Distillery Visit: Glenfarclas

When the WU guys were putting together a trip to visit Speyside, needless to say that we were spoilt for choice. With over half of Scotland’s distilleries being based in the area surrounding the meandering River Spey, and none of our 4-strong troop having been to the region before, we were living and breathing the grown-up equivalent of being kids in a sweet shop.

Between us, we had found a great looking cottage in the village of Archiestown for a long weekend in March (yes, that’s how long it’s taken to write this up) which we then used to triangulate a Speyside visitor centre hit list. With the cottage being roughly equidistant from Cardhu, Aberlour and the region’s giant, Glenfiddich, that had pretty much settled it without having to look much further, but as the title suggests, we couldn’t visit the region without also going to Glenfarclas.


Double Thumbs Up for Glenfarclas

What had particularly attracted us to the distillery – other than having enjoyed their whiskies on numerous occasions throughout the years – was the fact that it was still a family run distillery and hadn’t succumb to the big money ownership that many distilleries have (and that many have had to). What that meant to us was that we were expecting a smaller distillery with more humble staff than your standard big-budget-backed whisky-maker, and it certainly delivered.

Located just off the A95, the roadsign to the distillery was almost too easy to miss, but luckily enough the classic red font of the Glenfarclas logo stood out from the snow-covered roads and fields, directing us up a narrow farm lane to the car park. As we shimmied and skidded our way along the icy track we noticed a giant tour coach parked just outside the visitor centre (which we narrowly missed) and as we drove around an old and ornamental still, we managed to find one of a few dug-out parking spaces.

Glenfarclas Visitor Centre

Having taken some 9 hours of travelling from our southern England starting point, we bundled out of our car and looked on in awe at the picture perfect distillery. Covered in snow and with the warmly-lit interior beckoning us inside, we entered the visitor centre to welcoming smiles and hellos from the staff – and this was with just 45 minutes left on the clock of their working day.

The visitor centre is of course, first and foremost, a gift shop and upon walking in you are instantly drawn to the remains of another still and the multitude of glass cabinets adorning the room’s walls. Each cabinet was themed with past releases and current offerings all nestled amongst the rare and ancient drams from the distillery’s past. These were also accompanied by price tags that ranged from reasonable to eye-watering. Our attention was particularly drawn to the distillery’s “Family Cask” section, filled with bottles in chronological order from the date that they were first distilled from 1952 onwards. We each sought out the bottle from our respective years of birth, and were content with just looking through the cabinet doors, rather than shelling out the £3,500 each!

Family Cask Display

Given the timeframe, we were not in time to undertake any tour, but we had plenty of time to enter the tasting room, and join up with the coach trippers (who were probably all 40-50 years our senior) now at the fun end of their tour: the tasting. The room itself was like a Victorian dining hall, with a set of long tables down the middle, with a few smaller tables dotted around and more wooden cladding than Ron Burgundy could ever have wished for. The whole room was covered with old advertising posters and newspaper clippings from yesteryear. There was a real sense of history and nostalgia here, with a clear emphasis on family.

Tasting Room

To the matter at hand, our troop found ourselves a seat and were presented with a sample of their opening gambit, the Glenfarclas 10 year old. Our new host then reeled out a well-rehearsed but still well-delivered spiel about the history of the distillery and we were all ears. As we listened, we savoured our first dram of the day, picking out the flavours that stem from the family’s longstanding use of sherry casks. The 10yo proved to be a fairly light dram, enjoyed in no time at all with its Pear drop sweetness and pretty quick finish getting our tastebuds going.

‘Farc-ing Bliss

Our temporary curator then plied us with a serving of the Glenfarclas 15yo and that’s when the sherry influence really hit home. This whisky had a much fuller, fruitier nose, and the 46% alcohol gave for a fuller taste and body too. It wasn’t all sherry flavourings though as a little bit of time and water released sweet vanilla and a little citrus into the mix. An excellent whisky that seemed to knock its younger sibling out of the park.


As the history lesson turned into more of a flowing Q&A session, we were presented with the third of the distillery’s post-tour offerings, the mighty Glenfarclas 105 (Unfortunately not 105 years old – can you imagine?) Whilst I had experienced and loved this whisky before, my senses still took a battering, as did the other guys’, as it’s 60% ABV natural strength delivers a real punch. It has a BIG nose leaving you fighting the alcohol but some fruitiness (raisins?) and sweetness still manage to poke their way through. Without the aid of water, the 105 pretty much attacks the palate but not the throat strangely enough. After some taming though that fruitiness really comes through with faint sherry this time.

It was at this point that the coach group were being hustled up by their weary-looking driver, and a little bit of minesweeping was afoot. As the congregation filtered out though, we keen-beans had pretty much settled on acquiring a bottle of the 15yo but our host didn’t seem to want to rush us out and after a little cajoling he went to the backrooms to bring us samples of their 21yo! Despite its years, this dram was still surprisingly light and whilst it had a good nose and those sherry-like fruity and sweet flavours were still present, it didn’t quite meet the standard that the 15yo had set. With our conversation starting to wind down and the 25yo or older expressions remaining firmly locked away for the evening (we tried) we were fully sated and couldn’t leave without making a purchase or four…

Whatcha Doin’?

By the time it came for us to leave, we realised that the staff had actually kept us indoors well after their closing time and were still happy to talk (mostly). Their head honcho however was starting to purposefully look at his watch and with our purchases having already been made before they had to close the till, we were also ready to head off and set ourselves up for the long weekend at the cottage. With some parting pleasantries and a few snaps, so ended a brief but memorable trip to Glenfarclas. If you get the chance to go, then you should definitely do it! We certainly will. Again. And again.

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Distillery Visit: Oban

It’s fair to say that whenever I get to visit a Scottish town then the trip is usually based around the distillery. With Oban, this happens to be the case for the entire town itself!

Oban distillery was legally established in 1794 and the town has since been very much built around it. Set in a beautiful, naturally occurring bay and sat at the bottom of a steep bank overlooked by the iconic McCaig’s Tower, the distillery is nestled in the heart of the harbour town. To be honest, it is so settled in that, if it wasn’t for the distinctive chimney and lingering malty scent, you could easily miss the distillery altogether when walking through the streets. Luckily, with enough signage (and sat nav as a potential backup) I was able to stroll up the waterfront road and stumble across the near-camouflaged building, tucked just behind a row of shops.


Oban Distillery

Immediately within the cold-looking, grey stoned building lies a warm, wood-panelled gift shop with an equally warm and friendly group of staff awaiting to tend to your every whisky-related need. Having attended a couple of Diageo-owned distilleries, I’d learned to present my ‘whisky passport’ – like the true whisky geek that I am – keen to get another stamp and get ready for the upcoming tour. Speaking of which, the gift shop itself seemed to be filled to the rafters with all of Diageo’s other staple offerings and a few gems from the Flora and Fauna range, plus the serious connoisseur/bankrobber’s Lagavulin 37 year old.


Oh, I’ll have two please…

After a little wait in the gallery area the tour was presented by a young local lass by the name of Emily and she’d gotten her patter and knowledge down to a tee. Unlike other tours, which usually talk in generalities about their range of products, the Oban tour focussed almost exclusively on its core 14 year old output, and in particular, its four distinct flavours: Sea Salt, Honey, Orange and Smoke. I’ve enjoyed an Oban 14 on many occasions, but whether or not it is the power of suggestion, since visiting the town, I can no longer drink it with ticking off each of those four flavours along the way. The other flavour that I often pick up is the grist-like malt itself.

The tour took you through the whisky making process from start to finish as you got to smell the grist, walk between the tuns and through the stillhouse before ending up in one of the warehouses. Here we got our first taste of the Oban signature liquid, followed quickly by another short measure straight from the barrel – an 11 year old cask strength, dram obviously, which was delicious (see notes below).


How to make Oban

One thing that I’d read about the tour in advance on trip adviser (and was happy to see as still ringing true) was that they offered to put your dram into a miniature travel cup with lid for those not able to enjoy the dram onsite, i.e. the conscientious drivers. Fortunately for me, I was with my wife and she later kindly donated her dram after the drive too (double thumbs up).

At the end of the tour, Emily was all too happy to answer any questions and we were not simply rushed out of the premises, like you can feel sometimes when there’s a chain of tours and tastings going on. Of course, the tour ended up by having to make your way out of the building via the gift shop and once again the combination of alcohol and enthusiasm resulted in a swift purchase – not forgetting the all important £5 discount for having been on the tour!


Oban Visitor Centre

Just before leaving, nature was calling for us two travellers and I’m glad that it did because we then happened upon the distillery’s small bar upstairs, above the gift shop and this resulted in sampling the Oban Distillers Edition (notes below).

All in all, it was a really nicely polished tour, as you would come to expect from such a revered distillery and I would heavily recommend it to anyone going to the Argyll area. I would also strongly recommend the Oban Whisky and Fine Wines Shop (click here) adjacent to the distillery and the Cuan Mor pub nearby – excellent drams and food, respectively.


Some appropriate reading

Notes from the tour:

Oban 14yo

N: Pretty honey-sweet smelling after the fruity alocholic burn

T: A little salty. A little malty. Then the sweetness makes way for the zesty, orange and citrus flavours

F: Damn fine with a little smoke to finish off the orange zest

V: Absolute solid dram and worth the little extra money for one of Scotland’s most time-honoured whiskies

Oban 11yo Cask Strength (Tour)

N: Sweet marzipan and Christmas flavour

T: Very light and sweet – after the 55.7% punch and burn of alcohol

F: Sweet and tingly – very warming

V: Nice, tour only tasting and very indicative of the original flavours to come in the 14yo

Oban Distiller’s Edition

N: Slight Christmas and sherry fruitiness

T: Sweet fruit cake

F: Slightly treacle like texture

V: It is the 14 plus 8(ish) months in a sherry cask, and does exactly what it needs to – adding that additional festive flavour

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Distillery Visit: The Lakes Distillery

A couple of weeks ago I was lucky enough to have had the chance to visit The Lakes Distillery situated up in, you guessed it, the Lake District. Tucked away in the scenic hills in the north west of the Lakes near Cockermouth (yes, much amusement had), this is a relatively new distillery and it made for an eye-opening insight into “whisky business” rather than the usual “whisky production” stuff that most tours usually consist of (“…and the by-product that we call ‘draff’ goes to feed the local cattle” etc. etc.) The tour itself was run really well by a guy called Rowan, who turned out to be from my neck of the woods, which helped with the post-tour chatter, and he certainly knew the process inside out.

What was immediately striking about the tour was the main building itself. For something that was opened in December 2014, I thought that this was a smart building, very much in keeping with the area, i.e. an old-looking, new building. The Lake District is known for its strong conservation laws – noting the solid work that legendary children’s author Beatrix Potter has had on the national park – and this building was no exception. Whilst very clean and modern on the inside, the buildings themselves had had to go through very stringent building procedures to ensure that they remained in that distinctive Lakes style. As the tour commenced, we were informed that the site was in fact originally an 1850s farmhouse and a series of out-buildings, and the company had bought the properties in a rather dilapidated state due to them having been abandoned and untouched since the 1970s. (Countering my initial impression,  and proving that they are in fact new-looking, old buildings!) The tour detailed the length and scale of the process to get the site into the glistening yet characterful state that it is in today. One fact that particularly blew me away was that each and every stone had had to be numbered, dismantled and then reconstructed in the same order! That’s no mean feat at all, and the results are rather fantastic – as you would hope after a £7M investment. The entry gates themselves were a sight to behold, with the silhouettes of all the key ingredients to making whisky having been forged into the elegant frame, with the Lakes Distillery’s distinctive wave-style logo on top of the structure. What’s more, the gates had been “crafted by our local blacksmith” – a sentence that you’re probably only really going to hear in Cumbria these days!


Lakes Distillery Gates

Now, despite having started off in their gift shop and having seen bottles of whisky for sale, the penny only dropped for me once the tour had started and I’d heard “December 2014” again that this place was actually less than 2 years old. Not only did that explain why the place was looking so well appointed, but it struck me that these guys haven’t actually made any “whisky” yet. Rowan then went on to explain to the group that the distillate needs to have been in a barrel for 3 years before it can officially be called “whisky”.

So what were they selling in the gift shop?

The answer is that they are selling “The One”, which the Lakes Distillery boasts to be the “first Great British blended whisky”, i.e. featuring whiskies from Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland. (Proving that their marketing again relied on simplicity and honesty.) Whilst they wouldn’t reveal which distilleries the constituent parts come from (though the Welsh and English contingents are probably easier to deduce) it seems a fairly novel idea, and I was pretty surprised that this is the first time it has been done. That said, something didn’t feel right. The English component of The One could still not be their own (probably hailing from the Norfolk direction), and I guess that they would look to replace the English proportion with their own product in due course. What I was wrestling with here was the concept of them selling a whisky from the Lake District, without having produced any actual ‘whisky’ yet themselves. As I’ve mentioned, this is where my interest turned from finding about the whisky itself and, instead, turned towards just how much investment was needed to get this distillery up and running and how far ahead the directors must be planning to actually make this a valid business venture. The tour did help to answer some of these questions though…


Tucked away in the Lake District

Firstly, there was quite the marketing onus on joining the “Founders Club”. For a mere £695 on the day (let me think about it for a minute…) each new member is entitled to a single 70cl bottle of the distillery’s annual output for the first ten years, plus two 5cl miniatures for tasting – the emphasis therefore being “collect the whole set”, with each bottle being packaged in a progressive year-on-year addition, up to their real goal: a 10 year single malt. What I will say though, is that their founder, Mr Paul Currie, has started this venture after being part of the The Arran distillery’s development, so there is certainly good precedent here!

Secondly, there were two, more readily-made Lakes Distillery products on offer within the gift shop: The Lakes Gin and The Lakes Vodka. Our guide informed us that the distillery buys in a base grain distillate and then carries out their own further distillation to make their vodka or, when adding the ‘botanicals’, their own gin. Even from the layout of the still-room it was obvious that the key product being made here was whisky, but tucked into the corner was a still dedicated to the clearer libations. To be perfectly honest, I was a bit disappointed that they were buying in the base product, but this was appeased when I was informed that the all of the botanicals were sourced locally, including the all-important, gin-essential juniper. To be fair, the final gin itself is one of the finest that I’ve ever tasted. Full of rich, complementary flavours and really palatable even before adding the quintessential tonic.


The One & The Lakes Gin

As we walked through the current barrel warehouse, we were purposely guided past the first casks of the Lakes’ new whisky-to-be, which included a barrel branded by Princess Anne(?), and a barrel bearing a familiar 007 and pistol logo, which will invariably become a marketing scheme in the future. At the end of the warehouse was an engraved list of all of the founding members to date, which made for another opportunity to promote our congregation to sign-up to the club.

At the end of tour, we were taken into the tasting room (not surprisingly held within the gift shop annex) and each of the distillery’s entry level spirits were available (albeit not the currently moonshine-like single malt spirit itself). For me, their standard gin was actually the highlight of the drinks available, and we also got to sample their “Explorer” expression of the gin, which was significantly stronger tasting, and packing a few more ABV to boot. The One itself was a pretty good blended whisky and I personally found it more reminiscent of a whisky liqueur with an overriding sweetness and “whisky flavour”. I’ll have to try more to really discover it (happy to do it) but on first taste it seemed like a box-checking exercise of wood, malt, and gentle smoke. The gift shop was also offering a variant of The One, which had an additional 12 month maturation in oloroso sherry casks, encased in a rather patriotic union flag – unfortunately we were beyond the sampling stage when I discovered this additional offering.

Overall, I left the distillery in a conflicted state of both contentment and ambivalence. I was excited for the new product and impressed by the care, dedication and craft going into making a new whisky, but I was also left a little bruised by the constant marketing and cash generation schemes going on. To me, behind the nicely appointed warehouses, their stainless steel vats and fixation on your wallet/investment made the distillery seem like a cash-focussed factory. For me, the alchemy and love of whisky-making seemed to be overlooked in favour of the profit-and-loss table, but then again, without any actual whisky made yet, could it be any other way at this point? There is a business to be run here after all! A great little tour though in a stunning location and definitely one to keep an eye on!


View from The Lakes Distillery (including Alpacas!)


The Lakes Distillery’s water source – The River Derwent

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