At this time of year I assumed that accommodation wouldn’t be a problem, and sure enough found no problem in booking a room at Cruachan GH, where I’d stayed on my trips to Edinburgh in 2012. So, once booked in and bags dropped off, first stop Cadenhead's to ascertain that tickets for the tasting were still available – I was also treated to a few of Cadenhead’s current single cask releases – bourbon cask Benrinnes, the most peaty Bowmore I’ve ever tasted (I thought it was an Ardbeg!) and a bourbon cask Pulteney. Difficult choice, but the latter just got my vote and a place in the bag for home, together with a 20yo Port Dundas Single Grain. Mark (the Jolly Toper himself) also mentioned that he was having a whisky party in East Calder the following evening and invited me along.
Quick chat outside RMW, which was closed for a refit until the following day. So time for some photography – I’d decided I was going to try to get some (external) shots of some grain distilleries (past and present) for the website. A trip to Starlaw was therefore embarked upon, but by the time I arrived at Livingston North, the weather was not conducive for cycling – and having decided to abandon the expedition, I got thoroughly soaked and cold just getting around to the other platform for train back to Haymarket!
Fortunately, Edinburgh was warmer and drier, so straight down to the SMWS Vaults in Leith – some excellent Society bottles – North British Grain (G1.8) and two drams of bourbon cask Dailuaine (41.53/41.55) stood out, but were not available by the bottle, so a bottle of Port Dundas (G4.2) seemed a good substitute. Also had an excellent Bourbon cask Benrinnes (36.60), but a little pricey unless bought as a pair with a sherried Ardmore (66.35), so I’ll try that on my next visit.
Food clearly required before Campbeltown tasting – Wetherspoon’s (The Standing Order) for a pint of Arran and Haggis, Neaps & Tatties (it was Burns Night after all) for less than a fiver!!
The tasting was towards the bottom of the Royal Mile at a pub, appropriately enough called the Kilderkin (the appropriateness will become clear later on). A few familiar faces from previous whisky events. The whisky line-up was all new to me – Springbank 21yo; Cadenhead’s Hazelburn 11yo bourbon cask; Glen Scotia’s new 10yo; cask sample of Springbank 12yo Cask Strength Batch 5; Longrow Rundlets & Kilderkins (11yo). All excellent whiskies, though the 21yo Springbok was rather disappointing especially with a £180 price tag! For me the best whiskies were the Hazelburn and Glen Scotia, though I can’t remember which I voted for. I bought a bottle of the Hazelburn the following day, as the GS is a general release that I can buy elsewhere – it’s part of a new range released by the distillery, in what has generally been seen as poor packaging, but the whisky inside is an excellent example of what the distillery can produce (unlike previous distillery bottlings) and has been bottled unchillfiltered at 46%.
I’m not going to attempt tasting notes – I’m rubbish at them. However, the Cask Strength Springbank, had a notable sulphery, rubbery finish, which did not endear itself to me, and the Longrow was a little too peaty for my taste that evening. Interestingly the Springbank Cask Strength 4th batch described by Alistair (a Springbank Cask Strength fanatic) as even more sulphery, I found much more pleasant than the 5th batch. Having said that both the Longrow and Springbank cask strength grew on me the more I tasted them, and will appeal to those who like those styles of whisky.
The Kilderkin has a good range of whiskies behind the bar, and the evening was finished off sampling (repeatedly) a Cadenhead's Littlemill bottling which sadly the shop had run out of, accompanied by pints of Latitude Cask Pilsner (I blame the latter for my headache the following morning, as I don’t get hangovers from whisky). All too soon it was 1am throwing out time.
The landlord of the Cruachan GH also runs the Adam Drysdale GH across the road, and breakfast was served there on Saturday – I guess it makes sense off-season to have breakfast in one place, but it made for a new experience. An excellent breakfast despite the lack of the advertised Haggis. Thence to Cadenhead's for the Hazelburn and RMW to see their new look (and smell of paint). Room for more whisky so nothing to complain about – though the staff will clearly have to do some climbing to get to the more expensive ones!
Was able to give some information to them about the South African Bain’s Grain Whisky that they were trying to find a place for – and later took a bottle off their hands.
The weather was much better on Saturday, so an expedition to Alloa to the sites of its former three grain distilleries (Cambus, Carsebridge and North of Scotland aka Strathmore) went ahead. The trip involved a change of train at Stirling – a change which would have been much easier at the previous stop Larbert (same platform rather than carrying the bike over the footbridge), but I realised this too late.
Alloa was cold and snowy underfoot – most of the snow had already melted in Edinburgh. First target was what I had believed to be little more than a levelled site. The distillery itself has indeed been demolished but many other buildings remain on the site and integral to whisky production – Diageo have a large cooperage and many warehouses on the site, which is bisected by a public road – so plenty of “remains” to photograph. There’s also Carsebridge House, formerly the distillery manager’s house (I think).
Being already halfway to Clackmannan, I decided to take a detour to the town that gives its name to Scotland smallest council area in terms of population. Clackmannan is now much smaller than its neighbour Alloa, and it was not thought necessary to extend the re-opened passenger railway as far as this old town. It gets its strange name from the Stone of Manau or Mannon an ancient deity. The stone itself isn’t that impressive, particular as it is now displayed on a much larger hunk of rock.
Returning to Alloa on an icy cycle path – actually National Cycle Route 76 – I found that this lead straight to Cambus a small village dominated by its former distillery. There are some offices and warehouses on the site still owned by Diageo. Route 76 continues past the back of the former distillery and past an historic Iron Bridge now dwarfed by the modern bridge over the River Devon linking Cambus to the warehouses that would appear to be all that’s left of the misleadingly named North of Scotland Distillery – I say all that’s left – it’s quite a massive warehousing complex.
Distillery site photography almost complete, but I thought I might as well now continue back to Stirling by bike as I was already nearly halfway there and had worked out I could get an earlier train back to Edinburgh…
Having got out to the main road the cycle path turned out to be the old road, with a good surface remaining and it can’t have been abandoned too many years ago as the white line down the middle is still prominent. One bit hasn’t survived – the bridge over the River Devon where the cycle path detours over an even older (listed) bridge – with Cyclists Dismount signs over this part – it would appear to be because the old bridge has a fairly low parapet. Being a rebel, I remained on the bike.
A further small detour to Blackgrange warehouse complex which is either part of or backs onto the site of the old North of Scotland Distillery.
And so to Stirling and that earlier train – after forgetting that the main road passes under the station entrance. I’m only there just in time for its scheduled departure and hurry over the bridge carrying the bike up and down the steps rather than wait for the lifts. By the time I‘m on platform 3, it’s clear the train is running late – then we’re told to go to Platform 9 (no lifts anyway). Eventually the train arrives, but after not moving for 5 minutes , it’s cancellation due to a fault is announced – the next train will of course be back on Platform 3! By the time it arrives it’s packed and my bike gets to enjoy the company of some lager drinkers who can’t get a seat in the carriage – fearing for its safety (not that they were doing anything deliberate to harm it), I decided to change trains at Polmont.
Back to the Royal Mile in time to get that bottle of Bain’s from RMW, then back to the Guest House to await the 7pm opening of sales of tickets for the Speyside Festival. Anxious to pick up some tickets for limited space distillery tours, I attempt to access the site – as do too many others and it crashes. It occasionally shows signs of life, and there’s Twitter and Facebook commentary about what’s going on. So I miss the train to Kirknewton for the whisky party in East Calder – and the next one turns out to be 2 hours later. Time to head to Drinkmonger for a selection of beers to take to the party.
Eventually get there and it’s not too difficult to find the party despite the weather which is now wet and windy – glad I decided against cycling the 13 miles out there. Good whisky when I do arrive – though I’ve missed the Springbank 10yo – an early batch apparently, I recognise the excellent Kilkerran Port Cask (though am surprised when Mark reveals it was only 3 years old) – other whiskies include a Campbeltown Loch (blended scotch) which goes down very well with those assembled – this was served first to those who got there on time and wasn’t therefore overwhelmed by more complex whiskies after it, including a Moidart (blended malt) and a Cadenhead's Longrow.
Stovies to eat followed by homemade shortbread and tablet courtesy of Alistair, and a few whiskies that other partygoers happen to have with them – including my Bain’s, but starring some cask samples that Francis Cuthbert from Daftmill has with him – both the 3yo PX sherry and the 6yo bourbon cask show immense promise – hopefully he’ll bottle some soon!
Leaving just before midnight to get the last train to Edinburgh – as I don’t fancy the ride back in wind and rain!
Sunday, haggis back on the breakfast plate, and don’t have to cross the road – good thing too, as the rain is very heavy this morning. At least it appears to be – my phone insists that Edinburgh is “partly cloudy”, so I must be hallucinating! Not going to test this illusory rain theory though.
Only 11 hours after breakfast to wait for my train home. Fortunately by the time I’m ready the rain has eased off and there’s even some sun. Too early for SMWS, so a ride around Leith for a while, bright sun now, but the wind is bitter. Time to head for the Vaults.
As promised, first on the menu is 66.36 sherried 10yo Ardmore, a pleasant enough dram, but not enough to persuade me to go for the bottle pair. A bourbon Ardmore (66.37), also 10yo, is more to my liking and accompanies the carvery lunch of lamb, chicken and pork loin – a feast for carnivores!
More whisky required – a pair of Highland Park’s to compare – the new 4.172 from a 13yo ex-bourbon cask ay 60.1% on preview from the February releases – this reminds of the elusive distillery bottling 16yo for travel retail a couple of years ago – though considerably stronger! And better to me than the more expensive 4.171 (21yo, also ex-bourbon @53.7%) – so that’s another bottle to take home.
Time to return to the guest house and pick up my bags, and thence to SMWS Queen Street to await my train – it’s much more comfortable than Waverley station after all.
The Springbank (27.99) didn’t do anything to change my list of best Campbeltown whiskies of the weekend, but the Highland Park (4.155) - 11yo ex-bourbon was a much better dram, but no bottles available, followed by two 19yo Grains - G5.8 ex-bourbon from Invergordon and G1.7 ex-Sherry from North British. Decided the NB was preferable and departed for the train with a bottle.
End of a pleasurable whisky weekend – have to try this again sometime!