Thursday, July 14, 2016

Norlan Whisky Glass: First Thoughts

As a Kickstarter backer, I was happy to get my Norlan Whisky glasses yesterday!

Unpacked, and ready to taste!  Loved the whisky bottle container

I tried it side by side with three other glasses.  I used The Balvenie 17 Sherry Oak for the first tasting (I've stockpiled a few, only to be used on special occasions. I know this whisky best).   I'll try a heavier peated Scotch on my next round.
Brandy snifter 'borrowed' from a tasting, SMWS glass, Glencarin bought at The Balvenie distillery, and The Norlan

My take:

Don't bother with the short snifter. It is too overpowering, then dies out faster than the rest.
The Single Malt Whisky Society glass is best for those who like to use the Murray method of pre-warming. That said, I've found the Murray Method can separate aromas that should be sampled together. Kills peat and tends to make everything too sweet.

The Glencairn has the best nose shortly after pouring.

But, once the Norlan has had the liquid in it for about 5 minutes, it just keeps going and going and going, while the other glasses fade out. It really is amazing to try them side by side.

The obvious solution: Get all three and divide your dram into them!

The Norlan Top view.  Fins are visible.

Glencairn top view


Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Whisky Shops in Scotland

Scotland:  Home of Golf and Whisky!

And while my golf game needs a fair amount of improvement, my appreciation for whisky is already very healthy.

If you are a whisky collector and a first time visitor, then you'll be amazed at the selection.  In fact, in every major store I visited, I found bottles there that I never even heard of in the US!  So, where to go?  Here's a non-definitive list of places.  The only thing they have in common is that I visited them personally.  And, although the Edinburgh and Heathrow duty free stores have a decent selection and some exclusive offerings, you'll find better overall selections elsewhere.  Those are there in case you accidentally open and polish off one of your bottles while you are visiting, and need to restock on the flight home ;)


Bottles in Scotland come in 700ml, 500ml, 200ml, 100ml and 50ml sizes.  You are allowed to bring up to 1 liter per adult back without paying additional duty fees.  That's 1000ml for those of you new to the metric system.  Also, 70cl = 700ml.  I've seen both on bottles.  My European readers are laughing now, but yes, this is necessary for some folks over here still

Details on duties can be found on the CBP site, here (as of June, 2014).  It does vary from country to country, so make sure to do your research.  Currently for Scotland, the standard duties apply.

The TSA does have a limit on the amount one can bring back, however, as well as maximum abv in each bottle.  Currently, the regulation states:

Please note, you can’t take alcoholic beverages with more than 70% alcohol content (140 proof), including 95% grain alcohol and 150 proof rum, in your checked luggage. 
You may take up to five liters of alcohol with alcohol content between 24% and 70% per person as checked luggage if it’s packaged in a sealable bottle or flask.
Alcoholic beverages with less than 24% alcohol content are not subject to hazardous materials regulations.

Here is a link below to that regulation.  Please check it (or do your own google search) before flying, as it may be periodically updated:
TSA Alcohol Regulations

With the above rules in mind, you could legally take 7 full European bottles per person back with you (7x700ml = 4900 ml).

But, do check for regulations on the airline in which you are traveling with, as they may limit it to less per passenger or have other restrictions.

For example, here is Southwest's regulations

In theirs, they mention:
Alcohol (wine and liquor) must be in the original unopened container with the manufacturer's label when transported in or as checked baggage.

I pulled two samples from barrels at The Balvenie and bottled them myself.  By their rules, I don't know if those would be allowed on the plane.  I *think* they would be OK, even though they did not have a plastic seal over the cork, because they were packed in a special box that prevented it from opening.

With that out of the way, let's talk about great places to sample and buy whisky (besides the distilleries themselves, that is!)  Also, almost every place I went had an exclusive bottling that could only be found at that particular store.  This even included a market in Dufftown!  And, I'm sure they're good.  If only enough money, a room for them on the plane!  That's why I really liked getting smaller bottles whenever I could.

Finally, I'm leaving out The Scotch Malt Whisky Society from this particular review for two reasons:
  1. It's a private club, and you have to be a member to enter.  (Of course, you could buy a membership while you are there!)
  2. I'm planning on doing an entire entry on it at some point.


Royal Mile Whiskies

This is one of the most famous whisky stores in Edinburgh, and for good reason.  It's right on the Royal Mile, gets a ton of tourist traffic, they have an insanely incredible collection, and very friendly staff!  They had well over 50 whiskies that I never saw in Washington state, including a few American ones.  Although, they didn't yet stock any Washington whiskies.  Maybe someday soon :)

Samples: YES

Reminder: Click on images for larger versions.  Easier to read the labels that way:
See that blue tube on the left?  Get *that*

There's hard to find, then there's this.

I'll take this or the Macallan 1973 for my Birthday. 
Your choice :)

The Whisky Trail

This shop is also on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh.  Again, the staff was friendly, and perhaps just a little more welcoming to the newer whisky collector than Royal Mile Whiskies.  (Both are very friendly)  That being said, their selection was not quite as extensive.  But all the major bases are covered.  Apologies for not posting more photos, but I only took the one below.  I'm more than happy to add some if you have them.

Samples: YES

Also, this was the first place we saw whisky flavored condoms for sale, so there is that.

Stay Classy, Scotland.

Whisky World

Edinburgh's Largest Selection of Whisky Miniatures!
Google Maps is having a hard time actually putting this in the right spot on their maps.  But, you can see it in street view.  Do a search for "Southern Cross Cafe" in maps in Edinburgh, and it is nearby.
36 Cockburn St
Old Town, Edinburgh
+44 131 226 2134

The store is a *little* off the beaten path, but not by much.  You can easily reach it, The Whisky Trail and Royal Mile Whiskies by foot all in the same day.  The store was quiet, and it really *did* have the biggest miniature collection I've ever seen.  For those of you who think that only big name

Samples: Did not see any
Photos: did not take any :/


The Whisky Shop

1 Fife St
Moray AB55 4AL, United Kingdom

+44 1340 821097

In addition to having a lovely selection, they sponsor the September Whisky festival in Dufftown.

Samples: YES

"Sorry, we're Open"

Bottles.  Amazing, I know.

Sample bottles here :)

Just a small subset of their entire lineup.



This market in Dufftown has more hard to find whiskies than most dedicated liquor stores in the US!  As of April 2014, they still had the Balvenie Rum Cask and the Snow Phoenix.  And those are some of the easier to find things there!  Heck, they even have their own exclusive bottlings.  And, their price is a bit better than other stores in Dufftown.  Only downsides: no samples and the selection not as big as The Whisky Shop. There is still enough here to max out your allowed bottles that you can take on a plane.

40 Balvenie St
Keith, Banffshire AB55 4AS,

+44 1340 820361

Samples: No  (It's a market after all!)
Why yes, that is a Rum Cask..

Their own release, McBains

Reminder: this is a market

Seriously, a market with food and magazines and such.

And whisky you can't find in most places where you live.

Why so many pics? I felt guilty not buying any.

I *did* get my daughter some candy.  Which is across the isle.

Whiskies of Scotland 
36 Gordon St
AB54 8EQ, United Kingdom
+44 1466 795105

This is a huge retail outlet for their parent company, Duncan Taylor.  Duncan Taylor is an independent bottler.  Meaning, they buy barrels from other distilleries, age them in their own warehouses, then bottle them when they see fit, usually to cask strength.  The staff was friendly and knowledgeable.  And having a sample or two made it easy for me to know which bottles to buy.  They do now ship to the US.  But, the shipping & handling fees make it such that it is only worth buying things you can't find anywhere else.  However, when visiting, it then makes it worth it!  Especially, when you can taste a sample and know what you're getting first.

Samples: YES

Got my samples from this wall of 100ml bottles.

Just a small sample of their store.

I'm sure it's very tasty.  If you get some, let me try.

More harder to find offerings.

If I had a dollar for every time I saw a bottle
I wanted in Scotland, I could afford another bottle.

Monday, June 9, 2014

A Day with David Mair, at The Balvenie Distillery


After trying to break free from the hold North America had on me since birth, my family and I finally traveled overseas to Scotland this April.  There may be a few more postings about this trip in the near future, but I thought the first one should be about one of the main reasons we chose to go to Scotland in the first place. 

A fair amount of the trip was actually planned around this tour.  A whisky tasting five years ago hosted by The Balvenie was the reason I got into whisky to begin with, so if we were going to go to Scotland, I'd be going there.

Unlike other distillery tours that take about an hour, this one lasted around three hours. 

If that seems too long, you could always go to the Glenfiddich tour, which is on the same property. Both are owned by William Grant & Sons.  But, if you want to see the best distillery tour in Scotland, make sure to book ahead and attend this one, as they fill up fast! I'm not alone in this opinion.  It is a five star tour, and worth every pound sterling. Trip Advisor reviews

Click on these words to book a tour. But, before you do, make sure to join their free email newsletter/club "Warehouse 24"  In addition to having a digital place to record *all* off your tasting reviews from distilleries across the world, and learning about new developments from The Balvenie before the general public, you'll have access to taste from a cask that no one else on the tour will have access to.  (Amazingly, after they found out about this privilege, many tour members then raised their hands and claimed they were a member!)   In my case it was a 2nd fill bourbon cask from 1974.  The spirit was pulled straight from the cask, into a bottle, and served to us directly. Tasting notes are at the end of this article.

Here's what the tour looked like:

We started in the Distillery Office, where we got to know each other a bit, and taste a few samples from three barrels.  This is where we first met David Mair, The Balvenie Distillery Ambassador.

From there, we moved on to their barley warehouse.  Unlike many other distilleries who now source all of their malted barley from external companies, about 10% of the barley that goes into making their whisky is either grown or malted on site.  On the top floor was where the barley was stored.

On one side was two tubs where the barley would soak up water, and then be dropped to the main floor from a chute.

David, front right, with a soaking tub in back

This wet barley is then spread out on the malting floor, and left to sit for a number of days as they begin to grow roots.

Close up of malted barley, before drying

Afterwards, this barley is then kiln dried. 
The drying room.  This smelled incredible!
Kiln below the drying room, fueled by anthracite

On this particular day, they were conducting an experiment.  David emphasized that it was just an experiment at this point.  Instead of adding peat to the fire, they included oak shavings from Bourbon casks, drilled at their own cooperage.  We even got to put a small handful of shavings into the kiln.  Who knows, maybe in 12 - 17 years, we'll be able to taste what became of this experiment!

Oak Shavings. Smelled like bourbon!.
After the barley is dried, it is then ground by rollers and put in vats with hot water.   The liquid drained off of this mashing is called 'wort'.

The Wort cooler takes the temperate down to 14C. Then yeast is added to the mix.

It ferments for three days, in incredibly large Douglas fir washbacks, until the temp is up to 33C

These are just the tops of the washbacks
The washbacks go down far!

Then comes the part of the process that everyone emphasizes in their imagination when they think of whisky making:  distillation!

The Balvenie Spirits safes
Copper helps remove sulphur.  And looks incredible.
A still has about a 20 year lifespan before it needs to be replaced.

After this part of the tour, we hopped into David's Range Rover, and headed over to Balvenie's own cooperage.   On the way, we saw their own fields of barley growing in fields nearby.  At most distilleries, a cask is used about three times before it is completely spent.   During that time, they may need to be repaired.  This is where their own cooperage comes in handy.

Craftsmen working on various casks.
They had an observation deck, where we could watch a number of them working.  On the observation deck itself, I saw these items:

Stave and Reed. The reed is used to help seal a cask.
Distilliate!!  Distilliate!!
After the cooperage tour, we were driven back to one of their warehouses.  Because the casks breathe, and alcohol eventually makes its way out of them and into the air, we were not allowed to use any electronic equipment inside the warehouse, as it posed a fire hazard.  So, these are the last photos I could take before we headed in:

The famous red doors!

Inside, there were three barrels, where we were allowed to take 200ml samples for purchase.  For the record, I got two samples, and here are their stats:

Cask #11270  Sherry Butt, aged 12 years
Bottling Date 4/28/2014
59.6% ABV

Cask #7983 2nd Refill Bourbon barrel, aged 16 years
Bottling Date 4/28/2014
60.7% ABV


We then headed back to where we first met up, and spent some time in the tasting room.

The tasting room, my seat by the orange bottle.
This was the lineup that we tasted after the tour.
David speaking with two gentlemen from France. (whisky > wine, just sayin')
And, as I mentioned above, there was a special cask laid aside for members of Warehouse 24 only to taste.  However, we were such a jovial group, that we members didn't put up much of a fuss when others claimed they were also members once they found out about this perk.  So, everyone in our group got to taste it.  I'm sure all of them signed up right when they got back home.

Here are my tasting notes on this particular cask, pretty much as written:
1974 2nd fill bourbon. 39 years 53.7% Member cask!  Never bottled!
Nose:  icing, a tiny bit of vinegar, classic The Balvenie honey and vanilla.
Taste: Sweet!  Floral, cake icing.
Finish, medium short, with just touch of peat/smoke at the end, touch of salt on taste.

Why, why why!!! Not available as a bottle???  Such a lovely dram. Icing onto birthday cake. 

I would just like to point out that on my last birthday cake, I used The Balvenie instead of vanilla in the icing mix.  So, I was smelling and tasting so much of that particular icing.  It was a very lively dram for 39 years old!

THE INSIDE SCOOP aka: Burying the Lead

According to David, here is the new line for Balvenie for the foreseeable future.  The 17, having gone through several experiments over the last few years, has settled into the DoubleWood 17.  The Single Barrel 15 (ex-bourbon) is going to be retired, and will soon be replaced with one that has been aged exclusively in Oloroso Sherry butts.  Being that I have a 12 year old sample from The Balvenie that was aged exclusively in Sherry, I am *really* excited about this release. Of course, they are very likely to continue to release their experiments, TUN 1401 offerings until it is dismantled, the new TUN once it is completed (should almost be done by now if it isn't yet already), and other offerings that only can be purchased in duty free shops throughout the world.

DoubleWood 12
Single Barrel 12 (first fill, ex-bourbon)
Caribbean Cask 14
Single Barrel 15 (Oloroso Sherry Butts)
DoubleWood 17
PortWood 21

Speaking of all of these double barrel releases, ever wonder how long the Balvenie ages their whiskey in the second barrel?  Here's what I learned:

Double wood: 12 years in ex-bourbon, then 8 months in sherry butts
Caribbean cask 14 years in ex-bourbon, then 5 months in rum casks
Double Wood 17: 17 years in ex-bourbon, then 8 months in sherry butts
Port wood 21:  21 years in ex-bourbon, then 4 months in port casks

Again, if you are going to be anywhere near Dufftown (going to Inverness to look for the Loch Ness monster perhaps?), you absolutely should spend a day or four in Dufftown.  And if you can only make one tour of a distillery in all of Scotland, this is the one you should attend.