Field Trip to Scotland! (or, Living vicariously through one of my readers)

I just came back from my first trip to Scotland, and Joshua asked me to write a review of my trip.  I’ll focus on my whisky experiences during my brief stay in Edinburgh. First, a little background so you know my palate: I have been drinking whisky for about six years and three years ago started a Scotch of the Month (SOM) club with six close friends. We’ve sampled from about 115 bottles; the group has a pretty diverse range covering just about any whisky palate, so we’ve had quite a wide range.  My tastes generally go for the peaty Islays, but I enjoy trying all new whisky I can get my hands on, though I am not a fan of the overly sweet ones. This trip was with my wife and her parents, on our way to a wedding in England. Her dad had really never gotten into Scotch and enjoys the Canadian Whiskies, but he was more than happy to be my partner in crime. I’ll focus on three aspects of the trip: the whisky shops, the pubs, and the whisky tours.

First, the shops: a kid in a candy could not compete with me here.

My brother, who is part of my SOM group, visited Edinburgh last October and came to know the fine gents at the Royal Mile Whiskies. We’ve since had a couple shipments sent over and their advice, based on our likes, etc., has been spot on. I contacted them ahead of time so they were expecting me. After traveling overnight from Washington, DC, we could not check into our hotel room. I was completely wiped out, but after a brilliant Scottish breakfast and pot of tea, I was ready to roll. We found our way to the Royal Mile and the first shop we saw was RMW, magic! I stopped in to introduce myself and explain we were just killing time. Next thing you know, I am sampling the 2010 Ardbeg Supernova, as if to say, welcome to Scotland, bitch! That was followed by a sample of the RMW bottling of a single 10-yr cask of Laphroaig. I told them I would be stopping by later in the week.

Coming from the United States, especially DC, there are not a lot of great whisky stores.  Although RMW is small in size, it is overwhelming with selection. As Chris told me, they have lost more whisky in that store then they can remember. My shopping list was extensive: five bottles for me, one each for two friends, and four for my brother. Then my father-in-law jumped in and ordered two more. When I came back on the Tuesday, I was fed a total of four more samples and made my purchases. You know you are in good hands when they say “Where are my manners, you’ve been here five minutes and don’t have anything to drink.” Then I had a nip of the RMW cask of 25 yr Linkwood followed by their single cask bottling of Kilchomen, then their Laphroaig, and finally a 1992 sample of Laphroaig they found behind the counter. Overall they were great guys and their selection is enormous. They are well-versed for any palate and truly enjoy whisky. My personal haul: Ardbeg Supernova, RMW Single Cask Kilchomen, RMW Laprhoaig, Adelphi 14-yr Macallan aged in bourbon barrel, and a 1993 Scapa from Gordon McPhail. The latter two are for my next meeting of SOM.

A little further down the Royal Mile is Cadenhead, which is another fine store owned by J & A Mitchell & Co Ltd., the famed Springbank Distillers. They carry some inventory that is not available at RMW, and claim to be the oldest independent bottler in Scotland. They would not ship to the United States so I had to carry my purchases with me. They bottle some excellent stuff, as I had some samples later at a pub, but they did let me sample a Springbank port cask. They also have casks onsite; you can fill up various size bottles for purchase. First up was the Hazelburn 12-yr, which is an excellent unpeated whisky from the Springbank distillery.  One blend they carry is Campbeltown Loch; for 14 pounds, this is an amazing value. I bought one to consume over the duration of my trip. Lastly I acquired a 7-year Longrow Gaja Barolo. Overall, Cadenheads is a good store; not as great as Royal Mile Whiskies, but if you visit both of places, you’ll surely cover your bases. Both of the stores seem to have fair prices, more so than the touristy shops that sell whisky alongside a variety of cashmere and kilts.

Scotch Whisky Experience

Back to my first morning: it was raining and we were tired and hadn’t been able to check into our hotel yet when my mother-in-law asked if I wanted to check out the Scotch Whisky Experience. The tour is fun, but I learned nothing new about how whisky is made. We paid for the cheapest tour, which comes with one sample. Following a ride and movie on how whisky is made, they sit you down and give you four jars with scents representative of four main whisky producing areas (Lowlands, Highlands, Speyside, Islay; they leave out Campbelltown as Diagio – which owns the tour – doesn’t own Springbank). You are to choose which smell is most appealing and based on that you get your sample. The offerings were rather weak: Bowmore 12, Auchentoshan 12, Glen Dronach 12, and Benriach 12. Since there were four of us we each selected one, and most of it was passed on to me (sweet).

They do have the largest whisky collection in the world, which you can browse. It’s impressive, but since you can’t sample any, I was ready to move on.  Of course, you go through a whisky store on our way out. It was pretty unimpressive, just standard run-of-the-mill stuff at a bit higher prices than other places in town. It was finally 2 PM so we could head back to our hotel and get some sleep; had it not been for the whisky, I would have never made it. I will say that if you are an experienced whisky drinker, you can skip this tour. However if you are with novices or those who don’t drink whisky, then by all means this is a fun way to spend an hour.

Onto the Pubs

My first night I ended up hitting two bars that are part of the Scotland Whisky tour (I had no idea). We had dinner at the Whiski Bar, which is on the Royal Mile. From here forward my goal was to drink only whiskies I had never had before and to feed my father-in-law whiskies that would go with the palate of a Crown Royal drinker.

The Whiski Bar has a wide range of single malts and one-off bottling. I ordered the 1991 Glen Scotia for myself and the Hazelburn 8-yr for my father-in-law.  I like peated whisky but there is something about the peat used for Glen Scotia that I did not care for. Later I was chatting with the bartender and he pointed out the Kilchomen 3-yr, which is unique and high quality. This would be my only time at the Whiski bar but I wanted to return.

The haggis and other food is very good there, they actually had a really good vegetarian pasta dish.

After we put the in-laws to bed, we went to the Bow Bar. This was an overwhelming place: heavy leather-bound whisky menu with knowledgeable staff and amazing selection. First up was the Ardbeg Corry.  I’ve wanted to try it for a while and I was not disappointed. Then I asked the bartenders what I could have next that could stand up to the Corry. Eventually we settled on the Kilchomen.  For a 3-year-old whisky, it is amazing. We came back to the Bow Bar one more time (too bad it wasn’t every night), where I had the following drams: Ardbeg 15-yr Cadenhead Cask Strength (excellent), Linkwood 25-yr A.D. Rattray (wow), and Glen Grant 11-yr Rattray (bleh).

Another pub we went to was the Abbotsford, which is also part of the Scotland Whisky tour. Dinner was good: for an appetizer, I had the Springbank 12-year 100 proof (great dram), and ordered the Glenmorangie Nector D’or for my father–in-law. The Abbotsford is in New Town on Rose St.  There are a lot of pubs there and a good place to pub crawl if you are tired of the Royal Mile.

I also wanted to mention the Literary Pub Tour we did. We actually did two walking tours but on this one I got to drink even more whisky. I won’t mention the pubs themselves as it’s not fair for the tour. However this is a worthwhile tour, the guides are actors playing their roles as they take you to some of the historical pubs. Some had better whisky selection than others but I was always able to find something. We went to four different pubs, and I had about five different whiskies, including the 10-yr Macallan. Sure, it’s not exciting, but they don’t sell that on this side of the pond. I also had a Connoisseurs Choice Ledaig, and a few others. We also did the Witchery Murder Mystery tour, which is a great hour and a half walking tour, learning about death, the plague, and what a disgusting place to live Edinburgh used to be. I highly recommend both of these tours (even though there was no whisky to be had on the Murder Mystery tour).
Distillery Tour (my first)
On our third day we did a day trip to Stirling Castle, Loch Lomond and the Glengoyne distillery. Of course, they had a whisky shop in the Castle.  I was given a sample of the Islay Storm, which some people think is a Bowmore, but I think is a Bruchladdich (someone please tell me). I also bought a mini bottle of the Bruchladdich Peat, which I wanted to compare to the Port Charlotte series. Finally, on to the distillery.

Glengoyne is considered a highland though it technically resides in the lowlands. They primarily age their whisky in sherry casks, though they do have a 12-year bourbon barrel. I paid for the two sample tour, knowing my wife would give me both her samples, and my father-in-law would benefit from an extra sample as well. The tour itself was okay, but I did learn some things I hadn’t about the whisky making process, and to see it firsthand, it really sunk in. They start you off with a sample of their 10-year while you watch a short DVD on their history. I don’t remember our tour guide’s name but he was a nice fellow, probably in his early 20s and the rest of the staff seemed to tease him. The one disappointment was that we did not see where the casks are stored for aging. I guess you have to pay a hefty sum for that tour.

The tour ends at their whisky shop where we were given a sample of the 17-yr. By now my father-in-law had had about 10 different samples and he was sold. Before you can learn to pronounce “uisce beatha,” he was at the cash register paying for the Glengoyne 17-year. Sadly it was before we were given samples of their 21-year which I think he really liked. I told the tour guide my preference for hogshead and bourbon barrels, and he gave me a sample of the 12-year aged in bourbon barrel. Overall, they produce fine whiskies and it was a good starter tour. One day I will go back to Scotland, hopefully with my SOM crew, and we will tour Speyside and Islay.

When all was said and done, I sampled 45 different whiskies on this trip, and got my father-in-law to appreciate Scotch whisky.  What was the best of the lot you ask? It wasn’t even close: for a splurge meal, my wife and I went to the Witchery Restaurant, which is very highly rated (I think it has a Michelin star).  For dessert my wife ordered the pudding sampler; me, a 1986 Duncan Taylor Highland Park, 22 years. It was amazing, one of the top three whiskies I have ever had. After biting into some toffee and then taking a sip, it was as close to perfect as you can get. If anyone knows where I can get my paws on that bottle, I am all ears. The Witchery Hotel and Restaurant are right by the castle, and the stadium had been erected for the August festivals and Military Tattoo. On this night it was used for a concert for none other than Rod F-ing Stewart. It was hilarious: as every place was mobbed before they let people through the gates, we were surrounded by his faithful. The restaurant sat us an hour and a half early since we couldn’t find a pub to hang out in until then, due to the Rod Stewart crowd looking for cover from the pouring rain. It took well over an hour for the steady stream of people to pass through the gates, all of them looking in the restaurant, many waving.  When we left we could hear Rod playing.

Surfing in Scotland!

People who know me know that surfing is my first love (hobby-wise, not wife-wise).  I have been surfing for 12 years, and at least once a month every month for the past 77 months in a row. So when I mentioned to my wife there is surfing in Scotland, she said if I could find a place within an hour of Edinburgh, I could go surfing. Well, the search was on and I quickly found the Coast 2 Coast surf school based out of Dunbar, which is a 20 minute direct train from Waverly station. Hell, my daily commute is longer than that. Dunbar is a small coastal town that is home to the Belhaven Brewery and the birth place of John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club. The surf shop is located right next to the train station with the Coast Cafe. The center of town, is about a five minute walk away. I had scheduled to meet the surf school on the beach in John Muir Country Park, at 1PM. We where about 1.5 hours early so we walked to the town and found a pretty good cafe, Graze Coffee and Chocolate House, for a light early lunch. Scotch smoked salmon rocks. Then, a quick 10-minute cab ride to wrong beach. Not to fear, the wind was howling and it was raining sideways. After a phone call to the surf school, they came in a recycled van from Alaska that used to tote around sled dogs, and took us the right location.

Once at the correct beach I rented a wet suit and surfboard. This was a pretty unique beach for me, there are several hundred yards of wet lands before you get to the sand. When it is working, it is a quality longboard wave but that day the wind was howling on-shore with a 3’-4’ swell. Turn the wind off and you have pretty good conditions; however, with a 6-second period and soupy conditions, I would normally sit this one out, but I had one shot at surfing in Scotland. I should mention the water temp was also at 55 degrees. The guys gave their lesson to a group of kids while I went on my own. All of the kids were getting up in the white wash. I got a few unremarkable rides but was stoked none the less, although my leash broke and had to swap out with another board. After about an hour and a half, I was gassed from paddling through the tough conditions and called it a day. Even if you don’t surf and have some extra time in Edinburgh, this makes for a nice, non-touristy side trip. I would have liked to visit the brewery and castle but it was a dreary day, or a Scottish day as the locals say. With cold water, heavy wind, and a lot of rain, there was only one way to warm up. Thankfully I had a mini bottle of Springbank 15-year in my hotel room.

Overall, I loved Scotland, the people, and the hospitality. The hospitality of the people I encounter, and the overall positive vibes alone from Edinburgh, are enough to make me want to return. Now factor in the whisky culture, with surfing; I think I have found close to the perfect vacation.

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