By Olivier Humbrecht, France
Inverness – ‘Capital of the Highlands’
There are many ways to reach the Northern Highlands and Speyside, but at some point, your journey will make you travel through Inverness. The longest and somehow most tiring is to take the A9 from Glasgow/Edinburgh (except if stopping at Pitlochy/Aberfeldy is part of the plan, you know…, Blair Athol, Edradour, Aberfeldy, Andrew Simington’s new tasting room…. But that is another story for later).
Flying from London to the small but well managed Inverness airport is the fastest. The taxi ride from the airport to Inverness will actually take you past the old Millburn distillery, or, sadly, what is left of it, as it was closed in 1985 and later transformed into a pub/hotel. It is located right at the entrance of Inverness on the left side of a dual carriage way, in the middle of an industrial zone. The old chimney, watermill, and typical warehouse style buildings that must have used in the past for floor malting are a giveaway. In the past, there used to be a few distilleries within Inverness (Glen Mohr, Glen Albyn, Millburn), but both the bad economics of the 1970’s/80’s and the crazy expansion of Inverness later on must have killed the distilling activity. Today, the closest distilleries to Inverness are on the West: Glen Ord, with its magnificent visitor centre and also Diageo’s malting activity, North: Dalmore and Glenmorangie, East: Benromach in Forres and the rest of Speyside and South/East: Tomatin on the A9.
From Glasgow or the South, my preferred way to reach Inverness is by train. There aren’t many tracks in the Highlands, and they all go through the most wonderful scenery you can imagine, especially once you hit the Highlands. Whenever I take the Glasgow/Inverness train (about a 3h30 journey) I make sure I have one of those cute 20cl Dalwhinnie 15yo and I make a point to open it as the train pass the distillery about mid journey… Not a powerful dram, but actually a perfect fruity aperitif style and just the right size for the end of the journey!
Inverness station is right in the middle of town. It’s only a short 15 minutes walk that will take you along the river Ness, or even quicker taxi ride, to reach Glenmoriston Town House, along the riverbank (http://www.glenmoriston.com). This hotel was completely refurbished a few years ago. It is set in old stone buildings, with modern, comfortable and very stylish atmosphere, which manages an excellent compromise between contemporary decoration and Highland welcome. Glenmoriston has two restaurants. ‘Contrast’ is ideal for a quick lunch or casual meal, especially if the weather is nice and you can enjoy the view over the river. ‘Abstract’ is the gastronomic restaurant, with an excellent wine list and superlative food menu. The menu combines the best local ingredients prepared with great delicacy. I had the occasion to eat there twice now, and each time was amazed by the quality and inventiveness of the food prepared by the Belgium chef (I can hear the Lindores laughing…). Very highly recommended.
What makes Glenmoriston an ideal stopover for the whisky lover is not just its location, but also its great bar. The setting is modern, but extremely comfortable, and once you’ve set yourself in one of those leather sofas with the list of whisky, there’s no escape possible…
On my first visit, I participated to a dinner organised by the hotel, featuring only biodynamic wines, very well combined with the 7 courses menu by the enthusiastic and competent sommelier Joel. In keeping with the theme, the dinner was followed by coffee served with a Benromach ‘Organic’ 43% OB (I am still waiting for Bruichladdich to produce their first biodynamic malt whisky…). In the past, I never thought much of this light style whisky, but that evening, it appeared very fruity and elegant with a decent enjoyable finish. I would gladly raise my score to 80 pts from 73 for previous versions. Later on that evening, I managed to order a dram of the Glenfarclas 1969/2003 (40.7%, OB Old Stock Reserve for Germany, Sherry cask #2895, 205 Bts.) which I spotted earlier on and intrigued me, first because it is a bottle for the German market, secondly, because Mr Glenfarclas himself (Luc Timmermanns) didn’t taste it yet and thirdly, because it looked really good! Well , I got what I expected: a soft, round, toffee flavoured, extremely aromatic delicious after dinner dram. Pure Glenfarclas heaven in a medium powered but highly complex style. Well worth 92 points!
During my second stay with friends, we experienced the exact same quality of service and food, but had even more time to study the long whisky list, to my great pleasure! Having driven past Dalmore a few hours before and not being able to stop by, I was very keen to start with a Dalmore 28yo (45%, OB, Stillman’s Dram). I was surprised to see how this version is so different from the classic Dalmore modern range: no trace of wood/finishes, very pure herbal/hay nose and quite powerful dry palate. It appeared as a serious dram, but perhaps not the kind to finish a dinner with, this explains my perhaps more conservative rating of 87 points . Kindly, Joel let us taste the previous version (not on the list anymore) head to head: Dalmore 30yo (45%, OB, Stillman’s Dram). I did taste this version previously and rated it 89 points, but compared to the 28yo, it appeared so much more aromatic, intense and round, that I would have scored it 90 points.
I’ve only rarely tasted the Vintage Cask Balvenie selections in the past, so when I spotted the Balvenie 1967/1999 ‘Vintage Cask’ (49.7%, OB, C#9908) I couldn’t resist ordering it. It appeared very powerful, aromatic and grassy with lots of fresh herbal aromas and hints of flowers. The palate was surprisingly intense for Balvenie, quite dry with strong emphasis on the hay/heather character. Very compelling and attractive, the kind of malt you really want to drink in big gulps to appreciate its power and length. 93 points! This Balvenie must have opened up our appetite for something sherried, so naturally we went towards Speyside with a Glenfarclas 1954/2000 (43%, OB, 1193bts) and got what we asked for! It showed a delicious round toffee/butterscotch aromatic nose, quite intense and powerful, completely erasing the Balvenie from our memory. The palate was creamy, sweet, long and felt actually quite powerful, again, not giving an inch to the previous malt. There was no ABV indication on the label that I could spot, so at the time, I assumed that it wasn’t that high due to the age, but nonetheless cask strength. Later on, I learned from our useful monitor, with great surprise, that it only has 43%. This is the kind of malt which one can drink slowly an entire evening. It almost replaces dessert. I am sure that some people might find it perhaps a pity if it has been reduced from a higher ABV, but that evening, after a delicious meal, it was just perfect! 93 points.