Highland whisky holiday with Jon Beach

What do you get when you cross a sea monster, a castle, a school of dolphins, and a whole lotta whisky?  You get a holiday with Jon Beach, proprietor of Fiddler’s.

With four days between my month-long internship at Bruichladdich and Whisky School at Springbank, I figured I’d get a little sightseeing in around the mainland.  I thought I’d visit Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, check out the Kelvingrove Art Museum, or maybe ride the Hogwarts Express.  Then I got this message from Jon Beach, proprietor of Fiddler’s.  Come on out to Drumnadrochit, he said.  I’ll put you up.

Fiddler’s has a reputation as a fantastic whisky bar on the shores of Loch Ness, and Jon (@maltwhiskybar) is just about the most prolific tweeter I’ve ever met … but still, I had no idea what to expect.  We arrived around sunset in Drumnadrochit, a wee village that wraps around a small inlet of Loch Ness.  Everything looked asleep—that is, everything except Fiddler’s, which was bustling.   Inside it was cozy, with lots of people at glossy wooden tables and a modest hearth, and Jon greeted us with cheer and a beer.  He was much too busy to chat, but he sat us down and made sure we were fed (haggis and venison stew, of course).  The bottles line the walls and the list is plenty long, but my eyes caught the collection Port Ellen.  He had all 10 annual releases along with at least ten other bottles.

A month at Bruichladdich not enough peat for you? Jon asked with a laugh, and so we let him decide for us.  That was the beginning of my Highland whisky weekend.  After all that peat and smoke, the delicate, floral drams that Jon started us on were a revelation.  I had forgotten that whisky could be so light on its feet.

As the diners trickled out, Jon—a cheerful, hearty young fellow with a ponytail and a big gold beard—sat  down with us and poured taste after taste of rare and lovely Highland whisky.  He mumbled what were probably clever jokes and insightful tasting notes, though with his accent I couldn’t understand a word.  He grabbed each bottle in a slapdash way, without reverence or pretension, like he couldn’t really be bothered—but each taste was carefully chosen to be just a touch richer or bolder than the last.  The Scotch cleared the cotton out of my ears and I was able to listen to story after story of favorite drams, brazen whisky investors, and distillery politics.  We hung on his every word until 3am, and I can vouch for it—that man drinks like a horse and does not get drunk.   As we left, Jon said, “tomorrow’s my day off, so… see you at 9:30?”

9:30 comes awfully quick when you’re hammered, but Jon was bright as an arrow the next day.  That was the start of our personal Highland whisky tour.  We started at Inverness, where we stopped for whisky-flavored chocolates that would go to Jon’s mum in Dornoch.  Then it was a tour of Baird’s Maltings, which deserve a posting in their own right and will be treated later.

After the maltings was Royal Brackla, a stunner of a rural distillery and the most spotless operation I’ve ever witnessed.  Then we stopped in at Anderson’s, Jon’s favorite pub, where Philadelphia native Jim Anderson (twitter handle @anderjim) told wry tales and poured us a dash of Highland Park 37 year old.

I thought we were finished, but Jon said, “Let’s drive out to the point.  It’s just about time to see the dolphins.”  So we drove a couple miles to the beach.  The view was really something, with the churning waves and the pink sky, and I figured it was all a tall tale about the dolphins but I was happy anyway.

They're out there somewhere.

And then I saw them—a fat school of them, arching through the air on their way to the sea.  They only make this journey once a day.  Jon Beach is a hell of a tour guide.

After meeting his mum and his two little girls (both in matching red checked dresses and just about the most adorable pair of children you’ve ever seen), Jon took us out to our lodging for the night.  He had called in a favor to his friends Phil and Simon Thompson, two brothers (and whisky investors, twitter handle @whiskeycollector) who own Dornoch Castle and run it as a hotel and restaurant.  The night was spent in the hotel bar, which is in the oldest part of the castle and used to be the kitchen and scullery.  We drank whisky and talked whisky with Jon and Phil —  It’s one thing to drink incredible rare drams with two devoted whisky investors.  It’s another thing to do this in a castle.  Thanks, Jon Beach.

Published in: on August 18, 2011 at 1:21 am  Comments (1)  

First week at Bruichladdich: A Scotsman, An Englishman, an Irishman and an American, or, The Joy of Mash

My fellow Mashmen:


Jay’s from Ireland, but he’s been around.  Lived in Boston for a while—not a bad spot for an Irishman to land, I suppose.  But somehow he ended up falling in love with an Ileach, and now he lives on the island with his wife and children.  He’s worked on Islay for 7 years or so, but not at any of the distilleries—and now he’ll be the newest member of the Laddich crew.  His first week was my first week, too.

Peter “Peegee”

An Islay native with deep roots at Laphroaig.  Peegee is the mash veteran.  Always had a subtle smirk, like he was in on a joke and was deliberating whether or not to let you in on it.  And then if you were quiet, he’d mutter some nugget of wisdom.

Adam  “English”

Adam was born on Islay, but his parents are English and so is his accent.  Something that’s hard for Americans to understand, I guess, is that these kinds of roots run deep over here.  Adam’s clever.  Which was all right, since he got stuck teaching the lot of us about the day to day duties of a mashman.

The mash is the process by which you take malt—that’s barley that’s germinated and dried—and use it to make a barley-flavored liquid, called wort. You can take any malt into mash, but in order to get the best results the barley must have been harvested well, dried properly, precisely malted—see my upcoming blog on maltings—dried once more, and stored well away from moisture. Bruichladdich is one of the only distilleries to source barley locally, and all their malting takes place in Inverness at Baird’s Maltings:  the only malting facility in the world that is capable of malting to Bruichladdich’s expectations.

When Bruichladdich runs a mash, 7 tons of malt leave the storage bins and head into the Boby mill.  The mill itself is a veteran; built in 1881, it’s belt-driven with four rollers that break the malt down into three stages:  husks, middles, and flours.  These rollers are finely adjusted to Laddich’s ration:  15% husks, 71% middles, and 14% flour.  If you have too much flour the mash will gum up on you; too much husk, and it drains too quickly.

After the malt is milled, it’s mixed with water in the mash.  I have to pause here and offer a little homage to Bruichladdich’s water:  Sourced from the Islay moors, this delectable liquid travels through the peaty hillsides on its way to the distillery, picking up subtle phenols that come through ever so subtly, even in the unpeated whisky.  This is what I learned to worship in whisky from Scotland: although humans make whisky, it also inevitably emerges from the place of its birth, an expression of the stone and peat and wind and rain that color that landscape.  You could have the exact recipe for Bruichladdich whisky—the precise levels of peating, the right ration of husks to middles to flour, the right barrels for the right amount of time—it doesn’t matter, Sisyphus, because you don’t have the water.

So after the malt is milled, it’s carried on a conveyor to the mash tun (like most of the things that really do the work around the distillery, this massive cast-iron vat was also built in 1881.)  Inside the mash tun, the malt is precisely mixed with water (grist.)  This is called the “first water,” and it’s at 149 degrees (it’s also recycled water— but I’ll come back to that).  Once the mash tun is filled with grist you turn it, gently, and this takes some time, but as you work you can watch the steam rise and take in the sweet smells of peat and barley, maybe even a tea break.  The water that is drained off the mash is the wort, and tasting the wort is one of the best experiences you can have at a distillery.  It’s sugary and sweet, but warm and round and earthy and wholesome.  It’s syrupy.  I think it would be good on waffles.

The grist is mixed with water three more times.   The second water is also recycled water, and it makes up the other 35% of your wort.  The third and fourth waters don’t go into the wort—they’ve extracted a little flavor, but not enough, so they are used for the first and second waters in the next mash.

So the sweet and flavorful wort from the first two waters now goes through a heat exchanger to drastically drop the temperature and then gets charged over to the wash backs, where fermentation will take place.  The third and fourth waters are recycled for the next mash.  And the grist, now called draff, is pumped out of the tun and into a trailer, which is taken to surrounding farms and used to feed livestock. Any tour you take on Islay, they always make light of the happy cows and why they taste so good.

And that’s mash!  Thanks, Adam.  Thanks, Peegee.  Steak and waffles, anyone?

Published in: on June 25, 2011 at 7:16 am  Leave a Comment  

Feis or Flight

Maybe Islay is like a fragile, exotic, flower that lies dormant for most of the year, nestled away from the sleet and the wind, only to bloom for a few sunny days.

Hmm. Too many crags.  More like, Islay is a fierce dragon that grudgingly lurks in his cave, lunging from his hideout once a year to torch everything in sight unless the villagers sacrifice their most beautiful maid.

The dragon emerges every year at Festival time.  In May, Feis Ile brings flocks of whisky worshipers—from the hesitant, earnest newbies to the worthy investors to the shameless scoundrels in dire need of a peat fix.  It’s good old-fashioned fun, in a bit of a brutal pagan spirit.

My last week at Bruichladdich wasn’t mashing, running the stills, or learning the skills of a master blender;  I was helping the team get ready for Feis.  The distilleries around festival time are a bit like boys getting scrubbed and polished for church:  their rough, squeaky, rusty, moldy parts are smoothed out till they shine.  We cleaned up the barrel yard, white washed buildings, painted hand railings, rearranged barrels, polished the stills, and even the gift shop got a make over.

The slight monotony of painting white atop white was broken up by the occasional mishap—er, adventure. One morning, Duncan and I were taking the spent barrels in front of warehouse 5 over to Port Charlotte to be stored for future pick up.  These were French wine casks and sherry butts, so they were a bit larger in size.  After we loaded up the lorry with just shy of 70 casks we set off up the road—but as we turned off the main street to head up to the old Port Charlotte warehouse we heard some of the barrels knocking about.  And as we pulled up the last hill a barrel smashed against the door and knocked it right open.  Shit!  You could see the barrel in the side mirror jumping down the road, and I jumped out and set chase.  The barrel–too large and too fast to stop– was heading right towards a house.  I’m running after it with no clue what I’m gonna do if I can actually catch up, thinking any attempt to get in front of the thing is a surefire visit to the hospital, thinking did I latch the doors, thinking who’s in that house? Thinking is there even a hospital on Islay?

At just that moment, one of Duncan’s buddies turned the corner.  He had seen us on our way up, and even though he barely saw it coming he managed to stop the speeding barrel.  Not sure how he did it without getting completely bowled over, but I guess you’ve gotta have that talent if you work around these things.  Duncan and I returned the barrel to the truck, double-checking the latch.

As we unloaded the barrels at the warehouse yard we built quite a pyramid of Haut Brion, Chateau Yquem, Amarone, Syrah, and hogsheads, but I could tell that Duncan was alarmed.  Then, bit by bit, it dawned on me: the work he does—the work all of these men do– requires a firm, unyieldingly watchful eye.  In some industries, a quarter of an inch is just a little to the left or the right, but if we fail to shift a latch just so, tighten a bolt just right, or make sure a platform is level, there’s more at stake.  It’s a physical kind of precision that’s needed, and it’s that clean, precise perfection that is celebrated each year as the distilleries polish themselves until they are just spotless for visitors.

Of course, then the dragon arrives.


Published in: on May 31, 2011 at 5:38 am  Leave a Comment  

Arrrgghh beg


I recently went to visit the birthplace of Jim Romdall‘s favorite whisky.  This world famous distillery was first built on the Ardbeg farm in 1798 by the McDougall brothers and some local farmers.  Ardbeg is located on the jagged coast of the south eastern side of Islay not far from Port Ellen.  This distillery once having been at the peak of their game in 1886 employing more than 60 people sadly went on to later close their doors in 1989.  Luckily for Jim in 1997 this distillery was brought back to life with a big thanks to Glenmorangie and 1.4 million dollars.  Ardbeg now employs ten people and are yet again producing some of the island’s peatiest whisky.  The bottle I have on my shelf at home is called Airigh Nam Beist (Gaelic for place of the beast).  This 16 year old whisky is named in honor of the beast that once haunted the village and was the primary cause for missing cattle and sheep.   Apparently this foul creature was met by two mashmen in the dark of night as they were heading up to the water source, after the water had run dry preventing their mash.  The beast was found stuck waist deep in the peat bog unable to free itself.  The men, at the risk of their lives and being the good natured people that Ileach tend to be, managed to help free the beast up and out of the bog.  Once standing the creature was over 10 feet tall with a hard scaly fur, reeking of the smell of death itself.  The beast stared at the men scouling and with one quick swing of the arm, the men were knocked back right off their feet and back about ten.  The beast then cast an ear piercing howl and fled away into the dark.  These two mashmen were reported never to be the same again.  It’s said that one of the men died mysteriously not even 3 weeks later. Naturally, I went in search for this deathly beast only to find these little monsters running around instead.

After my unsuccessful hunt for “beasty” at the water source I trekked back down the hill to the distillery for a wee look around.  The distillery is now run by Islay native Mickey Heads, formerly of Jura Distillery.  While I was unable to locate Mickey (must be out with Beasty) for an interview, I was convienently sidetracked after tasting through six of the whiskies and stumbling upon the Ardbeg Cafe boasting some of the best “local fare” on Islay.  Since this last and tragic sighting of “Beasty” Ardbeg no longer runs a night shift.


Published in: on April 30, 2011 at 9:55 pm  Leave a Comment  

A little starstruck, I must say: Jim McEwan and Bowmore

Jim McEwan, master distiller at Bruichladdich, arrived yesterday and immediately set me up with visits to Bowmore and Bunnahabhain. What a once-in-a-lifetime experience this will be: Islay, curated by one of the most talented distillers in the world (who also just happens to be a true-blood Ileach).

We started at Bowmore, and I was amazed to see that despite being so big, despite foreign ownership, Bowmore remembers its roots. Of course, roots run deep on this island. Bowmore was first established in 1779 making it one of the oldest distilleries in Scotland!   Bowmore uses three warehouses for maturation, two of which are near Port Ellen. The oldest is still on site, and you can see it on your tour along with tools from the last cooper who retired in 1974.  

The highlight, though, is the malting floor.  Three malting floors are used, with two great kilns peating a vast room full of moisture-packed barley to consistent phenol ratings of 25-26 ppm.  This accounts for 25% of their malting needs.   

A few years back Bowmore donated an entire warehouse to the construction of a swimming pool and fitness center for the communities of Islay.  The pool is heated using the waste water from the distillation process.  This is also used to heat some of the other buildings on site.  I didn’t bring a swim suit so I have yet to go to the pool.  And it is not confirmed whether or not Bowmore whisky is available pool side.

Published in: on April 20, 2011 at 1:43 am  Comments (1)  

A Walk with Mark Reynier

I was lucky enough to get a moment of Mark’s time today.  I managed to keep up my end of the conversation, or at least enough to let him go on about what makes him tick.  He’s an Islay transplant and was and still is a wine merchant from London.  Pretty great story on how he acquired the distillery and his change from wine to whisky.

Mark is an innovator.  I could see his passion and hear it in his voice. He approaches whisky with a wine sensibility and a belief in the power of terroir.  Most distilleries look for good quality barley (a lot of times not even from Scotland) and distill it.  The flavor they want comes from time and maturation. But Mark
now sources barley from up to 28 different farms (increasingly organic/biodynamic) on the island, because he’s convinced that each farm’s location, soil, and weather can be expressed in a distillate.  This meets up to 50 percent of their barley needs, the rest come from surrounding Scottish isles or the mainland. One reason that these guys source barley locally and mature casks on Islay is that it gives them the opportunity to try and express characteristics from an individual farm or a certain part of Islay. Bruichladdich also ages and bottles all of its whisky on the island (the only one on Islay that does both)– are you sure there’s no salty Islay air that gets in through that wood and into your glass?
If you’re not yet persuaded that whisky can have terroir, stop reading…   I was fortunate enough to try some of theses new makes, and they are different!  He has them labeled by date, farm, farmer, etc.   They are all distilled the same way and new make is not influenced by wood as it has yet to age.  You can tell that the barley from different farms creates different distillates.  Some are fruity, softer, sharper, spicier.  They were all notably different.  At one point, Mark got all the farmers together and let them taste and share the new makes.  The farmers were then able to have a discussion about their own barley and why it might be different.  Of course this was a chance for them to give the other farms a little shite or defend themselves by saying “well mine has more rock or….”
And that brings me back to the island. I like the idea that the barley used for this product put food on the table for a family living on Islay.
There are so many things about Bruichladdich that impress me.  There’s the Botanist gin, which was really just an experiment or being British, Mark wanted some gin.  Either way it turned out to be great stuff.  Botanist is made with 23 different Islay-specific botanicals along with english juniper, and it’s combined in a Lamond still, the only one left in existence.  The still (dubbed Ugly Betty) is sort of a hybrid, and it maintained its temperature so well that they were able to reduce the heat to a really low temperature, so that the gin was able to simmer for 17 hours (the majority of distillations take 3-4)!  It’s really, really special.
Then there’s the biodynamically farmed barley, reusable waste from the distillery converted into energy, stimulation of the local economy, and a product that is the true spirit of Islay.  Add all that up and combine it with the best barrels for aging (I’ve seen Latour, Petrus, Amarone, Buffalo Trace) and you have Bruichladdich.
 I’m lucky to be here.
Published in: on April 15, 2011 at 4:38 am  Comments (5)  

Knee High Stocking Company

Dear Tommy,

I found myself in Seattle this weekend, and I needed a drink.  I heard that Knee High Stocking Company was supposed to be pretty good, so I told my friends we should grab a drink there!  They said, “Great, Mabel.  We’ll hit it up after dinner.”

Me:”Um, when will that be?

Them:  “Um, whenever we’re finished.”

Me:  “Well, I mean, when do you think-”

Them: “Chill out!  I know Portland’s a bustling metropolis and all, but you’re in Seattle now!  Relax!”

Me:  “Well, I need to know what time to make the reservation.”

Them (flabbergasted): *clears throat.  low, menacing voice*  “You need a reservation to a BAR?”

Me:  “Well, it’s kind of this speakeasy thing”

Them:  “What?!?”

Me: *mumbling* “You have to text them, and then you go to this buzzer thing, and you say the secret word, and–”

Them:  “Oh, no.  Oh, no no no.  You are NOT dragging me to some snotty pretentious $*&!?………”  The conversation degenerated from there.

Long story short:  We went to Knee High Stocking Company.  They had something called Mansinthe. (It’s Marilyn Manson’s Absinthe, which due to my Toby Keith post I shouldn’t touch, but god I want to).
The cocktail waitresses were gorgeous and extraordinarily friendly (They even called me “friend” instead of “ma’am”).  The bartender was really aiming to please.   Oh, and it was lovely, mellow, calm, urbane– we all had a seat— and it was 10:00 on Saturday night on Capitol Hill.  Something tells me that this speakeasy trend might have a little something going for it.



Published in: on April 14, 2011 at 5:07 am  Leave a Comment  

Working day at Bruichladdich

Dear Mabel,

Working day today.  Early this morning we drove empty french wine casks up to Bunnahabhain.  We delivered just shy of about 70 french oak barrels.  The road to Bunnahaiban is a narrow and windy one, and it was raining pretty hard all morning.  The truck we were driving had a lot of character, meaning it’s a bloody piece of shit.  But it’s a tough old truck and handled the job just fine.  We only had to stop just after one of the wee hills to add water to the radiator.

Once we were back, I got to spend some time with Duncan MacGillivray, distillery manager at Bruichladdich.  I’d love to say I learned all there was to distilling– but what I learned was that a distillery manager isn’t just running stills and blending barrels.  He’s everywhere, all the time, doing everything.  Today all we wanted to do was build a railing in the new but old warehouse.  (The Bruichladdich warehouse is an original warehouse built in 1881, same year as the distillery, but it’s just recently undergone some updating.  We were building a railing for the fire exit, more or less a hand rail).    We ended up in the workshop trying to figure out why the pump from the heat exchanger in the still house kept seizing up.  While working on the pump, Duncan was called upon at least 4 times, sometimes needed elsewhere for an hour at a time.  Thomas the electrician and I did what we could on the pump– but we ended up having to leave the pump, and the railing, for morning as we were already an hour past quitting time.
The whisky tonight was Bruichladdich “Waves,”  a lightly peated whisky aged in both bourbon and madeira casks.  On the nose it’s subtle floral and spice but it finishes with toffee, cocoa, and a touch of peat.  A great way to end the day.  It’s the “Rock’s” you want to start your day with.
Published in: on April 13, 2011 at 4:08 am  Leave a Comment  

Thank God. I hate sunshine.

Dear Tommy,

I hope Islay sucks.

Love, Mabel

Published in: on April 9, 2011 at 5:31 am  Leave a Comment  

Life On Islay

I started my internship at Bruichladdich this week, and so far I’ve had a bit of work and plenty of scenery.

It’s quaint and quiet.  I’m staying just across the road from the distillery at the Bruichladdich “Academy House.”  Mary, that evil one, is making it her mission to fatten me up.  She makes me breakfast every morning– a strong farmer’s breakfast, for a slight young barman.  Every morning there’s a large plate of fried eggs, bacon, sausages, blood pudding, toast, yogurt, fruit, coffee, and orange juice.   I about fell back asleep after that first one.

There’s an old bike in the garage that I can take into the nearest town– Port Charlotte.  It’s about a two mile ride, and entirely along the coast.  You see peat bogs, a war memorial, rocks, sheep, some wooly-looking Islay cows, more sheep, there’s an old church, and what seem to be barley fields.  Though it’s not nearly harvest so I can’t be certain.

After work I read about whisky, and there’s whisky on hand whenever I need a sip for reference.  Last night, for instance, I learned that not all Islay whisky is peated– and Bruichladdich “Rocks” served as an example of a fine whisky that’s expressive of unpeated malt.
Islay life is at a slow pace.  So far I have learned there are four seasons to a day, and there is no rush– which helps me understand that good whisky takes patience.


Published in: on April 7, 2011 at 3:54 am  Comments (3)