Glasgow, despite me not being born there, has always seemed quite homely to me. I moved there in 1996 from Dundee to find more interesting work and a richer gene pool. Anyone who knows the comedian Frankie Boyle will know that Dundee really is a place most people want to leave as soon as they can. In fairness, it’s vastly improved since then and even has an airport which flies direct to London City, but it’s too expensive if you ask a Dundonian.
Frankie says it's shit
Running a number of bars and restaurants in Glasgow made the city feel more homely to me. It didn’t take long to have a wide a varied crowd of friends in the industry and we all seemed to move in the same circles making Glasgow almost village like at times. Areas such as Byres road with Ashton lane almost replicating the high street of a hamlet or the Merchant city with its heady mix of the pink pound and the cutting edge cool had created pockets of society who were a kind of nomadic herd. Find yourself at a loose end at any time of the day or night and you just needed to wander into one of these areas to catch up with a pal. Remember, SMS was in its infancy back then.
It helps that the Glaswegians are generally such a social and welcoming bunch. Well, as long as you are not wearing the wrong football colours on a Saturday night in Sauchiehall Street. Not like Edinburgh which is all old money and law, Glasgow was built by its people, for it’s people and hasn’t lost sight of its hard working-class roots.
It had been 8 years since I had been “home”, mostly due to the fact that every time I travelled back to Scotland I headed to see the folks on the east cost and merely drove past the outskirts of Glasgow on the way but this time I had a couple of meetings to attend and a distillery to visit.
I flew from Luton, after grabbing an early train from London. I am not actually sure what train it was, or at what time because I didn’t actually wake up until the seatbelt sign went out but I arrived in Glasgow around 9am.
Not quite the fanny-magnet I was hoping for.
Car hire, like most things we see advertised, seems such an easy task. The families on the billboards and leaflets are always smiling into the yet uncharted distance with their shiny wee hire car, a simple, no hassle experience to aid your onward journey. That might be the case in the movies and the world of advertising, but when you forget a couple of so called “vital” bits of info, it can turn out quite farcical. For example: you must pay a deposit by the same card you booked the car with. Oops, don’t have that with me. And you can pay cash? No, of course not, that would be too simple. Anyway, after an hour of working on a solution, shifting money around bank accounts and generally loosing the will to drive anywhere other than back to bed, I had my car. During the process, there was a calming influence that kept my temper at bay, that being the desk clerk repeatedly sipping from a bottle of irn-bru. Ah, it was indeed good to be back.
I used to drive on the M8 every day into work and its funny how things from the past can sit in your memory with out you realising it. If you had asked me to describe the journey from the airport to the centre, I would have struggled, but like some kind of tin clad homing pigeon, there I was, without hesitation driving in all the right lanes, indicating without realising it and turning off at the correct junctions straight into Glasgow.
It was an hour till my meeting so I parked up and took a wander. It’s quite amazing to see how huge areas of the city have been regenerated and look all shiny and inviting. It was always a great place to shop, but the areas which had all the good shops were little retail island in amongst a sea of run down tenements, derelict offices and gravel car parks. Now it seemed the link between the top end designer shops and the high street had been bridged by mid end fashion houses, independent retailers and generally quite smart shop fronts. It was raining though, so the council failed on improving that part.
After my meeting it was a short drive to Auchentoshan. Despite living in Glasgow for a long time, I never did make it out to the distillery, shameful I know! But that meant I was looking forward to it all the more. “Auchie” has always sat in a strange place for me, not just georaphically, but also in my mind. A lowland malt, perhaps by geography only as the core range has some decidedly weightier styles than a lowland. But who cares? Regional selection is dead. The whisky maps should all be burned and fuelled with English money that drew the highland line in the first place. I always chuckled when I read the description of Auchentoshan “ideally located between the poetic banks of Loch Lomond and the bustling metropolis that is Glasgow” eh? It’s at the end of the Erskin bridge, next to a council estate on the Great Western Road. It couldn’t be more “Glasgow” if I tried. Gotta love a bit of PR spin though. It is in fact so close to Glasgow that it was bombed during the war! That was the second world war, not a Rangers-Celtic derby.
In fairness, it probably did seem quite rural when it was built in the early 1800′s (although there is evidence of it being much earlier) and the name Auchentoshan means “corner of the field” in the Scots tongue, but it’s location today at least makes it one of the more accessible distilleries being only about 20 minutes drive from the airport.
You should see the T-shirt you get at the end of this lot!
The distillery offers a number of different tours for people to choose from, catering for all levels of whisky knowledge and I was privileged to be given a personal tour of the facilities. A bit more in depth than a standard tour but of course I am not about to get all geeky about spirit cuts and wash temperatures here. Sorry to disappoint. It’s a wonderful smell when approaching the distillery, that rich malty note in the air, mingled with rain of course, and the sight of the warehouses and still house which are nestled closely together at the base of a sloping valley on the banks of the Clyde. Despite its fame, Auchentoshan remains fairly small in it’s operation although it’s single set of three stills and one mash tun are now working 7 days a week to keep up with the demand and is turning out close to 2 million litres per annum, surely set to increase further in the near future.
It is well known that Auchentoshan distill three times, creating a light, floral new make spirit with plenty of green notes and sweeter malt tones. What is perhaps less well known is that Auchie uses water from a loch, not a spring. In fact, it is the same water supply that Glasgow receives its tap water from, albeit from a direct pipe rather than the aged Victorian lead system no doubt still rife beneath the adjacent city. It does raise the question regarding distillers banging on about water quality and how vital it is for purity. Surely the impurities are boiled off? Surely all of Scotland’s water, loch or spring, has passed through similar paths. Most of the Scottish lochs are actual fed by any number of springs, and there is less chance of concentrated sheep piss or a dead cow lying in the middle of a loch. Maybe a question to raise with a distiller at your next visit?
The perfect place for a relaxed dram.
I loved the simple, no bullshit approach of the whole distillery. A really warm welcome from all the staff, great visual aids all around the facility and a lovely little visitors centre and lounge area to relax in. Its a pity they don’t see more footfall as it is not part of the Whisky trail, but look, let’s face it, if you want to visit Scotland and get a good idea of its people, land and heritage, you can’t go far wrong than a flight to Glasgow, a drive to the distillery then onto the west coast, which, despite me being an east coaster, is far more awe inspiring.
After the tour, we got down to some tasting delights and again, I was privy to a rather select range as I had tasted the core range many number of times. I also had the car, so it was three tiny wee tastes and a gallon of water (after, not with)
First up was the Auchentoshan Valinch a non chill filtered cask strength (57.5%) youthful dram from first fill ex-bourbon. Most probably between 7-8 years old. It was a welcome start, with it’s nose showing the lightness of the new make, even at this strength and gorgeous fruity notes of banana, Creme caramel and nutty cream and the palate showed the same but a bit more deeper fruits as if warmed with spice. Having been drawn straight from the cask, (a valinch is the oversized pipette that draws samples from a cask) the bottling held evidence of its previous container with a fair amount of charcoal residue at the base of the bottle.
Next was the 1996 of which I was informed there are only 41 bottles remaining! Again, a cask strength whisky (57.1) and non-chill filtered and from first fill hogshead cask. This particular example was distilled in 1996 and bottled in Dec 2011. It truly was bursting with power and elegance as masses of rich spice and liquorice battled side by side with floral overtones and a creamy, almost oily mouthfeel.
The last dram of the session was a beauty. An 18 yr old at cask strength again. still with its old label rather than the newer, and might I say really stylish one. Immediately surprising was the light nose. Complex yes, with rich leather, nutty balance and faint citrus but still that wonderfully light and floral element remained from the new make. Testimony here that triple distillation really does shine through in character, even after all these years in such a fruit driven vessel. I really do wish I had stayed longer and had arranged for alternative transport as I am sure the day could have ended with a longer seat at the bar. However, I didn’t go back empty handed as I managed to get some fresh malted barley and freshly ground grist to use in my tastings. The trouble was, both were in screw top containers and resembled bomb making equipment. How on earth was I getting this through airport security?
Despite giving myself an extra hour to negotiate this potential hurdle, it turned out that I needn’t have bothered. Upon arriving at security I removed both vessels from my hand luggage and placed them in the black tray along with my coat etc. Immediately it raise a question from the security officer.
“What’s that.” he said in a cold, secure manner.
“Malt and grist” I replied, ready o further explain.
“Oh” he nodded “Right”
At this point, he turned round to the x-ray operator and repeated my exact words which were met with an affirmative nod. My bag passed through and without a further word I was passed security.
Amazing. You can’t take a bottle of sealed scotch through security, but you can take the component parts required to make it through no bother- and the grist looked more like anthrax spores!
It did give me more time to browse duty free and the bar- which despite being a Weatherspoons actually hand a fabulous range of malts on offer.
So for all those years I have been away from Glasgow, it seems I have taken a wee part of it away with me this time in more ways than one.