The Drambusters Whisky Festival returned to Dumfries for a 7th year, 44 stalls, 700+ punters and shed-loads of whisky. The venue for this event is Easterbrook Hall at The Crichton - formerly the Crichton Royal Hospital founded in 1838 as a psychiatric hospital. Easterbrook Hall was the last element of the Hospital - completed in 1938. The site is now largely a campus for a number of universities. South of the campus is the 252 hectare Crichton Royal Farm, originally used to supply the Hospital and provide work for the patients, it is now part of Scotland's Rural College.
One of the great things about a festival in a smallish town like Dumfries, is that a substantial proportion of people in the town are at the festival, so you keep bumping into them long after the last pour. Go into pub or restaurant after the festival and there'll be someone there with a Drambusters bag or wristband.
Having had a grand tasting the night before, which included a sneak preview of the Festival programme, an early start was clearly in order. (Actually, I started with a dram of WoodWinters 27yo Longmorn on my porridge).
Links to individual whiskies are to TB Watson, where available on their site.
We may have overdone the early arrival at Easterbrook a bit - 50 minutes before the start, no one else joined the queue for about 15 minutes, but this did ensure we were first in what transpired to be a lengthy queue at the Tomatin stand for their 36yo - and it did not disappoint. I think I can say that this is the first time I've been to a whisky festival and the first dram has not been surpassed! There were some close calls though...
I normally wait a while before heading for the peated whiskies, but with three Octomores (ThrOctomore??) available, and that stand already being mobbed, it seemed like the place to go next. First up was Scottish Barley 6.1 at a mere 167ppm, but as with all Octomores, however high the initial ppm, the final dram seems to emerge well balanced and easily drinkable to all but the most peat averse. For me this was the best, but the phenomenally phenolic Islay Barley 8.3, 5yo, 59.5% and the highest ppm ever seen. I think it's best to let the official description from the Bruichladdich website tell the story: "The autumn of 2010 was wet and windy. A late harvest saw Octomore farmer James Brown facing heavy losses from greylag geese and herds of wild red deer, resulting in a precious little yield. Malting the this Octomore grain produced results that were unprecedented, the readings came back at 309.1ppm." Nearly half of what they ended up with was matured in red wine casks, and after the initial smoke smack the red wine and red fruits shone through the peat haze. OK, I've gone over the top a bit here, as I said above, it is a balanced dram, the peat is more prominent than the others, but far from palette destroying. That having been said, I did have a few more (less) peated whiskies to bring me back to earth. The first of which was the Octomore 8.1, 8yo, 59.3%, 167ppm, matured entirely in first fill bourbon casks - and I think that's why I probably didn't like it as much as the 8.3, with the added dimension of wine casks.
I had not heard of the Islay Boys Flatnose (named for Ketill Flatnose, 9th century Norse King of the Isles) and Barelegs (named for Magnus Barefoot aka Barelegs, 11th century King of Norway and Dublin - and various islands in between), but their selection of Blended Scotch, Blended Malt, and Single Malt (the Barelegs - Lagavulin), whilst never in contention for dram of the day, was certainly worth exploration, and at a competitive price.
There was little time for more dramming before the Masterclass with Iain Fortreath from Angus Dundee. When a £20 masterclass starts off with one of my favourite OB drams 21yo Tomintoul, normally £100 a bottle, you know you've hit the jackpot. 6 drams - three each from Tomintoul and Glencadam - 21yo, 25yo from both, then Tomintoul Five Decades, NAS because the youngest whisky is 10yo, but married for 18 months with the older whiskies. The result a superb dram - I can't wait for the Six Decades bottling! But the 35yo Glencadam was the overall star for me - if only because it was a complete contrast from the rest - the only dram to have been matured in Sherry - an American oak ex-Olorosso hogshead - and a deep, dark brown.
Unlike the previous week, I concentrated on malts - there weren't as many grains about, but even so, I clearly missed some of the gems on offer. I'm hearing lots of good things about the 1997 Càrn Mòr Celebration of the Cask Tamdhu, which was sadly upside down and empty by the time I arrived at the stall (also sadly, though less so, I failed to get a picture of it). They also had an interesting 6yo not quite Balvenie - teaspooned with Glenfiddich, so it can't be described as a single malt - called "Two Speysiders by a stream". Their distillery Aberargie is now up and running.
My other goal of the day was to speak to as many of the new distilleries as possible. Darren McCormick, formerly at Annandale, who is joining former Annandale colleague Malcolm Rennie at the Lochlea distillery on a farm once owned by Robert Burns, says they hope to have the equipment installed by January. Crafty Distillery from Newton Stewart, currently only make gin, but are hoping to lay down some malted spirit next year - and I was persuaded to sample their Hills and Harbour gin - for which they distil the base wheat spirit before distilling it with botanicals, unlike many of the other new gin distilleries. For a gin, and I'm not a gin drinker, I quite liked it - it was not juniper heavy, and they make a point of using locally sourced ingredients. Despite having organised a separate gin and rum festival during the year, there were quite a few stalls with gin and rum on show, but other than as described above, I didn't sample any.
Hunter Laing were present with a sample of their range, the 21yo Tobermory caught my eye, but nothing further to say about the Ardnahoe Distillery than has been reported on their website. Arran confirmed that warehousing has been built on their new site at Lagg in the south of the island, and that some Isle of Arran casks were likely to be stored there soon. The Madeira cask finish will soon be phased out of their range - it was only a stop gap due to a shortage of Amarone casks. No further news to be had at the show on Rosebank, further than that Iain MacLeod have secured an £80m funding package to proceed with their plans.
Finally to the local new distillery - Annandale. David Thomson, Co-Owner & Managing Director, of Annandale was at the show, and I got the opportunity to talk to him about his plans for the whisky. Although the first casks turned 3 years old the previous week, the initial releases will be limited to numbered bottles from a couple of casks, more general release can be expected in the Spring. You can still get the first cask for £1m if you want to - yes it's a crazy price, but I got the impression that that's because David really wants to keep it for himself - but he has a price... For the time being they are still selling the Rascally Liquor new make spirit. At the show they had what might be described as nearly whisky, cask samples of spirit of over 2.5 years old - peated and unpeated, sherry and bourbon matured - these are very good indeed - and you won't need £1m to buy them.
A return visit to Tomatin to get a picture of the great 36yo bottle, didn't turn out so well photographically, but gave me the chance to sample some of their other whiskies - Earth a peated variant, though not so peat-freak pleasing as the Cù Bòcan, and their Cask Strength.
I should also mention the Indie Brands stall (they had two stalls one showcasing Arran, the other a number of different whiskies as well as other spirits). At this other stall, I sampled the blended Japanese whisky Yamazakura; The Corriemhor Cigar Malt - an undisclosed single malt, which the rear label says was originally put together by Richard Paterson; Muckle Flugga over wintered in the Shetlands (TB Watson describe it as a blended malt, but the label says it's a single); and Peat's Beast.
All too soon it's 16:30 and all over for another year, join the throngs heading back to Dumfries - busses are laid on, but most people seem to be walking - it's a nice evening. Time to sober up, and the Pearl Palace seems just the place - their Special Sizzling Garlic Crispy Chicken (my emphasis) is just the thing.
So the end of a healthy day - porridge is good for you; as is cycling; whisky is the water of life; and garlic is good for the blood. Well, I feel better!
Bizarre goings on in London and Islay to celebrate Ardbog Day (Ardbeg Day at Fèis Ìle renamed in honour of their Fèis Ìle release), but I'm in Leeds, so a Whisky Lounge event is the order of the day - I guess there'll be some Ardbeg, maybe Ardbog there (as Eddie's been in Islay this week), though probably less flying sheep than in London!
While I'm getting ready, I've discovered that a new Whisky Fellowship has set up in nearby Garforth, and is following me on twitter - sounds like something to check out, so I've signed up for their first meeting on Monday. Another follower of theirs is Strathearn Distillery - a new start up micro-distiller in Methven that I've not heard of before, seems they are building a distillery and hope to start production soon.
Arrive at O2 Academy 20 minutes before start - first in queue - only way to be sure of getting a few photos before the venue fills up. Joe is setting up the flags and I have time for breakfast - sandwich from Sainsbury's - and get organised for the show. By the time the doors open the queue has built up considerably.
Traditional start with Compass Box Hedonism, then off to see Andrew Nelstrop owner of the English Whisky Company, who hasn't been at a show so far this year. Chapter 6 the standard unpeated bottling is good, but the Rum finished Chapter 7 is exceptional for a 3yo, even allowing for faster maturation in Norfolk than Scotland. They also have a bottle of the Queen's 60th Jubilee limited edition - sold out on the distillery website. Good presentation - apart from the Royal tackiness, and a good dram. Andrew bemoans the fact that too many of these royal special editions get bought by collectors of royal memorabilia rather than true Whisky drinkers, but it does help him sell his whisky. Didn't try the peated Chapter 11, intending to return later once I was on peated whisky, but didn't make it back.
SMWS at London Whisky Fest
SMWS Grain week - but I've tickets for both sessions of Eddie Ludlow's visit to London. So had to celebrate the SMWS grain explosion on Friday night - 10 new grains making a total of 16 available on the bar in Greville Street. Starting off with 2 new Strathclydes 10.2 and 10.4, but neither impressed me as much as 10.1. pick of the bunch G9.1, the Loch Lomond 11yo that I'd previously encountered in Leith last June - and managed to get a bottle. Only one case made its way to London, and only one bottle was available for sale - which Phil Storry had managed to get hold of already - amongst his 15 purchases that day! In all I managed to get through 9 of the 16, but they couldn't find a bottle of G7.5 before I had to get the train home.
The day had started well enough, as I find that the other residents of the B&B I’m staying at for the last day of my trip are a young Canadian couple Catherine and David (? – I really must start writing names down, or find a better way to remember them), who are touring Scotland’s distilleries. She’s got a good deal – she’s too young to be a driver for a hire car, so he has to be designated driver! Makes for a more interesting breakfast conversation than many – they’ve missed the Festival, but I’m able to supply plenty of information, though not the time Glenfiddich opens, as I can’t get a signal in the breakfast room. Catherine is also on a mission to get an expensive bottle of single malt for her father (on his money) – so I point them firmly in the direction of Mike and The Whisky Shop Dufftown, after suggesting my current favourite in that price range – Talisker 35.
Early breakfast – have to be in Aberlour for 9.30 to get the bus to Knockando for a Manager’s Choice tasting. Head up the hill again – I think it is quicker than the Speyside Way, particularly in this direction. As it’s Aberlour, go for the Bluehill Quarry turn off, and then decide to be innovative – looks like there’s a way through upper Aberlour from the Caravan Park turn off.
There is though it takes me uphill again, and I think it links to the public path from Dufftown. I have plenty of time – had thought of cycling all the way, but I said I’d be on the bus. Eventually find the right bus – there are only three others who get on, one looks like Ronnie Routledge from Glenglassaugh, and indeed is – he says he’s got a day off so he’s seeing things from a different angle!
We wait in case anyone else turns up, but the driver eventually concludes that they must be making their own way there. The driver is a local, but with a very strong accent – really hard work to understand. We head out through Craigellachie and past Macallan, by which time I’ve been checking which tastings I have tickets for this afternoon, and I discover I haven’t a ticket for the Diageo tasting, and find a spot with a signal to book it.
We get to Knockando, and I have a Google Streets moment – I recognise the distillery but am not sure whether I’ve been there before or just virtually courtesy of Google Streets photography – it’s very disconcerting.
We’re greeted with coffee and biscuits, but I need a cold drink – fortunately they have orange juice – must have been something I drunk the night before. We set off around the distillery – photography allowed except flash use in the still house. Knockando has an ancient malt screen and weigher. The mash tun also turns out to be in the still house – fortunately it’s very bright so no flash required. May of the rest on the tour are Canadians who are very impressed to see the Maple Leaf flag flying at the distillery – unlike some previous days explanations of distillery operations outside are perfectly acceptable in today’s weather.
Tasting in Whisky Shop, Dufftown with Peter Mackay from Carn Mor, who has apparently been dubbed the New Mark Watt after a party last night; and Mike Lord exhibiting his own WSD (Whisky Shop Dufftown) bottlings, including the 1971 Glenlivet Family Cask special bottling, and the 41yo Glenrothes, finished in an octave - for me the stand out of these whiskies.
Whisky Fair starts at 12noon today, so it's a short walk down the road - no bike today everything's close enough for walking.
I have my hip flask with me today - I've not cracked open last night's winnings, but felt I could at least share some of the 59.43 Caramel Swirl Ice Cream the SMWS 30th Anniversary 29yo Teaninich - it seems to meet with approval. A detailed tour of all the stalls is called for today, with a quick diversion to St James' Hall for the Independent Bottlers' Challenge tasting.
My successful Dutch team-mates have arrived in the hall by the time I'm back after the tasting - and they too enjoy the 59.43. Bill and Mary from Newcastle are at the Fair - it's good to see Mary about again, as she's not been too well, but she's in good form today and ends up helping out on the Adelphi stall when Antonia's taking a break or doing a tasting.
I didn't let this rainy Friday get me down - not that it started well. Looking out the door of the hotel at 8am it didn't appear promising - Ben Aigan barley visible through the rain and mist. By 9am, it was a little better, Ben Aigan was in sight, and the rain had just about stopped. So I decided not to become Whisky Bus Passenger for the day and head for Elgin by bike.
In case it started raining again, I'd decided to go via the Speyside Way (tree cover) and the Telford Bridge. It didn't rain and the Speyside Way was fine as far as Craigellachie - shoulda hit the road then, instead I got very muddy - clearly drainage not good on this bit.
Made good time through Rothes to Speyburn - I'd never gone this way before, I guess I'd assumed it was just a road to the distillery. I now think it must have been the original road, but a search for old maps still shows what is now the A941 as the main road in 1856, so either I've got that wrong or not been able to go back far enough.
Whatever, it's a nicer road to ride than the A941 - as far as it goes, which is not all that far along Rothes Glen. Even allowing for a stop for some pics of Speyburn, I'd underestimated the length of the section to Coleburn and it was soon clear that I wouldn't make it to Elgin in 90 minutes - good job I'd allowed 2 hours. Cresting the hill past Coleburn it's clear that the Moray Firth is sunny - and a lighthouse gleams in the distance. A quick look at the map shows thay my initial thought of Chanonry Point is entirely the wrong direction, but surely Tarbat Ness (near Portmahomack) is too far? The sun actually shines on me, briefly, near BenRiach, but I'm soon in not so sunny Elgin and heading for the first tasting of the day and Gordon and MacPhail.
Although there were a couple of events on Wednesday, the festival got going properly today. I took the opportunity to visit Strathmill Distillery which is not normally open to the public - by train. So not too much cycling today - in fact it's almost a freewheel all the way down to Dufftown Station.
The Keith & Dufftown Railway were running today and trips to Strathisla and Strathmill were being offered. The guard informed passengers that they sometimes have encounters with deer on the tracks, or even cows, but none were to be seen today - though there was a sheep grazing line-side on the wrong side of the fence on the return journey.
Complimentary whisky was handed out (Strathisla on the outward journey, Glenfiddich on the way back) with whisky cake or shortbread, as the train made its slow progress towards Keith. apparently preserved railways have a speed limit of 25mph, though the train seldom got above 20 according to my Sat Nav.