Thursday, 23 July 2009

The Scotch Whisky Experience

It has taken until now for me to properly recover from my perplexing case of "whisky overload" (and there was me thinking I was immunised).

Last Tuesday my Mum/ whisky partner and I were in Edinburgh: paying ticket excesses, eating poached eggs, trying to second-guess the bus services as they circumnavigated the results of the city's worrying giant mole problem, wandering around the botanic gardens, getting drenched, and burning my tongue horribly on delicious chips, but mostly experiencing the Scotch Whisky Experience.

I had seen its write-up in The Scotsman and it was inevitable, really, that I shouldn't have been able to stay away from a five-star tourist attraction devoted to whisky.

So, after I'd finished my sorbet, a course made memorable by how feverishly desperate I was when eating it, praying that it would balm my blistered palate so that I might taste, without handicap, the various exclusive spirits I predicted would be available, we set off in search of it.

Now Edinburgh is beautiful, let's make that clear. I love its solidness, its variety and its views. But the closer you get to the castle, the more depressing the Royal Mile becomes. So pitched is it at a Japancese or American's idea of Scottishness: the tartan, the bagpipes, the miniature Loch ness monsters and such is its profusion and concentration the whole vista is deeply vulgar. Ducking into the Experience with my mind still reeling from its attempts to justify "Discount Scottish Factory Outlet" or something just as appalling had the effect of stumbling upon Diagon Alley out of the irrelevant London hubbub. Have you noticed that my magic metaphors have started?

Even from the revolving door you can smell whisky, and it isn't the odour of a teenage house party at 2 in the morning when everything smells unhappily of Jack Daniels. It is the perfume of distilleries: hot, organic and enticing. We bounded in.

We were behind some Taiwanese peopel in the ticket queue. I had difficulty penetrating one guide's Edinburgh accent so how they managed to secure places in the Silver Tour Ah dinnae ken.

It was the Gold Tour, however, that communicated with me on an irresistably shallow level. Gold is more precious than silver; the Gold Tour must be better than the Silver Tour; Mother, we are going on the Gold Tour. These are my logical thought patters. As it turned out, the £6 extra would not purchase for us a longer or more in-depth tour and reflecting on it, such a thing would be difficult to deliver.

Our steward for the beginning of the Barrel Ride asked us: "You won't want to listen in Mandarin, will you?" as our Taiwanese friends disappeared round the corner in their enormous oak cask. We said No, meaning Douglas McIntyre, our "ghost" guide, sounded as indigenous as they come.

In these past two years my whisky obsession has taken hold and one of the results, for there are some others, is that I know the whisky-making process like I do the shape of a Lamborghini Murcielago or what dress size would complement Megan Fox (a small one) but still that process was explained originally and thoroughly with the lighting effects, sounds and especially smells holding the attention completely.

We stepped out of our barrel for the penultimate stop on a young spirit's journey: the Cooperage Room. In here, we saw some of the tools a cooper uses to make a cask, the quite incredible share the angels demand as well as samples of whiskies extracted after certain increments of years from Sherry butts and Bourbon barrels.

Some stairs had to be climbed next, the ascent allowing us to appreciate the character of the building the Experice is housed in. There were various posters of evocative Scottish landscapes. Upon bagging the last couple of places for the latest "Sense of Scotland" talk, I realised that these had been preparing us for the idea of terroir. I am a big believer in terroir. For those who don't and James May out there who dismiss the idea that a landscape can influence a drink as being "cobblers" I'd advise you to try an Ardbeg.

The fifteen of us, the taiwanese included, reclined on our U-shaped bench while in front of us on a bar-like table sat a Glencairn glass and four mysterious jars. A new young and very enthusiastic guide explained in detail the four main whisky regions from the Lowlands, to the Highlands and Islands, Speyside and Islay. After each segment we were asked to open and sniff one of the glass jars whose contents would mimic the defining characteristics of a dram from a particular area. The first jar was the Lowlander, smelling very sweet, quite dry and biscuity. It was filled with malted shortbread, indded quite similar to the character of an Auchentoshan.

Next we nosed our Highland jar: perfumy, medium bodied and reasonably Glenmorangie-y. Then there was the Speysider: "acetone" was its contents lending a very full, soft and fluffy pear note like you might find in an older Glenfiddich. Finally we were advised to breathe in, with caution, the Islay jar which was, of course, smoky and medicinal. Our final instruction was to place our glasses on the coloured circle that corresponded to the jar containing the smell we liked the best. Both my Mum and I made coaster of the Islay spot. Before the glasses were to be filled, however, we were first informed about bledning which was equally fascinating and hitherto a gap in my knowledge. What goes in to a Grants or a Johnnie Walker is utterly incredible. Of course, it's technically the same for the Famous Grouse but that will never redeem it in my eyes...

At last, the four drams toured the room: Glenkinchie, Glenmorangie, Strathisla and Ardbeg. "Like chewing pencils" was the quirky and perfectly apt tasting note from our guide. However, she wouldn't let us drink it just yet.

We trooped out of the seminar room, along a corridor and into something like whisky Nirvana. I'd read about the Claive Vidiz Collection, I'd seen some pictures, but nothing prepares a whisky fan for it. I may even have sworn.

It's a custom-made cabinet and it would have to be for a collection only a smidgen short of 3,500 bottles. There were labels for whiskies I'd never heard of, bottlings I'd never seen before, novelty pieces that had no readily apparent connection to whisky. Single malts were in the minority, in fact, but here was a Black Bowmore; there was a Glenfiddich Vintage Reserve; here was an Ardbeg Lord of the Isles; there was every Balvenie known to this man. It was extraordinary, humbling, and the perfect location for sipping our measures. Our guide (I wish I'd asked her name!) tutored us in the art of whisky nosing and tasting and tried to make it clear to one chap that you couldn't tell everything by the colour. I foolishly thought that that was it, forgetting that she had postponed the answering of my question as to what the rarest bottle in the collection was and that she'd tell us all shortly. "Shortly" meant grouping in the lea of yet another garagantuan cabinet where she pointed to a rich, red angular bottle with Royal Salute 40 on the front. Apparently the title of "Absolute Rarest" is between that (filled into only 1000 Baccarat Glass bottles bought by Claive in 1969 for $1000, now worth several times that ) and a Strathmill centenary bottling. That Claive had it makes him technically a world leader or dignitary, so rare and prestigious are they.

Suitably impressed by these as well as a Glengoyne in a grandfather clock, a 40-year-old Bowmore and a similarly middle-aged Glen Garioch, I turned towards another wall of whisky. The bar.

Here I met Chris of Edinburgh Whisky Blog fame and he tutored me in a different art - the art of successful whisky-blogging. I bowed to his wise words and was again struck by how enthusiastic and knowledgeable the staff are. I owe Chris an apology, though. You and Lucas aren't in the Malt Whisky yearbook this year, but I'm sure you won't be left out in the 2010 edition.

Unfortunately, there wasn't an alcove behind the bar for a Glenlivet Cellar Collection. In fact, that was about the only thing they didn't have. I was torn between two 30-year-olds: the Glenfarclas and the Glenfiddich. Then I had a piece of inspiration, no doubt delivered by one of those tipsy angels: "Do you have The Dalmore 1263?" They certainly did. Not only that but I was the first to try some: before I arrived their bottle was pristine, new and full. This was where the Gold Tour ticket came into its own: gaining me a nice wee discount.

All I shall say here is that my tasting experience was sublime and peerless. Comfortable, spacious, good company, a proper glass, and bottled water for dilution. How it should be, I say! SEE THE DALMORE 1263 REVIEW.

Another of our Gold Tour privileges was a tasting tray: four more malts from around Scotland. We elected for the Homecoming Tray, tied into Scotland's initiative for 2009 to bring people back to Scotland who may have their roots there as well as anyone else willing to boost the local economy. This selection included Glengoyne (representatives from which were paying a visit at the time), Royal Lochnagar, Strathisla and Laphroaig which could be smelt several metres from the glass. It was appreciating the individual merits of this quartet that did for me. It didn't help that beside our nest of cosy armchairs was a display detailing unit allotments and how fast alcohol affects the brain.

Not that I needed to be told about the latter as a strong, whisky-laden breeze blew through my wallet, taking with it £86 in exchange for my Caol Ila Distiller's Edition and Talisker Gift Pack. I begged my Mum to get me out of this wonderful place that sold miniatures of the Highland Park 18 and 30-year-olds as well as The Glenlivet 15-year-old French Oak lest I slam my debit card onto the cash desk and get irrational.

And that, apart from passing The Whisky Shop on the way back to the station which induced a low shriek from me, was that for my eye-opening day into the glorious diversity of the Scotch whisky industry. Those five stars are truly deserved. Thanks are due to one and all behind the scenes and in front of them. It's a rare pleasure to meet people who love their work (alright, "work") to such a degree and in so doing affirming that, no matter what Diageo or any other mulitnational may do, the identity of Scotch is firmly rooted in Scotland.