohol, so I only tried the twelve-year-old single-malt Strathisla. (Besides that, I was the driver this time.) It was very good, but did not have quite the same effect on me as the eighteen-year-old Glen Dronach.
I left glad that I had lost my whisky virginity to Glen Dronach and the skillful hands of Billy Walker. Now I know a little bit more what I am doing when it comes to scotch.
As if whiskey virgin deflowering weren’t exciting enough, my next entry will focus on some of the wilder pursuits in Northeastern Scotland.