Whisky on My Mind: Tracing a Food & Wine Classic back to its source in the Highlands of Scotland
Special to The Aspen Times
It was actually The Viking (my Yankee-in-Europe), not I, who had been invited to visit an historic whisky making business in the Scottish Highlands, namely the Glenfiddich Distillery located in Dufftown in Speyside. Still privately owned and operated by the William Grant Company, the invite had come directly from a descending family member, and since we were both in London for different reasons, we figured we should grab the opportunity gratefully and take a quick mini break to Scotland.
Coming fresh off the Food & Wine Classic, where Glenfiddich often has a huge presence, I was still in the mood to learn about new food and beverages. Plus, the last time I was in Scotland, I stayed at Skibo Castle, the American industrialist Andrew Carnegie’s former home. At the time, it was a luxury hotel, and Madonna had gotten married there. I’d stayed to write about it for “In Style” magazine. So, it had been a while.
The plane from London took an hour, versus an eight-hour train ride (my preferred and more genteel route up to Scotland). Though more scenic, it was far less suited to a fast jaunt.
Mother Nature put on some archetypal Scottish weather as we landed: moody skies, dramatic cloud formations and wind that reshaped them fast.
Suddenly the previous smells of peat and fireplaces and the colors and elegance of all the indoors and outdoors I’d seen of Scotland before rushed back: wind-swept horse-riding, golf, falconry, paneled living rooms, velvet-lined libraires and strange but delicious Scots food. My only whisky memory? A glass I’d poured from the castle’s bedroom cut-glass decanter to sip while soaking in the claw-foot bathtub after being caught in sideways-rain on a bike ride. I remember it warmed me but knew not what I was drinking. Time to get thee to a tasting and take good notes.
We were lucky to be privately hosted on site at Glenfiddich. The distillery is an hour from Inverness in Dufftown (‘Duff-ton’). Visitors would normally make their way to a local hotel like Dowans in Arbelour or the new 1881 in Archiestown, but many simply pass through on multi-distillery tours. These are sleepy villages and hamlets, so don’t expect rip-roaring partying or dining outside of specified hours. You’re in the boonies, albeit some very scenic and historic ones.
Glenfiddich has an archivist, Andy Fairgrieve, who was kind enough to have a welcoming pub supper with us. We learned about the beginnings of whisky production and its move from earlier conception further south to rural north with the arrival of the railways.
Strolling across the compound the next morning, the grounds and gardens were so stunning they could win ribbons in a horticulture contest. Lauren, our guide, was waiting at the visitors’ center.
Two tours are available: one at 20 pounds, (1.5 hours) with a tasting at the end, and a longer one like ours, 60 pounds (2+ hours) named the Solera Deconstructed Tour. This in-depth visit follows the entire making of the favorite Solera Glenfiddich 15-year-old whisky, at the end of which, you play Malt Master and mix your own blend. Glenfiddich was the first distillery to give tours and just celebrated its 50th year, still giving up to nine a day.
Lauren’s softer Scottish accent we could understand as she primed us with background of the late 1880s Whisky Wars. With disputes over licenses, black-market product and threats of physical human harm, whisky was always valuable, and this historical frame gave us deep respect for William Grant, the owner of Glenfiddich. He’d toiled 20 years in the industry first and secured an incredible 1,200 acres of land, including the Robbie Dhu spring (the water is still used today), integral to the workings from the beginning.
We meandered through the property, learning facts about the mash houses, how 160 tons of previously malted barley arrives daily, how it’s broken into starch and sugar and the halting of the sprouting barley. The ‘grist,’ or ground malted barley that’s made in mills on-site, starts its process in the copper and stainless-steel mash ‘tuns,’ and you get a first-hand view of this. Here, it’s introduced to hot water to create ‘wort,’ which is in turn drained through a cooler.
Smelling the ‘draft,’ or left-over mash (traditionally fed to animals on farms, and now recycled as truck biofuel), brought back memories of my childhood, of feeding ponies a hot grain mash on brutal English winter evenings. When I told Lauren, her eyes lit up.
“These smells evoke all kinds of personal things,” she said.
We lingered in the tun rooms, where the fermentation was taking place in 48 wooden wash backs, and, where for approximately 70 hours, creamed yeast that’s been added sets about aiding the fermentation. Amazingly, we could peek inside for a view of the bubbling. I felt drunk in here, where the smell of alcohol permeated. After three days, the liquid known as ‘wash’ has become 8% alcohol by volume with a by-product of carbon-dioxide.
The wash backs were my favorite process to witness. Made of pure Douglas fir, they’re still craftsman made and, as such, are fixed or repaired in situ, and they can’t be moved out. Such working history in front of us.
The most commonly seen parts of whisky-making are the stillhouses, with copper vessels of differing shapes and styles to collect different vapors and evaporations. I had no idea there were two distinct and different distillations. The heat and smell intoxicated. It’s not until the second distillation that a 70% alcohol by volume of clear liquid known as “new make spirit” (not called whisky until it reaches maturation, which takes a minimum of three years) is collected and known as “The Heart.” We glimpsed the “fore shots,” or too-strong first run-off of the second process, and the “feints” drawn off for not being strong enough (less than 70%). This was whisky making 101. Such a complicated process! It seemed amazing that Glenfiddich crafts a whopping 21-milion liters a year.
The warehouses, full of maturing barrels and marrying tuns, were like a time warp. Storing whisky in various American, European and New Oak wood is all critically part of the process.
Seeing the Solera vat at the far end gave the ultimate, intimate feel of this privately owned business.
“Every bottle of 15-year Glenfiddich Solera has passed through that vat,” Lauren said.
That’s when it sank in: All the international locations everywhere — at the Caribou Club, and yes, the St. Regis and Campo and Steak House 316 and The Limelight and The Wild Fig — they all stock it, and all of it sits right here in this room in that vat for no less than 15 years. Ah, the patience!
I couldn’t stop giggling when I heard about the “angels’ share,” or volume lost to evaporation, within barrels over the maturation. Angels helping themselves, partying in the rafters was a good story. It was here, too, that we learned about Glenfiddich’s artists-in-residence program.
Jimmy Dean, a sculptor that The Viking knew previously, would later take us to his outdoor workshop where we marveled at his pandemic-viewpoint creations generated from discarded barrels, which all smelled delicious. (His work can be seen on Instagram at @JamesDean200015.)
One such artist saw it fit to bury a barrel for 100 years with a note in a bottle mounted on the wall in the log room.
The tasting that ensued was like a science experiment, glass tumblers and all. It was a chance to taste “new spirit” before aging and a selection of blends to create your own nuanced bottle.
Afterwards, we ate a snack in the distillery’s velvet-couched lounge, The Whisky Bar, where visitors can linger for a longer tasting or some light fare.
That afternoon, we walked the mile footpath over to Dufftown and back, past the relic of Balvenie Castle and got close and personal with friendly Highland cattle and sheep that the path traversed.
As we walked, my mind flashed to the pre-pandemic Food & Wine of June 2019 where I remembered seeing Monkey Shoulder, another limited batch William Grant whisky at the Wine at the Mine party and the ginormous shiny silver cocktail shaker revolving, angled on a tractor-trailer. Lauren had briefly shown us inside the small-batch sheds in Grant’s other on-site smaller distillery, Balvenie, where fires were fueled by peat and coal and Barley became flavored as it dried. The name “monkey-shoulder” referred to the injury malters historically suffered using barley shiels to hand-turn the grain. I’d remembered the shovel as an iconic label.
The promo-cocktail was labeled “play with your whisky,” and I remembered the deliciousness of the smoky Ginger Monkey: stacks of ice, fresh orange and cold dry ginger ale — a true new-world-old-world drink.
The following day, we hiked up Ben Rinnes, a mountain about 20 minutes away in some questionable weather. With purple heather blowing hard like hair and almost losing footing, we got wind, sun and showers in rotation. It was exposed and scenic, about the length of two Smugglers and winding as steeply up, with a great view. The walk is a favorite of the locals.
Our last meal was at The Highlander Inn back near Glenfiddich, in Craigellachie. Meals are typically soup, sandwiches or fish and chips washed down with cider or local beer before beating a path to the airport. With no checked bags, we bought miniatures of Glenfiddich to fit in TSA baggies, and the name will forever resonate when I see it on global travels. I may even pop into the celebrious outposts of The Jerome, The W, Jing or The Nell for a Ginger Monkey, where Monkey Shoulder is on hand.
Susan Redstone is a British-born, Aspen-based writer, author and broadcaster. Her fashion, lifestyle and travel contributions appear in “The Sunday Times,” “The Times of London,” “The New York Times,”“The New York Post,” “ELLE,” “In Style” and many more. She has appeared on dozens of local and national television affiliates, such as CNN’s HLN, PIX 11 New York, KTLA Los Angeles and WGN Chicago, talking fashion and style. She can be reached at Girlontvnow@yahoo.com
NOTE: Glenfiddich Distillery is closed Monday and Tuesdays even in high season, and the Whisky Bar and Visitors Center is only open for walk-ins at certain times. Glenfiddich.com