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Whisky Prices Blast Off into Orbit

Whisky whisky everywhere, but so little of it affordable...

A disclaimer from the outset: this is NOT about Diageo’s recent announcement concerning the direction its new range of whiskies from the Mortlach distillery will take and which has got many bloggers VERY hot under the collar. Just head over to Oliver Klimek’s redoubtable ‘Dramming’ if you don’t believe me or are not acquainted with the issue. All I would say is that the decision to price a no-age statement whisky at £55 for a 50cl bottle and £180 for an 18yo whisky is symptomatic of a wider trend: Scotch prices are on the up.

Back in the good old days when I was nobbut a lad (rather, six and a half years ago, when I was 17) you could wander into a good spirits store and even a larger Tesco and pick up a bottle of The Glenlivet 18yo, the first whisky I tried that seduced me with difference, depth and intrigue, for between £36 and £40. When I first peeped into the Garden of Eden that was Scotch whisky, of course, this was no mean sum of money to me. I was used to seeing bottles of alcohol for the £20 mark, maybe a shade over if I was paying attention in the spirits aisle. Now, you are doing very well if you come across an 18yo Glenlivet (re-packaged since 2007) for less than £60. And that is at the competitive end for single malts boasting such an age statement. Bowmore’s 18yo is £67 – Highland Park’s is £88 (using Master of Malt as my price guide). Mortlach’s will be £180 – but the less said about that the better.

I’m not going to go into why this should be in this post – economics, guys, all very unseemly – but what I do want to talk about are the few pockets of comparative shade away from the rising temperatures of Scotch prices more generally. Below are a few of the single malts and blends that offer good drinking for a fee that won’t having you spitting it all back up again.

BenRiach

Bodacious BenRiachs.

Maybe it was the torrent of liquid released when Billy Walker and partners purchased this quiet Speyside giant back in 2004 but the wealth of choice came at an attractively low price. Former owners back in the 80s, Allied, had experimented heavily with the production regimes and releases continue to showcase this shape-shifting ability in complex, characterful and fully-mature expressions. Heavily peated, triple distilled as well as clean and fruity single malts are all available under the BenRiach banner. My picks of the bunch would be:

16yo 40% £36.43 If you like your whiskies quintessentially Speyside, dripping with honey, pear and vanilla, this cannot be improved upon for the price. When I tried this last year I could not believe how lovely it was, showcasing excellent cask management and a beautiful spirit. Master Blender Walker has added a tiny smidgen of smoke into the vatting, too, to add complexity.

Solstice 17yo 50% £58.37 Maybe not quite a full 18yo, but what you have here is a Glenlivet 18yo price tag plus extra ABV, smoke, and a delicious, heavy Port influence. This shouldn’t work, but it just does.

Also on the sensible pricing policy are their single cask releases, which appear a couple of times a year.

Glenfarclas

The Grant family have owned Glenfarclas, beneath the mountain of Ben Rinnes on Speyside, for six generations. Their whiskies are bold, full-bodied, and demonstrate only the best Sherry cask attentions.

15yo 46% £43.21 Every time I come back to this it puts a smile on my face. The spirit within the rich, dry Oloroso drapery is powerful, sweet and completely delightful. There is the juiciest vanilla imaginable and tannic presence. A superstar. Also, a 21yo for £61.49? Unbeatable value.

Bailie Nicol Jarvie

Under the LVMH umbrella with Glenmorangie and Ardbeg (although you’d never know it), BNJ is visually anonymous with it’s bland white label. However, what’s inside the bottle is anything but.

Bailie Nicol Jarvie 40% £19.69 waves of melon, caramel and soft oak arrive on the nose while the palate boasts a commendable weight and texture with oodles of vanilla and succulent yellow fruits. Blends are, to my mind, liquid comfort blankets and this one will soothe and invigorate in equal measure.

Signatory

Owned by Andrew Symington, who also controls the Edradour distillery in Pitlochry, Signatory are a mad-cap independent bottler offering their own unnamed expressions from the various whisky regions of Scotland for under £30, as well as their Unfiltered range which includes single malts from all over the country, either as single casks or pairings of casks, reduced to 46%.

Really amazing value is to be had from their Cask Strength Collection range with whiskies typically of between 19 and 25 years of age, bottled at cask strength and usually from single casks, for below £100 in most cases. It must be borne in mind that Signatory have a reputation of sorts for wine finish deviancy (but less so than Murray McDavid) so tread carefully. However, the company is very good at listing the maturation history of the whisky you are buying.

The Scotch Malt Whisky Society

The Queen Street SMWS bar.

Okay, I will admit that the upfront costs are definitely on the steep side: this is, after all, a private club whereby the Society bottles whiskies for the titillation of its members (no sniggering in the back). Since 1983, when some Edinburgh-based single malt zealots began sourcing single casks from all over Scotland, the Society has spread to just about every continent and major city around the world. There are more than 130 single malts and 10 single grain whiskies listed on the Society’s coded books with monthly releases of single casks.

I was gifted membership for my 21st birthday and I haven’t looked back. The cost to join is now £122 but for that you receive a welcome pack stuffed with goodies, including 10cl miniatures of Society bottlings and four issues of Unfiltered each year (annual renewal currently at £59), a rather brilliant magazine which covers the more esoteric fields of debate and flights of fancy whisky can engineer. Oh yes, and the opportunity to buy some stunning single cask whiskies (the Society won an Icon of Whisky Award in 2012 for best independent bottler).

This month, for example, my eye was caught by 77.34: a 13-year-old Northern Highland dram at 56.2% and less than £50. Or, on the more mature end of the scale, what about a 29-year-old single cask for £131? The SMWS prefers to root out distinctive and unusual examples of spirit from the various distilleries of Scotland (and even Japan). What you are buying is, in effect, unique and unrepeatable. Even if you don’t buy full bottles, membership also gains you access to members rooms in London and two separate venues in Edinburgh where masses of green bottles await the arrival of your adventurous streak.

I would not go so far as to say that good whisky is dying out, but the days of inexpensive whisky are rapidly coming to an end. These guys offer something tasty, individual and not too dear, either. If you have any brands or products offering cracking value which you think I’ve missed out, please comment below.

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’101 World Whiskies To Try Before You Die’

What would 101 days of Christmas be like? This question is not purely rhetorical, of course, due to the militarised encroachment of Festive cheer (or perhaps uninterest, verging on febrile rage) into the month of September or even earlier. How fortunate we are, therefore, that Ian Buxton has a solution should tradition ever be rewritten to reflect consumerist reality; he has provided an itinerary a good deal more delicious – if less catchy – than the Patridge-In-A-Pear-Tree variety in the shape of his latest book, ’101 World Whiskies to Try Before You Die’.

I caught up with Ian at a recent talk here in St Andrews to promote the new tome, which follows on from ’101 Whiskies to Try Before You Die’ (‘Police Academy II’ as Ian dubbed the sequel). Although it is not a title I own, it was responsible for initiating a whisky-based friendship with a Swedish gentlemen who was sitting next to me on one of my many train journeys to and from university and reading all about Compass Box. I have since associated Mr Buxton’s work with my favourite kind of whisky fellowship, and having met the man himself I can confirm that he is every bit as sociable and engaging as his Twitter account (@101Whiskies).

For an hour and a half, Ian waxed lyrical about whiskies at home and abroad while little morsels of those he has listed in his books appeared before our lips. It was a struggle to cling onto our thimbles and juggle the various props Ian circulated throughout the room, in addition to paying close attention to the torrent of fact and opinion he produced.

Beginning at the beginning, Ian’s point of departure from the traditional heartland of whisky production focused on the explosion of farm-scale distilling in America. He eulogised about the potential for flavour innovation these start-up distillers symbolise. In subsequent correspondence, Ian revealed the fun he had had exploring Swiss and Finnish whisky. When I asked which book he had preferred writing – this one, or its predecessor – Ian replied that both had been a lot of fun, but with the latest focus on whisky counter cultures, he hoped to ‘open a few people’s eyes to the great quality and great value that’s out there if you step off the ‘big brand luxury’ path for a moment (though that delivers some surprises too).’

The final reveal of the whiskies we had been sampling took a few by surprise, including myself. I had selected the final whisky as my favourite, as had my neighbour Doug Clement who could announce on the night that Kingsbarns Distillery had at last secured the financial backing necessary to begin its own farm distilling story. Dram #5, however, hailed from an operation that is more than 210 years old: Highland Park.

Ian holding court - and an empty bottle of Highland Park.

Of greatest curiosity – and supplying what was tantamount to a committee of world whiskies in one bottle – was Orbis. A blend of whiskies from Canada, the US, Ireland, Japan and Scotland, the nose was lemon-accented before heavy brown grist appeared and took the whisky in a different direction. Aromas of oregano, tomato puree and red wine materialised, before a hint of peat smoke made its presence felt. On the palate, there was blackcurrant juice and chocolate, with a return of the gristiness and the peat. I had thought this was Scotch – an unusual and young Bunnahabhain perhaps. How wrong I was.

Some days after the tasting, I solicited the Buxton perspective on tourism in Scotch whisky distilleries – the raison d’etre for the Scotch Odyssey Blog, after all. Ian has worked as a consultant on projects such as Dewar’s World of Whisky and the visitor centres at Highland Park and Glenfiddich; curiously enough, all of these feature in a list of my top 10 whisky visitor attractions in Scotland, with Highland Park picking up the top gong, and Glenfiddich not far behind with their supreme (and free) standard tour. Ian’s advice: “to thine own self be true”. Don’t try to position your whisky or your distillery into a gap in the market which they are not destined to fill, but with any marketing activity remain faithful to a core and authentic principal. ‘When building and operating a centre you need to engage and seduce the visitor, not beat them to death with branding,’ he says, ’People know where they are and why they came, so you don’t need to ‘sell’ to them. Get the right people working there and let them engage with the visitors, then those visitors go away as ambassadors and bring more visitors.’

His own picks for distilleries to visit include The Macallan with their revolutionary presentation on the subject of all things wood, and also Bruichladdich for the commendable reasons that it is ‘so down to earth and a faithful representation of the brand, company, place and people’.

Another ’101′ format book in the offing, maybe? I should warn him that the Scotch Odyssey Blog will defend its niche – even if ’42 Whisky Distilleries to Visit Before You Die’ hasn’t quite the same ring to it.

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Highland Park at the Quaich Society

A treat for the Quaich Society: two bottles of Highland Park Earl Magnus.

The art of pillaging has moved on somewhat since the last time an insatiable horde sought the treasures of Orkney. Quaich Society guests were in fact deeply well-mannered as they queued for a welcoming and welcome dram of the Highland Park 12yo to begin the first tasting of the new year. They sensed that riches would come their way without the need for axes or blood-curdling yells, and they were right.

Patsy Christie and David Howe of Maxxium Brands ventured north to St Andrews to introduce the most northerly of Scotland’s single malts. Aided by some multimedia projection, we could appreciate what implications this might have for the whiskies in our Glencairns. Predominating images were of movement: sea and air principally. It is some challenge not to get blown away on Orkney, but Highland Park’s stature has swelled over the years and today it poses dismissively against the gale.

In my tenure at the Society, we have not welcomed a brand which malts a proportion of its own barley. With Highland Park, this affected the style of our tasting profoundly. ‘Orkney is a big part of Highland park,’ David had said, and Patsy produced a bit of the islands themselves forthwith to demonstrate what he meant. With some good-natured flouting of the health and safety laws, this slab of Hobbister Moor peat was ignited and passed around the congregation, a cloud of wraith-like smoke circulating. As it came in my direction, I detected a spent birthday cake candle smell, and a deeper aroma of incence. Placed beneath Highland Park barley for a few hours and this will generate the delicate heathery quality which I found enlivened all of the whiskies on show.

First up was the new make, and one I was desperate to try. I have said elsewhere how much I love this bolshy, raw product and I’m pleased to report that as new makes go, this is up there with Glencadam’s and Glen Garioch’s. It is stunning. On the nose there is orange and lemon, then fabulous buxom barley which blends a creaminess with a lovely, earthy crispness. This leads into a light prickle of sweet smoke.

Full-bodied on the palate, it displays clean and crisp qualities again. Barley sweetness and some honeydew melon. Shortbread and coconut - gently earthy. It really is magically complex.

A revelatory peat moment. My favourite kind of revelatory moments, if I'm honest.

‘When David and I were planning this tasting,’ said Patsy, ‘he asked me whether I wanted to talk about maturation. Of course! I love wood!’ Her impish grin set the Quaich Society a-sniggering but there was more to Patsy’s cask policy lecture than innuendo. With such premium, classically sherried brands as The Macallan and our guest for the evening, Highland Park, owners the Edrington Group had to source the best oak they could. I heard the following detail on Orkney and it was reiterated: the Edrington Group spends more on wood than the rest of the Scotch whisky industry combined. From the Missouri forests, American oak is shipped to Spain, converted into casks, filled with sherry, emptied and returned – whole – to Scotland. They care about what will contain these fine spirits for years to come and have done for sometime, as the recent launch of the 50yo attests.

We could see the results of that excellent new make after a few Orkney summers in these casks with the 18yo. F. Paul Pacult’s opinions may mean nothing to you – and they certainly mean nothing to me – but to his esteemed palate the 18yo is ‘the best spirit in the world’. Fair enough, but I don’t think it is a sufficient basis on which to anchor sales patter. Or maybe I would say that, having always preferred the 12yo. I’m sorry, but it has far more variety and balance than this specimen, which in the past has poured toffee into my nostrils and not much else. It performed admirably on the night, though, and is undoubtedly an impressive dram.

Patsy Christie and a tiny tot of the new Thor. Great things, small packages and whatnot.

A genuine privilege came in the form of the Earl Magnus of which, we were told, none now exist for sale. The character of this 15yo, cask strength individual was nuttier than the 18yo with more vanilla, apple and pear. A dab of water released far more orange and lemon, which, though a fraction peatier, mirrored the profile of the new make closely. The palate delivered with smoke and spice in addition to caramel, red apple and other red fruits.

The final venerable malt was the 21yo which launched itself out of the glass with robust, warm sherry tones. I detected embers in tbe grate, too, continuing the lovely delicacy of peat that the range had supplied hitherto. Red fruits appeared on the palate with a bit of phenolic smoke.

We almost forgot about the 21yo, however, because the normally docile and genial Quaich Society got a bee in its bonnet. The way issues such as ‘chillfiltration’ and ‘artificial colouring’ were hurled back and forth put me in mind of the Houses of Parliament during the Blair years and the words ‘weapons of mass destruction’. They would not give an inch. HP is chillfiltered, but only a little bit, it would appear. They don’t colour at all. Patsy, a whisky nerd up there with the most obsessive, cited research conducted by the Scotch Whisky Research Institute which said that chillfiltration had no effect – zero, nada – on the flavour profile of a whisky. I don’t know what to believe anymore, as I struggle to credit that the residue left on the edges of the glass after a single cask Glenfarclas has no impact on mouthfeel or the behaviour of the malt in your mouth. Never having had the opportunity of tasting the same malt chillfiltered and not, I cannot compare. If regulations are so strict about what you put into whisky, however, I think we need a little more guidance on what is taken out.

Patsy and David evaded the jabs and thrusts of the Quaich Soc’ers with composed, honest answers. Even a loaded comment about the calibre of cask selection and what might make its way into Famous Grouse would not provoke them. They received a raucous round of applause for their efforts, and I would like to thank both of them for bringing their expertise and excellent whiskies along to us. Maybe a few more minis of Thor for next time, though?

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Glenfarclas at the Quaich Society

Glenfarclas rangeThe penultimate tasting of the academic year finally arrived after a two-week Spring Break intermission, and we Quaich Soc’ers were delighted that the supremely high calibre of outfits pitching up in St Andrews for the purposes of sloshing the water of life around a bit was to be maintained following March’s superlative visit from Compass Box.

Glenfarclas is, as some of you may know, one of my absolute favourite whiskies. My first heavily-sherried whisky was their multi-award winning 15yo – a firm favourite of Michael Jackson and Jim Murray. I found that, straight out of the bottle, there was an aroma of sweet, treated wood and a velvety, clinging mouthfeel which were unlike anything I had come across in whisky until then. More time spent in its company revealed a rich fruitiness, balanced as it was by an earthy spiciness. Only latterly did I appreciate the wonderful dark nuttiness and fat vanilla flavours. I was satisfied with my tour of the distillery, keen to escape the caprices of violent wind and hail which had been coiling about Ben Rinnes that day. Peter Donnelly, brand manager, was on a mission to bring some of this heritage, critical acclaim, unique location and strong family values to bear upon us students, through a mightily impressive inventory of whiskies with the final three far older than anything that has been put before the Quaich Society this year.

After some very brief background, Peter was anxious that we should be drinking some of his whisky. We all turned to the 10yo, one I have had before and was quite impressed with. Surrounded on all sides by its older siblings, however, it came across as somewhat limp: a clean, sweet nuttiness, grassiness and vanilla all that could really distinguish it. Not a bad whisky by any stretch of the imagination - and as Peter asserted, it is more of an introductory malt – but the guests in the Scores Hotel function room were keen to continue exploring.

The 15yo I effectively described above, and I shall only add here that in a comparative context, much more biscuity flavours emerged on the palate and finish beside the richer, older expressions.

Peter Donnelly

Peter Donnelly

Of especial interest was Peter’s emphasis on the maturation process, and how it is uniquely influenced by the microclimate generated in and around Ben Rinnes. It cannot be ignored. As I alluded to earlier, even in mid-April it is possible to experience a disorientating white-out as snow and sleet bucket out of the sky. Winter temperatures at the distillery can be as low as minus 22 degrees Celcius – extreme is the only word for it. Glenfarclas, however, have stuck by their traditional maturation techniques. Thick, ancient, stone-walled warehouses with slate rooves and earthen floors ensure that the worst of the heat and cold is avoided and provides the perfect consistency of ambient conditions to aid in fully-interactive maturation with minimal evaporation. Indeed, Glenfarclas can boast some of the lowest evaporation by volume in the industry. Strength is largely unaffected, too, as the extraordinary proofs many of the very old Family Casks have retained demonstrates.

To the wood, though, and this is where little, family-run Glenfarclas has to muscle in alongside the big boys - the likes of The Macallan, Highland Park, Laphroaig – all of whom want top quality Sherry casks in which to mature their drams. Demand of such casks vastly outstrips supply and hence why so many distillers have switched to ex-Bourbon barrels, more plentiful and crucially, much much cheaper. When the Grants head over to Spain each year, each cask will cost them between 600-700 euros. That Glenfarclas nevertheless abstains from charging Highland Park and Macallan prices, however, is what is so remarkable, considering the quality of the product that leaves those venerable, dear, Sherry butts.

Our next whisky was the 21yo, one I have not previously come across and was grateful to do so here. I found it rather unusual for a Glenfarclas, with a lightness to it as to which I’m still unsure whether the pronounced mulchy earthiness balanced. Initially, I found planed oak, quite spicy and sweet. Then came fragrances of a damp ornamental garden: sweet earth, wet waxy leaves and lush grass. Potato peelings yielded to white grape notes and then a toffee yoghurt character. On the palate there was more sweetness, with an assertive dryness. Earthy again, the experience concluded with floral and fruit notes. Peter revealed that the 21yo batches have become much more consistent, and of a higher quality, now that they have sourced casks from a smaller, more artisanal producer. I was intrigued by this whisky, but not wholly won over.

In stark contrast, the 25yo came blustering along with a challenge painted on its richly-hued face. This was the first of Peter’s ‘occasion whiskies’ – not for everyday drinking but a damn good thing to have tucked away. I couldn’t agree more. Marvellously focused, I discovered more of the apple notes than I had been able to with the others, together with oranges. Lush grass melded into a firm, spicy oakiness. The experience moved into the panelled library, with old books a suggestive aroma. Finally, crystallised orange peel confirmed the age and the Sherry behind this excellent dram.

On the night, the 25yo even outshone a whisky which had for a long time been remembered as one of those ‘Malt Moments’, when your immediate surroundings have no other recourse than to take a back seat as the dram in your hand moves centre stage. That had been the 30yo when I had it at the Scotch Whisky Experience in 2009. Though still impressive, the 25yo showed it a clean pair of heels for pace and agility.

What came next was to be possibly the oldest whisky the Quaich Society has ever seen at its tastings, but before I move on to that, Peter related a fascinating story of the oldest whisky Glenfarclas has. This is not one of the Family Casks – it isn’t even for sale. During the 1980s, a call was patched through from America. The caller had discovered a case of Glenfarclas whisky behind the chimney fixtures of his late father’s house, and offered the Grants the opportunity to buy back their stock, if they so wished. Further investigation through distillery records revealed that what was being described was not old whisky in terms of the spirit (between 8 and 10 years at most) but it had been bottled before Prohibition even got going. For three quarters of a century this whisky had been tucked out of sight, but sadly no-one had got round to drinking it. Perhaps they had forgotten where they had put it. The plain white case is now in the keeping of J & G Grant.

But, to that mature gentleman in our final glass. Peter had treated us to their 40yo, at £300 a bottle far out of reach of most of the tasters in the room that night, even with a misappropriated student loan, but as we couldn’t help recognising, considerably good value for money. Aware that lots of and lots of heavily-sherried whiskies might exhaust my olfactory senses, I had in fact turned to this dram first and discovered an intense, sherried red fruitiness with a creamy and rich sweetness. Dried cherries were in there, together with sweet spice, soft leather and heathery peat. The palate was rich, dark and tongue-coating, with peach and plum. Returning my nose to the glass revealed an added nutty sweetness with hedgerow berries. A touch of water brought out vanilla and big, boozy and juicy fruitcake. Oaky resin emerged, together with delicate heathery smoke. Big, but soft red apple rounded out a very rich and fruity nose. The diluted palate was very drying and rich with a spicy earthiness and somewhat too short finish. I had expected more from this whisky, I must confess. I feel it could have benefited from a little more abv, just to give it a bit of life. Who am I to argue with the wishes of John Grant, however, the one who put the whisky together? If he feels the best of the whisky is drawn out at 43% abv then so it shall be.

For a family-run business, Glenfarclas are hardly cautious in the big bad world of whisky. Peter described the dramming session of 2007 which would result in the release of the Family Casks. ‘So,’ says one, ‘what is the oldest whisky we’ve got?’

‘Ah well,’ says another, ‘I think there are a few casks from 1952.’

‘Huh… And what’s the next oldest after that?

’1953.’

‘And after that?’

’1954.’

Peter Donnelly with the 175th Anniversary bottling.

Peter Donnelly with the 175th Anniversary bottling.

In short, they discovered that they had casks from every year between 1952 and 1994 so what did they do? Rather than feeling rather smug and secure – as they had every reason to do – the cry went up: ‘Release ‘em!’ Peter makes out that this move was made ’just for a laugh – honest to God’. He reasons that the folks behind Glenfarclas have ‘made their money a long time ago’, and if they could offer something different, they ought to. No sooner was the release announced that 14 complete sets were immediately sold – that’s 43 individual bottles, the most expensive of which is nearly £1100. It has been phenomenally successful, the aim being to supply spectacular whisky, at prices that people can manage. Glenfarclas all over, really.

For the raffle, as Glenfarclas 105 circled about the room, Peter had a special prize for the first ticket out of the cannister: a bottle of the 175th Anniversary. A vatting of 18 casks from across five decades, bottled at 43% abv - just 6,000 bottles are available worldwide. Again, the whisky was intended to be the star of the show, hence packaging that is no different to the standard range – affordability ‘over crystal boxes and chandeliers and all this nonsense.’ The winner certainly looked happy with himself, and my three strips of tickets utterly redundant.

Many thanks go to Peter for breaking out the seriously rare stuff for us, and for the Quaich Society team for putting together another sell-out tasting.

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Highland Park 13yo (Master of Malt)

A single cask Highland Park from Master of Malt.

A single cask Highland Park from Master of Malt.

The text from home read: ‘there’s a parcel for you down here. I think it’s whisky.’

It was just about the only news which could have perked up the nauseous, limping and suffering agglomeration of body parts which some suspicious dried apricots had rendered me. It might not have been the apricots, but either way it hadn’t been an easy morning.

Having been authorised to rummage, I was told that Master of Malt had been kind enough to send me out their two latest independently-bottled single malts. One was the Caol Ila 30yo, which Chris had airily mentioned over a Coco Aztec hot chocolate in January might be on its way. The second was a single cask Highland Park, and one I was only to eager to try. A favourite of independent bottlers, it is also a favourite of mine following a peerless distillery tour last May. Never having had the fortune to come by an expression drawn from a single cask – and being profoundly partial to those, too – I shattered the ever-so-cute wax seal during my break from university and poured. Find this dram for yourself here. I would urge you to read Graeme’s review of this malt on Edinburgh Whisky. A much more exciting venue for a tasting!

Highland Park 13yo 57% Distilled in 1997, filled into refill Bourbon wood. Bottled 2010. £44.95

Colour – Clean intense gold.

Nose – At first very light with intense sweetness. I find honey-accented peat with creamy vanilla from the cask. Gristy in texture. Dipping my nose into the glass, there are freshly-baked white rolls with a lush grassiness and root vegetable sweetness. This sulphur unfortunately persists a little too long: dark grains plant, mushroom ketchup. However, it clears at last to reveal maritime character: like kelp-covered malt. Cow sheds make a not unwelcome appearance together with coal smoke, bonfires and appley citrus.

      Water plucks out delicate and rounded pear notes with more characteristic Highland Park heathery peatiness. It’s spicy, too, with creamy oakiness. The earthy peat notes are attractive, but the alcohol just intrudes a little too much. Slowly, the nose freshens with more of that maritime sweetness. I detect some charred cask, too, and nail polish.

Palate – This is very intense indeed with dark maltiness, peat and smoke. Creaminess from the American oak gives way to an equally intense char.

      Water creates a more balanced and integrated experience with peat, soft malt and drily oaky citrus. However, it loses much of its oomph in the process.

Finish – Burning logs and eventually embers. There is an interesting blend of hard and soft textures, with cereal sweetness being of the latter sort. Bread on the barbecue. Quite short.

      Water confuses things: flavour is delayed but it does come. Double cream, wood chippings and faint peat. Stewed apple appears with barley, charred oak and crumbly earth.

So…?      A metaphor for this dram came quite quickly to mind: imagine an over-enthusiastic schoolboy rugby player – maybe a flanker or centre – who has spent more time in the gym than honing his skills on the pitch. The intensity is there, but it isn’t coordinated and ultimately lacks endurance in the final quarter. It is great for the big hits but the savvier off-loads and distribution is not there yet. Whisky-wise, then, I think a few more years in cask may have worked wonders. The Highland Park spirit appears more rambunctious than the standard bottlings have led me to believe, and the cask here has not yet been allowed to perform its subtractive and interactive functions. I would stick to the standard 12yo.

I owe a massive thank you to Natalie and co. at Master of Malt for the samples, and I shall see how the Caol Ila measures up, both to the Highland Park and another 30yo single cask I have had the good fortune to come across from the Bladnoch Forum.

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2010: The Scotch Odyssey Review

‘Tis the season for rumination, reflection, and the airing of hour-long compilations taking an irreverent retrospective on the smorgasbord of the year’s events. At the Scotch Odyssey it is no different, so pour yourself a dram (preferrably one of those listed below) and join me for a root around my panniers of memory and an appraisal of what has been stuffed into them.

My 2010

No one remembers last winter now that the present one is showing itself to be so appalling and ghastly, but January and February were not conducive to outdoor riding. I had a tour to prepare for, but snow and ice were determined to stick around. Hours on the turbo trainer and a regime of running substituted serious cycling until the weather could string a sunny spell together. I saw the colour green for the first time in months, I amassed an OS map for every inch of Scotland and my relationship with the bike deepened auspiciously.The Whisky Trail

Six weeks of liberation, education, ingestion and exploration followed. Scotch whisky, like an age-restricted carrot on a stick, lured me from south to north and east to west; preserving me through all manner of meteorological phenomena; profound levels of fatigue and uncertainty, and many a crowded bunkhouse. The extraordinary, the execrable and the passionately insane coloured my quest, an expedition which may not have been quite as complete as I had initially hoped, but was made more precious on account of those unforeseen circumstances.

The Odyssey has introduced me to many peerless people and almost as many marvellous malts, both in April and May and since then. My many miles of pedalling in the name of Scotch secured me an invite for two days with Inver House Distillers. To be dry and conveyed by spark plugs and pistons to a host of desirable whisky destinations was a true pleasure, although I couldn’t shake off feelings of fraudulence without my Lycra’d attire. Meeting Lucas, Chris, Jason, Keith, Mark, Karen, Matt and of course Cathy were the pre-eminent highlights.Orkney

At university I am a fully paid-up member of the whisky society, and though weather scuppered our date with Compass Box’s John Glaser, Adelphi entertained us all marvellously in October.

The opportunity to catch up with Jane (congratulations, Cattanachs) and Fiona at Glen Garioch and Sandy in Dufftown was eagerly taken in September, and I hope they feature again in 2011. Further plans for the forthcoming year are not as yet concrete but some creative thinking will be done as to how I can make the Scotch Odyssey Blog more unique and indispensable to the Scotch malt tourist.

Favourite Five (My Moments):

#1   The visceral, unflinching, incomparable Isle of Skye. When the prospect of cycling to Scotland’s whisky distilleries began to make sense again.

Skye

#2   How it feels to pull on and zip up dry cycling clothing, having been revived by two lovely women in an Eastern Highland distillery after a thorough, dispiriting drenching. Huntly looked a great deal better in the fogged up euphoria of ’Mission Accomplished’.

Not my clothes, but the same clothes rack.

Not my clothes, but the same clothes rack.

#3   We left Wick at… some time in the evening. We arrived in Tain… later. In the intervening period, in the darkened minibus tanking through Caithness and Sutherland, I understood what a great bunch of people are out there writing about whisky.

The Minibus

#4    A little whisky shop in Tomintoul has some big personalities bottled inside it. The Druries know how to guide their customers around the gems of Scotland: Aultmore, Bowmore – what a way to toast having made it to Speyside.

#5   Bladnoch and Dumfries and Galloway. Inexpressible joy. I’ll be back.

Bladnoch

Favourite Five (Drams): 

#1   Mortlach 16-year-old. I do miss its rich, fruitcake and nut flavours.

#2   Lagavulin 12-year-old Cask Strength. Astonishing at the distillery on a scorching May day, almost as good in the back of a minibus in November.

#3   Aberlour 14-year-old Single Cask Bourbon-Matured. The dram I dream about from time to time. No sense asking what I’m going to be doing as part of my 21st birthday celebrations: in Warehouse #1, salivating.

#4   Kilchoman Autumn 2009 Release. This is one serious little malt: so peaty, so sweet with that faint whiff of the farmyard.

#5   Redbreast 15-year-old. I know, it isn’t Scottish, but its really quite extraordinary. The whisk(e)y horizons are broading, and a bike belongs in the picture.

Favourite Five (Malt Moments of 2010):

#1   Gordon & MacPhail Mortlach 70-year-old. An historic whisky moment, presided over and made possible by an iconic Scottish company.

#2   Feis Ile 2010. I was on Islay and Jura a week before things got underway, and the sense of anticipation was extraordinary. I hope to make the trip myself at some stage.

#3   Chivas’s ‘The Age Matters’ campaign: a step in the right direction and some healthy debate prompted.Ardbeg

#4   Whisky on the box: Oz and Hugh, Dara, Griff and Rory have all got exposure for various brands on the television.

#5   Dramming literature: a vintage year for whisky books, with the typically excellent Malt Whisky Yearbook hitting the shelves again. Dave Broom, Gavin D Smith and Dominic Roskrow have added their considerable weight to my collection.

*      *      *

Thank you for all your support and interest this year, and I hope to hear from you in 2011.

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Moments for Malt

Some of my favourite pre-dinner malts: perfect delicacy but also full-on flavour.

Some of my favourite pre-dinner malts: perfect delicacy but also full-on flavour.

You wouldn’t take a howler monkey to Wimbledon. You wouldn’t show up at work on Monday morning wearing only your swimming trunks (or would you?). You wouldn’t eat beef bourguignon for breakfast. Time and Place is the discrepancy in operation here, and particularly in our Western society the failure to observe what is appropriate in any given circumstance is liable to invite ridicule upon oneself. There are things which are simply not done and if you are unfortunate enough to be caught doing them you are castigated as tactless, benighted - even a savage.

Equally, there are pairings which share an indestructible complimentary tie, combinations which are both wholesome and pleasing: Stephen Fry and any television programme with a cultured or intellectual subject; Emma Watson and Chanel; English football on the international stage and crushing, embarrassing disappointment. These work.

It is the same with malt whisky, only the time and place for a dram is not prescribed by social stigma but by deep personal discoveries. As I’m sure a lot of malt lovers can appreciate, after a certain point some brands and expressions become mainstays of a special hour in the day or location in the world. Treating them like Steven Gerrard and playing them out of position simply comes over all wrong.

Very recently I reached this juncture myself. In his Malt Whisky Companion, Micheal Jackson speaks of the “particular” pleasure of the stuff: “the restorative after a walk in the country or a game of golf; the aperitif; even, occasionally, the malt with a meal; the digestif; the malt with a cigar, or with a book at bedtime.” I have sampled whisky in all of the above situations (although stroke out golf and cigars) at some point and can now declaim that, for me, a dram pre-dinner is my absolute favourite ‘Moment for a Malt’. The exploration of flavour in liquid form is a marvellous prelude to the more substantial main event. The olfactory and digestive mechanisms, in moist anticipation, make to intensify the properties of whichever whisky I’m sipping. This is especially true on Sunday evenings when my malt has medicinal qualities, too (even when it is not an Islay), remedying the fever symptomatic of the atrocities endured over the course of a Sunday Lunch shift at the pub where I work. At such a time, the delicate, smooth, captivating sweetness of youthful Speysiders is highly prized. The Glenlivet 12-year-old and Tomintoul 16-year-old used to do the job in the past. These now long empty, I look to my bottle of the superb Longmorn 15-year-old and the majestic Linkwood 12-year-old. Vanilla, oak, flowers and fruit, and a touch of peat compose an irresistible flavour profile.

Perhaps still more extraordinary, however, is Caol Ila. Although memories of cycling around the gorgeous distilleried stretch between Rothes and Elgin endows these two malts made on the Lossie with more favourable significance, I rate Caol Ila an unbeatable aperitif. The balance of soft fruity sweetness, crisp, deep peat and supreme malty delicacy is wonderful. At present, I find the Distillers’ Edition with little or no water a joy to drink.

Of course I shall continue to experiment. I suspect my dearth of support for a post-prandial malt is because I have so few bottles whose contents fit the bill. I haven’t many aged, Sherry-matured bruisers. Dark and bewitching cannot be readily applied to the inductess of my drinks cabinet. Mortlach 16-year-old works well with music after a meal but less so with television; Ardbeg Uigeadail demands commitment and certainty to be poured and savoured; the Auchentoshan 1978 is very powerful indeed at 59% ABV. All are complex malts, but haven’t yet seemed to marry with my after dinner moods. The 30-year-old Glenfarclas, however, could without a doubt address matters, and the Gordon & MacPhail Strathisla 49-year-old Sandy poured me in Dufftown to round off my fillet steak and clootie dumpling was revelatory. This last is of course a ‘Malt Moment’ in its own right.

As for whisky with a meal, testing has proven inconclusive. Glenfarclas 15-year-old with dark chocolate? Not a winner. Oban 14-year-old with salmon? Well, I’ll try almost anything once. Auchentoshan 3Wood with Christmas cake? Scoreless draw. Whisky and food pairing is an avenue many are keenly striding down, and there are some persuasive articles around to tempt me, but I feel that, for the time being, I won’t risk spoiling the impact of my whiskies when the inclination to have one arises.

The Dalmore 15-year-old: a Twilight Whisky.

The Dalmore 15-year-old: a Twilight Whisky.

If the evening is wearing on, however, now may well be the time for another malt. Though not as appealing as aperitifs, “Twilight Whiskies” can be fantastic. The Dalmore 15-year-old is an astonishingly lovely and easy-drinking dram. I adore its opulent, richness, firmness, nuttiness, fruitiness and light dab of ground coffee-esque peat. For a late-night malt, it is without equal and indeed I polished off my bottle, with regret but with friends, earlier this week. Highland Park 12-year-old is a steely competitor, though, as the light dies from the sky. I sipped some as Iniesta secured the World Cup for Spain and delighted in the echoes of my drizzly Orkney causeways which slid out of my glass.

Of course, these are no more than hunches, and most likely are all subject to change. I welcome modification, in fact, because there are few simpler joys than a blissful half-hour with just the right-tasting malt – whenever and with whichever style of whisky that happens to be. If tomorrow I discover that my precious Longmorn actually works rather splendidly immediately after a mid-morning chocolate croissant then for such future occasions shall I reserve and savour it. Although maybe I ought not to make a habit of doing so, and definitely it should be out of sight of disapproving parents. When are your favourite Moments for Malt? Have they evolved over the years? I’m made dizzy by future possibilites for my whisky-drinking: Ardbeg Corryvreckan with Power Bar energy gels post half-marathon? You never know how mood and malt may conspire to create sensory wonderment.

So then, for means of reflection, conversation, restoration or an endless list of other purposes, at any time find an excuse for a wee dram. Even if it is in the manner of those monkeys slapping at typewriters, you may hit upon the perfect marriage of whisky and circumstance. It is so very rewarding. Houseman wrote: “and malt does more than Milton can. To justify God’s ways to man.” Meditating on that aphorism alone would be apt inspiration to root around in the cupboard for something tasty.

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The Plaudits Post

I’m back now, and whilst I may miss my simple, if at times seriously debilitating life on the road, I am in a position to appreciate and marvel at the world of Scotch malt whisky on an entirely separate astral plain. You want to know (I assume) what was good, bad and indifferent, and where you can be guaranteed an unfeasibly large slice of chocolate cake should you be pondering an attempt at something similar (and you really should).

Therefore, this is a plenary post, an awards bash, for what really shouldn’t be missed if you are within 100 miles.

AT THE DISTILLERIES

Drams of the Odyssey

The Glenlivet Nadurra 16YO, 54.2% - Floral, honeyed and teeming with butterscotch and vanilla. A superbly bold Speyside from the more delicate side of the family.

Aberlour 14YO Single Cask First-Fill Bourbon, 63.3% – Full and intensely sweet. Freshly-sawn pine, wood oils, toffee. The malt by which I shall judge all other Bourbon-matured whiskies, and indeed single casks.

Benromach 10YO, 43% – Sweetly heathery, malty and peaty. My kind of whisky.

Ledaig 10YO, 43% – Properly, evocatively peaty. The first heavily peated malt I had tasted since Talisker, and an auspicious herald of the peaty monsters shortly to come.

Laphroaig Quarter Cask, 48% – Awesome. Perfectly assertive oaking, seaweed, smoke and power.

Lagavulin 12YO cask Strength, 57.9% – I was assaulted by this malt. It butted me in the ofrehead then kneed me in the groin. But I loved it. Smoke and sweetness. I need to find this again.

Longrow CV, 46% – Oily, wood smoke. Enormously complex.

Guides of the Odyssey

The Longer Shortlist:

Clare at Royal Lochnagar; Chris at Aberlour; Dagmar at Highland Park.

The Shortlist:

Gavin at Tullibardine – What more can I say about Gavin that I haven’t already? He is one of the most enthusiastic and friendly people I met on my travels. I phoned up the distillery once I returned to research exclusive bottlings in the VC and he remembered me after I mentioned that I had been the boy on a bike. He was brimming with admiration and congratulations, and eager for me to head back to Blackford. I’m just as keen.

Jim at Edradour - For being just a very funny man. His jokes were equally appreciated by the other twenty memebers of my monster tour party. As dry a Scottish sense of humour as you could wish to find.

Fiona at Glen Garioch - Fiona was another guide with an irrepressible sense of humour. Together with Jane, she gave me the much-needed kick up the backside, and in my darker moments thereafter, the thought of being in a position to roll up to Old Meldrum some time in the future and say “I did it,” kept me going.

John at Ben Nevis – It is very difficult to describe where John Carmichael fits in to the architypal breeds of distillery guide. He is  most definitely not the wide-eyed seasonal student; nor the passionate but casual part-timer, nor a member of the production team. He is, however, a complete professional, and a tour with him around the distillery (and he is the head tour guide so chances are good) is not to be missed. He is the second generation to have been in the industry all his days and it shows. His humour (dry), knowledge (supreme) and demeanour (you would think it was his distillery) are all compelling qualities. I learnt more from him about whisky, whisky hospitality and whisky history than from anyone else. It is plain, when he speaks of industry luminaries such as Richard Paterson, that he too enjoys a niche within the inner circle of people whose passion and experience are a good few rungs above everyone else. 

Ruth at Lagavulin - My tour of Lagavulin was perhaps the most relaxed and somehow intimate of my whole odyssey. It was a lovely warm day, the distillery was ticking over nicely and the tour group wasn’t too enormous. Ruth was spectacularly informative and was able to root out a bottle of the 12YO CS, something I’m very grateful for.

Henrik at Glengoyne - Henrik has kept in touch since I met him last month. Another very professional and passionate guide, he took time out of his regular duties to shoot the breeze with me after the tour. He said that he hoped I had enjoyed my tour with the “sweaty Swedish tour guide.” I assured him that these tours were my personal favourites. Michael, the Australian walker I shared a room with in Glasgow, had toured the distillery with Henrik, too, and he praised  his character and performance, as well.

A special mention to Martin at Bladnoch – not technically a tour guide at all but he delivered a top class performance anyway. I don’t think there was a dusty corner of the distillery I didn’t get a glance at. Obviously, his  chauffeuring was an added bonus, but if he does choose to follow his dad into distilling, the future of Bladnoch and distilling in Dumfries and Galloway is in extremely good hands. Thanks again.

And the Winner is…

Robert at Bunnahabhain – As I waxed in my post for the distillery, despite everything that had drained, annoyed and bored me that day, I hung on Robert’s every word. This can’t have been his first tour of the day, but the pride for his plant couldn’t help but shine through so brightly. Hilarious, and with the insight that only comes from actually making the stuff, Robert was by far the best guide of the tour – and he insisted he was “only a stillman.”

Tour of the Odyssey

To win this accolade, it is vital to show the visitor unique insight into the whisky-making process, accommodate them comfortably and stylishly and dram them well. Bowmore, Kilchoman and Springbank would qualify under the first requirement; The Glenlivet and Tullibardine are notably superior exponents of the second, and Aberlour and Glenfiddich are streets ahead in terms of the whisky handed over. There can only be one winner, however.

Highland Park – The emotions triggered when I think back to my visit are wonderful, unique, inexpressible. The location; the unusual logistics of getting there; the typical difficulties with the Scottish weather; the one-to-one tour; the maltings; the spitting, sparking kilns; the warehouses; the video; the beautiful VC; the drams – it was all deeply special.

 Highland Park 2

***

Cafes of the Odyssey

‘The Arch’ in Fettercairn; the wool place on the road between Strathdon and the Lecht Ski resort, ‘Fresh’ in Aberlour; the cafe on the A9 bridge in Helmsdale; ‘Morag’s’ in Wick; the chocolate shop in Tobermory; ‘The Kitchen Garden’ in Oban; ‘The Craft Kitchen’ in Port Charlotte; ‘Fresh Bites’ in Campeltown.

Restaurants of the Odyssey

‘The Ramsay Arms’ in Fettercairn; ‘The Clockhouse’ in Tomintoul; ‘Taste of Speyside’ in Dufftown; ‘Chapter One’ in Forres; ‘The Red Poppy’ in Strathpeffer; ‘The No.1 Bistro at the Mackay Hotel’ in Wick; ‘The Port Charlotte Hotel’ in Port Charlotte.

Locations of the Odyssey – the Best Places to Cycle

Between Gilmerton and Aberfeldy in Perthshire; Angus; Between Forres and Inverness; The North-East coast to John o’Groats; Orkney; Skye; Mull; Arran; Dumfries and Galloway.

Beds of the Odyssey

Stirling Youth Hostel; Pitlochry Youth Hostel; Kishmul B&B in Fettercairn; Argyle Guest House in Tomintoul; Norlaggan B&B in Aberlour; Milton of Grange B&B in Forres; Carbisdale Castle Youth Hostel; Netherby B&B in Wick; The Picturehouse B&B in Ard Dorch, Skye; Inverasdale B&B in Oban; The Carradale Hotel in Carradale; Lochranza Youth Hostel; Glasgow Youth Hostel.

To be Avoided

It would be remiss of me to not warn you of the less rewarding components in the Scotch whisky family.

The Distilleries that Could Do Better

Glenturret (too expensive); Old Pulteney (too expensive and your questions won’t be answered); Oban (never mind too expensive, this is highway robbery); Caol Ila (disinterested guide and not much on show).

***

If you have any questions about anything you have read, or there is anything which you feel I haven’t fully described or made clear, just drop a comment and I’ll do my best to help out. Scotland is an unspeakably beautiful, pleasingly accessible and thrillingly complex country made for exploration, just like the unique spirit it creates.

 

Pagodas, sea, sky and a bike. Just right now I can't think of a more stirring combination.

Pagodas, sea, sky and a bike. Just right now I can't think of a more stirring combination.

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John o’Groats to Skye

John o’Groats to Kirkwall, 27 miles

It is an early-ish start to be sure of catching the first ferry of the day, the 9 o’clock. The weather is as forecast: grey and rather damp. When I actually get out in it, though, it hardly detracts from the beauty of the place, merely renders it in a different palette.

There is some confusion with the ticket-buying. I thought you could simply saunter on and pay your fare but No, the man in the quite hideously tacky waiting shack tells me, You have to buy them from the ferry office. £28 for a green piece of paper which will bring me back again. I don’t have a great deal of choice as t0 when precisely that will be, however. I can catch the 9.45AM crossing back to the mianland, or the 5PM. Those are off-season ferry services in the north of Scotland for you.

Compared with the CalMac jobbies I'd be catching later on, this still had the feel of a community project: local, and an important link for the residents, for all I didn't hear a single Scottish accent on the boat besides the crew, but there you are.

Compared with the CalMac jobbies I'd be catching later on, this still had the feel of a community project: local, and an important link for the residents, for all I didn't hear a single Scottish accent on the boat besides the crew, but there you are.

The crossing is fairly popular, but I only spot two other people even vaguely close to my own age. The remaining passengers are all Australian, their tans quite incongruous in this murk and tepid conditions. There are buses waiting to take them to Kirkwall from the ferry terminal in Burwick. I have to get myself there.

Once everyone else has done the decent thing and buggered off, the only sounds are the winds and the skylarks. It’s captivating. Very quickly it’s wet, too. It doesn’t pour down, but it is a breed of mist that gets you just as soaking. I will encounter it the next day, and a couple more times on the West Coast.

It isn’t until I see a sign for St Margaret’s Hope that I realise that I must have got off the ferry somewhere else. And I’ve already gone 6 miles. It seems the Gill’s Bay vehicle ferry gets in at St Margaret’s Hope; the John o’Groats pedestrian ferry pulls in to Burwick. This upsets me, because all of my mileage forecasts for my Orkney stages have just been flushed down the toilet. This means that it is 20 miles from my hostel to the ferry. If I want to catch this first ferry tomorrow I shan’t be able to dawdle.

I’m desperately disappointed that I can’t see more of the islands I’m passing through. The mist restricts my viewing to the point where I cannot see any coast at all and wouldn’t know I was on an island unless I really thought about the likely provenance of the mist in the first place. There is a gradual reprieve, however, as I island-hop using the neat little causeways which warn of wave action and high winds and that drivers cross at their own risk. Again, the cyclist and his concerns is not mentioned. The clouds lift in parts, and I see golden sands, aquamarine bays and purply-brown hills rising out of the sea on the horizon. It is spine-tingling.

It might not look it, but I was happy to be there.

It might not look it, but I was happy to be there.

What idiot said Orkney is flat? I’m sure a couple of people made such a hopelessly false claim during the earlier part of my trip. It isn’t flat, and I have proof: latterly, all of the road signs, which I could just read despite the sweat in my eyes, warned of “blind summits”. To have a summit implies synclines and anticlines: up and down. Being an island, when you got up one hill you had the opportunity to career down the next, but unfortunately the flat section preceeding your next slog of a hill was just long enough to sap all momentum gained from your descent. The arduous, exhausting nature of the terrain was worsened by a really strong sun blasting away some of the clouds between it and me, and turning to vapour the deposits of water on the road and vegetation. It was like sauna on the approach to Kirkwall and when I finally arrived at Highland Park, it rained again. With all my wet weather gear on, body temperature soars. Therefore, I’m soaked by my own fluids instead of those coming from the heavans. When you stop, those dripping garments you couldn’t find a radiator for cool very quickly and walking around cold, wet stone buildings with these on is a further challenge to the initial effort and overheating of actually battling the elements on the bike.

After a late, and enormous, lunch, I peaked into a few windows on the Kirkwall highstreet, reflected that the whole place felt rather similar to most important Scottish towns I’d been in and that it hadn’t really what I had anticipated to find as befits an “island feel”. It is telling that those living in the Orkneys refer to the bit with Kirkwall on it as “the mainland”. With its Lidl, Tesco and Co-op, all on the one street, you can see what they mean.

I find the hostel with its supreme view of Highland Park on top of the facing hill. It has the air (the hostel, that is) of a WWII bunker. It was clean and warm inside, though, and populated by few others. I shared with Michael, a giant, spindly Lancastrian who had just done a tour of Shetland and told me horror stories of the austerity to be found in some of the more basic accommodation options available on those even more remote islands. he was such a nice and interesting chap, though, and we talked about tourinf cyclist things: clothing, other road users, equipment trails; and also other things: the perception of exercise, ambition and some other very profound topics. 

Heart-stopping, majesterial Orkney; even in the rubbish weather.

Heart-stopping, majesterial Orkney; even in the rubbish weather.

***

Kirwall to Wick, 39 miles

I had the time of 9.30 in my head as when I really needed to be in Burwick. I wanted to give myself two hours to cover the 20 miles, nice and easy. That meant leaving at 7.30. ‘Oh, if I set my alarm for 6.30 that should be plenty of time.’ I don’t know how, or where the time went when I was preparing to depart in the mornings, but one hour was not long enough for all the little tasks that had to be completed and checked. It was 7.50 when I eventually bounced out of the hostel. An hour and forty minutes to do 20 miles. Now I’m stressed. The thick mist was back and so I would not be spurred on by Orkney in her finery, either.

The hills, obviously in reverse for this leg, were even more infuriating on this run. I had my knee warmers and skull cap on: the over trousers and hood would have made me too hot and sacrificed speed. I didn’t notice the billions of little water droplets sticking to my bare calves and shins on the way up hills, but I couldn’t, after 10 miles or so, ignore the sensation of cold after a long descent. I kept having to towel them off, shocked by the degree to which numbness had set in without my noticing. Whenever I looked down to check my speed or grap a bidon, water cascaded off my helmet into my groin. Incredibly, I kept forgetting that head movement bore this result.

I sped through Burray after a few more causeways (which, at least, were flat) and stopped at a public loo. In here I held my skull cap under the hand-dryer and this blow-dry worked a treat.

There is a bus service which takes passengers from the ferry to Kirkwall, and it operates in the other direction, too. Of course, having a bike gives you limitless freedom on these inter-connected islands.

There is a bus service which takes passengers from the ferry to Kirkwall, and it operates in the other direction, too. Of course, having a bike gives you limitless freedom on these inter-connected islands.

Another causeway negotiated, I rasped past St Margaret’s Hope. Looking back on my time trial, it seemed to go very quickly indeed. However, as I began to recognise roads and houses from the beginnings of my ride on Orkney the day before, the miles seemed to pass more slowly than ever. A bus roared past me, bound for the port. I had time, obviously, and after a few more turns I could even see the ferry terminal. I could not believe I was home and dry, though (a figure of speech only), and was still pushing it at 20 mph into the car park. One of the bus drivers said that the ferry wasn’t in yet, that I had about fifteen minutes to wait. I’d done it. I’d covered what turned into 21 miles in under an hour and a half. I was paying for it, though. I felt sick and wheezy, and suddenly very cold. I hadn’t had time to eat on the way so was essentially empty. All of my clothing was either wet with mist or wet with me. The waiting room was colder than outside, but there was a radiator which I switched on and, disobeying its instructions, put my gloves on top of it. I then stripped semi-naked to get off my jersey, socks and base layer, which amused a fellow passenger. I donned all my dry clothes and waited for the next shipment of tourists to shuffle on to this magical island which had tested me in ways I had not expected it to.

On the ferry I commandeered all of the three radiators on board. This act arguably saved me, for while my jersey wasn’t entirely dry by John o’Groats, I would have been in serious trouble had I now other option than to stuff it in a pannier.

I had a cup of tea in John o’Groats and watched with a degree of loathing as people photographed themselves by the marker post. I can’t help but feel that it is for all those who set out from Lands End, either on foot, by bike, by unicycle, whatever: what does it mean to those who got in their car and got here. What have they achieved. I was an angry young man at this point, because I took offence at the busloads of OAPs, buses which I had been traumatised by for the last week and whose occupants would simply get off the coach, wander around for fifteen mintes, have a cup of tea, use the loo, get back on the coach and head off somewhere else. This way of spending your time made me irrationally furious.

I delighted in taking things as easily as possible for the first half of my ride back to Wick. Even the return of the mist/rain wasn’t too severe an issue. However, just as I was due to rejoin the main road south into Wick, the rain decided it wasn’t going to mess around anymore. It was that fine, heavy rain that drenches you within seconds, yet seems to take longer to moisten the tarmac. Well, soon enough that too was awash. Arriving back at Netherby B&B (stay there, if you are ever up in the area. Alison is one of the nicest ladies you could ever have the good fortune to meet, particularly if you are approaching a laundry crisis), I have got out of swimming pools in a drier state. I wrenched everything off and simply walked  into the shower.

***

Wick to Ard Dorch, 17 miles

I may not have cycled a great deal on this particular day, but somehow I ended up in a different world again. I had to be up by 4.40AM to give myself time to get everything together and eat breakfast. Alison, saint that she is, made me a cooked breakfast at 5.30 in the morning!

The 6.20AM from Wick to Dingwall is a quiet service. Rain fell thinly as I cycled to the station and persisted until we headed in-land. Dingwall was the seventeenth stop on the route before Inverness.

It was only slightly dispiriting taking only four hours to return to a town that I had left via pedal power almost a week ago but there you are. Having passed in front of my youth hostel at Carbisdale and been confronted again by the white, steaming facade of Clynelish (it was open on that day) we also passed at high speed Balblair, Glenmorangie and Invergordon. I had just over an hour to buy some lunch (I’d had no food or water on the train from Wick) and await the train taking me to the west.

My first sight of Skye: a shock to find it so close to the mainland.

My first sight of Skye: a shock to find it so close to the mainland.

At 11.20 it duly pulled up and the amount of bikes and rucksacks squeezed on signalled quite clearly that I was going somewhere where a lot of people got red-faced and sweaty. I thought I’d fit in rather well. I had intended to update the notes on my progress which I tried to keep up with as little details simply vanished from my memory. Failing that, a sleep or some reading would be nice. The landscape was much too stunning to be ignored, however. Almost instantly after leaving Dingwall, the panorama altered. It looked vaguely Midi-Pyrenean in places, as it happened. Mountains swelled, then reared again, lochs formed, clouds spiralled and bulged. Everything became very dramatic indeed. But something wasn’t right. I felt guilty, and indeed very disrespectful, for travelling thus. During my first stage on the rails, I had wondered to what extent my taking a train was cheating. I talked myself round from that with the valid argument that I’m still touring, just by a different means, and that to have gone from Wick to the West by bike would have taken five days and cost maybe as much as £300 extra. My qualm on this train was how wrong it felt to so passively streak past these magnificent natural structures. I felt disconnected from the landscape for the first time. Hitherto, a mountain or a glen had taken as long as hours to materialise in front of me, and my suffering through and over them had been a valuable way of experiencing them, for the difficulty of each pedal stroke and the myriad atmospheric factors acting on me at any one time had given me unique insights into the landscape around me. I felt I knew it. Sealed in this clattering human tube, I felt as though I was instead showing contempt for my surroundings: these views were nothing more than a speed date, a visual goosing of beauty as opposed to considerately and progressively developing a relationship with it all. I got off the train in Kyle disorientated as a result, and not just because it was gloriously sunny and very warm.

How do you write a caption for that?!

How do you write a caption for that?!

After initially heading in the wrong direction for the road bridge, I changed on a footpath, shielded from the main road by a lot of gorse bushes. Then I went in search of Skye. I found it more or less instantly after breaking free of the blasted earth resulting from when they built the carriageway. I had to stop. I was speechless. I was moved. The view before me was of the sea between Skye and the mainland to the north of the bridge, with great chunks of rock rupturing out of a fast, choppy tide. The pictures I shall upload will not, cannot, put across the extraordinary beauty – a savage, allof beauty - and scale of Skye in the spring sunshine.

I continued onto the bridge and it is quite preposterously steep, especially with the winds as strong as they were. A bump, a sign in Gaelic and I’m on an island, apparently. There is only a tiny spit of sea between it and the mainland where the bridge is built, and so the construction of the latter was perhaps inevitable. However, it does rather take away the impact of arriving on an island. With Orkney, the act of catching a ferry conditioned the mind. The large roads of Skye with all the traffic robbed me of that. I also believe that it has a lot to answer for, on the subject of traffic. Islands, because of their relative inaccessibility and ferry requirements, demand a commitment of a motorist. On Skye, you can pop across like you would the Forth or the Clyde. Throughout my trip, no island was as treacherous for us two-wheeled pedallers as Skye. Cars, trucks, buses, a never-ending stream of snarling motorbikes all made the actual cycling a complete pain in the arse because there was no deterent: “Feel like a drive to Skye, darling?” “Oh, alright.” And it’s a shame, because the roads are mostly well-surfaced and there are no serious hills. If you want to go to Skye, then (and you really ought to), just take a car like everyone else.

On the way to Broadford.

On the way to Broadford.

The wind and the traffic were not having the desired effect on my equanimity. Neither, when I saw a road sign saying 8 miles to Broadford, was the location of my night’s accommodation. In Rothes, I had asked my mother to find alternative lodgings on Skye for me. I didn’t like the idea, at that time, of getting off my train at 1.30PM, still with 40 miles to go to reach my hostel in Glenbrittle which is what the SYHA call “rustic”. In short, miles from anywhere and demanding me to make my own dinner. I didn’t really want to do that. I had scrapped the idea of staying in Broadford when I first began organising this trip because the distance to Talisker and back to the mainland from Broadford was impossible, or so I’d thought. I now couldn’t remember if the B&B mum had found was in Broadford or further on. Looking at the address I’d scribbled down, I was relieved to see it was north, closer to Talisker. However, it was still to be a short day, so how much longer had I made tomorrow?

I skidded down the drive to the Picture House B&B and I didn’t care. It was right on the sea shore, over looking the tiny island of Scalpay, which was still enormous and filled my bedroom window with its quiet, bleak bulk. Tomorrow would be what tomorrow would be. I was here in this unbelievable place and on the West Coast. The second part of my odyssey was in full swing.

There are 'sea views', and then there are Sea Views. The water is being disturbed by a fierce wind which groaned around the edges of my window all night!

There are 'sea views', and then there are Sea Views. The water is being disturbed by a fierce wind which groaned around the edges of my window all night!

I dined with a group of retired folk, 80% of whom were photographers. If you are a photographer, a stay at the Picture House is a must. Gill and Steve run the B&B together with their own gallery, being professional photographers themselves, and their work decorates the bedrooms. They can recommend the best places to shoot, the times to go, and who else to talk to.

I returned to my room to catch up on the unfolding election. Jeremy Vine’s paving stones were a bit much for me, though, and I drifted off just as the ballot boxes from Sunderland were being tossed in to the counting stations.

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Highland Park

It rather took me by surprise; seemingly jumping out of nowhere after my latest gruelling climb. It was a pleasant surprise, though.

It rather took me by surprise; seemingly jumping out of nowhere after my latest gruelling climb. It was a pleasant surprise, though.

Holm Road, Kirwall, Orkney, KW15 1SU, 01856 874619. Edrington Group. www.highlandpark.co.uk

There were no issues with aggressive germination on the day I visited: it was freezing!

There were no issues with aggressive germination on the day I visited: it was freezing!

APPEARANCE AND LOCATION:      ****      I was expecting to see some pagodas down in the centre of the town so was rather surprised when I turned my head to the right and there they were: the twin kilns of Highland Park, one of which was smoking merrily away. From the warehouses there is a brilliant view to the soft, rolling hills to the north and west, while the harbour is visible from the road outside the distillery. Highland Park is on its own hill, surrounded on its northern side by housing estates. Kirkwall itself is a bit of a walk away.

TOURS PROVIDED:

‘Standard Tour’: £6. See ‘My Tour’ below. Incredible!

‘Connoisseur Tour’: £35. An in-depth tour with a senior guide. It takes two hours and there are four whiskies to sample in the tasting room or the 12, 15, 18 and 25YOs. Transport is also provided: even if your staying in the hotel next door they will provide a taxi to take you and bring you back!

‘Magnus Eunson Tour’: £75. Named after the founder of the distillery, this is equally in-depth and you are taken by the manager around the distillery to areas usually off-limits. You taste all the whiskies as in the Connoisseur Tour with the addition of the 30 and 40YOs. You are given a certificate and a the distillery book, which retails for £25 normally. Again, transport is laid on and if you book the tour, only you and other members of your party will be taken round.

‘Silent Season Tour’: £5. The Highland Park silent season is throughout June, July and August. You watch the film and take the tour, if possible. At the end their is a taste of the 12 and 18YOs.

DISTILLERY-EXCLUSIVE BOTTLINGS:     The Hjarta caught my eye, a cask strength 12YO available only in the distillery shop and Scandinavia, £67. The remaining two distillery-exclusives are also cask strength 12yos: the Saint Magnus (part 2 in the Magnus trilogy), £87, and The Sword. This is a version principally for Taiwan but the visitor centre succeeded in withholding a few cases for visitors, £62.

My Tour – 04/05/2010

THE RUNNING COMMENTARY:      ***

THE PROCESS AND EQUIPMENT:      ***

Notes:      Together with Bowmore, the most complete distillery tour to be had, as far as following the process is concerned: floor maltings, to the kiln, to the mash tun, washbacks, stills and finally into the warehouse. Tremendous. It has been making whisky on the same site since its inception in 1798. They have five malting floors and the figure I was given is that it is 2.5 times more expensive to oversea the malting of your own barley than it is to buy it in. This barley comes from Black Isle way, the barley on Orkney neither the right variety nor in the correct quantities. They smoke the barley over their peat for 16 – 20 hours and finish the drying process over coke for a maximum of 20 hours. Casks can be used up to four times – they must be good, then.

Ah! Warmth! And my first taste of how those famously smoky whiskies attain their character. A very special moment.

Ah! Warmth! And my first taste of how those famously smoky whiskies attain their character. A very special moment.

GENEROSITY:      * (2 drams: the 12YO and the 15YO. Only one star because 2 into 6 makes three: spot on generous.)

VALUE FOR MONEY:      **

SCORE:      9/10 *s

COMMENT:      It may have rained all the while I was on it, but Orkney is a very special place. I don’t know who said it was flat, though. I got over the last big hill and suddenly there was Kirkwall. I began scanning for pagoda rooves down in the town and was startled out of my wet skin when they appeared right in front of me. It was very special free-wheeling in beneath that wrought-iron name sign. The tour was with Dagmar, a lovely young Danish woman (they’re all from the Viking lands up there). She knew the distillery supremely well, and plenty of anecdotes about the distillery’s history. That Magnus Eunson sounds like quite a character – hiding his casks from the excisemen under shrouds in the church so when they went looking for them all they found were “coffins” and a grieving community. Genius. The history of the place is self-evident. The stonemasonry is exquisite and speaks of age. The floor maltings were amazing to see after so many videos and explanations. Dagmar said that lots of people say afterwards that their understanding was improved by having visited. I entirely see why: when it is there in front of you and not some effort of the imagination, of course it is easy to comprehend. The reason distilleries all give for abandoning malting on-site is cost, and when you hear that it is 2.5 times more expensive to malt your own than buy your malt in, you can see what they mean. Highland park carry on regardless and the visitor benefits as a result. The kiln was fantastic, too, and not just because I was shivering to death. One firing is done using  their uniquely heathery peat from Hobbister Moor (no trees on Orkney, remember) and the second using coke. On the way round I wondered what sort of details the more expensive tours go in to if they declare themsleves to be in-depth. All questions were answered on the standard tour before I had so much as conceived them. The warehouse was a stand-out section. They have the most dedicated wood policy in the industry – £2 million a year on casks and wood management. This is more than the rest of the industry combined. This was the first I’d heard of it. When it comes to wood, it is Glenmorangie which toots its horn the loudest. Well, like Glenmorangie, Highland Park has its own forests in America where they harvest the wood, lend them to the Sherry industry, then bring them back to Orkney to mature Highland Park. There are no Bourbon barrels in the place, just American oak seasoned in Europe in addition to European oak. It takes seven years from cutting down the tree to that wood coming into contact with Highland Park spirit. There is a Spanish oak butt and an American oak butt to smell and much to distinguish between them, though both only seasoned with Sherry. There was a Spanish oak cask to nose back in the VC – an ex Ambassador Cask, no less. Again, quite a contrast. The 12YO I knew well when I came to taste it, but as has been the case throughout this tour, they always come across differently when you sip them in-situ. The American oak used in the making of the 15Yo was a startling deviation from what I’m used to: creamier and herbal with warm nettle notes. The next time you sip your 12YO, remember this: when the last batch of 12YO was being put together, the oldest whisky used by the master blender to bring harmony to the vatting was more than 35 years of age. What a tour, and so worth the £6 to get in, the £14 to get there on the ferry, the 20 miles of wet cycling and every one of the previous 700. Spectacular.

The bike (you can see it through the gate) and myself having completed two of the four whisky compass points.

The bike (you can see it through the gate) and myself having completed two of the four whisky compass points.

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