Saturday, September 30, 2017

Woodinville Whiskey Company Bourbon

stats: straight bourbon, Washington, 45%, $55

Anyone who knows me knows that I’m sort of fanatical about whiskey. This will occasionally open up some nice whiskey sampling opportunities for me. Recently, couple of very kind and generous relatives were visiting family members who had relocated to Washington State. On a mid-August morning I received a message on Facebook letting me know that they were in Seattle and planning to visit a distillery in Woodinville (a small city of 12,000 which is part of the Seattle metropolitan area).

My aunt and uncle were wondering if I knew of this distillery and if I had tried any of its whiskey. I was about to explain that with the number of new craft distilleries opening all over the US in recent years, it was hard enough to keep track of the ones in the tiny state where I live, let alone the many that are on the other side of the country. But I kept thinking to myself “Woodinville? Woodinville? Why does that sound familiar?” And then I remembered; I had just read about this distillery on The Chuck Cowdery Blog a few weeks prior.

Woodinville was in the news because it had just been bought out by Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy (LVMH), the French multinational luxury goods conglomerate which has owned Ardbeg and Glenmorangie since 2005. Woodinville was established in 2010 and its owners had a vision of making good craft whiskey which had been aged in traditional 53 gallon barrels for a respectable amount of time, and selling it at a fair price.

I’m going to take a moment to point out a few important differences between craft whiskey and craft beer. Before craft beer started to catch on in the 1980’s and 1990’s, the small number of remaining American macro-breweries were all making essentially the same product, and they weren’t making particularly good versions of it. Craft brewers brought variety and quality, and consumers were willing to pay a premium for that.

While the American whiskey industry had dwindled to just a handful of large distilleries, they had never really compromised on quality. Perhaps Bourbon’s reputation had suffered in general during its years of unpopularity, but American distillers continued to make fundamentally good product. Also, In spite of the small number of distilleries, there were still a large number of brands supported by these producers. This at least gave the appearance of good variety to the casual observer.

When the craft whiskey distillers started to pop up over the last 10 to 15 years, they were at a big competitive disadvantage. Bourbon was a very traditional product and while some innovation would be embraced, anything too esoteric would have a hard time catching on. Most of these outfits lacked the capital and / or financial backing to set up operations and keep producing for multiple years while their whiskey aged properly. Even if they could do that, economies of scale meant that their final products would be much more expensive than those of the old guard.

Some companies took the route of producing vodka or gin to support their whiskey productions. But that market has become oversaturated and it seems like most of the companies that were successful with that model have stayed focused on making money with their clear spirits. Other craft distillers went the route of using very small barrels (5 gal, 10 gal, 15 gal, etc) and short aging times. Despite claims to the contrary, this doesn’t make for particularly good whiskey. Then there’s the business model of setting up a Potemkin distillery and secretly buying aged whiskey from one of the large, established distillers and selling it as your own. Going down that path runs the risk of miring one’s brand in controversy and possibly disgrace, as was the case with Templeton Rye.

Woodinville was one of the exceptions; they made all of their own whiskey and even though they started off with some youthful releases, they were only using 53 gallon barrels and consistently selling a five year old bourbon and a five year old rye by their seventh year of production (although there is no official age statement on the label of the bottle I have). To do this, they had to limit sales to their home state. Granted, their whiskey does sell very well there.

As I noted above, the whiskey business is an extremely capital intensive one to break into. Once established, it takes even money (again with a slow return on investment) to grow operations and expand into new markets. It’s really not surprising that Woodinville sold out to LVMH; it was probably the only way they would be able to grow beyond Washington State.

Many people are bewildered by the astronomical sums that are being paid by the big players in the industry for these relatively small outfits (in the case of Woodinville the sum was undisclosed, but I’m sure it wasn’t cheap). But these valuations aren’t based so much on assets or current sales as they are on the future growth potential of the brand. With a crowded marketplace and many older, established brands already reaching their saturation points, one of the surest paths to future profit is via the acquisition of a brand that is relatively new, but off to a good start with a solid reputation.

My aunt and uncle had offered to procure a bottle of whiskey from the Woodinville distillery shop and bring it back east, riding silently on their drive across the country. I graciously accepted, and noted that I’d love to try this new bourbon from the Pacific Northwest. Little more than a few weeks later the newest addition to the collection was in my hands. I really love the bottle and label design; let’s see how it tastes.

The nose is bold and expressive, but not sharp or punchy. The vanilla aromas are the most obvious, but caramel, spice and delicate toasted notes join in, making it very well rounded. This really does smell like a very well made traditional bourbon.
On the palate it seems like it’s going to be a little hot right up front, but the flavors open up quickly, keeping everything harmonious. A bit of underlying sweetness shows itself early on and lends to a full mouthfeel, but that caramel-driven character stays as a minor influence and is eventually overtaken by drier notes that emerge as things moves on. The mid palate shows leather and a hint of dark red fruits as complex spice notes develop.
The finish becomes increasingly dry. Toasted oak, nuttiness and dry spice become dominant, but balance is maintained.

This really is a lovely bourbon and I’d say it’s every bit as good as Woodford Reserve, which it purportedly competes with in terms of sales volume in Washington State.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Eagle Rare, Private Barrel Tasting

I recently had the opportunity to participate in a small group tasting for the selection of a private barrel of bourbon. I’ll step back a bit and explain how this all came about before I get into the details of the tasting, since it’s an interesting story.

I was working at my regular job, waiting tables, one night toward the end of last January when a solo diner requested a pour of Buffalo Trace bourbon. I informed him that while we didn’t have Buffalo Trace, we did have Eagle Rare bourbon. I mentioned that they were both produced by the Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort, KY, and that they were both made from the same distillate of Trace’s low rye mash bill recipe, and both bottled at 90 proof. I then went on to explain that the difference between the two came down to age (with Buffalo Trace being around 6 years old and Eagle Rare carrying a 10 year age statement) and warehouse location (they come mostly from the same warehouses, but Buffalo Trace barrels are stored on the middle floors and Eagle Rare barrels are stored on the lower floors).

He seemed slightly taken aback that some random waiter possessed such bourbon knowledge and complimented the accuracy of my information. When I’m at work, I try not to spout off about my whiskey blog at the drop of a hat; it just strikes me as being unprofessional. Instead I’ll usually let the whiskey discussions progress pretty far before I mention the blog. On this occasion I responded by noting that I had visited Buffalo Trace less than a year prior and had taken their distillery tour. Much to my surprise, the gentleman informed me that he worked for them; it turned out that he was the northern New England Field Sales Manager for Sazerac.

Vermont is a liquor control state and a very small market, but a bar in my town had recently purchased a private barrel of Buffalo Trace bourbon, so I was aware of the possibility. I had also seen a private barrel bottling of Eagle Rare at a liquor store in Massachusetts, so I assumed that was probably an option as well.

We had a series of brief conversations revolving around various whiskey topics throughout the course of his dinner. I’m not sure which one of us brought up the private barrel program, but we discussed it at length and the fact that it might be a viable option where I work, since my employers own three restaurants across which the cost of roughly 240 bottle of bourbon could be spread. Of course, I eventually mentioned the blog and we exchanged business cards before he departed.

Not long after that night, I sent an email pitching the idea of a private barrel purchase to the two owners and the bar manager of our largest restaurant. At the same time I made a strong push for us to go with Eagle Rare, if they decided to move forward. I thought it was important for us to go with private barrel of a different bourbon brand than the one that was already at another establishment in town, and we already sell a high volume of Eagle Rare with our current cocktail program.

The reaction to that email was very positive, but from that point I handed off responsibility for the matter to Chris, the bar manager, since it was more in line with his job duties. Just a few weeks later it was confirmed that a barrel of Eagle Rare had been designated for us, and one week after that we committed to moving forward with the purchase.

Many distilleries have private barrel programs and most of them work on the same basic principle; anyone can buy a barrel, but it must be bottled before it is delivered and the buyer must purchase the entire bottled contents of the barrel at the same time. There’s no volume discount either; the bottles go through the regular distribution and retail channels and are priced at the standard markup. These barrels are occasionally bought by private individuals, but this is typically the realm of large liquor stores or bars and restaurants that sell high volumes of spirits.

It’s likely that each distillery operates their private barrel program a little differently, but here’s how it goes at Buffalo Trace. The potential buyer will request a barrel of a particular brand of whiskey; Eagle Rare, Buffalo Trace, Blanton’s, etc. The distillery will then approve the purchase (I’m assuming they have a limit on the number of private barrels that they sell each year, so there would probably be a waiting list if demand got high enough) and a barrel is designated for the buyer. This doesn’t mean that a particular barrel has been selected at this point, just that a one-barrel quantity has been allocated from inventory for the purchase that will happen eventually.

When barrels are entered into the warehouses at Buffalo Trace (and likely most other modern distilleries), their eventual fate has already been determined. In other words, when a certain distillate is put into a certain specification barrel and placed in a particular warehouse location, the company intends to bottle that whisky as a specific brand when it’s ready. So a distinct number of barrels are laid down each year with the intention of their contents becoming Eagle Rare ten years later. Of course, these barrels are all tasted at some point before bottling to make sure that they fit what the Eagle Rare flavor profile is supposed to be. As for those that don’t make the cut, they’ll still be used; maybe some special ones are held back to age further and become Eagle Rare 17 year, maybe some not-so-special ones get blended off into something cheap, like Benchmark bourbon.

When a private barrel request comes through, the people that do the barrel tasting at the distillery will pick three different barrels for the purchaser to choose from. Then, a 200 ml sample bottle is drawn from each of the three barrels and these are sent out with a sales rep who will conduct a tasting with the person (or group of people) who will decide which of the three barrels to make their own.

Fast forward to May of this year and we were informed that our samples had arrived. A few weeks later we assembled a small group of people who would collectively select our barrel, and we all got together for a tasting of the samples. This was hosted by a sales rep from the distributor that essentially acts as a middleman between the distiller and our state liquor commission (through which all spirits purchased in-state must go).

This was a pretty informal affair; essentially a round-table discussion where general impressions were bantered back and forth along with the occasional specific aroma or flavor note. Most people at work consider me to be somewhat of an authority when it comes to whiskey, so I was in a position to have the most influence on the group decision, but I wanted to be sure that everyone’s input was valued and that we all had a fairly equal say.

Our samples consisted of three barrel numbers; 033, 332 and 409. I was surprised to see more variation across the three than I had expected. I actually wondered if they had picked some barrels that were outside of the typical Eagle Rare flavor profile, but I was assured through follow-up emails that that was not the case. In retrospect though, it would make sense for them to send the biggest range possible from barrels that do qualify to become Eagle Rare; it wouldn’t be very interesting for buyers to pick from three barrels that are almost identical.

Barrel 033 was sort of the anomaly of the group, its character was much further from the other two than those two were from each other. 033 had very subtle aromas and was quite delicate in the mouth, but there was a distinct mint note that stood out both in a floral way on the nose and in a more herbal way the palate. While some of us found this interesting, we eliminated 033 early on as we all found it to be a little too mild mannered.

Barrel 332 was also a bit restrained on the nose, but I did find some very interesting aromas (including old books) after spending some time with it. What really struck me was how incredibly well balanced it was on the palate.

Barrel 409 had the most assertive nose of the group. It was also big and bold on the palate with a lot of caramel and nutty character.

As a group, we went back and forth between these two for quite some time. To me, 409 was the whiskey that was able to grab one’s attention right of the bat, but 332 was more elegant and well composed overall. While I think either of these would have served us well, the majority eventually gravitated toward 332, and that was what we finally went with. All in all, my first barrel picking session was a fun and insightful experience.

Our barrel is scheduled for bottling right around now. Hopefully the transit time from the distiller to the distributor to the state warehouse to the retail store and finally to the restaurants won’t take too long. Once we have the bottles in hand, I’ll follow up with proper tasting notes as well as some information about the barrel codes that were on our sample bottles and a few other relevant points.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Bruichladdich, The Laddie Eight

stats: single malt Scotch, Islay, 8 years old, 50%, $60

Regular readers have likely noticed that my posting frequency started to drop off considerably midway through the reports on my most recent trip to Scotland. Summer is a busy season for me with plenty of distractions, but there’s more to it than that. I tend to get bored if I stay on the same subject for too long and drift into procrastination mode. It’s time for me to shake things up a bit and start writing about whatever whisk(e)y topics I’m excited about at the moment. The rest of the 2017 Scotland trip coverage will be interspersed among other posts and will come in due time.

That being said, on to a bottle of whisky that I’ve been itching to open for several months now; Bruichladdich, The Laddie Eight. When single malt Scotch was developing into a product category that could separate itself from blended Scotch in the 1970’s, bottlings with 8 year age statements were fairly common. When the industry hit a rough patch in the 1980’s, years of overproduction would linger in the warehouses before there was a need to bottle that whisky. Naturally, age statements crept up; if you’re competing for a limited pool of consumers and the product’s age is increasing by default, it makes sense to have an elevated age statement as a selling point.

Of course that situation stabilized though the 1990’s and most flagship bottlings had moved to age statements in the 10 to 14 year range by then. When the sales trends had fully reversed and producers were faced with shortages, age statements started to disappear rather than regressing (and of course prices went up as well). Eventually the art of profiteering off of sub-par non-age stated single malts started to hurt the reputation of the NAS category. Finally, younger whiskies with age statements started to make sense again.

Independent bottlers are generally quicker to react to consumer trends, and they led the way with modern bottlings of 8 year age stated single malts. But when Gordon & MacPhail released a series of 8 year olds around early 2012, they were the first company to do so with large enough releases that the bottlings were widely available. A key feature of this series was its modest retail price point. I’ve tasted and written about three of those bottlings; Glenrothes, Bunnahabhain and Highland Park. I also have a yet-to-be-opened bottle of Tamdhu.

While I have seen some online references to a modern Glenfarclas 8 year old, that product seems to be one that is primarily made for Australia and New Zealand. Finally, in the spring of 2016, two new 8 year old official distillery bottlings were announced; Lagavulin’s limited edition 200th Anniversary offering and Bruichladdich’s The Laddie Eight, which would launch as a Travel Retail exclusive.

Fortunately, I live within an hour of a Duty Free store on the US/Canada border. I stopped in on my way home from Montreal at some point that summer to ask if they planned to carry the new release. I was told that it had been ordered already and should arrive by the fall. Like most things in life, it took a little longer than expected, but I finally had it in hand by late February.

Bruichladdich took some criticism when they dropped the 10 year age statement from their flagship bottling. They have done a few limited releases of their 10 year old offering since then, and I viewed this 8 year old as another positive sign from Bruichladdich. I was a bit disappointed with its pricing though. I paid $79 Canadian, which came though as $60.43 on a credit card that doesn’t charge a foreign transaction fee. Bruichladdich’s flagship Scottish Barley bottling (which is typically a vatting that averages around 9 years old) sells for $67 Canadian in Montreal and $58.29 here in Vermont. As I noted in my Lagavulin 200th Anniversary post, that too was expensive for an 8 year old, but it was still less than their flagship 16 year old (and bottled at a higher proof), and not too expensive for a limited release.

I did manage to by a bottle of Bruichladdich 10 not long before it became unavailable, and I still have some of that on hand, so I’ll do a side-by-side tasting of the 8 year and the 10 year.

8 year, 50% abv
nose – the briney coastal aromas are most obvious and backed up by grassy notes (a mix of beach grasses and fresh cut grass). There’s a malty underpinning to it all, along with fresh fruit (apple, pear and perhaps a hint of orange).
The palate is rich, with an almost honey-like quality up front. It shows a good range of flavors, from malt and tree fruits to grassy notes, though the mid palate.
As it moves into the finish, a maritime minerality comes through and it becomes more oaky with drying spice notes.
It may lack the integration of its older peers, but not to the point of detriment.

10 year, 46% abv
nose – it’s similar to the 8 but with less grassiness and more oak (in the form of soft vanilla) coming through.
As one might expect, there’s not a huge difference in the flavor profiles of these two. The 10 year old shows less of the grassiness that often betrays a more youthful malt whisky. The individual flavors jump out less obviously and it transitions more smoothly from start to finish (everything is a bit more harmonious). Although, that may be partially due to the difference in bottling proof.

Bruichladdich’s new 8 year old is a respectable whisky. It comes across as youthful but not immature. I’d just like to see it priced 10% to 20% lower than their Scottish Barley bottling. Travel Retail is often a place to test the waters with new products. Perhaps we’ll see this as a more reasonably priced general release at some point in the future.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Scotland 2017, day 8

Day 8 was mostly a travel day, but I did manage to incorporate one distillery tour which also helped to breakup the driving. My departure from the Orkney Islands was on a different ferry service than the one by which I had arrived, primarily so I could see a greater variety of scenery. While I had considered visiting another of the historic sites before leaving the islands, I wisely opted for a leisurely breakfast, stress-free organizing and repacking session, and an unrushed drive with an early arrival to check-in for the 11:50 ferry.

The St Margaret’s Hope to Gills Bay crossing actually departs from the island of South Ronaldsay rather than the Orkney Mainland. After the sinking of the HMS Royal Oak in Scapa Flow at the onset of WWII, which I discussed in my previous post, Winston Churchill ordered the construction of a series of defensive barriers to protect the strategic body of water. Known as the Churchill Barriers, these four structures connect the Orkney Mainland to the smaller islands of Lamb Holm and Glimps Holm, and then to Burray and finally South Ronaldsay. Today these barriers serve as causeways, connecting the five islands via the A961 road.

While the views on this ferry crossing were quite nice, they certainly weren’t as spectacular as those on the Stromness to Scrabster crossing. This was, however, a shorter and less expensive ferry trip at 60 minutes and about $70 (one way, for a car and single passenger). By comparison, my outbound voyage lasted 90 minutes and cost about $95. The two routes are operated by different companies, Northlink and Pentland. The shorter crossing is on a smaller, more utilitarian ferry, while the longer one is on a larger vessel with more upscale accommodations. The island terminals are about equidistant from Kirkwall, but the two companies’ crossing schedules differ significantly.

From the port at Gills Bay it was a three hour drive to Inverness, where I would spend the night. Fortunately, the Clynelish distillery was on my path and about midway between the end points. After departing the ferry terminal I was treated to some new views of northern Scotland’s eastern coast from the A99 until I reached Wick. From there I went back down the road I had followed north the week before. Just ahead of the settlement of Brora I turned off of the A9 and started to head inland, going just a short distance before reaching Clynelish.

As planned, I arrived shortly before the 3:00 tour. I started toward the Clynelish visitor center, which was actually the only accessible part of the distillery building; the rest of it was surrounded by a temporary chain-link fence, segregating it as a construction area. When doing my pre-trip research I had seen on the Clynelish website that mechanical and electrical upgrades at the distillery, which were to last 10 months, had begun in April of 2016. Since this work meant that there could be no visitor access to the production areas of the distillery, tours were instead being offered of the old Brora distillery, which is onsite but had previously been closed to the public.

I was visiting a week into May of 2017, so I had assumed everything would be back to normal by the time I got there. Once inside, I was a little surprised to learn that the work was still ongoing and that I would be getting a tour of Brora rather than Clynelish.
The Brora distillery was actually the original Clynelish distillery, and the two facilities had overlapping periods of production.

My tour guide started off with a little local history. The late 1700’s and early 1800’s saw a transition of the rural Scottish economy as raising sheep became a more profitable agricultural activity than farming. This resulted in aristocratic landowners evicting large numbers of tenant farmers during that period, in what became known as the Highland Clearances. While some people ended up relocating to the poorest quality farmland, many emigrated out of the Highlands, going to the Scottish Lowlands or even as far away North America and Australia.

The Clynelish distillery was founded by one of the more notorious figures involved in the Clearances. George Leveson-Gower, who was known as The Marquess of Stafford until he became the 1st Duke of Sutherland shortly before his death in 1833, is estimated to have been the wealthiest man of the 19th century. His land holdings increased dramatically when he married the Countess of Sutherland, Elizabeth Gordon in 1785. In 1807 they had their agents begin evicting subsistence farmers from their more valuable land and relocating them to the coast, where it was assumed that they would take up fishing as an alternative to farming. Patrick Sellar was hired as their factor (essentially a land manager) in 1809 and oversaw the “improvements” to their lands. Sellar’s methods were particularly brutal, even for the standards of the time, and he carried out extensive clearances between 1811 and 1820.

George Leveson-Gower established the Clynelish distillery in 1819. No doubt it would be a profitable business, but the fact that the distillery would purchase barley from local farms guaranteed that rent was paid by the few tenant farmers who remained on Leveson-Gower’s poor quality land. The distillery was leased by a variety of parties through the 1800’s before being purchased outright in 1896. By 1930 Clynelish was solely owned by Distillers Company Limited, which eventually morphed into today’s Diageo.

As a major contributor to the Johnny Walker blended whiskies, there was enough demand for Clynelish during the boom period of the 1960’s that its owners decided to build a new, much larger distillery next to the original. Construction began in 1967 and the new facility was producing whisky the next year. Once it was up and running, the original Clynelish distillery was mothballed.

But circumstances changed quickly. What I was told on the tour was the simplified version of the story; that the old Clynelish distillery was brought back online in 1969 and heavily peated whisky was produced there to cover for the Caol Ila distillery, which is owned by the same parent company, while is was completely rebuilt. The original Clynelish distillery was renamed as Brora after the town in which it is located, and distillation continued there until 1983. I’ll detail the more historically accurate version of these events in a follow-up post.

Of course, the soft demand that followed through the 1980’s and 1990’s meant that a decent number of Brora casks were spared from the blending hall. There have been many independent bottlings of Brora which date back to at least 1995, but the first official bottling from Diageo came out as a 30 year old in 2002. Since then it has become a mainstay of Diageo’s annual special release group, with cask strength offerings in the 25 to 38 year range and typically about 3000 bottles per release. As the cult status of this whisky has risen, so has its price, with the latest release pushing well past the $2000 mark.

From the visitor center we walked away from the Clynelish still house and toward the Brora distillery buildings, with the old kiln’s pagoda roof standing out above everything else. We passed by a row a seven connected warehouses in the traditional dunnage style, and it appears that no modern warehouses were added to the site when the new distillery was built.

Once inside the Brora still house, we were confined to a small viewing area from which most of the distilling space could be seen through Plexiglas panels. The near-hermetic sealing made me wonder if the space had asbestos issues.

In spite of this restriction, it was still very cool to see the stills that produced such an iconic whisky. The Lyne arms are cut off just before where they would have passed through the exterior wall and much of the plumbing was disconnected from the stills, but they still look glorious. The spirit safe is in position as well as the two receivers it fed, one of wood and the other of cast iron.

I have since learned that Brora used to operate with six wooden washbacks at 29,500 liters each and a similarly sized mash tun. I think it’s safe to assume that those vessels had been located in a room not far from the stills, and wish I had thought to ask if they were still on-site.

Next we stepped back outside and I tried to have a look behind the still house. The area was fenced off and other structures blocked most of the view, but I did catch a glimpse of the large concrete blocks that likely once supported the worm tubs.

A short walk took us to an adjacent building where we entered the former cask filling room. The wooden holding tank is still there along with its pair of hoses and filling nozzles, which rest in a pair of casks dating to 1983 according to the stenciling on their heads.

Speaking of which, the old sheet metal stencils were on display in a small office room off of the filling room. There was also a ledger on a desk here, where all of the information about each cask was entered as they were filled; date, cask number, weight of the empty cask, weight of the full cask, weight of the contents, volume of contents in gallons, strength, gallons at proof, etc.

From there we went back across to the row of warehouses and entered one of them. The seven contiguous warehouses are rather narrow and they vary in length as their rear walls terminate at a road that runs 45 degrees to their orientation. But the longest of them is exceptionally long. Together they currently hold about 6300 casks. Among the many Clynelish casks, two Brora casks were clearly visible; a 1977 and I believe the other was dated 1982. Of course Diageo has a policy of storing a variety of casks from their many distilleries at any given site, so there’s no way to get a sense of how much aging Brora they still possess (and I suspect that most of their employees have no idea either).

We did discuss a few other Brora facts along the way, revealing that Brora had modernized in the 1960’s, at least a little. The stills were converted from direct fired to internal steam heating in 1961. Mechanical power had come from a steam engine and a water wheel until electric motors replaced them in 1965. That was also the last year in which the traditional floor maltings were used. In 1966 the coal-fired boiler was upgraded so it could burn fuel oil instead. While Brora had a maximum capacity of just over 1 million liters per annum, it only produced about 40,000 liters in its last year of production.

We also talked a little bit about Clynelish. When operational they use a long-ish fermentation time of 80 hours and typically run 18 to 19 mashes per week. The distillery is a major contributor to the Johnny Walker range of blends, with 95% of its production going there and only 5% being bottled as single malt. The current capacity is 4.8 million LPA and even though the upgrades being performed are extensive, they are not expanding the production levels.

The project includes replacing three of the six stills and four of the 10 washbacks. Two of the 10 washbacks are stainless steel, but they will be replacing the wooden ones with new wooden ones. Other new pieces of equipment include the mash tun, the draff hopper and the water cooling tower. The project also includes the building of a new yeast room, as well as a new roof for the control room.

My guide also mentioned that Teaninich (another Diageo owned distillery), which lies about 40 miles to the south, is considered to be the sister distillery to Clynelish. When it was rebuilt in 1970 the designers essentially copied the blueprint of the new Clynelish plant. Teaninich is actually located just a few thousand feet away from Dalmore, on the other side of the A9, but is apparently much less visible from the main road.

At the time of my visit, I was told that the construction project would likely be complete by the end of June. Looking online now though, I see more recent estimates of the restart happening in August. My guide didn’t know what the fate of the Brora tours would be once the Clynelish tours were being offered again, but we both agreed that it would be a shame for them to go away altogether. Hopefully they will continue separately, or as an optional add-on to the standard Clynelish tour. I even mused about the possibility of Brora restarting as a small-scale, old-style production distillery; sort of a working museum. But I really don’t think anyone at Diageo has the vision or the fortitude for such a project.

Back at the visitor center, I was presented with two samples; Clynelish 14 year old, which is the only regularly produced official bottling, and a distillery-only offering. The 14 year old is aged 60% in sherry casks and 40% in bourbon barrels, and bottled at 46% abv. This was my first taste from a distillery that had barely been on my radar prior to this trip, and I was pleasantly surprised. This is an old-school style malt; a good representation of what coastal highland whiskies used to be.

I only had the tiniest of sips of my sample from the other bottling (for a direct comparison) and took the rest of it to go in what was essentially a stoppered test-tube. This was from a limited run of just 6000 bottles that were released in 2008. It was bottled at a cask strength of 57.3% with no age statement after maturing exclusively in bourbon barrels. Full strength whiskies have a great appeal to me and this one was certainly bold and interesting, but I still preferred the flagship 14 year old. Its sherry cask component brought a level of complexity that the distillery-only bottling just couldn’t match.

On this sort of trip there have to be a few very special drams along the way. You can’t really plan such things in advance though; they just come along when the time is right. Brora has long been a whisky that was on my list of things I really ought to taste. Having just toured the old distillery and with several vintages available for tasting at the visitor center, this was one of those times. I went with the 2014 release, which was a 35 year old bottled at 48.6%. A single drink at £35 (about $45) is a rare indulgence for me, so I try to be picky when I go there. This one was definitely worth it.

The nose was rich and weighty with macerated tree fruits, showing firm but delicate peat smoke.
On the palate, the dry, earthy peat character seemed to have been mellowed by the years rather than diminished by them. There was a rich, waxy quality and nice complexity along with great balance.
The flavors evolved beautifully as it moved into an incredibly long finish.

After wandering around and taking a few more pictures outside of the distillery, I made my way down to Inverness. The city is bisected by the river Ness, which flows from Loch Ness to the sea. The B&B I was staying at was in the heart of the city and right on the east bank of the river. I had some travel issues to sort out after I settled in and that took up most of my evening. I was actually lucky to find a nearby place for dinner that was open past 10:00; otherwise I might have gone without. Needless to say, the only whisky I got into that night was the sample I had taken from Clynelish.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Scotland 2017, day 7

After coming up a little short on my goal of visiting many of Orkney’s historic sites on Day 6, I decided to regroup and dedicate some time to a planning session later that night. I was scheduled for the more extensive “Scapa Experience” tour at 2:30 on Day 7, which their website described as being 90 minutes long. That left me a decent amount of time before (and possibly a little time after) the tour for the sightseeing that I was hoping to do.

The Undiscovered Scotland website is a great resource for the type of information I was seeking, as it is essentially an online visitor’s guide of Scotland. Its maps, with links to pages about the individual sites, are especially helpful. There are also links to the pages on the Historic Environment Scotland website, which contains more information about the sites, such as hours of operation (something I only realized out after the fact). Using Google maps to figure out drive times, I was able to plot out a schedule for the day’s activities.

The owner of the B&B where I was staying had informed me that there was a bit of an issue / controversy with visiting cruise liners coming into the port at Kirkwall and flooding the island with huge numbers of tourists. Apparently they all flock to the well known historic sites and essentially overrun them; all while spending very little money during their time on the island. This was enough of a concern that he had a schedule of the planned dockings so his guests could avoid these tourist influxes. I had heard that the liners couldn’t dock in times of high winds and I think that may have been the case this day; in spite of one with 6000 passengers being on the schedule, the sites I went to were only moderately busy at best.

I got on the road around 10:00 and arrived at my first stop, the Broch of Gurness, about 30 minutes later. A broch is a circular defensive tower made of stone and the one at Gurness is encircled by a community of smaller buildings, which is not always the case. Of the roughly 500 brochs spread across northern Scotland, the Broch of Gurness is one of the prime examples.

The upper portion of the tower collapsed long ago, but is believed to have reached 30 feet in height. Amazing amounts of detail can still be seen in the lower portion of the structure, which is 60 feet in diameter. The broch and its surrounding smaller buildings are encircled by a ring of defensive ditches 150 feet in diameter

The entire site was constructed some time before 200 BC, in the middle of Britain’s Iron Age. 700 to 800 years later it was largely abandoned and had been filled in, allowing the site to remain undisturbed until it was rediscovered and excavated in 1929.

My original plan had been to make a counterclockwise circle around the north-west lobe of the island, staying close to the coast. That would have brought me to three more sites; the Brough of Birsay, Skara Brae and Maeshowe. The Brough of Birsay is an abandoned settlement that was inhabited by the Picts and the Norse at various times. The site is on a tidal island that is accessible by a small causeway, but only for two hours before and two hours after low tide. The tidal timing didn’t line up with my schedule and I really didn’t have time to explore four sites before my distillery tour anyway. I was just going to stop by the area near Birsay to check out the coast views.

That plan changed after a chat with the gentleman manning the visitor center at the Broch of Gurness. He explained that access to Maeshowe is tightly controlled, with guided tours leaving every hour, on the hour. I had driven through that area the day before and seen a sign saying the parking lot for the site was closed. A new visitor center for the site, which is a mile or so down the road from the original one, was built recently. Groups leave from the new facility and take a shuttle bus to the old parking lot before walking out to the site. Fortunately this was explained to me at the Broch of Gurness, because there is not good signage for this new arrangement at the old visitor center.

Getting in the car and checking the GPS, I saw that if I went straight to Maeshowe I would arrive five minutes before the noon tour. So off I went, circling back around to the south. Maeshowe (pronounced ‘maze-ow’) is a chambered cairn; essentially an earth covered stone-mound style of tomb.

This looks like a simple grassy mound (24 feet high and 115 feet in diameter) from the outside, but the inside reveals its astonishing stone construction. The entrance passage is only about four feet high and maybe three feet wide, making for a stooped walk down its 36 foot length. This leads to the central chamber which measures 15 feet by 15 feet. Smaller passages in the other three walls of the main room open into smaller side cells.

Exact dating here is difficult, but it is thought that the tomb was constructed around 2800 BC, making it about 200 years older than the Great Pyramid of Giza. Consisting of sandstone slabs weighting up to 30 tons, this is an impressive monument. Estimates of its construction effort range from 40,000 to 100,000 man-hours. Large vertical stones buttress each corner of the central chamber and it is thought that these may have been free standing before the rest of the structure was built around them; they could even have been in the center of a larger circle of standing stones. The entrance passage is perfectly aligned with the profile of the Barnhouse stone, a 10 foot high standing stone located almost half a mile from Maeshowe. On the winter solstice, the last rays of the setting sun pass directly down the tomb’s narrow passage when the sun passes over the top of the Barnhouse stone.

When the site was abandoned after a few hundred years of use, its entrance passage was filled in and sealed off. In 1153 a group of marauding Norsemen broke into the tomb through a corner of its roof, seeking shelter from a winter storm. They carved runic graffiti in the walls, leaving behind the largest collection of such inscriptions known to exist outside of Scandinavia. The modern excavation of Maeshowe in 1861 was done rather poorly by today’s archeological standards. The upper portion of the roof collapsed and had to be replaced by modern construction in 1910. The inner walls rise vertically for four and a half feet before they gradually begin sloping inwards, eventually forming the beehive shaped ceiling. It may have originally been 15 feet or more in height, but the repaired top limits the height to 12.5 feet now.

The only downside to the tour of Maeshowe is that photography is not allowed inside the tomb. By the time the shuttle bus got us back to the visitor center, it was almost 1:00. I was only 15 minutes from Skara Brae, but that was in the opposite direction from the Scapa distillery, so it would take another 30 minutes to get back there. That left me just 45 minutes to see Orkney’s most famous Neolithic site; it would be a quick visit, but better than not seeing it at all.

Skara Brae is a Neolithic settlement that was occupied from roughly 3200 BC to 2500 BC. The site consists of eight clustered houses that were built of stone and sunk into the ground, which provided insulation and structural stability. Passing through the visitor center brings you outside, behind the building, where there’s a modern recreation of one of the Skara Brae houses. Visitors can enter this “model house”, which has a complete roof (unlike the excavated originals) and recreations of many household items that likely would have been in such a place.

From here it’s a walk of five minutes or so, toward the ocean and then along the coastline, to the actual site. The reasons for the abandonment of Skara Brae aren’t known for sure, but everything was covered in sand not long after it stopped being used. The buildings are so well preserved that the site is often referred to as Scotland’s Pompeii.

Each house is a little larger than 400 square feet, on average. Stone furnishings, including hearths, cupboards, dressers, beds and seats remain to this day. The village also has a drainage system which connects to a primitive toilet in each of the houses.

Skara Brae was discovered in the winter of 1850, when a severe storm removed earth from the site and exposed the outline of the village. Partial excavations took place in the 1850’s and 1860’s. The site then laid undisturbed until it was partially plundered in 1913 and one of the houses was damaged by a storm in 1924. Finally the decision was made to protect and further study the site.

The visitor ticket to Skara Brae also includes access Skaill House. This is the 17th century mansion that was the home of William Graham Watt, the man who discovered Skara Brae. My expedited tour kept me from venturing into the mansion, but I had plenty of time to examine and photograph the Neolithic village. I probably wouldn’t have lingered much longer even if I could have, given the blustery weather that day. With a few minutes to spare back in the visitor center, I stopped to watch the short introductory video that I had skipped on the way in, before heading back to Kirkwall for the 2:30 tour of the Scapa distillery.

One of the greatest things about the visitor center at Scapa is that there is a visitor center at Scapa; this relatively new addition to the distillery went online in 2015. Tours were known to happen before that, but I don’t think there was any way to arrange them in advance or to guarantee one at all. From what I had read, the suggested protocol was to just show up and knock on the door. If the staff on-hand had some free time they would show you around. If they were too busy with the matters of making whisky, you’d be asked to leave (politely I presume).

When I arrived just in time for the 2:30 tour, I joined a small group. The other four people were family members who had toured many distilleries and were all quite knowledgeable of the whisky making process. One of the women actually worked as a consultant in the Alcohol sector and was studying energy efficiency and byproduct use in distilleries; finally, someone on a tour who was asking harder questions than I was. We all got along quite well and shared many of our past tour experiences. Eric, our tour guide (who I had met at the pub the night before), did a great job. He was relatively new to leading tours and still learning some of Scapa’s technical and historical details. A lot of tour guides would have been intimidated by a group that already knew so much and asked so many challenging questions. But Eric was happy to absorb some of our collective knowledge, share the interesting bits that he knew, and write down our more esoteric questions for his own research.

We learned that the distillery is currently producing about 1 million liters per annum, with a crew of five still-men. Unpeated Concerto barley is used and 28 ton deliveries are made two to three times per week. Scapa normally operates seven days a week, but one of the five production workers had recently broken his wrist and was unable to work, so they were not running over the weekends at the time.

Unfortunately photography was not allowed on the tour, so I don’t have much to show. We soon learned that Scapa was closed from 1994 through 2004, but that extensive renovations had occurred in 2004 and 2005, increasing the distillery’s production capacity. During the closure period the crew from Highland Park came over and made whisky at Scapa for two months a year starting in 1997. We were told that this only went on for a few years, but looking online I’ve seen independent bottlings of Scapa that were distilled in 2000, 2001, 2002 and 2003, so I think it’s safe to say that there was limited production each year from 1997 through the reopening in 2004.

In spite of the changes made in 2004/2005, the distillery, which dates to 1885, still retains plenty of older equipment and the production processes have not been automated. There are no computers on site, and the Porteus mill is connected to an auger and a dresser which are both housed in wood. Cask filling on-site did stop in 2014 however, and the new spirit in now tankered to Keith for filling.

There are eight washbacks in total; four newer ones of stainless steel and four older ones of corten steel which date to the 1950’s. Each takes a charge of 13,500 liters of wash at 8% alcohol. Fermentation is a relatively lengthy 80 hours, but that figure had been over 100 hours before production was increased in 2005.

Up to the still room, we were presented with beautiful views of Scapa Flow through the area’s large windows. This is a body of water which is sheltered by half a dozen of Orkney’s islands that surround it. There’s a lot of fascinating history here, with Scapa Flow having been home to Britain’s naval fleet during WWI and WWII. The German fleet was scuttled by its own crews here at the end of WWI as the details of the Treaty of Versailles were being negotiated. Our tour guide also talked a bit about the HMS Royal Oak, a British battleship that was torpedoed and sunk in Scapa Flow by a German U-boat in 1939 with a loss of 833 lives.

The two stills at Scapa are quite interesting. The wash still is a Lomond Still. This was a design that came into use in the late 1950’s and these were only employed at a small number (four or five) of Hiram Walker owned distilleries. They look similar to traditional post stills, except that the part above the pot is a constant diameter cylinder which has three plates inside. The angle of the plates could be changed from horizontal to vertical, and they could also be cooled with cold water. This allowed variations in the distilling regimes to produce different types of spirit. Scapa is the only distillery making whisky with a Lomond Still today (Bruichladdich uses a repurposed one to make gin), but the plates were removed in 1978. The Lyne arm comes straight out of the side of the cylinder near its top. That then makes an “S” turn down and out before going into a purifier and on to the condenser. The spirit still has a more traditional tapering upper section and swan neck. The lyne arm is angled slightly up, but it too makes a downward “S” turn before it continues into the condenser.

We made our way out to the grassy area behind the still house for an even better view of Scapa Flow. There’s an old waterwheel out back which presumably once powered the works here. Today the distillery operates on electric motors and steam produced in a fuel oil boiler. It was also nice to see the distillery name in bold, black letters on the side of the whitewashed warehouse facing the sea. This is something that is most commonly associated with Islay’s distilleries.

We then entered one of the four newer warehouses on the site. These have casks in racks that go six high. Several older dunnage style warehouses still stand, but are no longer used because they contain asbestos. Cask filling on site stopped in 2014, and spirit is now tankered to Keith for filling. 30,000 casks from Scapa are stored in Speyside; the 15,000 casks at Scapa are from a variety of Pernod Ricard owned distilleries.

We did see several Scapa casks in the warehouse we toured and the oldest one was from 1993, so there is definitely still some pre-closure whisky yet to be bottled. The distillery does use a very small number of sherry casks, but most of the production goes into bourbon barrels. The majority of that is aged in first fill barrels and destined for single malt, but some goes into second fill barrels and is set aside for blends, primarily Ballantine’s 17 year.

The tasting portion of the tour actually started in the warehouse. There was a tiny, separate room attached to the building that held a single duty-paid cask. Samples were drawn directly from it and deposited in our souvenir tasting glasses. This was a bourbon barrel that had been filled some time in 2004, making it at least 12 years old, and the alcohol level was between 56% and 57%. All of the Scapa expressions I had tasted previously had been chill filtered and bottled at 40%, so it was interesting to see the other side of the house style. This one was big and boisterous; a bit fiery but still with plenty of flavor development.

We then went back to the visitor center for the rest of the tasting, with samples of new make spirit, the flagship Skiren and Glansa, which is the newest bottling. There was a lot of conversation among the group as we tasted, so I neglected to make any tasting notes. Un-aged spirit is something that I wouldn’t want to drink on a regular basis, but it is always nice to have as a reference when exploring the aged expressions. I was kind of unimpressed by the Skiren (non-age stated, 40%) when I tried it on the ferry ride to Orkney two days before, but I found it a bit more appealing on the tour. Skiren does express the light, fruity and heathery house style, but it still comes across as somewhat youthful and lacking balance, especially compared to the 16 year old. Glansa is another NAS, 40% bottling, but it has been finished in casks that previously held heavily peated whisky. It was introduced in the fall of 2016. This expression still has the minor flaws seen in Skiren, but with the added complexity of some delicate peat smoke.

When I wrote about Scapa back in early 2014, I compare the 14 year to the 16 year and speculated about the makeup of each and the future of Scapa’s official bottlings. Our guide told us that there was no sherry cask whisky in the 16 year old, so I appear to have been wrong there (though I still suspect that there might have been a very small sherry cask influence in it). We were also told that it had whisky as old as 18 years in the mix. I had correctly speculated that there was older whisky in some of the batches, as its production years would have otherwise spanned the three years of total closure. My final bit of guesswork was that the 16 year would continue on and be joined by a 10 year old later in 2014 or a 14 year old in 2016. What actually happened was the mid-2015 discontinuation of the 16 year and introduction of Skiren.

Unfortunately, Skiren holds the same price point that the 16 year did, retailing between $70 and $80. I’m guessing that it’s a vatting of younger whiskies (maybe 6 to 9 years old), and I’m hopeful that this strategy will allow them to build stocks and reintroduce some age stated whiskies in the not-too-distant future. A modestly priced one aged in the low teens and a more expensive one aged to the high teens would be nice.

Keeping a close eye on the time, I realized that I would be able to visit one more historic site before the day was over. On the north side of Kirkwall, less than two miles from the Scapa distillery, are Bishop’s and Earl’s Palaces, which are combined as one attraction with a shared visitor center. I got there about 45 minutes before closing time, so my tour was somewhat fast paced, but I did manage to see every part of each building and photograph them pretty extensively. These two buildings are across the street from the St. Magnus Cathedral, which was built over the course of three centuries, starting in 1137. The Cathedral is well light at night and looked quite impressive on my walk home from the pub the night before.

Bishop’s Palace was built in the 1150’s as a residence for Bishop William the Old, the first Bishop of the new Cathedral. The building started as a large, but relatively straight-forward two-story house, the ground floor of which is still largely intact. The building was remodeled with significant additions by subsequent occupants.

King Haakon IV of Norway took up residence there in 1263, shortly before his death. After falling into disrepair, the palace was renovated in the 1540’s by Bishop Robert Reid. This is when the large tower was added. Visitors can climb to its highest level for great views of the Cathedral and surrounding parts of Kirkwall. The palace was next taken over by Earl Robert Stewart in 1568 and further renovated by his son Patrick in 1600.

Earl Patrick Stewart then decided to have something more impressive built and acquired the land next door where slave labor was used to construct Earl’s Palace in 1607. This building remained in use in the death of Bishop Mackenzie in 1688, and then fell into disrepair.

Earl’s Palace is impressive in both scale and design, and is one of the finest examples of Renaissance architecture in Scotland. The upper floors are roofless, but the grandeur of the place is still exemplified by its, huge fireplaces, corbelled turrets, massive windows, and the grand hall.

I found myself back at Helgi’s latter that evening for dinner, and I had to finish with the Scapa 16 year again. I was hoping to taste as many different whiskies as possible during these two weeks, but I knew that I was unlikely to have an opportunity to enjoy this lovely malt again.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Scotland 2017, day 6

I’ll start this post with a quick note about the end of day 5 since that piece ran long, before I get on to day 6.

After the Wolfburn tour I had several hours to kill before catching the ferry to Orkney. A bit of sightseeing was in order, but it couldn’t impose any time constraints (translation: wouldn’t make me late for the ferry check-in). My research brought me to Dunnet Head, which is a small peninsula that includes the northernmost point of mainland Scotland. The open grasslands here are atop 300 foot cliffs that go straight down to the sea. The single track road out to the area ends at a parking lot near Dunnet Head’s lighthouse. A walking path leads to a fenced in viewing area which is about 10 feet from the edge of the cliff, but it’s quite common for people to walk well beyond, where the rest of the drop-off is unsecured and you can go right to its edge (or over if you’re not careful). I was there for the stunning views, but the area is quite popular with bird watchers as well.

If you’re taking a car to Orkney by ferry and don’t want to spend an overnight on the seas all the way from Aberdeen, you have two choices; one goes between Scrabster and Stromness, the other between Gil’s Bay and St Margaret’s Hope. I decided to take one ferry out and the other back to get a variety of views. Dunnet Head is actually about midway between the two departure points, so for the outbound trip I had to make my way back through Thurso and just beyond, to the tiny town of Scrabster. This route has a one-and-a-half hour crossing time and I was on the last passage of the day, departing at 7:30.

I stayed outside on the viewing deck for a bit after the boat launched, then settled into the lounge to enjoy a glass of Scapa Skiren as a preview to my island adventure. After that it was time to eat. Please learn from my mistakes; if you are going to have dinner on this particular ferry, do it early in the ride. The views of the sea cliffs that form the western face of the Isle of Hoy are amazing on a clear day, especially when the sun is getting low in the sky. I should have been topside taking pictures rather than seeing it through a salt laden window while trying to scoff down my Viking Burger.

Once on Orkney, it’s about a 30 minute drive from Stromness to Kirkwall. This is the main city of the archipelago’s largest island and home to its two distilleries, Highland Park and Scapa. I was staying in lodgings that were just a short walk from Highland Park, so once I was settled in I went for a late evening stroll by the distillery. Of course, I hadn’t fixed in on my bearings yet so I turned the wrong as soon as I came out of the driveway, making it quite a bit longer of a walk. Much like I had seen at Pulteney the night before, the distillery was clearly operating and its various scents were wafting through the air. Unlike the previous night though, the entrance gates were closed so my preview was limited to what I could see from the street that bisected the distillery complex.

The next day I took the short walk over to the distillery (short now that I knew which way to go to get there) and passed through the entry gates, coming into the inner courtyard. There were signs directing me to the visitor center, where I soon learned that I’d be the only one on the tour; this is always a welcome bonus for me.

After a brief introductory video, we set out onto the distillery grounds. My guide informed me of the Norse traditions of the Orkneys, explaining that these islands were part of Norway for 500 years before they became part of Scotland. All of the production buildings are easily accessed from that inner courtyard. Stone dunnage warehouses make up most of the perimeter and across the street there are many more warehouses, as well as a station for filling tankers with spirit.

After a bit of conversation my guide realized that I was quite familiar with the distilling process already and set out to come up with some information that would be new to me. He managed to do that almost immediately, mentioning that The Edrington Group had recently (actually just the day before) reacquired the Glenrothes brand from Berry Brothers and Rudd. I had detailed the arrangement of Edrington owing the distillery and BB&R owning the brand back in this post.

The first stop of the tour was the malting floor. Highland Park is one of just eight distilleries in Scotland to maintain traditional floor maltings (if you count Glengoyne, which uses the malting floors at Springbank when that distillery is down for maintenance). BenRiach and Balvenie are the only other two to do so in the northern part of the country and I wouldn’t be touring either of them, so this was my only chance to see the beautiful sight of an entire room dedicated to germinating barley. My guide confirmed what I had heard before; that 20% of the barley used at Highland Park is malted in-house. The other 80% is commercially malted and unpeated; that way all of the peaty flavors comes from the Heather based peat that is hand cut at the nearby Hobbister Moor and burned in the kilns at Highland Park.

Given those percentages I was surprised when we got over to the kiln and saw that they use a combination of peat and coke. I had assumed that they were peating their own malt as heavily as they could to get the desired overall peat level. I may have to follow up with email to confirm the overall peat level and that the commercial malt is indeed unpeated. When I was at Springbank’s Whisky School, they were using a combination of peat and hot dry air (I think it was and electric heater/blower). I had asked how malt would have been dried without peat smoke prior to this modern method, and was told that coke (which is refined coal that burns without smoke) was used. It was cool to see that still happening at Highland Park.

Another thing that my guide pointed out was that the steel grates in both of their kilns had recently been replaced, improving efficiency and reducing kilning time. Unfortunately neither of the kilns was in action on the day of my visit; timing such things for one’s tour is mostly a matter of luck.

For some reason (I not sure why) we skipped the mill room, so next we came to the mashing and fermenting space. This part of the tour seemed a little less “up close and personal” than many other tours; we passed through the part of the room that took us by the stainless steel mash tun and stopped for a look in, but didn’t approach any of the 12 wooden washbacks (a mix of Larch and Oregon Pine) that occupied the rest of the room. Moving on, we had a quick look at the second, older kiln on the way out of the building.

Back across the courtyard, we headed for the stillhouse. This is easy to spot with its condensers on the outside, which presumably reside where the worm tubs once did until that change was made in the 1970’s. Photography was semi-restricted here, only allowed from the entrance doorway. Good views of the four copper pots could be had from there, and I was able to get a photo of the spirit safe from this vantage point as well. This brings up another interesting point that my tour guide mentioned; apparently spirit safes are all made from brass because it is a metal that doesn’t create sparks when two pieces contact each other, allowing the unit to be opened and closed without fear of igniting the flowing spirit.

We made our way over to one of the warehouses next. This had a space that was set up for visitors with displays of cooperage and warehouse tools, barrel head stencils and oak planks. Unfortunately there was a wall of Plexiglass separating us from the aging casks (one of the other distilleries I had been to had a similar setup; I think it was Blair Athol). It just feels a little weird to be in a warehouse but not be able to walk among the casks and smell the Angel’s Share. They did have a few empty casks in that space for nosing though; American Oak sherry and European Oak sherry, as well as a recently emptied cask from 1968 (bottles of that fine liquid were available in the shop for £3000).

We talked about the cask policy at Highland Park and I learned that they use sherry seasoned (for 2 years with Oloroso) casks almost exclusively. A minimal number of bourbon barrels and port pipes are used and only for limited edition bottlings. There were a few other interesting points of note as well. The annual loss to evaporation from the aging casks is only about 1% here due to the minimal temperature fluctuations on Orkney, where it is about 2% for most other parts of Scotland. Also, the 15 year old and 21 year old expressions of Highland Park are soon to be discontinued from the core lineup.

I had opted for the slightly more expensive Viking Hero tour, so three tasting samples were waiting for me back at the visitor center. I started with the 12 year old (at 40%), which is a well known classic. Next up was Valkyrie. This is a new expression which was released (28,000 bottles) just 10 days prior to my visit. This is the first of a series, with Valknut (pronounced val-newt) and Valhalla to follow. It was non-age stated, at 45.9% and aged in a mix of Spanish and American Oak sherry casks along with a few bourbon barrels. It was good; fairly bold and a little different without straying too far from the typical house style. It’s also reasonably priced, at £55.

My guide had mentioned that he’s supposed to pour these in order of increasing strength, but he prefers to finish with the 18 year (at 43%), it being his favorite bottling. I deferred to his logic and was glad I did. This whisky is just stunning. It’s been several years since I polished off the last bottle I had purchased of it, but I may have to pick up another in the near future.

I spent a good bit of the afternoon writing before heading out to explore some of the many Neolithic sites that can be found across the Orkney Islands. I was hoping to photograph them in the more interesting light of the late afternoon / early evening (the sun sets quite late this far north in the spring and summer). I didn’t realize that many of these sites have controlled access and close at 5:00 though. But I was able to spend a good bit of time examining at photographing the Standing Stones of Stenness and the Ring of Brodgar. The former is the remains of an ancient henge and ellipse of standing stones which dates to 3100 BC and the later is a henge and stone circle which dates to between 2500 BC and 2000 BC.

After a late dinner I made my way to Helgi’s, a popular Kirkwall pub. I started off with a Highland Park 15 year, since it’s slated to go away soon. This expression is aged primarily in American Oak, where the 12 year and 18 year are aged primarily in European Oak (all sherry seasoned for all three bottlings), so it is quite a bit different. It wasn’t bad, but I really prefer the flavor profile of the 12 and the 18.

The bartender recognized me and asked if I had been at the Skapa distillery that afternoon (which I had, I stopped in for a quick visit of the shop ahead of the next day’s tour). He told me that he was also a tour guide at Skapa and would probably be leading the tour I taking the next day. Knowing that, I asked if the 16 year Skapa that I was sizing up for my second drink was something we would taste on the tour. He confirmed that it was not, and knowing that it hasn’t been bottled for at least a couple of years, I went for it. I’ve had and enjoyed the 16 year in the past, but it was even better than I remembered it to be and a big step up from the Skiren that I tasted on the ferry the day before.