Monday, September 30, 2013

Scotland 2013: Auchentoshan and Traveling to Arran

Trying to figure out how best to pack my panniers - a daily exercise
My first full day in Scotland... I woke up bright and early, reasonably well-rested and ready to head off into the unknown. I had two goals to accomplish: ride ~15 miles to Auchentoshan distillery for a tour, then get to Lochranza on the Isle of Arran by some combination of train, ferry, and biking.

After a smallish breakfast, I set out to get to my 10 AM tour of Auchentoshan. I had a few different options for how to get there, but went with more or less reversing course from the day before - down Byres to the river, then taking the cycle route paralleling Dumbarton until it petered out around Clydebank. At that point I more or less threw up my hands and got on Dumbarton, taking ease of navigation over the threat of cars not noticing me on a relatively busy road. I overshot the turn to Mountblow Road by a bit, but thankfully caught the mistake fairly quickly and got myself turned around. Thankfully I was able to ride the sidewalk along the A82 instead of having to get into traffic, then quickly ducked down the private road to Auchentoshan with plenty of time to spare.

The man at the gate was quite nice and promised to watch out for my bike if I propped it up by his shed. From there I wandered about the distillery buildings for a bit and eventually found my way to the visitor center.

There was a fairly large group of men waiting for a private tour, but I lucked out and there was only one other couple waiting around for the 10 AM standard tour. Rose greeted the three of us and took us off to see the Auchentoshan process. Rather than saddle you with the details, I'll point you towards Auchentoshan's very detailed website that covers most of what you'd want to know.

There are a few tidbits I can add, such as the picture right above. That middle bottle is blue for a reason - the foreshots, which contain lots of nasty chemicals like methanol and acetone, take so much copper sulfate out of the stills that it colors the liquid. You can also see it in the spirit safes as a blue-green patina around the chutes. This is why stills wear out - the copper is literally being stripped out of them molecule by molecule every time they're used.

After seeing their production process, we took a quick look through a dunnage warehouse. Auchentoshan only ages some of its spirit on site, with the rest going to the parent company Morrison Bowmore's Springburn Bond site in Glasgow, which is also where all of their whisky is bottled. A few more interesting things I learned during the tour:

Auchentoshan proofs all of their whisky with distilled water, so there's none of the "pure Highland/Island/whathaveyou water" imparting flavor directly to their non-cask strength bottles.

When their coopers rework ex-bourbon barrels into hogsheads, they put new oak heads on the casks to impart extra flavor, making an interesting hybrid of new and refill oak. This was also the first place that confirmed the fact that most sherry casks used in the whisky industry are now made custom - casks tend to be built new, seasoned with sherry destined for vingear, then emptied and shipped to Scotland. So despite all the talk of 'top-quality sherry casks' and whatnot, very few of them will have been filled with top of the line sherry. Ultimately this makes sense, since sherry bodegas are less interested in wood extraction than scotch whisky distillers. Sherry primarily gains flavor via oxidation, so the bodegas would rather use very old casks without a lot left in the wood to extract. Scotch whisky distillers want more active casks that will impart a lot of flavor to the spirit. However, this does cost a lot of money - Rose quoted a price of ~£500 for a custom sherry butt.

After our tour through the warehouse, we dropped into the tasting lounge, where Rose poured us samples of various Auchentoshan whiskies. Because we were such a small group, she actually offered to let us try whatever we wanted from the core lineup, rather than just the standard Three Wood pour. Having tried the 12, 18, and Three Wood earlier this year, I went for the 21 Year. Since I didn't have proper glassware I wasn't able to get detailed tasting notes, but my impression was that it was a bit too woody in comparison to the 18 Year that I absolutely adore. The 21 also has some sherry casks added to the mix, which didn't help when compared again the bourbon wood clarity of the 18. While a transcendent experience would have been lovely, there is something satisfying about enjoying a younger and more affordable whisky over than an older one.

After snagging a small single cask bottle of Auchentoshan at the visitor's center (haven't cracked it yet, so you'll have to wait for tasting notes), I packed my things up again and prepared to ride back into Glasgow. I took a slightly different route back after finding the Firth & Clyde Canal path, which started with the tiniest set of locks I've ever seen.

The water in the canal is almost level with the bridge, so instead of building a higher bridge they installed a set of locks to allow boats to pass underneath. While not quick, it's an ingenious solution that allowed the other infrastructure to stay in place. I continued along the path for a number of miles, until the pavement ran out and I was forced to head back onto the roads. I was saved by the Scot Guide app on my phone, as Google Maps had reset, leaving me without any other way to navigate (yes, I did have a paper map, but it was buried somewhere in my panniers). I can't recommend it enough if you're going to Scotland, as it stores maps offline and thus doesn't require cellular or WiFi service to work. After some circumlocution, I eventually made my way into the city center. Unfortunately it had taken me a lot more time than I had planned on, so I had to grab some yogurt for a quick lunch - setting a bad precedent for the rest of the trip - before navigating my way to Glasgow Central Station. There I purchased tickets to Ardrossan Harbour so I could catch a ferry to the Isle of Arran. The train ride was fairly uneventful, though I enjoyed watching the countryside slide by.

The train pulled into the last stop just in time for me to purchase tickets for the ferry and walk on board. I tied up my bike and slipped upstairs to the top deck.

Saying goodbye to the mainland for a bit
The weather was windy but dry and relatively warm, which I appreciated since I knew I had more miles to ride before the end of the day. We disembarked at Brodick, where I stocked up on a few essentials that I had forgotten and tucked into a late lunch/early dinner to refuel before I got back on my bike. The chili I had was... palatable... but then, I'm not sure how much I expected of TexMex cooking half a world away. The important part was that it was filling, so I set off with a reasonably full belly.

The opening miles of the road from Brodick to Lochranza were relatively flat and in decent shape compared to what I was expecting - everything I had read and heard suggested that island roads in Scotland tended to be a mess. The views were almost universally excellent.

The view across Brodick's harbor as the next CalMac ferry comes in

Resting in a small park a few miles along the road
The road continued to be pleasant until I reached North Glen Sannox. It was an astoundingly beautiful valley, but the road became a long and unrelenting uphill slog. Much of this was due to it being my first real day out, the fact that I had already ridden a respectable number of miles that morning, and not eating lunch at the proper time. Unfortunately this also meant that I didn't get as many pictures as I would have liked, but others have done as well or better than I could have.

The downhill descent on the other side was a little bit harrowing, as it had gotten a bit damp and it was both long and steep. Thankfully my brakes held out and it was only a little bit further to reach Lochranza. My first look across the bay was gorgeous, with the old castle standing watch over the sea.

I finally reached my destination, the Castlekirk B&B, where I found that a) I was the only person scheduled to stay there and b) the proprietor was taking off for a vacation, leaving me in her friend's hands. After being shown to my small but comfortable room, I more or less flopped over and went to sleep after such a long day.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Scotland 2013: Glasgow, Part I

Looking down the Kelvin
It was with no small amount of trepidation that I packed my life for the next two and a half weeks up into two Ortlieb panniers and a cardboard bike box (obtained for free from Gregg's Greenlake Cycles).

Thankfully the trip from Seattle to Glasgow was relatively uneventful - baggage was checked and I found my way through security to my gate at SeaTac without any trouble. I settled into my seat only to be asked if I would be willing to sit in an exit row. On a 7+ hour flight? You bet. Even better, it was only 2/3 full, so I had plenty of room to stretch out. Sadly I'm bad at sleeping on flights, though I managed to catch a few fitful naps.

The sun was just rising as we approached Iceland. After collecting my belongings, I trooped into the airport in search of food. A bit of yogurt was enough to banish the rumblings for a bit, but I also knew it had been a long time since my last meal. I shuffled onto the next plane for a short hop to Glasgow. Again, pretty uneventful, though there was a growing sense of "Am I actually doing this?"

The pleasant view from my room
I got into Glasgow International around 10 AM. After a fairly quick trip through customs, I found my bike box on the carousel and dragged it outside. While I had thought about getting a taxi into town to find the B&B where I would be staying the night, I had entered that peculiarly lucid realm where my hunger had faded and I actually felt strangely rested. So I pulled the pieces of my bike out of the box and managed to put everything back together. Thankfully I happened to be right next to a waste collection area, so I was able to get rid of the box without any guilt. After that I saddled up and slowly rolled out of the airport - after making sure Google Maps was loaded up. It took a few false starts (especially since I hadn't adequately tightened the front brake hanger), but I found my way to the Renfrew passenger ferry, which got me to the north bank of the Clyde. Though there was a fair bit of traffic, I took the clear route of Dumbarton Road towards the center of the city. I was eventually able to duck off to a cycle path that paralleled it, but that petered out and I had to turn north along the B808 to Byres Road heading towards the university. Eventually I got onto the Great Western Road, which quickly took me across the Kelvin. It didn't take too much more effort to find the Amadeus Guesthouse.

This was, to put it mildly, a relief, since it had been roughly a day since I had last eaten a proper meal. After getting in and crashing for a bit, I went out in search of food. Thankfully I was in a great neighborhood and my Glasgow guidebook pointed me towards a rather tasty (albeit priced accordingly) Indian restaurant, Shish Mahal.

University of Glasgow
Bas relief on the engineering building

After refueling, I wandered around the neighborhood for a while, passing along the Kelvin and through the university campus. As the sun started to go down, I finally wandered back to the B&B, knowing that I had to make an early start the next morning. Auchentoshan and Arran beckoned...

Monday, September 23, 2013

Scotland 2013: Trip Overview

This trip was roughly a year in the making - sometime around mid-2012 I realized that not only did Icelandair offer more or less direct (you have to change planes in Iceland, but all of their America -> Europe flights require that) and rather reasonably priced (~$1000 round-trip) flights to Glasgow, but they only charged ~$50 each way to check a boxed bike. Combined with my growing interest in single malt whisky, this got the wheels spinning in my head. Could I do a bike tour visiting distilleries?

Conveniently, quite a number of my favorite distilleries are located in a fairly close cluster around SW Scotland. After plotting out the distances, it appeared that I wouldn't have to do more than a few dozen miles of riding in any one day. That discovery started to get me excited - while I've always been a decent cyclist, the idea of riding a lot of miles carrying a lot of gear and having to navigate unfamiliar terrain were fairly daunting, so I didn't want push myself too hard. It was supposed to be a vacation, after all.

Buying the tickets really committed me - this was going to be the first time I had traveled internationally by myself, so there were a lot of unknowns. To begin with, my passport needed to be renewed, a decade after my last international trip (this turned out to be a completely smooth process).

Slightly travel-stained plans
Next up was trying to schedule everything - there were a few fixed points, since a number of distilleries only offered their in-depth tours on particular days of the week. Making everything fit together was a bit like one of those logic puzzles we had to solve in math class - you were given a few pieces of information and forced to make everything else conform to it. Eventually I made everything fit together in a form that seemed doable. There were a few hiccups, like Laphroaig being closed for the weekdays when I would be staying in Port Ellen, but the compromises were tolerable.

After that, I had to make sure I had somewhere to sleep every night. Again, since this was a vacation, I wasn't particularly interested in camping. Given the high chance of rain and the hilly terrain, a warm bed and a hot shower at the end of every day felt like a necessity. Thankfully, while there were a few places that it was hard to nail down (Port Ellen was surprisingly busy for early September), I got everything settled without too much trouble or having to commit to spending a lot more money than my ideal.

At that point, it all came down to waiting...

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Whisky Review: Ledaig 10 Year (Non Chill Filtered)

Ledaig (good luck figuring out how to pronounce it) is the peated whisky marque for Tobermory distillery. I've reviewed their unpeated Tobermory 10 expression before and found it to be quite tasty after airing out, so I was curious to find out how the peatier version stacked up.

I will admit that I opened the bottle with a bit of trepidation after reading some rather unfavorable reviews. Especially before it was reformulated into a higher strength, non chill filtered version, its reputation wasn't stellar. However, Burn Stewart seemed to be pushing to up the quality of their single malts, so I dove right in.

Ledaig 10 Year NCF

Nose: clearly first-fill bourbon - rich sweet caramel, earthy/vegetal peat, very fresh, salty - maritime/bready notes, clean malt, fruits (apples, pears, etc). After adding a few drops of water, it becomes drier and more malt-focused, with lighter and more vegetal peat, stronger salt/maritime notes, less fruit, but more vanilla and a bit of cacao.

Taste: clean sweetness throughout, a hefty dose of pepper quickly comes on top, edges of fruit and berries around the sweetness mid-palate, vegetal and smokey peat begins gently then grows towards the back, well-integrated oak and salt/maritime notes at the back. After dilution, it becomes less  sweet with much more pronounced bitter oak tannins and peat, the fruity edges attaches itself to the peat, there are some raisin, dark chocolate, and creamy bourbon barrel notes in the middle.

Finish: earthy, malty, pepper, peat, and oak tannins

In contrast to Tobermory 10, this Ledaig was actually more expressive right off the bat than after sitting for a few weeks. Initially there was a huge wash of bourbon barrel influence - caramel, sweet vanilla, etc. That died down a bit after it aired, but that character was definitely still present later. This was, at least to me, the key to this whisky. The peat clearly still has a very youthful quality, so the strong barrel notes from first-fill casks was key to giving it richness and balance. This makes me feel like it stacks up well against other entry-level peated single malts from Islay, which it clearly has the most kinship with. The price is also quite respectable - if you look in the right places. I picked my bottle up from Astor Wine, which has a nice free shipping deal for first-time customers. Basically, if you can find this one for under $50, I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it. Above that the competition gets stiffer.

There are a couple of things I'd like to see from Ledaig now that I've tried the standard offering - first, and foremost, is a sherry cask matured version. I think Ledaig could shine even more brightly if it got the Bunnahabhain treatment - blend together a mix of first- and second-fill bourbon casks with some first-fill sherry casks. You'd get all of the rich caramel and vanilla alongside some extra fruit notes to work in counterpoint with the earthy peat. Sadly there aren't even a lot of options in the IB world right now, so I can only hope that Burn Stewart has some Ledaig sherry casks tucked away that will see the light of day in future. Secondly, I wish that the distillery would release some older expressions. I've heard excellent things about Ledaig after it has some more age on it and it would be great if the distillery started expanding their range. I have a bad feeling that older expressions would also be rather expensive, given the price point of Tobermory 15 Year, but one can hope.