Our Third Day in Speyside:
Visiting Glenfarclas, Speyside Cooperage, Ballindalloch Castle and a Special Encounter!
Roy arrives to our bed and breakfast on time our third day exploring Speyside, however there's a problem! We've overslept and haven't had time for breakfast. Crap! We're supposed to be at the Speyside Cooperage in just a little bit.
He swings by McDonalds for us so that we can grab a bite to eat and then we're on the way! Another beautiful drive through the countryside as we head to the Speyside Cooperage. Again rolling grasslands, forests, vibrant green land and as always too soon we're there.
However we are about 10 minutes later then we should have been thanks to our sleeping in.
We roll up to the cooperage, looking at all the giant casks upon the lawn, and as we arrive about 2 minutes behind us rolls a big old tour bus.
Roy urges us to hurry, to get in before them. We follow suit, taking pictures as we walk to the entrance of the cooperage where we're greeted by our tour guide, who actually winds up being the father of Glenfarclas tour guide as we're soon to find out.
We start the tour with a video, a 10 minute video describing how casks are made, what trees they come from, how many casks can be made from a single tree, how they're put together, everything. In the background in the hallway we can hear the arrival of the tour bus with it's hordes of people.
Once the video ends we head on out and are once more greeted by our guide who walks us up to this hallway with glass windows stretching the length of it. Down below there are about a dozen workers putting casks together, all of the casks in different stages of being built.
Our guide walks us through the processes of putting a cask together, how there are no nails or joiners in them, how it's done by just plain experience, how the guys all make very good money, and are paid by the number of casks they build each day, and how each style of cask is worth a different amount of money. How a young guy will apprentice for 2 to 4 years, earning an hourly wage, before becoming a fully fledged cooper who is paid by the cask.
We stand there for about 20 minutes, taking dozens of photos as we're soon judged by the tour bus, before we move on and attempt to put some miniature casks together ourselves, just like the guys below us were doing. I'm able to put the majority of the cask together before it falls apart. However my wife with some guidance from Roy quickly puts her cask together. What can I say? She's more talented then me!
Once she finishes putting the cask together it's time for us to run! We've got to get to head to Glenfarclas now for our Connoisseurs tour.
We're on this tour by ourselves, just my wife and myself and our guide Susan, who it turns out is the daughter of our Speyside Cooperage tour. She comments that we're late and I explain that my wife and myself have been running late all day and I apologize. She laughs and suggests that I should have just blamed it on her father.
We get started on our tour and since she knows that we've been on quite a few distillery tours she keeps the information relevant, how is Glenfarclas made different from other Speyside whiskies, the history of the distillery.
She walks us through the distillery, from the mill to the tun room (we take a wee nip from one of the mash tuns, yummy tastes like a Belgian Strong Ale) to the Still house. Along the way she explains how the differences in the way they distill, using direct fired stills (which is much more costly) and how they've sent samples of their spirit to be tested, samples from both direct fired and unfired distillations, to labs to see what the labs think. Every single time she says, the lab comments on the traditional way going "keep doing what you're doing, this is Glenfarclas to a 't'"
It's a nice little distillery, being the only family owned distillery in Speyside and honestly Scotland, and it shows, as they control all aspects of their distillery, from where the malt comes from, to where it's bottled, referencing past events where the distillery has done business and released control of the process with other businesses, only to be burned. They've learned and so they maintain control of the entire process in order to ensure that they'll be able to pass the distillery onto the next generation.
It's very cool hearing the history and how it's influenced decisions made in the past, the present and how it'll affect them into the future. I ask about how does the future supply of whisky look, are they worried about dwindling stocks as so many distilleries in Scotland are, due to the massively increased demand for whisky around the world.
Her reply is one that makes me grin.
"Most distilleries have one of two problems: they either have a surplus of stock or a surplus of cash, but not both, however due to the family's history we have both. During times when the demand for whisky dipped we kept up production, not slacking at all."
Interesting. Very interesting.
At a time when many distilleries are looking at No Age Statements and other ways to try and make the current stock last, and to get them over age humps, Glenfarclas doesn't care, because for them stock isn't an issue.
We then head onto the sacred area, the warehouse. It is BEAUTIFUL! Immediately as we walk in we see casks for upcoming Family Casks, dating back to the 1950's, including a sexy bad boy of 1981, my birth year. I literally take hundreds of photos, asking if we can go further back into the warehouse.
Susan says go for it!
I am immediately running around ducking in and out of the rows of casks, snapping photo after photo, giggling like a little kid as I find some new hidden gem from the 80's, 70's, 60's, 50's, as my wife and Susan slowly follow.
I hear Susan comment at one point to my wife "I've never seen anyone show such childlike glee over whisky"
It's a comment that we'll hear again and again during our trip.
and my wife's reply "he's a kid in a candy store"
Another comment that I'll hear again and again during our trip.
At another point Susan comments that she's actually never been this deep into the warehouse before. I'm moving further and further in, trying to find out how far back it goes, how old is the oldest cask I can find, moving down these lines of casks that trail off into the distance.
Finally after about 20 minutes or so our patient tour guide Susan and my even more patient wife are ready to move on regardless if I'm ready or not hahaha.
So we head on back and get ready to begin our tasting.
Now since we're doing the Connoisseur's tour (runs at 25 pounds per person) we get to taste 4 different whiskies instead of the standard one dram. We go into the boardroom which is beautifully done up, very classy and tasteful with stained hardwood, glass cabinets, absolutely gorgeous.
We sit down and there's a surprise for us. There are 4 tasting glasses and one of the glasses contains our birth year Family Casks, 1981 for me and 1985 for my wife. Roy had requested information for when we were both born and now we get to see what it came to!
I've always wanted a Family Cask from my birth year and not only do I get to buy one now, but I get to taste it before I buy it?! AWESOME!!!
The other three glasses are empty, and on the mat there is a spot for all of their whiskies up to the 40 year old. This is a little embarrassing. I've already tried all of these whiskies.
Susan asks which ones we haven't tried and would like to sample and I inform her of this dilemma. I love them all, but I've also tried them all. But this isn't a problem!
Susan informs us that's fine, why don't I follow her and see what whiskies they have that I haven't tried. We move behind this counter where there are dozens of bottles and then we start looking. The first one that catches my eye is the 175th Anniversary bottling. This bottle goes for about $200 AUS and contains whiskies from every decade from the 1950's to the 2000's. I have not tried this whisky yet, but I'm keen to.
She says done! It's in the tasting line up now. How about a few more whiskies?
We finally settle on an additional two whiskies: Glenfarclas 25 year old aged in Quarter Casks, bottled at cask strength and a very special bottling of Glenfarclas 40 year old, cask strength which would have sold at around 900 pounds.
Now for those who are unsure when a whisky is aged in a quarter cask it ages MUCH faster. So to be aged for 25 years you're honestly looking at 35, 40 years of aging. And to be cask strength, oh my god!
So our Glenfarclas line up sits at a whisky that holds whiskies from all the way back to the 1950's worth over 100 pounds, a 30 year old cask strength whisky from by birth year which runs roughly 250 pounds, a 25 year old cask strength whisky aged in quarter casks (so it's much older) and I have no clue as to how much it runs as I can't find it anywhere online, and a 40 year old cask strength special bottling worth about 900 pounds.
All of this for a 25 pound tour.
We sit down and start taking photos of all these sexy whiskies and then tuck into these very sexy whiskies. This insanely special tasting. We enjoy these whiskies which get better and better the further in we go while chatting with Susan about life in Scotland and the whisky industry. The famous people she's worked with and the tantrums they've thrown, how it's not uncommon to work for many different distilleries and independent bottlers over your lifetime, how her husband works for Diego.
It's great insight into the whisky world in Scotland and it really makes you reconsider the way the distilleries actually view one another (They're not all enemies like you might think.) While we're enjoying these oh so lovely whiskies another group of people come in from their tour. It looks like they've done just the basic tour and so it's just a single dram for them.
My wife comments that they keep looking over at us, as we sit with Susan with all of these whisky bottles on the table, and the many glasses. They keep peeking over at us, moving so far as for one of them to nonchalantly saunter on by us to "look" at some plaques on the wall, all the while sneaking peeks at our whisky table.
Roy comes in at around this time, asking what we're tasting and then giving us a grin when he hears what we're sampling. Sadly all too soon the whiskies are gone and only the memories remain, with the thought that I need to pick up a Glenfarclas 40 yr old cask strength and 25 year old Quarter cask, cask strength.
I already know that I'm grabbing the 1981 Family Cask! Even cooler is that my dram was the last dram in the bottle, so I ask Susan if it'd be ok for me to take the bottle home with me. Not a problem she says!
We grab a glencairn, my Family cask (while I'm doing this an older American man comes in, offering to trade his baseball hat for some whisky samples, this makes me very sad as he argues with them a bit that he always does this, sigh), a photo with Susan, and then we head on out to our next stop. We're going to go see a castle!
Ballindalloch Castle to be exact!
As we drive there Roy points out ruins, nothing fancy, just ruined houses and barns and such, dating them for us by the way they're built. That is until we start getting close to Ballindalloch Castle where he pulls over to show us some standing stones, and again give us more of a history on standing stones, what it would have looked like 700, 900, 1200, 1500 years ago. It is VERY cool and once more I'm snapping photos left and right.
We continue driving up to the Castle and it is stunning!
Now Ballindalolloch Castle is a real life, lived in castle. Almost 500 years old, it's situated on these lovely grounds with the mountains in the distance, surrounded by forest with these massive, sweeping grass lawns with flower beds. It's huge!
Roy and us sit down for lunch while Roy tells us a little bit about the history of the castle, how the house is still owned by the original family who live there and have most of it open for the public to come and see. After lunch we sit down for a short video that talks abit about the history and even talks about a friendly ghost haunting the grounds.
This isn't a good thing as my poor wife is quite superstitious!
She looks at me with a wee bit of horror in her eyes. Uh oh.
We head into the castle and it is amazing, definitely lived in, but very beautiful and classy. It's filled with history of the royal family who are related to the lady of the castle, a Mrs. Russell. We crawl through all the floors that are open, living room, dining room, bedrooms, climbing these extremely steep stairs up into the towers where the servant quarters were located. It's so steep and narrow that there's a rope that goes along the wall of the tower leading up for you to hold on as you climb the stairs and it's so narrow that there is no chance of anyone passing on the opposite side. The entire time my wife is holding my hand in fear of the ghost.
Soon we've seen most of the castle, but my wife's nerves are getting the best of her and she asks if we can leave. Not a problem, I guess it is kind of creepy up here in the towers. Now we've not taken any photos inside the castle as the owners don't want the inside of their home photographed and posted everywhere. So when we get outside it's photos galore!
Soon we're ready to head out though after a quick stop in the gift shop for some clothes for my wife and a charity bottle of cask strength Glenfiddich for me. The next stop is Whisky Shop Dufftown for my next purchase of the day.
We drive, through valley's and glens, through passes, and quickly I'm totally turned around and lost. I have no idea where I am, nor any idea on how to get to where we want to go. Thankfully Roy does though! We see some spectacular views, cameras clicking away the entire time as Roy talks us through the history of everything that we pass.
Eventually we arrive at the whiskyshop located in Aberlour where I meet the owner, Mike, who's a great guy! Hundreds of whisky bottles, of all regions and styles. He's got dozens of open bottles so that you can try before you buy, but I already KNOW what I'm getting today.
Highland Park 30 year old.
I'd heard that the distillery was running out of older stock from friends of mine that I trust so I'd decided on my trip over to Scotland that I was coming home with at least one bottle of older Highland Park.
Once the purchase is done it's time for dinner!
Roy has suggested that we head to the legendary Highlander Inn located in Craigellachie. This is a whisky bar with hundreds upon hundreds of whiskies, mainly Scotland and Japan (thanks to the influence of a Japanese bartender) A massive whisky menu awaits us!
My wife and I sit down and immediately snag a couple of drams of Japanese whisky and enjoy some very delicious food! I grab the haggis with nips and taters which is absolutely delicious, my wife grabs some yummy chicken. While we're eating and drinking (now I'm on a Rosebank 21 year old cask strength) we hear some American voices. The couple next to us is over from the states and we get to chatting about whisky and Scotland. They're driving themselves all the way around and we mention how happy we are that we hired Roy to take care of us. They comment that they wish they'd done the same. The roads are confusing and you have to be very careful about how much you drink if you're also driving yourself.
We wind up taking photos all around of our new whisky friends and just as we're getting ready to go, David Mair comes in with David Stewart. For those who don't remember David Mair is the Balvenie distillery ambassador and David Stewart is the Malt Master of Balvenie!!!!
Oh my god! I'm speechless! This is the guy who designs all the Balvenie we drink! David Mair comes over and says hello and says that we should come over and say hello to David Stewart, he'll introduce us.
Oh my god this is like meeting a movie star!!!
I head over after we finish our drinks to introduce myself to the gang, which is comprised of brand ambassadors from all around the world, stopped into the Highlander for a dram and a meal. David Stewart gives me his card after I ask him if it's possible to do an email interview with him sometime, tells me to drop him a line.
Holy cow that is so awesome!!!!!!
(You've correctly guessed that there will be a David Stewart interview in the future!)
We head out of the inn and drive back to Elgin, ready for some much needed sleep. Tomorrow is going to be a massive day. We visit Aberlour for the Founders Tour and then we get to go inside Gordon and MacPhail's private warehouse!!