A Game of Thrones Whisky Marathon
A campaign about whisky, you say? Charging about bonnie Scotland like there’s no tomorrow in pursuit of dramatic destinations, dreamy distilleries and delectable drams? There’s a connection with maybe the greatest TV show ever made as well, is there? Aye, right.
Despite the inevitable misery of this Game of Thrones whisky challenge, I came to the grudging conclusion that things could, conceivably, be worse. That there are probably one or two worse ways to spend a weekend. And that is because whisky is maybe the single best thing about being Scottish. It’s as Scottish as it gets. Whisky has flowed over centuries in this magic land and has always been there for us. When we’re sad, when we’re reeling, when we’re merry and when we’re just feckin’ freezing. Scotch has had our backs.
I know, I know, other folk do whisky (or whiskey) too. I even grant you that some of it’s pretty good….but our stuff’s better.
It’s the water, it’s the process, it’s the settings, it’s the traditions and, most importantly for this drinker, it’s the personal investment that each and every one of us make when we visit a Scottish whisky distillery. Not the financial investment – although that’s notable too perhaps when you realise, with the briefest, hastily dismissed, twitch of self-pause at the checkout that you’ll be foregoing food for the rest of the week as soon as you press enter – but the emotional, reflective investment.
You’ve just spent an hour learning the ins and outs of this great machine, absorbing its story and its uniqueness and you’re a richer person (let’s imagine you’ve not reached the shop yet) for it. You’re closer to the end product, you’re invested in it. Fàilte.
A Game of Whisky Thrones
Fans of the HBO series are still in recovery at the staggeringly empty feeling caused by the show’s recent conclusion. I’m there with you. Saying goodbye to characters that fans have quite literally grown up with over a decade was always going to be rough. Will another TV show ever compete with it for pulse-racing drama, fearless plot twists and post-episode trauma recovery? I’d stare blankly at the TV for as much as an hour, not really hearing anything in the background, completely dumbstruck. Mentally breathless.
I will say this. Whisky was there, in hand, during every episode. Whether it was with a vice grip of steely awe or a shaky-hand, instinctive elbow-bender that I barely even registered, whisky was the only thing I’d let interrupt my viewing of maybe the greatest fictional saga of all.
That the show was not filmed in Scotland is a source of enormous frustration. We’re being greedy now as so many series and films have found their way here in recent times, but this one hurts. Hence, I had, until now, struggled to envisage a Scotlanders campaign that would follow a Game of Thrones theme.
I should have known. Whisky is the friend who never needs asking, the rock-steady accomplice during stormy times and any Scot’s surest supporting act in times of creative stalemate. World’s collide. Strap in.
Drinks industry giant Diageo made a sublime alliance with HBO, pairing 8 of their distilleries across Scotland with the iconic Houses of Westeros. Each created their own unique bottling in the Game of Thrones mould. With large chunks of Scotland’s turbulent history having inspired George R R Martin’s writings, connections abound at each as travellers and whisky nutters alike can start to play-out their own fantastical road trip.
You can see where this is going I suspect – 3 bloggers, 8 distilleries, 2 days, lots of Game of Thrones whisky…..
Oban, Paired with the Night’s Watch
People say you can smell the air. More often than not, an appropriate reaction to this would be an exagerrated roll of the eyes. But, go to Oban…you’ll smell it fine. It doesn’t smell like fish or seaweed, nothing so blatant, nor does it smell like the ubiquitous fish suppers to be found in the coastal town. No, it smells like the islands. Fresh, salty, sweet and restless, this is the kind of air that inspires.
The Lords of the Isles, the Macdonalds, would have been the Thrones equivalents of the Greyjoys and, like the Vikings before them, the outlying islands and islets visible from Oban would have been their targets of trade and raid in the power battles that consumed ancient kingdoms. But it would not have been the Greyjoy islanders that held fort in Oban, definitely not. A lofty monitoring station such as this requires a certain type of disciplined sentry….enter The Night’s Watch.
The dregs of Westeros’ society in previous lives, these were the protectors of the realm, the front line and the policers of the northern frontier of the seven kingdoms. With a disposition to make the Starks look carefree, their grim dourness made up a vital element of the entire series.
Oban Distillery has the unusual privilege of having its roots way back in the 18th Century and has stood as one of the foundations of the town, the ‘Gateway to the Isles’, ever since. Facing Oban Bay and set under a steep cliff, atop which sits the town’s very own Colosseum, it is from here that countless Hebridean island holidays begin every day. But stand at McCaig’s Tower on a chilly winter’s day and cast your eye over the bay – things are altogether much more disquieting.
There’s a perfumed saltiness to their drams that hints at peat without ever being so bold as to fully deliver. Toffee and spice are in there too in what is amongst the lightest of all the single malts. The specific Oban Bay Reserve boasts extremely rich notes so lots of dark berries, chocolate and even hints of rich Christmas cake.
Lagavulin, paired with House Lannister
Oh, there had to be an Islay. Nothing screams forbidding drama like a wind and wave battered Scottish island, not a thing. It’s Isle-lah by the way not Isle-lay, before we proceed. You wouldn’t be the first to claim deep knowledge of Islay malts, yet remain curiously unable to pronounce the place.
Next point to underline in bold is that whisky is utterly integral to this little landmass phenomenon. Imagining Islay without whisky….an appalling thought that doesn’t bear thinking about….would be like Edinburgh without its Castle, or Glen Coe without its Sisters. Except, somehow, even worse.
Now, Islay malts are lodged firmly at the extreme end of the whisky flavour spectrum. Eye-watering, nasal-hair-singeing, throat inferno-ing flavours that concentrate on smoke and peat will utterly consume your senses here. Some like that, others run a mile.
The island holds nine distilleries now. I’m trying to find a grand, impressive adjective to do justice to that fact. I’m going to settle on ‘hilarious’. Yes, I’m having it, it’s hilarious that such a world’s away wee place can be such a world-leading powerhouse in drinks industry circles. The unquestioned main draw is to the island’s south coast and The Holy Trinity of Ardbeg, Laphroaig and Lagavulin. That you can now take a merrily inebriated trot between all three thanks to a handy footpath is thoughtfulness personified. There’s a person that’s going to heaven. And it is the latter of the three that falls within Diageo’s amber empire.
Lagavulin is a notch or two away from the very extreme flavours from next door at Laphroaig, but is still pretty out there. The 16-year-old is a miracle of a drink that keeps those peaty inclines but somehow ropes in sweet, vanilla flavours too. Not content to produce one absolute titan, there’s also the Distiller’s Edition (ask at the distillery). Look out for salt, fishiness, smoke and some sweetness.
It would have to be a strong, characterful House that could pull off this match-up. No Freys or Tarlys here! No, it had to be Lannister. The golden-haired family of alarmingly disturbed individuals wrestling with each other’s big personalities would probably be much more amiable if they integrated whisky more calculatingly into their lives. Tyrion had the right idea.
The Game of Thrones whisky bottling is young, but hard-hitting. Expect sweet peat and oiliness, a bit of citrus, caramelised banana and a slightly burnt spiciness. Swig back a big mouthful of that and roar the roar of a Lannister lion.
Best enjoyed right outside the distillery if possible, seek out a quiet wee spot with views south over the water. Drown out life’s irrelevances and focus purely and simply on your dram, your dram’s House and your dram’s House’s front garden. The good life.
Dalwhinnie, paired with House Stark
The second, the very instant, you open the car door outside Dalwhinnie Distillery in winter, the icy chill thumps you like an ice hammer.
Only a whisky distillery would have the brass neck to plonk itself in the lonely barrenness of the western limits of Cairngorms National Park. Where the Highlands are their highest, least hospitable and most chillingly unnerving. Terrain that would crush the confidence of even the most experienced hikers and a breeze that would freeze the undead, Dalwhinnie is to be found between Scotland and the heavens. So, feeling very much like a Lannister that’s bitten off more than he can chew by heading brazenly to The North, I rock up to Diageo’s very own Winterfell.
Take a look around. There’s the forever-busy A9 right there….but other than that, this has the feeling of northern limits. The Cairngorm peaks offer a protective ring but, on the flip, present a slightly unsettling cauldron effect. An ice cauldron, and you’re right in the middle of it. This simply had to be Scotland’s home of the Starks.
Dalwhinnie is in truth just a few miles from the mighty River Spey, and its expressions do deliver some similarities in notes to Speyside classics. But….there’s something different too. I’m searching for the adjective. Can’t find one. There’s a freshness, a slight zing. Is it herbs? Yeah, herbs. The Winter’s Frost Game of Thrones whisky bottling is delicate and balanced with honied fruits and just enough roughness to let you know where you are.
Talisker, paired with House Greyjoy
In terms of visitor centre numbers, Talisker is an industry colossus. Access to the travelling droves that have turned Skye into an economic circus in recent years and set amongst insane rural vistas give Talisker an allure and a fanbase that find so much magic in those smoky drams that they can’t look past it.
You’ll find the Distillery tucked away in one of Skye’s many fingers, towards the north west. On the banks of Loch Harport and watched over by the brooding Cuillins, there’s drama aplenty here. You can’t drive through Skye without your neck twirling in each and every direction as the impossible landscapes call for your attention. As for the all-important fresh water supplies, there’s never any shortage of that.
The Greyjoys were a pretty independently-minded, gruff bunch and Skye on a grey day matches up superbly. Raiders, pirates and hardy islanders that relied on the sea for everything, there’s a hint of the Viking and the Lords of the Isles in their depiction.
The Talisker Select Reserve, their Game of Thrones whisky bottling, retains many of the typical distillery notes but is abundant in dry, peppery smoke. There’s salt. There’s sweetness. And there’s richness. I’ve said it plenty, Talisker is a great place to start for whisky novices. And it’s a great place to close the King of Whisky Road Trips.
It’s been an amber marathon. What’s in your glass tonight?
This campaign has been completed in paid partnership with Diageo, supporting the launch of their Game of Thrones inspired bottlings for 8 of their distilleries. Such a chore as it was, the promotion of the distilleries and their associated drams is based purely on personal admiration and approval. Should you wish to purchase any or all of the above collection you can do so on www.malts.com. You can also read Patricia and David’s blogs from their own whisky adventures as they completed the Diageo distillery Thrones-athon.
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