We Explore Scotland’s Centuries-Old Distilleries With Elliot Faber

Journeys

December 27, 2017 | BY Christopher DeWolf

Sommelier and sake expert Faber reflects on his recent tour of the Scottish Highlands’ best-known whisky distilleries. Photography by Andrea Wyner

It was cold, wet and gloomy. “Perfect weather for whisky,” thought Elliot Faber as he walked down Marylebone Road in central London on his way to a private tasting of some of the world’s best Scotch.

Faber is the beverage director for some of Hong Kong's hottest gastro-haunts. such as Sunday’s Grocery, Yardbird and Ronin, as well as the founder of Sake Central, and a rising star on this year's Generation T list of young talents. He was in London as a prelude to a whisky voyage through Scotland—a rare opportunity for Faber, whose knowledge of Scotch was, by his own admission, more academic than anything.

“The first whisky I had was probably Crown Royal, with my dad,” says the Canadian-born sommelier and sake expert. Though he worked in Scotland for three summers, it was wine and sake that first captured Faber’s heart. When he moved to Hong Kong in 2011, he built up an impressive drinks programme for Yardbird, the plucky izakaya that, after five years, recently moved from Bridges Street to Wing Lok Street in Sheung Wan. That took him on frequent visits to Japan, where he developed a fascination for Japanese whisky. 

“My knowledge of whisky came in a kind of backwards way,” he says. Whisky was brought to Japan by Masataka Taketsuru, a chemist who travelled to Scotland to learn the centuries-old art of distilling. Though Japanese whisky is based on the same production techniques as Scotch, it tends to have a more mellow flavour because of Japan’s notoriously soft water and warmer climate. Having visited some of Japan’s most acclaimed distilleries, Faber was curious to explore their roots. “I’m kind of a nerd about process and how whisky is made,” he says. 

But first there was the tasting on Marylebone Road. There was a Lagavulin 12, new releases from Port Ellen and Brora—two “lost” distilleries that have recently been revived after decades of being shuttered—and the star of the night, a Port Dundas grain whisky distilled in 1964 and aged for 52 years. Faber jotted down tasting notes on his phone. “Structure and restraint,” he wrote of the Port Ellen. The Lagavulin was “too youthful". 

Nothing compared with the Port Dundas. “It wasn’t just the age statement that was impressive,” he says. “It had a certain finesse and elegance.”

A day later, Faber boarded a flight to Inverness, where he set out for Glen Ord, a 179-year-old distillery that makes whisky for the Singleton series of single malts. “The weather was terrible but the air was clean and sweet,” he recalls. As it’s one of the more popular distilleries to visit in Scotland, the experience at Glen Ord was not exactly intimate, but Faber was still able to glean some interesting information, like how the distillery uses washback tanks made of Douglas fir imported from the west coast of the United States.

Things got more exciting as Faber drove west to the Isle of Skye. After stopping for a moment to admire the 13th-century castle at Eilean Donan, he ventured across to the island and made his way to its only distillery, one that makes some of his favourite whisky.

Nestled between rolling green hills and a shallow inlet, Talisker Distillery is a collection of whitewashed, pitched-roof buildings that has grown bit by bit since 1830. Its whisky, known for bold flavours with a delicate finish, has won many admirers through the years, among them Robert Louis Stevenson, who referred to Talisker in a poem as “the king o’ drinks".

“It’s all about the water,” says Faber. Scottish water is hard, with lots of calcium and magnesium. “It makes it taste masculine, for lack of a better word. It’s hard and angular versus soft and voluptuous, which is what you get when you use water without as many minerals.”

The distillery tour was a fascinating experience. "When I go to a Japanese distillery, there’s always a language barrier, but Talisker could answer anything as in-depth as I wanted,” says Faber. "When you go to a distillery you never stop learning."

He was particularly taken by the swan neck lye pipes that plunge into a bath of cold water, which cools and condenses vapour from the stills. “It’s what gives Talisker a peppery taste, but they can’t explain why,” he says. “It’s the kind of thing that captures the myth of whisky.” Although the distillery produces 3.5 million litres of spirit per year, it’s not exactly an industrial product, since it owes so much of its character to intangible forces like climate, water and mysterious swan neck pipes.

Faber usually prefers to drink his whisky neat, without any added water. “If you’ve gone to the effort of building your distillery next to a specific source of water, I want to taste the whisky with only the water it was made with,” he says. But he made an exception on Skye. “I had all expressions—neat, on the rocks. It’s the same water, so I thought, ‘Why not?’” 

As he ventured along the island’s heather-cloaked hills, Faber enjoyed a lot of Talisker. “We went to an oyster shack for breakfast and I had some Talisker 10. It was so good,” he says. He drank it with smoked haddock and the best fish and chips he had ever tasted. He sipped it with mussels for dinner. “It’s such a unique whisky—I fell in love with it. It’s the complexity. Sweet notes, peppery notes, umami. And once poured, it changes through its evolution in your glass.”

 

Faber’s next stop was the Speyside Cooperage, where workers assemble whisky casks from new American oak. “The level of craftsmanship still exists no matter how much whisky they produce,” he says. “Even if you modernise it in some ways, there are certain elements that can only be done by hand, like the cooperage or the master blenders.”

After the cooperage and a visit to Cardhu, which makes a large part of the whisky blended to create Johnnie Walker, Faber ended up at the Highlander Inn, a legendary whisky bar in the small town of Craigellachie. There he met the inn’s owner, Tatsuya Minagawa, who poured him some rare Scotch and even rarer Japanese whisky.

“I saw how much Japanese whisky is linked to Scotch,” he says, thinking back to his distillery visits. “I could see a young Taketsuru working there, watching and learning.” He still marvels at how much skill is required to turn a simple mix of barley, yeast and water into something as magical as Scotch whisky. “That’s not science,” he says. “It’s passion.”

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