Adventures on Speyside with Scotch, snow and shotguns
A couple of weeks ago, just a few days before the first spell of arctic weather, I received a short-notice invitation to join a press trip to the Glenrothes distillery.
I thought “Hmm. They are forecasting heavy snow in Scotland… I wonder if this is a good idea?”
Sure enough, two days later, I found myself in a car sliding backwards down a blizzard-swept hill towards a ditch; for once the weather-men had got it right.
In truth, I wouldn’t have had it any other way.
Scotland’s countryside is beautiful at the best of times, but covered in snow it’s something else. Waking up to a white world always reduces me to schoolboy levels of excitement, and whisky is made for drinking in these conditions – the perfect setup for a single malt odyssey.
The Glenrothes was founded in 1879, and is matured in a combination of Spanish and American oak casks. Touring the distillery and cooperage, I was struck by the importance that was placed on good wood.
Where most distillery tour guides are anxious to talk about the purity or source of their water, the quality of barrels used for maturation was clearly paramount here.
This was reinforced by the fact that The Glenrothes is one of the few whisky makers that use absolutely no colouring in their distillates… the hue comes solely from the wood.
The Glenrothes has won a lot of awards, including double gold at the 2008 San Francisco World Spirits Comp in 2008 for its 1975 vintage, and whole host of others too numerous to list here.
What you may not know though, is that only 2% of the distillery’s capacity is bottled and sold as The Glenrothes. The remaining 98% is used by blends such as Chivas Regal.
Brands Heritage Director, Ronnie Cox, explained that there was something about the Glenrothes composition that helped bind the other whiskies in the blend together. He referred to the process as ‘top dressing’.
This practice of supplying the blends with the bulk of their output, and keeping only the very best as single malt, probably accounts for the fact that of the 16 Glenrothes vintages released so far, 12 are completely sold out.
In a tasting session in the distillery’s ‘Inner Sanctum’, BarLifeUK had the pleasure of trying the majority of these vintages, and they were all excellent.
The 1985 really stood out however, and I would go as far as to say it was one of the best I have tried – very fruity, with some vanilla and quite a sweet finish – for my personal palate, it was outstanding.
Aside from a (hugely exaggerated) brush with death at the hands of an icy road, this was one of those trips that makes you say to yourself: “I really can’t believe I get paid to do this”.
Day one of the trip was spent at the distillery and tasting session, after which we retired to Rothes House. Once the residence of the Berry-Green family, it is now used to house ‘VIPs’ and is a beautiful place to spend a few days, with stunning views, open fireplaces and a well stocked humidor.
On day two, having been rescued from a snowdrift by an insanely enthusiastic German in a Land Rover, the highland pursuit of shooting stuff was the order of the day.
Against a suitably picturesque winter background and warmed by a hip flask of King’s Ginger, we blazed away at some clays (watch out for Drinks International’s Lucy Britner – she is an absolute crack shot), at which I was hopeless on account of being so short sighted I couldn’t see the end of the shotgun.
However I faired slightly better when the crazy German pulled out a beautiful silver pistol, a proper Wild West .45, which destroyed paper targets (and a hastily built snowman) in a satisfying cloud of smoke and flame.
I have to be honest, I was mouthing ‘Freeze Mother&*%^er’ each time I squeezed the trigger, and I don’t think I was alone (I saw you Jeremy Parsons!).
All in all, it was a great trip which balanced the serious business of learning about the product with the equally serious business of having a good time, which is, after all, what booze is all about.
If you are lucky enough to get the call for the next trip, you should take it – or you could enter The Glenrothes Whisky Maker competition.