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Countdown to Scotch Odyssey 2

Incredibly, I may just be in a position to take on a second circumnavigation of Scotland in search of Scotch whisky distilleries to visit.

If April was chock full of coursework, May was the domain of exams, and you can’t memorise the finer points of Kelman, Stevenson or Self (especially Self) if you are physically knackered. Training, therefore, has been rather more opportunistic and far scarcer than it was four years ago, when my ‘Fit For the Glens’ weekly posts updated progress from ten weeks prior to the Grand Depart. No such lead-in this time. I covered about 660 miles in training ahead of April 12 2010; this time we are maybe looking at half that figure, possibly a little more. I have had, as they say, my doubts.

However, I’m presently fed and showered following a 57-mile day of training, which suggests that – when I pedal off in a northerly direction towards Pitlochry on Tuesday – distance shouldn’t be a problem. Neither, it must be said, should inclines scare me. Over the course of recent weeks I have been impressed/dismayed by just how hilly Fife is. Seriously, the kingdom is like a heart rate monitor reading. If you want to acquire solid cardiovascular fitness, Fife is the place to cycle, lurching up single-track precipices and screeching down the other side repeatedly.

It’s also bloody windy. If you manage to get to the top of a hill, the breeze blowing out to sea is something you must contend with. Often this week I have been crawling along into the molars of a gale.

In summary, if the quantity of training cannot match 2010, perhaps the quality is a shade higher. I’m hoping so, because I have more than 900 miles filling 17 days, meaning that what I covered today is my average – average – for the tour as a whole. I’m going to need some carrots to get me through all of those, and fortunately the whisky industry has obliged.

I will begin close to home, at Francis Cuthbert’s Daftmill distillery. Long have I wished to poke about in this wholly-independent farm operation and possibly taste something interesting. It is rare these days to be taken round a plant by the person who makes the spirit. From there it is up the A9 to the distilleries which my overly ambitious itinerary ruled out last time: Dalwhinnie and Tomatin. I only hope Dalwhinnie is as pretty on the inside as it is to look upon, hurtling by on the main road. Tomatin are releasing stellar whiskies at the moment; hopefully I’ll be able to get a taste of what is on the horizon.

If you can't have Balvenie, then a single cask Imperial from the year you were born is definitely the next best thing.

Speyside is next, a region where I had a very high hit rate four years ago. Sadly – nay, tragically – I have repeated my feat of being too late to book a tour of The Balvenie. I gave them two weeks’ notice in 2010, one month this time. Nothing doing. If you want to get round before the end of the year, my advice is book now and cross your fingers. You’d think it was El Bulli. Of course, I have an excellent fall back option, the soon-to-be-complete single estate distillery at Ballindalloch Castle (like them on Facebook). After that, I’m going to repair to the Speyside Way with an apt dram. A 23yo Imperial, bottled by Hunter Laing, fits the bill nicely. From there I shall peddle gently on to Dufftown to say hello to, and eat the fine food of, Sandy Smart at Taste of Speyside.

Already the mileages start to increase, and the next day I leave for GlenDronach and Glenglassaugh. Sunday is a distillery-free hike west and then north, before my triumphant return (all being well) to Balblair. I’m banking on Clynelish being open on a Monday, but the site is being expanded so maybe not. I’ll phone ahead this time.

The next section has me petrified and hyperactive with excitement all at the same time. I will have distance, ferry timetables and the whims of the West Coast weather systems to trouble me as I cycle across to Ullapool for a boat to the Outer Hebrides. It is quite a trek to get to Mark Tayburn’s Abhainn Dearg, but if everything runs smoothly it should be spectacular. Long days in the saddle are necessary to get from Stornoway to the bottom of Harris in time for a ferry to Uig, before peddling down the spine of Skye for another stay at the Ratagan Youth Hostel.

From Loch Duich I more or less retrace 2010′s tire tracks to Fort William before omitting the islands (with regret) and pitching up in Glasgow for Auchentoshan. Fired with triple-distilled gorgeousness (but not too much, obviously), I wend homewards with a night in Stirling before stopping off at Strathearn Distillery (another small-scale operation) by way of a rest on the homeward stretch to St Andrews.

If you are travelling in Scotland during the next two and a half weeks, do look out for me. I’m the tall, lean be-spectacled cyclist smelling faintly of wash and pot ale, amongst other things. I’ve decided to pack a bottle of Compass Box’s Great King Street Experimental Peat in the hope that I’ll make some new friends. The blog will be silent during that time, but do check Twitter for up-to-the-minute events (@WhiskyOdyssey). I shall expand my experiences to more than 140 characters upon my return. I welcome any comments or queries you may have!

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Glenfarclas Family Cask 1990

When the online retailers Master of Malt announced last year that they were to launch a constantly expanding and varied range of whisky samples alongside their regular operations, I and many others sat up and took note.

'Drinks By The Dram' from Master of Malt.

'Drinks By The Dram' from Master of Malt.

‘Drinks By The Dram’ is a dedicated service on the part of Master of Malt to allow whisky fans to try before they buy. For folk such as myself, single cask, cask strength independent bottlings which would normally retail at around £75 can now be experienced for a fraction of the cost. However, with tasteful and considered little touches with regards to the packaging with their red wax-dipped tops and faded old-effect paper labels, these 3cl samples powerfully exude the ’boutique’.

In order that word of these products could be more widely circulated, who better to approach than whisky bloggers already familiar with the sample-style trappings of pre-release whiskies. I have to thank Natalie from Master of Malt for my sample: one from a range of single cask vintage releases produced by one of the few truly independent Scottish distilleries that put Diageo’s Managers’ Choice to shame.

To my delight and relief, my 3cl sample of the Glenfarclas Family Cask 1990 made it through the snow to my door and so becoming a object was it to behold and to contemplate that I abstained from breaking the wax-covered seal until I sensed my olfactory faculties were firing on all cylinders. It was worth the wait.

This particular bottling of Glenfarclas from 1990 is sold out, but a sample from the Fifth Release of the Family Casks is available here.

Master of Malt on Facebook.

Master of Malt on Twitter.

Read my tour review for Glenfarclas here.

Look at the colour! So full and buxom is the body that a translucent residue was left on the rim of the glass - as if I had been wearing lipstick.

Look at the colour! So full and buxom is the body that a translucent residue was left on the rim of the glass - as if I had been wearing lipstick. Which of course I hadn't been.

Glenfarclas Family Cask 1990 Sherry Butt 9246 58.9% ABV

Colour - Blood red. Very striking.

Nose - Careful nosing from a distance reveals velvety soft Sherry influence: darkly nutty with stewed fruits. The biting claws of the high proof are withdrawn and it is possible to enjoy the heavy, spicy-rich vanilla reminiscent of some Bourbons I have had recently (Buffalo Trace comes to mind). It is so sweet with orange, cinnamon, tropical flowers, marzipan, redcurrant and cherries.

      Water lightens the experience with raw malted barley sweetness. Rich, soft toffee and oak notes which reminded me of the heat and woody spice notes which pervaded the Speyside Cooperage. The European oak is medium-dry and intense. More vanilla appears, in addition to dried fruits and fruitcake. There is an impeccable balance between the rich and the sweet, with the heavy juiciness and malt notes of Glenfarclas standing up to the wood.

Palate – This was a first for me. Despite the strength there was ne’er a prickle. The whole thing was delightfully rich and smooth with oak and malt. Mouth-coating and heavily-sherried, it was plain that not much had been done to this from leaving the cask. The texture was astonishing, as it felt as if raw sugar or red liquorice was being sprinkled on my lips.

      Water enhanced the smoothness slightly, and the Sherry, oak and caramel notes remained. Orange appeared, however, as did added dryness. Biscuity with tablet notes, this was unmistakeably Scotch, and Glenfarclas.

Finish – Jam-like and syrupy with such softness and smoothness. Superbly complex and evocative. Rich fruit skins and creamy almond. Orange and mango. Book binding.

      Water revealed more of the nutty sweetness, as well as rich toffee. Dark and smooth maltiness melded into a toasty, rich spiciness. As things began to simmer down, heather, thick clear honey and latterly beeswax appeared. An extremely glossy and sophisticated malt.

So…? I will unquestionably be using the ‘Drinks By The Dram’ option again, and sampling more of the Family Casks. This was one of the most involving and exciting whiskies I have tasted for a long while. Unusually, I left a malt feeling grateful for the wonderful diversity within Scotch: how I can savour the fruity sweetness of Balblair one moment, the fragrance of Linkwood and Longmorn the next, the island power of Lagavulin and Ardbeg afterwards, and the rich complexity of The Dalmore and Glenfarclas at the next convenient opportunity.

This 1990 release had the presence, the depth and the authenticity at cask strength to transport me back to my forays around the Ballindalloch/Aberlour area last year. Especially undiluted, the finish acted like a well-serviced and rapid cable car: tugging me between the rough russet grass and heather of Glenfarclas at the foot of Ben Rinnes, and the rich, leafy mystery and delight of Warehouse No. 1 and the banks of the Spey itself in Aberlour. The wild and the sensuous were epically combined and evoked a particularly auspicious time on the Scotch Odyssey as I began my assault on Speyside. I had the remote and beautiful Glenfarclas all to myself on the Wednesday while I witnessed the wonder of excellent Sherry casks at Aberlour on the Thursday morning. With water the semi-dry spicy and dark leafiness recalled the mellow, fragrant bowers of the Speyside Way. Riverside and heathland in one glass, with the presence of deciduous lichen-clad forest a common quality. I have yet to be disappointed with Glenfarclas, and this is the fourth encounter.

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