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Day 8: Brora Bail-Out

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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D-Day: Drumochter and Dalwhinnie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Scotch Odyssey 2: Le Grand Depart

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Tomatin 18-year-old

A month or so ago, I finally dropped in to Tomatin. Not having a bicycle in tow, I cannot count it as an official visit, but in the half-light of a November afternoon I could cast an appraising eye over the sprawling heathland situation. At first, however, I really badly needed to use their facilities, not see their stillhouse, having made a hasty get-away from the Balblair Brand Home opening on the other side of Inverness. Cover was provided by Lucas from Edinburgh Whisky Blog and Joel from Cask Strength who charmed the lady behind the desk to such an extent that I received a dram of the 12yo on my re-emergence, to replace some vital fluids.

Back in the car, bouncing over the speed bumps by the enormous warehouses to rejoin the A9, Joel commented that their recent Decades bottling had been a favourite at Cask Strength Towers (indeed, it was shortlisted for their Best in Glass Awards). In the summer, I too had encountered the class of this distillery with half of a miniature of their 18yo, an expression barely recognisable as from the same stock as the fudgy, oaky mess that had comprised the 12yo.

Yesterday, I polished off said miniature and here are my thoughts on it.

Tomatin 18yo 46% (non-chillfiltered, finished in Oloroso sherry casks)

Colour – Rich glossy gold. Quality Street caramel.

Nose – Fresh and quite light at first. The nutty praline squeeze of Sherry oak appears but the insistent sweet spiciness makes me wonder if these aren’t American oak butts. Soft apple and, there it is though it is much improved, fudge. Nose further into the glass, you find the most incredibly juicy barley: bold and firm with a bit of syrupy lemon and star fruit. Heathery, grassy. There is a bit of earthy peat smoke there, too. Liquorice and quite ‘green’, fresh oak. A bit more time reveals Papaya, demerara sugar and apple peelings.

Water reveals the gentle maturity of this whisky as lots of silky though boldly citrussy malt sugars descend. Buttery, floral and fruity with apple and peach. Melted Werthers Original toffees. Apple pie and double cream. Strawberries crushed into toasted oak. Again, more time highlights the crisp sweetness of that malt, but also an alluring depth of honey.

Palate – Nutty and darkly peaty with blackcurrant. Oak to the fore with some incense and dark dried fruits: prune and date. Baileys coffee. Quite strange, somehow.

Water (possibly I added too much) reveals peach and vanilla at first, with a building lavendar-scented maltiness. Sweet oat flakes appear, too, with earthy smoke blending heather and pine flavours. Quite light.

Finish – Blackberry and toffee. Sweetly spicy. Hazelnut and almond. A bit disappointingly disjointed.

Water adds perhaps a fraction more cohesion, with pear and pineapple up first, then fizzy, sugary malt. Olive oil appears on time, with saltiness and deep heather honey.

This is that rarest of beasts: one that can show its years but then, like Ryan Giggs with ball and space, roll back those years to stunning effect. I thoroughly enjoyed sipping this Tomatin, and trying to discover more shades of complex sweetness and richness, and that lovely fragrant earthiness. Recommended.

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The Dalmore

Not one design scheme, but several. Some Czech folk who were touring found it a little claustrophobic and noisy.

Not one design scheme, but several. Some Czech folk who were touring found it a little claustrophobic and noisy.

Alness, Ross-shire, IV17 0UT, 01349 882362. Whyte & Mackay. www.thedalmore.com

NB: Due to large-scale refurbishment of the entire distillery, there will be no tours until the first week in May.

The coveted 62YO Dalmore.

The coveted 62YO Dalmore.

APPEARANCE AND LOCATION:      ****      Higgledy-piggledy is a good way of describing this distillery. For those who don’t know this term, the general feeling is one of fitting things in any-old-how, with architecture adapting to accommodate as and when required. There are a number of ramshackle buildings and odd connecting corridors and extensions. In short, it is the archetypal farm distillery gone big. The location right on the bansk of the Cromarty Firth is truly lovely. The Black Isle glowed and emerald green on the day of my visit.

TOURS PROVIDED:

‘Standard Tour’: £2. See ‘My Tour’ below, but best to contact the visitor centre prior to your visit for full details and options.

DISTILLERY-EXCLUSIVE BOTTLINGS:      Wait and see: current as of the 26/01/2011, four casks are under consideration for a single cask release. Richard Paterson will get the final say-so as to what will be bottled, but it will be available only at the distillery. Early price indicator is between £100-200. TBA.

My Tour – 30/04/2010

THE RUNNING COMMENTARY:      **

THE PROCESS AND EQUIPMENT:      **

Notes:      The spirit run at The Dalmore must be a complicated one to co-ordinate. The still house is in two parts, and there appear to be a whole range of different-sized stills. The spirit stills have waterjackets and the wash stills have flat tops. In both cases the reason behind their designs is due to the cramped conditions: ceiling height is low so the tops of the wash stills have effectively been lopped off and the waterjackets, by cooling the neck of the still, effectively replicate the conditions found in a much taller still as only the lightest vapours can travel up the neck without condensing and returning to the bottom. The warehouse is stupendous: all of those exotic woods holding big, rich, Dalmore spirit right by the tidal firth is quite an orgy of aromas.

I could not be trusted with the key to this vault of delight.

I could not be trusted with the key to this vault of delight.

GENEROSITY:      * (1 dram)

VALUE FOR MONEY:      **

SCORE:      7/10 *s

COMMENTS:      It was a joy to finally arrive at this distillery whose profile has risen since the sale of the 62YO for a record figure and the work of master blender Richard Paterson. The distillery is right down by the Cromarty Firth, and its construction is wonderfully hap-hazard. It started off as a farm distillery and grew and grew when money allowed. The tour did not disappoint, either. The still house is deeply unusual: a mixture of short and tall wash stills. The spirit stills have their waterjackets, which trick the alcohol vapours into thinking the still is taller than it really is. As I said above, the unusual dimensions of the equipment was due to considerations of space and it is one of the most idiosyncratic distilleries I have come across so far. It was a little too idiosyncratic for my fellow tourists from the Czech Republic. As I ate my lunch in the blazing sun by the shore, the butter I’d purloined from my B&B melting fast, one of the gents came across and asked if I could recommend somewhere for them to visit that was a bit less noisy and more open. For them, they found it difficult to hear and understand over the noise of production and couldn’t follow the chain of the process I got the map out and pointed to Glenmorangie. My first request for advice! The warehouse visit was very special for me, and was the first time a guide has ever mentioned that most significant of extra ingredients: terroir. The melange of casks used by The Dalmore added greater complexity to the delicious, sweet fug of the darkness. There were the Matusalem butts that go into my beloved 15YO – the first filled in the new millenium. There was a big party to mark the occasion, apparently, and volunteer rates to police the event were at a higher level than normal. Their oldest barrel was on the bottom level of a rack just in front of us: a 1951 Bourbon hoggie. They weren’t there for my tour, but normally there are casks to nose. This is a tour worth taking, although maybe not if you are Czech and new to the process! As an aside, not even The Macallan can match this distillery’s self-promotion as a luxury brand. The opening DVD is sumptuous and very professional, but you are left in no doubt as to the lifestyle element in The Dalmore marketing. When they deal with the range, only the most expensive are dealt with. They also talk about that famous 62-year-old. You look to the front right, and there’s a bottle, kept for posterity. Oh yes…

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Tullibardine

This isn't the prettiest of distilleries but within it I had one of my best experiences on tour. It is the oldest brewing and distilling site in Scotland.

This isn't the prettiest of distilleries but within it I had one of my best experiences on tour. It is the oldest brewing and distilling site in Scotland.

Blackford, Perthshire, PH4 1QG, 01764 682252. Tullibardine Distillery Ltd. www.tullibardine.com

APPEARANCE AND LOCATION:      **      The hills and glens around Blackford are all stunning and the Highland Spring bottling plant is only a little way along the road. The distillery, however, is situated in a retail park directly off the A9.

TOURS PROVIDED:

‘Standard Tour’: £5. See ‘My Tour’ below.

‘Tutored Tastings Tour’: £7.50. There is no tour in this option, just a guided tasting of three expressions of Tullibardine in their special tasting room off the warehouse.

‘Bonded Tour’: £15. All of the qualities of the standard tour, only you can actually walk in the warehouse, a rare privilege. There is also a free Tullibardine-branded tasting glass and a miniature as well as the three expressions to enjoy.

‘Connoisseur Tour’: £25. Again, the merits of the standard tour, only here you get to dram three samples straight from the sleeping casks in the warehouse. Three expressions of Tullibardine.

DISTILLERY-EXCLUSIVE BOTTLING:       N/A

My Tour – 13/04/2010

THE RUNNING COMMENTARY:      ***

THE PROCESS AND EQUIPMENT:      **

Notes:      Designed by the renowned distillery architect William Delme-Evans (also responsible for Jura and Glenallachie), this is a very functional distilling enterprise.

GENEROSITY:     ** (2 drams.)

VALUE FOR MONEY:      *

SCORE:      8/10 *s

COMMENT:      Gavin Cunningham, our South African guide, was the star of the show. The distillery was silent at the time of touring for maintenance and the Easter break but Gavin held the attention marvellously: entertaining, authoritative and with a unique turn of phrase and means of explanation, he deserves those three stars. They bill themselves as the most easily-accessed distillery in Scotland and as you can see the distillery in its little shopping complex from the northbound A9, it is hard to disagree. It is also the oldest brewing and distilling site in Scotland and 1488 whisky ale is sold in the visitor’s centre. The on-site cafe serves a little of what you’d expect and does it very well. This tour exceeded all expectations and you are allowed to take pictures inside. I should think this would make a very pain-free day out.

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