Thursday, March 29, 2007

First Day in Scotland 2007

I woke up having no idea what time it was but hoping it was close to our final approach. It’s not easy sleeping in the middle seat on an airplane, trying to respect your neighbors’ spaces, but I did it. Now my shoulder and neck were aching from that bizarre angle I was holding them while I slept. Right when I was thinking I really couldn’t take much more, the lights came on and the smell of warm croissants wafted down the aisles. The few times I’ve flown into Europe, the breakfast always seems to be croissants.

We arrived at the Edinburgh airport a little earlier than Willie was picking us up, just enough time to brush my teeth, get some cash, and take some sips of Al’s coffee. I didn’t want to drink too much coffee because I knew that we would be heading into the countryside, and I figured there weren’t too many opportunities for potty breaks.

Willie got there with the van, which sat, I guess, 17 if 2 sit in the front with him. So, you’d think we’d have plenty of room, considering we were only 11. But imagine how much luggage 11 people carry, and it has to go somewhere, so it goes in those back seats. We all tried to pack light, except for the guy who brought a large empty bag in preparation for all the whisky bottles he would be buying. For those curious, you can bring back around 7 bottles per bag and each person is allowed 2 bags.

All loaded up and with everyone chattering excitedly, we headed out to Glengoyne Distillery, by way of Sterling. We didn’t get out and see any of Sterling, just saw the castle and the Wallace Monument from the window. One of these days I’m going to get to Sterling.

I don’t think any of us fell asleep on the ride to Glengoyne, surprisingly. We were all just too excited. Unfortunately, Glengoyne was not the best of our tours. Oh, it’s beautiful and our tour guide, Lauren, did her job very well, but it was just a regular tour. These guys are professional distillery tourers (is that a word?) and don’t usually get the usual thing. But, it’s the first time they’d been there and it’s not like they new the manager from Whisky Fest (yes, all these guys go to Whisky Fest every year with the Dell, too, and know many of the managers and distributors—they are very serious about their single malts). Plus, the arrangements may not have been made early enough for a more behind-the-scenes kind of tour.

Glengoyne is in a unique position, literally. It’s location makes it both the lowest distillery in the Highlands and the highest distillery in the Lowlands, all you have to do is cross the street. The A road separating the distillery from it’s warehouses is the border line between the Lowlands and the Highlands. A very busy road, I might add.

We started our tour with a wee dram of 10-year-old single malt and a movie about the history of the distillery. It was a nice introduction to our trip. The distillery tours are basically the same: Get some history, see the mill for grinding the malted barley, see the Mash Tun, see the Washbacks for fermenting, see the Stills for distillation, and see the warehouse for maturation. Then, unless you got a taste before hand like here, you get a sample or two in the tasting room, which just happens to be very near the gift shop. The gift shops are almost always really nice with glassware, clothes, water pitchers, postcards, and the like, in addition to the whisky.

This tour actually ended in the gift shop, so that our guide could show us all the bottles available, especially the really special and expensive ones. And I thought I showed great restraint when our cute little guide said this particular bottle of 1984 was such a great bottle because that was the year she was born, and I did not disgustedly say “Oh My God.” (I graduated high school in 1984.)

We were expecting more tastings, and they did offer us a taste of certain bottles, but they were in the same little cups we take communion in instead of the dram in a nice glass. The others bought their bottles, we bought a glass because one of the ladies bought a bottle for the van to pass around on the way to the next distillery. I told you these people were serious about their whisky. Oh, and we paid for our tour. It might seem odd to mention that, but this was the only tour we had to pay for because the other places either new this group or Willie convinced them to waive the tour fee, considering how much we would be buying in the gift shop. And we did not disappoint in that area. In fact, we contributed greatly to the Scottish economy in those 10 days.

But no time to loiter, on to the next stop.

In another hour or so, we were at Auchentoshan (Aw-ken-tah-shun), close to Glasgow. This distillery is distinguished by it’s triple distilling, as the Irish whiskeys do. All other distilleries in Scotland distill twice. It is a lovely whisky, and a fantastic tour.

Distillery manager Ronnie (I’ll have to put his last name in later) gave us the tour, and he was great—funny, knowledgeable, and he started out with the Bay City Rollers! S-A-T-U-R-D-A-Y NIGHT! And music is still important to him as one can tell by the music that plays in the tasting room. It was the only tasting room that had music playing in the background.

Ronnie did something unique on his tour. He had glasses of spirit (that’s whisky out of the still, before it’s in the cask) for everyone. This is potent stuff, the term “fire water” comes to mind because it is just pure alcohol. But instead of taking a wee sip like other places, he had us pour a little into our palms, clap our hands to brush the water away, cup our hands, then smell. Wow. It smelled as potent as it tastes. Most of the people around me were saying, “Ooohhhh that smells so good.” But then, they’re crazy people. OK, it did smell pretty good, and I would much rather smell it than taste it.

When we got to the tasting room, the flight had caught up with me and all the energy of Scotland couldn’t make me stand up any longer. I also couldn’t hide my exhaustion and crankiness was starting to rear it’s ugly head. Willie was starting to hurry us along a little because we still had almost 2 hours to get to Tarbert where we were staying the night. But the tastings are the best part and people want to linger. Al was all pumped up at this distillery, and where at Glengoyne he vehemently wasn’t going to buy a bottle, here he wanted to buy 2. However, he was going back and forth and couldn’t make a decision about a certain bottle, so when he went to the restroom, I bought both of them. This is why we balance each other so well—when I’m indecisive, he isn’t, and when he’s indecisive, I’m not. I knew that he would wish he had bought that bottle, so I just went ahead and got it for him. Of course, it broke the ice and now he was ready to buy scotch.

I slept on the van ride to Tarbert; I think all of us did. And even though it was dark when we arrived, I could tell that Tarbert was a lovely seaside village. The Anchor Hotel was a lovely hotel that was recently sold to Richard and Hugh, who are very welcoming. It seems like the hotel is in good hands. Plus, Richard’s dog Tess, a 9-year-old black lab, was there, too, so I got a dog fix. Our room was comfortable, except for the hard mattress, not that I noticed or cared that night. The down comforter was warm and soft, that’s all that mattered.

Just a couple of things about hotels in Scotland:

• No place we stayed had washcloths, so if you’re used to having one, you might want to bring one with you, or buy one there and throw it away when you leave.
• Bring a travel alarm clock because many rooms do not have alarm clocks, nor do they have reliable wake up calls.
• Pack light because chances are you will have to walk up a few flights of stairs; not many places have a lift.
• All rooms come with a hospitality tray with the makings for tea or coffee and a shortbread cookie or some other snack.
• Many of the hotels, especially places in remote areas plan ahead, so let someone know if you’re planning on eating dinner or breakfast there.
• Stay at a place that offers breakfast; you always get lots of choices from eggs to kippers to cereal and yogurt.

The dinner at the Anchor was delicious. I had smoked haddock on mashed potatoes with a dill sauce. Richard put on a funny little show for us, showing up in a kilt tucked into the back of his boxershorts, a baseball hat on backwards, a cigar in his mouth and carrying a bottle of scotch, a huge one. Tess barked at him and we laughed. He recited a poem as if he was drunk, then poured a dram of scotch for everyone.

We all headed up to our rooms—well, not all, a couple of guys stayed down in the pub. We were ready for a good night’s sleep, exhausted from our first thrilling day in Scotland.


Peggy said...

The amount of luggage brought for a one week stay by my fellow countrymen always astounds me!

For your washcloth needs, try using a corner of a big towel. Cultural differences make a body creative.

Kell said...

Peggy--I dipped the corner of the towel in cold water every morning to pat my eyes, in hopes of diminishing the bags under them. Of course, I didn't think of using them as a washcloth. Geez.

Jay said...

I can't decide if all those tips about Scottish hotels would be charming quirks or annoying inconveniences to me. Probably both.

I love Scotch. But, I'm not sure how many tours I could really take. I'm not so interested in how it's made or it's history. I just like to drink it.

I remember going to the Napa Valley so many years ago. I love wine and the winery tours were interesting, but long. I got bored after a bit. I'm afraid I would be the same way with distillery tours.

Actually I get that way with all tours.

Gypsy Purple said...

Wishing you and your family a happy and blessed Easter