What Choice Does Any of Us Have, Really?

The Scottish morning was bleak, marked by shards of misty air that cut at our faces, and monotonous low-hung, grey skies that pelted us with sputtering rains. Huddled silently in our seats on the bus, we pulled into the Glen Moray distillery at exactly 10 in the morning, and even the most hearty whisky drinkers among us seemed to pause at that notion of tasting at this hour

But really, what choice did we have. And perhaps the whisky would warm our bellies.

The tastings here were mostly very good, and in the process I picked up 4 more names in our group. Ammon, sitting across from me, is a professor from Germany and definitely knows his whisky. This morning we agree in our assessment, but that isn’t always the case.

The tasting room here has an espresso bar and several of us stepped up for a beverage after our drinks.

Back on the bus, I reintroduced myself to Ron, whose name I had forgotten. This got me up to 7 names. There are 2 more to go. And the driver.

Janet didn’t like some of her samples, so Ron finished them for her. He was very jovial at this point in the morning.

Next stop for the morning is the Glenfarclas distillery. We didn’t have a tour here, just stopping in for a taste of one whisky, which was quite good. I limited my purchases here to a t-shirt, however.

At our lunch stop we all went to the same pub in Aberlour, but two people ate at a different table. This is the type of group we seem to be. During lunch I met another person, Ian, but still haven’t met the French Canadian from Brazil. The fish and chips were not the best I’ve had this trip, but satisfying enough.

In the afternoon we went first to the Speyside Cooperage. This is where whisky barrels are processed. Basically, when a used barrel comes in, it is cleaned, disassembled, repaired, reassembled, tested, and re-charred in preparation for more whisky making. Each barrel can be used several times and has a life span of up to 60 years.

They don’t make new barrels here. Bourbon barrels are used only once so they are cheap at about $100 each. Other barrels, such as sherry and wine casks, can run over $1000 each, which explains in part why bourbon barrels are so popular. However it works out, given the availability of used barrels, combined with the reluctance to use fresh barrels in whisky making, they exclusively refurbish used barrels here.

The work is hard, that much is clear to us, watching from well above the working floor. We are taught that each cooper processes up to 40 casks a day, and it is obviously labor intensive, with the coopers rolling barrels about, scouring casks, removing rings, replacing bad staves, and much hammering. It looks exhausting, but apparently pays well. Still, we noted that none of the coopers is particularly old.

This seems to be work for the young.

The cooperage, of course, has their own whisky produced by a local distillery (they won’t say who makes it). We stopped in the visitor center but instead of their whisky they gave us a sip of something made with whisky and honey that was too sweet for any of our palates.

Later, to close out the afternoon, our bus pulled into to the Cardhu distillery, one of the foundational distilleries of Johnny Walker (all of the distilleries today are basically owned by 6 multinational corporations).

On the walls of the visitor center are writ the story of this distillery. Cardhu was founded by two women, and this is a great tale of strength and leadership. Helen Cumming founded this distillery with her husband, and when her son died in 1864, she encouraged her daughter-in-law, Elizabeth Cumming to take charge, and under Elizabeth’s supervision, the distillery grew into a force.

Still my favorite panel describes life in this region in the 18th and 19th century, reporting on the importance of barley and noting that “…farmers relied on the draff (spent grains left over from the distillation process) to feed their livestock during the long, cold winters. Thus, distilling was in reality a necessity.” Because, it turns out, what choice did they have but to distill barley into whisky?

The tour here is the best we’ve had. They showed us basically the same things as we saw yesterday, although here they also include the mill for the barley. All along the way, the production of whisky seems to strike a balance between an artisanal approach and precision

We stopped in the mash room, where the sugars are extracted from the milled barley and the wort is produced.

A room away, the yeast is added to the wort, and the pungent aroma of fermentation fills the air. I was surprised that pine is used for these massive barrels, but they can also use steel for this purpose (both are used here). Nothing at this point in the process affects the flavor, so it doesn’t matter much what they are using (to a point). This also surprises me.

The next stop here was a balmy room containing five massive distillation columns, where the liquid is heated to 90°C for extraction of the alcohol. Most distilleries triple-distill their whisky. After distillation, the heart of the whisky is collected, which is the portion of the distillate ranging from 25-80% alcohol content. The liquid that comes out first has higher alcohol content and more impurities and cannot be used. The latter, lower-alcohol, portion goes back to be distilled again.

We paused briefly to visit some of the aging casks and finally enjoyed a much anticipated tasting. They have bottles here that can’t be had anywhere else, and for me, one merits the long journey home.

In the evening the weather was nicer so I had a brief walk in Grantown on Spey before dinner.

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