Boozy Desserts: Strawberry-Rhubarb Cranachan

dessert trifle parfait cranachan Scottish whisky honey oats whipped cream strawberry rhubarb brown sugar

There are many things to love about Scotland but, people always point out, the cuisine is not one of them. These always tend to be people who have never actually traveled to Scotland and bothered to try anything that seemed scary and unfamiliar. I pity these people, not only because they end up missing out on an authentic and pleasurable cuisine, but because they likely suffer from their culinary close-mindedness in other ways, too. (Imagine how dreadful they must be to dine with!)

The truth is that Scottish cuisine might be simple and somewhat unadorned, but when it’s well-made, it can hold its own. It surprises me that in this era of trendy nose-to-tail restaurants, no one in the US seems to have discovered the beauty of haggis, a dish that combines multiple kinds of offal with humble oats, suet, and spices and truly does taste delicious. Perhaps because the haggis emerges from its pudding-bag (aka sheep’s stomach) an ugly, crumbly mess — but that certainly hasn’t stopped chefs in Scotland from plating it up in elegant towers or stuffed in bacon-wrapped chicken breasts.

I digress. Besides the haggis, Scottish cooking offers other dishes that incorporate the most basic ingredients into satisfying and tasty meals. Cullen skink, possibly the best name for anything ever, is a haddock and milk soup: sounds horrible, tastes divine. A good scotch broth is nothing more than barley, vegetables, and a few shreds of meat, and yet you’ve never tasted anything more suited to the wet, windy days of January in Edinburgh. And what about shortbread? It’s flour, butter, and sugar — three ingredients become one divine treat.

My absolute favorite Scottish dish also incorporates only a few basic items. Cranachan is basically trifle made with fresh berries (usually raspberries), whipped cream, and oats. (Oh, oats! The Scots can do about a thousand things with oats.) A little extra flavoring comes from heather honey and, naturally, whisky. It’s a simple, beautiful, wholly satisfying dessert and one upon which you can riff endlessly.

So, since it’s springtime and here in New York that means rhubarb, I decided to whip up a cranachan that’s a little more tart and syrupy than normal. You don’t have to include the whisky, although I obviously recommend it since it provides that little bit of depth the dessert would otherwise lack. I used Compass Box Great King Street, my go-to blend, but feel free to choose a whisky suited to your taste. (A cask strength Glenmorangie or even a sweet-and-salty Old Pulteney would really kick things up.)

Strawberry-Rhubarb Cranachan

Ingredients: 
– 1 heaping cup of rhubarb, chopped into 1/2″ pieces
– 1 heaping cup of strawberries, chopped into 1/2″ pieces
– 1 Tbs. + 1 tsp. brown sugar
– 1 Tbs. + 1 tsp. whisky
– 1 pint heavy cream
– 1 tsp. honey
– 2 Tbs. oats

Directions:
1. Toss the rhubarb and strawberries with brown sugar and heat over low in a saucepan. Allow the mixture to gently simmer, stirring often, until the rhubarb breaks down and the liquid becomes syrupy. Remove from heat, and stir in 1 Tbs. whisky. Let cool and then move to the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes and up to one day.

2. In a skillet over low heat, dry-toast the oats until they’re brown and nutty. Sprinkle on the brown sugar right at the end of cooking and remove from heat, stirring thoroughly to incorporate. Let cool.

3. Using a whisk, stand mixer, or hand mixer, whip the cream until very stiff peaks form — nearly overwhipped. Fold in the whisky and honey.

4. In glasses, bowls, or ramekins, spoon the fruit mixture and layer the whipped cream over it. Top with the toasted oats and garnish with a sliced strawberry, if desired. Serve immediately.

When you dig in, you’ll want to mix up the layers — and you should! This syrupy fruit base mixes especially well with the whipped cream, and the toasted oats remain crunchy to the last bite.

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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.

MUfLT, Part Three: Glen Moray Distillery

As I munch autumn pears in the cool breeze of a near-October evening, it seems slightly incongruous to recall the glorious summer’s day — the kind that makes you forget the rest of the abominably cold and wet summer’s days — that I visited Glen Moray. The previous day’s dramming at Aberlour and Balvenie had prepared me for the all-too-rare combination of whisky and sunshine, but this day’s pace was less frenetic, its agenda much more open, plus I’d had a full night’s sleep and a proper breakfast. The relaxed style of tour at Glen Moray, then, felt fitting.

Grain mills

Besides me and Sunjay, there were only two other people on our tour in addition to our guide and a trainee guide. The 2-to-1 guide ratio allowed us to wander through and take photos at our own pace, as one guide could lead the way while the other waited to bring up the rear. (As at Aberlour and Balvenie, Glen Moray was in the middle of silent season and so we could take photos throughout the distillery.)

Glen Moray stills – dusting on the to-do list

The whole tour was fascinating but laid back, lacking canned marketing speak and instead more like a dialogue with the guides offering local knowledge and fun facts. For instance, one guide pointed out a road winding through the distillery grounds which was the original way into Elgin and over which Macbeth, among others, is said to have travelled. The road also happened to pass a wee cottage where the excise man used to live — yes, on site! I’m sure today’s excise men are quite disappointed this is no longer the case.

Watching spirit age > watching paint dry

By far the best part of this tour, and most tours, was the warehouse. Here I learned that distilleries throughout Scotland (and presumably elsewhere?) swap casks every so often, storing each others’ aging spirit in their respective warehouses. This is done as a precaution in case some unforeseen disaster — a fire, for instance — were to wipe out the stocks of the distillery on-site: at least there would still be something left in the other locations. Glen Moray have also put transparent lids on some of their casks, allowing one to observe the color of the spirit as it ages as well as its dissipation, the fabled “angels’ share” which evaporates through the porous wood year by year.

Sniff, sniff!

The distillery folks have done another clever thing: setting out different kinds of casks on their sides and allowing visitors to remove the bung and smell the spirit within. (I think I’m sniffing a port finish here.) Although I am pretty familiar with the different aroma profiles of various casks and finishes, it was enormous fun to go from cask to cask and inhale each in turn, especially with the pervasive curtain of general whisky-scent hanging all around me.

Oh yes, it’s dram o’clock.

After the tour, of course, we proceeded to the tasting. I hadn’t previously tasted Glen Moray, so every dram interested me. The guide gamely offered the 8, 12, and 16 year olds, and then allowed us to sample other, less common expressions. While the 16 yo seemed to me exceptional for a standard expression, the Chenin Blanc finish sticks in my mind. I regret not having the space to buy a bottle at the time.

Glen Moray Classic (8 yo)
Nose: Light, citrus-y — plenty of lemon, and some hay.

Palate: Very easy to drink with classic bourbon notes of vanilla and a wee bit of spice.

Finish: Quite short with very little spice, but satisfying.

Glen Moray 12yo
Nose: Cherry, ginger, and a bit of a fruit bowl.

Palate: Overwhelmingly bitter at the back of the palate — I didn’t note anything else.

Finish: Short. (I must not have liked this one much, I wrote next to nothing!)

Glen Moray 16yo
Nose: Toffee, brown sugar, rich stewed fruits.

Palate: Incredibly smooth, with lots of chocolate and ginger notes.

Finish: Light and delicate, but lingering.

Glen Moray Chenin Blanc 2003 (Cask no. 1839)
Nose: Chocolate and toffee — very rich. Opens up with water to include crème brulée.

Palate: At cask strength, lots of dark chocolate, bitter orange and black currants. With a few drops of water, it takes on a lighter character with more lemon and orange.

Finish: I didn’t note the finish — but I noted how much I liked this particular expression!

Glen Moray 1995 Port Wood Finish
Nose: Cherries, plums, chocolate.

Palate: Dark chocolate, oak and bitter orange.

Finish: Not noted.

Two thumbs up to Glen Moray for providing a true five-senses experience! I’m looking forward to further enjoyment of this distillery’s whisky as it becomes more widely available in the US.

Bonus photo: what they do with old casks in Speyside.

Making Up for Lost Time, Part Two: Balvenie Distillery

On the same day we visited Aberlour, Sunjay and I penetrated further into beautiful Speyside and took part in Balvenie’s rather-exclusive distillery tour.

Although we were late getting there (ah, the travails of public transport), no one else on our seven or eight person tour seemed to mind — they were all enjoying tea and shortbread in the tasting cottage. How civilized!

We made our way to the malting floor, empty and a bit forlorn as the distillery was in the middle of silent season, but still redolent with the smell of malted barley and rather romantic thanks to its quaint fittings.

The guide allowed us to peer into the kiln where the malted barley dries so nicely. It looked (and smelled!) so inviting I wanted to lie down in it and take a wee nap. Instead I contented myself with a wee taste — nutty and rich, perfect for porridge!

No sleeping in here!

Of all the stills I’ve seen, the Balvenie pot stills are some of the loveliest. Notice the William Grant emblem — a charming logo I’d love to see in future brandings.

No visit to Balvenie would be complete without entering their marvelous cooperage. Simply walking through yards full of casks overwhelmed me with the kind of awe usually reserved for astronomical phenomena.

Witnessing the coopers hard at work putting casks together, taking them apart, repairing others was a privilege and much more riveting than I initially supposed: I could easily have poured myself a dram and whiled away the afternoon watching in fascination.

We ended the visit in the warehouse, which like all whisky warehouses is the sort of place I picture myself being locked in and happily living off fumes and the occasional siphoned spirit for the rest of my days. As at Aberlour, Balvenie offered a “bottle your own” experience from three different casks.

Of course, the visit concluded with a marvelous tasting of five Balvenie expressions: the Doublewood, Signature 12yo, Single Barrel 15yo, Portwood 21yo, and the 30yo. As I’ve already reviewed the first four, I’ll only give my notes for the 30yo here. (Comparing my notes from earlier in the year with those from this last visit is interesting though: it’s nice to see the progression of my palate, however small that progression may be.)

Balvenie 30 yo
Nose: Dark fruits, honey, wet grass, and hay.

Palate: Incredibly complex with dark chocolate and a mocha flavor that was nearly stout-like. Balanced well with vanilla, spice, and plums, hints of icing sugar.

Finish: All I wrote was “goes on forever”.

Having had the privilege to taste a couple of 30yo + Balvenie single cask whiskies earlier in the year, I knew the standard 30yo expression would not disappoint. In fact, the only disappointing thing is that at £335 I am going to have to wait a long time to afford a bottle of my own!

I really enjoyed my visit to the distillery, which is set far off the road behind a somewhat mysterious stand of forest. Although our guide admitted that she was more of a Glenfiddich devotee, she gamely led the tasting with notes from, I believe, master blender David Stewart. My previous enjoyment of Balvenie allowed me to take this tasting a bit casually, quaffing some and sipping some whilst exchanging banter with others on the tour.

As a note to those who want to visit Balvenie, be sure to book your spaces well in advance. The tours are kept deliberately small (a major benefit, in my opinion) and it’s my impression that they fill up quickly during the high season. If you manage to get a spot, I hope you find it as enriching and delightful as I did.

Making Up for Lost Time, Part One: Aberlour Distillery

I know it’s been an atrociously long time since I posted. My only excuses are that in the last six weeks I

– finished my Masters dissertation in Edinburgh;

– packed up my life and moved from Edinburgh back to the US;

– got married, for the second and third times*; and

– moved from one state to another, unpacked and reorganized my life.

*I actually got married in August 2011, so that my fiancé-then-husband, Sunjay, could get a visa to join me in Scotland for the year. It was a strictly-immediate-family affair, with no celebration to speak of, so this year we renewed our vows and held a reception with all our family and friends. On top of that, my mother-in-law organized a Hindu wedding ceremony. Three weddings, no funerals.

In light of those events, I hope it’s okay that I took a hiatus. I’ll try to be more with it from here on out, although I’m going back to work full-time tomorrow and frankly have no idea how I will feel for awhile. I’m still sorting out all that reverse culture shock business and trying to figure out how to be a New Yorker again. I miss Scotland terribly, so this post, in addition to being my re-entry to blogging, will function also as a chance for me to wallow in my reminiscences for awhile, whisky in hand, head in clouds.

Before life got so crazy (or perhaps this just contributed to the craziness), Sunjay and I went for one last Scottish hurrah through Speyside, Orkney, and Shetland. The next four posts will showcase the whisky highlights of the trip.

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Our first stop was Aberlour Distillery, which at £12 rated as a bargain even before tasting the whisky. The friendly, knowledgeable guide whose name I have forgotten (Sarah? Julia?) led us through the usual mash tuns and wash backs, stills and spirit safes while detailing the history of the distillery and its founder, James Fleming, who was a businessman and philanthropist whose contributions in both fields still give back today. These days, Aberlour is owned by Pernod Ricard.

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The tasting, of course, was more or less what we came for, and it did not disappoint, In fact, I think it’s the best distillery tasting I’ve had yet, both in terms of quality of spirit offered and content of the “tutored” session. In this aspect, our guide shone with evident passion and knowledge which made for an ideal atmosphere.

Look at the size of those drams!

We started with Aberlour’s new spirit (“clearac”) which is unaged, extremely strong, and basically right off the still — this is what goes into the casks. Think of it as proto-whisky. To me, it was quite like other clearacs I’ve tasted in that it had the usual oats-and-honey smells with strong tones of grapes and currants and a thick mouthfeel. Not bad, not whisky.

Throughout the tasting, I sipped and sniffed and reserved bits of each dram to compare at the end. Some of my notes, therefore, reflect a healthy amount of breathing — I certainly didn’t get every note on the first time around.

Aberlour 16yo Bourbon Cask – 54%
Nose of banana, vanilla, and light caramel — reminded me a lot of a Mary Jane. Palate extremely peppery but still light with oak and leather on the finish. Improved with time/air.

Aberlour 16yo Sherry Cask – 58.5%
Nose of dates and raisins, icing sugar, some maple sugar too. Thick and velvety palate, rich with dark fruits and syrup. Long finish with just a hint of bitterness and everlasting sugar. Both this and the preceding Bourbon Cask were available to”bottle your own” in the tasting room that day.

Aberlour 10yo Sherry Cask finish
Available only France, which is a shame as I found it highly quaffable. Nose of pear with an earthiness that reminded me of a certain Mortlach 15. Despite the sherry finish, heavy bourbon notes prevailed throughout a smooth and creamy palate. Finish short but satisfying. I could see myself drinking this on a nearly daily basis.

Aberlour 16 yo
With a nose of berries — raspberry and bramble mostly — and a lovely cinnamon-and-pepper palate, I loved this whisky even before it ended. Which it nearly didn’t. I swear, they had to kick me out before the finish was done. Truly a remarkable and delicious whisky.

Aberlour A’bunadh batch 38 – 60.3%
Having tasted a whole range of A’bunadh batches from 35 to 39, I already knew what to expect with this one — and that was a good thing. The A’bunadh (“the original”) range came about when some distillery workers in the 70s discovered a bottle of whisky in the wall with a newspaper from the late 1800s wrapped around it. Realizing that they’d stumbled on what may have been the original recipe for Aberlour whisky, the distillery sent the spirit for analysis and has produced this expression as a way to reach back through the annals of time and recreate what had once been lost. Of course, each batch (no age statement) is slightly different from the others, so if you find one you really like, buy up as many bottles as you can because it ain’t coming back.

Batch 38 is good (though batch 35 is definitely my preference out of all the ones I’ve tried) — typical sherried notes of plum and other cooked fruits, but with a lovely twist of bitter orange or perhaps orange oils. It improves with a bit of water and really packs a punch (a good one!) on the finish.

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Visiting Aberlour made for a marvelous start to our long trip. Big thanks to our lovely guide and the staff at the distillery who made us feel so welcome and even allowed us to store our rucksacks in the manager’s office. I sincerely hope to visit again someday.

What Tastes Good on a Chilly April Day

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Hot 'n spicy!

I currently live in Edinburgh with my husband of less than a year. I’m doing a Masters degree, and he’s along for the ride. We love it here.

One thing we love is the popular pastime among the extremely fit Scots known as hill walking. Such an utterly understated term, yet so aptly Scottish: hill walking is just that, walking on hills, which is more or less the entirety of Scotland. These walks often involve what the guidebooks refer to as “light scrambling”; one prepares for them by donning hiking boots (not sneakers or trainers), waterproofs (since the sky can open up literally at any moment), and a pack full of necessaries such as a map, compass, first aid kit, and adequate food if you get stuck on the side of the hill and have to wait for mountain rescue. Avid hill walkers use walking sticks which look like ski poles, and at least half of the people we see out walking are over the age of 50. (Yes, they sometimes make me feel inadequate.)

Nice place for a leisurely stroll.

This morning, despite the country-wide “downpour warning”, we woke up too early for a Saturday and set out for the Pentland hills. They’re probably the smallest hills one could walk and still call it hill walking, but I have to tell you, even after training for and running a half-marathon this spring, those hills kicked my butt. Three hours and I almost collapsed into a heap when we boarded the bus.

Because this is Scotland, spring is basically just a random cycle of cloud, sun, hail, rain, wind, and more cloud. The temperature rarely rises above 10 degrees Celsius (about 50 Fahrenheit) and feels colder thanks to the wind and damp. Although we wore the right clothes (layers!) and worked up quite a sweat on our walk, I was still slightly blue by the time we got home.

My favorite way to warm up is through hot beverages, and nothing is better than real chai to restore feeling in my hands and a kick of spice to my sinuses. I always make chai on the stove, using real sugar and milk and a secret masala (spice mixture) courtesy of my best friend’s mother.

Give this a try on the next blustery day, and feel free to adjust the sugar, milk and spice measurements to suit your fancy.

Homemade Hot Chai

Chai is the Indian word for tea. All those menus which call it “chai tea” are just restating the obvious. You can find chai masala (which means a mixture of spices) in an Indian or specialty market, or you can make your own using a spice or coffee grinder and any or all of the following ingredients:

  • cinnamon
  • cardamom
  • cloves
  • ginger
  • black pepper

Or whatever other spices you like!

In a saucepan over medium heat, add 2 black teabags, 6-8 cups of water and 1/4 cup of sugar. Add 1-2 teaspoons of chai masala. Bring to a boil.

When boiling, reduce heat to low and simmer at least ten minutes. Taste and add 1/4 to 1/2 cup of milk, then continue simmering for three minutes. Turn off heat and stir in 1/2 teaspoon of chai masala. Serve in mugs.