A Visit to Tomatin Distillery

This gallery contains 9 photos.

Tomatin is a contradiction of modernity and history. Situated just off the A9, the main north-south artery in Scotland’s central and eastern Highlands, the distillery’s grounds look like a vacation village, with sweet little cottages and houses and a wee … Continue reading

A Visit to Balblair Distillery

I’ve been a fan of Balblair since the first time I tasted the 2001 vintage a few years ago. It’s a very ur–Highland malt, embodying all the flavors and textures idealized in the style, and because the brand tends to … Continue reading

A Visit to GlenDronach Distillery

When I visited GlenDronach in July 2014, I’d already been on a number of distillery tours in the preceding days. That very morning, I’d been to sister distillery Glenglassaugh and was eagerly anticipating learning more about the place that makes one … Continue reading

A Visit to Glenglassaugh Distillery

When you drive up to Glenglassaugh, it looks like a fairly ordinary Scottish distillery. There’s a modern visitors’ center, a few historic buildings and dunnage warehouses, some larger warehouses from the mid-20th century, and nice if modest scenery surrounding it all. … Continue reading

A Visit to Glen Garioch Distillery

Most distilleries in Scotland are situated on fairly open acreage. They might be close to towns and habitation, but they usually have enough large warehouses, winding drives and expansive fields to make them seem set apart. Not Glen Garioch. It’s … Continue reading

Canadian Whisky: My First Foray

Mail time!

The best kind of mail.

Sometimes I forget how short a time I’ve actually been drinking whisky. For the record, I first tasted whisky in December 2007 as a freshly-minted 21-year-old, and I hated it. I probably offended my friend’s kind father who had generously poured a flight of three different Scotches to try. I wasn’t ready yet.

But in September of 2011, I had just moved to Edinburgh and wanted to fully immerse myself in my new surroundings. Simultaneously, I was re-entering student life and didn’t have much disposable income for new hobbies. Luckily, the Edinburgh University Water of Life Society came through with a massively good deal: buy a £10 membership and, twice a month, taste 5-6 whiskies for only £6. Thus, it didn’t take long for me to fall deeply in love with Scotch whisky and, since then, it feels as if I’ve always been enjoying it. Each tasting with the Society was a new adventure, as we never repeated drams, and I continue to approach my whisky drinking in this way, as an education, preferring to try something new rather than stick with what’s familiar. (Though, to be sure, I do have bottles of some of my favorites.)

Since returning from Scotland last August, I’ve been casting about for ways to keep learning. I love New York City, but it’s not a town for whisky lovers on a budget. Even the cheapest tastings run upwards of $50 or more, making them an infrequent treat. And while New York’s bars and liquor stores have probably the best selection and availability of Scotch whiskies in the country, eventually you get around to trying them all (except those that are $150 per pour). I haven’t gotten to that point yet, but the day is coming.

What’s a drinker who craves the novelty of varied drams to do? Expand my palate, not with just Scotch, but with other whisky iterations. Bourbon is the obvious first choice, and I’m slowly feeling my way down this long and interesting path. But North America produces other whiskies, too. Recently I got the opportunity to venture north of the border and begin exploring Canadian whisky, using Canadian Whisky: The Portable Expert by Davin de Kergommeaux as my guide. Paired with “mystery tastings” on Twitter led by Davin and Johanne McInnis, I spent four weeks reading, re-reading, nosing, tasting, and asking questions about the complex spirits made up north.

A brief review of the book: If you ever wanted to know anything about Canadian whisky, this is the resource for you. Davin has spent years mapping out the distillation process, visiting distilleries (not a mean feat in Canada, where distillery access requires security clearance due to post-9/11 US import regulations), researching the history of great Canadian distillers, and learning boatloads about chemistry. He expressly dispels well-accepted myths about Canadian whisky (e.g. it always contains rye) and he takes the reader from grain to glass in a clear, detailed yet understandable way. The book is a pleasure to read. You can choose to plow right through from A to Z (or zed if you’re Canadian) or jump from a chapter on enzymes to one about the Seagram family. Historical and contemporary photos and helpful diagrams support the text and provide helpful visual references.

I learned some things that surprised me, like Canadian whisky is (nearly) always a blend—even single cask bottlings, as the spirit can be blended before it goes into the barrel. The blending process is pretty fascinating: most distilleries have recipes for “base whisky” and “flavoring whisky.” Each has a different grain profile and ABV, as the spirit interacts differently in the barrel depending on what sort of congeners (aka flavor makers) are present. (Typically, more distillation=higher ABV=fewer congeners.) Depending on what grains are available in a given year (crops vary, of course, according to weather and growing conditions), distillers must adjust their recipes to account for any differences that could show up in the finished product. I can’t even imagine what their formulas look like, but I have an immense respect for the people who do this job.

Also of note is the importance of yeast in making Canadian whisky. Obviously, all whiskies require yeast to carry out  fermentation, but I’ve never heard anyone in the Scotch world discuss yeast with as much emphasis as here. Especially for flavoring whiskies, yeast really matters, and each distillery carefully cultivates and “fingerprints” its yeast to ensure the right fermentation takes place. Such a tiny micro-organism makes such a big difference!

One of the best features of the book is its extensive tasting notes, covering 100 expressions on the market at the time of publication. (The notes, organized throughout the book to match up with the chapters about their respective distilleries, are handily indexed so you can easily locate them, which I found a thoughtful touch.) It was from these notes (with one exception) that Johanne and Davin chose the mystery whiskies for each week’s tasting. Although I never guessed correctly, it was great fun to try!

Below are my notes for each whisky. If I had to pick a favorite, it was the Forty Creek Port Wood Reserve. Every one of these was exceptionally delicious, though, and I’d go back to any of them in a heartbeat.

Lot No. 40
Nose: Caraway galore! And gingersnap.

Palate: Sweet like a dark butterscotch, spicy with cloves and cinnamon. Fresh herbal notes too, especially mint. Adding water reveals white pepper, ginger, and dried orange peel.

Alberta Premium Dark Horse
Nose: Fruity and floral with cherries, plums, notes of peony, lavender, and lilac. Also a hint of rubber or slate, not unpleasant.

Palate: Cloying with cherry cough syrup and cigar smoke. Water opens up a more nuanced profile with spice notes, notably fenugreek.

Danfield’s Limited Edition 21 year old
Nose: Big fruit, especially cherry at first, then brown sugar, fresh sawdust and something earthy like slate.

Palate: Warm butterscotch with zesty citrus peel and bitter pith. Floral topnotes and lingering spice (white pepper, cinnamon bark) finish. Adding water brings out more herbal notes but mutes the spice.

Forty Creek Port Wood Reserve
Nose: Tons of spice (cinnamon, black pepper) and herbs. Wet earth and a slight mustiness, like a mushroom. Over time it picks up fruit and flower notes, too.

Palate: Sweet and spicy in a perfect mix, with cooked ginger, leafy greens, and birch syrup.

I am so grateful to Johanne and Davin for inviting me to participate in this project. Their passion for Canadian whisky really shines, and they are dedicated and fun ambassadors. Furthermore, Johanne’s organization of the event and Davin’s willingness to thoroughly answer each and every question showed off the famous Canadian generosity of spirit beautifully. Huge thanks to both of them, and to Davin’s publisher, McClelland & Stewart Ltd., for the book. I learned so much and I feel like it’s only the beginning. I can’t wait to see (and taste) what comes next in my Canadian whisky explorations.

MUfLT, Part Four: Highland Park Distillery

One of the best parts of living in Scotland for a year was the chance to travel to far-flung, isolated pockets of natural beauty, ancient civilization, and whisky. Although we planned our mini-tour of Speyside with a deliberate whisky focus, Sunjay and I spent the bulk of our final holiday in Scotland exploring Orkney and Shetland. These archipelagos off the north of Scotland each have their own unique culture and personality, and I could write for a month about our experiences without being able to fully express how special these places are. If you ever get the chance, I urge you to visit, giving yourself plenty of time to get comfortable in the stark landscape and to take all the narrow, twisting dirt roads that beckon. And, if you visit Orkney, you cannot miss touring the UK’s most northerly distillery, Highland Park. (Scapa, the other distillery on Orkney, lies slightly south and is unfortunately not open for tours since it is staffed by a veritable skeleton crew of three.)

Dates of various builds and rebuilds.

As with Glen Moray, I had never tasted Highland Park before visiting. To be honest, I’d always gotten the impression that Highland Park must be overrated: it has slick (or at least really nice) marketing, it sells several multi-thousand dollar expressions, and, well, people talk of it in hushed tones. I’m always a bit skeptical when that particular trifecta happens — I have often been disappointed when tasting “the best” of anything according to someone else, especially if I know the packaging and the marketing has played into it. And why not be skeptical? Everyone has their own preferences. In fact, I met an Aussie geologist on Shetland who had drunk the local pub out of everything BUT Highland Park because she couldn’t stand it.

I go on the record here to say, however, that Highland Park lives up to everything I’ve ever heard about it. And their distillery makes for an interesting visit to boot.

Floor maltings.

Although, unlike Balvenie, Highland Park does not do all their maltings on site, they do process a portion of their barley the traditional way, on the floor for several days, periodically turned by hand. They also dry some of their barley partially over a peat fire; the rest comes from the mainland and is totally unpeated. This is because Highland Park have their own peat bog on Orkney, where they dig and dry exclusively. If you don’t think the origin of peat makes a difference, taste Highland Park and any Islay malt side-by-side. I don’t know the chemistry behind it, but I’m willing to bet that the factors that go into the formation of peat over thousands of years make quite a difference to its flavor and character. The different environments and local flora of Orkney versus Islay versus any other parts of Scotland surely have an impact.

Silent kiln.

Highland Park keeps a distillery pig. No, it doesn’t eat the barley and in fact it lacks any porcine features. It’s just a rubber ball, the kind you might use for dodgeball, that they shove into the draff pipe when it gets clogged. (The draff is the barley that’s left after all the delicious stuff has been squeezed out in the mash tuns. It’s usually sold or given to local farmers as cattle feed. Lucky cows!) I’m guessing other distilleries have a pig too, but this was the first time I’d seen one.

Mash tuns and washbacks.

The guide talked quite a bit about the distillery’s dedication to sherry casks. In fact, most of Highland Park’s spirit ends up in much-less-expensive bourbon casks, with a marriage of both bourbon and sherry before final bottling. This is a marked improvement over the old days when Highland Park would use just about any wooden cylinder they could get their hands on to age their spirit — including, it has been recorded, herring barrels! Thank goodness they’ve standardized things a bit since then, although I was surprised to find out that Highland Park has only been operating with codified recipes and procedures since the late 80s or so. Before then, things were done a bit more casually, it seems. So today’s 50 year old will likely vary quite a bit from the 50 year old of 2032. Then again, who knows where the industry will be then?

Showing off the cask.

Although the tasting at Highland Park was the smallest of the week, it may have been the most satisfying. Each drop was better than the last, even when I lingered on the same expression. This was the only distillery where I couldn’t overcome the temptation to buy a bottle (though it was just a wee one).

Highland Park 12 yo
Nose: Grape, fresh cherry, bit of raisin and light caramel.

Palate: Smooth with a bit of a pleasant burn but balanced, especially with water.

Finish: Smoke and peat, short and satisfying.

Highland Park 15 yo
Nose: Vanilla and ginger; with water, brown sugar and coffee cake.

Palate: Warm, smooth, black pepper; rounded out with a drop of water.

Finish: Same peatiness as the 12 yo but longer.

Highland Park 18yo
Nose: Brine and kelp with a high sweet note at the top.

Palate: Spicy and warm, sweet and salty, with a lingering sweetness just tinged with smoke.

Finish: Again, signature peat smoke that lingers on the lips and tongue. Just superb.

Highland Park has been named “the best spirit in the world” twice. You may not agree, and that’s fine. But if you haven’t yet tasted it, I can only say, Believe the hype! And get thee to a bar ASAP to verify.