E-pistle 2007/079 – A Speyside Sojourn

By Joe Barry, South Africa

As promised in E-pistle # 2007/29 I decided to return to Speyside, not only because I wanted to concentrate on that particular area but also to see if there had been a change in the distilleries “No free dram without the full tour” policy which seemed to be prevalent two years previously. So on the 11th of March 2007 I left Johannesburg for Heathrow but before going up to Scotland two very interesting meetings lay ahead for me in Europe…

Some time prior to my departure I had been invited to join the select band of Malt Maniacs and this trip gave me the perfect opportunity to meet with the “boss”, Johannes van den Heuvel so I enquired about flying into Amsterdam, only to be told that for the Dutch Government to issue me with the necessary Schengen visa a trip to Cape Town to the Dutch Embassy for a personal interview would be required.

Wow, a 2000 km journey for one night in Holland, I mean the USA has the same requirement and maybe they have every right to be paranoid but who the hell are the Dutch? (Sorry, Johannes nothing personal!) Anyway more enquiries revealed the Belgians would be only too happy to issue the visa by post and thus I would be flying into Brussels instead of Amsterdam which resulted in the unexpected pleasure of a meeting with fellow Maniac Bert Bruyneel who on hearing I would be in Brussels insisted on coming to my hotel to meet me.

Monday 12th March. Whilst in transit at Heathrow for Brussels I had my first experience of the new security regulations when at a BA checkpoint my “highly suspect” can of spray (not liquid) deodorant was discovered and confiscated (110mls not 100 as permitted) notwithstanding the same airline had carried it on a 10 hour flight a few hours before! Monday evening was spent exploring the hotel surrounds and discovering that dark Belgian beers must, in quantity, be treated with a little caution especially when followed by whisky!
The next day was spent going to and walking Brugge flat which was very enjoyable, what a quaint picturesque town.

That evening at about 1815 Bert arrived and when I had earlier asked how I would recognise him he had replied ” That’s easy, I will probably be the only person walking into your hotel carrying a case of whisky” which is exactly what happened! I was concerned how we would carry out our tasting as back in South Africa you would most certainly not be permitted to sit in a licensed hotel reception area consuming your own alcohol but Bert did not seem to think there was a problem and neither did the hotel manager so with some glasses and a bottle of still water from the bar we were all set.

We tasted 9 whiskies including my first Japanese experience, two Nikka single cask bottled at 63%, a 50yo Secret Stills Isle of Skye bottled at 45% by G & M which much to my disappointment unfortunately did not carry its age well but this was more than made up for by Bert’s piece de resistance which he asked me to try and identify blind. Well I placed it possibly Speyside but definitely Highland – it was in fact a 1966/2006 43.4% Cask 3316 bottle 49/151 Bowmore from Duncan Taylor. It blew my mind and was without doubt the Dram of the Night! Bert also got on the phone to Billy Walker and arranged a tasting at Benriach as well as promising to do the same for me at Glenfarclas. Altogether a great evening made even more so after I heard not only had he driven 1200 kms there and back to a client that day but then after returning home had driven another 80 kms to my hotel. Thanks Bert, your enthusiasm was much appreciated.

Wednesday 14th March. Caught the train for Amsterdam for my meeting with Johannes, catering people on strike so no dining car and a derailment outside Amsterdam necessitated a change of trains at Schipol which made the journey interesting. Found my hotel which was close to the station in the middle of the tourist area and at 1415 Johannes arrived. Finally a face to put to a name! He suggested a walk to Cadenheads where we would have a tasting with the owner Andries and when we arrived we found Kate Wright from Springbank was also there as well as another South African, Johannes de Jong, all contributing to a good afternoon. We sat around a table at the back of the shop where Johannes (the boss) produced a number of interesting bottles from his carrybag, Andries added a few more and all in all we tasted 12 whiskies of which my favourite was a 1975 26yo Glenlossie bottled at 55%. The dark colour and strong sherry notes, just the sort of SM I really enjoy! The Bunnahabhain 35yo, the Kinclaith 30yo and the Glenordie 12yo were also interesting. Kate also took us through two examples of Campbelltown Loch, blends produced by Springbank which I had not seen before, the 21yo being most pleasant. A most enjoyable afternoon and to finally meet with Johannes after all our correspondence made the trip well worth while for me.

Thursday 15th March. Took the train back to Brussels for the Eurostar connection to London where I was to spend a few days with my son before departing for Scotland. And let me tell you I will travel on the train anytime, rather than fly. It is so much more comfortable, large armchair type seats, soundless(almost), friendly service, no crowds and best of all no intrusive security measures.
You are actually treated like valued customers instead of a herd of cattle.

Whilst in London there was something with a Maniac connection I wanted to do and that was to find a bottle of Olivier Humbrecht’s wine. Establishing Waitrose stocked it I found a store in Kingston-on-Thames, went there and asked the wine manager where the bottles were. His answer was they definitely did not stock Humbrecht wines so I was looking over what they did have and guess what, there they were a small supply of Clos Windsbuhl 2002 Pinot Gris, so much for his knowledge! The bottle cost me 30 pounds which translates to ZAR428 which is the most expensive bottle of wine I have ever bought but don’t worry Olivier I will not hold it against you, it was something I wanted to do and when Russell and I shared it the following evening we both agreed it was excellent!

Saturday 17th March. Caught the Easyjet from Gatwick to Edinburgh, drove to Crieff (near Glenturret, more of that later) and on Sunday drove to Elgin through a snowstorm, a first for me! It was to snow the whole week I was there.

Monday 19th March. My first visit was to Benromach Distillery, a picturesque small distillery which is owned by Gordon & MacPhail. After the tour I tasted their standard NAS at40%, the new Organic at 43% and preferred the standard.

Then I went to Dallas Dhu, now a museum, which was interesting as you can “play” with all the equipment. In the afternoon I visited G&M’s head office where I met Michael Urquhart and export manager Derek Hancock. Michael took me on a tour of the facility and showed me their oldest barrel, a 1938 Mortlach (I wonder how much is left after the angels have taken their share every year?). By the way Benromach is a race partner of one of the yachts in the Clipper Round the World yacht race and Michael and Derek will be coming to Durban when the yachts have a stopover here in November.

The next visit was Benriach (arranged by Bert!) where manager Alan McConnochie gave me a warehouse tasting, my very first.
I tasted 7 samples including a 1976 port finish 54.4%, a 1975 sherry butt 54.1% and a 1966 hogshead 51.4% and it was for me an awesome experience. There is also a South African connection here, I think one of the partners is from SA.

I had decided to base myself in Craigellachie being central and discovered the Strathspey B&B, which also doubles as the local post office, right over the road from the Highlander Inn, which Carol Donaghy runs superbly so I had the best of both worlds, drams and supper at the Inn and bed in Carol’s luxurious B&B. Dram of the night that night was a 1982 Dallas Dhu 25yo 40% by G&M.

Tuesday 20th March. In heavy snow started with a visit to Speyside Cooperage which I found very interesting and bought a DVD of the operation for my club members back home. Then called in at Abelour where I tasted their A’Bunadh Batch 17 60.6% without having to do “the full tour”, are things looking up?

Decided then to try and reach Cardhu, turned off the main road, drove about ½ km down a very narrow road.
At that point the car started sliding into snow. Stopped and could not reverse! What now? After a bit of an effort managed to turn around and get back to the main road, realising I must be wary of this snow. Next stop was Tomintoul for an appointment with Master Distiller Robert Fleming, arranged whilst still back home through Andy Watts of Three Ships.

The girl at Abelour had told me to go via Dufftown which I did but about 6 km’s past there the road disappeared under snow! I turned around and phoned Robert, it seemed that was not the ideal route so off once again back to the main road, past the Cardhu turnoff, up through Glenlivet & eventually arrived without problem.

Another great experience, I was shown around by Tom the production manager and afterwards had to give my opinion of the products in front of Robert and Tom. Quite nervewracking! I tasted a sample of Sept. 2006 New Spirit, the 10,16, 27yo SM”s and their Old Ballantruan an un-chillfiltered  peated malt at 50%. Whilst there I found an amazing coincidence, in the visitors book a month or two before was a name and address from Gonubie in SA, a small seaside town about 10k’s from where I live!

I mean Tomintoul is not exactly on the tourist route and is not open to the public so talk about almost bumping into neighbours at the other end of the world!

That evening I had a dram at the Craigellachie Hotel’s Quaiche Bar. At last I’ve been there having missed it on my previous visit.

Wednesday 21st March. Drove to Huntley where I met with Kirsty McLeod of Duncan Taylor & Co., another charming person in the whisky industry who showed me their operation. Whilst there she told me they were soon going to acquire their own distillery and I only found out later the Maniacs did not yet know about this so I had BREAKING NEWS but was not aware of it! I then had a tasting of 5 whiskies in her office, a 1970 Glen Grant, 38yo Auld Blended, a 33yo Lonach Caperdonich, a 1966 Bunnahabhain and a 34yo Port Dundas (sherry cask) at 58 %. She also very kindly gave me 6 5cl samples to take away, the youngest being a 34yo, which I ended up bringing back to SA and tasting here! (My favourite of these was the 34yo 1973 Strathclyde cask 74062 at 56.5%, a sherry beaut scoring 87.)

Then onto Keith and of course Strathisla which although closed had the visitors centre open and we were offered a free dram – things are looking up! In the afternoon went to Glenfiddich as I wanted to see Balvenie but was told they don’t do tours there so that was that. That evening at the Highlander I sampled a group of Compass Box products, Oak Cross, Asyla and Flaming Heart.

Thursday 22nd March. Off to Macallan and arrived about 09:30 only to find they opened at 1100, but no trouble to them they opened the visitors centre for me, Margaret was very pleasant, certainly knows her products well and I was even offered a free dram – what hospitality, I could have stayed longer!

Next stop was Cardhu, much less snow this time, and what a difference between these two distilleries. Cardhu is Diageo, big and impersonal, our guide did not seem to have a sense of humour, was not over friendly so whilst I was glad I saw it I was also pleased to leave. Spent the rest of the morning looking at places like Tamdhu, Knockando, Cragganmore and Tormore.

In the afternoon my last “official visit” was a tour of Glenfarclas arranged by Bert and confirmed whilst I was in Amsterdam. George Grant took me around this very interesting distillery with a truly impressive visitors area and boardroom, modelled on the SS Australasia, where I tasted a 10, 12, 15 and 30yo as well as a Single Cask 1972/2001 43% (741 bottles). Another nice touch was the SA flag flying at the entrance to welcome me.

Friday 23rd March. Drove back down to Crieff with the last of the snow melting on the hills, a quicker journey this time with the roads back to normal and called in at Glenturret which had been closed the week before. I had previously been there in 1996 and now of course it is the home of The Famous Grouse with a huge grouse dominating the parking area. I think Glenturret has lost its identity, it was always so proud of being the “oldest’ distillery but now I could only find a 10yo hidden away amongst all the Grouse products, a little sad and their magnificent liqueur whisky which I so enjoyed is, alas, no more. Anyway the ladies in the visitor centre were very cheerful and offered me a free dram, yes things have definitely improved in Scotland.

Saturday 24th March. After breakfast at the Crieff Hotel I drove through to Edinburgh airport, handed the car back and afterwards phoned Charlie MacLean whom I was hoping to meet in Edinburgh but as time had run out we just had a chat over the phone. Hopefully we will meet some time in the future.

So ended my time in Speyside.
I have only described my main visits although I saw other distilleries such as Glen Moray, Glen Spey, Glendullan, Craigellachie, Glen Grant, Glentauchers and Dailuaine which gave me the opportunity of exploring this really beautiful part of Scotland.
Before ending there are two points I would like to make:

1. Bearing in mind I was on my own the very strict drink/driving laws meant that all tastings done during the day entailed taking the smallest sip only and leaving the rest in the glass. I worked out afterwards I had left behind in various glasses over a bottle of superb single malt whisky – what a splendid vatted, sorry blended, malt they might have made!

2. And do the Scots still deserve their reputation? I am happy to say that certainly in Speyside things are much improved, the distilleries are offering drams without you doing the full tour and they seem to be aware this is good marketing practice. I can only presume and hope this is also happening elsewhere in Scotland.