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)  

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 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  

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)  

Finally. A Real Man Makes Mezcal.

Dear Tommy,

As you know, I’m a closet Toby Keith fan.  Toby, also known as the Bard of the War in Afghanistan, is famous for eloquent, evocative songwriting.  Such as:    

Real Man

And you’ll be sorry that you messed with

The U S of A

Cause we’ll put a boot in your ass

It’s the american way

He’s also written “The Taliban Song,” the first New Country ditty about an Afghan cowboy.  Written from the point of view of a “middle-aged, middle-eastern camel herdin’ man” who “saddles up” with his “old lady” and “flips a couple fingers to the Taliban,”  this isn’t just pure country.  It’s pure poetry.

I have a lot in common with Toby.  I, too, am from the U S of A.  I like wearing cowboy hats.  And I’m sexy.

So when I found out that Toby Keith is about to release a “liquor” called Toby Keith’s Wild Shot Mezcal, I flipped a couple fingers to Mexico and shouted “yee-haw!” 

Mezcal is for Patriots

 As expected, this stuff is more authentic than anything with a Mexican name on it.  It is 100% agave, it is not made to be “mixed,” its logo reassuringly references the Old West saloon, and EACH BOTTLE CONTAINS A WORM. 

Toby, thanks.  Mezcal isn’t for the unAmerican, like Mexicans or hipsters.  Mezcal is for patriots.  It’s for that old couple on their front porch swing, watching the sun go down over their farm.  It’s for the single mom working nights as a stripper to make ends meet.  It’s for fourteen-year-olds feeling frisky in the cornfield.    It’s for me!



Published in: on March 31, 2011 at 10:30 pm  Comments (3)  

Guest Bartending: Door 74, Amsterdam

I’m still amazed that they even let me in the door.  Spent last night behind the bar at Door 74 in Amsterdam.

Published in: on March 30, 2011 at 10:22 pm  Comments (1)  

Combier Distillery: Saumur, FR

  Dear Mabel,

As you know, I do work for Combier.  But to be honest, the reason that I think Combier’s products are so lovely and authentic isn’t because I chose  to represent them; I chose to represent them because they are lovely  and authentic.

That said, I spent 4 days in Saumur, a village in the Loire Valley, steeped in Combier.  The distillery is one of the central features of this charming place, and it definitely benefits from its location amid the traditional Loire farms.

its like a country store for drinkers!

The distiller, Franck Choisne, exudes the rustic sophistication of the classic gentleman farmer.  He’s in tune with the harvest cycle and with the land, and his artisanal stillhouse makes the best use possible of all the incredible French produce.  He’s got all the old school products like cassis, creme de muir, orgeat, creme de violette, and creme de menthe — they’re all done just they way they’re supposed to be.  But the standouts, of course, are the triple sec (Combier Liqueur d’Orange) and elixir based (Combier Royal).

I stayed in a castle not far from the distillery.  Had a few lunches and dinners with Franck and we really got along great.  He’s excited and passionate about what he does, but he also listens– so I asked him about the elephant in the room:  Cointreau.  Coming from the states, Cointreau seems so obviously the competitor for a top-shelf triple sec, and I couldn’t imagine what it must be like to be staring up at that giant.  But Franck simply said, “We are not Cointreau.  We are Combier.  We have been Combier longer than anyone else has been around, and that was and still is our flagship recipe.”

It’s a recipe worth keeping.  Unaltered and made the same way since 1834, Combier Orange has both sweet and bitter pure orange notes, with a clean drying finish.  Absolutely pure and natural, no artificial oils, sweeteners, or color enhancers are ever added.  When you use it in a cocktail, it adds depth and sweetness without the waxy cloying character you can get with other triple secs.

Like I said:  beautiful and authentic.


Published in: on March 26, 2011 at 11:10 pm  Leave a Comment  

“To God, Most Good, Most Great”: Benedictine Palace, Fecamp, France

Dear Mabel, 

I know that the only reason you’re interested in Fecamp is that Tony Parker played here.  But there’s so much more, Mabel, so much more.  This charming harbor town on the coast of Normandy has a rich medieval history and is home to the Benedictine Palace– one of the most extraordinary places I’ve visited.  Since Fecamp is so out-of-the-way, few Americans have touched soil here.  This made my train ride– terminating as it did at an ornate palace built in honor of God and liqueur– something of a pilgrimage.

The Benedictine story isn’t new.  Invented by monks in the  sixteenth century, secret recipe, resurrected after the French Revolution by Alexander Le Grand, 27 secret botanical ingredients.  Indispensable (Vieux Carre, Chrysanthemum).  I didn’t expect much from the visit to the palace… but when you’re standing inside the palace surrounded on all sides by the most ornate symbolic detail, you can’t help but think there’s something mystical and magical to Benedictine after all, and that shroud of secrecy doesn’t seem contrived– it seems like a tribute.

You can taste Benedictine anywhere, in any year, and it will taste the same (that 500 year-old recipe isn’t going anywhere).  I wasn’t expecting to taste anything new– I just wanted to see and feel the place.  But sometimes the best things come when you least expect them, and that’s exactly how I felt when I tasted Single-Cask Benedictine, only available at the disillery.

This stuff tastes how something secret and rare is supposed to taste; it’s the weathered ghost of the Benedictine I know and love.  There’s less honey, but more depth and spice.  Dark and deep, with toffee and dark fruit, and a generous sprinkle of cinnamon.  Tasting the Single-Cask this way– deep inside the palace, where only a few could get at it– made me feel as though I were stealing some rare, precious antiquity. 


Published in: on March 26, 2011 at 5:10 am  Leave a Comment