Day 4, afternoon: The Spey and The Macallan
The weather had brightened up during my time at Aberlour, to the point where it didn’t feel like a crazy idea to grab a bite down by the river before my Macallan visit. So, sometime just after noon I was happily munching on a sandwich right on the banks of the famous river Spey. The Spey is the fastest-flowing river in Scotland apparently, and I could believe it; the water was choppy as it rushed by, though that was probably as much to do with the strong wind as the river’s high velocity.
Donald at the hotel had told me you could walk to Macallan by crossing onto the north bank of the Spey and following a path along the river, bordering the fields. His directions kind of ended there but I was fairly sure I’d find it (ah, the optimism of youth) so I set off across the rather attractive suspension bridge you can see in the photo.
I didn’t see a soul on my walk, and after a mile or so I came to a fork in the path. Not having any clue which direction to go, I randomly chose the path on the left and soon I was climbing a steep hill. Very steep in fact and the path kept going up, as did I, having little choice in the matter. The sunshine turned to heavy rain as I climbed, and the rough track turned into a paved narrow road. Thoroughly unprepared for wet weather (this was Scotland in October, who’d have thought it would rain?), I was beginning to regret the whole affair when I rounded a bend, saw blackened stone buildings and knew it to be the (or at least a) distillery.
Somehow I’d improvised my way into the back of the distillery grounds rather than the expected front entrance. After passing cottages and warehouses I made it to the visitor centre fairly well soaked through, but my fortunes turned as I was only a few minutes behind a “Precious” tour that had just left and had a few open spots. The extremely friendly lady behind the counter turned over custody of the shop to a colleague and escorted myself and another latecoming couple through driving rain to the tour group, where guide Frankie was just getting started on the mysteries of the mash tun.
After one whole distillery tour in my life I was already an old hand of course, so I’ll gloss over the equipment; the shiny mash tun, the huge steel washbacks, the small stills (I refuse to call them “curiously small” as I’d feel like one of their marketing people). I really liked Frankie, she was funny and had some top-class anecdotes despite being fairly new to the job. “I used to work at Culloden but this is much more my style”, she said. “Not a lot of laughs on a battlefield!”
I really liked the section of the tour that focused on the importance of quality wood and the craft of coopering. There was also a nice section on the various flavour profiles you’d find in whisky, complete with things to smell and poke at. Then came my favourite bit – a warehouse visit, complete with nosing a couple of casks. This was my first introduction to the amazing olfactory environment of a whisky warehouse; the heavenly smell can’t really be described. It’s not even a smell, that’s too small and mean a word… it’s an atmosphere. The vapours from a few hundred casks of maturing whisky are mixed with the remnants of those from who knows how many years past. It makes for a heady experience.
As this was the Precious tour, the walking-around bit was followed by a sit-down-and-drink part, which generally I’m all for. There were some valuable samples to try here too – our host Alec started us off with the 12-year-old, which is a nicely sherried whisky and the backbone of their range. The 18 was next, which I LOVE. Sadly it’s $250 a bottle here in BC, a fact which I brought up and which astonished and horrified all present.
Next up was the 25-year-old Fine Oak, which sells for $580 here, and then the real star of the show, the 30-year-old Fine Oak which is £350 a bottle in the UK and a flat-out unbelievable $1130 here in BC. It was, as you’d hope, extremely good but I was clearly a bit overcome by this point – my single written tasting note says, completely unforgivably, “smooth”. I confess that my memories of the session are more about the people and the conversations than the excellent whisky we tried; this was the friendliest group I was to be a part of on this trip, and Alec himself had some great anecdotes and was very entertaining.
If you ask nicely they’ll show you the way down to Easter Elchies, the iconic mansion house that’s on the label of all Macallan whiskies. It’s located on a hill above the Spey and has gorgeous views across the river and down the valley. The house itself is beautiful, although the extremely modern conference center built onto the side clashes a bit, I thought!
The afternoon light was waning and it was time to go. I bought a couple of things in the gift shop (including the excellent book “Discovering Scotland’s Distilleries” by Gavin Smith) and headed back the way I came in, past the warehouses and cottages; probably not the way visitors are intended to go but nobody seemed to mind. There was one last surprise before I left – an antique fire engine quietly rusting away on the outskirts of the distillery grounds. I’m not sure how it ended up there, but it added to the general feel of age about the place. I liked this about all of the distilleries I visited; no matter how much they’ve been modernized and spruced up, the original buildings are built in a way that can’t disguise their long years; made of stone, plain and solid and all the better for it.
Lots more to come; Elgin, Gordon and Macphail, Glenfiddich, Glenlivet…