October 2011 was pretty good to me. After working overtime for months, I was given an unexpected 2-week vacation, with less than a week’s notice. What to do with it? I’d get bored sitting around the house for that long. Well, I had been hankering to visit some distilleries in Scotland…. maybe I could!
I’m not really a person who does things on the spur of the moment, but this felt like too good an opportunity to pass up (edit: my wife disagrees with this. She reminded me we once made a 2000-mile round-trip by car to see a Formula 1 race with one day’s notice). How often do you have two clear weeks with no prior plans? For me, never. So with my wife’s blessing (she wouldn’t be able to come, poor thing), I started planning.
Initially I was set on visiting Islay. Obviously something of a Mecca for whisky lovers, it seemed the perfect destination. However late-October weather in Scotland is unpredictable to say the least, and in the event of ferry problems I decided to hedge my bets for as long as possible. I made up two completely different itineraries: Option A saw me flying into Edinburgh on day 1, exploring it for day 2 and heading to Islay on day 3. Option B swapped the Islay ferry for a train to Inverness and a drive to Speyside.
So October 18th saw me arriving at Edinburgh airport after a 10-hour flight, somewhat less than bright-eyed and bushy-tailed as I can never sleep on planes. Fortunately we landed in late afternoon local time, which meant I didn’t have to make it too long before crashing at the hotel! There was just time for dinner, a quick look at the weather and ferry status, and then it was time to try and get some much-needed sleep.
Day 2, October 19th: Edinburgh
Before heading out to explore the city, the moment had come: I had to make a decision as to my next destination. After much humming and hawing I sadly ruled out Islay; the west of Scotland was experiencing high winds that didn’t look like they were diminishing any time soon, and there had already been some ferry cancellations and delays. So, I reluctantly put the Islay dream on hold and started reserving my Speyside spots. As my “planning” (if that’s the right word) was so close to the arrival date I knew that I might have some issues getting into distillery tours. I hoped the lower level of tourism at this time of year would help me out there, and that’s what happened to some extent.
For a hotel, I’d picked out the Dowans Hotel in Aberlour. The village seemed like a great base from which to explore Speyside, being very central and close to many great distilleries as well as to the Spey itself. I also wanted somewhere quiet with a bit of personality and an old-world feel, and the Dowans seemed to fit perfectly. With my plans finally solidified, I set out into Edinburgh in search of food, fun, and of course plenty of whisky!
As you might expect, Edinburgh holds an embarrassment of riches for the whisky enthusiast. Home to dozens of small bars, specialist whisky shops and whisky-themed tourist attractions, it’s also close to a distillery – Glenkinchie is situated in the countryside to the east of the city. As I only had a day however (and a late-starting one at that) I decided to stick to the city centre.
One ironic detail to my trip is that I lived a good part of my life in the north of England. However I wasn’t bitten by the whisky bug until my mid-thirties, by which time I lived in Canada. So this was actually my first time visiting Edinburgh, flying 5000 miles to get here despite all those years of living more or less just across the border. It’s a fantastic city though; historic and beautiful architecture in stunning natural surroundings, and populated by very friendly people.
After some sightseeing I wanted a pub lunch, and ended up in the Whiski bar on the Royal Mile. After some pretty nice fish and chips I had my first dram of the trip, which I picked more or less at random from the gigantic whisky list. A Dallas Dhu (specific details unknown as I didn’t note them down… dolt) which I wrote had a “flavourful nose with lemon, vanilla and toffee… surprisingly long finish with pepper”. I chatted with the barman a bit and he gave me a nip of Ardbeg Alligator just to try, which I thought was nice of him!
Next it was off to the Scotch Whisky Experience, the eccentric but enjoyable heritage centre run by the Scotch Whisky Association. The Experience is a bit schizophrenic; the first part is what theme park enthusiasts call a “dark ride”, built on the same kind of tech that’s behind the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland. Your guide is the ghost of a long-departed master distiller who takes you through the history and process of making whisky, involving video displays, sounds and smells. It doesn’t last too long and while a bit cheesy I felt its heart was in the right place.
After that comes a short film and an introduction to the Scotch whisky regions and primary flavours (via scratch-n-sniff cards!) and a dram from the region of your choice. Then you get to tour the impressive bottle collection, allegedly the largest in the world with some really rare stuff; this was actually my favourite part of the whole thing. Then depending on how much you paid, you either get to sit in the bar and taste a few more samples or it’s off to the gift shop.
In terms of the whisky, my free dram was a Tomatin 12 year old, which I enjoyed quite a bit. The samples in the bar were a Glenkinchie 12 from the Lowlands, Glen Deveron 10 from the Highlands, Aberlour 10 from Speyside and a Bowmore 12 from Islay of course to finish. So nothing too out there, providing a good general introduction for a beginner.
A little bit more sightseeing and poking about the whisky shops (what I would give for just ONE of these over in Vancouver…) and I was done for the day. Some cheap eats from a Scottish-themed fast-food joint (it must be Scottish, the name started with “Mac”) and it was off to bed; at 8.30am the next morning I was on a train to Inverness, and Speyside!
Follow the link for part 2, where I make it to Speyside, and things get significantly Scotchier.