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Countdown to Scotch Odyssey 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

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Summer of Distilleries 2012: LOWLANDS

The Lowlands of Scotland were where my Scotch Odyssey of 2010 began and, as a cyclist, it’s pre-eminence in my affections was guaranteed by the extraordinarily lovely weather I enjoyed. At the time, it was a somewhat overlooked region; accessible but somewhat ‘vanilla’. However, with a resurgence from Auchentoshan and the enduring individuality of Bladnoch, in addition to Ailsa Bay, Daftmill and building projects such as Annandale in the west and Kingsbarns in the east, the Lowlands is at the forefront of avant-guard distilling with a vast variety of flavours on offer.

Auchentoshan, Morrison Bowmore, 01389 878561 www.auchentoshan.com Open 7 days a week, 10am to 5pm. 

  • From Glasgow: 10 miles (20 minutes) from the city centre; from Edinburgh: 55 miles (1 hour 30 minutes) from the city centre
  • Tours: Ranging from the £6 ‘Classic Tour’ lasting an hour to the £45 ‘Ultimate Auchentoshan Experience’. At 135 minutes this is a tour of serious depth, with a nosing and tasting straight from the cask.
  • Visitor Centre Exclusives: bottle-your-own single cask in the warehouse. Choice of two. At present it is a 1999 first-fill Bourbon cask, 59.9% abv. £100.

 

 

Bladnoch, Co-ordinated Development Services, 01988 402605 www.bladnoch.co.uk Open Monday to Friday, 9am to 5pm.

  • From Glasgow: 100 miles (two hours thirty minutes); from Edinburgh: 115 miles (three hours)
  • Tours: one standard tour. Expect to pay between £3 and £5.
  • Visitor Centre Exclusives: not at the moment.

 

 

Glenkinchie, Diageo, 01875 342004 http://www.discovering-distilleries.com/glenkinchie/ Open 7 days a week, 10am to 4pm (5pm in August)

  • From Edinburgh: 16 miles (30 minutes); from Glasgow: 60 miles (one hour fifteen minutes)
  • Tours: Ranging from the £6 ‘Glenkinchie Tour’ to the £10 ‘Flavour of Scotland’ tour.
  • Visitor Centre Exclusives: ‘Double-treated’ with Amontillado American oak cask, 59.3%. Around £65.
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The Quaich Society at Aberfeldy

The Quaich Society outside Aberfeldy distillery.

Regular readers will notice a change in structure for this post title in comparison with normal proceedings. Yes, the Quaich Society has finally escaped the confines of St Andrews’ hotel function rooms, overcome the complacenct attitude that top brands must come to us, and bagged a distillery of our own.

As a St Patrick’s Day warm up, eleven eager Society members surfaced early on the Saturday morning in readiness for departure to Dewar’s World of Whisky and the Aberfeldy Cask Tasting Tour. Though some were neither bright-eyed nor bushy-tailed, they took their seat on the bus in anticipation of a momentous event in Quaich Society recent history. They hid their true feelings well, appearing to be sound asleep from Dundee until we turned off the A9.

As we approached the distillery, the bright spring sunshine picked out squadrons of white-water rafters on the gleaming Tay at Grandtully and thick snow still at the summit of Ben Lawers. This was shaping up to be quite a Highland whisky adventure, and – on a personal note – thrillingly reminiscent of my last encounter with that road: nearly two years ago during the first week of the Scotch Odyssey.

A beautiful Highland distillery on a perfect spring morning. Difficult to beat, I can tell you...

Aberfeldy remains as plush and spartan as I remembered it and we all inspected the neat lawns, strident pagoda, and the new lick of paint the rest of the buildings had received while we waited to begin our tour.

Dewar’s World of Whisky divides brand labour remarkably well. The Dewar’s blended story is dealt with first in the opening film and exhibition area in which the Dewar brothers – John and Tommy – are celebrated for their pioneering salesmanship, before one discovers the blender’s art. Once again, I ran out of patience before completing the computer simulation challenge of recreating the recipe of Dewar’s White Label.

The focus of the guided tour, however, is Aberfeldy distillery and its single malt. With speed and clarity, our guide took us from mill to stills and the eleven tourists inhaled deeply at each new process. In the tun room, we could inspect two of the larch washbacks (switchers were on for the others). ‘As you can see by where the wash has been,’ said our guide, ‘this is just about ready to be pumped across to the stillroom. You could quite happily drink that.’ I know that many Quaich Society regulars approve of a pint, and their eyes shone hopefully, but we were ushered down the stairs to the stills with throats unslaked.

Back in the visitor centre, we awaited with glee the arrival of the valinch-bearer who would withdraw a sample from the American oak hogshead which, for the last 29 years, had harboured Aberfeldy spirit. Cameras flashed and saliva ducts filled. First of all, we could savour the Aberfeldy core range, starting with the sweet, biscuity and appley 12yo, before moving on to the more floral, heathery and slightly smoky 21yo. The group were divided in their preferences, although I adored the firm, almost tarry sweetness of the 21yo.

Extracting the 29yo Aberfeldy spirit from its oak nursery.

Finally, we eached received a Glencairn filled with deep orange nectar. Nosing it, deep oak and rounded vanilla appeared first, followed by red apple peel and some smoke or cask char. The oak notes built and carried with them a rich Bourbon flavour, although the spirit clearly had a bit of liveliness about it after all these years.

Soft and rounded on the palate, chunky toffee and dried apple emerged. I was assured that, even though the whisky was hovering around the 55% abv. mark, its smoothness belied its strength. Up to a point, I agreed, but I wondered whether a drop of water might awaken this sleeping beauty. It sure did.

On the nose, I was overwhelmed by white chocolate aromas and dry heather. There was stronger apple now with rich pot ale scents, too. Biscuity and coconut notes. Orange, fruitcake and tablet.

The palate revealed the signature Aberfeldy honey note, which built in one gorgeous, langorous wave. Vanilla-coated raisins with tarry treated pine. Some grassiness at the end.

‘Why don’t they bottle this?!’ one member of the group asked. I pointed out that the cost would be extraordinary, but remembered how eagerly I would have parted with cash after my last Aberfeldy single cask encounter, a 24yo, in 2009.

Whilst refuelling in the cafe, I was told that the reason our cask tasting had taken place in the visitor centre and not the warehouse as advertised was because of interior alterations being made. A strong hint was dropped that Aberfeldy may be about to join the single cask, hand-bottling brigade and that other John Dewar & Sons single malts may also feature in addition to the flagship brand. I will of course let you know more about this when details are confirmed.

All that remains to be said is a massive thank you to the staff at Dewar’s World of Whisky for looking after us so well, and the bus driver who turned a blind eye to the healthy measures of White Label being poured and enjoyed at the rear of the vehicle.

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Undercover Beginners

Karen and Matt at The Glenlivet, one of my picks for a good distillery tour.

If proof were needed that whisky is a convivial drink elevated by the enlightened and considered folk with whom one savours and discusses it, I present to you Karen and Matt of Whisky For Everyone. Since beginning their democratic investigation into whiskies of the world in 2008, they have become my go-to blog for incredibly in-depth reviews, the latest news and always informed comment. With the same zeal today to discover more about the spirit, Karen and Matt are a credit to the industry and those who endeavour to write about it.

Following on from a guest blog I wrote for them earlier in the week, here is the Whisky For Everyone lowdown on distillery touring in Scotland. I was eager to source their perspective on this matter because I must often concede that while the Scotch Odyssey sought to present a picture of Scotland-wide whisky tourism in the recent past, my encounters can be no more helpful than the restaurant critic who only witnesses one service. Tours vary throughout the day according to a myriad of factors, let alone across the country, at different times of the year with different compositions of tour parties.

I find Karen and Matt’s experiences fascinating as testimonies to the diversity of approaches deployed by distilleries throughout Scotland for welcoming visitors. I hope you will, too.

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Through writing our blog, we are in the lucky position of getting the occasional invite to a distillery.  This may be for a number of reasons – they
want to raise awareness of their brand, to launch a new whisky, to open a new visitor centre or any combination of the three. This is great for us and is one of the perks of something that we do not get paid for and write in our spare time. Invariably these visits are a lot of fun and you get to meet some of the people that work there, while getting the ‘access all areas’ treatment.

However, these VIP tours are not what most people will experience when they turn up at adistillery.  This is why we enjoy joining
a general tour – it is by doing this that you truly experience what makes a distillery tick, what it is like when the spotlight is turned away and everyone is not on their best behaviour, trying to get you to write about their whisky brand.  On these occasions we very rarely ‘reveal our hand’ and try to find out as much information as we can by being ‘whisky beginners’.

From our experience, there seems to be two types of distillery tour available to the whisky tourist in Scotland – the ‘sanitised, see what they want you to see’ tour and the ‘warts and all, see how it really is’ tour.  We have been on a number of both types during our occasional holidays to Scotland. The format of the tours are basically the same – arrive, pay, be shown around, have the whisky making process explained, finish off with a dram or two in the visitor centre/shop.  But, this is where the similarities normally end.

The ‘sanitised, see what they want you to see’ tour is normally found at the larger distilleries or those that are the home to well known brands.
These places can cope with large numbers of fans and visitors that their brand generates. This tour will begin with a brand video showing barley swaying in the breeze, water babbling in a stream, an old chap from the distillery pushing a barrel, or scenes of a similar nature.

Coaches at Cardhu, home of Johnnie Walker. Not a bad tour by any means, but a distillery and approach catered towards the larger parties.

You will then be whisked around the distillery, or part of the distillery (normally not in operation), while the whisky making process basics are explained by the tour guide.  Questions of a more advanced level seem to be discouraged and you are also usually asked not to take any photos or video for ‘safety reasons’.  You will then get a dram of whisky, possibly two if lucky, to send you on your way (usually the basic expression/s from their core range), while they deal with the next coach-load of tourists.

The ‘warts and all, see how it really is’ tour is usually found at the smaller or cult distilleries, or those of smaller and less well-known brands.  There will be no corporate video here, just an informative ‘down to earth’ tour that takes you through the sights and sounds of a working distillery and the whisky making process. It will also not be clean and pristine with lots of shiny new metal on show. The tour guides always seem to be more engaging and open to any questioning, be it at a beginner or connoisseur level.  You may even have the chance to speak with a member of distillery staff who always seem happy to have a chat or answer any questions.

You will invariably get to try more than just the most basic whisky from their core range. You will also be allowed to take photos, including putting your camera lens in to mash tuns, fermentation tanks etc.  This leads you to think – either these places care much less about ‘safety’ than the distilleries in the first group, or there are no real ‘safety reasons’ to worry about.  Maybe those that use that as a reason for no photography, just don’t want you to take any …

Naturally, there are exceptions to both types of tour and ultimately, many visitors will leave both types happy.  However, we always look at them with our slightly critical eyes and guess that it depends what you want from the experience – do you just want to tick off a ‘distillery tour’ on your Scotland must-do list or do you want to really learn something about a place, brand or the whisky production process?

One of my favourite distillery tours, too. You see absolutely everything at Glen Moray.

Our favourite distillery tour to date was found at Glen Moray in Elgin.  Here, we rushed to try and make one of the advertised tour times and were late. Despite this, our soon-to-be tour guide (Emma) stopped what she was doing and offered to show us around anyway. After a tour, which involved seeing almost every nook and cranny of the distillery, we felt like we had an affinity with the place.

We were allowed to walk around freely, ask Emma anything we wanted and get in depth replies, speak to the distillery workers about what they were doing and take as many photos as we wanted.  After that sort of experience, the whisky was always going to taste good. We were given a tutored tasting of three whiskies from the core range, plus a couple of special editions (one of which we ended up buying).

A few months ago, we were invited back to Glen Moray as their guests for a product launch and dinner.  As part of this, we were invited on a VIP tour of the distillery.  This tour proved to be exactly the same and as in depth as the regular tour that we had experienced previously.  That tells
you plenty about how Glen Moray value their visitors and some other distilleries can learn a lesson from that. After all, it could be someone’s first ever distillery tour …

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A massive thank you again to Karen and Matt, and I would urge you to follow their discoveries within the whisky world at Whisky For Everyone.

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‘Balblair (vc)’ – Excellent

My malt whisky literature shelf normally expands by at least one volume at this time of year. One would have thought that, between Dave Broom’s peerless World Atlas of Whisky, two editions of the Malt Whisky Companion and a number of other hardbacks salvaged from second-hand bookshops, together with my subscription to Whisky Magazine and the raft of blogs I endeavour to keep up with, any more published works on the subject would be plain extravagance. When it comes to Invar Ronde’s Malt Whisky Yearbook, however, the title of Dedicated Whisky Geek starts to look a little fragile without the latest edition.

As a compendium of every significant development at each of Scotland’s – and indeed most of the world’s – malt whisky distilling sites, it is unparalleled. If there has been a new washback installed, a still neck replaced, or a new bottling released, it will tell you. I flicked to page 90 and Balblair’s entry, mindful of their single-man, automated production regime introduced this summer and the imminent release of a new core range vintage. What I saw in the green sidebar, however, cheered my distillery-touring heart. ‘Status: active (vc)’.

‘At last!’ laughed John MacDonald, Balblair Distillery manager, when I described this moment to him last week. ‘How long have I been going about a visitor centre?’

The unassuming entrance to the new Brand Home.

Earlier, when he had welcomed a cohort of bloggers and drinks journalists, by that point sated by bacon rolls, to the distillery, he had been more circumspect. ‘It’s quite a significant day [for Balblair] and one that I have been looking forward to for a number of years now.’ Balblair, at last, has a dedicated facility to welcome those eager to discover this distinctive Highland malt, and it is my belief, having spent some time at the Brand Home house-warming, that Serge Valentin’s fears were groundless. He praises Balblair as ‘a wonderful little distillery’ with the semi caveat ’where no ugly visitor centre was built (please don’t!)’ in a profile piece written in 2007. It is now 2011, it is still a wonderful little distillery, and you would have no idea that a visitor centre even existed!

The 'snug', single cask and shop.

As I talked about in a post earlier in the year, the investment and the time had been promised to convert the former floor maltings into a space to accommodate, educate and entertain visitors. The finished product is discreet, smart, and entirely in keeping with the functional, unusual nature of the distillery to which it is attached. Divided into two rooms, you will find the shop, toilets, the bottle-your-own single cask and some indecently comfortable chairs immediately through the little red door, and the larger area for tastings and displays in the floor maltings proper.

Andy Hannah, Balblair brand manager, talked about Balblair’s new front room as the ultimate destination for those with ‘a genuine interest’. He said: ‘we’re not about bussing in hundreds and hundreds of people – that will never happen’. An intimate mode of making whisky has been transferred to their approach for educating people about the brand. ‘The physical experience of Balblair is really really key.’ I crowed with joy – inwardly – to hear that. A visitor centre or brand home is not about trading in marked-up tartan, baseball caps or fudge. Rather, it represents both the genesis of a brand identity which must - like the whisky - result from the equipment, personnel and location, and its apotheosis when individuals insist on making the journey to discover where and how those flavours and philosophies originated.

The bottle-your-own from 1992.

Visitors will indeed be richly rewarded. Though not yet confirmed, the tour structure is expected to follow that of Old Pulteney with a standard tour, a further package with the option to taste additional expressions and a deluxe, in-depth manager’s tour when John MacDonald can be yours for the afternoon. John’s knowledge and passion are quite extraordinary, as his weeks of late-night painting sessions leading up to the Brand Home launch testify. Having taken you round the plant, the whiskies he will put in front of you are of the highest calibre, too, and it was on that subject that we were all principally invited.

In conjunction with the Brand Home, Inver House have released the successor to the 2000 vintage. However, there is a more significant departure in the 2001 vintage bottle than the additional year on the label would perhaps suggest. In a move Andy Hannah described as ‘bold’, and in keeping with their radical decision to launch a core range of vintage expressions in 2007, the entry level Balblair joins its older brothers in being natural colour, non-chillfiltered and 46% abv. ‘We think it’s the right time,’ said Mr Hannah, ‘really re-affirming our boutique brand credentials.’ Some small but telling packaging alterations have also been made.

The trendy, atmospheric 'tasting pod'.

We bloggers and journos, sat in the glass, wood and leather luxury of the ‘tasting pod’ as I call it, were fortunate enough to evaluate an undiluted sample, and experience what John described as ‘a taste odyssey’. On the nose my first response was ‘guinea pig hutch’, developing light creaminess, pale oak, buttery toffee and heather honey. The palate exploded with barley sugar, lime and mango. As an introduction to the new spirit, the multimedia system was powered up and we absorbed the ‘sights and sounds’ of 2001 projected onto the pod’s glass panels, making for a very striking and engaging effect. As we went from Harry Potter and the Philospher’s Stone, starring a very junior-looking Daniel Radcliffe, to the election of George ‘Dubbya’ Bush, a little bit of Destiny’s Child teased our ears. This was indeed a ‘Bootylicious’ Balblair. I’m not sure about the extent to which it gave off the impression of the War on Terror, but that’s probably a good thing.

With the 2001 launch discussed and enjoyed, the Balblair representatives of John, Andy, Karen Walker, Derek Sinclair, Malcolm Leask and Lucas Dynowiak could decompress, a job well done, and savour the superb three course lunch. I must give a personal mention to Mike and the team from Good Highland Food who put a trio of delicious plates in front of us. A cold smoked trout and hot smoked salmon terrine preceeded an eye-poppingly superb fillet of Caithness beef, rounded off with a Balblair-infused chocolate torte which was very probably sinful.

It was nothing short of a joy to be back at Balblair in the first instance, but also to see the confident new direction the brand is taking both with their juice, and with their accessibility to the public. There is more than one distillery on the Dornoch Firth worth visiting, don’t you know. I urge you to make the trip – Balblair will make it worth your while.

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