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April 23, 2013

Morrison Bowmore at the Quaich Society (2)

The six super serves at the Morrison Bowmore Quaich Society tasting.

If ‘Holy Triumvirate’ is going a tad too far, I do get rather excited at the prospect of Morrison Bowmore’s tantalising trio of fantastic distilleries paying a visit and so do the whisky drinkers of St Andrews. Auchentoshan, Bowmore and Glen Garioch have all acquired a recent reputation for quirky but high-quality releases, many of which landed in our Glencairn glasses – courtesy of Gordon Dundas – earlier this month.

Over the course of a very enjoyable 6-dram tasting, Gordon was the perfect foil to the whiskies under his stewardship: plain speaking, but full of warmth and humour, it was a fiery, engaging evening.

We kicked off with Auchentoshan, a brand doing great things with their younger, fruitier releases. The first of our whiskies on the night, the Three Wood, takes centre-stage in a new transatlantic cocktail competition. Auchentoshan Switch is the brand’s attempt to engage bartenders in America and Europe, switching them on to the powerful flavours in this delicate Lowland malt before switching around the creators of the winning Auchentoshan cocktails to work in the bars on their counterparts: Europe goes to America and vice versa. Read more about the competition – and vote for your favourite cocktails – here.

The Three Wood made a favourable impression on most in the room, but I was interested in its stablemate, the Valinch 2012. As Gordon said, these two expressions could not be further apart on the flavour specrum: soft, sweet and rich Sherry oak plays creamy, fruity ex-Bourbon oak at cask strength. This had a sparkly nose, the barley boasting a boiled sweet character in addition to apple and orange. Lemon, banana and vanilla shortbread showed themselves. The palate also ‘sparkled’ somewhat with maltiness again and clean nutmeg from the cask. Lovely.

Those who don’t know about my abiding, dutiful love for the Glen Garioch distillery are obviously recent readers of the Scotch Odyssey Blog. Hence, while people were picking apart the variously sensuous and scintillating flavours of the Auchentoshan offerings, I was some way ahead, courting the Glen Garioch 1995.

Another of the acclaimed vintage releases, the 1995 represents the last litres produced prior to the distillery’s closure by Suntory in the same year,. At this time, there was also a trace of peat smoke to be found in Glen Garioch from the malting process, which was not the case after the reopening of the plant in 1997. This I found to be a highly accomplished dram with the best of first fill Bourbon characteristics coming through. I felt, however, that the butterscotch and coconut drowned out the complex honeyed dustiness of the distillery profile. It was good, but not a Glen Garioch as far as I was concerned. In answer to a question about different peating levels and cut points in the three distilleries’ production regimes, Gordon had said that ‘we produce the same spirit and let the casks do the talking’. This had happened quite spectacularly with the 1995.

Skipping over the fourth pour – the always majestic Bowmore Darkest – we arrived at a unique compare-and-contrast opportunity. More or less on a whim, Gordon had decided to bring along two Tempests to the party: Batch 3 and the not-yet released Batch 4.

Bowmore Tempest 4 55.1%

Nose – swimming pools and cloudy lemonade. Very salty. Sandalwood and a gentle cigar-ash smokiness. Thyme honey. Leathery, very smooth and clean.

Palate – full and rounded with plenty of sweetness and fruits. Fudge and river rushes, before it becomes more and more honeyed.

The balance of this latest release over Batch 3 was evident, with a harmonising interplay between smoke, oak and spirit. I think I preferred the punch of Batch 3 on the night, but can attest to this as another exemplary bottling from the Bowmore team.

Gordon’s generosity extended to the Raffle: the revelation that a full bottle of the latest Tempest would find a lucky new owner forced hands back into pockets for donations. On behalf of the Quaich Society we would like to think him for an extremely informative and entertaining tasting during which the standard of whisky and anecdote never dipped.

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February 29, 2012

Morrison Bowmore at the Quaich Society

The broad range of Morrison Bowmore whiskies.

We on the Quaich Society committee have worked out by now that our members, while impressed by a five-dram verticle tasting encompassing the most senior reaches of a distillery’s range, especially love ‘horizontal’ tastings. Hopes were high, therefore, for Morrison Bowmore. A company that can boast the most balanced or Islay malts, with sea spray, peat and fruity toffee, the only exclusively triple-distilled single malt in Scotland and the only distillery that has let me strip off in its still room was sure to go down well with the Quaich Society. The only pity was that, due to a change of date, more people couldn’t attend.

When Paul Goodwin needed a second trip to the car to bring in the last of the expressions he hoped to present before us, we interpretted it as a good sign. In the end, we hadn’t the glassware to sneak in the Glen Garioch Founder’s Reserve, too.

Paul Goodwin, modelling jacket and waistcoat in Bowmore Tweed.

Debonair in Bowmore Tweed (‘I thought St Andrews was the right place to try it out,’ he replied wittily), Paul guided us through the dizzying range of styles on offer, starting with the Auchentoshan. The jump from the dried apple and biscuit scents of the Classic to the punchy crushed red fruits and almost earthiness of the Three Wood was startling. Gratifying was how both recalled my 18th birthday and the VIP tour of the distillery. With the Classic there was a delicacy of sweetness, balanced by a burly dryness. On the palate, the first fill Bourbon barrels made their presence felt with a charred quality and creaminess.

The Three Wood was to be many peoples’ favourite dram of the night, including an ever-curious Doug Clement who kept Paul busy fielding questions. Despite having announced pre-tasting that he was more heavily involved in the sales side of the business, Paul’s whisky knowledge was exceptional and our resident industry insider and glass patron returned to his drams, satisfied with the information received. A little snippet I hadn’t been privy to was the cost to whisky of the Second World War. Due to its proximity to Glasgow, wee Auchentoshan must have looked to the Luftwaffe like a weapons-grade storage facility (a mistake the British government repeated in the last decade in Iraq, funnily enough) and bombed the place. 300,000 litres of maturing spirit were lost.

To Islay now, however, and the peat heads in the room started to get excited. The Bowmore 12yo is a great whisky to start with period, but as in introduction to Islay’s delights it works very well. Ferny, heathery peat on the nose developed into sea shore aromas with sharp, crunchy malt. The palate was balanced and rich, with a sweet sootiness and honey. Paul recommended it with seafood.

The Bowmore Darkest chocolate.

‘I’m sorry I didn’t bring along any oysters,’ Paul continued as we turned to the 15yo Darkest, but he handed out some dark chocolate instead. The Lindt was felt to compliment the heavy Sherry tones the whisky picks up from its three-year finish in European oak. The potent result gained a rum-like quality when paired with the chocolate. Separately, I got a very strong chorizo aroma at first with a lot of paprika. This became salty with an undertow of gooey-ness. Red apple, too. On the palate the saltiness and chorizo continued with brown, almost dirty peat and burning straw. I wasn’t sure about this one, although others were won over by its distinctive personality. The Tempest releases for me still hold greater interest than the Sherry-accented Bowmores.

When selecting the Glen Garioch component, Paul had been in a very generous mood. Despite being a spirit many had not come across – and many more could not pronounce – the core range had been overlooked in favour of one of the latest vintages. The 53.9% 1994, all Bourbon-matured was the final dram of the evening and was it different. Very creamy on the nose at first, there was oak grip and alcohol depth. Apricot and wholemeal bread appeared. With water the delivery was sweeter with orange as well as a creaminess. Pepper, lime and shortbread came later. The palate provided barley sugar, banana, charred cask, biscuit and gentle smoke, vanilla emerging with the addition of water.

In his delivery for the distillery, Paul mentioned the ’craft’ word more than once. With a capacity of 1,000,000 litres, it is actually producing below this so certainly isn’t a behemoth of a plant. While not in the Kilchoman league – as Paul admitted when challenged by Mr Clement - there is greater scope for doing something different with the brand as the 48% bottling strength of the Founder’s Reserve and 12yo, together with the vintage releases, confirm.

What I wanted to know more about was the consequence to these brands of the highly-publicised transfer of Rachel Barrie to Morrison Bowmore. ‘Would she,’ I asked, ‘have the same scope to create different expressions like she did with the Glenmorangie Signet etc.?’ Paul’s answer was the measured, but promising, ‘watch this space’.

Masses of Morrison Bowmore merchandise was very kindly donated by Paul for our raffle, and Quaich Society members dug in their pockets to be in with a chance of walking away with a whole bottle of Glen Garioch 12yo or a Bowmore polo shirt as well as other prizes. Our thanks go to Paul for a superb tasting, and we hope to see him back again with more expressions from these diverse stables – perhaps bearing the Barrie signature.

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October 16, 2010

Adelphi Tasting

Adelphi Tasting

Okay, okay… so I haven’t managed to meet my targets for blogging consistency. I’m sorry. It has been rather a long time since I posted up my recommendations for two new whisky-related videos and a recount of my birthday on Speyside – the event itself even more utterly entombed in the past. With regards to whisky in my new home, however, I didn’t have to wait long for my first taste – pardon the pun – of the St Andrews University Quaich Society.

On October 7th Antonia Bruce of independent bottlers Adelphi Distillery, made the trip from Edinburgh to the Scores Hotel, St Andrews to conduct a tasting of some of her company’s products and in so doing, educate lots of keen whisky-drinking students. Oh, we were keen…

This proved a popular tasting, as walk-ups outstripped the number of seats available. Upon entering the hotel, whisky was an almost physical presence in the air, the exhalations of the five glasses each taster had before them wafting from the function room into the lobby.Adelphi Tasting

For all they don’t distil their own drams now, in 1826 Adelphi was the name of a bonafide distillery in Glasgow making malt and grain spirit. Messrs A. Walker & Co. assumed control in the 1880s, pumping additional investment into the plant. More than 500,000 gallons of new make flowed from the four pot and single Coffey still on an annual basis from 1886, although this mighty industrial force would sadly fall into neglect. DCL-owned following purchase in 1902, the distillery was to be found abandoned by 1907. The final nail in its coffin may have been the lack of any in their washbacks for one of the nine within the distillery collapsed, initiating the same behaviour in its fellows. The resulting tsunami of wash drowned livestock and, tragically, a man just leaving the pub.

In 1993 the Adelphi name was restored to be associated once more with whisky activity by Jamie – great-grandson of Archibald Walker. His attention to detail has been adopted by the present owners, too: Keith Falconer and Donald Houston. Both are near neighbours in Argyllshire, the local topography providing the inspiration for the epithets of their more anonymous malt whisky expressions.

Antonia guided us deftly and amusingly through the selection of malts, beginning with a Macallan. Distilled in 1996 and left within a sherry butt for thirteen years, this was a fine introduction to the Adelphi ethos: no chill-filtration, no colouring and cask strength. Never having tasted a single cask Macallan before, I was anxious to dip my nose in. When I did I met with a classic Speysider: rich, nutty and full. There was a creaminess, offset by a dash of orange zest. Marzipan, rich oak and a bold maltiness confirmed this as the malt from Easter Elchies. The wood leapt out on the palate, too: sherried and charred with plenty of dark chocolate. This was a bold expression. As Antonia had stated, Adelphi will tend to plump for the ‘strong style’ when buying casks. A good call!

In the course of their cask selections last year, they came some from an Islay distillery which they unanimously believed to be rather splendid. The resulting vatting of five of these European oak casks has spawned Liddesdale (a nod to somewhere near Ardnamurchan) and Adelphi’s third ‘limited edition’. This one came in at 46% ABV, and Antonia warned that it may prove divisive. I liked it a great deal. Despite reduction, it had maintained the feel on the nose of a rawer whisky and rawer, in my book, is much much better. To prove that this was an 18-year-old, our hostess proceeded to violently shake the bottle about. We were urged to inspect the ‘beading’ and right enough there was a quantity of foam on the surface of the whisky. This died down after a period and apparently the more leisurely a whisky does this, the older and/or stronger in terms of alcoholic content your dram will be. I have witnessed Mike at The Whisky Castle do this, too, and I still can’t understand why it is completely necessary.

This one had aromas of lanolin and bracken, with a damp, fragrant peatiness emerging. Overall, it had a very fibrous and viscous nose. Heavily-sherried with spicy peatiness on the palate, a slight seaweediness was hinted at, too. Subsequent sips unearthed vanilla.

I was not entirely won over by the Bowmore which was next on the list. An 8-year-old at 60%, I recognised some of the sandiness, exotic soapiness and moss-laden peat of the Legend expression but I was always overwhelmed on first nosing by a very aggressive – too aggressive for my idea of Bowmore – phenolic character which put me in mind of stables in the winter. Water brought out toffee and fudge notes, with some heady tobacco in the mix. The phenols mutated into crisp sweet peatiness with a hint of Indian spice when I swallowed some and familiar Bowmore maritime smoothness asserted itself on the finish.

Our final two drams were a pair of masked mystery men. Proceeding under the nomme-de-guerre of Fascadale, the first was a 10-year-old ‘from the Scottish islands’. Antonia could not be more specific, and her reasons revealed more of how independent bottlers operate in tandem with distilleries and brokers. Distilleries exchange casks amongst themselves quite frequently: this is old news for anyone who has toured a dunnage warehouse and found casks maturing very far from their place of birth. However, some must be held not merely for precautionary purposes, or even for the ultimate aim of blending by the parent company, but kept as literal liquid assets to be passed on to independent bottlers or brokers, or on to yet another distillery. However, with whisky which has been circulated in such a manner, very often the distilleries whose product it is would rather the public did not know of its precise origins. It is in the interest of independent bottlers to comply with their wishes, or else their own supplies would soon dry up. Distilleries are anxious to put across a particular house style, whether their malt portfolios are expansive or select. A single cask or limited vatting may have a character entirely at odds with this carefully composed and maintained house style and the last thing they want is for independent expressions to confuse their consumers. This is why we have the Fascadale and Breath Of the Isles instead of [--------].

To the Fascadale, then, and here there was a very intriguing freshness, a bubbly, clean fruitiness, principally bananas, peaches and grapes. This general voluptuous sweetness was offset by pepper (:-0), raw, ripe, sugary barley and thin worts. Other tasters described it as ‘the inside of a horse jacket.’ I couldn’t quite divine what they meant. The palate was dry and thick with an intensity of soft sweet peatiness. Richly biscuity, to boot, notes of charred cask and smoke came through, also.

The Breath Of The Isles was a stunner, as far as I was concerned. 14-years-old and 59% ABV it had real presence in the glass, exuding richly peaty aromas with bran, toast, Bourbon and hot sand. It was, to my mind, like standing on the beach beneath the kiln, with acres of air blowing about you. It possessed a very satisfying palate, too, with peatiness and biscuit flavours again, in addition to a seaweedy maltiness. Chocolate ice cream appeared on the syrupy finish. This was a little more recognisably from… wherever it was from, in comparison to the Fascadale.

Having purchased a bottle from Adelphi while in Speyside – a story I wish to bring you soon – I was intrigued by what this tasting would provide. With a price range of between £37 (the Fascadale) and £65 (The Macallan), these were not bargain basement offerings and all were astonishingly distinct. The quality – for all I didn’t care for the style and delivery of the Bowmore – was indisputable: Adelphi only acquire 4% of the casks they are offered and such high standards was reflected in the bottlings on show. I see from their website that they have a Longmorn, a Glen Garioch and a Caol Ila due for imminent release. Even with my 10% discount at Luvians bottle shop, one of the additional perks of joining the Quaich Society, I don’t think these are destined to pass my lips any time soon.

Gratitude is owed in no small part to Domino, president and master tactician of the Quaich Society and the rest of her committee team; the Scores Hotel for hosting the tasting with additional apologies for the many days of airing the function room must have required, and of course Antonia, without whom it would have been nothing more than forty students and a few loaves of bread.

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August 28, 2010

The Magic of Distilleries

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.

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?

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June 4, 2010

Islay and Jura

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.

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'.

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.

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.

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.

Stormy weather.

Stormy weather.

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.

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.Port Askaig

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Wild and soft, remote and welcoming. My favourite malt's very core and DNA.

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May 29, 2010

Bowmore

 

A view of the distillery from the pier down from the Harbour Inn.

A view of the distillery from the pier down from the Harbour Inn.

School Street, Bowmore, Islay, Argyll, PA43 7GS, 01496 810441. Morrison Bowmore (Suntory). www.bowmore.com

Easily in the top ten best-smellers list.

Easily in the top ten best-smellers list.

APPEARANCE AND LOCATION:      *****      Facing directly onto the fast, low waves of Lochindaal, Bowmore is a gentle giant of a distillery. The obligatory black capitals announce its identity on the sea-facing warehouse wall, staring pointedly across the loch to Bruichladdich distillery. Bowmore blends the old with the new. Their cottages and tasting room are straight out of 5-star hotel luxury and well-appointedness. Bowmore village jostles confidently and familiarly around it, and boasts one of the worst road surfaces I came across on my travels.

TOURS PROVIDED:

‘Standard Tour’: £4. See ‘My Tour’ below.

‘Craftsman’s Tour’: £40. This in-depth viewing of the Bowmore distillery lasts two and a half hours during which you enter the warehouse (you don’t just stand behind glass) and dram samples straight from the cask. Once back in the tasting room, you can taste a selection of Bowmore expressions up to the 25YO.

DISTILLERY-EXCLUSIVE BOTTLINGS:      In a cabinet are some seriously old (see expensive) Bowmores, including the Trilogy of Black (£2350), White (£2600) and Gold (£3130) Bowmores. If these are a little beyond your means, fear not because you can find some equally rare stuff. Admittedly the Feis Ile bottlings don’t come anywhere close to the above trio of 44YOs, but there are less than 100 bottles of each: an 8YO from 2008 for £80 and a 9YO from 2009, 57.1% and £90. It is also possible to purchase the Travel Retail line from the distillery: Surf, 12yo Enigma, 15yo Mariner, 17yo and Cask Strength.

My Tour – 13/05/2010

THE RUNNING COMMENTARY:      **

THE PROCESS AND EQUIPMENT:      ***

Notes:      While I tied the bike up in the increasingly persistent rain (what is it about inclement weather whenever I visit distilleries in the Morrison Bowmore group?) the smell of richly peated malt was being blown about the buildings, damn near hypnotising me. Had Lochindaal been more forthcoming with its own legendary seaweedy aromas, I might just have stood there getting wet. They kiln the barley with peat for 15 hours. It isn’t done on a specific ppm specification, only time. It produces 40% of its requirements on its own malting floors. We were allowed into the warehouse that sits just below sea level. The temperature in there varies only between 2 and 5 degrees Centigrade annually. The Queen visited in the 1980s, and was gifted with her own cask. This she decided to have bottled at around 22 years of age. Some bottles were sold for charity, some went to the Royal Household and one sits in the tasting room for visitors to inspect.

The warehouses: a rare sight on Islay.

The warehouses: a rare sight on Islay.

The floor maltings: a rare sight on the whisky trail.

The floor maltings: a rare sight on the whisky trail.

 

 

GENEROSITY:       (1 dram)

VALUE FOR MONEY:      **

SCORE:      7/10 *s

COMMENT:      As my first Islay tour, it was a superb one. Despte the weather, and the fact that I had to wait for the 11AM tour (the 10AM one being full), I was shown a very good time around one of the most venerable of all malts. The Iain Banks quote from Raw Spirit that if you can’t find a Bowmore to enjoy, then malts probably aren’t for you, is one I wholly endorse, and I loved seeing how it was made. The whole place is kitted out beautifully. The lighting, not something you will hear prasied in many distilleries, picked out all of the wooden vessels and the gleam of the copper wonderfully. Back in the tasting room after a sense of the atmosphere in an islay dunnage warehouse, I elected to go out on to the balcony with my measure of 12YO. I wanted to sip my malt with the air of Lochindaal swaddling me. As I stood and moistened, thinking about returning inside for some water to cut my sample, I realised that the Islay rain was doing that job for me. This was such a pure malt moment, especially after the guide had said that the distillery was struggling with recent shortages of water. The lade that would normally have been gushing was only a trickle. As an aside, I had to buy some of the glasses that they served my dram in. They are beautiful.

Here I got very arty-farty with my Islay malt and Islay rain. It's what it's all about, though.

Here I got very arty-farty with my Islay malt and Islay rain. It's what it's all about, though.

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March 2, 2010

Fit For The Glens: 6 weeks to go…

Never before has the arrival of March made me quite so petrified. Not even in 2008 when I had my lion-taming exam on the 5th of the month. That didn’t actually happen but you get the idea. For after all, now this whisky escapade is “next month” whenever I discuss it; no longer just “in April”, which was a construction that consoled me into believing that it was metaphorically still around a corner several streets away.

I could have been a great deal more ashen of face and queasy of stomach had the weather not granted me a window of opportunity. Friday’s rain ceased at last, although the weekend had its own showers/raging torrents. Yesterday, though, dawned bright, clear and very cold. I bundled any doubts about it perhaps being too cold, bound and gagged, into the mental cupboard under the stairs. I couldn’t face another hour and a half on the turbo.

Not even the viciously steep hill outside the house could get me comfortably warm, however, although the one out of the next village handsomely succeeded in doing so. I was in the small chainring for the first time, grinding up the ramps at 9 mph. Whilst humiliating and exhausting, it reassured me that Mark at Breeze Bikes had done a great job of arranging my gears for I still had three in reserve. Even with panniers, the training I hope to pack into these last (whisper it) six weeks ought to permit me to conquer all but the most wilfully awful inclines in the saddle.

So, five miles in and I was already knackered. This merely made it more advantageous to go slower and practise flicking down the gears until I found a ratio I could maintain comfortably and effectively. I had acquired a good rhythm by the time I reached the next collection of houses and someone in a VW decided to overtake me on a blind bend. He/she escaped having their radiator stoved in by a matter of seconds.

I had already crossed a section of road which all of last week’s rain had transformed into a ford and I trickled over another one as my nemesis accelerated into the distance. I marvelled at how the opposite carriageway was bone dry.

A mile further on I encountered my first fellow cyclists, the more serious-looking of whom was hammering it in the other direction, the commuter mountain biker I breezed past. That was pretty much it for racing adversaries, although I did show a hedge-cutting tractor a good turn of speed.

Back out in parallel with the sea (and experiencing an inward swell as I likened the breakers to those of the North Atlantic on the south coast of Islay) I narrowly avoided injury slaloming between black-mawed potholes and noticed for the first time a whirring noise. Dismounting, I discovered that a plastic sticker designed to save the derailleur from getting scratched by the chainring had partially come adrift and was caressing the chain. It wouldn’t come away completely, though, so I just had to be driven slightly mad for the rest of the ride.

If the weather is like this I shall be very happy indeed.

If the weather is like this I shall be very happy indeed.

I completed my twenty-four mile circuit happy with my progress if very very tired. More so than my first outdoor ride, it suggested to me that this journey is something I’ll be able to physically manage; significant, really, for it is only next month before I shall glimpse this: the first view afforded by the Lothian countryside of Glenkinchie distillery.

I had a minor epiphany on the whisky-tasting side of things. A novice whisky-drinker friend of mine spent the night over here during the week and I was keen for his malt horizons to be broadened. He professed to having liked Laphroaig when he tasted it recently (a genuine surprise to me, whose inaugural encounter with the output of this Kildalton distillery nearly put him off Islays for life) so I extracted my Caol Ila Distiller’s Edition, Bowmore Legend and Ardbeg Uigeadail, my three Glencairn glasses and guided him through a tasting. It was only after I started nosing the drams myself that I realised how revelatory and valuable an exercise it is to sample malts side-by-side. The Bowmore became drier, more honeyed with a note of laminated coloured craft paper like I had in first school, and against the other two it wasn’t that smoky anymore. I gasped at the Ardbeg’s smoothness and soft dark fruit flavours. But my nose really had fun with the Caol Ila. When compared with its Islay stablemates, that which makes it Caol Ila leapt out. Suddenly I registered the same warm, squeaky and rounded fruit notes I had picked up from the 10-Year-Old Unpeated. The complexions of all three were almost unrecognisable from my memories of them when sampled in isolation. I shall have to repeat this method, definitely with the trio of Taliskers and the Glenmorangie multipack which I hope to purchase soon. Hopefully it shall be possible to distinguish a constant character, and I shall take this to be the hallmark and principal style of the distillery. I might even come to love The Original.

We then talked long into the night with a little help from The Macallan 18-Year-Old Fine Oak which he had brought with him, his father having won it in a raffle. I’d very much like to know which raffle and how often they sell tickets. Obviously I was not concentrating on tasting notes that night, just sharing a great malt with a great friend. He kindly consented to leave it in my care, however, until I had compiled notes for it. After all, I don’t know when I am next

Another magnificent example of how to finish a whisky properly. Stunning.

Another magnificent example of how to finish a whisky properly. Stunning.

 going to have the chance to sample the seminal expression from the definitive Speyside distillery!

Talisker Distiller’s Edition 1993 45.8% (See ‘Most Hotly-Awaited’)

Colour: Bold orange with tones of ruby and brass.

Nose: (FS) A soft, sly stalemate between gentle though rich and complex Sherry wood and smoke. Very dry and soft peatiness, partnered with a dark maritime character: sea fog and seaweed. Charred wood with marmalade spread over it. (WW) A more insistent, light and smooth, presence of fruit: orange and white plum. The smoke notes call to mind herbs thrown on the barbecue. Boiling blackcurrant jam.

Palate: Beautiful. Initially lots of burning wood and peat smoke, then caramelised, syrupy fruitiness bursts through. It tames, slightly, the peat clouds and lends superb contrast.

Finish: Unravels very slowly. Gentle seaweed and charring wood. Chewy fruit sweets and gums. Drying on grains and subtle fresh oak.

Edradour 10-year-old 40%

Colour: Earthy and full amber with gold highlights.

Nose: (FS) Peat smoke, initially, modified by very dry sprigs of heather. A malt profile that blends a freshness with a dark, chunky oatiness. Quite clean with a soft toffeed wood note like Scottish tablet. Smooth with a creamy mintiness and rubbery citrus. (WW) Sweeter with buckets of honey. Medium-dry with sweet, heathery peatiness. Firm and biscuity.

Palate: Dry, lightly-peated malt and sweet, firm wood.

Finish: A rich, substantial maltiness lingers. Honey, too. Crisp, fresh heather shoots. Rather long with a final wood note and echoes of the open mash tun. Satisfying.

This is justifiably one of the iconic malt whiskies and the Lord of Speyside.

This is justifiably one of the iconic malt whiskies and the Lord of Speyside.

The Macallan 18-year-old Fine Oak 43%

Colour: Glossy and smooth amber/gold with pinky coppery tones.

Nose: (FS) Very assertive and spicy straight off the bat with firm, dark woodiness and apples. Very toffeed with strong plumes of peat smoke. Some very deep, dark and moist Sherry wood emerges with nuts and tangy fruit: soft plum and zesty, oily orange. Dryness spreads and develops to a rich, aromatic earthiness. Complex doesn’t begin to cover it. (WW) Much more delicately floral and sweet. Very dark but creamy-smooth chocolate. A real freshness and zip to the oak. Eagerly builds on itself with time to breathe.

Palate: Here we find the solid muscularity and richness of its age with soft fruity Sherry to offset this. The Sherry quickly vanishes to be replaced by succulent, biscuity and buttery vanilla. Perfectly judged zesty oak. Rich peat gives the maltiness excellent depth and dryness. Outstanding.

Finish: A sense of heat and size: this is a big big malt. Drying wonderfully on “russety” wood and leaf notes. Velvety dark chocolate. Spectacularly long with very gentle, fragrant, sweet and smooth smoke playing throughout. A masterclass of Speyside flavours.

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February 3, 2010

Fit For The Glens: 10 weeks to go…

Alright, alright. So I cannot actually speak of any real training since my last post because there hasn’t really been any since my last post. In my defence, however, it isn’t my socialising at the stiletto’d feet of which I must place the blame, rather that which has moved to joint pole position as the most important use of my time before April: work to earn money so that I can do this at all. 

Four hours of sleep (whilst a luxurious lie-in compared with Wednesday) was not sufficient rest to allow me to start my shift in the restaurant at full throttle. This was unfortunate because January 30th felt more like July 30th such were the hungry hordes which only Lauren and I were available to seat, serve and tidy up after. When she had to stay past the departure of the last bus, I volunteered to take her back to where she lives, in the depths of snowy Northumberland. Not having driven on the snow since I expensively dented the car before Christmas, and fully aware of how my sleep-deprived person was approaching the limits of his attention span, I was both drained and delighted when I finally returned home at 11.30PM, not having killed anyone. Another mammoth shift the next day, during which we served almost as many Sunday lunches as we would in the summer only, with it being winter, one waiter less, floored me utterly.

As far as living is concerned, then, it has been one of my busier weeks. I would not have had it any differently, though.

My friend’s birthday night out was a revelation. After the meal, organised by me at the very last minute, I was bracing myself should our group end up wending their way towards The (Hateful) Gate. As it was, the birthday girl took us in the opposite direction and this is how I now know about Baby Lynch.

To the left of Newcastle Central Station as you approach it from Gray’s Monument, this was to be my first Newcastle club. After having had my ID checked (both irritating and intimidating) in I went. I was impressed. The decor was original and comfortable, the music good without being deafening and they had five single malts behind the bar. This

"Lookee! Bowmore!" I can't tell you how overjoyed and relaxed finding this unlikely outpost of malt made me. Ross was happy with his mojito, too. Photo by Frances Hawkins.

"Lookee! Bowmore!" I can't tell you how overjoyed and relaxed finding this unlikely outpost of malt made me. Ross was happy with his mojito, too. Photo by Frances Hawkins.

 bar looked like the floor of the London Stock Exchange after everything started to go wrong. Bartenders rushed between tills and bottles and glasses, mixing all sorts of incredible drinks. To my complete surprise I felt at home. I bought a mojito and a double Bowmore 12-year-old. Although these totalled more than £12, it was entirely worth it for the sensation of soaking up this new atmosphere whilst drinking something I actually like. Would you believe it, but this has never happened before. Sipping and sniffing, this drink lasted me for the remainder of our time at Baby Lynch. As we roamed around trying to get into other places (too much to get in to Tup-Tup Palace; ticket-only night for Digital) it started to snow. While sitting in Gotham Town and juddering around in a couple of other places prior to leaving for our taxi, it started to snow a lot.

2AM arrived, but no taxi. We were standing in the huge concourse of the station with streams of people emerging from the blizzard, hopelessly under-dressed and trying to track down a taxi of their own. Charlotte was one of these under-dressed folk, and because she isn’t really of Northern origins, I feared she was going to perish of hypothermia. After donating my hoodie to her, I thought I was. The taxi came at long last, though, and on the way back we saw why he had taken a bit longer to reach us. Everything was white. Someone plainly doesn’t want me riding on the road.

Therefore, it is another turbo session once I have posted this, plus overshoes and one of my new base layers. I don’t need a cold on top of everything else! For one thing, it would get in the way of my other branch of training, which has been going very well indeed.

As you can see from the picture, I have been giving my senses a refresher course and I feel they are back up to speed.

"Ten green bottles..." Some of my favourite malts, and a great test of my sensory abilities.

"Ten green bottles..." Some of my favourite malts, and a great test of my sensory abilities.

 To my delight, I have discovered a heightened sensitivity (or would that be imagination?) regarding terroir-related flavours. It is these aspects of the whiskies I’ve sampled which I have use to compose the tasting notes below. The originals were much much longer!

Bwmore Legend 40% (See ‘Most Hotly-Awaited’)

Colour: Fresh gold with smooth ambery depths.

Nose: (Full strength) The sea experienced in a close driftwood shed. Salt and spray fly above a solid, heavily-peated base. Cool and moist: a warehouse on the shore. (With water) Smokier: thick, fragrant palls of the stuff. Rich, iodine-y seaweed.

Palate: Initially it is an island of peat on an energetic ocean. Lots of seaweed.

Finish: Salty and seaweedy. Peat smoke lingers in the background but reservedly.

Mortlach 16-year-old 43%

Colour: Deep burnished ochre with amber/bronze highlights.

Nose: (FS) Very intense, rich, moist and round Sherry wood aromas. Fudgy. Not quite “outside”, not quite “in”. A quiff of heather essence and within a closely-contained peat/smoke note. (WW) Becomes drier, sweetly earthy and floral. Fruitcake and honey. Wonderful caramel.

Palate: Very sherried malt with spoons of rich honey and a dab of fruit. Dries a lot and there’s an explosion of peat smoke.

Finish: Long, thick and moist. Bitter chocolate. Figs. Orange and cloves.

Old Pulteney 12-year-old 40%

Colour: Bright broom-yellow gold.

Nose: (FS) Very pronounced May seashore sweetness: dry grasses and flowers. A light dash of dessicated coconut. Seawater in a plastic bucket. (WW) The butter and sugar have become a full sponge mix with lemon zest. Still quietly floral only these flowers are wilder: broom and sea cliff flowers.

Palate: Medium-sweet, hot, lots of honey and increasingly malty.

Finish: Flavours of flora: flowers again, but also grass and the dark shade of a tree.

Ardbeg Uigeadail 54.2% (See ‘Most Hotly-Awaited’)

Colour: Smooth nutty Sherry brown with golden highlights.

Nose: (FS) A powerful humidity is first out of the glass with the characters of Sherry wood, dry malt and some smoke. Tarry notes and pencil lead. Finally we reach equilibrium: smooth and authoritative with marram grass and hot white sand. (WW) Not quite the same smoke and a little clearer. Leather tarps, tarry buckets and well-used wood. A delicate, smooth, sweet and fragrant vanilla/citrus note. Dried peat put back in the bog. You could nose it forever.

Palate: Very intense and aggressive. Wash-like fruity malt which is soon overtaken by thick black peat smoke and burning heather roots.

Finish: Burning cask staves. White chunks of peat. I even taste the whitewashed stones of the distillery itself. Takes an age to diminish.

Longmorn 15-year-old 45%

Colour: Full yellow/gold.

Nose: (FS) Honey and vanilla ice cream with a herbaceous border of floral notes. Butterscotch. A definite, soft fudgy sweetness with fresher minty qualities. (WW) Lighter and more moist with added juicy fruitiness. Warm and spicy oak. All light and delicate flavours with a lot of space between them.

Palate: Very lively malty sweetness leads into a drier biscuitiness, then assertive and flavoursome seasoned oak.

Finish: Vanilla and flowers dominate the quiet, measured and creamy finish.

Talisker 10-year-old 45.8% (See ‘Most Hotly-Awaited’)

Colour: Polished fireside brass with clean gold highlights.

Nose: (FS) Very dry, smoky and peppery. Volcanically powerful. Smoked molluscs. Subtle heather honey. (WW) Much more easily-defined smokiness: burning driftwood and smokeless heat from the peat. A wooden rowing boat on the sea loch. Clinging sea mists.

Palate: Begins with heat, raw wood and peat. Then you taste the peat fire.

Finish: Long, salty and seaweedy. Lovely smokiness in the rounded wood flavours.

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