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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Whisky, Werther’s Originals and a Wee Nightcap

Aberfeldy 12 year old Single Malt FemaleMy quest has only been going for a week, and although I’m still not a fan of whisky, I am, officially, a fan of trying to like it.

Mr Malt and I dine out in a posh pub. After eating, we go for a drink in the bar. I suggest that we have a whisky before hitting the bus stop. Mr Malt, not quite in the spirit of things as much as I am, says, “Why don’t we just go home and have a Talisker?” For those of you who don’t know whisky and haven’t been to my house, lately – that’s a type of whisky made on the isle of Skye, a bottle of which currently resides in my kitchen cupboard.

I have to remind Mr Malt that this quest is meant to be interesting enough that people might want to read about it. If every post revolves around me sitting at home drinking a glass of Talisker – albeit in a different pair of pyjamas – then things are going to get a little Groundhog Day rather quickly.

As if to get his own back, Mr Malt then sends me to to the bar to choose a whisky for him as well as myself. I go over to the bar, stare like a sad Labrador at the bottles on the shelf before the staff ask if they can help me with my choice. What a relief. This bar is clearly used to people who like assistance in their whisky drinking; they have kindly categorised all the bottles into the regions of Scotland from which the whisky originates.

I opt for an Auchentoshan (not sure of the year) as it is sitting in the “Lowland” category and I read that the Lowland malts are slightly more mellow than others: perhaps good for an apprentice whisky drinker like me. Unfortunately, there is only a dribble left in the bottle, however, the barmaid is kind enough to let me have this remnant for free along with another selection. I choose a Glenfarclas 10 year old for myself and an Aberfeldy 12 year old for Mr M.

I love the smell of the Auchentoshan. It is sweet and warm scented. It honestly does smell like – and I am not just saying that to try and be like Michael Jackson – Werther’s Originals. The palate is still quite confronting and I taste the alcohol more than anything, but it is probably the whisky I like the most, so far.

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When the dribble is gone, I actually can’t stop smelling the empty glass, so wonderful are the aromas coming from it. It is sweet and woody. After about twenty minutes of sniffing constantly, I decide the smell is a mixture of Creme Brûlée, furniture polish, pipe smoke and the inside of a sauna. You might not think that that would be pleasant smell, but it really is.

The Glenfarclas both smells and tastes to me like vanilla and butterscotch. I am glad to be able to pick out these smells, but I feel as if I am still missing a lot and think that I would like to get some proper guidance on how to approach tasting properly.

Mr M’s Aberfeldy, he tells me, smells of coconut and has a “tropical taste” to it. He makes it sound like a glass of Lilt. I smell it. I kind of agree, and make a mental note to get a can of Lilt on the way home.

We go home and do indeed have that glass of Talisker. Now, to me, this whisky smells like a medicine cabinet. To Mr M, it smells amazing; this is his kind of malt. But, I think his whisky compass might need recalibrated when he tells me it tastes “like Scotland,” ” like one of The Proclaimers” and “like Gavin Hastings’ pants.” For clarification from a normal person, I look it up in the MJ book where it is described it as “very peppery, huge and long”. A bit like a Pepperami. It is, indeed, a strong flavour, and probably too much for my tender palate at present. I think I will temporarily retire from Talisker until I have got used to the more mellow guys. And retire to bed feeling good, so far, about where my quest is going.

The Whisky Doubter’s Quest Begins

Whisky Tasting Single Malt Female

Ok, I’ve got my Tastings Journal, I’ve got my Michael Jackson’s Malt Whisky Companion, I’ve got bags of enthusiasm. I want to begin my whisky quest.

But it’s 2pm on a Wednesday afternoon –  too early to start drinking. And I can’t even use the excuse that it’s raining because, for once, it isn’t.

There is no justification for partaking of whisky right now. And, honestly, I’m not really all that comfortable with stumbling around inebriated in the middle of the day anyway – in my own home or elsewhere.

So I opt to do some couch-based research instead. I open my laptop and read an article about a journalist who tried to learn to like whisky. She seems to have gone from whisky doubter to fan in the space of five drams. My experiment could start to get tasty far quicker than expected. I decide to use the Michael Jackson bible to investigate which whisky might be good for a novice to start with.

Trying to be a good student, I begin to read through the bit at the start of the book which describes the whisky making process. If I am honest, I find it a bit dull. I have never been good at retaining detail about processes if they contain either inanimate objects or people from long ago. I decide to skip that bit for now.

The most interesting part of the book is definitely the individual smell and flavour descriptors attributed to each whisky. I am astounded at the specificity and range. And the fact that anyone got to the tasting part of some of these malts.

Intriguing, yet not exactly mouthwatering, are the whiskies described as smelling of “cowshed”, “plastic bandage” and “an old Hornby train set”. Slightly more enticing is the idea of “plantains being cooked on a barbecue,” “a sliver of unripe plum” and “Parma Violets”. Wait! Parma Violets? I used to eat those when I was 8. They tasted like my Gran’s soap, yet I devoured them all the same. And leafing through the pages of this book it seems that quite a few confections of my childhood are represented: “Lemon Bon Bons, “Wine Gums, “Bubble Gum.” Wow! If whisky can taste like sweets then it could be ok. I start looking for Walls Vienetta and Wham Bars. Disappointingly, there is no mention.

Still, I am enthused. I definitely did not identify any of these exciting smells in any of the wound-wash scented whisky I was exposed to in the past.

I think that maybe, today, to get started, I could do some sniffing instead of drinking. In fact, I have a pack of miniatures in the kitchen that are begging to be tampered with. Yes, yes, sniffing it is.

Caribbean Cask Single Malt Female

I crack open the most exciting sounding bottle. It’s called Caribbean Cask. Now, I know from my “research” that this means the whisky has been stored in casks which previously held rum, so it should smell of rum and rum-related things: palm-fringed beaches, a sailor’s cabin, organised crime, etc.

I breathe in and take a deep, searching sniff.

Nothing. Just whisky.

I breathe in again. This time I’ll take anything: a coconut shy, banana Chewits, a Prada handbag.

Still nothing. It just smells like whisky to me. Pah!

I twist the cap off one of the other bottles – it’s more wooded, apparently – and again, my nose goes on the prowl. Searching, searching. But, nope, it also smells like whisky. Gosh, I thought I had a really good nose – I often smell things nobody else does. I clearly have a long way to go when it comes to whisky tasting.

***

In the evening, Mr Malt and I go out for a drink in our local hostelry, which happens to have a beautiful view of the sea. This is probably the closest I can get, at present, to feeling like I am drinking whisky in the great Scottish outdoors.

Starbank Inn Single Malt Female

I have no idea what to order. All I know is that I am not yet ready to drink any of the Islay whiskies. Those are the ones which are peaty, smoky and smell like the inside of a doctor’s bag. I need something a bit tamer and sweeter right now.

Mr Malt, old pro that he is, orders an Ardbeg 10 year old, and I, randomly, select an Oban 14 year old. I don’t know why. I just thought it might be my kind of thing, perhaps because I have been to Oban and had a nice lunch there. I could be going about this all the wrong way.

We sit down and I sniff my drink. The alcohol stings my eyes. This isn’t for the faint hearted, this whisky lark. But, singed retinas aside, it smells nice. Kind of like caramel and…er…caramel. I just can’t pinpoint any other smells. Damn. I wonder if I should have brought my Michael Jackson book to help me. No, no, I want to try and work this out myself. I can see later if my thought matches the master’s.

I take a sip of the whisky and try to notice how it feels in my mouth. Smooth comes to mind. Yes, it definitely feels smooth. I swallow, and the alcohol which startled my eyes, assaults my throat. I wonder if you get used to this.

In terms of taste, as I carry on sipping, I can’t get much besides caramel. I try to be clever and come up with permutations of caramel, but all I can think of is Toffee Crisp wrapper, Butterscotch Angel Delight and those yellow Quality Streets. And, to be honest, I can’t smell those things. I am just pulling confections out of my repertoire to try and be like Michael Jackson.

Oban 14 yr old Single Malt Female

I conclude, instead, that the whisky is “not bad”. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I like it. I do like experimenting with drinking it, trying to identify tastes, and how it makes me feel Scottish in a whole new way, but, enjoyment? Not quite yet.

I am conscious that I may be drinking whisky the wrong way. I am used to drinking wine which, when tasting, you swirl around in your mouth and mix with your saliva. Whisky, I think you are meant to just knock back, no messing. But I’m not sure. I note to check the facts on that one.

I sniff at Mr Malt’s whisky and compare it to mine. It smells very medicinal, as expected from an Islay malt. In some ways the smell is sort of comforting. Like the sight of Charlie from Casualty after falling off a step-ladder.

Mr Malt tells me he thinks his whisky tastes like a hospital ward. Is this a good thing, I wonder? He chose it, he likes whisky. If whisky aficionados give accolades like, “smells like a hospital ward” what hope is there for us novices?

We go back home and consult the Michael Jackson book for notes on what we’ve been drinking. Mr Malt is excited because in the book it says his whisky tastes of carbolic soap, which is used in hospitals, and he said that his whisky tasted of hospital wards. I appear to have got mine all wrong (I know, I know, it’s not a test). Oban 14 year old, apparently, smells of “pebbles on the beach,”  “a whiff of the sea” and “a touch of fresh peat”. Not to me it doesn’t. The body is “viscous” so I maybe get a point for saying it was smooth. I seem to have been a bit off with the flavour, though. The book describes the palate as “perfumey” with a “faint hint of fruity seaweed” then “lightly waxy” and “becoming smoky”. My palate needs fine tuning. I am crap at this. I clearly need to smell more pebbles and eat more fruity seaweed.