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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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Le Malt 24 Hours – part 2

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

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

01.30: Four Roses Small Batch and Dervish pizzas.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Into the finishing straight: Mark pours the Glenmorangie Original.

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

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

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

‘Old Pulteney 12yo, please.’

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

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

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Diageo on the Beach (at the Quaich Society)

Diageo at the Quaich Society

The Quaich Society here in St Andrews has acquired a considerable quantity of momentum so far this term. A number of factors put paid to the final portion of last term’s itinerary but so far in 2011 the drams and learned conversation have been liberally flowing. This Thursday (the 10th), Diageo came to town, and I could not miss my chance to appraise how the world’s largest drinks producer goes about conducting tastings. As it happened, they are rather good indeed.

There could have been no more appropriate ambassador to address a bunch of students than a man who looked as if he had only just graduated himself. Duncan opened his talk with an allusion to just this happy circumstance, promising that he was relishing the change in demographic our forty-or-so strong crowd presented.Duncan McRae

With his six key points of discussion, and a special al fresco stunt planned for us at the end of the evening, Duncan’s task was a hefty one. Constraints of time are rarely too strictly observed at the Quaich Society, however, and we lapped up all of the information Duncan put before us. And the prevailing bias of the tasting was just that: information. The only thing ‘hard-sell’ about Duncan was his sincere love for his job and Scotch whisky, and putting the free Talisker scarves and ‘rocking glass’ to one side, gimmickry was notable by its absence. He expressed his personal views on such matters as terroir and centralised warehousing, basing many of his statements on the science of distilling, in addition to the simple realities of economics.

To those six factors, therefore: facets of the Scotch whisky product Duncan felt it most necessary to know. He accompanied each individual whisky with a spiel relating whichever of these categories that whisky could most interestingly illustrate, the first of which was Glenkinchie. Now this little Lowlander receives a fair amount of flak from some quarters, but I happen to be a fan of its sweet, dry, herbal characteristics. On this occasion I found more of the tight spiritiness of younger whisky with a great deal of vanilla and ginger cookie dough. Duncan partnered this with the distillery’s history. When the phylloxera virus decimated Cognac in the 1800s, two Edinburgh businessmen saw an opportunity to supply drinkers south of the border with spirit. However, it had to be different from their past encounters with the potent, heavy qualities of Highland Scotches. Sited close to rail links and raw materials for efficient production and access to market, Glenkinchie today continues to provide much of the freshness and zip in blends such as Johnnie Walker.

DiageoWe covered Dalwhinnie next, a preferred dram of mine in the right circumstances. Creamy and peachy with honey and smoke, the flavours did not disappoint or surprise. Duncan illuminated the story of Dalwhinnie with a word on the journey required to reach it. ‘You know when you head north of Pitlochry on the A9, when everything starts to look as if you’re in Mordor? That’s Dalwhinnie.’ Meaning ‘meeting place’, I can empathise with Duncan’s description. Unfortunately this was from the comfort of a car instead of a bike but that is what the next Odyssey is for…

Dram no. 3 was introduced in a highly novel fashion: ‘OK, who has beef with the Singleton of Dufftown?’ Hands shot up. Duncan’s explanation of why Diageo markets three different malts in three different territories in exactly the same style went some way to pacifying the dissenters in the room. Glendullan for the States, Glen Ord for Asia and Dufftown for the UK and Europe are each intended to occupy a given location on the Flavour Map, which was also wheeled out a couple of times during the evening, hence the identical labelling. Duncan conceded that, as a trio, they did not garner the greatest critical acclaim. However, he then dropped in the little nugget that the Singleton was the fastest growing whisky and in the world. Fair enough – Diageo don’t stay where they are at the top of the tree by refusing to give the general drinker, and in this case new drinkers, what they want.

With a word on maturation regimes for the Singletons (almost exclusive Sherry maturation) we arrived at the ‘big boy whiskies’. Duncan’s passion for Talisker and his eloquence on the subject of whisky generally was extremely powerful. ‘Why is whisky favoured around the world? Why is it romanticised in the way that maybe vodka isn’t? Why, when you type Talisker into Google do you come up with endless pictures of dogs?’ We awaited his answer, and – for me – it was the right one. ‘Because of the place.’ Talisker, as I have said before, is the most awesomely-situated distillery in Scotland. Duncan endeavoured to explain how Skye and malt whisky had the power to conspire and embed sensory sensitivity in the overcome visitor. How the locality and force behind the whisky could return to you, when you least expected it, over a Talisker anywhere in the world. That was what the tumblers and scarves were for. Duncan intended to lead us down to the beach, pour out some 57 North and let the magic happen.

Caol Ila and Lagavulin were somewhat hastily guzzled in anticipation of this jaunt – unique in my experience at the Quaich Society. Whilst to describe Lagavulin is superfluous by now (I am deeply saddened that my 20cl bottle is nearly dry), my encounter with the Caol Ila 12yo after what must be nearly two years of hiatus was keenly savoured. When I first entered the room I must confess I had been rather rude to my companions as I slumped on the table with my nose dipped, immovable, in the glass. It is such a magnificent aroma, such a majestic house style: so sweet, fresh, clean, oily and smoky. When Duncan told me that they had recently launched the Caol Ila Moch, I took note. An exclusive for the Friends of the Classic Malts, Moch is non-age statemented, vatting together 8-15 year-old Caol Ila for a medley of qualities. Money, where are you?Diageo

After satisfying his raffle-drawing duties, Duncan marched those of us intrepid enough and devoted enough to Talisker to brave the ferocious wind and cold to the shoreline. In the dark, the cask strength hooch flowed into waiting tumblers. Beneath the stars, we warmed ourselves on malty lava from the Isle of Skye. Unfortunately, I was left somewhat cold by the 57 North. It could have been the temperature, it could have been the lack of water to cut the spirit, but I found it too one-dimensional with a rigid dark oak note which strangled the body of the whisky. Rather than that irresistable Talisker peat fire burn which builds and builds, the whole thing just tasted slightly burnt – like salted caramel left on too high a heat.

Though the whisky was not to my taste, it was a highly innovative idea on Duncan’s part – not something he could have done in Manchester or Leeds, for example. The stars and my fellow Quaich Sockers were magnificent company at any rate.

I think this picture adequately demonstrates our gratitude to Duncan, and the Quiach Society committee, for laying on another fabulous evening.

Raising a toast with Talisker.

Raising a toast with Talisker.

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The Long Road to a Whisky (Blog’s) Maturity

I have returned to verdant, glorious Northumberland, folks. Everything has just exploded into life and I feel I have missed out on a key transformation. I was, after all, chasing winter as I headed north along the east side of the country.

I have begun the long process of uploading my photos and inserting them into their appropriate posts. I’m beginning at the beginning, so that is where all of my pictorial evidence is now. I have already updated my first four posts: Glenkinchie; the journey to it and Stirling; Tullibardine, and Glenturret. Please check them out. There aren’t many, sadly. As I said in Braemar, I deleted many thinking it might ease uploading. There should be enough to be going along with, though.

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Glenkinchie

The day of my visit, much like the specifics of the distillery itself, epitomised the generally-upheld Lowland style: dry, clean and all very agricultural.

The day of my visit, much like the specifics of the distillery itself, epitomised the generally-upheld Lowland style: dry, clean and all very agricultural.

Pencaitland, Tranent, East Lothian, EH34 5ET, 01875 342004. Diageo. http://www.discovering-distilleries.com/glenkinchie/

APPEARANCE AND LOCATION:        ***      With the Lammermuir Hills in pale blue haze in the background and its spartan red brick construction, Glenkinchie is certainly a smart distillery. On the way in, however, I could only smell hot tarmac, not processing barley!

TOURS PROVIDED:

‘Exhibition Only Tour’:      £3, including a £5 discount voucher against a 70 cl bottle of single malt whisky. Wander around the maps, plough coulters and video screens of the exhibition area in the former maltings before casting an admiring eye over the James Risk scale-model distillery. A complimentary dram of the very approachable Glenkinchie 12-year-old is provided.

‘Glenkinchie Tour’:      £6, fully redeemable against a 70 cl single malt purchase. The standard tour does not appear, from the specification on the Discovering Distilleries website, to deviate at all from that which I took in April, and consequently I can still recommend it. The exhibition and model distillery are self-guided, and you arrive at the ‘holding area’, with display cases and a touch-screen centre console permitting you to sample some of Diageo’s multi-media marketing if that takes your fancy. A tour of the distillery is capped off with a dram of the 12-year-old and one other malt from their exdeedingly well-appointed bar.

‘Taste of Scotland Tour’:      £10, with the £5-off discount voucher included. This is described as the standard tour with ‘additional drams giving you a flavour of Scotland’. I have a feeling these may well be the same cohort that is on offer as part of the Group Tours (see below).

‘Group Tours’:      [20 persons plus] £5, plus the £5 voucher. The standard tour is available with four drams awaiting each member of the group treated to four of Diageo’s malts from across Scotland. My money would be on Talisker, Oban and Cragganmore, in addition to Glenkinchie, but that is an unofficial guess. ‘Tailor made tours are available on request’, it says, and enquiries ought to be directed to Mary Colgan or Rhona Paisley via the visitor centre number (above).

DISTILLERY-EXCLUSIVE BOTTLING:      ‘Double’ matured in Amontillado-treated American oak, 59.3% ABV, £65.

My Tour – 12/04/2010.

THE RUNNING COMMENTARY:      **

THE PROCESS AND EQUIPMENT:      *

Notes: There is a fabulous exhibition of whisky-making and -history in the converted maltings. The highlight is a complete scale model of a distillery by James Risk which shows each stage of the process in exquisite detail. No warehouse, though!

GENEROSITY:     * (I wheedled three drams out of my time at Glenkinchie.)

VALUE FOR MONEY:     *

SCORE:     5/10 *s

COMMENTS: A very good distillery to tour for the beginner and access is excellent. Perhaps it is laid out as it is to continue on more naturally from the Classic Malts marketing which is prevalent in the place: straightforward and precise. There were new elements and means of delivery from my last visit, which was nice although not a great deal I didn’t already know. The staff are very friendly and accommodating, however. Our tour guide was Austrian, who had much of the easy Scottish charm about her, nevertheless, and seemed impressed with my endeavour. The Glenkinchie tasting room, being part of Diageo, means that it has a huge variety of malts for the visitor to choose and compare against. I had a Blair Athol and the Distiller’s Edition Glenkinchie in addition to the 12-year-old. I left fully confident about why I’m doing this; more I could not have asked for from the first of a whole heap of distilleries.

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Home to Stirling

I’ve begun at last. I must admit that I awoke far too anxious to do very much at all. My obscure mentality was soon

Here is the team photo, just prior to pedalling away from home for six long weeks of whisky and roads.

Here is the team photo, just prior to pedalling away from home for six long weeks of whisky and roads.

demonstrated beyond reproof when I thought it would be a good idea to wash out my new bidons with boiling water and washing up liquid. I put the cap on, shook, and it exploded in my face! Like a startled rabbit I fled to the bathroom, doused my face in cold water but it wasn’t enough to prevent a burn on my forehead. Branded by stupidity. I have oils and creams to treat it but it will just have to heal in its own time. D’oh!

Stress began even earlier than the exploding boiling bidon. I switched on the news and there was the headline I was dreading: strike action on the trains in Scotland. A quick, fervent glance at the Network Rail site allayed my fears, for it seemed that none of my connections were affected. In fact, the guys at the station hadn’t heard word of any industrial action whatsoever!

Copying my routine of a fortnight ago, I skulked around in the luggage bay with my bike on the train up. I could sense Edinburgh nearing and became more and more agitated. It hit home that I was on my own, in unfamiliar territory fully responsible for every decision made. How odd that a control freak should suddenly baulk at assuming total control.

After hauling the bike about Waverley station (agony), and getting dressed (incongruously and embarrassing), I ploughed on into Edinburgh. The journey was very straightforward, and true enough I was awesomely grateful for having previewed the route.  It was, in marked contrast to last month, positively balmy. The sun was incredibly strong and for the first time this year I was minus overshoes and at one with the wind, my relfective jacket in the rucksack. I made good time getting to Glenkinchie, devoured my lunch and took my tour (see next post).

The journey back was equally benign, although I did as much watching of the clock as looking out for buses, red lights and glass on the road. I had set a target of 4pm to be back in the station and I achieved it with six minutes to spare. I hoarded some sugary snacks and waited for the train to Stirling and the point at which I truly ventured into the unknown.

East Coast trains operate a different policy to CrossCountry and there was a guards van to find. This was at the front of the train which wouldn’t have been quite so uncomfortable had my starting position on the platform not been closer to the other end of the train. The bike was installed, however, but I wasn’t. Getting to Coach G from B felt as if I was walking back to Edinburgh, the train having already pulled away. I eventually found my seat, and allowed myself a pat on the back. I had made the train. The rest was up to me.

Stirling in the evening light. What a location for a town, eh? Can you see the wee patches of snow?

Stirling in the evening light. What a location for a town, eh? Can you see the wee patches of snow?

Stirling appeared very speedily indeed. I retrieved the bike (after an ungainly sprint. It wouldn’t do to have my bike end up in Inverness without me) and went in search of my lodgings. It was whilst in the hunt that the latest bad thing happened. As I attempted to rejoin the main road on the hill up to the hostel, I over balanced onto my right side: the one securely fixed to the pedal. Given the choice now between falling over and what actually happened, I’d toppled to the tarmac every time. I succeeded in extracting foot from pedal, but the force with which my foot regained the ground snapped off the fron section of the cleat on the bottom of my shoe. I couldn’t clip back in. Tired, hot and very very smelly, this almost did for me. I soldiered on to the hostel, however, so I could better assess my options.

With the bike locked away and the helpful receptionist giving me an education in hostel stays every time he opened his mouth, I asked about a bike shop. Stowing my panniers away in a locker, I found the one he suggested. I shall be back very early tomorrow morning.

The crowning glory, the cleanser of the day, was my shower. It was gorgeous. I felt instantly better and went in search of food. I despatched a burger and chips in a nearly deserted bar/bistro. The staff were excellent, though, and despite the official chef having gone home ill and so the kitchen being technically closed, they rustled up my meal all the same, the bar man full of enthusiasm for my whisky travels. More on those tomorrow.

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Fit For The Glens: 2 weeks to go…

Let it be known that I’m at peace – joyful, even. Unfortunately, in order for you to understand why these more positive moods are in residence less than two weeks before the most difficult undertaking of my life so far I must relate some bad news before embarking on an account of Monday’s epic mission through the Scottish capital.

I didn’t mention it in my last post because I had thought that it was only a temporary niggle. However, getting back on the bike in the afternoon to consolidate my intense workout the day before, my knee pain reduced a proposed 25 mile ride by two thirds. Pedalling was agony and unlike with my previous knee grievance, rising from the saddle didn’t help. This wasn’t desirable. I then did what you should never do: I diagnosed myself using the internet. Having read procycling for seven years, I know that cyclists are prone to tendonitis and look: there are all my symptoms. The advice was to rest until all discomfort had vanished. There being rather a lot of discomfort, suddenly my 18 remaining days appeared to be a hopelessly inadequate time frame to get rid of it all and still return to the required fitness level. So severe was the pain and so limited was my information about it I went mentally down hill an awful lot faster than I had toiled up Corby’s Crags a couple of days earlier. “I don’t have time for this to heal… Every time I push the pedals the pain is going to return… How much damage will I do to myself by attempting to live with this injury for 1330 miles?“ Nine months and £2000 looked to be trickling down the drain like wort from the mash tun. I had been doomed before I’d so much as started; my grand claims, my bonded spirit of hopes, were just so much of the Angel’s Share. I simply had not foreseen the chance of an injury, and after more than 300 miles of training I had believed the likelihood of any muscular problems had been progressively pacified.

But contemplating the dissolution of my trip, my whole reason for taking a gap year in the first place, made me realise just how badly I want to do this. I want to cycle that passage from Inverness to Wick past some of the most iconic distilleries; I want to be on that ferry to Orkney; I want to see the Cuillins; I want to spin with unaccustomed ease between the eight densely-packed and legendary distilleries of Islay; I want to board my train home from Barrhill on May 22nd knowing I’ve done something unique; I want to see Scotland. A trip to the osteopath brought wonderful news: “if you had tendonitis, you wouldn’t have been able to do any of the exercises we have just done.” He emphasised taking things more slowly, something that could only benefit and enrich my travels as much as my body. He is right, of course.  I still need to enforce the “pootle-along” mode. There are only a couple of critical deadlines on this trip; for the majority of it I should have my head up absorbing the natural splendour that shall surround me. If all I’m concerned with are the figures on my bike computer then it won’t be a very enlightening tour.

I don’t have tendonitis, just a “capsule strain” caused by one over-developed quadricep pulling the knee cap out of alignment. This is easily recovered from and so long as I avoid big gears for long periods of time, I’ll be right as rain.

So it was a positive diagnosis and I was proscribed a set of strengthening exercises. I managed 15 miles on the Friday and had been promised that my reconnaissance plans on the Monday would not exacerbate anything. Provided I didn’t overdo things.

To Edinburgh, then, and with equal amounts of anxiety demanded by this new health-realted threat in addition to the concerns of cycling in a very busy city with expensive, inflexible public transport links on the itinerary, there was even more riding on my experiences yesterday (pardon the pun). Could I do it?

The weather forecast wasn’t good. Monday dawned, right enough, pretty shabbily. I was a whirling dervish of activity as I filled things, stuffed things into other things, dug things out and prepared for this most different of rides. I had every cycling-specific article of clothing with me including leg warmers, overtrousers and hood, and over the course of my day on the banks of the Forth I employed them all. I also brought along the OS map, Multimap directions and camera. Most of these were extracted, sprawled out and shuffled around as I changed into my “real world” disguise of combat trousers and hoodie at the station. Everything was then put back in and I was prepared in all respects besides my actual tickets. The ticket man obliged, but further scrambled my plans when he revealed that there had been an accident on the line between Newcastle and Morpeth and that there would be a delay of at least half an hour.

A little reminder that things don't always go to plan. Indeed, that they don't frequently.

A little reminder that things don't always go to plan. Indeed, that they don't frequently.

I sat on the platform, inwardly bemoaning how the vagaries of the weather and public transport could conspire to complicate things, and doing a lot of mental arithmetic to work out what time was left me. The bottom line was that it was less than anticipated.

After lugging my equipment up and down my first sets of stairs of the day to reach the other platform, grateful that I have also invested time in preparing my upper body, the rain became heavier. I observed the droplets on my saddle and panniers and thought about still greater concentrations soaking me to the marrow.

Only twenty minutes late, the train arrived, and having been told that Coach D was what I needed for cycle storage, I headed in that direction. Manoeuvring bike into cubby hole was no harder than getting an angry sow into a toaster and a few ominous creaks from mudguards and pannier rack later, there she was ensconced. A fruitless tour of the two adjacent carriages meant I sat in the luggage area for the duration of the journey which at least was quiet and allowed me to scrutinise any would-be bicycle thieves as they passed through in search of the toilets.

I'll know how to store her next time round...

I'll know how to store her next time round...

I ate a flapjack and changed back into my cycling gear just as we pulled into Waverley. I waved the hoards of fellow passengers off ahead of me and finally wrestled bike and bags on to the deserted Scottish platform. Another flight of stairs had to be mounted, and yet another gingerly descended before I was in the concourse, the road to Waverley Bridge beside me and a never-ending flood of taxis trundling over it. Cleats on and plastic-walleted instructions in my jacket pocket, I set off.

Immediately I encountered my first hazard with city cycling: pedestrians. Why don’t they look before crossing the road? It can’t hurt. Certainly it can’t hurt more than having a narrow bicycle tyre wedged in their groin.

My next obstacle was one Multimap hadn’t warned me about and came completely by surprise. I continued onto East Market Street from Market Street and was confronted by Roubaix-style cobblestones! Covered in drizzle and oil! Having seen enough Spring Classics crashes, I knew to go slowly.

Road works on Canongate allowed me to revise my route for the first of maybe a dozen times on the way to Pencaitland. “Take the first exit at the roundabout onto Abbeyhill.” The green light winked, I tanked off, made the turn, and was suddenly lost. “Abbeymount?! I want Abbeyhill!” I asked a passing cyclist how I was to get to Abbeyhill. He said I was on it. Not having received any instruction to make the right turn which had brought me into contact with my directional saviour, but confident I was at least in the right area, I retraced my tyre tracks, rejoined what must be the correct road, and came face-to-face with the A1. It was big. Lots of traffic lights for lots of traffic and lots of stress awaited me. I wanted to turn right to head east, but what with all the big buses and bellowing trucks preventing my progress in that direction and yellow paint on the road telling me I couldn’t stop, I carried on, onto the wrong road, swerved into a car park, did a U-turn and came at this paragon of a cyclist-hostile environment from another angle.

At last I was on London Road and despite the traffic lights and buses which I ran a type of relay with for about three miles, it was actually quite straightforward and not as claustrophobic as I’d feared. Did I mention the rain? I don’t think I did. By this stage it was really coming down, I had my hood on and quailed at each pedestrian crossing. The reason for my trepidation were the metal studs used to mark out the limits of the crossing which were all, of course, moist and ready to throw me to the tarmac for the Number 51 to run straight over me.

I also began to appreciate the ineptitude and baffling logic of cycle lane designation and allotment. All of the bus lanes were cycle lanes too, and that was marvellous as long as there were no buses in them. The most exhausting kind of leap-frog ensued when I did have to contend with a truculent double-decker. It would overtake me and pull up at the next stop. I would be forced back into the roaring traffic to get past, only for it to overtake me again 200 metres further on.

Buses stopped baiting me, however, when I reached Musselburgh. This, though, was also when I deviated from the advice of Multimap. I’d just bounced over the River Esk and seen no mention of my hitherto faithful companion, the A199. Instinct said left so I bore left. 500 metres later, though, and just when the cold and wind began to breach my fortifications of adrenaline and I started to feel rather tired, I stopped to double-check. Only the OS map was any use now. Fortunately, it reassured me that I was on the right track, still heading towards Tranent from where I would then dive south to the distillery. By now I was following the banks of the Firth of Forth closely, which was a spectacular blue/grey with a powerstation of sorts a little way off.

I appreciated this view. At last I'd broken free of the city.

I appreciated this view. At last I'd broken free of the city.

I sped over a massive roundabout, enjoyed a generous helping of cycle lane, even if it was pot-holed and sprinkled with broken glass, and suddenly I was in East Lothian and countryside. Once over the A1 I began to dream of days in the saddle with just the fields, forests and mountains for company. The idyll was spoilt slightly by the incessant passing of cars desperate to get to Tranent. Once I arrived myself I wasn’t sure how they could all fit for it wasn’t the biggest of places. I didn’t have long to ponder because frankly I didn’t have long. My stops and starts and wrong turns in the city had cost me and it was getting on for 12:45. The kids were out of school for lunch, something I knew I’d only allow myself once I got to Glenkinchie.

Overshooting a turn-off in Ormiston was the final error. After that the way was highly familiar as I followed the same road we had taken when I visited with my family in September. Rounding a hill beyond Pencaitland, up popped the red-brick smokestack like a beckoning finger and I had at last made it.

Freewheeling into the hollow that hides the distillery, I got my first proof, a validation, of the advantages of travelling whilst open and immersed in the atmosphere. Unlike in September, I smelt straight away the sweet, heady scent of tortured barley and yeast. That made my 18 miles of manic panic worthwhile.

The car park was packed, even on that grey and miserable Monday afternoon. As I dismounted and commenced changing into normal clothes with a frenzy accountable to my bladder breaking to me all at once details of the water it had been retaining, forcing me to contemplate how severe the punishment would be for weeing in the Kinchie Burn, some visitors were returning to their warm, comfortable cars. They weren’t Scottish, either. In fact, I’m not at all sure where they were from but I discerned what must have been “cyclist” and judging by the enthusiasm and earnestness with which they pointed me out to each other, I’m guessing they had enjoyed their Scotch hospitality.

I cycled into the grounds, propped the bike up by the entrance and fled into the toilets. I returned to find it

I would have loved to have tried the tour instead of having time only to snaffle my packed lunch in the chilling drafts outside. I'll be back, though.

I would have loved to have tried the tour instead of having time only to snaffle my packed lunch in the chilling drafts outside. I'll be back, though.

 fortunately still there. It was then that the fatigue hit me. It was 1:30, I hadn’t had my lunch, I couldn’t do the tour but I had to get back for my 4:08 train. I couldn’t bask in the achievement and significance of having escaped the bustle and anonymous menace of the city and made it to this, the first distillery on my tour and my first re-invocation of that glorious double act of Scotch and Scotland which has inspired this journey in the first place, a distillery that I had been to before but had required other means of transport to reach, and not my own steam. I shovelled in my sandwiches and cake, asked a few practical questions of the receptionist regarding what I was to do with bike and panniers when I returned in a fortnight’s time, took the picture you can see on the right and went back to Edinburgh.

I’m not sure why I fretted over the possibility of a blow-out on the return leg. I flew back at an average speed of 15 mph which gave me enough time to change again, buy a fizzy drink and a chocolate bar and collapse on to the train.

A word on that clothing transition period, though. I would not recommend it as a method of meeting women. Propped up against one of Waverley’s mighty green pillars, just beside WH Smith’s, I set about taking things off and putting other things on and trying to remember the sequence for both. With clothing spilling out of rucksack and panniers, I looked like a brightly-coloured, sweaty refugee who, despite probably having lost his village and most of his family to natural disaster or war, had kept in mind the dress code for the more stereotypical gay bars if all the Lycra was anything to go by. The future Mrs Saxon, perhaps not surprisingly, didn’t make herself known.

I had a seat on this train, but while we were stationary I didn’t use it properly. I’d stored my bike correctly this time (suspended by the front wheel from a hook on the ceiling) but due to the open door which streams of folk were using to alight on to the train, it was on full view of the platform. Slurping Lucozade, I suspected every commuter of kleptomania. My eyeballs didn’t return to their normal orientation until the doors had been locked and I was speeding back to south of the border, reflecting how two weeks’ later I’d be on a train taking me further north to Stirling and what I feel is the more authentic beginning of my Scotch odyssey.

I cannot express how contented my day made me feel, so as this post is long enough already I shall simply say that it was the very best thing I could have done. I know my route;  I know how long it will take me; I know the practicalities of train and bike travel, and I know that rain is no dampner.

I also know that for the next two weeks I need to carefully control the intensity of my training. My efforts of Monday did incite a flare-up of pain and swelling, although not on the level of last week. Another treatment at the osteopath has assured me that it is preventable and manageable and this whisky journey need not be jeopardised. This is simply terrific, because I’m quickly coming to grasp what potential it has.

Ardbeg 10-year-old 46% (See ‘Most Hotly-Awaited’)

Colour: Pale and faintly luminous sandy gold.

Nose: (FS) Intense lemon marmalade sweetness sits between tarry rope and seaweed. Light creamy malt on a very strong, dry and thick peat floor. Smooth and gentle, though self-evident, maritime character. Carbolic soap. Floral, honeyed, with a diesel note. (WW) Sweet heathery smoke but still the seaweed and wamr, clear sea water remind you this is Islay. Shellfish. Pencil sharpenings. So open and expansive. A brewing summer storm on the beach.

Palate: Spicy, malty and fruity with very dry, rich and spiky peat. Fabulous exchange between oily tar, peat and smoke and biscuity malt and fruit. So complex.

Finish: Lemon bon-bons eaten by the fire. Hevay – huge! Beach bonfire ash. maram grass. Delicate smoke and engine oil float about. Heathery. Charred cask with spoonfuls of syrupy vanilla. Stupendous.

Glenmorangie Lasanta 46%

Colour: Full, glowing amber orange with bright copper highlights.

Nose: (FS) Intensely soft and smooth Sherry. Drying firmness hehind this of dark, “green” peatiness. Very fresh and spicy wit a creamy nuttiness. Rather oppulent and sumptuous. Complex. (WW) Lighter with more sustained barley sugar sweetness. Marzipan-style oakiness: thick and sweet. Lots of creamy caramel toffee.

Palate: Firm, dark and spicy with lots of dark chocolate, delicate though extremely rich peat and slivers of oak. Nutty. Soft, chewy malt with sticky and sweet dried fruits and toffee.

Finish: Warmth and with very rich, sweet depths. Spongy rubberiness obstructs some of the finer wood notes. Dark heather honey, earthy and with sticky malt. Creamily nutty again.

Arran 10-year-old 46%

Colour: Very clean, pale and soft gold. Champagne.

Nose: (FS) Dry, authoritative oakiness and rich, honeyed, biscuity malt. Heathery with rounded fruit notes. Humid and pungent cereals, underneath which is an appetizing, dry and rich earthiness. Spicy. Chunky and powerful. (WW) Lighter, smoother and a touch sweeter. Jam-filled sponges and pastries. A more inviting firmness and excellent subtle spice. Dark, peaty notes meld well with older oak flavours.The whole thing has real energy and clout.

Palate: Very spicy and firm yet retains a teasing softness. Fruity at first then rich caramel and chocolatey barley. Full and rounded with heathery peat notes.

Finish: Stewed fruit and plain chocolate. Firm, medium-dry oak a principal flavour. Heather honey. Some extra citrus and spice. Smooth with lovely barley grain richness and depth.

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