The third and final leg of the quest (Leg 1: Edinburgh and Leg 2: Loch Lomond Distillery) to find the next Private Barrel Co release saw us heading down to Campbeltown, a relatively remote part of Scotland, with the Glen Scotia distillery firmly in our sights!
Our lodgings for the two nights in Campbeltown were at the wonderful Royal Hotel, situated slap-bang in the heart of the town. You see the room on the top floor on the right? That was where I stayed. I was spoiled with a fantastic 270 degree panoramic view of the area which definitely helped cement the town in my heart.
A leisurely 10 minute stroll from the hotel up the Esplanade found us arriving at the Glen Scotia distillery itself, deep blue doors and white facade right on the street. The doors were thrown open as if inviting us to enter and explore. It felt more appropriate to walk in via the visitor centre so that’s what we did.
The small and intimate space, tastefully decorated was dominated by the gentlemen sitting around a table as we entered. Glen Scotia master distiller, Iain McAlister, Loch Lomond Group’s master blender, Michael Henry and whisky legend Charles MacLean were wrapping up a cask selection for the 2017 Campbeltown Festival bottling. I freely admit, I felt more than a little starstruck to be in the presence of these distinguished gentlemen!
After introductions were made, Charlie offered me a taste of the whisky they had just selected and we stood there, comparing tasting notes and our impressions. I felt like pinching myself to make sure I wasn’t dreaming! The lucky folks attending the festival in May are in for a treat – it’s a great whisky.
We were then taken on a brief tour of the distillery (with the promise of a more in-depth one with Iain the following day) and ended up in the dunnage warehouse. Dunnage warehouses are magical places. It doesn’t matter how many I’ve been into before, they evoke such strong emotions and at the same time offer so much peace and serenity.
Set out in the one corner where the 5 casks which we were to be tasting from. One of these casks is destined to become the next Checkers Private Barrel Co release, the question is which one? Drinking samples straight from the cask, drawn off using a valinch (or “copper dog”) is a brilliant experience. I even managed to draw a sample myself and not spill any of the precious liquid – rather proud of that fact. 🙂
While tasting in the warehouse is great, in order to fully unlock the flavours we moved back to the visitor centre where samples drawn from the cask the day before awaited us. Why you ask? Well, warehouses tend to be cold places. Which means the whisky is cold too and this tends to keep all the wonderful aromas trapped inside the spirit. By sampling the whisky at room temperature, you are able to get a lot more flavour out of the dram.
Charles MacLean, pictured above, can be seen arranging the samples in the order that they were to be tasted and then we began! Rubbing shoulders with a renowned whisky expert and author, a master distiller and a master blender, I sat there with Joe and Hein, raring to get into the whiskies and share my thoughts with the panel, and hoping that my palate wouldn’t let me down.
As the last one to take my seat, guess who got lumped with capturing our tasting notes? Yep, you guessed it, me! 🙂
May I introduce you to Cask 263, Cask 357, Cask 412, Cask 818 and Cask 403? After some deliberation and discussion, the consensus was that Cask 412 was the clear winner. A wonderful, enticing nose which carried on to the palate and a lingering finish. The whisky draws you in from the get-go, delivers bucketfuls of flavour and then hangs around for a while. Here are the scribbles I took down for Cask 412:
Cask #412 (2006) 60.6%
Nose: Tropical Fruits, maritime influence, hibiscus, tinned pineapple juice, honeysuckle
Nose with water: Holding fruit notes, tropical garden, incense, Buddhist temple
Palate: Tropical, [then blank – we were moving through the whiskies quite fast!]
With the selection done, we headed back down to the casks in the dunnage warehouse and I had the privilege of putting my name on the barrel, a truly auspicious occasion!
Selection done, we dispersed and Hein, Joe and I went for a walk around the Campbeltown Loch, working up an appetite for dinner. After another sumptuous meal, we headed on over to the Ardshield Hotel’s incredibly well-stocked bar for some drams with the Loch Lomond Group team. If you ever find yourself staying in Campbeltown, be sure to pop in here for a dram or two or three! The range of whiskies on offer goes on and on.
Up bright and early the next day, we headed back to Glen Scotia for a more in-depth tour of the distillery with Iain McAlister.
The basic steps to making whisky is the same wherever you go, but seeing the subtle differences and approaches taken at each distillery you visit makes every tour special. Iain went into great detail in explaining their processes at Glen Scotia, and the history of the distillery and Campbeltown itself. I could spend hours listening to him sharing stories of the rise and fall of distilleries in the region.
Here’s a slightly different angle than you usually see in photos of stills. From slightly above. As you can see, the wash still is a little camera shy, preferring to hide behind Glen Scotia’s 20,000 litre wash charger #1. Just out of picture on the right is the 10,000 litre wash charger #2.
The mashtuns, washbacks and stills get all the glory, but let us not forget the unsung heros like the brewing tanks! 🙂
Glen Scotia does a 70 hour fermentation. The distillate comes off the spirit still at an average strength of 72-75% ABV and is run as foreshots for 10 – 15 mins. After this the middle cut is taken until the ABV reaches 63%, thereafter the rest of the distillate is collected as feints.
Rows and rows of glorious casks, just calling out to be sampled! And who were we to deny them (and ourselves) the pleasure?
One of life’s greatest pleasures – well for me anyways – is sampling whisky, straight from the cask in a dunnage warehouse at a distillery. And it doesn’t hurt if it’s a big pour either!
One last quick goodbye to Iain at the Glen Scotia distillery – and a quick browse and purchase at their visitor centre – and we walked back to our hotel for the last time. I walked over 30000 steps in the two days spent in Campbeltown, and it feels as though I can remember every single one of them. What an incredible experience.
Watching the sun rise on the morning we were due to leave Cambeltown I felt a pang of regret. Regret that the time had come so quickly to leave this place. I never expected to fall in love with Campbeltown, but I did. She owns my heart, as do all who live there. I will be back one day, of that you can be sure.
And so ends our quest for the next Private Barrel Co release! A 10 year old single cask, cask strength Glen Scotia will be available in South Africa come late May 2017. With less than 200 bottles available, they are going to go fast. In fact, I may try buy them all myself!
Here’s to the next trip to Scotland. Sláinte!
(Full disclosure: As a prize winner, all expenses were covered by Checkers and the Loch Lomond Group but as always, full editorial control over the content of this story remains with me.)