The Iceland Stopover

An Iceland overnight stopover… not much time to get to know the country, but enough time to figure out how things “work” in this country. The primary impression the island makes is of mostly cloudy skies all day long – upwards of twenty or more hours of “daylight” during the summer months (I am very thankful for the shade and curtain in my hotel room that kept the daylight out!), but not much sun.

Figuring out how to purchase a bus ticket and where to catch the bus to take over to Keflavik/Reykjanesbær from the airport were not easy, but thanks to live bus tracking on the straeto.is website I knew that/when a bus was approaching and kept an eye out for the #55. Dinner was at Kaffi Duus (very close to my hotel), a lovely mixed seafood and vegetable grill (including a tiny Icelandic lobster tail) that was accompanied by a mandatory Icelandic lager… typical unpretentious flavor of grains and light bitterness, but easy to drink.

gull

The trip back to the airport the following morning was quick; the driver of the courtesy hotel shuttle turned out to be a young German girl who was studying Icelandic (a difficult looking language, despite many visual cognates) while working at the hotel, and we had a pleasant conversation during the brief ride. Having been mistakenly told that multiple bus tickets would be necessary for the #55 to Keflavik/Reykjanesbær, I went back to the little airport grocery store where I had bought five tickets to see if I could return the four unused tickets; having kept the receipt (word to the wise), I was rewarded with a refund in the local currency which I turned into a cup of hot water and a pair of souvenirs tucked away in the suitcase.

birch whisky

They were purchased after the airport security check, so I am assuming that they do not need to be placed in my liquids bag (which is full anyway) and will make the trip back to the US without being seized. I did not have an opportunity to sample either of these distilled spirits before purchasing them, so I am crossing fingers that at least one of them will turn out to be palatable enough – I am quite confident that they will not taste like any single malt whisky that I have had before! We’ll see….

The Take

The collection of products that my trip to Scotland yielded…. Sadly, none of this panoply of flavorful malt beverages will accompany me back to the US as I traveled with only a carry-on – but they will be shared in good company before my return trip! I am still curious about the Icelandic birch “whisk(e)y,” bottles of which I may be able to stash in the carry-on… provided that it is good enough to purchase. The folks at the Glengoyne shop pooh-poohed the very idea of a distilled spirit from Iceland, so the gauntlet has been thrown down.

the take

back row: Drygate Ax Man (rye IPA), Drygate-Yeastie Boys Yeastenders (pale ale with kiwi)

front row: Glengyle (mixture of 10- and 11-year old), Glengoyne 18-year-old, Springbank 12-year-old (I think…)

Slàinte mhath!

The Glengoyne Afternoon

The Glengoyne distillery outside of Glasgow makes several unique claims: 1) it is the most scenically located distillery; 2) it has the slowest distillation process; 3) it is the southernmost “Highland” distillery; and 4) it is historically responsible for the Scotch Whisky Association “rule” that a spirit cannot be called a “whisky” until it has matured in a wooden cask for three years and one day. The final claim can be attributed to a taxman who worked at the distillery in the middle of the 19th century, and the third claim is verified by the fact that the road that one must cross from the car park to the distillery is the dividing line between the Highland and Lowland whisky regions (interesting aside: most of Glengoyne’s warehouses are on the other side of the road, making it the only whisky distilled in the Highlands and matured in the Lowlands). The second claim rests on the process by which the temperature of the spirit still is raised very slowly, allowing the alcohol vapors to have a longer amount of contact with the copper sides; this is thought to impart a greater variety of fruit notes upon the finished whisky. Perhaps all distilleries could be polled for the length of time the low wines spend in their respective spirit stills in order to verify this claim, but certainly the first claim is entirely subjective. Not having visited every distillery (and still remembering the scenic farmland location of Kilchoman on Islay), the rolling countryside, forest, and mountains surrounding Glengoyne (and it is pretty much in the middle of nowhere) do make for a scenic location –perhaps one of the most scenic, but as they say: beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Lacking the ability to take aerial photographs, this is the best I could do to capture Glengoyne’s setting.

distillery

Before going on the tour (during which photographs inside the distillery were unfortunately not permitted) I took a walk around the back of the visitor centre to have lunch by a pond and within sight of a little waterfall. This was the original water source for the whisky, and it is still used to condense the alcohol vapors back into liquid form as they exit the stills. (The water source for the waterfall is the same as for the reservoir from which treated water is pumped to the distillery.) Spied on the ground was an odd little stone tablet inscribed with the date of the distillery’s “legal” beginnings.

reception

visitor’s reception building

reception & pond

pond behind the reception building

waterfall

waterfall

memorial slab

memorial slab

The distillery is a fairly large complex, with several buildings that may have at one time served as housing for the whisky-making crew. One warehouse is on the Highland side of the dividing line, while the majority of the maturing does take place on the Lowland side.

distillery house

distillery house

garage & sign

garage?

warehouse

main warehouse

warehouses

warehouses

The only inside photographs I was able to take were of the stills (from just barely outside the building): there are three of them, with the leftmost being the wash still and the other two both being spirit stills that run in parallel to distill the low wines… and apparently very slowly.

stills

stills

One of the more interesting features of the tour was a brief stop in the Highland warehouse where bottles of whisky were on display, showing the change in color as the whisky matures in various types of oak casks (each bottle represents one year of aging, from left to right and top to bottom). Also noteworthy is the decreasing amount of liquid in each bottle as the years progress, indicative of the percentage of liquid that escapes the cask during each year of the maturing process (the “angel share”).

warehouse diagram

Most distilleries (and breweries) make claims that the spent grain after the mashing process has been completed is picked up by farmers to use as feed for their livestock; while I know this to be true firsthand from the brewery where I have been working (let me tell you – shoveling the spent grain out of the mash tun and cleaning the false bottom through which the wort progresses into the next stage of the process is not the most fun job!), this may have been the first time that I saw the “draff” being collected at a distillery.

draff pickup

And yes, the Glengoyne whisky is very good. Normally the usual 40% abv (with some cask strength expressions around 58.2% abv and higher), it is totally unpeated, has a clean, crisp flavor with a variety of stone fruit characteristics and some vanilla-caramel notes, and a long finish with just a bit of bite at the end. I had the pleasure of having a dram of the 12-year-old at the beginning of the tour and a dram of the 18-year-old at the end; well worth investigating if/where it can be found in the US.

The (Glasgow) Beer Day

Taking a break from whisky, my first day in Glasgow included visits to the Drygate Brewery (recommended by an associate of the craft brewery where I have been an apprentice and previously “scouted” by a friend who was in Glasgow approximately one month ago) and the DogHouse (discovered by the aforementioned friend), a brewpub operated by the BrewDog brewery which is based outside of Aberdeen, Scotland. Drygate is located next to a giant Tennents brewing facility (barely visible in the background)

drygate entrance

and is only two years old, but thanks to investors with deep pockets they started off big – that shiny brewhouse certainly did not build itself!

drygate brewhouse

Drygate operates a nice restaurant with an eclectic menu; I was there during lunch time and availed myself of a flight of three 1/3-pint pours in order to try as many of their “flagship” beers as I could: a pilsner (very good), an IPA (also very good) and a rye IPA (really good).

drygate flight

The brewery is also home to an excellent bottle shop… lots of well-known American craft beer “giants” were represented, as well as many unfamiliar Scottish and English breweries (there is another world out there…). I had a great conversation with the bottle shop manager (whose name I later learned is Chris) who has also assisted in Drygate brewing operations; we chatted at length about the beer recipes which we had designed/brewed as well as American football – turns out he had lived in Maryland for a brief time and became a Redskins fan! And even though the Packers (my team) beat the Redskins in last year’s NFL playoffs, he gifted me a bottle of a Drygate-Yeastie Boys (a great name for a brewery, they are based in New Zealand) collaboration pale ale with kiwi (!) to accompany my purchase of a bottle of the fantastic Drygate Ax Man.

Later in the evening I walked across town to the DogHouse. I had heard of BrewDog before, and probably tried their Punk IPA before; thanks to a weekly craft beer “alert” email which I receive, I was looking forward to trying a black IPA which BrewDog recently released called Black Hammer. Fortunately it was on tap, and it did not disappoint! Followed up by samples of a blueberry Berliner Weisse and a gluten-free pale ale (both quite tasty), I settled on their B-Side rye IPA as my second beer – not quite as hoppy as Ax Man, but a really unique backbone that balances roasted malt and bitter/spicy rye flavors.

brewdog ipas

remnants of a Black Hammer sample and a B-Side half pint

The DogHouse has a fun and lively atmosphere (having had dinner beforehand, I did not try their version of Texas barbecue… yeah, maybe it’s good), and at the end of the evening I had another great beer conversation with the brewpub manager, Sam. He is an avid homebrewer whose brother actually works at Drygate – making that connection is how I learned the name of the Drygate bottle shop manager. Brewdog is well represented and distributed throughout the US, so I am looking forward to occasionally augmenting the refrigerator with some of their beers; for the most part, I prefer to drink local… but I will make an exception for breweries and beers that I have visited. Put BrewDog on your list, too! (And Drygate, if they gain US distribution.)

The Campbeltown Day

A rainy day for distillery tours… at least they were quite informative and yielded two “miniatures” which I can take with me. The tours also included free tastings at the Cadenhead Whisky Shop in “downtown” Campbeltown afterwards, but I only took advantage of the Glenglye dram offer since I had to retrieve my suitcase from the hotel and scamper to the bus stop in order to catch the 3:00 P.M. CityLink no. 926 back to Glasgow (since this bus only runs every two hours being on time is imperative). Having already had a dram of the Longrow (which I doubt would have been the expression offered as a sample) and a tiny bottle of Springbank in hand, it did not seem that I would be missing out on much for the sake of a planned departure.

A quick history of Campbeltown as a Scottish whisky “region”: in its heyday of production, the town had about 1,900 inhabitants and 37 (legal) distilleries. During this period, Glebe Street (right behind Springbank distillery) was considered one of the richest streets in the entire U.K.; as single malt scotch was not a big money-maker at this time, pretty much all of the distilleries were simply making spirits for blending. But demand for Campbeltown spirit was so high that some of the distilleries started to make production short-cuts, leading to an inferior product – at one point a rumor circulated that Campbeltown spirit was being aged in used herring barrels, an explanation for the “off” flavors that were suddenly appearing! When Prohibition was declared in the U.S., whisky sales plummeted (blame the Americans!) and all but two of the distilleries – Springbank and Glen Scotia – went out of business. Fast forward to the early 21st century when single malt scotch has become all the rage: the Scotch Whisky Association declares that for a whisky region to be recognized, it needs to have three operating distilleries; wishing for Campbeltown to remain a distinct “region” due to its history, the owner of Springbank buys the Glengyle distillery up the road – essentially “ending” a family feud during which one of the Springbank heirs had opened up his own distillery (Glengyle) after a falling out with the rest of the family. Interestingly, when the original Glengyle distillery went out of business, the Loch Lomond distillery group (which owns the Glen Scotia distillery) bought the name “Glengyle”; the “new” distillery is called “Mitchell’s Glengyle,” and the whisky they produce is sold under the name “Kilkerran.” And only this year is Glengyle finally able to release a twelve-year-old Kilkerran, after years of experiments and limited releases. (A spirit must be aged in a wood barrel for three years and a day before it can be called “whisky.”) Glengyle is not a full production distillery just yet, as all of the maltings for Kilkerran are done at the Springbank facility – which has been owned by the same family and completed all phases of the whisky-making process (malting, mashing, fermenting, distilling, ageing, bottling) on the same site since 1828!

On to the tours! Glengyle was up first, although it began with a visit to the Springbank maltings floor (see below).

G-sign

G-courtyard

G-Boby mill

an antique “Boby” mill

G-washbacks & mash tun

washbacks; mash tun in the back

G-stills

two stills

G-spirit safe

the spirit safe – the distillery was not in operation the day of my visit

Springbank

SB-signs

SB-floor maltings

floor maltings… the grain had just been spread that morning

SB-malt turner

a malt turner – prevents the germinating barley sprouts from clumping together

SB-furnace with peat

that’s not coal next to the furnace, but peat – sourced from Inverness, it smells different than Islay peat

SB-mill

close-up view of the mill

SB-mash in

mash-in… that “antenna” (remember the Star Trek episode “Shore Leave”?) rotates in the mash and keeps doughballs from forming

SB-mash tun

it’s not a ship, it just looks like one

SB-washbacks

a total of six washbacks; they last for approximately fifty years before the wood begins to warp and leak

SB-stills

three stills: double distillation for Longrow, triple distillation for Hazelburn, and the odd, I-still-can’t-wrap-my-brain-around-it double-and-a-half distillation for Springbank

SB-spirit safe

this spirit safe was in operation

SB-warehouse

a “dunnage” warehouse, meaning that the floor is earthen – the various barrels are not arranged in any particular order on purpose (obviously this is not a German operation)

SB-barrels

barrels are waiting to be used… Springbank (Glengyle) prefers to use sherry casks in order to age all of its whisky, and no barrel is used more than three times

The Day Before

Long train trip, long bus ride… and thanks to mostly grey skies, not the most agreeable weather for soaking in the sights along the way. But all of the connections were timely, and taking the bus along Loch Lomond and along Loch Fyne brought back good memories from the trip to Islay two years ago.

Inverary

Inverary on Loch Fyne (an admittedly crude panorama)

Kennacraig

ferry arriving at Kennacraig

Campbeltown is a pretty little village (when the sun shines); lots of quaint shops and totally walkable, at least as far as the major points of interest are concerned. The harbor is quite scenic, and the view from my hotel room nods to the town’s nautical heritage – from the window the Springbank distillery and one of its warehouses are also visible.

Campbeltown harbor

hotel view

I recommend the Black Sheep Pub (inside the Royal Hotel, where I did not stay) for a good meal and atmosphere; it was here that I made my first local Campbeltown whisky discoveries. The Springbank distillery produces three basic styles in various bottlings, the eponymous Springbank (lightly peated), Longrow (heavily peated in the fashion of an Islay malt, but with a noticeable sweet pear character – pictured below, it was delicious) and Hazelburn (completely unpeated). And much to my surprise, it turns out that there is a third distillery in Campbeltown, Glen Scotia! Too bad my brief visit will only allow me to tour Springbank and Glengyle… next time? When I could add the distilleries on Arran and Jura to the mix, just to check off all (?) of southwest Scotland from the whisky list. So many drams, so little time….

Longrow

Longrow

The Approach

Car (+ ferry) – bus – “T” – bus – plane – plane – train – tube – train – bus… how to get to Campbeltown from Wisconsin.

While MBTA let me down as far as getting to Logan Airport is concerned (poor signage for the commuter rail, and not particularly helpful train personnel…) I nonetheless made it to London yesterday and am now on the train to Glasgow. Four and a half hours from London Euston, followed by another four-and-a-half-hour bus ride to Campbeltown (at least there won’t be any turbulence). Tours of the two distilleries there – as well as the Glengoyne distillery outside of Glasgow – are still the focus of this excursion, but I am also looking forward to the return trip where I will enjoy an overnight stay in Reykjanesbær, Iceland. Yesterday I saw the odd birch “whisk(e)y” and “liqueur” for sale at a store next to my departing gate at the Keflavik airport, and I am quite curious to find out if these distilled products are any good; if they are, perhaps I can sneak one of these little bottles into my suitcase.

Icelandic whisky

Yes, an impressive and tempting amount of Icelandic (craft) beer was also for sale in this store… but temptation was easy to resist in this case since it was 7:30 A.M. Iceland time/3:30 A.M. Eastern time!

Icelandic beer

No trip to London is complete without a stop in my favorite pub, the Blackfriar. Built on a site formerly housing a Dominican friary, the cozy dining room in the back is beautifully decorated with mosaics and reliefs of former reverend abbots (one of them looks a lot like Yoda…?); just below the ceiling are quaint sayings such as “Industry is all” and “A good thing is soon snatched up.”

Blackfriar ceiling

Of course I had to have a couple of English ales to accompany my beef pie (the Blackfriar really does have “the best pies in London”)… a Mosaic pale ale followed by Turner’s Runner, a typical ESB. Unfortunately I was unable to determine the brewery of the former, but both of these beers were quite delicious – I love the slightly dank, resinous and citrus character of Mosaic hops (my favorite variety), and the ESB had a nice balance between roasted malt and appropriate bitterness while leaving a beautiful amount of lacing on the glass (perhaps due to a lower level of carbonation?).

All in all a nice way to prepare myself for today’s long trip and set the taste buds in order.