Monday, March 24, 2008

The Angel's Share

The train trip up to Edinburgh was pretty spectacular. I figured it would be the apex of my trip. Then, we went to Glenturret. Now, if you click on that link, it will take you to the Famous Grouse’s web site. And if you are me, you’d turn your nose up. Because Famous Grouse is a blended Scotch Whisky. I had a customer outside of Memphis who once bought a bottle of Famous Grouse for me when I visited his home. I was a snob. I drank some, but inside I was thinking “SWILL”, because you see, I drink single malt whisky. When Dilly booked us a tour of their distillery – I was politely interested. Here she was, going out of her way, to do something for me – and only for me, as she isn’t a scotch drinker, and I was being difficult.

Early on Saturday morning (as we go through the trip, you'll begin to notice this is a common refrain), we caught a cab to the bus station, and boarded a bus to Perth. There we caught another, local bus, into Crieff – and then we asked them to drop us off at the bottom of the hill, where the distillery was located. Although it was only 58 miles from Edinburgh to Crieff, it took us four and a half hours to get there. At the bottom of the hill, this sign greeted us. Internally I was all <puke> blended scotch and a stupid grouse sign. Dilly insisted on a picture. You can see that EXTERNALLY, I wasn’t looking too thrilled either. In fact, you might say I was "grousing". (If you're a member of the Mitter family, right at this very moment you are saying, "Look! It's Mitter's vacation smile!")

But when we got there, and paid for the “Warehouse No. 9 Experience”, I was beginning to think maybe I’d have to change my tune. First, there were only four other people on this particular tour. They only do it once a day. They’re the only distillery in Scotland to be doing “warehouse” tours. And? The Assistant Managing Director, Richard, was giving the tour. I was slightly more hopeful at this point.

We were slightly early for the tour – so we wandered around the grounds – and through the gift shop. It was here, that I first began to realize that “Famous Grouse” is the Mother Ship of their branding empire. But ALSO part of this empire was Glenturret, Highland Park, and Macallan single malt Scotches. I was slightly more interested. When we met the four men who’d be accompanying us – I was even more intrigued. Turns out three of them were from France, one was from England. Shortly after arriving at the door of No. 9, we introduced ourselves, and that’s when I learned the oldest man from France was celebrating his 70th birthday … and the other three men? The Englishman and two other Frenchmen? They were his sons-in-law.

To say they were all charming and lots of fun, would to be very understated and English about the whole thing. Stepping into the dark warehouse, I had no idea what was in store for us. A quick, deep breath in, and air, redolent with the perfume of Scotch, aisled my nose. Walking in slightly further, we could hear tinkling water – and see some staked casks. Slowly Richard stepped forward, and with a torch (flashlight), he illuminated a table that had six bottles on it. Slowly, he moved each bottle on the table to a specific position, and a spotlight, would highlight a whisky barrel. A 12 & 15 year old Glenturret, a 18 and 21 year Highland Park, and finally, a 25 and 30 year Macallan!! (The Granddaddy of Scotch - awarded the "Best Malt in the World Award, 2004)

I couldn’t determine if I was breathing deeply because of the fabulous aroma – or because I knew that soon – heaven would be sliding down my throat. After discussing the process of malting oats, using and not using, peat fires, and what types of barrels Scotch is aged in, Richard turned to the other side of the room, grabbed a small snifter, and opened the tap on a small cask. “You can have as much or little of each of these as you wish,” he said handing one to each member of the group. "If you don’t like one, you don’t have to drink it. We’ll taste in stages." Just like a wine tasting, the education began.

Look at the color, warm the base of the vessel in your hand. Nose the whisky. What do you smell? In some cases it was young, just-ripe oranges, mature sun warmed oranges, pineapple, cinnamon, cloves, even lavender. For me, this was one of the most fun parts. I don’t think I have a particularly good nose, but as he asked what we were smelling, I was the one who said pineapple first – and also apricots, and cloves – which pleased me, because maybe I sense more than I realize!

After the sniff, we watched the “legs” form. This is the alcohol that runs down the side of the glass once it’s been swirled. The higher the alcohol content, the slower these legs are to form, and the more they bead, than run. It was interesting to see them gather quickly in the 12 year old stuff, and have to wait and be patient for the 25 and 30 year old stuff to display.

Finally – taste. Notice that the younger, slightly sweeter, Scotches hit the front of your tongue, the middle ones – with a slightly salty taste the sides, and the oldest – those with the smoothest – and longest finish to develop are tasted at the back of your mouth.

After the first taste of the 12 year old Scotch, he discussed how people like to drink their elixir. Some, just like we had, straight up. Others, prefer a dash of water – or an ice-cube or two. And with that, one more spotlight came on – and there, pouring out for a granite fountain, was water from the spring-head of Loch Turret. "Splash a little in, see what it does to the aroma, the legs, and the taste," he encouraged. It was interesting to see how the whiskies opened up – and developed into something slightly different. The best way to drink them? The way you like them best!

Mindful that we were starting this experience at noon – and with only a bus pastry and cup of coffee to start the day, I went slow. After the first taste, Richard confessed, he rarely drank more than that first sip, until he got to the 30 year stuff. And then said, "Here’s the secret." And with that – off in a dark corner of the warehouse, he dashed the remaining 12 year old scotch onto the wood floor and granite walls of the building, set down the glass, picked up another one, and prepared us for our next sip of heaven.

Evaporation is something that occurs to all liquids housed in permeable vessels. Here, at Glenturret, the 100 liter casks (26.4 US gallons), will evaporate approximately ½ of their liquid in 30 years time. This share, just as in wine, is known as the “Angels Share”. I’m telling you, if I make it to heaven, and God assigns me to Angel duty – it better be over the workers at a Scottish distillery.

Besides the great tasting, the tour, and our guide, I cannot fail again to mention how charming our companions were. It is possible, and very uncharacteristic of me, that I might have flirted. But come on, shouldn’t all Gallic 70 year olds be kissed on the cheek by a red-head? I’ve always been told it’s good luck. *grins slyly* Or at least that’s what I TELL them! After we finished the tasting in No. 9, we rejoined the public tour (those poor, poor souls), where we walked through the actual distilling process, and then ended up in yet another tasting room. It is also possible I flirted outrageously, and made wildly suggestive comments to one of the French sons-in-law. True, I don’t speak much French, but it appears tone of voice, a quick smile, and sudden laugh can convey a lot.

At the end, Dilly and I headed back down the hill to the town of Crieff, where we at the lunch we brought along – and then took the buses back to Edinburgh. I was tempted to tell her THIS IS THE HIGHLIGHT of the trip. Nothing can be better – but, I knew in a few hours I’d be meeting my Scottish friends, and so I merely told her, over and over again, THANK YOU. That was wonderful. A once in a life-time experience. THANK YOU for making sure it happened. THANK YOU for figuring out all the buses and times tables. THANK YOU for being my friend.

Next story – the Edinburgh meet up – or OMG – DO THESE PEOPLE NEVER SLEEP??


Bob said...

I don't have the palette to appreciate the finer notes of scotch, but I think I would've enjoyed it as much as you did. I always appreciate such high-caliber craftsmanship.

CG said...

I like that, "The Angels Share". Explains how my guardian angel can handle some of the choices I make. Oh, and keep warm up here!

Anonymous said...

You, flirt with the men ??? Pshaw ! tp

Anonymous said...

D.O.T.O.R. will be soooo jealous! He will read this in the morning for sure.
Glad you are home and had such fun. I can't imagine any better birthday present that to have a kiss on the cheek by a redhead!

Geggie said...

Not a scotch fan myself. I went to the same distillery with my parents as a child. Crieff...there is a fabulous fish and chip shop there. Best I ever had!

A couple of years ago, I went to Scotland with my dad and did more scotch tastings, Oban and others, still don't like it.

Gina Elizabeth said...

Alrighty Missy!!!! It's been five days and no new postings! I know you're catching up and all, but I'm ready for another blog entry.

I love you!!!

Woodstock said...

Brave, brave soul. According to my friends in Glasgow the scariest thing you can do in Scotland is take a train anywhere :)

Glad you enjoyed your trip!

Jonathan's Dad said...

OK... now you've done it. Did you smuggle any barrels out so that you may ship them home? Tasting at your house, when?!