Since our earliest days blogging, almost nine years ago, Yoav Gelbfish (of the Whisky Gospel blog) and I have been planning to visit Scotland together. We’ve each been four times to Scotland in the interim, but have never managed to swing it together. Not for lack of trying, mind you!
Two of my longer trips came following the Whisky Show in London, which coincides usually with the Jewish holidays, leaving Yoav out of the picture. We got tired of trying for October, and had our trip all locked in for April 2020, tickets and hotel reservations all sorted out. Thank you COVID-19 for killing that trip.
But two and a half years later, the stars lined up and we were able to have this trip around Scotland. We each had specific distilleries we wanted to see, and plans for a serious trip became a reality. Here we were embarking on a two week Aberdeen to Aberdeen counter-clockwise full circle around Scotland, going all the way north to John o’Groats and all the way southwest to Islay and Campbeltown.
Before sharing posts delving into some specific distillery visits in depth, I have some general observations for this post. Following this post, I’ll focus on specific distilleries, especially those that we were offered a more in depth look at the workings of the distillery. This is naturally facilitated by personal relationships, but the insider looks we got at Glen Garioch, the three Distell distilleries – Tobermory, Deanston and Bunnahabhain, Chivas’ Strathisla and Aberlour, Aberfeldy (with a most interesting look at the Dewar’s brand) and Ardenhoe were fascinating, inspiring and informative.
This is a great time to thank each and every one of my industry friends who made these visits so amazing!!!
As I said, I have some general observations and rankings:
Diageo 2022 – Kudos
I’d like to start with a move by Diageo that had us talking about this change at every single one of their distilleries we visited. I’ll just mention that I have visited Glenkinchie, Oban, Lagavulin and Caol Ila before (in either 2015 or 2016), and they were very standard basic distillery tours. Some had better shops than others, and some had distillery exclusive bottles at 48%. Yet others sold a small selection of Fauna and Fauna bottles. All in all, you went on a quick tour, tasted the standard 12 or 14 year old and that was that. Back then, Oban had a cask to taste, but not to bottle and take home and Lagavulin had the wildly entertaining warehouse tasting with Pinky, but that’s it.
Diageo distilleries are now a whole new ballgame, and a really fun one at that. First of all, the “Four Corners” of Johnny Walker places four distilleries – Clynelish, Cardhu, Caol Ila and Glenkinchie – as massive independent tourist attractions. We visited Clynelish (for a regular tour) and Caol Ila (for a warehouse tasting) and both have been beautifully renovated with state of the art visitor centers.
There is also a cask strength bottling available ONLY at each of the four visitors centers titled “Four Corners of Scotland” which requires you visit all four distilleries to collect the quartet.
But it’s not just two of the “Four Corners” visitor centers that have been upgraded. We visited Glen Ord, Dalwhinnie, Blair Atholl and Royal Lochnagar and every single one of them had a modern visitor center and shop and every single distillery had both a distillery exclusive bottling at 48% and a Bottle Your Own cask at cask strength, which they were more than happy to let you taste. In fact, the plain Royal Lochnagar tour included four drams, with both the distillery exclusive and the BYO as standard! Additionally, some distilleries had some special bottlings, also exclusive to the distillery. So I hereby will surprise myself and wholeheartedly recommend to just book any “plain” Diageo distillery tour you can schedule, they cost around £20 and are really good. In fact, in certain distilleries that also entitles you to a 10% discount in the store, placing the BYO bottle at right about £100. Yes, there was one hitch with the tour guide at Royal Lochnagar who was a bit more into storytelling than into whisky-facting, but I was told that he was only filling in and doesn’t normally run tours.
But there’s more. Diageo have become masters of the hidden gems. Most of the distilleries have a “premium” experience (I put the premium in parentheses because it costs £40-£60 as opposed to around £100 at many of the smaller distilleries) which is really great value, and in one case, stellar value! Glen Ord and Clynelish only have regular tours. At Glen Ord, you get a Singleton tour, which includes 3 drams from each of the Singleton distilleries (with the Glen Ord one being an outstanding special bottling for the retirement of Maureen Robertson, who was the master distiller), and at Clynelish, you get the 14 and the Distillery Exclusive, as well as Johnny Walker Gold.
But other distilleries had some excellent “premium” tastings, and I’ll mention Dalwhinnie’s Expressions Tour and Masterclass that has six beautiful drams paired with exquisite chocolate pralines made by Highland Chocolatier plus a bonus dram pulled out of a cask in the warehouse. There’s Caol Ila’s Sprit of Smoke Warehouse tasting that has five casks 9-18 years of age. Blair Atholl offers the Allt Dour tour which includes a couple of interesting Blair Atholl drams and a cask draw. And finally, the stunning Royal Lochnagar Warehouse Tasting given only once a week, in which four very worthy casks from all around the Diageo stable are sampled, making it the highest VFM activity on our tour and a tasting that will receive its own post.
Would I like to see all of the single malts offered at a minimum of 46% and see Diageo keep the chill filtration and the coloration for the blends?
Sure! But kudos nevertheless on the new approach to the visiting whisky nerds. It’s great to finally meet you, Diageo!
Tech, Innovation, Merchandising and Whisky
Very much like the wide range of distilleries, so vary the different levels of “tech savvy” distillery tours. On the one hand, you have Glenlivet’s slick and shiny “field of barley” experience, Clynelish’s beautifully gamified presentation and Aberfeldy’s brilliantly curated brand museum for Dewar’s. On the other, Bruichladdich’s quaint “nothing changed here since 1881” approach is endearing and Wolfburn’s “visitor center” is a cordoned off area of the main distillery space shouting “we’re new”. On the other end of the field is Glenfiddich’s opening which is an ode to the Grant family which was last updated circa 2009, while Glenallachie’s oh so 1980’s video presentation is grating.
In many distilleries you can see that some deep thought and serious effort went into designing the visitor experience. I can’t say that the good old “come on by and we’ll show you around, pour you some drams and we’ll tell you how whisky is made” doesn’t work. It obviously does. But there’s a singular opportunity to create a connection and a loyalty that can only be created at the distillery (possibly at one’s first visit to it?). Here one has to wonder why any distillery would risk blowing it on stupid little things? I traveled 4000 kilometers (2500 miles) to visit your distillery and you can’t be bothered to pay His Majesty’s tax man and roll a barrel from your warehouse to your visitor center for a BYO?
Forget the easy income, unshared with any brokers along the way. Forget the repeat sales (An Israeli Tomatin fan actually asked us to get him a BYO bottle he didn’t buy while at the distillery, because there were FIVE offered, and he wanted also the PX. Talk about inducing repeat sales and brand loyalty). Just think of the pride and joy your visitor has in bottling a bottle he’ll take home to brag about, cherish and share with his friends, giving you free word of mouth publicity while having his friends taste YOUR product on his dime. How do so many distilleries miss out on this? And I’m not just talking about the small guys. Glenlivet has two empty BYO casks in the visitor center (!!). The reason I was given for a lack of a BYO cask was: “They ran out…”.
REALLY? Glenlivet distills 21 MILLION liters every year and they can’t be bothered to roll two nice casks (I almost said ‘lousy casks’, but I’m practicing restraint) from the warhouse to the visitor center a few times a year?
The other side of the tech coin is picture taking paranoia at some luddite distilleries. Those days of distilleries going up in flames because of an open flame flash have gone the way of the dodo with flashes based on chemical reactions. Cell phones have LEDs, as do the lights you use in the distillery (or those you should be using, anyway). Yet, some distilleries don’t restrict you at all, some restrict you only around the mill or the still house while others have a gizmo that measures the ppm of something for show. There are a few, like GlenDronach, where they’d clearly be happy for your phone to never make it into the distillery at all.
It’s 2022 and visitors with cell phones aren’t fire hazards and should not be treated as such.
I’m a big fan of Distell’s three distilleries: Tobermory, Bunnahabhain and Deanston (by order of foundation). In fact, if you remove all Glen Garioch bottles from my collection, you’ll see that there are more bottles from these three distilleries than any others. All across the board we have a minimum strength of 46.3%, no chill filtration and no coloring. Just whisky out of the cask and (maybe) some water to bring it down to strength.
I’ve visited Bunnahabhain before, but this was my first opportunity to visit all three distilleries in the space of 6 days. There’s something very impeccable in the way all three distilleries work, and some downright magic they perform with the wood. Indeed, while each distillery has its own character, there’s a joy in meeting the different spirits in the same wonderful casks they’re able to source (just think of the Manzanilla casks, Bordeaux casks and some of those stellar brandy casks). Each of the three distilleries have excellent warehouse tastings (well, Tobermory’s isn’t actually in the warehouse, but when you see how small the distillery is and how hemmed in it is, you won’t begrudge it this technicality) and all are really good about having bottles of the casks you tasted available to purchase at the shop. The three distilleries have obviously put thought into the visitor experience, despite two of them being in some of the remotest locations.
All in all, some of the visitor experiences blew us away by their thoughtfulness (Clynelish and Aberfeldy), by their experience design (Glenlivet), or by their hospitality, generosity and depth of knowledge (Aberfeldy, Ardenhoe, Bowmore, Bunnahabhain, Dalwhinnie, Deanston, Glen Garioch, Old Pulteney, Strathisla and Tobermory, in alphabetical order because they all made us feel REALLY welcome).
In this final section of the general post, I’d like to mention some of the more beautifully crafted tastings or noteworthy tours and distillery experiences we had. This list won’t include personal tours or meeting, as those will get their own posts. This list will focus on experiences open to anybody visiting the distillery, and are not listed in any particular order. Additionally, I have not mentioned Laphroaig’s Distillers Wares, although definitely worthy of this list, simply because I have done it before, and doing it again on this trip for £75 is a resounding recommendation on its own:
- Glen Garioch Founder’s Tour – HEY, no eye rolling….
Yes, it’s the distillery with which I have a very close personal bond, but the hospitality is outstanding and the distillery is in such an incredible renewal with malt floors and some fascinating technical setup that it was like having a first visit all over again. Obviously, this merits its own forthcoming post (you can read about my real first visit here, sans the pictures due to a site move).
On offer are two semi-BYO bottlings and a couple of distillery exclusives available.
- Strathisla Discover the Distillery Reserve Collection Experience – A great distillery exclusive joined by five other Strathisla single casks at cask strength, tasted after tasting some new make in the warehouse.
This is a fun distillery focus with the added bonus of all the casks having been pre-bottled and available to purchase at the distillery shop.
- Tobermory Distillery: Tobermory and Ledaig Whisky Tasting – The tasting starts with a distillery tour and is followed by a tasting of two Tobermory and two Ledaig expressions at cask strength. Need I say more?
For those of you who said “yes”, here’s what we tasted:
Tobermory 2012 ex-bourbon, 58.7%.
Tobermory 1995 Manzanilla Finish, 52.7%.
Ledaig 2012 ex-Bourbon, 59.7%.
Ledaig 2009 Red Wine barrel, 56.3%.
The empty full size Glencairn was for new make spirit.
I’ll be writing an in-depth post about the distillery in the next few weeks.
- Bowmore Vaults Secrets Tour – Yes, it is known that I’m not Bowmore’s biggest fan (or at least I wasn’t)….
Bowmore spirit is still not my favorite, but the experience at the distillery is fabulous.
Besides a great in depth tour and a generosity at the bar, there are three casks tasted at the warehouse, and a 100 ml bottle of your favorite taken home.
2003 cask 855, bourbon HHD at 53%.
1999 cask 2304, French Wine Barrique at 47.2%.
2001 cask 457, Oloroso sherry cask at 52%.
I totally loved the wine cask, Yoav preferred the sherry 🙂
- Deanston Warehouse 4 Experience – Talk about a dram that blew us away….
I’ll write about the behind the scenes tour we had in a dedicated post, but the Warehouse 4 Experience is a great way to meet some of the (not lauded enough) fabulous deanston whisky right out the cask.
What did we taste?
1. 2012 Brandy cask.
2. 2009 Organic Oloroso HHD
3. 1993, 11 years in bourbon and 18 (glorious) years in a Port cask.
Sadly, all 70 cl. hand filled of the Port sold out, so I had to settle for a 20 cl bottle, but also took a 20 cl of the delightful brandy cask 🙂
- Royal Lochnagar Warehouse Tasting – This is probably the highest VFM tasting in Scotland.
For £40 you taste four truly old and rare casks, which is amazing. Then you go into the warehouse and see what you’re NOT tasting, and realize you need to come back a few times a year to make sure you don’t miss any of these (more on that in a future post)…..
What we tasted:
1. 1986 Royal Lochnagar, cask 387, 36 year old refill Sherry butt.
2. 1974 Convalmore, cask 1217, 48 year old ex-bourbon cask.
3. 1985 Mortlach, Cask 2881, 37 year old first fill Sherry butt.
4. 1993 Lagavulin, cask 362, 29 year old sherry butt.
- Bunnahabhain Warehouse 9 Tasting – This is the one where the legendary David Brodie will take you into the warehouse and get you acquainted with a few casks you’ll probably run to the shop to pick up a bottle to take home….
1. 2006 Gonzalez Byass Manzanilla butt at 58.6%.
2. 2009 refill sherry which was re-racked in 2019 into an Amarone cask at 61%.
3. 2005 Mòine matured in ex bourbon and put into a rum cask in 2017, gaged at 54.5%, but that was over a year ago, probably around 53% now. I would have never thought this was a Mòine…..
4. 2005 Mòine Oloroso, 52.9%.
- Ardbeg 360 – Talk about timing, we made the last 360 tour of the summer season and the year, and it was worth both the cost and effort.
How often do you stroll into a working stillhouse with a 25 year old dram in your glass, sipping whisky as you learn about the stills, then go down to the distillation floor and have the new Hypernova poured into your glass as the huge window facing the bay is opened?
We started the tour with the new batch 4 of the 19 year old Traigh Bhan, and toting our full glasses headed out on an in depth geekily detailed tour of the distillery in which the 25 year old and the Hypernova were poured in the old and the new stillhouses, and then three casks were met and an old friend revisited. The drams we had included:
1. Traigh Bhan, 19 year old, batch 4 at 46.2%.
2. Ardbeg 25 at 46%.
3. Ardbeg Hypernova at 51%.
4. 2001 Cask 997, ex bourbon barrel at 49.4%.
5. 2012 Cask 781, 2nd fill Oloroso butt at 60.46%
6. 2013 Cask 482, Manzanilla Sherry butt at 60.3%.
7. Ardbeg Auriverdes at 49.9%.
Back at the visitor center the tasting barrel was in play, and I also had the Traigh Bhan batch 3.
- Dalwhinnie Expressions Tour and Masterclass – This is another experience that exceeded my expectations. This is a tasting that is all about Dalwhinnie, with its cold temperatures and outdoor worm tubs.
This tasting is originally touted as a six Dalwhinnie dram and chocolate degustation, although for some reason all bottles of the Dalwhinnie DE have sold out, so the Glenkinchie DE made its way into the tasting. I’d have more to say about it had our guide not raided a sherry cask in the warehouse and bottled a takeaway dram for each of us to take home.
The tasting was paired with Iain Burnett’s Highland Chocolatier pralines that were so good that we stopped by the shop in Grandtully on the way to our visit at Aberfeldy the following week. So after a great tour of the production area of the distillery and raiding of the cask, we went into the tasting room and tasted the following drams:
1. Dalwhinnie 15, 43%.
2. Dalwhinnie Winter’s Gold, 43%.
3. Glenkinchie Distiller’s Edition, Amontillado cask (2017 Edition), 43%.
4. Dalwhinnie Distillery Exclusive, Batch 1, 48%.
5. Dalwhinnie Bottle Your Own, 12 Year Old, 53.6%.
6. Dalwhinnie 30 Year Old, 2019 Special Releases, 54.7%.
7. 2008 Sherry butt cask 300128, 63%.
The bar was open, and we tasted the 2020 edition of the 30 year old Dalwhinnie (51.9%), to contrast with the 2019 edition, ending with this year’s 26 year old Cameron Bridge at 56.2%.
Having crossed the 3000 word threshold in this post, I’ll just end it by inviting you to watch this space for the follow up posts taking in depth looks at some of my favorite distillery visits.