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In Part 1 of the series, I covered how to create a veneer of respectability around an event by giving it a title. In this part of the story, we cover the trip to Scotland and the accompanying whisky tastings.
As for the whisky tours, that planning started back in April when I repeatedly said “whisky tours!” when queried about my “special” birthday trip. After attempts to talk me into other, more wife-friendly locales like France or Spain, I was able to corner the market on Scotland by finding out I could book us two nights & a round for me at the 18th hole hotel at Carnoustie, Scotland – the home for this year’s Open Championship. Liquor might be one thing, but there’s only one force on earth that can deny a man whisky & golf.
So, at that point, it was left to me to find some acceptable places to travel to & sample.
Taking advantage of the time change, I planned we would leave Vancouver on August 2nd at 9:00PM & land in London on August 3rd; our start would be Glasgow on August 4. We’d been to Edinburgh before & my wife hates doing repeats; plus the Fringe was on, so hotel rooms were at a premium. However, Glasgow was also hosting the non-track portions of the European Athletics Championships, so there were more tourists than normal up there too. I was given the task of planning routes & stops that would get us back to Glasgow on August 14 for the flights back to Heathrow & on to Vancouver.
Between the Telegraph proclaiming there are 98 active malt distilleries & Wikipedia saying there are 128, all I needed was a direction and an acceptable tee time. After looking at train & bus schedules, hours of operation, and the availability at the BCLDB, here was the strategy:
- August 3: London
- Train from London to Glasgow
- August 4-7: Glasgow
- August 5 – Auchentoshan (Lowland)
- August 6: Isle of Arran (Highland)
- August 7-9: Inverness
- August 8 – Glen Ord (Highland)
- August 9-11: Elgin
- August 9 – Glen Moray (Speyside)
- August 10 – Macallan (Highland)
- August 11-13: Carnoustie
- August 12 – 12:30 tee time, Buddon Links course
- August 13: train back to Glasgow
- August 14: Glasgow → Heathrow → Vancouver
- two separate flights
The flight from Vancouver to London was fairly uneventful. When my wife books the tickets, she gets herself the window & me the middle. Luckily, I have a pretty solid strategy for ensuring the seat beside me is always empty.
Thus, the flight was somewhat enjoyable.
We landed in London & took the Tube to our hotel, a convenient walking distance from our departing train station, London Euston. Since it was nearby, we alighted to the British Museum
to take in only the finest colonial pillaging,
followed by dinner at the pub behind the hotel.
In the morning, we boarded the train for the 4.5 hour journey north. We went past all the usual British landscapes –
the rural towns,
the rolling countryside,
and the nuclear plants.
When we got to Glasgow, we settled into our hotel and then spent the afternoon taking in the sights.
With the European Championships in town, George Square was the focal point for all the cultural activities that play alongside the athletics, so people can rationalize holding the event to non-athletic types.
When all I wanted to see was a good-looking city hall.
But we did find time to stop in at The Counting House, a former bank turned into 300-seat bar right on the corner of George Square.
The next morning, we set out on our two-agenda day: spend the morning at the Kelvingrove Museum, and the afternoon at the Auchentoshan distillery. Both were successful.
The Kelvingrove is the largest museum in Glasgow,
and with the Mackintosh building having burned down twice it seemed like the place to go. It’s got art,
But most importantly, it was on the way to the Auchentoshan distillery.
This is one of my favourite whiskies, so it was always intended to be a spot to hit. They have five levels of tour, from the £10 basic all the way up to the £200 rent the place for the afternoon; we paid for the 90-minute, four tasting tour. The grounds & factory are quite the spectacle, as most working distilleries now appreciate that tourism is a good chunk of their attraction nowadays.
Along the way – I think because the guide was bored, and I mentioned it was my birthday trip – we got to go into the cask room & draw some right out of the barrel.
It was so delicious that I chose to draw & pour my own bottle to bring home. Cask 4474, Bottle 131 – £85 & totally worth it.
That was a good day.
The next tour was the next day, on the Isle of Arran, at (appropriately) the Isle Of Arran distillery. To get there from Glasgow, you take the train to the ferry port at Ardrossan for a one-hour ferry ride over to the Isle.
Then you hop a 30-minute bus ride along the island coast to the distillery
& spend a couple of hours as their liquor hostage before turning around & heading back. Quite civil, really.
Once there, you are greeted by a pleasant group of folks who understand you are there to try their whisky, and they are trying to sell you that whisky once you’ve tried it.
Of course, the distillery sponsors the local youth soccer team in Lochranza, and of course they let the sheep graze on the field, because Scotland.
The tour itself was not unlike any other tour, but since everyone who worked there was an island local, you could sense the pride in their work as they described the operation. Isle Of Arran filled their first cask in 1995, and three years later cracked that bad boy open with the help of Ewan McGregor, who was filming a movie on the Isle at the time.
The guy who gave us the tour & tasting, Douglas, has lived on the island his whole life and was one of the first employees when they started construction in 1994 and has stuck around since.
Here’s what we sampled:
The best part is WineWife not wanting as much, but she’s a good sport & got her glasses filled for me to finish. A drop of water really opened up some of the flavour profiles; the advantage was that I had my samples neat & could use water in her leftovers, so I could discern a difference. On the whole, I figure I had about 9-10 total samples, which made the bus & ferry back a more enjoyable experience. I purchased a bottle of the Marsala-casked whisky, third from the right in the above photo. FYI – the Brodick Bay on the end cost £150/bottle.
We were back in Glasgow by 9:00PM, anxious for our departure to Inverness the following morning.
In the morning, I went downstairs for the hotel’s complimentary breakfast. Naturally, I ordered the Scotch Breakfast
Look at that! It’s a heart attack on a plate. Bacon! Sausage! Black pudding! If that doesn’t get you ready for a three-hour train ride, I don’t know what will.
The train ride from Glasgow to Inverness is really a ride for the train buff inside you. There’s plenty of rolling countryside, babbling brooks and associated floræ & faunæ.
We arrived in Inverness about 3:00PM, and given the latitiude is approximate to Fort McMurray, AB (approx. 57.5°N), there was still plenty of daylight left to give ourselves a nice walking tour of the 12-block downtown core.
And then we settled in for the night. The next morning, we went to the local museum to soak in a little history
before taking the train west into the Black Isle to the Muir of Ord, to visit the Glen Ord distillery.
They distill whisky for three separate markets, each with its own flavour profiles. Their most popular is the Singleton of Glen Ord, which is distilled primarily for the Japanese/Asian market. Their Dufftown brand is their North American version. The difference, as explained during the tour, is that the Singleton has a spicer taste, which seems to be more preferred by Asian drinkers.
Me? I found them all tasty. That bottle on the left let me bring its cousin home to Canada.
The next day, we had a short train ride to our next destination, Elgin, home of Glen Moray & departure point for the Macallan tour. To appease WineWife, instead of staying in another chain hotel, I went upscale & got a room at the Mansion House, a converted Victorian mansion.
It looks really nice – and it was – but what you can’t see are the original Victorian mattresses we slept on, and the Costco-sized Tesco about 400 feet to the west.
After check in & a brief nap, we walked over to the ruins of the ancient cathedral, affectionately called “the lantern of the north”.
I’ve seen a lot of churches in my travels, but for some reason this one stuck out, probably because when you see a building this big broken down into a skeleton of its former self, you really gain an appreciation for what it took to build the joint in the first place.
Anyway, now that the culture was over with, it was time for some drinking! The beautiful thing about all Scottish small towns is that everything important is roughly a 30-minute walk, which was conveniently the time it took to walk from Elgin Cathedral to Glen Moray.
Situated on what was once the outskirts of town, Glen Moray was our first Speyside distillery. Speysides are sweeter than Highlands (to my palate), and that extra flavour makes them a perfect accompaniment for someone who likes a Lowland. It was also the first tour given by someone barely old enough to drink the product she was describing.
Seriously, the year before – she admitted – she worked in the visitor centre kitchen because she was underaged. Were I Boss Todd that’d be a problem; as it stood, she gave a fine tour that ended up in the cask warehouse, where we saw all their experimentation with aging in different types of casks, from traditional bourbon & sherry casks to experimental types like apple cider & Chateau Y’Quem.
My favourite aspect is their benefit program. If you work there for a long time, or are from a local military detachment, you get to fill a cask on the date of your retirement or deployment. Plus, they store it in the duty-free warehouse, so you can come in for refills without having to pay anything.
Of course, the ritual tastings were enhanced by this knowledge, and I came away purchasing a bottle that had been aged in a Chardonnay cask. A fine purchase; another day, another distillery.
Finally, the next day was the day I was waiting for – Macallan day. We took the bus south from Elgin & walked the 30 minutes to the distillery.
They had only been reopened a month, after building a new £40 million visitor’s centre & additional distilling space. It was built into the ground, using a “living roof” for support & cooling.
Inside it has all the bells & whistles you’d expect from Scotland’s largest distiller. They had doubled distilling capacity,
added in a display wall containing over £1.0 million in bottled “art”,
improved the gift shop,
and added a swank new tasting bar above it all.
Now, we paid for four tastings after the tour. We were given three different 12 year-olds plus a sample of the “cask blend”, which combines (essentially) bottom-fifth’s of near-empty casks of 12-, 18- & 20-year-old whiskies into bottles sold in groups of 500 because no two blends are ever the same.
That sucker was smooth as honey. I found out it retails in Vancouver for $425/bottle. Now, if you want more, the bar has a phone book size of options available, ranging from the modestly priced to the Asian tourist.
I purchased a bottle of the Amber blend, part of their new “1824 Master’s Blend” series, which is meant to attract drinkers who prefer a darker taste & colour to their dram. It’s a Speyside that uses 100% sherry casks for maturation, preferring deep colours & flavours to blending with whisky similarly aged in bourbon casks.
We called a cab to take us back to the town of Rothes, where we could catch the bus back to Elgin. But before we could catch that bus, we noticed that the stop was at the base of the driveway to the Glen Grant distillery.
Fortune had smiled upon us again. Unfortunately, we had just missed the last tour, which was full of Germans, but the visitor’s centre clerk – who clearly hated Germans – advised us to sit on the patio & she’d bring us a little taste. I took a brief look-around before she came outside. It looked like a nice place, and the Major – the founder – clearly liked gardening – to the point that there are separate tours of the grounds, one for drinking & one for horticulturing.
What she brought us was a ten-minute overview of the distillery and samples of the 16 year-old they had available. (The tour was getting a 10- & 12- year old.)
Naturally, as a thank you, I bought a bottle. We then made our way back to the bus stops and got one one of the arriving buses that would take us back to our hotel for a well-earned night’s rest.
The next morning we departed for the final, selfish stop on the tour – Carnoustie, home of the 2018 British Open and the chance of a lifetime to play it.
The train ride was quite picturesque, and what I could nab from the train window sure made for a nice trip down the coastline.
When we arrived, we were just 90 minutes from the kickoff to the start of the EPL, so we checked in,
dropped our stuff off in the room – with its view of the 18th green, still being broken down after The Open –
and made our way to the closest pub (not hotel bar) to watch Everton take on Wolverhampton. Turns out, it was the Station Hotel, across from the train station we’d just left.
Because that’s what you do.
The next morning, I set out to play the round of my life. I had brought a dozen balls from Canada – Top Flite 90s, if it matters – and was prepared to lose them all on this lovely, rainy afternoon with winds gusting at 40 km/h.
On Carnoustie’s Buddon Links course, where I played, the holes are all named after military campaigns or battles the British fought in. The 6th hole was particularly significant to this Canadian, as it is one of Canada’s most famous military engagements.
I was paired with a 17 year-old kid who was playing in the British Junior Men’s tournament later that week, so he was up from Dundee getting in a practice round.
His name is Philip Brown, and at the age of 10 he’d already scored his first hole-in-one. He beat my ass all over that course. Still, it was a worthwhile experience, because he kept me honest
allowing me to earn that beer.
The next morning, it was back to Glasgow
to overnight before our journey home. That’s not to say we didn’t find things to do. Living up to my name, I found what proclaimed to be Glasgow’s only urban brewpub, the Shilling Brewing Company.
I don’t know if they are, and frankly I didn’t care. It was two-for-one pizza night, and £3 beers. But they did have a very nice set-up inside, which was another converted old bank.
I had the Glasgow Red. It was a fitting end to a luverly trip.
Upon our return to Canada, we had one more, expected surprise. Here’s how much alcohol we brought home:
We had to buy another suitcase in Glasgow just to bring it all back. The grand total of duty & taxes paid on the 7.4 litres outside our duty-free allowance was $323 dollars. Even taking away the three bottles we gave away as gifts, it was still totally worth the expense, because all of the distilleries were excellent times, and I brought home product you can’t find in Vancouver.
The Summer of 50 concluded with me selling beer at Nat Bailey right up to August 31. In the 10 games they had left, I made almost $1000, which covered all the booze purchases and the duty paid. So, for the most part, it was a null-sum excursion because all we actually paid for were the airfare & hotels.
I got to pull off this wonderful summer by wrapping a birthday up in a veneer of respectability, and exploiting the urge of others to wonder how I was going to mark a significant turning of the calendar. I didn’t give much of a shit about turning 50, until others were disappointed that I wasn’t giving a shit. So, I dreamed a dream, and allowed others to help me make it come true. If you are ever presented the opportunity, I recommend your doing the same.