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D-Day: Drumochter and Dalwhinnie

It’s an especially chaotic but liberating feeling, waking up in a youth hostel knowing all that is required of you for the day is getting to your next bed. What happens in between is entirely your responsibility.

After map-buying, baguette-sourcing and much knee-stretching, I returned to Pitlochry’s high street and spun north. Butterflies had not yet checked out of my stomach for the route that lay ahead, what one Diageo brand ambassador described as Scotland’s answer to Mordor. When driving to Speyside for week holidays here and there, my family and I always follow the A9 north to Boat of Garten before swinging right onto the A95 past Grantown on Spey towards Aberlour. Sat in the back of the car, I have always been conscious of the scrappy bike track which runs alongside the motorway, clinging to it all the way to Inverness as the arterial route comes to terms with the wild barrenness of central Scotland.

Google Maps, my platform of choice for working out directions for the Scotch Odyssey, has come on a good deal since 2010. Consequently, I knew that the climb from Pitlochry to Dalwhinnie was nearly 1,200 feet. On exposed roads. With next to no pit-stop opportunities. The road was certainly stretching upwards as I made it to Blair Atholl but became gentler as I found myself on a well-surfaced, two-lane cycle path.

By this stage, about 14 miles in, the only cause for concern was the enormous black cloud above me, which every left turn convinced me was passing over and harmless, and every right turn had me contemplating the waterproof. It just hung there, all morning, without making its intentions clear.

Before very long at all, the single-file concrete and fine gravel cycle path arrived. What I couldn’t appreciate from the car was how it swooped down to the river bank and the railway line before lurching back up to the main road on an annoyingly regular basis. Plus, there were bridges to contend with, all sporting brutal potholes at either end as you left and rejoined the main path. Progress was less than continuous.

Mercifully the sun emerged alongside Loch Ericht but very soon my physical powers were put to the test by a vicious headwind. My mental toughness was also examined, since despite the wind the black clouds in the south seemed to be gaining on me. How was that possible? Soon it was the gates requiring opening and shutting that were enraging me: having to dismount and wrestle a lump of ironmongery in a gale while keeping a heavy bike upright is not much fun.

With the sky darkening, I spotted a sign to Dalwhinnie, the distillery visible from two miles out. Still, however, progress wasn’t straightforward as the wind strengthened and traffic increased. After not too much swearing, however, I arrived and could reflect on the wisdom of my decision four years ago in Braemar where I had chosen to skip Dalwhinnie and Tomatin. I simply couldn’t have managed it.I signed on for the next tour, deciding to capitalise on one of the additional ‘tastings’ offered – tasting ‘A’, which meant three Dalwhinnie’s paired with chocolate. Foolishly, I thought the price quoted was inclusive of the tour. It wasn’t, so my Dalwhinnie experience was going to cost me £16.99 (£8 for the tour, £8.99 for the tasting).

The tour itself showed improvements on the last time I was visiting a Diageo facility. As always, the tour guide is very friendly and informative although not all guests had their questions answered. The distillery itself is very pretty and exceedingly fragrant, the massive modern mash tun sat beneath one of the bronzed pagodas visible from the motorway and the wooden washbacks lending a heady, fruity aroma. The stills are large and working at full capacity. All Dalwhinnie produced goes to single malt and their now reasonably legendary 15yo.

In the warehouse, things became a little more hands-on. First of all, kudos for even letting us in there; secondly, hurray for a nose of the new make and a single cask sample. All good stuff. Next door there is a display of how colour accrues in different casks over time and here we received our 10ml of 15yo Dalwhinnie, together with a little fingernail-sized piece of chocolate truffle.

The 'Three Tastes' option at Dalwhinnie. I wouldn't recommend.

Forty minutes after leaving the visitor centre I was back again and this was where the problems started. I approached the ‘bar’ to offer my ‘three tastes’ ticket and receive said tastes. Being on a bike, I asked for a spittoon or similar so that I could remain on the right side of the law. ‘I’m sorry, we don’t have anything that can be used for that,’ said one member of staff. ’Whisky’s supposed to be drunk’, came the reply of another. ‘Have you a bottle you could use?’ said the first. I find this a) flabbergasting and b) irresponsible. How can you advertise a distillery tour and tastings to passing trade who are 99.9% using cars to get to you and not provide for spitting-out?

In the end, I did have an empty Volvic bottle and set to work. What did I find as part of my £8.99 tasting? Another 15yo! I was really irritated now. Why charge people for another dram of what they have just had? Surely it is in your interests to give them something else to try, which the customer may go on to buy as a result? Essentially, therefore, my £9 was for two ‘new’ whiskies and a repeat of what I had only nosed five minutes ago. Great stuff, guys. And again, abiding by the 10ml measures. Four Iain Burnett chocolates retail for about £7, but 30ml of whisky? I think Diageo are making a killing.

The other drams, then: the Distillers’ Edition 16yo, finished in Oloroso Sherry, and a single cask from 1997 – the same one that had been passed round to nose while in the warehouse. The Distillers’ Edition was very good, as it happens, and worked reasonably well with the chocolate. The single cask was a bit feisty and closed and tasted younger than the 15yo, the meatiness of the spirit - created in the worm tubs – not quite at its apotheosis.

I left Dalwhinnie seething gently, which was maybe why I couldn’t quite find the cycle route. I did manage another shot of what is a beautiful distillery before finally discerning the little blue sticker. The wind was a constant enemy for the final 11 miles into Newtonmore, and though only 43 miles were clocked for the whole day, it felt like a lot more.

Dinner was at The Letterbox restaurant on Newtonmore’s main street which I heartily recommend. Their two course offer was very compelling and the rest of the menu looked delicious. I wasn’t about to buy a third Dalwhinnie 15yo so stuck to Appletiser.

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