Tag Archives: Scotland

Scottish for the weekend

First published in the Sunday Times on 14 November 2021

If there’s a country out there with more character than Scotland then it exists only in an alternate universe. In our world, the real world, the Scots take this cake and its crumbs as well, having cultivated a tapestry of rich traditions and endearing idiosyncrasies that are beyond beating — from their dress, and their food and drink, to their language and accents, and much in between.

If you’re not Scottish and have no Scottish connections, fear not; this is a hospitable place where anyone who’ll embrace their customs — as some friends and I did with the passion and gusto of pure-bred locals – can get to be satisfyingly Scots, for a little while at least.

It was February 2020, right before lockdown, and we set out with a basic, three-point plan: to revel in as much rugby, whisky, and Scottish cuisine as we responsibly could. As it turns out, I went somewhat overboard, eating so much haggis in particular that I thought I might turn into the wild beast from whence it comes (or at least from whence gullible Americans think it comes). Actually, the stuff is made from sheep’s heart, liver and lungs (known as pluck) and is delicious. It’s traditionally eaten with “neeps and tatties” (turnips and potatoes), but is increasingly deployed in more creative ways: combined with black pudding in sausages (a speciality of Stornoway in the Hebrides); as stuffing in Chicken Balmoral; doing a gourmet turn, again with its black pudding partner, in a “Dirty Apple Charlotte” (outstanding!), and at ease on the wrong side of the tracks in a “chippy” (which typically refers to a fish supper – fish and chips, but also to anything deep-fried and served with chips, haggis included).

We were pleasantly surprised by the vegetarian haggis served to us at Amber in Edinburgh, the highlight of its Taste of Scotland sample menu. This amidst stiff competition; the meal featured Cullen Skink (a soup of haddock, potatoes and leek), a trio of the local salmon, and fillet of Aberdeen Angus, a prime cut from the world famous Scottish breed. The list of Scotch delicacies is in fact so long and varied that it’s a wonder these laddies can fit into their kilts.

The rugby episode of our trip required us to fit into ours, so luckily it was scheduled first-up, before we’d gorge ourselves with haggis et al. I’ve attended all manner of rugby matches domestically, and my fair share abroad, yet they all paled in comparison to the simmering, high-voltage atmosphere of Scotland versus England at Murrayfield. The world’s oldest rugby rivalry, on our visit as it always does, trod a fine line between respect and animosity.

We joined a legion of Scots for the build-up at a nearby pub before disgorging into the streets for the procession to the stadium, a tartan army in high-spirits. Our little platoon was fortified en-route by a specially arranged flask of Johnnie Blue King George V — what a dram for the occasion, the complex arrangement of silky smoke, fruits and honey serving up a brilliant rendition of the national drink.

We arrived ready, in full voice, belting out Flower of Scotland with the best of them – following “Proud Edward’s Army” with the unscripted but obligatory (if you’re to be a true Scot): “wankers”.  The game itself was marred by atrocious weather and an unhappy result, but this was of no great consequence. We’d been through a gold-plated rite of passage and had been welcomed into a brotherhood. It was an experience to treasure.

The next day we began our pilgrimage to the Highlands, looking to appreciate (if you’ll excuse the euphemism) the country’s finest creation in its birthplace. The Speyside region, broadly the valley of the Spey River between Aberdeen and Inverness, is a whisky wonderland — you couldn’t toss a caber without hitting a distillery. We’d wound our way north by train, travelling through Dundee, a picturesque, richly historic city poised on the banks of the Firth of Tay, a massive estuary emptying into the North Sea, regretfully not having the time to stop and take its full measure.

The journey took us to Craigellachie (Craig-ella-kee) where we’d decided to spend the night so we could visit the eponymous, legendary, old-school distillery, and to lodge at its renowned hotel. I think of the Highlands as Scotland proper, the stuff reminiscent of Braveheart and Highlander, a rugged countryside replete with rivers and lochs and peaks, and colourful characters with broad accents. At a quaint pub, the Fiddichside Inn, on the fringes of the town, we got to know one such chap and his five unruly, but adorable hunting dogs, who took over the place without anyone batting an eyelid. That’s pretty much the style of things over there – it was simply marvellous!

Craigellachie’s whiskies are distinguished by their kiln-derived sulphury notes, with variations of sulphur, fruit and wax apparent in most expressions. It is probably the most distinctive and easily recognisable of the Speyside whiskies, so worth singling and seeking out on that basis alone.  We were privileged to sample the standard-bearing 13YO and the Rioja cask from the aptly named “Exceptional Cask Series” whilst standing on the banks of the Spey, drawing our water directly from the river like I imagined the locals would have done in earlier days.

Our home for the night was the Craigellachie Hotel, famous in whisky circles for its vast collection of the beverage, but appealing regardless as a quintessential representation of a Scottish country hotel, dishing up friendly service, ultra-comfortable accommodation, wholesome and hearty fare (i.e. more haggis), and an incomparable setting, including a view over the Spey onto the weirdly wonderful, subterranean Macallan distillery. The hospitality in the Highlands did not disappoint, not here, and not anywhere else.

We completed our brief sojourn in Craigellachie the next day with a Scottish breakfast inclusive of all the trimmings, and, after a polite interval, with a tasting of the distillery’s 31YO, a giant of quiet intensity that had won the World Whisky Awards best single malt title in 2017 – a special treat. I left wistfully, with the sense of having tapped into a vein of deep authenticity that seems increasingly rare in today’s world of big brands with tall stories.

Our final stop, heading back south for our return home, was Aberfeldy, known as the gateway to the Highlands. The route threaded us through some prime landscape studded with what is known in Scotland as Munros, peaks of over 3000 feet. Local enthusiasts participate in “Munro-bagging” i.e. summiting as many of the 282 total as possible. We didn’t have the space in this particular trip to indulge, but I made a mental note to bag at least one in the future, to further entrench my Scottish credentials, and just for the sheer joy of it.

Aberfeldy distillery should be a priority destination for any whisky tourist, given its proximity to the major centres and the sheer range of the distillery, which also serves as the Dewar’s brand home. From hot toddies alongside the burn, and the blending of our own expressions, to the distillery and museum tour, and the premium tastings in the dunnage warehouse, it was one of the fullest, most interesting whisky excursions that I’ve ever experienced.

I’m a longstanding Dewar’s fan, as is my father, and as was my grandmother, so this felt like the culmination of three generations’ enthusiasm. The tastings were nothing short of exceptional, a towering 40YO and a 1999 Single Cask in particular (both Aberfeldy’s); but my highlight was the straightforward comparison of two 12YO Dewar’s – a demonstration of the specific marrying process that sets Dewar’s apart from most other blended whiskies. The Dewar’s blends are “double aged”, basically left to settle and harmonise in oak casks for about six months after blending. It sounds great, the idea has always resonated in an abstract sense, but to tangibly experience the difference – we tasted against a single aged version that is commercially unavailable – proved the simple genius of the technique.

A trip can be just a trip, or – much more rewarding and meaningful – it can be a total immersion into a culture, and way of life. And it doesn’t take much to make the difference – just a bit of planning, being open to the experience, and in a place as welcoming as Scotland, the renting of a kilt. Slàinte Mhath!

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Hobnobbing with the scions of Scotland

First published in Compleat Golfer magazine (November 2014 edition).

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My earliest memories of golf are of the Open. The sights and sounds of Turnberry, Carnoustie, Muirfield, and, naturally, St. Andrew’s – the infamous road hole in particular – ring clear amidst the echoes from my childhood. I seized the opportunity to visit Troon some years ago, but it was just for a quick lunch before catching a flight from nearby Prestwick (ironically home to the first ever Open); so my connection to the tournament has remained regrettably removed…until this year. Timings coincided, distances contracted, and fates converged when I was invited on a monumental tour to celebrate the launch of Glen Grant’s 50YO whisky – a tour featuring the final day’s play of golf’s foremost competition.

Golf and whisky share a common bond – a familial bond. The Irish may dispute it but history officially pronounces whisky to have first emerged in Scotland in 1494, when mention of it was recorded in the country’s Exchequer Rolls for that year. Less than 40 years earlier, the first reference to golf was noted when it was banned (in vain, clearly) by the King of the Scots. Fruits of the same loins, and not too far apart; it’s small wonder then that these veritable twins often keep the same company – in this case fifteen avid South Africans, raring to spend time with both.

Ensconced in the Champions Club, our lavish hospitality area at Hoylake, we embarked on frequent sorties – cheering Charl Schwartzel, who played well but failed to ignite a real challenge, Sergio Garcia who was looking good until he floundered at the 15th, and finally Rory McIlroy, who held his nerve to clinch the title. It was a day long in the making. And whilst I registered the absence of the links weather which had coloured my recollections – I would not get to trudge lashed and sodden in the footsteps of this era’s Tom Watson – it lived up to all expectations.

Later in the tour, as I raised a snifter of the majestic whisky that we’d travelled all this way to honour, I called to mind the image of McIlroy with Claret Jug aloft. There was no need for any kind of envy. He was tight with one sibling and I with the other. All was right with the world. May the dram be with you.

Out and about with whisky

The Speyside episode. Patrick Leclezio toasts the highlights from a tour to end all tours.

First published in Prestige Magazine (October 2014 edition).

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I remember my first trip to Scotland like it was yesterday – partly because if fell over 11 September 2001 (I heard the news at a little pub on the banks of Loch Ness), but also, more cheerfully, because it introduced me to the world’s ultimate whisky destination. The area on either side of the Spey River in the Highlands of Scotland – a span located approximately between the cities of Aberdeen and Inverness – is undoubtedly the most special place in the whisky world. Scotch whisky divides its formidable universe into five official regions: the Highlands, the Lowlands, Islay, Campbeltown, and Speyside. The latter, the object of my current affections – colloquially known as Strathspey, is by a Scottish country mile the most prolific, being home to some 49 malt whisky distilleries. I was recently gifted the privilege of return visit, as part of a tour to celebrate Glen Grant Single Malt’s just-launched 50YO. It was a trip to remember. Here are a few highlights of the region for the whisky pilgrim. May the dram be with you.

The Craigellachie Hotel

Their website claims 750, their staff told us that it’s now over a thousand. That’s the number of whiskies they offer at their bar (The Quaich), and whatever the precise figure might be it’s a lot – something about shaking a stick comes to mind. The hotel, despite its renown, or maybe because of it, is completely unobtrusive – the generic “Hotel” lettering being the only signage advertising its presence. There’s a deep sense of rustic Scotland that resides here, from the copper light fittings at the front door, to the preponderance of wood: wooden bar, wooden chairs, tables, and shelves – all that was missing was a couple of casks. It’s an undeniably special place at which pause in a journey to enjoy a few drams. Ironically enough our barman was South African, more ironic still, he’s the son of one of the owners of Wild about Whisky, South Africa’s answer to the Craigellachie Hotel. It’s a small and strange world.

Loch Ness

The Monster might be a laughable concoction, but you’ve got to give it to those canny Scots – they’ve taken an ordinary, albeit picturesque, lake and transformed it into a tourist attraction of global repute. The upshot is that tour boats ply the waters regularly, transporting the gullible, the cynical and all paying customers in between over this “mystical” expanse of water. And so it was that I found myself lazily basking on a deck, sipping whisky with my fellow tour-mates in the soft Scottish sunlight, and watching castles, ruins, and other pleasant sights of little consequence as they drifted past. In short it’s a brilliant way to spend an afternoon – just for a lark. Here too, as almost everywhere else in Speyside, the connection to whisky is never far away; the loch’s waters owe their murkiness to dissolved peat, the same stuff that’s burnt to impart a distinct smoky flavour to certain whiskies.

Glen Grant

The stills, the mash tuns, the washbacks, and even the quaint stone buildings are much the same as at other distilleries in the area, but the spectacular gardens, set in a glen carved out by the Black Burn, ensure that the distillery lives in a league all of its own. We meandered through them at leisurely pace, stopping for a picnic under a pagoda, before eventually reaching the “Dram Hut”, a yonks old structure accommodating a whisky safe fixed into the rock – not some sort of decorative spirit safe mind you, an actual metal strongbox containing whisky (you can’t make up this stuff!) – where we were treated to a few drams of the Gordon & MacPhail Glen Grant 25YO. This whisky dates back to an earlier era, some of it being as old as 37 years, when the distillery still made a peated malt, so it seemed like quite a fitting drink to facilitate our pursuit of a deeper acquaintance with the place – and the more of it we drank, the more facilitated we felt.

Scottish cuisine

The Scots are not known for their food but it turns out that some of it is pretty damn good. Aberdeen Angus, the breed of cattle exalted in Argentina and other meat-loving locales, originates from nearby, and quality steaks of this fine beef are in ready supply all over Speyside. We did not desist in our appreciation. Likewise we filled our boots with local scallops, Scottish salmon – smoked over wood chips made from old whisky casks – and most notably, haggis, served in the traditional manner, with neeps (turnips) and tatties (potatoes), both mashed. The customary breakfasts in these parts – similar to the English version but with the addition of baked beans and black pudding – is also well worth trying. And to those apprehensive at the thought of haggis and black pudding let me say this – don’t think about it, just go for it, they’re both delicious.

A Scotch major

Patrick Leclezio harnesses his big dram temperament as he goes in pursuit of the title

First published in Golf Digest (September 2014 edition).

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“To see a world in a grain of sand”. I was reminded of Blake’s words – perhaps in a less metaphorical sense than he had intended – as I watched Sergio Garcia visit the 15th hole bunker at Hoylake during the final day of the 2014 Open Championship. It was a portentous moment. I joined the surge to the green, knowing, like everyone else in that gallery, that the fate of the title might well rest on whatever happened next. This was golf appreciation at its pinnacle – the decisive period at the game’s home major. The atmosphere was simply electric.

The rest of course is history. Garcia fluffed his trap shot and his challenge disintegrated. Instead of holding infinity in the palm of his hand, there was probably just a fist clenched in frustration. I was disappointed, but only mildly so; my horse might not have come in but it had been an epic day on a fantastic links course (luckily with distinctly unlinks-like weather – my British fellow course-goers were for the most part tinted bright red). I returned to drown my sorrows, such as they were, at the Champions Club, our opulent (remember that word) hospitality area, with the rest of our major-going party – actually, let me qualify that: our double-major-going party. A group of us had flown to Britain, less for the golf than for another major – a whisky major.

In whisky the equivalent of a major, the prizes to which most patrons of the golden nectar aspire, are the old and the rare – most conventionally manifest in the form of a 50 year old. These are the “big shows” of the whisky world, eagerly awaited and widely publicised.

It might be useful at this point to consider what the age of a whisky entails, and why 50 years of it might be regarded to be so special. The ageing phenomenon is called maturation and it occurs through contact with wood, in casks made from oak. A whisky can only age in maturation – once it is decanted from a cask it is in a sense frozen in time. During maturation the whisky absorbs flavour from the cask itself (vanillins and tannins naturally present in the wood), from the liquid that preceded it and that remains impregnated in the cask (most commonly Bourbon or Sherry), and, less overtly, but in many cases distinctly nonetheless, from the cask’s environment as it breathes. The whisky also reduces in alcoholic strength during this ageing process – a result of evaporation (the twee-named Angel’s Share). The broad (and very important) result is a mellowing and flavouring of the liquid. In fact it’s widely acknowledged that maturation is the single factor that makes the greatest contribution to the flavour of any whisky. So it stands to reason, on a very simplistic level, that more ageing, more mellowing and more flavouring, must be desirable…up to a point. 50 years for many whiskies is well past that point, so when a cask continues to improve as it marches onwards towards that magical milestone, it’s cause for a celebration of top tournament proportions.

Which explains (but not really) how a crew of enthusiastic South Africans came to be at Royal Liverpool for the culmination of golf’s greatest major: we were on route to Scotland for one of whisky’s greatest majors – an unveiling of the Glen Grant 50YO. Sixteen men, an unlimited drinks budget, and a fierce love of whisky: all the makings of an unforgettable adventure.

Our base in Scotland was the town of Elgin (that’s with a hard-g good people), the very one from which ours in the Cape takes its name. There were no apple orchards here, but this was more than compensated for by a preponderance of whisky, nowhere more so than at our lodgings. The Mansefield Hotel is an unassuming place; it is comfortable and hospitable – we were frequently, and graciously, attended to by the owner and his family – but in most respects it gives the impression of being quite middling…an impression that is dramatically arrested and turned on its head at sight of its bar. The Mansefield bar is quite simply a showstopper, boasting a selection of whiskies that would put all but a paltry few of the world’s best hotels to shame. A Glenfiddich 50YO in alliance with various 40YO’s, including a Dalmore, a Balvenie, and some 60 odd from the Glenfarclas Clans collection, holds sway over a substantial, entrancing host. Whisky porn. It was near impossible to look away. The hotel has quite rightly as a result become the accommodation of choice in the area for whisky tourists from all over the world. We shared the place, and a few drinks naturally, with a festive band of whisky “ambassadors” who’d made the long pilgrimage from Hong Kong – an impromptu coming-together of the whisky brotherhood in one of whisky’s truly special places.

The highlight of the trip, indeed the purpose for which we’d teed up at the start, was of course -and I say “of course” with some contemplation, not because I’m doubtful of its veracity, but rather because it demanded something exceptional to qualify so obviously for the accolade – our visit to the Glen Grant distillery, to crown this much anticipated champion dram. The other contenders clamouring for the honour had included a personalised tour of Old Trafford, a cruise on Loch Ness, a round of golf at Castle Stuart, clay pigeon shooting, the aforementioned attendance at the Open, and a one-after-the-other succession of exquisite meals – we’d gorged ourselves on Scottish salmon, scallops, steaks of Aberdeen Angus, and haggis with neeps and tatties, accompanied by a repeating roll-call of delicious Sancerres, Barolos and Chateauneufs du Pape with which to wash it down. Did I say opulent? These though were all about to take a back seat.

We’d prepared for the visit by topping up our Glen Grant education at the Mansefield. No-one in their right mind plays a major without substantial practice – and then a bit of loosening up on the range before the start of the round. Back home we regularly get to enjoy the Glen Grant Major’s Reserve, the 10YO and the 16YO. This is the distillery’s core range – incidentally representing some of the best value single malt drinking on the market – with which we wasted no time in reacquainting ourselves. Occasionally, it also releases a few limited editions, most recently the 170th Anniversary edition, last seen in SA some two years ago, and the Five Decades, which came and went in a blur last year. I’d lamented the latter’s brief existence. It was an outstanding whisky: rich, creamy and full-flavoured – but I’d resigned myself to its expiry. So it was with no small measure of joy – a high-five dispensing type of joy – that I noticed a few bottles behind the bar, accompanied by the 170th no less. We sipped these drams into the wee hours with a it’s-hard-work-but-someone-has-to-do-it stoicism, retiring only when we felt ready to tackle the big one.

Now, I’ll be perfectly honest with you. Once you’ve seen the inner workings of one distillery, you’ve almost seen them all. A few have their own maltings, all but a few have their own unique stills, and there’s always a bit of variation here and there, but for the most part it’s more of the same. I’ve visited a dozen odd in my time, and whilst it’s always interesting to delve into the processes, there’s a limit to how excited I can get about it. In this respect however the excursion to Glen Grant – the 50YO moments not even counted – was an absolute exception, for two reasons.

Firstly, for any whisky loving layman, a distillery is less about its industrial functioning than about the setting (and the stories). Atypically for what are essentially factories, they tend to be quaint structures located in pretty surroundings – much like a clubhouse and its golf course. In that sense Glen Grant is the Augusta National of distilleries – its charismatic beauty is nothing short of exceptional. The bubbling burn, the stone buildings, and coach-house-cum-visitors-centre paint a picture of olde worlde elegance, that is then elevated to fine art by a glen of elaborate, splendorous gardens. And even there amidst the trees, flowers and birds, the presence of whisky is never far away – we were delighted to stop for a dram at the “secret” whisky safe set into the rock in the upper reaches of the garden.

Secondly (two reasons, remember), our tour of the distillery was conducted by the man who runs the place and makes all of its important whisky decisions – Scotland’s longest-serving Master Distiller, straight-talking Glen Grant supremo Dennis Malcolm. It puts a different spin on things when the guy who pulls the strings is the one who’s showing you around.

The big moment when it came was a spiritual experience. I’m never going to raise the claret jug (or any kind of golfing trophy for that matter), but holding that precious liquid gifted me with just an inkling of how that must feel. We put mouth (and nose – never forget the nose) to glass in the dunnage warehouse, the squat, thick walls imbuing the space with a cool, reflective quiet, the stacked rows of casks with a reverent, imposing gravitas. Few would get to drink this nectar, fewer still would drink it here on such hallowed ground. The whisky when it permeated my senses was big, very big, almost overwhelming, as one would expect from something this ancient; the pool of flavour so profound that it seemed to be reaching back, drawing from each and every one of those 50 years. This was eternity in an hour. May the dram be with you.