The Scotch Whisky Experience: £50 on Tombola Tickets Well Spent

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The world’s largest whisky collection

About a year ago, I spent around £50 on tombola tickets trying to win a free pass for The Scotch Whisky Experience in Edinburgh. I won in the end. Although, obviously, I didn’t really. A couple of months ago, I used the pass. And since Mr. Malt was on a shopping spree at Homebase, my friend Susie and I decided to go together.

I have to say I was expecting just another whisky tour much like you get on a visit to a distillery. Walk around, gaze at some barrels, fondle some barley and peer into some vats. But this was a little different.

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Whisky Waltzer- hold onto your bonnets

For starters, the tour began with us being allowed to jump the queue for tickets because we had a complimentary pass. High on our VIP-esque buzz, we lined up ready to step into the barrel ride – a cross between the waltzers and the ghost train. You sit in a shiny, painted whisky barrel with its top and side cut out. Then you put your seatbelt on and zip off at half a mile an hour into a tunnel. In the tunnel, a digital ghost (digi-ghost) tells you all about whisky production. It’s really quite impressive and the only thing I felt would have enhanced the experience would have been a cup holder with a dram of whisky in. Failing that, some whisky flavoured travel sweets. Or an old, kilted man singing Scottish folk songs.

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Scary, yet informative, digi-ghost

After our dizzying ride, we put our sick bags aside and disembarked from the whisky waltzer, whereupon we were led into the next room for a presentation.

The presentation room was a kind of cross between a kibbutz dining hall and a school classroom. Everyone sat at a u-shaped, communal table and faced a massive projection screen, eagerly awaiting stimulation.

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Scratch ‘n’ Sniff

Before the TV show and alcohol we were each given a colourful scratch and sniff card – with one scented segment for each of the four whisky regions in Scotland. Speyside smelt of banana sweets, Islay of smoky, peaty goodness, Highland was sweet and caramelly and Lowland…um.. Lowland smelt of delicious cardboard. What can I say? My card is now several months old, the Lowland bit has lost its scent and I didn’t write anything down at the time. This card was to help inform us in our choice of dram. I loved the novelty of the scratch and sniff idea, although I wasn’t convinced that any of the segments really did whisky justice at all.

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Whisky

After the presentation – delivered by a lovely and very well informed lady called Rachel – we got to choose which whisky we wanted to taste. I chose Speyside and was rewarded with a Glenfarclas 10 year old. Susie, a non-whisky drinker- was brave and went straight for the Islay whisky- Ardbeg. She’s single, boys.

As we sampled our dram we wandered through the world’s largest whisky collection. Over 8000 bottles, all collected by one man, and sold to Diageo for an undisclosed sum, which would no doubt make your eyes water. There was even a Charles and Diana commemorative bell, which again made my eyes wet as young Princess Charlotte had arrived in the world that very morning.

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Sob ‘n’ Sniff

After our basic package of one whisky had expired, Susie and I upgraded to the gold experience: a platter of four drams from each of the four whisky regions. You can have this all to yourself, but we decided to share – partly because Susie is new to whisky, but mainly because we wanted to make room for cocktails afterwards.

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Tasting Notes. Tasty.

Drinking with a whisky novice, I suddenly subsumed the role of tasting guide and presented the whiskies to Susie as if I knew what I was talking about. “Now the first whisky we are going to try is a Glenkinchie,” I burbled. “Glenkinchie is a distillery in the Lowland region of Scotland… “ And so on, through Tomatin (Highland) Aberlour (Speyside) and Bruichladdich (Islay). We both agreed on the Bruichladdich as our favourite, Susie clearly getting the hang of the big peaty lads very, very quickly.

Susie’s face at one of the other whiskies – which shall remain nameless- was that of utter disgust. And looking around the room, there were some other women making the same disgusted face as they took a sip of the dram in front of them. It made me realise how far I have come in developing a palate for whisky. And at £50 for the tickets, just how far I will go to get my hands on some.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My Armchair Whisky Pleasure Cruise – Part One.

IMG_2704I am currently six months into my year-long quest to learn to like whisky and it’s going pretty well. In fact, I think I am ready to graduate to a new level.

The big peaty island whiskies – those from Islay, Jura, Skye –  were always going to be the hardest to reach. You know, the ones which to non-whisky lovers taste as pleasant as a glass of Dettol and make them think they will never develop a taste for the drink. But the ones that to some whisky worshippers are the only type of whisky that really matters.

Well, I’ve deliberately left these whiskies until later in the game. I knew that, as a virgin of the malt, I wasn’t ready for them. The time to hang out with the wild island lads would be when I was mingling well with their milder mainland cousins.

So I went off tried to do just that: I started socialising with some mainland whiskies. I visited distilleries, I found bottles in overseas supermarkets, I ordered from Tesco online based on delicious sounding descriptions. And, after six months, I can now count the following among my whisky collection. IMG_2741

Edradour 10 year old

Cardhu 12 year old

Auchentoshan American Oak

Yes, we live together and it’s going well. And what these whiskies all have in common is that they were cited as smelling and tasting of things I already liked.

Edradour, they said, tasted of sherry and vanilla. Cardhu was bursting with flavours of smoke, apple peels and bruised pears. And Auchentoshan American Oak beckoned me with promises of coconut; zesty fruit; vanilla cream; white peach and sugared grapefruit. How could I resist?

But I am now ready to take things up a notch; move out of the comfort zone again. And I was thinking that a nice way to do this might be to visit some island distilleries. You know, catch a ferry and have a dram or two in each port: seagulls cawing in my ear, salty wind in my hair, my face scratchy pink from the cold.

The only thing is, because it’s the middle of winter, ferry crossings can be pretty precarious. And I’m not feeling so wealthy after Christmas. So, I’ve decided, instead, to do an armchair cruise: a journey that will only necessitate leaving the house to buy a few whisky miniatures. But once back home, with dram in hand, if I open all the windows and let the Scottish weather in it will feel like I’m on a remote, wind-blown island anyway.

The First Port

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASo, the first port on my living room island cruise is Tobermory, on Mull, and the whisky is a Tobermory 10 year old. This is a lightly peated whisky – a good starting point, I think. It’s not so much cheating as warming up.

So, with the fire flickering and Des O’Connor on the turntable*, I pour myself a glass, and one for Mr. Malt, too.

“How would you describe the colour?” I ask him. He decides that it’s golden. I agree, then sniff away and try to identify what’s on the nose. Together we come up with it’s lemony, citrusy fresh and has a whiff of sea air. Or maybe it’s more him that comes up with it, but I’m providing the whisky so he can’t complain.

I have a wee peek at Michael Jackson’s Whisky Companion to see what the master thought. The nose is described as “fresh and nutty” with “citrus fruit and brittle toffee.” “A whiff of peat” is also noted.

We move onto the drinking. Mr. M says that he thinks the palate is full bodied, peppery and peaty. I think it’s soft and lovely and tastes of toffee clouds (I figure I’m allowed at least one made up thing in my tasting notes) lemon, nectarines and peach juice.  And as I sniff again, I wonder if there isn’t perhaps a hint of Murray Mints on the nose. photo-42

MJ’s companion describes the palate as “quite dry with delicate peat, malt and nuts.” So, we don’t seem to have been too far off the mark.

The after taste of this whisky lingers quite a while. It reminds me of that toothpaste advert where it keeps on working long after you’ve finished brushing your teeth. It tastes nicer than toothpaste though.

My memory is now jogged to something I read about whisky toothpaste. A quick Google search confirms my recollections  You can even make your own. But this is probably a far tastier option.

I am conscious that the whisky still burns when I swallow. I wonder if this element never quite goes away but is what whisky lovers actually enjoy and see as an integral part of the experience. The warming after-glow certainly is. I try to be clever and swill the whisky round in my mouth to see what other flavours I can get but all that happens is that it catches in my throat and burns the inside of my ears. A novel experience at least.

So, in all, my appraisal of Tobermory is that it’s like clambering through a bog, eating Murray Mints and chomping on a peach. And the after-party in the mouth is a rather lively affair. The sort of whisky you could buy a beginner, I think. A category I still fall into, so maybe I will purchase a bottle for myself when I’m back on the mainland.

* actual music may have varied.

Whisky, Camping and (a Honda) Jazz

IMG_2497I’ve been drinking whisky for a few weeks now. Well, sipping it and moaning that it tastes like liquidised bandage, but, anyway… For the fully authentic whisky drinking experience, I decide that I need to immerse myself more in the world of the single malt. I need to get some wind in my face, I need to get some drizzle in my hair, I need to get some petrol fumes up my nose. Yes, it’s time to get out on the A9 and go visit a distillery.

I remember being bored by distillery tours from an early age. On a family holiday, we took my grandmother to the Famous Grouse Experience at Crieff. She didn’t like whisky but, for some reason, she wanted to visit the distillery. Maybe she was overcome by guilt at not doing enough touristy things in her own country. Or maybe she liked walking around looking at big metal pots. Either way, the whisky obligation seems to run in the family.

IMG_2476I’ve also been to a couple of distilleries on Islay. So memorable were they that I can’t remember both their names. One was Ardbeg and the other may possibly have been Bowmore. I’ve definitely done some laps in the pool next door to the Bowmore distillery, though. A lovely place.

And now may also be a good time to admit  that I even have a wee shot glass purloined from Ardbeg distillery, circa 1998. What can I say?  I was 23 years old and utterly hilarious.

Quite.

Anyway, today’s plan isn’t to head as far afield as Islay. One day, when I’m a grown up whisky drinker, I will go back and apologise. But today we are going to travel just a couple of hours up the road to Perthshire. And we are also going to go camping. This way I can realise my romantic drinking-whisky-in-the-great- Scottish-outdoors fantasy. As well as my peeing on a guy rope at 3am fantasy.

IMG_2469So Mr M and I pack the tent, a week’s worth of clothes each, and head off on our two night trip to Pitlochry.

Now, I’m not actually a huge fan of camping. Probably because my parents used to take me and my brother on quite a few camping trips when we were younger, so my instinct was to rebel against that and develop a preference for five star hotels with pools. But I want a cheap change of scene for a few days. And, as with the whisky, I like to give things I’m not fond of a chance to work their magic on me. Sushi succeeded, as did dogs (I like them, I don’t eat them) so surely camping can come out a winner too.

Loch Tummel www.singlemaltfemale.co.ukThis camping trip turns out to definitely not be cheap when petrol, equipment that we don’t already own and food are factored in. But the campsite has a stunning setting, on the banks of Loch Tummel. It was Queen Victoria’s favourite place in Scotland (the Loch, not the campsite) and you can see why. I can clearly envision myself having a wee dram by the loch side. In fact, it’s so beautiful that I forget I could have had a night at The Balmoral for roughly the same budget.

There are quite a few distilleries in the area, but having done a wee bit of research, we decide to visit Edradour – Scotland’s smallest distillery, which is tucked away in the hills behind Pitlochry.

En route to Edradour we drive past a sign signalling The Highland Chocolatier. Now, I don’t know much about this area, but I know that there are hand-crafted artisan chocolates in that building. In that building which is over 100 miles from my house in Edinburgh, but which we are driving by right now. So, I get quite excited and exclaim, “Ooh, The Highland Chocolatier”. But, Mr M keeps on driving, clearly missing my far too subtle hint to stop. Oh well, so sad, but I focus on the upcoming whisky sampling instead.

IMG_2501When we pull up at Edradour distillery, I am surprised at how pretty and polished it looks. I have clearly been quite naive. Because it is Scotland’s smallest distillery, I expected it to be in some sort of ramshackle old barn with a bearded old man in dungarees running the show, one handed (perhaps even literally). But, of course, the smallness is Edradour’s USP and, as such, it seems the distillery works hard to stay pretty and attract a healthy amount of attention. Things are kept quiet but quaint.

We do the distillery tour where the smallness factor is driven home quite a few times. In a good way, though. There is a nice feel about the place, and the guide, Leon, is very enthusaistic and informed. I also like the fact that the tour starts with two drams of whisky. None of this making you look at 12 different mashing tuns before you get a whiff of a drink.

IMG_2460 In the tasting salon, or whatever it is called, Leon asks us to work out what kind of casks we think the whiskies were stored in. I have a guess at sherry for one of them. Turns out it’s Barolo, a type of Italian wine. Hmmm, close-ish. The other whisky is the Edradour 10 year old which is aged in rum casks. Leon also asks us to try and identify other smells in the whiskies. I’m not too good at this yet, but he says whatever we think it smells of is fine – there are no right or wrong answers. Grrr, Leon. I want to be told what it might smell of, then I can search for those scents. I need something to go on.

IMG_2456I sniff into each of the glasses, thinking that maybe this time I will be overcome by the intoxicating scents that whisky lovers smell. But I don’t get much apart from vanilla, and, truthfully, that’s because Leon chucked that word out there. And, like a life preserver, I’m clinging onto it.

When it comes to the drinking, the two whiskies taste OK to me, but they’re not moreish. It’s not like having a big mouthful of sunny Chardonnay streaming onto my taste buds and imbuing them with apricots and peaches and oaky wonderment. I just can’t prise apart any flavours from the alcohol to turn whisky into amber prose. The burn is still the main sensation.

IMG_2495However, I find the whole aesthetic of whisky fascinating. I think the bottles, each with their own distinctly crafted labels, are beautiful, and the warm spectrum of colours of whisky – amber, barley, caramel, demerara –  is mesmerising.  The reams of words which can bring whisky to life on the page have my fingers all a flutter at the anticipation of writing it all down. This is why I want to like it. Why I want to love it. Whisky seems like it has so much to give.

I won’t go into the details of the tour. Partly because I can’t remember much and partly because I’m not sure it is interesting to read. Instead, allow me to fast forward to the shop at the end of the tour where, considering the size of the distillery, there is still a significant amount of whisky to choose from. We buy a bottle of Edradour 10 year old single malt, and I can’t wait to be really Scottish and drink it by the loch later. I’m chuffed that we get to keep the tasting glasses from the tour, too. I didn’t really fancy drinking whisky from my blue plastic soup beaker.

Whisky Glass Loch Tummel www.singlemaltfemale.co.uk Back at the campsite, once we have reinforced the tent to prevent it from blowing into the loch, Mr M gets to work on cooking dinner on our £2.99 Tesco BBQ and I decide to open the whisky for a pre-prandial aperitif. I also open my whisky tastings journal to make some notes. I don’t get much on the nose or palate apart from the old faithful, vanilla, but I feel there is a buttery finish to the whisky. The Michael Jackson book (a camping essential) doesn’t really match my thoughts: the nose is “floral with vanilla, caramel and faintly earthy notes,” the palate “rich, sweet and fruity” and the finish “lengthy and sweet”. I am either clueless or a total maverick.

IMG_2394 I suspect that the whisky doesn’t really go with burned Quorn sausages, so I have no more until after dinner when, as dusk is approaching, Mr M and I take the bottle and sit up on the hillside overlooking the loch. It is slightly calmer now that the wind has dropped, and the setting sun gives a whisky coloured glow to the landscape. Ok, there’s no sun, but if there were that is what I think it would look like. It is beautiful though, and I think that this is where whisky should be drunk. I may not learn to like it by just continually tasting it, but maybe I could learn to like it by association with places like this. Memories of the great Scottish outdoors will be evoked every time I knock back a dram in a musty pub somewhere. I will just try to block out the part of the soundtrack which includes other people’s children being called in for bed, or asking for “more toilet paper, Mummy”. I’m sure the alcohol aspect of the whisky will help with that.

 

Single Malt Female travelled to Pitlochry courtesy of her parents’ Honda Jazz and camped at Ardgualich Farm. Pitches start from £15 per night. The Honda Jazz starts from £11,695.