Monday, June 29, 2015

Might not have hearts yet, but plenty of soul - Kingsbarns Distillery

Graham has a quote: "A man is at his happiest on the day he buys a boat and the day he sells it to another sailor." I had never really considered that saying until I met Douglas Clements.

Douglas has always been the face of Kingsbarns Distillery. I met him at a few events in Scotland last year and thought he was quite an interesting person with a great story. It wasn't until I was back home in Canada that I ended up doing research and piecing the whole puzzle together. In the event you do not know you can find it here:

This year we revisited Scotland for three weeks having decided that we wanted to go to Feis Ile 2015. We snuck in a few days in Edinburgh and so it was an easy decision to also book a tour of Kingsbarns, which is only about an hour away. Doug met us at the door on Sunday May 17th and we spent the next two hours doing a walk through, visiting all parts of the new distillery and in the end getting lunch in their little café (which was really good!). When we left and were driving back to Edinburgh I found myself doing much thinking about what we had just experienced.

1. It is a somewhat small but brand new distillery so there are no mouldy dank warehouses with 200 years of ghost stories, pagodas or barrels of whisky (Kingsbarns only has spirit ageing at the moment - not yet whisky). 

2. It is state of the art, stainless steel, clean, shiny and, well... sterile feeling.

3. It is not exactly in the heart of 'whisky country' as far as location and still needs a little work as far as landscaping, etc.. but it is quite picturesque on the banks of the North Sea.

I was feeling a bit perplexed. What was it about Kingsbarns that I was initially so enthusiastic about seeing but yet now that I had been came away feeling weird? Hmmmm, I really had to think about that for a few weeks. I replayed conversations Douglas and I had as he walked us through the tour. I looked at the photos I took of the distillery. I drank the whiskies we bought and yet still, I was baffled as to how I could turn my distillery visit into a written piece that meant something to me.

I spoke to Graham about my dilemma and what I was trying to say but not say. I sort of felt like something was missing while we were at the distillery. There was no 'spark' and or maybe like the building did not have a heart yet? It was, and I will use the words again: new and sterile. I mean, it is a great story but somehow, I was almost feeling sad for Douglas because it started with HIS dream and it become something else. 

Douglas worked extremely hard to realize the first leg of that desire and then found himself without the proper resources to make it come to fruition. In walks the Wemyss family with an offer he can't refuse. I was stuck on 'how could he do that, how does one sign the papers and give up on a dream'. Was I somehow transposing how I would feel about this type of project? And that's where Graham in is moments of pure genius pulled out the quote in my first sentence. It all snapped into place after that...

You see, I rarely come up with genuine new ideas but if someone presents one to me I am a pragmatic project manager who can close her eyes and map every step necessary to make the idea come to life. The people who come up with what others might think are crazy pipe dreams - they are visionary individuals. They have thoughts that pop into their head like: "I think St. Andrews should have a distillery". They start forging forward sometimes without a concrete plan or regardless of how insurmountable the list might seem. They keep moving forward...

As we stood in the doocot quietly admiring the first cask filled with Kingsbarns spirits ageing, I thought I could detect sadness when he spoke of some of the things he wanted to do had he continued on his own to build the distillery. As I listened to Douglas during the tour I quickly realized how passionate and dedicated he was/is to making sure the distillery came to life. The ideas were quite good! It was not sadness at all but the reality for him that building a distillery, making spirits and then running that business for years before profit existed was not exactly what he had in mind to do all on his own. He loves what he does now as the Visitor Center Manager. It allows him the opportunity to talk to people, be a fantastic ambassador for Fife, golf and be part of Kingsbarns Whiskies. He is exactly where is he supposed to be and is quite happy. 

Now after hearing Graham quote the sailboat analogy, it makes sense to me. Doug is a Fifer to the core of his soul. He has a deep and long respect for the game of golf combined with enjoyment of whisky. He did not give up on his dream, he chose to let it go to the 'next sailor'. The Wemyss family had everything they needed to launch and Douglas saw that. That takes courage, trust and the personality of a visionary. I admire people like Doug and wish I could be more like sometimes. I am adventurous but often shoot down my own ideas because I think they will fail.

I also realized while writing this that Kingsbarns is a new breed of distillery, not like some of the others we are hearing about. No marketing spin, gimmick stories, having royal stamps since 1608 or anything else that many of us think is so over marketed that we roll our eyes in boredom. It isn't complicated and is simply about a man, a dream and what he was willing to do to ensure it happened. 

Kingsbarns may not have a long history yet I am quite confident that it is already developing a reputation for the little distillery to visit in St. Andrews where one can see for themselves how a dream of whisky flowing in the land of Fife comes true. 

Here is to you, Douglas Clement, for seeing the vision that has become a lovely reality, may it be a long delicious legacy to leave to the #whiskyfabric. 



Thursday, June 11, 2015

Review - Ardbeg Global retail Perpetuum Release

What's all the hub bub... bub?! I'm sorry, what? What's that you say, Ardbeg turns 200 this year and has released yet another "wildly interesting and kitchy whisky"?! People all over the world getting to try samples and then writing about it, releasing their reviews almost all on the same day, you say? Interesting indeed....

I won't waste your time with the marketing release, you can check that out yourself ad nauseum, just google Ardbeg Perpetuum Review and read the 20+ blogs that repeat the exact same email information we all received...  No offence, but seriously there must be something better to write than simply cutting and pasting what the PR people sent?! 

Is that part of the reason so many people simply roll their eyes when Ardbeg or any other distillery releases the latest BESTEST NEWEST MOST FANTASTICUS whisky!? Meh... maybe... Ok, but Ardbeg proudly turns 200 this year, they must have gone all out and released something mega amazing!!!? Depends what blog review you read... I saw a rating of 97 (rolls eyes...) 97 out of 100 - doesn't that mean near perfection? How about a bit of honesty folks. Don't be scared you might not get any more free samples if you don't tow the line!? 

So here's what I'm going to tell you... I did indeed receive a sample of the retail version that will be appearing in Canada. I did indeed participate in the stupendous Ardbeg day while I was on Islay. I was very much confused when I got to sample the Distillery Release which is at 49.2% vs my global retail which is at 47.4% ?  I thought maybe I had missed a few emails or details as to why there was more than one whisky called Perpetuum? 

Now let's see if I have this straight?! Come to find out, the Distillery release was suppose to be exclusively sold there, but somehow 2500 were then available online to UK residents on Ardbeg Day - Can you say system crash!? Twitter was hot and angry with many people really losing their minds over the fact that they tried for hours to try and order a bottle and came away with nothing more than high blood pressure. Then some would be available on Ardbeg Day at the distillery but nobody seemed to know which one. At one point I thought there were three Perpetuum's being released?! How's that for doing something mega! Needless to say, the confusion around how many there really is, or will be is... well confusing?! Got it? Still following me...? Yeah... me neither, blink blink... So if you want more information about that, please feel free to email someone at Ardbeg and hopefully you'll get some straight answers...? Because frankly reading what I was able to find online was only even more confusing? No offence to the very nice lady in Toronto who tried to set me straight a few times, thanks... really & truly...

So back to being in Scotland: We arrived on Islay on May 22 and went straight to Ardbeg. Over lunch, I watched people getting in line hoping to get their Perpetuums (which one, I'm not sure? hehe). Over the course of the two hours we were there, the line was never ending. We went back on Ardbeg day on May 30th and some had been in line since 4:30am?! Are these people crazy or simply hard core Ardbeg fans? Well maybe a little bit of both. 

At least 6 times during the day (I was there from 9:30 - 5:30), at random, an employee would appear in the crowd and pour an Ardbeg whisky from a magnum! They had a carved ice bar, contests, prizes, food, music, fundraisers, tractors, motorcycles and lions! Ok, the lion part was made up, but everything else is absolutely true. The place was jammed pack with activities and people all day. The crowd did not dissipate until they told us it was time to leave. 

Ardbeg Day was HUGE, over the top, and for most people there - Exactly what they wanted! Ardbeggians came from all over the world for the whisky, the hype, the entertainment and because they know that Ardbeg has a reputation for loving their fans and not disappointing when it comes to HUGE celebrations. It was really hard not to be swept away by it all. I could have passed on the tractor though :/

Personally and in general hype doesn't really impress me and neither does marketing adverts. I let the whisky speak for itself because that's what we really want to know don't we? Is the whisky worth buying? 

I am super happy that I was fortunate enough to taste both Perpetuums and I'd like to think that if I had been given both blind I would have chosen the global retail as my preferred sample and here's why:

Nose: A bit of prickle at first and the peat was fairly muted which took me a bit by surprise. It's much more delicate then many of the last Ardbeg releases. I could smell overripe bananas, very little citrus and it had an overall sweeter smell than I anticipated. Ever burn sweet grass on an open fire - quite nice actually.
Palate: Oily yet creamy with a satisfying freshness to it. The way I feel about a good cup of freshly ground coffee with 1 tsp of muscovado sugar and a tablespoon of cream (18% milk fat). Sweet, rounded with hints of dark chocolate dryness. 

Finish: MOST IMPRESSIVE!!! When I exhaled after the first few sips it left me feeling like I had smoked a menthol cigarette. The flavor was endless and stayed with me for almost 30 minutes afterwards. 

I sipped at the whisky for the better part of an hour the first night I tried it and it didn't morph that much in the glass nor did I add any water. I didn't feel like it needed any. The dram was satisfying, intriguing and quite tasty, especially the finish. The second time I had some was with a friend and we compared notes a bit to see what she thought vs my feelings about it. (I've asked her to write a review, we will see if she does ;) 

Of the last 4-5 Ardbeg releases, and I bought Corryvreckan, Alligator, Gallileo and Ardbog, the Perpetuum is my favorite because it doesn't present like an agressive young peated whisky. It's more balanced, a little delicate and offers some very nice flavors with an explosive finish that lasts for quite some time. 

Now, what I and many others will struggle with is: The price tag. This is being released on the Canadian market, first in Ontario on June 13th for $187. It will then roll out across Canada gradually until the new year. I would love to be able to buy two bottles of this, one for drinking and one for keeping. Alas, the price tag is a bit high for me personally as far as my current whisky budget goes. 

Is it a delicious Ardbeg that proudly represents 200 years of whisky making? I think so... Is it hyped up a bit with a marketing story behind it, sure it is... Then again fewer and fewer whiskies do. 

If you are a true Ardbeggian and can afford the price tag, I would be very curious to see what you think of this whisky and where you rank it amongst the many releases. For me, it's a "want" vs need in my collection at this point so COME ON LOTTERY TICKET!!!

Thanks to Ardbeg for the sample as well as the distillery and their staff for an amazing day that closed Feis Ile 2015. (Blog to come about that later!)

Lassie out! 

Monday, June 8, 2015

The "take" on whisky friendships and Islay virgins!

Jo Lawson and I became friends through twitter and the #whiskyfabric that we all weave. I was fortunate enough to meet her last year while I was staying with Dave Alcock. We took advantage of the fact that many of the UK weavers lived within driving distance and we all went on a two car, one day trip to Wales to visit Penderyn of which I wrote about last year on my blog:

The minute I met Jo, I knew we would be friends for life. She is this bubbly, intelligent, kind and huge whisky enthusiast that loves life and you can't avoid how contagious that is!!!

When a few of us decided we would all go to Feis Ile 2015 this year, Jo stepped up to the plate, took the plunge and with no fear and a suitcase full of stuff met us on Friday May 22 to spend a full week with a bunch of crazy writers, bloggers, whisky nuts and putzes (is that a word?!). For all of us who got to spend time with her, I think I can easily say she touches way more than your heart.  There is an exuberance and craziness to her that gently rubs off and leaves you either laughing until your sides hurt or in tears when it's time to drop her off at the ferry.

Here's to you Jo! May your enthusiasm and love for everything #whiskyfabric be bestowed on many more fantastic people, for years to come.  Until next time my lovely whisky friend and sister!!! SlaintĂ©

I give you, Jo Lawson's take on her first big whisky trip:

"If I had to describe my first visit to Feis Ile in one word, that word would be FRIENDSHIP! Even right back in January when I started planning my trip, people I'd never met started offering me help, advice and support. This guidance was especially useful during the madness that is the activities booking process. I don't think I would have got on any tours without all their help. Getting to Islay continued this theme of friendship, as I travelled up with Steve and Jon in their hire car. Freely sharing their knowledge, gained on previous trips to both Speyside and Islay, I felt like I had my own personal tour guides.

On arrival at Islay House, for an evening of Jazz and whisky, old friendships were renewed and new ones
formed. This pattern continued throughout the Festival. Everywhere I went, I was greeted with smiles. People would just introduce themselves and start talking tome. Distillery staff would cheerily offer free drams and information. Nothing seemed like too much trouble for them. I was sharing a cottage with Johanne, Graham MacKenney, Angar and Thomas Speller, and my roomy for the week, Crystal Coverdale. 

As a Feis Ile virgin, I was depending on these people to guide me and they didn't let me down. They all proved to be some of the most generous and kind people I have ever met. Taking me to distilleries, showing me the sights and giving me sample bottles, empty and full! Linked by a love of whisky and a desire to share their knowledge and passion with others, this feeling of unconditional friendship just seems to be the norm for the #whiskyfabric. I have learnt so much on this trip, both from distillery tours and just by talking to people. I have visited every distillery on the island, seen the similarities and differences and loved every minute. 

Sharing a cottage with people with such a breadth of whisky knowledge was an education. They are not experts, they're just a bit further along their whisky journeys than I am and happy to show me the different paths my future journey could take.
On our final evening together, I shared a short poem, that I had written, with my cottage mates. I now dedicate it to all the wonderful #whiskyfabric people I met on Islay.

A toast to Islay:

Like a golden river flowing, it's amber heart a-glowing,
Clinging to the glass, it's water with class,
Sharing a dram with good friends, as another day ends,
It's peat fire, not coal, that brings peace to my soul.

Slainte Mhah X

Thank you Jo for sharing your love, thoughts and lovely photos about Feis Ile.  

Lassie, out... for now ;)