30 March 2016

26/03/2016 Annandale distillery visit

I spot at least three herons on the premises

JS and I reach the place (under the rain) at 11:45. I am about to buy two tickets for the tour, which starts at 12:00, when I think it wise to confirm that the standard tour is indeed the only one available today.
No, it is not. The Owner's Tour, with the founder of the distillery, starts at 14:00. Well, we will have some soup and browse the shop, then!

ze broth
Carrot and coriander soup is in season in the Lowlands
Tea and hot chocolate

For two hours, we wonder how many people are taking the tour and whether we will have to compete for attention, or be under the spotlight a bit too much. The tour is the most expensive by far, not exactly what generic tourists will go for, but then the place is becoming really busy around lunch time.

When Pr. DT, the founder, shows up, a group of six gathers up around him. Just like at Rattray's two days ago, DT (I will drop the title from now on) asks us what our knowledge of the golden liquid and its manufacturing is, so as to gauge how many shortcuts he can take. We have a member of the Drambusters, the owner of Whiskey's Orchard (IJ), a Scot who worked for a maltster (KMacK), then in the whisky industry and another Scot (DH) who is studying to move into the industry -- and is doing an apprenticeship at Strathearn.
Hm. Not quite yer regular tourists, then!
I observe it is a difficult question to answer without seeming stupid or pretentious (which is the same) and say I have been drinking the stuff for twenty-five years. JS is gently ignored -- absent-mindedness or bold assumption that she is merely accompanying me and not interested in whisky? She does not seem to take offence, in any case.

DT explains that this is the first-ever tour of this format he is doing. Also, this is the first day of the season the distillery is open for tours. Talk about good timing!

The chimney serves no purpose other than aesthetic
The tour is, as one would expect, very detailed. We are told about planning applications, building history, construction, craftsmanship and wizardry, cereal chemistry, marketing, psychology and cash flow.

A few things worth noting:

Annandale started out as a distillery, then became a farm. Usually, it is the opposite, with a farm picking up distillation to use up the surplus of cereals during the winter months. Also, it started as a distillery in 1836. It was shut down in 1918, then bought, revived and resumed production in 2014.

The distillery went through few proprietors -- namely the Donald family, a Mr Gardner, spirits merchant from Liverpool, then Johnnie Walker. The distillery was then shut for decades before being bought in 2009 by the current proprietor.

The whole distilling equipment is new, with six washbacks in traditional Oregon pine, a wood-clad, stainless steel mash tun (incidentally, it is being cleaned as we pass by; always fascinating), one wash still and two spirit stills. Yes, twice as many spirit still as wash stills, oddly enough. All courtesy of Forsyths from Rothes.

KMacK insists on teaching some Gaelic to DT, which I find a little too academic for this early in the afternoon.

I am given an opportunity to be a smartarse myself when DT points at a piece of kit and asks whether we know what it is: a Porteus mill. A thing of beauty and what caused the company to go out of business, as is well known: the mills were so reliable that they never needed replacing. As soon as every distillery had such a mill, Porteus never sold any.
This one comes from Caperdonich.

On the back of that, I enquire about the stills: if the mill is here, why are the stills new, rather than Caperdonich's? (the latter are in GrĂ¢ce-Hollogne, making the Belgian Owl)
DT confirms he was given the option to purchase the stills too, but passed, as they were too tired. He also comments on the questionable reputation of Caperdonich's output, which I disagree with.

"If I turn this clockwise, you all die!"
Annandale does both peated and unpeated spirit, one batch at a time. A batch is six washes (logically, since there are six washbacks) and the distillery produces six days a week (one wash a day).
We ask whether there are plans to experiment with blending of both unpeated and peated spirit: no, there are not. KMacK, DH and I insist that it would be most interesting. DT argues that he really cannot afford such an experiment, at the moment. Honest enough. KMacK says that, should he crowdfund such an initiative, he would have three people willing to participate in this very room.

We take a deep breath from each washback: the difference with only a few days in between is very obvious.
DT explains he wanted to do unpeated whisky, as that is what the market wants, whilst he also wanted to do peated whisky, as that is what he prefers. I express my surprise: virtually no distillery on Islay can produce enough to quench the thirst of peat enthusiasts, these days, whereas many of the same customers usually look down on anything unpeated.
A discussion follows on how "one grows to like peat," which is the historical perception, but, in my experience over the last ten years, is proven completely wrong. New drinkers are seduced by the big peaters and, sometimes, grow to like more delicate flavours later on.
I am swimming against the current, here: no-one agrees with me. I know I am right all the same.

At the filling station, we are told the bourbon casks come from Kentucky manufacturers exclusively (providers for Jack Daniel, Buffalo Trace and Early Times), while the sherry butts come from a Bodega with which Annandale has an agreement.

The original still house
We hear a lot about the water source and how DT would not believe the water diviner's diagnostic ("Dig here, it is 90m below the surface," based on his use of "unscientific" equipment). Hearing the story, I cannot not think of La Guerre des sept Fontaines. I keep thinking that, without being able to explain it scientifically, any child who has read Johan et Pirlouit would not be surprised by or doubting of the diviner's conclusion and find it amusing that DT, a highly-educated scientist, just would not believe what he sees because he cannot explain it.

The first-ever casks
Eventually, we all enter the bonded warehouse -- always a magical moment, a smell like no other.
The floor is concrete because forklifts do not operate well on clay floors. We take a quick tour before reaching the end of the journey: a cask full of glasses.

The description of the tour mentioned a taste of two new-makes (peated and unpeated, I envisaged). At this point, we realise we have eight cask samples to go through on top of that. Ten drams. Take a deep breath!

"What you don't want, throw on the floor. It adds to the bouquet of the distillery," says DT with a smile. It puts the "smell like no other" in a different light, all of a sudden. Less romantic than the angels' share I had envisioned. :-)

Given the number, the provenance and the fact I am driving, notes are short, of course.

Rascally Liquor New Make Malt Spirit (63.5%, OB): this is the unpeated version. Nose: plums and apples. Mouth: sweet and silky. Finish: big, bold and fruity.

KMacK and DH wax lyrical about how good this is, how it should be marketed and sold en masse as is. I agree it is very good distillate, but perhaps they are overegging it. :-)

Man O' Words 6mo d.2015 (unknown ABV, Refill ex-Bourbon Cask, C#535, filled 20/08/2015): nose: dried banana skins and pears. Mouth: banana yoghurt. Finish: plum and banana eau-de-vie. This is actually impressive!

DT explains the need to distinguish the peated version from the unpeated, so that customers do not have to take a punt and be put off if they pick the wrong one. With his marketing hat on, he declares that whisky, especially peaty whisky, is associated with masculinity. A very masculine character of this region is famous warrior and early king of Scotland, Robert the Bruce. The Man O' Sword.
When it comes to the unpeated version, another local character used another weapon, the nib. DT goes on to say writing is perhaps a more feminine approach, which gave the unpeated spirit its name: Man O' Words, associated with Robert Burns.

I ask DT what his wife thinks of making a dram more feminine by associating it with a man and wonder if he is simply alienating half the world population. He says it is a risk he is prepared to take.

"Mate, with your marketing skills and my Gaelic knowledge, the world is our oystercatcher!"
More seriously, I disagree with him that a) whisky is a purely masculine dram: historically, it was presented that way; today, more and more women drink the stuff. Two are here with us; and b) that peat is exclusive macho territory. Not only do women drink more and more whisky, they seem to like peat more and more. Based on what I read on fora, see in bars and tastings and the people I have met personally, those who enjoyed Octomore the most are women. The world is changing and I find it weird that the whole marketing of Annandale seems based on a possibly retrograde conception.

Man O' Words 14mo d.2015 (unknown ABV, Refill ex-Bourbon Cask, C#103, filled 29/01/2015): nose: back to plums. Mouth: plummy and slightly rough around the edges. Finish: plum eau-de-vie. This is more typical of the new makes I have tried.

Man O' Words 14mo d.2015 (unknown ABV, 1st Fill ex-Bourbon Cask, C#142, filled 05/02/2015): plums, parmesan and... oregano! Mouth: abundantly yogurt-y, with lovely mango skins and banana peel. Finish: long and warming, with reminiscence of the mouth. Wow.

Man O' Words 3mo d.2015 (unknown ABV, ex-Sherry Butt, C#843, filled 17/12/2015): nose: plums in syrup. Mouth: varnish, polish and juicy prunes. Finish: very plummy, now, with more syrup.

Rascally Liquor New Make Peaty Malt Spirit (63.5%, OB): nose: a veil of smoke and plums. This is only lightly smokey. Mouth: delicate smoke, a bit of coal. It is fruity too, behind the obvious peat influence. Finish: the smoke comes out in full force, now, with a dash of syrup thrown into the mix.

IJ: I work for the NHS; it funds my whisky business.
KMacK: You work for the NHS? I hate what the Tories have done!

KMacK: If you are Mc withoutan 'a' and without Irish lineage, your clan has been punished.

Man O' Sword 14mo d.2015 (unknown ABV, Reill ex-Bourbon Cask, C#20, filled 15/01/2015): nose: similar to the previous, to be honest. Mouth: velvety. Finish: hot, with syrupy plums again.

Man O' Sword 14mo (unknown ABV, 1st Fill ex-Bourbon Cask, C#21, filled 15/01/2015): nose: smokey plums. Mouth: syrupy, with a faint hint of smoke. Finish: long and slightly smokey.

Man O' Sword 3mo d.2015 (unknown ABV, ex-Sherry Butt, C#777, filled 02/12/2015): nose: similar again, with plum and smoke. Mouth: syrupy plums, perhaps apricot? Finish: smoke, now, with infused plums.

It seems to me that Man O' Words is a lot less predictable and therefore more interesting to me. Man O' Sword is more consistent, which is probably the aim, but makes for a less exciting ride when you taste several in a row.

Despite only having minute quantities, it becomes clear I need to stop. All the leftovers, we pour into one glass, as pouring it on the floor is inconceivable to me. We share the blend with the others who are well merry, now.
The last one, I do not get to try. It is closing time, DT's wife has kindly told him he is on his own and needs to shut everything down so the staff can go home.

The tour was planned to last for two hours. It lasted almost four. Everyone had a cracking time, everyone spent money in the shop, everyone shared contact details and tips.

Merry we are!
If the purpose of whisky is to make merry (© Dave Broom), then Annandale seems to be doing well.
A visit is wholeheartedly recommended.

Oreo cows

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