Day 7: Buckie to Dingwall

Motivation for my mammoth day in the saddle came from an unlikely source: Landlady’s Revenge (see Day 4). As I stared out of the window, over the Firth to the soft edges of the Black Isle waiting for breakfast, the Peruvian nose-flute cover album for 80s power ballads playing in the background switched into Tina Turner’s ‘Simply the Best’. ‘Sharp-dressed Man’ was also a reasonably successful rendition.

Riding out of Buckie, the weather had performed a neat trick on me; the wind that had been in my face yesterday, pedalling east, was now in my face pedalling west. I couldn’t quite believe it. Scotland, as beautiful as it is, can be very cruel.

The return leg into Elgin was made significantly more challenging by the breeze, then by unclear cycle route signage, then by steep hills. Emerging into fields and single track roads, I could appreciate the turbulent weather predicted for today. Above me were two thick bands of cumulus, bulging with threat. However, on the trail to Forres life got dark and windier at times but rain never fell.

During a tactical pit-stop at the Forres Tesco I made contact with my hosts for the afternoon. A friend of mine from St Andrews had insisted I stop by her parents’ house for lunch on my way to Inverness, an invitation I had gladly accepted. With the wind, the wobbly legs and no map to Cawdor, however, I advised that I was maybe going to be late.

Crossing the swollen Findhorn, I was conscious of entering the Laich of Moray proper. Four years ago, I had been charmed by its rolling greenness and sea views. Again, the mild climate and low traffic endeared me to this part of the world. Unfortunately, I mis-remembered my signposts from 2010 and as I pedalled further and further, and the odometer ticked closer to 50 miles, I hadn’t seen a single sign for Cawdor. By the time Nairn golf club appeared on my right-hand side, I knew I needed outside assistance.

‘I’m at the Shell garage in Nairn,’ I said to Gabby. ‘Can you see a Sainsbury’s?’ she asked. ‘No.’ ‘How about a large housing estate?’ ‘No, I can see a fly-over and a sign for a cemetery’. Eventually we established which of the minor petrol stations I was broiling on the forecourt of and Gabby sent her dad to collect me.

Victor arrived soon after, the bike was slotted into the back of the estate car, I went in the front and then a potted history of the area was delivered as we surged through Nairn and out into arable, swiftly rising land. American soldiers had been billeted near the Brackla distillery, grouse moors cost a hell of a lot to maintain, there was the oldest surviving seed kiln in Scotland (we were driving parallel to the Cawdor main street by now). I was entranced.

After arriving at the Laidlaw residence, I was introduced to the family. Soon a terrific spread of cheese (Gabby works as marketing officer for the nearby Connage Highland Dairy), bread, soup, fruit and chutneys was placed on the table in the kitchen. I had a lengthy list of beverages I was urged to choose from but I insisted water was what I needed after my morning in the Moray oven. I tried not to get teary about the boundless, caring hospitality pouring my way.

By the time our delicious lunch was at an end, it was clear I had not conveyed enough detail to Gabby ahead of time. The plan had been to treat me to dinner, too, then deposit me in Inverness, assuming my bed for the night lay there. I had to admit that my B&B was in Dingwall. ‘Oh, we can drive you there,’ said Victor, ‘that’s not a problem’. A 60-mile round-trip? I couldn’t encroach on the Laidlaws to that extent, plus I needed to remain as self-sufficient as possible on my travels. ‘You’ll feel better for the rest, and arrive earlier.’ These were both immensely tempting arguments, and Gabby told me later that the parental instinct was proving unsilenceable, but I had to stick to my guns.

Shortly after 16.15, I saddled up and pedalled off, uttering the sincerest thanks I could. Rejoining the main road to Culloden Moor, I spied a rain cloud that I doubted I could be so lucky to avoid, a giant black anvil skudding low across the sky. On went the waterproof, but the storm moved more quickly than I did, and I only caught the dribbly tail as the road climbed towards Inverness. Indeed, by the time Culloden appeared, the sun was shining forcefully, and I could take this picture looking north.The descent into Inverness was one I had done before, but again the cycle route signs proved imperfect. In a city, you risk encountering signs which are really for those who have entered from the opposite direction to you. This was my misfortune as I ended up nearly back at the giant roundabout which had conveyed me in. Gnashing teeth at the wasted energy and steep hill I would have to climb back up, I eventually found the correct road down to the city centre. From here, though, it was sheer guesswork getting to the Kessock Bridge. In fact, although I could see it, I could not at first get near it.

Retracing my steps, I found – and decided to trust – a little blue marker. This took me through dockyards and round the back of office blocks but it did deposit me at the base of the Bridge. From up there, the view towards Strathpeffer and the Beauly Firth was jaw-dropping. All the cloud cover contributed to dynamic chiaroscuro effects, but due to all the broken glass on the bike path alongside the main road, I couldn’t gawp westward too much.Descending to the Black Isle, a sign read 13 miles to Dingwall. It was by now about 6PM with gorgeous evening sunshine. How hard could that be? The cycle route led me under, over and alongside the A9 but eventually I broke free into country lanes. The landscape was rolling but not excessive. My legs, however, were beginning to lose their zip after 70 miles and the final decisive turn off to Dingwall brought me beneath another – and this time fully-primed – rain cloud.With full waterproof kit hastily donned, I squelched into Dingwall. The B&B was not immediately obvious, and a final call provided directions. Over the railway track I had last taken four years previously on my way to Kyle of Lochalsh, and there it was. 78 miles, and I didn’t feel too bad. The bike required minimal attention, my stomach accommodated a 16-inch pizza, and despite a TV that didn’t work, I was passably occupied. However, the seeds of doubt were being sown, and my powers of recovery were being stretched, as I would discover the next day.

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Benromach – Behind the Scenes

‘Not every distillery in Scotland could work like Benromach.’

So much became obvious after a only few minutes at Speyside’s smallest distillery, and there was more than a hint of satisfaction behind this statement, made by its manager.

Keith Cruickshank has presided over the Gordon & MacPhail implemented apotheosis of Benromach from the very beginning, as some permanent marker on a wooden beam in the filling store corroborates. He describes with typical animation the unique, semi-paternal pleasure he feels when signing out casks from the warehouses to go for bottling, with the day they were filled clearly in his mind. It says much for Benromach’s dedicated output and Keith’s powers of memory, but chiefly underlines the personal credentials of this pint-sized whisky revolution taking place in North-west Speyside. ’I always say that Gordon & MacPhail own the distillery – but it’s my distillery, really.’

Overseeing production at Benromach.

My Manager’s Tour took place on a muggier, moister day than had my standard tour in April 2010 but the distillery was still as cutely dinky as I remembered it, and the smell of rich breakfast cereal still pooled in the road between the visitor centre and the operating buildings. Inside, 1.5 tons of malt was being mashed, many thousands of litres of wort were gently mutating into alcohol, and two stills were being lovingly polished. The production area at Benromach is a delicious place to be: the handsome copper-domed mash tun cannot contain the steamy aroma of malt mixing with water and there – yes, there it is – is the scent of peat.

In stark contrast to my experiences at Balblair, all wort is fermented for at least four days. Keith explained that they had tried 48-hours in the washbacks but it simply couldn’t supply the rounded fruity requirements for the final Benromach spirit. At 96 hours, the wash undergoes a secondary phase of fermentation as lactic acid begins to build in the heavily apple-scented wash with a bold malty character, too. At the stills, I learnt of the brief for Benromach of 14 years ago: a whisky that will age quickly but also prove itself over and above 25 years in cask. ‘Not an easy thing to achieve,’ I said. ‘Not easy at all…’ came the reply.

The correct interaction with copper is encouraged, with the stills allowed air rests between charges. Once again, it was a decision made with quality of spirit – and not litres per annum – in mind. Gordon & MacPhail wanted desperately to become distillers, but not just any distillers. At Benromach, two hundred years of distilling knowledge, every possible option and permutation, was considered prior to the first batch of malt passing through the mill. That being said, despite incorporating the very latest information related to the making of whisky, this is not distilling by numbers. As Keith happily revealed, they are still tinkering for just the right result.

A social time capsule.

Not content with fully organic whisky, heavily-peated expressions, single barley varietals and wood finishes, there is still scope to explore other aspects of production, with yeast perhaps next on the check-list. If those little critters are as important as the brewing industry says they are, we could be enjoying some very eccentric whiskies in a few years to come.

The Manager’s Tour procures you not just the time and enthusiasm of Mr Cruickshank, but an impressive tasting of Benromachs from pre- and post-G&M. Here are some of my thoughts on them.

Benromach 10yo

Some beautiful Benromachs.

Plenty of woodsmoke and gooey red fruits on the nose initially, before further investigation reveals this malt’s ex-Bourbon DNA: strong wood notes together with syrupy lemon and vanilla. The sherry ageing really shows itself on the palate, with more woodsmoke and satsuma. The finish is redolent with that gentle, complex smoke again, only with a green apple and caramel flavour tacked on.

Benromach Origins

Made with Golden Promise barley and aged in Sherry, both fruitiness and a bold maltiness show on the nose. Rich caramel and malt bins at first with sweet biscuit and jellied lemon peel. The palate is a Sherry bonanza, only not quite as I like them. Mouth-clinging tannins surge in, bringing a dark syrupy quality with it.

Benromach 25yo

A pre-1993 dram, this one, and unusual in the Benromach range with complete ex-Bourbon maturation. The nose was stunningly beautiful: creamy, with golden raisin and lemon. Banana-like malt, shortbread and coconut developed in the glass. The palate bulged with fruits: apple, apricot and white plum. For all there was a clinging sensation in the mouth, I could still find delicate floral notes, too. Soft, moist gingery oak accounted for the finish.

Benromach 30yo

This one was a deep, bold Sherry specimen, all leaf mould, oak, apple and cinnamon. It gradually became more floral, although it did become almost solvent-like: boot polish, if you will. Banana loaf appeared and chocolate. On the palate a Benromach signature began to emerge: plenty of fruity malt with a bit of cling, but primarily soft and toffeed. The finish was slow, gentle and lovely with rich toffee and blackberry.

Benromach 1968

What a venerable gentleman this is. Dense, imperious smoke erupts from the glass, together with soft, rich Sherry tones. Next it is oaky, lichen-covered and earthy, while a heavy menthol note develops with time. The palate was all Sherry, but in such a wonderful way: nutty, fruity with a drying herbal lift. It was malty, too. Peat returned on the finish with an impression of wood stacks. Syrupy and treacle-textured, red apple appeared at the end before the cask-derived richness and sweetness blazed once more, to sink gently below the horizon.

As enjoyable as the tour was, however, my Project was thwarted. I had arrived at Benromach entirely in the dark with regards to their bottle-your-own cask. I had no idea what to expect. For all I knew it could be a heavily-peated batch of organic Golden Promise barley finished in a Sauternes barrique but I was excited by the prospect of siphoning off my own hand-crafted and well-loved single malt. It turned out to be a 9yo Hoggie, and not quite the complex, rip-snorting whisky I wanted. Malty, creamy and zesty on the nose, it also boasted jelly sweets and squashed banana. Dry sweet cereal aromas and a bit of vanilla rounded out a quite tense and dour first impression. The palate was remarkably soft for the strength and youth of the dram with creamy malt and smoke. It started to dry once more, however with faint citrus notes. Happily, the finish offered up a slightly richer experience, with apples and malt. It was too short, however. Water certainly helped matters, the nose growing more biscuity, blending into pastries. I found bracken and heather, as well as toffee and intense floral touches. More vanilla was pulled out. The palate was a fraction bready, with more perfumy flowers.

Maybe in a couple more years this could become a buxom and enthralling whisky, but for now I had to concede that it was a little under-powered for my needs. I will be back, because there is plenty of promise as many separate facets of the Benromach personality mature. Right enough, not every distillery could operate as this distillery does. We should be greatful, therefore, that Benromach has been granted such artistic licence.

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Burgeoning Benromach

A recent press release moved me to meditate on what G&M could stand for in addition to ‘Gordon & MacPhail’. With respect to their malt whisky distillery, Benromach, it could also signify ‘Growing & Multiplying’.

Mmm... Honey-nut cornflakes...

Mmm... Honey-nut cornflakes...

Data tells you only so much about Benromach. With an annual capacity of only 500,000 litres, it is the smallest on Speyside and if you are figuratively-minded, like me, then it is natural enough to suggest that its diminutive size is reflected in its marginal situation: the mega-giants of the region have banished the little runt to the extreme outer fringes of Speyside. However, since G&M’s take-over in 1993 the distillery has constructed a positive asset out of – and indeed exaggerated - its non-conformity. It is, geographically, a Speyside malt whisky but tastes like no make to be found in the glens feeding the river with spirit today.

We speak of expressions when dealing with whisky, and Benromach boasts so many it would have the Old Wives muttering darkly in reference to the perils of changing winds. With Organic whiskies, heavily-peated malts, drams distilled from Golden Promise barley and plentiful wood finishes, however, Benromach’s repertoire of guises has in fact contributed massively to ensuring that its personal wind is set fair.

Benromach Hermitage Wood FinishThere are now three more examples of this littlest of all little gems to savour the first of which, the Wood Finish Hermitage, continues in the same vein as the Pedro Ximenez and Sassicaia finishes of previous years. The finish, 22 months in French oak casks from the Rhone valley, brings out citrussy and berry flavours. (£31.25)

Just seven first-fill Bourbon barrels from 2001 have been vatted together to create the 2001 Cask Strength, a 9yo whisky with plenty of spice and Benromach’s signature light peatiness. (£40.50)

From the pre-G&M days comes the 30yo, matured for three decades in first and refill Sherry butts. I hear this boasts lots of ‘warming festive hints of sherry and spices’. (£149.99)

‘The Benromach portfolio now offers an expansive range – something for a variety of palettes,’ said Michael Urquhart, Joint Managing Director. ‘These latest expressions really demonstrate the skill of our master distillers in maturing and distilling the single malt. While different in taste, they all have that recognisable Benromach quality which comes from our unique whisky making process, which involves using the finest Scottish malted barley and pure spring water from the Romach Hills.’

I said it last year, after my fabulous tour of the distillery, that this was one to watch. I find that, at this precise moment in my whisky exploration, I crave those boutique, original and distinctive drams and Benromach’s titchy size brackets it with the likes of Kilchoman while its select offerings align it with Balblair and the independently-bottled single casks from all around Scotland. I am very keen to try the 2001, ticking all of my personal whisky boxes as it does: first-fill Bourbon, cask strength, non-chillfiltered and a punchy, old-style spirit.

As the photo shows, with Benromach you feel as if you could tuck the distillery into your pocket. With relatively scarce supplies of each of their whiskies, buying one has the same feeling: it is as if you are savouring a more significant chunk of a distilling enterprise - something you cannot say of those mega-giants.

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A handsome, even cute distillery with very much its own character. One of the nicest hours I spent on Speyside.

A handsome, even cute distillery with very much its own character. One of the nicest hours I spent on Speyside.

Invererne Road, Forres, Morayshire, IV36 3EB, 01309 675968. Gordon & MacPhail.

APPEARANCE AND LOCATION:      ****      It is such a dinky little distillery - very clean and smart. You can see all of the processes in the one room: the mashing, fermenting and distillation.


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

‘Essential Tour’: £12.50. A more in-depth experience at this lovely little place, with three or four drams available for your enjoyment at the end.

‘Manager’s Tour’: £40. Keith Cruikshank will take you round for this glimpse at the minutiae of a working distillery. At the tour’s conclusion there are some seriously exciting whiskies to sample, including many of the vintages, produced prior to Gordon & MacPhail’s takeover.

DISTILLERY-EXCLUSIVE BOTTLINGS:      A single cask, bottle-your-own available in the museum across the courtyard from the visitor centre, £60.

My Tour – 28/04/2010



Notes:      The production process at Benromach takes place within the one airy room: one pair of stills, two washbacks and a variety of different spirits passing through the spirit safe on an annual basis: peated, heavily-peated, organic, Golden Promise mashes…

GENEROSITY:      * (1 dram as part of the standard tour spec, but you can request samples of others.)


SCORE:      6/10 *s

COMMENT:      The tour begins with a video by Gordon & MacPhail. This includes footage of the shop in Elgin, their bottling facility and their own maturation warehouses where the casks they buy acquire their character. They were gearing themselves up for the imminent whisky festival during my visit: lots of very smart banquetting tables had been laid out in the old maltings. We were in there, too, to view the small museum they have of old distilling equipment. There we also found the bottle-your-own single cask. I regret that I couldn’t find a price. It is the smallest distillery in Speyside, and the only one that produces using a lightly peated malt as standard practise. It’s about 8-12ppm. You can see all of the equipment in the one room and standing beside the mash tun I smelt for the first time the dry, rich influence of the peat. Delicious! The smell from outside had been of Crunchy Nut Cornflakes. They’re ludicrously tasty, and so was the atmosphere of Benromach. By the spirit safe the guide poured a little of the peated new make spirit into my palm and a little of the unpeated new make into the palm of the other gent on the tour with me. Letting it dry off and then smell each others hands resulted in a marked difference. Mine gained a dry and rich earthiness over the clean cereal barley of the unpeated spirit. I couldn’t stop sniffing my hands because in its fruitiness I recognised something of my beloved Caol Ila. The warehouses were as most warehouses are. There was a cask with Prince Charles’s name on it, though, having re-opened the distillery in 1998. Back to the VC for a nip of something. I was bracing myself for the Traditional, which hadn’t set my world on fire the last time I tried it. What we got instead was the new 10YO which is just tremendous. It really is gorgeous. The peating is just right and creates a whole new flavour profile for Speyside malts. I WILL be buying a bottle. So concluded Speyside, just as it was about to have its first of two major jollies of the year. Distilleries now would require a little more effort on my part to reach.

Benromach and Forres

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