Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Glengoyne: The First Distillery!

The first distillery that we visited was Glengoyne, a Highland distillery located near Glasgow.  I chose this distillery for a couple of reasons.  First off the first week or so of traveling in Scotland my wife and I were traveling with her sister, her brother in law and my brother.  After the first week people started heading back home or off to other parts of Europe and there is no way you can visit Scotland and not go to a distillery!

There are two distilleries within a reasonable distance of Glasgow, Auchentoshan, which is a Lowland distillery and Glengoyne, a Highland distillery.  I was already familiar with Auchentoshan and had never tried Glengoyne which was a point in it's favor and then there was Glengoyne's Masterclass tour.

This was a 5 hour tour which ran 125 pounds per person.  In this tour you went on the distillery tour, getting a chance to go into the warehouses, have a light lunch, try the 12 and 18 year old, along with 3 different cask strength whiskies, 6 different sherry samples and then create your own 200ml bottle of blended whisky.

I ran it past everyone along with tours being hosted by Auchentoshan and everyone said that the Masterclass sounded absolutely brilliant!

I contacted Glengoyne about booking spots for the 5 of us and they were very helpful in arranging it, and even more helpful when I requested that both myself and my brother in law were interested in add the tastings for the Century of Glengoyne tour which ran 175 pounds and featured the Glengoyne 40 year old and the Isle of Skye 50 year old.  They offered to let us add the 2 whisky tastings onto our tour for just an extra 50 pounds which was more then fair in our opinion!

Over the next few months we had fun discussing what sort of whisky we'd blend up, cask strength whiskies and different sherry finishes and we'd get to take it home!  How cool was that?!  I personally was insanely excited and this was the distillery tour that had me panting the most as I imagined all the different flavor profiles I might be able to create.

Come the big day we catch a taxi out to the distillery which was about a 30 minute ride from Glasgow, about 25 pounds worth and it's a pleasant ride, going through villages as we head out into the quasi countryside.

When we roll up to the distillery it's very pretty and quaint, with rolling hills near by and as you walk up to the distillery once you pass the visitor center there is a beautiful lush foresty area with a waterfall in the distance that you could hear and if you chose to, you could visit.


We pay for our tour tickets and head into a private tasting room.  Inside there is a couple and LOTS of whisky.  The first thing that we see upon entering the room is a series of bottles, probably between 20 and 30 whisky bottles, plain with just a simple label stating "Islay" "Speyside" "Highland" etc along with a series of fluted tasting glasses in front of each place setting.

The guide after introducing himself starts off the tour with each of us going around the table and introducing ourselves briefly and then jumps into it with a brief nosing session.  There are a series of 20 different small glasses with a cotton ball with different aromas on each one.  We're going to play a game 'Identify the aroma!"  With about 5 minutes to do it in there's a mad dash among everyone at the table grabbing bottles and opening them, nosing frantically and writing down what we each think it is.

At the end we compare notes on what each of us picked up and then points are awarded on how accurate you were.  Lots of fun and everyone really enjoyed it.

We then try some Glengoynes, specifically the 10 year old and the 18 year old.

We then move onto our distillery tour, we're led through the distillery, through the milling area to the tun room to the still house.  We're allowed to take photos throughout most of the tour except the still house.  Then we're led into the warehouse where we wander amongst the casks, seeing casks from the 1980's, the 1990's, sherry casks, bourbon casks, hogheads, casks galore.  It is VERY cool!

We head back into the distillery and the tasting room where our guide goes over a bit of the history of the distillery and then we break for a light lunch, food's not bad, not great, but not bad.

After lunch we try 3 different Glengoyne cask strength whiskies, a bourbon barrel aged, a sherry barrel aged and then a vatting that is a very special bottle, chosen by the guys at the distillery picking their favorite casks and blended together.  It is lovely, but sadly is more expensive then I'm able to afford in my budget line up, coming in at 250 or so pounds.  It however adds up to over 250 years if you add each whisky's age that goes into it together.  There's a slight moment when our guide informs us that he has to pour our samples pretty quick as the shop will likely need them pretty quick for customers to try.  At this I look over at my wife in a little bit of puzzlement.  I thought part of the point of this tour was having the chance to try the 3 cask strengths that no one else would get to try...?  Shortly after he says this one of the reception staff come in for the 3 bottles for the front.

We then start a video slide that goes through how whisky is aged, how different wine types (or bourbon) casks will influence the way a whisky will taste, how whisky ages, everything, our guide is absolutely brilliant.  My wife and brother who knew nothing about whisky that they walked away feeling like they were reasonably educated about distilling and how whisky was made.

Our guide then brings out 6 different sherry samples from Oloroso sherry to Pedro Ximenez sherry (my personal favorite!) and then we're informed that it's time to blend our own whisky!  After this lead up with the discussion on cask finishes and different casks that the whisky is aged in and then the sherry samples to really drive it home, I'm thinking this is going to be GOOD!

Alas I was completely wrong.  We look around the table at the different bottles with whisky in them and as I mentioned they were labeled 'Glengoyne 10 year old' 'Islay' 'Speyside' 'Lowland' 'Island' 'Highland' and two grain whiskies 'Invergordon' and 'North British', with a brief tasting note underneath them.

We're informed that these are the whiskies that we'll be blending our whisky with, and no we're not allowed to taste the whiskies as the blenders don't taste the whiskies when they blend.  These whiskies come from the mother company, McLeod's which buys casks of whisky from different distilleries for blending and then bottles the excess and sold as an unnamed 8 year old supermarket single malt.  On top of this since most blends are half grain whisky because it's much cheaper, 100mls of our 200ml bottle must be grain whisky.

What in the world!?

Seriously we're not going to be doing any blending with any cask strength Glengoyne?  We're not going to even be blending with anything other then the Glengoyne 10 year old?!  On top of that we're not allowed to taste any of mixing whiskies?  You can say fruity, floral for Speyside, but is that Glenlivet fruity, floral or BenRomach fruity floral? Or a smokey peaty Islay but is it Laphroaig smokey peaty or a Caol Ila smokey peaty?

Each of us make our own whiskies and most of the group have a bit of fun, but this is clearly not what we thought we were getting into.

Once the bottles are made up and labeled and signed my brother in law and I start our extra tasting of the 40 year old Glengoyne and 50 year old Isle of Skye.  It takes the guide about 10 minutes to locate the bottles as it looks like these are the last bottles for the tasting.  After the last part of the tour, the blending, I'm REALLY inclined to back out, what if this is a total bust as well?  That's almost 200 pounds, over $250 AUS/US that I'll have just wasted.

I waffle back and forth unable to make up my mind as to whether I speak up or not, which is very unlike me, and then the guide comes back in with more tasting glasses and the bottles of the 40 and 50 year old.

He pours each whisky into it's own specific, a glass labeling which whisky is which.  My brother in law and I spend the next 40 to 50 minutes chatting with the guide and one another while we slowly savor these very beautiful whiskies, the 40 year old running at almost 4000 pounds and the 50 year old running at roughly 900 pounds (it's a blended whisky).  They're both extremely enjoyable and whiskies that I'm very happy that I tried.

The guide asks what we thought of the tour and we tell him that we enjoyed it, however I mention that the blending is nothing like we thought it would be.  He seems a little bit surprised when I comment on what we thought the blending would be, so much so that I wonder if I misread the description (I checked again as soon as we arrived back at the hotel and had my brother and wife look over the description, they also thought that the implication was that we'd be blending with cask strength Glengoyne).

How was the Glengoyne tour?

It honestly is a nice little distillery and like I said our guide was friendly and very knowledgeable, but the blending part of the tour was a HUGE  let down.  Finding out that pretty much anyone could try the cask strengths (which were the fill your own bottles casks out front) was also disappointing.  Sure we got our samples in an official tasting glass instead of a tiny plastic sample cup and we got a bigger serving, but I thought we were paying for a really high end connoisseurs tour, something that whisky geeks would be able to sink their teeth into.

Instead what I found was a blending station that honestly I could easily have set up at home, with nothing but cask strength whiskies covering everyone of those regions, including grain whiskies.  Whiskies that I would know.

The 40 and 50 year old whiskies were good, in fact the 40 year old was great and I'd be happy to enjoy them again, but to pay 125 pounds for the blending tour and walk away with a generic little blend that we indeed did create was a massive disappointment.

Glengoyne wound up being our most expensive distillery tour, coming in at 45 more pounds (not taking into account the additional 50 pounds for the 40 and 50 yr old samples) then the next most expensive distillery and sadly was the distillery that we walked away from most unhappy.

When I mentioned my concerns to the Glengoyne staff even, they were indifferent and unresponsive to emails, which also disappointed me.  Would I visit them again?  Sure, but I would be doing one of the cheaper tours, probably paying no more then 50 pounds which covers their tour that lets you try whiskies in the warehouse.

Or I might just pay the 7.50 pounds and ask to try the fill your own bottles for free.

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