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Napaman – Back From a Week-long, Whisky Safari in Scotland!

1 Tobermoray Distillery  home of Ledaig

Like big game hunters, I went on a safari last week, but with the intention of bagging some memorable Scotch whiskies, not whiskered trophies.

Aiming to break out of our pandemic mindset in a burst of alcoholic glory, the missus and I headed to one of our favorite countries, Scotland, land of sleepy sheep and stunning spirits.

Through an executive travel service (more about this later), I hired a car and driver, who, for a week, shuttled us from distillery to distillery and occasionally to a whisky shop, across the country in search of killer spirits.

We put on 1,100 miles in search of glorious, golden, whisky.

Here, in America, we tend to call the spirit “Scotch,” but to the Scots, where it’s made, it’s simply called “whisky,” because in their collective mind, there is no other spirit worth talking about.

What’s happened to the price of everything else we consume has recently happened to Scotland’s venerated elixir, only more so; the price of rare whisky has jumped 50 to 100 percent in the last six months, according to retailers with whom I spoke.

2 The Whisky Vault  town bar  Oban

Rather than recap what happened chronologically, it would be more useful to readers to highlight the Best Of my experiences, so that if any of you intend to replicate our travels, you will know where to aim.

The Best Whisky Tasting

3 Jack Dickinson  Gordon & MacPhail  Elgin  Scotland

Of all the whisky pitstops, tours and tastings we experienced, by far the classiest was that hosted by Jack Dickinson at Gordon and MacPhail, in Elgin, Scotland.

This is a 127-year-old whisky “negociant,” if you permit; they approach many of Scotland’s 120 distilleries, purchase a distillery’s “new spirit” (the just-created distilled liquor) and age it for decades in (mostly) used bourbon, or sherry, casks, imparting their own twist to a participating distillery’s whisky. Some of the decade-old G&M whiskies we tasted were exceptional.

4 Jack Dickinson  Gordon & MacPhail

Jack Dickinson led us on a 90-minute, educational tasting, sharing his knowledge with professional detail – possibly due to the fact that he was a sommelier, formerly working in our favorite restaurant in Scotland. (More about this in a minute).

5 Jack Dickinson  Gordon & MacPhail  Elgin  Scotland (1)

Gordon and MacPhail, 58 South Street, Elgin, Scotland.

The Best Retail Whisky Store in Scotland.

Over my many trips to Scotland, I have shopped at some mighty fine whisky shops, but I have never met any retailer with more passion than Scott Ashford, who, with his wife Sam (Samantha), runs the Whisky Castle in the tony town of Tomintoul.

6 Scott Ashforth  owner  The Whisky Castle  Tomintoul  Scotland

Scott has an infectious zeal for whisky; he is not afraid to open $250+ bottles and give you a sip to make his point about a particular spirit and he will ship anything you buy back to your home state.

Is there a happier guy in all of Scotland? It’s hard to say because, in general, the Scots are among the happiest, cheeriest, people I’ve ever known. It’s almost as though town councils across the land have been adding happy-time chemicals to municipal drinking water sources, because we failed to meet one dour person in our entire time in Scotland.

(Also, please take note, San Francisco: no litter anywhere, no homeless, no graffiti sprayed across public buildings, not on trains, trams or buses.)

But back to Scott Ashford; he actually sets the bar for W.E. -- Whisky Exuberance -- of anyone we met on this trip.

7 Carn Mor  Benrinnes Distillery

One of the whiskies that Scott pulled off his shelf and let us taste was this rare (only 482 bottles produced) 25-year-old, Carn Mor, a brand from Benrinnes Distillery, in Speyside.

I’d never heard of this whisky, but it set my tongue a-clackin’ and the pounds sterling in my pocket a-crinklin.’ It whispered in my ear: “p-u-h-l-e-s-e, I want to live with you in Napa Valley…”

And now it does.

Make sure you put this address in your files – and please note that Resistance to Scott is Futile!

Whisky Castle, 6 Main Street, Tomintoul, Scotland.


The Best Restaurant in Scotland.

The restaurant is The Kitchin, and please note, this is NOT a typo.

The 1-star Michelin restaurant is named after owner/chef Tom Kitchin, whose fare I have enjoyed over a period spanning four years.

9 Dinner at The Kitchin  owned by chef Tom Kitchin. Edinburgh (3)

Tom Kitchin, Carol and me at The Kitchin, enjoying a glass of Tom’s favorite Champagne, Philopponnat “Royal Reserve” Brut.

On this trip, we dined two consecutive nights at The Kitchin, and as it was closed on the two Sundays we were in Edinburgh, we opted to dine at Tom’s other restaurant, a high-end, gastro-pub that itself is a cause for joy. Even the Michelin Guide inspectors agree as they have awarded this neighborhood pub a “Bib Gourmand” rating every year since 2017.

At Scran and Scallie (Scran means food, and Scallies are friends, or scallywags, in local jargon), we had the best oysters that we’ve ever eaten; Tom’s version of a Scottish meat pie was memorable.

And the chocolate tart (below), served with “milk” ice cream, was the single best chocolate indulgence that I have had in years.

8 Chocolate tart  Scran & Scallie

At The Kitchin, I had the best soups I have had anywhere in a considerable time; Tom’s pea velouté is the only soup that I have earnestly thought about for weeks afterward;

his version of lobster bisque, without cream, puts every version of this soup that I have ever had in New England to shame.

10 Pea veloute at  The Kitchin

The cheese selection here is exceptional, and like every ingredient in Tom’s arsenal, the DNA of every cheese offered is Scottish; Tom believes in supporting local farmers, growers, producers, taking an Alice Waters approach to cuisine.

(Alice Waters, owner and founder of Chez Panisse, in Berkeley, once told me over lunch that if California health regulations didn’t require her to have a refrigerator in her restaurant kitchen, she wouldn’t have one.

“We’d have produce, cream, butter, fresh fish, everything… would be delivered each morning and used up by dinner,” she told me. Which is pretty much how Tom cooks, relying on small quantities of uber-fresh, ingredients being delivered daily to his kitchen.)

11 Kat Barker andf whisky trolley

After dinner, bar manager Kat Barker (above) rolled a monster cart up to our table, offering us numerous whiskies well older than her. I was dumbfounded by:

  1. The presence of a whisky cart at all
  2. The number of outstanding whiskies on it
  3. Kat’s knowledge of every whisky on the cart, as though she had hand-picked each of them

Make a note of this address for your next visit to Edinburgh:

The Kitchin, 78 Commercial Quay, Leith, Edinburgh, Scotland

And if you are in town long enough, score a reservation at Tom’s neighborhood eatery:

The Scran and Scallie 1 Comely Bank Road, Stockbridge, Edinburgh.


The Best Bar in Scotland

Ask locals to name the best bars in Scotland and this one, in Speyside, makes all the shortlists: Quaich Bar, in the Craigellachie Hotel, in Aberlour.

(Locals pronounce it “QUAKE-kh… there’s a little guttural “kh” at the end, almost undetectable. In Gaelic, it refers to a traditional, shallow, two-handled cup symbolizing friendship.)

12 Quaich Bar  Hotel Craigellachie  with Ben the bartender  and Jim and Jennifer Walker (1)

It’s upstairs, above a restaurant called Copper Dog. The bar is a rich depot of delicious drams.

Ben, the young bartender, knows all 700 of the whiskies stocked and has an opinion about every one of them.

13 Ben at Quaich Bar

Three whiskies (below), which Ben suggested we try – some of his personal current favorites:

14 Three whiskies we tried  suggested by Ben at Quaich Bar

Below is my good friend, Jim Walker, of Walker’s Shortbreads fame; he lives in Aberlour; he and his wife Jennifer joined us for dinner and then for drinks afterward, at the Quaich Bar.

The whisky Jim is holding is made for the onsite restaurant, Copper Dog.

15 Jim Walker at Quaich bar

Quaich Bar, Craigellachie Hotel, Aberlour, Scotland


The Best Way to Tour Scotland

On previous visits to Scotland, I’ve rented a car and driven on “the wrong side of the road,” fortunately missing pedestrians, but often hitting potholes, curbs, and missing much of the bucolic scenery as we rolled through the Highlands and Speyside regions of whiskydom.

So this time, I called my friend, Jim Walker, and asked if he would suggest a local travel company that might supply a car and driver.

16 Daniel Main and Steve Brockman

Daniel Main, left, owner of DM Executive Travel, and on the right, our driver and tour guide, Steve Brockman.

“DM Executive Travel” was his suggestion, the D and M standing for agency owner Daniel Main, a pleasant, capable, professional tour operator.

Daniel suggested an itinerary based on several of our own agenda requests; we wanted to visit the Isle of Mull, site of the producer of one of our current favorite whiskies, Ledaig (pronounced LETCH-ig), and we wanted to dine at a few favorite restaurants upcountry.

Our driver for the week was Steve Brockman, a cheery, thoughtful, detail-driven man and a helluva good driver.

As we drove across country, Steve would occasionally veer off road, suggesting we needed to see something special.

Like the oldest bridge in Scotland…

17 Carr Bridge  oldest bridge in Scotland  built 1717

The Carr Bridge, above, has suffered from the hooves of horses, bone-numbing winters, and Biblical floods since 1717 when it was built.

Other visual, or historical, highlights of our week with Steve:

18 The Kelpies  Falkirk  Scotland

19 The Kelpies  Falkirk  Scotland (1)

Kelpies are said to be shape-shifting monsters beneath the sea -- though this presentation sure makes them look like horses! Kelpies supposedly drag sailors down to their death.

Steve detoured to show us these 100-foot high, stainless steel-plated, horse heads, constructed at locks joining the Forth river and Clyde canal, in Falkirk, Scotland.

Knowing that I have a passion for photography, Steve made a point of stopping, or detouring, to present me with moments of Kodak lucidity. Here are some shots from our travel to the

Isle of Mull, the Highlands and Speyside…

20 Enroute to  and across  the Isle of Mull; shots of Tobermoray and Tobermoray Distr (3)

21 Enroute to  and across  the Isle of Mull; shots of Tobermoray and Tobermoray Distr

22 Duke of Argyll's home (castle)

24 Argyll Forest Park  Scotland

Because we were so far north and nearly at the summer equinox, daylight stays around until close to 11 pm… and the sun rises to wake you at 3.50 am.

Here’s a shot of the harbor at Oban, one of my favorite mid-country towns, taken at 11 pm at night. Catch how much light there still is!

25 Nearly 11 pm at night  Oban  on June 6

And then there were the Pyramids of Dufftown!

Steve detoured to take us to Dufftown Cooperage, site of 250,000 used barrels from bourbon producers in America and sherry producers in Spain; before these barrels can be used to age local whiskies for 10-30 years, they individually need to be reconditioned, repaired, re-banded, or made leak-proof again.

26 Speyside Cooperage  outside Dufftown (2)

27 Speyside Cooperage  outside Dufftown

28 Speyside Cooperage  outside Dufftown (3)

To contact Daniel Martin and plan your own Whisky Safari, make a note of his contact information:

DM Executive Travel

[email protected]

+44 07756297947

One of the original visits that Daniel set up for us at the rural home of Ann Miller, who calls herself The Dram Queen, a dram being the Scots’ term for a wee pour, or nip, of whisky.

29 Ann Miller  the Dram Queen

Ann Miller, The Dram Queen, uses a map to illustrate the origin of distilleries whose whiskies we tasted.

I joked with Ann, told her that I had been expecting to meet The Drama Queen, instead of The Dram Queen. She is a retired veteran of the whisky trade, worked for years with Chivas, knows everyone in the trade and knows everything you ever wanted to know about whisky but were afraid to ask. She leads educational whisky tastings that are highly informative and entertaining. She does not sell the whiskies she pours.

As a motif for our tasting of six whiskies, Ann resorted to an historical map of Speyside, showing us how distilleries popped up along the rail line (essential for bringing goods in and whisky out of the country).

This is what we sipped with The Dram Queen as she regaled us with stories about the cask-strength elixirs…

30 Ann Miller  the Dram Queen  Carron  Aberlour

If you’d like to book a session with The Dram Queen, best to do it through Daniel Main, who knows the way to Ann’s home in Carron. However, you can contact her directly through and Ann will send you a map and directions to find her comfy digs.

You Know You Are In Scotland When You See Products and Signs Like these….

31 Haggis chips

32 Battered octopus and chips

33 Otters crossing

Finally, there’s this tidbit from my own history.

When I was in grade school in Toronto, one of my classmates (we are still close friends 62 years later…) and I made up a Scottish joke about an estuary (called a “firth” in Scotland) that runs into a particular river in Scotland, the Forth.

The joke came back to me as we crossed a bridge over the Forth River.

I shared it with Steve, our driver, and he laughed heartily:

If you are drinking a 32-ounce bottle of whisky, sitting on the banks of a particular Scottish river estuary on April 4th, could you say that you were drinking a fifth on the fourth of the fourth at the Firth of the frothy Forth?

Well, it had me in stitches 62 years ago….


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