A medieval Scottish abbey that’s hailed as the birthplace of whiskey will soon be the site of a modern distillery.
Lindores Abbey near Fife, Scotland, is the first place on record to have distilled whiskey, when in 1494 it received an order from King James IV. The abbey, founded in the 12th century, has been a ruin for centuries, first being sacked by a mob in 1543, and then thoroughly destroyed by John Knox, founder of Scottish Presbyterianism, in 1559.
Now the Scotsman reports that the owners of the land have launched a £5 million ($8.1 million) project to build a whiskey distillery on the site. Water will come from the abbey’s medieval well and the barley will come from adjacent fields. The distillery will open in two or three years and will include a visitor’s center.
Of course it takes time for whiskey to mature, so landowner Andrew McKenzie Smith is also looking into making gin and flavored liqueur, which mature more rapidly. The Smith family hopes the abbey’s legendary status among whiskey aficionados will bring in business, and are looking into teaming up with Historic Scotland to restore the abbey.
I can probably be kicked out of Colorado for admitting this, but I’m just not that into bikes. Don’t get me wrong: I’ve been lugging my vintage, fixed-gear cruiser around for over 21 years. Even though I rarely ride it these days because I live in hilly Boulder, I’m devoted to it. But mountain biking and road cycling plain freak me out, and in this state, that’s like saying you hate snow.
So, when my friend S. urged me to join her on an 18-mile bike ride down Aspen’s Rio Grande Trail to the former mining town of Basalt, I was dubious. I didn’t learn to ride a bike until I was 7. I have terrible balance. What about getting back up valley? Still, there was the allure of flying down a riverside path in the high Rockies on a summer’s day. I caved.
The Rio Grande Trail is a part of the former Denver-Rio Grande Railroad bed. It starts at Aspen’s Herron Park, just off Main Street on the east end of town, and runs the length of the Roaring Fork Valley, all the way down to Glenwood Springs, 41 miles away. The trail, especially the Aspen-to-Basalt leg, is enormously popular with cyclists, walkers, and runners and, in winter, cross-country skiers.
Last week, I met up with S. in Aspen. It was a bluebird day, one that begged for a picnic or al fresco lunch. Our plan of action, after picking up two titanium, single-gear cruisers, was to ride down to the nearby community of Woody Creek (home of the late Hunter S. Thompson), and hit the Woody Creek Tavern (bar of the late Hunter S. Thompson) for lunch. Their famous hamburgers and a margarita on the patio are an Aspen summer staple. Alternatively, if you want some truly excellent breakfast pastries or picnic bread, take a slight detour over to Louis’ Swiss Bakery in the Aspen Business Center.
The first mile of the Rio Grande Trail runs alongside the Roaring Fork River. This time of year, the vegetation is lush: wildflowers are in full bloom, and the aspens and pines provide ample shade. You’ll cross a wooden bridge or two, and after about five minutes, the pedestrians disperse, and can really start moving (do watch out for other bikers, stay in your lane and always wear a helmet).
After about 15 minutes, we arrived at the Tavern, which is essentially a roadhouse/bar/tribute to all that’s weird (there’s a reason Thompson was a regular). The burgers really are all that, if nothing fancy, and the Mexican dishes also win raves.
Post-lunch, we hopped back on our bikes and rode to Basalt, which has become an alluring little hamlet in its own right. Don’t expect much in the way of excitement, but it’s a cute, quiet place to kick back for a few days, and enjoy the many outdoor activities the Roaring Fork Valley has to offer.
The ride from Woody Creek to Basalt changes from sub-alpine terrain to open valley and ranchland. Horses and cattle graze ipeacefully, and the rust-red hematite cliffs so indicative of this region loom to the right. Below us, on our left, was the river. The path remained smooth and the light was so bright it almost hurt. I started to remember why I’d been hauling my old cruiser around with me all these years. Being on a bike was exhilarating, especially in a place so geographically blessed. I certainly didn’t care that I wasn’t hammering it on half-track.
When we reached Basalt, S. and I pulled into a nondescript business park. We’d decided to cap off our ride with a visit to the the four-month old Woody Creek Distillers (they’re killing it with their whiskeys and vodka made with Colorado-grown ingredients, including Polish Stobrawa potatoes farmed up-valley on co-owner Pat Scanlan’s family farm.
The gorgeous, state-of-the-art distillery houses a gleaming, copper-and-stainless steel German still, which can be viewed from the tasting room. Distillery manager David Matthews walked us through a whiskey tasting, which made me long for an accompanying wedge of bandage-wrapped farmstead goat cheddar from Basalt’s own Avalanche Cheese Company (pick some up at Whole Foods just north of Basalt, off of Highway 82, along with some famous Palisade peaches, grown just over the mountains on the Western Slope).
Back in Boulder, I paid a visit to my dusty cruiser, which has been languishing in the basement for nearly a year now. I’m going back up to Aspen in September to see the fall foliage; my newly-tuned up bike will be making the trip with me. Thanks, S.
If you’re not bringing your own bike, the best place for rentals in the Aspen/Snowmass area is Four Mountain Sports (various locations). Note that many Aspen hotels, like the The Little Nell (which will comp rentals September through the first snow), have bike rentals for guests. The easiest way to return to Aspen is to catch the Roaring Fork Transit Authority (RFTA) bus from Basalt.
Chuck Miller not only speaks in the same Southern twang as Jed Clampett from “The Beverly Hillbillies,” but he kind of looks like him, too. Dressed in a straw cowboy hat and a button-up shirt tucked into his jeans, the silver mustachioed farmer’s destiny, however, didn’t lie in black gold – instead it was in corn whiskey.
Along with his wife Jeanette, Miller owns Belmont Farm Distillery, where he produces a true American spirit: moonshine. The homemade corn whiskey is made in the Appalachian tradition using a recipe passed down from his grandfather, a real bootlegger who supplied thirsty flappers with the drink during Prohibition.
Unlike his grandfather, however, Miller’s moonshine is legal. It’s even sold in Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) stores throughout Virginia. Even better, this concoction is as straight-from-the-source as you can get; every single ingredient in the hooch is grown right on the Miller’s 189-acre farm. Even the leftovers are used to feed the livestock at the farm, which is why Miller explained they have very “happy cows.”
“We make it all the way from scratch, and we use the old time methods,” explained Miller, the master moonshine distiller.
Even though you can purchase Miller’s corn whiskey in stores throughout the country (and in some cases abroad), one can only get a true taste for the spirit by visiting the distillery, which lies off a dusty road about 15 minutes from downtown Culpeper, Virginia.
The couple’s distillery sits in the middle of a cornfield and was built using the remains of a church that burned down in the 1960s. The only leftover evidence of the building’s former incarnation is a pair of peaked doors that lead to the gift shop and the start of a distillery tour, which is open to anyone who passes by.
If your lucky, Miller himself will lead you on the tour. As you wind your way through the tiny distillery, he’ll spout off facts about the Prohibition-era copper pot he uses and allow you to take a big whiff of the drink as it’s being made (if you can handle it, that is). You’ll also understand why this drink became known as “white lighting,” a nickname given because it’s bottled straight from the still without any aging. This method was developed so that bootleggers – including Miller’s grandfather – would be able to produce the spirit quickly.
But just because Miller’s moonshine is made quickly doesn’t mean it’s made with any less expertise or enthusiasm, a fact that becomes immediately clear within moments of stepping into the distillery. Miller himself has encyclopedic knowledge of the drink.
“The first time corn whiskey was ever made was in 1612 at the Jamestown Colony,” explained Miller as he bounced around from machine to machine. “The settlers had the technology, and the Indians had the corn.”
As you’ll see on the tour, the resulting spirit is clear like a vodka and although it smells a bit like rubbing alcohol, it goes down smoother than many other whiskies. And even though the drink is technically a whiskey, this is one place that you won’t find on the American Whiskey Trail.
“We asked to be on the Whiskey Trail, but they didn’t think moonshine was suitable,” said Miller with a smile. “So if you see any of those Whiskey Trail people you tell them they’re missing a big thing!”
Tours of Belmont Farm Distillery are offered Tuesday through Saturday from April 1 through December 24. Groups of 12 or less depart every 15 minutes.
Scapa prides itself as being the second northernmost Scotch whisky distillery in the world. Highland Park Distillery beats it by less than a mile. There are more northern whiskey distilleries in Scandinavia, but of course those aren’t Scotch whisky distilleries.
The Scapa distillery was founded in 1885 and sits on the southern shore of Mainland Orkney. I met with Ian Logan, International Brand Ambassador for Chivas Brothers, to take a look around this distillery that’s otherwise closed to the public.
As we entered, Logan explained that Scapa is a small operation that produces 120,000 liters of single malt whisky a year. I thought that sounded like a lot but my guide simply shrugged.
“A major distillery will do that in two weeks,” he said.
Scapa only has three employees who work equipment that’s a mix of the old and new along with a few museum pieces. The mill, for example, is 75 years old and was built by a company that no longer exists. Their still is a Lomond still from the 1930s and the only one still in operation. This equipment works just fine for a small distillery like Scapa so there’s no reason to change it.
“A distillery is all about consistency,” Logan explained.
After the sifting and milling, a combination of local spring water, sugar, and starch is poured into the mash as it’s slowly turned. Two more infusions of water follow. Fermentation takes 135 hours and then it’s sent to the Lomond still to be distilled.
%Gallery-161374%After the whisky cools, it’s put into 190 liter casks on site.
“Not many places fill their own casks these days. Most send it to a central point,” Logan said.
The casks are all American white oak, which lends a vanilla flavor. As Logan took me around the rows of casks in their warehouse, I noticed most of them were stamped “Jack Daniels.” According to U.S. law, barrels may only be used once. They are then sold to the UK where they’re reused. Used casks are actually better for Scapa’s purposes because that first use gets rid of the stronger flavors and later uses give a mellower whisky.
Casks are reused three times for single malt whisky after coming from the U.S., and then are used for blends.
“It’s a terrible analogy but a cask is like a tea bag. The more you use it the less you get from it!” Logan joked.
Logan then sat me down to try their 16-year-old and 25-year-old samples. I lack the vocabulary of the connoisseur, so let me just say that I found both to be mellow, smooth and rich with a velvety texture. I could certainly taste the vanilla that comes from the American oak, along with hints of other flavors I couldn’t quite put my finger on. Logan offered me some water to mix with it but I found this diluted the delicate flavor. This newbie drinks his whisky straight.
If you can’t find Scapa at your local liquor store, you can order it from many online retailers and also find it as one of the elements of the popular Ballantine blend.
For those who love whiskey and live in the United States or are planning to visit, you’ll love this new infographic. The good people over at Sloshspot have kindly and ingeniously created a map detailing some of the best whiskey distilleries around the country.
If you’ve ever needed some inspiration to plan a U.S. road trip, or just can’t decide which route to take, let this map be your guide. The infographic not only tells you where to go to sample great whiskey, but also what to expect at each distillery in terms of fermentation and style. For example, you can see that in San Francisco, California, there is Anchor Brewing Company, which makes non-Kentucky bourbon, and that in Chicago, Illinois, there is Koval Distillery, where you can try American rye whiskey. A very large chunk of the graphic is dedicated to Kentucky and Tennessee, where you’ll find majority of the country’s whiskey distilleries.
If you’re having trouble viewing the infographic, click here.