Monday, May 31, 2010

Scotland Part Three - the Highlands and the Isle of Skye

There was a great day in Edinburgh before Dan and I set off for the Highlands and Skye, but more on that later.

Dan cleverly reserved an automatic car rental for us, which we picked up at the airport. We were assigned a very smooth-riding VW Golf. Yep, two Jews riding in Europe in the Car of the People! Gotta love it. Here's the sign that greeted us as we exited, lest we forget which country we're driving in:

Once we were on the outskirts of the Highlands, there was a scenic beach where we found a food cart run by this very cheery couple. Dan insisted I try the national breakfast sandwich of square sausage, bacon, egg and cheese. I actually felt my arteries congealing as I ate, but it was delicious. The square sausage, made from Highland beef, was especially good. Hey, I'm on vacation...

The sky turned on its mood clouding just in time for our approach.

Of course, no visit to this part of the world is complete without one of these guys. I stayed a safe distance. So no, I did not pay the piper.

Then the sun came out and we could see the Highlands in their glorious beauty. We had some time to kill before our ferry to Skye, so we decided to get a pot of tea. We found this this weird little B and B that was playing selections from country music soundtracks mixed in with live Rod Stewart tracks. After some time in that purgatorial lobby, we escaped to wait out the remaining time on a nice beach.

Then after a short ferry ride, we made it to Skye. But it was a bank holiday and the only place to stay with vacancy was a 4-star hotel and the only place to eat was a 1-star Michelin-rated restaurant, the Kinloch Lodge. Daumage... We had a good, if not slightly precious meal, where we met this very outgoing older Aussie couple who had been traveling round the world, as Aussies do. After some conversation, they wanted to buy us all drams so Dan and I could give them a quick lesson on single malts. Fun had by all. Here is the scene outside the restaurant as dusk settled on this beautiful land.

The next morning, after a yummy two-course breakfast of yogurt and berries, then peat-smoked salmon and scrambled eggs with toast, we set out on some sight-seeing before our 1:30 appointment at Talisker. Of course, the only few minutes it rained hard is when we had wanted to hike at the Old Man of Storr mountain, which we ended up not doing. But here's a look from the road.

As we drove off, this silly cow tried to cross the road.

The sky cleared a bit, and Dan showed me one of his favorite scenic views, with green hills, a waterfall, and of course, sheep.

We drove down the road a piece and more stunning views of cliffs and greenery. But first, a warning sign if there ever was one.

Here's me at the other view. Thirty degree difference between this day and the day before. And I HATE posing for pictures like these!

We then set off for Talisker. But there was another cool lookout point, so we stopped, and I snapped more photos of little sheep.

Here's a shot from the bridge approaching Talisker. I think this shot is very impressionistic, very Lamby Van Gogh.

So here we are at Talisker. A place I've always wanted to visit.

Our Diageo connection, Spike McClure, set up this appointment for us. We were to join the Connoisseur's Tour. So it was us and several paying visitors, mostly French. Not nearly the personal and intimate treatment we got at Auchentoshan. And because the distillery is owned by such a big corporation, certain bits were off limits. In fact, because of something going on at the time that wasn't fully explained, we couldn't even see the stills. But Lesley, our tour guide, was quite charming. Despite being somewhat programmed to discuss only Diageo-owned brands when talking about malts. The tasting at the end was generous. Six good-sized drams. The non aged white spirit so we could taste it, the 10 year, the 18 year (my personal favorite), the Distiller's Edition, the 25 Year and the new 54 North.

Here's the cooling vat, which we viewed in lieu of the stills.

And here's a shot of a 1979 Distillers Edition barrel in the warehouse. Behind glass. The warehouse is bonded and visitors are prohibited beyond the glass.

Then we set off on an afternoon drive to see more beautiful Skye scenes before our reservation at the Three Chimneys.

...and sheep....

Amazing dinner at the Three Chimneys with more peat-smoked salmon, langoustines, oysters with fresh mint sauce and creme fresh as a genius palate cleanser, lamb and souffle with Dambouie sauce. Great, young, English sommelier who among other great suggestions, gave us glasses of an oaked Albarino for the seafood and a glass of one of my favorite Chilean Syrahs, Viu Manent Secreto, with our lamb. Here's what the sky was doing as we ate.

Sadly, because Dan needed to get back to Yvonne and her family (her grandmother's funeral was the next day), we had to cut our Highlands trip short by one day. So we set off back to Edinburgh, stopping at Edradour Distillery on the way.

Clearly, the sheep didn't want us to leave just yet.

On the way, we passed Eilean Donan Castle, but didn't have time for a tour.

We also passed Dalwhinnie distillery as we left the Highlands.

And then we were at Edradour. Because we had no set appointment, I had to pay the 5 pound entry fee to see it. Dan had already been many times. The fee is a new thing, supposedly to keep out stragglers just in it for a free dram. But we were a little miffed that Dan couldn't even visit the shop without paying the fee. Still, it was a most pleasant tour. The guide, Liam, was fun and engaging. And it's a cute operation. I've always like their 10 Year. On the way out, I caught up with Dan, who was chatting with the owner, James McGown, and his pal Dougie Maclean, the Scottish pop star, who visits once a year to choose a label for the 12 year bottling, the Caledonia, which is an annual malt made in his honor, and his quiet teenaged son. I have to admit I had no idea who he was, but he was fun to talk to.

The stills (double, not triple).

The big sack of barley grain.

And the big red grain mill, aka, the "Moulin Rouge."

Then it was back to Edinburgh, where I would have that night and all of the next day and eve to myself. Actually, it was quite fun! More on that later.

Scotland Part Two - Auchentoshan

The night before Dan and I went to Auchentoshan we got curry take away.

Now I have what they call an "iron stomach." I can count on one hand the number of times I've been sick from food from anywhere. Wouldn't you know, this instance uses up that hand. I love curry, all curries. But when I woke up the next morning I wasn't feeling right at all. It was as though I was on a boat in high tide, even though the ground was stable. But I pressed on. Stirling palace might be closed for renovations, the cool jail might not be open for another week, but damned if I was going to miss an opportunity like getting a personal distillery tour with the Master Distiller.

I had met Jeremy Stephens at a Distiller's event in NYC in the winter, where we had a long conversation about light and dark spirits and flavors and aromas that can trick the brain. Specifically about how certain mezcals can smell like peaty scotch. He wrote me an email a few days later complimenting my spirits knowledge (blushes) and said he'd be glad to show me around the distillery if I ever came to Scotland. Well, Dan, as it turns out, had just done a week-long internship there and became very friendly with him. So it all worked out that he would show us around. He gave us a lot of his time that day and despite my queasiness, it was a fantastic visit for which I am forever grateful to both of them. Especially after subsequent distillery tours that were not nearly as personalized or in depth.

Auchentoshan is triple-distilled for smoothness.

So psyched I managed to snap this shot of the mash just as the blades were approaching!

Barrels in the warehouse...

Getting to bang the crap out of a barrel to force the cork out so we could taste some yummy vintage juice. It wasn't easy...

Took a few more tries (plus I was weakened by my stomach bug or whatever), but success!

Jeremy used a "thief" so we could try some Scotch juice.

Mmmmmm. Scotch juice! Cheers!

But the BEST part? Jeremy took us into the Blending Room where there was an entire cabinet filled with samples of rare and vintage casks dating back to the 60s.

And then he just let me have free reign to pull and pour samples! Jeremy, you are the coolest!

Really? Anything I want? WHAT stomach bug?

I quickly got comfortable.

Dan with "The Precious."

A lineup of what all we sampled. Don't worry, just a small nip of each.

Dan and I agreed these were our two favorites of the bunch: Vintage 1974 from refill sherry cask and 1965 from refill bourbon cask.

We carried a glass into the conference room and after a short presentation about the triple distillation method, it was time to head back to Glasgow and then Edinburgh. By the time I made it home, I was so wiped from holding it together for this excursion that I stayed in that night, despite having all of Edinburgh for the taking, and slept for 10 hours. Well, that definitely wiped out whatever residual jetlag I might have had. I woke up the next day pumped and ready to take on the town!

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Scotland Part One - Stirling

Hard to believe this trip has actually happened and I'm back already! What a whirlwind trip it was.

We'd all be here forever if I summed up in my usual writing style. So instead I'm going to make a sort of list of activities and events and let the images speak for themselves. I'm breaking this up into four parts so y'all aren't too overwhelmed. Or as they say in Scotland, "nay bother."

I came there to spend time with my friend Dan from NY and his Scottish girlfriend, Yvonne, who had painstakingly planned an amazing itinerary of sights, excursions, appointments with distilleries and noteworthy dinner reservations for the next eight days. Sadly, not even an hour into my trip as we were on our way to a decadent late lunch, Yvonne got word that her gran had died suddenly of a stroke. Dan and I were awkwardly wondering how to proceed. What now? Luckily, Yvonne's family are so lovely, gracious and understanding. Yvonne would come with them while Dan and I proceeded mostly as planned with their blessing. We could end some trips earlier so Dan could spend time with them. And he was constantly in touch. I just felt so bad for Yvonne and family, as they were clearly shocked and bereaved.

I have no pics of the first night after this sad turn of events. But Dan and I made it to Leith and the Scotch Malt Whisky Society for a couple of drams, then a fab meal at Fisher's seafood restaurant, a cab back to town and some cocktails at Bramble, then, ugh, tequila at Garibaldis. Dan had purchased a rare bottle of Littleton scotch at the SWS that got left either there or in the next cab home. Either way, when trying to reclaim it next day, nowhere to be found. We think most likely Garibaldis had quite the Dram of the Night special as a result. Despite having been up for more than 24 hrs due to the time change and travel, I managed to stay up till 11:30 to be on Scottish time. Well, at that point, I could have been anywhere. So didn't need that tequila.

Next day, despite fatigue and hellacious hangovers, we took at train to Stirling so I could see the Castle and Dan could spend time with Yvonne and family, who happened to live there. A dream come true for me. Finally get to see the very place where Mary Queen of Scots resided!

Dan on the wall before we met Yvonne for lunch.

Robert the Bruce.

Dan spent time with Yvonne while I toured the castle. This is the back garden. 

 Walking up into the court, that's the back of the main palace.

The sandstone Great Hall, where all the lavish banquets and ceremonies were held.

Would you fucking believe? I come all the way to Scotland after longing since I was a teenager to see this palace, and it's closed for renovations through the summer! Here's what was on the scaffolding in front:

Sigh. But I had a good look around and even got one of those cheesy headset things. There were a lot of intricate statues, carvings and reliefs on the buildings.

That's a statue of King James VI on the corner of the palace, over the gate connecting it to the Great Hall.

I love these little reliefs of a mermaid and lion on the side of the Great Hall.

Cool stone walkway alongside the building with the main kitchen, leading to outer buildings and fortresses.

There are many little glassless windows at the front of the castle in the area where the cannons were set up. Here's one looking out into the garden.

Down the street is the Argyll House, where I believe one can stay the night.

This is just a couple of blocks from the Church of the Holy Rude, where Mary's son James was crowned James VI. My camera couldn't capture the wonderful stained glass inside for some reason. But you get the idea.

Loved the adjacent cemetery. But I had to rush off to meet Dan, so didn't get to spend much time. I really dug this cross over one of the headstones.

This is also right down the street from the historic jail. Again, my timing is perfect. The exhibit opens a week later, the day I leave the country.

I met up with Dan again and we took a short drive across the hills to the William Wallace monument. There we parked the car at the bottom of a very steep hill and walked all the way up. Killer, breath-crushing, knee-whooping incline. But worth it. Here's what you see when you finally crest:

A statue of Wallace at the front. Don't look much like Mel Gibson, does he?

So you have some perspective, here's the view from the monument, with Stirling Castle in the distance.

Not much went on that night as we had to get up early. To drink whisky at Auchentoshan.