When I pulled into the small parking lot at Aberlour Distillery in Scotland’s Speyside region, I stood where I’d stood five years ago with Sarah on our first proper spin through Scotland. I stood where my family and I stood two years ago when we simply had to come back, this time with the fam. I stood where St. Drostan stood some 1,500 years ago. He started a Celtic settlement here, along the Lour burn, and among his many skills was, perhaps, the production of spirits.
Liquid spirits, that is.
The druids worshipped oak and water; today, many of us worship oak and water too, we just call this practice drinking whisky.
There’s history and there’s history, and Aberlour Distillery is loaded with the latter. On this visit, my third in five years, it felt a bit like coming home. Aberlour has a regular place on my whisky shelf back at Traveling Savage HQ, and I also knew several employees by name. Sadly, some had moved to other areas of the Chivas Brothers organization, like Chris, our fantastic Canadian guide from 2009. I was excited to be back – I consider Aberlour’s tasting tour to be one of the very best I’ve experienced. But I wouldn’t be rehashing old experiences. In the previous two years, Aberlour had introduced a Founder’s Tour that specially caters to the whisky connoisseur and goes even further behind the scenes.
I met with Jonathan, the guide, and Jennifer, communications manager for Chivas Brothers, upon entering the gift shop, and I received a personal tour since the others who had booked never showed. The Founder’s Tour is a commitment: it last three hours, requires booking, and only happens on Wednesday and Thursday. A light rain fell in spats as we strolled between the distillery’s white-washed buildings to the classy Fleming Rooms. There, Jonathan poured me a dram – an unusual, obvious, and excellent way to kick off the tour.
Aberlour produces a little more than three million liters per year – not a huge amount – but it’s the leading brand in France, the world’s biggest Scotch market. Perhaps as a result, Aberlour is the seventh most popular malt whisky in the world. If you happen to live in France, count your blessings – Aberlour tests their new bottlings in France first.
I don’t put much stock in rankings since organizations with huge distribution networks can easily peddle sub-par spirits the world over, but I stand behind Aberlour. The 10 Year and now 12 Year expressions are easy to find in the USA, affordable, and delicious. The A’bunadh, Aberlour’s cask strength offering, might be the best whisky for your money. I don’t say that lightly.
I was reminded just how delicious as we entered the attractive tasting room with barrels aging on the other side of glass. I want to build a replica of this room in my basement. Glencairn glasses bedecked the tables next to little dishes filled with truffles from Olive Tree Chocolates. This was to be my first whisky and chocolate pairing, and it kicked off with a sample of newmake spirit – unaged whisky – with a dark chocolate raspberry bite. The newmake is in the neighborhood of an eye-watering 70% ABV, but I was surprised to detect the malty and fresh berry notes that are apparent in the aged whisky. The chocolate pleasantly brought these flavors to the fore.
Of particular note during the tasting were a couple of single-cask cask strength beauties not available outside the tasting room. One was aged in a Bourbon barrel, the other in a Sherry butt, and the flavors were so powerful that the taste of alcohol faded to the background. This is the type of whisky to aspire to, though I wouldn’t recommend it as an introduction to single malts because the burn will be too prevalent for unprepared palates.
We had one final stop after the tasting: a visit to the warehouse where Jonathan “walked the dog.” Before your mind wanders, let me explain. A “dog” is a tall, narrow metal cylinder on a chain that unscrupulous distillery workers would hide in their trousers at work. When no one was looking, they’d dip the dog into a cask of whisky and pull out their personal, duty-free sample. Jonathan dipped a dog into an open cask in the warehouse and poured us some whisky. It’s quite unlike anything you’ll taste from the bottle and it makes you wonder why all whisky doesn’t taste this way. Strong, bursting with flavors, complex, warming, evolving: these are the hallmarks of unchill-filtered, unadultered cask-strength whisky direct from the cask.
After the tour I chatted with Ann, one of the brand managers for Aberlour. My visit had coincided with the void after the marvelous Spirit of Speyside whisky festival. I’d made a hard choice to visit the Shetland Folk Festival this year, but I’ve vowed to attend the 2012 Spirit of Speyside festival on May 3-7.
In my mind, I picture hordes of modern druids worshipping their oak and water all along the River Spey. Just my kind of party.
Full Disclosure: Aberlour provided me with a complimentary Founder’s Tour. Warehouse photo courtesy of Chivas Brothers Ltd.