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Day 5: Speyside and Spokes

Perhaps it was my super-abundance of full cooked Scottish breakfast, perhaps it was a moment of madness to leave it behind the wheel of my hosts’ car in the first place, but I was four and a half miles beyond Nethy Bridge, about to join the A939, when I realised I had left my bike lock at the Coire Choille bed and breakfast. Fortunately, Jan and Allan Goodall are wonderful people (cyclists themselves) and they were willing to down tools and drive out to meet me with the lock.

While I waited, I could appreciate the stark beauty of this upland landscape as the low cloud began, mercifully, to lift. I also heard a cuckoo. The rest impaired my ascent of the 20% gradient up to the main road, however, which was a fairly upsetting obstacle so early in the day. It would get worse.

When cycling to Tomintoul four years ago, I had snow and the Devil’s Elbow up to the Lecht ski station to contend with; as I pedalled towards sunshine I began to recognise that the road I was on concealed challenges of its own. Bridge of Brown is the settlement perched above a sheer drop and some hairpins. As the gradient warning signs appeared, a flashback occurred to me from having driven in this direction with the parents maybe six years previously.

My first problem was controlling the bike on the abhorrently steep descent: with all the weight, braking achieved only so much. Soon, though, I could whistle to the glen bottom and begin the ascent up the other side which was, if anything, steeper. The hairpin innards were nigh-on verticle, and even in bottom gear I had to stop at flattish sections to hyperventilate before carrying on. Eventually, I hauled myself up to the summit and could appreciate a gentler descent into a sunlit Strathavon.The remainder of the road into Tomintoul was hardly plain sailing, but it was spectacular. Indeed, one section recalled the panoramic photograph that illustrates southern Speyside in Dave Broom’s magnificent The World Atlas of Whisky.

By the time I rolled through the village the sun was rather fierce and what I really needed to do was cool off in the company of Mike Drury in the Whisky Castle. Bombastic as ever, Mike combined a diatribe against the vacuity and rapacity of the modern whisky industry with greetings to locals and taking delivery of consignments from said modern whisky industry.

‘Where were we?’ I asked, as the shop cleared again. ‘Somewhere between truth and non-truth?’ he replied. He then poured me a dram, an extravagantly creamy Dewar Rattray 18yo Braeval which was good, but not £90 brilliant. ‘I’ve sold one hundred and sixty bottles of that!’ Mike blustered.

We then touched on the reasons why the whisky industry is in ‘the shite’: the lack of good quality, old casks. Mike and his wife Cathy are single cask, single malt fanatics and they bottle whiskies under their Whisky Castle label when they find something great. Mike confessed that the casks simply haven’t been up to scratch of late, so he hasn’t bothered bottling any.

The accelerated wood programmes of most distillers, using virgin oak, first-fill Bourbon barrels whose staves hadn’t been air-dried properly in the first place and bottling younger expressions were all exacerbating the dearth of quality single malts. Doom and gloom, therefore. It’s true that the industry has to think very hard about where the oak is coming from to encase the many millions more litres of spirit being produced, but I’m not about to shed any tears just because the heart-stoppingly beautiful single cask Ardbegs, Glenlivets, or Braevals for that matter – and which only ever pleased a handful of enthusiasts – are growing scarcer. Investment in whisky is across the board, from distilleries to bottling plants to cooperages. Distillers are grappling with the problems of the supply chain and I believe that, five to ten years from now, we will be looking at more consistently tasty expressions available from more companies than we enjoy currently. The only question that remains concerns how much we shall be expected to pay for them.

Leaving the Whisky Castle behind, I pedalled off into the Glenlivet Estate below a scorching sun. Soon, I glimpsed the steam chimney of The Glenlivet, ’the single malt that started it all’, and for me in particular. The last time I cycled past a blizzard swept down the glen to engulf the distillery and me; now I was worried about heat stroke.

Late (very late) for my rendezvous with Brian Robinson at Ballindalloch Distillery, I carried on past The Glenlivet following the Avon once again. As I passed a field of cows, on a flat smooth stretch of tarmac, I heard a disconcerting, metallic ‘ping’. Fearing the worst, but carrying on anyway, I reached the A95 and turned down towards Cragganmore and the Ballindalloch Castle Golf Course, where a wee distillery was being built.

The gorgeous location of the Ballindalloch distillery.

Dismounting, I discovered that I had indeed snapped a spoke, two in a week, and my plans for the afternoon were going to have to change. That lovely Imperial 23yo on the Speyside Way? Scratch that, I was going to have to get to Dufftown and try to find the bike shop in Elgin I’d used last time to get the rear wheel structurally sound again.

With mechanical matters in mind, I maybe wasn’t as attentive or curious on my tour of the site with Brian as I could have been. However, key points that emerged were that Ballindalloch, when it opens to visitors (hopefully by September) will not be like other distilleries and visitor centres; the plan is to bring a flavour of the ancestral home of the MacPherson Grants at Ballindalloch Castle into the distillery. Mrs Russell, who has lived in the Castle for 65 years, will oversee interior design.

The VC was some way behind the rest of the distillery, but it will be a space dedicated to making visitors feel very cossetted and special. Brian was at pains to emphasise the love and dedication shown to the project by the local builders, carpenters, electricians, etc. The final say for the build goes to the family at the Castle, however. ‘If they say they want this room to be pink, it will be pink’.

Charlie Smith will be head distiller, and his brief was to produce an oily, weighty spirit. Working backwards, worm tubs were required, squat slender stills installed, a long-ish ferment and cloudy wort will be established. The traditional approach to whisky-making starts with the barley which will be grown on the Ballindalloch estate, but malted in Inverness, and continues to the copper-domed mash tun and those brand new worm tubs. A unique element of the build is that the filling store and warehouses are ‘inside’ the distillery building – guests will be able to fill a cask as they go round on the tour before rolling it into the warehouse.

As I left I spectated on the worm tubs’ installation before getting on the bike. I knew, despite my anxiety, I needed to get some serious calories in me and the Delnashaugh Hotel, just beneath the curl of the A95, was closest. I actually really enjoyed my time there: from the helpful waitress who found me the number for Bikes & Bowls in Elgin, to the huge plate of mac ‘n’ cheese, garlic bread and chips had outside on the patio area, I began to feel more in control. Also, the range of single malts behind the bar is pretty impressive. Stop by if you’re in the area.

Full to the gunnels with carbohydrates, I managed to power through to Aberlour, then time-trial up the hill to Dufftown. I was just in time to catch the bus from the clock tower to Elgin, but I couldn’t travel with the whole bike. This meant I had no choice but to repair the bike tomorrow morning, and that put GlenDronach and Glenglassaugh in jeopardy.

I was despondent for as long as it took to shower, change and visit Sandy at Taste of Speyside. Once again I was bowled over by the Highland hospitality, the venison casserole, and the G&M Glentauchers 1994. I could reflect that, even if the bike wasn’t 100% fit, I had still made it to the malt whisky capital and that wasn’t such a bad place to be.

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Spirit of Speyside

The modern connotations attached to ‘festival’ embrace many things, but mud, masses of people, inadequate sanitation and probably a youth with a guitar all feature in peoples’ minds’ eye. The true root of the custom, of course, is celebration, and a mighty big one is taking place in Speyside at the end of this week.

If you were to believe some of the pronouncements made by those whom I have overheard once or twice in recent years, you would wonder what the good-for-nothing-but-blends region had to celebrate. Incredibly, there are people who dismiss two-thirds of the Scotch single malt industry as grassy, fruity, honeyed and dull. In response, I urge them to do what thousands of international whisky fans are on the cusp of: visit.

Morayshire, Banffshire and Aberdeenshire boast magnificent landscapes (and seascapes), wonderfully varied and high-quality foods and of course, mighty malt whiskies. The Spirit of Speyside Festival touts them all. In past years, Glenfarclas have taken groups up Ben Rinnes, fuelled by their richly sherried liquids; this time around Glenfiddich will host a ceilidh in one of their warehouses.

Delighted with the uptake in tickets, Mary Hemsworth, festival manager, will preside over more than 370 events over the four days. Speaking of the number of enquiries from non-UK attendees, she said: ‘The Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival is one of the key events in Homecoming 2014, and we hope this trend will lay some very strong foundations on which to grow our international profile and that of Speyside Moray in a very important year for Scottish tourism’.

While in Dufftown last month, just in the one (superlatively excellent) Taste of Speyside I encountered Australian, Dutch and German whisky fans, while three Taiwanese gentlemen had preceeded me around the BenRiach distillery. The latter example demonstrates that it is not just the likes of The Macallan, Glenfiddich, Glen Grant and The Glenlivet that they are coming to see, but as many of the diverse and dynamic distilleries in the area as they can.

Once again, the normally secretive Mortlach will open its doors to parties over the festival, while the Tamdhu fete sounds especially interesting. The distillery will celebrate its return from the brink of rigor mortis with a ceilidh, whisky tastings, tours and a treasure hunt on May 4th.

Not to be outdone by the IWSC, the ISC, the WWA and numerous others, the Spirit of Speyside bestows its own accolades: the Roving Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival Whisky Awards. In a departure from the norm, recipients of the RSOSWFWAs will be decided by those who live, work and visit Speyside, rather than the old hands of an expert panel. Six drams will be judged across three categories (12yo and Under, 13-20yo, and 21yo and Over) by anyone who can make it along to a judging venue with £12 still in their pockets. Tomorrow nosing will take place at the Glenfiddich Distillery; on the 2nd at the Sunninghill Hotel in Elgin; Forsyth’s Coppersmiths in Rothes, and the Aviemore Highland Resort on the 3rd; the Grant Arms in Grantown and Aberlour’s Aberlour Hotel on the 4th. Winners will be announced at a three-course lunch held at Tamdhu on the 5th.

The Speyside community – it should go without saying – rests at the core of this eponymous gathering. On Thursday evening, the Festival will kick off with an Opening Gala and an auction which every connoisseur and collector of Speyside malt whiskies ought to attend. Fourteen rare and limited edition whiskies from the region will go under the hammer to raise as much money as possible for the Moray Immediate Care Scheme, the Festival’s chosen charity for 2013.

Just some of the whiskies include bottle #2 of a 1,000 bottle release of Limited Edition Tamdhu 10yo, a G&M Glen Grant from 1965 not previously on sale in the UK, a three-litre bottle of Glenfarclas 105 and a couple of bottles of Glenfiddich’s Eeu de Robbidou whose non-traditional maturation regime means it is not technically Scotch whisky at all. Commendably, this is whisky’s attempt to give something back to the region.

The events are as numerous as the distilleries, and I would dearly love to forget about revision for a week and get stuck in on Speyside. If you are at a loose end for what to do this week, check out the website at www.spiritofspeyside.com or keep up to date on twitter (I know I will be) with the handle @spirit_speyside.

Experience the beating heart of the Scotch whisky industry for yourself, and encounter the warm hearts of the people who live and work there.

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The Balvenie at the Quaich Society

The deliciously diverse Balvenie range.

I have wanted to bring The Balvenie to St Andrews for a tasting for a very long time. Since UK brand ambassador Dr Andrew Forrester’s star turn for the Quaich Society last month, I have wanted to tell you about it for what feels like nearly as long. Deferred gratitification seem to be the watchwords for this family-owned Speyside favourite, and indeed in the shape of Malt Master David Stewart who recently celebrated 50 years with William Grant and Sons, the distillery understands better than most the virtues of patience and timing.

Andrew’s youthful energy complemented the mature selection of whiskies he had brought along. We opened with the 12yo Signature, a malt I had not come across before but whose sharp pear and clean oak aromas pleased me. The citrus and vanilla notes on the palate were also appreciated. It enabled Andrew to discuss the highly-specialised know-how which offsets the traditional ethos of The Balvenie: multiple cask maturation. The Signature is a vatting of first- and second-fill Bourbon and Sherry which makes for a ‘quaffing whisky’ if ever there was one.

Next on the palate was the paragon of Bourbon maturation, the 15yo Single Barrel. I love this whisky, and could appreciate the effects of gentle refill American oak on the Balvenie spirit. Sweet and floral with gummy fruits on the nose, pear was still very much in evidence with vanilla and light muscovado sugar. The palate was clean, lemony and delicate with some late dryish cereals and charcoal.

Andrew Forrester's Balvenie paraphernalia, with those copper 'dogs' behind the cask samples.

Reconnecting with the example set by the Signature, Andrew directed us towards the third glass filled with deep amber liquid. The Double Wood was described as an exemplary introduction to the wonderful world of whisky, and represents Stewart’s pioneering experiments in wood finishing. Each ‘batch’ of Double Wood hails from maybe 100 casks, with the Bourbon-matured 12-year-old spirit placed in first-fill Oloroso Sherry casks for 4-5 months. ‘Gentle and easy-going’ summed up the resulting whisky perfectly.

Andrew’s surprise package of the night turned out to be the 14yo Caribbean Rum Cask expression, enjoying only its third outing at a tasting. True to form, the finishing process epitomises David Stewart’s attention to detail, with the rum cask mix comprising wood from three different origins. The sheer weight of the aroma was a delight, with gristy sugars and sweet lemon peel. Some smoke and heather emerged and that sweet pear puckered in the glass, too. The rum finish was notably discreet, until I took a gulp where golden rum, latte coffee notes and spice galore hit the tongue. Water pulled out pralines and an oozing deep sweetness on the nose. Delicious, although it wasn’t to everyone’s liking.

We finished with what has been a mainstay for premium, high-quality aged single malts for some time now: the 21yo Portwood. To Andrew, this was Nigella Lawson constructed from water, barley, yeast and oak. He waxed lyrical about its grace and elegance, and I would concur with his conclusion that this boasts sublime silkiness and a ballroom dancer’s poise.

Maximum enjoyment from the Quaich Society's first tasting of the year.

Outwith student whisky tastings, keep an eye open for how your next Balvenie is served. In certain fashionable bars, the spirit of chicanery and alcoholic liberation will be revived as the company intends to create a serve celebrating the illicit opportunism of distillery workers of the past. You will soon be able to have your Balvenie poured from a handmade copper ‘dog’, the kind of contraptions workers improvised to purloin extra whisky. Everyone seems to appreciate these stories of yesteryear – even retired excisemen – and the Quaich Society were no exception, lapping up tales of those with the skill and nerve to appropriate some stunning whisky when no one was looking. For many Quaich Society die-hards, these are their heroes, after all.

A huge thank you must go to Andrew and The Balvenie for venturing across to St Andrews and putting on such a professional, educational and massively enjoyable evening. We could not have asked for more from our opening tasting of the year.

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Glenfiddich Age of Discovery

I discovered Glenfiddich remarkably late, which probably doesn’t make me the sort of pioneer the marketing guys at William Grant & Sons have in mind with their latest campaign. Despite the uniquity of the exhaustively-awarded 12yo in bars and pubs, my energetic beginnings in the world of single malt embraced many obscure distilleries before output from the independently-owned, world-renowned Dufftown behemoth finally passed my lips. As I sought new flavours and stories, I overlooked (wrongly and naively) the distillery largely responsible for ploughing the single malt furrow, without which those whiskies I had been sampling may never have come to my attention. In my age of discovery, I had forgotten the original pioneer.

The Glenfiddich distillery.

Glenfiddich have extended their remit in recent times to champion, on the back of their world-leading sales figures, the pioneering spirit. Courtesy of long-running schemes like their Artist in Residence programme and global gatherings such as the One Day You Will Summit of last year, the distillery has sought to provoke discussion around human creativity and endeavour. With the Summit, the mission statement focused on raising awareness internationally for how food and drink are produced, how they interact with their consumers, and how we can build for the future. In a similar spirit, but one which nods to how they went about their business in the past, the Age of Discovery expression was released.

At 19-years-of-age, this whisky presents a wise face to the world. While the spirit was maturing, the Kyoto Protocol took shape, issues of climate change and environmental sustainability entered the mainstream and, of course, the single malt category exploded again. Attitudes to how we eat and drink have evolved, as has a consciousness regarding where our food comes from and how it reaches us. This Glenfiddich supplies a case in point: I think about the Scottish barley grown in the North East, the distillery itself with those 28 squat copper pot stills, the cooperages of Kentucky and Tennessee from which those hogsheads hail, and the final ingredient from wine caves of Portugal: Madeira casks. As you can see, Glenfiddich have done remarkably well in teasing out an ideological nexus for this expression, incorporating a very contemporary conscientiousness for provenance, ethics and craftsmanship. But the proof is in the consumption, after all.

Glenfiddich 19yo Age of Discovery 40% £89.95

Colour - light toffee with shades of bruised apple.

Nose - fairly solid and chunky oak at first and rather dark. Creamy vanilla and blackcurrant jam. Hard honeycomb with some biscuit crumb maltiness. Weighty, heathery floral notes emerge together with poached pear. Underneath is simmering honey. Pale oak with a spicy depth. After a time some aged rum character develops.

With water the delivery is slightly denser with treacle sponge. Demerara sugar in abundance and rich pear. After dinner chocolates emerge and soon there is the accompanying coffee, lending a rich and dry aromatic quality. With more time there are dunnage hints and a vibrant jellied fruitness with rough, dark malt for balance.

Palate - Spicy oak swings in first before a lemon-accented maltiness enters. Slight hint of marzipan to offset this freshness.

With water the oak is tamed and heather honey, leafy and malty notes can move about more freely. Raspberry. Orange peel replaces the lemon from the undiluted palate. Creamy tablet lends a lovely texture.

Finish – light coffee notes from the oak. Lemon peel. Perfumed at the end.

With water chocolate milk, a little more lemon, sticky toffee pudding. Quite long with a rich, firm maltiness on the end.

So…? I enjoyed and felt a touch frustrated with this malt in equal measure. While some of the rich cereals and deep fruit notes satisfied me, the overall delivery lacked warmth and friendliness. Rather like the old explorer, whose pioneering days are behind them, crouched in an armchair recounting tales from former frontiers, the zeal and immediacy of such endeavours felt distinctly second-hand. I’m not even certain a higher ABV would have helped. A curious whisky, therefore, the like of which I have not had before. I would not discourage you from following in my footsteps, but be careful not to assume to much of this idiosyncratic dram.

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A Taste of Speyside with Friends

Perhaps the most profound and extraordinary aspect of whisky’s character is how expertly it manipulates and distinguishes precious moments. One distillery, one dram, can bridge many months and miles and can muster disparate souls together to a degree that is startling yet also immensely heartening. When I purchased the Adelphi ‘Breath of Speyside’ 16yo in September last year, I had hoped for just such a moment and, a couple of months ago, I was fortunate enough to participate in it.

If Jane and Fiona employed something akin to maternal care for the purposes of chivvying me back on my way last year, Sandy of Taste of Speyside, Dufftown, wielded more paternal power to forcibly shake me from my exhausted and deflated stupour. In both instances, the distilleries they championed today recall a bond as near to kinship as makes no difference. Glen Garioch and Mortlach respectively connote laughter, security and friendship: they are like second homes. With a bottle of the former already in the cupboard, I needed a bottle of the latter as a representative in liquid form of Sandy’s humour and generosity. Mike in the Whisky Castle, Tomintoul, poured a measure of this for me, which he was certain could only be spirit from the desired distillery. For eight months it lurked in the darkness of the sideboard but with the completion of my first year at St Andrews and the imminent departure of a very dear friend to Alabama, USA, I felt the time was right to uncork all that pent-up conviviality.

As I explained to my malt-mad counterparts, I couldn’t imagine sharing the Adelphi with any other persons. Justin, possibly the most infectiously enthusiastic and erudite individual it has ever been my good fortune to attend a whisky tasting with, had swooned upon discovering the 16yo Flora & Fauna earlier in the year and Gareth, whose whisky experience has been swelling at a considerable rate of knots and absorbs the brasher, more aggressive flavours Scotch has to offer with relish, both succombed to wide-eyed rapture upon tasting. I, too, was delirious with delight at how perfectly the dram sang of Speyside’s earthier, richer, woodier landscapes and for a time I was back in a sparkly sunny Tomintoul withstanding Mike’s woe about how hard it is to find a good whisky these days. The dram, which we all agreed matched the distinctive power of Dufftown’s first distillery, communicated a great deal more effectively than I could my feelings both for single malt whisky in general and the two gentlemen who had supped so much of it with me in particular.

Adelphi Breath of Speyside‘Breath of Speyside’ 1991 16yo 57.9% cask no. 4229.

Colour – Fierce: soaked Sherry oak. Rich maple syrup.

Nose – Red fruits squashed into dusty dark earth at first, then a lot of the heady oaky ‘tang’ I associate with first-fill Sherry wood. Blackcurrant cordial. Closer to, the big, dark and powerfully sweet Sherry really leaps out. However, this whisky’s theme emerges immediately alongside this as I smell Chinese stir fry: groundnut oil and soy. Then I detect a log store: damp, bark-like and darkly aromatic. Leaf mould. Fragrance of light, leafy smoke completes this walk in the woods.

      Water conjures up a sweet meaty note straight away. This is roast leg of lamp straight out of the oven with crisp skin and running juices. Behind the meat is soft, muscular fruitiness. Rotting plums. Incredibly dense and feral. Earthily smoky and very rich maltiness suddenly emerges, with lavendar oil close behind. More breathing time pulls out toffee and nuts.

Palate – Attacking, fruit from the cask and then just cask. Serious tannic grip. Mulchy smoke and then sweeter malt steal in.

      Water rounds it out slightly, with the fruit now permitted to stand alone. The oak is tamed although there is still a dark richness that reminds me of beef stock granules.

Finish – Lovely, deep deep vanilla notes. Light and creamy citrus, too. The cask lends all the right flavours here. Meaty. Gently drying with orange pith.

      Water heightens the drying fragrance exerted by the cask: oak branches. Hot darkness comes next with blackened Sherry fruits. Creamy toffee, some green malt and then more impressions of living oak.

This is a powerful, challenging whisky which asserts the continued existence of a darker, more primeval Speyside than the one too many people now write off as light, fruity and honeyed. I can imagine the Speyside Way projecting similar aromas to this wonderful malt from the exceptional Adelphi on a wet November day. Maybe it is a conversation whisky, for I have not been amazed by it to the same degree as when I sipped it with Gareth and Justin. Of course, on the breath of this Speysider will carry the whispers of that particular night to which it bore witness, and I will prize it all the more as long as there is some of it left in the bottle to listen to.

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The Balvenie

      Bitter disappointment does not come close to describing my feelings having phoned up The Balvenie Distillery from my room in the Huntly Hotel to be told that their tours for the forthcoming week – and indeed most of the next month – were fully booked. Having been assured by a fellow tourist at Macallan that it was a most singular single malt experience (and at £25 for a three hour tour, I should think it would be) I saw what a gaping hole its loss left in the fabric of my Odyssey. At the time, I cycled round the buildings, reflecting on the plumes of steam, metropoli of warehouses and wraiths of blue-brown smoke coughing out of the pagoda vent. It was set to achieve four stars for the production process alone – providing as they do a chance to view the coopers at work in addition to the floor maltings. I also happen to be very fond of the drams they make. Next time… 

*      *      *      *      *

The eclectic Balvenie site, as viewed from the Spirit of Speyside carriage on the Keith-Dufftown Railway.

The eclectic Balvenie site, as viewed from the Spirit of Speyside carriage on the Keith-Dufftown Railway.

Dufftown, Keith, Banffshire, AB55 4DH, 01340 820373. William Grant & Sons. www.thebalvenie.com

TOURS PROVIDED:

‘The Tour’: £25. A three hour experience at the home of ‘the handcrafted malt’. A coffee and a summary of the distillery’s history begins the tour in the Distillery Office before a thorough investigation of the plant occurs. Maltings, mashing, fermenting, distillation and coopering are all included, as is a trip to the warehouse. I’m not promising anything, but the chap I met outside The Macallan boasted of having sampled malts straight from the cask – two, in fact, and both from his birth year: in the 1960s. There is a tutored tasting of The Balvenie range, ascending from new make to the highly prized 30yo back in the visitor centre. BOOK EARLY, I CANNOT STRESS THAT ENOUGH.

DISTILLERY-EXCLUSIVE BOTTLINGS:      Whilst on the tour there is the opportunity to bottle your own 20cl measure of single cask Balvenie from a choice of three casks. The visitor may nose each of the samples from the three and make their selection – or alternatively they can bottle one of each! At present this trio are all from 1996: a first-fill Bourbon, refill Bourbon, and a first-fill Sherry. £20 each. Also, once back at the visitor centre the shop will be opened for you and then there are two exclusives to choose from: Rose, £100, and Tun 1401, £150. The shop is only accessible to those who participate on the tour.

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The Whisky Train

Brief Encounter: the Spirit of Speyside ready for departure.

Brief Encounter: the Spirit of Speyside ready for departure.

It is something of a blessing in disguise that I have not yet had time to recount my time aboard the Spirit of Speyside. With four inches of snow smothering everything outside I welcome any opportunity to recollect warmer times.

This is the most northerly heritage railway in the Scotland, although it was not for this reason that I dragged my parents along for an out-and-back rattle between Dufftown and Keith. It touts itself as ‘The Whisky Line’, and so I could not pass it up.

On my squeaky, grim-faced ride from Strathisla back to Dufftown in April the road hugged this single-track line for part of the way, bridges leap-frogging rails and the river Isla for a number of miles. The sun had appeared, and arable, wooded Speyside was showing itself very handsomely. I wanted to see what it was all about, having come across listings in the guidebooks one finds in Bed and Breakfasts.

Highly visible: the proximity of Balvenie and Glenfiddich bolster claims that this is indeed The Whisky Line.

Highly visible: the proximity of Balvenie and Glenfiddich bolster claims that this is indeed The Whisky Line.

A little bit of history first, however. The railway is one of the principle factors explaining why so many distilleries were built in the region. The plentiful raw materials dictated the location of a distillery in the first instance, but the train made distilling economically viable post-Excise Act, allowing the whisky which was ultimately produced to be transported to the markets of Edinburgh, Glasgow, and indeed the rest of the world with relative ease. Many distilleries were built beside, or had sidings constructed for them, from the main branch lines. The Speyside Way follows the echoing clatters of steam trains past, and many bridges over the Spey would have conveyed engines.

Salvaged and run by volunteers, the Keith & Dufftown Railway was opened in 2001, and operates on a dedicated timetable throughout the year. If you are planning your own visit, however, it is always worth checking the website in advance, although booking is not necessarily essential, and wasn’t for us as we pulled into the station at Dufftown on a Saturday in September.

I had been on the station platform before – in April as I left Dufftown on the way to Cardhu following a concerted effort to find out exactly where Balvenie is. Diving down a side road after Glenfiddich, behind some warehouses which had unfortunately collapsed due to the chronic winter weather, I passed under a bridge and then turned left – Balvenie Castle lying to my right – to be met with the various Balvenie buildings. Reflecting on how dearly I would have liked to have been rummaging around inside, I returned to the road, only to notice a puff of smoke from the pagoda heads – they were kilning malt! The best view then of Balvenie in its entirety had been from the platform, and so it was on this occasion.KDR4

Besides the waiting room and information points, there is also a railway carriage (static) kitted out as a cafe, and it serves wonderful scones, if you like that kind of thing. The train itself is not quite steam train romance, but it is comfortable, and feels very authentic. With a screech of the whistle and a shudder of machinery we were away on the eleven mile stretch to Keith.

Balvenie and Glenfiddich are obviously highly visible distilleries from the train track, but so is the silent – but still standing – Parkmore just on the other side of the Fiddich Viaduct – sixty metres above the river in question and one of the most-time consuming and expensive areas of the restoration project. Forest, glades and open fields slide past your window – this is a very leisurely ride. On the left as you aim for Keith is the man-made Park Loch. Teaming with wildlife (they list buzzards, red squirrels, deer and many others on the website) this is a very picturesque section, and one can only imagine the scene in winter when they run their ‘Santa Specials’: for the kiddies, mainly. Other animal life include the inmates of a donkey sanctuary. Look out for them.KDR6 Parkmore

On the approach to Keith, Strathmill is highly prominent, and is the first distillery to sup at the River Isla, which rushes alongside the train for a considerable portion of the ride. At Keith Town station you can either alight and explore Keith (don’t miss Strathisla Distillery) or get out and stretch your legs and savour the relaxing procession back to Dufftown. Please note, it is useful to check which station is that of initial departure. We could have hopped on at Keith, but we would have had to wait a few hours before there would be another train to take us back again. Our journey had a fifteen minute pause at Keith prior to the return leg.

The Keith & Dufftown Railway website.

KDR5 Strathmill

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‘A Taste of Speyside’ – My Second Helping

This pagoda could just be glimpsed from Braehead Terrace over the three days I stayed there. For me, the distillery shall always recall Dufftown; the whisky Sandy at 'A Taste of Speyside'.

This pagoda could just be glimpsed from Braehead Terrace over the three days I stayed there. For me, Mortlach shall always recall Dufftown, and particularly Sandy at 'A Taste of Speyside'.

Without a shadow of a doubt, it was a good birthday. While certain social pressures preside over turning 21-years-of-age, and may lead to some degree of short-term memory loss next September, the location and the company which my birthday of 2010 embraced were sufficiently distinctive to preserve them in my mind, hopefully forever.

In the style of one who is especially hard to please (although I’m not, really), my gift to myself comprised a return to Dufftown. With my parents driving, of course. I had booked the family (my aunt – saviour of the Odyssey’s first week – had joined us) into ‘A Taste of Speyside’ for dinner, and we chugged into Dufftown, past the gargantuan Glenfiddich on the left and the symbolic still neck on the right, tickled by weak sunshine. A box of Northumbrian goodies sat beside me on the back seat - my Hamper of Limitless Gratitude.

Within said hamper (it was a cardboard box, in truth, although it had once been appropriated by the Doddington Dairy, makers of superb ice cream) were Piperfield Pork bacon, a selection of homemade preserves and an array of products from the Northumbrian Cheese Co. Northumbria’s are distinctive cheeses, and some of the loveliest I have ever tasted. I had hoped these would appeal to Sandy’s passionate interest in local produce, and whilst the topic of many of our conversations in April had been whisky-flavoured, he could acquire plenty of this himself. It would – as indeed it had for us – require quite a commute to purloin these note-worthy, delicious items (Piperfield supply Heston Blumenthal at ‘The Fat Duck’).

One of my very favourite restaurants, as I may have mentioned. Whisky might have brought you to Dufftown - this eaterie will bring you back.

One of my very favourite restaurants, as I may have mentioned. Whisky might have brought you to Dufftown - this eaterie will bring you back.

Our dinner was not as alchemical or psychedelic as one might find in Bray, but just as lauded. Having nipped down the hill to Mortlach for the purposes of yet more distillery photography – I had neglected to capture its eclectic visage when I was last in the area, and indeed my comparative lack of pictorial variety preserved on my SD card is one of my bigger regrets of the tour - I hiked back along Fife Street, passed the Co-op where I had purchased so many highly-calorific morsels to the Clock Tower and Balvenie Street.

Ducking through the front door of No. 10 to witness Sandy holding court before my relatives was tremendous. I had hoped to introduce The Mother to him, but he came to appreciate what I had alluded to in April of his own accord. My dear Mum has enroled herself in an exclusion diet to mitigate symptoms of early-onset osteo-arthritis in the right elbow, an important joint for a chef. Sandy’s menu is fabulously rich in places, celebrating the apparent unpretentiousness of natural Scottish ingredients. The consequences of indulging in flour and dairy my mother agonised over extensively. “I can’t have potatoes, either,” said Mum. “Well don’t have them,” replied Sandy.

Following my Gordon & MacPhail Linkwood 15-year-old (not my wisest choice as an aperitif but they hadn’t any Tomintoul 14-year-old) I had the Cullen Skink – a creamy, potato-laden fish soup – to start, and then the Speyside Platter which amalgamated many of the finest foods from the Spey valley and the Moray coast. As it turned out, they hadn’t any of the rabbit casserole on this occasion, either. Both were extraordinarily delicious: the Skink pure comfort food and the Platter an insight into the diveristy of produce from the area. Smoked salmon, chicken liver paté, smoked venison, herring, oatcakes and cheeses – my designs on rounding off my meal with the cranahan cheesecake had to be redrafted! I haven’t any photos, by the way, because each course vanished too quickly.

As a digestif I indulged in the 21-year-old PortWood from the distillery whose namesake is the street I was dining on. This was wonderfully spicy and rich, with marzipan sweetness and creaminess. The oaking was assertive but deliciously so and the tannic fruitiness mingled with the textures of the crème brûlée I had managed to despatch. Once again, superlative Scottish hospitality had put the world to rights.

So unexpected and plentiful had Sandy’s support and generosity been at the time I first encountered him - a juncture of huge significance and precariousness - that to dine in his restaurant under entirely different circumstances and yet to discover him unchanged, baffled me no end. This man had made self-belief possible at a time when I had lost my way, badly. What I now accredit as my most treasured achievement to date had at one stage been in serious, ignominious jeopardy. Circumstance and despondency had coalesced on the morning of April 27th, but the potentially debilitating and restricting legacy of each had been banished by a simple demonstration of humanity. A change of mentality was desperately required, and duly arrived as a surprise side dish at ‘A Taste of Speyside’. The man himself, of course, continually dismisses his own pivotal role. Be assured, Sandy, it was not ”nothing.”

For the account of my first encounter with the folk at ‘A Taste of Speyside’, please view my original blog post, typed on his computer. For further information about the restaurant, please visit Dufftown’s website. You can also “add them” on Facebook.

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Dufftown to Nairn

Dufftown to Rothes, Via Elgin: 45 miles

Having had my faith in humanity, and myself, reaffirmed by my weekend in Dufftown, I was ready to move on again. The weather could not have been better. Distinctly breezy, but bright and warm.

Oh man: too romantic for words: Highland peat smoke on the fresh, spring Speyside breeze. Said breeze wasn't quite coming from the right direction so I couldn't get a nostril full.

Oh man: too romantic for words: Highland peat smoke on the fresh, spring Speyside breeze. Said breeze wasn't quite coming from the right direction so I couldn't get a nostril full.

On the road out towards Craigellachie, I spotted what I had missed on the way in to Dufftown on the Thursday and consequently since in my walks around the town: the sign to Balvenie. I thought I’d better take a look, and at least cycle round the place if I couldn’t tour. It is quite a site, I must say, and bouncing along the road between Glenfiddich and Balvenie revealed some warehouse damage to the former which was being repaired with many vehicles and red plastic fencing. They were kilning the malt at the time as I returned to the main road. This made me rather more excited than really it ought to but it was stupendous to see those wraiths of peat smoke waft out of the pagoda roof to be snatched and stolen away by the Speyside wind.

Past the cooperage and Craigellachie distillery, over the Spey and then up the hill back past Macallan. The wind would be in my face for the next 7 miles or so but the scenery was so damn gorgeous I really didn’t care. I was relieved, though, when two pagoda rooves lifted their chins above the outline of a ploughed field. See my review of the Cardhu tour below – and my rave about their Highland cattle!

I had the benefit of the wind’s assistance on the reverse leg to Rothes and this ensured it was only a little after 2PM when I made it to my hotel. I phoned up Moray Cycles in Elgin to announce that I would be seeing them that very afternoon and headed off again.

I had by now grown used to the insane levels of traffic on these Speyside roads but that didn’t make it any more pleasant. That said, pagoda rooves appeared everywhere and at one stage, just before a quick descent towards Elgin, I fancied I spotted the outline of the Moray Firth and the Highlands bordering the sea.

The man in the bike shop put my mind at ease. The noise I had been hearing from the front wheel was merely a combination of a slight buckling which wasn’t at all serious and spokes rubbing against each other. It was worth the 18-mile detour for peace of mind.

I said I was going to "cycle around" the distilleries and that was literally what I did with Benriach and Longmorn.

I said I was going to "cycle around" the distilleries and that was literally what I did with Benriach and Longmorn.

On the return journey, with the sun so omnipresent, I stopped off at Benriach - it being practically on the road, and took my mission statement very literally: I cycled round the distillery. It had an inviting feel about it, too, and I would like to arrange a tour. I did the same with Longmorn – visible just a little way further into the glen. It was a privilege – a secret indulgence – to pedal round when no-one else was there.

I returned to my hotel, showered, did a mass of laundry and enjoyed a meal that owed more to chance and improvisation than management. Good fun, though, and my tour was once embued with momentum.

***

Rothes to Forres: 28 miles

Rain. Lots of rain. It isn’t how I prefer to be woken up, and everywhere looks a bit oppressed when it has that watery sheen to it. I had less than a mile to cover to Glen Grant, however, and it ceased on the way.

The route to Glen Moray involved retracing my tyre tracks from the day before. The sun even appeared. Swishing past my privately toured distilleries of yesterday, I made good time into Elgin where I was rewarded by the equally magnificent aroma of cooking shortbread from the Walkers factory. I just caught the 12.30 tour.

A hot chocolate and much food later, I went in search of Forres. I was not going to use the A96, however, and had planned a route of quiet B roads. Miltonduff and Pluscarden Abbey slipped by and I was thoroughly enjoying the warmth and glorious cherry trees. It couldn’t last, though.

The rain made an encore appearance and I had to adopt rain gear. The temperature meant I could do without overshoes and hood but I just got wetter as I passed through Forres – my B&B lying on the northern outskirts. I arrived to find no-one at home. I was quite chilly by this time, pondering how I was supposed to find my dinner and stay reasonably dry. My landlady returned from her walk and everything was accommodated for: a shed for the bike, rags to clean it, a washing machine for my filthy things and an exceedingly comfortable room.

If you like to put away 3000 calories over the course of your evening meal, go to Chapter One in Forres. My burger with all its trimmings was enormous. I left not a speck on the plate, however; much to the amazement of the couple dining next to me. I should have left it there, but the dessert menu looked too good. I ordered the meringue nest, thinking it would be maybe the size of an orange. It wasn’t. It was the size of a rustic country bread loaf. It beat me, it humiliated me. I could only eat a third of it, and regretted forcing in that much. As I waited for the bill, passing in and out of consciousness, a wondered how anyone could manage two courses, if even a touring cyclist couldn’t manage them. Great grub, though.

***

Forres to Nairn: 26 miles

I spun this day out a little. The initial distance suggested less than 20 miles and that would leave me with far too much time on my hands. I wanted to see the sea, in any case, and headed to Findhorn Bay. It is a profoundly beautiful place, and the whole of the landscapes over the last few days had begun to acquire more rugged, wild demeanours. This was no exception. I think I could retire to Findhorn Bay, with Forres nearby for my bowls and Tesco.

My landscapes were all beginning to look rather wild and bleak, and they would only get bleaker. In a good way, you understand.

My landscapes were all beginning to look rather wild and bleak, and they would only get bleaker. In a good way, you understand.

Benromach is a very stylish little distillery and offers one of the best smells from the outside. See my review below.

After I bought my lunch from the above supermarket giant, I had little to do but make my way to Nairn in my own time. I ate the purchased sandwiches on the cycle path beside the Findhorn river.

Nairn arrived a little slower than planned, but I was glad when it did. I had been climbing along single track roads for quite some distance, duking it out with motorists and insects, when the hedges of gorse fell away on my right and there was the Moray Firth. A more dramatic stretch of coastline I had hitherto not encountered. It was jaw-dropping.

I bought a book, an apple turnover and a cup of tea in Nairn, then watched some more snooker. Unlucky, Steve Davis.

Before the football came on I made my way to the beach as the clouds and the setting sun exercised their artistic characters over the sea and the coast which I followed to the horizon with my eyes, knowing that Orkney was at the end of it. Internazionale v. Barcelona evolved into a bit of a damp squib in the first half so I watched Monty Halls in the Uists and went to bed. The Highlands proper demanded my full attention.

Moray Firth at Nairn

 

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Glenfiddich

No photo can communicate the scale of this site. It is preposterously huge. However, walking around the well-tended grounds with the hills all around, it is quite charming.

No photo can communicate the scale of this site. It is preposterously huge. However, walking around the well-tended grounds with the hills all around, it is quite charming.

Dufftown, Keith, Banffshire, AB55 4DH, 01340 820373. William Grant & Sons. www.glenfiddich.com

APPEARANCE AND LOCATION:      ****      As distilleries go, they don’t come much bigger than Glenfiddich. Its like looking out on a city of warehousing when observing in the Craigellachie direction. However, the buildings of the main plant are utterly beautiful with perfectly-pointed stonework, pristine paint and those charming squat pagoda heads. The visitor centre and the restaurant are housed within the buildings originally built by William Grant and his stone mason in 1886. The surroundings hills are certainly large, too, but gentle. Sitting on a picnic bench outside the brand centre on the Sunday as I waited for 12 o’clock and opening time, the smell of the malt bins, the wort and the mash blown about and blended by the Dufftown breezes was too perfect for words.

TOURS PROVIDED:

‘Standard Tour’: FREE. See ‘My Tour’ below.

‘Connoisseur Tour’: £20. More in-depth, lasting 2 and a half hours. There are four Glenfiddichs to nose as well as the new make. You get taken to Warehouse 8 to investigate the famous Solera Vat.

DISTILLERY-EXCLUSIVE BOTTLINGS:      A bottle-your-own facility in the distillery shop. At present [02/02/11] it is 15yo and a vatting from various different cask types in the one barrel, £70.

My Tour – 25/04/2010

THE RUNNING COMMENTARY:      ***

THE PROCESS AND EQUIPMENT:      **

Notes:      Despite its size, the owners wish to keep the distillery as traditional as possible. Very few computers are used and all of the 20 or so washbacks are wooden. A really interesting quirk is in the stillhouse. There are three different-shaped stills: a wash still and two alternative spirit stills, an accident of circumstance which dates back to when William Grant first built the distillery. With very little money he could not buy all of his stills the same shape. The warehouse tour is utterly marvellous and as we shuffled in the rain began, pattering on the slate roof and heightening the romantic atmosphere so much I forgot I had to walk back to my B&B in it.

GENEROSITY:      ** (Three drams, the 12YO, 15YO and the 18YO.)

VALUE FOR MONEY:      **

SCORE:      9/10 *s

A lot of fuss has been made about this dram. I would like to come back and do the Connoisseur tour because in my head I get the sense that Glenfiddich ages very well. Living proof here.

A lot of fuss has been made about this dram. I would like to come back and do the Connoisseur tour because in my head I get the sense that Glenfiddich ages very well. Living proof here.

COMMENT:      I arrived at 11.30am on the Sunday, too early. I read the paper on a picnic table outside the brand centre and was enchanted by how the smell fluctuated between stored malt, sweet wort and fruity mash, all blown about on the breeze around the town and its gentle surrounding mountains. As 12 noon approached, the floodgates of tourists opened. For the introductory (and very professional) film in the ‘Theatre’ there were more than 30 people. For the tour we were split into three parties (two standard, one for the Connnoisseur tour) and all of us were taken round at once. That should intimate the scale of the place. If that doesn’t, how about their using 90 tonnes of malt a day, their 24 washbacks and the 140 million litres of spirit maturing on-site. Fergus is our guide and he is unflappable. The whole experience is tremendously professional, with an emphasis on the traditional: wooden washbacks and long fermentation time. Computerisation is kept to a minimum, too. Into Warehouse #1 and what an adorable place. At one end is a video about coopering, accompanied by an excellent explanation and at the other are casks to nose: find the Sherry cask. I thought I’d be good at this but I got it wrong! They confused me by the age of the cask I picked: a 36-year-old Bourbon. The other two were an 18-year-old of the same wood and a 20-year-old Sherry. I must have had an off day. Rain pattered on the roof, making for a very atmospheric experience. The three drams at the end were a huge bonus, all served in Glencairn glasses. The shop is a must-see, with lots of Balvenie, too. My favourite was the cafe, where I had soup, a sandwich and a scone – all delish. In the same part (the malt store for the old distillery building), there is a bar with many Glenfiddichs to try. I would recommend this as a first tour, and then spend the extra money visiting Aberlour. With only 6 miles between them, it sounds like the perfect day to me.

I like to see a bit of pure wild water flowing to a distillery. The reason I discovered this view was because water started falling from the sky and I ducked under a piece of masonry beneath the shop.

I like to see a bit of pure wild water flowing to a distillery. The reason I discovered this view was because water started falling from the sky and I ducked under a piece of masonry beneath the shop.

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