I’ve never been much of an alcohol connoisseur. Drinker, yes. Expert, certainly not. I like a few beers, generally in the wheat and blonde families. I enjoy wine when the time is right, but know nothing about it. So Scotch whisky tasting was a relatively new experience for me. It was a lot of fun, and I realized that a beverage can be sipped, not gulped, and still be enjoyed; and it doesn’t need to be mixed with something, either. (Just a little ice will do, though I know some would even frown upon that.) Here are the varieties we tried and the places we tried them, plus very general reviews. I will not be talking about “notes” or “finishes” as I honestly have no idea what that means.
Location: The Dome, 4 George St., New Town
We were served by a less than friendly bartender who nevertheless got us off to a great start.
- Whisky #1: Dalwhinnie 15yo
A light, mild, high-quality beverage.
Location: The whisky bar at Amber Restaurant, in the Scotch Whisky Experience, 354 Castlehill
Our well-versed and friendly bartender Caleb selected a range of four whiskies for us, and kindly answered all of our (mostly basic) questions.
- Whisky #2: Auchentoshan 12yo
This was a strong lead-off for our tasting. Smooth and drinkable; good for first time tasters, for sure. Distilled in Glasgow; aged in bourbon casks.
- Whisky #3: Scapa Skiren
This may have been our favorite of the day. Light and smooth and enjoyable. Distilled in Orkney; matured in first-fill American oak casks.
- Whisky #4: Glenfarclas 21yo
The priciest and oldest of the whiskies we tried, this one was good but not our favorite of the day. Distilled in Speyside.
- Whisky #5: Caol Ila Moch
This was by far our least favorite of all the whiskies we tried. Described as smoky and peaty, I might describe it as “bacon-y.” I’m glad we tasted it; it helped us figure out what we did NOT like. Distilled on the Isle of Islay.
Location: The Queens Arms, 49 Frederick St.
Our friendly, patient and helpful waiter recommended amazing whiskies and fabulous food. One of our favorite dining and drinking spots of the trip. This was the hungry, thirsty end of a long day, and I don’t remember anything specific, other than my notes on the back of a receipt. I will share them verbatim here, and I’m sure you’ll find them illuminating.
- Whisky #6: McCallan Gold—Speyside. “:)”
- Whisky #7: Glenkinchie (I can’t remember which.)—East Lothian. “:)?”
- Whisky #8: Balvenie Doublewood (My friend drank, I tasted.)—Dufftown. “:)”
- Whisky #9: McCallan Amber (My friend drank, I tasted.)—Speyside. “:)”
Additional notes: All went well with haggis lollipops.
The bottle I came home with
I ended up bringing home a bottle of Dalwhinnie 15yo, my first love, purchased in the most convenient location of the duty free shop at Heathrow Airport. When I got home, I bought some large ice cube trays so they would melt more slowly. I cracked it open last week. I’m happy with my choice. Sláinte!
In early March, my friend Jenn and I spent a wonderful 10 days in the United Kingdom, exploring London, Bath, the Cotswolds and Edinburgh. It was an amazing trip and I am already plotting how I can get back. In the meantime, I’m sharing some experiences and lessons learned, and generally geeking out on Anglophilia. Here is the second half of my musings.
Best decisions we made on our trip
- GOING. Moms need a break. Moms sometimes don’t take time for themselves. Moms should do this. Everyone should do this, if they can.
- Not going for too long. I know people are tempted to take long trips to get their money’s worth out of pricey international flights, but I know my limits. I have only been out of the country three times in my life, and have historically gotten a bit fed up with international travel at about day seven anyway. Add to that the stress of being away from my kid when I am, in general, NEVER away from her for longer than eight hours, and a super-long vacation just didn’t make sense. Ten days including travel was long enough to enjoy and just long enough that the missing didn’t become unbearable. Just don’t try and cram too many destinations into those 10 days.
- Going off-peak. I live in Los Angeles. I don’t need to seek out sunshine. Sometimes I need a raincation. Also, a cold and damp England feels right. Avoid the crowds, save a little money, and go off-season.
- Getting a blow out halfway through. No, seriously. I did not have the proper equipment to power hair styling tools; nor did we need to do so—the weather was cold enough that we didn’t get too sweaty. Getting a blowout meant we didn’t have to sacrifice a flat iron to the voltage gods, we got a relaxing head massage, and we got to chat up a few locals in a slightly less touristy setting. ALL THE CREDIT GOES TO MY TRAVEL PARTNER JENN FOR THIS IDEA. I bow to her brilliance.
- Not getting a tattoo. I joked that this was a “Moms Gone Wild” trip but we were VERY tame. My traveling companion did get a lovely and meaningful tattoo, though; if I had made the decision to join her it would have been totally spur of the moment and probably something I would regret. But she couldn’t be happier with hers!
- Staying in AirBnBs. The review system and filters for searching make it really easy to find a great place with exactly what you want. Our apartments were amazing and centrally located, they had more character than the average hotel, and the hosts were friendly and helpful. We stayed in regular hotels in London, but I’ll definitely do AirBnBs for at least part of my next trip.
- NOT DRIVING. Again, knowing our limits is important. We knew that driving would have gotten us possibly stressed out, frequently lost, and potentially injured. (We could barely remember which direction to look when crossing the street most of the time.) Luckily, most of the rest of the world is pretty easy to get around by public transportation.
- Taking a day tour. We decided, due to our lack of a car and general knowledge of the area, to experience Stonehenge by day tour, and I’m SO glad we did. Mad Max Tours had just what we needed—Stonehenge, Avebury, Lacock, Castle Combe, and a relaxing ride in a warm and comfy 18-passenger van filled only halfway, mostly with other anglophile Americans like myself. This was a great way to experience the area, guided by a local, without the stress of finding our own way. And driving by the real Solsbury Hill while listening to Peter Gabriel’s song of the same name was an unexpected and magical moment.
- Scotch whisky tastings. If you don’t know what you like, ask an expert a lot of questions. We chose Amber, the bar at the Scotch Whisky Experience. Perhaps on the touristy side, but then we felt less pressure to not ask dumb questions, and they had an amazing selection. (More to come on that in my next post.)
What I learned about myself
- I like history!
- My dessert follow-through is weak. (Thanks for pointing this out, Jenn.)
- I like haggis! (In a gastropub, deep-fried.)
- I like Scotch whisky!
- I can DO it. This may sound silly; but I’d never traveled internationally without my husband before. I’d never really traveled ANYWHERE before under my own steam. I decided I wanted to go on this trip; I planned it; and I handled nearly all of the logistics. And it turned out pretty great! There were a few bumps along the way, but nothing insurmountable. The trip was so great, I can’t wait to do it again.
UK, You Take My Breath Away
In early March, my friend Jenn and I spent a wonderful 10 days in the United Kingdom, exploring London, Bath, the Cotswolds and Edinburgh. It was an amazing trip and I am already plotting how I can get back. In the meantime, I’m going to share some experiences and lessons learned, and generally geek out on Anglophilia.
Top moments that took my breath away
1. The Tate Britain—My travel partner’s flight was delayed getting into London, so I took the opportunity to explore on my own. From our hotel near Victoria Station, I walked toward the Thames, and wound my way beside it for a bit, happening upon the Tate Britain art gallery (not to be confused with the Tate Modern). My very first real destination in London didn’t disappoint. It housed, among other things, the oldest full-body portrait of Queen Elizabeth I, and there was a haunting installation of sounds made from musical instruments damaged in war. I wasn’t on this trip for art museums but I was glad I ended up in this one.
2. The London Eye at night—I know that the eye is a tourist trap, but for good reason.As everyone in London seemed eager to share, it was only supposed to be there for a year to celebrate the Millennium. However, it was such a hit that they decided to keep it. We went on Sunday, but waited until dusk; there was no line, and we got to watch night fall on the city from above. What a treat—seeing the lights of London from 443 feet up in the air.
3. Stonehenge and Avebury—I am struggling for the words to describe this experience. We got to Stonehenge right as it opened, picked up our audio guides, and started walking around the stones. In what seemed like an instant, an hour and 15 minutes had passed. It is just … SO … OLD. Nothing standing in America is a fraction as ancient. It makes you feel connected to humanity through the ages; and also intensely curious about moved these people to move these stones, long before the time of Jesus Christ. Avebury was a different experience, but also amazing; much larger; much older; much less in tact. But you can actually walk up to those stones, and imagine how the village they inhabit grew up around them (and also threatened them.) I would go back and do this again in an instant. I treasure the speck of white chalky mud that still sits on my boot from this rainy day visit among the standing stones.
4. The Cotswolds—We visited a few of these villages, and drove through others, on our tour to Stonehenge and Avebury. This is like going back in time to every British period drama you’ve ever loved. Literally, too—many movies and TV shows, from BBC dramas to Harry Potter, have been filmed in places like Lacock because it remains so unchanged from 300 years ago. Just wandering the streets is a treat.
5. The Roman Baths—this highlight of the city of Bath is another must see. To think of Romans enjoying the natural hot springs about 2,000 years ago in this magnificently excavated site conjures images of summer at the neighborhood pool, mixed with a church, with a dash of reality TV thrown into the mix. (Visitors would inscribe curses and offer them to the gods there; of those that have been discovered, most complain about theft, and wish some of the WORST things that could possibly happen to a person on the thief.)
6. Mass at Westminster Abbey—It’s great to take tours of amazing places. It’s even better to experience them as they were meant to be—to hear a symphony in a historic concert hall, or in this case to worship in a sacred space meant just for that. Though we didn’t get to poke around in every nook and cranny, we were able to hear an amazing choir’s voices echoing against its historically infused walls.
7. Holyroodhouse Palace—Castles are awesome. Most of them that you can visit are no longer in use. Hollyroodhouse, however, is different. It is a working palace, home to Queen Elizabeth II when she comes on her annual summer visit to Edinburgh. The palace’s timeline stretches from the early 1500s and King James IV to present day, and was the residence of Mary Queen of Scots for a time. The Abbey ruins adjacent to the palace itself are far older too.
8. The Streets of Edinburgh—This city was simply magical. London is lovely and while it has swaths of ancient Britain, it also has the flavor of any major metropolitan international city. Edinburgh feels like … Scotland. And history. I love the smell of history in the morning. Every street was a postcard. At every turn was yet another breathtaking building, or monument, or mountain.
9. Food. And more Food. England is not known as a culinary destination; but I suspect times have changed as tourists become more demanding and residents become more discerning. Also, if you’re looking for a meal that will warm you up on a cold rainy day, then the UK has EXACTLY what you need.
10. The Tron Market—in 2015, an underused church in the center of Edinburgh was converted into an indoor market for artists. The selection here was amazing; we also met a friendly Scottish artist, Christopher Rutterford, who explained his painting based on Robert Burns’ poem “Tam O’ Shanter,” and I tried an Irn-Bru, a popular Scottish soda. What more could you need? It says a lot that 17th century gothic churches are so run-of-the-mill in Edinburgh that they go unused and get turned into markets.