Speyside Road Trip: The Preamble (Glengoyne, Deanston, Tullibardine)

After two previous visits to Scotland that were part of tagging along to various friends’ plans, my wife and I finally planned a Speyside trip that was exclusively whisky-related. It involved driving up from deepest mid-Hertfordshire to the town of Aberlour, with overnight stops in Moffat and Dundee along the way (the former to split the drive, the latter to see friends). The itinerary would see us spend Sunday night in Moffat, Monday in Dundee, Tuesday to Thursday in Aberlour, and Edinburgh on Friday before returning home on Sunday. A full five days in Scotland, in other words, with almost a full three days in Speyside. Moffat is a beautiful place, incidentally – we stayed at Hartfell House B&B, and both the room and the hosts were delightful. I’d love to spend more time in Moffat in a more leisurely way.

But enough preamble to the preamble. The main purpose was whisky, and as we were not in a hurry to get to Dundee, there was enough time to take in some distilleries. The only planned events were a tasting at Aberlour on Tuesday, a tour at Knockdhu on Wednesday and a tour/tasting at Aberfeldy on the way back down on Friday – the rest was set aside for more spontaneous visits. After seeing there were free spots on Deanston’s Warehouse 4 tasting, we decided to aim for that. There was still time to drop by Glengoyne before that, though not as much as I’d hoped – we were delayed by the mud brought on to the road by the torrential rain. In any case, the distillery shop looked busy because of a coach-load of tourists, and there didn’t seem to be any distillery exclusives available. I will say, however, that Glengoyne remains the best-smelling distillery I’ve ever visited – there always seems to be this beautiful fresh, fruity and floral smell around the grounds.

The main event of the day was the Deanston Warehouse 4 tour. The distillery wasn’t busy at all – the bad weather and the fact that the cafe is closed on Mondays meant there weren’t any locals there – and apart from a couple of people browsing the shop, it was just me and Brian, the tour guide. I say ‘tour guide’ – as he explained, Brian does a bit of everything at the distillery, from working the shop to unloading casks, so it was a bonus to have a one-to-one tasting with him at the warehouse and chat all things Deanston.

Unfortunately, the bad weather meant we couldn’t take more attractive photos of the distillery – the location is certainly very evocative with the river Teith flowing right on the other side of the road. No warehouse photos either I’m afraid, so you’ll have to make do just with my description. Brian leisurely showed me around the warehouse, where they keep some really unique casks – not just of Deanston: there was a Littlemill cask from the 1970s for instance still maturing, and they also had a Lagavulin cask. The drams at the tasting were suitably varied: a Bourbon cask from 2008, an Organic Oloroso from 2009, and a Pedro Ximenez cask from 1997 – that’s right, whisky fully matured in PX for 25 years.

Predictably, we started with the Bourbon one – even though it was first fill, it was quite sharp and grassy when tasted neat. There were however enough hints of fruit for me to enjoy it – mainly citrus and unripe stone fruits. Water had the expected transformative effect, making it much sweeter – on that traditional Deanston honey and cereal note, vanilla, and more pronounced fruity notes. Right up my street, in other words. The Organic Oloroso was full of dark chocolate and Christmas cake notes, but became increasingly bitter and spicy, something that Oloroso-matured whisky is prone to. I wanted to love it, especially since Brian was clearly very enthusiastic about it, but it didn’t quite click for me.

As for the 1997 PX, it was completely unique, unlike any other whisky I’ve tasted. Boldly sweet but not cloying, it was full of milk chocolate and cinnamon notes and had a sumptuous, mouth-coating texture. In many ways the finish was the most memorable – starting out sweet and spicy, before gradually evolving into what Brian very accurately described as mint, almost like a fresh toothpaste note at the back of your tongue. Completely singular and fascinating, in other words. It was my joint-favourite along with the 2008 Bourbon.

The shop had 200ml bottles of those two – £30 for the Bourbon and £45 for the PX. It may have been a bit overpriced for the size but I did get a bottle of the former as a souvenir, and I got to keep the beautiful Glencairn copita from the tasting. £45 was just a bit too much to justify for a bottle of that size, especially since I wanted to save my budget for Speyside, not to mention the fact that whisky can taste very different at home compared to in the warehouse when it’s surrounded by the fragrance of all the maturing casks. Incidentally, Brian and Gregor at the shop also offered me samples from the Deanston Stout Cask Finish and Edition 1 of the Deanston Chronicles Series (this generosity will become a recurring theme of this visit to Scotland). The latter is made up of an intriguing combination of casks: 1977 refill Bourbon, 1994 Madeira, 2004 Amontillado and 2011 first-fill Bourbon. It was very good indeed, and I may well be tempted to buy it from the distillery’s online shop soon.

I got to keep the Glencairn copita from the tasting

Tullibardine is only about 20 minutes from Deanston and on the way to Dundee, and offered welcome respite from the unremitting storm (by now there was so much rain it was impossible to take any photos). The shop and visitor centre looked very new – I assume they opened it at some point after the distillery changed ownership around ten years ago. Unsurprisingly given the weather, we were the only ones in the shop, and we were welcomed very enthusiastically by Ian, who told us about their main range and showed us the two distillery exclusives (I didn’t pay much attention to the latter because they cost more than I was willing to spend). He was also generous enough to offer me a pour of the Tullibardine 15 year-old, which I’ve wanted to try for a while now. In all honesty, it didn’t blow me away – it had some of those persistent bubblegum notes that I sometimes find in Bourbon-matured whisky (see this Auchentoshan or this Glen Garioch). Then again, trying it so soon after those singular Deanstons meant it didn’t get a proper chance to impress me.

That’s all the whisky-related activities of the day wrapped up – coming up next: day 1 in Speyside with a tasting at Aberlour.

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