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  

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)