Thursday 26 August 2010

Grand designs at Traquair

To Scotland I went when on holiday in Northumberland last, back in 2007. A fancy had struck me that not far away Traquair House lurked, somewhere I had always wanted to pay my respects to, having enjoyed its variety of beers since the 1990s. In moments of idle fantasy, I Gormenghasted a cobwebby, crow-blown, multi-turreted haunted house, a monumental monument to the daydreams that shuffle themselves onto the stage of real life thanks to a shuffled deck of luck, labour and the lodestar of inspiration. This is where brewing had famously recommenced in the 1960s after the then laird came upon the old ancient  brewhouse hidden away beneath a scuttle of pheasant pens and other countryside clutter. He died in 1990, but his daughter Lady Catherine very much keeps the flame alive. Michael Jackson had been there (of course) and waxed lyrical — here was one of the last remnants of the old country house brewing tradition. I had to visit. And I did. So much for fantasy. Upon arrival I felt that the overall appearance of the house owed more to the great French military architect Vauban than Mervyn Peake; here was a a granite hard house seemingly built to withstand war with the many windows added in a more peaceful time. The brewhouse was down round the side, closed up for the day. I then glimpsed the brewer — Ian Cameron — clambering out of a door, on his way to deliver beer in Edinburgh. We’d spoken on the phone a couple of times, but never met. Have you got a few minutes I asked, a brief chat and that was that. He told me that the original eighteenth century four-barrel vessels in the old brewhouse are now only used twice a year, with a newer, more modern (but not push-button) eight-barrel outfit in operation in the old stables. However, tradition is maintained with the wooden fermenting vessels that help to give Traquair’s beers a distinct oakiness. ‘I have never been tempted by stainless steel,’ he laughed, ‘the wood is almost like the secret ingredient.’ So I thought of this visit the other night when I decided to open a bottle of Traquair 900, a celebratory beer that had been sleeping in my cellar since that visit. God it was gorgeous, with a rich, luxuriant, spirituous chocolate character; a spoonful of rum-steeped raisins, a swirl of dark fruity chocolate and hazelnuts embedded in milk chocolate. The finish was lush and slightly spicy. I still cannot get over the rich chocolate-like character, though there was a crisp, roasty sternness that stopped it from becoming too lax and luxurious, too indolent. So impressed was I by this beer that I then decided to open the brewery’s 2010 10% special. This, inevitably was younger and tighter in its flavour profile, like a flower whose petals have yet to open to their full splendour. Yet there was a complexity about it that made me wish I had one to age. On the nose a cracker-like crispness and ground coffee grains, while the palate was spirituous, rich, smoky, fruity, fiery, earthy, spicy with a dry finish. It’s hardy and handsome, fierce in its alcoholic spirit, soothing with its mocha-like hand on the fevered brow. Cointreau-like orange richness, almond marzipan, stone fruit sourness and tannins and rounded banana-like estery notes also boomeranged around in the mouth. I suspect that the 2007 is long gone but if you can get hold of the 2010 buy two, one for now and one for 2012 or even later. Traquair’s been around for hundreds of years, so they know a fair bit about ageing…


  1. We had a trip to Innerleithen (also from Northumberland) in 2005. Stayed in the Traquair Arms which was just like Fawlty Towers (the place and the manager). But it was effectivley the brewery tap for Traquair.

    So the beer made up for it; the case of Jacobite we got then, apart from being drunk, was used in a couple of Chrismas puds. Good stuff.

  2. Sounds great - I've got a bottle of Traquair in the cellar, this has only whetted my appetite. Was saving it for when the weather turns a little greyer.

  3. I have been a visitor to Traquair many times over the last 30 plus years and never tire of the place or its beer. Last year I had the pleasure of staying in the house for a couple of nights and there was nothing better than curling up in front of the roaring fire with a bottle of Jacobite. I don’t think it has ever tasted better. The beers like the house are truly magical and I heartily recommend everyone to try them if they can.

    I have a couple of bottles of the 1000th brew in the cupboard along with a bottle of the 2010 and I look forward to eventually opening them when (if) I can find the right time.