Whisky pilgrimage of a lifetime
The Whiskey Library is a whisky education and events company founded in Washington DC by friends and fellow SMWS members Tim Moll and Brian Thompson in 2014. This summer, Tim, Brian and their pals Michael Perez, Robert Floyd and Dennis Dulanto took the whisky tour of a lifetime across to Scotland, as Tim recounts
This trip to Scotland had been years in the making, with the plan to visit three locations that are especially important to Scotch whisky lovers: Speyside, Orkney and Skye. We had certain expectations leading up to the trip, such as which locations and distilleries would be our favourites, but nothing could prepare us for the experiences that awaited us.
After traveling from London our first big event was an evening at The Vaults in Leith. What’s so cool about the setup here is that, outside of the food, there is no whisky menu. Guests are encouraged to engage with the bartenders and provide them distilleries and styles that they enjoy, from which the bartenders proceed to pour samples from the bottles that might fit the bill. We couldn’t leave without hand-filling our own bottle from the cask sitting on the bar.
The beauty of Scotland really started to shine after we headed north to our first distillery, Blair Athol in Pitlochry, where we made a brief stop to admire their gorgeous ivy-covered wall before continuing to GlenAllachie. The drive through the Cairngorms was stunning, with heather and mountains all around us. After arriving at GlenAllachie we were dealt generous pours of the 15-year-old, along with three different distillery-exclusive expressions. We then headed for Dufftown where we spent the night in a house next door to Balvenie distillery.
Here the wort is clear, which is the first of multiple steps allowing for the creation of a fruit-forward distillate that suits Glenglassaugh so well
With an ‘open day’ on the cards, we meandered through Dufftown to Balvenie and Glenfiddich. We admired Glenfiddich’s pristine facilities as we passed by trucks loading cases of whisky and warehouses containing thousands of maturing casks. We dropped by Mortlach and then made our way to Craigellachie, Glenrothes and Glen Grant. In a hustle we rushed to visit Glenfarclas before its 5pm close and were sure to try some samples and pick up a few swag items.
The following day we visited Glenglassaugh and Benriach, with Brown-Forman global brand ambassador Stewart Buchanan as our guide. We were greeted by Stewart in the visitors centre, a delightful modern building amidst a 1960s-era distillery – an amazing welcome on what was a bleak Scottish morning. Stewart, who started as Benriach’s production manager, had an answer for every one of our questions. The production is small, roughly 600,000 litres per annum, and was on pause this day for maintenance. Here the wort is clear, which is the first of multiple steps allowing for the creation of a fruit-forward distillate that suits Glenglassaugh so well. The washbacks continue the theme, by fermenting roughly 150 hours – three times the length of many distilleries – creating brighter flavours in the wash. Distillation is slow, to allow for maximum copper contact, further mellowing the distillate.
When we left the stillhouse the rain really picked up, with a beautiful pitter-patter as the empty barrels collected rainfall while we walked through them. We next went to one of the warehouses to see the different types of casks on hand, from bourbon and sherry to more obscure examples such as Massandra winery casks from Crimea. The air was rich with evaporating whisky, the angels were clearly enjoying themselves!
We headed down to Sandend Beach near the distillery. I can’t begin to describe how amazing this was, the wind was blowing, it was raining, and I was taking it all in with my best friends. This was one of the more amazing experiences I’ve had, everything about it was pure Scotland; bleak weather, an austere yet gorgeous setting, phenomenal whisky and exceptional hospitality. Sharing all of this with my best friends was quite overwhelming, and I felt myself tearing up because I understood how special a moment this was.
Glen Grant warehouse
We then made our way to Benriach with Stewart. The highlight here was the in-depth explanations he gave us on the distillation and mashing processes. It was humbling being taught by a true expert and gentleman. We had a delightful tasting of the 21-year-old, a 23-year marsala cask, 27-year-old oloroso distillery exclusive, and a 1979 31-year-old heavily peated distillate that has to rank as one of the better whiskies I’ve ever had. It was extremely complex, with the peat so mellow and integrated that it was unlike any Speyside whisky I’ve had before.
The following morning Stewart led us on a tour at GlenDronach. As whisky geeks, this was heaven. We discussed some of GlenDronach’s old releases and the processes that make it different from Glenglassaugh and Benriach, while also going through its history. The stills were noticeably shorter than yesterday’s, with the wash still featuring an unusual curved lyne arm that helps to drive the deep and rich notes that GlenDronach is so well known for, and that help to make the whisky perfect for sherry cask maturation. All GlenDronach is aged on site in dunnage warehouses, and the ones we saw were mostly oloroso and PX casks. But there were also different wine casks alongside a handful of ex-bourbon barrels. GlenDronach has a lower angels’ share and thus higher abv than many other distilleries due to the cooler temperatures in Huntly and their use of sherry casks with less surface area contact.
We then decided to check out the Highlander Inn back in town. This place is a gem, with the walls lined with old bottlings that had previously been drunk at the bar. The current whisky list is extensive as well and very reasonably priced. The food was delicious, and we had an awesome time admiring the history of this little pub. This is a must if you’re a whisky fan!
Then we were off to Orkney, popping into Benromach, Glen Ord, Glenmorangie, and Clynelish on our way up the coast. Glen Ord is especially noteworthy in the amount of money that Diageo has poured into the facility. The visitors centre is top notch, and we tried a few samples at the bar and snapped a few pictures. This drive was inspiring; to the east, we were greeted by some stark cliffs descending into the North Sea. We took in the sites as the ferry headed out to sea, including the imposing cliff-face of Hoy.
The next morning we had an island tour with John Strachan from Highland Park. He took us to Hobbister Moor where the distillery gets its peat, there was heather everywhere! We learned about the peat cutting process and the steps that the distillery is taking to mitigate its environmental impact. Peat bogs are carbon sinks, which are integral to helping us fight climate change. They are using roughly 80 tonnes per year, down from 150 in previous years. Next, it was off to Yesnaby to see the cliffs. This is an awe-inspiring and humbling location. We stayed away from the edge as it would be certain death if we were to take a wrong step. However, when appreciated from a distance, it was stunning. The Atlantic Ocean was relentless as it crashed into the jagged rocks below. To add to the moment, John gave us a dram of Highland Park 18-year-old to appreciate as we learned about the history of the location.
We then headed to the Stones of Stenness, a feature from roughly 5,000 years ago that was likely used to celebrate the winter solstice. After lunch, it was distillery time. We had been on many tours so far, but this one added two new experiences to the list. One, we saw some floor malting and two we managed to get a wee drink from a cask in warehouse 12 – a 14-year-old that had spent the last two years in a sherry hogshead. The flavours were rich and powerful, coming in at roughly 63% abv. This was a big whisky, just what we were looking for. We then went for an enjoyable tasting of the 12, 15, 18, and 21-year-olds, a fun way to end our day with John.
There were rumblings that the Northern Lights might be visible, so we went to one of the most remote parts of the island, Birsay, at the very northwestern tip of the Orkney mainland. We arrived after 11pm, it was pitch black and there was no one else there. We found some stairs and wandered with our torches down onto the beach. It was only us and the sound of the waves. There was a walkway that seemingly extended forever into the ocean, and since it was low tide, we decided to explore. If we had been able to see, I believe we could have made it to a small piece of land that houses the Birsay lighthouse and is connected to the mainland at low tide. However, we exercised a bit of caution and turned back, as Google Maps showed us to be right in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean! We didn’t see the Northern Lights, but we did stare up at the sky, the clearest we’ve ever seen it. The Big Dipper and Orion’s Belt were crystal clear, as were all the others that we couldn’t name. It was a moment of calm exhilaration as we gazed from the dark, alone in the farthest corner of the island. This was a moment to remember.
Onto Orkney: the team arrive at Highland Park
I was sure to savour every aspect of Skye, knowing that it would be a long time until I saw these visuals again. It was an honour to be there.
ACROSS TO SKYE
After catching the ferry back to the Scottish mainland, we popped into Old Pulteney in Wick. The views driving south were stunning once again, and we took a slightly longer but more scenic route along Loch Ness, a stunning body of water. We grabbed some pics but didn’t see Nessie. The western Highlands were a starkly different landscape than what we’d seen so far. We entered extremely mountainous terrain and couldn’t stop gawking at the scale and majesty of everything around us.
On Skye we headed to Talisker in Carbost. We arrived knowing that the distillery was having water issues and that tours were off, but were excited nonetheless. The 27-year-old distillery exclusive was still available but because of its cost we didn’t go for it immediately. We were, however, eager to try it. We asked around and there were no samples available, but the staff directed us to a very helpful man named Nick. He graciously walked us through every aspect of the 27, detailing how it is 13 years in ex-bourbon, two in an STR before the final 12 years in a refill European sherry oak puncheon. The time that he took and the earnestness with which he detailed the bottle was enough to convince us that this was a bottle worth having, so three of us went in on it together. We got some great pictures outside and asked Nick to quickly show us the stills and worm tubs, which he happily did. This was more than we’d expected, and we walked away very pleased. We then headed to the Fairy Pools, a major tourist attraction that was mobbed when we got there despite our late arrival. We felt like we were Frodo walking to Mordor as we descended into the valley and walked up towards the mountains with a delightful stream flowing past us the whole way.
On our last full non-travel day in Scotland, we wanted to make sure we checked one final item off our list, which was the Old Man of Storr. The Storr was crowded so we continued to a higher vantage point to get some amazing panoramic shots. I was sure to savour every aspect of Skye, knowing that it would be a long time until I saw these visuals again. It was an honour to be there. We reminisced over dinner that night about the highlights of the trip and all agreed that this had been the experience of a lifetime.
On our final day we popped into Torabhaig on our way off Skye. This new distillery is in a beautiful location on the southern tip of the island and makes some tasty peated whisky. We can’t wait to see more of their expressions as they mature as a distillery. We then passed through Fort William and Ben Nevis and drove alongside Loch Lomond on our way to Glasgow for a midnight sleeper train to London, before our flight home the next day.
We could not have asked for a better experience over our two weeks. Whether it was the lorry driver who pulled over to take our picture at Craigellachie, or George, the owner of the Brig Larder in Kirkwall, who took time out of his busy schedule to ensure we tried the best food Orkney had to offer. Scotland is full of the most welcoming people who made our trip a true joy. That, alongside the stunning scenery and the best whisky in the world, is a trifecta that’s tough to beat.
Scotland, we can’t wait to see you again soon!
Find out more about The Whiskey Library here