The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft a-gley. So spaketh Robert Burns, and the words are as true today as they were in 1785 when he wrote them. I had intended to write a dispatch from Comrie last week, in the middle of my stint at the Strathearn Distillery whisky school, but I had not anticipated the intensity of the experience nor the frequency with which drinks were consumed in the evenings. One might say I had forgotten what a bro trip was like — the last one was my first trip to Europe back in 2003 — and I hope you will forgive my absence here last week. In my defense, I was active most days on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. If you’re curious what the trip was like in photos, check out those streams.
I returned home this past Sunday from a wonderful experience. The journey was built around attending Strathearn’s 5-day whisky school, and there was precious little time for anything else. Most days Jeff and I were at the distillery for ten hours, leaving our apartment in Comrie in the morning and returning just as the last light fled the Perthshire skies. During those five days we were hands-on, manually doing just about every job you could find on a small, traditional, farm distillery. Nothing is automated at Strathearn: We humped all the 25kg malted barley sacks up to the mezzanine, emptied them in the grist hopper, stirred the mash with wooden paddles, raked out the draff into tubs and hauled them away, pitched the yeast into the fermenters, adjusted steam to the stills with hand valves, collected low wines, spirit, and feints in plastic containers and moved them to their receivers, made cuts by taste and smell, diluted spirit, filled barrels using buckets and funnels, and even hand-bottled the finished product.
There isn’t a better way to learn how to make whisky than the traditional way with no reliance on automation. The workflows became ingrained, and by the end of the week we both felt like we could run the stillhouse. A lot of that is thanks to the guys at Strathearn who welcomed us immediately and made excellent teachers. We stepped into their world and they allowed us to do the work. In fact, day one involved bottling Strathearn’s second-ever whisky, a task that required a surprisingly even hand and more than a little concentration. We’re working with small amounts by industry standards, so any slip-up like a dropped pitcher or bottle of whisky is no small error. I appreciated that level of trust and feel good that we repaid them with earnest, solid work.
They also fed us whisky. A couple of days during the week they picked us up in Comrie (not the closest town) and brought us in so we could do some tasting without irresponsibly driving home. Strathearn is making some damn good spirits, from whisky to gin to rum and a host of styles in between. By the end of the week, as we bottled the whisky we made and would take home, I couldn’t help feeling a little blue. It was that feeling you get when you know a special experience is ending, one that you will remember through all the sunsets yet to come.
Comrie turned out to be a surprisingly nice little town in a beautiful part of Perthshire close to Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park. Though we didn’t have the time to do many of the hikes or visit really any of the local sites I’d noted in preparation, I was impressed once again with the variety of scenery and culture in Perthshire. I will be back to visit the Royal Hotel and the Comrie Café, and maybe this time I’ll participate in trivia night at the Royal Bar.
There’s loads yet to say about this trip, and down the road I will be producing a five-part series — one for each day of the school — that goes into detail about the experience. I’ve still got a lot to write about from my North Coast 500 trip last spring and my visit to Perthshire in November, so stay tuned here, crack open a bottle of single malt, and start dreaming about your visit to Scotland.