NPH Goes to Scotland on a Scotch-Tasting Weekend Adventure!
Overall, it was a pretty neat weekend
Here’s a little travelogue I wrote when I was lucky enough to visit Scotland for a trip filled with whisky (no “e”) last year. I do hope you enjoy.
Ah, it’s a beautiful day. It rained yesterday, the weather is overcast, humidity is in the air, and I love it. I’m also day drinking, which, while not my youzh, is on task and providing lots of Ernest Hemingway vibes. I’m happily unshaven, about to hurl my glass against the wall.
No I’m not. This is a really nice, etched rocks glass, one that I cherish. Plus I’m sitting inside a screened porch, so that hopeful shattering explosion would likely just result in a small, flaccid tear in the screen. Or worse, a ricochet. No, I’ll remain outburst free and instead regale you with a travelog-ish tale from my international past.
What am I drinking? So chuffed that you asked, as it’s integral to this entire issue. I’m sipping on Scotch whisky, my friend. A thick finger’s worth (yeah I did), poured straight from the bottle — neat, as they say. Okay, fine, one cube of ice, I like it wet. This is top-shelf stuff, very peaty, smoky. Matterafact, it’s called Industrial Chimney Soot, not joking, and I brought it back with me from an awesome, informative and head-splitting bucket list weekend to Scotland a while back. This trip was epic, so I thought I’d recount my adventures in this very article that I’m calling: umm, the Scotland… Scotch… Tasting… Weekend Adventure! Boom, nailed it. I’m revisiting my 3 days of tastery, and I’ll share some pics, drop some knowledge and recommend some faves. It should be pretty neat. (Pun intended.)
If whisky is your jam, enjoy. And if whisky’s not your jam, may I suggest boysenberry. It’s tart, sweet and relatively seedless. Now let the international escapade commence!
DAY ONE: EDINBURGH
I wanted to become acquainted with the variety of styles and flavors that Scotch whisky has to offer, and no better place to go than Edinburgh, one of the great cultural centers of the world (a visit to their theatre festival should be on everyone’s to-do list). But I was parched, so I packed my bag and flew to meet my 2 cohorts: Javier Villegas (dude on the left with the beard), a great friend and agave spirit expert (and owner of the best drinking hole in EPCOT), and Ben Diedrich (tall guy on right), Senior Director of the U.S. chapter of The Scotch Malt Whisky Society (the organization which arranged this endeavor).
Sidebar: I wasn’t the biggest fan of the name Scotch Malt Whisky Society, then realized that their acronym SMWS is the same upside down, and now am a huge fan. Ambigram aside, this international whisky club acquires unique casks from 150+ different distilleries and bottles the liquid straight from the cask. Here in the U.S., they release approximately 20 different single cask whiskies for members each month, and I actually met Ben through a Zoom tasting we did back in 2020, where Javi and I had the honor of naming 3 bottles of forthcoming hooch (my personal favorite: Distill My Peating Heart).
We went straight to a quick lunch at Cafe Royal, Edinburgh’s oldest oyster bar, to fuel up on Scotch eggs and, umm, whisky (oh, okay, starting already, why not?), then headed to The Vaults, SMWS’s spiritual home just outside of the city. You have to be a member to enter…it’s totally worth it. (BONUS: Ben, ever the kind soul and whisky evangelist, is offering Wondercade readers in the U.S. 20% off a new membership to the American chapter of the Society. Enter code WONDERCADE at checkout.)
We sat down with world-renowned whisky writer Charlie MacLean, a wonderful and verbose man seemingly torn from the pages of a murder mystery.
Javi, Ben and I chatted with Charlie (I’m still convinced hedunnit), took copious notes, sipped lots of swill and selected 3 whiskies to be released at a future date for members in the U.S. You’re welcome. Next stop, escaping from a local escape room (always visit your local escape room, regardless of sobriety). We triumphed, natch.
The day ended with a brilliant 5-course whisky pairing dinner experience at The SMWS’s private dining room above the Kaleidoscope Bar — a truly stellar meal at a venue voted the best whisky bar in the world at Whisky Magazine’s World Whisky Awards 2022 in London. (Basically the Emmys of the whisky industry. Sadly, I wasn’t asked to host.)
In our car heading to Glasgow at the end of the night, I sat in silent appreciation of all that I had learned about the history of Scotch whisky, its subtleties, flavor profiles, nuances. To be honest, I was also fairly lit, but satiated and satisfied, ready for the journey that lay ahead.
DAY TWO: ISLAY
Woke up early, and took a groggy flight from Glasgow to Islay, a small island off the west coast of Scotland known for using peat in the production of their whisky, which creates the smoky characteristic. Personally, I love the smoky, peaty Scotch: it tastes like it has a backstory, a history, a life before my lips. That said, most people think all Scotch is smoky, when in reality only about 10% of it is. And that 10% is mine, thank you very much.
We met up with our fourth traveling companion: Roy Duff, a lovely Glasgow native and well-respected YouTuber known as Aqvavitae.
And what a treat. Roy really knows his stuff, loves experiencing all things whisky and has a divine Scottish accent. Well worth a follow. After landing in Islay (pronounced “eye-luh,” something to remember when you’re chatting up your next bartender), we drove to one of the best-known Scotch whisky distilleries: Ardbeg.
For the love of peat, I adored this place! Everyone was kind, knowledgeable and passionate about what they do. No one more so than Colin Gordon, the jubilant Ardbeg Distillery Manager who gave us a behind-the-scenes tour of the distillery, teaching and showing each step of the whisky-making process.
It’s fantastical, as if Willy Wonka opened a speakeasy. Colin took us to their warehouse, where we enjoyed a tasting of rare Ardbeg whiskies still aging in their casks. Moving from one surreal location to the next, I was starting to feel like Indiana Jones, but without the hat or whip. Or archeological knowledge. Or pugilism. Okay, nothing like Indiana Jones. But I was in a dank warehouse filled with mysterious crates, so that was cool.
Then things got hazy. We took an island boat tour, I think. Walked to the nearby Lagavulin distillery, which was closed but 2 theatrical dudes in kilts convinced them to open up for us, and then ended the day back at Ardbeg with a BBQ and bottle share on the distillery grounds, where diehard fans were tasting each other’s prized possessions. Here’s a pic of me holding someone’s sacred swill.
The bloodshot eye, ruddy face and disheveled hair are just, umm, circumstantial. Needless to say, I loved Ardbeg and suspect you will, too.
DAY THREE: WESTERN HIGHLANDS
Woke up crazy early (why?), flew back to Glasgow and then drove over 4 hours (wait, why??) to the remote Western Highlands of Scotland. (Oh, that’s why. See photo below. Swoon.)
With a newfound understanding of how whisky is made and how to appreciate it, we concluded our trip with a more intimate whisky experience at the new Ardnamurchan distillery. Roy Duff was in heaven, and understandably so: Ardnamurchan (pronounced “ardna-merkin”) is a new distillery that just began releasing its first whisky in the last 2 years, and is already highly coveted among enthusiasts.
Their small team (Jenny, Connal and DJ) were brilliant, utilizing new techniques to turn the Scotch whisky game on its head. And from what I tasted, they’re succeeding. We sipped from their very first cask, filled in 2014, and it was stellar. We took turns filling casks ourselves (quite the challenge) and ended the day purchasing a multitude of rare bottles that I will cherish for years to come. And I’m just saying this as a fan — I’m not in partnership with them, I bought my bottles just like anyone — I was just authentically taken by their kindness, their sincerity, their humor and the quality of their whisky. Good people making good things. Attention must be paid.
Woke up the next day, early yet again, to drive all the way back to the airport. Groggy, sure. But in a baller move (literally), we all ended the trip by walking to a nearby dock and jumping into the sea. Which was approximately 45 degrees Fahrenheit. Cuh-cuh-cuh cold! But, thankfully, remarkable for a hangover.
So that was my journey. I added another notch to my international belt. I angered my husband, who was saddled with parenting twin knuckleheads alone for 3 days. And I regret nothing. I firmly believe that life is made better by the adventures we take, by taking risks and trying new things, meeting new people, sipping new tastes. I can’t tell you how much fun I had, and how much I appreciate Ben Diedrich for making it all happen (and doing the same for YOU!). That dude is a hilarious, gentle giant (seriously, the guy must be almost 8-feet tall, give or take a foot), with incredible skills and smarts in the whisky world, and his Scotch Malt Whisky Society is a great choice, if you’re looking to improve your palate or home bar. I will forever remember this Scottish saga, and look forward to my next journey. Rest assured I’ll share it with all of you, my Wondercade family who I cherish deeply, and who I thank for taking this amusement park ride with me and this crazy carnival collective at Wondercade HQ. My eyes are tearing up as I type. I’m truly grateful.
Also, I should probably hydrate. This bottle is now empty. Oh my, how time flies. Why do I keep hiccupping…?
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