Whisky distilleries

October 3, 2013

We woke up to a lot of rain and figured it was a perfect day to visit some distilleries. Chandler and I used to brew beer back home, but we had no idea how whisky was made. My bosses in Anchorage are big fans of scotch and made sure their employees learned to appreciate the beverage! There are tons of distilleries in Scotland, and we were a little intimidated by the options and the apparent fanaticism of Scotch aficionados. So, we headed to the closest place on our map that sounded familiar, the Glenlivet Distillery.

Glenlivet Distillery

Glenlivet Distillery

The distillery offered a free tour of the facility with a great overview of the whole process. Glenlivet means valley of the Livet, which is the local river. Things started out in a familiar way: the basic ingredients of Scotch are: water, barley and yeast, even more basic than beer. The barley is grown locally and then malted which is a process where the barley grains are moistened and allowed to germinate briefly before been dried in a kiln. According to the tour guide, nearly every distillery in Scotland has their barley malted by an industrial malting facility, as the traditional method involves spreading the grains out on a clean floor, which takes up a lot of space.

The peaty flavors sometimes found in Scotch are added by smoking the barley with burning peat. The Glenlivet distillery and most distilleries on the eastern side of Scotland do not use peat in their process, so their whiskys don’t have a smokey flavor at all (a shame we thought).

The malted barley and water are mashed (combined with heat) to create a wort, which is water full of dissolved sugars from the barley. Yeast is added after few hours it starts converting the sugars to alcohol and CO2 in the fermentation process.

The mash ton

The mash ton

This is where things started to make a huge detour from beer brewing. The fermentation process is done in massive two story tall wooden fermenting vats called washbacks, which are basically roughly 5 meter tall pine barrels, made by local coopers. At the end of fermentation, the washbacks hold a very basic beer (no hops!) with an alcohol content of around 8%.

Washbacks

Washbacks

Next the beer is distilled. Distillation is the process of separating alcohol from water and occurs in large copper stills. The shape of the stills are unique to each distillery as it helps to influence the flavor of the final product. This takes place in two steps, first the beer in distilled to a spirit with an alcohol content of around 22%. The next process takes the distillate and refines it further again by distilling, but also segregating the product over time, which comes out strong at first (the head), then diminishing in strength (the heart) and further still (the tail) at the end of the process. The head and the tail are not thrown out, but rather cycled back into the next batch. The heart of the run is the end product of the distilling process, with an alcohol content in the high 60%’s or so.

The stills

The stills

The last step is to age the whisky. Glenlivet ages their whisky for a minimum of 12 years in oak casks. The casks are recycled Bourbon kegs from Tennessee and Sherry barrels from Spain. These casks greatly influence the final taste of the scotch. It was interesting to learn how much whisky evaporates during the aging process. After 50 years of aging, only about 25% of the original cask volume remains, hence a big part of the reason older whisky costs to much.

Aging whisky

Aging whisky

Before it is bottled, the cask whisky is usually diluted to an alcohol content of around 40%, which is supposedly optimum for enjoying the balance of flavors and the punch of the alcohol.

Our tour ended with a taster. It is recommended to add on a few drops of water at a time while drinking good Scotch, never ice cubes or Coke. They had some cask-strength tasters, and it was pretty intense and not as enjoyable as the regular strength stuff.

There were still several hours of daylight left, so we figured we had time to squeeze in another tour. The next place was Glenfiddich (valley of the deer). Our guide was wearing a kilt and we were allowed to take pictures, so the second tour was a great idea. The process was the same but the stills had a slightly different shape and the wood for the mash tons was from Canada and not Oregon. We also received a tasting at the end and entertained by a video of the Highland Games.

Chandler at Glenfiddich

Chandler at Glenfiddich

Our guide in a kilt

Our guide in a kilt

Highland Games boots

Highland Games boots

I wish we had realized that the Scotch in this area didn’t have any of the real peaty flavors we enjoyed, we would have made an effort to visit some distilleries on the west coast of Scotland.

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Around Inverness

October 2, 2013

I recently finished a book about the Jacobite Rebellions against the British and was interested in seeing Culloden Field. In 1745, Charles Stuart or “Bonnie Prince Charlie” sought to reclaim the British throne. He raised an army of Scottish loyalists, known as the Jacobites, and had a few successful battles. The Battle of Culloden occurred on April 16, 1746, with Stuart’s forces being destroyed and ending his campaign. The British came down hard on the Highlanders, many people were executed, the wearing of plaid or playing the bagpipes was outlawed and a lot of land was confiscated amongst other repercussions.

Rebuilt cottage

Rebuilt cottage

The British headstone

The English Stone

Memorial cairn for the clans

Memorial cairn for the clans

As usual, it was nice to be able to see something for real and correct my mental image. There were informative signs indicating the placement of troops and where items had been found. It was also nice to be the expert on something and teach Chandler and thing or two.

After a few hours wandering around the battlefield, we headed up to Spey Bay to hopefully see some dolphins. Scotland has largest bottlenose dolphins in the world, generally 2 meters longer and 100kg more than an average bottlenose dolphin. This is due to the fact that the waters of Scotland are much colder than else where, so they have to be extra fat. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to see any dolphins, but it was interesting to learn about them. We also went on a short tour of the largest ice house in Scotland and the history of salmon fishing in the area.

Stones on the beach

Stones on the beach

1630! That's old

Stone in the ice house

Our evening ended with a little tour of Inverness.

Inverness

River view of Inverness

Pretty city

Pretty city

Inverness Castle

Inverness Castle

Isle of Skye

September 29 – October 1, 2013

Distance: 9.8 miles

We woke up early, packed up the car, hit the road and headed for the trailhead. We figured we would get there pretty quickly, but we got a little distracted by some cows. The cows were so different looking and cute, I had to get some photos. Chan thought they looked like Muppet cows.

Somebody needs a haircut

Somebody needs a haircut

She looks like a Muppet

She looks like a Muppet

Soon we were on the trail. The scenery was immediately stunning as we hiked along the coast. We had no idea what to expect but were hoping for an easy 6 mile walk along a cliff edge. We were headed out to a bothy, which is an old sheep herder’s cabin that was restored by locals to be used by campers for free. Sounded perfect to us.

Not a bad view

Not a bad view

Chandler's National Geographic photo

Chandler’s wannabe Backpacker Magazine cover photo

The hike wasn’t too difficult, a little more climbing than expected. The trouble started when we hit 7 miles and still no bothy in sight. We had the GPS coordinates and decided to just hoof it over land instead of remaining on the trail which meandered along the top of the cliffs. We ended up walking through the moors and our shoes were soaking in no time. After an extra 3 miles, we finally reached the bothy.

The bothy

The bothy

We immediately removed our wet shoes and relaxed outside in the setting sun. We opted to have dinner outside and I began cutting cheese and tomatoes for a Mexican feast when I noticed several small ticks all over my legs. Ticks were EVERYWHERE! We had to retreat inside the dark cabin for our dinner and a little après hike refreshment.

Whisky is perfect after a long hike

45 years of whisky

The next day, we hiked down to a nearby beach to collect some firewood.

Off to collect wood

Off to collect wood

The beach ended up being covered in washed up litter. We were able to collect a bagful of wood, enough for our purposes and the next person who visits the bothy. Not wanting to head back yet, we ended up playing with the jetsam. There were so many buoys and plastic bottles full of liquid that we developed a game of throwing these items against the rocks, trying to make them bounce and explode. It was pretty fun until a rigid plastic buoy exploded and sent shrapnel in my direction, then the game was over.

Chandler winding up

Chandler winding up

Distance: 4.9 miles

The next day, it was time to hike out. Not wanting to do the same route twice, we opted hike overland. This route took us up and over one big hill and down the other side. We had no trail, so our feet were instantly soaked again, but we had about 5 miles less to travel.

Help from a barbed wire fence

Help from a barbed wire fence

Happy to finally reach the car, we took off our wet shoes and socks and headed to Inverness. We drove along Loch Ness for a while, but as hard we we looked, we did not see the monster. Instead we saw the ruins of a castle and learned some facts about John Cobb.

Castle on Loch Ness

Urquhart Castle on Loch Ness

Fun fact

True story

We found a nice little campsite right on the river Ness, grabbed some fish and chips plus a few Guinness (Chan’s way of sticking it to the UK). We fell asleep to the sound of rather heavy rain on the tent.

UK roadtrip begins

September 25 – 28, 2013

After our week with the family, Chandler and I borrowed Alyssa’s car, and headed out on a road trip. Our plan was to head straight up to the Isle of Skye in Scotland and do some hiking. Things didn’t go quite as planned. Long story short, we ended up spending a while trying to find butane for Alyssa’s stove, before realizing that we had another stove that ran on gasoline like ours that we left in France.

We had some fun though along the way. We went on a nice walk along the Hadrian’s Wall path. We were hoping to see actual ruins of the wall, but had no such luck. The path took us through some fields, but we turned around after realizing we were just on a cross-country walking path that only approximately followed the wall’s alignment.

But where is the wall?

But where is the wall?

Learning to drive on the wrong side of the car and on the wrong side of the road was a fun experience for Chandler. He did all the driving, but insisted I give it a go also. Thank goodness the pedals were in the correct position, because it took a lot of concentration to shift with my left hand while staying on the left side of the road. Chandler did a great job on the narrow roads and we are still alive to tell the tale.

Something seems strange about this car

Something seems strange about this car

The transition from England to Scotland was anti-climatic. There was a sign, but the land didn’t change and there was no other indication. It wasn’t until we hit the Highlands that the Scotland I imagined finally emerged.

Beautiful Scotland

Beautiful Scotland

We also made a quick stop at the Eilean Donan Castle. The castle was built in 1214 by the MacKenzies but destroyed by the Jacobite Rebellions. In the early 20th century the MacRae family rebuilt the castle by the original plan. The castle was closed when we arrived, so we weren’t able to go inside.

Eilean Donan Castle

Eilean Donan Castle

We found a great campsite with views of the peaks to the west, which were surprisingly a lot larger than we expected. We got to bed early that night because we had a big hike the next day, but not before creatively drying out the rainfly.

A bit windy out

A bit windy out