In Search of a Wee Dram: Part 1

My fellow Klondike Fine Malt Society member Kath, born in Yorkshire, and her partner Jim, a native Glaswegian, invited me to accompany them on a visit to see family.

I had never been to the “old country” and accepted, knowing I had two personal tour guides, one of whom enjoys single malt scotch (surprisingly enough, it isn’t the Scot!)

We departed in early October, having booked only a youth hostel in the tiny village of Ratagan, which is near the Eilean Donan Castle – the MacRae castle – my ancestral home and a destination Kath and Jim happily agreed to, as neither of them had been there.

Following a nine-hour flight, Jim’s brother–in-law picked us up at 6 a.m. in Glasgow and drove us to Jim’s mother’s house. After a night’s sleep and a Scottish breakfast of sausages, eggs, “tattie scones” (potato cakes), toast and tea, followed by a few biscuits (chocolate wafers), we headed to Edinburgh by train.

There, we explored the Royal Mile, the Whisky Experience store, the Whisky Trail store (just to start getting the feel of things) and Edinburgh Castle.

The day was beautiful and blue, and the castle is huge, so it was an all-day adventure exploring every room and roving up and down several thousand stone steps.

As we wandered to our guest house, we discovered a malt whisky bar called Leslies Bar, about three blocks from our accommodations. We dropped our bags and wandered back to the whisky bar.

Inside it was lively. The walls were ornately-panelled, and we ordered from behind the roof-to-counter wood-panelled bar with small windows that we stuck our heads through.

They had several “malts of the month” on special for 2.10 GBP. Kath and I ordered one each, and after nosing and a few sips, we traded.

We tried four drams – each was different but delicious. To be brief (longer discussions can be engaged at a Klondike Fine Malt Society meeting): the 15-year-old Tobermory, from the only distillery on the Isle of Mull, has a sherry nose and is full-bodied with hints of milk chocolate, toffee and pepper.

The 10-year-old Ledaig (also distilled at Tobermory) has distinct peatiness, dry smoke, seaweed, and a long, warm finish. A 12-year old Deanston (from the Highlands) is somewhat oily, mild, developing peaty and smoky textures undercut by honey and some floral notes.

Finally, the amber 12-year-old Bunnahabhain (from Islay) has a palate of burnt sugar, raisins, toffee, mild peat and a long finish with a hint of salt.

The next day the weather turned and Edinburgh was shrouded in mist and rain. We took a tour of the underground caverns where a segment of society lived in medieval times.

After a somewhat ghoulish tour (which finished with a wee dram and a piece of shortbread) we climbed the 287-step spiral staircase to Scott’s monument (a tribute to Sir Walter Scott) to photograph the city.

The next day we headed 200 kilometres north by train to Inverness, where we planned to rent a car to explore the Isle of Skye, the MacRae castle and Speyside.

Upon arrival at the rental agency (ironically, it was named “MacRae and Dick” and its motto was “outstanding”), we discovered Kath and Jim had forgotten their drivers’ licenses in Glasgow!

This little oversight left the Canadian lad, who is much more familiar with left-hand drive and keeping to the right, as the designated driver. On a distillery seeking trip, it didn’t bode well.

The roads in Scotland are very narrow and have virtually no shoulders, Not long onto the Isle I had a fatal first encounter with Scottish wildlife. A stoat ran onto the roadway. I braked and yanked the wheel into the oncoming lane. But the stoat ran faster, towards death – right between the wheels.

After this incident Jim and Kath named me the “Stoat Slayer” and hinted I may have to incorporate it into the MacRae clan coat of arms – an upraised arm with a sword held in a clenched fist and the motto “fortitude”. I decided to think about that later when I reclaimed the castle. It did have a certain ring.

The only distillery on the Isle of Skye is Talisker, where we did our first tour.

It started with a wee dram and took us by mash tuns, vats, milling machines and stills. Our guide went through the process of how barley is malted and crushed, hot water is added and the meade is funnelled to stills that boil and condense the alcohol vapours, and how the final result is placed in oak casks.

The following morning, we returned to the MacRae castle and I reclaimed the place for the Canadian MacRaes.

It is a spectacular castle right on the ocean, with a connecting bridge so that you no longer have to swim when the tide comes in! Built in the 1200s, it was in ruins until a wealthy MacRae restored the place over 20 years between 1912 and 1932.

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