Exploring Port Wine: Touring Porto and the Douro Valley


Port is unlike any other wine you’ve tasted, and as such it’s only fitting that the place the make it — Porto and the adjacent Douro Valley — is unlike any wine region you’ve visited, either.

For those unfamiliar with Port wine, a brief primer is in order. All Port is made here in northern Portugal, and though over 100 varieties of grapes are certified for use in Port production, only five of these are common: tinta barroca, tinta cão, tempranillo, touriga francesa, and touriga nacional. Few Port makers keep tabs on what grapes go into any given bottle of Port. Most Douro vineyards harvest and vinify field blends.

099Enter the Douro

The grapes for Port are exclusively grown in the Douro — an unending series of breathtaking, beautifully-stepped mountainside vineyards that wind along the path of the Douro River. The factory farm era has yet to reach the Douro, and it probably never will. Nearly 40,000 farmers work this land, some with parcels as small as an acre or less. Anyone making Port must work with a patchwork of dozens or hundreds of growers in order to obtain fruit, after which the grapes move from the vineyards to various wineries in the region, which are here called quintas. This is where the wine is actually made.

Our friends at Taylor Fladgate graciously spent a day driving us around the Douro, where we visited the company’s three properties at the namesake Taylor Fladgate, Croft, and Fonseca. Each quinta has its own DNA and sense of style, from the crowd-pleasing scene at Croft to the brutally hot and quaint Fonseca. You can taste the stylistic differences in the wines, too, but more on that in a bit.

113Port Styles 101

The process of making Port is wildly different than that of table wine. While the juice for dry table wine can ferment for a month, Port grapes ferment for only two or three days, after which time the fermentation, still low in alcohol and high in sugar, is arrested by the introduction of fresh grape brandy (about 77% alcohol) or another very high-alcohol spirit, roughly 4 parts wine to 1 part spirit. The alcohol kills the yeast and preserves the sugar remaining in the wine, bringing the abv down to about 20%. This is all done with surprisingly old-school production, and in the Port world, tradition reigns supreme to this day: Most quintas actually still foot-tread their grapes instead of relying on machinery to crush grapes into juice (those are empty lagares above; here’s a video of the crushing in practice). Treading is done in silence and takes hours and hours to complete.

From here, the winemaking process diverges quickly depending on what type of Port you’re making. Once a relatively simple drink, Port innovators (led by Taylor Fladgate) have expanded the varieties and styles of Port on the market considerably. Ruby Port is the most basic: Fresh wine is put into enormous vats (often made of chestnut) that hold thousands of gallons of juice. It slumbers here for about two years until bottling, bright red and alive with sugar.

Tawny Port is the other primary variety. Tawnies are stored in smaller casks called pipes, each about 550 to 620 liters in size. Tawnies take on some wood influence but, critically, oxidize much more quickly in the smaller barrels. These are then blended and bottled as 10, 20, 30, or 40 year old wines — though this, paradoxically, does not refer to the actual age of the wine but of the general “style” of what’s inside. Drink a 30 year old Tawny and you are assured of getting “30 year old quality” — not necessarily any wine that is really 30 years old.


White Port is a relatively recent addition to the lineup; it’s made with white grapes (namely malvasia) instead of red and can work wonderfully as a cocktail mixer. The most recent addition to the industry is Rose Port, which is a fresh, “pink” style that has a lot in common with rose table wine.

Vintage Port is simply Ruby Port that comes from a single vintage. It’s only made in the best years, 2 or 3 times per decade. Vintage Ports command the highest prices of all Port wines, and they can be aged in bottle for many, many decades. Late Bottled Vintage Port is a bit confusing, because it has a vintage date on it, but it is not Vintage Port. LBV Ports come from quintas other than those used for Vintage Port, and are aged in cask much longer than the typical Ruby (5 to 6 years is common), which often gives it a deeper and more raisiny, almost Zinfandel-like character. It’s not as ageworthy as Vintage Port (LBV can usually be consumed right away), but can be considerably less expensive than Vintage Port.

Single Quinta Vintage Port also adds to the confusion because it is Vintage Port released from single wineries, as the name suggests, usually in years that a Vintage Port is not declared. They age in bottle just like Vintage Ports but can be purchased for much less. Lastly there are Colheita Ports, which are vintage-dated Tawny Ports. While regular Tawnies are blends of a wide range of vintages, Colheitas come from a single one.


065From the Douro to Porto

All of this aging takes place not in the Douro Valley quintas but rather in the city of Porto — or rather, in the Villa Nova de Gaia, which is the part of Porto that is on the east side of the Douro River. Nothing involving Port wine happens on the western Porto side (which features the old city center and most of the town’s industry). In Gaia, it is seemingly nothing but Port houses, which are called lodges in the local parlance. Why “lodge?” Simply because it sounds better than “warehouse,” of which there are dozens in Gaia, each of which is often emblazoned with a huge sign bearing the name of the owner in monstrous letters, making for a truly unique skyline. Wine is aged here instead of in the Douro exclusively because of the heat. In Porto it can easily be 20 degrees cooler than in the Douro — though modern air conditioning is starting to change this for a few producers.

Visitors to Porto can walk along the waterfront and visit any number of these Port producers, most of which have tasting rooms and visitors’ centers, just like you’d see in any highly touristed wine region. Some, like Taylor Fladgate, are incredibly modern, including such up-to-the-minute touches as a “selfie station” next to a giant barrel of Ruby Port. Some, like Niepoort, are exactly the opposite. Niepoort isn’t open to the public and doesn’t even have a sign on the door — in fact, the building doesn’t even have a proper floor. At Niepoort’s lodge, the ground is simply made of packed earth that can be hosed down to cool things off on hot days. Spiders are encouraged to roost in the windows; their webs help block out the sunlight. (Many thanks to Niepoort for giving us access and a private tour of the facility.)

045Most visitors to this area never leave Porto, and that’s fine. You can taste dozens of Port wines here and get the full scoop on understanding how Port is made if you never leave Gaia, but visiting the Douro itself is a day trip that’s really worth it — not just for the wine but for the unforgettable scenery, too. (Taylor Fladgate operates luxury hotels in both Porto (The Yeatman) and the Douro (The Vintage House), so you can easily spend a day in both locations if you’re game.)

Before we move on to some Port wine reviews, here’s one pro tip for drinking Port. Everywhere in Portugal, Port — no matter what the variety — is served at least slightly chilled. (White Port and Rose Port are typically served well-chilled.) Having Ruby and Tawny Ports about 10 degrees colder really makes a difference. In America, we tend to see these wines poured at room temperature, which puts a heavy focus on the brandy rather than the fruit, making Port taste “hot” with alcohol. By chilling things down, you’ll often find that the wine showcases a whole new dimension of character.

Many thanks to Taylor Fladgate for taking the time to give Team Drinkhacker a tour of the Douro and the Taylor Fladgate lodge in Porto. Taylor’s tasting center in Gaia is absolutely not to be missed if you visit.

Port Wine Reviews, 2016

And now, a catalog of the many Port wines we encountered during our time in the Porto and the Douro.

Niepoort Ruby Port – Fresh, mint notes, strong cherry and raspberry, vanilla and licorice. A big crowd-pleaser. A-

Niepoort Tawny Port – A sweeter style of tawny than usual. Dark tea, brown sugar, cloves, and ginger notes. A bit tarry on the finish. B+

Niepoort 10 Years Old Tawny Port – Intriguing strawberry notes, vanilla frosting; quite sweet for a tawny. B

2012 Niepoort Late Bottled Vintage Port – Chocolatey and dense, almost whiskey-like at times, showing dark cherries, tea leaf, fresh herbs, and some elderflower notes. A-

2005 Niepoort Tawny Colheita – Strawberry and mint start things off on a wine that showcases lots of depth. The finish evokes figs and dates. Very rich and lovely. A

2005 Niepoort Vintage Port – Very dense, with intense chocolate, dark raisin and prune character, and some honey on the finish. Still needs years of time to mature. A-

Caves Vasconcellos 10 Years Old White Port – Unusual to see a white port with an age attached; this one offers a sherry nose, orange peels, flowers, and golden raisins. A-

Caves Vasconcellos 10 Years Old Tawny Port – A little thin and rather plain. Leathery with subtle coffee notes and touches of figs. B

Caves Vasconcellos 20 Years Old Tawny Port – Quite smoky, with strong wood influence. I’m reminded a lot of Amontillado sherry. B-

Taylor Fladgate Chip Dry White Port – Extra dry style, spends three years in wood. Fragrant and lightly nutty. Not sold in the U.S., it was the first White Port ever marketed. B+

2011 Taylor Fladgate Late Bottled Vintage – Very dark and brooding, with blackcurrants, leather, and tobacco notes. The finish offers chocolate galore. A-

Taylor Fladgate 10 Years Old Tawny Port – Red berries and some chocolate notes, lightly oxidized with gentle balsamic character. Pretty but mild. B

Taylor Fladgate 20 Years Old Tawny Port – Heavily oxidized on the nose, with notes of orange peel, nuts, and a touch of coffee. B+

0941966 Taylor Fladgate Very Old Single Harvest Port – This is essentially a Colheita style port, a Tawny that is 50 years old. A knockout, with mint, intense nuttiness, coffee, and quiet raisin and baking spice character. Despite the age, it has a sunny finish. Opulent yet easily drinkable. Best Port I tried on the entire trip. A+

Croft Pink – The original rose Port, made from 100% red grapes that spend 6 hours on the skins; it never sees wood. Notes of strawberries and some tea leaf lead to a simple and fruity wine. We reviewed this years ago; it was more recently reformulated to reduce the total sugar level.) B+

Croft 10 Years Old Tawny Port – A nose of mocha and baking spice lead to a significantly more fruit-focused body, with notes of fruit tea and a jammy finish. B+

Fonseca Siroco White Port – Quite dry and herbal, with some astringency and floral notes. B-

Fonseca Terra Prima – Sold as Terra Bella in the U.S. Fonseca’s organic Ruby Port is fresh with fruit, mint, and offers a long, sweet finish. Quite luscious. B+

Fonseca 20 Years Old Tawny Port – Butterscotch heavy, with lots of acidity. Some herbs meld well with marzipan notes and a burnt sugar finish. A-

2012 Fonseca Guimaraens Vintage Port – Fonseca releases vintage-dated Port in non-vintage declared years under the Guimaraens sub-label. A big, dark chocolate nose leads to an explosive body, heavy with fruit and tannins. Long finish. A-

Ramos Pinto White Port Reserva – Fresh, lightly sweet, with some lemon notes. A little vegetal on the finish. B

Ramos Pinto 10 Years Old Tawny Port – Classic tawny, with lots of nuts, leather, and some Madeirized fruit. Coffee and tea on the finish. B+

2005 Ramos Pinto Vintage Port – Dense with dark chocolate and heavy cassis. Long finish with considerable life left in it. B+


Drinking the Costa del Sol – A Trip from Barcelona, Spain to Lisbon, Portugal


Spend any amount of time in Spain and the subject of the Spanish paradox eventually comes up. As a nationality, the Spanish, it turns out, have one of the longest average lifespans in the world. According to the WHO, Japan is the longest-lived, with an average longevity of 83.7 years. Curiously, Spain is in 4th place worldwide, with an average longevity of 82.8 years.

Japan is clean, modern, and features a diet heavy in fish and vegetables. Spain, on the other hand, is another kind of animal.

134The stereotypes are almost entirely true. Spaniards commonly eat dinner at 10 or 11pm, go to bed (or go clubbing) at 2 or 3am, sleep very little and go to work at 9 or 10am. Siestas are still common in smaller towns, but those follow a typically two-hour lunch that starts with two or three glasses of beer and wine. After work, Spaniards continue drinking and eating food that is largely based on cured meats and bread (the “Mediterranean diet” is a complete joke, at least as it relates to Spain), with frequent breaks to smoke cigarettes (often inside). They also spend too much time in the sun, all of which seems like it should add up to a recipe for an early grave – but which somehow does not.

The paradox is often explained in terms of stress. The Spanish live a seemingly carefree life unencumbered by the worries that plague many of us in the West – and while that has saddled Spain with its share of economic woes, those woes don’t seem much to have rubbed off on its fun-loving citizens.

Aboard the Star Breeze

171And so it was into this world that I, a typically uptight American, was thrown, spending some 12 days venturing from Barcelona to Lisbon, courtesy of Windstar Cruises and its Star Breeze ship, which dutifully ferried myself and 200 other passengers along the fabled Mediterranean Costa del Sol. (Full disclosure: Windstar provided the room and all beverages on this journey; all other expenses were my own.)

The trip, dubbed “Spanish Serenade” by Windstar, began in Barcelona and culminated in Lisbon. Stops along the way — the cruise is 8 days total at sea; we spent extra time on either end — include Palma de Mallorca, Almeria, Malaga, Gibraltar, Seville, and Portimao. Before we visit the ports, though, let me talk a bit about the ship. With under 100 staterooms, the Star Breeze is a far cry from the mega-cruise ships I’d been on in the past. When we boarded in Barcelona, there were no crowds or lines — in fact there was no fuss at all. Just hand over your passport and credit card, then head to your room. We might as well have been staying at a B&B, only this one could float.

The 200 passengers are backed up by 150 crew members, and as with any cruise experience they are constantly scurrying about, cleaning, delivering items, or (of course) preparing food, which was in abundance to the extent you would expect on any ship. The vast majority of the passengers on our ship were American couples in their 60s (give or take). The number of kids onboard could be counted on one hand. Only one group of about six passengers in their early 30s — self-described “naughty children” from South Africa — added much variety (or rowdiness) to the onboard demographic.

Room service was available pretty much around the clock, and public meals were always top-notch. While the menu is largely “continental,” with the usual steaks, seafood dishes, and salads, Windstar does make an effort to incorporate local cuisine when possible. Several lunches featured local honey and a smattering of jamon, and some of the dinner specials had at least a touch of regional flair. A particular standout was the on-deck barbecue near the end of the cruise, an over-the-top picnic in lieu of the typical dining room service that featured a veritable mountain of international and local cuisine options. Had I known how opulent that meal would be, I might have skipped lunch that day. But in general, we opted of course to dine in port as much as possible, which typically meant lunch (or day-long tapas crawls) on land and dinner on the ship (since departure times were often late in the afternoon).

E_Mallorca_11All told, travel on the Star Breeze was incredibly comfortable — the staterooms are gigantic compared to a typical cruise ship cabin — and you can’t ask for smoother waters than the Mediterranean Sea. (Once past Gibraltar and into the Atlantic, though, it’s a whole new ballgame of rocking waves and Dramamine gobbling. Pro tip: Wine and spirits prices in Gibraltar are ridiculously cheap, made even better because there are no taxes here. I saw rare bottlings here that would fetch $150 in the U.S. for £50… so allow plenty of time to shop,!) With such a small ship, the focus is definitely on the ports, so entertainment options are limited — although Windstar arranged two cultural events, one a dance exhibition and museum tour on land in Mallorca (see photo at right), and one on the ship, a short flamenco performance. Two musical duets performed cover songs nightly, and a casino with two tables and a dozen slot machines offered evening diversions. The occasional trivia game or show put on by the crew helped to pass the time, particularly on the lone at-sea day on the itinerary — but by and large the trip was very quiet.

Drinking Your Way Through Spain

Of course, this isn’t a website about cruising of course but about drinking, and your beverage options in Spain and southern Portugal are extensive though, in some cases, not at all what I expected. Let’s break it all down, drink by drink.


239Spain is a phenomenal wine country, with numerous, impressive wine regions, but none of them are in the south of the country. The only major type of wine that is produced in the Costa del Sol is sherry, not including some of the area around Barcelona, which is the home of sparkling cava. In port, it was easy to find wines from Rioja and Ribera del Duero, depending on how fancy the restaurant or bar was. Even in upscale restaurants, it was hard to find a glass of wine priced at more than 4 or 5 euros, a far cry from the massive markups you endure in the U.S. But what you gain in affordability you give up in selection. Most restaurants have only a handful of offerings — maybe 5 or 6 wines, if you’re lucky.

On the Star Breeze, I was pleased to see that the otherwise California-heavy wine list was supplemented by over a dozen Spanish bottlings, which we ordered from exclusively during the cruise. Wines hailing from all over Spain were represented, but I found myself particularly drawn to La Montesa, a woody Rioja, and Casa Castillo’s El Molar, a chewy but fruit-forward garnacha-based wine from Jumilla, a bit north of the Costa del Sol. For whites, I particularly liked the albarino from Pazo Senorans which hailed from Spain’s well-regarded Rias Baixas; I found that the crisp wine offered lively minerality and fresh floral notes — a great choice for the ultra-hot climate of Spain. Most of the wines on the ship sold for under $50 per bottle, with only a handful of luxe exceptions. If I have one complaint, it’s that the staff on the ship seemed to have almost no knowledge about the wine program — and only a few staffers knew about the addition of the Spanish supplement (which was a separate list).

What didn’t I encounter during my trip to Spain? The much talked-about “blue wine.” I never saw it once, nor heard a word about it throughout the journey.



You might think that a country as hot as Spain would be rife with beer, and you’d be right. But beer consumption here is not like we’re used to in the States, where you can pick and choose from a dozen or more brands at even the smallest watering hole. Rather, in Spain (and large parts of Europe), you invariably get one choice. Both the Portuguese and Spaniards have a sort of local pride that ensures only a single brand of beer is served everywhere. In Portugal, it’s largely a lager called Super Bock. In most of southern Spain: Cruzcampo (with the occasional holdout serving San Miguel). I drank plenty of these beers on the trip — you have to, for hydration! — and couldn’t tell you a thing distinguishing any of them from each other. All are light lagers, very lightly hopped and designed to drink quickly before they get too warm. The bottom line: It’s not a part of the world to visit for the beer.

Gin and Tonic

This is going to sound strange, but Spain is in love with gin, particularly gin and tonic. Gin bars are common, especially in Barcelona, and it is common to see sidewalk signs touting “Sapphire and Tonic” (Bombay Sapphire is especially popular here, as is, strangely, Bulldog) for 5 euros or so. It’s said that Spain has “perfected the garnish” of the G&T, but in reality this usually just means a few slivers of fruit or something slightly more exotic, like a slice of fresh ginger. Beats a squeeze of lime, I guess.

In Barcelona, the current mecca of all things gin is Bar Martini, where, if you order the namesake cocktail, you get a certificate that enumerates how many martinis have been served. Mine: Martini #1,006,887,


Another odd Spanish trend: Sweet vermouth, on the rocks. That’s the whole drink. The Spanish seem to have as much of a love for vermouth as they do for gin, and bottlings range from standard Martini & Rossi fare to Carpano Antica to, surprisingly, numerous local vermouths. I had a couple of vermouths on the trip and was surprised to like them as much as I did. It’s still not going to become a go-to cocktail for me (the vermouth in your local watering hole has probably been open for months), but it’s more refreshing and intricate than I expected. To the Groundhog!


034Often just “Ginja,” this is a Portuguese liqueur made from sour (very sour) cherries called ginja berries. Essentially a sour cherry liqueur, it is served neat in numerous Lisbon locations, for a bit more than a euro per shot. Having a shot of ginja is a rite of passage for visitors. Do not try to eat the berries if you find a few floating in your plastic cup.


Of course, they make sherry in these parts, though surprisingly few places actually seem to serve it. The most noteworthy exception in the region is Antigua Casa de Guardia in Malaga, said to be the oldest wine bar in this lively little town. It’s not hard to believe. Sherry (and a few other fortified wines) are served from one of a couple dozen casks, directly into your glass. In lieu of a bill, the barkeep scribbles what you owe directly on the bar, in chalk. There are no barstools, and no one speaks English — but this is one of the few places you can get by completely by merely pointing at what you want.


Other Oddities

Looking for other fun stuff to drink? In Portugal try a Port and tonic, which is made with white Port, tonic, and a little mint. It’s a nice counterpart to Spain’s G&T. Be sure to ask for dry white Port, which is how the locals drink it. Sweeter styles of Port are said to take the drink a bit out of balance.

336In Seville, a cocktail called tinto de verano is popular. It’s red wine plus sparkling lemonade, served on the rocks. Sounds bizarre but, much like a vermouth on the rocks, it works far better than you’d think and is a great way to drink red wine in the blistering summer heat. Note: It’s better when it’s mixed fresh; some establishments have the beverage premixed, on tap, which pales in comparison.

Orange wine is another popular item in Seville, but it’s not the same thing as the orange wine that’s currently shaking up the table wine market. Rather, here, vino de naranja is white wine, aromatized and flavored with Seville’s famous oranges and aged in a manner akin to sherry. You’ll see signs around town in the few bars that offer it, or you can look for the hard-to-miss bottles themselves.


Up Next…

Stay tuned next week for the next step in this travelogue, a detour to Porto, the home of Port wine. Until then, Salud!

Many thanks again to Windstar for making this trip possible.

A Visit to Anchor Distilling’s New Tasting Room


Anchor Brewing is icon of San Francisco, dating back to 1896. Of more recent advent is Anchor’s distilling arm, which got going only in 1993. A funny thing, though: Anchor Distilling is on pace next year to match Anchor Brewing on a revenue basis, the new kid done good in the end.

The brainchild of Fritz Maytag, Anchor Distilling got going in highly unusual fashion (its original goal was to produce 100% straight rye, which the company still makes today), and eventually it added on a number of gins and a hop-flavored vodka (its most recent addition).

Now, in a rooftop bungalow that was formerly Maytag’s one-bedroom apartment, Anchor has opened a tasting room where six of its distilled products, all produced on site, can be sampled. The tasting is seated and led by a professional (a local bartender in my group) who walks novices and pros through the ins and outs of tasting spirits and identifying the nuances among them.

The $35 experience runs on Thursdays and Fridays, and reservations are required. Check it out! (Photos from the brewery, the jam-packed distillery (not open to visitors), and the rooftop tasting room and gardens can all be found below.)


Drinking in Dublin: Guinness Storehouse and Teeling Whiskey

I’m just back from the British Isles, where I spent nearly two weeks exploring Ireland and Scotland, two regions whose names are inexorably linked with the world of whiskey. This is the second of two travel pieces on major drinking attractions across the pond — this one focusing specifically on the city of Dublin.

Ireland boasts a handful of distilleries, but they are spread all around the island and visiting them takes quite a bit of doing. We devoted our time in Ireland largely to Dublin (with one day trip to the countryside by bus), but you can do a lot of boozy exploration without having to venture far from the city center.

In addition to a wealth of pubs and whiskey bars, Dublin boasts at least three attractions dedicated to drink. I skipped one of them, the “Old Jameson Distillery,” which is really just a museum and not a working still. Locals regard it as a tourist trap, so I focused on these two spots, both of which I heartily recommend visiting.

Guinness Storehouse

Dublin is the home of Guinness, and the Guinness Storehouse is the mecca for all fans of this archetypal stout. Yes it is chock full of tourists. Yes it is still well worth visiting.

The Storehouse is part museum, part experience, located adjacent to the brewery itself, which is a massive sprawling area that spans a couple of city blocks. Inside the Storehouse you’ll access a multi-story tour about how Guinness is made, and your ticket will also get you at least a pint or two of Guinness to enjoy while you’re making the rounds. The top floor, called the Gravity Bar, boasts panoramic views of all of Dublin. It’s extremely crowded, though; better to spend your time in the bar two stories below, where you are taught how to pour the perfect pint — and get to pull one for yourself to test your skills.

True enthusiasts will want to upgrade to the Connoisseur VIP experience, which comprises a 90-minute tasting of all of Guinness’s major versions worldwide, including a history lesson and a deep dive into the company that you won’t get from the standard tour. After the tasting, you’re set loose behind the bar — and when it’s all over you get to pick your favorite bottling to take with you on the road. Feel free to take it up to one of the three restaurants and enjoy it with your lunch — the Beef and Guinness Stew was one of the best I had during my time there.

Bottom line: Whether you like Guinness or not, don’t miss this experience.

Teeling Whiskey Company

Jack Teeling is an official Friend of Drinkhacker, and his distillery — the first to operate in Dublin since 1976 — just opened for visitors in May. Teeling Whiskey Company is still building out its tourist experience, but visitors are welcome to take a brief tour and taste some of the company’s products. At present, everything Teeling is bottling is sourced from other distilleries, but you can watch new-make spirit being produced now. Eventually this juice running from these stills will comprise the core of the Teeling product line.

We had a private tour with Jack and master distiller Alex Chasko, where we tasted Teeling’s standard lineup — widely available in every bar in Dublin — and some of its very rare limited edition releases. My hands-down favorite: The 26 Year Old Single Malt, which is finished in white burgundy casks for three years, an elegant whiskey that showcases the delicacy of Irish by infusing it with florals, gentle heather, and light citrus fruit notes. The fragrant, white flower finish almost makes you forget about the €450 price tag.

Also on hand at the tasting was one of the first bottlings of Teeling’s new Single Malt Single Cask offering. Seven different casks are being bottled — with different wood types and different age statements — and I managed to bring one home for a formal review. Stay tuned — and make sure you tell Teeling I sent you if you drop by.

Don’t miss the first part of this travelogue… Scotland!

Travel: Touring Scotch Whisky Distilleries in Speyside, Scotland

The trouble with drinking whisky in Scotland is the regret you experience the moment you get home. No matter how long you spend there and how much you purchase, by the time you get back to the States you wish you’d tasted and brought home more than you did. The vastness of malt whisky options available to residents and visitors to the UK is impossible to overstate. Even the humblest of pubs is likely to have 100 or so bottles on the shelf, a few of which you will never even have heard of. At major whisky meccas like Edinburgh’s Royal Mile and inns in the heart of Speyside, it isn’t unusual to see 500 Scotch whiskies on the back bar — or rather jammed into every corner of the place. Each night at the Quaich bar in the Craigellachie Hotel in Speyside I got to ogle whiskies, just sitting on shelves next to the armchairs, that retail for $4000 or $5000 a bottle. Of course, it’s the ones I was able to sample that I will remember forever.

And so it is that I return to you, my bags stuffed with liters of whisky but my heart left in Scotland, following a pilgrimage I’ve wanted to make for the better part of a decade.

Visiting distilleries in Scotland isn’t difficult, but you’ll want to plan your trip carefully to make the most of your time there. With this post, I want to share some tips and advice if you decide to venture to see Scotland’s stills for yourself, along with commentary about each of the distilleries I visited.

For starters, unless you have a week or more to spend here and can cover multiple areas, you’ll want to pick a region to focus on. For some, Islay and its smoky malts is the place to be — and I’m told there’s really nothing else at all to do there except drink whisky. For others, its Speyside, which is where I spent four solid days.

Speyside is a great choice for visiting for a lot of reasons. First, some of the best whisky in the world is made here, so you’ll have endless opportunities to sample lovely malts. Second, the central location makes it relatively easy to get to. (Fly into Aberdeen, then drive about 80 minutes.) Third, and most importantly, Speyside boasts about half the distilleries in Scotland. From a base in Craigellachie, you’re about 15 miles from 40 or 50 distilleries, and more if you venture 25 or 30 miles away.

Not all distilleries are open to visitors, so keep that in mind when planning your trip by researching them in advance, and many require you book in advance if you want a tour. Don’t overlook this step, as you don’t want to venture 5000 miles to Scotland only to find out that the tours for the week are all booked.

Lastly, and this is where I blew it a little, note that many if not most Scottish distilleries shut down for a month or two in the summer, usually starting in early July. This is called the “silent season,” and it’s a period when the distilleries are repaired, upgraded, cleaned, and otherwise worked on. The stills can’t operate during the silent season, so many are indeed very quiet. That’s not that big a deal — you’ve see one mash tun, you’ve seen ’em all — but the bigger problem is that with all that construction you often can’t even venture into the stillhouses or other parts of the distillery because they’re closed off as a safety precaution. Despite all that, July is still a heavy tourism month for Scotland and most everyone is still operating a tour of some kind even during the shutdown. Just bear in mind you might not see everything you could if you were there, say, in the middle of winter.

As I mentioned above, we chose the Craigellachie Hotel as our base. This is a lovely place to stay — though the Wi-Fi is pants — with a perfect location, nice rooms, and solid dining in the Copper Dog restaurant below. The breakfast options (included) are amazing — and nothing beats a full Scottish to prime the pump before heading out to the distilleries. The Quaich Bar makes for a perfect nightly ritual, too.

So let’s get on to the distilleries. Here they are, in the order I visited them.

The Glenrothes

The Glenrothes is not open to the public, so it’s perhaps not fair to start here, since you can’t actually visit. But Ronnie Cox really set the stage for a memorable time here, treating us to a tour of the Rothes House — the spiritual home of parent company Berry Bros. and Rudd (literally, the town minister used to live there) — plus lunch and an in-depth tour of the distillery. Capped off by a deep dive into the Glenrothes spirit archives, our time included discussions about the geology and history of Speyside, a stroll through the (no longer haunted) Glenrothes cemetery, and even the raising of the U.S. flag in honor of my visit. I couldn’t have asked for a better host than Cox, and he really set a high bar for the other distillery visits we had in store.


Cardhu was a last-minute addition to our trip after some scheduling hiccups at another distillery, but it was a nice one to visit because it was actually up and running. Cardhu mostly ends up in blends, not single malts, but the tasting did include three single malts from the distillery, each made in a slightly different style. Higher-end tastings are available for an additional fee. The nosing challenge (where you try to ID what’s in a series of sealed containers) is particularly fun.


Aberlour’s tour was one of the more unique ones, with a distillery that includes a look at some rare parts of the facility, including the funky biologically-powered tanks that process the waste product from the stills and turn it back into water which can be returned to the river. The tour is concluded with a very nice, sit-down tasting that lets you sample the full range of Aberlour products, including distillery-only releases.


Macallan is in the midst of a massive expansion. In two years there will be a whole new visitor’s center here. Our visit to the estate began with lunch at Easter Elchies House, a historic home on the property that you can find on the label of Macallan whiskies. After lunch, a tour takes you through every aspect of production — and includes a very well-done museum-style exhibit on the various types of wood that the distillery uses. For whisky newcomers, consider Macallan as an excellent first stop in order to aid with education. Following the tour (sadly, photos were off limits in many buildings) we sat down to a private tasting that started with the Fine Oak 21 Year Old and went deeper from there. Macallan saved the best for last, though: A sampling of the 1979 Gran Reserva, a long-off-the-market bottling that spent 18 years in first-fill sherry casks. This beautiful but incredibly intense whisky really showcases what sherry aging can do, and it was the perfect way to cap off the day.


Glenfiddich is a massive operation, with 47 warehouses full of whisky on the property. Our tour guide, Fergus, led us on a private tour of the facilities — again, some areas off limits and many with no photos allowed — which included some fascinatingly fun times. A stop at a warehouse to try to identify — simply by smelling the casks — which of three whiskies was in an ex-sherry barrel was much tougher than you think, and the chance to see Glenfiddich’s Solera vat, from which its famed 15 year old is drawn, was a unique experience. Of course, a major highlight of the trip was dropping our own “dog” into our choice of Glenfiddich barrel — first-fill or refill, sherry or bourbon — to bring home our own, bespoke, single-cask selection. We ended the day at Glenfiddich with a tasting of rare bottlings, including the 21 Year Old Gran Reserva Rum Cask, the red wine barrel-finished Age of Discovery (third edition), and the oddball 26 Year Old Excellence. Very different whiskies, and each memorable in its own way. Again, a highly recommended tour especially for newcomers to Scotch.


All good things must come to an end, and we wound up our time in the Highlands at Benromach, which is about 30 miles north of the heart of Speyside, near the Moray Firth on the coast. Benromach is younger and smaller than all of the other distilleries we visited, and it operates under the ownership of famed indie bottlers Gordon & MacPhail. We dropped by on the road to the city of Inverness, the gateway to Loch Ness. Benromach was a great place to stop because it was in production, there are no crowds, and unlike the distilleries in the heart of Speyside, it uses a bit of peated malt in its production. This was a very casual tour — we asked for an expedited visit due to a time crunch — but the staff was friendly and accommodating and really distilled the operation well despite our shortened visit. We’ll have a full review of the newly released Benromach 15 Year Old in short order.

Thanks to all my new friends in Scotland for taking care of us ugly Americans! See also our coverage of drinking in Dublin, Ireland.

Visiting Harpoon Brewery – Boston, Mass.

Headed to Boston? Take a little trip to Harpoon Brewery, which is now the 14th largest brewery in the U.S. but which still feels like a happy, family operation. Harpoon built a massive beer hall here in South Boston last year, which you can take in after spending 30 minutes or so strolling through the production facility and hearing a little bit about how Harpoon makes its various brews.

If you’ve been on one brewery tour you probably know what to expect, though being able to taste the barley that Harpoon uses to make its beers is a fun little touch. Of course, everyone’s favorite time is the tasting room, where you get about 20 minutes to essentially drink all the Harpoon beer you can from little 2 oz. glasses. I managed to sample a very broad selection of what was on tap that day, from the perfectly credible (and well-stocked) Harpoon IPA to the limited edition Citra Victorious Barrel Series, made exclusively with orangey Citra hops. The Leviathan Double IPA (at 10% abv) is a true monster — though maltier than you’d expect — but my ultimate favorite, by far, was Harpoon Rich & Dan’s Rye IPA, a spicy/piney beer with nice bite and good balance of fruit and hops.

Definitely recommended — and don’t miss the pretzels, which are house-made with grains used to make the company’s beers.


Tasting Report: Blue Chip Wineries of Paso Robles, 2014

Paso Robles, in central California, is a wine region that has never gotten much respect. Sandwiched between high-profile Napa/Sonoma to the north; the well-regarded Santa Barbara (Sideways) region to the south; and the bulk-wine-producing Central Valley to the east, Paso is close to nothing and, for many, just not worth a very lengthy drive for what many see as inferior wines.

I can’t help you with your travel plans, but it’s time to look more closely at Paso, a region rapidly on the rise in the quality department. Once known as a home for zinfandel (never a good sign for any region), Paso is now producing a remarkable range of quality wines, with a special focus on Rhone-style wines (syrah, grenache, mourvedre, and their ilk). Cabernet Sauvignon is also on the rise here — as is the number of wineries in total. Over 300 wineries populate this region now, and more are on the way.

Recently we spent several days touring Paso, with a specific focus on some of the region’s brightest stars. We also took the opportunity to stay at Justin’s completely revamped Just Inn, dining that evening at Justin: The Restaurant, an intimate place serving local and seasonal fare. (Note: Justin hosted both.) The Just Inn Isosceles Suite is quite the affair, featuring a lovely sitting area with fireplace, a king-size Tempur-Pedic bed, and a well-appointed bathroom complete with Jacuzzi-style tub.

The Justin Restaurant was a fun experience, with careful service and a steady pace of inventive dishes coming from the kitchen. (No a la carte here, only a set menu of about seven dishes.) Wine pairings (all Justin wines) are available, or you can order a bottle from a list that largely comprises imports. (We had the Justin pairings, of course.)

Many of the dishes were quite delightful, including a delectable venison loin, a luscious spring pea soup, and a fun little “deconstructed grilled cheese sandwich,” served as an amuse bouche from the kitchen. Other dishes weren’t as memorable — like the cheese course of burrata (not my favorite), served not with bread but with a pile of breadcrumbs. The only miss was the second course of hamachi crudo, a few beautiful slices of fish that were absolutely divine… until they were covered with a bright-green and quite bitter “herb jus,” washing out the lovely brininess of the fish. Sometimes, simpler is better.

On the whole, it was a lovely meal. Some photos follow. (Dine there yourself by entering Justin’s mega-sweepstakes on Facebook!)

Complete tasting notes on all wines tasted during the trip follow.

Tasting Report: Paso Robles 2014

2013 L’Aventure Rose Estate / $25 / B+ / rose of syrah, grenache, mourvedre, and petit verdot; crisp and light; some lemon and vanilla notes
2011 L’Aventure Optimus / $45 / B+ / syrah/cab/petit verdot; silky, chocolate notes; big tannins now with some rough edges; definite mint notes
2011 L’Aventure Cote a Cote / $85 / A / syrah/mourvedre/grenache; good structure; more softness; some floral notes, black and blueberry; quite lovely
2011 L’Aventure Estate Cuvee / $85 / A- / syrah/cab/petit verdot; massive black fruit, blackberry nose; tobacco and lots of tannins; needs time to soften; approachable now
2012 Terry Hoage Vineyards The Gap Cuvee Blanc / $40 / B / grenache blanc/picpoul blanc/rousanne; marshmallow meets floral and honey notes, green apple character
2011 Terry Hoage Vineyards The Pick Grenache Cuvee / $55 / A / blended with syrah, mourvedre, and counoise; lots of ripe strawberries, some tea notes; vanilla – great little wine
2011 Terry Hoage Vineyards The 46 Greanche-Syrah / $55 / A- / 50-50 blend; similar to The Pick, more of a beefy quality, tobacco notes, some jam
2011 Terry Hoage Vineyards 5 Blocks Syrah Cuvee / $55 / B+ / mourvedre/syrah/grenache/cinsault; modest, some herbs, jammier finish
2011 Terry Hoage Vineyards The Hedge Syrah / $60 / A- / 100% syrah; lush, floral meets fruit, black cherry, big finish
2012 Calcareous Chardonnay Paso Robles / $32 / A- / lots of mineral, butterscotch; tart with a buttery body
2011 Calcareous Pinot Noir York Mountain / $40 / B / fruity and tart, light raspberry and blueberry notes; spicy end, some bitterness on the finish
2010 Calcareous Grenache-Mourvedre / $36 / B+ / licorice, big pepper notes; dense spice, earthiness
2010 Calcareous Lloyd / $49 / A- / malbec/cab/cab franc/petit verdot/merlot; lovely nose, restrained; cherry and raspberry fruit; some cedar and vanilla
2010 Calcareous Moose Paso Robles / $48 / A / syrah with 11% petit verdot; huge nose; most lush body of the bunch; vanilla and tobacco notes
2010 Calcareous Tres Violet / $42 / A / the winery’s signature blend – syrah/mourvedre/grenache; slighly thin, but with big floral tones; quiet and silky; the violets are there
2010 Calcareous Cabernet Sauvignon Paso Robles / $38 / A / huge blueberry and even bigger floral notes; some cocoa and cedar; wonderful
2011 Calcareous Syrah (barrel sample) / $45 / A / going to be killer; blueberry jam, a backbone of pepper; nicely chewy
2011 Oso Libre Volado Viognier / $32 / B / buttery, some tropical notes
2011 Oso Libre Carnal GSM Blend / $40 / B+ / smoky, a BBQ wine; acid on the finish
NV Oso Libre Primoroso Winemaker’s Blend / $39 / B+ / a vatting of 10 different varietal wines from 2009-11 vintages; wacky; some straberry candy, lots going on as expected
2010 Oso Libre Quixotic Estate Cabernet Sauvignon / $50 / A- / light and fruity; barely hints at tannins
2009 Oso Libre Reserva Bordeaux Style Blend / $52 / B+ / cab/merlot blend; big fruit, black tea, brown sugar, strawberry candies
2011 Oso Libre Nativo Estate Primitivo / $45 / B+ / wood smoke, dense; leathery, coffee bean notes
NV Oso Libre Rojo del Patron Winemaker’s Blend / $32 / B+ / zin/cab blend; quite sweet; edged with violets and more strawberry candy
2012 Justin Viognier / $23 / B- / woodier take on Viognier; light tropical notes with a big slug of vanilla; not my favorite
2013 Justin Sauvignon Blanc / $14 / B / mango, pineapple; quite steely
2013 Justin Rose Estate / $20 / A- / pretty, strawberry with tart and light sweet notes
2011 Justin Reserve Tempranillo / $45 / A- / huge cherry, vanilla, almost pinot-like in structure; a real surprise
2008 Justin Syrah / $40 / A- / cedra box, with long herbal notes; fun, with a long finish featuring dried fruites
2011 Justin Justification / $50 / B / cab franc/merlot blend; touch of barnyard here; dense, coffee, currants
2011 Justin Isosceles / $62 / B+ / cab/merlot/cab franc; pre-release but in bottle; drinking young, almost green; light cherry; give this 3 years
2010 Justin Isosceles Reserve / $100 / A / 90% cab with malbec/cab franc/merlot; huge wine; concentrated fruit and cassis, some chocolate and a bit of strawberry