September 30, 2012
Since gazing in wonderment at the stars of Whisky Luxe, I have been in orbit around planet whisky – Apollo XIII-style – without an obvious means of returning home. I hope you will forgive my absence, but alternative galaxies demanded my full attention. For example, it is difficult to indulge in single malt space exploration when the gravitational pull of earthly academic matters fixes you leadenly to the ground.
Spurring me on to further cosmological discoveries, however, was the Halley’s Comet of whisky: Ardbeg’s latest special release, Galileo. Earlier in the year, Dr Bill Lumsden - Head of Distilling and Whisky Creation at Glenmorangie Co. – stepped out of his space suit long enough to discuss an extra-terrestrial experiment which involved Islay’s cult distillery and zero gravity. Micro-organic compounds found within Ardbeg new make spirit will be studied on board the Internation Space Station as they interact with cask shavings. After two years, the results will be compared with samples stored in the United States and, of course, on the Islay south coast.
In honour of the man who contributed so much to our understanding of the universe and all matters astronomical, Lumsden has devised a new concoction of phenolic ferocity pointed squarely at the final frontiers of whisky under serious rocket propulsion.
What better way, therefore, to suggest that there is life on the Scotch Odyssey Blog than with a review of this intriguing expression? The first Ardbeg release to boast an identifiable age statement, outwith the 10yo, this contains whiskies all distilled in 1999. Some spirit had been maturing in first- and second-fill Bourbon barrels, some in Marsala wine casks, for all that time. Bottled at 49% abv. with no chillfiltration, this fruitier slant on the Ardbeg juice has proved popular throughout the universe.
Ardbeg Galileo 1999 49% vol. £69.99 on release
Colour – lightish, clean toffeed amber.
Nose – at first, very thick and sooty smoke, with an insistent orange zest sweetness underneath. Sweet and spicy vanilla. The phenolic notes have a garlic-like fragrance. Drying, dark peat forms a superb platform of weight and texture, on top of which there is so much sweetness: wildflowers and smoky honey. Soft damsen plums with icing sugar. Toulouse sausage, tarred fence and earth. It takes a while for more fruit to emerge, but when it does there is sultana, apple cores and cherry wood.
Water lifted the nose and added a scented quality: a log-burning fire just lit, with a sticky but light smoke. Lots of vanilla and big oak sugars lend excellent texture. The smoke and sweetness put me in mind of smoked shellfish. Weighty red berries – like tayberries – sidle in. It becomes steadily autumnal with leaf mulch. Rich honey. Bold aromas of fruitcake and marzipan with more time.
Palate – everything you would expect from an Ardbeg: sweet malt and wood sugars with a fixing, prowling smoke. Then the smoke thickens into dry peat ash.
Water reveals one of the most fascinating combinations of flavours I can remember. Things commence with that Ardbeg sheepiness: lanolin, sheep sheds, iodine. Then there is something that reminded me immediately of Cashmere: a texture and fragrance. Red fruit bubblegum appears next before drying on lovely lovely peat.
Finish – spicy and sweet with building creaminess. Thick and rich with dark, ashy peat. Long and elemental: earth and warm sea breezes.
Water added, this is perhaps the greatest finish to a whisky since… I can’t think of one, this is flawless. Big, with allusions to the thickness of the undiluted sample. Then there are impressions of the distillery, between the kilns and the warehouse: light toffee oak and aromatic peated malt. Some of the garlic from earlier. Saddlery and carbolic soap, farm supplies warehouses. Dune grasses and sand in typical Ardbeg fashion. Gentle barley sweetness underneath and the scent of heather in the rain.
So…? We have lift-off! This is why I miss peated whiskies, and why I need to get some money together for a smoky specimen. I would happily plump for a bottle of this, but I see online that prices are creaping up towards the £125 mark, which is where I start to lose interest even for a whisky as stratospherically superb as this one. Neat, it is enthralling enough, without really escaping the earthly sphere, and does everything you would expect an Ardbeg to do. With a couple of drops of water, however, the subtlety and playfulness of the spirit leapt out at me, and I would go as far as to say that this is the sweetest Ardbeg I have ever tasted. The Madeira influence is not as dramatic as I was expecting, but beautifully illuminates dimensions of the Ardbeg spirit when required.
I have the tasting glass from six hours earlier sat, unwashed, on the desk. Like the best variety of incence, it exhales sweet smoke into the room. With Galileo’s help, I’m focusing my telescope on my favourite whisky galaxy once again.
, Dr Bill Lumsden
, Scotch whisky
, Whisky reviews
August 15, 2012
The latter years of the noughties will go down in the annals of history as the Peaty Arms Race, when two forces from the Wild West of the whisky world competed for smoky supremacy. Both of the two distilleries involved had been only recently resurrected. One, Bruichladdich, wished to couch its rebirth in terms of independence, innovation and inspiration; the other, Ardbeg, boasted a cult following and a long legacy of phenolic excellence. Who would emerge the victor?
Bruichladdich - site of some seriously clever WMDs (Whiskies of Monstrous Deliciousness).
Octomore played Supernova in a titanic bout akin to Alien v. Predator, Barcelona v. Real Madrid, Charizard v. Mewtwo (I’m showing my age, there). Each vied with the other for PPM points: phenols became nuclear warheads as one sought to annihilate the other – and the drinking public – with an atom bomb of smoke. I must confess that I have yet to do battle with a rendition of Supernova, but two Octomores have made it as far as my taste buds. In fact, in pursuit of the prize for the peatiest, Bruichladdich may have won. While only a couple of Supernovas were released, the Octomore range has welcomed a fifth addition with Comus. At 167ppm, you would expect this to be as close to licking the inside of malt kiln as you could get. And yet…
Port Charlotte PC8.
Bruichladdich is not Ardbeg simply plonked on the shores of Lochindaal. With those Octomores, the peat presence was undeniable, but so too was a lovely rich biscuitiness – all the more beautiful for the unlikelihood of its existence. No matter how much earth you throw at it in the beginning, those Bruichladdich stills are hard-wired to produce a spirit with beguiling sweetness at its heart. Perhaps this points to its appeal beyond the smoke-singed lunacy.
The same can be said of the distillery’s Port Charlotte bottlings. Medium-peated in comparison with Octomore, it still butts heads with the old guard of Islay’s fire-breathing dragons. Since 2006, peat freaks have salivated over the latest PC vintage, of which there have been five in addition to the An Turas Mor multi-vintage expression. On the face of it, with the same ppm rating as Laphroaig you cannot help but anticipate an ash tray experience. In reality – as I found recently – it is anything but.
Port Charlotte PC8 60.5% £125
Colour – full and syrupy yellow gold.
Nose – straight away there are overtones of the forceful Islay peat profile, but there is a pillowy softness there, too. Cask staves ooze vanilla. Immediately there is sweet spice, especially ginger, at the heart of this whisky in addition to medium-sharp green fruit and red liquorice. There is also the sweet shortbread note I find with all Bruichladdichs. The smoke is at the margins, with sandalwood scents. With time, there is a gorgeous one-two punch of tablet and ashes.
Water pulled out more wood sugars with the smooth yet prickly peat texture continuing. Creamy, buxom and clean barley is right at the core, with a side show of dark brown peat and caramel (Benromach 10yo-esque). There are aromas of burning twigs, tablet again and a cumin/cayenne heat. Warm and ‘squidgy’ pear drops surge upwards out of nowhere. The whole effect is now dominated by pear, shortbread, seashells and invigorating smoke. With more time, insistent saltiness fixes the nose in place with a little lime.
Palate – oh yes, there is the peat. Fairly prickly with the alcohol and the peat really digs in with full-on earthy and smoky flavours. Mouthcoating. Some warm cookie dough behind.
Water lent some sanity to the delivery but the peaty power is maintained partnered by full-bodied maltiness. There is a crush of green fruit then spades of rich peat just on the kiln. The peat is so thick it has a gravely crunch. Remarkable breadth and clarity.
Finish – if the palate took you deep into the West Coast earth, as the finish develops you slowly rise out of it to rest on the cropped grass above. Loose green tea. Very good peat notes at the back with suggestions of a summer driftwood bonfire. TCP hints, too. A whisky that is permanently in a buoyant mood.
Water opens up the peaty palette still further with Arbroath Smokies and crumbs catching in the toaster. Sweet Coal Ila-like peat settles in before the sweetness crystallises around peated grist. Some creaminess.
So…? I have known for some weeks that I need more peat in my life and this stunning whisky only highlighted the gaping chasm in my drinks cupboard. This is the sort of whisky to revive your spirits: to remedy any feelings of despondence or uninterest. There is so much goodness and wonder to pay attention to besides the smoke, as lovely as it is. The wood policy (Business Development Manager Craig Johnstone shares my view that there is a lot of first-fill Bourbon in there, with some refill) complements the clean, rich flavours of the malted barley and at cask strength the flavours boast so much exuberance. Perhaps it cannot claim to be balanced in the same way as a Bowmore or a Coal Ila, but for intensity of fruit, cereal and smoke in glorious combination look no further.
, Heavy Peat
, Port Charlotte
, Remy Cointreau
, Scotch whisky
, Whisky review
July 21, 2012
‘Community’ is a word endowed with many connotations, leading to its (mis)appropriation by politicians, sociologists, market researchers and Mark Zuckerberg. Whether that community is ‘fractured’, patri-local or online, in the 21st century we still value and are moved by an idea of our collectivity.
Whisky provides yet another excuse for grouping together. With a single distillery or style we can identitfy with one another, share experiences and profess our loyalty. We can demonstrate how fiercely we fight for flavour. Increasingly, Scotch whisky distilleries have sought to foster such communities. Though they are ostensibly confined by the internet, strongly implied is the suggestion that one’s true point of contact – irrespective of where one lives – is a postcode in Scotland. The personality of a distillery, mediated via its virtual presence, promises the possibility of a connection to bricks, mortar and copper once you have logged off and bought a Caledonia-bound plane ticket.
Courtesy of a few clicks on the internet, you can be a Diurach with Jura, an Ardbeg Committee member, a Friend of Laphroaig, or a Guardian of The Glenlivet. It wouldn’t surprise me if, in the next few months, The Macallan Order of the Garter realises its inauguration. Brands are encouraging us to pledge fealty to them on a fractionally more intimate footing. We have bought their whisky, but they want us to participate in their stories, too.
The Clach Biorach standing stone at Balblair.
My old friend, Balblair, has followed suit and underscored this notional encounter all the more powerfully and simply with ‘The Gathering Place’. In recognition of the distillery’s long-standing neighbour, the Clach Biorach Pictish stone around which Highland peoples would assemble millenia ago, and whose swirls and forms find echoes in the Balblair bottle design, there is a new way of connecting to the pair of stills in Edderton, Ross-shire. Balblair fans can sign up for free to receive exclusive web content, expert whisky tasting videos and, perhaps the principal boon of swearing allegiance to one’s lord, spirits for your taste buds only. Tiger over at Edinburgh Whisky Blog has reviewed the first soon-to-be-released vintage from 1990. He rather liked it.
And I rather like this new inclination to transform customers into a community. Whisky inspires deep passions in people, chief among which must be that our favourite drams continue to be of high quality, testaments to integrity and skill. Through these membership schemes, we have the opportunity to communicate with these distilleries and the individuals responsible for them, rather than merely pay our money and consume them. A related point is developed very well by Stuart Robson over at the Whisky Marketplace blog. Philosophy intermingles with financial imperatives and hopefully we customers can make a bolder, more sustainable statement, adding an extra and vocal dimension to those sales figures. Give us a gathering place and we will prove our loyalty. The Gathering Place at Balblair.
, Inver House
, Online Whisky Clubs
, Single Casks
, The Glenlivet
December 3, 2011
The eclectic line up for the Quaich Society Luvians tasting.
Tastings at the St Andrews Quaich Society have been coming around faster than I can give any account of them, it would seem. David Fletcher pulled off an excellent evening of Diageo malts a couple of nights ago and still Jamie’s dynamic, diverse and above all different tasting of Luvians’ finest from a couple of weeks ago has had no mention. Allow me to right a wrong.
The epicurean student societies of St Andrews love Luvians and Luvians reciprocate that love with discounts for entitled members on their wines, beers, sherries, vodkas, rums, Bourbons and, for the purposes of this post, whiskies. The independent wine and spirits merchant takes more of an interest in the student body beyond those who frequent their Market Street shop, however, and that is where Jamie comes in. When not coordinating the store’s beer and sherry lists – no mean feat if the plethora of little brown bottles by the door are anything to go by – Jamie takes Luvians to the students which, recently, meant that Quaich Society.
‘Yeah, new make!’ I cooed, when he had unpacked some Glenglassaugh Spirit Drink bottles ahead of the tasting. ‘Not just that,’ he said, opening a polythene bag and shaking its contents beneath my nose. Peaty porridge oats wafted oat again. ‘Ardbeg grist. I want to give you a start to finish tasting tonight.’
Centred around (some of) the Bruichladdich range, in addition to the Ardbeg grist (‘I made some bread with this. It was f****** awesome’) Jamie had also come armed with a block of peat, some chunks of cask and a couple of bottles of Pedro Ximenez. Unbelieveably sample bottles appeared filled with Benromach foreshots and feints. Earth, breakfast cereal, wood, whisky in all its earliest permutations and wine. ‘Start to finish’ was right.
You wouldn't dry a lot of malt with this approach, but it helped to convey the distinctive aroma of Scottish peat.
No sooner had all of the tasters arrived than Jamie shepherded us back out into the November evening again. The plan was to ignite the peat and provide the impression of the kiln. A stiff breeze and an inert clod meant that few gained the complete Laphroaig/Bowmore maltings peet reek, and Jamie burnt his thumb more than the fuel, but performing a process creates a more vivid impression than simply describing it.
Though neither the Glenglassaugh new spirit (pear and pineapple, while incredibly sweet and soft), the trio of Laddies or the Sherry (can you imagine?) boasted a strong peaty character, the find-the-peat-smoke exercise had awakened our senses. The first official whisky of the night was the Classic, a 7-8yo whisky matured in ex-Bourbon barrels. ‘No, really?’ I thought, as dramatic sweet and rich biscuit notes, combined with thick mascarpone, pine and hard sugar leapt out at me. This was like wandering around the Speyside cooperage, so intensely Bourbon woody was it. I don’t mean it was overly oaky, simply that the flavours of the American cask left no space for anything else. On the palate it was a similar story: a strong phenolic note could simply have been the charred cask, but the Laddie firmness of body gained the ascendancy together with a fizz of sweetness. Some water revealed tropical fruits, dried papaya especially, lemon syllabub and cedarwood incense on the nose, with a barley husk character on the palate.
The red carpet had been laid down for the latest significant Islay 10yo of recent years: the first age statemented Bruichladdich distilled under the present owners and master distiller Jim McEwan. Jamie raved about it. I was eager to find out which camp I was in: devotee or dissenter. For 100% Bourbon maturation, I was surprised by the initial nutty note on the nose. It was exceedingly nutty and rounded, in fact. I wasn’t surprised by what came next, though. See Tiger’s review on Edinburgh Whisky Blog here for a further discussion as to what this aroma might be, but while a neighbour of mine muttered ‘parmesan’, I recognised it as overly buttery, slightly damp shortbread. I have found this on all Bruichladdichs I’ve tasted and I’m not especially offended by it. However, it isn’t the best this dram has to offer as the Santa leftovers fade out to be replaced by pleasant oak notes together with papaya again and lychee. Lemon pith, too. The palate was full, with a slight peat note and brie on wholemeal bread. Vanilla came in later while some spirity notes asserted a degree of youthful vibrancy.
Water improved the nose, lending orange peel and biscuit. Eventually, a sniff depicted the hot summer sun on a ripening barley field. The palate, too, was something of a grower. It filled the mouth and offered very clean, sweet barley with a slight smoky edge. I came to really like this dram for its dazzling purity mixed with idiosyncracies.
The final whisky of the evening proudly sported its PX ballgown. This spirit from 1992 offered roast pepper on the nose with lots of sugar-laden barley and red fruits. Much of the sherry’s sugariness appeared later, with European oak’s lovely deep sappy quality. The palate was smooth and rounded, with a tannic note and then an easy progression into sweet orange notes. This whisky from the old regime was my pick of the night, although I hope to come across the Laddie Ten at some point again in the future.
I massive thank you has to go to Jamie for the thought and imagination he put in to giving us such a rewardingly holistic encounter with whisky. Maybe Luvians might want to invest in a portable kiln and pagoda for the next tasting, though.
, Compass Box
, Laddie Ten
, St Andrews
, The Quaich Society
, Whisky Shops
March 2, 2011
‘Life through the Worm Tub’
I have been exceedingly fortunate in my explorations into Scotch whisky thus far to have had the opportunity to engage in dialogues with many fascinating people. Be they distillery personnel, brand ambassadors, retailers or folk like you and me who just passionately love the stuff, an encounter with another person whose life has embraced whisky in a meaningful capacity invariably results in new insights and perspective.
Let me give you an example: when Lukasz Dynowiak (Alembic Communications and Edinburgh Whisky Blog) invited me to join his phalanx of whisky bloggers set to descend on Inver House distilleries last year, I found myself sat across the aisle in our toothpaste tube of an aeroplane on a lurching leap up to Wick beside a Mr Keith Wood. In the act of elaborating upon my whisky adventure my deep-seated and only dimly-understood convictions concerning whisky’s essential magic crawled to the surface of our discussion. As the tour progressed, an affinity in our respective approaches to drams became clear and I have been reading Keith’s superb Whisky Emporium ever since. Indeed, it is partly on account of his personal testimonies which every so often emerge in and colour his tasting notes that I have been inspired to post up my own every so often.
Rather than leave it at that, however, we felt a little whisky scholarship was in order. Keith, newly inducted into the order of Malt Maniacs, and I searched the scrolls for scientific study into olfaction and personal memories, using any conclusions we found to illustrate how whisky has catalysed with a profound and primordial part of us. Why was not of prime importance – I simply had to devote more time to reflecting on the ways in which malts have cross-referenced my life experiences so far, and share them with another individual whose sensory archives dwarf my own.
The distillation of our meditations is this combined blog post, in which we discuss the boundaries between the personalities of Scotch Whisky and our own, and how our willingness to blur them can result in extraordinary, almost out-of-body, experiences. Read Keith’s version here.
Though hardly essential in all matters, with certain phenomena it is satisfying when science can confirm what you long suspected. ‘[O]lfaction,’ Messrs Rubin, Groth and Goldsmith stated in their 1984 study concerned with the relationship between how our separate senses cue contrasting categories of memory, ‘is somehow different from more commonly studied senses of vision and audition.’
This, I feel certain, will hardly astonish my whiskyphile readers. Who among us has not perceived the heightened degree of intimacy tied to an evening of enraptured dram-snuffling? Whiskies impel us, quite irresistibly, to personal meditation and every so often the consequences can be quite revelatory. If this weren’t the case, if whisky in the glass were no more loaded with subtle powers of suggestion than whisky on the page or screen, we would all be content to limit our encounters to reading tasting notes or watching Ralfy bounce enthusiastically around Scotland on YouTube.
As human beings we are programmed to pay close attention to these most immediate and invasive of sensory cues. Aroma and taste, as though armed with a search warrant, can pluck the deepest and murkiest echoes of our lives from their obscurity for its own arcane ends. Like connecting the blood-stained cleaver under the sink to the grisly murder perpetrated the previous day, our brains forge an indissoluble and significant link between stimulus and past experience. Though no longer of quite the same evolutionary necessity, this ancient mechanism is still most definitely switched on. The study found that an odour cue was more likely to retrieve a unique and well-preserved recollection than other forms of cue: ‘previously inaccessible memories’ were recalled for the test subjects as a result of nosing a selection of aromas, memories that had never been consciously contemplated or discussed prior to their unveiling during the experiment. In addition, though not conclusively proven, these rarer memories were for some rated as more pleasant than those conjured up by images and words.
Allow Keith and I to describe how whiskies have rifled through our personal mental photo albums and why, non-scientifically but all the better for it, we found it to be such a breath-taking ride.
Keith: I often reflect on this phenomenon as whisky aromas often return long-forgotten memories immediately to the fore. My first experience of this was whilst nosing a Jack Wieber Caol Ila and I was summarily returned to a cold and damp day in the Yorkshire Dales some 30 years previously. You will also see from my tasting notes page that I swear there is an Islay jetty inside every bottle of Ardbeg, Caol Ila and Laphroaig. This is thanks to those peaty aromas mingling with ones of wood, sea-air, surf and that je ne sais quoi which is Islay personnified. Likewise, Highland Park takes me away into the wild Scottish countryside with heather, bracken, hints of smoke and the great outdoors, reminding me of many walks across Bens and Glens. Finally, people often talk about ‘Christmas drams’ and I also have my own definitive one; Glenfarclas Quarter Casks (1987) which was truly surprising as it offered an amazing array of aromas when the bottle was first opened. These included leather, aged oak and musty books, but after the bottle had been opened a couple of days these were replaced by sherry and dark fruits like plums, currants, raisins and figs. This overall experience immediately transported me to an Olde English country house on Christmas day, just after lunch when I might be relaxing in my favourite deep-buttoned leather chair, surrounded by old first editions lining oak shelves and with a glass of sherry or port in my hand. This, for me is the magic of malt whisky!
Another, more recent one which took me totally by surprise; The whisky was an Independent Port Ellen called Old Bothwell which my dear friend and fellow Maniac Oliver Klimek brought to the table in December last year. This had a very maritime character but with only extremely faint peat, more akin to “the great outdoors” with fresh, sea-air in abundance. For some reason I was immediately transported back to some childhood days out at the coastal resort of Scarborough during the school holidays. It was a special treat for me when my Mother would take me to one of the local coastal resorts for the day on the train. Scarborough was special because at that time it was far from being a tourist trap and had a great promenade along the sea front from the new to the older part of town, under the watchful eye of the castle. Anyway, the countryside and maritime character of the Port Ellen immediately evoked those childhood days out from more than 40 years ago.
Port Ellen, twinned with Scarborough - in Keith's mind.
Evocative, non? I marvel at the period of time Keith describes – twice my present age! Please note I am not suggesting my esteemed collaborator is in any way of an excessively senior disposition, rather that his extra years work to his advantage with regards to this phenomenon. Keith’s agglomeration of experience is so much broader than mine. To use a 21st century analogy, his iPod has many thousands more songs stored on its harddrive which must, I can only suppose, make the act of hitting ‘shuffle’ liable to throw up many more surprises. Allow me, then, to present an example of which tracks single malt has selected from my more limited jukebox of private sensory memories.
I should say that only rarely – thus far – has a malt recalled its distillery, a function I had hoped my experiences on the Odyssey would enable more consistently. Often my jogs of memory derive from the most innocuous and randomised assortment of landscapes and circumstances, though whisky is never too far away from the original recollection in one of its many forms. One example is a tasting of Ardbeg 10-year-old in late 2008, and the ensuing reawakening of an open-air encounter I had had nearly a year previously at the Torranbuie Cottage near Strathdon in wild, wooded Aberdeenshire. In the process a meaningful connection was made between two largely unremarkable moments: one from my innocent life Before Whisky and the other what had been twenty minutes spent analysing just another dram another dram. There sudden, unforeseen conflation, however, shed new splendour on both. I was walking to the porch, then, on this late October afternoon which was rapidly freshening. The cool mountain air seemed to draw out greater pungency from the bracken, grasses and damp earth. Meanwhile, I became cloaked in the smoke from our neighbour’s log-burner which had pooled in the space between the two houses beneath the pine trees. Back in 2008, and as the Islay malt slid down my throat and the finish developed, the same quality of wood smoke wafted about my palate. A Northumbrian summer melted from my physical sight as I was transported back to the last days of my single malt Dark Age. Soon afterwards on that holiday, I would stumble across The Glenlivet distillery, my state of sensory obliviousness enlightened irreversibly.
The Whisky Country of my imagination.
Handing the floor back to Keith: This is one of the truly unique powers, perhaps what some would call mysteries of Scotch malt whisky and although these are purely personal recollections, I will continue to write about them [on the magnificent Whisky Emporium] when they occur in the hope that others will also be encouraged to ‘open their minds’ and let their imaginations enjoy the mysteries of single malts.
I wholeheartedly agree, Keith, and promoting sensitivity to those aspects of single malts over and above flavour-finding - to what that process can reveal concerning our own engagement with the world – was at the back of mind whilst producing this piece. I second any move to get out there and open ourselves up to the depths of our own personal histories, and how whisky can navigate them with such inspiring sympathy.
Just a hint of smoke...
* * * * *
Keith was born in the summer of ’59 and discovered his love of whisky at a rather young age, in fact he was a mere toddler in his teething process when his mother discovered that his pain and discomfort seemed to ease if she rubbed a little whisky on his sore gums. Sadly, her own pain and discomfort didn’t ease quite so much as he tended to scream for more!
A lifetime of enjoying drams through four decades from the mid 70′s to present, then writing about his passion for whisky since late 2009 was rewarded in December 2010 when he was invited to join the Malt Maniacs as a certified member, although some say that he should have been ‘certified’ many years ago!
His Whisky-Emporium website is now his main hobby and home to his whisky musings, tasting notes and lots of whisky-related features.
, Guest Blogger
, Keith Wood
, Malt Memories
, Port Ellen
, The Glenlivet
, Whisky Emporium
August 28, 2010
I think Ardbeg could win wars. In the shape of its Committee the Islay distillery has, in the event that the word “closure” wriggles from Gallic mouths in LVMH, a sizeable and quickly-mobilised private army. Paris would fall in hours. People hold Ardbeg in the kind of esteem that was once more commonly displayed for one’s country. Ardbeg transcends nationality, however. Japanese, Scandinavians and Americans would muster alongside the Ileachs beneath the banner emblazoned with that stylised Pictish ‘A’ should strife threaten the peacable, peaty kingdom. In fact, I rather suspect Ardbeg transcends whisky altogether.
Ardbeg: a whisky lover's Wembley Stadium, Graceland and Mecca - all rolled into one.
I use Ardbeg as the most demonstrative and well-documented example of this tribal fanaticism. Clan Ardbeg is vociferous, protective and passionate bordering on unhinged. When I visited in May the distillery was crawling with people. Hordes of men (and they were almost entirely male) roved about the visitor centre, clutching T-shirts, caressing bottles, looking as if they would shortly wet themselves with excitement and joy. However, I could not fail to interpret something more in their fixed stares, proud gaits and faint smiles: spiritual gratification and beatification was burgeoning in their souls with every step and profound breath. Their visit had unshakeable, indeed consoling and elevating, overtones of the divine. Their pilgrimage was at an end; their faith had been rewarded. The atmopshere was one of incredible intensity – such are the emissions of reverence. Perhaps that explains my prevailing disappointment with the tour itself.
Only near-neighbour Laphroaig can administer the single malt sacrament akin to the Ardbeg dogma. In the visitor centre there, too, it was easy to pick out the disciples for whom this was no simple diversion but a sacred destination. I could isolate the contingent of hushed devotees at Macallan, Springbank, Bowmore and virtually every other distillery I toured, global icon or not.
The question is why? What compels someone to travel to the birthplace of their favourite malt? Why is it so crucial to hear the mill, smell the washbacks, feel the heat of the stills and see the middle cut gushing through the spirit safe? For many, such a journey is neither straightforward nor cheap yet whisky enthusiasts arrive in their thousands each year in order to learn how that bottle of Bruichladdich they bought in Osaka, Stockholm or Seattle came into being. I think it is a means to discover, to acquaint themselves with, a malt whisky’s complete personality; flavour being only one limited facet of it. Octomore, after all, will taste the same on Islay as it does in Idaho, but seeing for yourself where it is made, by whom and how, adds so much to the experience of pouring a dram once back home.
However, if your interest in malt whisky has been keen enough to lure you to the distillery’s front door, I must warn you that it is already too late to resist the exponential momentum to which your relationship with the spirit is now prey. It will carry you into obsession and alter entirely your perceptions of the industry. Suddenly, the drink will become subsidiary to the premises that craft it in the same way that music is subsidiary to the person who writes and performs it. Visiting a distillery is like seeing the band live; the songs are the same but they are enriched by the arousal of all the senses in response to the wholeness of the experience: the essential mechanics of the performance, the demeanour of the musicians, the intoxicating sensation of sharing space with many other like-minded people. A great concert can be further enhanced by occurrences and encounters only loosely connected to it before, during or after; close-to or far away. All provide texture, depth and context to the main event.
The same is true of distilleries. To travel to one is to immerse oneself in its locality, and in Scotland that is almost invariably beautiful and dramatic. No longer is your favourite dram made in the isolation of your imagination but amidst hills, lochs, forest and foaming waves. You associate it with so many things: your landlady of the previous night; the man in the pub; the guide and staff in the visitor centre. You are charmed by the architecture, absorb the history of the place radiated from every stone and dusty corner. A fascination with and love of Scotch malt is so readily translated into an equally potent desire for Scotland. A little more exploration reveals an indelible symbiotic tie between the most engaging, dynamic and endearing distilleries and the most authentic and personable faces of the country. These may occasionally be tragic and melancholy ones but this only strenghtens the preference of the enthusiast.
All of which leads me back to Ardbeg and its beautiful rennaissance. The underdog, not so very long ago broken and dishevelled, has come good. It is now a distillery of charisma, drama and energy, with these heady ingredients imbued - in the romantic eyes of the fans - into its expressions, and who among us wouldn’t wish for a similar apotheosis at times?
, Best distillery tours
, Iconic Malts
, Scotch whisky
, The Macallan
July 17, 2010
Some of my favourite pre-dinner malts: perfect delicacy but also full-on flavour.
You wouldn’t take a howler monkey to Wimbledon. You wouldn’t show up at work on Monday morning wearing only your swimming trunks (or would you?). You wouldn’t eat beef bourguignon for breakfast. Time and Place is the discrepancy in operation here, and particularly in our Western society the failure to observe what is appropriate in any given circumstance is liable to invite ridicule upon oneself. There are things which are simply not done and if you are unfortunate enough to be caught doing them you are castigated as tactless, benighted - even a savage.
Equally, there are pairings which share an indestructible complimentary tie, combinations which are both wholesome and pleasing: Stephen Fry and any television programme with a cultured or intellectual subject; Emma Watson and Chanel; English football on the international stage and crushing, embarrassing disappointment. These work.
It is the same with malt whisky, only the time and place for a dram is not prescribed by social stigma but by deep personal discoveries. As I’m sure a lot of malt lovers can appreciate, after a certain point some brands and expressions become mainstays of a special hour in the day or location in the world. Treating them like Steven Gerrard and playing them out of position simply comes over all wrong.
Very recently I reached this juncture myself. In his Malt Whisky Companion, Micheal Jackson speaks of the “particular” pleasure of the stuff: “the restorative after a walk in the country or a game of golf; the aperitif; even, occasionally, the malt with a meal; the digestif; the malt with a cigar, or with a book at bedtime.” I have sampled whisky in all of the above situations (although stroke out golf and cigars) at some point and can now declaim that, for me, a dram pre-dinner is my absolute favourite ‘Moment for a Malt’. The exploration of flavour in liquid form is a marvellous prelude to the more substantial main event. The olfactory and digestive mechanisms, in moist anticipation, make to intensify the properties of whichever whisky I’m sipping. This is especially true on Sunday evenings when my malt has medicinal qualities, too (even when it is not an Islay), remedying the fever symptomatic of the atrocities endured over the course of a Sunday Lunch shift at the pub where I work. At such a time, the delicate, smooth, captivating sweetness of youthful Speysiders is highly prized. The Glenlivet 12-year-old and Tomintoul 16-year-old used to do the job in the past. These now long empty, I look to my bottle of the superb Longmorn 15-year-old and the majestic Linkwood 12-year-old. Vanilla, oak, flowers and fruit, and a touch of peat compose an irresistible flavour profile.
Perhaps still more extraordinary, however, is Caol Ila. Although memories of cycling around the gorgeous distilleried stretch between Rothes and Elgin endows these two malts made on the Lossie with more favourable significance, I rate Caol Ila an unbeatable aperitif. The balance of soft fruity sweetness, crisp, deep peat and supreme malty delicacy is wonderful. At present, I find the Distillers’ Edition with little or no water a joy to drink.
Of course I shall continue to experiment. I suspect my dearth of support for a post-prandial malt is because I have so few bottles whose contents fit the bill. I haven’t many aged, Sherry-matured bruisers. Dark and bewitching cannot be readily applied to the inductess of my drinks cabinet. Mortlach 16-year-old works well with music after a meal but less so with television; Ardbeg Uigeadail demands commitment and certainty to be poured and savoured; the Auchentoshan 1978 is very powerful indeed at 59% ABV. All are complex malts, but haven’t yet seemed to marry with my after dinner moods. The 30-year-old Glenfarclas, however, could without a doubt address matters, and the Gordon & MacPhail Strathisla 49-year-old Sandy poured me in Dufftown to round off my fillet steak and clootie dumpling was revelatory. This last is of course a ‘Malt Moment’ in its own right.
As for whisky with a meal, testing has proven inconclusive. Glenfarclas 15-year-old with dark chocolate? Not a winner. Oban 14-year-old with salmon? Well, I’ll try almost anything once. Auchentoshan 3Wood with Christmas cake? Scoreless draw. Whisky and food pairing is an avenue many are keenly striding down, and there are some persuasive articles around to tempt me, but I feel that, for the time being, I won’t risk spoiling the impact of my whiskies when the inclination to have one arises.
The Dalmore 15-year-old: a Twilight Whisky.
If the evening is wearing on, however, now may well be the time for another malt. Though not as appealing as aperitifs, “Twilight Whiskies” can be fantastic. The Dalmore 15-year-old is an astonishingly lovely and easy-drinking dram. I adore its opulent, richness, firmness, nuttiness, fruitiness and light dab of ground coffee-esque peat. For a late-night malt, it is without equal and indeed I polished off my bottle, with regret but with friends, earlier this week. Highland Park 12-year-old is a steely competitor, though, as the light dies from the sky. I sipped some as Iniesta secured the World Cup for Spain and delighted in the echoes of my drizzly Orkney causeways which slid out of my glass.
Of course, these are no more than hunches, and most likely are all subject to change. I welcome modification, in fact, because there are few simpler joys than a blissful half-hour with just the right-tasting malt – whenever and with whichever style of whisky that happens to be. If tomorrow I discover that my precious Longmorn actually works rather splendidly immediately after a mid-morning chocolate croissant then for such future occasions shall I reserve and savour it. Although maybe I ought not to make a habit of doing so, and definitely it should be out of sight of disapproving parents. When are your favourite Moments for Malt? Have they evolved over the years? I’m made dizzy by future possibilites for my whisky-drinking: Ardbeg Corryvreckan with Power Bar energy gels post half-marathon? You never know how mood and malt may conspire to create sensory wonderment.
So then, for means of reflection, conversation, restoration or an endless list of other purposes, at any time find an excuse for a wee dram. Even if it is in the manner of those monkeys slapping at typewriters, you may hit upon the perfect marriage of whisky and circumstance. It is so very rewarding. Houseman wrote: “and malt does more than Milton can. To justify God’s ways to man.” Meditating on that aphorism alone would be apt inspiration to root around in the cupboard for something tasty.
, Caol Ila
, Highland Park
, Malt Moments
, The Dalmore
, The Glenlivet
, When to drink malt
June 4, 2010
May 13th, Bowmore, Caol Ila, Bunnahabhain, 33 miles
It felt deeply odd to wake up and have my mother cooking me breakfast, as opposed to someone else’s mother. I tried not to fight it, because after all, this is their holiday too and they want to see their first-born, even if he is unexpectedly hairy, smelly, unsure of the conventions of social etiquette and eats like a starving lion.
My father has wheeled the bike out of the garage for me, and I have much more sensibly-shaped panniers. It all feels so wrong! At least the Scottish rain keeps me grounded. That, if nothing else, is familiar.
I fight the rain and a stiff Westerley to Bowmore, take some pictures and sniff like a solvent-abuser the peat-laden air. Then I have to rake around Bowmore village because they can’t fit me on a tour until 11AM. I pop into the local Spar, which double sup as the Islay Whisky Shop. There were lots of delicious malts I wanted to take home with me. Which would be my favourite by the end of the week? I was seduced from afar by a bottle of Ardbeg Lord of the Isles. A snip at £400.
After my tour of Bowmore, I had to battle the rain and slightly increasing temperatures to Port Askaig and the impossibly rutted, then steep road to Caol Ila. I was so thrilled to be here, though: the home of my very favourite malt. Hidden by name, or at least in the marketing of Diageo, hidden by nature, with the steeply falling cliff ensuring that only its smokestack can be seen from above.
A very very special moment. Indescribable.
Regrettably, it wasn’t to be the glorious validation of my pilgrimage. As you can see in my review, it fell a good deal short of expectations.
I was fortunate that it had stopped raining by the time I exited, because nothing had had the chance to dry. Running a little on empty (the lunch my mothe rhad packed for me may have been delicious, but it was maybe half the requirements for the day) I flogged myself along the merrily undulating single track road to Bunnahabhain. I encountered a car travelling in a contrary direction, but none of the terrifyingly huge Carntyne lorries. Having said that, they were loading one with casks when I bumped over the cattle grid into the distillery complex, another one squeezed onto a shelf of flat land before some very un-flat cliffs.
Upon leaving Bunnahabhain, I discovered that the reverse end of the barrel which had acted as a sign post on my way to the distillery broadcast a rather entertaining joke, which you may find below.
The other side, the one you see first as you head to the distillery, says 'Distillery'.
May 14th, Laphroaig, Lagavulin, Ardbeg, 28 miles
There's nothing like being stunned by the ebauty of your surroundings first thing in the morning.
Laphroaig demanded an early start of me. Trying to organise my day such that I could visit all of the Kildalton distilleries in the one day was a major head ache. Initially, I had wanted the visits to be kiltered the other way around: with Ardbeg first and Laphroaig last. Due to their tour times, and some being fully booked, I had to rotate my itinerary around the fulcrum of Lagavulin.
Therefore, I was up and out in the lifting mist at 8AM, due for Port Ellen and the unexplored south shore. The mornign was quite stunning, with rain always threatening to the east, and a beautiful, sun-kissed western view of sea and sand. At one stage, I passed through an area where the wind blew the still-smouldering heather blazes (started illegally) into my face. Wowee! It was that triad of distilleries in one breath of wind: peat, heather, earth and smoke, with a view of the sea to boot. Islay in my nostrils.
Smoking Islay: uncannily reminiscent of the real thing.
By the time I reaached the south coast, it was a treat for the eyes. Few places I had encountered were as gnarled, cramped and rugged as Islay’s south shore, and to find three world-class distilleries within three miles of each other: amazing, mind-boggling.
Laphroaig was first, and how lovely it was. The buildings are utterly precious, and everyone else with a camera seemed to think so, too. A warehouse would have been nice, but what with all this interaction with the developing spirit and my running rather late for Lagavulin, it was probably just as well there wasn’t.
What should greet me as I hurtled back on to the main road but road works! This didn’t help. Once clear of the men in hi-vis jackets, the landscape became fractionally softer and more wooded in time for Lagavulin. I caught the tour by the skin of my teeth and just as well: it was magnificent.
Buoyant and fed, but very very warm, I made more serene progress to Ardbeg. When I got there it was as if the Festival had begun early for this particular distillery. “It’s always like this,” said one of the ladies rushing about. “Everyone wants to eat NOW.” There wasn’t a table to be had, and after some folk took the pouring of whisky into their own hands (glasses, really, but you know what I mean), there were no sample bottles, either. Pandemonium.
By the time the tour departed, everything felt rather wrung out. It was the last tour of the week, everyone on the production side had gone home, and their were some giggly young Germans as part of the 20-strong tour group. It might have been the heat, it might have been that they had had similarly intensive encounters with whisky that day. Soporifically, the tour wended its way to the filling store, I felt like a nap. I wasn’t allowed that. What I was awarded instead was an hour and a half of pitted, ruptured, buckled and destroyed Islay roads, into a head wind.
I was similarly broken by the time I returned to the holiday cottage. Once showered and dressed for our parting meal in the Port Charlotte Hotel, I began to feel the effects of six distilleries in two days and the impending desertion of my parents. The exceptional fare on offer at the Hotel recovered my spirits for the remainder of the evening, but what would break and engulf me the following afternoon had been awakened.
Bridgend to Port Askaig, Kilchoman, Bruichladdich, 36 miles
Another food parcel is being put together for me as I wolf down my breakfast. It isn’t an early tour of Kilchoman, but it is on the other side of the island. With regards to the food parcel, I’m wondering how I am supposed to readjust to buying food for myself once Ma and Pa depart this afternoon. It sees a return of the full compliment of baggage on the bike, too.
The amazing thing about relatively low-lying islands in the Atlantic is that you can see weather coming long before it actually hits. I therefore had a lot of time to prepare myself for getting wet before the black and hevaily-laden cloud finally burst upon me. It wasn’t especially cold, though, so I resisted putting on the overtrousers. However, the rain grew heavier and I decided that getting soaked wasn’t liable to be much fun. On went the over trousers, and just as I set off again, the rain abated. I could then watch it as it bounded away to terrorise Jura.
The weather remained wonderfully fine for the rest of the day. I could only complain about the wind, and did I? I had agreed to meet my parents for lunch in the Croft Kitchen, Port Charlotte at 12.30. After a few minutes on the road to Kilchoman, I appreciated that such a time was ambitious, even if my tour was a scant half-hour.
The extreme western third of Islay is profoundly unstable. The road sinks and soars dispiritingly regularly. When fighting a vindictive Westerly, this is not a good thing. It wasn’t until I came to Kilchoman, however, that I could appreciate what a not very good thing was really all about. “You don’t like cyclists, do you?” I put to my guide. The farm track to the distillery cause my upper body into spasm as it endeavoured to execute minute turns of the handlebars so that I might avoid the biggest rocks whilst inching along at 6 mph. Nevertheless, the back wheel was regularly pitched into unexpected directions by pieces of gravel and I’m faintly amazed that I didn’t fall off or puncture. Maybe I’m a born cyclocross rider. I walked the bike back to the main road after the tour.
The bike with Lochindaal and Bruichladdich in the background.
This act of self-preservation cost me time. The frankly wilful winds ensured that my race against time to Port Charlotte (all the while raging internally that this was my last lunch with my parents before I left and I also had to get food before touring Bruichladdich at 2PM) was frustrating to the point of actually screaming. This doesn’t make me feel better, but succombing turns anger into embarrassment.
A chicken bacon and mayo sandwich, some chips, the hand-over of miniatures and food, the vanishing blue bumper of the car. It was all very upsetting, more so because I didn’t think I was going to be and didn’t want to be upset.
Bruichladdich had a similar feel to Ardbeg the day before: more sedate fairground exhibit than distillery. I ate some food, and headed towards the hotel at Port Askaig, trying to look at this change of scene, a reversion to old ways, as a good thing. This was me returning to those austere self-sufficient days which had done so much for me. Mum and Dad leaving was only an unusual, temporarily complicating factor.
Well, it was temporary in that I only struggled with it and a number of other issues for the following three days. It could have been worse.
I sat on my bed in the hotel, making a passionate attempt to label my accommodation as quirky; quirky that the door wouldn’t lock, quirky that the TV didn’t work, quirky that my bike was sharing the covered open garage at the back with a number of picnic tables, quirky that there was no-one in the place, quirky that everyone, to a man, had a Polish accent, quirky that Port Askaig seemed to comprise only this hotel, the ferry terminal and the shop, quirky that I was booked in for three nights, quirky that this seemed to surprise the Polish girl who showed me to my room, quirky that I felt suddenly completely alone and abandoned on this little island in the Atlantic. I tried desperately to maintain a sense of humour, but that I could see the ferry terminal from my seat in the dining room, my escape route but 72 hours hence, was too tragic an irony.
I was desperately hungry, but had no appetite when my very uniform-looking breaded haddock fillets arrived. That night and the next morning was the worst I had felt all trip, including the first three days and my equipment worries in Huntly and Keith. I battled with doubts that the appearance of my parents had dropped me right back at square one, that my passion for single malt, for Scotland, had been exhausted, and that I was dragging myself to Glasgow and its myriad new threats for no good reason. Compounding these anxieties was the accusation that I had no right to feel as I did. Five weeks in, and more than 1000 miles, I should have been able to take it all in my stride. Well I couldn’t and this sheltered cove within the cliffs felt like a prison, the scene of manifested madness and despair.
I turned the light out long before 9PM, and slept until what would class as late for me on this trip.
Port Askaig, 25 miles
Rest enjoyed, I could appreciate the lunacy of my recent itinerary. How could I expect to feel anything else after touring all 8 distilleries in three days? I was exhausted. Recenvening with familiarity only to have it leave was a risky move, but the end is approaching and the peripheral issues on this score are the most pressing. I have pushed myself beyond what I had thought I was capable of and my biggest challenge was still squarely in front of me, drawing nearer each day. Quite right that this evaluation of priorities and my own exact physical and emotional location should take place now, with the resolution of my goals and ambitions so very close.
I tried to chivvy myself by engaging in small tasks: making lunch from the rolls, butter, cheese and ham left for me, doing some laundry in the sink. With these little objectives completed, I decided that I reall wanted to get up and out. I packed my panniers, changed into my gear, retrieved the bike, and broke free of Port Askaig. It was, as I said in a text to my mother, a raod to nowhere. I looked at Finlaggan, central seat for the Lords of the Isles, bummed around Bowmore for a bit, visited the little retail/craft village just outside Bridgend, bought some groceries, and returned to the hotel. Despite a very suspect Spaghetti a la Carbonara (that ‘a la’ is crucial), my spirits had lifted.
Reading Iain Banks helped hugely, perhaps even vitally. His vitriol and invective at the political climate of 2003 when Raw Spirit was researched together with his hilarious anecdotes and experiences in distilleries that I had already visited lifted me forcibly out of my gloom. Without his ‘company’, I’m not sure how I would have passed the stickily-slow time in Port Askaig. Had I not been able to draw off some of his enthusiasm and attitude, day 35 might have ended with my seeing if I could swim to Jura, or something equally wrong-headed. Thank you, Mr Banks. As a writer, too, I only hope my work can have such a sustaining effect on someone.
Port Askaig to Craighouse, to Port Askaig, 17 miles
It is a very exciting, and speedy, crossing to Jura. This little boat is captained with real skill, shuttling back and forth over the treacherous tides and currents of the Sound.
I should have known by now that no matter how close I may be to a ferry terminal when I wake up, at least an hour must pass between the first anguished yelps which is how I greet the new day in response to the brusque herald that is my alarm and finally exiting my accommodation, Lycra’ed to the max and ready to go. Consequently, as I ate poached eggs at 8.15, I accepted that I would miss the 8.30 sailing to Jura and had to shuffle about for the 9.30 boat. This, at least, gave me the opportunity to get in touch with Bladnoch distillery, as it appeared that there was every likelihood that I would make it to Dumfries and Galloway, after all.
As I waited and cars began to queue, William and Sue rolled down from the hotel. I had met them the previous afternoon as I walked the bike back down in to Port Askaig (saving the brakes on the ruthless hill). They had been cycling the other way, and the reversal of accepted bicycle locomotion with regards to negotiating inclines was remarked upon: it should have been them pushing their bikes up, not mine down. William asked, in a wonderfully broad accent straight from the North East of England, if I’d had a mechanical failure. I had replied that I was just nursing my equipment whenever I had the opportunity. Over breakfast we had met again, and had discussed my travel adventures and their own. As it turned out, they had completed almost exactly the same route to get to Port Askaig as I would take from Port Askaig to Glasgow. Reconvening on the pier, they asked if I knew about the Sustrans network. Phyllis in Dufftown had first put me on to them as we tried to work out a possible route from Nairn to Tomatin. Sue now told me that there was a very well-signposted National Cycle Route from the ferry port in Ardrossan to the middle of Glasgow, the 7. This was music to my ears. My Multimap print-outs and 21-year-old OS map (far older than some of the whiskies I had been tasting) were not at all compatible, and I sensed would not keep me off the very busy roads in Scotland’s most densely-populated area. That they had put before me an alternative already allayed some of my monumental fears concerning the stages at the end of the week, and which had grown from molehills into Cuillins of problems and anxieties over the course of my travels.
We boarded the Jura ferry, and what a charming and informal operation it is. On go the pedestrians and cyclists, who tuck themselves closely into the sides of the vessel, the n the cars board – far more than you would have thought possible. You buy your tickets, blink, and you are swinging into Feolin, Jura. A herd of cows represent a welcome party of sorts, and then you cannot wait to explore the interior of this tiny, sparesly peopled island paradise.
Glimpses to the heart of Jura.
The road follows the coast, essentially, although the mountainous nature of Jura is inescapable. With the Sound of Islay on your right, there are tiny dells and glens with streams and steep-sided gorges to your left, heather and grass and misty mountain tops. It felt the most island-like, somehow, of anywhere I had yet been to. The one single track road I suppose helped with the feeling of separateness and seclusion. I couldn’t help but think of Orwell, and whether it was his influence or not, I found my thoughts rising in an attempt to meet the grandeur and serenity of the landscape about me.
In the distillery visitor’s centre, I asked how far away Orwells old house was. It was only a little after 12 and I had not much else to do once I returned to Port Askaig. The lady looked sceptical. It is at the point of the tear-drop that Jura forms, and requires a fair walk once the suspect road finally peters out. Maybe next time for another breed of pilgrimage.
On the way back, the threat of rain vanished and cloud and light entranced me. The Sound itself was like glass, and a tanker slid along in utter silence. I stood opposite the point at which Islay and Jura form a bottle neck of sorts for the wild seas and create the Sound itself. It was gloriously warm and I had another Highland cow for company.
It is places like this that make anyone look like a good photographer.
I’d been able to claim a couple of sightings of Jura’s famous deer on the way to the distillery, a head or two on a ridge line. As I headed back to Feolin, I disturbed an army of the creatures, grazing on the land below the road. Upon seeing me, they bunched together and sprinted up the hill, amassing again and turning to assess my level of risk.
Back at the ferry terminal, I was one of a peloton of cyclists. There was Dad and son on a tandem, and Mum and daughter on their own bikes. I learnt from William and Sue when they arrived, having completed their exploration of Jura, that they had encountered this family on the Arran ferry. What an amazing thing to do with and for your kids, although I suspect you would need full co-operation and approval prior to departing. As I can testify, some of the greatest moments possible can come in the saddle, but there is massive potential for days of unmitigated misery, too.
Back in Port Askaig, I had a drink on the lawn outside the hotel with my two fellow North Easters. They were due to leave for Bowmore shortly, but before they did William showed me his “tool kit” with everything a touring cyclist could need, and by rights shouldn’t be without. Having none of what he showed me, I felt rather ashamed. He then reminded Sue of the Sustrans map. This was excavated from a pannier and would be invaluable when, three days later, I headed in to the big smoke, and every one of my darkest fears.
Pure serenity. The vista is completed courtesy of the Highland cow.
When they left, I felt almost as bereft as I had on Saturday with my parents’ departure. The afternoon was still young, however, I wanted to see a bit more of Islay and Caol Ila was walking distance away. I then decided to hike to Loch Nam Ban, the water source for Caol Ila.
This was a very good idea. I panted up the hill to the main road and turned right for Caol Ila. The maps in the hotel had suggested a track of sorts that lead off the carriageway to the distillery itself, up into the hills where the loch lay. I passed the stone cairn/sign for Caol Ila, enchanted by the hot, citrussy and eminently peaty smells of mash and wort blown to my quivering nostrils by the breeze in the Sound. I turned left through a bank of trees and found the capped well, under which flowed the process and water, piped from the invisible loch above me. My shoes may not have been at all appropriate, and the route may have been rather unnecessarily circuitous after I headed up the wrong hill first, and had to fight my way through barbed wire, thick mosses, bog and grass to regain the road, only to find that there was a well-worn quad bike track up to the infamous loch. Standing on the shore of the lapping, energetic waters, I felt more at peace. It helped that its situation, in a bowl in the hills looking out to Jura, deflected all wind so the only sound was the faintly luxuriant and very soothing ‘blop’ of wavelets breaking against the loose stones of the shore. I picked up one of these stones and slipped it into my pocket. That was my most solid and significant souvenir of the tour.
The long hot walk back, during which I watched a thick hairy caterpillar speedily cross the road, was rewarded by some battered chicken and more Iain Banks. Tomorrow I would be on my way again. Progress couldn’t come soon enough.
Wild and soft, remote and welcoming. My favourite malt's very core and DNA.
, Caol Ila
, Loch Nam Ban
, Port Askaig
, Port Charlotte
, Port Ellen
May 30, 2010
This was a giddyingly stunning, breathtaking sight. I had made it to the cult home of Islay single malt.
Port Ellen, Islay, Argyll, PA42 7EA, 01496 302244. Glenmorangie Co. (LVMH). www.ardbeg.com
APPEARANCE AND LOCATION: ***** Ardbeg’s immediate environs are a little flatter and less knobbly than the other two, but there are even more little islands in the bay. There are cliffs if you walk down between the kilns towards the sea that look out towards Northern Ireland and have all sorts of seaside flora to admire. You can also marvel at the clear, gently lapping sea at the foot of the rocks. I came to this spot twice, once where I joined the German family who took a photo of me before the warehouse that has “ARDBEG” emblazoned on it and whom I had met at Lagavulin, and at the end of my tour when I scoffed some food ahead of my ride back to the holiday cottage. Each time the malt whisky-specific significance and more general beauty of where I was ensnared me. I was at Ardbeg!
‘Standard Tour’: £4.
It is possible to arrange a more in-depth tour if you phone up in advance.
DISTILLERY-EXCLUSIVE BOTTLINGS: A single cask, 11YO, refill Sherry hogshead bottled at 55.6%abv. There are only 270 bottles and that, together with the fact that it is an Ardbeg, mean it is yours for £180.
My Tour – 14/05/2010
Me at Ardbeg!
THE RUNNING COMMENTARY: **
THE PROCESS AND EQUIPMENT: *
Notes: If you want to see a lot happening at Ardbeg (and by this I mean on the production side, not the hoardes of people side) then don’t come for a tour on Friday afternoon. At lunchtime on a Friday the production staff are either cleaning things or they’ve ran home for the weekend. We saw the stills running, and a half-full wash back (they can only charge the wash still with the contents of half a washback at a time). It felt a bit dead, though: like the prolific tourist attraction it is. There is a long, although very interesting, talk on the distilleries chequered history before the tour. The maltings stopped in the seventies, and whilst everyone salivates at the idea of starting up the process at Ardbeg again, in is nigh on 100% certain it won’t happen. The intermittent production in the later part of the last century has meant that a lot of the older stocks have gone. They have two casks from 1975 left and after that it will be that spirit produced under the Glenmorangie reign which began in 1997. Casks are chiefly ex-Bourbon, although Sherry is used in some expressions and they have been experimenting with French wine casks, of which the Corryvreckan (voted Scotch of the Year in the latest Whisky Magazine) is the primary result.
GENEROSITY: * (1 dram as part of the tour, although you are given a choice: either Uigeadail, Blasda or Corryvreckan. In the VC, you can also request to try either the 10YO, Uigeadail, Blasda or Rollercoaster (while stocks last).)
VALUE FOR MONEY: *
SCORE: 5/10 *s
If you go to Islay's distilleries, brace yourself for a wealth of human company.
COMMENT: Tragically, this was another disappointment. Of course, it was always going to be difficult to live up to my experiences at Lagavulin, and maybe I was beginning to succomb to washback over-exposure. Whatever, I was largely tired and irritable during the tour. It was hot, I was hungry, and there were 20 other people with me. All men, interestingly enough. The place when I go there was heaving. It was like a circus. Staff were red-faced and smiling weakly. The cafe was overflowing and the whisky shop had something of a lotting atmosphere. I had thought that the four different Ardbegs on the table were to be poured by yourself. “No no,” a lady said. “Please ask and we will pour one for you.” It was pandemonium. I asked how busy they got during the festival, was it possible to fit anymore in? The manager gave me a wry smile lacking in humour: they get busier. The cafe is excellent, from the looks of the plates of food and drinks that were being put down in front of hungry tourists and islanders alike. My parents tried to get in for something earlier and were defeated by the busyness. It seems being on a little island in the Atlantic is no barrier for the attentions of global whisky drinkers and they will come in their millions. Some fellow members of my tour had plainly been sampling the Scottish hospitality and their hijinks were a bit of a distraction. I felt I had been robbed of this very important moment with Scotch’s maverick and rockstar. The Islay distilleries, with the exception of Lagavulin and Bunnahabhain, had no time for me personally. This was a shame because the mainland distilleries had all welcomed me and made me feel very much at home. Hitherto I had been lucky enough to receive one-to-one tours at seven distilleries: even Highland Park! Not on Islay, though. Here it is a mass of young men from the continent wishing to grab what they can and thrust whatever amounts of money is required back across the counter in exchange, and the VCs are geared up to maintain this conveyor belt of supply and demand.
The only place where peace was to be found. Such an inspiringly, achingly romantic setting. I could have done with a few more seaweed-flecked waves to satisfy my terroir cravings but beggars can't be choosers.
, Old Kiln Cafe
March 31, 2010
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.
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 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 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.
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.
, City Cycling
, Firth of Forth
, Fit For The Glens
, Waverley Station
, whisky journey