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Saturday, 02 January, 2016, 15 : 00 PM [IST]

Discovering the Single Malt

After having spent close to 4 decades in the Indian travel industry, discerning travellers Carl and Amala Dantas moved on to their next new vocation…writing…through which they could share their insights to the general travel fraternity, wanting to offer their clients an experiential sojourn. This time they narrate their journey of visiting distilleries in Scotland
Having been fond of Single Malts for a long time, it was time to visit and experience the actual place where it is produced. To pursue their love for the Single Malt, ‘Absolute Escapes Ltd’ a travel company located in Edinburgh tailor-made a 9 days Single Malt itinerary of Scotland. They were not interested in conducted tours and all the travel companies in Scotland had either fixed itineraries or fixed departures of Scotland covering few of the distilleries. Whereas, Amala and Carl wanted to visit the distilleries in Speyside, Oban and Islay, thus covering most of the major Single Malt distilleries. Both are guardians of Glenlivet as well as members of The Ardbeg Committee in Scotland, which are exclusive clubs for Single Malt lovers.



After putting in a lot of Internet search, Amala was able to find the right agency who was able to understand exactly what they wanted and also make a customised itinerary to their liking to fit the budget. Carl said,“Scotland Tourism could only help us with their website that offers fixed itineraries. This is where the problem lies; tourism boards are not able to reach out to the travel agents or discerning travelers.” Amala said she went through 3-4 agents on the Internet who refused to do customised tours. Finally, she managed to find a Scottish travel agent, ‘Absolute Escapes Ltd’ who created the perfect itinerary, exactly the way they wanted. “The final package with all the details of the itinerary was delivered to us by courier and payments were made online through the credit card.”



Malt capital of the world    
Carl and Amala’s self-drive tour began after landing at Aberdeen Airport. The car rental for the self-drive was made by the agent.  Dufftown in Speyside  is the Single Malt capital of the world, and is 78kms away from Aberdeen Airport. It takes an hour and half to reach Dufftown by road. Located near the River Spey in north eastern Scotland, it is one of the loveliest towns, and majority of the distilleries are located in and around the area. En route is an option of visiting Huntly Castle, which dates back to the 12th Century.  

At Dufftown, Carl and Amala stayed at Fernbank House which is a charming B&B and their host Karen was truly wonderful. Karen made suggestions to the various places to eat, took care of all their dinner reservations, and also arranged a local taxi driver to drive us to the distilleries. Staying in a B&B was like staying in a home,” said Amala, narrating how their experience of staying at a local B&B was comfortable along with the services of a warm and welcoming host. The beauty of choosing a B&B over a hotel is the personal warmth combined with comfort and hospitality. “One will get a good English breakfast, with satisfactory vegetarian options.”



Along with their love for the Single Malt whisky, the Dantas’ experienced the beauty of the village of Speyside, which is the whisky capital of the world. It is home to the 70-mile Malt Whisky Trail, is concentrated within a few miles from distilleries of famous brands like Glenfiddich (www.glenfiddich.com) and Glenlivet (www.theglenlivet.com). One can make bookings on the Glenfiddich Explorers Tour at Dufftown to watch the process of making malt whisky and taste the final product. The Visitors’ Centre at the northern edge of the town offers a bottling plant on the premises, the only Highland distillery to do so.

Glenfiddich was walking distance from their B&B. “The Glenfiddich Explorers Tour requires a reservation and costs GBP 10 Pound per person. The tour starts with a short film which takes you through the Glenfiddich tradition, the tour includes visit to the Mash House, Still House, Ware house 8 & 1 and finally at the end of the tour one gets to do the tutored nosing and tasting of 4 of their renowned Single Malt samples to taste, including the 12-yr Old, Rich Oak, 15-year Old and 18-year Old Glenfiddich,” Amala said.

Speyside whiskies are usually lighter and sweeter than the other Single Malts. As this region has such a vast majority of distilleries there is also a great variation apart from the lighter honeyed Single Malts there are a small group that produce a heavily sherried  speyside whisky like Macallan & Glenfracas.

The other famous amongst the Speyside Single Malt Distilleries to visit are The Balvenie, Aberlour, Chivas Brothers Ltd( Grant, Cragganmore, Cardhu,  & The Glenlivet. As it was not possible to visit all the above the visits were narrowed to Glenfiddich, Strathisla & The Glenlivet..

Besides the distilleries, the Speyside Cooperage is also worth a visit where casks are repaired and constructed for the whisky and brewing industry.



Stathisla is the oldest distillery in the region and occupies a beautiful location next to River Isla. This fine malt whisky is blended here into the better know Chivas Regal and has always been essential to ensure its rich & generous taste. Carl & Amala took the high end “Straight From the Cask” tour cost per person is GBP 35. This tour is an exclusive tasting tour for those who love the fine nuances of the Scotch Whisky world. It includes sampling 5 exceptioal cask strength Single Malts that have been specially selected from the Chivas Brothers portfolio & bottled as limited edition & also includes a full tour of the distillery. There are also cheaper tours costing only GBP 7.50 pp, which also includes a guided tour & a tutored whisky nosing.

Narrating her experience of visiting the distilleries, Amala warned, “Don’t take a chance to go to the distillery with your car, appoint a designated driver/ a person in the group who does not drink at all or hire a taxi,  as Drink & Drive in Scotland is rather a serious offence. Most of the Single Malt has more than 50% of alcohol content. It is highly potent to visit 2-3 distilleries and drive. The Single Malts here are sweeter, lighter and honey toned. As the spirit matures it gets more complex,” Any blended whiskey has a tint of Single Malt in it.

There are 2 gourmet restaurants in Dufftown, the famous Tannochbrae restaurant run by a family that specialises in freshly prepared locally sourced ingredients. Only drawback it has a fixed menu, plus point large portions but one needs to pre-book as the restaurant is small. The second restaurant is at The Craigellachie hotel that offers a rare opportunity to savor the style & elegance of a by-gone era specializing in fish & meats. “One can either start or end the evening in their world-renowned and award winning Quaich Bar where almost 700 different Single Malts are served in a cozy club-like atmosphere, one of largest selection of drinking Single Malt whiskies in the world.” Carl expressed.

Breaking the perception that a whisky trail is not suited for budget travellers, Carl said, “It is a myth that a Single Malt whisky trail is expensive. One can use different modes of transport and accommodation to suit one’s budget.”



Oban & Islay
It was time for the Dantas couple to move to Islay via Oban. It is a 237 km drive to Oban, which normally takes 3hrs 30 minutes. But due to some road work the deviation took longer. “The drive to Oban is spectacular, going through the mountains that we did not complain the detour. The drive through the countryside and then the coastal route all the way to Oban was mind blowing. We passed the Dalwhinnie Distillery because of the deviation. At over 1073 ft, Dalwhinnie Distillery is one of the highest distilleries in the land but we did not stop here as time was short in Oban,” Amala said.

Oban is the hub of the southern Hebrides and northern Argyll; it is a large town by Highland standards and one can easily walk around on foot. At the Oban Distillery, one is witness to the Single Malt whiskies being made, and discovers the ancient art of distilling all overlooking the sea.  They took the “Sensory & Flavor  Finding Tour”, cost GBP 8 pp and includes the tour of the distillery, ending with the tasting & nosing.

Our accommodation was Dunheanish Guest House more like a private luxury home located on a height overlooking the seafront & having the most spectacular view from the large bedroom allocated to Carl & Amala.  A full Scottish breakfast is served in the elegant dining room overlooking the Oban Bay. A short walk from the Guest house nestled on the cliff overlooking the Oban Bay, there are a couple of gourmet sea food restaurants – The Waterfront on the North Pier where they enjoyed drinks & starters & “Ee’Usk having an excellent seafood Menu with tables over looking the water. Food & dessert were excellent, Amala said.

Carl explained, “One needs to above 18 years of age to visit the website of the distilleries. There are some of the distilleries that make exclusive Single Malt, which is available for sale only at the distillery. They don’t supply to a shop or to duty free. They make a limited edition and one needs to visit the distillery to taste and purchase it. Some of the malts  cost GBP 250 ++.”



Going ahead with their whisky trail, after spending a wonderful night in Oban, it was time to continue their journey to discover the Single Malts on the island of Islay. At Islay, they stayed in the heart of Port Ellen, a small village on the cost of South east of the island. The drive from Oban to Kennacraig 88 km, where they had to take the ferry to Port Askaig on the Island of Islay & then a short drive from Port Askaig to Port Ellen where the B & B accommodation – 40Pier Road. Their hosts Jim & Eleanor were warm & welcoming , excellent in sharing their knowledge of the island & the Islay whiskies. The island’s green, barren landscape is renowned for its smoky, Single Malts. Besides whisky, Islay has more than 250 recorded species of birds.  Ardbeg, Lagavulin and Laphroaig distilleries are all within 5 km radius.

Laphroaig Distillery is home to one of the most strongly flavored scotch whiskies, generally aged for 10 years.  Its 18-year old variety is popular as well as the Quarter Cask, which is matured in small casks of the 19th century. The distillery tour lasting for an hour costing GBP 6 pp, you learn the process while experiencing the sights, sounds & smell of the distillery which concludes with a commemorative & tasting of the dram.

Lagavulin Distillery is walking distance where the peated malt, slow distillation & long maturation together develop  its complex, rich, peaty character.

Ardbeg Distillery, a close neighbour of Lagavulin is one of the fastest growing Islay Single Malt Whiskies, producing 40,000 bottles of whisky every week. To maintain Ardbeg’s distinctive character, the specification of malt requires being at a minimum level, and with each barrel, 250 bottles are filled. Visitors to Ardbeg have the option of Old Kiln Café, for enjoying lunch along with product tasting.  

Bruichladdich Distillery is located on the westernmost part of Islay. Very distinct Single Malt, the Warehouse Experience Tour includes a tasting done in the Warehouse cost GBP 25 pp includes a complimentary glass and direct tasting from the cask. The drive to Bruichladdich itself is an experience, as you drive from the East coast of Islay to the West coast with spectacular scenery along the way.

The Bowmore Distillery has a visitors centre and offers regular guided tours, and like majority tours on the island, the admission charge includes a wee dram. “Andy Gabe the Director of Absolute Escapes did a perfect job of selecting the right places,” Amala opined.

While Carl and Amala had a great sojourn experiencing the variety that Single Malt offers, its time the travel trade in India starts exploring this niche opportunity.

As told to Disha Shah Ghosh
 
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