written by Charles Grabitzky
2018 was a great year for whiskey travels, tastings and camaraderie. A lot was due to travels with Rascal + Thorn. And some came from the Saratoga Whiskey Club which is entering its 4th year as a club. Here is Part One of my top 10 whiskey experiences from 2018:
Balvenie Distillery Visit
Balvenie is an elusive destination. On my trip to the Speyside in Scotland back in 2015, I was unable to secure a reservation on their twice-a-day, small group tour due to the fact that Anthony Bourdain was filming his YouTube video on Balvenie. That Anthony Bourdain held Balvenie so close to his heart made it even more alluring for myself. I finally was able to visit Balvenie this past September on the 9 Maple Whisky Tour of Scotland which focused on the Speyside and Upper Highlands regions of Scotland.
Our afternoon tour started off in a couch-filled, nicely-decorated reception lounge where we were offered some coffee as the history of Balvenie was explained. From there we headed to the malting floors to see the barley spread out, germinating and being dried. There are only a handful of distilleries that still have this in place. We did the standard visit to the mash tun, washbacks and the still room. All very well explained and interesting.
Next was off to the warehouses and cooperage down the road in an old Land Rover Defender. How cool is that to travel Safari-style to a working cooperage with a great view. I had no idea! Back up the road we traveled to another warehouse where we were able to sample some whiskies straight from the cask, fill our own small bottles and then head back to the visitor’s center for our final tasting. And what a tasting it was. We were able to try the core line, but also the 30 year old and a 36 year straight from the cask. What an incredible experience and over 3 hours of just fun. A truly amazing experience and a top three of the year for sure.
Chichibu Distillery Visit
There is something magical about traveling around Japan. Especially visiting some of the remote distilleries that are producing such great “young” whisky. My visit to the Chichibu Distillery was one of my top three whisky experiences of 2018. On the Saratoga Whiskey Club Tour of Japan, which was arranged by Rascal + Thorn and Japan Whisky Tours, we took the train from Tokyo to Chichibu on a calm November, Monday morning not really knowing what to expect. Once at the train station, we were met by drivers to take us the additional 25 minutes into the mountains to the distillery.
We were met by Yumi Yoshikawa, a gracious host and ambassador for the Chichibu line. The tour was fantastic and thorough, from the grinding of the grain, to the hand-sifting of the grist, the mashing, the Mizunara-wood washbacks, and the beautiful copper stills. It wasn’t a big facility, but super-efficient, clean, and oozed of great whisky-making. A walk through the warehouse just tempted us for samples of whisky hidden inside the wooden casks.
Our visit ended with a 1.5 hour open tasting in their visitor center / shop. Yes, open tasting, where different bottles were put out for us to try. You can’t top an incredible tour any better than this. I very much look forward to visiting Chichibu again. In fact, we are headed there this November. Japan – 2019
Glenfarclas Distillery Visit
Glenfarclas has always been one of my favorite distilleries. It’s old school. I visited them back in 2015 and just loved the way it felt. The old equipment, the colors, and the spirit. In 2015 the distillery was making spirit, but last September they were stopped for a period of time due to lack of water from a less-than-normal rainfall over the summer. Regardless, we still had a great tour led by Sarah Renaucere.
But what made this tour so special was the Connoisseur Tasting that followed. I knew they would bring out some great whiskies, but I had no idea how special this would turn out to be. Many of you might be aware of the Family Cask series at Glenfarclas. It is an annual release by the distillery that goes back over 70 years. Not only did we get to taste some of the better core line, the 15 year, 21 year and 25 year, but we got to sample from four different Family Casks including the 1965, 1992, 1993 & 1994 casks. When doing the math, these bottles totaled up to well over $7k USD. Now that is a tasting! And some very special whisky. Glenfarclas will always hold a spot in my heart for my two great visits.
The Artisan Restaurant in Wishaw, Scotland, is a magical place. Run by Derek Mather and his wife Fiona, the Artisan is a haven for whisky lovers and nerds. At last count, I believe Derek mentioned he had over 3,000 whiskies in the restaurant and in storage. That is incredible.
I was very excited to visit with them in September for a great meal and plenty of whisky. Our plan was to arrive early afternoon and stay as long as possible… which was about 5 hours. Derek moved our group into the Laddie Snug which is a side room of the restaurant reserved primarily for whisky sampling. He was kind enough to serve us dinner in there as well. The collection of whiskies is unbelievable.
Derek is a big Bruichladdich fan so there is a ton of that, but he also has whisky from everywhere. Independent bottlings, world whiskies, you name it, he has it. After 9 drams and a great meal, mission accomplished. I can’t wait to get back to Artisan to do it all over again. You can never run out of whisky to try there!
Japanese Whisky Bars
I had heard great things about Japanese whisky bars from Stamford Cullen of Japan Whisky Tours. But it was one of those things. You had to see these bars to believe it. And after seeing the first whisky bar, Bar Andy, in Sendai after our great visit to Nikka Miyagikyo, I knew the rest of the tour was going to be incredibly special.
There isn’t one whisky bar in particular to talk about here. They were all special in their own ways and some very hard to find. From Japanese whiskies to Scotches and Bourbons, there was so much to try. The Japanese whisky bar owners have no problem traveling the world and bringing back to their establishments many new bottles of special whisky each year. The accumulation over the years is phenomenal.
They have a different system there which allows them to sell what they brought back which is very different from the US and our import/distribution laws that bars have to abide to. After this new appreciation for Japanese whisky bars, I can’t wait to get back this November to explore more and find some great whiskies to taste.