Posted on Tuesday 5 June 2018 by Ulster Business

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John Mulgrew takes in the grand surroundings of the world-famous Gleneagles with a few drams along the way during a Scottish expedition

From the peated drams of Islay to the smooth Sherry-laden Speysides, Scottish whisky offers both the casual domestic traveller and international connoisseur of spirits a diverse array of tipples to try.

And among the drinks giants taking a bigger stake in the market is Diageo, which owns and increasingly large chunk and is expanding the number of distilleries it owns over the last few years.

One of them is Cardhu, located close to Archiestown. Showing us around the Speyside distillery, which aside from its own releases is a key component of Diageo’s flagship Johnnie Walker Black Label, was Northern Ireland man Andrew Millsopp.

A tour of the grand distillery offers up a range of intoxicating smells to hit the olfactory receptors, from the porridge-like mash – where the malted barley is fermented into a liquor ahead of distillation – to thick, heavy, sweet alcohol-tinged esters.

There’s also the opportunity to sample a tasting of some of the main blended malts which go into a bottle of Johnnie Walker Black Label.

From the touch of big-end peat, to the smooth Speyside malts, including Cardhu, which make up, what is, one of the world’s best-selling whiskies.

And there’s also Blue Label – a top-end Walker blend which is a smooth, balanced, oily and creamy whisky, often favoured by Hollywood as a bastion of luxury and excess.

Aside from that, there was a chance to try a couple of malts straight from the cask, including a 24-year-old and a dram of more than 30 years, with a huge sherry character.

Glenkinchie also offers visitors a similar in-depth look around the distillery, and the whisky-making process. It’s another, perhaps even more polished affair for the visiting tourists, complete with its own tartan (and accompanying products in the gift shop).

Diageo’s continued growth and expansion in the world of Scottish whisky was further bolstered a few weeks ago, when it announced plans for a £150m investment over three years to “transform its Scotch whisky visitor experiences”.

As for somewhere to lay our heads, Gleneagles was as grand and palatial a backdrop as you can, or would want.

Arriving on a late spring evening, the lavish five-star estate, located close to Auchterarder and former host of the Ryder Cup in 2014, offers up guests eight spots to eat and drink, from the casual, to more formal affairs – such as the two Michelin-starred Andrew Fairlie.

For those looking for the decadent dram, or most aptly, a 1920s-style cocktail, the American Bar is one option.

It’s not one for those after a pint, or even a run-of-the-mill supermarket-friendly single malt, however. Cocktails run at between £17 and £25, with the curated whisky menu starting around the early teens, rising to a 50-year-old old Glen Grant at an eye-watering £1,000 a measure.

Our dining spot was the Birnam – a bistro serving up French brasserie fare in bright, classic and laid-back surroundings.

A traditional steak tartare offered up all that is iron-rich, mineral raw beef, with contrasting sharpness and a touch of Tabasco heat, while a rabbit and sauce dijonnaise dish was well-cooked and unctuous.

The sheer breadth and scale of the Diageo whisky operation is breath-taking. The bonded stores house more than three million casks of spirit, with the huge estate encompassing eight miles of road.

It’s also home to the vast cooperage operation, which sees skilled workers, and modern machinery, to rejuvenate around 250,000 each year for use across the company’s whisky portfolio.

Diageo also builds and maintains its huge copper estate at its Abercrombie site. This is where the vast stills which produce the spirit are created, and a look around gives an insight into the huge amount of physical labour required to ensure the distilleries are running at full steam.

During the trip, there was also a chance to peruse Diageo’s painstakingly maintained drinks archive.

Not normally open to the public, it’s managed by Christine McCafferty. It is a vast selection of bottles from across the company’s range of spirits, with bottles dating back to the late 1800s. And aside from every incarnation of popular drams such as Black Label, there’s also a £100,000 bottle of a 1952 whisky blend, which was released to mark the Queen’s diamond jubilee.

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