Dungeons and drams.

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Duart Castle on the Island of Mull.

Don’t worry.

I’m not going to make any more references to elves or demons of the underworld. The title of this post simply refers to my travels and where I’ve wound up these past couple of weeks. That is, within castle walls– and immersed in the dank, dark confines of surviving dungeons– and of course, in front of more than a couple drams of single malt.

It’s important to me that this blog doesn’t turn into “Jared’s summer vacation” full of funny pictures, videos (O.K. those are fun, though…), and re-caps of my every move and visit. “Wine. Food. The World.” I’m trying to stick to the topics of food and beverage as closely as I can, and as for “The World”, well that just comes with the territory. If I ramble on about a particular place, person I met there, or feelings encountered, know that I’m just trying to convey some relevance and interest in the road that carries me to all this yummy food and wine/whisky/beer.

The last time I reported in to you all, I was in the city of Edinburgh, where incredible castles, and hopefully, incredible food and beverages brought me there. While that amazing castle was a given (it’s like a little city unto itself…), I wanted to really explore the other aspects. And since I was and still am on a mission to become a single-malt aficionado, I mad it a point to visit The Scottish Whisky Experience.

This attraction is like the Disney Land of Scottish Whisky, complete with movies, presentation, guided tastings, and of all things, (you’ll love this) an automated ride in a whisky barrel explaining the entire process of making whisky. I felt like a little kid– ready to get smashed on whisky! They even had appropriate smells, temperatures, and sounds at various intervals of the ride. My favorite was the fermentation room, where dozens of dimly lit “yeast cells” that looked like tapioca beads became increasingly brighter and louder as the fermentation of the wort really kicks in. I turned to the man who was sitting next to me and exclaimed “Isn’t this great!?” He looked bored.

IMG_1923After the ten minute ride was over, the “experience” led us into a seminar type of room where about twenty of us all watched a video, got a brief lecture on single-malt whisky and its origins, and finally, finally got the chance to smell and taste some different whiskies.

We were given the option of picking a whisky from one of the four main whisky regions- lowland, highland, Speyside, and Islay. I mentioned the whiskies from Islay last time (remember Mr. Balrog?), and how in-friggin’-tense these guys are. Well they were pouring one of the classics, maybe Islay’s most intense example, a 10 year Laphroaig.

Laphroaig (La-FROYg) really lays on the peat smoke when drying the germinated barley, and they also have– along with most of the Islay malts– a sort of medicinal, seaweed character to them. Sounds lovely, doesn’t it? I was all in. Gimme that smoke and salt! There’s something appealing though, about that combination; smoke and salt make for great jerky, smoked salmon, roasts, and so on, but whisky? You betcha…

The experience ended with all of us hanging out in a room that apparently holds the world’s largest Scotch whisky collection. A Brazilian man, Claive Vidiz, has collected over 3,000 bottles, many of which are rare and very old, and  are now displayed in this high-security room. The room– and all the bottles of booze therein– is amazing. You can easily lose yourself in there, gazing at the many producers, some not around any more, and all the past bottlings. It’s like a beautiful, glow-in-the-dark chronology of whisky.

The next day, I took a tour into some of the southern highlands, stopping at Stirling Castle and ending up at Glengoyne distillery. We were given the “Glengoyne tour”, where we all start with a  small dram of 1o year single malt, and then are given “an informative and entertaining guided distillery tour.” Well, if hardy-har references to drunken cows and a good smattering of cutesy one-liners qualifies for entertaining, then that it was. Not so much on the informative side, I’m afraid to say. I kept trying to get our tour guide to elaborate on the very basic factoids she was reciting. Hey, I’m here to learn right? Her answers got shorter and shorter, the final one tailed with an irritated “you can get more in-depth answers in one of the books sold in our gift shop.”

Ouch…

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Maybe I’ll get better answers here.

I found out later that the distillery offers six different types of tours, ranging from the one I was on to a “Masterclass” for the wee fee of 100 pounds. I guess the more you spend on your tour, the better the whisky you get to taste and, to my point here, the more detailed and in-depth information you get. Personally, I think that sucks. Badly. Don’t make the people who pay for your production spend a lot to learn more than the very basics. It’s a shame, because the distillery has a long and proud history, and I’m sure many of their malts are very good.

*    *    *

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Fast-forward on to the Isle of Mull, where I would visit– you guessed it– more castles and distilleries. It’s a great island, full of pristine beaches, a local brewing company, chocolate shop, various restaurants, butchers, and so on. I was lucky and found a gem of a B&B, The Pennygate Lodge, that had all the things a traveler wants and needs: comfort, convenience (right down the road from the ferry), reasonable rates, privacy, and nourishment. The owners, Brian and Arlene, were fantastic hosts, and Brian’s cooking (he’s worked in kitchens in London and Paris) was, as Arlene would say, très, très bien

The island also has one distillery, Tobermory Distillery. They’ve been around since the late 18th century, and are now considered a highland malt. Even though it’s not in the highlands. Not really. It should be an island malt, but only the whiskies produced on Islay qualify as these now– don’t ask.IMG_2070

The distillery was not in production at the time, which meant I couldn’t feel the heat and smell what was cookin’, so to speak. I already felt and smelt that at Glengoyne, though, and this meant I could take photos inside the distillery (the explosive environment within a distillery normally prevents this).

One of the coolest pieces of equipment used in the distillation process is the copper whisky still. They’re like gigantic, copper Hersheys Kisses that refuse to terminate at the tip, but keep on stretching out into a smaller, elongated pipeway. This is where the magic of evaporation creates the actual spirit.

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The tour was, unfortunately, a bit more of the same, and at this point I was seriously considering the book suggestion. Why, for example, is Oregon pine used (Ahhhh, yet another connection…) for “washbacks”, the containers where fermentation takes place. Why not French? Or Scottish for that matter. And what’s with this peat stuff anyway? And why use old sherry casks to age the whisky in? So many questions…

I actually got those questions answered (mostly) in the gift shop there, as one of the guys working there indulged me as I sipped my 10 year Tobermory malt. I found it interesting that this whisky gets its subtle peatiness not from peat fires used to dry the sprouted barley, but rather from the island’s water source. Which brought me to the notion of terroir in whisky.

It seems that the key ingredient in single malt is not really the barley, but rather the water source. The water will have mineral elements inherit in the land near the distillery, may even carry the saltiness of seawater on land via rain and wind and, ultimately, reflect this natural recipe as water again via evaporation in the stills. It seems mystically appropriate, almost logical then, using the term agua vitae or “water of life”to describe whisky.

I’ve got much, much more to learn about single malt whisky, and I’m excited to keep visiting distilleries and see what unique qualities they bring to their product. One of the most impressive aspects of this whisky adventure in Scotland is how strong the connection is between the culture(s) and the drink; this relationship is rooted in deep history and has worked throughout time as a bond among the Scots. Good conversation– and an even better sense of humor– seems to be the norm among the locals, and a fine single malt is always a good idea to facilitate both of these. I think back now to that Brazilian man’s enormous collection of whisky and it begs the question: how many lost conversations and laughs are in all those sealed bottles?

Until we converse and laugh again,

Jared


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And soon, so will I…

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~ by Jared on June 3, 2009.

2 Responses to “Dungeons and drams.”

  1. Seems like a Big Boy Chucky Cheese to me. I actually wept openly in my palatial office…twice. Besides Trish, there is only one thing I would love more than vino and that is riding in a whiskey barrel knowing of the malty-golden goodness waiting at the end of the ride. God Bless You My Son. Go forth and prosper.

    • Swaf-daddy,

      The only thing better than riding in a whisky barrel is… drinking whisky in a whisky barrel, I suppose.

      Dry your tears and have a nip for me.

      Slainte,

      The whisky wizard.

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