Spreyside and Aberdeenshire

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April 21st 2013
Published: April 22nd 2013
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I arrived via the train between Edinburgh and Aberdeen on a Sunday. For some reason my reserved seat was occupied by an obstinate woman who couldn’t seem to understand why she wasn’t allowed to sit with her family. Instead of arguing the merits of “reserved seating” I decided to find a different coach and deal with the substantially more appealing option of sitting next to someone other than this woman’s husband, daughter, and mother-in-law. After all, I was sick and in no mood to listen to a family bicker. This illustrates the importance of two critical perspectives when traveling: remain flexible; always look on the bright side.

The train ride itself was pleasant enough and had some great scenery. I am very impressed with the amount of stone walls. I expected the tradition of stone walls would have given way to more economic means of separating fields, but for some reason this tradition has lasted and the countryside remains quite beautiful and rugged.

Aberdeen wasn’t a party stop for me, but rather recovery, relaxation, and good friends. A couple years back my family met up with a Scottish dog-musher that wanted to run the Iditarod sled dog race. Wattie McDonald was his name. We became close with him and his Aberdeen based dog-handlers. Truly, one of the dog handlers ended up marrying my father a couple of years ago. Another one ended up being a really good drinking buddy; his name is Bill. (Actually, I haven’t met a Scot yet that isn’t a good drinking buddy, but Bill was/is a superb drinking buddy.) With great deference to my step-mother’s family, I didn’t want to get caught in a circle of Scotland visiting family and getting bogged down in the mire of obligatory meals. Drinking buddy to the rescue! Bill was at the train station to pick me up and thoroughly understood the goals of my journey.

We hit the ‘highway’ to his home in the countryside. Scotland is a beautiful farmland and the highways are just two lane streets similar to those you might find in rural America. I had my fill of rolling hills in Idaho’s Palouse when I was attending university, but this was a completely different style of rolling hills. Small groves of trees speckled the low hills and pastures. Golf courses broke the monotony of grazing sheep with elderly men striking balls in the rain. Aberdeenshire felt mellow and spry from the moment I stepped off the train.

After dinner Bill and I sat down to watch the last day of the Master’s at Augusta. It came down to a nail biter and it was fun to sit with a true golf fan as the final sudden-death round began. Some people can’t watch golf, but Bill and I are the type of golf watchers that make Mexico Soccer fans look average. With a good night’s sleep we headed out in search of some Speyside distilleries. Bill isn’t a single malt scotch whisky drinker (preferring the blends or French wine) so we weren’t going to do a thorough visit of every distillery in the Dufftown area, but we hit some of the important stops.

First on the list was Glenfiddich. I am a fan of the Glenfiddich 12 year, but haven’t ever tasted the 15 or the 18 year. We took the distillery tour before doing a little tasting (at 10:30 in the morning). The tour is free and worth every penny you pay for it. It began with the typical “we are the best in the world” movie, outlining the history of the brand and the five generations of Grants, Grant-Gordons, and Gordons that have owned the place. There is a big to-do about the original owner building the kiln house with his own hands. As the tour exited to the outdoors, we were instructed that all cellphones had to be turned off for safety reasons. What a ridiculous request! They won’t even let you leave them on airplane mode and use the camera. What in the world could be so sensitive in this distillery that cellphones would screw it up? Even the FAA is beginning to admit the policy of turning off phones for air travel is bullshit, and they have cellular technology amidst their instrumentation. Normal cameras are still allowed in the distillery... for the most part. We went strait to the mash tins where I learned that they no longer malt their barley onsite. Traditions is touted above all other aspects of the process during the tour, so it struck me odd that they have a separate commercial company malting their barley offsite. (I thought for it to be called single malt the barley had to be malted, mashed, fermented, and casked / stored on a single site; thus why Jameson isn’t a single malt whisky... but apparently I am mistaken or Glenfiddich is even more laughable than I thought.) The fermentation barrels were impressive and the viewing area was well done. The low-wines and secondary copper distilleries were also nifty, but the tour guide insisted that everyone turn off their cameras because the smallest spark could be dangerous in a room with so much alcohol... I just about lost it. It seems like people would die of air poisoning before the alcohol saturation in the air reached the required percentage for a camera’s electronics to spark an explosion - I don’t think anyone is using a chemical flash kit circa 1900 during a distillery tour. The same instructions when for the storehouse. I openly admit that the joke of the cameras and the annoying pride for tradition while clearly using a highly industrialized process ruined the tour guide's creditability for me. I might have expressed my annoyance under my breath once or twice...

But then we got to the free tasting. Tastings always make things better, but I recommend skipping the 15 year and sticking to the 12 and the 18. This advice goes equally for the Cardhu distillery we attended later in the day. I am still baffled as to why distilleries make a 15 year scotch - oh well, it’s not to reason why, it’s to drink, drink, drink!

And so we left Glennfiddich and headed for the Speyside Cooperage. A cooperage is where casks are created. The Cooperage was the highlight of the day. This tour was far superior to the Glenfiddich barrel of ironic laughs. The down side is that it does cost a small fee. The first portion of the tour is self guided and involves a lot of reading. The second involves a movie, which goes through the history of the Speyside Cooperage and the modern methods used to make barrels. The third portion of the tour takes place on an observation deck where you watch the coopers perform their craft on the shop floor. I took notice of a 60 year old man who had been with the Speyside Cooperage for 40+ years. I asked the balcony guide how much these men make and was surprised to hear that the top performers (piece count pay) make the equivalent of $110-120K a year! The 60 year old was whipping cask repairs out like nobody’s business. He’ll complete 20-25 cask repairs/refurbishments a day or 4-5 new barrel-sized casks. (It was frequently noted that people commonly refer to casks as barrels, when in reality barrel is a particular size of cask. Despite growing up knowing that a barrel is a unit of measure - thank you Alaskan oil producers - I still make this mistake all of the time.)

Bill and I took lunch and started toward Aviemore. On our way we stopped at the Cardhu distillery. Cardhu 12 year is one of my favorite single malt scotches. A version of Cardhu is used as the base scotch for several of the Johnny Walker blends. Already knowing how distilleries are operated (and exceptionally exhausted by the Glenfiddich tour), Bill and I opted for going straight to the tasting. This was an excellent choice! The 15 year, 18 year, and special reserve vintages of Cardhu have only been available for about 18 months and this was the first time I had tried any of them. As I mentioned before, I wasn’t impressed with the 15 year, but I was also underwhelmed by the special reserve. For my money, I’ll be sticking with the 12 and the 18 year vintages.

Pictures taken and scenery absorbed, we headed into Aviemore for a night. Bill and I grabbed a game of pool where he stomped my ass 4 to 1. I am still blaming the size of the balls as my downfall. American style pool is much different because of the surface area on the cue ball. Bill claimed that pool isn’t a real man’s game and that we needed to catch a game of Snooker. I have never played Snooker and wasn’t going to pass up an opportunity to learn. On my last night we played three games of Snooker. The scores were low and Bill beat me soundly two out of the three games. I am pretty sure he took pity on me for the third and final game and I squeaked out a win on the last ball after he missed a relatively easy shot.

Rolling out of Aviemore we headed for the General Wade highway and Loch Ness. I had no intention of hunting down Nessy, but Bill seemed to think it was a crime to visit Scotland and not see Loch Ness. I was taken aback by the size of the Loch. For whatever reason I was under the impression that Loch Ness was much smaller than it actually is. It took us the better part of an hour to go from one end to the other (obeying the traffic laws). We passed through Inverness for a cup of coffee and headed over the highlands to the house.

Bill and I tried out of a couple new golf clubs at the driving range, had a few more meals, met up with Wattie and his wife Wendy for a good chat, and I spent time recovering from my non-stop drinking in Edinburgh and London. By the time I was ready to leave my cold was nearly gone and I was feeling ready for London Take 2.

Unfortunately London Take 2 lasted only three nights and I only have the Tower of London to show for it (not discounting some excellent conversations and company). I will say that at almost 22 pounds (my date bought my ticket - what a swell lass!) the Tower of London is a little overpriced, but it does have some very fascinating exhibits. The armory in the White Tower is quite impressive. I didn’t realize how large the men were that must have worn the largest suits of armor. Also, the small suits and weapons seem fit for a man of my size, and most would consider my build to be average. Knights in medieval times must have been enormous (and immobile). The crown jewels were beautiful and crowded. The torture exhibits were underwhelming. The Tower structure was eye opening and I wish I had more time to explore the exhibits in greater detail.

Oh well, off to Paris!


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