Thursday, August 31, 2006

TRAVEL: The Whisky Pilgrimage

ABERLOUR, Scotland --- One of the essential pilgrimages in Scotland is to follow the whisky trail, to visit a distillery or two, learn how the "water of life" is made, and to taste a "wee dram". On the strong recommendation of my friend Antony, who had visited many of Scotland's distilleries, we decided to take a tour at Aberlour. It was not a malt I was familiar with, but in contrast to the more well-known distilleries on the "official" Whisky Trail that take in busloads of tourists, tours of Aberlour are limited to ten people (by appointment) and are much more personal. The village of Aberlour (which is Gaelic for "mouth of the chattering brook") sits where the Lour burn comes down from Ben Rinnes into the River Spey. The Spey is well-known to whisky lovers, -- many of Scotland's great malts come from the Speyside -- and as we climbed into the mountains on a small winding road, we passed through towns whose names (Dufftown, Craigellachie) were familiar to me from seeing them on bottles. At Craigellachie, we came upon the Spey and turned south along the river to Aberlour, with the Spey flowing in a deep ravine below the road. Across the river, I could see Easter Ellchies, home of Macallan, one of my favorites.

At the distillery, we met our guide, Wendy, a smart transplanted English woman, who had a clear knowledge of and appreciation for whisky, as well as a delightfully puckish attitude. ("Well, you didn't hear this from me, but…" became a refrain with her.) After giving us an overview of the history of whisky-making in Scotland, she lead us through the distillery, vividly punctuating the process with looks and tastes of the intermediate process. All whisky begins from dried malted barley, that is, barley grain that has been watered and begun to sprout, and then is dried over a fire. A whisky's character begins with the barley and even more significantly, with the amount of peat used in the fire to dry it. The peat contributes an earthy, smoky flavor. While the Speyside whiskies are generally lighter on peat, the whisky from the western islands tends to be much more smoky. Wendy showed us three samples of toasted barley malt that we could feel, smell, and taste. One was Aberlour's, and the other two, provided for an interesting comparison, were peaty Islay malts (Ardbeg and Laphraoig, if I recall). The barley malt tasted like toasted whole-grain bread, and you could clearly taste the smoky effect of the peat. (We didn't actually get to see the malting process itself, as very very few distilleries still do their own malting these days.)

The next stop was the grinder, where the dried barley malt (consisting of grains slightly larger than rice) is ground up into grist. This is accomplished by a large marvelous machine built many decades ago and looking like something out of the engine room of Jules Verne's Nautilus. The grist is then put into a huge vat called a "mash tun", where it is mixed with heated water from the nearby mountain spring, and slowly stirred into a thin porridge. The hot water dissolves the starch from the barley grist into a sweet liquid called "wort". We tasted some wort, and it is essentially a barley tea, vaguely brownish and with a sweet cereal taste. The wort is drained into another huge vat called a "washback", where yeast is added and the wort is kept at the right warmth to encourage fermentation. We got to stick our head into a washback and got knocked out by the alcoholic fumes and the pungent yeasty aroma. Wendy lowered a small container into the vat and pulled up a sample for us to try. It tasted like a malt liquor or rudimentary beer (which is essentially what it is at this point).

Stills at AberlourWe then moved into the still room, distillation being the next step in the process. The wash is transferred into a still, a very large copper kettle, vaguely pear-shaped with an elongated neck. Apparently, while stills take this general form everywhere, each distillery has its own distinctive design for the exact height and shape of its stills. The wash is brought to the right heat such that the alcohol vaporises but the liquid doesn't, and only the "worthiest" alcohol vapors rise the full height of the still's neck and into the condenser on the other side. The liquor passes through two different stills, and even from the second distillation, only the "heart" (the middle part of a batch) is taken, as the first part is too strong and the last part is too weak. The Scottish distilleries all feature something called a "spirit safe" in their still room, which is a padlocked glass case where the outflow from the still is diverted into one of two captures, depending on whether it is the "heart" or the other parts. (This quaint arrangement with the padlock comes from tax laws, so that they only pay taxes on the finished product quantity, rather than on all of the alcohol that flows out of the still.)

We came to a warehouse to see the final step, maturation in barrel casks. While the steps up to this point have only taken a week or two, the whisky now must be allowed to mature for a bare minimum of three years and more often ten or more. The whisky is matured in oak casks typically used previously for Bourbon, sherry, or port. (Bourbon casks are particularly plentiful, as Kentucky law requires Bourbon to be matured in new casks, creating a steady supply of used Bourbon casks.) The cask itself will impart flavor and color to the whisky as it ages.

Our final stop was the tasting room, where Wendy guided us through tasting six different samples, both neat and with water. (She explained how sometimes adding water can open up the oils, enhancing the flavor.) Aberlour uses a mix of Bourbon and sherry casks in its whiskies. We tasted whisky directly from each kind of cask, and we also tasted a range of Aberlour whiskies that blended the two kinds, including their 10 and 15-year expressions, and a distiller's edition that was double-casked. The blending can really add a nice complexity to the spirit. While I preferred the sherry cask to the Bourbon cask in the single-cask whisky, I found I preferred the 10-year old Aberlour (which has a higher proportion of Bourbon-cask to sherry-cask in it) to the 15-year old. The final highlight is that we were offered the opportunity to fill our own bottle of straight-from-the-cask whisky, serial-numbered and labeled on the spot. Of course we jumped at that chance, and now we have a bottle of 14-year sherry-cask-strength whisky that we shall greatly enjoy!

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