Nosing around Scotland's Speyside

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There was something intoxicating about being in the Scottish Highlands. And barely a dram of whisky had been consumed yet.

Perhaps it was the serendipitous discovery of the headstone of my great-great grandparents in nearby Gartly as much as it was the blissful Balvenie single malts. But now I know why my heart’s in the Highlands.

Our destination was The Balvenie, a historic distillery in Dufftown, Speyside, a region renowned for its numerous distilleries. (Almost half of the distilleries on Scotland’s Whisky Trail are in Speyside.) Balvenie is located on the Glenfiddich Distillery Estate. Both companies are part of William Grant & Sons, established in 1887, and one of only a few Scottish distilleries still family owned and operated.

Our Whisky 101 experience all began in Edinburgh — at the elegant Scotch Malt Whisky Society — over haggis, neeps and tatties, and an amber rainbow of Balvenie whiskies neatly lined up for an evening of nosing and tasting.

Dr. Whisky — Canadian Sam Simmons, Balvenie’s "global ambassador" — shared his intoxicating affair with "history in a glass." Even before his lips touched Balvenie’s distinctive honeyed brew, or his nose got a whiff, Simmons was almost euphoric as he conveyed his infectious admiration of the distillery’s traditions, its distinguished whiskies and its beloved malt master, David Stewart.

Soon, we all got into the spirit, so to speak.

While nosing, a colleague detected Christmas delights, while I, the novice, found hints of aromas from childhood, of time spent in antique shops. I guess in Scotch speak, that night I had crudely established my "nose" baseline and became a convert to this cultivated ritual and its honeyed dram.

Enlightenment, however, came for me in the Highlands, on a tour of Balvenie with the proudly dedicated Stewart.

The artisanal 19th-century distillery — home of the world’s most handcrafted malts — engaged all the senses as we smelled, touched and tasted the homegrown barley spread out for germination on the last active "malting floors" in the Highlands; and saw the "mashman" toss the barley, and the coopers skilfully revive the old wooden barrels. For a visitor, it was sensory overload with aromas of peat, among others.

Accompanied by coppersmith Dennis McBain and mashman Brian Webster, we also heard about some high jinx from the past.

With a wink, McBain said working there for some: "Was like being in a sweetie shop and being told you can’t taste the sweetie."

We were privy to wee doggerels and reminiscences of lining up for the three official company drams given employees, spaced out during the work day.

"You had your dram and it started you off," said McBain, who began working at Balvenie in 1958, following in his father’s footsteps.

There are "actually people working here, not computers," he added about the distillery, where 19th-century practices still thrive in the 21st.

Waxing poetically about the essence of whisky, Simmons reminded us: "It’s all about the story."

Indeed, I’ll recall and share those Highland stories affectionately with every single-malt sip at my next nosing and tasting. Here are some other highlights:

Malt Master

David Stewart was 17 in 1962 when he started working at Balvenie as a whisky stock-clerk. Now the award-winning and longest-serving malt master in Scotland is retiring after 50 years with the company.

Always in shirt and tie, the soft spoken gentleman has nosed more than 400,000 whisky casks in his career. He acknowledged that whisky culture and production have evolved over the years but added that "science takes you only so far."

The charmingly humble Stewart smiled while reminiscing about how he quietly went about nosing, tasting and innovating "for years," then "suddenly" found himself in the limelight.

In celebration of their malt master’s 50 years of service, the company has just released 88 bottles of The Balvenie Fifty, a rare single malt distilled in 1962. Price tag? A cool £20,000 per bottle (about $31,000).

Stewart’s advice for novice nosers:

1. Add a small amount of water to release the rich bouquet and flavour of the whisky.

2. Cover the glass with the palm of your hand and shake firmly, but carefully.

3. Put your nose deep into the glass and take two sharp sniffs.

Canadian Chefs’ Congress

In an unfamiliar kitchen, in a country far from home, four elite Canadian chefs took up a unique culinary challenge. The result was a brilliant artisanal pop up feast.

The mandate for Tom Brodi (former exec-chef of TOCA at Ritz-Carlton Toronto), Derek Dammann (Montreal restaurateur and former head chef of Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen), Dale MacKay (Vancouver restaurateur and last year’s Top Chef winner) and Paul Rogalski (Calgary restaurateur and chef to 2010 Olympians in Whistler) was to marry fresh Scottish ingredients with a Balvenie whisky to create a dish inspired by our distillery tour.

Pre-planning went out the window. It was performance art with each chef applauded as they gave a course-by-course description of their stunning culinary artistry for our group of about 30.

There was a moment of dramatic flair as we watched Rogalski’s grouse gelatin dissolve into root vegetables as steaming hot consomme was poured into a tall glass.

Brodi’s iconic marinated Scottish venison was melt-in-your mouth perfection. Each bite was a piece of food art as stunning and delicious as the next.

For MacKay, barley grains — absconded from the distillery tour — served as the perfect inspiration for his Scottish scallops with roasted-barley crust.

Dammann’s idea for a slow-roasted lamb dinner, served family style, came to him on the tour while listening to the close-knit Balvenie craftsmen. At least one of the longtime employees in our group — coppersmith McBain — was impressed by the feast. "I don’t usually eat this way; we eat simpler food," he whispered to me.

And MacKay’s precious handful of Balvenie grown and malted barley inspired Damman to create a remarkable barley bread that wowed mashman Webster, who for years has been trying unsuccessfully to come up with his own recipe. Served with a memorable peat-smoked butter with potato-onion crunch, simple bread and butter it was not!

Artists In Residence

Also on the Glenfiddich Distillery estate is a funky gallery one would more expect to see on trendy Queen West in Toronto.

We were greeted by curator Andy Fairgrieve, whose abundant dreadlocks make him an art installation in his own right. Fairgrieve coordinates the Glenfiddich Artist In Residence program, which each year sees seven to eight international artists take up residency in crofters’ cottages around the estate. For three months, the artists are given free rein to absorb, be inspired by their surroundings and create. This year’s selection included Canadian video and performance artist Jillian Mcdonald.

Haste ye back to Ballindalloch Castle

Surrounded by superb 18th-century royal portraits by renowned artist Allan Ramsay, we feasted like aristocrats at Ballindalloch Castle while basking in the glow of candlelight and a grand fireplace. Despite the English accent of our delightful host, she has the DNA of the family that has occupied this Highland home for 22 generations, since 1546. And as the Lady Laird, Clare Macpherson-Grant Russell, the Queen’s representative in Banffshire, also hosts the royals at her charming lived-in family castle often called "the Pearl of the North."



Balvenie nosing and tasting tours take place Mondays through Fridays. Tours are £25 (about $40) per person and limited to eight participants (18 and over). Advance booking is required. See For more on whisky touring, see For travel information on Scotland, see


We stayed at The Mansefield Hotel in Elgin, which has a well-stocked whisky bar and 39 individually decorated rooms plus two suites, from $177-$339 per night. It’s about 25 km from Dufftown. Contact 01343 540883 or For a sampling of Highland fare such as Crabbit Hen or Herring Oatmeal, try A Taste of Speyside in Dufftown, A welcome stop en route to Speyside from Edinburgh was Rothiemurchus,, where we enjoyed the best "bacon buttie" and scones of the trip. For information on Ballindalloch Castle, see


From Glasgow it’s about a three-hour drive to Speyside or 2.5-hours from Edinburgh.