May 15th, 2018. It’s a glorious day, the sun is shining and I’m sitting in the passenger’s seat of Maizy Madza, driven by my good friend Jo. We’re starting out on a two-week whisky tour, me being the designated drinker. The scenery is grandiose. Driving along small roads, following the directions of the lady living in my phone, I get to enjoy the beautiful Scottish countryside, wide fields, soft hills and glens. Suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, a distillery appears. “Cotswolds distillery”. Hang on, Cotswolds? That’s not in Scotland?! Indeed, we are in the heart of England, where Daniel Szor founded a distillery just a couple of years ago – 2014 to be exact.
I’ve been following the distillery since its inception – and today would be the day I’d finally get to visit it. We are met by “the man” himself – Dan Szor. He used to be in the financial trade but if you didn’t know, you couldn’t tell. An instantly likeable, charming man, with a sense of “real” honesty, friendliness and openness surrounding him, unbothered by corporate rules and scripted talk. The kind of man you can talk with for hours – which is exactly what Jo and myself are about to do!
Just a few years ago, when I first travelled to Scotland, Fife was pretty much non-existent on modern whisky maps, even the rogue farm distillery at Daftmill was only known to a handful of geeks. These days it could count as a whisky region of its own, with quite a few new distilleries starting up. Amongst them is the first stop of the day for Jo and myself – Lindores Abbey.
Sit back, pour yourself a dram and join us on the journey!
Et per liberacionem factam fratri Johanni Cor per preceptum compotorum rotulatoris, ut asserit, de mandato domini regis ad faciendum aquavite infra hoc compotum, viii bolle brasii.
“To Friar John Cor, 8 bolls of malt, wherewith to make aqua vitae for the King.”
The date was 1st of June, 1494, and this phrase is to be found on a piece of parchment, an Exchequer Roll. It marks the first recorded history of distillation of “aqua vitae” in Scotland, the “water of life”, the unaged equivalent of what we call “new make” today before it goes into casks.
523 years later, to the day, Jo and I are given a very warm welcome by Drew McKenzie Smith, Managing Director and Gary, distillery manager, at the gates of the former Lindores Abbey on Lindores Farm, in the possession of Drew’s family for over 100 years. Distillation is about to be resumed at the time of writing (August 2017), at what they call the “spiritual home of Scotch Whisky”. Now, we’ve seen a lot of new distillery projects these past few years and everybody tries to find a unique story, a unique selling point, some so far-fetched it’s borderline comical, but the same can not be said about this place. Actually, the project has been (on and off) in the making for many years, way before the current distillery boom had started.
The new distillery is being built across the road from the abbey’s remains, where formerly farm buildings – built from Abbey stone – stood. It might not be visible anymore today, but digs carried out when constructing the distillery, revealed the ground where the distillery now stands once was part of the abbey itself, which was founded in 1191 by Benedictine monks from the Order of Tiron. The monks were known for medicinal skills and horticulture and the abbey grounds once were home to an impressive orchard – about 3000 fruit trees can still be found in town, originating from the Abbey’s orchards. Now, why is this important? Every new distillery project needs an income stream before they can sell whisky after a minimum waiting time of three years and a day. Many sell products like gin, vodka or young whisky, or even new make. Drew’s vision for Lindores is slightly different and a clever integration of the site’s heritage: He plans to sell aqua vitae, which once was new make improved with all sorts of herbs (and honey). The visitor’s centre will feature an apothecary where visitors will be able to create their own version of it, with Lindores new make and selected (some even locally grown) herbs. They also plan on selling a commercial aqua vitae. Depending on how their own spirit matures and how well sales of the spirit product are, the first whisky release is planned to occur at about 5 years of age. The sale of aqua vitae is not the only homage to the distillery’s past, there will be a refactorium, used as a dining area, with huge, rustic oak banquet tables, for instance, and more details for visitors to explore during a visit. Continue reading “2017 Whisky adventures part 6: Fife – Lindores Abbey, Eden Mill, Artisan and more!”
Preparing breakfast in the Kirkwall youth hostel (a cooked full-Scottish one, of course), Jo and I could already see the first destination for our last full day on the Orkneys in the distance: Up on the hill on the other side of Kirkwall, smoke emerged from the pagodas of the Highland Park distillery. Having heard many good stories from delighted visitors, this distillery was high up on my “bucket list” for a long time. Now, as some of you know, I’ve voiced my criticism about Highland Park before, especially concerning a few of the rather expensive and marketing-driven, “collectable” releases of the past years. A distillery almost hidden behind a thick layer of branding, like a veil. Marketing aside, the distillery produces a great distillate and by visiting I was hoping I would get to lift the veil, to see the “real” Highland Park. So, I was excited and ready to have my preconceptions shattered!
Highland Park distillery
Upon striding through the iron gate bearing the distillery’s name, one can see the immaculate state the distillery is kept in. Impressive stone-wall buildings, flowers everywhere, the place is kept to impress, as is the stylish, dark, themed visitor’s centre. Thanks to an arrangement by Nicola (shout out!) we were set to go on a separate tour, led by Mark, joined by a visiting group of distributors. When you’re trying to get a feel for a place and get as much information as possible for an article, it’s always good to get the extra time for pictures, questions and sticking your nose into places and things. It also helps when the tour is held by a knowledgeable person, which Mark certainly turned out to be!
The Orkneys have been on the very top of the list of places to visit in Scotland for many years, yet I had never managed to do so – until 2017. It’s way up in the North of Scotland and not exactly easy, or quickly, to get to. If you don’t want to depend on the small aircraft and don’t want to take the overnight ship from Aberdeen, there’s no other way than driving up the beautiful east coast of Scotland, to take the ferry from Scrabster to Stromness. That’s the route Jo and myself took in her little sports car, after spending the night in Inverness. The only stop was to enjoy a cuppa tea and a healthy (read: Full Scottish) breakfast along the way at a little tea room in Dunbeath.
The ferry ride over to the “Mainland”, the name of the largest of the Orkney Isles, was rather unspectacular. The vessel took the longer, more sheltered route due to the rough sea. What started out as a rainy, cold day, actually turned into a quite pleasant and partly sunny day, when we disembarked the MV Hamnavoe in Stromness. Being the gringos we were, we decided to “head into town” first. Well, the streets in Stromness were seemingly built for horse-drawn carriages, not for cars. Very narrow streets, and people staring at us. Thank god Maizy is a very small sports car, so we did manage to find our way out of town and onto the main road.
With time to kill before checking in at the youth hostel in Kirkwall, a detour to the prehistoric village of Skara Brae was a welcome change. We had spent many hours in the car and on board the vessel. Definitely worth the visit, the place has a kind of magical feeling about it that’s hard to put into words. Starting the visit on the island(s) by getting a sense of the history of the place gets you grounded and excited for more! Enjoying a wee dram in the dunes isn’t a bad start to that leg of the journey as well. Continue reading “2017 Whisky adventures part 4: The Orkneys and Scapa”
After enjoying a very sunny, hot, relaxing Springbank open day, the third and last day of the Campbeltown whisky festival was on: Glengyle open day. Boy, what a day it was going to be, filled with events and tasting after tasting! Let’s just say this up front: There were those who had sample bottles (including yours truly) and there were those who didn’t… ahem.
With a whole day’s worth of dramming in front of the six of us, a fully cooked Scottish breakfast, enjoyed outside in the sunshine, was just what we all needed to get going. Okay, we never had anything else for breakfast, but, hey, any excuse, right?
Soon enough it was time to call a taxi (no walking this time!) for a ride into town – for the first event of the day:
Second breakfast – alternative tasting
The folks at Cadenhead’s are well-known for bottling fine whisky, but they’re also bottling Gin, Rum and Cognac, and that’s what the (m)alternative tasting with chief booze flogger (inofficial title I just made up!) Mark Watt was all about. After tasting the standard Old Raj gin (which went very well with the tonic water on the table – kidding, it’s a very good gin!), we were in for a treat: A cask-matured gin! They filled a firkin with very high ABV gin (someone ignored or forgot orders to dilute before casking…) which apparently led to a bizarre situation when Mark poured samples straight from the cask for a few visitors. Whilst Mark thought it had “a bit of a kick”, allegedly some of the guys were gasping for air… Sadly we did not get to taste this 92,3% ABV version, but a “slightly” watered down one – which was still very impressive – and didn’t agree with tonic water at all. A gin for sipping on its own!
Moving on, we got two samples of a 30yo and a 50yo Cognac from the Distillerie Charpentier in the Petit Champagne. Both were very excellent “Cognacs for whisky drinkers”. Personally, I liked the 30yo a tad more – it just had a bit more going on, but both were really, really good and have since been released (and probably sold out now).
At the end of the tasting we finally tapped into the Rum supply, with the first one being the “Classic Rum” (which I thought was okay, but it didn’t really connect with me), and the second one an 18yo Caroni. Such a gritty, dirty, oily, greasy (think tampered-with German diesel engines) dram – but in a really good way! Also probably sold out worldwide by now, sorry. This tasting highlighted the quality of “malternative” distillates out there – it definitely pays off to look at other (and, these days, more affordable) spirits as well. I mean, a 50yo Cognac for 135£… that’s a steal!