Fifty miles northwest of Aberdeen, between the North Sea and the snowtopped slopes of the Grampian Mountains lies the rich farmland of the Spey Valley, dotted with unlikely pagoda-style roofs of more than 50 whisky distilleries. Here the simple ingredients of malted barley, yeast and pure spring water are transformed by Scottish alchemy into liquid gold - Premier Cru or Single Malt Scotch.
I spent the weekend here with ten other would-be whisky detectives investigating the 'whisky trail' - which is soon to be celebrated in the annual Speyside Whisky Festival. We were a youthful bunch by whisky drinking standards - 80% of whisky aficionados are over 60.
We started with a guided tour of Strathisla, an elegant eighteenth century distillery flanked by the twin pagodas of its drying kilns, which produces whisky for the Chivas Regal blend. We walked through a mad scientist's lair of steaming and bubbling tubs, past machinery with complicated dials and levers until we reached the stillroom. Attended by their keepers, copper stills with elaborately curved necks shimmered like strange metallic creatures in clouds of scented vapour.
The end-product of these mysterious processes is stored for years at a time in oak casks which have previously held sherry, bourbon or other whisky. The type of cask, the shape of the still, the quality of water and variations in Scottish climate all work their magic on the resulting whisky.
Later, fortified by a thick Tam O'Shanter of a Scottish pancake with a pompom of ice cream, I began my introduction to whisky tasting in the Quaich Bar of Craigellachie Hotel. The hotel, built in 1893 and overlooking the snow-swollen River Spey, has the feel of a super-comfortable Scottish country house with squidgy, tartan-covered furniture and antlered heads gazing sombrely at visitors. The food is wonderful too - check out the yummy hot pear and almond tart.
We filed into the Quaich Bar (a quaich is a silver drinking vessel) - which is small and cosy, its walls lined with over 300 brands of whisky.
Rosy-cheeked Rebecca Richardson of the nearby Glenfarclas Distillery was our guide to a nosing. She is young, knowledgeable and enthusiastic, and one of only 2 female noses in the area.
We turned our assorted beaky, snub, retroussee, roman and aquiline organs towards tiny tulip-shaped glasses covered with glass lenses. But first, encouraged by Rebecca we held our de-lidded glasses to the light to inspect the colour of their contents. Golden, we decided rather feebly. Then we swirled, and watched a necklace of tears form round the curve of the glass. The formation of oily droplets and the rate at which they fall indicates the strength or age of the whisky. This one was a sturdy youth, an eight -year-old Glenfarclas called 105 matured in a sherry cask, we learned.
Then we sniffed - and were warned of the dangers of getting noseburn from the evaporating spirit. It's better to waft, apparently, so that the full gamut of whiskiness can be appreciated in safety.
you don't nose before tasting, it limits the taste range when you eventually
sip, or in the case of some of my more impatient companions, knock back
a wee dram (or three).
We tried a 15 year old Glenfarclas - daffodils and spice, I thought, and someone else, well into evocation of childhood smells, suggested Wellington boots by an Aga. An amber 30 year old was smooth and rosy at £70 a bottle.
Rebecca is proud and protective of her charges. "Whiskies are like characters - some are shy and need to be brought forward," she explained.
Our last visit was to Gordon & MacPhail's Retail Shop in Elgin, which runs specialist whisky nosings guided by Leslie Duroe, the other female nose of the region. Six little glasses of glowing liquid were ranged in a line for each of us along a table covered in the MacPhail tartan.
We were getting into our stride now, as urged on by Leslie we checked colour, nose, body, palette and finish of rare and wonderful whiskies.
I nosed a 1954 Mortlach (hints of caramel and window-sills) priced at £100 a bottle, and relished the nostalgic scent of a 1965 Glen Mhor (an old chest of drawers, monsters?) made with Loch Ness water, and created in a distillery now replaced by a carpark. The Caol Ila of 1981, looking pale and innocent, was as harsh and prickly as a mouthful of cactus.
I returned from Scotland with happy memories, a 10 year old Glenfarclas and a newly- educated nose. Perhaps the experience was just too much for it though, because I came down with a terrible cold when I got home. Now how exactly do you make a hot toddy?
Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival 2000 is from 29th April - 8th
May and includes all the events mentioned here - and more. For hotels,
travel details etc. contact Aberdeen and Grampian Tourist Board.
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