On a recent trip home to Scotland I took the opportunity to discover an icon of Scottish Whisky - Dewar's White Label.
I have to admit that when I was planning my trip to Perthshire, the Aberfeldy distillery wasn't top of my list.
From traditional small independents like Eradour and Tullibardine, to iconic brands like Glenturret, (Scotland's oldest distillery and spiritual home of the Famous Grouse, Scotland's best selling whisky), and Blair Athol (one of oldest working distilleries in Scotland), as well as the exciting new micro-distillery at Strathearn, which also brews its own gin, not to mention Dalwhinnie in the north, which draws its water from the famous River Spey, and Deanston in the south, whose water source, the River Teith, also powers the distillery, in Perthshire whisky enthusiasts really are spoiled for choice.
As we were based in Aberfeldy for a couple of days, Dewar's, conveniently located just beyond the town centre, turned out to be a good choice.
Aberfeldy is a small market town located in highland Perthshire, about 70 miles north of Edinburgh. Having flown in from Verona that morning, it was a convenient destination, offering a hint of the more dramatic highland region that lies just beyond.
On this occasion, it was as far north as we were planning to go, but for those who wish to explore the more remote highland region, Aberfeldy is a worthy staging post. Points of interest include the memorial to the famous Black Watch regiment, an 18-hole golf course, a children's park and a thriving town centre, which includes a vibrant cinema, boutique shops, such as Haggart's, a tweed outfitter with a hipster twist, and The Three Lemons, a cafe, bar, grill that wouldn't be out of place in Glasgow's trendy Merchant City. For a town the size of Aberfeldy (population barely 2,000) , the presence of such enterprise is a positive sign of a vibrant town. A hint perhaps of the entrepreneurial spirit that you wouldn't necessarily expect to find in the heart of rural Perthshire.
In 1846, John Dewar, Sr, the son of a local farmer, opened a wine and spirits shop in Perth. In the 1860s he begun blending his own whiskies. When he died in 1880, the popular and thriving spirits company that he had created passed on to his two sons, John Alexander and Tommy.
Aged just 24 and 16 when they inherited the small family business, what the brothers achieved was truly remarkable.
Over the next 50 years, Dewar's would become a truly global brand and the brothers high-profile public figures.
Whisky was little known, let alone drunk outside Scotland at this time. In order to make it more palatable to the global market, the Dewar brothers pioneered the magical world of blending.
They also showed extraordinary skills in marketing and self-promotion, travelling the world to sell their product, boldly exploiting romantic images of Scotland. With his charismatic personality, Tommy set off on a world tour. In 2 years he visited 26 different countries. He kept a journal of his travels which were consolidated and published in a book titled "Ramble Round the Globe", which was published in 1894.
The tour was a remarkable success and Dewar's brand became known as one of the premier Scotch whiskies on the market.
In 1893 the company was granted a Royal Warrant from Queen Victoria. The small Tullymet distillery leased by the family could no longer meet demand so in 1898 the brothers built the Aberfeldy Distillery. The following year they released the flagship White Label expression. With Aberfeldy at its heart, Dewar's White Label is in fact a blend of 40 different whiskies expertly blended by Dewar’s first Master Blender, A.J. Cameron.
Despite difficult times, including war and prohibition, Dewar's of Aberfeldy continued to thrive as the brothers' interests expanded beyond the world of whisky.
From 1900 to 1917 John Alexander represented Inverness-shire in the House of Commons. He became a Baronet in 1907 and in 1917 he was raised to the peerage as Baron Forteviot of Dupplin in the Count of Perth.
In 1900 Tommy Dewar, who subsequently became 1st Baron Dewar, was elected as the MP for Tower Hamlets in London. Amongst other things he was involved in the controversial campaign to introduce immigration controls for the first time in the UK (the Aliens Act 1905).
Dewar’s White Label remains one of the most enduring, most highly-awarded whisky brands in the world. For generations, it has been among the top five best-selling brands globally and the number one brand in America.
Pale amber in colour, with a rich honey sweetness that is the hallmark of the Aberfeldy distillery, it also offers hints of heather and a touch of peaty smokiness. It's no limited edition single malt, but after a couple of drams it's easy to see why it has become one of the best selling whiskies ever produced.
While purists tend to favour single malt, it should be remembered that blends like Jonny Walker, Dewar's White Label and Chivas Regal are the foundations upon which the whisky industry is built. Without ambitious pioneers like the Dewar brothers and Jonny Walker, whose vision, enterprise and determination ensured that Scotch Whisky is a drink sold and revered all over the world, the whisky industry would not be the global success story it is today.
For as long as I've been living in Italy, Puglia has been high on my list of places to visit.
A land of unspoiled beauty as yet untainted by mass tourism. Miles of stunning coastline, white sandy beaches, medieval towns, flamingoes, grottoes and the famous trulli of Alberobello.
The pace of life is slow. The food is just how Italians like it - simple, fresh and authentic.
For the Veronese, tired of the expense and hassle of traveling to Sardinia, Puglia is now the hot spot for summer vacations.
The only problem is getting there. Most people who travel from Verona to Puglia drive. That's at least 8 hours in the car - and that's on a good day. I've heard some real horror stories.
So, for the time being, Puglia remains on my wish list.
Perhaps it was this unquenced desire that propelled me towards the Puglia pavilion at Vinitaly 2017.
After the hustle and bustle of the reception area and a quick lap of the more chaotic zones near the entrance, Puglia was an oasis of calm and serenity.
That's not to say it was empty - there was a certain buzz of quiet industry about the place, but it just wasn't as frenetic as the other pavilions.
I soon found myself in conversation with a friendly sommelier at the regional stand who was just about to take me on a swift canter through the region's wine. Responding to my obvious enthusiasm for such a mission (the sun was barely over the yardarm), it wasn't long before I was being introduced to a well-dressed man with more than a passing resemblance to Pete Postlethwaite (think Usual Suspects rather than Brassed Off).
Charismatic and friendly, the man before me was in fact Franco di Filippo, the owner of the Estasi vineyerd. The passion and the pride with which he described his wine was one of the highlights of the fair for me.
It was impossible not to be impressed - and that was before I'd even tasted a drop of his wine!
Estasi is a delightful sparkling wine that takes its distinctive golden-yellow colour from the rather unusual way in which it is produced. Traditionally sparkling wine is made from under-ripe grapes, which gives it its high acidity. The result is a light and simple wine which generally lacks the structure of more complex non-sparkling wines.
Estasi, on the other hand, is made from the Moscoto Reale grape variety, which are left on the vine until they become super-ripe and naturally dry. They are finally harvested in late October, by which time the grapes resemble raisins. The fruit is then fermented and matured in steel tanks for 24 months. The wine is then referemented in the bottle (the Champagne method) for a further 18 months.
The result is a complex well-structured wine. On the nose, ripe fruit, citrus and apricot. On the palate, peach, honey, elderflower and hints of ginger. The bubbles are not as vigorous as with other sparkling wines, the overall result a more delicate, elegant wine with a truly distinctive flavour.
Amongst the inevitable fog of a four-day wine fair, this encounter was a rare moment of insight and clarity. Time seemed to stand still and I was transported to a far-away land of white sandy beaches and dense olive groves. For a fleeting moment, I finally found myself in Puglia.
An introduction to the magical world of independent bottling
It was the week before the start of the festival and I was enjoying the last couple of days of a family holiday in Edinburgh when an old friend called to ask if I wanted to join him at the Scotch Malt Whisky Society (SMWS) to celebrate his new job.
Quicker than you can say "I'll have a Bunnahabhain 11yo Pedro Ximénez Finish", I was crossing the murky Water of Leith, dashing past Martin Wishart's Michelin starred restaurant and, with a spring in my step and a flutter in my chest, making my way across the high-walled courtyard of the Vaults.
The Vaults in Leith, a building whose cavernous wine cellars are said to date back to 12th century, is home to the SMWS in Edinburgh. Grand yet snug, decadent yet clubbable, it's like stepping into an Edwardian gentleman's club (at least I imagine it is, never having done so). Membership will set you back £122 for the first year (plus an annual renewal fee thereafter), but included in the price is a welcome pack that contains 3 sample bottles of Society whisky. Members, as I was fortunate enough to discover, can also invite guests to join them for a dram. Knowledgeable and well-informed sommeliers are always on hand to make recommendations based on your personal tastes.
After what is, by all accounts, a vigorous vetting procedure shrouded in secrecy, the SMWS carefully selects its whisky directly from distillery castoffs. When a distillery produces a whisky that it doesn't want to bottle (perhaps it doesn't quite match its unique flavour criteria), rather than simply discarding the unbottled whisky, these casks are instead released to independent whisky bottlers, such as the SMWS. The SMWS Tasting Panel then gives each bottle a mischievous set of tasting notes and a quirky but descriptive name - the bottle I took home with me was called "Eureka Moment".
So as not to identify the distillery from which it originates, whiskies at SMWS are all given a unique, two-part numerical identifier. They are then bottled at cask-strength (upwards of 45%), rather than at the typical industry standard of around 40%. "Eureka Moment" came in at robust 58.6%, so a wee splash of water was necessary to fully appreciate this punchy wee dram.
All told, a visit to the Vaults in Leith is a singular, if not unique, experience.
In fact, there are an ever increasing number of independent whisky bottlers, although few can boast such sumptuous premises as the SMWS. Some, like Berry Brothers and Rudd, which has been supplying gin to the royal family since the reign of George III, and the iconic Gordon & MacPhail, which started out as a grocer in Elgin in 1895, have long histories of selecting and bottling whisky. These veterans have been joined by exciting newcomers like Hidden Spirits, an independent Italian bottler founded in 2013, Rest and Be Thankful, another bold new independent bottler that is producing some outstanding single malts and Chapter 7, which is leading the way with its clean modern branding.
These independent whisky bottlers offer high quality products often at seriously competitive prices.
So, while you're waiting for that elusive invitation to the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, why not seek out a single malt from an independent bottler?
As for me, it's nearly midnight and I've got an important deadline to meet.
It's time for another Eureka Moment!