Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Edinburgh: Discovering Malt Whisky

Edinburgh:Discovering Malt Whisky
Being in Edinburgh and not discovering more about Scotch whisky would be a sacrilege, and because of my spiritual disposition, I decided to find out more. After a small wait, a coffee and a pastry at Rabbie's Cafe, Wellington Place near Waverley Station,the trip started at 9.30am. The driver and guide Mike was an Irishman with the gift of story telling and a mischievous sense of humour. The little lilt, the accent all added to the charm.
As we left the majestic sandstone mansions of new town, the beautiful row houses appeared, followed by quaint cottages and their manicured hedges and lovingly maintained small gardens. As we moved out of the city, the cottages grew in size, and so did the size and beauty of the gardens, and of course, the mandatory two cars parked outside the cottage, usually Mercedes/BMW/Audi/Jaguar and a smaller car.
Soon the rolling, undulating Scottish countryside with verdant crops appeared, dotted by green copses of trees. The sides of the roads often had white, yellow and violet wild flowers growing among the lush green grass. Apparently the local government is resisting all attempts by developers to build on the green belt that surrounds Edinburgh.
Enroute Mike pointed out three bridges across the River Firth, each from a different century, one built in 1780, the next early 1900s, newest one still work-in-progress and expected to be opened in August 2017!
Along the way to Stirling Castle, our first stop, Mike narrated the story of Mary Queen of Scots, her three marriages and tragic death by the decree of her cousin Elizabeth. He followed it up with history of William Wallace, his battles and those who succeeded him in their attempts at achieving freedom for Scotland from the English yoke. Stirling castle appeared gloomy and forbidding under the overcast skies.
Soon we were at Glengoyne Distillery, established in 1833, and is the southern most of the highland malt whisky producers. Incidentally, it is just north of the road that divides the highlands from the lowlands as applicable to whisky, and its bonded warehouse is in the lowlands because it is on the otherside of the that road! It is a small distillery, almost boutique and privately owned, compared to the big boys owned by global giants as Diageo, Pernod etc. Glengoyne makes about two million litres of the eponymous non-peated  single malt. It's claim to fame was the queen mother Elizabeth swore by the Glengoyne 10 year old, and served it in all her parties. Glengoyne does not use peat to dry the germinated barley or malt. Hence the whisky does not give the smoky flavour favoured by many highland malts. Interestingly, most distillers have since outsourced the malting of barley and drying.
Glengoyne 18-year old Sinle Malt
Difference in colour between American & English Oak Cask
The tour followed the grinding of the malt into grist, steeping water to release the sugars called 'mashing', this was followed by adding yeast to start the fermentation and conversion of sugars in to alcohol.  The copper distillation stills, the heart of whisky making, were wonderful to look at. Since there only three inputs-barley, water and yeast, the answer to good was mostly art, rather an science. The finished whisky is stored in sherry casks made of either English or American oak. There was even a display on how the colour of the whisky was different in these casks.These barrels kept for at least 3 years, in order to be called Scotch whisky, actually lost 2 to 5% by volume every year, the loss is called 'Angels share', helps to mature the whisky by allowing the undesirable aromatics to evaporate. The Glengoyne exemplifies the virtues of patience and following hallowed traditions honed over generations. We first tried  a 12 year old , and then a 15 year old single malt, with the tour guide telling us to first swirl the whisky to release its aroma, then taking a sip and letting it roll over our taste bids before swallowing and so on. The expert's advice was to have whisky either neat or a dish of water, which releases the bouquet of the whisky, something which I had read before, and practiced! Glengoyne retail their 18 year old single malt at £85, 5 year old at £52, and cask strength (59.1%) at £55. 
Loch Lomond
Willows by Loch Lomond
The next stop was at Loch Lomond Nature Park. Loch Lomond is probably one of the largest lakes in Scotland, and the geological fault line, which decides whether it is a lowland or highland whisky passes through the lower end of Loch Lomond.
Deanston 18-year old Single Malt- £1000
River Teith
Deanston Distillery

The last stop was the Deanston Distillery, founded only as late as 1965. This distillery was once a cotton mill which closed down. The building was resurrected as a distillery by the local community. Deanston has its own tiny hydro-electric plant with two water turbines from early 1900s generating 400kw with the water from the fast flowing River Teith, and thus is green distillery. Deanston, interestingly is very small, makes only a million litres of whisky a year, and sells 80% of its produce of single malts to large blenders and bottles the rest. It's legacy of the cotton mill is reflected in an unusual layout where processes are stacked one on top of  the other, rather than side by side layout of traditional distilleries. The tour guide pointed out with great pride that although they were just 50 year old, they relied only on craftsmanship and not technology to perfect their art. They use bourbon casks for ageing their single malts. On the side, they are also proponents of a counter-culture to the age-old 'older is better' philosophy of whisky. They have a new blend, matured in new casks, which does not carry its age and leaves the interpretation of the bouquet to the drinker. Interesting! Deanston's sister distillery, of much older vintage, sold a 42-year old single malt for an obscene  £2500!!!!
Copper Stills at Deanston
Tobermory 42-year old single malt £2500
Storage at Deanston
One interesting fact that came up was that all distillers are required to store their whiskers at 'cask strength' of 63% alcohol. Then it is diluted to between 40 and 43% alcohol before bottling. Some distillery editions and cask strengths, rare though, have anywhere between 50 to 60%. Once unwittingly, I had bought such a sample and found the taste a bit harsh, and it could be consumed only in the harshest Delhi winter.

The return journey was a mellow one, with two tastings of single malt each at two distilleries- befitting end to the journey of understanding the myth and mystique of uisge beatha,  'water of life' as the Scot call it! Cheers!

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