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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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The Water of Life of Luxury

For a number of years, whisky – and single malt whisky especially – has cultivated an aura of exclusivity, luxury and extravagance. Who has not encountered the gentrified still-life of a mahogany-hued dram, sipped in a moment of leisure picked out in leather, oak, and expensive curtains? It has come to symbolise the finer things in life, but if a recent visit to the Scotch Whisky Experience in Edinburgh for the inaugural Whisky Luxe is any guide, it would appear that there are the finer things of the finer things.

My invite to this ‘exclusive event’, in which I would surely ’indulge’ myself in ‘the most iconic whisky brands’ peddling their ‘esteemed whiskies’, fortuitously came with a 40% discount on the price of admission. Had it not, this evening of super-premium posing at the more moneyed mutation of the Whisky Live series of events would have been beyond my means. As it was, I could just about stretch to £75 for a pre-birthday beano.

Red carpet treatment at the first Whisky Luxe, Edinburgh.

Bagpipes, a red carpet and glamorous ladies in frocks greeted me at the summit of the Royal Mile on Friday. A typical Thursday night tasting at the Quaich Society this was not. I ducked into the Scotch Whisky Experience to receive my black giftbag which contained a wodge of Whisky Magazine-related freebies and my purse of little gold coins which would purchase my whiskies. To my dismay, they hadn’t included a pair of size-10 shoes that fitted with any comfort, but that is a separate cautionary tale.

I had hoped to play the seasoned whisky event attendee: swan about inspecting the stalls and constructing a list of must-tries. However, no sooner had I arrived in the Castlehill Room than I could not resist arrowing across to the Balblair stall to commence with the luxurious liquid. Andy Hannah, brand manager for Balblair, and Lukasz Dynowiak were on hand to answer my questions about the distillery and their hopes for the evening. The new online community they have established, The Gathering Place, was high on their agenda. With the 2002, 1989 3rd Release and 1975 2nd Release in attendance, though, top quality drams were a chief priority, too.

The Dewar's stand.

Other highlights on the top floor was the Dewar’s stand, where a little cask filled with ‘flavoured’ whisky dispensed a sweet, smooth spirit with a pleasant tannic bite on the palate. This is one of the many experiments emerging from the blended whisky brand in tribute to new archive research.

My next port of call was Whyte and MacKay in the Amber Restaurant. Here I met and had a splendid conversation with Graham Rushworth who described his blustery new year on Islay, the cheeky swig of The Dalmore Trinitas he enjoyed in Richard Paterson’s office and the new all-singing all-dancing distillery tour available on the shores of the Cromarty Firth before eventually and most enjoyably, talking me through The Dalmore 18yo. Another whisky that benefits from the best of W&M’s extraordinary wood stocks, I found this pleasantly fresh for an 18 with grassy sweetness, plum, and coffee on the nose. The accumulated weight of oak registered on the palate, however, with rich chocolate and dried fruits all accented with creamy vanilla.

The Auchentoshan stand.

After catching up with Paul Goodwin on the Morrison Bowmore stand – an extremely self-contented corner of the room following a host of gongs from the latest Icons of Whisky Awards (Distiller of the Year, Distillery Manager of the Year and Ambassador of the Year) – I pottered about the venue a little more. This took me to the McIntyre Gallery where I spoke with Andrew Shand of Duncan Taylor over a delightful measure of Octave Cardhu 22yo. The planned distillery in Huntly which I read about a couple of years ago is still in the pipeline, although investment is proving difficult in these straightened times. Of more immediate excitement is their new Rarest range, represented on the night by a very special bottling of the Macallan. In a bespoke decanter and with the presentation box constructed from the cask in which the whisky matured, this was a visually stunning product. Sadly there was none to taste.

Drams of Glen Garioch 1995 and Smokehead followed, but the unexpected star shone in the Claive Vidiz Collection Room. I tagged on to a tasting led by Dr Kirstie McCallum of Burn Stewart who was explaining the Bunnahabhain 25yo with the kind of passion and knowledge you would expect from a global brand ambassador. As I nosed this deep, rich and sweet delight, my mind trickled back to the Sound of Islay and this beautiful, character-packed distillery. Sea salt and candied orange tickled my nose, but when we were asked for our thoughts I blurted out ‘exotic handwash – but in a good way!’ Kirstie replied that she was unlikely to forget that particular descriptor.

Emma Smith and Graham Rushworth for The Dalmore.

A hastily-grabbed dark chocolate and whisky mousse was the last tasty morsel of an enthralling evening. All exhibitors praised the relaxed and congenial atmosphere, and they relished the opportunity to properly discuss their products rather than simply dispensing them which appears to be the modus operandi for the majority of whisky functions. Huge congratulations must go to Chloe Leighton who organised the event, as well as all visiting ambassadors and Scotch Whisky Experience staff. I thoroughly enjoyed making the acquaintance of some of the most desirable whiskies in the world – but will wear another pair of shoes next year.

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The Quaich Society at Aberfeldy

The Quaich Society outside Aberfeldy distillery.

Regular readers will notice a change in structure for this post title in comparison with normal proceedings. Yes, the Quaich Society has finally escaped the confines of St Andrews’ hotel function rooms, overcome the complacenct attitude that top brands must come to us, and bagged a distillery of our own.

As a St Patrick’s Day warm up, eleven eager Society members surfaced early on the Saturday morning in readiness for departure to Dewar’s World of Whisky and the Aberfeldy Cask Tasting Tour. Though some were neither bright-eyed nor bushy-tailed, they took their seat on the bus in anticipation of a momentous event in Quaich Society recent history. They hid their true feelings well, appearing to be sound asleep from Dundee until we turned off the A9.

As we approached the distillery, the bright spring sunshine picked out squadrons of white-water rafters on the gleaming Tay at Grandtully and thick snow still at the summit of Ben Lawers. This was shaping up to be quite a Highland whisky adventure, and – on a personal note – thrillingly reminiscent of my last encounter with that road: nearly two years ago during the first week of the Scotch Odyssey.

A beautiful Highland distillery on a perfect spring morning. Difficult to beat, I can tell you...

Aberfeldy remains as plush and spartan as I remembered it and we all inspected the neat lawns, strident pagoda, and the new lick of paint the rest of the buildings had received while we waited to begin our tour.

Dewar’s World of Whisky divides brand labour remarkably well. The Dewar’s blended story is dealt with first in the opening film and exhibition area in which the Dewar brothers – John and Tommy – are celebrated for their pioneering salesmanship, before one discovers the blender’s art. Once again, I ran out of patience before completing the computer simulation challenge of recreating the recipe of Dewar’s White Label.

The focus of the guided tour, however, is Aberfeldy distillery and its single malt. With speed and clarity, our guide took us from mill to stills and the eleven tourists inhaled deeply at each new process. In the tun room, we could inspect two of the larch washbacks (switchers were on for the others). ‘As you can see by where the wash has been,’ said our guide, ‘this is just about ready to be pumped across to the stillroom. You could quite happily drink that.’ I know that many Quaich Society regulars approve of a pint, and their eyes shone hopefully, but we were ushered down the stairs to the stills with throats unslaked.

Back in the visitor centre, we awaited with glee the arrival of the valinch-bearer who would withdraw a sample from the American oak hogshead which, for the last 29 years, had harboured Aberfeldy spirit. Cameras flashed and saliva ducts filled. First of all, we could savour the Aberfeldy core range, starting with the sweet, biscuity and appley 12yo, before moving on to the more floral, heathery and slightly smoky 21yo. The group were divided in their preferences, although I adored the firm, almost tarry sweetness of the 21yo.

Extracting the 29yo Aberfeldy spirit from its oak nursery.

Finally, we eached received a Glencairn filled with deep orange nectar. Nosing it, deep oak and rounded vanilla appeared first, followed by red apple peel and some smoke or cask char. The oak notes built and carried with them a rich Bourbon flavour, although the spirit clearly had a bit of liveliness about it after all these years.

Soft and rounded on the palate, chunky toffee and dried apple emerged. I was assured that, even though the whisky was hovering around the 55% abv. mark, its smoothness belied its strength. Up to a point, I agreed, but I wondered whether a drop of water might awaken this sleeping beauty. It sure did.

On the nose, I was overwhelmed by white chocolate aromas and dry heather. There was stronger apple now with rich pot ale scents, too. Biscuity and coconut notes. Orange, fruitcake and tablet.

The palate revealed the signature Aberfeldy honey note, which built in one gorgeous, langorous wave. Vanilla-coated raisins with tarry treated pine. Some grassiness at the end.

‘Why don’t they bottle this?!’ one member of the group asked. I pointed out that the cost would be extraordinary, but remembered how eagerly I would have parted with cash after my last Aberfeldy single cask encounter, a 24yo, in 2009.

Whilst refuelling in the cafe, I was told that the reason our cask tasting had taken place in the visitor centre and not the warehouse as advertised was because of interior alterations being made. A strong hint was dropped that Aberfeldy may be about to join the single cask, hand-bottling brigade and that other John Dewar & Sons single malts may also feature in addition to the flagship brand. I will of course let you know more about this when details are confirmed.

All that remains to be said is a massive thank you to the staff at Dewar’s World of Whisky for looking after us so well, and the bus driver who turned a blind eye to the healthy measures of White Label being poured and enjoyed at the rear of the vehicle.

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The Call of the Wort

Perhaps it is the heavy emphasis on the great indoors, induced by the clammy cold, rain, and days which darken before ever having really brightened, that is to blame for my distillery yearning. It struck at the same time last year when glimpses of the snowy Perthshire Hills provoked a pining for the Valley of the Deer, Glenlivet and the delicate camomile tea light of the West Coast as seen from stillroom windows or a visitor centre cafe.

The new, tasteful extension to The Glenlivet.

I long to subsititute the heat of a radiator for a mash tun, the fragrant smoke of a wood-burning stove for the earthy wisps escaping from pagoda vents and their peat kilns beneath. Christmas cake baking in the oven cannot hope to match the curranty richness of a really excellent Oloroso sherry butt. You can see my problem. Life is simply better in a distillery.

Given the choice, therefore, where would I go right at this very moment? If I had my Christmas wish, it would be an amalgam of the very best, most nose-titillating, mouth-watering and compelling whisky-producing spaces, a Franken-distillery tour if you like. Allow me to take you round.

With snow on the higher Braes and a keen, clean wind ruffling the grass and heather, there can be few more stirring distillery journeys than that to The Glenlivet. I would depart from Tomintoul, pass through Auchnarrow and Tomnavoulin, and skirt the Packhorse Bridge over the river Livet itself before launching into the Cairngorm National Park and trundling into the distillery grounds. I would sprint from the car, up the stone steps to the spacious, warm and welcoming visitor centre which combines the scents of wood and whisky so wonderfully. As this is my ideal Christmas, I can stretch to a bottle from the Cellar Collection prior to the tour.

By some miraculous feat of malty teleportation, I troop up a spiral staircase to the heady, embracing sweetness of the Auchentoshan mash tun. Wood-lined and copper-domed, it dominates the room whilst churning that pure, gentle barley.

I have to negotiate a couple of close-fitting corridors and a flight of metal steps before Aberfeldy’s tun rooms appear, some of the washbacks hidden around the corner. Tropical fruits burst in front of my nose, together with a creamy orange aroma. By happy accident, Glen Grant has some of their vessels in the corner which exhale their juicy apple and biscuity cereal breath, too.

Past the chimney into sensory Nirvana.

Clicking my heels together, I duck through another doorway to the whitewashed still house of Lagavulin. Huge burnished onions squat and sweat in front of me, milking the spirit into their condensers. Like a bullock with a ring through its septum, I’m tugged to my right and the spirit safe. I sag against the pillar and do my level best to drown in that heart-of-the-run fragrance: burnt toast, wood smoke and hedgerow berry conserve. When a decent amount of time has passed – say about a week – Malcolm Waring beckons me outside to a bright Islay south coast afternoon before pole vaulting to Wick.

 

Pulteney manager, Malcolm Waring, in a delicious bonded warehouse.

I’m caught in two states of being, here in the Old Pulteney warehouses. The heavy honey and spicy toffee of so many exquisite ex-Bourbon barrels leaves me slack-jawed – seduced – while the cool, violent saltiness invigorates. A few spot lamps breach the fecund darkness as I caress hoggies and butts, alive now to the sizzling thread of citrus in the air.

Finally, say ten days into my distillery tour, I reach the Balblair distillery office. Highland sunshine slides into the room, adding a gloss to the display cabinets and antique table having bounced off the slick tarmac and the newly-corrugated warehouse rooves outside. John MacDonald has poured a generous measure of the 1978 into my Glencairn – and left the bottle – and I can process its marvellous deep floral aromas, together with honey and dried citrus fruits. I toast Scotland and I toast her whiskies and give eternal thanks that a significant imprint of the former can so readily flow out with the latter no matter where you happen to be.

An exterior shot of a great interior.

Merry Christmas, one and all, and may the new year yield many distillery tours.

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Bring on the Blends

John Glaser has inspired me. The wonders of Asyla, Double Single et al have added their impeccably balanced encouragement to a slightly older inkling of mine that time spent investigating blended whisky is not in any way shape or form wasted.

My inaugural encounters with the whisky flavour spectrum were afforded by blends: a sip every so often of whatever my Mother may have been drinking – heavily watered-down, of course. Unfortunately, it was not until my first visit to the Aberfeldy Distillery and Dewar’s World of Whisky that I appreciated the role blends could play for the obsessed single malt drinker courtesy of a Connoisseur Tour ticket and measures of Dewar’s White Label, 12yo, 18yo and Signature. The 18yo in particular blew my proverbial socks off.Hankey Bannister 40yo

Then, a couple of months ago, a jiffy bag arrived with three samples of the Hankey Bannister blended range and Lukasz Dynowiak’s best wishes inside it. The Compass Box talk has prompted me to unearth my tasting notes for this trio, and to compare them with that 18yo Dewar’s Founder’s Reserve I love so much.

Hankey Bannister has been around a long time – Messrs B. Hankey and H. Bannister founding the company in 1757. The core range is the Original, 12yo, 21yo and a 40yo comprised of whiskies from throughout Scotland, but particularly Balblair and Balmenach. Grain spirit is that produced at North British and Port Dundas.

Hankey Bannister Original 40% abv. £16

Very firm and lively on the nose with lots of cereals. Ice cream sandwiches with lashings of thick caramel toffee follow while apple bubble gum flavours lend an idea of a spirity and elastic whisky. Metallic notes and marmalade with a little water maintain vibrancy.

The palate is intense and medium-dry with banana-like fruitiness and spice. Water brings out some oak, cereal sweetness and heather. Fruit and Nut chocolate appears on the finish with orange juice. It is very quick, however, and water only accelerates its exit.

Hankey Bannister 12yo 40% abv. £25

This expression is cleaner than the Original with extra richness. Green apple and sweet pear emerge together with a grassy note and some oak. It is somewhat flat, however, and water unfortunately pulls out earthy vegetal notes. Light honey and vanilla are there, too, but this, to me, is not yet what whisky is about.

The palate is dominated by caramel for both its flavour and texture with a hint of oak and maltiness. Water reveals a smidgen more fruitiness. The finish is drying and quite spicy with that heather note seen in the Original. Citrus peel is accentuated after a splash of water.

Hankey Bannister 40yo 43.3% abv. £357

Legend has it that master blender, Stuart Harvey, discovered casks stuffed with various old whiskies in a corner of the warehouse and checking back through the records revealed that some were from long-silent distilleries such as Glen Flagler and Killyloch. The whiskies were bottled to commemorate the 250th anniversary of Hankey Bannister’s establishment, and the numerous illustrious folk, such as Winston Churchill, King George V and Evelyn Waugh, who have claimed a partiality to it. This has just won the title of ‘World’s Best Blended Whisky’ at the 2011 World Whisky Awards.

Nose – Waves of crepuscular darkness with rich, though dust-covered, dried fruits of prune and date. Vanilla, oily orange and crystallised peel. Dark chocolate and rich honeycomb. Velvety maltiness. Tropical fruits emerge with ripe banana, mango and passion fruit. Butterscotch and cinnamon are in there, too, and just latterly sweet leather and a hint of fragrant smoke.

      Water helps to combine the sweet malt and oak. Rich strawberry jam appears. Full, deep and clean amontillado sherry notes are just divine. Flavours of spiced pecans, dried rosemary and lemon are in there, too, alongside the gorgeous oak notes.

Palate - Deep, oaky and dusty with plenty of spice and rich fruit. Chocolate.

      Water accentuates the stewed fried fruits adding a clean and sweet floral quality.

Finish - A lovely, involving leafy/mulchy dark battle wages beneath lighter oak and barley sugar flavours. Dark treacle toffee. Tea tree and lime. Rich and very smooth.

      Water evokes the empty casks this ancient whisky once lay in with vanilla and moist biscuitiness. Orchard fruits and bark chippings emerge and whilst it is still fecund, it loses a little power.

*     *     *     *     *

Dewar's 18yoIt is very difficult to directly compare these whiskies for, as Dave Broom says, ‘blends are about the right flavours at the right time.’ I couldn’t see the point of the 12yo alongside the Original and 40yo but I should imagine that, on a summer afternoon, a few measures of it with water and ice would make for a rather pleasant experience. Unfortunately for me, my whisky moments are made more for the likes of the 40yo which is somewhat problematic for me since there is no way I can afford a bottle.

Enter, then, the Dewar’s 18yo. At Aberfeldy I was struck by its heather honey, apple and vanilla notes but I have since discovered a very gentle fragrant smokiness. Orange and some dried fruits are also quite charming with the palate and finish a blend of spice, sweetness and dark chocolate. At £61 it is rather expensive for a blend, but then I nabbed mine from World Duty Free in Edinburgh so it cost me less than £40. Lovely!

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Encounters With Wild Whisky

Aberfeldy

In the two-and-a-half years between the light bulb, grand induction moment into the single malt galaxy at The Glenlivet and alighting on to the 09.56 Edinburgh-bound train in April to begin my Scotch Odyssey, only one experience truly volunteers itself as an essential giant leap forward in my appreciation of whisky.

While my boutique (and marvellous) tour of Auchentoshan in 2008 afforded me more time observing the process, it wasn’t until my top-spec potter around Aberfeldy distillery last autumn that I gained privileged and enlightening insight into the mercurial DNA of Scotch malt whisky, contained within its individual casks. Therefore, ahead of my VIP tour of Glen Garioch and the inauguration on Scotch Odyssey Blog of my personal views regarding the many bespoke distillery guided tours available in addition to the basic packages, I would like to tell you about my time at Dewar’s World of Whisky and what single malt, untamed by reduction or filtration, tastes like.

The dunnage warehouses at Aberfeldy, Perthshire. Sadly, they are empty, but a few gems were left behind.

The dunnage warehouses at Aberfeldy, Perthshire. Sadly, they are empty, but a few gems were left behind.

The Aberfeldy Signature Tour [now the Connoisseur Tour and with added bells and whistles] cost me £30 and for that I was granted private access to the fount of knowledge that is Bruce. He guided me through a tasting of the Aberfeldy single malt and Dewar’s blended ranges, and then around the distillery. The climax of the tour – and the reason I had only nosed many of the drams in the gorgeous visitor centre – was the final point on the tour specification. I was going beyond the mesh gate and into the warehouse.

Very sadly, it was not the same breed of ambrosial vapour of The Glenlivet or Auchentoshan that greeted my quivering nostrils. John Dewar & Sons ceased maturing Aberfeldy on-site more than a decade ago and the hundreds of casks to be seen stacked deep into the depths of the gauzy darkness are empty. All bar three, that is.

“Take your pick,” Bruce encouraged, and I concurred with his recommendation, selecting the 24-year-old cask from 1985 in preference to two from 1983. Bruce produced a mallet and a valinch, beating the bung out of hogshead no. 1321 with the former and drawing out a measure of Highland single malt with the latter.

Aberfeldy Cask

I held my Glencairn glass below the valinch and a stream of sparkling rich gold passed from it to the glass. As I held my sample up to the solitary spotlamp I could see tiny black flecks of charcoal floating like dust motes in the glowing spirit. Tentative sniffs revealed apples, vanilla, and classic Aberfeldy heather honey but nothing more. It was only then that I realised how cold it was in the shadows of the warehouse. My skin felt clammy, as if the thousands of litres of whisky, which had once evaporated from their wooden bonds, were being squeezed from the blackened walls like water from a sponge, trickling over me.

24-year-old, single cask Aberfeldy: divine.

24-year-old, single cask Aberfeldy: divine.

When Bruce kept surreptitiously nosing the hole in the cask I followed his example and warmth returned. My head filled with sweet spicy aromas, partly from the alcohol, partly from the rich firm oak and biscuity, fruity, raw whisky. Each had been interacting with the other since before I was born. It was such a complex, enthralling fragrance – so much more so than even the best whiskies sampled in dull glass.

My dram had been transferred from cask to copita, however, so I dashed back across to the visitor centre where I might warm it up and unlock its character.

Over the next half-hour or so, I fell in love. The weight, muscularity but powerful pungent smoothness that all well-aged malts possess held me; sweet honey and vanilla charmed me, and heather-like aromas intrigued me. Amazingly, there was still much in the way of freshness and cleanness, despite its 24 years. Water pulled out richer caramel and butterscotch aromas.

Cleanliness and firm richness continued on the palate with the addition of wonderful warmth. Vanilla ice cream, nuts, fruit and what can only be described as “honey mist” made for a beautiful gently fading finish. On the Cask Tasting Tour [£12], there is a 25-year-old to sample straight from the cask. It may be the same one, or another very similar to it.

Ever since then, I have been dangerously vulnerable to the attractions of single casks: their focus and power, character and purity. I howled with lust and longing when Diageo announced the Manager’s Choice series. I subsequently howled with rage and dismay when the prices followed. I did put my name down for one of the limited edition Chris Anderson Cask Aberfeldys on the basis of that malt. 18-years-old directly from one cask; so severe was my desire that the asking price of £150 [now £180 at the distillery] didn’t deter me. I suspect my name was not transferred to the official waiting list, however, for I was not contacted again. In the long run, this was probably just as well.

My afternoon at Aberfeldy was an invaluable education, then. Indeed, what I learnt returned to me in April when I had the opportunity to compare it to another single cask encounter, this time at Aberlour. The experience at this Speyside distillery is made doubly astonishing when measured against this previous specialised tour. Aberlour is the only standard tour (besides Glen Moray) to economically reveal the majesty and charm of wild whisky.

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Aberfeldy

Aberfeldy is a clean, handsome distillery with an excellent visitor's centre and cafe.

Aberfeldy is a clean, handsome distillery with an excellent visitor's centre and cafe.

Aberfeldy, Perthshire, PH15 2EB, 01887 822010. John Dewar & Sons. www.dewars.com

APPEARANCE AND LOCATION:      ***      The scenery around Aberfeldy is especially rugged to the West with numerous Munros. Schiehallion was the one I climbed but Ben Lawers which sits comfortably in the ten highest mountains in Scotland, is not far away. To the East it is nicely arable and deeply attractive. 

TOURS PROVIDED:

‘Standard Tour’: £6.50. See ‘My Tour’ below.

‘Cask Tasting Tour’: £12. The standard offering with the addition of a sample of a 25-year-old straight from the cask.

‘Deluxe Tour’: £18. The standard tour with the addition of a more in-depth whisky tasting of four whiskies: 12YO, 21YO, Dewar’s 12YO and one other. A free tasting glass is yours to take away.

‘Connoisseur Tour’: £30. A tutored tasting of the 21YO, the new 18YO Single Cask, Dewar’s Signature and the cask tasting in the warehouse. Again, you are given a tasting glass. I can personally recommend this one, and to read about my formative experiences with mature whisky drawn straight from the cask, click here.

DISTILLERY-EXCLUSIVE BOTTLINGS:      The Chris Anderson Cask, an 18yo single cask bottling of Aberfeldy limited to 248 bottles, £170.

My Tour – 14/04/2010

The view from the stillhouse out across the Tay (invisible here) to the hills behind, within which is hidden JK Rowling's country pad.

The view from the stillhouse out across the Tay (invisible here) to the hills behind, within which is hidden JK Rowling's country pad.

THE RUNNING COMMENTARY:      **

THE PROCESS AND EQUIPMENT:      * 

Notes:     

GENEROSITY:      (Choice between Aberfeldy 12YO, Dewar’s White Label and Dewar’s 12YO.)

VALUE FOR MONEY:     *

SCORE:      4/10 *s

COMMENT:      This is one of the best-smelling distilleries, as a little aside. Locking the bike up to the railings before you enter the visitor’s centre in the lea of the defunct kiln, the aroma from the tun room is delicious. The VC itself is very impressive, with lots of nice displays for the well-packaged offerings in the Dewar’s stable. There is a film about the history of Dewar’s in a mock period theatre, then an exhibition which recreate’s Tommy Dewar’s study. There is also Robert Burns’ desk, a worthy point of interest for anyone interested in poetry. I’m not sure it is all his graffiti, though. The Tour then proceeds with tasting. You have a choice of the 12YO, Dewar’s White Label and Dewar’s 12YO. The distillery is well laid-out and the process is easy to follow. In the tun room I appreciate for the first time the heat produced during fermentation. There is a very thorough explanation of the maturation process in the filling store. No filling or maturing happens on site, and for all there is a view into the warehouse through perspex, there is nothing sleeping in those casks. A shame, because it is a really fetching site, and a very approachable Highland malt, perhaps with more terroir in the 12YO than it has a right to with lots of heather, charred vanilla oak and burnt heather. Recommended.

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Stirling to Pitlochry

I beg patience of you, readers. Whilst I would love to satisfy my own needs and my journalistic responsibilities at the same time, I’m quickly appreciating that this is not always possible. Time, just at the moment, is money, and with an hour’s worth of internet access at my hostels costing me £3, I have to condense. A lot!

Regarding the pictures, I had hoped to post some yesterday but unfortunately the IT at Comrie Croft was not in a cooperative mood. Hopefully tonight, as I’m satying with my aunt, I should be able to bring you some of the stunning photos that have practically taken themselves. The whole country is one astonishing photograph!

***

Stirling to Comrie: 34 miles.

I awoke with far too much anxiety. I won’t lie to you, had the first two days of my trip entertained even a smattering of rain, I would probably be writing this from home. Three hours of sleep, I felt was insufficient to embark on my second day of my whisky odyssey. Just at that moment, however, it felt like the whole 1300 miles were waiting for me that day. Mentally, I was not in good shape at all. Despite the nausea of panic, I managed to eat some muesli and some toast. Washed down with a hot cup of tea, I felt a little better.

I collared the staff at Stewart Lawson Cycles, Barnton Street, just as they were lifting the shutters. Pedal system fixed, I returned to the hostel feeling infintely better.

I set off in what the Scots would call ‘driech’ weather. It was grey and cold, in other words, although how expressive a dialect it is. Blackford, here I come.

The turn off signalled by the map suggested a small road. It said nothing about a corkscrew of a passage. I had to get off and walk, for the first time as a cyclist since I took it up seriously in my early teens, I had to walk. In cleats, though, and with the weight of the bike added to the insane gradient, pushing was more challenging.

Although it didn’t flatten, the incline wasn’t quite so steep. I cleared the trees and there was the Highlands. And lots of it. Only the photos, when they eventually are transferred, can communicate the desolate beauty of the landscape.

Congestion was possible, even on these single track roads. A farmer was driving his sheep to new pasture, the two

There was no safe overtaking opportunity on this occasion.

There was no safe overtaking opportunity on this occasion.

 collies on the back of the quadbike with him eyeing this strange, fluorescent thing wheezing behind them.

After a nerve-shredding 500m on the A9, I made Blackford and there was Tullibardine. They claim to be the most accessible distillery in Scotland and I can’t disagree. It is odd having a traditional distilliung complex in a retail park but stepping into the excellent visitors’ centre, I didn’t notice. More about the tour later.

Getting to Crieff was more of a challenge. The roads got busier, faster and, on one awful stretch, dustier. I had already phoned Glenturret to put my tour back by an hour and arrived with 10 minutes to spare. More on this tour in a future post.

Now deeply concerned about where my dinner was coming from and riding on empty already, I sought my accommodation. Comrie Croft is unique in my experience. Camping, hostelling, hen rearing. It was a little earth-lover’s utopia. I could not enjoy the idiosyncratic nature of it all, however, for the doubts were returning. I had washing to do, buses to catch (and living in Northumberland I know how sparsely distributed services can be) and sleep to hoard. Despite there being no plug in the basin, I improvised with a ball of saturated toilet roll. I shall know better for next time, for now everything I washed has little white flakes of paper all over them! And they don’t smell particularly clean…

I was given a lift to Comrie, as it happened, by a total stranger. We talked about the weather, the surrounding area and the ospreys which were nesting just across from the hostel and had been for the last seven years.

I demolished some fish and chips, found an apple, caught to the bus back to the hostel, and had a great night’s sleep.

***

Comrie to Pitlochry: 49 miles.

I woke up feeling not a great deal better. The idea of cycling to Aberfeldy and then on to a busy Pitlochry did not appeal. A party of teenagers whom I had not failed to register the night before from their loud music and loud conversation had assumed total dominion of the kitchen. I managed a bowl of cereal and some toast. I decided to forget about scrambled some of the Croft’s free range eggs.

The road north out of Crieff starts to look very Highland, very quickly.

The road north out of Crieff starts to look very Highland, very quickly.

The road from Gilmerton to Aberfeldy, 10 miles into my journey after going back into Comrie for supplies, was indescribable. Immediately the glens began. Cycling between these monoliths, like the knees of the earth thrust up under the duvet of the land made me feel very tiny indeed. Again, the pictures can say a thousand of the words of which I am only vaguely aware.

It was hot. Heat haze was making me feel more disorientated than I really felt. I ate some lunch in what shade I could find, with the cars whooshing past intermittently. Just when I thought this empty moorland would never end, I noticed the sign for Griffon Forest, where I had walked with my family last autumn. A little further on was a viewpoint for the surrounding Munros. There, shark-toothed and with a mantle of snow was Schiehallion, my first Munro. I didn’t have long to appreciate the view. It was after 1PM and I still had to tour Aberfeldy.

I was suitably stirred having seen this. Schiehallion is my first and only bagged Munro to date, and spying it on the horizon was evocative of last autumn when I was hear with my parents.

I was suitably stirred having seen this. Schiehallion is my first and only bagged Munro to date, and spying it on the horizon was evocative of last autumn when I was hear with my parents.

The descent into the town was a worry for the brakes. I’ve been riding with them for more than 600 miles already and I suspect they will need replacing soon.

Aberfeldy was busier than I remember it, but the distillery was a focus of calmness. Locking the bike and changing, the smell of the washbacks had been in raptures. More on the tour next time.

The road to Pitlochry was both familiar and familiarly hectic. The sun was a concern of sorts with my burn and water consumption. It’s very difficult to judge all these things in addition to sun cream application when you have more than 40 miles in your legs already. I couldn’t take the A9 so I followed the minor roads. Minor, I hasten to add, in size; not, incredibly, in traffic.

A few close calls later, I was in Pitlochry, and in fact passed Blair Athol. The smell was again, deeply promising.

I found the hostel and for the first time felt genuinely contented. I’d travelled far, and was beginning to feel like a traveller. The sun was still shining, dinner was within walking distance, and I was rooming with fellow cyclists.

The night’s sleep was a good one, and the breakfast was superb. Bring it on, as they say.

By the by, if you have toured any of the distilleries I will be visiting, please comment under the relevant post with your own experiences. Mine is only one opinion, after all. I hope to speak soon.

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