Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Life in England: A Weekend in Edinburgh: The Distillery Tour

MrL is Excited About Whisky
As I'm sure all of you know, Scotland is well-known for its whisky production. MrLogical being an Enjoyer of Whisky (I don't think he's quite at the 'connoisseur' level yet), it goes without saying that our trip to Edinburgh was the perfect opportunity for a closer look at the inner workings of a Real Live Scottish distillery (or two of them to be precise.)

It should be noted that, while I am not a particular Enjoyer of Whisky myself, I don't actually hate it or anything, and I am always up for a new experience, so I did a bit of research and booked us for a 1-day "Discover Malt Whisky" tour.  This was offered by Rabbie's Trail Burners, who specialize in small-group tours, and came highly recommended.

According to the description, we would be traveling in a small group out of Edinburgh to a distillery just north of Glasgow, stopping for a meal and some sightseeing at Loch Lomond, and then looping back to Edinburgh with a stop at a second distillery on the way and a return to Edinburgh around suppertime.  While MrL was looking forward to seeing the distilleries (not to mention sampling the whisky), I was looking forward to seeing the Loch, learning a bit more about Scotland and its history, and finally seeing the countryside which had figured prominently in so many books I'd read over the years.

The tour was set to begin at 9.15, but we arrived almost 40 minutes early at the centrally located pickup point, Rabbie's Cafe, which is owned and run by the tour company.  This was absolutely ideal, because you could grab a coffee or something to eat whilst waiting out of the weather for your tour to start. In addition, there were clean toilets and a large digital display board listing each tour, its guide and start time, and its status ('loading' departed' etc.) (MsC has participated in more than one of this sort of day tour where the meeting place was a chilly/rainy street corner in front of a hotel, and she can assure you that this arrangement was highly preferable.)

Our group consisted of 12 people ranging in age from 20s to mid-50s and covered about 8 nationalities, and our vehicle was a 'mini-coach,' a smallish bus with enormous windows that held about 15 passengers   While we drove through the chilly February rain, our guide, a young woman named Audrey, somehow managed to deftly drive the coach while also regaling us with a variety of facts about Scottish history, folklore, politics, legend, geography, and pretty much anything else you could think of. (Since I am the sort of person who insists on absolute silence when trying to drive somewhere even vaguely unfamiliar, I was in awe of Audrey's formidable multitasking abilities.) 

Our first stop was the Forth Bridge, a cantilever railway bridge built in the late 19th century over the Firth of Forth ('firth' = estuary), a UNESCO World Heritage site, and a symbol of Scotland.  This was not, strictly speaking, part of our tour, but upon learning that all of us wanted to stop and have a look at it (we were passing right by anyway), Audrey obligingly pulled into the parking lot and let us all disembark for  photo ops before continuing on our way.

An hour and a half or so later, right on time, we were pulling into the parking lot of the Glengoyne Distillery.

Sipping the 'wee dram' of whisky which we'd been handed on our way into the reception area, we watched a brief, informative video about the history of Glengoyne (complete with subtitles, in case you didn't quite understand some of the very strong Highland accents) before trooping out to the distillery for the tour of the facility.

 For those of you who are interested in the actual process of whisky making, let me just say that I am not an expert, even after touring 2 distilleries, so I am not going to even to attempt to describe the process for you in detail.  A very brief overview is that it involves water and malt being cooked together, with yeast being added at some point, the product of which is eventually distilled into an alcoholic beverage,


Stills at the Deanston distillery

which is then poured into oak casks and aged. It is the casks (most of which have been previously used to age anything from port to bourbon) that impart the flavor to the whisky.
Who knew that Scotch whisky was aged in  Kentucky bourbon casks? 
Since I am more or less a whisky philistine, it never occurred to me that whiskies could have complex flavors.  Mostly what I noticed is that, when you drink whisky without a mixer, it burns your mouth. Nonetheless, by the end of the afternoon (and the second distillery tour) I was able to appreciate the difference in quality between a 10-year-old and an 18-year-old whisky. Or it could possibly just have been that 5 shots of whisky in one day just made me think I was appreciating the difference in quality. In any case, both tours were very interesting.

Our charming, well-spoken young guide in the duty-free room at Glengoyne.  I was slightly disappointed that he wasn't wearing a kilt, but  I couldn't blame him, given the weather. I was somewhat mollified by the fact that he was wearing tartan trews.
After visiting Glengoyne (which was definitely our favorite of the two distilleries), we piled back into the coach and made the short drive to the cozy Oak Tree Inn, right by the banks of Loch Lomond. Since the day had been chilly, with sporadic rain, we were all happy to get into the warmly-lit dining room. The Inn is a popular stop along the route of the 151-km  West Highland Way walking trail, and, despite the cold and the rain, the restaurant was full of rosy-cheeked walkers in damp waterproofs who had obviously earned their lunches.  MrL and I, who had expended no more effort than it took to climb up a few ladders in the distillery, nonetheless managed to find room for more haggis, Cullen skink, and steak and mushroom pies, accompanied by locally brewed Balhama ales.

Cullen Skink, traditionally made with smoked haddock, is ideal on a chilly winter day.
MrL is waiting for his beer.  It may seem that he is not impressed by the cozy decor, but he really is.
The ever-thoughtful Audrey had given us a generous amount of time for lunch, with enough leeway for those of us who wanted to take a stroll along the banks of the loch to do a bit of sightseeing and take some photos, so after eating we headed out to find a trail that she had mentioned, which was 'down the road a bit, and up the hill."

We walked along a path on the banks of the Loch, crossed the road, found ourselves at the foot of a rough uphill path, and puffing our way to the top, were rewarded with a jaw-droppingly gorgeous view of the loch:


MsCaroline's sense of romance and mystery was fired up by all those distant snow-capped peaks; clearly, MrL did not feel quite the same way...

MrL knows how to appreciate a loch

We had enough time for a few photos before we turned around and headed back in the direction of the parking lot in time to board our coach and head toward distillery #2, Deanston.

After a morning of whisky tasting followed by a hot meal and scrambling up hills in fresh air, MrL and I took advantage of the cozy seats and the warm coach, and dozed a bit (one of the advantages of having someone else doing the driving on a distillery tour) but roused ourselves now and then to listen to one of Audrey's many entertaining and informative tales about various aspects of Scottish history, or listen to some Scottish music.  My favorite story involved the legend behind the folk song, The Bonnie, Bonnie Banks of Loch Lomond, which most North Americans recognize only by its refrain, "You take the high road and I'll take the low road and I'll be in Scotland afore ye" and which turns out to actually be a pretty sad song about two brothers who are taken prisoner by the English and who do not expect to meet again in This World.  Which was a bit of a bummer -but only in a sad, distant, romantic long-ago way -and still added a nice flavor to our drive through the Highlands.

The Deanston distillery, while not as posh as Glengoyle, was warm and welcoming, and - bonus - allowed photos during the distillery tour, of which we took full advantage. As at Glengoyle, the tour ended up in the gift shop, where we all had the opportunity to taste - and buy - a couple different types of whisky.

Our guide, Franz, telling us about the 12-year-old whisky we were about to taste.
By the time we finished our whisky and made our purchases, we were ready to head back to the bus for our return to Edinburgh, with more stories - and more napping for MrL some of us.  As she drove, the ever-helpful Audrey also gave us a plethora of suggestions for ways to spend our evening in Edinburgh - from a bar that regularly featured ceilidhs (pronounced 'kay-lee' - a type of Scottish folk dancing, similar to American square dancing, complete with a caller) to another one that featured live music (including bagpipes) to restaurant recommendations that were off the beaten tourist path.

Arriving back at the cafe in Edinburgh, we headed out into the cold evening to find what every tourist in Edinburgh is yearning for:  good Mexican food. (After 5 years overseas, we had more or less given up trying to find real, authentic Mexican (or Tex-Mex, as most Mexican food is in the USA,) and it is the one thing we still really miss, so anytime we see a hopeful-looking establishment, we try it.)  Anyway, we had seen a small, unassuming-looking restaurant in our wanderings on Friday and, after reading some glowing reviews, thought it might be worth trying out in our never-ending quest for some good Mexican food in the UK.  We were well aware that our chances of getting a table without reservations on a Saturday evening were slim, but we were highly motivated, so we headed to Cockburn Street (one of our favorites, a really eclectic mix of independent shops, restaurants, and pubs) to see if they could fit us in at Viva Mexico.


We took this photo on a Sunday when it was closed, so you can't really get the full effect of the crowds queuing to get a table.

Naturally, it was packed, but (miracle of miracles!) the hostess told us if we came back in an hour, she could get us a table. So, we headed back out into the night to find a pub where we could while away the hour, ending up just a short trip down the street at The Malt Shovel, which was also packed with people, but that didn't matter since you can drink just as easily standing up as sitting down.  While we were standing there, we chatted with the 2 middle-aged gents standing next to us who turned out to be expert Scuba divers who had been diving pretty much everywhere in the world and regaled us with their tales of WWII wreck dives off the Scottish coast and the excitement that comes from diving in a loch. (Note:  MsCaroline is certain that diving in a loch - or any other cold water - has many untold charms, but she freely admits that she is more of the 'tropical blue water and coral and clownfish' sort of scuba diver, and she is happy to leave the wreck diving in the cold waters of Scotland to the professionals.)

Eventually, the hour came to and end, and we headed back to Viva Mexico with an air of anticipation, hoping that our wait had been worth it.  No need to fear: it had been.

What looks like a tiny storefront restaurant is actually much larger, with a good-sized dining room downstairs - authentically decorated with a mix of Mexican folk art and a dash of kitsch.

Starting with the authentic basket of hot tortilla chips and salsa down to the just-right pitcher of margaritas, we were pleased at every step.  The meal we ordered (enchiladas for MrL, beef and chicken fajitas for me) would not have been out of place in a restaurant in San Antonio - and from us, that is high praise.  We hardly even spoke, just ate and reveled.

The take-away from this experience? If you want authentic Mexican food in the UK, you won't go wrong in Edinburgh.

Replete with the sort of haze that can only come from drinking a pitcher of margaritas after touring 2 distilleries a day spent enjoying the Highlands, we headed off into the evening toward our cozy B&B to plan out our adventures for the next day, which would be our last.

8 comments:

Trish Burgess said...

We've been to Viva Mexico too! Many years ago when visiting some friends, they took us there. I wouldn't have remembered the name until I read your post but clicking through to the website to see the interior, it all came back to me. The food was excellent then and, it seems, is still hitting the spot.
Must admit, though Dougie is an Enjoyer of Whisky, and has a cupboard full of different varieties (Jura his favourite at the moment), I'm not that partial - though do enjoy it mixed with ginger wine: called a Whisky Mac, it's a lovely bedtime tipple.

Nance said...

What an Enormous Day! Authentic Scotch Whisky capped off by Authentic Mexican Dinners. I am completely amazed.

As soon as you mentioned Loch Lomond, I began hearing the song in my head. I think my father, a big John Gary fan, had it on a record album of his.

(And that Mr.L. What a Romantic.)

MsCaroline said...

Trish - yes, they are still getting it right at Viva Mexico. I just wish they had something like it in Bath. I'm pretty sure MrL is not going to indulge me in a trip to Edinburgh every time I get a craving for Mexican! I'm like you - not particularly partial to the whisky - although I did find it interesting (as I said) and it certainly does warm you up on a cold day! MrL is definitely the Enjoyer in the family - not even sure what we have in the cupboard a the moment except I know there is a brand in there called 'Monkey Shoulder' that I appreciate for the name - no idea if it is any good or not, although I do know it's blended and not a single malt (I learned the difference on our tour!) I will have to try the Whisky Mac - I've never tried Ginger Wine before, though, so it will be an exciting and interesting new combination!

MsCaroline said...

Nance - well, that's a holiday for you - got to cram in as much as you can, while you can. That song ran through my head for about a week - and then, after a brief respite, it came back when I started writing this post. Apologies for the earworm!

As far as MrL goes - yes, indeed, he's a real Don Juan. Especially when he quotes dreadful Hallmark-type love poems to me on purpose just to make me laugh.



Elizabeth Musgrave said...

What a day full of food and whisky and fun! Sounds fab. I'm not a lover of whisky but I could summon up enough enthusiasm in the context of a day like that. Ian is more of an enjoyer. I love the names myself: talisker, laphroaig. Don't trust me on the spelling if the second one!

Expat mum said...

I must do that one year. We're always so far up north in England that it could even be a day out. As long as we get the train back!

MsCaroline said...

Elizabeth - yes, it was quite fun, although I don't think I'll ever be a huge whisky lover. I loved all the history we heard - and the chilly landscapes, which looked just as I'd always imagined them in all of my reading! I love the word 'laphroaig' as well - 'Glenfidditch' is another that has a nice rhythm to it!

EM: Oh, I wish we were closer - I just loved Scotland. However you do it, highly recommend having someone else do the driving!We've wanted to to the Bombay Sapphire distillery tour for ages and we've put off doing it because we can't find anyone who's willing to go along as a designated driver. Looks like a train and the bus is the only way it's ever going to happen!

BavarianSojourn said...

I couldn't imagine anything worse than diving in freezing cold dark murky water, but that's just me. I struggle with the clear blue tropical variety too thanks to an inexplicable fear of giant fish! :D Scotland looks so beautiful, I have yet to visit...