I’m here as a guest of owner Damian Riley-Smith–himself a lover of the finer things in life, and possessor of a darkly comic sense of humor which is drier than a mothballed mash tun. After forming Whisky Magazine and subsequently Whisky Live in the early late 1990s, he bought the former hotel between Inverness and Aberdeen and set about a return to its former glory–with added bells and whistles such as the whisky tasting room and beautifully appointed cigar courtyard.
“There should be at least three points in each room at which you can access whisky,” Damian announces on my arrival. “And we have a menu here from which you can browse and try a dram from any of the hundreds of bottlings we have in our cellar, should you so wish. In the grounds, you will notice small wooden casks every few paces–you’ll find glasses and a refreshing bottle of something in each of them.”
It’s like an Easter Egg hunt for adults. Adults who like cigars and whisky.
Rothes Glen is designed as a plaything for those serious about making the most of every minute. What is refreshing about it–and Damian himself, for that matter–is that everything is in impeccably good taste and nothing taken too seriously.
There are scores of distilleries within a short drive of Rothes Glen; names you may in the past have rolled around your palate in wistful appreciation; Knockando, Benriach, Glenfiddich, Aberlour, Balvenie, Macallan, Tomintoul and many, many more. With the Rothes Glen team behind you, every door is open.
I kickstart my flying visit from a dull and chill southern England to a warm and sun-splashed North Eastern Scotland by landing in Inverness and taking a car straight to Benriach, where I’m just in time to see some traditional (and these days, rare) floor malting in full swing. Here, selected strains of Scottish barley are encouraged to germinate before being dried to capture their precious, newly-released sugars.
If you’ve never visited a whisky distillery, you are missing out on one of life’s great pleasures. Whether you’re a technical nerd and want to know about the model and issue date of the worm tub condensers or, like me, more interested in the terroir, unique flavors and romance of each dram, there’s something so happy about exploring these places, redolent as they are of the ghosts of former master blenders and their remarkable creations.
Most distilleries are also wonderfully Wallace and Gromit, too, complete with contraptions, pulleys, switches and levers, warm glowing furnaces and dank, spirit-heady old warehouses.
Benriach is a classic example. We can be inclined, one feels, to look back on the past with a sort of patronizing sentimentality for out-of-date ways, but here you have to wonder at the foresight of the architecture and planning that went into creating this distillery in 1898. Much of the original infrastructure and machinery remains to this day and still performs the job as well as, if not better, than anything we could muster now. Dr. Rachel Barrie is the Master Blender and somehow, by alchemy and physical senses, she creates an extraordinary palate of flavor from the mind-blowing variety of options available from the liquid, wood and time at her disposal.