10 things every whisky lover should know before heading to Scotland

For every whisky lover, it’s the ultimate pilgrimage:   After listening jealously to other people’s travels and dreaming of making it to the promised land, you’ve FINALLY saved up for and planned your first whisky trip to Scotland.  Exciting times!

Of course, every first-timer always asks the same questions in the early stages of planning:  Where’s the best place to stay?  Which distilleries should I visit?  Should I hire a car?  Do I have time to get to Islay?  How many days should I spend in Speyside?  Is the trip up to Orkney worth it? 

Naturally, the answers to these are highly subjective and individual.  They’ll depend on your budget, the amount of time you can spare, which distilleries are your favourites, and what transport options are at your disposal.  But there are a few things to appreciate about visiting distilleries that you won’t read in the guide books or find online.  Here are ten things you ought to know before heading off to Scotland…

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Unknown Heroes

When was the last time you poured yourself a healthy dram of Braeval?  Or had a good swig of Miltonduff?  How about a Glenburgie?  Or an Allt-a-Bhainne?   An Auchroisk?  Dufftown perhaps?  Have you even heard of these distilleries, let alone seen a bottle of their whisky at your local liquor retailer?

What about Ardbeg?  Oban?  Bruichladdich?  These names are more familiar, yes?  And, chances are, you’ve had a dram of their product more than once or twice on your malt journey.

The irony here is that the first group listed above are some of the biggest distilleries in Scotland.  And the second group are amongst the smallest.   There’s a cliched conclusion here that you might have heard before:  Size doesn’t matter, it’s what you do with it that counts!

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The stink about sulphur

“The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.”
The Usual Suspects, 1995

Substitute “whisky industry” for devil and “sulphur” for he and you’ll get a quick snapshot of what’s being discussed here.  Sulphur is one of the more confusing and least understood aspects in today’s whisky community.  Let’s cut through the taint and kill a few myths and misunderstandings…

Sulphur (as an element and in compound form) is present in whisky due to two sources.  One is natural, desirable, and is present in every malt whisky; the other is an accident, pretty much undesirable, and occurs only in some sherried whiskies.  The former is complex and actually difficult to discern; the latter is simple and sticks out like the Macallan distillery’s refurbishment budget.

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Glen Moray & Mastery

Glen Moray celebrates its 120th anniversary this year, having been founded way back in 1897.   The distillery had humble beginnings and had already endured over a decade of silence and inactivity when it was bought by Macdonald & Muir (effectively Glenmorangie) in 1920.  Glenmorangie held the reins for the next 88 years, during which time the distillery became a workhorse for the many supermarket blends that Macdonald & Muir were behind.   If you believe the folklore, Glen Moray was also the playground for Dr Bill Lumsden, who would conduct all manner of trials and maturation experiments on Glen Moray spirit before transferring his more successful undertakings across to Glenmorangie.

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Matching a whisky to every James Bond film

Whisky has been paired with food for decades, although in more recent years we’ve seen whiskies paired and matched to cigars, watches, albums, bands, and even movies!   If you’re going to sit down in your comfy sofa and pass away a few hours being entertained by 007, then having a good dram in your hand goes a long way to enhancing the experience.

Of course, Jimmy’s drink of choice may be a vodka martini, but we can shake and stir things up for the whisky drinkers out there who are James Bond fans: Here is our attempt to pair and match the perfect whisky to every (official) James Bond film.

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The Top Six things to do on Speyside

Yes, the obvious thing to do on Speyside is to visit distilleries and drink whisky.  But there’s so much more on offer if you look beyond the distilleries…

Any punter who’s been to Speyside can tell you to visit Distillery X or to make sure you do the “Experts Tour” (or some similarly badged experience) at Distillery Y.   The problem with such advice or recommendations is that most people giving you their tips can only draw from their experience of the five or six distilleries they’ve been to, or they simply tell you to go to their favourite distillery – which is a subjective opinion and experience at best.

There are 50 operating distilleries on Speyside at the moment, and Whisky & Wisdom has visited and toured all but one of them.  (Ironically, the one Speyside distillery Whisky & Wisdom has yet to step inside of is the Speyside Distillery at Drumguish!!).   Roseisle, Dalmunach, Mannochmore, Macduff, Strathmill, Ballindalloch, Glenburgie, Allt-a-bhaine, Braeval, Speyburn, Balmenach…..you name it, W&W has been there; met with the staff; and seen around it.  Which means we can take a more objective view of what’s on offer and provide a balanced opinion of what appeals or what provides value to the visitor.

However, this piece is not titled “The Top Six distilleries to visit on Speyside” – we’ll save that article for another day.  Rather, it’s the top six things to do.   The distilleries that are open to the public generally have tours between the hours of 10.00am-4.00pm (in the summer months), and – as you’ll discover, if you haven’t already – trying to schedule your tours and dovetail your visits so that you can sequentially get to multiple distilleries in a day is not the easiest of tasks.   This means you’ll have gaps in your day, or you’ll have time to do other things – particularly after the visitor centres close their doors.   So here are a few other things to keep you amused:

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Ardnamurchan – The western jewel of Scotland

(Or everything you wanted to know about Ardnamurchan but were afraid to ask!)

In this digital age of whisky websites and social media activity, there are very few secrets left in the whisky industry.  Once upon a time, a new distillery would suddenly appear and no one knew much about it except for what might have been published in a subsequent book.  Today, by the time a new distillery’s first release is bottled, it seems we’ve all followed the journey of the distillery breaking ground; building the stillhouse; installing the stills; starting production; and filling the casks.  We’ve done the virtual tour of the distillery before the Visitor Centre has even opened its doors!

One of the primary reasons for this is simply because most of us will never get to make the journey to the distillery, and thus we live and drink vicariously through what we read and view online.   Consider, also, that not all distilleries are blessed by geography:  Auchentoshan and Glenkinchie, for example, are an easy bus ride from the big city centres of Glasgow and Edinburgh respectively, but things are trickier for the more remote distilleries that sit well off the tourist trail or are located on the fringes of Scotland’s reaches.

Ardnamurchan is one such distillery.  If you’re looking to start up a new distillery, your choice of location is fairly critical.  In addition to the most obvious requirement (i.e. a good water source), other considerations will be existing infrastructure, convenient access, shared resources, a ready-made tourist trail for visitors, and ease of transport for both the delivery of materials and the departure of spirit and filled casks.  So – with all these essentials being key to a successful distillery venture – why would you choose to locate your distillery in one of the most far flung, remote, and inaccessible parts of Scotland?  In the case of Ardnamurchan, the answer is pretty simple:  Because they can.

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The Whisky Lover’s Guide to climbing Ben Rinnes

Each year, thousands of whisky tourists make their way to Speyside to visit their own personal mecca.  Each pilgrim no doubt has their own favourite and plans their itinerary around getting a glimpse into the factory that produces their most revered malt.

Of course, no one travels all the way to Speyside just to visit just one, single distillery and thus it’s not uncommon for we pilgrims to set up camp in one of the many hotels or B&B’s and use it as a base to explore multiple distilleries over several days.

Outside of the distilleries, however, your average whisky tourist quickly runs out of things to do in Speyside.  The only other pursuits are the outdoors – golf, salmon fishing, and hiking.  And it’s this last category that offers something pretty special to the whisky enthusiast.

Ben Rinnes is the highest mountain in the Speyside region.  At 840m, it’s officially a “Corbett”, being 300 feet shy to qualify as a Munro.  It towers above many of the distilleries, and the snow melt and water run-off from the hills goes a long way to supplying many of the surrounding distilleries in its foothills.  Needless to say, the view from the summit is incredible, and distillery spotters can have fun trying to identify the many distilleries visible from the top.  For the whisky enthusiast or jaded Speyside visitor looking for a new perspective, a hike to the top is a highly recommended and rewarding journey.  So here’s the whisky lover’s guide to climbing Ben Rinnes…

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The dark side of samples and bottle-splits

Last week I walked into a fancy steakhouse – one that’s run by one of Australia’s leading and most well-known restauranteurs and celebrity chefs.  I was shown to my table and handed the menu.  Wow! It showcased an amazing selection of gourmet choices, although with price tags to make most of us squirm.  There was one particular steak that stood out – it was a particular cut of wagyu that sounded out of this world.  As was its price tag!  I’d love to have treated myself to it, but it was more than what my budget could justify.  Besides, there were much cheaper steaks that also looked pretty tempting, and I couldn’t order two meals now, could I?  I resigned myself to the fact that I’d probably have to order one of the cheaper, more regular cuts.

As I pondered this situation, a waiter brought the main course out to the couple who were sitting at the table next to me.  I couldn’t help but notice that the man had ordered the very wagyu steak I was lusting for.  As they settled into their meal, I leaned across and said, “Excuse me – I was just wondering if you’d mind cutting off a piece of your steak and giving it to me so that I can try it?”

– – – – –

It’s nonsense, isn’t it?  You’d never have the temerity to do such a thing or to make such an undignified request.    So why does this very situation play out in the whisky world?  We wouldn’t do it with food at a restaurant (yes, for the record, the above story was a fictional allegory), yet plenty of people are quite happy to make similar requests when it comes to whisky.  It’s the dark side of samples.

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2016 Diageo Special Releases

For anyone who’s entered the single malt whisky scene in recent years, the choice and array of bottlings, brands and releases can be overwhelming.  Almost 30 years ago now, the situation was very different when Diageo launched “The Classic Malts” – first into travel retail in 1988, and then into the domestic market in 1989.   Those six whiskies (Glenkinchie, Cragganmore, Oban, Dalwhinnie, Talisker, and Lagavulin) became the vehicle through which hundreds of thousands of people were introduced to malt whisky.  For close to a decade they were almost the definitive collection and – notwithstanding the omnipresence of the likes of Glenfiddich and Glenlivet – it was only by the late 1990’s that other brands and recognisable labels started to consistently appear in regular retail outlets.

Never one to rest on their laurels, Diageo continued (and continues) to expand their range.  The so-called Rare Malts range ran from 1995-2005, and the Managers Choice range also kept hardcore fans happy with its single cask, cask-strength releases.  The original Classic Malts range was also expanded in 2006, adding the likes of Clynelish and Caol Ila, in addition to others that were custom selected for individual markets (e.g. Cardhu for the USA).

One of the longer-term and more interesting projects has been the Diageo Special Releases range, consisting of a specially selected and crafted series of bottlings released annually each year since 2001.  As the name inherently suggests, the releases are “special” and typically include Diageo’s rarest stock, such as whiskies from closed distilleries – Port Ellen, Brora, and Cambus being three examples.

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