In Which I Spend Hours With Strangers

I met Shona, the proprietress, at the door of the BnB in Grantown-on-Speyside, a very green, misty, and placid little burb that slumbers somewhere in the north of Scotland. She asked me how the day had been, and if our bus had been raucous.

No, I said, we are not. Strangely our busload of ten people driving from place to place drinking Scotch whisky isn’t raucous at all. We are all rather quiet and keeping to ourselves. I might blame the 4 Canadians, because they are a rather reserved bunch. But truthfully, I’m not helping either, with my naturally introverted tendencies. However, as a group, none of us have really connected – nobody seems to be having conversations, even with people they know.

For the night, we have all been scattered across a few different hotels or bed and breakfasts in this tiny town, and I’m the only one staying at Brooklynn (that’s what my BnB is called), a quaint fairy tale cottage just off of the main road. Since I didn’t get anybody’s number, and because we didn’t make any arrangements I was on my own for dinner.

I think the group of us are a weird bunch. We don’t dislike each other. We’re just indifferent.

Dinner, by the way, was steak and ale pie. It was good.

Regardless of the standoffish nature of our coterie, the day was fun. First thing in the morning I checked out of the hostel and walked 15 minutes across town to the bus station, pausing only for a bite to eat.

Once aboard the bus, the driver began to regale us with stories about Edinburgh and Scotland. I’m sure the driver has a name, but I don’t know it. In fact I know only 2 other names on the bus (having forgotten one other).

We drove generally northward out of Edinburgh for about an hour and a quarter before we stopped at the Lindores Abbey Distillery. As we walked in I was struck by the similarities to a tasting room at a winery. I guess I shouldn’t have really expected anything different, but I definitely noticed the similarities.

This distillery has been constructed on the site of a medieval abbey, but the modern incarnation is rather young, opening in 2017 and recently producing their first true whisky, which I think has aged 4 years (the minimum is 3 years and 1 day). Prior to that they were producing Aqua Vita, which is an herbal extraction that can be produced rapidly

They showed us the mash rooms and the massive distillation columns.

When first distilled, the spirit is crystal clear (and isn’t actually whisky at that point).

To become whisky, it must be aged in oak barrels. Almost everybody here uses old bourbon barrels for at least part of the process, because bourbon barrels can only be used once, whereas Scotch barrels can be used repeatedly. Further, by using old barrels, the final product has a less pronounced woody flavor. Sometimes producers will finish the spirit in sherry or wine barrels.

The whisky here is good, but not remarkable. I can only carry a few bottles home and want to get something I can’t get in the States. This is unique in that regard, but not good enough to earn a precious spot in the suitcase.

We continued north, then, into the Scottish Highlands. The plan today had been to stop at two distilleries, one of which was Royal Lochnagar, near Balmoral Castle (the Queen’s estate). Royal Lochnagar is closed due to the Queen’s death, so instead we had to modify our itinerary.

As part of this change in plans, time was limited, so when we stopped at a small town for lunch we were asked to limit ourselves to buying sandwiches from the grocer. In one of our rare shared moments, none of us was impressed by that experience.

Back on the bus, I could feel the chill settling in, so on the sole occasion when we stopped for photos on a windswept hillside, I made sure to pull on a sweatshirt. Stepping outside of the shelter of the bus, into the biting gusts, I was glad I had made this choice.

Back on the bus we resumed our expedition, somewhat deficient of Scotch. To make up for the closure of Royal Lochnagar, we stopped at a prominent local store, the Whisky Castle, for a tasting. We were offered 3 unique whiskies, two of which were their own bottlings. These two were better than the first, and one even earned a trip home.

This will be a great souvenir for me to share with my family and friends. And truthfully, these really are the best sorts of things I can bring home: memories, recipes, food, or drinks. These are special ways that I can keep my loved ones with me on my travels, even when I travel alone.

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