For my 35th birthday, I received a bottle of Pebble Beach 12 Year Old Speyside Single Malt Scotch whisky from my brother-in-law. This is a single malt bottled by an independent bottler known as Lombard, which buys whisky from distillers and then matures and bottles it based on its own requirements. To be honest, I had never heard of this bottler and was very pleasantly surprised when I first tasted it. It is most definitely a Speyside malt, very fruity and sweet, with minimal smokiness and peat. I would have liked to have brought back the half-full bottle back with me to Hong Kong, but alas, I will have to wait patiently until I’m back in the States before I can taste it again.
Nose: Flowery, caramel, Tabasco, smoked salmon, dried apricot
Body: Just between light and dry, and very slightly oily
Palate: Saba (mackerel)
Finish: Cinnamon, spice, orange
My nose has improved a bit but when it comes to the palate I still have difficulty pulling out all the different flavors. It will be interesting to see (or nose, or taste) whether I can come up with the same flavors when I try this whisky again, whenever that will be. For now, enjoy these museum photos of the bottle.
I first became interested in single malt Scotch in 2008. Prior to that, I would sample all kinds of spirits just to see what they were like. Gin, vodka, tequila, even absinthe, I tried them all. Since that time, however, Scotch has become my preferred drink. In a little neighborhood bar (in Hong Kong, actually), the very first single malt Scotch that I had was a Glenfiddich 12, and four years later, I was at the place, the only place, where it is produced and distributed all over the world.
We hadn’t really eaten anything since the train ride so the first thing we did after signing up for the tour was stop by the restaurant inside the distillery’s old malt barn. If I remember the tour guide correctly, the restaurant is housed inside the original building of the Glenfiddich Distillery (circa 1887), and since most Scotch whisky distillers no longer malt their own barley (Glenfiddich included), the malt barn now houses a restaurant and bar, as well as the distillery’s main reception area.
We didn’t have much time before the tour so we just had a couple of soups. One of them was a Cullen skink, pictured last in the row above. It was delicious.
Soon, it was time for the tour and we made our way back to the main reception area. The first stop was the film room, where we watched a short video about the distillery, it’s history, and the distillation process. Next, we walked outside to another building where the actual production takes place. In the first room, we saw the giant mash tuns where milled malted-barley (i.e. flour, technically called grist) is combined with heated water to form mash (I guess because the flour is “mashed” with water), which itself is then further physically agitated to stimulate the conversion of starch into sugar. Once the water absorbs the sugar, the resulting syrup, called wort, is drained into a collection container called the underback. More water is added to the mash tun until all the sugar is extracted from the grist; the leftover bits are filtered out and used as animal feed.
From the underback, the wort is transferred to a cooler until it reaches a temperature at which yeast will survive, when it is then transferred to giant fermentation vats called washbacks, where the yeast can be safely added to begin the fermentation process. For us, we went up some stairs (yes, the vats were that tall) and down a corridor before reaching the washbacks. Along with a multitude of smells and sounds, the air was thick with heat from the fermentation.
Once yeast is added to the wort, it takes about three days for the fermentation process to complete. During that time, bacteria in the wood of the Douglas fir vats contributes its part to the flavor of the final product. At the end of fermentation, a liquid with about 9% alcohol, called wash and similar to beer, is ready for distillation in copper stills. To see where that happened, we exited the mash house and moved on to the still house.
As whisky is distilled twice, here you can see at least two differently shaped* stills. The wash produced in the mash house first goes through a wash still, resulting in a liquid with about 21% alcohol, called a low wine. Next, the low wine itself is distilled in the second type of still, a spirit still. Now, we have a liquid, the new make spirit, that is quite a bit stronger than what we started with, at roughly 70% alcohol.
*Because different compounds have different boiling points, the shape of the still affects what flavors make it into the final product. Some vaporize and make it to the condenser, some don’t. More info can be found here.
In the photo above, there is a third shape of still. As Glenfiddich uses two differently shaped spirit stills and then blends the results together, I can only surmise that that’s what the third type of still is for.
Once the new make spirit has been produced, it is mixed with water to slightly lower the alcohol content and then filled into oak casks for maturation. In my opinion, this is the part that makes whisky special: spending years, decades maturing and taking on different characteristics from the wood, undisturbed, silently waiting while the outside world continues with its trials and tribulations. Do you remember where you were and what you were doing 12 years ago? What was going on in the world 15 years ago? How much have I changed in the past 18 years? I think about all these questions when I sit and enjoy a single malt Scotch.
Due to the flammable nature of alcohol and the sheer amount of it inside the warehouse where the casks are stored, photography is not allowed. I took one just before we went in.
Inside, the first thing you notice is of course the smell, a cold, damp, woody smell. The casks are stored horizontally on racks, one on top of another. One thing that I didn’t expect was that the surface of the casks is smooth, even between staves. I had imagined it would be like a planked floor, with clear separation between the planks, but that was not the case.
After showing us how the casks are put together, the guide walked with us to the other side of the warehouse, where we were given an opportunity to smell whiskies from bourbon versus sherry casks. Although I no longer remember the smell, I do remember a distinctive difference between the two. Also at this end of the warehouse were some casks, stored vertically, that were being used for “marrying” different batches of whisky. A common misconception regarding single malt Scotches is that they are not mixed with any other whiskies, that a bottle of 12-year-old whisky contains only 12-year-old whisky. When we consider that the whisky-making process is a multi-variable one that takes many years, it makes sense that no two batches will come out exactly the same. The malt master must mix and match whiskies in order to achieve a product that is consistent with the label. So, although different bottles of Glenfiddich 12 taste more or less the same, they might contain different proportions of whiskies from different batches (though none of the batches will be younger than 12 years old). The one exception would be bottles labeled “single cask” or “single barrel”, for obvious reasons.
Having seen the entire process of a how a bottle of Glenfiddich is produced, we ended the tour at the Dramming Centre, where we enjoyed complimentary tastings of the 12, 15, and 18 year-old expressions. I got to take home a tasting mat as a souvenir. There were many bottles on display, as well.
With the tour over, the only thing left to do was to visit the gift shop to pick up a couple of souvenirs. I bought a hip flask for myself and a miniature 18-year old for a friend. I was going to say “Here, this bottle came hand-delivered to you from Scotland”, but then I realized, all Scotch is shipped from Scotland anyway!
I had made my Scotch whisky pilgrimage and was happy as a dram (pun intended). When we left, it was raining, cold, and gray, but we were nice and warm inside our car, driving back to Aberdeen. It was appropriate and just how I thought it would be in Scotland, a place I had never even dreamed I would be just a few months before. I had traced back the path that bottles of Scotch had taken to reach me in the New World.
Back at the hotel, our room was now available and we were able to take our long-awaited showers. We had had a long day, beginning with our early arrival in Edinburgh, combined with almost 4 hours on the road. We ended the night with a Chinese takeout feast and a Hong Kong drama marathon. The highlight, though, was a pint of draught Coke from the hotel bar. Wow. It was fizzy, it had real sugar, and it was one of the best Cokes I’d had in a while. Of course, I had to have some Laphroaig (purchased earlier in London) as well. What a way to end the day.
This bottle of Johnnie Walker Green Label was given to me by a colleague on my last day of work. There is a possibility that Green Label has now been discontinued, and if that’s the case, I’m glad I was able to taste it.
Opening a new bottle of Scotch is such an experience. Taking it out of the box, removing the bottle, peeking inside to see if there’s a little brochure. Reading the carton and the labels on the bottle. Busting out my Michael Jackson book to see what he thought of my new bottle. Finally, pulling on the little plastic tab to break the foil wrapping, and opening the bottle to get a whiff of a freshly opened bottle of whisky. Ah, pure heaven!
Tonight, I opened the bottle of Ardbeg 10 that I bought yesterday (yeah, I lasted a day). Here’s what I thought:
I am still amazed and in awe of people who can describe all the smells and tastes in whisky. One of these days, I’ll have to attend a tasting class, but for now my gut reactions will have to suffice. Besides, like art and women, everyone has their own tastes, right?
Bought my first regular-sized bottle of Ardbeg today, the 10-year-old expression. It was HKD$610.00 from Watson’s Wine. A little pricey compared to other places, but not unexpected for Hong Kong. I’m looking forward to trying it soon.
I got my hands on a sample of Ardbeg Uigeadail today and decided to try and take some quick notes without thinking too hard. I am a novice at tasting Scotch despite having enjoyed my fair share, but I am looking to change that and will start posting my experimentation experiences and findings on this site to reinforce what I learn.
So, here’s what I came up with:
Nose: peat, barbecue, leather, seaweed, banana, iodine, Chinese medicine cabinet, dried plum, mineral water.
Body: Medium oily.
Finish: Numb lips, fire.
A few things that stood out to me were the lack of an age statement, the 54.2% ABV, and the presence of very fine particles resulting from the lack of chill filtering (which absolutely does not take anything away from the experience).
I chewed it around in my mouth but no specific words came to mind (unless “mmm”, “good”, and “yum” qualify), hence the “n/a” for the palate. I’ll try and do better next time!
Final verdict: I loved this whisky and will be adding it to my collection someday.
I’ll admit it – I’ve been kind of depressed ever since coming back home and ending our two-and-a-half month long trip. We’ve been back nearly a week, and most of that time has been spent sitting in front of my computer doing nothing, clicking on the same bookmarks every few minutes to see if anything has updated. No inspiration to update this site despite the massive amounts of raw materials (pictures, videos, scans) I amassed during the trip. Brought me back to certain days at work, when I used to hit a wall and just not do anything and feel like a loser, and then further not do anything because I felt like a loser. What a vicious circle.
If I had to pinpoint what causes me to become like this, I would venture to guess that it’s the amount of things I feel I have to get done: settle and reconcile my finances, unpack, clean my room, update this blog, plan for our next move, sort my photos, etc. With so many things requiring my attention, I find myself paralyzed instead. I want to do everything at once, and I have no patience. I’m pulled in every single direction, 360 degrees. That has to be it, because that’s how it used to be at work.
Tonight, I decided to allow myself to do something, to do one thing. I poured myself a dram of the Glenlivet, plugged in my Sega Saturn controller, fired up the Kega Fusion emulator, and resumed playing Wonder Boy III: the Dragon’s Trap (I told you, I love Sega, always have, always will). Playing this game, watching the Lion-Man sprite move across the screen, listening to the 8-bit sounds, I was inspired to write this post. Thoughts came to me from every single direction, from wanting to explain the progression of why I wanted to play this game in the first place to where it had taken me. So, let us start backwards, to the last time I played this game…
It was in our little studio apartment at 34th and Broadway in Manhattan that we had found through Airbnb (if you know what to expect, it can be a great way to find cheap accommodations). Sandy was not yet here, but she was near and New York City was preparing for her arrival. The skies were gray and ominous, and there was a wind that seemed like it never stopped blowing. Walking around the Herald Square area, one could feel the tension in the air as the streets got emptier and the lines at Duane Reade got longer. After I had procured a loaf of bread, a jar of peanut butter, and the last Stella Artois six-pack, I hurried back into the safety of the apartment.
With nothing left to do but wait, I decided to finally play this 23-year old game. I’ve played it on and off over the years, but I hadn’t really touched any emulators for a long time because I had convinced myself that they weren’t authentic. I still have my Sega Master System, but hooking it up to a modern day flat panel is a pain, and the results aren’t quite flattering. We finally threw out our 23-year old Sharp Linytron TV earlier this summer (besides, I was in NYC). So no, if I wanted to reminisce, it would have to be with the emulator. (I just checked, I actually don’t have the original cartridge, oops.)
About 2 weeks earlier, we were in London eating breakfast just outside Euston Station. I had just eaten something called a pasty for the first time. We went inside the station to use the facilities and, while I was waiting for JC at WHSmith, a magazine caught my eye. retro GAMER. On the cover were names that were very familiar to me, having grown up with and played video games in the 90s: Pilotwings, Psygnosis, Final Fantasy, Konix Multisystem, Shigeru Miyamoto, and of course Wonder Boy III. I thumbed through, gushing with nostalgia and excitement. I had to get this magazine. But, JC and I had already pledged to only purchase things that we actually needed, because we were traveling around the world and didn’t need the extra baggage, and we were trying to stretch our budget. I consulted with her when she came out, and she told me to decide myself. I knew I’d regret it if I didn’t get it, so I did.
British gaming and PC magazines have always appealed to me. The first one I ever bought was actually in the 90s: a CVG that I chanced upon at Barnes and Noble in Oakland (back then we hardly ever went to Oakland). Their covers are rather attractive, with glossy paper and pages that are physically larger than American gaming mags. Costco even sells them from time to time. With WHSmith stores everywhere in London, it was only a matter of time before I succumbed and bought a magazine after seeing it for the third time (this happened with Android magazine, finally had to buy it at the Heathrow WHSmith).
Back on topic, though, it was the feature in retro GAMER that inspired me to play Wonder Boy III again. Once I actually sat down and forced myself to load up the ROM and play the game for at least 10 minutes, it didn’t matter that it was running on an emulator. I was back in the 90s. I was back in middle school. I still remember reading the manual for this game and noticing something quirky: HU-MAN was running around the town, but HU-MAN could not be used during the game. It was a special password that was in the manual that allowed you to use HU-MAN and receive all the perks associated with that password. Ah, childhood.
Tonight, once I actually sat down and forced myself to load up the ROM and play the game for at least 10 minutes, the memories started surfacing and I thought of all these things that I wanted to post here. I don’t know if I’ll revert back to my paralyzed state tomorrow, but tonight I am able to focus and pull my mind away from the endless loop of bookmark-clicking because I wanted to continue a 23-year old game I started playing in New York City after having seen a feature on that game in a magazine I saw at a bookstore inside a train station in London.
Back to basics. Doing something I love, and have loved. Finishing something I started. Focusing on one thing at a time. Perhaps that is what will get me back on track. Good night, Wonder Boy. Good night, Monster Land.
As I sit on the top bunk of our cabin in the Caledonian Sleeper leaving Scotland, I enjoy a miniature 50ml Glenfiddich single malt Scotch whisky. On the carton, it reads:
The Glenfiddich Distillery
Dufftown, Banffshire, Scotland
Drinking this whisky is no longer the same, for I have now personally been to the distillery, seen the fermentation vats, the copper stills, and the oak casks in which the whisky matures. Now, when I drink this whisky, my mind will flash to the duty-free warehouses where it matures for 12 or more years. I will appreciate more the work that goes into the process which brings us this wonderful drink.