In the five plus years of this blog’s existence, I’ve had the absolute pleasure and honor of visiting distilleries across the United States, from Tennessee and Kentucky to Colorado and Nevada. After all, my whisky journey began with American whiskey.
But for as much as I love Scotch whisky, I’d never made the pilgrimage to the whisky motherland, so to speak. Visiting Scotland held the top spot on my whisky bucket list.
I checked it off said list, thanks to Diageo.
To celebrate World Whisky Day and the (then) upcoming end of Game of Thrones, Diageo invited several writers (including myself) to enjoy a 4-day trek through Scotland with stops at several distilleries and the Diageo Archives. How could I say no?
Our first stop was the Diageo Archives in Menstrie. This massive collection features bottles, advertising, ledgers and much, much more from Diageo’s long list of distilleries and brands. Five thousand square meters of spirits history, all managed by Senior Archivist Joanne McKerchar and her team of archivists.
When asked about the scope of her job, McKerchar said, “We never really know what we’re going to do.” Their job involves utilizing historical material in a variety of ways. McKerchar added, “Our job can be anything from helping the malts team open up a brand new distillery to helping inspire new packaging design all the way through seeing what we can do for new advertising creative.”
To say I was I awe is a total understatement. I could spend days in the liquid library alone. The inner (and a lot of times outer) whisky geek was enthralled by the old advertisements, especially old Johnnie Walker posters.
Next stop: the picturesque small town of Oban. This west coast town grew around the distillery, which was founded at the end of the 18th century, making it one of Scotland’s oldest distilleries as well. Oban Distillery began life as a brewery, but that didn’t even last a year. I guess the beer wasn’t that good. Thankfully, the whisky made there is better.
I knew Oban was a small distillery. However it wasn’t until we walked into the stillhouse and saw two small pot stills that I realized just how small it really is. Seriously, only two small pot stills and four washbacks. A large production this is not. On top of that, only seven people make the whisky. That’s 14 hands. Their standard bottling is a 14-year-old whisky. Fitting, wouldn’t you say?
The lightly peated spirit maintains a honey, spice, citrus, and peat characteristic throughout its expressions. We tasted Oban’s 14-year-old, Distiller’s Edition, Little Bay, Bay Reserve (the Game of Thrones expression), and a distillery-exclusive bottling. All delicious in their own way, but the 14-year remains my favorite Oban expression.
Talisker was our third stop, but getting there was half the fun. We were driven to Oban’s nearby airfield where three helicopters (gasp!) were awaiting our arrival. Fear of flying be damned! This ‘copter ride to Skye was the cherry on top of an already amazing trip.
On the ground, Scotland is extremely beautiful. But from the air, the landscape takes on a dream-like quality. Seriously, I could not take a bad picture. It was almost impossible to do so. Breathtaking might sound cliche, but it certainly described the view.
Once we arrived on the rugged Isle of Skye, we made a beeline for the Oyster Shed. Fresh oysters (some of the best you’ll ever have) topped with a small splash Talisker 10-year-old? They go together like red beans and rice on a Monday. That’s a New Orleans reference, for those of you who haven’t been. With a belly full of seafood and lungs full of salty sea air, the group strolled down the hill to Talisker.
Talisker sits among my favorite whiskies, so this distillery visit was especially exciting. It’s amazing how they’ve managed to capture the smell of the sea in the spirit. Talisker Senior Site Manager Diane Farrel said, “It’s the incredible location that makes Talisker so special.”
Talisker also stands out in another way: its management team is entirely female. It’s a bit of a rarity in the industry, to say the least. Leading the pack at Talisker is Farrel, who oversees the working of the distillery and visitor’s center. I produced a video on this very topic for NolaWeekend.com.
A decent amount of peat gives Talisker a bit of smokiness, while long fermentation times add that fruity character. The five stills make sure there is a lot of reflux during distillation, which help define the heaviness of the new make spirit. Lots of science and experience go into making whisky. I like to think there’s also a sprinkling of magic.
Farrel and Brand Home Manager Fiona McIntyre walked us through a tasting that included Talisker’s new make spirit, Storm, Distiller’s Edition, House Greyjoy (from the Game of Thrones Single Malt Collection), and a distillery exclusive bottling.
The next day we explored a few awe-inspiring sites on Skye, with various stops including The Storr. It was there where a bottle of Talisker 25-year-old was opened and shared among the group. A whisky moment forever engrained in my memories.
The Singleton of Glen Ord was our third and last distillery visit. The Singleton brand is actually made up of three distilleries: Glen Ord, Dufftown, and Glendullan. The distillation process is exactly the same for all three distilleries. What sets the brands apart is the barrels in which the whiskies mature. The Singleton of Glen Ord (available in Asia) features whiskies matured in ex-sherry casks. The Singleton of Glendullan (available here in the U.S.) contains only whiskies matured in ex-bourbon casks, whereas The Singleton of Dufftown (only available in Europe) contains a mix of both types of casks.
The energetic Singleton Global Brand Ambassador Ervin Trykowski led us through the distillery followed by a tasting and cocktail class. We tried the Singleton of Glen Ord 12-year-old, House Tully (from the Game of Thrones Single Malt Collection), and cask samples from an ex-sherry cask and an ex-bourbon barrel.
The group then made an Old Fashioned cocktail with the Singleton of Glendullan 12-year-old. I used honey syrup as my sweetener and orange bitters instead of Angostura bitters. It was quite nice, considering the Old Fashioneds I make at home typically involve bourbon. The Singleton of Glendullan 12-year-old is a prime entry-level whisky in terms of flavor and complexity, and one that is encouraged to be used in cocktails.
Our last day of exploring saw us on the banks of Loch Ness, where Ewan Gunn, Diageo’s Global Scotch Whisky Master, led a toast with a pretty special pour – The Singleton of Glendullan 38-year-old. After enjoying a couple of sips of this exquisite cask-strength whisky, I added a few drops of water straight from Loch Ness. Pure magic.
My very first trip to Scotland could not have possibly seen a better ending. With that, I think I’ll enjoy a glass of Talisker 25-year-old and begin planning my next visit.
Thanks to Diageo and Hunter PR for inviting me on this wonderful trip. Travel expenses and accommodations were paid for by them. As always, all thoughts and opinions are my own.