scotchodysseyblog.com

scotchodysseyblog

Day 8: Brora Bail-Out

I didn’t contemplate stopping until some time after I woke up from a sketchy night’s sleep; while eating my breakfast, despite even sketchier innards, I remained focused on my journey’s end in Brora and the following day’s coast-to-coast ride to Ullapool and, following a ferry transfer, Stornoway.

A three-mile detour, as I followed south-bound cycle route signs to Strathpeffer rather than those which would have taken me north, a series of arrow-straight, 15% gradients out of Dingwall, and an inexplicable clunking noise from the bike all turned my thoughts towards what I was capable of enduring. Was the second half of the Odyssey something I could, something I should, persevere with?

The previous evening’s pizza shop paranoia was the first suggestion that bodily fatigue had at last begun to erode mental resilience. In a reverse of four years ago, the spirit had been willing but only now did I realise how weak the body had become.

A week previously, I had been concerned about the left knee; now, the right joint was stiff and uncooperative. However, as I wheezed above the Cromarty Firth, almost painfully bright blue, I began to suspect that neither knee was really the issue. Instead, both legs were empty – there was no zip, no power, left. For the first time, breathing proved uncomfortable and lung capacity felt reduced. What was I riding for? The answer was revealing: ‘Balblair’.

Along the mazy cycle path through the woods to Alness, I decided that there was nothing for me beyond Balblair visitor centre and my night’s stop at Clynelish Farm B&B. The forecast for Lewis on Wednesday was less than encouraging, the distance – 80 miles – was not something I could entertain overcoming in my current state. Mileage forecasts read like nails in my own coffin: 80 miles, 61 miles, 59 miles, 65 miles. I hadn’t done the training to confidently commit to these distances. My ‘see how you go’ approach had now come to a head. I couldn’t go on.

What remained after Balblair, in any case? A distillery I knew I couldn’t physically get to and one I had visited before (Auchentoshan). In between? If you took Lewis and Harris out of the equation I had more or less covered the Skye to Glasgow route on the first Odyssey. Even assuming I miraculously recovered my touring legs, what would I get out of those ten days? More traffic, more exhaustion and certainly no Laidlaws. With my new job beginning in Dubai in September, I reflected that the right decision was to come home to my family and my girlfriend, savour the companionship I was sorely lacking out here on the sun-blasted tarmac of the Scottish Highlands.

Near Invergordon I cut across to the A9, sprinting a mile or so westward before reaching a turn off to the left which I suspected would take me towards Tain. By this stage, the heat and glare had reached impressive levels and the road followed an upward trajectory once more. This was a real physical low point, with little or no energy to call upon. I just had to grovel up the inclines and numbly roll down the descents. Repeat for the next six miles.

Turning through Tain, I was familiar with the next part of my route: stay as close to the soft drain at the left-hand side of the road as possible, keep your head down and try not to scream. Articulated lorries, forestry trucks, campervans, all sweep past you at alarming rates as you pass through the sweet fermenting fug of Glenmorangie. Then it’s uphill to the Dornoch Bridge roundabout before collapsing down the other side to the quieter, shadier banks of the Dornoch Firth.Far slower progress was made than three years previously, when I cycled from my Tain B&B to Balblair each day for a spot of low-impact work experience. Eventually, the caravan park on Edderton’s outskirts appeared on my right, and the brown signs for the distillery guided me past the Clach Biorach Pictish stone, red brick chimney and pagoda vent just visible beyond.

Life was, if anything, hotter in the courtyard beneath the mashtun and alongside the visitor centre, from where Julie and ‘new girl’ Monica appeared. Their greetings, and the sheer pleasure of being at Balblair, ensured I beamed rather than burned. I changed, ate lunch and then wandered back in the direction of the offices. Redecorated since my last visit, and significantly airier, too, on account of the windows being replaced, between Julie and I we established that the best bet would be for me to have a roam around looking for operators. John Ross I bumped into in the car park, Norman and manager John were in the adjoining office.

From there it was up to the break room where I met Alan More and Mike Ross. It transpires that the biggest change since automation in 2011 was the removal of the wee third still. This little riveted beauty was taken out to make room for an extra wash charger, which allows for extra fermentation space and ups the production capacity. Everyone seemed to be in rude health, and Mike showed me the computer operating system for the distillery. It is incredible to see all the graphs and readings from each step of the process, detailed so exactly. I couldn’t make a great deal of them, but clearly there were no causes for concern.

Back in the office, I could get down to the important business of tasting. Lukasz Dynowiak had been very generous at his Quaich Society tasting the previous winter, so I had tried the 2003 and 1990 already. My chief target was the hand-fill ex-Bourbon cask from 2000, exuding spicy/sweet aromas in the visitor centre. That and the 1983. I got to work on the latter while Julie slipped away to find me a measure of the former.

The nose was warm and leathery with plenty of rich orange, leaf mulch and banana toffee. The weight and clarity was exceptional, recalling my favourite Balblair ever, the 1978. Rich honey and even a light smokiness emerged next with traces of coconut and an almost Japanese dried bark intensity. The palate showcased the waxiness of age together with deep dried fruit, papaya, mango, cinnamon and cream.

The hand-fill (58% ABV) was closed, clean and quite sharp at first. A fragrant, soapy texture developed along with creamy cedar wood. To taste, I didn’t detect much more than hard leather, oak and budding fruits. Water improved matters, exposing grapefruit, lime, washback fruits, turmeric and banana foam sweets on the nose. A malty and citrusy palate was attractive but while it showed more Balblair hallmarks, I couldn’t justify the £90 asking price, which is very high for a 14yo single cask. Conscious that this was my final distillery visit, and that there was a vintage from my birth year in the shop, I went for the 1990 instead. With a bit of ingenuity, it fitted snugly in my pannier.Setting off for the Dornoch Bridge, the body felt a little more pepped and willing. I was even buoyed by a generous tailwind passing over the firth. From thereon in, however, life became difficult again. I allotted myself ten-mile sections of the A9 which I would ride as briskly as possible before pulling over for a rest. Soon, the wide tarmac hard-shoulder vanished and I was at the mercy of the traffic again. Inexplicably, for the third day in a row, the wind hit me full in the face. Saturday: heading east with a headwind; Sunday: heading west with a headwind; Monday: heading north with a headwind. Clearly the weather gods wanted me to throw in the towel.

Twelve miles to Golspie, became 8, then four. I knew Brora was not much further on from Golspie, but couldn’t be more precise until I saw a sign reading ‘Golspie 4; Brora 10′. The traffic was intermittent: congested and irritable one moment, non-existent the next. As I pedalled through the sleepy main street of Golspie, I suddenly recollected the climb out of it. These were miles familiar from Scotch Odyssey 1, but that didn’t make them any easier.

The road swung round to the cliff top once again for the run in to Brora and the full force of the north coastal breeze just about toppled my sanity. Teeth gritted, pushing down a yell of rage, I bumped into the village (no idea what those rumble strips are doing there) and spied the station. If I was getting home the next day, it would have to be by train. Of course, the station was un-staffed - indeed, it was in the process of being boarded up so I pedalled back to the A9 and followed the signs to Clynelish as I knew my B&B was practically in the grounds. I took the wrong road, however, and ended up circuiting the ruins of Brora Distillery, necessitating another short sharp climb back to what could only be Clynelish Farm B&B. Arriving simultaneously with a couple in a car (what wisdom), I was shown to my room by Victoria, the Australian proprietor.That afternoon’s shower was well-deserved, I thought, as I scoured off all the road muck and sun cream, but also philosophical. My next task was not finding dinner and preparing for the next adventure, but plotting my route back home. A couple of abortive phone calls to National Rail and Scotrail occurred as I walked between fields of cows and gorse back into Brora, followed by a confessional call to my parents.

‘I’ve decided to stop,’ I said. They didn’t seem terribly upset by this news and, following two train journeys and a bike ride to St Andrews, a bus and a further train back to Northumberland, I can confirm that I’m not terribly upset, either. Of course there are pangs of longing for the grandeur and adventure of bike touring, and I miss the pared down lifestyle it encourages. However, there is not an ounce of regret that I didn’t carry on to Stornoway. I know my body could not have coped.

Since January and my two weeks in London with Compass Box I haven’t stopped to rest and attempting a 1,000 mile bike trip two weeks after sitting my final exams was asking a great deal. A great deal too much, as it turned out. Instead, I covered nearly 460 miles in eight days, via six distilleries or distilleries-in-the-making, and ended up 60 miles north of Inverness on the beautiful Sutherland coast. I had my fun and the 1983 Balblair was definitely a dram worth holding out for. We shall have to see what touring opportunities arise in future.

Posted in The Odyssey, The Tours | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Countdown to Scotch Odyssey 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in The Odyssey, Whisky Tourism | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Wemyss Malts at the Quaich Society

May is whisky month in Scotland, in case you had wondered why there was a whisky festival going on everywhere from Speyside to London and Glasgow, to your local church hall. Whisky is everywhere for these glorious 31 days of early summer. Sadly for me, exams have been equally prevalent.

Before revision robbed me of libational liberty, Doug Clement - long-time Quaich Society attendee and now Wemyss Malts ambassador – closed our immensely successful year of tastings. Doug was the man who pushed and pushed (and pushed) for a distillery in the East Neuk of Fife, and his beloved Kingsbarns dream is being made manifest by the investment and stewardship of Wemyss Malts, who purchased the nascent company from him last year. A pro golf caddie ordinarily, Doug donned his kilt rather than a club bag to present a range of Wemyss releases and provide us with an update on the distillery build project.

Working with such an old building – a former baronial pile in days gone by with the ornamental turrets and crenellations to prove it – has presented challenges, but the interior is now fully partitioned off and I understand the roof is weather-tight. Edinburgh architects, Simpson & Brown, have preserved the time-worn exterior of the building. All that remains, essentially, is for the equipment to move in and production is expected to start in December. Doug will live in the grounds, acting as visitor centre manager for the hordes of whisky fanatics and curious golfers who are sure to descend on the distillery upon completion.

Our first pour of the evening was a single cask single malt. Wemyss work with the redoubtable Charles Maclean who selects casks for bottling and bestows upon them a useful flavour moniker by which they are to be known. This one, from Mortlach in Speyside, was dubbed “Vanilla Oak”, a 15yo from an ex-Sherry butt. Looking at the colour one would never have guessed: very pale indeed with light grassy aromas arriving first. A nutty and acidic edge and thick custard also did not point to a European oak maturation vessel. The palate was rather cooling with grassiness again, pear, vanilla (quelle surprise) and spearmint. A light dram, for all its provenance and not entirely my cup of tea.

The next offering was a Scottish premier: the new – non-age statement – Lord Elcho, a blended whisky. I tasted the 15yo a while back and was impressed by its velvety rich and sweet nose and industrial, smoky palate – a most curious Jekyll/Hyde whisky. The latest addition to the range was right up my street: syrupy thick grain, woody spice and an edge of dry, crisp peat smoke at the back rounded out an exuberant and playful nose. It remained bouncy on the palate with tight, clinging grain and again a touch of smoke. Dark chocolate and coffee grounds led into the short, sweet finish.

Moving swiftly on, we came to the much-lauded Spice King 12yo (a World Whisky Awards winner back in 2012). Sixteen different malts are packed in delivering a focused green malt and green apple aroma, with a far deeper taste profile: rich malt, liquorice, turmeric and a touch of peat. A really engaging sipper.

The second single cask release was one I had come across a few weeks previously, and new it was of an exceptionally high standard. The 1997 Clynelish “Apple Basket” went down a storm. A 16yo dram from a Bourbon barrel, the nose offered super thick and indulgent oak with rich red apple and candied ginger. The palate was a joy with a shaving of oak, then caramel and red fruits. A tickle of spice and curry leaf confirmed this as the classically waxy and semi-savoury Clynelish spirit.

I remember being impressed by Wemyss’s other blended malt, Peat Chimney (Spice King, Peat Chimney and The Hive are the company’s core range of blended malts) when I first tried it. Again, I was charmed by the level of integration between biscuit malt and peat. Abundant citrus balance these aromas. Soft and fruity on the palate, the peat gradually grows. Balance is maintained, but it felt a tad underpowered to me, especially when compared with something like Compass Box’s Peat Monster.

The final drink could be mixed if we so chose: Darnley’s View Spiced Gin with Fever Tree Ginger Ale, ice and an orange segment on the side. The aromas were all spicy and Indian: cumin, turmeric, with a sweet and buttery undertow. The flavours were too perfumed and sweet for my tastes, however, but I have heard good things about the ginger ale combination.

Beer, more Spice King and more beer followed in the pub afterwards, and I’d like to thank Doug and Wemyss for their generosity, as well as for the hugely entertaining part they played in what was my final tasting as Quaich Society President.

Posted in Tastings | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

On the road again…

Back in the saddle again in June 2014.

The terrific thing about wrapping up a semester is that you can turn your mind to fun future projects, cogitate a little more about what you want them to be, what shape and purpose they will have, and get a jump on making them a reality. That happened to me over the weekend regarding a mission of mine which has been incomplete since May 2010.

As those of you who followed my original Scotch Odyssey three years ago will know, I couldn’t make it to every distillery on my itinerary. The reasons for this were numerous: bike/boy breakdown, an overambitious route, misread opening times etc. etc. I had unfinished business with about eight distilleries in Scotland – and then a bunch of passionate people set about building more!

In June next year – all being well – I’ll graduate from the University of St Andrews. Between the formal termination of my final semester here in Fife and Graduation Week there are a few days begging to be capitalised upon and I feel I really ought to finish what I started prior to entering higher education in 2010. With the aid of Google Maps and the mega-litres of whisky experience I gained last time I packed my panniers and pedalled to the glens I have compiled a second route round Scotland which will see me cover nearly 1,200 miles in 20 days and visit thirteen malt whisky distilleries old and new.

The Scotch Odyssey Part II will begin here in St Andrews with Daftmill and Kingsbarns distilleries before I head north over the Tay to tick off Dalwhinnie and Tomatin. From there I wend my way into Speyside for the distillery I shouldn’t have missed last time round but did: The Balvenie. Then I swing by the Aberdeenshire distilleries of The GlenDronach and Glenglassaugh before skirting the Moray Firth on my journey to The Dalmore. I did visit this distillery in 2010 but in the meantime the visitor experience has been dramatically overhauled and I feel I really ought to spy those famous stills on the Cromarty Firth in this new light. Next I head to Balblair for my first tour as a punter, despite working there for a week in the summer of 2011.

I continue north to Clynelish which famously does not open for tours on a Saturday in late April. Then it’s time to head westwards: catching the ferry from Ullapool I visit the most westerly Scotch whisky distillery of them all, the spirit of Lewis, Abhainn Dearg. I will cycle down through Lewis and Harris to Tarbert before another ferry desposits me at Uig, Isle of Skye. From here it is an identical route to previously as I pedal off the island to Fort William. There will be a few long days in the saddle before I reach Clydebank and the Auchentoshan distillery. After a few more I hope to visit Annandale – if it is open to receive me – before wending my way back up to St Andrews.

Knowing what I know now about cycle touring I’m hoping to extract maximum adventure from my trip and I’ve invited any friends who wish to accompany of a leg or legs of the journey to do so. The real logistics of B&Bs, ferries and tour bookings have still to be made, and the fitness regime will have to start fairly sharpish. The Scotch Odyssey of 2010 is an undertaking I think about every single day and with every whisky I drink. I have high hopes for the next pilgrimage round Scotland’s beauty spots and barley-boiling stills.

Posted in The Odyssey, Whisky Tourism | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Compass Box Delilah’s and Peat Monster 10th Anniversary

The Compass Box motto is and always has been, Above all, share and enjoy. For any Douglas Adams fans, this is also uncannily similar to the anthem of the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation. Fortunately, whisky creator John Glaser’s products are on another planet compared with the shoddy robots you find in The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

In 2013, John’s output has underlined the company’s commitment to great whisky, great packaging and a pervasive philosophy of appreciation without taking yourself too seriously. Enter Delilah’s, a blended Scotch whisky constructed in partnership with the Chicago punk whisky bar of the same name. The iconic venue celebrated its 20th anniversary this autumn and owner Mike Miller wanted something special to mark the occasion. However, having fun remained the principal goal. Compass Box released just over 6,000 bottles of their new blend, created with roughly 50% Cameronbridge grain whisky and 50% malt (Longmorn* and Teaninich) matured in new and rejuvenated American oak casks. The serve? A shot to enjoy alongside a beer. Uncomplicated. Off-beat. But if speed is not of the essence, what does this whisky taste like?

Compass Box Delilah’s 40% (natural colour, unchillfiltered) 6,324 bottles £47.50

Colour – rich orangey gold.

Nose – soft, sweet and creamy at first, like white chocolate mice. The grains have an oily, golden syrup presence. Vanilla and peeled tangerine, peach and mango verging on to lush florals. Getting stuck in, it is so soft; light but purposeful. Silky almond milk-like grains introduce spun sugar malts with orange peel and sultana. Honeydew melon and banana. Has the rounded oaky spice of a younger Bourbon – almost wheated. Lovely.

Palate – creamy sweetness + spice. Rounded vanilla with cinnamon and chilli, then orange zest fuses the two. Lingering.

Finish – something like heather and runny honey (but not heather honey). Still creamy but the oak develops a nipping core at the end.

Adding water dimmed the nose by quite a bit – those exuberant oak notes just overplayed their hand a touch, becoming tired and inhibiting. A little dried mango and banana, as well as coconut and apricot emerge but the oak/spirit balance has been lost. The palate, on the other hand, is extraordinary: pearlescent green fruits (my favourite Longmorn fingerprint*) with melon balls, grape and pear with honeycomb. So wonderful. The oakiness stays away and the pear builds before a tickle of spice rounds things off with echoes of very mature grains.

As well as marking the anniversaries of others, Compass Box has a milestone of its own to celebrate. It has been ten years since the first Peat Monster was concocted and released. Back then, it was for an American customer and called only The Monster. As the years have gone by the smoky style of Scotch whisky has gained a rabid following and John has sought to up the peaty ante. It is now the best-seller in the Compass box range and loved by many for its pristine oak sugars and thick though never terrifying smoke profile. In celebration of the Monster reaching a decade on the shelves, John has recalibrated the recipe slightly, going odder and older with what I am assuming is Ardmore. Richness, boldness and smoke are the watchwords here, with Caol Ila and Laphroaig puffing away. Clynelish is the instrumental play-maker.

Compass Box The Peat Monster 10th Anniversary 48.9% 5,700 bottles £75.85

Colour – pale straw.

Nose – robust, round but deep and dark peat at first. Behind is serious oaky weight, ash, sandiness and barbecued green apple. Approaching the glass and it is phenolic and earthy. Tremendously oily but sweet, reminding me of Kilchoman with the engine oil and vanilla ice cream effect. Glints of barley malt and a strain of acidic fruits emerge with the impression of hot copper stills. An engagingly different smoky experience.

Palate – awesome. dry, kiln-clinging smoke with smoked oysters and caramelised malt husks. An explosion of peat on swallowing then saliva-inducing chilli. Did I say awesome?

Finish – hard to know when it begins to fade. This is powerful stuff: rich, dry, thick, lovely. Peat and turf roots with a slice of oak. Dulse and barnacles. Sweet grist has the final say.

As with the Delilah’s, I wasn’t sure that water helped. The nose kept its density and complexity with the fruits coming out a touch more. Sweeter notes from the casks now (there’s a percentage of French oak in the marriage). Laphroaig Cask Strength-esque fudgey smoke. Cardamom. Rock pools on a scorching day. Grows a tad too perfumed for my liking. The palate was lighter at first, the smoke billowing before condensing. So bold and powerful – an outdoor whisky for sure. Doesn’t hit the heights of the straight sample. The finish is almost winey with puckering fruits. Like the peaty Great King Street it has a mineral character.

So…?      I was bowled over by the variety on display in these whiskies and both received very high scores in my personal ratings system. I had thought Delilah’s might just be a reformulation of Asyla (they share many core ingredients) but this is certainly its own whisky. Keep the water away, however, to retain the gorgeous airiness but subtle impact of the nose. The Peat Monster 10th Anniversary, though, is the powerhouse whisky and one I would need to return to a number of times to fully understand. There is so much going on in there and its sense of purpose is so convincing. It is a whisky to surrender to. And what a label! They should really do posters, as well…

* Chris Maybin of Compass Box who kindly furnished me with the samples has been in touch with a correction for me. It transpires that the ‘Elgin’ malt used in Delilah’s is in fact Glen Elgin – not Longmorn - and I was attributing that mesmeric fruitiness on the palate to the wrong distillery! Embarrassing, but it does not mar my admiration for the blend or indeed my devoted attitude towards Longmorn. My thanks to Chris for pointing this out, and credit where it is due to Diageo.

Posted in Sensings | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Delicious Luck with Compass Box

Never have I wanted to win the Quaich Society Raffle more.

As I confessed in my previous post, against all probability (and decency in the eyes of some), my ticket was drawn first in our post Compass Box tasting Raffle. When John Glaser had discussed his contributions to the Raffle with us, words such as ‘exceptional’ and ‘one-of-a-kind’ had leapt out at me. ‘When will I next have the opportunity to taste a Compass Box expression in its rawest incarnation?’ I asked myself, and plumped for the ‘Oak Cross ’08 HM – Single Heavy Toasted French Oak’ sample bottle. ‘How will I smuggle me and it out of here tonight without getting lynched?’ was another, more private speculation.

I succeeded, however, and when I escaped from a lecture theatre on this wet and windy Wednesday in St Andrews out came the ruby-tinted rarity by way of consolation.

Compass Box Oak Cross ’08 HM 56.7% abv.

Nose – With a measure poured and the glass far from my nostrils, scents of creamy milk chocolate, vanilla and winey fruits fill the room. Getting started, there is a mass of stewed red fruits, some tannic oak and then fresh, spicy and vibrant American oak casks: a hogshead-packed filling store. Later, snuffed-out birthday cake candles emerge and papaya provides a gentle tropical texture. Fat, oily honey is tucked away, too. I suspect that there is a fair proportion of Clynelish in here with that wonderfully hard to put one’s finger on note of lemon/apple which is at once jellied and crystallised. More time reveals marmalade and gingerbread, in addition to cinnamon and clove.

Adding water evokes glazed biscuits: gingerbread men and custard. Gorgeous spice-accented creamy oak. In the centre is an almost bourbon-like dense core of malty sugars, orange rind and caramel. The orange softens and lightens and separates from the rich malt. With extra breathing time, airy but rich and rounded walnut notes emerge as well as not quite ripe plum. White chocolate, rich, frothy wash, jasmine and bran flake Frosties burst out all at once. It is sublime in its weight and delicacy of aroma. It reminded me of some of the later drams on the Auchentoshan VIP Tour, or the stillroom and warehouse on the Aberlour tour. There is even some gentle fragrant smoke underneath it all, like a cask freshly charred and quietly smoking in a cooperage.

Palate – Full, spicy and fruity with plenty of oak. Lovely, tongue-coating tannins and wood sugars. Adelphi Breath of Speyside-esque. Then toffee and malt surface before releasing, fresh and firm seashore citrus.

Water makes for a ceaseless, joyous barrage of flavour. Nutty and densely fruity initially, I quickly gained the impression of Speyside in summer: slight charred oak, rich barley and strawberry jam. Fronds of crystal malt tickle the palate too. It is a bold spirit, speaking of dark, green leaves and malt husks.

Finish – Chewy/creamy oak: lots of power but there is agility, too. Vanilla and butterscotch ice cream. Final notes of rich and juicy fruitcake with marzipan.

With water the spirit retains the density from the reduced palate, offering toffee and some high-grade dark chocolate. The oak is really stupendous. Heathery honey meets sticky wine cask. Sweetly earthy at the end.

So…?

If Mr Glaser was prepared to bottle this, price would have to be no object. With the addition of water, this is one of the most complex but satisfying whiskies I have had the pleasure of encountering in many months; you are persistently aware that there is more to find, but far too relaxed by the langourous sequence of mighty oak flavours and the magnificence of well-made, well-matured Speysiders that sing of summer to worry about looking too hard. The alcohol simply does not exist on the nose, and only a little water removes any brashness from the palate. In terms of poise and power, this Oak Cross/ Spice Tree sample cannot be surpassed. It confirms the genius of Glaser, and hints at the supreme quality of whiskies coming from lesser-known distilleries throughout Scotland. A triumph.

Exciting news for those of you who cannot wait to run out and buy a bottle of fine Compass Box whisky. Master of Malt are running a competition at the moment in which the first 250 people to purchase one of Mr Glaser’s creations will be entered into a draw to win the eceedingly rare Canto Cask 48, the now Illegal Spice Tree and Canto Cask 20. Also, in addition to your purchased bottle, Master of Malt will throw in a 3cl Drinks by the Dram sample of another Compass Box whisky! Follow the links, and get buying.

Posted in Sensings | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Le Malt 24 Hours – part 2

As I mentioned in the previous post, for our 24 Whiskies in 24 Hours Challenge Mark and I understood that company would be an important factor in the undertaking. Good morale would ensure positive malt moments. With this in mind, for our eighth whisky Xander, Quaich Society Secretary, joined us in Mission Control.

Out came Peat’s Beast, an independent bottling of a peaty whisky recently released and for which I had a 70cl sample. I hope to bring you more detailed information on this dram soon, but for now suffice it to say that it galvanised our spirits for the night ahead. ‘Just remember,’ Xander replied, ‘alcohol is a depressant’. And then he bounced out the door.

01.30: Four Roses Small Batch and Dervish pizzas.

Little did Mark and I realise that, ordering pizzas aside, we would enjoy no other outside human interaction for the next 17 hours. We decamped to his flat where a Speyside period developed: two malt whiskies with bipolar developments in both Sherry and ex-Bourbon oak. The Macallan Fine Oak 10yo and The Balvenie Doublewood proved delicious, despite the incoming seismic waves of another sinus headache for me. From there, arrangements became somewhat comical as we tramped to and fro, grabbing whiskies (Balblair 1992, Four Roses Small Batch) and a DVD (Rat Race) so that whisky and adequate distraction should be in the one place.

A very truncated verticle tasting of Aberlour followed as Mark’s 10yo introduced my 16yo single cask. It was at this point, dear readers, that despite the fortifying ham pizza, I confess I hit the wall. 03.30 had arrived entirely unexpectedly and found me pschologically unprepared. We had, when discussing the endeavour, always admitted that fatigue and not inebriation would be the greatest threat to completing the Le Malt 24 hours but I had not expected the agonising, bleary-eyed and ponderously-stomached horror of it all. I sat, slumped, on my sofa and could not revive myself with a pragmatic appraisal of the situation: we were two whiskies beyond halfway, if I could only endure until 5am or thereabouts, I could conquer the challenge.

Mercifully, our itinerary came to the rescue. Mark’s coastal collection of Jura Superstition and Clynelish 14yo would see us through until dawn, and we had agreed that we would take the Challenge to the beach. SAS-style, I grabbed everything warm I possessed, in addition to an Easter Egg. The trek that followed I remember neither as brief nor straightforward but we belatedly arrived at the Old Course. En route, we had exchanged greetings with a hedgehog which Mark entirely failed to photograph. I think this multi-species interaction gave me new heart, however, for I navigated my way between the 17th and 18th, then the 2nd and 1st – avoiding the Swilken Burn by some miracle – and placed boot on sand with firmer resolution.

We pitched ourselves on a bit of dune, poured the Jura, and became entranced by the wonders of the universe above our heads. I sipped the whisky which, at pre-dawn temperatures, reminded me of the Jura and ice cream experiment we had indulged in at 16.30: a smoky, butterscotch frozen treat. As I lay on the dune, I noticed a satellite sliding over the sky, and traced its progress with slack-jawed wonder. The Milky Way could be seen, too.

Astoundingly beautiful on both counts: the 15yo Caol Ila and sunrise on St Andrews' pier.

Because it was cold, and unbeknownst to ourselves we now sported a significant layer of light sand courtesy of the seaside breeze, we moved on to East Sands. By this point, light had begun to build in the lower reaches of the sky and hope renewed. Mark and I slouched to the end of the pier which was no less chilly or exposed than West Sands had been, but the insistent swells coming from the horizon broke against it in the half-light with a mesmeric beauty. Black and blue, the waves kept on melting against the structure on which we stood, with textures I well knew my camera could not capture.

Clynelish and that Easter Egg ushered in the dawn, and we poured the Caol Ila single cask in time to encourage the burning slit of red that announced the return of the sun. Despite this being the 17th dram of the day, that Caol Ila in that moment will always remain a particular privilege to have savoured.

The terrors of the night vanquished, we returned to my flat where an unusual breakfast awaited us. The Glenlivet 21yo at 07.30 in the morning beat a bowl of Crunchy Nut cornflakes any day, and when I opened the Redbreast 12yo an hour later, it was infinitely preferrable to fruit muesli and yoghurt.

 

Into the finishing straight: Mark pours the Glenmorangie Original.

Breaking the 20 whiskies barrier would require another stagger back to Mark’s. There, Glenmorangie Original witnessed a fit of laughter on my part as I speculated on what members of the public passing Mark’s sitting room window should think were they to look in at us. The laughing quickly stopped, however. At 10.25, our finishing line seemed further away than it had at 06.45. We put The Departed on the DVD player and poured, drank, washed glasses, poured and drank again. Mark professed to be struggling by this stage, and I had started to worry about what that gentle tug in my lower abdomen might indicate as to the status of my liver. Damon, Di Caprio and co. shooting each other passed some critical time and eventually, with wry smiles and rasped ‘slainte‘s, the penultimate whisky entered the glasses. Incredibly, and Mark agreed, I could still find the Glenmorangie Quinta Ruban enjoyable. I could still stand whisky.

Walking back into the Whey Pat, I fixed my gaze upon their wall of whiskies in a manner that the barmaid would have been forgiven for judging as ‘unnecessarily aggressive’ or ‘mad’.

‘What do you fancy?’ asked Mark. I slumped against the bar.

‘Old Pulteney 12yo, please.’

And so Lavinia, our companion from the Bruichladdich tasting but 21 hours previously, discovered us half an hour later a pitiful, morose pair. There was a plate of nachos I could not finish, despite having drawn upon them as my motivational energy in the small hours. There were blood-shot eyes. There was a notable failure of communication as I could think of nothing besides my bed. However, there was real cameraderie between myself and my fellow expeditionist. We had done what had at certain points seemed impossible and we could still look at a bottle of whisky without yelping in fright. 24 whiskies, 24 hours – a vast number of singular memories, and the written promise that we will never do anything like it again. At least, my signature is on there; Mark is thinking he might give it a shot with ale.

The completion photograph. I should have done - but could not do - more damage to those nachos...

Posted in Comment, Sensings | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The SMWS Vaults – and Leith’s Labyrinth

‘This isn’t very relaxing at all,’ I raged, stamping past another betting shop, wincing as blisters began to bisect my heels and perspiration pooled beneath my pullover.

The entrance to the Vaults.

On the subject of my pilgrimage to the Scotch Malt Whisky Society’s Vaults venue in Leith, Edinburgh, I had envisaged whisky’s bard – Mr Robert Burns – supplying a cheerful commentary. Unfortunately, rather than his Scotch aphorisms captioning my expedition, the only refrain I could recognise circulating within my seething brain concerned ‘mice and men…’

What ought to have been a leisurely 25 minute stroll from the bus station in St Andrew Square to 87, Giles Street demanded instead an hour and a half of feverish to-ing and fro-ing, in addition to a testy phonecall to my sister sat in front of Google Maps at home, trying to work out where the hell I was and how exactly I was to get to my hallowed destination.

I successfully found Giles Street and my anti-clockwise stromp around it was to be my final error of the day. A likely-looking building reared up at me, all old chunky bricks and little warehouse-esque windows. The green sign was perhaps the biggest give-away, though. Relief evicted the anger from my system, which had the disadvantage of robbing me of what energy I thought I had. Panting and swaying, I mounted the many steps and continued passed the paint tins and dust sheets to what I had been searching for – the bar.

Worries as to whether I could be fitted in were instantly abolished. Having signed in and handed over my membership card I discovered with delight that there was a surplus of leather sofas, broken in to the point of perfection by the posteriors of many a whisky aficionado. Perhaps. I ordered a 7.67 and sunk into one myself.

The members' room - a dining room-come-bar. And ever so cosy.

I can confirm what my picture suggests: this is the baronial stately home approach to accommodating whisky devotees, alluding to a sepia-tinged yesteryear when, I hate to say it, men repaired to the drawing room for a tumbler of something. Cutting edge the Vaults is not. In fact, I was far closer in ages to the bar staff than I was my fellow members. However, I stuck my nose into my Longmorn, ordered some haggis, neeps and tatties and quickly failed to notice anymore.

Many have praised the food available from the SMWS kitchens, both in the Queen Street branch and at the Vaults. My plate was certainly stacked high with flavour (I haven’t had Scotland’s national dish served in that style before) and the chocolate mousse for dessert ticked all of my personal boxes for richness, tartness and gooeyness. Mindful after the last mouthful vanished that I still had some serious tasting to do, it perhaps wasn’t the best combination for keeping my senses in optimum condition. Nevertheless, I had reclaimed the calories Leith’s streets had taken from me and within half an hour I was ready for my next dram.

The bar. As it happens, I only explored the left-hand side.

The 19.46 astonished and moved me. This 21-yo whisky from a refill hogshead smelled initially like an ornamental fireplace in an oak-floored Highland house: blackened coal scuttle and an ancient stone and cast iron grate into which some autumn leaves had found their way. There were brass furnishings, too. Then came rich butter and brown sugar, deep oakiness with a green touch and light, crumbly sweet peat. Caramel toffee-accented malt confirmed the high class of the nose. The palate was equally suave and involving: spicy, biscuity, oaky and leafy. In my notes I have ‘a full-on burnished experience’ which I think means that both the brass furnishing character from the nose reappeared as part of the all-round impression of cohesion and quality. Coriander is another mid-palate note. It becomes rich and buttery again after a time, with late hints of candied lemon zest.

The addition of water developed the lemony theme as lemon curd arrived on the nose, spread between two layers of soft, rich flapjack. Heavy butterscotch, together with strawberry and blueberry jam, rounded out a very good and above all different character. The palate revealed more of the cask influence, with a rich, dark char. Coriander can be found in the mix again, with more lemon pieces. Pepper. The abiding impression was of richness, with a gentle chew.

My abiding impression of the Vaults, though? As a base camp for a society like the SMWS, I doubt it could be improved upon. In fact, my navigational headaches buttressed the atmosphere of eclectic sequestration the place exudes. You can’t just pop in off Prince’s Street. It seems to me very appropriate that there should be a venue in the city’s former commercial and goods trading centre, one that is built in to Leith’s abundant wine and spirit heritage. The decor (the final touches to a refit of the reception rooms were taking place during my visit), friendliness of the staff and eye-popping breadth of bottlings promise a permanent reward for those keen enough to make the trek to discover the spiritual home of the Society, tucked into a district where whisky as a viable commercial product was made possible in the first place. Who would have thought that at the centre of the labyrinth there would be an Olympus?

Posted in Sensings, Whisky Societies | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Clynelish

      I was wet, I was cold, and I was not prepared to accept when faced with a darkened and locked visitor centre that it was my fault for not reading the opening information properly. On a filthy day from Culrain to Helmsdale discovering that Clynelish was closed was almost too much to take. I debated how much trouble I would get into if I broke into the distillery and showed myself around. I elected to abstain from breaking and entering, and squelched on to Helmsdale for cake and something hot and sweet. My itinerary meant that I couldn’t double back on myself to tour Clynelish when  it opened again on the Monday. I had to get to Orkney.

*      *      *      *      *

Clynelish in white and Brora in grey.

Clynelish in white and Brora in grey.

Brora, Sutherland, KW9 6LR. 01408 623000. Diageo. http://www.discovering-distilleries.com/clynelish/

TOURS PROVIDED:

‘Clynelish Distillery Tour’: £5. A tour of the distillery (including a visit to the warehouse), with a dram of the 14yo to finish.

‘Taste of Clynelish Tour’: £10. The same tour, with a tasting of three Clynelishes at the end: the 14yo, the Distiller’s Edition and the Cask Strength Distillery-Exclusive.

‘Taste of Brora Tour’: £20. This sounds to me like a superb tour in which to participate. There is a tour of both distilleries on the Clynelish site: Clynelish itself and the now cult Brora. It is in the latter that the visitor is treated to a tutored tasting of the Clynelish range (as for the ‘Taste of Clynelish Tour’) with the edition of the 2009 and 2010 Brora 30yo Special Releases.

DISTILLERY-EXCLUSIVE BOTTLINGS:      A cask-strength, non-age-statement at 57.3% ABV, £45 approx.

Posted in The Tours | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Nairn to John o’Groats

Nairn to Strathpeffer: 48 miles

The morning’s riding is characterised by cool, wet winds. It isn’t serious enough to warrant putting on anything waterproof but they are quite challenging conditions. There is some degree of trepidation ahead of this ride. It is the first longer effort I have had to make in a wee while.

Inverness nears. I pass Culloden battlefield as I engage with my enemy: the weather and most other road users.

I hadn’t expected the capital of the Highlands to be quite so busy. It is a proper city! I make my way through the Central Business District, underneath the huge shopping centre. I misread the sign for my desired road. I wanted the same number but with an ‘A’ in front of it. I follow the ‘B’ version for some distance until I realise that I’m not going in the right direction at all.

I hammer back in to Inverness, then cross the river and make for those signs with ‘Dingwall’ on them. Every place name confirms that I am no longer in tidy, cosy Speyside anymore.

I stop at the Bunchrew Hotel on the banks of the Beauly Firth. I have my lunch down by the water’s edge and look over to the misty mountains on my left and the road bridge on my right. There’s something not quite right with the pedal as I pull away. I think the Allen key bolt has worn itself loose again.

I adopt what will become the standard mode for following lochside roads which aren’t entirely flat: head down, swear and try and ignore the lactic acid. I’m lucky that the weather is truly superb by this stage, and everywhere looks divine. Beauly is no exception and this is where I manage to find a garage with a little Allen key. I tighten the hell out of my pedal, and as I totter around the forecourt testing it out I think I’ve sorted it. Back on the road, however, it is patently clear I haven’t.

Muir of Ord arrives at long last and after arrowing through the centre I come to its industrial outskirts. Technically, it is only a pair of buildings that qualify for this, but one is the Glen Ord maltings. And it’s huge. All that romance the tour guides try and sell you when it comes to the malting process? True in the mists of time, but that isn’t how they malt barley now. No pagoda rooves, just multiple storeys of industrial blandness. Inside are enormous drums for turning and drying the barley. Floors and kilns are just too expensive. I later learn on the distillery tour that the Glen Ord maltings provides all the malt for Talisker.

While sitting with my dram of Glen Ord 12YO (see review below) I realise it is my ‘new’ cleat which has come loose, not the pedal spring. I borrow a screwdriver and the whole issue is resolved.

This stirring vista greeted me after I left Muir of Ord on my way to Strathpeffer. Sunlight and cherry blossom in the fore- and middle-ground, rain filling the skirts of the mountains in the distance.

This stirring vista greeted me after I left Muir of Ord on my way to Strathpeffer. Sunlight and cherry blossom in the fore- and middle-ground, rain filling the skirts of the mountains in the distance.

The setting for the remainder of my ride is very much Tolkien’s Middle Earth. The gradations of colour and light are astonishing, and the outlines of the mountains themselves are majestically aggressive.

Road signs have begun to be displayed in English and Gaelic. It turns out I’m only 50 miles from Ullapool. It’s a steep climb up to Strathpeffer and an even steeper one to my B&B. I get off and push up the 50 metre ramp. I just can’t be bothered.

During dinner in the excellent Red Poppy I had noticed some guys head up the hill with tennis rackets. As part of my post-prandial walk, I spectated on the tennis for a little while. For the first time I felt homesick for my friends and our own unusual games.

***

Strathpeffer to Culrain: 52 miles

This was one of my better days, for all it started moistly. I’m pleased to report that it was just a shower and I had the company of the sun for the remainder of the day.

After a food stop in Dingwall (I hoard bananas, you see) I followed the coast overlooking the Black Isle. What a spectacular part of the world this is. Every so often the trees would cease and I could spy back to the spine of Scotland. It was still raining there, alright.

The Dalmore was so eagerly anticipated, and I almost missed it! I was where I didn’t want to be, on a busy road out of Alness, and the sign pointing to the distillery was just concealed.

I followed the main road into Invergordon, desiring a peek at the grain distillery. It didn’t look quite as huge or ungainly as I had been led to believe grain distilleries were. It wasn’t until I passed on the train a few days later that I saw the scale of the warehousing. It’s colossal.

I took the cycle routes to Tain, although I flirted again with the A9. Those roads really aren’t for cyclists. The location of Glenmorangie and the tour more than made up for it, and I only had maybe a mile to survive before I could turn off this horror of a highway and gently waft to Culrain. Err… not quite.

A splendid view of Balblair. Many a time I found a mini of the 1989 and had to put it back on the shelf. I didn't want it getting broken.

A splendid view of Balblair. Many a time I found a mini of the 1989 and had to put it back on the shelf. I didn't want it getting broken.

It was a quieter road, but I was beginning to develop out-of-body tendencies. I ate and ate and ate, but could not summon any real attentiveness. I realised that I had never visited more than one distillery on a day of more than 50 miles duration. Maybe that had something to do with it. What didn’t help was the highways authority’s loathing of telling you how far away you are from anywhere. Distance markers are so incredibly rare and so I was guessing how much further I had to go.

It wasn’t until Ardgay, after some awesome scenery, that I discovered I had only four miles to go. I had estimated seven, so was rather pleased.

Getting to the Youth Hostel involved more breathtaking roads; principally for the landscapes, but latterly for the hills. The track leading to the hostel forecourt was needlessly steep for someone in my condition.

Carbisdale Castle looks like any other Scottish castle from the outside. Inside, it is a youth hostel, but retains statues, rugs, libraries and ancient works of art. It’s unbelievable. Even more baffling is how long it took me to find my room and consequently complete my errands with dorm, reception, laundry room and dining room at opposite ends of the castle. I needed an energy drink just to get from the main entrance to my room. The views over the Kyle of Sutherland to Bonar Bridge were captivating, and largely made up for it.

It was all getting very very Highland-ish at this point. Mercifully, it was quite flat, though.

It was all getting very very Highland-ish at this point. Mercifully, it was quite flat, though.

The hostel also offers evening meals. I paid for three courses and I’m well aware I was no prize picture whilst eating them. feeding had, by that stage, become a primal activity. I practically drank my soup and drummed my fingers on the table in anticipation of my chili, wishing for a big portion. This was quickly despatched. Pudding wasn’t quite the right amount of stodge for me, but at least I began to feel a little more human.

I was rooming with a fellow cyclist and he put it rather well: “You get fitter, but that doesn’t mean you get any less tired.”

***

Culrain to Helmsdale: 42 miles

The scale of the hostel made amassing my things and preparing for the off difficult. I was expecting to read some time in the afternoon on my bike computer when I eventually made it to the entrance with all my bags but in fact it was still before 10AM.

Whilst stocking up in Bonar Bridge, a stranger is compelled to voice his approval of my mode of transport. He was once a cyclist, too, and commends my style. He doesn’t care for these mountain bikers and their fat knobbly tyres, only interested in going down hill. He recommended an alternative route to the main road, and he did promise that it had a lot of ascending. Maybe he was using me to advocate the noble art of suffering on a road bike, thus contrasting me with the muddier sort of cyclist. I have nothing against mountain bikers. It just annoys me when the estate carts zoom past me with them tied to the back, that’s all.

Clynelish was as empty for me on that Saturday as Brora beside it.

Clynelish was as empty for me on that Saturday as Brora beside it.

The man also assured me that it was a wild road. After continuing over a junction, which turned out to be the last one for a very long time, I began to appreciate what he was getting at. It was freezing when I eventually reached the top and the barreness of the hillsides, together with the chilly-looking lochs made me feel very much on the edge of civilisation. Munching on some shortbread by the side of the road as two cars in convoy passed spoilt the image somewhat.

I could avoid it no longer, though: the A9 was back. I emerged from my track to the past beneath the Mound, an incredible edifice. The motorcyclists greeted me with screaming engines. The camper vans were well represented. What followed were 20 very miserable miles.

If you took away all of the people who believe they have to get to where they're going at 80mph, it would be perfect. A stunning piece of coastline.

If you took away all of the people who believe they have to get to where they're going at 80mph, it would be perfect. A stunning piece of coastline.

The problem is that Scotland is a small, sparsely-populated country. When you get north of the Central Belt, what towns there are are hugely significant for the people living within their catchment and there are only a few roads connecting them all up. Factor in tourism, and cyclists have a pretty rough deal. I find it incredible, though, and actually nothing short of derisory, that there is no cycle lane connected to the A9. It’s on the Lands End to John o’Groats route, for goodness sake! I and the other cyclists I saw, together with walkers, all had to huddle into the verge as closely as they could while buses, vans lorries and cars hurtled past with soul-destroying speed and disdain. When I got to Golspie it started to rain, and the picture of dejection was complete. 

They were 10 wet and slow miles to Brora. Finding Clynelish shut was almost the final straw. Still rather wet, I decided not to head backwards to the centre of Brora but push on to Helmsdale. It was only 11 miles. And it was along the coast, too. It must be flat. Oh no, it wasn’t.

Helmsdale hardly endeared itself to me. The hotels were pricy and the cafes were not to my taste. The hostel was fully booked and there was only the one shower and toilet between a dorm containing nine beds.

I knew that all I needed was some gooey, calorific loveliness to pull round and I found it in the cafe on the A9 bridge, just out of Helmsdale. I had some gorgeous ginger loaf, a big mug of tea, and felt infinitely better. A phone call to Ross, who had spent three months in Uganda and Rwanda at the end of last year and so knows a thing or two about being alone and miserable, helped immeasurably.

***

Helmsdale to Wick: 36 miles

I don’t know if you have ever shared a room with a man with irritable bowel syndrome? I did that night and whilst I won’t go into details (I’m desperately trying to repress the memory), I will say that I had a broken night’s sleep. He woke me up just after seven when he cracked open a can of Tennent’s lager. I made my breakfast and escaped. On the road by 9AM. I ought to have been proud of myself.

The hills got worse between Helmsdale and Wick: one really long though gradual one, and one

Testing terrain between Helmsdale and Wick.

Testing terrain between Helmsdale and Wick.

nastily steep one. Two guys I’d met the night before, and who were one day in to their attempt for Lands End, had warned me about the latter, promising I wouldn’t get up. They had admitted earlier that they had done very little training, and for someone who has been up Cairn o’ Mount and the Devil’s Elbow already this trip, it wasn’t much more than unpleasant. My gears did all the hard work for me.

The weather was changeable, but the landscape was unwaveringly beautiful. The pictures will communicate it best but it is utterly unique. I live by the North Sea, but this was different.

I got to Wick in good time: 12.30! It was no surprise that my B&B proprietors were elsewhere. I took the bike into the middle of Wick, having spied out Pulteney and sat in Morag’s Cafe for an hour or so. Her chocolate cake and mugs of tea revived me perfectly.

Back at the B&B, I tended to my bike, watched some snooker, and fell into a coma.

***

Wick to John o’Groats: 20 miles

As I have mentioned below, my tour of Pulteney left a lot to be desired.

My quest for groceries was similarly frustrating. Lidl would only sell me gargantuan portions of everything, and the Co-op which was said to be at the other end of town I haven’t found yet. The supermarket I did use was perfect, though. I had my sauce, I had my pasta, I had my meat, and I had my bread. It wouldn’t be gastro, but this would be the first night of cooking and I didn’t want to complicate anything by poisoning myself.

This view means the end of the British mainland and was a marker like no other of just how far I had come.

This view means the end of the British mainland and was a marker like no other of just how far I had come.

Into the wind, it was a long 20 miles to John o’Groats. I had no clue as to where the village was until I had toiled up the last hill and there were the islands. I was dumbstruck. A little board told me what everything was. Stroma, Hoy, South Ronaldsay, the Pentland Skerries. Orkney was not qyite visible. A gleaming white ferry was heading towards it as I watched, though. That must be from Gill’s Bay.

I could free-wheel into John o’Groats now. It is an odd place, though. It isn’t a village at all, really. I would say it is more a scattering of houses and two mouldering hotels. Unlike anywhere else so far, though, I sensed that here was somewhere a little bit different to what I had come from, with an entirely different relationship to its surroundings. These last were incomparable, it must be said.

In the bright sun and perishing wind, I arrived at the hostel. It was closed until 5PM. I could have gone for a little ride around, but the wind offered strong discouragement and so I pulled up an abandoned chair and read my book until the nice young man who had been trying to fix a bleeping in the building passed on the message that I could go in.

I found two Geordie ladies on the desk. When they asked what I was up to and saw where I was from one asked, “wasn’t there an article about you in the Northumberland Gazette?” Here I am in the most north-easterly point in mainland Britain and I’m famous!  

Posted in The Odyssey | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment