Taking home a hard fought win in the inaugural Glenfarclas 105 cocktail competition resulted in winning the ultimate luxury prize – three days of unpaid labour.
This might sound like the definitive anti-prize to your average man on the street, but for a bartender, and whisky geek, this was something a little bit special. Glenfarclas is one of my favourite TV shows, and I was about to spend three days with the cast.
A 6am rise, and a 7am train to Aviemore, kicked off the day. Daylight is not a bartender’s natural friend, but knowing what lay ahead of me made the three hours sitting next to two lads talking about their shoes pass a little more quickly than it should have.
After dumping my stuff and grabbing a quick cup of tea, I headed to the mash house, where I spent my first day with Blaire.
Water. Barley. Yeast – the building blocks of whisky. The mash house is where all these elements come together to make the wash that is eventually distilled to create Glenfarclas’ new make spirit.
Glenfarclas sits directly below its water source – the river running off Ben Rinnes – and this water is vitally important to the character of the whisky. Ben Rinnes has taken on a near mythical status in my life. The distillery’s water source formed a large part of my research for the Glenfarclas 105 competition, and so, on my lunch break, I decided to set out and explore it.
This was not a successful mission. After a solid forty minutes of walking up the hill following the sound of water, I found nothing but midges, puddles in my shoes, and a waste pipe running away from the distillery.
I have since been assured that the river does actually exist.
A lot of the Glenfarclas distillery has recently been modernised to bring it up to the standard of a distillery of its stature. I spent a lot of my day in the mash house looking at the computer system controlling large parts of the mechanics of the whisky making – and it was a little overwhelming – but Blaire managed to talk me through every small detail of it.
He told me that when the distillery moved to this new system, they had to control it manually for the first two weeks so they learned the system from top to bottom. I asked a question, jokingly, about how he managed to remember all of this, and he pulled out a fully filled notepad in his handwriting from a drawer, and waved it in the air.
There was no doubt that he had put in the studying hours.
We chatted a bit more about life in Speyside, and discovered that I had unwittingly seen his band play at a music festival two months previous. He then disrupted this burgeoning friendship by making me stick my head into a washback and snort in a lungful of Co2.
This was prank number 1.
All of this gas, a natural byproduct of the whisky making process, is captured in the distillery and put to use elsewhere to minimise waste product – a theme I heard a lot of during my visit.
After another early rise, I headed to the still house to learn how the wash is distilled into spirit. I found myself under the tutelage of the grafter’s grafter – Jimmy, who successfully managed to walk me through an incredibly complicated process. From the huge copper stills, to the always running spirit safe, to the best biscuits to eat whilst the stills are being fired manually – I was given the low down on everything, including Jimmy’s past life as a Speyside taxi driver.
Glenfarclas waste nothing, and the system that controls the stills also controls a smaller plant at the side where waste product is made into a liquid called ‘syrup’. This syrup is then sold to farmers to feed cattle.
Just when I thought myself and Jimmy were about to become best friends – he let me taste the syrup.
This was prank number 2.
As a bartender, I’ve always associated ‘syrup’ with something sweet, but it turns out you can’t always trust the names people give things in the Highlands.
Day three started with a dram of Glenfarclas 105.
This wasn’t the sign of a growing lifestyle problem, but a chance for me to indulge in some quality control of two of the Glenfarclas expressions before they were bottled with the distillery manager, the master blender, and Speyside’s biggest football fanatic.
Incidentally, these three functions are all performed by the same person – Callum Fraser.
I had met Callum as one of the judges from the Glasgow heat of the competition, and was delighted to be able to learn about the liquid from him again. We decided, as a team, as I knew he wouldn’t have proceeded without my sensitive palate, that the whisky we had tasted, an 18 year old and a 105, could proceed to bottling.
After this hard task, he whisked me off to show me how he cuts the whisky with water to bring it down to the ABV it needs to be before go into the cask to mature. This took the volume to 34,000 litres, which all had to be filled into casks, and then rolled into a warehouse, before lunch.
The warehouse is a cold place, so I nipped back to my digs and returned wearing enough layers to make a short expedition to the North Pole, unaware that I was about to have the sweatiest afternoon of my life.
Life in the warehouse is a fairly daunting, and I’ll be the first to put my hand up and say rolling half tonne barrels around a distillery for hours wasn’t the most relaxing of days, but the slickness and speed of the warehouse lads made the process go at a breakneck pace – even with a half-asleep bartender slowing them down.
We spoke a lot about whisky, and a lot about barrels – switching neatly between complaints regarding whisky auctions, to what years the distillery had received the best wood from Jerez – and right on cue, I was informed that we had to take in a delivery of 100 Oloroso barrels that had just arrived from Spain.
I thought this was prank number 3.
But no. I actually had to help take in the delivery.
I’ll pity my friends the next time we end up in a ten pin bowling alley. My new found accuracy with a sherry barrel should ensure I have no further problems with a size 16 ball.
The afternoon saw the arrival of Louise Gallagher. Louise organised the 105 competition and has since been my sherpa, point of contact, and taxi driver for all things Glenfarclas. It was her passion for the brand, and for the 105 expression in particular, that drove me to enter the competition in the first place.
And with Louise’s arrival, came my reward. Callum announced he was taking us on a tour of the distillery, which included the warehouse.
The organising team at the competition back in July made the sensible decision to ban the warehouse from our tour, as sending 6 bartenders into a massive shed full of whisky to taste would ‘probably’ have impacted our presentation abilities – but no such ban was in place this time round. I even got the chance to taste a cask from 1989 – a year famous for both the Berlin Wall coming down, and for me being born. I’ll let you decide which event was more important. Louise also managed to have a dram from her birthday cask – but I’m forbidden from disclosing the age of that particular whisky.
I’ve been asked to decide what my favourite part of the experience was. I’ve also been told that I’m not allowed to choose Louise holding up traffic for ten minutes to gawk at Highland Cows as my answer. I’m a company man, so I’ll do as instructed and pick something else – but those furry cows will have my heart until it stops beating.
For me, the best part about the trip was the people I was surrounded by. A lot of companies claim to be a ‘family’ company these days, but I found Glenfarclas really are. And it’s not just the six generations of the Grant’s who have ran the distillery, but the people who work there. Everyone is so incredibly careful and proud about the liquid the distillery produces, that dramming Glenfarclas has taken on a new meaning for me. Now, when I sip, I don’t just think about the flavours, but I think about Blaire’s band, I think about Jimmy’s hilarious taxi stories, about Callum’s favourite goal in the Glasgow derby, about George’s childhood in the Highlands and the abandoned train station he showed me, about John’s love of horse racing, Tommy’s opinions on the whisky next door, Archie being forever on my side of the football debate, and the elderly tour guide who nearly had a heart attack when an alarm went off next to her in the still house.
It really was a privilege for me to be accepted into that family for a few days.
So why should you enter the next 105 competition?
Good bartenders love a challenge, and as I’m sure you already know, making a cocktail that is accessible to punters, with a focus on being spirit forward with a cask strength whisky, is not easy. The 105, although delicious, is not a first pet.
And yet – it is so densely packed with complex flavours and aromas that it unlocks endless possibilities for a bartender. It will test you, but in the best possible way.
I hear the prize isn’t bad either…