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.
As the train approaches Keith, there's an intact siding alongside Strathmill Distillery. Unfortunately we can't get off there and have to go on to Keith Town station, which then requires a 10 minute walk back to the distillery. On of our party is wearing shorts and t-shirt, totally unsuited to the weather which is cold and wet. I didn't recognize him at first until he said hello - it's Frank Murphy from the Pot Still in Glasgow, who's just leapt out of the car without time to change - in fact the train was late waiting for him and his sister Geraldine.
We get to the distillery and are greeted by the Manager who will be taking us around. After seeing pictures of the site in flood - the River Isla runs alongside, and can quickly overflow its narrow channel, but that's not on the cards today we go inside and the first surprise is the malt mill - neither a Porteus nor a Boby, but a German MIAG Braunschweig. Milling is done overnight because the electricity's cheaper then. Photography was allowed inside the distillery - apart from the still house. The semi-lauter Mash Tun and the six stainless steel washbacks weren't very photogenic, however. Strathmill uses a mix of short (60 hour) and long (110 hour) fermentations - in total 11 per week. The longer fermentations are required because Diageo require Strathmill to produce a green oily spirit, the time allows a secondary fermentation by the bacteria produced by the yeast in the initial fermentation process. The shorter fermentations produce a nuttier spirit, but are required to keep up production levels. Before distillation the wash from both fermentations is mixed in a proportion of 13 long to 8 short. The vast majority of Strathmill is used for the Johnnie Walker and J&B blends to smooth them out. (The distillery is branded J&B).
The spirit stills are fitted with purifiers - steel pipes just below the lyne arm - which allow the heavier spirits to be taken out of the system and returned to the still by a second pipe at a 45 degree angle. This in effect means that Strathmill is distilled between two and three times - which has the effect of producing a lighter spirit.
Once distilled the spirit is tankered to Auchroisk for filling into casks - traditionally mainly ex-bourbon, but now supplemented by some sherry and wine casks. Some of these are then returned to Strathmill for maturation.
An informative tour (hopefully I've remembered the facts correctly) was finished off with a dram or two of the finished product - Strathmill's only official bottling the 12yo Flora and Fauna. I found some citrus notes, but not the overwhelming orange that Richard Joynson did for the LFW tasting note: "Oranges and caramel, and oranges. Quite orangey. Nice and orangy."
Well fortified with Strathmill, stopping only to take some pictures of the stills through the open still house door, we have an hour or so to find food and drink in Keith before then return journey. I looked in at the Royal Hotel, but wasn't inspired so ended up in the Deli Shop, which seems to have found its niche to survive against the almighty onslaught of Tesco, which has now taken out the Co-Op as well - though Keith does still have a couple (each) of butchers and bakers.
There's time to pop into the Ugie House Hotel to see if they still have any of the bargain Cask Strength 15yo Glenburgie (see my Keith page) before heading for the train. Frank just makes it on time, now kitted out in a rather fetching pink hoodie.
Back to Dufftown, and time for a little recovery before the Whisky Shop Dufftown opening event - It all Started with a Big Dram.
3 bottle your own cask strength drams from Speyside distilleries (donated by the distilleries as this is a charity event - for Dufftown in bloom, and John Doherty (landlord of the Royal Oak, Dufftown)'s sponsored kilted climb of Kilimanjaro.
First big dram was an 11yo Glen Moray, an excellent example of what the distillery can do, and almost as good as SMWS 35.91 (see my previous blogs Friday, Saturday on this). Followed by an 18yo Glenlivet, with water this almost matched the first dram. Finally a Glendronach (I've forgotten its age). I've not always got on well with Glendronachs - I have often found them sulphery - but not this one - big sherry, well balanced, but still for me the Glen Moray was best. Didn't stop me having a second dram of Dronach when it was offered...
Food next - and as I'm not one for formal dinners, I'm not at the opening dinner. La Faisanderie isn't fully booked, so their three course Taste of Scotland - bricked haggis, onglet steak, and cranachan ice cream beckons.
Then, after a G&M 1991 Imperial in the Royal Oak it's a quiet evening in - these blogs don't write themselves, after all!
All pictures from Speyside Festival Thursday are on Flickr: