Scotland Summer 2023 (July-August)
During this summer, I had family vacations in Scotland.
Our trip started from Aberdeen with the first stop at Balmoral Castle. The Castle was nice, but the visit was very limited to one hall. We pushed slightly further to Royal Lochnagar to the visit the shop, where I could taste the nice Distillery Exclusive (NAS, £95) and the hand-filled from a sherry butt. Two very nice expression from a rather under distillery. Royal Lochnagar is not only a training center for distillery manager, but also education centre for Diageo and an important storage centre for Casks of Distinction.
|The Royal Lochnagar distillery, at proximity of the Balmoral castle|
On our way to the Hotel, we drove past Edradour which is closed for work. You cannot even access the site.
On the next day, I made a small tour at the Blair Athol distillery, which was more attractive than I remember. In one of the building, they have a bar made with an old mash tun. In the shop, the distillery exclusive was matured in different type of casks, including wine casks. The hand-filled was a 11 YO from an ex-red wine barrique.
|The Dalwhinnie Distillery|
From Pitlochry, our journey lead us to the Isle of Skye, with a stop at the Dalwhinnie Distillery and Eilean Donean Castle, before reaching the Island. At the distillery, they had a refill bourbon distillery exclusive, as well as a Hand-filled. The staff was very friendly and knowledgeable. Dalwhinnie is a whisky that I enjoy pretty much, but when I saw “rejunevated” on the cask for the hand-filled, my interest when down. Talking a local lady at the shop, I learned that the label on the cask was wrong. The current batch was from a sherry cask, which is pretty rare for Dalwhinnie. The first Dalwhinnie sherry from the Special Releases were very good whisky. Discussing about the Batch number from the Diageo Hand-filled, she explained me then, that the Hand-Filled are in fact single casks whiskies. However, due to the UK regulations, these whiskies cannot be called single casks, as the cask from which you draw the whisky to fill your own bottle is a different vessel from the cask the whisky is coming from. In that case, they could not fit a sherry butt on top of the installation. Thus, they are filling whisky from a single sherry butt into that vessel and refilling it, and repeating that operation until the butt is empty.
|The Talisker distillery on the Isle of Skye|
My last trip to Skye was almost 20 years ago and since then, the number of tourist has exploded. For example, to climb to the Old Man of Storr, the parking had a capacity of 5-6 cars, while now it can probably accommodate close to 100 hundred. The path was modified and made more accessible, with steps made of stones, a clear path and didactic signs. In terms of whisky experience, the tours of the Talisker Distillery were fully booked and I could only register for the new Talisker at the Made by the Sea Experience. The new Talisker visitor centre is very nice looking and modern, with a large shop and a well-supplied bar.
The tour was £15 for a 30-min presentation, including the tasting of 3 Talisker, the 10 YO, The Skye and the new Parley matured partially in ex-cognac casks. Children are allowed at the price of £7.50, but they received only a half filled glass of tap of water with nothing else. The video is rather promotional, highlighting the origin of the whisky. Considering the offer and the duration, this was the worst value tour we experienced during our trip. Offering some oak crackers and a juice to the children would positively improve that impression.
I tasted there the 27 YO Talisker Distillery Exclusive, which left me with a very good impression, mellow, complex, slightly peaty and maritime.
|The Torabhaig distillery on the South shore of Skye|
On the next day, I visited the Torabhaig distillery owned by Mossburn. Located on the South side of the Isle, the distillery is located close to the ruins of an old castle and built in an old listed farm. Thus, the distillery had to adapt to the buildings, making the distillery rather compact. Never the less, it is a very nice looking distillery with a nice view on the sea.
The tour was nice and ended up with the tasting of 2 expressions from the distillery. The price was fair, with £12 per adult and free for children over 13 years, but was rather expedited. It was 45 min long and you do not have much time to savour your drams, before you are asked to leave the tasting room. The café offers some nice light lunches.
|The Lighthouse distillery at Glenomorangie.|
After a couple of days on Skye, we drove North towards Orkney, with a small detour via the Loch Ness. We made a short stop to Balblair which was unfortunately closed on that Sunday. At Glenmorangie, I could see the new Lighthouse distillery. The distillery exclusive was a single cask with no age statement going for £495. Some former distillery exclusives were also for sale in a cabinet, including a 14 YO single cask going for the same price.
Further North, we stopped at the Clynelish distillery for a snack, unfortunately, the bar was closed due to short of staff. At the shop, I could taste a very nice and smooth Hand-filled batch 6, as well as the Glenkinchie 16 YO 4 Corners of Scotland, a well matured, mellow and rather complex expression. Very nice.
|The Scapa distillery from the courtyard|
On Orkney, as Highland Park tours were for 18 YO or older and needed to booked well ahead, we went instead to the Scapa distillery. Since my first visit there more than 10 years ago, they had a nice small vistitor centre, with many Scapa single casks aged between 8 and 23 years of age, as well as two single casks aged over 40 years, including a 42 YO from which only 12 bottles could be filled. The tour was very nice, with very knowledgeable and passionate guide ending with the tasting of the 2 core Scapa expression (Skiren and Glensa) as well as the 8 YO Distillery Reserve Collection, accompanied by some locally made biscuits. A very nice experience.
On Orkney, we also visited the Barony watermill, the last surviving watermill on Orkney. A very interesting fact is that they are producing bere meal, made from bere barley that they harvest from their own field. They are also the one producing bere barley for the Scapa distillery. Scapa started distilling Bere malt in 2020 and they will continue doing this for 10 years at least.
|The old Brora distillery|
After a few days of sightseeing, we moved back to Brora, where I met with Andy Flatt, the brand ambassador from Brora for taking photographs for the future new edition of the Brora distillery. Not only could I take additional photographs, but also to start several distilling processes thanks to the operator Graeme. I could also discuss with the distillery manager (who replaced Stuart last years) about technical details. Briefly, since October 2022, the distillery is now working 24/7 seven days a weeks. Increasing from 5 to 7 days a week had very positive effects on the spirits, as more consistency can be obtained. They have now succeeded in creating the fruity and waxy character of Brora and trying to better understand which are the key parameters affecting the spirit, such as the flow of water in the worm tubs. They are distilling using unpeated malt to establish the process before using heavily peated malt. Recreating the original character of the Brora distilled in the 1970s is a tough challenge and a long road, but on the good track. Thanks Andy for the visit and your patience!
On the way to Brora, we made a quick stop at Wick and made a short visit to the Old Pulteney distillery shop and reception, which has not changed much.
After Brora, we drove down to Cardhu and could visit the new refurbished visitor centre. The change is dramatic, as it used to be a small shop, but now they converted the old kiln into a large and luxury visitor centre, with a large shop, a bar, tasting room and information centre.
|The new Cairn distillery built by Gordon & MacPhail|
On the next and final day in Scotland, I drove to Granton on Spey to visit the new Gordon & MacPhail distillery to visit their new distillery, The Cairn. The distillery is rather impressive and very modern. Unless I am mistaken, the costs of the distillery was £22m. It started producing last year and was built for efficiency, with everything built on one single level. The production capacity production is approximately 1m LPA, and there are now plans to increase the capacity by adding more washbacks. The distillery tour was very nice and ended with a tasting of two distillery exclusive blends, the 12 YO and 18 YO CRN 57. These blended malts includes malts from Tormore, Miltonduff and Mortlach, with the 18 YO containing a higher proportion of sherry than the 12 YO. The Cairn intends to produced only unpeated single malts, with the first release to be a 12 YO version.
Finally, moving closer to Aberdeen airport, the final stop was at Glengarioch distillery. The distillery has not changed much, but this might change in the future, as there are plans ongoing for rebranding.
Visiting Scotland in summer was nice, as it was rather fresh (14-18°C), but requires good planning, especially if you want to travel the West coast or travel to the Islands. As this period of the year is rather busy, do not forget to buy your tickets for museums or distilleries in advance. I was told that for Maes Howe on Orkney, you might need to book as much as 1 year in advance, especially for the days when the cruising ships are there.
Distillery tours were nice, and pricing varying quite a lot between distilleries, ranging from £12 to £30. As for whiskies, the price is not indicative of the quality of the experience, even within the same group. For instance, we payed £15 for the 30 min Talisker experience with 3 drams and no distillery tour, but £18 at Clynelish for an almost 2h experience, including the visit of the distillery, tasting of 3 whiskies and 1 cocktail.
As a note, as of 1st of August, there was an increase in duty and in some distillery shops, the prices of the bottles increased as much as 15%. Due to the Brexit and changes in regulations, no shops were offering any tax refund options.
Patrick B., 12 Aug 2023.