Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Aberfeldy Distillery Visit and Signature Tour

An induction into the cave of Ali Baba and the Forty Connoisseurs or the insight of six different malts postponed?

The tone of my evaluation of Dewar's World of Whisky at the Aberfeldy distillery is far closer to the former than the latter, but the prospects of my immediate future as far as the water of life is concerned have been altered hugely. Last week, like quivering with fear and cold at the top of Schiehallion, I was shown a more complex and expansive whisky landscape than I could ever have realised had I spent my £30 on miniatures alone; getting me only as far as the first false summit.

"Signature" is the name of the tour, and what I received in exchange for my money was a unique and unprecedented glimpse of a brand's true identity. From the beginning and the Dewar's company film, my time at the distillery which I could view, tantalisingly, from our holiday cottage on the other side of the Tay (right), was concerned wholly in the minutiae of whisky-making, -marketing and -appreciating.

No barley is tricked into germination in the Aberfeldy maltings today (this practice vanished in the sixties) but my own inquisitiveness, a grain of barley if you will, experienced a significant conversion of ignorant starch to receptive sugar in the Dewar's exhibition space.

The Victorian era must - if you were the pioneering figureheads themselves, of course - have been a fascinating and stimulating time to be alive when a business could depart from its tentative conception and arrive at oppulent, swaggering dominance in the time of two enterprising generations. Tommy the salesman sounds quite a character, the kind of man with the talent, charm and entrepreneurialism to pluck the fruit of the global market just as it was ripening. In the World of Whisky displays and installations, with the aid of portable audio guides, I learnt as much about this age of opportunity and endeavour as I did whisky and was completely engaged by my history lesson.

In the bar-cum-cafe I met my guide. Bruce joined me at a table master blenders would be familiar with. My reserved table (right) was covered in Glencairn glasses. Bruce guided me deftly through the first five (he would later pour me out a sixth) glass each of which contained something from the Dewar's stable. The Aberfeldy 12 I was already vaguely acquainted with, but the 21, Dewar's 12, 18 and Signature I was not. With the 12 as our reference point, we toured around the various drams. The 21 offered the reassuring depth and smooth muscularity of excellent ageing with rich, rounded and dark honey and spice. The creamy and full palate was distinctive but it didn't, in the end, and despite being closest in age to the wonderful sample I tried in the warehouse, persuade me to part with £85.

The blends, on the nose, did not resemble blends at all. The 12 was flowery, with lightness and freshness but, after comparisons with its older brothers, somewhat quick and "immature". Bruce was quite right, though: you can detect the Aberfeldy honeyed shortbread personality in each of them. The 18 was perhaps my favourite: again the identity of age seduced and intrigued while the addition of water created a time-machine and I once again contemplated the heathland at the foot of Schiehallion.

The Signature was unlike any blend I have ever had, which at £150 a go I should have hoped it wouldn't be. The artful suave richness on the nose and palate of gleaming fruit were sublime. The contrast between this and Bruce's favourite: the White Label, was not offensive and I have been persuaded that, in future, I should look out for this proud dynasty.

Keen that we should preceed the fifteen or so standard tourists milling around us, and with me admitting to sensory overload, we embarked on the tour of the distillery. At each key point within the clean, handsome buildings, due time was taken. I was able to ask questions and make observations, never feeling rushed. I would like to think this was as much because the people involved wish to savour and appreciate their place of employment as my having shelled out for the "premium" experience.

We spent quite a long time in the stillroom, with the wash stills frothing away and the middle cut from the second spirit still thundering through the spirit safe. To combat the heat radiating off the considerable stills (right), all of the windows were open onto the smart grounds, the Tay and the wooded hills beyond.I should have capitalised on the warmth, for there wasn't much to be found in the warehouse.

Striding to what I was sure would be the promised land, I recounted my religious experience in the warehouses of The Glenlivet and my disappointment at being led away from those at Glenkinchie.

"You may be disappointed again," murmured Bruce as we stepped into darkness.

What filled my nostrils was not the honey malt and old wood of the best warehouses, but the pot ale processing. I was a little glum as I contemplated the thousands of casks, in shadow and, crucially, empty. But then I realised that the only ones I needed concern myself with were the trio just on the other side of the steel mesh gating.

Picking up a substantial mallet, Bruce offered me a choice between a 1985 and two 1983s. His recommendation was the 1985 and so I aked him tap that particular barrel (right). He duly did, once on each side of the bung before adopting a Show-of-Strength pose and giving the cask a richochetting crack. The bung "just shot out" and we could draw my sample.

I held my glass under the steel pipette and out dribbled raw whisky. Pure happiness, and cold, overwhelmed me as I smelt, cautiously, the pure glowing gold (right). When I didn't receive a lance of alcohol straight into my hypothalamus, I allowed my nose to quest a little further. I anticipated, and got, Aberfeldy heather honey and apple notes. They were timid, however, the temperature restricting the circulation of aromas, but they had a cleanliness and body I had not hitherto noted, the little flecks of charred wood at the bottom of the glass merely lending an authentic influence instead of an obscuring one. The vanillins of the wood were wondrously original and its affect on the spirit authoritative but not excessive. Bruce kept putting his nose to the hole in the cask and I did the same. I cannot now communicate the perfection of that smell, just that the woody spice and mellow whisky combined instinctively and epically. Bruce suggested I took my sample indoors where it - and I - might warm up.

Back before the array of glasses in the visitors' centre, I sat down with my latest, rarest measure. This is where Bruce relinquished his role as my guide for the day, and I assured him how much I had enjoyed the tour he had given me. I voiced my hope that I would see him again when I pull up and uncleat next year. I won't be taking the Signature tour on that occasion, but memories of this one will abide with me in all of my future first-hand dealings with this magical drink.

Aberfeldy 1985 Bourbon casked. Cask no. 1321.

COLOUR: Gold - soft, bright and smooth. NOSE - WoW - The unfixable big smoothness of age. Gorgeously sweet honey and round, clean vanilla. There is heather there, but also another flower: soft, delicate and pungent. Stewed red apples. The alcohol doesn't obtrude. Despite its 24 years, it is fresh and clean. Soft light gingerbread. Delicious focus and character. Wonderfully firm wood. Single cream. WW - Zesty, woody vanilla. Soft pulpy apple. Richly sweet grainy honey. Faintly herbal, it is a flower meadow in May or June, humming with bees. Light butterscotch. Medium-bodied with all the ripe fragrance of the washback. Lightly charred white oak. Tablet - shortbread and caramel. BODY - Smooth, velvety. Building to clean warmth. PALATE - WoW - Appley, honey, soft biscuits. WW - Unbelieveable smooth with sweetness growing to spicy dark malty richness. FINISH - Honey mist. Vanilla ice cream. Quite nutty. Syrupy wood and fruit. Caramel shortbread. Fades elegantly.

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