Speyside Road Trip Postlude: Aberfeldy

After the brief stop at the Arctic climes of Dalwhinnie, it was time for the planned activity of the day: a tour and tasting at Aberfeldy. I had booked the Connoisseurs’ Tour, which seemed good value at £26.50 (I see it’s now up to £30 – not sure if that’s permanent or whether it’s due to the high season). When I booked it, it was a bit unclear what it offered – it did list five drams in the tasting, but I couldn’t tell if they were of single cask Aberfeldy or not. The website has been changed now to clarify the description – it’s not all single casks (that would’ve been too good to be true at that price), but still good value nonetheless.

Like Strathisla, Aberfeldy is the designated home of a famous blend – Dewar’s in this case, as you can see from the photos. It’s certainly more picturesque than your average distillery.

The visitor centre is very spacious and smartly decorated and comprises a cafe, shop, and bar, which you can see below. This is reminiscent of Glen Moray, except that the Aberfeldy visitor centre is much bigger, which comes both with advantages and disadvantages, as you’ll see in a bit. The bar offers various tasting flights – from the Aberfeldy core range to an extensive selection of Dewar’s blends, as well as whisky from the sister distilleries of Craigellachie, Aultmore, Royal Brackla, and Macduff (Glen Deveron).

We arrived at around lunchtime and it was really empty, so it was perfect timing for some food before the tour. As we were eating, I spotted that a cask which I thought was ornamental was actually for hand-bottling. A closer look revealed that it was rather good value for money – £120 for a 2002 Bourbon cask. In other words, less than the 15 year-old Glenfiddich, 12 year-old Dalwhinnie or 9 year-old Glenkinchie. In fact, it’s good value for a 19-20 year-old single cask full stop. I was impressed by the sample offered – the nose was full of ripe fruit akin to the 16 year-old Strathisla I had tried earlier on the trip (and had regretted not buying), so I wasted no time in getting a bottle.

The timing was particularly good, since just as I finished paying for it, a coachload of tourists arrived – not unusual given that it’s the home of Dewar’s after all. That made for a rather chaotic atmosphere – the big space of the visitor centre and the small number of staff (they were possibly understaffed due to the pandemic) made it difficult for customers to be seen, which resulted in big groups huddled around the cask, bar and cafe areas waiting to be served. This was also an issue at Glen Moray to an extent, although it was easier for the staff there as the space is more intimate.

As for the tour/tasting itself, it was a bit hit and miss. I had seen online that the production areas were closed, so I was expecting just the tasting after a brief talk. Instead, it started with half an hour of wandering about the ‘heritage centre’, which is more or less a history/museum of the Dewar’s brand – I can imagine this would’ve been interesting to newcomers who are there especially because of Dewar’s, but it was a bit out of place and generic as far as a distillery tour goes. Of course, some allowances have to be made – not every distillery will cater exclusively to whisky geeks, but I thought it was a bit excessive given that it was marketed as the Connoisseurs Tour with an emphasis on the Aberfeldy single malt.

This was not helped by the fact that the guide repeated a lot of information already found at the heritage centre. It was followed by a film in a former warehouse about the production process. I say ‘former warehouse’ – as the guide explained to my surprise, Aberfeldy don’t mature any of their whisky on site (in fact they’re not even licensed to do so I believe) so essentially it was a film set, complete with empty casks stacked as if it was a dunnage warehouse. As I’ve been in a lot of tours it wasn’t something I particularly minded, other than it being a bit boring, but if this was my first distillery visit I’d certainly have been disappointed. I can only speak for myself however – Trip Advisor is full of positive reviews for the Aberfeldy tours (and indeed I can see how casual whisky drinkers who are familiar only with Dewar’s would enjoy it).

After the film, we each got a sample from a 1999 Oloroso cask, which was extracted by a valinch. It was an inert cask of course (can’t remember the material the inside was lined with), but it was a bit of theatre I didn’t mind at all. The nose on this was special, but as it was at cask strength I waited until we got back to the tasting room in order to have it properly with water.

The other samples at the tasting were the Aberfeldy 12 and 21 year-olds, Dewar’s 12 and 25 year-old blends, and the Royal Brackla 18, so it was nicely varied. I was quite pleasantly surprised by the Dewar’s 12, which was very well put together – if I’m honest, it matches up to the Aberfeldy 12 quite well. The older counterparts didn’t represent significant steps up in my opinion, even though a lot of reviewers say otherwise – so on the evidence of this, I don’t see the need for an Aberfeldy 21 or Dewar’s 25 when the 12 year-olds are not inferior. (a higher strength for the Aberfeldy 21 would make it a different story, however).

I had tried the Royal Brackla 18 before (review coming soon), and I find it just a bit too sweet – it’s a finish in Palo Cortado sherry, and there are very strong dessert notes that make it a bit cloying in my opinion. The star of the show was the Aberfeldy single cask, which was Oloroso-matured whisky at its best – full of dark chocolate, coffee and mulled wine notes. If I had to be critical I would say there was nothing identifiably ‘Aberfeldy’ about it, but that would be nit-picking because it was a very good cask indeed – and 22-23 years old!

Overall then, the tasting salvaged the tour somewhat. But then again, after a brief concluding talk by the guide, we were all left alone to have the drams, and if I had less experience I’d have had no clue what to look for in each whisky and how to taste them properly. I’ll chalk it down to them being short-staffed, because otherwise it would be poor form by Aberfeldy.

But I don’t want to end on a sour note – I enjoyed the tasting and the single cask in particular, and it was good value for money given all the samples and the fact that we got to keep a Glencairn glass. Also, I was very happy to have found a hand-filled bottle of that age and quality. I’ve already had it a few times at home and I have to say it perhaps loses a few points in the excessively oaky and spicy finish – I’m no master blender myself, but I can’t help but think it would’ve been perfect if it was a couple of years younger. However, the nose and palate are very good indeed, and it’s a great showcase of a well-matured Aberfeldy at cask strength. More of that, please!

And so my whisky travelogue through Speyside and the Southern Highlands has reached its conclusion – I’ll leave you with a photo of all the bottles I brought back – hand-fills from Deanston, Glen Moray, Glenallachie and Aberfeldy, and the amazing anCnoc 24:

Not pictured: the copita from the Deanston tasting and the Glencairn from Aberfeldy.

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