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Ardbeg Supernova 2014 and Cutty Sark 33YO

Today I conclude my run-through of the different Scotches sent my way before Christmas. This pair could not be more different: one of the smokiest single malts on the planet, and an elderly, genteel blend.

Ardbeg Supernova 2014 55% GBP 125 (sold out)

The original Supernova from 2010 was peated to over 100ppm and caused quite a stir. This new vintage was launched with some rather exclusive blogger miniatures, some of which may or may not have ended up on auction sites… Mine was a common-or-garden clear glass affair with a typed label so no windfall for James…

Colour – pale lemon yellow.

Nose – remarkable focus and angularity - like a cubist piece, blocks of crackly peat meet blocks of lemon sherbet and blocks of creamy American oak (is there an Ardbeg that doesn’t ooze American oak these days?). That quintessentially Ardbeggian oily sheepiness. Toasted hazelnut and salted caramel. Very good indeed.

Palate – dry, hugely phenolic. Spreads steadily over the tongue with a barbecue intensity. A pillar of dense black peat, spinning gently. A hint of dark chocolate, seashells and seaweed.

Finish – peat (obvs) with flecks of ginger. Lightens gradually to a tasty caramel oakiness. Crushed peat, dry peat, peat a thousand ways. Buttery, kippery, seemingly endless.

Adding water reduced the cubist effect of the nose, although it remained powerful. A fuller fruitiness was on display with banana and apple. Youthful but attractive. Marine-like notes and lemon. The palate revealed smooth apple and pear, an IPA hoppiness, and spicier, sweeter peat. Still sharp. Chilli pepper heat and charred ribs. The chilli heat continues into the finish with an oaky creaminess and thick, ashy peat.

Cutty Sark 33YO 41.7% 3,456 bottles GBP 650

An Art Deco blend according to the press release, harking back to the 1920s and 30s when Cutty started to make in-roads on the American market.  This is the oldest blend ever released under the Cutty Sark label, put together by Master Blender Kirsteen Campbell.

Colour – dark honey amber

Nose – initial notes of coconut, egg custard and an epic creaminess. Further in, that creaminess is both Chantilly and patissiere. Then ripe warm apricot but also a firmness and brightness at the edges where a strange but attractive rose and carbolic soap scentedness lies. The super-sweet grains relax and out steps honey-drizzled peaches with lime zest. Passion fruit, now pineapple syrup. Now and again some Bourbon oak spiciness. Warm apple pie with time and clotted cream. Pain d’Epices syrup on raspberries.

Palate - velvety spice and creamy coconut, plenty of presence. Cinnamon, liquorice root and then passion fruit again. Black cherry in the background. Thick but not heavy, there is some seriously good wood gone into this: warmth and spicy sweetness. Maple syrup.

Finish - creamy with vanilla essence but at the core it is surprisingly firm. Creme caramel, toffee apple. A slight tartness develops with lime and rosehip. Cinnamon biscuits.

So…?       I heap praise on a Glenmorangie, having been a little sceptical in the past, and now I must be a little critical of its sister distillery, having been supremely fond of just about everything it’s released of late. I have not tasted the previous two Supernova releases so cannot compare it to earlier efforts, but I have enjoyed a couple of Octomores, its arch-rival. The hyper-peated version of Bruichladdich combines its dense, mossy smoke with a lovely fat, cereal-driven sweetness. Though young, it feels complete. The SN2014 unfortunately did not feel complete; while there were many tasty and exciting dimensions to it, there wasn’t enough that was exceptional. It is a very good, very smoky whisky, but does not justify the price tag in my opinion.

On to the Cutty Sark. Blended Scotch, you say? Had I been told it was a blended grain I’d have believed it. When I first sample it, in a cold Northumbrian bedroom over Christmas, the slight chill pulled out the grain components to the exclusion of all else. No matter, the grains that have gone into this are of the very highest calibre, nearly on a par with a certain 38YO Invergordon bottled by Compass Box a few years ago. Tasting it again at Dubai room temperature, I could at last detect some malt influence but the grains were still the stars, testament to great skill and sensitivity in the blending room to the lighter style that is Cutty. Absolutely outstanding blending and it was a privilege to taste it.

Sincere thanks to Quercus for the Ardbeg, and Wendy Harries Jones at Cutty Sark.

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Glenrothes Vintage Reserve and Craigellachie 13YO

As I mentioned yesterday, my reviewing days on the Scotch Odyssey Blog are, for the time being, numbered. As a whisky brand ambassador, you’re only really supposed to talk up your own brands but, after some very supportive agencies and distillers sent me some liquid last year, I felt I’d take the opportunity to record a few independent views on some new releases.

Glenrothes Vintage Reserve 40% £TBA

This whisky contains malts from three decades, the oldest vintage being 1989. The majority of the product was distilled in 1998. It will be released in Taiwan first before going global this year.

Colour – brown gold.

Nose – at first I get rich, sourish fruits and bold pistachio biscuit. Underneath is a sturdy phenolic quality. Nose fully in the glass now, seashells and a warm sandiness show themselves but soon clear to the draffy maltiness typical of Glenrothes and egg custard with plenty of nutmeg. A little sharp citric note then glace cherries – a bakewell tart in general. With a bit of time pure lemon steps out along with juicy yellow fruit and pistachio/praline again.

Palate – weighty with lots of fudge, malt and a vaguely sulphury backbone – but it works. A tartness but abundantly sweet.

Finish – milk chocolate and golden delicious apples. Medium-bodied.

Adding water turned the nose even lighter, revealing icing sugar, lemon rind and a tickle of peppery spice. The palate became very smooth indeed with papaya, a slight saltiness and a rich clotted cream texture. I found the finish to be lighter but still palate-coating. Not terribly exciting, however.
Craigellachie 13YO 46% GBP 41.95

Natural colour and non chill-filtered, I believe.

Colour – bright gold.

Nose – chopped salad leaves on first nosing: green and sweet. There follows thick butter, vanilla wafer and a phenolic maltiness. Incredibly muscular and focused at first: bruising malt and mulchy green fruit packed in to a keg of golden oak. Kiwi, pear, a touch of salty metallic tequila. With time, pure confectionary green apple. Biscuit and a very subtle peat. A whole load of textures.

Palate – full and tongue-coating. Dry rich biscuit, a draffy note, lemon pith. Then spice and a hoppy bitterness develops. Reminds me of Innes and Gunn Blonde!

Finish – shortcrust pastry, green plum. Sweet but with a heavy tartness. A coppery flavour/texture appears.

With water, the nose became cleaner with a Granny Smith apple note. Cooked pastry, rather mead-like with that phenolic weight going nowhere. The palate was rounder with egg custard and the green apple from the nose. A touch of herbalness then, as you swallow, in comes a huge old log you might find in the woods in winter: leafy, fungal. A bit of cheese rind. Incredible! It finishes in similarly idiosyncratic fashion: gala melon, apple, dry autumn leaves and an earthiness.

So…?      I mislaid the press release for the Glenrothes, meaning I could taste it completely blind. I only discovered the multi-vintage genesis in a Drinks Report article today. Its price point in Taiwan is GBP 25 which is very good indeed. It’s a very impressive little performer with pleasing depths. Steer clear of water and you have a very drinkable malt indeed.

I always tell myself that I should favour malts like Craigellachie: worm tubs, a once-hidden blender’s favourite – an interesting single malt, in short. This 13YO opened a very exciting new chapter in the John Dewar & Sons malt portfolio and there may well prove some truth in the tagline for the series of whiskies to be released as ‘The Last Great Malts’. Aberfeldy may have been fairly easily-obtainable, but Aultmore, Royal Brackla and Macduff will be revelations when they fully emerge. And will all carry age statements which these days is chicly retro.

There is a 17YO, a 19YO in duty free, and a 23YO to complete the Craigellachie range and they promise a great deal. The leafy, phenolic weight found here in the 13YO should build oak into itself, growing in power and majesty. I doubt I’ll get to try the others any time soon. To be honest, as interesting as I found this dram, it wasn’t entirely for me. The palate was the fascinating star, and without a doubt it has character, but rather Jekyll and Hyde for me.

Many thanks indeed to Quercus for both samples.

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Glenmorangie Taghta and Glenrothes Sherry Cask Reserve

Happy new year, everyone! Welcome back to the Scotch Odyssey Blog although I should warn you, activities will be dialled back down to zero following the next couple of posts.

My circumstances have changed quite dramatically in recent months, changes I only hinted at while recounting my second Scotch Odyssey. I now have a job within the whisky industry, working as brand ambassador for some of my favourite whiskies in a very new location for me: Dubai. The Scotch Odyssey has gone international!

This does create a slight conflict of interest of course when it comes to running an independent whisky blog, one that has been quite critical of the industry and some of what it has gotten up to in recent years. I will not change a word of what I have already written on the blog - I want my reviews and above all my accounts of visits around Scotland to remain available to whoever may wish to begin their own journey to the farthest-flung frontiers of Scotch. However, I won’t be writing any more tasting notes – after this week that is!

I flew back to the UK for Christmas to discover that the tenant who succeeded me in my St Andrews flat had quite a lot of whisky mail piled up by the door. As a thank you to Quercus PR and the team at Cutty Sark, who have both been very generous and communicative with me over the years, I will review the samples they sent. I am putting my connection with a major wine and spirits multinational and my own beloved brands to one side for the next three posts – these are my own words as a whisky fan.

Glenrothes Sherry Cask Reserve 40% GBP 54.95

The first Glenrothes to be released by brand owners Berry Brothers and Rudd that has been entirely matured in first-fill Sherry.

Colour – Light amber.

Nose – punchy purple fruits at first with plum and date. Then follows the classic dense, rich, faintly draffy maltiness which is the signature for this distillery. Seriously rich and dry Sherry on show with dried cranberries, cherry and raisin together with a musky incence-like note. A touch of new rubber.

Palate – full and dense. A little bit beefy. Spicy with cayenne and coconut. Now prune and red apple emerge with a phenolic underpinning.

Finish – more on dried fruits and vanilla, candied peel and orange oil. Quite fruity malt.

With water everything brightened up a touch, the nose becoming more youthful (muscovado maltiness and citrus). The Sherry reminded me of fruitcake. On the palate, vanilla and almond stepped out and then the fruits. Still with a meaty weight, fruit skins and marzipan rounded everything off. The finish was much the same as the straight sample, perhaps with a touch of clove.

Glenmorangie The Taghta 12,000 bottles for Cask Masters 46% GBP 69.99

A ‘crowd-sourced’ whisky, over the last 18 months Glenmorangie fans have assumed responsibility for this dram. From voting for the liquid (I remember there were three options), to choosing the name, packaging and product launch venue, this has been a very democratic whisky indeed. This whisky has been finished in ex-Manzanilla Sherry casks.

Colour - syrupy full gold.

Nose - wonderfully generous oak notes immediately – natural caramel from Bourbon and a sweet yet drying nuttiness from the Manzanilla. Cadbury Fruit n’ Nut bar as well as chopped dried apricots. Suggestions of the pure pear-rich distillery character behind. Now honey and warm gorse bushes together with almond and buttery spiced pecan.

Palate - nutty and oaky, a clean minerally malt behind. A lovely firm fruitiness follows, perfectly in balance. Orange peel and fudgy malt.

Finish - dry but also richly sweet. Quite chewy oak at the end with golden raisin. Just enough zip in the fruit to emerge from the velvety malt.

Adding water took an already extravagantly good aroma to still greater heights: rich toffee, floral notes, cool nutty grape, heather and silky malt. A soft orange blossom fragrance and then more lifted citrus. A palate of apricot, vanilla and a gentle dry spice from the Sherry. The finish was very well-judged with milk chocolate and sea salt, a touch of sweet orange and vanilla pod. The fruit from the Sherry is plump and delicious. Smooth honey and a hint of cigar conclude.

So…?      I will review the Glenrothes Vintage Reserve very soon, but both it and the Sherry Cask Reserve represent another move to no-age statement releases from BBR, having been innovators in their vintage expressions. The Sherry Cask Reserve is a perfectly serviceable and enjoyable malt, both clearly a Glenrothes and clearly from Sherry. Water on both samplings improved it a touch, but for the money there are more exciting Sherry-matured whiskies out there. A Glenfarclas 15yo, for example.

I was quite prepared to pour scorn on the Glenmorangie. On this blog I’ve been less than delighted with Artein and more recently Companta. It is a tribute to this whisky that it got me excited about Glenmorangie again. This is a stupendously good dram, the clarity and quality of the Manzanilla and Bourbon casks that have gone into making this beggars belief. On my first tasting I wasn’t sure I tasted Glenmorangie at all, but such was the excellence of the spirit Dr. Lumsden has created I didn’t care. Second time through, I did detect a few more clues confirming that this malt was made in Tain, and fell even more in love with the nose. I’ve read a few disparaging comments about this whisky that it is ‘simple’ or for ‘beginners’ – whatever your whisky experience, you should be able to appreciate a stunningly well-made and beautifully balanced dram.

Many thanks indeed to Quercus for both samples.

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Blending In, Standing Out

I always endeavour to hang around with creative people (if for whatever reason I’m a little short on creativity myself) because you know that something unexpected is never too far away. You have more fun at the time, and you come away with plenty to think over.

If there is one word to sum up the chaps at Master of Malt, the online drinks retailer, creative would be it. These guys have more ideas for new products while hunting for a pair of vaguely matching socks in the morning than most major distillers do in a month of meetings. In recent weeks they have announced a range of single malts finished in Sherry casks, dubbed Darkness!, revealed a new collection of cocktail bitters created by G-force (Bitter Bastards – you read that right), made available Bramble Bar’s modern classic Affinity cocktail to all and sundry and launched the world’s first super-premium spiced rum. If anything, releasing your own premium Scotch whisky blend smacks of convention.

Master of Malt have form in the blended category, conceiving the Home Blending Kit a few years ago (lots of fun) and getting a whole load of bloggers and journos to combine spirits in a good-natured – but I’m sure, fiercely competitive – blending challenge. Then, earlier this year, their Lost Distilleries Blend walked away with the gong for World’s Best Blended Whisky, beating the illustrious likes of Suntory and Irish Distillers. If it had been me, I’d have organised an open-top bus carnival in my own honour.

To follow up, they have concocted a 10yo blend, Batch 1 at 47.5%, unchill-filtered and natural colour. They were going for ‘rich and complex’. Let’s see if they succeeded.

Master of Malt 10yo Batch 1 47.5% £39.95

Colour – rich full gold.

Nose – yep, rich and full with a hefty truncheon of grain whisky before soft, fudgey peat and rich oak emerge. Quite clean, for all the weight and richness, with sweet walnut and a slug of Sherry. A hint of saltiness, golden syrup and carrot cake.

Palate – cake-rich with carrot cake again, rum fudge and thick oak. Out steps a sweet grassy quality before gooey grains spread over the tongue. A touch of marine-like smoke at the very end.

Finish – spice and richness dry the mouth although muscovado sugar softens things a little. Good weight and structure.

Not to be confused with the Reference Series of bottlings, or the Blended Whisky #1 Batch 1 from That Boutiquey Whisky Co., this is a straight-ahead expression of how Master of Malt envisages blended whisky. I have to say I was impressive, with the dram nosing like something a good few years above its age statement. Grain was old-school fat and juicy, with maybe just a hint of oils and spices, and the malts played a satisfying rich theme.

However, there is stiff competition at the moment, especially when you consider price. I had the Tweeddale 12yo Batch 2 before Christmas and that was suppler, as well as sweeter than the MoM offering. It was also, at the time, cheaper. Even I, blend evangelist that I am, have my reservations about paying £40 for a 10yo blend.

Tweeddale is an obvious comparison, small-scale and ’boutique’, but in terms of flavour, the big problem for Master of Malt comes in the shape of the not-inconsiderable Johnnie Walker Black Label. This, too, does fat oak, smoke and rich malt – and for £26. Tweeddale and JW have the edge, too, when you consider that you have the option to buy in-store, foregoing delivery charges. That £39.95 turns into about £45 for the MoM 10yo with no other option but to buy it through their site.

A little footnote: as engrossing a whisky as this 10yo is, I’m not sure I want to sip a blend that sits at nearly 48% ABV. For me, blends act as drinkable comfort blankets with the textures of the grain-malt interface finding best expression at 40-43%. The argument will be made (and has been on MoM’s uproarious, informative blog) that below 46% lipids and other congeners in the whisky are likely to come out of suspension if water or ice is added but this doesn’t bother Compass Box who bottle their gorgeous Asyla at 40%, despite it being unchill-filtered.

All in all, an interesting experiment and a tasty drop. I’m just not sure what – even if I were prepared to pay for one – I would do with a whole bottle.

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Day 8: Brora Bail-Out

I didn’t contemplate stopping until some time after I woke up from a sketchy night’s sleep; while eating my breakfast, despite even sketchier innards, I remained focused on my journey’s end in Brora and the following day’s coast-to-coast ride to Ullapool and, following a ferry transfer, Stornoway.

A three-mile detour, as I followed south-bound cycle route signs to Strathpeffer rather than those which would have taken me north, a series of arrow-straight, 15% gradients out of Dingwall, and an inexplicable clunking noise from the bike all turned my thoughts towards what I was capable of enduring. Was the second half of the Odyssey something I could, something I should, persevere with?

The previous evening’s pizza shop paranoia was the first suggestion that bodily fatigue had at last begun to erode mental resilience. In a reverse of four years ago, the spirit had been willing but only now did I realise how weak the body had become.

A week previously, I had been concerned about the left knee; now, the right joint was stiff and uncooperative. However, as I wheezed above the Cromarty Firth, almost painfully bright blue, I began to suspect that neither knee was really the issue. Instead, both legs were empty – there was no zip, no power, left. For the first time, breathing proved uncomfortable and lung capacity felt reduced. What was I riding for? The answer was revealing: ‘Balblair’.

Along the mazy cycle path through the woods to Alness, I decided that there was nothing for me beyond Balblair visitor centre and my night’s stop at Clynelish Farm B&B. The forecast for Lewis on Wednesday was less than encouraging, the distance – 80 miles – was not something I could entertain overcoming in my current state. Mileage forecasts read like nails in my own coffin: 80 miles, 61 miles, 59 miles, 65 miles. I hadn’t done the training to confidently commit to these distances. My ‘see how you go’ approach had now come to a head. I couldn’t go on.

What remained after Balblair, in any case? A distillery I knew I couldn’t physically get to and one I had visited before (Auchentoshan). In between? If you took Lewis and Harris out of the equation I had more or less covered the Skye to Glasgow route on the first Odyssey. Even assuming I miraculously recovered my touring legs, what would I get out of those ten days? More traffic, more exhaustion and certainly no Laidlaws. With my new job beginning in Dubai in September, I reflected that the right decision was to come home to my family and my girlfriend, savour the companionship I was sorely lacking out here on the sun-blasted tarmac of the Scottish Highlands.

Near Invergordon I cut across to the A9, sprinting a mile or so westward before reaching a turn off to the left which I suspected would take me towards Tain. By this stage, the heat and glare had reached impressive levels and the road followed an upward trajectory once more. This was a real physical low point, with little or no energy to call upon. I just had to grovel up the inclines and numbly roll down the descents. Repeat for the next six miles.

Turning through Tain, I was familiar with the next part of my route: stay as close to the soft drain at the left-hand side of the road as possible, keep your head down and try not to scream. Articulated lorries, forestry trucks, campervans, all sweep past you at alarming rates as you pass through the sweet fermenting fug of Glenmorangie. Then it’s uphill to the Dornoch Bridge roundabout before collapsing down the other side to the quieter, shadier banks of the Dornoch Firth.Far slower progress was made than three years previously, when I cycled from my Tain B&B to Balblair each day for a spot of low-impact work experience. Eventually, the caravan park on Edderton’s outskirts appeared on my right, and the brown signs for the distillery guided me past the Clach Biorach Pictish stone, red brick chimney and pagoda vent just visible beyond.

Life was, if anything, hotter in the courtyard beneath the mashtun and alongside the visitor centre, from where Julie and ‘new girl’ Monica appeared. Their greetings, and the sheer pleasure of being at Balblair, ensured I beamed rather than burned. I changed, ate lunch and then wandered back in the direction of the offices. Redecorated since my last visit, and significantly airier, too, on account of the windows being replaced, between Julie and I we established that the best bet would be for me to have a roam around looking for operators. John Ross I bumped into in the car park, Norman and manager John were in the adjoining office.

From there it was up to the break room where I met Alan More and Mike Ross. It transpires that the biggest change since automation in 2011 was the removal of the wee third still. This little riveted beauty was taken out to make room for an extra wash charger, which allows for extra fermentation space and ups the production capacity. Everyone seemed to be in rude health, and Mike showed me the computer operating system for the distillery. It is incredible to see all the graphs and readings from each step of the process, detailed so exactly. I couldn’t make a great deal of them, but clearly there were no causes for concern.

Back in the office, I could get down to the important business of tasting. Lukasz Dynowiak had been very generous at his Quaich Society tasting the previous winter, so I had tried the 2003 and 1990 already. My chief target was the hand-fill ex-Bourbon cask from 2000, exuding spicy/sweet aromas in the visitor centre. That and the 1983. I got to work on the latter while Julie slipped away to find me a measure of the former.

The nose was warm and leathery with plenty of rich orange, leaf mulch and banana toffee. The weight and clarity was exceptional, recalling my favourite Balblair ever, the 1978. Rich honey and even a light smokiness emerged next with traces of coconut and an almost Japanese dried bark intensity. The palate showcased the waxiness of age together with deep dried fruit, papaya, mango, cinnamon and cream.

The hand-fill (58% ABV) was closed, clean and quite sharp at first. A fragrant, soapy texture developed along with creamy cedar wood. To taste, I didn’t detect much more than hard leather, oak and budding fruits. Water improved matters, exposing grapefruit, lime, washback fruits, turmeric and banana foam sweets on the nose. A malty and citrusy palate was attractive but while it showed more Balblair hallmarks, I couldn’t justify the £90 asking price, which is very high for a 14yo single cask. Conscious that this was my final distillery visit, and that there was a vintage from my birth year in the shop, I went for the 1990 instead. With a bit of ingenuity, it fitted snugly in my pannier.Setting off for the Dornoch Bridge, the body felt a little more pepped and willing. I was even buoyed by a generous tailwind passing over the firth. From thereon in, however, life became difficult again. I allotted myself ten-mile sections of the A9 which I would ride as briskly as possible before pulling over for a rest. Soon, the wide tarmac hard-shoulder vanished and I was at the mercy of the traffic again. Inexplicably, for the third day in a row, the wind hit me full in the face. Saturday: heading east with a headwind; Sunday: heading west with a headwind; Monday: heading north with a headwind. Clearly the weather gods wanted me to throw in the towel.

Twelve miles to Golspie, became 8, then four. I knew Brora was not much further on from Golspie, but couldn’t be more precise until I saw a sign reading ‘Golspie 4; Brora 10′. The traffic was intermittent: congested and irritable one moment, non-existent the next. As I pedalled through the sleepy main street of Golspie, I suddenly recollected the climb out of it. These were miles familiar from Scotch Odyssey 1, but that didn’t make them any easier.

The road swung round to the cliff top once again for the run in to Brora and the full force of the north coastal breeze just about toppled my sanity. Teeth gritted, pushing down a yell of rage, I bumped into the village (no idea what those rumble strips are doing there) and spied the station. If I was getting home the next day, it would have to be by train. Of course, the station was un-staffed - indeed, it was in the process of being boarded up so I pedalled back to the A9 and followed the signs to Clynelish as I knew my B&B was practically in the grounds. I took the wrong road, however, and ended up circuiting the ruins of Brora Distillery, necessitating another short sharp climb back to what could only be Clynelish Farm B&B. Arriving simultaneously with a couple in a car (what wisdom), I was shown to my room by Victoria, the Australian proprietor.That afternoon’s shower was well-deserved, I thought, as I scoured off all the road muck and sun cream, but also philosophical. My next task was not finding dinner and preparing for the next adventure, but plotting my route back home. A couple of abortive phone calls to National Rail and Scotrail occurred as I walked between fields of cows and gorse back into Brora, followed by a confessional call to my parents.

‘I’ve decided to stop,’ I said. They didn’t seem terribly upset by this news and, following two train journeys and a bike ride to St Andrews, a bus and a further train back to Northumberland, I can confirm that I’m not terribly upset, either. Of course there are pangs of longing for the grandeur and adventure of bike touring, and I miss the pared down lifestyle it encourages. However, there is not an ounce of regret that I didn’t carry on to Stornoway. I know my body could not have coped.

Since January and my two weeks in London with Compass Box I haven’t stopped to rest and attempting a 1,000 mile bike trip two weeks after sitting my final exams was asking a great deal. A great deal too much, as it turned out. Instead, I covered nearly 460 miles in eight days, via six distilleries or distilleries-in-the-making, and ended up 60 miles north of Inverness on the beautiful Sutherland coast. I had my fun and the 1983 Balblair was definitely a dram worth holding out for. We shall have to see what touring opportunities arise in future.

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Day 7: Buckie to Dingwall

Motivation for my mammoth day in the saddle came from an unlikely source: Landlady’s Revenge (see Day 4). As I stared out of the window, over the Firth to the soft edges of the Black Isle waiting for breakfast, the Peruvian nose-flute cover album for 80s power ballads playing in the background switched into Tina Turner’s ‘Simply the Best’. ‘Sharp-dressed Man’ was also a reasonably successful rendition.

Riding out of Buckie, the weather had performed a neat trick on me; the wind that had been in my face yesterday, pedalling east, was now in my face pedalling west. I couldn’t quite believe it. Scotland, as beautiful as it is, can be very cruel.

The return leg into Elgin was made significantly more challenging by the breeze, then by unclear cycle route signage, then by steep hills. Emerging into fields and single track roads, I could appreciate the turbulent weather predicted for today. Above me were two thick bands of cumulus, bulging with threat. However, on the trail to Forres life got dark and windier at times but rain never fell.

During a tactical pit-stop at the Forres Tesco I made contact with my hosts for the afternoon. A friend of mine from St Andrews had insisted I stop by her parents’ house for lunch on my way to Inverness, an invitation I had gladly accepted. With the wind, the wobbly legs and no map to Cawdor, however, I advised that I was maybe going to be late.

Crossing the swollen Findhorn, I was conscious of entering the Laich of Moray proper. Four years ago, I had been charmed by its rolling greenness and sea views. Again, the mild climate and low traffic endeared me to this part of the world. Unfortunately, I mis-remembered my signposts from 2010 and as I pedalled further and further, and the odometer ticked closer to 50 miles, I hadn’t seen a single sign for Cawdor. By the time Nairn golf club appeared on my right-hand side, I knew I needed outside assistance.

‘I’m at the Shell garage in Nairn,’ I said to Gabby. ‘Can you see a Sainsbury’s?’ she asked. ‘No.’ ‘How about a large housing estate?’ ‘No, I can see a fly-over and a sign for a cemetery’. Eventually we established which of the minor petrol stations I was broiling on the forecourt of and Gabby sent her dad to collect me.

Victor arrived soon after, the bike was slotted into the back of the estate car, I went in the front and then a potted history of the area was delivered as we surged through Nairn and out into arable, swiftly rising land. American soldiers had been billeted near the Brackla distillery, grouse moors cost a hell of a lot to maintain, there was the oldest surviving seed kiln in Scotland (we were driving parallel to the Cawdor main street by now). I was entranced.

After arriving at the Laidlaw residence, I was introduced to the family. Soon a terrific spread of cheese (Gabby works as marketing officer for the nearby Connage Highland Dairy), bread, soup, fruit and chutneys was placed on the table in the kitchen. I had a lengthy list of beverages I was urged to choose from but I insisted water was what I needed after my morning in the Moray oven. I tried not to get teary about the boundless, caring hospitality pouring my way.

By the time our delicious lunch was at an end, it was clear I had not conveyed enough detail to Gabby ahead of time. The plan had been to treat me to dinner, too, then deposit me in Inverness, assuming my bed for the night lay there. I had to admit that my B&B was in Dingwall. ‘Oh, we can drive you there,’ said Victor, ‘that’s not a problem’. A 60-mile round-trip? I couldn’t encroach on the Laidlaws to that extent, plus I needed to remain as self-sufficient as possible on my travels. ‘You’ll feel better for the rest, and arrive earlier.’ These were both immensely tempting arguments, and Gabby told me later that the parental instinct was proving unsilenceable, but I had to stick to my guns.

Shortly after 16.15, I saddled up and pedalled off, uttering the sincerest thanks I could. Rejoining the main road to Culloden Moor, I spied a rain cloud that I doubted I could be so lucky to avoid, a giant black anvil skudding low across the sky. On went the waterproof, but the storm moved more quickly than I did, and I only caught the dribbly tail as the road climbed towards Inverness. Indeed, by the time Culloden appeared, the sun was shining forcefully, and I could take this picture looking north.The descent into Inverness was one I had done before, but again the cycle route signs proved imperfect. In a city, you risk encountering signs which are really for those who have entered from the opposite direction to you. This was my misfortune as I ended up nearly back at the giant roundabout which had conveyed me in. Gnashing teeth at the wasted energy and steep hill I would have to climb back up, I eventually found the correct road down to the city centre. From here, though, it was sheer guesswork getting to the Kessock Bridge. In fact, although I could see it, I could not at first get near it.

Retracing my steps, I found – and decided to trust – a little blue marker. This took me through dockyards and round the back of office blocks but it did deposit me at the base of the Bridge. From up there, the view towards Strathpeffer and the Beauly Firth was jaw-dropping. All the cloud cover contributed to dynamic chiaroscuro effects, but due to all the broken glass on the bike path alongside the main road, I couldn’t gawp westward too much.Descending to the Black Isle, a sign read 13 miles to Dingwall. It was by now about 6PM with gorgeous evening sunshine. How hard could that be? The cycle route led me under, over and alongside the A9 but eventually I broke free into country lanes. The landscape was rolling but not excessive. My legs, however, were beginning to lose their zip after 70 miles and the final decisive turn off to Dingwall brought me beneath another – and this time fully-primed – rain cloud.With full waterproof kit hastily donned, I squelched into Dingwall. The B&B was not immediately obvious, and a final call provided directions. Over the railway track I had last taken four years previously on my way to Kyle of Lochalsh, and there it was. 78 miles, and I didn’t feel too bad. The bike required minimal attention, my stomach accommodated a 16-inch pizza, and despite a TV that didn’t work, I was passably occupied. However, the seeds of doubt were being sown, and my powers of recovery were being stretched, as I would discover the next day.

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Day 6: Cullen Shrink


By the time 08.20 arrived I knew the bus wasn’t coming. I picked myself and my rear wheel up off the pavement and walked from the clock tower back to my B&B. If I couldn’t get an 8AM service into Elgin, I was going to have to ride in. Quite why the timetable didn’t explicitly tell me there was no service at 8 o’clock on a Saturday morning, I have still yet to deduce.

With the exhortation ‘Don’t get squashed under a distillery lorry!’ ringing in my ears from my landlord, I rolled off into the warm sun. Climbing out of Dufftown was less onerous than I had expected, made lovelier by the enduring integrity of my back wheel. The descent into Craigellachie was swift and problem-free, and I could reflect on how the Munro of casks outside the Speyside Cooperage was now more of a Corbett.

Joining the A95, I braced myself for the heavy traffic my landlord had predicted. However, I glided into Rothes by the banks of the iridescent Spey with only cars for company. The hill past Speyburn was long, sticky and very hot, but once I reached the summit a tailwind took me in its talons and didn’t let go until Elgin. At times I was progressing at 19mph with very little effort. Longmorn: hello, goodbye; BenRiach: hello, goodbye. The decision to set off for Bikes & Bowls on two wheels proved inspired as it wasn’t until a mile outside Elgin that the 09.05 36 bus service from Dufftown overtook me. I’d come 17 miles in less than an hour.

Bikes & Bowls proved not to be the shop I had frequented four years ago. It was at the end of the high street, and apparently had been there for the last 25 years. My good Samaritan in 2010 had, it turned out, proved a bit of a cowboy, fleeing town a few months after I darkened his doorstep. The chaps inside inspected the bike as I related my tale: two in a week but no problems whatsoever in four and a half years.

‘The spoke nipples may be rusting,’ said the guy I’d talked to on the phone. ‘The wheel can’t flex when that happens. This may be the start of the whole lot going. We’ll have a look for you, though.’

With this life-affirming piece of news to mull over, I went out into a sweltering Elgin having vowed that the next time I cycled for more than a day at a time I would have spare spokes and know how to replace them.

I bought maps and repaired to a café to plot my route to GlenDronach. Having failed to get to this distillery four years ago, on a Saturday, due to bike problems, I was going to sacrifice Glenglassaugh and see about reaching Forgue. If I could get going again by 10.30, there was a chance…

Staring at the OS Maps every which way, however, I could tell that a 17-mile detour north-west was just far enough to render GlenDronach-Buckie a ride of epic proportions. More epic than I believed was feasible – or indeed, sensible – as the mercury continued to rise. Swearing under my breath, I had to admit that GlenDronach, like Balvenie, was playing hard-to-get.

Back at the shop, the bike had a new silver spoke inserted and the good news was that the remainder of the wheel looked fairly sound. ‘Hopefully the rest of your trip will be injury-free,’ the mechanic said as I prepared for my departure. Do not miss Bikes & Bowls if you are in dire need when in the Elgin (or indeed Dufftown) area. This father-and-son team have a way with bikes, and even though my Odyssey did not carry on for as long as advertised, it was injury-free.

National Cycle Route 1 recommenced nearly on the doorstep of Bikes & Bowls and while following it I was ushered to north-east Elgin and the fast-track to the sea. Beautiful, quiet, tree-lined roads cut through farmland and little villages, before dropping me at Portgordon and – barely credible in Scotland but a not uncommon sight – turquoise surf.I ought to have stopped for lunch earlier or at least found some shade. The sun was beating down and my tailwind of the early morning was now squarely in my face. Plus, the cycle route signs pointed at mental instability – combined with absent-mindedness – on the part of their designer. I was getting a bit lost and more than a little bit irritated.

Cycling through Buckie, I marvelled at how the little blue signs took me here, there and across innumerable roads, behind industrial estates, through supermarket car parks (practically) and eventually onto a disused railway line. I followed this as far as Portknockie before joining the A98, believing it to be quicker and better-surfaced. This hunch turned out to be true, but I didn’t factor in busier, hotter and madder. The road takes you down to sea level, through a thronging Cullen (home of Cullen Skink which is far more appetising than it sounds) and back up to the cliffs. The steepness, heat and wind defeated me, and I stopped at a convenience store for liquids and food.

Feeling quite mad by this point, the interminable wait in the cool interior helped a lot. I sunk a whole bottle of Lucozade Sport, hopped back on the bike, sweated to the top of the hill and then fought the wind for the next four miles until I spotted some serrated roofs on the left.Glenglassaugh has a wonderful situation, sat amongst green fields, looking out to a bluer than blue Moray Firth. When I arrived everyone in the little community seemed to be mowing lawns. Certainly there wasn’t anyone else trying to tour the distillery.

Having spent a good ten minutes getting my breath back in the shade of the visitor centre, I went inside to meet the youngest VC attendants ever. Lauren and Karen were holding the fort and were just the down-to-earth conversationalists I needed to recover from my mild heatstroke.

It was Lauren who took me round the cool, silent distillery. Production only runs Sunday night to Friday morning, so there was no noise or heat emanating from mash tun or stills. Much of the original Glenglassaugh buildings still stand and still have a use. Lauren told me that the take-over by Billy Walker and the BenRiach Distillery Co. had led to significant investment in upgrades, repairs, and just a much-needed lick of paint. We were about to head upstairs to the tun room when Karen appeared, with two people in tow. ‘Time to practice your French,’ she said, before heading back to the visitor centre.

Glenglassaugh’s production regime meant that the only ‘live’ action was taking place in the washbacks, the tops of which were more than a metre and a half above iron grating floor level. Lauren opened each lid so we could nose the differences in each fermentation stage, via rickety wooden steps.

At the stills we nosed unpeated and peated new make, the peated especially catching my attention. Much like the Glenturret peated spirit at the Whisky Stramash, I wouldn’t have minded a dram of that particular liquid. By this point I was attempting to resuscitate my A-Level French and translating words rendered unintelligible by Lauren’s Aberdeenshire brogue. Unfortunately, whisky-making didn’t feature on my high school syllabus so we didn’t get very far.

In the warehouses, we somehow got on to the alcohol minimum pricing; a forged gamely on but my vocabulary was hopelessly inadequate. Monsieur, eying the private octave casks, suggested we could sneak a taste and blame it on ‘des anges’ – the angels. I think that’s been tried before.

In the VC, the tasting was illuminating. Karen had suggested that Evolution may be up my street, as I am partial to a Bourbon-matured malt. The Revival, when I tried it last year, just didn’t do it for me. Evolution proved a feisty, thick and ‘hot’ dram at 50% ABV, but water pulled out some buttery corn-on-the-cob and an insistent sweet maltiness. There was also Torfa for our delectation, which the French couple ended up purchasing. I have to say, even though I am partial to youngish peated whiskies (see the anCnoc Peaty Collection), Torfa was rather good.

In common with most of the distilleries I visited, there were casks on display from which visitors could draw their own flask. The ex-Bourbon octave, distilled in March 2009 and weighing in at 60.5% ABV, was rather closed and oaky. It grew on me, but the real star was the ex-Sherry octave (from September 2009) and fractionally weaker. The integration of dry, rich, fruit-laden oak and the Glenglassaugh malt was exceptional and £35 for 50cl is pretty good value. Meanwhile, Mr and Mrs Martin (as I now know them) were quizzing me on Scotch whisky more generally; what did I think of x, or y? What about wine?

Saluting Lauren and Karen, who had been great company, I left soon after the Martins and eased into the wind back towards Buckie. This time, I followed NCR1 all the way, and could appreciate the late afternoon sun on a truly spectacular coastline. Residents of all the villages I passed through were doing likewise, perched on benches, lounging in back yards with a can of something.

Things got rocky and dangerous as I neared Findochty but I persevered. Rosemount B&B arrived after mile 58 and I could cool off in a very long shower with my loft room Velux wide open. An even more arduous day awaited come morning.

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Day 5: Speyside and Spokes

Perhaps it was my super-abundance of full cooked Scottish breakfast, perhaps it was a moment of madness to leave it behind the wheel of my hosts’ car in the first place, but I was four and a half miles beyond Nethy Bridge, about to join the A939, when I realised I had left my bike lock at the Coire Choille bed and breakfast. Fortunately, Jan and Allan Goodall are wonderful people (cyclists themselves) and they were willing to down tools and drive out to meet me with the lock.

While I waited, I could appreciate the stark beauty of this upland landscape as the low cloud began, mercifully, to lift. I also heard a cuckoo. The rest impaired my ascent of the 20% gradient up to the main road, however, which was a fairly upsetting obstacle so early in the day. It would get worse.

When cycling to Tomintoul four years ago, I had snow and the Devil’s Elbow up to the Lecht ski station to contend with; as I pedalled towards sunshine I began to recognise that the road I was on concealed challenges of its own. Bridge of Brown is the settlement perched above a sheer drop and some hairpins. As the gradient warning signs appeared, a flashback occurred to me from having driven in this direction with the parents maybe six years previously.

My first problem was controlling the bike on the abhorrently steep descent: with all the weight, braking achieved only so much. Soon, though, I could whistle to the glen bottom and begin the ascent up the other side which was, if anything, steeper. The hairpin innards were nigh-on verticle, and even in bottom gear I had to stop at flattish sections to hyperventilate before carrying on. Eventually, I hauled myself up to the summit and could appreciate a gentler descent into a sunlit Strathavon.The remainder of the road into Tomintoul was hardly plain sailing, but it was spectacular. Indeed, one section recalled the panoramic photograph that illustrates southern Speyside in Dave Broom’s magnificent The World Atlas of Whisky.

By the time I rolled through the village the sun was rather fierce and what I really needed to do was cool off in the company of Mike Drury in the Whisky Castle. Bombastic as ever, Mike combined a diatribe against the vacuity and rapacity of the modern whisky industry with greetings to locals and taking delivery of consignments from said modern whisky industry.

‘Where were we?’ I asked, as the shop cleared again. ‘Somewhere between truth and non-truth?’ he replied. He then poured me a dram, an extravagantly creamy Dewar Rattray 18yo Braeval which was good, but not £90 brilliant. ‘I’ve sold one hundred and sixty bottles of that!’ Mike blustered.

We then touched on the reasons why the whisky industry is in ‘the shite’: the lack of good quality, old casks. Mike and his wife Cathy are single cask, single malt fanatics and they bottle whiskies under their Whisky Castle label when they find something great. Mike confessed that the casks simply haven’t been up to scratch of late, so he hasn’t bothered bottling any.

The accelerated wood programmes of most distillers, using virgin oak, first-fill Bourbon barrels whose staves hadn’t been air-dried properly in the first place and bottling younger expressions were all exacerbating the dearth of quality single malts. Doom and gloom, therefore. It’s true that the industry has to think very hard about where the oak is coming from to encase the many millions more litres of spirit being produced, but I’m not about to shed any tears just because the heart-stoppingly beautiful single cask Ardbegs, Glenlivets, or Braevals for that matter – and which only ever pleased a handful of enthusiasts – are growing scarcer. Investment in whisky is across the board, from distilleries to bottling plants to cooperages. Distillers are grappling with the problems of the supply chain and I believe that, five to ten years from now, we will be looking at more consistently tasty expressions available from more companies than we enjoy currently. The only question that remains concerns how much we shall be expected to pay for them.

Leaving the Whisky Castle behind, I pedalled off into the Glenlivet Estate below a scorching sun. Soon, I glimpsed the steam chimney of The Glenlivet, ’the single malt that started it all’, and for me in particular. The last time I cycled past a blizzard swept down the glen to engulf the distillery and me; now I was worried about heat stroke.

Late (very late) for my rendezvous with Brian Robinson at Ballindalloch Distillery, I carried on past The Glenlivet following the Avon once again. As I passed a field of cows, on a flat smooth stretch of tarmac, I heard a disconcerting, metallic ‘ping’. Fearing the worst, but carrying on anyway, I reached the A95 and turned down towards Cragganmore and the Ballindalloch Castle Golf Course, where a wee distillery was being built.

The gorgeous location of the Ballindalloch distillery.

Dismounting, I discovered that I had indeed snapped a spoke, two in a week, and my plans for the afternoon were going to have to change. That lovely Imperial 23yo on the Speyside Way? Scratch that, I was going to have to get to Dufftown and try to find the bike shop in Elgin I’d used last time to get the rear wheel structurally sound again.

With mechanical matters in mind, I maybe wasn’t as attentive or curious on my tour of the site with Brian as I could have been. However, key points that emerged were that Ballindalloch, when it opens to visitors (hopefully by September) will not be like other distilleries and visitor centres; the plan is to bring a flavour of the ancestral home of the MacPherson Grants at Ballindalloch Castle into the distillery. Mrs Russell, who has lived in the Castle for 65 years, will oversee interior design.

The VC was some way behind the rest of the distillery, but it will be a space dedicated to making visitors feel very cossetted and special. Brian was at pains to emphasise the love and dedication shown to the project by the local builders, carpenters, electricians, etc. The final say for the build goes to the family at the Castle, however. ‘If they say they want this room to be pink, it will be pink’.

Charlie Smith will be head distiller, and his brief was to produce an oily, weighty spirit. Working backwards, worm tubs were required, squat slender stills installed, a long-ish ferment and cloudy wort will be established. The traditional approach to whisky-making starts with the barley which will be grown on the Ballindalloch estate, but malted in Inverness, and continues to the copper-domed mash tun and those brand new worm tubs. A unique element of the build is that the filling store and warehouses are ‘inside’ the distillery building – guests will be able to fill a cask as they go round on the tour before rolling it into the warehouse.

As I left I spectated on the worm tubs’ installation before getting on the bike. I knew, despite my anxiety, I needed to get some serious calories in me and the Delnashaugh Hotel, just beneath the curl of the A95, was closest. I actually really enjoyed my time there: from the helpful waitress who found me the number for Bikes & Bowls in Elgin, to the huge plate of mac ‘n’ cheese, garlic bread and chips had outside on the patio area, I began to feel more in control. Also, the range of single malts behind the bar is pretty impressive. Stop by if you’re in the area.

Full to the gunnels with carbohydrates, I managed to power through to Aberlour, then time-trial up the hill to Dufftown. I was just in time to catch the bus from the clock tower to Elgin, but I couldn’t travel with the whole bike. This meant I had no choice but to repair the bike tomorrow morning, and that put GlenDronach and Glenglassaugh in jeopardy.

I was despondent for as long as it took to shower, change and visit Sandy at Taste of Speyside. Once again I was bowled over by the Highland hospitality, the venison casserole, and the G&M Glentauchers 1994. I could reflect that, even if the bike wasn’t 100% fit, I had still made it to the malt whisky capital and that wasn’t such a bad place to be.

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Day 4: Tomatin

Before getting into the meat of my recount (or should that be drizzle?), I’d like to alert the prospective traveller to a phenomenon which I call Landlady’s Revenge.

I don’t know quite when the bond between eating in a public space and music became indissoluble, but I first noticed its incursion into Scottish bed and breakfasts during the previous Odyssey. Then, at my third breakfast in Braehead Villa, I had to ask that the accordion-heavy drivel be turned off as I could not bear it any more. Landlady’s Revenge, therefore, is where your host welcomes you into their home, provides you with a comfy bed for the night, clean towels and a binder of things you might like to do in the local area before exacting neat and artful retribution by forcing you to pick at your muesli to the strains of some flutey-voiced, warbly, traditional Scottish musical kitsch. My four fellow guests, Swedes long past retirement age, commented on the aural awfulness, too.

After an especially painful but energetic run-through of ‘Flower of Scotland’ I ran upstairs and packed as quickly as possible. Deciding quite what to wear for the day was a problem, however, for although low cloud abounded above Newtonmore, it wasn’t exactly cold and it wasn’t raining.

Three miles in and just beyond Kingussie, I had to remove the over-trousers. The road was angling upwards and I was set to sweat big time otherwise. This was a good move and the ramps didn’t prove too onerous. However, soon it was time to head downhill and the low cloud was especially thick by this point. On went the over-trousers again and before long the over-shoes had been donned, too.

I’m still unsure whether dampness is worse than a headwind and searing heat combined. Unless it is mid-winter, the constraining clothing means that you perspire aggressively so you are wet inside and outside. The only benefit is that you are wet and warm, which is to be preferred to wet and cold. However, I was trying to make it to Tomatin for 11.45, I was in time-trial mode and the wetness was worsening.

Descending through forest, meeting the odd tour bus coming the other way, life was bearable. By Coylumbridge, however, we had reached saturation point and that very special breed of fine Highland rain that seeps in everywhere. On went the hood and the winter gloves, up went the perspiration levels.

I’m sure the landscape round about me was striking, and looking at the map now I see that I was on the banks of the Spey for much of the way, but I could hardly see. Vile is the word, but you have to keep going. By Boat of Garten, however, I was concerned. Water was low (the irony) and I had to stop for food. It was now that I could appreciate how inadequate my rain jacket had become, with no base layer protecting my chest from the cooling water.

Anyway, it wasn’t until some way after Carrbridge, when the rain became mist again, that I knew I had to make a clothing switch and fortunately I had packed a second hi-vis waterproof. With a rugby jersey on beneath it, I began to warm up and make better progress although I accepted that my 11.45 Taste of Tomatin Tour was long gone.

I rasped my way up to the Slochd Summit, 1315 ft above sea level apparently, which is quite high for a Scottish road, and finally there was another cyclist! I didn’t catch his name but the tanned giant in the saddle was a surgeon from York cycling from Glasgow to Inverness. We chatted about the weather, midges, and Roald Dahl by which point Tomatin had appeared on my left.

Inside, Hannah and Scott did a marvellous job of pointing me towards radiators (my shoes and gloves made it into the still house) while I refuelled and reflected on the horrors of the forty miles thus far. It turned out I was on time for the 1pm Taste of Tomatin Tour, so I paid my £10 and set off with about seven others.

Drizzle, drizzle everywhere...

If Dalwhinnie had been an over-priced geek-free zone, Tomatin spoilt me rotten. Scott, the tour guide, gave us all an immensely thorough run-through of Tomatin’s fascinating history (it was at one point the largest malt whisky distillery in the world, but look up my ‘Tomatin at the Quaich Society’ post for more detail) before sticking his hand into a bag of Maori yeast in the washback room, talking us through distillation with the aid of a real decommissioned shell-and-tube condenser and leading us into the cooperage.

Where there were once 23 stills, now there are 12. Condenser at bottom right.

Unlike other commercial cooperages, where employees are on piece-work contracts, Tomatin’s two full-time coopers are salaried like everybody else which makes for a more relaxed working environment. I loved this section, like a maze of wood, starting with first-fill Sherry butts exhaling generously, to a quadrant of virgin oak casks (used for Legacy and Cu Bocan), a phalanx of Port pipes and a legion of ex-Bourbon barrels, mostly from Makers Mark.

From left to right: virgin oak, Port pipes, a Sherry butt.

Finally it was into a cool, clammy dunnage warehouse where a few more cask types were on display, before back inside the still house to an adjoining room for the tasting. The previous day, £17 had bought me three whiskies (two lots of 15yo, a Sherry finish and a single cask); today, £10 bought me one new make sample, three core range whiskies and two single casks. Tomatin pummels Dalwhinnie in terms of bang-for-buck, intrigue, information and charm. In fact, if you are on the A9 don’t bother with Dalwhinnie at all.

The new make nosed like soft, creamy pear with a skeleton of firm caramel. Water revealed fresh barley, apple jelly and a touch of flowers. Legacy, as it had been in St Andrews in the autumn, was a delight and for under £30 I struggle to think of a single malt I’d rather drink. The 12yo was more appetizing than usual although I do find the Sherry finishing too sweet and grapey for the spirit; drier Sherry inflections would work far better.

The fourth dram was the visitor centre bottle-your-own Bourbon cask which I was very anxious to try. Exuberantly sweet on the nose with caramelised barley, delicate oak, peach and honey. It did become a touch ‘nippy’, however, which is perhaps not surprising for an 11yo spirit out of first-fill barrels. The taste was creamy, light and sparkly and overall very attractive. It’s neighbour was the VC’s Sherry cask which showcased exactly why I don’t like the Sherry influence on Tomatins: all fat sultana, fruit and nut chocolate and creaminess. I wanted depth, but the spicy, Dorrito-esque palate didn’t deliver. Cu Bocan was much as Cu Bocan had been previously: sweet, lightly smoky and well-structured.

As I saddled up, following a wee taste of the 1988 (medium-bodied, bursting with yellow and tropical fruits) and the 14yo Port finish (by far my favourite of the whole lot on the day, the Port adding the dry richness that those Sherry casks seem incapable of doing), the sun appeared. I was buoyed only momentarily, however, as a mammoth storm cloud sat on the mountain top above the distillery.

It took a while to leave Tomatin village, as I hid beneath a farmer’s barn for the clouds to pass. By and large, however, I escaped the worst of it as I retraced my steps back to Boat of Garten and swung east towards Nethy Bridge. I didn’t remain entirely dry, but I could get away without the over-trousers which made a significant difference.

In Nethy Bridge, 58 miles after setting off from Newtonmore, I needed a whisky comfort blanket. The Nethy Bridge Hotel duly obliged with Isle of Skye 8yo on the optic. ‘You want that Glenfiddich’, said the local expert. ‘It’s the same price and you’re getting a single malt’. I replied that I felt like a blend at that precise moment, which baffled him entirely. Sipping my double over the next 40 minutes, I didn’t regret my decision.

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D-Day: Drumochter and Dalwhinnie

It’s an especially chaotic but liberating feeling, waking up in a youth hostel knowing all that is required of you for the day is getting to your next bed. What happens in between is entirely your responsibility.

After map-buying, baguette-sourcing and much knee-stretching, I returned to Pitlochry’s high street and spun north. Butterflies had not yet checked out of my stomach for the route that lay ahead, what one Diageo brand ambassador described as Scotland’s answer to Mordor. When driving to Speyside for week holidays here and there, my family and I always follow the A9 north to Boat of Garten before swinging right onto the A95 past Grantown on Spey towards Aberlour. Sat in the back of the car, I have always been conscious of the scrappy bike track which runs alongside the motorway, clinging to it all the way to Inverness as the arterial route comes to terms with the wild barrenness of central Scotland.

Google Maps, my platform of choice for working out directions for the Scotch Odyssey, has come on a good deal since 2010. Consequently, I knew that the climb from Pitlochry to Dalwhinnie was nearly 1,200 feet. On exposed roads. With next to no pit-stop opportunities. The road was certainly stretching upwards as I made it to Blair Atholl but became gentler as I found myself on a well-surfaced, two-lane cycle path.

By this stage, about 14 miles in, the only cause for concern was the enormous black cloud above me, which every left turn convinced me was passing over and harmless, and every right turn had me contemplating the waterproof. It just hung there, all morning, without making its intentions clear.

Before very long at all, the single-file concrete and fine gravel cycle path arrived. What I couldn’t appreciate from the car was how it swooped down to the river bank and the railway line before lurching back up to the main road on an annoyingly regular basis. Plus, there were bridges to contend with, all sporting brutal potholes at either end as you left and rejoined the main path. Progress was less than continuous.

Mercifully the sun emerged alongside Loch Ericht but very soon my physical powers were put to the test by a vicious headwind. My mental toughness was also examined, since despite the wind the black clouds in the south seemed to be gaining on me. How was that possible? Soon it was the gates requiring opening and shutting that were enraging me: having to dismount and wrestle a lump of ironmongery in a gale while keeping a heavy bike upright is not much fun.

With the sky darkening, I spotted a sign to Dalwhinnie, the distillery visible from two miles out. Still, however, progress wasn’t straightforward as the wind strengthened and traffic increased. After not too much swearing, however, I arrived and could reflect on the wisdom of my decision four years ago in Braemar where I had chosen to skip Dalwhinnie and Tomatin. I simply couldn’t have managed it.I signed on for the next tour, deciding to capitalise on one of the additional ‘tastings’ offered – tasting ‘A’, which meant three Dalwhinnie’s paired with chocolate. Foolishly, I thought the price quoted was inclusive of the tour. It wasn’t, so my Dalwhinnie experience was going to cost me £16.99 (£8 for the tour, £8.99 for the tasting).

The tour itself showed improvements on the last time I was visiting a Diageo facility. As always, the tour guide is very friendly and informative although not all guests had their questions answered. The distillery itself is very pretty and exceedingly fragrant, the massive modern mash tun sat beneath one of the bronzed pagodas visible from the motorway and the wooden washbacks lending a heady, fruity aroma. The stills are large and working at full capacity. All Dalwhinnie produced goes to single malt and their now reasonably legendary 15yo.

In the warehouse, things became a little more hands-on. First of all, kudos for even letting us in there; secondly, hurray for a nose of the new make and a single cask sample. All good stuff. Next door there is a display of how colour accrues in different casks over time and here we received our 10ml of 15yo Dalwhinnie, together with a little fingernail-sized piece of chocolate truffle.

The 'Three Tastes' option at Dalwhinnie. I wouldn't recommend.

Forty minutes after leaving the visitor centre I was back again and this was where the problems started. I approached the ‘bar’ to offer my ‘three tastes’ ticket and receive said tastes. Being on a bike, I asked for a spittoon or similar so that I could remain on the right side of the law. ‘I’m sorry, we don’t have anything that can be used for that,’ said one member of staff. ’Whisky’s supposed to be drunk’, came the reply of another. ‘Have you a bottle you could use?’ said the first. I find this a) flabbergasting and b) irresponsible. How can you advertise a distillery tour and tastings to passing trade who are 99.9% using cars to get to you and not provide for spitting-out?

In the end, I did have an empty Volvic bottle and set to work. What did I find as part of my £8.99 tasting? Another 15yo! I was really irritated now. Why charge people for another dram of what they have just had? Surely it is in your interests to give them something else to try, which the customer may go on to buy as a result? Essentially, therefore, my £9 was for two ‘new’ whiskies and a repeat of what I had only nosed five minutes ago. Great stuff, guys. And again, abiding by the 10ml measures. Four Iain Burnett chocolates retail for about £7, but 30ml of whisky? I think Diageo are making a killing.

The other drams, then: the Distillers’ Edition 16yo, finished in Oloroso Sherry, and a single cask from 1997 – the same one that had been passed round to nose while in the warehouse. The Distillers’ Edition was very good, as it happens, and worked reasonably well with the chocolate. The single cask was a bit feisty and closed and tasted younger than the 15yo, the meatiness of the spirit - created in the worm tubs – not quite at its apotheosis.

I left Dalwhinnie seething gently, which was maybe why I couldn’t quite find the cycle route. I did manage another shot of what is a beautiful distillery before finally discerning the little blue sticker. The wind was a constant enemy for the final 11 miles into Newtonmore, and though only 43 miles were clocked for the whole day, it felt like a lot more.

Dinner was at The Letterbox restaurant on Newtonmore’s main street which I heartily recommend. Their two course offer was very compelling and the rest of the menu looked delicious. I wasn’t about to buy a third Dalwhinnie 15yo so stuck to Appletiser.

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