Fifteen of the most sensory whisky experiences in the world
What’s your all-time favourite whisky experience? Most enthusiasts can pinpoint a place, a moment, a taste or an aroma that is indelibly etched in the sensory memory.
If the spirit of experimentation is strong in you, take inspiration from the favourite recollections of Nick Havers of Sydney-based CASK Whisky Experiences. Havers (pictured above), a former whisky specialist with global spirits giant Diageo, established CASK “to bring a little piece of Scottish magic to you” via an array of guided tasting experiences.
These include the “Garden of Scotland Experience”, showcasing the rich autumnal fruit flavours of the feted Speyside district; the “Big Smoke Experience” examining the powerful and aromatic smoky malts of Islay like Highland Park, Ardbeg and Lagavulin; or the “Japanese Harmony Experience”, an immersion in the art and culture of Japanese whiskies such as Yamazaki, Hibiki and Nikka.
The key attraction of CASK is that Havers brings tailored tastings to the client, whether it be a party, a boat cruise, or a boardroom.
Here are the top 15 whisky experiences nominated by Havers in his long and distinguished tasting career. (caskwhiskyexperiences.com.au)
The Macallan Distillery
Just outside the famous whisky town of Dufftown in Speyside, we visit the Macallan distillery. Our day starts with a VIP distillery tour through the still room and dunnage warehouse, followed by a tasting of limited edition and cask-strength drams from the Macallan. In the afternoon we cast a fly in the mighty river Spey and have a whisky in the river with “Willie the Gillie”. Dining in the spiritual home of the Macallan, a 300-year-old Jacobite mansion, is a money-can’t-buy experience, with the finest whiskies and local Scottish delicacies such as salmon, haggis and black pudding. This magical experience ends by retiring to the lounge with a fire crackling away and a cabinet full of the finest Macallan, including rare distillery bottlings and the phenomenal 18, 25, and 30-year-old sherry oak range.
We attend the Highland Park boot camp at the Highland Park distillery, the northernmost distillery in Scotland on the incredibly remote and beautiful Orkney islands. Immersing ourselves in the Neolithic culture, we walk on the rugged beaches in winter and stand (carefully) on the cliffs of Yesnaby in 80km/h winds. To finish up is a rare tasting of a cask-strength Highland Park from the barrel in the bonded dunnage warehouse. What stands out is the beautiful, viscous, almost syrup-like consistency of the whisky due to the cold conditions in the dunnage warehouse.
Taking the drive through the stunning western highlands to the rugged and remote Isle of Skye, we pass Dunvegan Castle on the way to the quaint fishing village of Port Ruighe for a tour of the iconic Talisker distillery. A trail run on the rugged and windswept trails up to the Old Man of Storr (pictured) finishes off a remarkable day, along with a Talisker 18 and local oysters farmed in Port Ruighe.
Taste and tell
Taking the highly regarded Diageo Malts Advocates Course at the quaint Royal Lochnagar distillery, we select and draw a sample of Millburn 40 year old for taste analysis and presenting back to Stewart Morrison, master blender of Johnnie Walker. After this we are able to help ourselves to the incredible selection of exclusive malts including rare Brora, Port Ellen and Mortlach bottlings.
A whisky tour of Edinburgh is a must. We walk the old cobbled streets on the Royal Mile surrounded by ancient architecture and beautiful buildings, tartan everywhere and pipers playing on the corner, stopping at old whisky bars like the Bow Bar (above), Balmoral Hotel and The Whisky Rooms for a flight tasting of Scotland’s finest and a chat. There is no pretence. It's just a very real Scottish whisky experience. Dinner at the Timber Yard or Ondine is followed by whisky cocktails at iconic Edinburgh bars Bramble, Bon Vivant and the Devil’s Advocate. Just a magical whisky tour in a beautiful town.
Road tripping through the stunning Scottish Highlands, we pass Loch Lomond and old towns and oyster farms on the way to beautiful Islay. Getting the ferry there is an incredible way to slow things down, smell the sea air and take in the beautiful surroundings. Slowly we drive past Caol Isla distillery along the tiny island roads to the coastal town of Bowmore, past the peat fields and onto the iconic whisky town of Port Ellen and into the Port Ellen hotel. This beautiful Islay hotel sits on a bay with old Scottish grocers, reminiscent of the ones from which Johnnie Walker, John Dewar and Arthur Bell would have sold their blended whisky over 150 years ago. It’s close to the iconic Port Ellen maltings and famous closed Port Ellen distillery. A blustery walk on the beach is an incredible mix of sea salt and the peat smoke that was used to dry out the barley a stone’s throw away at Port Ellen.
We take a distillery tour of three iconic Islay malts - Laphroaig, Ardbeg and Lagavulin. Standing on the pier, you look back at the Lagavulin distillery with the 13th century Dunyvaig castle behind you and oyster cages scattered on the shore and blue bells in bloom. An absolute must-do is a warehouse tasting with the legendary Ian McArthur (above), who has been at the Lagavulin distillery for over 40 years. We experience six limited edition, cask strength Lagavulin whiskies from the Feis Isles edition up to a rare Lagavulin 36 year old - all before 11 in the morning.
Tokyo Bird has to be one of my favourite whisky bars in Sydney. The bar taps into all the amazing craft and detail of Japanese whisky bars and transports you to Kyoto right in the heart of Sydney, from the incredible Japanese whisky selection, traditional highball whisky cocktails, the clear distilled ice, yakitori, and comics projected on the wall. The ice ball master class is a must, and you will learn the art of Japanese ice ball perfection.
Special and rare
We attend the 2016 unveiling of the Diageo Special and Rare releases, led by acclaimed whisky ambassador Sean Baxter at Bennelong restaurant at the Sydney Opera House. It’s a rare opportunity to taste extremely rare and highly collectable whiskies in such an iconic location in the company of a whisky expert, with gems coming out such as Port Ellen 35 year old and Brora 37 year old at over $3000 a bottle, and just one of a select run for that year.
One whisky to rule them all
There was the tasting of the John Walker & Sons Diamond Jubilee, a regal blend of rare and treasured whiskies, created to celebrate the reign of Queen Elizabeth II at over $200,000 per diamond-studded bottle. Global ambassador Jonathan Driver is there, as are many celebrities. We stand and taste a whisky that is over $8000 per nip.
Time for Talisker
Drinking Talisker with oysters on the Sydney Harbour – whether on the Talisker America’s Cup yacht post-racing on the harbour, or in utter luxury on the Southern Cloud with Talisker whisky sours and cheese – is one of the must-do Sydney harbour experiences.
It’s a joy to explore the vibrant and exciting whisky culture that has exploded in Australia. My favourite whisky haunts in Melbourne are Starward Distillery, Boilermaker House, Whisky and Alement, and finishing up at the Black Pearl. In Sydney it has to be starting at Bulletin Place for exceptionally well balanced cocktails, Wild Rover for boiler makers, Baxter Inn and Hubert for cheese and whisky.
Not to be missed is a trip to Tassie, the Australian home of whisky. Try drinking Aussie whisky in the local pubs and restaurants and pubs such as Franklin and Glasshouse, savouring a dram at Redlands Distillery, or sipping whisky from a hip flask on the tee box at world class links golf course Barnbougle.
The rising sun
Experience the delicate art of whisky culture in Japan. Try drinking Hibiki highballs in Tokyo’s best whisky bar, High 5, complete with incredible distilled ice, or a mind-blowing trip to Kyoto for a whisky tour of Yamazaki Distillery. Walk through the bustling Japanese town from the station across the tracks to the beautiful distillery nestled away in the Japanese mountain side. It’s a must-do Japanese whisky experience. Learning the art of the whisky highball, a popular way of drinking whisky in Japan, is just incredible.
Put on a virtual reality headset and be transported to the Lagavulin distillery complete with a sensory journey through the barley fields, peat kiln, warehouse and ends off standing on the Lagavulin pier. This truly immersive experience takes you to Islay from the comfort of your chair. It’s an experience so powerful that it has been known to move whisky lovers to tears.
IMAGES: Nick Havers/Instagram