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In the north: A four part series

July 1, 2014

In the North, Part I

 

By The Whisky Couple

 

This May your Whisky Couple was obliged to travel to Scotland to attend the annual Spirit of Speyside Festival. Someone has to do the hard work, especially when one is cordially invited by the organization to be guests at the opening gala. Dining in a distillery is quite something and this year’s host was Glen Grant, owned by the Italian Campari Group.

 

When traveling to Scotland we usually combine visits, as was the case this time. We combined the trip to the festival with a foray through the north of Scotland. So for now, we’ll quickly leave Speyside (to return to this famous whisky region in a future edition of the salmon sheets, no doubt).

 

The A9 takes us to Inverness and further up north, with distilleries like Dalmore, Balblair and Glenmorangie.  These are all old friends and we have some business to conduct at Balblair, meeting distillery manager John MacDonald who shows us the latest improvements made during and after the site had been used as backdrop for the whisky road movie The Angels’ Share, directed by Ken Loach. The visit took more time than we anticipated and our ultimate goal for the day, Old Pulteney in Wick, run by your chief wretch’s distant cousin, would not be made.

 

This turned out to be a blessing in disguise, since John recommended a splendid whisky hotel just around the corner, in the beautiful old town of Dornoch, a 10-minute drive from the distillery.

The Dornoch Castle Hotel is family run. It is not opposite a castle, as you might expect, but literally in the 15th-century castle. Since it became a hotel in 1947, it is reportedly no longer haunted by the ghost of a former prisoner. Current owners Colin and Ros Thompson stepped back in favor of their sons Simon and Philip — whisky buffs in their own right, despite their young ages. Being able to draw excellent samples from their parents’ whisky cellar, built during 50 years of collecting, they can present the visitor with stunning versions of the cratur.

 

Becky and I were welcomed by Phil, who poured us a pre-World War II Scotch blend from a brand long forgotten. The whisky had been long in the bottle, but still tasted smooth and agreeable. It formed the introduction to an impressive range of golden oldies that we savored in tasting glasses, before having supper in the restaurant overlooking the castle courtyard. The scallops, mussels and shrimp had been caught that same day in the nearby Dornoch Firth. How fresh do you want your seafood?

 

After dinner we were invited for another dram, one of the digestive kind, and ended up with a beautiful 25-year-old expression of The Macallan, matured in ex-sherry casks. This stunning dram won over a couple of staunch cognac lovers when I introduced them to it some years ago.

Our excellently furbished room had low-ceilings, as can be expected of a medieval castle. The en-suite loo was in a turret, as it must have been in centuries gone — albeit this one was more modern than its ancient predecessor. Unfortunately, I forgot to duck my head when leaving the little antechamber. I woke up with a fierce headache the next morning and I can assure you it was not the whisky!

 

The full Scottish breakfast helped me recover slightly. Several other breakfast guests were hurrying off to the famed Royal Dornoch Golf Course. Although the hotel is officially for sale, we can highly recommend a visit: check it out online at www.dornochcastlehotel.com

After a sincere farewell we headed on, following the A9 in northerly direction, to Old Pulteney, to meet Malcolm Waring …

 

Part II:  Meeting Malcolm Waring in Wick

 

Last month we left you, dear readers, when departing from Dornoch Castle Hotel and driving up the A9/A99 to Wick, birthplace of Old Pulteney distillery, run by your publisher’s distant cousin. Let’s see how a member of the multi-talented Waring family ended up becoming distillery manager of an iconic single malt distillery on the northeast coast of Scotland.

 

We arrived at the distillery in a shroud of Scottish mist, a constant drizzle that will soak you if you keep walking in it longer than a few minutes. We were cordially welcomed with a piping hot cup of coffee and invited to sit down in the distillery manager’s office for an interview. So here we go:

Malcolm Waring’s father is a Welshman and his mother was born-and-bred in Glasgow. He himself was born in the northeast of England. When his father could no longer work in the coal mines due to health issues, he moved to Wick to obtain a job building boats.

 

In earlier times Wick was an important fishing harbor, mainly for herring, or “silver darlings” as they were nicknamed. Currently about 8,500 people still live in and around the town. The majority of the working population is employed at the nearby nuclear reactor in Scrabster. When the Warings moved there, Wick was still a fishing harbor, but one already in steep decline. Malcolm’s first career was in forestry and he briefly joined his father in boat construction, but later decided to look around for another job.

 

Malcolm’s father-in-law regularly played golf with former distillery manager John Black, who, during a game, mentioned he was looking to recruit new people for Old Pulteney. This led to an opportunity for Malcolm, who was supposed to show up at the distillery the next Monday. “I went to see Mr. Black and the first thing he wanted to know was my size boots. He fetched a pair and told me I could start the following day. An official interview would be held later. Well, after 25 years I still haven’t been interviewed for my job,” Malcolm chuckles.

 

Subsequently Malcolm worked as a mash man, a still man, assistant manager and finally in 2006, he was appointed distillery manager. In between he did short stints at the distilleries of Balmenach and Knockdhu (also owned by Inverhouse Distillers), but Wick had become the center of his life. His wife is Wick and works in the local pharmacy. “Our son is a police officer and our daughter is a teacher. Her little daughter is our only grandchild, thus far. I still have one relative in Wales, aunt Daisy Waring. She must be in her mid 90s by now.”

 

In a quarter-century Malcolm Waring has seen a lot of change. “One of the biggest is the heating source. We are connected to a biomass system and take what energy we need. The residual heat is fed back to the system, so we only pay for the difference between input and output. It works very efficiently and we save enormously on fuel costs.”

 

By now it stopped raining and Malcolm suggested we take a tour through the distillery. Notwithstanding the fact that the heating system is very modern, this really is an old workhorse. “Maintenance is a constant point of attention,” Malcolm pointed out. “There are always odd jobs to do.” In the coming year one of the two pot stills will be replaced. It takes 40 to 50 years for a still to be worn out by the constant cycle of heating, cooling down and reheating.

 

After the tour we returned to Malcolm’s office for a special tasting. He offered us the standard 12, 17 and 21-year-old Old Pulteney and concludes with a 46-year-old “work in progress,” which he plans to bottle when it’s been in the cask for 50 years. We suddenly think about a wretch, thousands of miles to the west, who will celebrate his half-century this coming October:  we might find an appropriate gift for that event in the distillery shop on our way out.

 

Malcolm waved goodbye and urged us to give his regards to his distant American cousin. Well, here they are! Let’s raise a dram of Old Pulteney, a true coastal whisky with its silt, nut and fruit flavors, to the occasion.

 

Part III:  From John o’ Groats westward

 

Your Whisky Couple is still in traveling mode and continues the journey further up north and northwest. After having left Malcolm Waring at Old Pulteney distillery in last month’s episode of the salmon sheets, we head to the outermost northeastern corner of the Scottish mainland to shoot a few images of John o’ Groats, once founded by Dutchman Jan de Groot. There he built an octagonal house for himself and his seven sons. To defuse quarrels about who was supposed to sit at the head of the table, he also had an octagonal table. Eight doors behind them allowed the rough and rowdy de Groots to storm outside simultaneously when enemies attacked. Those were the days. Today the imposing building is part of a leisure center.

 

After a quick cup of coffee in the adjacent restaurant, we headed west, following the northern coastline with its stunning views of clear seas and unspoiled sandy beaches. We stopped for the night in the village of Tongue and slept like a log in a beautiful B&B that, as we found out the next morning, did not accept credit cards. “Never mind love,” the landlady said. Then she handed me a piece of paper with a bank account number. “When you return to the Netherlands, please transfer the money. That’ll be fine.” This is one of the reasons why we love the rural parts of Scotland so much. Not only is nature unspoiled but people’s minds, also.

 

On we went, rounding Cape Wrath and following a meandering road down south, with Scotland’s heavily indented western shore on our right hand side. Our next target was Inverewe Gardens, a visit we had discussed with our dear friend Jane Waring when staying with her in Charleston a few months ago. We’d promised Jane, the garden lover, to take some pictures and who can refuse a lady such a thing?

 

Since the Gulf Stream hits this particular part of Scotland’s west coast, the climate is unusually mild for this far north. Inverewe Gardens has suffered from a few huge storms in the past years but is still standing strong, albeit a bit disheveled here and there. However, the garden lover will not be disappointed since there is an abundance of species to admire.

 

But what about whisky? Well … the nearby village at Loch Ewe harbors the tiniest distillery in Scotland, appropriately named after the loch. Here John Clothworthy and Francis Oates have for some years been organizing whisky distilling courses for the aficionado who wants to make a one-gallon cask of his or her own whisky. At the time John and Francis discovered a loophole in Scottish law, which allowed them to apply for a tiny portable still. These were forbidden for a long time, since the excise men were afraid the noble Scotsmen-and-women would hide it and illegally distill the cratur …

 

As soon as the license was granted to the daring couple, the law was rapidly amended and today it is no longer possible to acquire such a license. It’s a shadow of its former glory, but for guests taking a distilling course a stay can be arranged at the adjacent Drumchork Lodge Hotel, also owned by John and Francis. We only stopped to shake hands with them and before continuing our trip further down south, heading to the dilapidated inn’s total opposite — the luxurious Torridon Hotel at the eponymous loch.

 

Those desiring a tranquil place to stay with gorgeous views of the mountains and the promise of a good meal after a stiff hike through the area should book right away. We had come there with a special purpose:  The impressive whisky bar, developed by a young lady who started her career in the hotel as assistant manager, is one that should not be missed. Upon our arrival we tried a West Coast single malt called Talisker, from the nearby island of Skye. It’s Becky’s favorite. What better excuse to run to your nearest liquor store and try one?

 

 

Part IV:  From Applecross to Ben Nevis

 

Readers, here’s the fourth and final part of our recent epic sojourn through the northwest of bonny Scotland. We’ll pick up our story where we left you in the previous episode — in the bar of the beautiful Torridon Hotel. After breakfast we decided to drive south to the tiny hamlet of Applecross. We followed the A896 through the Glenshieldaig Forest and turned right just before Loch Kisholm. This is the type of one-track road that does not allow any campers or semi trucks, a road not for the fainthearted — but worth the drive due to its astounding views, especially when the weather holds.

 

It did this time and we arrived for lunch in Applecross. We treated ourselves to a big plate of oysters and langoustines with a peppery dram of Talisker on the side, deliberately chosen for the occasion. From the picnic table in the well-kept garden of the Applecross Inn we had a wonderful view of the Cuillins on the Isle of Skye, home to the distillery where Talisker has been crafted since 1830. To put that in the context of American history:  That was a time when the United States continued to expand, increasing its population 33 percent in one decade to over 12.8 million in the 1830 census. The center of U.S. population moved west, but only slightly, to a point nineteen miles west, southwest of Moorefield, (now West) Virginia.

 

But back to a wooden table filled with delicious seafood on Scotland’s rugged west coast.

The gentleman who served us was not only waiting tables but also the chef himself. He told us that very early that same morning he went out fishing to get these delicious morsels. How much more fresh could you experience such food?

 

After lunch we decided to drive the same narrow road in the opposite direction, taking in the gorgeous views from another angle. At Kisholm we turned right, southwards onto the A890 after Lochcarron. At Stromferry we turned into another tiny, tiny road that brought us to Plockton, one of the most romantic places in the entire country. This little sheltered harbor is made for lovers who want to enjoy a tranquil weekend. Palms and hydrangeas grow along the rocky beach due to the warm Gulf Stream that roughly ends its course here. One may find numerous little hotels and bed and breakfasts. The road to the Isle of Skye is not far. Why not try the Scotch blend Te Bheag, containing a generous splash of Talisker, as the story goes?

 

We then went to an area called the Kyle of Lochalsh. On its western tip, one can find the road to Skye, once only reachable by boat before the giant bridge was opened in 1995. However, we had other plans and decided to postpone a visit to the Misty Island. Instead we turned eastward and followed the A87, the most beautiful road in Scotland according to many. Soon we passed Eilean Donan Castle, the most photographed castle in the country and home to the clan of your publisher’s maternal forefathers (Hint:  The motto is “Fortitude.”)

 

The A87 ends in a T-junction at the A82. In northerly direction it will take you to Loch Ness. We chose to go south, direction Fort William, home to Ben Nevis Distillery and the eponymous mountain, the highest one in the still united United Kingdom. At the old garrison town, we ended our trip in a local pub with 10-year-old Ben Nevis single malt and raised a glass to the health of the readers of the salmon sheets. It was a pleasure to share our journey with y’all during the past few months.

 

Slainte Mhath,

 

The Whisky Couple

 

 

 

This series originally ran in four installments in the July to October 2014 print editions of the Mercury. They have been collected here, with additional images, for your reading pleasure.

 

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