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Get into the spirit of the whisky trail

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PostPosted: Tue Jan 17, 2006 10:10 am    Post subject: Get into the spirit of the whisky trail Reply with quote

The Sunday Times January 15, 2006

Drink in the charms of Speyside with a weekend spent sampling the warming delights of the national tipple, writes Claire Sawers

The bar where I am sitting is a shrine dedicated to all things whisky-related. Everywhere I look in this cosy Speyside bolthole is proof that this area produces some of the world’s finest whisky — almost 700 bottles of every conceivable variety of single malt line the walls from floor to ceiling.

Although the tourist-friendly tartan couches and patterned carpet in the Quaich bar at Craigellachie hotel are indistinguishable from many other traditional Highland establishments, whisky anoraks from all over the world are drawn to this particular venue, the Wailing Wall of the spirit world.

The wooden shelves contain one of the world’s biggest collections. Scanning the selection, like a kid in a grown-up sweet store, there are black drams, exclusive Japanese malts, sherry-, ale- and port-casked whiskies and even cigar malts, to be savoured with a smoke.

I get the feeling that ordering a Famous Grouse and Diet Coke here would be a little like snorting cocaine off a pew in the Vatican.

“Guests are welcome to pick the bottles up,” says Chris Brennan, the keeper of the Quaich. But with the most expensive tipple coming in at £275 a dram, the fumble-fingered may prefer to leave them well alone.

Over in the corner, Brennan points out a glass-fronted cabinet guarding a private collection, where 48 members from around the world leave their favourite bottles in storage until their next visit.

I had been roped into a whistle-stop weekend in whisky country by a friend who has recently devoted himself to the tasting and appreciation of Scotland’s national drink. Our destination was Speyside, where barley has been grown and distilled since the 18th century. The majority of household-name brands begin their life here, with 58 distilleries concentrated around the Dufftown and Speyside area.

Driving east towards Scotland’s equivalent of the Champagne region is a twisting and pretty ride through woodland and tumbling fields, ending at the banks of the River Spey. If this were Disney World and not whisky world, the Craigellachie hotel would have Kodak logos on the floor, pointing towards the picture-perfect views.

Many of the guests had come for the tourist board-run malt whisky trail. The hotel is an obvious base, sitting at the centre of the 70-odd-mile meander around the region, which takes in eight distilleries and a cooperage. But for slightly less devoted, or time-poor, visitors, picking a couple of distilleries rather than religiously following the signposted route gives an adequate overview.

The Glenfiddich distillery is the largest and also the most slickly run in the area. Having recently spent £1.5m refurbishing the site and sprucing up the bar and visitor centre, it makes for a user-friendly introduction to the whisky world, but it doesn’t have a corporate feel. This family-owned business is still a romantic operation, with dusty warehouses and shiny copper stills giving the site a quaint, cottage-industry feel. The tour is very hands-on, with the reek of yeast and the clatter of coopers’ hammers to keep novices interested.

At the end of the tour, visitors are ushered towards the real reason they’ve come — the tasting session. Die-hard purists got to sip neat tipples in cut crystal tumblers, while forward-thinking whisky fans tried out a funkier young brand called Monkey Shoulder, served with burnt orange, cloves or Coke and a few chunks of ice.

After a sobering bowl of home-made tomato soup and fluffy bread in the cafe, we tackled a portion of the Speyside Way: a 70-mile path running from the Moray Firth south to Aviemore, and cutting very conveniently past the front door of our hotel.

Walking south towards Dufftown, we caught occasional wafts of whisky on the wind. It wasn’t the smell of our own breath, it was a reminder of the 2% of alcohol that evaporates from the barrels into the air. The whisky-makers call it the angel’s share.

The following weekend, we took our whisky appreciation to the next level with an in-depth but relaxed weekend at the Turnberry hotel. Our itinerary mixed the educational with the recreational, rewarding our attention through a two-hour

history lesson with a six-course meal that arrived, rather dangerously, with a different whisky for every course.

Ken Grier from Macallan began our whisky crash course with a few tips on nosing, which, it turns out, is a far more delicate business than just shoving your nose into the glass and inhaling. The first gentle sniff lets the nose adjust, a second allows the alcohol fumes to enter the nostrils, and a third lungful lets the whisky begin its full assault on the senses. After half an hour, we were correctly identifying notes of dried fruit, cinnamon, caramel, sherry and — my own personal addition — Magic Marker pens.

By our third and final day I was correctly identifying brands of whisky on appearance and smell alone. Considering I had been drinking the stuff mixed with fizzy drinks a few weeks earlier, this seemed fairly impressive progress.

After Grier passed on the recipes for a few cocktails involving tequila, pear liqueur, honey and lemon juice, I was starting to rethink my outdated image of whisky. Whoever said it was something enjoyed by old men in leather chairs? This twentysomething has seen the future — and it’s amber.

Details: The Craigellachie hotel (www.craigellachie.com; 01340 881204) has double rooms from £130 per night. The Turnberry hotel (www.turnberry.co.uk; 01655 331 000) has whisky weekends for £580, based on two sharing. Dinner, whisky and a champagne reception are included.

The Glenfiddich distillery (www.glenfiddich.com; 01340 820 373) is open weekdays and tours are free. A more in-depth connoisseurs tour costs £12

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