’101 World Whiskies To Try Before You Die’

What would 101 days of Christmas be like? This question is not purely rhetorical, of course, due to the militarised encroachment of Festive cheer (or perhaps uninterest, verging on febrile rage) into the month of September or even earlier. How fortunate we are, therefore, that Ian Buxton has a solution should tradition ever be rewritten to reflect consumerist reality; he has provided an itinerary a good deal more delicious – if less catchy – than the Patridge-In-A-Pear-Tree variety in the shape of his latest book, ’101 World Whiskies to Try Before You Die’.

I caught up with Ian at a recent talk here in St Andrews to promote the new tome, which follows on from ’101 Whiskies to Try Before You Die’ (‘Police Academy II’ as Ian dubbed the sequel). Although it is not a title I own, it was responsible for initiating a whisky-based friendship with a Swedish gentlemen who was sitting next to me on one of my many train journeys to and from university and reading all about Compass Box. I have since associated Mr Buxton’s work with my favourite kind of whisky fellowship, and having met the man himself I can confirm that he is every bit as sociable and engaging as his Twitter account (@101Whiskies).

For an hour and a half, Ian waxed lyrical about whiskies at home and abroad while little morsels of those he has listed in his books appeared before our lips. It was a struggle to cling onto our thimbles and juggle the various props Ian circulated throughout the room, in addition to paying close attention to the torrent of fact and opinion he produced.

Beginning at the beginning, Ian’s point of departure from the traditional heartland of whisky production focused on the explosion of farm-scale distilling in America. He eulogised about the potential for flavour innovation these start-up distillers symbolise. In subsequent correspondence, Ian revealed the fun he had had exploring Swiss and Finnish whisky. When I asked which book he had preferred writing – this one, or its predecessor – Ian replied that both had been a lot of fun, but with the latest focus on whisky counter cultures, he hoped to ‘open a few people’s eyes to the great quality and great value that’s out there if you step off the ‘big brand luxury’ path for a moment (though that delivers some surprises too).’

The final reveal of the whiskies we had been sampling took a few by surprise, including myself. I had selected the final whisky as my favourite, as had my neighbour Doug Clement who could announce on the night that Kingsbarns Distillery had at last secured the financial backing necessary to begin its own farm distilling story. Dram #5, however, hailed from an operation that is more than 210 years old: Highland Park.

Ian holding court - and an empty bottle of Highland Park.

Of greatest curiosity – and supplying what was tantamount to a committee of world whiskies in one bottle – was Orbis. A blend of whiskies from Canada, the US, Ireland, Japan and Scotland, the nose was lemon-accented before heavy brown grist appeared and took the whisky in a different direction. Aromas of oregano, tomato puree and red wine materialised, before a hint of peat smoke made its presence felt. On the palate, there was blackcurrant juice and chocolate, with a return of the gristiness and the peat. I had thought this was Scotch – an unusual and young Bunnahabhain perhaps. How wrong I was.

Some days after the tasting, I solicited the Buxton perspective on tourism in Scotch whisky distilleries – the raison d’etre for the Scotch Odyssey Blog, after all. Ian has worked as a consultant on projects such as Dewar’s World of Whisky and the visitor centres at Highland Park and Glenfiddich; curiously enough, all of these feature in a list of my top 10 whisky visitor attractions in Scotland, with Highland Park picking up the top gong, and Glenfiddich not far behind with their supreme (and free) standard tour. Ian’s advice: “to thine own self be true”. Don’t try to position your whisky or your distillery into a gap in the market which they are not destined to fill, but with any marketing activity remain faithful to a core and authentic principal. ‘When building and operating a centre you need to engage and seduce the visitor, not beat them to death with branding,’ he says, ’People know where they are and why they came, so you don’t need to ‘sell’ to them. Get the right people working there and let them engage with the visitors, then those visitors go away as ambassadors and bring more visitors.’

His own picks for distilleries to visit include The Macallan with their revolutionary presentation on the subject of all things wood, and also Bruichladdich for the commendable reasons that it is ‘so down to earth and a faithful representation of the brand, company, place and people’.

Another ’101′ format book in the offing, maybe? I should warn him that the Scotch Odyssey Blog will defend its niche – even if ’42 Whisky Distilleries to Visit Before You Die’ hasn’t quite the same ring to it.

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The Port Charlotte Paradox

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.

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Knowing the Clearac

What does oak do for whisky? Now, I’m not about to embark upon yet another exposition of the science at the heart of the maturation process, the like of which can be found in every other magazine or blog. I’m not even going to refigure my many previous eulogies composed to exalt the profoundly powerful impressions shuffling through a dunnage warehouse elicits, or at least not entirely.

Instead, I’m going to begin with the claim that oak is PR, that it is the romantic dressings to whisky’s true inception. This thorny reality is that, for most single malts, their start in life betrays the clatter, hiss and heat of industrialism. When whisky floods through the spirit safe, what can really separate it from gin or vodka to the lay consumer? It is new make, a white dog; it is brutal and challenging. But it is honest, too.

The spirit safe: incubator of formative flavour.

Ten years later, however, with a bit of money thrown at some wood, the sales and marketing team can recoup some of their investment with packaging that declares, with all the sincerity of a sickly maitre d’, that your whisky has been matured in the ‘finest oak casks’. In the vast majority of cases, a lot of it has been thrown into whatever American oak hogshead has arrived into the filling store, or has been delivered to the central warehousing complex if new make is put into cask off-site.

Not enough, to bring this tirade to some sort of point, is said about the process at the distillery and the practiced nuances required to ensure the right character of spirit goes into the wood policy lucky dip. It seems strange to praise the maturation regime, one which few – if anyone – understands completely, whereas mashmen and stillmen have consistently precise calls to make to ensure that the whisky is up to scratch. My week at Balblair testified to this, and so too did in-depth visits to Benromach and Bruichladdich where infinitesimal adjustments to malt batch, peating levels and wash density must be made to guarantee that the appropriate flavours will sing out years down the line.

New make after a bit of ex-Bourbon blusher.

Dave Broom, in his World Atlas of Whisky, explains this accrual of marginal gains (to quote British Cycling) exceedingly well. Distillers must assume control over those parts of the whisky-making process which will yield to their influence. Though 60-70% of a single malt’s flavour will be owed to the cask, that 30-40% of direct distiller interference is keenly contested. To return to the dog metaphor, it is like training a two-month-old Staffordshire Bull Terrier that will ultimately have to adjust to a new owner. The example set at the beginning will prove critical. For Broom, our readily available single malts cannot be comprehended without that most limited and secretive of substances: new make. In the nature or nurture debate, a spirit’s encounters with oak incorporates and rejects both sides to varying degrees in order to assume its eventual character.

Recently, the Whisky Roundtable discussed new make, and so too did Joel and Neil in an excellent article for the Scotch Malt Whisky Society’s Unfiltered magazine. More distillers are marketing single malts in their infancy to the delight of mixologists and whisky geeks. I still think, however, that more distilleries should provide a measure as part of their end-of-tour tastings. How better to bridge the gap between the smells of the distillery and the mature product on the shelves? New make can babble brilliantly, echoing the grist, the wort, the CO2 at the washbacks and those complex, heavy and heady aromas of esters and congeners coming into being at the spirit safe. Glencadam did, and that remains my favourite new make: puckeringly sweet and clinging, some of the soft yellow and green tropical fruits from the stainless steel washbacks could be detected.

Last week, however, I tried Auchentoshan’s new make spirit. Triple distilled, this was joyously intense with strawberry jam and pear on the nose, yellow citrus on the palate. Water pulled out plum yoghurt and sticky pot ale, a combination which recalled the delicate balance of waste and gain at the heart of distilling. In the mouth, I found cider apple and coconut. It was a fabulous insight into the selection process that three stills necessitates and how a delicate but full-throated flavour can be teased into existence and magnified.

When surveying the classifications of single malt species, knowing the new make makes a big difference. You always begin with a highly individual and complex animal which, whether dressed in Pedro Ximenez or Carribean rum or Sauternes, can never completely change its spots. To not hide those spots is another challenge for the distiller altogether.

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Bruichladdich at the Quaich Society

The Bruichladdich line-up.

Lazarus-style reappearances are not unheard of at the Quaich Society; last year, for example, Diageo’s Duncan showed up for a return fixture with a lot of Clynelish and some Johnnie Walker Blue Label, building upon Talisker 57 Degrees North on West Sands (we couldn’t quite get the geography right) the previous semester.

However, Craig Johnstone’s second stint in St Andrews was, if anything, still more eagerly anticipated. The kind of extraordinary, surprising arsenal of  whiskies he had brought along with him then from the Scotch Malt Whisky Society could only be matched by one Scottish distiller and that just so happens to be the one now employing him: Islay mavericks, Bruichladdich.

The first innovation of the evening was Craig pouring and distributing the tasting’s drams. This is normally something the Society Committee busies itself with 15 miunutes prior to commencement. The second was enlisting an ambassador from a rival company to help with the set-up. We were delighted to see Patsy Christie of Highland Park, but also of ‘Patsy and Craig’, on hand for support and – at times – an extra element of dialogue during the tasting. Without Patsy’s ruthlessly efficient harvesting, cleaning and filling of glasses, we would not have been able to enjoy our sixth dram of the evening, but more of that later.

Craig’s opening statement concerning Bruichladdich: ‘we’re pretty unstandard – the only consistent thing about us is our inconsistency’. The tasting roster epitomised this. We opened with the Organic, a roughly 7yo whisky under the Bruichladdich name, although ’I didn’t bring this because it says ‘Organic’ on the label,’ Craig asserted. ‘I brought it because it is an excellent whisky.’

Very sweet on the nose, it added aromas of heavy butter and cream before light floral tones emerged, together with shortbread. Very firm overall. The palate was clean, sharp and firm with plenty of malt while vanilla built in the finish. 53% of Bruichladdich’s barley consumption is organic, the rest coming from Islay farms where organic practices have to be dropped if the plants are to withstand the West Coast gales. The company aims for absolute traceability of one’s bottle in the very near future which would make for a most intriguing drive around Islay, spotting the fields which contributed to your bottle of Laddie Ten, or Black Arts.

‘I thought this was a whisky tasting?!’ piped up a voice in the corner when we arrived at the next spirit. What we had instead was The Botanist, a gin produced by Bruichladdich using 22 native Islay botanicals. That might sound like a lot, and it did to many people who know far more about gin than I do, but the result was magnificent. Incredibly lemony on the nose, it had the flavour of a Gin & Tonic without the Tonic added. Other notes included struck matches and coriander. The palate, for all its 46% delivery, was remarkably soft with waves of citrus and perfumy flowers. To those unique minds on Lochindaal, this is their tribute to whisky back in the unverifiable mists of time, when their uisquebeatha would have tasted a lot like our gin now.

A cask sample of the forthcoming Islay Barley.

Returning to the traceability theme, Dram #3 promised much. A single cask sample of 5yo spirit produced with barley harvested solely on Islay. This will be released, in vatted and reduced form, very soon. Despite measuring 66% on the Richter scale, it was remarkably well-mannered and I detected chocolate sauce mixed into vanilla ice cream on the nose: very spicy, rich and creamy. A little bit of char emerged, also. The palate began with a promising dark earthiness with a sinew of cereal. Then rich oak developed, developed some more and ultimately killed the thing, for me. An active cask had been relied upon to provide the spirit with a life-raft of sweetness and guts, but the barley experiment was unfortunately nullified as a result. Nevertheless, it was a pleasure to hear Craig describe the skilled, human adjustments every varietal change demands at the distillery. From the mill to the spirit still, distillery workers have to adapt their processes to ensure the best whisky and the right flavours result from whichever strain of malt they are using.

I’ve talked about the Laddie Ten previously and suffice it to say that it remains in my mind a solid, charming customer with presence beyond its years. While underlining the significance of a first age milestone achieved by the new Bruichladdich regime, Craig discussed how the frankly bewildering range would evolve in the next 18 months. Presently, they have 31 products, excluding special releases. This number will diminish to 15.

Remaining on the roster will be the Black Arts. This batch came off the still in 1989, but since then has been in more different woods than Bear Grylls. Bourbon, wine, sherry – you name it, Jim McEwan will have stashed some whisky in it. The undiluted nose oozed with red fruits, especially grape while the palate was full and oily. However, the word ‘butyric’ came to mind, which to you and me is a welcome euphemism for ’baby sick’. The acidic flavours from the Euopean woods curdled the creaminess from the American oak with less than successful results. Water improved matters, however. Charred on the nose with lots of dark honey, while rich oak, malt and toffee developed in the glass. With its sandy aroma and orangey tar qualities, it reminded me of a Mortlach. On the palate, I could still detect some acid reflux, but fat, booze-soaked sultanas rescued the performance. I don’t mean to be controversial (my neighbour and many others around the room raved about it) but the Black Arts did not enchant me.

The final dram of an enthralling evening appeared before the Quaich Society members courtesy of Patsy and we could get our teeth into Port Charlotte. This provoked a discussion on Bruichladdich’s peating policy. The latest Octomore exhibits – in Craig’s own words – ‘a stupid amount of peat’: Sauternes-finished and coming in at 61%, it boasts a peating level of 167 ppm. ‘At what point do you stop drinking whisky and start eating peat?’ one person asked. ‘We’ll let you know,’ Craig replied.

The Port Ellen maltsters experience genuine headaches providing Bruichladdich with peated malt. At one stage, before McEwan started prodding them, they believed the highest they could achieve would be 60ppm. But Jim wanted more. ‘How high a level do you want?’ they ask. ‘What is the highest you can do?’ asks Jim. ‘Well, to be honest up to now we have been peating barley for two weeks and then cutting that with unpeated malt to reach your specifications.’ ‘How peaty is the uncut stuff, then?’ ’305 ppm.’ The whisky arms race, my friends, has been won. Last year, barley peated to 305 ppm came of the stills at Bruichladdich and vanished into a cask, not to reappear for another five years.

In the meanwhile, we have Octomore and our specimen the other night: Port Charlotte. At 40 ppm, we are still talking Laphroaig territory, but it does not taste like it courtesy of the dramatically different distillation regime in taller pots. Buttery digestive biscuit malt on the nose, together with very sweet peat, apricot and vanilla. Fish on the barbecue. The palate and finish are marvellous: at first chunky peat and gooey barley, before drying and concluding with notes of honey and fresh peated malt. Superb.

Mr Johnstone once again proved to be excellent value, as intriguing and assured as the whiskies he brought along to us. We hope to see him and the Bruichladdich experiments back again very soon. Once again, many thanks indeed to Patsy for her selfless pouring and distribution work, without which efforts to accommodate a sixth dram would have been far more shambolic.

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Luvians at the Quaich Society

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.

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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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It sits there, very prettily, glowering across Lochindaal at Bowmore, which glowers back.

It sits there, very prettily, glowering across Lochindaal at Bowmore, which glowers back.

Bruichladdich, Islay, Argyll, PA49 7UN, 01496 850221. Bruichladdich Distillery Co.

APPEARANCE AND LOCATION:      *****      It is a very smart distillery, and according to my parents had been freshly repainted earlier in the week. Its situation is a little further back from the shores of Lochindaal, but only in that it isn’t squashed right up against it. The road passes between the sea loch and the distillery, offering some run-off and safety from the wild Atlantic storms, none of which materialised on the day of my visit.


‘Standard Tour’: £5. See ‘My Tour’ below.

‘Special Tour’: £45. Lasting 1 and a half hours, this sounds like quite a tour. The specifics are mouthwatering enough: six malt tastings and a visit to the larger bonded warehouses at the rear of the distillery. Better than all of that, however, is the increased likelihood of crossing paths with master distiller Jim McEwan, who everyone has assured me is a living whisky legend.

DISTILLERY-EXCLUSIVE BOTTLINGS:      26 archived bottles of various Valinches to browse, as well, with prices ranging from £100 to £250. The bottle-your-own Valinches: while I was there they had “The Italian Job”, an 18YO single cask finished in Italian wine wood. £55 is very very competitive for this kind of service.

My Tour – 15/05/2010



A Lomond Still: not famed for their looks.

A Lomond Still: not famed for their looks.

Notes:      Everything about the actual equipment of Bruichladdich screams of tradition and antiquity, even of the stuff made by it is then packaged and treated in a manner right at the cutting-edge of the industry. They are still using some of the equipment from 1881, the year of the distillery’s founding. One of these is the mill, the only belt-driven machine of its kind working in Scotland. This operates twice a day to produce the grist for production, and is still going strong. The distillery itself was built deliberately for the purposes of large-scale distilling, a rare approach in its time. The courtyard and separate buildings were designed to act as fire defences, for these were a common and ruinous problem for distilleries at that time. Bruichladdich is unpeated, and shows only 3ppm of phenols in the malted barley. They do, however, produce two other chief expressions: Port Charlotte (40ppm), and Octomore (80+ppm). In the mill room, as you munch on your grains of Octomore white malt (a thick, almost blue peatiness, but with a fair amount of sweetness), there is a laminated sheet detailing the provenance of all the barley used at Bruichladdich. Many are from Islay farms. There are four waters per mash and this is chiefly because of the antique mash tun with its open top. Evaporation during the first three waters means that a fourth ensures maximum sugar extraction. There are live webcams throughout the site, so while they were in the middle of one of their silent seasons while I was there, I could log on to see the process happening live. Two breeds of yeast are used, one slow-acting and the other fast, and the washbacks are left for three days to contain the fermentation. In the still room you gain a greater sense of the “crazy scientist” element around Bruichladdich. Here you meet ‘Ugly Betty’, a Franken still. It is in fact a Lomond Still, with plates and plumbing within it that can be manipulated to produce different styles of whisky from the one piece of equipment. They were going to put it in their latest distillery project: to re-open and recreate the old Port Charlotte distillery. Progress is, however, slow, and they couldn’t wait to see what it can produce so have been fitting it in to the spirit stream on the Bruichladdich premises. The warehouses weren’t open on Saturdays, sadly; something for any warehouse-addicts to bear and mind, as Islay warehouse-bagging is a tricky pastime.

GENEROSITY:       (1 dram)


SCORE:      5/10 *s

The latest Valinch, Bruichladdich's bottle-your-own service. There are bottlings from previous single casks on sale, too, which other people have bottled themselves.

The latest Valinch, Bruichladdich's bottle-your-own service. There are bottlings from previous single casks on sale, too, which other people have bottled themselves.

COMMENT:      I might have enjoyed this tour more had I not done seven other distillery visits in the previous 50 hours. I was, whisper it, but it’s true, whiskied out. Our guide was young, female (already a big hit with me) but also very enthusiastic and knowledgeable. In fact, she is not far away from being on the stillman team. I suppose we have to say stillperson team, now. As was the case with Ardbeg, only in a more extreme sense, I missed the noise, smells and temperatures of live production and that together with the masses of people throughout the place made me rather retiring and defeatist. The premises are neat and tidy, and you could not ask for a better view of how distilling was traditionally done. No trip to Islay would be complete without a tour of ‘Laddie, but try and go for the earliest weekday slot you can find. 2PM on a Saturday is not conducive to effective distillery touring.

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Fit For The Glens: 7 weeks to go…

For all it would be entirely reasonable and merited, this post shall not be turned into a petulant tirade against the

I'm pretty sure Captain Scott hated it more than I do, but I'm still no fan.

I'm pretty sure Captain Scott hated it more than I do, but I'm still no fan.

 British weather. After all, complaining about a fourth straight day of rain once I hit the West Coast in May isn’t going to help anything. Suffice it to say, in that case, that it has snowed quite a lot, the temperature has returned to the inner suburbs of freezing and I had no other option but to resume my relationship with the turbo trainer.

Whilst not whining, it was doubly frustrating when the white stuff came down again because on the Wednesday I succeeded in getting out. With no small amount of anticipation or ceremony (at least in the instance of my practised movements for clothing myself in neoprene and Lycra) I pedalled onto the highway. It was not the most auspicious beginning. What was intended to be an eighteen mile circuit finished as a twenty mile effort when, after only a mile, I accepted that the squeak made by my overshoe on the left crank was intolerable, returned home again, and had to repeat the distance. With masses of Vaseline applied to the crank, my sanity suffered no further aural assualts. I know what can happen to the red-hot brain when it has something annoying and constant to fixate on for any considerable amount of time, and it isn’t pretty.

Back on cold wet tarmac, the bike handled nicely. The first instance of my leaving the saddle on an incline presaged the challenge I shall face when the panniers are attached. Just the unaccustomed weight of the rack was enough to affect the behaviour of the rear of the bike. I shouldn’t have been out of the saddle, anyway: I need to practise seated climbing for I really will have no choice on the matter in April.

In maintaining a steady rhythm and pace, again an attempt at simulating my enforced approach when I begin touring for real, I could appreciate how far bike technology has come in the handful of years since we bought the road bike. Gear changes were super-smooth and the gear ratios made it easier to proceed at a slower pace than I’m used to without feeling embarrassed for merely crawling along. The frame was a lot stiffer than I had expected, and been led to believe, and initially the impacts with potholes were an alarming occurrence, but not just because of their repercussions on the body parts in direct contact with the machine. The sound of the mudgaurds and pannier rack rattling about was nothing less than cacophonous.

The ride as a whole was an interesting dichotomy: at once a confidence boost that I should be capable of completing immediately quite long distances in relation to my previous experience; but also rather daunting as I imagine undertaking bigger hills with more weight over greater distances. But it was my first authentic ride of the year so I can only improve.

How foolish I was, though, to think that I could consign the turbo trainer back to its corner in the dining room for the remainder of my preparations. I awoke on Friday to what I thought, peeking through the warped glass of the bathroom window, was merely a hard frost. On opening my curtains, however, I soon learned that this was not so. It was snow. I had to train, but couldn’t face admitting defeat to the turbo so soon after my glorious escape attempt on the Wednesday. I went for a run in the blizzard, instead. Two minutes in I already felt knackered but I endured for the full twenty out of sheer bloody-mindedness.

I spent the weekend working, witnessing further snow falls out of the restaurant windows and wishing it would have just f****d off by Monday. How cruel, but the opposite greeted me when I pulled aside the curtains yesterday. It was a veritable Winter Wonderland, but a serious kick in the teeth for my outdoor cycling aspirations. In the end, the freezing cold decided it in conjunction with the risk of hitting a patch of ice, breaking a leg, and rendering all of my travel plans, ambitions and this blog obselete. So I swapped the pedals over again and inducted myself back into the torture chamber.

I had as a target one hour and twenty. My real world ride ought to have done much for my legs and lungs, I reasoned, so a longer session should mean an even longer circuit whenever I next have the opportunity to ride on the road. To see me through it I had Snakes and Arrows Live again; the second CD. As it happened I went from ‘Spindrift’ to the last Dutch roar in the wake of ‘YYZ’ over the course of my ride. One hour 25 minutes! I had achieved, and for all the weather made me miserable, I couldn’t scold myself for how I just got on with it anyway. My fingers are crossed for better luck over the next ten days or so, which is about the limits of my capacity to influence things in this regard.

It has been a similar week of contrasts as far as my tasting progress was concerned. A successful, and indeed revelatory encounter with the Balblair 1997 (see below) was soon forgotten after a period browsing on The Whisky Exchange site. When I have a bit of time to kill I will often take a look at the reviews of malts I have tasted, and especially those which I have felt moved to provide my own reviews for. I was surprised to find that someone had recently taken me to task, not just on my opinion on the malt concerned, but on my manner of expression and whisky experience. I was less offended and more shocked at this stranger’s attack, the retaliation I sent back at the time fortunately less incendiary than others I composed that afternoon. I admit my written style can get a bit out of hand, and even more so when whisky is involved, but the only reason this was singled out and derided was because my take on the malt was contrary to that of the other reviewer. Similarly, I don’t see, in the context of a consumer site like The Whisky Exchange, that my experience or lack thereof is at all relevant. The site is used by the casual whisky drinker and the fanatic alike, and precisely because of that the views of anyone inclined to post a comment regarding a particular whisky are as valid as the next person’s, and the number and supposed quality of their other tastings has no bearing on it whatsoever. I know that my opponent most likely did not intend his piece of banter to offend, but I am new to people I have never met mocking what makes me me; and my use of language has always been central to that.

Consequently, I was somewhat distracted when I poured out a measure of the 1993 Talisker Distiller’s Edition for analysis. By the time I had washed up my glass, however, my priorities and concerns had been adjusted back to their original orientations:  the spirit coming first. While I read the notes of other tasters on this malt and the snow fell with almost vindictive application outside, a wave of essential clarity, not unlike those of Loch Harport which break against the distillery walls, engulfed me. So perfect was the malt, and in that moment, that even if disagreement as to its quality were possible, it could be entirely discounted irrespective of how that disagreement were to be expressed. Due to this reminder of how the drink acts on me, how I can barely explain it myself, I realise that it is only me for whom I may speak, and whose perspective is at all significant in any case.  But I shall talk more about the Talisker next week.

For now there is the Balblair, and with the 1989 at only £43 I might just have to acquire some so delicate yet satisfying and vivacious was its younger brother. Speaking of the analysis itself, it was an interesting and important lesson in the body as a suggestible and variable assemblage of apparatus. I feel my first tasting notes captured the ’97′s character

A marvellous little malt. Fortunately I have this second miniature of it!

A marvellous little malt. Fortunately I have this second miniature of it!

 better, with dominating flavours I re-interpreted or missed altogether at the second attempt. Yet I scored it higher second time through. Bizarre.

Bruichladdich 10-year-old 46%

Colour: Glossy and rich amber.

Nose: (FS) Maritime sweetness with a rounded fruit character (honeydew melon?). Quite salty with a smooth, delicate touch of seaweed. Hot and runny strawberry jam with vanilla Swiss roll. (WW) A little sweeter and maybe saltier, too. Passion fruit pavlova. Gentle, hay-sweet cereals and increasingly grainy.

Palate: Very complex. Tart, spiced fruitiness runs alongside gripping saltiness and soft sweet oak. Sticky and peppery.

Finish: A gentle but solid bed of peat. Still lusciously fruity with honey and mascarpone cream. Sandy and oaky at the end.

Balblair 1997 43%

Colour: Very full gold.

Nose: (FS) Fresh, clean and light with impeccable, mouthwatering sweetness. A drizzle of honey then lots of creamy-smooth vanilla. Deliciously soft with a building warm cloud of cereals. (WW) Sweeter, more moist and compacted. Again that achingly sensuous vanilla wood steps forward. Heathery smoke – subtle but there lending marvellous depth and contrast.

Palate: Full and sweet with firm, lightly-peated malt. Smooth vanilla from the soft though spicy wood soon envelopes everything.

Finish: Buttered digestive biscuits and some milk chocolate. Fruity with butterscotch. Creamy vanilla wood and honey.

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