The promise of a few drams and a visit to the real-life setting of Whisky Galore! was more than enough to tempt me away from my desk and up north.
At the crack of dawn one Wednesday morning, I found myself high tailing it by train towards the granite city.
From Aberdeen train station, myself along with several other whisky enthusiasts, were whisked by car to the peaceful town of Portsoy on the Moray Firth coast, around 50 miles north west of the city. Centred around a historic harbour, the town has found recent fame with a starring role as the fictional Scottish island of Todday in the 2016 remake of iconic movie Whisky Galore!
The first distillery we were to visit was Glenglassaugh, two miles west of Portsoy.
Our mode of transport for the trip was boat so we donned our waterproofs and boarded the Buchaneer to take us for a quick tour of the coastline then into Sandend Bay where Glenglassaugh is located.
Our boat trip, by North 58, took us along the rocky headland in search of some of the wildlife of the area. Despite our hosts, and
everyone I have spoken to since, saying the area is a haven for sea mammals we had to make do with a distant, solitary seal.
A stop at Bow Fiddle rock however was a birdwatcher’s dream with herring gulls, great black-backed gulls and lesser black-backed gulls calling the area home.
Onboard with us was Rachel Barrie, Whisky Maker and Master Blender for Glenglassaugh, BenRiach and Glendronach distilleries. She outlined the geology of the area and how it causes hard water which, along with the local barley used, creates the character of the whisky that they make.
The minerality of the rock here is renowned with the famous Portsoy ‘marble’ hailing from the area; although not technically marble rather serpentine rock. This ‘marble’ was famously used in the interiors of the Palace of Versailles.
Anchoring in the bay at Sandend, Rachel introduced us to Glenglassaugh with a tasting of Evolution from its core range. A whisky tasting at sea was a first for most of our group and the robust dram with hints of salted caramel and ripe banana was the
perfect prologue to our distillery visit.
After being mothballed in 1986 Glenglassaugh was on the cusp of becoming a forgotten distillery however this year marks the ten year anniversary of its reawakening. The distillery was founded in 1875 by Col. James Moir and in 1892 was purchased by Highland Distillers. It was completely rebuilt in 1960 but was mothballed in 1986. In 2008 it was purchased by a group of investors and production began again. It was taken over Brown-Forman in 2016.
Once safely ashore we were met by Distillery Manager Alan McConnachie who took us on a tour of the distillery including its mix of wooden and steel washbacks, part of its 1960s refurbishment where we sampled the wort produced.
Following our maritime tasting of Evolution we wondered what could possibly top it but a tasting of the rest of the core range, Revival and Torfa, overlooking the spectacular Sandend Bay did just that. Revival was the first expression released following the 20 year mothballing of the distillery and put Glenglassaugh firmly back on the whisky world’s radar. Sweet caramel and winter fruit on the nose, followed by
nuts, chocolate and spice on the palate makes it the perfect dram for this time of year.
Torfa is Glenglassaugh’s core peated offering and was a particular favourite of the trip, conjuring up feelings of campfire smoke and coastal peat.
We were treated to a special beach BBQ on the sands of the bay cooked up by Great Highland Food accompanied by a whisky pairing of the distillery’s new wood finish range. Their peated virgin oak wood finish was shaped by intense notes of candy and fresh spice – think sweet shop by the beach. Creamy vanilla on the nose with toasted
oak spice and hints of candied ginger, sweets and toffee on the palate.
The Pedro Ximenez sherry wood finish brought feelings of sun-dried warmth despite a very dreich day. The port wood finish had notes of sweets on the nose and a zesty fruitiness on the palate. The peated portwood was a highlight and was the perfect dram to savour as we warmed ourselves around the fire pit on the beach; heather honey on the nose followed by red berries on the palate and a sweet peated note.
We were then bussed to Craigelechie Hotel where one final drink of the day was enjoyed in their Copper Dog bar before bed.
Day two of the trip saw us visit the BenRiach distillery where Brand Ambassador Stewart Buchanan was on hand to welcome us to the distillery.
BenRiach distillery was built in 1898 and, not dissimilar to Glenglassaugh, had times of hardship in its past. Just two years after it opened the stills fell silent and remained that way for 65 years until 1965 when it reopened and production began again.
A tour through the distillery led us to the famous malting floor where we took it in turns to turn the barley by hand before sampling some of BenRiach’s new expressions whilst warming ourselves by the kiln. We tasted the newly released 21 year old, unconventionally matured in a combination of four types of cask by master blender Rachel Barrie; bourbon barrels, virgin oak, Perdro Ximenez and red wine casks.
Bright autumn gold in colour, on the nose were notes of ripe summer fruit and candied peel and ginger. Soft vanilla and cinnamon mixed with red fruit and citrus on the palate with a honeyed sweetness on the finish.
Our trip north ended with a visit to BenRiach’s warehouses where we got to sample some of their works in progress which, although still being fine tuned, promise to be spectacular.
Visitor centre opening times –
– May to September Monday to Sunday 10am to 4.30pm
– October to April Monday to Friday 10am to 4.30pm
– Silent Season is from Monday 17 July until Friday 11 August
The Connoisseur’s tour is available on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 10am and 2pm. The distillery shop is only open after the tour. A wide range of single malts and merchandise are available. Advance booking is essential, minimum four people.
North 58 Sea Adventures
Adventures departing from Findhorn Marina daily, weather permitting, please contact directly for trip times on any particular day as these do vary. Advance booking is highly recommended, especially over peak holiday periods
Prices from £140 per night.