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To Scotland, Meeting Friends

by Oliver Klimek on May 15, 2014

When I disclosed my plans to go to Scotland and visit this year’s Spirit of Speyside festival, the reactions were a bit mixed. Most responses were positive but there were also voices saying “This has become so commercialised with all their advertising and then all those expensive fancy evening events etc.”. To which I replied that first and formost the festival is a good reason to return to Scotland at all on a trip that would allow me to meet a lot of whisky people I usually only ever “meet” on the internet.

DSC_0524And in fact I did not only visit the Speyside festival. My stay in Speyside took only the first half of my twelve days in Scotland, and I will report about my adventures there in a separate blog post. When we met at the Victoria Whisky Festival last year, fellow Canadian whisky bloggers Johanne McInnis and Graham McKenney (since then retired from blogging) told me that they were planning on going to Speyside in 2014 and if I was interested to share a self-catering place with them for the festival. That sounded like a plan, so after short consideration I said yes. We were joined by Johanne and Graham’s Canadian fried Linda and the Dutch whisky blogging couple Ansgar and Thomas Speller.

My journey then led me to Drumnadrochit on the shore of Loch Ness, a travel I made by bus via Elgin and Inverness. Jon Beach, the owner of the well-known Fiddler’s Inn in Drumnadrochit, had already been asking a while ago when I would finally make it to Loch Ness. Since the interest in meeting up was mutual, I did not have to think for long to include this place in my itinerary.

A stay at Fiddler’s is highly recommended for any whisky fan travelling in the Scottish Highlands. It has been named Scotland’s best whisky bar for a number of times, and when you look at the several hundred bottles that are aligned on the shelves all around the bar you know why. The selection has something for everyone, from standard bottlings for beginners to hard to find old bottles for the jaded whisky geek. The extensive whisky list also has proposals for flights some of which are quite interesting, for example comparisons of the same expression from the 1970s until today.

DSC_0680But Fiddler’s is not only about whisky (and the excellent beer from the local Loch Ness brewery). Jon Beach is also an excellent chef, and the cooking is far superior to the repetitive pub grub monoculture of burgers, fish and chips, steak and ale pie, haggis neeps and tatties and the odd salmon dish that is haunting the vast majority of Scotland’s casual dining scene. Almost all dishes are quite inventive while remaing true to their Scottish origin, and you can see that everything is home-cooked with high quality ingredients. Beef, pork, venison, chicken and lamb feature on the menu, and also the salmon in various incarnations is outstanding. Located smack in the centre of Nessie tourism Fiddler’s has managed not to sell their soul and become a tourist trap.

Luckily the weather was not all bad, so I took the opportunity to do a bit of walking in the hills around Drumnadrochit. The famous Divach waterfalls were well worth the hike and of course Loch Ness with nearby Urquhart Castle is mandatory viewing here. The Landscape around Drumnadrochit is very pretty, also off the Loch, at times it reminds a bit of the Bavarian Prealps.

DSC_0723Together with Jon I then made an excursion to Dornoch Castle with a few pit stops along the way. We stopped at Glen Ord to find out how the expansion wirk is progressing. The new stillhouse is already up with the stills installed.

On we went to Balblair for a little chat with distillery manager John MacDonald and a quick tour of the distillery. After a cup of tea at artist Ian Gray’s new home in Dornoch – he moved from exile in Düsseldorf back to Scotland just to be able to vote in the upcoming independence referendum – we finally arrived at Dornoch Castle Hotel to catch up with Simon and Phil Thompson at their astonishing whisky bar.

The final three days of my stay in Scotland I spent in Glasgow, travelling form Drumnadrochit by bus to Fort William and then by train on the famous West Highland Line to Glasgow Queen Street. Unfortunately the weather wasn’t too good on that day, but still the fantastic scenery along the route was very impressive. The slow ride takes almost four hours but it is highly recommendable and certainly one of the most beautiful rail lines in the world.

DSC_0741Right after my arrival in Glasgow I headed straight on to the Douglas Laing head office where Jan Beckers (who I had already met privately during my very first visit to Glasgow) had invited me on rather short notice for a chat over a few drams. Some very nice but undisclosable whiskies accompanied an interesting talk about many things whisky. After this I just had enough time to pop into Good Spirits on Bath Street to meet Mark Connnelly who unfortunately was just working on setting up that evening’s tasting which I then was kindly invited to.

The last two days were devoted to sightseeing with occasional pit stops in various pubs, but I also met up with Andrew Nicolson who is the owner of Whisky Blender and Andy Davidson of Glencairn at the Oran Mor. And last but not least was a visit to Bon Accord where I met Erik Burgess, one of my first contacts in Scotland, and his wife Laura who are now doing promotion work the New Zealand Whisky Company. Were were joined by Andrew Nicolson again and later Paul McDonagh, the owner of the Bon Accord, also came to our table.

I don’t want to bore you with the usual “punters cheering in a pub” pictures here. In fact I did not take any. But still, meeting all those people, many of them being long time blog readers, is very important for me. Naturally there is the social aspect of enjoying whisky together, but it is also important for me as a blogger because it gives me direct feedback and also inspiration for upcoming articles.

10366032_848047311875404_3836307502474304857_nOn my trip to Scotland I have met people from a wide part of the spectrum of whisky people, from geeks to bloggers, from more casual drinkers to industry members. It is quite interesting to see that direct and indirect support for what I have been writing here does not only come from the geeks but also from parts of the whisky industry. And I guess I have not done everything wrong when some of the rarest and finest whiskies on this planet suddenly appear on the tables seemingly from nowhere, like a 1920s Old Pulteney in Dornoch, a fantastic original bottling of Glen Albyn at Fiddler’s or the Glenlivet 70 yo at Bon Accord.

Thank you very much to all of you for making this journey an unforgettable one!

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