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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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Ardbeg Kelpie – The 46% Retail Release

With Ardbeg Day now an entrenched part of the whisky calendar, it seems unnecessary to go into great detail about the day itself and what it entails.  Of course, whilst the day itself is a great hive of fun and activity, most people’s  focus and attention is on the special release bottling.  This year’s release, Kelpie, is a belter, and an Ardbeg to make the purists happy.

The Committee Edition release – bottled at a higher strength of 51.7% – was released earlier this year and found many friends.  The commercial or retail bottling, bottled at 46%, will be released on June 3rd to coincide with Ardbeg Day.

Of course, many people make the mistake of simply dismissing the retail version as being a “watered down” version of the Committee Edition.  Chemically speaking, they’re correct, but from a sensory perspective, there’s so much more to it than that.  Yes, whilst the retail version simply has more water added to it to bring it down to a lower strength, the effect of this on the whisky is very pronounced.  The influence of the ABV is huge when it comes to how our palates react to the whisky.  Master blenders and independent bottlers often carry out multiple tastings or samplings to establish whether a special release should be bottled at, say, 46%, 48%, 50%, or 51.5%.  The different ABV’s influence how the alcohols and flavour compounds are balanced, and thus a different bottling strength will pronounce (or, in contrast, diminish) certain aspects of the flavour spectrum.  For example, a whisky bottled at 46% might seem saltier, or sweeter, or fruitier than the same spirit bottled at 48%.

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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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Ardnamurchan – 2016/AD

It’s hardly shiny or earth-shattering news to write that new distilleries are popping up all over Scotland.  In fact, such a statement is unlikely to pique any interest amongst the more learned whisky enthusiasts.  However, what does become interesting is when you start to look at the geography of these new distilleries.  Many are now re-populating the Lowlands, such as the Glasgow Distillery, or the wee-explosion of distilleries in Fife (e.g. Kingsbarns, Daftmill, etc).  Others are adding to the spectrum of Speyside, such as Ballindalloch or Dalmunach.

When starting a new distillery in these current times, the owners will be looking for some key necessities when deciding upon the site of their distillery.  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 raw materials and the departure of spirit and filled casks.  So – with all these essentials being key to a successful distillery start-up, 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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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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Ardbeg Untamed and Ardbeg Kelpie

With multi-tasking all the rage these days, this piece combines two distinct happenings involving Ardbeg.  The second of these relates to Kelpie, this year’s new release to coincide with Ardbeg Day.  But before we try and conquer that wee beastie, have you heard of Ardbeg Untamed?

The last three decades have seen the distilleries and the whisky brands take ever increasing and impressive steps to bring us into their sanctums.   Once upon a time, importers and distributors simply held a tasting event and poured out their whiskies for the punters to taste.  Then came the brand ambassadors, who did more-or-less the same thing, except with the assistance of slide shows, which then morphed into the “multi-media presentations”.  With the advent of live webcams, distilleries took us into their production areas and you could get a sneak peek into the workings of a distillery without having to leave your own home.

So, short of hopping on a plane and making your way directly to Scotland, what was the next step and development for distilleries to bring us ever closer to their heart?  The answer is Virtual Reality.  Ardbeg Untamed is one such undertaking.  Courtesy of VR, Ardbeg has launched a series of visual experiences that take you across the water to Ardbeg and through the distillery.  As the fly-through whizzes through the warehouse, you’ll see and hear Mickey Heads, distillery manager, talking to the lads as they go about their daily routine.

Given that so much about a distillery is now available online in the form of pictures and virtual tours that you can enjoy whilst sitting at your desktop, the VR experience is pretty special and certainly adds both a layer of realism and a tangible feeling of being within the space.  Surely this is as close as you can get to Islay without actually being there.

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Hyde Single Grain Whiskey – The Aras Cask releases

Every whisky drinker has his or her favourite category or variety of whisk(e)y.   Once upon time, many were firmly camped in one category and rarely ventured outside it.   You might have been a Scotch person who never touched Bourbon.   Or a fan of the Irish stuff who found the malts of Scotland a bit too robust.   However, with the explosion of whisky bars around the country and diverse ranges of spirits more readily and affordably available to try by the dram, people can now explore categories of whisk(e)y outside their comfort zone without too much grief.   It’s one of the reasons that people are expanding their horizons and – whilst we all still have our favourite – at least we’re embracing other categories.

For obvious reasons, it’s about this time every year that people suddenly decide to check out Irish whiskey.   St Patrick’s Day means different things to different people, but – if nothing else – for whisky drinkers, it’s a good excuse to insert an ‘e’ into the word and try a drop of the pure.

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Paul John: The Man and the Whisky

If there’s one message the whisky industry is sending to Consumerville right now – both implicitly and explicitly – it’s that for malt whisky drinkers looking to try new drams, your options extend well beyond the shores of Scotland. Malt whisky is being made all over the world, both from serious contenders set up for large scale production, and from the plethora of craft distilleries forging small but new ground.

The trouble for many of these newer distilleries is that finances and cash flow almost demand that they put their product out to market early. Yes, we all know that these early releases are works in progress and that these “Hey, I’m here” bottlings at two, three, and four years old are all immature and not a true reflection of what the whisky might one day become.   But one wonders if such producers might do their brand a favour if they were to simply sit back and patiently wait until the spirit was truly ready?  Nonetheless, regardless of the marketeers or the accountants, every distillery has to get through its awkward years of puberty until it can put world class whisky on the shelves.

Meanwhile, one country that continues to press on and build on an already firmly established foundation is India. Paul John is certainly one distillery that has its teething years behind it and is now bottling impressive whisky. Very impressive whisky.   Whisky & Wisdom has previously told parts of the Paul John story, and you can read much of the background information, plus read tasting notes on the core range here.

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