Preparing for Strathearn Distillery’s 5-Day Whisky School

by Keith Savage · 5 comments

Loch Earn on a February evening

I’ve been to north of 40 distilleries in Scotland and nearly gained a degree in the theory and process behind making single malt Scotch whisky. Perhaps it was inevitable that I would contract an overpowering desire to put that knowledge into practice, to see if I could make whisky like the passionate wonder-workers manning stills across Alba. This past February and March I engineered an opportunity to do just that while working at a distillery for a full week. I had arranged the trip with the Strathearn Distillery guys, who I had met just a few months prior in November, and my good friend Jeff, a purveyor of fine drams who works as a professional brewer here in Madison, Wisconsin.

I wrote a brief trip recap directly after I had returned home, but this post is intended to set the stage for a much more detailed five-post series recapping each day at the distillery. Let’s start with a little backstory.

Strathearn is not your average Scottish distillery. They are tiny, probably the smallest distillery in Scotland they like to say, and operate on a farm using traditional methods — that means no computers, among other things. They produce whisky, but at this point in their life cycle they’re more well-known for their various gins, like their Heather Rose gin. Rum is their next big entrant to the market as rum bars are exploding across Scotland and Strathearn’s head distiller, Liam Pennycook, happens to have a taste for the spirit. Tony Reeman-Clark, the distillery’s founder and itinerant sorcerer, has experimented with loads of other spirits from Genever to beer brand to cider brandy, but whisky is the reason Strathearn exists.

I figured the week would be cold and occasionally physically demanding. I remembered the stillhouse being a stone barn without heat, which is usually good because stillhouses can get very warm, but Strathearn’s stills are quite small and don’t give off enough heat to combat the late February/early March chill. I packed accordingly, gave my liver a pep talk, and together Jeff and I flew out of Chicago for Edinburgh. Upon landing we picked up our rental car and immediately drove north into Perthshire, visiting Deanston distillery, Loch Voil, and Rob Roy’s grave on our way to Comrie, where I had rented an apartment for the week.

Comrie is an attractive little Perthshire town wedged between Crieff and Loch Earn. I liked its situation because it allowed easy access to Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park while still being close enough to Strathearn, which sits on a farm between Crieff and Perth. The town is mostly a single street with a few right angles, and over the course of the week we explored several eating establishments and bars, though we often found ourselves in the Royal Hotel and Royal Bar, just around the corner from our abode. There are some old stones on the outskirts of Comrie and great hikes like the Deil’s Cauldron leading up into the hills, but, alas, there wasn’t much time for hiking. This trip was about whisky, both making and drinking it.

We stayed at the Rennie Mackintosh Retreat, a tidy and comfortable two-storey apartment with two bedrooms and two bathrooms. The great little kitchen, coal fireplace, and wifi made this a welcome retreat in the evenings. We actually couldn’t find Jeff’s shower for a minute — it was hidden behind a strange door — and it involved what was essentially a bathtub in a converted closet. Hilarity ensued.

We had a free day before the beginning of whisky school, so I organized a visit to Tullibardine distillery (post forthcoming) that turned out to be quite serendipitous. We had a private tour with another whisky connoisseur, Christian Perez-Solar, the production manager at Arbikie and one-time head distiller at none other than Strathearn! On our way out we picked up a house bottle of Tullibardine’s The Murray, an incredibly good cask-strength offering.

With Sunday’s remaining daylight we decided to attempt a climb up Dundurn, one of southern Pictland’s great Dark-Age strongholds, despite the driving rain. There were some slips and falls, a lot of soaked clothing, and finally a grim capitulation. The rocky eminence was beautiful in the ragged cloud nevertheless.

Back at the retreat we dried out by the coal fire and went to bed early as would any sensible person going to work at a distillery the next day.

Except we didn’t.

We cracked open The Murray and said goodbye to most of him that night. The next morning we…well, that’s a tale for the first day of whisky school at Strathearn Distillery.

Stay tuned!

Joanie MurrayNo Gravatar August 16, 2017 at 7:48 AM

Looking forward to your upcoming recap series. What a wonderful opportunity to learn from the ground up!

Glad you mentioned Deanston. Although we didn’t tour the distillery, we stopped for an excellent lunch, and bought a bottle of their 10 year, and enjoyed it very much.

I’m also intrigued by The Murray – may have to investigate further.

Thanks, as always, for a descriptive, informative post.

Slainte mhath

Keith SavageNo Gravatar August 16, 2017 at 8:28 AM

Cheers, Joanie. The next installment in the Strathearn series is coming today.

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