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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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Scotch Odyssey 2: Le Grand Depart

Scatter-brained, that’s what best characterises my preparations on the morning of June 3. I had a twinging knee which called for pain relieving gel and I knew I would have oily fingers requiring wet-wipe cleansing later on. To buy both I had to make two stop-offs at Boots. Then there was the pannier-packing. Could I fit in that bottle of Compass Box Great King Street Experimental Peat? I could not. This was a blow, if not to my touring weight then certainly to my après-cycling conviviality.

It was a smidgen after 9AM when I swung past the Cathedral and took the above photo. My departure from St Andrews was nigh: 70 miles lay ahead and the only person who could make them go away was me.

Almost immediately the touring cyclist paranoia kicked in: had I packed a spare set of bike lock keys? Had I packed the bike lock? Was that a piece of broken glass that may result in a puncture later on? How are my spokes doing? With such feverish mental activity it was a small wonder I had any energy to turn the pedals.

The bike felt pretty cumbersome for the first few miles, especially as I followed the blue cycle route signs through Guardbridge’s suburban back streets. I picked up pace through Leuchars and soon I was on unfamiliar roads to Tayport. Enormous sprinklers, the kind I’m used to seeing in southern France, blasted water over the cereal crops as I passed. Tayport itself was long, thin, with abundant obstacles for the wary cyclist: speed humps, roundabouts, tourists, potholes, they were all lurking to induce destruction.

Leaving the terraced houses behind, suddenly the Firth of Tay lay to my right and the sun was beginning to poke through with more conviction. A dedicated cycle path led me to a small service station-style building and car park where I refuelled with a banana and then sought out access to the Tay Bridge’s cycle and pedestrian central reservation. It was far easier than I’d thought; I re-emerged just above road level and immediately had to stop and take a photo. The view up the Tay floodplain is a favourite of mine from the bus but it is so much more enthralling when you are out in the elements within it.It took about five minutes to cycle to the other end where I very much enjoyed my first encounter with a cycle lift. This took me to ground level under the new roads which continually reform themselves on Dundee’s waterfront. I had no joined Route 77, the Salmon Run. I just had to follow the little blue signs and I would arrive in Pitlochry.

Exiting Dundee was a fairly swift exercise with wide, well-surfaced bike paths hugging the river bank. At Invergowrie, however, those signs vanished. What I ought to have performed was a counter-intuitive hairpin turn but instead I followed the top road which brought me out alongside a petrol station and a very suspicious dog. My route to Longforgan was doubtless not quite as scenic as the official path, but with the aid of a map I could reconnect with the cycle network without much hassle.

The remainder of the journey to Perth was warm, flat and biddable. However, after reconvening with the main road traffic, the 77 chose to leap straight up hill. Near Kinfauns you pass into fields and woods before darkness descends and the only glow comes from a triangular warning sign advising that there is a 20% gradient ahead. Down to bottom gear I went and ground out painful, rasping progress. Fortunately I was quick enough to avoid a Highland Fuels tanker on the ascent, as having that monster labour along behind me would have been immensely off-putting.

Further ahead the view opened out to reveal Perth, cowering beneath a huge – and rapidly advancing – black cloud. I couldn’t be certain of making it to the city for lunch after all. I continued for another mile or so before spotting a woodland walk parking area. I decided to eat sandwiches beneath a big beech tree which, when the rain cascaded down about 15 minutes later, was a good decision. However, it seems trees have their own guttering systems and soon ropes of water (the French have an idiom for heavy rain which is il tombe des cordes - very apt in these circumstances) were drubbing me and the bike. Were my panniers waterproof? I’d soon know definitively.

The monsoon became still more ferocious, people emerged sprinting from the wood, shrieking, to find the shelter of their cars. Meanwhile all I could do was wait. Eventually, the rain did stop, although the downpour under the trees remained considerable. I skidded back onto tarmac, saddled up, and descended with the muddy run-off from the storm to Perth.The 77 became a trail through a park and then a golf course, before tarmac surrendered to mud and gravel. The Tay oozed with a glossy black sheen beside me. Soon I could remove wet-weather gear and began to enjoy myself although the uneven surface was a concern for the sanctity of my bike.

A steep climb and descent out of Perth brought me to the picturesque Pitcairngreen Inn where I stopped for a Coke and some correspondence (Tweeting was becoming more difficult as signal deteriorated). The next major settlement was Dunkeld.

The sun was fully out as I tackled the undulations of Perthshire, a beautiful county but you pay for the landscape when riding. Bankfoot came and went, then a little hamlet called Waterloo. By now I was climbing quite steadily and the sun was relentless. Over my left shoulder, though, I could not fail to note another phalanx of storm clouds. I continued, detecting more traffic noise which confirmed I was near the A9, hence Dunkeld. The sun blazed, the wind picked up and I knew another downpour was imminent. A handy railway bridge sheltered me for half an hour, and for most of that time the sun persisted. However, my instincts were right and the rain did arrived – not nearly so heavy as above Perth but I was better off out of it. Plus, after 55 miles, I deserved a breather.

Passing through a soggy Dunkeld I felt dead in the legs and it wasn’t until gradual ascents gave way to leisurely descents that I found a second (or should that be fourth?) wind. Soon I was back at A9 level on a tarmac path running north. The only hazards here were low-hanging branches which demanded sometimes acrobatic evasive action.

A little blue sign then pointed me up an embankment to a road junction beside Ballinluig and I knew I was close. The odometer read 64 miles: I was going to do it. Rain threatened again so I donned the hi-vis rain jacket and made progress. I couldn’t figure where the black chevron on the map featured in relation to Logierait, a village I’ve passed through a number of times in the past. This repressed memory soon resurfaced, however, but the strange thing about getting into reasonable shape is that, despite a long day in the saddle and a fair weight over the back wheel, standing on the pedals up a steep rise can still be sustained for a long enough burst.

The 77 was now exceedingly quiet and very panoramic. The hills ahead of me were enlarging but I put that down to my glucose-starved brain. Nevertheless, the map promised one final chevron and it delivered all the jelly-legged, lung-bursting agony you could wish for. The view from the top was worthy of a stop in its own right, but mine was enforced. From here, I could more or less trundle into Pitlochry.Following a final ramp up to the hostel I could enjoy the balmy sunshine as I tended to the caked bike chain. I had cycled from the home of golf to the Highland resort of Pitlochry, 72 miles at an average speed of very nearly 14mph. I felt Odyssey-ready.

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Scotch Odyssey 2: A Daft Prologue

The gorgeous Daftmill distillery.

Having said I wouldn’t be updating ‘live’, here I am. In truth, I cannot wait another two weeks to give an in-depth account of my time at Daftmill distillery (and I have access to a computer, photo-editing software and a strong cup of tea, so why the hell not?).

If my Scotch Odyssey was the Tour de France, today would be the Prologue, that weird mini time trial right at the start to shuffle the riders into some semblance of hierarchy and provide a stable location for a bit of a party. I left St Andrews at 8.40; I returned at 12.30. I went as far as Daftmill Farm, just beyond Cupar, to meet Quaich Society patron and vanguard farm distiller Francis Cuthbert.

Since its establishment in 2004, Daftmill distillery has kept a low profile. So low in fact, that I had some difficulty in finding it. After darkening the doorstep of someone’s house, I pedalled back to the main road to find another turn off and sailed right on past the correct one. Eventually, I tracked down the discreet pagoda and donned civilian gear.

The mash tun.

Francis adjusted the mash tun while I took photos, then the tour commenced. He has been rather busy this month showing ‘maltheads’ around, usually as they journey to Speyside or Islay. Germans and Swedes are especially keen to have a look round, with whisky-making happening in between times. Below the mash house are ten wheelie bins, filled with grist made from Daftmill’s own concerto barley. Having long grown barley for other distillers, Allied in the old days and Macallan currently, the journey to distilling his own spirit began after much discussion and interrogation. For the Cuthbert family, it was not a decision rushed into. They ‘ummed’ and ‘ahhed’ about installing a mill but chose to forego the expense and have their grist brought in. 100 tonnes (the smallest batch Crisp Maltings in Alloa will service) is sent away and comes back ready to be distilled.

While I was there the first mash of the current season was in progress. Francis likes to recirculate the worts to ensure clarity – as I was reminded over the course of the visit, Daftmill wants to produce a fruity, clean spirit and that all starts in the mash tun. Distillers yeast is then added, and fermentation takes between 72 and 100 hours. If the wort is crystal clear, fermentation goes off like a rocket and the switcher blades are forced to work overtime to control the rising froth, not always successfully. Francis told me that much of the alcohol has already been created after 48 to 50 hours, but longer ferments promote lactic acid build up as dead yeast cells are consumed, again generating those fruity flavours. Ideally, the wash should taste faintly sour or bitter as it is pumped across to the still house: distillation will recover that sweetness.

The Daftmill stills.

Why these stills, Francis? ‘We just picked a shape we liked,’ he replies with a shrug. Francis prefers to determine house style through his manipulation of the stills, rather than trust the shape to influence matters. Daftmill’s short, and very pretty stills are run slowly to maximise copper contact, and after each wash and spirit charge the man-doors are opened to allow the copper to rejuvenate. At every point, he is zoning in on the desired spirit character.

Half of a wash back’s contents goes into the wash still, producing 800-900 litres of low wines at 22-23% ABV. Into the spirit still, then, for a stately distillation. The aim is to capture some lovely succulent oils, but a seven-minute foreshot run clears out the fat and grease from previous feints which is, obviously, not wanted. The spirit cut is tiny, and impressively high: from 78% down to 73% ABV. I can only think of The Macallan and Glen Garioch that have a narrower middle cut. Water is added and the spirit is reduced to 63.5% (‘with the paddle’ – a lumped of wood rest on top of the spirit receiver) before being pumped across to the warehouse which is the final side of the courtyard.

Inside the warehouse.

When I arrived I imagined I smelt fermenting going on. Francis suggested it could the Quaker Oats factory nearby but I think it could be all the fresh Bourbon casks maturing behind the rich green doors. Inside, I was met with that dunnage warehouse aroma that I know and love so dearly: two floors hold Daftmill’s hundred or so casks (there is another warehouse elsewhere on the farm). All of the production from the past ten years stood in front of me and after fielding a farming-related phone call, Francis grabbed a valinch and set to work.

The vast majority of casks are from Heaven Hill in Kentucky: all first-fill ex-Bourbon. In recent years, due to oak demand, some have had to be sourced from Makers Mark and Jim Beam. Francis pulled out a shining measure of liquid from a 2006 barrel before pirouetting and breaking open a Sherry butt from the same year.

The two cask samples.

I nosed the ex-Bourbon sample and was met by a gust of lightly-bruised spearmint, Werther’s Originals, the creamiest, juiciest vanilla I’ve ever come across and sparkly, fudgey malt. The malt character reminded me of some Larks I’ve tasted: a combination of light, smooth and sweet malt and powdery shards of crystallised green fruit. It also bore some similarity to a single cask Kilchoman Peter Wills brought to the Quaich Society recently: clean, fresh and attractive. ‘You’re in good company,’ Francis said. ‘Charlie Maclean reckoned he could smell mint, too’. The palate presented a different face to Daftmill; still clean and fruity, with the spirit resisting the oak, before rich cereal notes entered together with butter on burnt crumpets. A real mouthfilling whisky, this one. Time in the glass revealed fat corn from the oak, lemon posset and banana chips.

The Sherry cask had contained Oloroso and the colour, as you can see, is spectacular. The nose was as clean and pure as the ex-Bourbon example, but with glace cherry and candied red apple before sultana flapjack and jellied grapefruit appeared. I professed astonishment that the spirit had not been bullied by the first-fill Sherry. Again, the thickness that registered on the palate was impressive: toasty oak with jelly beans and an oily weight. There were some aromatic notes arising from the tannins, like tarragon and bike chain oil (or that could have been me).

Francis hopes to release single casks initially (precisely when, he declined to comment) before bringing a few casks together and bottling at 46%, a la Kilchoman. He confessed that the young Islay distillery’s policy of finishing a vatting in Sherry casks appeals to him but did not say that this would be Daftmill’s approach. Over the whole visit, however, Francis emphasised that while he is still trying to perfect his distillation regime, nothing is unequivocally off-limits. Peated Daftmill may be trialled in future, other casks may be brought in, but for now he is waiting to see how the world will respond to his take on the Lowland single malt style. I’d wager it will be a hit.

I pedalled off in the light rain forecast, my left knee resuming its complaint from the ride in. This is worryingly similar to the pain I suffered from in the run up to the last Odyssey four years ago. That went away with some dedicated rest. Hopefully whatever is wrong can continue healing tonight. The odd thing is that the pain goes away after a few miles so hopefully it is just a temperature problem and a question of getting warmed up. I’d rather not be popping Paracetamol for the next two weeks.

This will be my final blog post for a while, but a lot of the action will hopefully be related on Twitter (@WhiskyOdyssey).

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Countdown to Scotch Odyssey 2

Incredibly, I may just be in a position to take on a second circumnavigation of Scotland in search of Scotch whisky distilleries to visit.

If April was chock full of coursework, May was the domain of exams, and you can’t memorise the finer points of Kelman, Stevenson or Self (especially Self) if you are physically knackered. Training, therefore, has been rather more opportunistic and far scarcer than it was four years ago, when my ‘Fit For the Glens’ weekly posts updated progress from ten weeks prior to the Grand Depart. No such lead-in this time. I covered about 660 miles in training ahead of April 12 2010; this time we are maybe looking at half that figure, possibly a little more. I have had, as they say, my doubts.

However, I’m presently fed and showered following a 57-mile day of training, which suggests that – when I pedal off in a northerly direction towards Pitlochry on Tuesday – distance shouldn’t be a problem. Neither, it must be said, should inclines scare me. Over the course of recent weeks I have been impressed/dismayed by just how hilly Fife is. Seriously, the kingdom is like a heart rate monitor reading. If you want to acquire solid cardiovascular fitness, Fife is the place to cycle, lurching up single-track precipices and screeching down the other side repeatedly.

It’s also bloody windy. If you manage to get to the top of a hill, the breeze blowing out to sea is something you must contend with. Often this week I have been crawling along into the molars of a gale.

In summary, if the quantity of training cannot match 2010, perhaps the quality is a shade higher. I’m hoping so, because I have more than 900 miles filling 17 days, meaning that what I covered today is my average – average – for the tour as a whole. I’m going to need some carrots to get me through all of those, and fortunately the whisky industry has obliged.

I will begin close to home, at Francis Cuthbert’s Daftmill distillery. Long have I wished to poke about in this wholly-independent farm operation and possibly taste something interesting. It is rare these days to be taken round a plant by the person who makes the spirit. From there it is up the A9 to the distilleries which my overly ambitious itinerary ruled out last time: Dalwhinnie and Tomatin. I only hope Dalwhinnie is as pretty on the inside as it is to look upon, hurtling by on the main road. Tomatin are releasing stellar whiskies at the moment; hopefully I’ll be able to get a taste of what is on the horizon.

If you can't have Balvenie, then a single cask Imperial from the year you were born is definitely the next best thing.

Speyside is next, a region where I had a very high hit rate four years ago. Sadly – nay, tragically – I have repeated my feat of being too late to book a tour of The Balvenie. I gave them two weeks’ notice in 2010, one month this time. Nothing doing. If you want to get round before the end of the year, my advice is book now and cross your fingers. You’d think it was El Bulli. Of course, I have an excellent fall back option, the soon-to-be-complete single estate distillery at Ballindalloch Castle (like them on Facebook). After that, I’m going to repair to the Speyside Way with an apt dram. A 23yo Imperial, bottled by Hunter Laing, fits the bill nicely. From there I shall peddle gently on to Dufftown to say hello to, and eat the fine food of, Sandy Smart at Taste of Speyside.

Already the mileages start to increase, and the next day I leave for GlenDronach and Glenglassaugh. Sunday is a distillery-free hike west and then north, before my triumphant return (all being well) to Balblair. I’m banking on Clynelish being open on a Monday, but the site is being expanded so maybe not. I’ll phone ahead this time.

The next section has me petrified and hyperactive with excitement all at the same time. I will have distance, ferry timetables and the whims of the West Coast weather systems to trouble me as I cycle across to Ullapool for a boat to the Outer Hebrides. It is quite a trek to get to Mark Tayburn’s Abhainn Dearg, but if everything runs smoothly it should be spectacular. Long days in the saddle are necessary to get from Stornoway to the bottom of Harris in time for a ferry to Uig, before peddling down the spine of Skye for another stay at the Ratagan Youth Hostel.

From Loch Duich I more or less retrace 2010′s tire tracks to Fort William before omitting the islands (with regret) and pitching up in Glasgow for Auchentoshan. Fired with triple-distilled gorgeousness (but not too much, obviously), I wend homewards with a night in Stirling before stopping off at Strathearn Distillery (another small-scale operation) by way of a rest on the homeward stretch to St Andrews.

If you are travelling in Scotland during the next two and a half weeks, do look out for me. I’m the tall, lean be-spectacled cyclist smelling faintly of wash and pot ale, amongst other things. I’ve decided to pack a bottle of Compass Box’s Great King Street Experimental Peat in the hope that I’ll make some new friends. The blog will be silent during that time, but do check Twitter for up-to-the-minute events (@WhiskyOdyssey). I shall expand my experiences to more than 140 characters upon my return. I welcome any comments or queries you may have!

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