Perhaps it was my super-abundance of full cooked Scottish breakfast, perhaps it was a moment of madness to leave it behind the wheel of my hosts’ car in the first place, but I was four and a half miles beyond Nethy Bridge, about to join the A939, when I realised I had left my bike lock at the Coire Choille bed and breakfast. Fortunately, Jan and Allan Goodall are wonderful people (cyclists themselves) and they were willing to down tools and drive out to meet me with the lock.
While I waited, I could appreciate the stark beauty of this upland landscape as the low cloud began, mercifully, to lift. I also heard a cuckoo. The rest impaired my ascent of the 20% gradient up to the main road, however, which was a fairly upsetting obstacle so early in the day. It would get worse.
When cycling to Tomintoul four years ago, I had snow and the Devil’s Elbow up to the Lecht ski station to contend with; as I pedalled towards sunshine I began to recognise that the road I was on concealed challenges of its own. Bridge of Brown is the settlement perched above a sheer drop and some hairpins. As the gradient warning signs appeared, a flashback occurred to me from having driven in this direction with the parents maybe six years previously.
My first problem was controlling the bike on the abhorrently steep descent: with all the weight, braking achieved only so much. Soon, though, I could whistle to the glen bottom and begin the ascent up the other side which was, if anything, steeper. The hairpin innards were nigh-on verticle, and even in bottom gear I had to stop at flattish sections to hyperventilate before carrying on. Eventually, I hauled myself up to the summit and could appreciate a gentler descent into a sunlit Strathavon.The remainder of the road into Tomintoul was hardly plain sailing, but it was spectacular. Indeed, one section recalled the panoramic photograph that illustrates southern Speyside in Dave Broom’s magnificent The World Atlas of Whisky.
By the time I rolled through the village the sun was rather fierce and what I really needed to do was cool off in the company of Mike Drury in the Whisky Castle. Bombastic as ever, Mike combined a diatribe against the vacuity and rapacity of the modern whisky industry with greetings to locals and taking delivery of consignments from said modern whisky industry.
‘Where were we?’ I asked, as the shop cleared again. ‘Somewhere between truth and non-truth?’ he replied. He then poured me a dram, an extravagantly creamy Dewar Rattray 18yo Braeval which was good, but not £90 brilliant. ‘I’ve sold one hundred and sixty bottles of that!’ Mike blustered.
We then touched on the reasons why the whisky industry is in ‘the shite’: the lack of good quality, old casks. Mike and his wife Cathy are single cask, single malt fanatics and they bottle whiskies under their Whisky Castle label when they find something great. Mike confessed that the casks simply haven’t been up to scratch of late, so he hasn’t bothered bottling any.
The accelerated wood programmes of most distillers, using virgin oak, first-fill Bourbon barrels whose staves hadn’t been air-dried properly in the first place and bottling younger expressions were all exacerbating the dearth of quality single malts. Doom and gloom, therefore. It’s true that the industry has to think very hard about where the oak is coming from to encase the many millions more litres of spirit being produced, but I’m not about to shed any tears just because the heart-stoppingly beautiful single cask Ardbegs, Glenlivets, or Braevals for that matter – and which only ever pleased a handful of enthusiasts – are growing scarcer. Investment in whisky is across the board, from distilleries to bottling plants to cooperages. Distillers are grappling with the problems of the supply chain and I believe that, five to ten years from now, we will be looking at more consistently tasty expressions available from more companies than we enjoy currently. The only question that remains concerns how much we shall be expected to pay for them.
Leaving the Whisky Castle behind, I pedalled off into the Glenlivet Estate below a scorching sun. Soon, I glimpsed the steam chimney of The Glenlivet, ’the single malt that started it all’, and for me in particular. The last time I cycled past a blizzard swept down the glen to engulf the distillery and me; now I was worried about heat stroke.
Late (very late) for my rendezvous with Brian Robinson at Ballindalloch Distillery, I carried on past The Glenlivet following the Avon once again. As I passed a field of cows, on a flat smooth stretch of tarmac, I heard a disconcerting, metallic ‘ping’. Fearing the worst, but carrying on anyway, I reached the A95 and turned down towards Cragganmore and the Ballindalloch Castle Golf Course, where a wee distillery was being built.
Dismounting, I discovered that I had indeed snapped a spoke, two in a week, and my plans for the afternoon were going to have to change. That lovely Imperial 23yo on the Speyside Way? Scratch that, I was going to have to get to Dufftown and try to find the bike shop in Elgin I’d used last time to get the rear wheel structurally sound again.
With mechanical matters in mind, I maybe wasn’t as attentive or curious on my tour of the site with Brian as I could have been. However, key points that emerged were that Ballindalloch, when it opens to visitors (hopefully by September) will not be like other distilleries and visitor centres; the plan is to bring a flavour of the ancestral home of the MacPherson Grants at Ballindalloch Castle into the distillery. Mrs Russell, who has lived in the Castle for 65 years, will oversee interior design.
The VC was some way behind the rest of the distillery, but it will be a space dedicated to making visitors feel very cossetted and special. Brian was at pains to emphasise the love and dedication shown to the project by the local builders, carpenters, electricians, etc. The final say for the build goes to the family at the Castle, however. ‘If they say they want this room to be pink, it will be pink’.
Charlie Smith will be head distiller, and his brief was to produce an oily, weighty spirit. Working backwards, worm tubs were required, squat slender stills installed, a long-ish ferment and cloudy wort will be established. The traditional approach to whisky-making starts with the barley which will be grown on the Ballindalloch estate, but malted in Inverness, and continues to the copper-domed mash tun and those brand new worm tubs. A unique element of the build is that the filling store and warehouses are ‘inside’ the distillery building – guests will be able to fill a cask as they go round on the tour before rolling it into the warehouse.
As I left I spectated on the worm tubs’ installation before getting on the bike. I knew, despite my anxiety, I needed to get some serious calories in me and the Delnashaugh Hotel, just beneath the curl of the A95, was closest. I actually really enjoyed my time there: from the helpful waitress who found me the number for Bikes & Bowls in Elgin, to the huge plate of mac ‘n’ cheese, garlic bread and chips had outside on the patio area, I began to feel more in control. Also, the range of single malts behind the bar is pretty impressive. Stop by if you’re in the area.
Full to the gunnels with carbohydrates, I managed to power through to Aberlour, then time-trial up the hill to Dufftown. I was just in time to catch the bus from the clock tower to Elgin, but I couldn’t travel with the whole bike. This meant I had no choice but to repair the bike tomorrow morning, and that put GlenDronach and Glenglassaugh in jeopardy.
I was despondent for as long as it took to shower, change and visit Sandy at Taste of Speyside. Once again I was bowled over by the Highland hospitality, the venison casserole, and the G&M Glentauchers 1994. I could reflect that, even if the bike wasn’t 100% fit, I had still made it to the malt whisky capital and that wasn’t such a bad place to be.