Sunday, December 09, 2007

Postcard from Spey

I know. It was ages ago. But its whisky no? We can wait a little, no?

Oh, those of you who actually saw this over your morning coffee, please note: the picture you saw is of Strathisla, not Glenfiddich. This one below is Glenfiddich alright. The distillation process.

“And malt does more than Milton can
To justify God’s way to man”
- A.E.Housman

And what better place to understand God’s mysterious ways than by the River Spey in northeastern Scotland, heart of Scottish whisky country and home to the single malt? Connoisseurs visit all eight distilleries and the one cooperage featured in the Malt Whisky Trail around Speyside while true devotees spend a few days here, and then venture far out in the old distilleries of Islay and the Orkney Islands. Having pledged allegiance to that colourless Russian concoction long back, I was happy visiting just two: the distillery of Glenfiddich, the world’s best selling single malt, and the distillery of Strathisla because I knew that Appa would never forgive me if I came all the way here and didn’t visit the home of his beloved Chivas Regal.

Speyside in North Eastern Scotland, once considered part of the Scottish Highlands, is now a region of its own. The Highlands are known for their rugged coastlines, imposing castles and impenetrable Lochs, and people usually flock here to catch a glimpse of the elusive Loch Ness monster. For those of us who are mildly adventurous, there is always the sport of Munro-bagging – a Munro is any mountain taller than 3000 ft and the Highlands are full of them. But just thirty miles east of Inverness, in Spey county, it is a different country altogether. The desolate mountains of the Highlands give way to rolling hills with meadows and pastures. Tractors shared the road with us; every village we drove through had a bridge over a clear water stream. The distinctive pagoda signs signifying the distilleries started cropping up and we followed them to the Malt Whisky Trail. Soon we found ourselves turning into the parking lot of Glenfiddich (Glen: Valley, Fiddich: Deer)

A tour was just about to begin as we entered the distillery, and we managed to get ourselves on it. There was also a large German tourist contingent visiting the distillery at the same time. This I found out just when the tour started – the first part of the tour was a short movie on the history of Glenfiddich and two minutes into the movie, I realised that it was in German! I turned to my friend but he was focussed on the screen. Too late I realised that he had taken a couple of semesters of German at the university. I frantically put on headphones and changed the audio to English by which time we were past the time of William Grant who built the first building by hand, bought second-hand equipment, and opened on Christmas Day, 1887. But I did find out the water that is used throughout the whisky making process is the spring water from the mountain stream of Robbie Dhu, the 1200 acres around which the Grant family bought as they wanted to ensure that the water of Robbie Dhu was always available to them to make the whisky.

After the movie, we met with our guide Susan who explained the process of whisky making. Barley, yeast and huge quantities of water are all that goes into the process. First, the barley is “malted” by soaking the grain in water for a few days and letting it germinate. In the past, Glenfiddich had its own malting floor with the pagoda roof used for ventilation but nowadays malt is brought commercially from specially chosen malsters. We walked to the milling section where the malt is milled into grist, and added to hot water to extract the sugars. A large kettle called the mashtun is used in extraction – the grist is mashed a few times to extract all fermentable sugars. The resulting sugary liquid is now fermented by adding yeast in giant vessels called washbacks. After this is the distillation process which is done in copper pot stills. We could walk between the stills but photography wasn’t allowed because of the high alcohol content around us. Distillation is done two or three times until the alcohol content is around 60 – 80%. The distilled alcohol is now ready for maturing.

Next, we walked to the storage area where again no cameras were allowed. We learnt about the art of cooperage where a cooper puts together an oak cask meant for storing the whisky. The cask they use for making Glenfiddich is mostly second hand – American bourbon or Portuguese sherry has been stored in them before. New oak casks are also used for some reserves. The cooper takes apart the cask, checks them to make sure they are alright, and puts them back together. The distilled whisky is poured into these casks and stored for years. The whisky takes in the flavour of the wooden cask it is in. The Glenfiddich Special Reserve takes 12 years, and then it is opened and mixed with whisky from other casks before bottling. Susan showed us three casks with small openings through which we could smell the whisky. The first was 12 years old, the second 18 and the third 22. I bent down to smell the 18 year old cask; a second later I could feel the rich wooden flavour going straight through to my sinus. Susan broke into my heavenly reprieve.

“I know. Last week, there was a guy down there and I thought he would never get up!”

Our last stop was obviously the tasting area where we could finally taste the Special Reserve. I gulped down my portion and looked at my friend who is usually not a whisky drinker. He had finished his glass and was getting it refilled.

I picked up a couple of bottles on our way out. A bottle for an uncle in the States who always bemoans the non-availability of good single malts where he lives and another for my Dad. But now as I write this, the Special Reserve on the cabinet in front of me, it looks a little too tempting. Appa, I think, will have to be happy with just his Chivas. The Glenfiddich is all mine.


Space Bar said...

right. now please put up the 'real' scotland story you're not telling.

Tabula Rasa said...

oh! lucky lucky lucky lucky.

i guess you just paid me back a little for the silk road :-)

blackmamba said...

yes, please make the next post about the witty repartee between the friend and you.

thank you.

and save some for the Don. It is after all, his special bday this year.

??! said...

eh...too commercial. the loveliest little distillery is in Crieff. Supposedly the oldest one in Scotland (but I guess they all try to nick that distinction). Teensy little place, perched halfway down this little hill, along this forested road, right by this frikkin' icy spring....gorgeous.

Dunno if it's still the same though - independents vs Global contest no?

??! said...

Glenturret. That's the name.

Veena said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Veena said...

SB: Patience.

TR: Yeah, a tweeny weeny bit.

BM: Ok, next time I will say travel companion. Happy?

dude, all comedy happening at home. People are calling Don from all over and shouting "kudikara kudumbam"!

??!: Yes, did read about Glenturret but we weren't so enthu to drive to Crieff. If this was say, Absolut then I would have driven all the way to Bamseland. Well, there must be ferry across the N Sea, no?

And no contest but Glenfiddich counts as independent too as it doesn't belong to the any of the Fortune, Constellation etc. brands and is still family owned.

Cheshire Cat said...

Ah, so it was you, was it? Well done. My uncle showed the article to me, and what an intriguingly dipsomaniacal family, I thought...

Preeti said...

what does kudikara kudumbam mean? your daughter is an alcoholic?

blackmamba said...

Preeti, Cat just said it.

kudikara kudumbam = dipsomaniacal family

Veena, I don't think you are complaining, right? And does this mean you are saving some for your dad or not?

travel companion? That would be just fine if you were one of those "life is one long journey" kinda people... really.