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April 11, 2010

Fit For The Glens? By Strathmill, I hope so…

From the moment I stepped out of the car to begin my walk this morning I’ve been making the serial supposition that begins: “This time tomorrow I’ll be…” It focuses the mind quite impressively.

How I will miss you, deepest, darkest, Northumberland.

How I will miss you, deepest, darkest, Northumberland.

It is safe (and a fairly enormous understatement) to say that this has been one of the oddest weeks of my life. Impromptu shifts, two leaving meals, an appearance in the local paper, and my last ride in Northumberland before departure have all contributed to a palette of emotions I can’t begin to describe. Oh, and a near nervous breakdown, which I can portray. As I told Marc in response to his comment on the last post, my mind has not been as strong as my legs. The cold did not improve on Tuesday and with my deadline approaching with the tangible expiration of minutes as opposed to weeks, being incapable of venturing out and so failing to earn the only qualification I have at the moment to feel in any way positive and at ease rather caused everything to unravel. As I sought to express myself in writing to two of my very best friends who have been with me and supported me throughout the year merely served to blow the topsoil from the corpse of my insecurities and doubts. With a to-do list stretching most of the way to Kirkwall and my imbalanced psyche shrieking ‘Doomed!’ at the top of its voice unremittingly, I couldn’t prioritise anything or appreciate that incrementally I could complete the remaining formalities. When the osteopath, whom I have known for a very long time, asked how I was, I had slid half-way down a fatalistic downward spiral before I became entirely incoherent and abandoned my explanation. My inability to communicate my feelings was almost the final straw for someone who defines himself in his effective use of language. It took a little while to understand that the ant colony of emotions I’m embroiled in right now is unique, unprecedented and I should simply accept and not worry about the temporary scenario which dictates that I cannot explain or articulate it. It defies explanation and articulation.

The “little while” needed was about three hours. I cycled 43 miles and how glorious it was. I returned unable to so much as recall the shape of the thoughts which had tormented me. I was back on track, cloistered in peace. Everything makes sense on a bike.

The following day I racked up another twenty miles taking the bike for a final once-over at the shop to cure a strange clunking noise from the headset which I’d noticed whenever I pulled on the bars while out of the saddle. Various tools were extracted and a few quick, practised twists later silence returned to my cycling. A huge vote of thanks must be made to the guys at Breeze Bikes, Amble. Without their technical support and practical advice borne out of having done a lot of what I’m about to do themselves, I would be hopelessly under-equiped and embarrassingly ignorant of basic repair procedures. Take inner tube replacement as a case-in-point. This time last week it was some arcane science, now I’m confident with repairing punctures following Mark’s speedy demo. Unfortunately, it was a touch too speedy at first, and after my hours of red-faced wrestling with a trucculent tyre in the garage, I went back, confidence profoundly shaken, and I was taught “the knack”. As it turns out it is as simple as ensuring that all of one side of the tyre wall  is already fitted into the rim. Then you merely push the other side in without the tyre coming away again. Theoretically, it’s very straightforward. Let’s see if I manage in the pouring rain on top of some bleak moor.

Unspeakably awful, but there is a very pretty view from the top.

Unspeakably awful, but there is a very pretty view from the top.

On Friday, I went for broke. Having said that I wasn’t bothered about eking out a 50-mile day prior to leaving, I reasoned that as I had the opportunity, I really ought to see how my body responded over hilly terrain for four hours. I chose, perhaps in a rude gesture to Fate, to do two loops of the same circuit that had incited the knee injury almost a month ago. The first lap took me almost exactly two hours as I stopped regularly, mimicking with my food and photo halts my behaviour as of tomorrow. The ascent of Corby’s Crags was easier on this occasion, my breathing not so ragged as to draw the attention of the scrum of tourists in the laybys away from the view. It was actually very warm and my jacket felt very unwelcome. Taking it off was not a safe option, however, for the reservoirs of sweat created by its presence were chilled whenever the road went downhill, which after that climb it did a lot.

Circuit #2 was hard. Clayport Bank in Alnwick was almost as bad as Corby’s Crags had been and then the traffic over the moor – dense and fast-moving – raised the blood pressure still further. I did, however, come across an intriguing smell. During my morning ride I’d noticed that they were burning heather but only now could I get a whiff of it. It took me back to my early childhood, although I could place it no more precisely. It was a spicy, soft aroma which tickled the nose; sweet but with an unusual earthiness. Later in the ride, when I smelt it again, I realised it reminded me of standing down-wind from the kiln at Edradour. As I approached the Crags from the opposite direction, I knew I wouldn’t be able to enjoy the speed the reversed incline would provide. I would actually say that however unpleasant uphill climbing is, descending is even worse. On these steeper and less well-maintained roads with pot holes and loose gravel real dangers, and factoring in the weight and resulting momentum of my bike, going downhill is a terrifying ordeal. I have to control the speed for if I hit a pot hole incorrectly my rear wheel is going to look like so much half-cooked spaghetti and I could even crash. So, stiff as a board and white as a sheet I tried to get to the bottom in one piece whilst simultaneously preventing the brakes from overheating. Tense.

The rest of the ride, barring the donning of rain gear in response to an isolated and brief shower, passed without incident. I did, however, witness the potential for the innocuous, unscripted human encounter. I’d stopped half-way up the stupidly steep hill Edlingham is built on after a particularly fraught descent from the main road. A man was just getting out of his car in the opposite driveway and a twenty-minute conversation ensued. A keen cyclist in his younger days, he seemed impressed with my project, gave me some advice as to how best to capitalise on my undertaking from a commercial side by hob-nobbing with as many of the managers as I could gain access to and wished me luck. I wasn’t even in Scotland but I had already enjoyed an encounter with a complete stranger.

I woke up yesterday expecting physical reprisals for the efforts of Friday but when nothing complained on my getting out of bed I felt infinitely more positive about my itinerary, on which only four days are longer than my exploits of the day before. I set up my Flickr account (I’ll point you towards it when I start snapping away) and saw about my postage requirements for my bundles of maps. £14.40 may sound a lot for four uses of the postal system but with each bundle an average of roughly nine maps, it is a necessary and justifiable expense for I cannot carry them all. 

On the subject of maps I have printed off directions for my inner city Glasgow legs. These are causing me the greatest number of midnight panic attacks but, by the time I cross that metaphorical bridge over the Clyde from Ardrossan I ought to be more experienced, philosophical and comfortable with urban survival. It cannot be avoided.

My trains out of Glasgow and back home are organised, although I’m a little concerned about the A4 print-outs the man at the station gave me by way of cycle reservation certification, because for every other rail transfer situation I have a little orange ticket to secure to my machine. I pointed this out to him but he countermanded my arguments, even if he didn’t allay my fears.

Traffic, getting lost, high seas, the weather, mountains and many other factors I may not have anticipated I must now meet head-on, face down and overcome. My defence is not giving them a second thought during this period of inertia and consequently impotence. As of 09.56 tomorrow (and possibly before) things will unaccountably start happening and whilst I hope they are positive and constructive, I wonder how I will react in the not-so-good times, when I’ve already endured 40 tough miles, I’ve still got another 6 miles to get to my distillery and only half an hour to cover them, I’m wet and shivering and the haggises choose that moment to spring their ambush.

Reassurance of sorts was gained by watching the last episode in the incredible three-parter following Mark Beaumont across the Americas. I had to comment on his blog there and then, 10 past midnight. It was just astonishing the physical and mental achievement he can call his own. I was pleased, however, whilst witnessing him climb Mount Aconcagua, that at no point did I lean forward in rapture and whisper: “Yes! Sign me up for that!” I’ve climbed a Munro, and that was a deeply spiritual undertaking, but that is about the limits of my interest in mountaineering. I don’t like the sound of 20,000 ft plus, avalanches, altitude sickness. It just doesn’t appeal.  I’m quite happy being comfortable. I’m not ashamed of that. Leave those nine-month expeditions with their foreign languages, kidnap risks and deserts to these crazy folk. The interesting thing is to consider how fatuous and non-sensical I may think that statement once I return from this trip, a minnow of a challenge in the Beaumont league but very important to me, nonetheless. Guys like Mark, after all, who are seemingly compelled to attempt what they do; who possess a yearning, a deep nameless need which must be sated no matter what the cost, must have started their adventuring somewhere. Maybe the Mount Aconcaguas of this world will appeal one day, and this journey may have conceived that same inexplicable drive. I know that there are times when I will be far from comfortable and I suspect that actually I’ll be rather drawn to the mentality provoked. Afterwards, I may wish to return to those circumstances which brought about those new and unfamiliar sensations. I have no way of knowing how I will be affected – that would rather defeat the object, wouldn’t it – but I hope that I’m made less inclined to adhere to my comfort zones. There is a lot more out there, I believe. So am I saying that I in fact want to undertake the impossible, the exceedingly dangerous? I’m not interested in breaking records (part of the territory for “professional” adventurers like Mr Beaumont) but I have tried to nurture the existence of the “unknown quantity” in this tour, if such a thing is possible, and leave room as much as possible for those encounters with life that I crave and if unlikely and risky means are implicated in the pursuit of these then bring it on! Within reason! I hope, for it cannot be planned and expected, that this trip will surprise me, that I will surprise me. Six weeks on the road with whisky on the periphery can surely offer up nothing else.

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April 5, 2010

Fit For The Glens: 1 week to go…

“-:Guwuntee-myerr-gneeoing-noch:-”

This is the only sonic accompaniment available for my sensations over the weekend and this morning: something unfocused, apathetic but deeply-felt and significant. Over the last 18 months I haven’t suffered many colds, but whenever my immune system has no longer been able to turn away the viral assaults, the colds I have developed have been aggressive and vindictive. So it has been with this one, swift to mutate from sore throat on Saturday evening to the kind of sinus headaches on Sunday that suggest your skull is no more resilient than one of those flour-filled balloons as your face is systematically distorted, Hall of Mirrors-style, by waves of crushing pain, to tissue consumption on an Amazon-threatening level. Work was even more agonising than a Bank Holiday weekend has any right to be. I was supposed to complete 50 miles today. I think to have attempted this total would have been deeply foolish. 

So once again my training plan has been blighted. In truth, I’m philosophical about it all. Yes, there is now less than seven whole days remaining until I depart (this returning realisation upon waking up this morning created quite a tableau of panic) but I have more than 450 miles of training under my belt: at this stage, a rest is just as beneficial. I may not have the opportunity to simulate 55 miles-plus in a day before I go, but what would such an exercise really tell me? I’m going ahead with this, and that is the only fact worth considering. I cannot hope to approximate the topography in any case, and why would I want to take away from discovering how I deal with physical and logistical adversity when it arises? There is a limit to preparation, as much a spiritual one as that which concerns my fitness. Challenge and the unknown is partly why I am doing this at all, I trust adrenaline and excitement to carry me through, and cannot wait to remark upon the shift in mentality inevitable when I am finally immersed in the environment. In my more directionless day-dreams, an image or an emotion will break into my thoughts presaging my journey. These out-of-body experiences (for they have this flavour about them) have been growing more frequent as the start date approaches and I’m interpreting them as positive visitations. As I pass through my remaining days, I’m gaining a sense of the underlying determination and anticipation, built up over the last nine months during which I have extended all reading on the subject to contemplations of what it might feel to be in the distillery described or viewing a particular process at work. I’m beginning to discern the shape of my own will to adapt to the beautiful isolation, extremes of fatigue and weather, and to enjoy that delicious whisky in its own front room. I accept that I will be shaken, but I’m convinced that I shan’t be made to waver, to turn back instead of carry on.

Friday’s quota of 44 miles was a step in the right direction, although the exertion may have hastened the onset of the cold. With a whole day, tonnes of shortbread and regular tea stops, I see no cause to doubt that I can conquer that 61-mile day and the other six instances where I have to ride beyond 50 miles between beds.

Wednesday’s ride was only of 18 miles duration, but it taught me much: chiefly just how much of a bugger rain is. At the beginning of last week, essentially just after I returned from Edinburgh, the UK had been held, thrashing, under deluges of water and yet more snow. Flooding wasn’t so severe in Northumberland for all the rivers swelled and roads in places were submerged from verge to verge. Landslides north of Berwick, however, closed the East Coast mainline up to Edinburgh. This was all far too dramatic. Half-way through my ride, then, the heavens opened. Meaningfully. Hood on, overtrousers slick with wet, I went through two pairs of gloves. Once home, I began to appreciate just how much clothing needs to be hung out to dry after such treatment and how that just won’t be possible once I get to a distillery, should it have rained on the way. Wet things will have to be stuffed in panniers then, once the tour has ended, put back on again all cold and damp. This will not be pleasant but what choice will I have? When I realised that it wasn’t the rain which had saturated my leg warmers (it was rather the sweat which had condensed on the inside of the overtrousers), I saw how I was to remedy the situation in future. It was clear that if temperatures demand extra thermal layers, then I would need more than one set, and ditto for the gloves. Ohterwise, without dry things to change into after a stoppage, I would not only be uncomfortable but jeopardising my health.

Yet more things to buy, then. On the Thursday I rode to the bike shop, principally to have the bike checked out but now also to make a few more purchases. Despite the masses of other customers who had descended ahead of the Easter weekend, the machine was speedily given the all-clear after a few tweaks and tightenings. Memories of Mark Beaumont’s equipment ordeals during his frankly astonishing journey across the Americas had planted the seed of doubt in my mind about just how lucky I was going to be. Whilst I wouldn’t be taking my machine beyond the mileage warranty, punctures can happen after any distance and so I wanted some insurance and knowledge if the broken glass, screws and other hazardously sharp objects of Edinburgh’s cycle lanes were anything to go by. I was given a puncture repair kit and some advice: “Best to take with you two inner tubes. Between them and the repair kit you should be OK for eight punctures.” I had to confess that I’d never attended to an inner tube replacement in my life and not liking the idea of hurtling up, but most particluarly down, the Highlands on tyres I’d glued myself, I asked for a tutorial. I’m going in again tomorrow for a crash course in tyre changes.

On the subject of expenses, it turns out my forecasts for amassing the cash for my budget were rooted in fantasy. After having bought all of the equipment, maps and tickets; in short, accounted for all of the preliminary outlay, I now had to go back through my files and total up what will be required of me once in Scotland. This sum came to £960. A quick check of my statements, money under the mattress and projected earnings for the last fortnight prior to leaving left me a fiver short of that. And there is still the £600 food/repair budget to find. £500 can be put on the credit card and my parents have promised to help but I cannot figure out where I’ve squandered £600. It’s baffling and depressing in equal measure. I’ll work something out, though.

I’m to be in the Northumberland Gazette this week. After I was reassured that I was not irremediably crocked, I dropped by their offices and spoke to a reporter about my plans. She expressed an interest. “Why are you doing this, for charity?” “Nope, I’m just selfish and like whisky.” A photographer came round last week and snapped me, the bike and a bottle of Bowmore Legend in the downpour. I wonder how authentic a representation of my travels it will turn out to be.

This is the first whisky I have ever bought a second bottle of and it's just marvellous. Just how well will my Orkney experiences measure up to the workings of my imagination?

This is the first whisky I have ever bought a second bottle of and it's just marvellous. Just how well will my Orkney experiences measure up to the workings of my imagination?

Highland Park 12-year-old 40% (See ‘Most Hotly-Awaited’)

Colour: Rich dark honey with amber highlights.

Nose: (FS) Impossibly complex, textured spicy sweetness. Like burning candied heather. Saltiness provides much of the firm freshness. Very rich, round and earthy malt, almost with a syrupy intensity. Deep and rich with spicy, nutty Sherry. (WW) Sweeter and lighter. So much runny heather honey. Thick but soft peatiness. Excellent floral notes. Smooth toffeed maltiness. Remarkable richness and balance.

Palate: Soft, rounded rich malt with very firm earthy peat and lots of sweet honey. So heathery with the richest, darkest fruitcake flavours. Touches of dark chocolate.

Finish: Warming, peaty and with lovely richness. Creamy and slightly citrusy. Fades into subtler and even more satisfying flavours. Firm biscuity cereal with peated husks. Sweet crisp spice and drying.

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March 31, 2010

Fit For The Glens: 2 weeks to go…

Let it be known that I’m at peace – joyful, even. Unfortunately, in order for you to understand why these more positive moods are in residence less than two weeks before the most difficult undertaking of my life so far I must relate some bad news before embarking on an account of Monday’s epic mission through the Scottish capital.

I didn’t mention it in my last post because I had thought that it was only a temporary niggle. However, getting back on the bike in the afternoon to consolidate my intense workout the day before, my knee pain reduced a proposed 25 mile ride by two thirds. Pedalling was agony and unlike with my previous knee grievance, rising from the saddle didn’t help. This wasn’t desirable. I then did what you should never do: I diagnosed myself using the internet. Having read procycling for seven years, I know that cyclists are prone to tendonitis and look: there are all my symptoms. The advice was to rest until all discomfort had vanished. There being rather a lot of discomfort, suddenly my 18 remaining days appeared to be a hopelessly inadequate time frame to get rid of it all and still return to the required fitness level. So severe was the pain and so limited was my information about it I went mentally down hill an awful lot faster than I had toiled up Corby’s Crags a couple of days earlier. “I don’t have time for this to heal… Every time I push the pedals the pain is going to return… How much damage will I do to myself by attempting to live with this injury for 1330 miles?“ Nine months and £2000 looked to be trickling down the drain like wort from the mash tun. I had been doomed before I’d so much as started; my grand claims, my bonded spirit of hopes, were just so much of the Angel’s Share. I simply had not foreseen the chance of an injury, and after more than 300 miles of training I had believed the likelihood of any muscular problems had been progressively pacified.

But contemplating the dissolution of my trip, my whole reason for taking a gap year in the first place, made me realise just how badly I want to do this. I want to cycle that passage from Inverness to Wick past some of the most iconic distilleries; I want to be on that ferry to Orkney; I want to see the Cuillins; I want to spin with unaccustomed ease between the eight densely-packed and legendary distilleries of Islay; I want to board my train home from Barrhill on May 22nd knowing I’ve done something unique; I want to see Scotland. A trip to the osteopath brought wonderful news: “if you had tendonitis, you wouldn’t have been able to do any of the exercises we have just done.” He emphasised taking things more slowly, something that could only benefit and enrich my travels as much as my body. He is right, of course.  I still need to enforce the “pootle-along” mode. There are only a couple of critical deadlines on this trip; for the majority of it I should have my head up absorbing the natural splendour that shall surround me. If all I’m concerned with are the figures on my bike computer then it won’t be a very enlightening tour.

I don’t have tendonitis, just a “capsule strain” caused by one over-developed quadricep pulling the knee cap out of alignment. This is easily recovered from and so long as I avoid big gears for long periods of time, I’ll be right as rain.

So it was a positive diagnosis and I was proscribed a set of strengthening exercises. I managed 15 miles on the Friday and had been promised that my reconnaissance plans on the Monday would not exacerbate anything. Provided I didn’t overdo things.

To Edinburgh, then, and with equal amounts of anxiety demanded by this new health-realted threat in addition to the concerns of cycling in a very busy city with expensive, inflexible public transport links on the itinerary, there was even more riding on my experiences yesterday (pardon the pun). Could I do it?

The weather forecast wasn’t good. Monday dawned, right enough, pretty shabbily. I was a whirling dervish of activity as I filled things, stuffed things into other things, dug things out and prepared for this most different of rides. I had every cycling-specific article of clothing with me including leg warmers, overtrousers and hood, and over the course of my day on the banks of the Forth I employed them all. I also brought along the OS map, Multimap directions and camera. Most of these were extracted, sprawled out and shuffled around as I changed into my “real world” disguise of combat trousers and hoodie at the station. Everything was then put back in and I was prepared in all respects besides my actual tickets. The ticket man obliged, but further scrambled my plans when he revealed that there had been an accident on the line between Newcastle and Morpeth and that there would be a delay of at least half an hour.

A little reminder that things don't always go to plan. Indeed, that they don't frequently.

A little reminder that things don't always go to plan. Indeed, that they don't frequently.

I sat on the platform, inwardly bemoaning how the vagaries of the weather and public transport could conspire to complicate things, and doing a lot of mental arithmetic to work out what time was left me. The bottom line was that it was less than anticipated.

After lugging my equipment up and down my first sets of stairs of the day to reach the other platform, grateful that I have also invested time in preparing my upper body, the rain became heavier. I observed the droplets on my saddle and panniers and thought about still greater concentrations soaking me to the marrow.

Only twenty minutes late, the train arrived, and having been told that Coach D was what I needed for cycle storage, I headed in that direction. Manoeuvring bike into cubby hole was no harder than getting an angry sow into a toaster and a few ominous creaks from mudguards and pannier rack later, there she was ensconced. A fruitless tour of the two adjacent carriages meant I sat in the luggage area for the duration of the journey which at least was quiet and allowed me to scrutinise any would-be bicycle thieves as they passed through in search of the toilets.

I'll know how to store her next time round...

I'll know how to store her next time round...

I ate a flapjack and changed back into my cycling gear just as we pulled into Waverley. I waved the hoards of fellow passengers off ahead of me and finally wrestled bike and bags on to the deserted Scottish platform. Another flight of stairs had to be mounted, and yet another gingerly descended before I was in the concourse, the road to Waverley Bridge beside me and a never-ending flood of taxis trundling over it. Cleats on and plastic-walleted instructions in my jacket pocket, I set off.

Immediately I encountered my first hazard with city cycling: pedestrians. Why don’t they look before crossing the road? It can’t hurt. Certainly it can’t hurt more than having a narrow bicycle tyre wedged in their groin.

My next obstacle was one Multimap hadn’t warned me about and came completely by surprise. I continued onto East Market Street from Market Street and was confronted by Roubaix-style cobblestones! Covered in drizzle and oil! Having seen enough Spring Classics crashes, I knew to go slowly.

Road works on Canongate allowed me to revise my route for the first of maybe a dozen times on the way to Pencaitland. “Take the first exit at the roundabout onto Abbeyhill.” The green light winked, I tanked off, made the turn, and was suddenly lost. “Abbeymount?! I want Abbeyhill!” I asked a passing cyclist how I was to get to Abbeyhill. He said I was on it. Not having received any instruction to make the right turn which had brought me into contact with my directional saviour, but confident I was at least in the right area, I retraced my tyre tracks, rejoined what must be the correct road, and came face-to-face with the A1. It was big. Lots of traffic lights for lots of traffic and lots of stress awaited me. I wanted to turn right to head east, but what with all the big buses and bellowing trucks preventing my progress in that direction and yellow paint on the road telling me I couldn’t stop, I carried on, onto the wrong road, swerved into a car park, did a U-turn and came at this paragon of a cyclist-hostile environment from another angle.

At last I was on London Road and despite the traffic lights and buses which I ran a type of relay with for about three miles, it was actually quite straightforward and not as claustrophobic as I’d feared. Did I mention the rain? I don’t think I did. By this stage it was really coming down, I had my hood on and quailed at each pedestrian crossing. The reason for my trepidation were the metal studs used to mark out the limits of the crossing which were all, of course, moist and ready to throw me to the tarmac for the Number 51 to run straight over me.

I also began to appreciate the ineptitude and baffling logic of cycle lane designation and allotment. All of the bus lanes were cycle lanes too, and that was marvellous as long as there were no buses in them. The most exhausting kind of leap-frog ensued when I did have to contend with a truculent double-decker. It would overtake me and pull up at the next stop. I would be forced back into the roaring traffic to get past, only for it to overtake me again 200 metres further on.

Buses stopped baiting me, however, when I reached Musselburgh. This, though, was also when I deviated from the advice of Multimap. I’d just bounced over the River Esk and seen no mention of my hitherto faithful companion, the A199. Instinct said left so I bore left. 500 metres later, though, and just when the cold and wind began to breach my fortifications of adrenaline and I started to feel rather tired, I stopped to double-check. Only the OS map was any use now. Fortunately, it reassured me that I was on the right track, still heading towards Tranent from where I would then dive south to the distillery. By now I was following the banks of the Firth of Forth closely, which was a spectacular blue/grey with a powerstation of sorts a little way off.

I appreciated this view. At last I'd broken free of the city.

I appreciated this view. At last I'd broken free of the city.

I sped over a massive roundabout, enjoyed a generous helping of cycle lane, even if it was pot-holed and sprinkled with broken glass, and suddenly I was in East Lothian and countryside. Once over the A1 I began to dream of days in the saddle with just the fields, forests and mountains for company. The idyll was spoilt slightly by the incessant passing of cars desperate to get to Tranent. Once I arrived myself I wasn’t sure how they could all fit for it wasn’t the biggest of places. I didn’t have long to ponder because frankly I didn’t have long. My stops and starts and wrong turns in the city had cost me and it was getting on for 12:45. The kids were out of school for lunch, something I knew I’d only allow myself once I got to Glenkinchie.

Overshooting a turn-off in Ormiston was the final error. After that the way was highly familiar as I followed the same road we had taken when I visited with my family in September. Rounding a hill beyond Pencaitland, up popped the red-brick smokestack like a beckoning finger and I had at last made it.

Freewheeling into the hollow that hides the distillery, I got my first proof, a validation, of the advantages of travelling whilst open and immersed in the atmosphere. Unlike in September, I smelt straight away the sweet, heady scent of tortured barley and yeast. That made my 18 miles of manic panic worthwhile.

The car park was packed, even on that grey and miserable Monday afternoon. As I dismounted and commenced changing into normal clothes with a frenzy accountable to my bladder breaking to me all at once details of the water it had been retaining, forcing me to contemplate how severe the punishment would be for weeing in the Kinchie Burn, some visitors were returning to their warm, comfortable cars. They weren’t Scottish, either. In fact, I’m not at all sure where they were from but I discerned what must have been “cyclist” and judging by the enthusiasm and earnestness with which they pointed me out to each other, I’m guessing they had enjoyed their Scotch hospitality.

I cycled into the grounds, propped the bike up by the entrance and fled into the toilets. I returned to find it

I would have loved to have tried the tour instead of having time only to snaffle my packed lunch in the chilling drafts outside. I'll be back, though.

I would have loved to have tried the tour instead of having time only to snaffle my packed lunch in the chilling drafts outside. I'll be back, though.

 fortunately still there. It was then that the fatigue hit me. It was 1:30, I hadn’t had my lunch, I couldn’t do the tour but I had to get back for my 4:08 train. I couldn’t bask in the achievement and significance of having escaped the bustle and anonymous menace of the city and made it to this, the first distillery on my tour and my first re-invocation of that glorious double act of Scotch and Scotland which has inspired this journey in the first place, a distillery that I had been to before but had required other means of transport to reach, and not my own steam. I shovelled in my sandwiches and cake, asked a few practical questions of the receptionist regarding what I was to do with bike and panniers when I returned in a fortnight’s time, took the picture you can see on the right and went back to Edinburgh.

I’m not sure why I fretted over the possibility of a blow-out on the return leg. I flew back at an average speed of 15 mph which gave me enough time to change again, buy a fizzy drink and a chocolate bar and collapse on to the train.

A word on that clothing transition period, though. I would not recommend it as a method of meeting women. Propped up against one of Waverley’s mighty green pillars, just beside WH Smith’s, I set about taking things off and putting other things on and trying to remember the sequence for both. With clothing spilling out of rucksack and panniers, I looked like a brightly-coloured, sweaty refugee who, despite probably having lost his village and most of his family to natural disaster or war, had kept in mind the dress code for the more stereotypical gay bars if all the Lycra was anything to go by. The future Mrs Saxon, perhaps not surprisingly, didn’t make herself known.

I had a seat on this train, but while we were stationary I didn’t use it properly. I’d stored my bike correctly this time (suspended by the front wheel from a hook on the ceiling) but due to the open door which streams of folk were using to alight on to the train, it was on full view of the platform. Slurping Lucozade, I suspected every commuter of kleptomania. My eyeballs didn’t return to their normal orientation until the doors had been locked and I was speeding back to south of the border, reflecting how two weeks’ later I’d be on a train taking me further north to Stirling and what I feel is the more authentic beginning of my Scotch odyssey.

I cannot express how contented my day made me feel, so as this post is long enough already I shall simply say that it was the very best thing I could have done. I know my route;  I know how long it will take me; I know the practicalities of train and bike travel, and I know that rain is no dampner.

I also know that for the next two weeks I need to carefully control the intensity of my training. My efforts of Monday did incite a flare-up of pain and swelling, although not on the level of last week. Another treatment at the osteopath has assured me that it is preventable and manageable and this whisky journey need not be jeopardised. This is simply terrific, because I’m quickly coming to grasp what potential it has.

Ardbeg 10-year-old 46% (See ‘Most Hotly-Awaited’)

Colour: Pale and faintly luminous sandy gold.

Nose: (FS) Intense lemon marmalade sweetness sits between tarry rope and seaweed. Light creamy malt on a very strong, dry and thick peat floor. Smooth and gentle, though self-evident, maritime character. Carbolic soap. Floral, honeyed, with a diesel note. (WW) Sweet heathery smoke but still the seaweed and wamr, clear sea water remind you this is Islay. Shellfish. Pencil sharpenings. So open and expansive. A brewing summer storm on the beach.

Palate: Spicy, malty and fruity with very dry, rich and spiky peat. Fabulous exchange between oily tar, peat and smoke and biscuity malt and fruit. So complex.

Finish: Lemon bon-bons eaten by the fire. Hevay – huge! Beach bonfire ash. maram grass. Delicate smoke and engine oil float about. Heathery. Charred cask with spoonfuls of syrupy vanilla. Stupendous.

Glenmorangie Lasanta 46%

Colour: Full, glowing amber orange with bright copper highlights.

Nose: (FS) Intensely soft and smooth Sherry. Drying firmness hehind this of dark, “green” peatiness. Very fresh and spicy wit a creamy nuttiness. Rather oppulent and sumptuous. Complex. (WW) Lighter with more sustained barley sugar sweetness. Marzipan-style oakiness: thick and sweet. Lots of creamy caramel toffee.

Palate: Firm, dark and spicy with lots of dark chocolate, delicate though extremely rich peat and slivers of oak. Nutty. Soft, chewy malt with sticky and sweet dried fruits and toffee.

Finish: Warmth and with very rich, sweet depths. Spongy rubberiness obstructs some of the finer wood notes. Dark heather honey, earthy and with sticky malt. Creamily nutty again.

Arran 10-year-old 46%

Colour: Very clean, pale and soft gold. Champagne.

Nose: (FS) Dry, authoritative oakiness and rich, honeyed, biscuity malt. Heathery with rounded fruit notes. Humid and pungent cereals, underneath which is an appetizing, dry and rich earthiness. Spicy. Chunky and powerful. (WW) Lighter, smoother and a touch sweeter. Jam-filled sponges and pastries. A more inviting firmness and excellent subtle spice. Dark, peaty notes meld well with older oak flavours.The whole thing has real energy and clout.

Palate: Very spicy and firm yet retains a teasing softness. Fruity at first then rich caramel and chocolatey barley. Full and rounded with heathery peat notes.

Finish: Stewed fruit and plain chocolate. Firm, medium-dry oak a principal flavour. Heather honey. Some extra citrus and spice. Smooth with lovely barley grain richness and depth.

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March 23, 2010

Fit For The Glens: 3 weeks to go…

It’s a really nice feeling to have known something from the very beginning. For me, that something was the belief that upon managing to ride to Rothbury and back, I would then be capable of tackling the very worst journeys on my tour. That I didn’t make it to Rothbury yesterday unfortunately suggests that I’m not quite at that stage yet.

Inspired by the acquisition of my bike lock, waterproof cycle hood and rucksack; buoyed up by Multimap’s promise that it is a mere 15 miles from my house to Rothbury, and suitably challenged by a more dismal weather forecast, I decided that the time was nigh to give myself a stern test. The instant I deviated from my familiar coastal roads, however, I began to appreciate what whole series of hills can do to my average speed. Skirting Alnwick on the old A1, I was climbing steadily. However, with the route being a foreign one (on a bike, at least), the more sustained difficulty of the terrain and the increase in fast-moving traffic meant that I was working too hard, all the while wondering if the rain which had hitherto been coming only in lazy gobbets would soon elect to rage down with a vengeance. Very early on in my ride the wetness had started, and despite the sun, I thought it wise to don my overtrousers. These were unexpectedly cumbersome and raised my temperature significantly on the hills.

The sun vanished, however; I left the beaten track and was soon very glad of them. I had turned off the road that leads to the little village of Eglingham and gone cross-country to connect with the main road between Alnwick and Rothbury. My road for the time being was a single-track affair, nothing more than a strip of faded tarmac linking farms and remote houses to the outside world. I was almost immediately immersed in deepest, darkest Northumberland. Steep ramps and quick descents made for a pleasingly different challenge, and navigating new and empty roads put me in mind of many of my rides next month. The wind and rain were, by contrast, a ceaseless agony (but still had me thinking about next month). So exposed were the roads, and so unwavering was their course straight into the teeth of the worst of it, that I could do no better than the small chainring and 9 mph for mile after country mile. Perversely, perhaps, I rather enjoyed it. I was warm, the views were spectacular and the confidence booster of breaking new ground meant I relished each time the road flicked upwards and I could get a sense of what me and my gearing were capable of. Even on a very awful section that wouldn’t look out of place on the Tour of Flanders I maintained forward motion and was encouraged.

I reached Edlingham, and sadly by this point I had stopped having quite so much fun. My food stash was disappearing, as was the water in my bidons, and when a road sign made it seven miles to my destination I decided that discretion was the better part of valour. The road out of Edlingham, just to reach the main road, witnessed me grovelling in bottom gear. Had I turned right, the hill above the A697 which takes you almost to the roof of the county with a very Scotland-esque panorama would almost certainly have demanded the same. Even an hour convalescing in a Rothbury cafe would not have altered my feelings about undertaking the other side of this hill, nor the 10% (average) gradient beside Cragside House. And even had I survived those, I woould still have been faced with the slope I did climb after having turned left.

For the previous three springs, I have envisaged attaining a fitness level that might allow me to attempt a circuit incorporating Corby’s Crags. If you have visited Northumberland, you will almost certainly have parked in the gravel layby on this awful hill which affords one of the most stunning views of Cheviot. While you snapped away on your cameras, it might not have occurred to you that there are people masochistic enough to cycle up it. In truth, it is probably less than a mile, but its average gradient is 10% and some sections, by my reckoning, are getting on for 14, 15 or 16%. On the moderate lower slopes I felt OK, but then I had no right to feel differently: I discovered I was two sprockets from rock bottom. Knowing it was going to get worse, that my ability to ride out of the saddle for sustained bursts was rapidly diminishing and that here like nowhere else I would feel the dead weight I’d put on the bike, I panicked a little. Very quickly, I had no energy to spare even for that. The wall of scarred tarmac reared up, I lurched up onto the pedals and gave it everything. I was not going to get off and push.

At the layby I mentioned above was a man sat snugly in his car admiring the vista. At least, he was trying to; my ragged, desperate exhalations and gentle cursing distracted him somewhat. It was one of the most physically unpleasant things I’ve ever done. But I didn’t get off.

A little further on I stopped and decimated the malt loaf I had brought with me. Resenting the effort required to chew it, I nevertheless felt better. I survived the nerve-shredding passage through the centre of Alnwick, waltzed up the big hill between the town and the coast (no Corby’s Crags) and trickled home. I didn’t stop feeling strange for quite a while. Alarmingly, 27 miles had taken me two hours.

Next week, I’ll tell you about my experiences in and around Edinburgh, for which yesterday’s ride was supposed to be a practise run at managing the transition from cyclist to tourist with a bike somewhere nearby. As is so often the way, though, you just do what you have to do when you have no other option. Practise has nothing to do with it. At present I’m trying to work out how the hell I’m to get out of the city and avoid the bigger roads. I’ve got my map and directions off the internet and really I can achieve no more right now in the theoretical space of my own home.

Moving on to my nice, cosy and above all indoor whisky tastings. I find that on my training days I haven’t the energy to devote to flavour exploration. I could have finished my revision of the Ardbeg 10-year-old yesterday but as you have read, I wasn’t feeling terribly alive. Instead, I typed up my mark scheme for assessing all these distilleries and their tours (see above).

Over the week, however, I did have time to taste the Singleton of Dufftown 12-year-old and the Glenmorangie Nectar

A superb investment with superb whiskies - I even appreciate the Original now! The NdO is the superior malt with the most subtle finished qualities, but I love the QR's richness, heat and spice.

A superb investment with superb whiskies - I even appreciate the Original now! The NdO is the superior malt with the most subtle finished qualities, but I love the QR's richness, heat and spice.

 d’Or. The Dufftown is a perfectly capable little Speysider and an excellent aperitif with its fresh fruitiness and clean malty flavours. I would also recommend it to new whisky drinkers for its profile is very accessible with nothing to scare. The Glenmorangie was the star, though (no, not the Astar). I first tasted it the day after completing my notes on the Quinta Ruban and I think on some level I didn’t want it to score higher. What influence can a white wine cask really have on a whisky, I thought. I’ve since realised that, for all it hasn’t the richness and assertive extra-cask character of the Port-matured dram, it is the more complete malt. The Sauternes influence is perfectly judged and a wonderful partner to the fresh, delicate and spicy character of the Glenmorangie. The balance and sweetness is sublime.

I’d also like to mention the efforts of David Walliams and his crew of celebrity cyclists. I watched the feature on the John O’Groats to Lands End ride for Sport Relief and what an incredible achievement. In the snow, over the Highlands: I shall soon appreciate just how serious an undertaking that was. Well done and congratulations on surpassing the million mark.

Singleton of Dufftown 12-year-old 40%

Colour: Full honeyed amber with tarnished gold edges.

Nose: (FS) Full and rich honey with a cool, fresh slice of Sherry-seasoned oak. Strong, firm and crunchy barley notes – very appetizing. Waxy citrus and soft floral notes round off a perfectly pleasant, archetypal young Speyside. (WW) Honeyed again but with a creamy maltiness. Lightly tofeed. Warm grassy earthiness. Ginger cake.

Palate: Malty and very spicy. Quite heavy, too, with fruit and toffee. Bitter chocolate and burnt grass/heather light smokiness.

Finish: Honey and moist, gentle maltiness. Mixed fruit crumble: apple, pear and blackberry. Satisfying pure cereal

I tasted all three of the key malts together: the standard spirit against the NdO and then both against my preferred QR. The NdO won.

I tasted all three of the key malts together: the standard spirit against the NdO and then both against my preferred QR. The NdO won.

 sweetness. Late smooth, creamy dark chocolate and returning honey notes.

Glenmorangie Nectar d’Or 46%

Colour: Clean blonde with deeper tones of rich gold.

Nose: (FS) Sweet, smooth and rounded with a rich, intense honeycomb flavour. Dryish firmness: peaty/earthy. A fabulous “3D” heather note: honeyed with faintly smoky spice. Vanilla and white chocolate. A sweet shop with lots of syrupy fruit and icing sugar. Apricot. Gentle toffee sneaks in. (WW) Excellent vanilla and syrupy sweet grape. Enveloping perfumy floral notes and icing sugar. Light milk chocolate and nut praline. Hot breaths of heathery peat. Caramelised peaches.

Palate: Sweet shop again and very spicy. A richer, fuller flavour of toffee, barley malt and oak makes its presence felt. very firm and smooth smokiness. Phenomenal.

Finish: Heathery and with a lot of honey. Vanilla but also fruity, spicy wine notes. Smooth. White chocolate for a very rich, unctuous body. Firm pale oak. Maybe even some peat. Very long and gorgeous.

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March 16, 2010

Fit For The Glens: 4 weeks to go…

As this last week’s number of startling developments failed to match that of the previous one, this ought to be a slimmer post. We’ll see whether this is how it proves, or whether some new neurosis screams for an airing.

It has been seven days of familiarisation and consolidation. I haven’t been promised a cover spot in ‘Whisky Magazine’, I haven’t received an endorsement from Charles MacLean, and I haven’t been abducted by The Macallan and whisked up to Craigellachie so that they might give me a lavish grounding in their ethos ahead of my arrival next month. I have been cycling, though. Since my last post I have spun through more than 100 miles and feel jolly happy about it. My bottom, however, has taken offence somewhat, so I have started on the soothing, salutary creams.

Wednesday’s weather and record distance in a single day resulted in a profound sense of achievement. The warm, clear sunshine made pedalling twice round my 18-mile circuit a true delight. However, its perfection came packaged up with a strong feeling of guilt and foreboding: this can’t last, it has to rain eventually and will it ever stop when it does; gales will blow unremittingly and chill me to the marrow, I know it. Then then we’ll see if whisky is a strong enough obsession to carry me through. I was, therefore, perhaps oddly keen for it to pelt it down and gust ferociously around so I could test my mettle. I should have been careful what I wished for.

Things took a grim turn on Friday, a stiff breeze scoring the underbellies of some fat, juicy clouds. Of course I had forgotten to put my waterproof overtrousers in my panniers, although fortunately it was a passing shower and the rest of the ride was a dry one.

Yesterday, whilst dry, took the wind idea and ran with it. I woke up in the semi-dark and could hear a lot of air moving very quickly over the field outside. On opening the curtains, I saw the horse huddling behind the barn and trees being buffeted in groaning arcs of branches and needles. They weren’t really ideal conditions for a proposed 43 miles. But I won’t have any choice in four weeks’ time, so I gave myself none on this occasion. After running some key errands, and giving the weather maybe a bit more time to calm down (it didn’t), I togged up and went out. It was pretty hairy in places and while the panniers planted the rear wheel to the road, pushing through merciless side winds was exhausting for the arms as I fought with the front end of the bike. The headwinds were quite something, though. Early on in my first stint, the road forsook the protection afforded by a small village, made a sharp left turn and suddenly my surroundings were very open farmland. Incredibly, I had to change down into the small chainring, reduced to barely more than 8 mph on the flat! It was similar agony again when I returned to the coast line 5 miles further on. However, on those same stretches during my second, reverse loop, I was freewheeling merrily at 22 mph. I completed my 43 miles; just. A huge plate of pasta and a couple of hours of indifferent TV alleviated the worst of the shellshock.

But to return to those errands, because they really were very significant indeed. The first set of them saw me return to the station where I bought my railcard, train tickets for my Wick to Kyle of Lochalsh transfer stage (I leave Wick at 6:20AM and arrive in the Kyle just after 1:20PM, still with 40 miles of riding before I bed down on Skye), and reserved a space on the Cross Country service to Edinburgh on the 29th of March. I’m doing a reconnaissance mission! I’m getting into Edinburgh Waverley at the same time as I will a fortnight later, cycling the route to Glenkinchie and seeing if I can make it back to the station in time for my train to Stirling, a fictitious connection on this trial run. I need to overcome the stress of urban cycling and memorise with the aid of landmarks the minor roads I need to find to draw me out of the city. I also need to learn in what condition my beloved machine is to be stashed on the train and just how watchful of my fellow passengers I must be. Not that there is any chance of a quick getaway so heavy and ungainly is it with the panniers attached. The aim is to purge as much fear and anxiety ahead of time so I am as cool as the proverbial cucumber when I come to do it for real and don’t require urgent medical attention and sedation on the platform. Or lock myself in the Stirling youth hostel toilet and refuse to come out for six weeks. Luckily I’m a one-hour train ride from Edinburgh to make such an exercise possible.

Security is a big concern of mine, naturally enough. As, for the purposes of saving weight, I shall only be carrying the essentials, I cannot afford for anything to be pilfered. Should anything, from the bike downwards, undergo a change of ownership, I shall be royally, inter-galactically screwed. So I visited the guys at Breeze Bikes and bought a big, heavy lock, the operation of which I should probably factor in to my timetable, knowing as I do the state of obsessive compulsive paranoia I shall be in whenever I must leave the bike unattended. “I did lock it, didn’t I?” will become a tiresome refrain.

I’m sure I will adapt – I’ll have to – and my myriad anxieties will be silenced by the necessities of reality. There is only so much I can do. The rest I must simply condition myself not to worry about. It is the same with road safety. I may be big and very yellow, but there is the chance I may come a cropper due to someone’s undue haste, carelessness or simple bad luck. I can’t concern myself overly. I certainly can’t allow it to become inhibitive. Cycling to Scotland’s distilleries means cycling on the road. There’s just no way around that.

The may have been expensive, they may be bulky, but they are vital - and also quite inspiring.

The may have been expensive, they may be bulky, but they are vital - and also quite inspiring.

Those are my fears, then. Keeping them in perspective and proportion, though, is the mounting anticipation. At last I can visualise undertaking this journey, and great visual aids are my maps. £100-worth of maps… It’s supposed to be a small country! I’m still waiting on a couple, but on these charts I can plot each stage, see on paper the roads I’ll be taking, the ever-shrinking settlements I’m to pass through and the precise location of the distilleries themselves. Very auspicious is Map 28, ‘Elgin & Dufftown’ which gives up marking each individual one and simply records: “Distilleries”. In my more vivid daydreams I can imagine my Sunday ride in Dufftown, a rest-day of sorts, when I shall be touring the town and its forest of pagodas.

I had to atone for my poor total of tastings the week before last so I have four sets of notes for you now. I retasted the Talisker 18-year-old and to say I was blown away is just the kind of glib, vile cliche that should be eradicated from our language. But I can’t express it any differently. It was truly extraordinary and, in the context of my personal rating system, I’m not sure many will be able to best its score. Having been slightly underwhelmed when I tasted it last year, preferring the more insistent, volcanic power of the younger sibling, I can now lend my support to the decision which deemd this the best malt in the world. I shall share the particulars of my scoring system with you after I return from this odyssey, for technically only then with my bank of sensory and spiritual experiences can it operate at its full potential.

The Glenmorangie Quinta Ruban was awesome, too. I’m acquiring a taste for this Tain whisky, it would seem, for my third attempt at seeing what all the fuss was about regarding The Original largely paid off. You couldn’t ask for a better example of how to tastefully finish a malt.

The Dalmore impressed as much as it did when I first sampled it in late 2008, although it hasn’t quite the same poise and complexity of the 15-year-old.

To finish, I’d like to stress how much I enjoyed the Glen Deveron. I picked up the mini at the Aberfeldy distillery last autumn and I was struck by its beautiful balance, quiet complexity and deft interchanges of Speyside and Highland

My week's work.

My week's work.

 characters, an appreciated strong allusion to its location on the border of these two regions.

Talisker 18-year-old 45.8% (See ‘Most Hotly-Awaited’)

Colour: Glowing, profound amber and gold.

Nose: (FS) Extremely complex maltiness, both in flavour and body. It is firm and smooth but in places light and ethereal, falling away into sea cliff floral and salt notes. A very rich, fragrant and dry peat fire: burning for an eternity of so it seems. Full rich sweetness of honey but also darkly rich seaweed. (WW) Sweetly smokier with extra sweetness from the rich honey and smooth seaweed. An intense burning together with some some syrupy fruitiness. Sublime richness and balance: salt crystals and light resinous oak. Bewitching mature smoothness together with gentle spice. Ashy smokiness of a garden fire.

Palate: Full and grainy with a sliver of seaweedy/woody sweetness then impossibly rich, mouthfilling peat. Biscuity, heavy malt and dark honey. So satsifying.

Finish: Dark, rich and awesomely long. Sweet vanilla oak with a sooty, rounded maltiness. Clouds of black pepper. Exquisite delicacy and very moreish.

Glen Deveron 10-year-old 40%

Colour: Smooth and bright amber with old gold highlights.

Nose: (FS) Soft, medium to full with gentle Sherry influence and some light smoke. Rich and quite solid biscuity graininess with helpings of caramel toffee. Gentle and earthy spice. (WW) A little peatier with deep honeyed fruit. Victoria sponge. Barley sugar. Not-too-sweet melted chocolate. Fresh and complex in the least taxing of senses.

Palate: Malty, lightly peaty and very very firm. Sustained spice. Dark chocolate in taste and texture.

Finish: Deeper oak flavours: chocolate with subtle, enticing Sherry fruit and nut. Clean with well-defined and deliciously rich malt.

The Dalmore 12-year-old 43% (See ‘Most Hotly-Awaited’)

Colour: Intense deep orange with touches of greeny gold.

Nose: (FS) A real presence of heat contributed by rich and intense Sherry oak and earthy peat. Green, rich malt. Lots of orange with a contrast in textures between orange cream and candied orange. Zesty and nutty. (WW) Firm dried fruitiness and gentle smooth toffee. Heather tickles the nose. Seriously deep honey and lightly-toasted oak. Sugary marmalade and orange concentrate. Deliciously soft and oppulent with fragments of burning sweet peatiness and chocolate.

Palate: Rich, firm, lots of spicy gripping oak and very peaty. Orange and smooth coffee.

Finish: Orange Chewits. Soft with some Italian coffee for yet more richness. Fresh, leafy and oily oak over which the Sherry is a moist, nutty veil.

Glenmorangie Quinta Ruban 46%

Colour: Clean and pale amber with a pink rosy tinge and copper red veins.

Nose: (FS) Dry but rich heat; possibly, in its spicy, dark fruit overtones, the Port caves themselves. Very smooth with heavy, voluptuous vanilla wood. Some honeyed, delicate malt emerges as does a round citrus note. Very clean and even floral notes. Excellent soft sweetness with all the complexity of an ice cream sundae. Smooth dryness. Extraordinarily complete integration of wine flavours. Still a Glenmo, though. (WW) Deeper and even softer. Cherry and dark chocolate. Very firm wood with lots of warming spice. The Port influence exerted is breathtaking. Exquisite caramel toffee. Blooming, gripping saltiness.

Palate: Vibrant, warming and very spicy. Dry but also rounded and rich. Lots of cooked fruits. Sweet earth and oak lend fabulous firmness. Barley sugar sweetness.

Finish: Excellent smoothness and richness with echoes of fruit and caramel. Floral/grassy. Long and delicate. Creamy vanilla and dark honey.

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March 9, 2010

Fit For The Glens: 5 weeks to go…

Yesterday had a lot riding on it. 10 extra kilos to be precise. For all I covered 70 miles last week, an encouraging figure in itself, it couldn’t placate my timetable-related hysteria. Until 11 o’clock yesterday morning it didn’t matter that I’d completed my first full week of real road training or that one particular session included the longest distance and time I have ever spent on a bike, in my head and imagination, prescient for all things apolocalyptic, it was meritless because I had not yet ridden with panniers; not yet subjected myself to the practicalities of equipment and the experience of lugging it about. Therefore, I could not be certain of my fitness, in every sense of the word, for the undertaking of this whisky tour. Well now I am at peace.

I am one of life’s manual-readers, and pored over that which pertained to my Altura Orkney (how apt) panniers. As it happened I didn’t have to worry myself about adjusting the top hook inserts – they “clicked” on to the rack nicely enough. It was, however, necessary to get the screwdriver out and slide the bottom clasp which is designed to latch around one of the vertical rails of the rack a little more off-centre. These tinkerings resulted in the panniers fitting securely to the bike, and far enough forward to keep the weight balance a safe one over the back wheel but leaving clearance for my spinning heels. This, apart from catching the back of my hand on one of the many pieces of sharp plastic that adorn the bags, was really very painless. The following day I would learn if transporting them would be anything but.

In the course of tailoring the set-up of my suitcases, I began to appreciate their dimensions a bit more. They are 34 litres the pair and whilst contemplating one leaves me scratching my head in anxiety that my existence in Scotland shall be a very ascetic one, in truth between the both of them and the rucksack I recently bought, I should be quite comfortable as far as stashing everything I need is concerned.  This assurance is also based in a re-appraisal of my list of essentials: it’s not that long, really. Toiletries, underwear and spare cycling-specific clothing – all of which are generally light – summarise the contents of my panniers with the rucksack having to accommodate all of my real-world garb, camera, maps, notepads etc. when I’m travelling between distilleries and my touring gear once I get to

Mobile library: books provide very effective ballast, it would seem.

Mobile library: books provide very effective ballast, it would seem.

 one. I will be wearing at any given time one set of togs so a third of my list will be in action anyway, and not a dead weight. The exact weight of my luggage I don’t yet know. I rounded up yesterday, therefore, and put 4 kgs of books in either pannier. The difference made when hefting my machine was frighteningly obvious. Trying to raise the rear end of the bike required a couple of stern grunts and walking it round the garage, manoeuvring it past all the junk, revealed how ponderous the extra ballast makes it. Moving it through Edinburgh Waverley should be entertaining; not.

Add a rucksack on the top of the rack and that is me, tour-ready. "-GULP-"

Add a rucksack on the top of the rack and that is me, tour-ready. "-GULP-"

My overnight musings were all to do with how lumpen the bike would now feel to ride. I had decided to go the whole hog for my forthcoming training session: put the panniers on and break my day’s mileage into two sessions either side of a lunch break. I wasn’t sure how much extra effort would be demanded of me so I was prepared to scale down my plans from 14 miles pre- and post-lunch to just 9 miles afterwards if the first ride proved too much of a slog. Maybe you can sense my unease from the photo: “will I collapse with exhaustion or just collapse?” I thought to myself. As the tone of my opening indicates, however, the riding experience was deeply encouraging.

I had expected standing starts to be of a similar ilk to those in kilometre track cycling: all gurning and straining muscles. As it happened, I didn’t notice any added resistance whatsoever. I didn’t mark any unusual effects of my new burden, in fact, until I reached my first hill and even then it wasn’t the one predicted by the lads in the bike shop. If momentum was lost it was imperceptibly so, rather getting out of the saddle required extreme care. I had been warned not to pull on the bars like Mark Cavendish gunning for the Tour de France finish line but even so the extra weight sitting on either side of the back wheel exaggerated the oscillations caused by standing on the pedals. It was possible, though, to climb in short bursts out of the saddle: a vital ability on some of the hills I shall be faced with. Besides that, bumps were more keenly felt, and the bigger ones bounced me out of the saddle. I took great care, though, because I could plainly see, feel and hear the stresses passing through the rear wheel. I have to look after my spokes.

I trundled back home extremely satisfied, vowing that another 14 miles would be perfectly doable. I spent an hour in the house attempting to replicate my behaviour in the cafes I’ll frequent in the middle of my days, munching on sandwiches and cake and downing a cup of tea. I headed out again on the reverse of the circuit I had just done.

In the first four miles there are two very long and steep hills and these reminded me of the effects both of arresting then resuming intense exercise and doing so on quite a full stomach. I was gasping horribly after the first but recovered on the second. However, as my ride progressed a niggle developed, attributable I’m sure to the extreme effort meted out on those inclines so early on in the ride and exacerbated by the substantial nature of my break. On the outside of my right knee a tendon was complaining and with six miles to go I thought it might just be more sensible to pull out. Pushing big gears was out of the question, the pain generated making me fear that my kneecap was in danger of being wrenched away from its natural position. I stopped for some raisins and a bit of a stretch, which helped, and the remainder of my ride was more comfortable if not entirely free of complaint. Serious recuperation is needed before Wednesday, I think.

Twenty-nine miles was the total mileage yesterday, so I make that a more challenging ‘Moderate’ session. I opened up the spreadsheet for my daily distances yesterday morning and classified them up into the ‘Easy’ ones (20 miles and under); ‘Moderate’ (21-35 miles); ‘Hard’ (36-50 miles), and ‘Very Hard’ for days in excess of 50 miles. One in five are ‘Easy’, ditto for ‘Very Hard’ with the majority of days manageably between 21 and 50 miles. On that basis, my training is on or ahead of schedule for I plan to being doing ‘Very Hard’ distances daily from two weeks to go. That my 29 miles took less than two hours suggests my pace between distilleries (when required to be a bit brisker) should be sufficient, too. I’m a happy bunny, therefore.

And this perspective makes it so much easier to see the positives of my latest contact with ‘Whisky Magazine’ editor, Rob Allanson. Having heard nothing over the period he had promised to discuss further my project and its possible place in the magazine, I fired off another email as a little reminder. I’ve worked in a news room and I know that proposals and ideas can get waylaid despite the best of intentions. It did the trick, and how. I found an email the next day full of positive purpose: “send me a photo and it can go in the next issue”; “I’ve put something about you on the news section of the website”; “when are you back because I can take 2,000 – 2,500 words plus pictures?” Everything was now in motion: I will have the exposure I believe this journey (or “voyage of discovery” as he put it) deserves. I actually have that exposure now as the day following my mention resulted in a record number of visitors. Between the support of the whisky press and a lovely email from Gal Granov, prolific blog commenter, the Isreali perspective on the industry and exactly the audience I had in mind for my travels, I should have felt elated and galvanised. I did, to some extent, but the other side of the publicity coin is that all of a sudden the expectations of strangers mount on top of your own, and you feel the eyes of the world on your for-so-long private project. I couldn’t stop viewing such attention as pressure, rather than support. I couldn’t help contemplating that the backlash for failure, for an uncompleted trip, would be disappointment and irritation that I wasted my followers’ time, that the suspicion would wrongly permeate that I was simply self-promoting without any substance. Maybe, also, I could only fail: everyone seemed so taken with the concept, pointing invariably to the arduous nature of the undertaking, that I began to wonder if there wasn’t a very good reason why this has never been done before. Seeing my endeavour through the eyes of the neutral – and possibly in pockets sceptical - public, I was overwhelmed by the vulnerability and daunting scale of my odyssey. I forgot, in short, that I have spent more than half a year preparing for this, that it is and always was structured around what I believe to be physically achievable, and that the greatest disappointment, indeed heartbreak, liable to be endured should my plans be thwarted by injury, illness or any number of other factors, would be mine alone. I don’t want to come up short, and everyone I have spoken to about it hasn’t wished that for me, either. It was only after yesterday’s exploits, however, that the goodwill of others was married with a mammoth shot of heady

The Original is on the far left. I shall be tasting the rest of these offerings with the help of the standard malt for comparison.

The Original is on the far left. I shall be tasting the rest of these offerings with the help of the standard malt for comparison.

 self-belief.

Glenmorangie Original 40%

Colour: Very pale straw with clean refractive lemon highlights.

Nose: (FS) A spicy firmness is immediate. Salty and dry peatiness. Clean and light honey melds with very cool and fresh floral flavours. Satin-smooth, medium-sweet and classily different maltiness. (WW) A little sweeter and more cerealy. Moist malt and sponge cakes. Still firm with a solid matte smoothness provided by a mixture of grains, earth and oak. 

Palate: Very smooth and firm. Some spice and milky vanilla comes through, as does a brief appearance from chunky, soft earthiness. I missed the rich maltiness hinted at by the nose, though.

Finish: Floral with a good amount of heather honey. Rather long with teasing echoes of vanilla and oak.

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March 2, 2010

Fit For The Glens: 6 weeks to go…

Never before has the arrival of March made me quite so petrified. Not even in 2008 when I had my lion-taming exam on the 5th of the month. That didn’t actually happen but you get the idea. For after all, now this whisky escapade is “next month” whenever I discuss it; no longer just “in April”, which was a construction that consoled me into believing that it was metaphorically still around a corner several streets away.

I could have been a great deal more ashen of face and queasy of stomach had the weather not granted me a window of opportunity. Friday’s rain ceased at last, although the weekend had its own showers/raging torrents. Yesterday, though, dawned bright, clear and very cold. I bundled any doubts about it perhaps being too cold, bound and gagged, into the mental cupboard under the stairs. I couldn’t face another hour and a half on the turbo.

Not even the viciously steep hill outside the house could get me comfortably warm, however, although the one out of the next village handsomely succeeded in doing so. I was in the small chainring for the first time, grinding up the ramps at 9 mph. Whilst humiliating and exhausting, it reassured me that Mark at Breeze Bikes had done a great job of arranging my gears for I still had three in reserve. Even with panniers, the training I hope to pack into these last (whisper it) six weeks ought to permit me to conquer all but the most wilfully awful inclines in the saddle.

So, five miles in and I was already knackered. This merely made it more advantageous to go slower and practise flicking down the gears until I found a ratio I could maintain comfortably and effectively. I had acquired a good rhythm by the time I reached the next collection of houses and someone in a VW decided to overtake me on a blind bend. He/she escaped having their radiator stoved in by a matter of seconds.

I had already crossed a section of road which all of last week’s rain had transformed into a ford and I trickled over another one as my nemesis accelerated into the distance. I marvelled at how the opposite carriageway was bone dry.

A mile further on I encountered my first fellow cyclists, the more serious-looking of whom was hammering it in the other direction, the commuter mountain biker I breezed past. That was pretty much it for racing adversaries, although I did show a hedge-cutting tractor a good turn of speed.

Back out in parallel with the sea (and experiencing an inward swell as I likened the breakers to those of the North Atlantic on the south coast of Islay) I narrowly avoided injury slaloming between black-mawed potholes and noticed for the first time a whirring noise. Dismounting, I discovered that a plastic sticker designed to save the derailleur from getting scratched by the chainring had partially come adrift and was caressing the chain. It wouldn’t come away completely, though, so I just had to be driven slightly mad for the rest of the ride.

If the weather is like this I shall be very happy indeed.

If the weather is like this I shall be very happy indeed.

I completed my twenty-four mile circuit happy with my progress if very very tired. More so than my first outdoor ride, it suggested to me that this journey is something I’ll be able to physically manage; significant, really, for it is only next month before I shall glimpse this: the first view afforded by the Lothian countryside of Glenkinchie distillery.

I had a minor epiphany on the whisky-tasting side of things. A novice whisky-drinker friend of mine spent the night over here during the week and I was keen for his malt horizons to be broadened. He professed to having liked Laphroaig when he tasted it recently (a genuine surprise to me, whose inaugural encounter with the output of this Kildalton distillery nearly put him off Islays for life) so I extracted my Caol Ila Distiller’s Edition, Bowmore Legend and Ardbeg Uigeadail, my three Glencairn glasses and guided him through a tasting. It was only after I started nosing the drams myself that I realised how revelatory and valuable an exercise it is to sample malts side-by-side. The Bowmore became drier, more honeyed with a note of laminated coloured craft paper like I had in first school, and against the other two it wasn’t that smoky anymore. I gasped at the Ardbeg’s smoothness and soft dark fruit flavours. But my nose really had fun with the Caol Ila. When compared with its Islay stablemates, that which makes it Caol Ila leapt out. Suddenly I registered the same warm, squeaky and rounded fruit notes I had picked up from the 10-Year-Old Unpeated. The complexions of all three were almost unrecognisable from my memories of them when sampled in isolation. I shall have to repeat this method, definitely with the trio of Taliskers and the Glenmorangie multipack which I hope to purchase soon. Hopefully it shall be possible to distinguish a constant character, and I shall take this to be the hallmark and principal style of the distillery. I might even come to love The Original.

We then talked long into the night with a little help from The Macallan 18-Year-Old Fine Oak which he had brought with him, his father having won it in a raffle. I’d very much like to know which raffle and how often they sell tickets. Obviously I was not concentrating on tasting notes that night, just sharing a great malt with a great friend. He kindly consented to leave it in my care, however, until I had compiled notes for it. After all, I don’t know when I am next

Another magnificent example of how to finish a whisky properly. Stunning.

Another magnificent example of how to finish a whisky properly. Stunning.

 going to have the chance to sample the seminal expression from the definitive Speyside distillery!

Talisker Distiller’s Edition 1993 45.8% (See ‘Most Hotly-Awaited’)

Colour: Bold orange with tones of ruby and brass.

Nose: (FS) A soft, sly stalemate between gentle though rich and complex Sherry wood and smoke. Very dry and soft peatiness, partnered with a dark maritime character: sea fog and seaweed. Charred wood with marmalade spread over it. (WW) A more insistent, light and smooth, presence of fruit: orange and white plum. The smoke notes call to mind herbs thrown on the barbecue. Boiling blackcurrant jam.

Palate: Beautiful. Initially lots of burning wood and peat smoke, then caramelised, syrupy fruitiness bursts through. It tames, slightly, the peat clouds and lends superb contrast.

Finish: Unravels very slowly. Gentle seaweed and charring wood. Chewy fruit sweets and gums. Drying on grains and subtle fresh oak.

Edradour 10-year-old 40%

Colour: Earthy and full amber with gold highlights.

Nose: (FS) Peat smoke, initially, modified by very dry sprigs of heather. A malt profile that blends a freshness with a dark, chunky oatiness. Quite clean with a soft toffeed wood note like Scottish tablet. Smooth with a creamy mintiness and rubbery citrus. (WW) Sweeter with buckets of honey. Medium-dry with sweet, heathery peatiness. Firm and biscuity.

Palate: Dry, lightly-peated malt and sweet, firm wood.

Finish: A rich, substantial maltiness lingers. Honey, too. Crisp, fresh heather shoots. Rather long with a final wood note and echoes of the open mash tun. Satisfying.

This is justifiably one of the iconic malt whiskies and the Lord of Speyside.

This is justifiably one of the iconic malt whiskies and the Lord of Speyside.

The Macallan 18-year-old Fine Oak 43%

Colour: Glossy and smooth amber/gold with pinky coppery tones.

Nose: (FS) Very assertive and spicy straight off the bat with firm, dark woodiness and apples. Very toffeed with strong plumes of peat smoke. Some very deep, dark and moist Sherry wood emerges with nuts and tangy fruit: soft plum and zesty, oily orange. Dryness spreads and develops to a rich, aromatic earthiness. Complex doesn’t begin to cover it. (WW) Much more delicately floral and sweet. Very dark but creamy-smooth chocolate. A real freshness and zip to the oak. Eagerly builds on itself with time to breathe.

Palate: Here we find the solid muscularity and richness of its age with soft fruity Sherry to offset this. The Sherry quickly vanishes to be replaced by succulent, biscuity and buttery vanilla. Perfectly judged zesty oak. Rich peat gives the maltiness excellent depth and dryness. Outstanding.

Finish: A sense of heat and size: this is a big big malt. Drying wonderfully on “russety” wood and leaf notes. Velvety dark chocolate. Spectacularly long with very gentle, fragrant, sweet and smooth smoke playing throughout. A masterclass of Speyside flavours.

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February 23, 2010

Fit For The Glens: 7 weeks to go…

For all it would be entirely reasonable and merited, this post shall not be turned into a petulant tirade against the

I'm pretty sure Captain Scott hated it more than I do, but I'm still no fan.

I'm pretty sure Captain Scott hated it more than I do, but I'm still no fan.

 British weather. After all, complaining about a fourth straight day of rain once I hit the West Coast in May isn’t going to help anything. Suffice it to say, in that case, that it has snowed quite a lot, the temperature has returned to the inner suburbs of freezing and I had no other option but to resume my relationship with the turbo trainer.

Whilst not whining, it was doubly frustrating when the white stuff came down again because on the Wednesday I succeeded in getting out. With no small amount of anticipation or ceremony (at least in the instance of my practised movements for clothing myself in neoprene and Lycra) I pedalled onto the highway. It was not the most auspicious beginning. What was intended to be an eighteen mile circuit finished as a twenty mile effort when, after only a mile, I accepted that the squeak made by my overshoe on the left crank was intolerable, returned home again, and had to repeat the distance. With masses of Vaseline applied to the crank, my sanity suffered no further aural assualts. I know what can happen to the red-hot brain when it has something annoying and constant to fixate on for any considerable amount of time, and it isn’t pretty.

Back on cold wet tarmac, the bike handled nicely. The first instance of my leaving the saddle on an incline presaged the challenge I shall face when the panniers are attached. Just the unaccustomed weight of the rack was enough to affect the behaviour of the rear of the bike. I shouldn’t have been out of the saddle, anyway: I need to practise seated climbing for I really will have no choice on the matter in April.

In maintaining a steady rhythm and pace, again an attempt at simulating my enforced approach when I begin touring for real, I could appreciate how far bike technology has come in the handful of years since we bought the road bike. Gear changes were super-smooth and the gear ratios made it easier to proceed at a slower pace than I’m used to without feeling embarrassed for merely crawling along. The frame was a lot stiffer than I had expected, and been led to believe, and initially the impacts with potholes were an alarming occurrence, but not just because of their repercussions on the body parts in direct contact with the machine. The sound of the mudgaurds and pannier rack rattling about was nothing less than cacophonous.

The ride as a whole was an interesting dichotomy: at once a confidence boost that I should be capable of completing immediately quite long distances in relation to my previous experience; but also rather daunting as I imagine undertaking bigger hills with more weight over greater distances. But it was my first authentic ride of the year so I can only improve.

How foolish I was, though, to think that I could consign the turbo trainer back to its corner in the dining room for the remainder of my preparations. I awoke on Friday to what I thought, peeking through the warped glass of the bathroom window, was merely a hard frost. On opening my curtains, however, I soon learned that this was not so. It was snow. I had to train, but couldn’t face admitting defeat to the turbo so soon after my glorious escape attempt on the Wednesday. I went for a run in the blizzard, instead. Two minutes in I already felt knackered but I endured for the full twenty out of sheer bloody-mindedness.

I spent the weekend working, witnessing further snow falls out of the restaurant windows and wishing it would have just f****d off by Monday. How cruel, but the opposite greeted me when I pulled aside the curtains yesterday. It was a veritable Winter Wonderland, but a serious kick in the teeth for my outdoor cycling aspirations. In the end, the freezing cold decided it in conjunction with the risk of hitting a patch of ice, breaking a leg, and rendering all of my travel plans, ambitions and this blog obselete. So I swapped the pedals over again and inducted myself back into the torture chamber.

I had as a target one hour and twenty. My real world ride ought to have done much for my legs and lungs, I reasoned, so a longer session should mean an even longer circuit whenever I next have the opportunity to ride on the road. To see me through it I had Snakes and Arrows Live again; the second CD. As it happened I went from ‘Spindrift’ to the last Dutch roar in the wake of ‘YYZ’ over the course of my ride. One hour 25 minutes! I had achieved, and for all the weather made me miserable, I couldn’t scold myself for how I just got on with it anyway. My fingers are crossed for better luck over the next ten days or so, which is about the limits of my capacity to influence things in this regard.

It has been a similar week of contrasts as far as my tasting progress was concerned. A successful, and indeed revelatory encounter with the Balblair 1997 (see below) was soon forgotten after a period browsing on The Whisky Exchange site. When I have a bit of time to kill I will often take a look at the reviews of malts I have tasted, and especially those which I have felt moved to provide my own reviews for. I was surprised to find that someone had recently taken me to task, not just on my opinion on the malt concerned, but on my manner of expression and whisky experience. I was less offended and more shocked at this stranger’s attack, the retaliation I sent back at the time fortunately less incendiary than others I composed that afternoon. I admit my written style can get a bit out of hand, and even more so when whisky is involved, but the only reason this was singled out and derided was because my take on the malt was contrary to that of the other reviewer. Similarly, I don’t see, in the context of a consumer site like The Whisky Exchange, that my experience or lack thereof is at all relevant. The site is used by the casual whisky drinker and the fanatic alike, and precisely because of that the views of anyone inclined to post a comment regarding a particular whisky are as valid as the next person’s, and the number and supposed quality of their other tastings has no bearing on it whatsoever. I know that my opponent most likely did not intend his piece of banter to offend, but I am new to people I have never met mocking what makes me me; and my use of language has always been central to that.

Consequently, I was somewhat distracted when I poured out a measure of the 1993 Talisker Distiller’s Edition for analysis. By the time I had washed up my glass, however, my priorities and concerns had been adjusted back to their original orientations:  the spirit coming first. While I read the notes of other tasters on this malt and the snow fell with almost vindictive application outside, a wave of essential clarity, not unlike those of Loch Harport which break against the distillery walls, engulfed me. So perfect was the malt, and in that moment, that even if disagreement as to its quality were possible, it could be entirely discounted irrespective of how that disagreement were to be expressed. Due to this reminder of how the drink acts on me, how I can barely explain it myself, I realise that it is only me for whom I may speak, and whose perspective is at all significant in any case.  But I shall talk more about the Talisker next week.

For now there is the Balblair, and with the 1989 at only £43 I might just have to acquire some so delicate yet satisfying and vivacious was its younger brother. Speaking of the analysis itself, it was an interesting and important lesson in the body as a suggestible and variable assemblage of apparatus. I feel my first tasting notes captured the ’97′s character

A marvellous little malt. Fortunately I have this second miniature of it!

A marvellous little malt. Fortunately I have this second miniature of it!

 better, with dominating flavours I re-interpreted or missed altogether at the second attempt. Yet I scored it higher second time through. Bizarre.

Bruichladdich 10-year-old 46%

Colour: Glossy and rich amber.

Nose: (FS) Maritime sweetness with a rounded fruit character (honeydew melon?). Quite salty with a smooth, delicate touch of seaweed. Hot and runny strawberry jam with vanilla Swiss roll. (WW) A little sweeter and maybe saltier, too. Passion fruit pavlova. Gentle, hay-sweet cereals and increasingly grainy.

Palate: Very complex. Tart, spiced fruitiness runs alongside gripping saltiness and soft sweet oak. Sticky and peppery.

Finish: A gentle but solid bed of peat. Still lusciously fruity with honey and mascarpone cream. Sandy and oaky at the end.

Balblair 1997 43%

Colour: Very full gold.

Nose: (FS) Fresh, clean and light with impeccable, mouthwatering sweetness. A drizzle of honey then lots of creamy-smooth vanilla. Deliciously soft with a building warm cloud of cereals. (WW) Sweeter, more moist and compacted. Again that achingly sensuous vanilla wood steps forward. Heathery smoke – subtle but there lending marvellous depth and contrast.

Palate: Full and sweet with firm, lightly-peated malt. Smooth vanilla from the soft though spicy wood soon envelopes everything.

Finish: Buttered digestive biscuits and some milk chocolate. Fruity with butterscotch. Creamy vanilla wood and honey.

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February 16, 2010

Fit For The Glens: 8 weeks to go…

So it looks like I’m going, then. A month after I was first told by the man at the station that I was keen but too early to reserve tickets for the spring, I strode into the waiting room just after the peak commuter period and secured the keys

These shall get me and my noble steed deep into whisky country.

These shall get me and my noble steed deep into whisky country.

 to my whisky odyssey. However concrete a statement of intent I thought booking my accommodation to be, this is a step beyond that again. £22.50 gets me to Edinburgh and then on to Stirling. The man was kind enough to reserve a space for my machine, too, although if I miss my 16:33 train to Stirling I may be a wee bitty screwed in that regard.

Speaking of the machine, I made another unequivocal stride towards Scotland before lunch yesterday. I succeeded in swapping the clipless pedals from the road bike to the Giant (although only with the help of a neighbour’s spanner); adjusted the saddle height and handlebar set-up, and changed the saddle itself. Not only did I have my passport to the distilleries as a physical actuality in the shape of those train tickets, but my bike is now road-ready and will look little different when I pedal out of Waverley station. The effect this transformation has had on my psychology is monumental: replace the garage with the Cairngorms or Skye as a backdrop and this adventure has gained dizzyingly vivid dimensions. So much so, in fact, that numerous irrational fears frightened away sleep last night as the darkness offered a platform for concerns which, in the light of day, are simply questions of the unfamiliar. I have to do this tour, though, by way of exterminating them. 

As far as looking the part is concerned, my physique is at last resembling that of a Highland-conquering cyclist. Two

Me on the rack.

Me on the rack.

turbo trainer sessions last week, each of an hour’s duration, and more than 15 hours spent running around a restaurant have brought encouraging tone to those crucial quadriceps. Yesterday’s run (I would have ventured out on the bike but due to all my mechanic tasks time slipped away from me) was the longest of my training to date yet I returned feeling strong, having possessed sufficient reserves to muster up a credible kick in the last 150 metres. I hope to have seen the last of the turbo now. Focused exercise it may be, and with tangible results, but I find clipping my toenails more interesting. Wednesday should star my first outdoor ride, and I’m aiming for an 18 mile circuit following the endurance preparation in the garage and the cardiovascular work on the streets. I’ll let you know how that goes.

Getting the word out about my whisky journey has been more natural and instantaneous than I  initially realised. A few comments on my favourite blogs and Facebook saw a record spike of visitors on the Saturday. With Whisky Magazine editor Rob Allanson on board and full of praise for the undertaking, I may even see more sustained traffic in the near future. Hows about dropping a few comments, readers? The figures tell me you’re reading but are you enjoying?! Whilst I hadn’t intended it to be the blog’s sole function when I set it up, your support will be as key in the lead-up to my adventure as during. In addition, if you have any queries about any of the places or distilleries I’ll be touring, let me know and I’ll do my best to root out the desired information once I’m there and see that it is included in the relevant post.

And so to my tastings for this week. I would have included more – I had time for at least one extra tasting note – but the weekend deprived me of any opportunity (besides a Talisker Distiller’s Edition on the Sunday night for the sake of my nerves) and I couldn’t get my mind off the Tomatin. As you shall see in the notes, there were aspects which weren’t to my liking and you can infer this from the terminology and structure of my observations. However, they are the third attempt at evaluating this malt; the first giving me the impression of a good but largely unexciting dram and the second of a deeply horrid one. I felt it deserved another effort on my part to try and divine the middle ground. I feel I succeeded.

I also sampled, for the first time, the Bruichladdich 10-year-old and what an astoundingly fabulous malt it turned out to be. One of the best I’ve enjoyed for a while. Full notes should be available next week, unless the second tasting suspiciously underwhelms.

Another Islay begins my report, however: a Laphroaig I tasted first in November and  had then sat on my desk, dormant, since then.

Laphroaig 10-year-old Cask Strength 55.7% (See ‘Most Hotly-Awaited’)

Colour: Dark, full and glowing amber.

Nose: (FS) Very very dry and dustily oaty. The peat notes are heavily seaweed-accented and they derive a kind of rich sweetness from this. Slightly nutty. Thick rimes of salt lend intriguing texture. Creosote. (WW) A stupendously powerful peated malt profile. This contains a moist grainy sweetness which provides a delicious smoothness. Raw vanilla. Medicinal: antispetic bandages.

Palate: Bewildering feral heat and peat smoke dryness.

Finish: Peat smoke blown about the bay. Quite sweetly peaty. Very long with developing honey and berries.

Look elsewhere for fireworks, but a worthy everyday malt.

Look elsewhere for fireworks, but a worthy everyday malt.

Tomatin 12-year-old 40%

Colour: Clean, bright amber with sherbet lemon highlights.

Nose: (FS) Oak, principally, and a pear note drizzled with fudgy chocolate sauce. It is this that recycles back into the wood but the connection is a fairly prominent combination of cloying sweetness and sulphury, rotten-cask uneven dryness. This fades with airing to muted maltiness with good Highland freshness and light doses of heather and honey. (WW) Everything is a touch fuller and moister, but sadly that includes the suspect woodiness. Overall, however, a pleasant, firm Highland panorama with butter-rich shortbread.

Palate: Barley and gentle earthiness: almost a full tobacco note, in fact. Stewed fruits: peaches and plums.

Finish: Cerealy and malty. Clean with some runny honey and stewed fruit juices. Becomes oaky and quite dry.

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February 9, 2010

Fit For The Glens: 9 weeks to go…

I believe that in the writing of this post I am entitled to feel deeply sanctimonious, in marked contrast to that of last week. True to my word, after captioning the last of my images that day, I donned all the skin-tight clothing I own and set about sweating.

Maybe it is a trusim I shall now coin, but with turbo training the more you sweat the more effective the session was. With my frighteningly insulating Vanguard base layer and overshoes, it may have been hovering around freezing outside, and indeed inside, the garage, but I looked like a businessman enjoying some Swedish corporate hospitality. My hands went from numb with cold to more emitters of personal steam. I worried I might deserve some blame for global warming. After maybe 10 minutes I started pulling at the bidons and 50 minutes later I dismounted having almost drained both of my 750ml bottles. Despite there being nearly 1.5 hastily-ingested litres of water in my system, I felt drained, too, but the overriding (no pun intended) emotion was that of elation. In the summer I compiled some CDs of my my favourite music, one of which I put into the CD player for my session. Drowning out the whir of the trainer itself were Aerosmith, Dire Straits, Fleetwood Mac, Dream Theater, The Cult. The list, fortunately, went on, and what could have been purgatory flashed by whilst also reassuring me that my careful excesses of the week before had not hindered me too much.

My run on the Friday was similarly encouraging. It lasted just over 15 and a half minutes, but this was seven seconds quicker than the last time I trained over that circuit.

Three successive days of waiting-on taught me various things about endurance, not all of them relating to the purely physical. I cannot deny that it was worth it, however, for my Sunday pay packet was greater than all bar a couple of my summer weekly earnings. A few more like that and I shall feel a lot more placcid getting on that train in April. Money is still a concern, however. The only outstanding expenses needed before I leave are maps, another pair of shorts, a lock and those train tickets, but how I am to pay for everything once north of the Tweed is a matter of no small delicacy, for obviously carrying vast amounts of cash is not at all desirable. Plastic may be my saviour as I head into the second half of my journey.

Back to fitness issues, though, and anxious to maintain consistency, for I will be consistently knackered from

Still as yet unridden. Hopefully this should no longer be the case by next week.

Still as yet unridden. Hopefully this should no longer be the case by next week.

 the middle of April onwards, I completed another turbo sesh yesterday. In truth, there was nothing meteorological stopping me from cycling in the open air; the sun was even shining. Next week, though, is my target for beginning the amassing of real road miles. Equipment needs to be swapped, you see, so I’m persisting with the indoors for now until I can trust that the snow has given up its evil schemes.

This most recent period with the stationary bike was not quite so euphoric. Air temperature was a little higher than last week and I thought foregoing the jersey would counteract this but at 40 minutes in, I could see the perspiration condensing on the outer fibres of my base layer. I made sure I completed a full hour, however; an effort that I repaid with two huge sandwiches, a mug of soup, some raisins (high GI, so good for speedy muscle recovery) and an oat bar. I’m a finely-tuned machine, I thought to myself as I lounged in front of ‘Two and a half Men‘ .

Ahead of my body, my senses have seen a return to authentic service. On Friday I sampled my first new whisky since the op: the Tomatin 12-year-old. I’ll share my findings of this dram with you next week, once I’ve conducted a second tasting. Otherwise, The Dalmore 15-year-old was my final reacclimatisation malt, and its terroir factor-oriented notes are below. I also completed notes I started last year for the Clynelish 14-year-old and the Tomintioul Peaty Tang which I’ve included as well.

As far as the blog itself goes, Google Analytics is a wonderful tool. The glut of my visitors are UK-based, but I also have readers in France, Norway, the USA and even a few visits from Russia. Hello, all of you! I hope you’ll carry on visiting all the way to April when this site shall really come into its own. Speaking of realising potential, I’ve been in touch with a number of whisky outposts, trying to wheedle a link to me. The Whisky Directory has attached me to their impressive database; the whisky section of The Scotsman website got back to me but I haven’t heard anything further; I’m going to re-send my email to Whisky Magazine once finished here and perhaps the perfect partner for my whisky

Oh, it's good. It's so so good...

Oh, it's good. It's so so good...

 journey, www.scotlandwhisky.com, has yet to make contact, but then I only emailed yesterday afternoon. So yes: it is incredible how things can propagate on the web, but I believe a little more focused exposure can allow me to reach those I think would benefit most from learning about my odyssey, Scotch and Scotland.

The Dalmore 15-year-old 40% (See ‘Most Hotly-Awaited’)

Colour: Round, smooth and glowing log fire orange with golden syrup highlights and pistachio green edges.

Nose: (FS) Acres of smooth, nutty Sherry wood: fine-grained and oily. Full and rich malt with a dry, green peat husk. Walnut shells, only moister than you would expect. Building heathery floral notes. (WW) More open. Nutty vanilla. Soft, crumbly and cake-like peat lends a complex dryness. Warmed satsumas. Glorious breadth across the whisky ingredient spectrum.

Palate: Sweet, slightly peaty with a delicate oaky firmness. Nutty, dry Sherry.

Finish: Hints of caramel, honey and heather. Milk chocolate, hazelnut and cranberry.

Clynelish 14-year-old 46%

Colour: Clean gold with lemon highlights.

Nose: (FS) Medium-bodied and medium-dry with a light sandy texture. Strong scents and further textures of seaside wood. Mayonnaise with a considerable mustard kick. (WW) Sweeter and smoother with a little more cohesion. Develops an interesting damp/rich peaty smokiness. Vanilla sponges and vanilla cream.

Palate: Cerealy, semi-sweet and well-defined. Very unobtrusive peatiness underpins everything.

Finish: Lightly, sweetly grainy. A touch of juicy fruitiness to the front of the mouth and lips. Very good balance with

Angus Dundee: this was the wrong malt to subject to over-peating.

Angus Dundee: this was the wrong malt to subject to over-peating.

 dryness and a touch of salty seaweed.

Tomintoul Peaty Tang 40% 

Colour: Bright honey gold with blackened amber highlights.

Nose: (FS) It is an Ardbeg-esque smokiness to start with: sharp and woody with an underlying sandy quality. The smoke grows softer and more heathery. Citrus antibacterial cleaner. (WW) Still retains an initial Islay-style smoke profile. Underneath this, though, is the gentle softness hinting at its true origins with runny heather honey and toffee apples. 

Palate: Gentle and smooth lightly-peated malt and honey is quickly conquered by full and aggressive, heathery peat and smoke.

Finish: Sweeter notes struggle against the peat blanket. Occasionally this yields an interesting exchange, but overall the lither, more dextrous dancer has been smothered by the sumo wrestler. The gentle dram never stood a chance.

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