Thursday 24 December 2015

Happy Christmas

Montgarrie Bridge, Aberdeenshire- December 2010

I wish you peace, health and happiness, wherever you may be this Christmas

Sunday 20 December 2015

Between gales - northern visitors

We weren't the day's first visitors to the beach at Strathmarchin Bay when we landed for lunch, a line of tracks led purposefully from one side of the bay to the other.  I assumed that they might be Otter prints but on checking properly they're almost certainly the tracks of a Fox.

The low and long-period swell coming into the beach was showing no signs of dropping away although the offshore breeze had eased quite a bit since we'd set out.  We waded out a little way and waited for the bigger sets to come through before clambering in and paddling out past the break.  I was one wave too early and got a nice refreshing shower, Allan's timing was once again much better!

The morning's wind had now dropped to almost nothing, a welcome change from what seemed to have been weeks of gales.  Most of the beaches on the coast between Strathmarchin and Sandend are stony and were exposed to the northerly swell so we decided to make a quick stop in the harbour at Portsoy.......

...where we could land easily in the outer harbour and empty our cockpits of the last of water from the surf launch. 

As we'd set out at near low water some of the channels and stacks we'd normally explore didn't have enough water on our outward leg.  At mid-flood there was more opportunity and the swell made for some fun too.... Allan's in there behind one of the hills of water......

...which were rolling through this gap - great entertainment!  The tide-line on the rock gives a good indication of the swell height.

Rounding the West Head into Sandend Bay we came across this little chap swimming close to the cliffs.

Little Auks (Alle alle) are winter visitors to the north and east coasts of the UK in small numbers and can sometimes be seen following northerly gales.  At 20cm long and weighing around 150 grams Little Auks are about the size of a Starling, by far the smallest of the European Auks and among the most numerous at an estimated 15 million breeding pairs.  The species nests on islands in the high Arctic and after the young fledge the eastern populations move to wintering areas between Iceland and Greenland along the edge of the drift ice.  It seems incredible that these tiny birds can be absolutely at home on the open sea in the savage conditions found at such high latitudes.

Probably blown downwind in the long series of gales in November, this was the first Little Auk I've seen on the Moray Firth.  Confiding and even curious, it seemed very relaxed at our close proximity and it's entirely probable that Allan and I were the first humans it has encountered.  We backed away and left the bird in peace; it will probably have quite an adventure if it's to get back on course.

Our own brief visit to the Moray Firth was nearly over; a short day snatched between gales and limited by  the seven hour day length of December.  As we paddled back into the tiny harbour at Sandend our VHF radios were receiving the maritime forecast from Aberdeen Coastguard with a warning that the next gale was "expected soon".

With impending work commitments due to take me away from home for a few months this was likely to be the last day of paddling in 2015 and it had been a really good one.

Sunday 13 December 2015

Between gales - a December day on the Moray Firth

November 2015 was so windy and unsettled that it offered very few opportunities for sea kayaking in Scotland.  There were just two days when the wind dropped below F5-6 and on both of those there was a blanket of snow with freezing temperatures across the north of the country making travel chancy.  The west coast was lashed with gale after gale and deluged with rain through the whole month.

So although there had been good days for hillwalking (which will feature in forthcoming posts), an entire month went by without getting out on the water.  Then, at last, in the first few days of December it seemed that there would be a couple of days of calm between Atlantic weather systems.  On the first of these days the swell was still considerable though the wind was light, the second day offered a good chance before the arrival of more bad weather.  We originally planned to paddle a section of the Angus coast from Auchmithie, but as Douglas and Mike couldn't make it up from the southwest Allan and I decided to paddle the Moray Firth coast instead as it was closer to home.

We met up at Sandend on a morning which was grey, chilly but relatively calm.  As the wind was forecast to be from the south we hoped to have some shelter along the north-facing coast.

As we headed out across Sandend Bay our eyes were drawn northeast across the Moray Firth to the Caithness Hills and in particular to Morven which was distorted by an unusually pronounced refractive effect and doin a very passable impression of Ailsa Craig!

We were delighted to find that the conditions were calm enough to get close in and paddle some of the channels and rock architecture which is such a feature of this part of the coast.......

...even though I paddle this route very regularly I always have difficulty locating this particular arch precisely amongst the complex maze of cliffs and channels at the west side of Portsoy Bay......

The arch is a great feature to paddle and is accessible at most states of the tide - though it's a very different proposition in any kind of northerly swell.

We continued on past the harbour at Portsoy with the intention of taking luncheon on a sandy beach in Strathmarchin Bay. 

The run-in to this beach in a bit of swell needs care as there are some submerged boulders right on the straightest line.  I avoided the rocks but managed to get a soaking in the surf as I got out of the boat - Allan landed with much more style and much less of a dousing.

Luncheon was taken sitting on a convenient baulk of timber which has been positioned as a bench above the top of the beach.  As we drank coffee and chatted we watched the sets of swells arriving on the beach with interest...we were clearly going to enjoy a sporting departure!

Friday 4 December 2015

The tradition, art and magic of a malt whisky

Our guide for the distillery tour was Andrew, who was very knowledgeable and informative - we've been on tours of other distilleries but this was by far the best. What's more we were the only visitors and it felt very much like a personal VIP visit!

As this blog features the occasional enjoyment of a dram, I thought it might be fun to feature some ofthe tradition, art and magic of malt whisky.......

Glen Grant was founded in 1840 when two brothers, James and John Grant, applied for a distilling licence.  They were no newcomers to distilling whisky by all accounts, having been involved in the production and distribution of illicit spirit for some years.  When the tax on whisky was reduced they like others sought licences and turned to legitimate distilling, using the same distribution networks which had served them so well.  Among other achievements, the Grants were involved in bringing steam railways to Speyside which further improved the infrastructure of the area.

By 1872 the founding brothers had died and the distillery was owned by a nephew, James "The Major" Grant.  A real innovator, he introduced new ideas to the distillery (it was the first to have electric light) and introduced the tall slender stills and purifiers which gave Glen Grant whisky the fresh, light character which still defines the house style.

In  1931 "The Major" was succeeded by his grandson Douglas Mackessack who further developed the business.  Notably, he supplied an Italian whisky buyer with 50 cases of Glen Grant to sell in Italy when no other distiller would; the result was that Glen Grant became, and remains, by far the best selling malt whisky in Italy.

During the period from 1972 to 2006 Glen Grant was owned by a variety of big players from the world of whisky distilling and then in turn by multinational drinks companies, reflecting the surge in popularity of Scotch malt whisky.  In 2006 the Italian connection reached a nice conclusion when Glen Grant was acquired by the Campari group.  It remains their only brand of whisky and as such has benefited from a benign ownership with respect for tradition but an eye for the future.

Having immersed ourselves in the history of the brand we moved into the distillery proper to immerse ourselves in the magical sights, sounds and aromas of whisky production.....

The primary ingredients are malted barley and pure water from the stream we'd walked along.  All the barley used for Glen Grant is all sourced from the northeast of Scotland and is first "malted" - partially germinated - in order to release fermentable sugars.  This is done by soaking the barley in water for a few days until it begins to sprout then the sprouting is arrested by drying the grains using heat.

The malted barley is then milled to small size grains called "grist" which are mixed with warm water in a large "mash tun".  The liquid produced is called "wort", the residual grains are either fed to cattle or, in a modern twist, turned over to biomass power generation.

The wort is fed into huge fermentation vessels called "washbacks" and has yeast added to it - starting the fermentation process and the conversion of sugar to alcohol, which takes about 2-4 days.

The washbacks used by Glen Grant are very traditional and are made of Oregon Pine, which they feel is a better material than the stainless steel used at some distilleries.  They are really huge, this image is showing just the very tops; each holds around 90,000 litres of fluid and is two storeys high.

The now alcoholic liquid is called "beer" and is typically around 7% alcohol - the liquid is constantly agitated by revolving blades and the fermentation process is quite energetic, producing a bubbling, heaving froth at the top of the washbacks.  If this part of the process is where the magic of whisky distilling takes places, then the next stage could almost be considered as alchemy .....

In the Still House are four pairs of copper stills consisting of four "wash stills" and four "spirit stills", giving four distillation sets.  The first stage of distillation takes place in the larger wash stills where the fully fermented wash is carefully boiled by passing steam through stainless steel pans within the still.  Alcohol vapours rise to the top of the still and are cooled before the process is repeated in the smaller spirit still (this is the double distillation process).  The alcohol is cooled in condensers on the outside of the Still House wall, cooled by water from the Spey which is diverted then returned to the river.  The residue from this part of the process is collected and used in the production of farm feed.

What sets Glen Grant apart is the addition of a Spirit Purifier between the wash and spirit stills. These were introduced by James "The Major" Grant and allow only the purest vapour to pass from the stills to the condensers, ensuring a light but complex spirit.

The elegant stills at Glen Grant are particularly tall and slender, a shape which gives finer, lighter spirits whereas shorter, fatter stills will produce a fuller and richer spirit. Each is polished and beautifully lacquered as is all the pipework.  The liquid produced from the wash still is known as "low wines", when passed through the purifier and spirit still the resulting condensed spirit is sent across the Still House to spirit "safes" where it arrives in three distinct phases.

Alcohols from the beginning of each distillation are harsh and high in alcoholic percentage, these are technically called "foreshots" but are normally referred to as the "head".  Alcohols from the end of each distillation are weak in alcoholic percentage but pungent, these are technically called "feints" but usually referred to as the "tail".

It is only the alcohol from the middle part of the distillation - known as the "heart" and of about 65-70% alcohol which is skillfully drawn off by the Stillman and collected through the spirit safes.  The head and tail are then combined and passed back to be used with the next distillation run.

So far there's been tradition, magic and a dash of alchemy in the production of the spirit, and what follows takes us into the realms of the mystical........

The spirit is poured into oak casks for storage and maturation. It must be stored in oak, in Scotland for a minimum of three years in order to be legally termed Scotch Whisky.  To be termed a "malt" whisky it must be made only from malted barley and to be termed "single" it must be produced from a single distillery.

The barrels used are of varying sizes and types - Glen Grant use mostly American Oak casks previously used for a fill of Bourbon, and some Spanish oak casks are also used, these having previously held sherry or port and which can add a nuance and character to particular "expressions" from a distillery.  Bourbon aficionados can rest easy that their drink has done its most important job of preparing the casks for a much nobler purpose!

The wood on the inside of the casks is surface charred to enable the whisky to access the character of the oak; it's said that although the water, barley and distillation process all help to determine the nature of the finished whisky, as much as half of the character is determined during the maturation period.  Each cask to be used is individually hand-picked by the Distillery Manager - it's that important.

Whilst maturing the casks allow up to 2% of the whisky to evaporate out through the wood each year, the loss is known as "the Angel's share".  There must be some very well-fuelled Angels around the Speyside area!  The spirit lost through the wood is replaced by air, meaning that the location, temperature and humidity of the warehouse also plays a part in the character of the spirit.  This loss also partially explains why more mature whiskies at 18, 20 or more years old are more expensive to buy; aside from the extra time invested in their production there's simply less whisky in the cask to bottle.  There's also more risk to a distillery with older casks in that there's more which can go wrong over the longer maturation.

The whisky emerges from the wood at "cask strength" alcoholic content which is typically 55-60%.  Some bottlings are made at cask strength but the vast majority of production has water added to take the strength down to the standard 40% alcohol content.

Glen Grant, like most distilleries uses casks three times, so by the time they're sold on they are probably over 60 years old.  We have a particular interest in the casks once they've reached the end of their whisky-making lives....... we buy some staves and barrel ends to make handcrafted items such as candle holders.....

...and practical accessories for the enjoyment of the whisky they once held......... :o)

Ownership by Gruppo Campari has brought investment to Glen Grant in the form of an ultra-modern bottling plant.  The distillery is one of the few to bottle their own whisky on site, and this is the largest bottling plant on Speyside.

Meanwhile, the casks work their magic on the whisky within and they'll lie quietly fuelling the Angels whilst developing fine single malt whisky........

...and we'll all have to exercise patience until it comes out of here and the Excisemen have imposed their tax!

We went from the production area back to the Visitor Centre where we were offered two generous tastings - included along with the tour and entrance to the garden in the £5 per person charge.  Unfortunately I had to drive home, so my tasting was the merest touch on the tongue....

The first was The Major's Reserve, a bottling with no age statement but we were told that it's around 8 years old.  Light, fragrantly fruity and ever so slightly dry - it's a very pleasant dram and a perfect expression of the Glen Grant tradition of light but firm whiskies.

The second tasting was of the 10 year old Glen Grant - and it was a revelation.  Flavours and nose of orchard fruits followed by a smooth intensity with no hint of sharpness and a light body, this is an immensely good whisky and is described by one of the most influential whisky guides as "undoubtedly the best 10 year old official distillery bottling I have tasted"

There are other expressions on sale in the distillery shop at older ages and some really exclusive offerings in limited editions.  Our £5 charge also gave us a £2 discount on a prizes for guessing which one we went for!

Glen Grant is a wonderful place to visit - the whole ethos of the place shines through in the pride that's taken, the combination of tradition and innovation and friendliness of the staff we met.  If you take only one distillery tour, make it this one.

So there you have it, tradition, art, magic and a touch of the mystical....Sláinte Mhath!

Wednesday 2 December 2015

A walk along the water at Glen Grant

A raw and grey end-of-November Sunday morning with a forecast of snow to come was no enticement to do planned outdoor jobs at home; instead we drove across to Speyside for a leisurely day out.....

...we first went to Dufftown, and "cam in by Fiddichside"....

...passing as we did the gates to Auchmair farm in the Cabrach with their reference to John Bunyan's 16th century book "The Pilgrim's Progress" plus wrought iron cattle, sheep and even shepherd's crooks.

The place we'd planned to visit was actually closed due to icy underfoot conditions, so we travelled a little further north along the Spey valley to Rothes, where we stopped on impulse at the Glen Grant Distillery Garden.  Here in the north of Scotland, late November might not seem to be the logical time to visit an ornamental garden, and the friendly staff at the visitor centre (which was just about to open for the day) made this point - but the view up into the garden area promised a pleasant stroll - and so it proved.  A very modest £5 per person is charged for access to the garden, the distillery tour and a tasting.  We didn't really intend to take the distillery tour, rather just to visit the garden and have coffee in the Italian coffee shop situated in one of the converted buildings.

The heart of all good whisky is pure water, and Glen Grant like almost all distilleries is built around a stream tumbling from the hills above.

The garden was originally designed by James Grant, one of the founders of the distillery, and has been restored beautifully in recent years.  The burn (stream) forms a thread down through themed areas, and though the summer flowers were long gone there was a surprising amount of colour to be found.

Golden-orange berries on this tree contrasted nicely with the lichens on the orchard trees surrounding it.

Nearby, a couple of trees we thought might be Skimmia japonica bore large bunches of intensely red berries which lit up the muted colours of a grey day.

Higher up the garden is a "dram pavilion" where one of Glen Grant's owners - James "The Major" Grant - indulged his guests with a dram from his private cask.

Under the conical thatched roof of the rustic pavilion is a candelabra made of stag's antlers - all very grand and Victorian!

Above the main garden, a series of timber bridges and stairways leads up a narrow gorge, the tiny hut on the left contains another of "The Major's" dram stowages in a locked safe, clearly a man who didn't expect his guests to walk too far without a dram!

Above the hut is a tumbling waterfall - it's a lovely spot to pause for a while; and we weren't the only ones to think so....

...above the burn two Roe deer watched us intently. 

Despite the gentle exercise around the garden the November chill was beginning to make itself felt. We walked back down through the garden, following the burn past where the water is drawn to supply the distillery and into the warmth of the coffee shop. 

We were asked would we like to take the tour, a warm and genuine offer even though we were the only customers at this early hour on a Sunday in November.  We thought that actually it would be good to follow the water from the burn right along its journey to becoming "Uisge Bheatha" (the water of life).