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My Handcrafted Opinions on Whiskies, Distilleries and Other Related Stuff

Highland Park, Orkney, Scotland

After so many distillery visits surely I have seen everything there is to be seen on a distillery tour?  Certainly that is the question I get from the nervous tour guide when they innocently ask the group at the start who has toured a distillery before and I put my hand up and mention I may have been to about 40 or so in last 3 or 4 years.  And yet, as is so often the case, this tour of the iconic Highland Park distillery did include a few things I had not seen before.  Like many of the better tours they start with well-produced video and then take you out into the site. Highland Park famously floor malts about 20% of its barley requirements and while I have seen distilleries with the relatively rare floor malting operations  before (inc. Kilchomen and Bowmore) the day I toured Highland Park they also had a peat fire burning which I had not seen on previous tours.   

I had signed up for the rather expensive ($100+ depending on exchange rate) Magnus Eunson tour, named after the distilleries founder.  The tour itself was actually the same as the regular tour, the difference was the very extensive tasting that followed.  With a knowledgeable guide I was led through a tasting of the entire range from new make spirit and the standard expression 12 year old through to the sublime 40 year old I have previously reviewed and raved about.   A fantastic experience and I was able (via the wonders of smart phone technology) to compare my previous Highland Park tasting notes with the experience of tasting while sitting in the distillery and while doing that something  occurred to me.  I was consistently missing the salty, fresh sea notes I often found in Highland Park.  The guide suggested that because I had been in Orkney for a few days (I had actually visited the oil terminal on Flotta by boat the day before) my nose had become accustomed to the local climate and salty sea air so was not able to pick it out anymore.  Interesting theory, however the fact I had also had a cold for a week or so before the trip may also have been a factor.

A classic distillery and a classic day with a strong focus on the unique features of Highland Park, primarily the use of sherry seasoned wood (both American and European oak) and the unique Orkney peat.  It was worth every penny as it is very unlikely I will ever make it back to Orkney and because I did not want to have any regrets about not taking full advantage of the opportunity, I decided, to use an American sporting expression, to "leave it all on the field" and pay for the full experience.  I left very happy (and mildly intoxicated; I walked back to Kirkwall Hotel) with a bottle of St Magnus Second Edition (which I then gave to my father for his birthday) and a few mini bottles of the more difficult to find expressions including the 16 year old and 25 year old, a nice blue tie and a book.  Can you tell I had been drinking?

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Four Roses, Kentucky, USA

Distillery number two on day two of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail (KBT).  A very interesting Spanish Mission style building, with no warehouses (which was a pity because apparently Four Roses unusually only use single storey warehouses) or bottling hall on site and so the tour focussed on the recipes, actual fermentation and distilling of spirit.  Four Roses was one of the first bourbons I ever tried in 2009 (after getting "into whiskey") while living in the UK and liked it, but  as part of the tour we learned that in USA the name had been associated with a very poor blended whiskey and so while it popular overseas, especially Japan where it is the number one bourbon, the Four Roses brand is "rebuilding" as a bourbon in the USA.  It is rather unique (or at least appeared to be) in that they actually make 10 different recipe bourbons using two different mash bills, one with high rye and one with a low rye content, and then use 5 different yeast strains for fermentation.  5 yeast x 2 mashbills = 10 recipes.  This was interesting as my experience in Scotland had been yeast was bit of commodity (packs of Anchor Distiller's Yeast could often be seen around the washbacks in Scottish distilleries) yet in USA, and especially at Four Roses, yeast is treated with same reverance and importance to the final product as the Scots tend to reserve for their water supply.   I have to say the impact of yeast on final taste seems a lot more credible to me that the mythical water source stories ever did.   That is not to say Kentucky distilleries don't talk about their water.... they all do, but they talk about the more generic "limestone filtered water in this part of Kentucky" rather than their specific source or spring.  Anyway the tour finished with three nice samples, the Four Roses Yellow Label (blended with all 10 recipes), the Four Roses Small Batch (made with 4 of the 10 recipes) and the Four Roses Single Barrel which of course can only be one recipe and contains the higher content rye mash bill.   Another free tour and one I truly enjoyed (perhaps in part because there was no bottling hall to endure).  Definately a distillery on the rise and a gift shop that actually sold 5 cl mini bottles, 4 of the previous 5 distilleries (if they sold at all due to licence issues) just sold 70 cl standard bottles at prices, due to local KY taxes, much higher than I can buy the same whiskey in Texas.

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