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Sipping Away in Speyside
Rolling hills, snow-cover mountains, the meandering river Spey, distilleries every mile creating the faint smell of malt in the air is how the image of Speyside rests in my mind’s eye; and two weeks ago I was not disappointed.
Home to over half of Scotland’s distilleries, Speyside really is the heart of Scottish whisky; in short, a whisky enthusiast’s paradise.
Glenfiddich, Glenlivet, The Macallan and Glenfarclas are just a few esteemed names that are located within this region.
Last week was my third visit to Speyside; but a visit like no other. Invited by the team at Richmond Marketing, myself and seven others enjoyed a three day trip, courtesy of William Grant & Son, to the Glenfiddich & Balvenie distilleries in the village of Dufftown.
It was impossible to capture the magic of the trip I one blog post, but here's my attempt…
With sleep in our eyes we made our way from Dublin Airport to Aberdeen; from where we were picked up by local character, Jim. Who declared himself the only taxi driver in Dufftown — our home for the next few days. Jim was not short of tales about the local area; accompanied by a few jokes to keep us going.
It was easy to tell why the area is known as the Whisky Trail; with distillery after distillery passing by our window — from Mortlach to Glen Allachie. The village of Dufftown considers itself as the ‘Whisky Capital of the World.’ With six distilleries all within a short radius — Glendullan, Glenfiddich, Balvenie, Mortlach, Dufftown & Kininvie. After finally reaching our destination, we were greeted by Louise, who was to be our tour guide around the area of Dufftown and the Balvenie Distillery.
We set off on our tour around Dufftown, exploring William Grant’s family tree and rich heritage; we were brought to his home, the Mortlach distillery — where he had previously undertaken employment — and the graveyard where both him and his family members currently lay at rest.
Next on the tour, was a visit to ‘Robbie Dhu’, the water source for both Glenfiddich and Balvenie, where we stopped off for a ‘weedram’. Sipping away on a drop of Glenfiddich Original at approximately 10:30am (It was five o’clock in Kentucky!) marked the beginning of our trip nicely.
After a whisky, we were back on the bus and taken to the William Grant cooperage, one of my personal highlights from the trip. The cooperage supplies casks for the three William Grant distilleries — Glenfiddich, Balvenie & Kininvie. We observed the men assembling, charring and quality testing the casks, which was truly fascinating to see, especially considering very few cooperages are open to the public.
After a quick lunch, we continued on to Balvenie. Previous to this trip, I had tried to visit Balvenie and been unsuccessful as they only do tours by appointments made months in advance. With a magnitude of distillery visits under my belt; it is without cliché, or exaggeration, when I say I was extremely impressed by Balvenie. Particularly as it’s one of the very few distilleries in Scotland that do the whole production process on site. From the malting, to the bottling. Exploring along the way what makes Balvenie unique; kilning to 5 Parts Per Million, stout, short-neck stills to get a fuller, oiler flavour and the tun marrying process.
As any experienced whiskey aficionado knows, the highlights of a distillery visit are always the still house (the shape and size of the gleaming copper pot stills and the heart of the operation: the spirit safe) and the warehouse — as there’s always a sample to be tasted. As we walked out of the still house, a little intoxicated by both the smell and the dram, Louise led us into Warehouse No. 24. Inside we were greeted by casks stacked three high — a system known as dunnage style. And as we ventured onwards, trying to catch as many fumes as possible of the Angel’s Share, we arrived at three casks, laid out in anticipation of our arrival; a 1st Fill Bourbon, 2nd Fill Bourbon & 1st Fill Sherry cask.
A copperdog was presented and we were invited to fill a bottle from the cask of our own choosing. Being a Sherry fanatic, I went straight over to the Sherry cask and filled my bottle; desperately trying not to spill it!
Having filled our cask strength samples, we wandered through to the marrying tuns. The Balvenie Tun Series is comprised of different hand-selected casks which are placed into a large tun (which when used for fermentation are known as washbacks) and left to mature for approximately six to nine months. Allowing the flavours to harmonize and further develop. We tasted Tun No. 1509, and it really is a must try, absolutely outstanding.
From there, it was time to taste the Balvenie. We headed back onto our minibus to Glenfiddich where five samples of Balvenie awaited — 12 Year-Old Doublewood, 14 Year-Old Carribean Cask, 16 Year-Old Triple Cask, 25 Year-Old Triple Cask and a 15 Year-Old Single Barrel. Beginning with the flagship to finishing with a single cask, there was significant Balvenie characteristic’s throughout; the faintest hint of peat smoke alongside sweet, malty notes.
In my opinion, the 15 Year-Old Single Barrel was the finest expression (think rich dried fruit flavours and nuttiness with a little bit of spice). Balvenie truly is a whisky that has been handcrafted through the generations and is steeped in heritage, with a Malt Master that is clearly a master of his craft!
As we finished our last samples, Jim was ready to take us to our accommodation for the next two nights (A beautiful house named Torrin). Our weary legs and ruddy faces clambered back onto the bus, ready for some dinner and a few more drams!
Rising bright and early at 8.30am, we started our second day in whisky paradise with a traditional Scottish breakfast and copious amounts of coffee in the Malt Kiln; the only thing missing was a tattie scone!
We were shortly picked up and introduced to our new tour guide Alan. It wasn’t long until he offered us our first dram of the day, the Glenfiddich 12 Year Old — one of Scottish Whiskey’s most internationally recognized Single Malts. This lead onto a lengthy conversation about how commercial yet experimental Glenfiddich has become. Focusing on their relatively new venture, the aptly named, the Experimental Series.
We sampled two out of the three within the Series, the Glenfiddich IPA cask and the Project XX. Both delicious single malts that have undoubtedly been designed to appeal to a trendy, young-professional market. The third whisky in the series is the Winter Storm; a 21-Year-Old single malt that has been finished in Ice Wine casks. Unfortunately, the distillery was a little short on this expression, but it is on my ‘Whiskies to Try Before I Die’ list!
Having spent most of the morning in the tasting room, Alan decided that it was high time we visited the distillery and having already learnt most of the technical in’s and out’s of the William Grant Production Process, Alan focused on what differentiated Glenfiddich to its neighbouring brands.
Key differences being:
As we strolled out of the distillery and into the warehouse, surrounded by blue skies, it was easy to be swept up by Speyside’s charm or at the very least the strong smell of whisky!
There are at least 40 warehouses on the William Grant Estate and the volume of casks never seem to end. Our tour guide Alan relayed the different cask variations and informed us that they have so many they’ve started burying them (don’t worry as an experiment)! Imagine having so much whisky that you just decide to bury it. Alan then went on to point out the large wooden vats at the back of the warehouse, which are used to marry the three different types of casks in the Glenfiddich 15. Using a Solera system — common when maturing — to marry three different types of casks in wooden vats, which are continually topped up to ensure consistent quality.
A quick stop for lunch, was shortly followed by a Glenfiddich 15 Year Old Deconstruction class; consisting of an in-depth tasting of the three core components in Glenfiddich 15. If you’re not familiar with the Glenfiddich 15, it has a rather complex aroma with notes of heather honey and rich dark fruits; and has previously won a Silver Medal winner at the International Wine & Spirit Competition in 2014
and a Gold Medal winner at the Scotch Whisky Masters in 2015. Having explored the components of the iconic whiskey we created our own blend; my own was a bottle filled with 60% Sherry, 35% Virgin Oak and 5% Bourbon; quite the Sherry Bomb!
As we finished off our blending experience, we exited through the gift shop and landed on the bus, where Jim was waiting. Looking rather pleased with himself and telling us about his latest tinder dates, Jim dropped us back to our accommodation and announced that he would be back later to take us for dinner.
The William Grant Experience was almost over but the night was ours and we enjoyed a beautiful dinner at the Dowans Hotel in Aberlour. Chatting into the early hours, trying desperately to prolong our time in Speyside; the lights finally went out.
Our trip to Speyside had come to an end and I packed my bag ready to head back to Dublin. With one last supper at Aberdeen airport, stocking up on the last of the Irn-Bru, whisky and haggis, we chatted as close friends and reminisced about the past two days.
Until next time Speyside!