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Kilchoman at the Quaich Society

‘James! Great to meet you at last!’
‘Err, I’m Peter, actually. But don’t worry, it happens a lot.’

When dealing with Kilchoman, plans are likely to change when you least expect them to; new faces emerge, different ways of doing things are trialled out, flavours defy belief. Or at least, this is what I took from Peter Wills’ presentation to the Quaich Society earlier this month. He – and not his brother – arrived at the venue, glanced at our tasting mats and requested a modification to the order. Then our projector refused to have anything to do with his laptop. Still, at least nothing burnt down.

Peter is one of the three sons of Kilchoman founder, Anthony Wills. Together with his brothers, Peter bangs the drum for his family’s whisky with both passion and real insight. This makes sense: he grew up with the distillery as it took shape on Kilchoman farm in the north west of Islay, where relatives on his mother’s side still live.

Wills Senior moved from the wine trade to independently bottling whiskies before deciding that, if he was to make available the kind of dram he aspired to, he was going to have to produce it himself. Peter admitted that, in hindsight, such a decision would not be made again; the rigmarole of building a distillery and making whisky is financially and emotionally sapping. The current estimate is that running Kilchoman costs between £30,000 and £40,000 per month. From December 2005 to September 2009 when the first official single malt whisky was released from the purpose-built warehouse, optimism and resolve were held together with sticky tape and string. Fortunately, the whisky was good – astonishingly good – and Kilchoman has weathered the initial storm.

Peter outlined the production regime at Kilchoman, dubbed on the label ‘Islay’s Farm Distillery’. One third of the roughly 150,000 litres of alcohol produced per year is their signature 100% Islay spirit: from barley to bottle, the whisky doesn’t leave the island. 100 tonnes of barley per year are grown on the farm, malted on their own floors, kilned to impart a bit of smoke but not to the same degree as the malt they buy commercially from Port Ellen, turned into whisky and matured on Islay. Impressive stuff. The remainder of the spirit is heavily-peated (50ppm), used to create a consistent character with which they could test the reaction of the world’s peatheads.

The whisky has been ‘engineered’ by Dr Jim Swan, who has worked with many a start-up distillery since the millennium. The emphasis has been on a smoky but very sweet spirit, filled into fresh oak, especially ex-Buffalo Trace Bourbon barrels to accentuate that sweetness and weight on the palate. Overseeing production is former Bunnahabhain distillery manager, John MacLellan.

But I mentioned that plans change or, to use Peter’s words: ‘things break down at Kilchoman’. Whether this is a temperamental boiler or human error, the team at the distillery are forever adapting to changes, nuances and accident. Perhaps the best example of these latter instances would be Peter lighting the kiln as a 16-year-old, heading away to watch the Six Nations rugby and getting a call to say that the whole thing was on fire. This put back 100% Islay production by a week or two.

But what of the spirit itself? When they aren’t putting out fires or laboriously filling 11,000 bottles by hand and can actually focus on making whisky, what comes out at the other end? Peter had six whiskies to show off, the latest multi-vintage Machir Bay (a mix of differently-aged malts from ex-Bourbon, often married in Sherry butts), the latest single vintage 2007, the Loch Gorm all Sherry-matured malt, the second release of the 100% Islay, a single cask 100% Islay and a bottling for the Kilchoman Club.

The 100% Islay Second Release starts life as barley peated to 25ppm, so fairly mild on the smoke-o-meter. The result is a grassy-smelling whisky with pistachio, steamed milk and white chocolate maltesers. The palate reminded me of sea shells, minerally peat and smoked oatcakes with a grassy finish.

The Machir Bay was sweet, zesty and smoky, with a lovely herbal edge throughout. The 2007 is the oldest whisky the distillery has released to date, a 6yo from Bourbon barrels. Thick apple and mossy, turfy smoke on the nose, I then found lemon rind, cough syrup and proper artisanal chorizo. The palate was the smokiest I’ve seen from a Kilchoman: ashy, bonfire smoke with little thrusts of oak. Ardbeg territory.

I’ve written about the Loch Gorm before, and the latest batch was released last week. The first of the single casks was delightful: vanilla ice cream and barley sugar, pear softness and white chocolate filled the nose while a heavy biscuit sweetness and nudges of oak came into the palate. The Kilchoman Club release benefited from a little water to bring down the strength revealing sticky date, barley, thyme and honey on the nose with a sweeter smoke. The palate was gentle and oaky with banana chips, apple and plum making for a really fruity experience. A trace of peat appeared at the end.

I have said it many a time but this distillery is going places. The charm of the liquid is more than embodied by the people representing it, and Peter was an excellent speaker who could not be ruffled on technical matters. He was even good enough to hint that Kilchoman from Port pipes should be available from September and that there are other wine casks stashed away over on their little patch of Islay. I cannot wait.

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The NAS Nay-Sayers

How eclectic, democratic and precious our whisky weblogs are. Whatever the malty polemic of the day, your correspondent will have an opinion on it, and chances are that one or two others will have their point to make, too. The comments section of blogs boils with activity as author and reader negotiate fact from fiction, hearsay from heresy.

Recently, I have noticed a rather vocal sect pitching in beneath reviews of malt whiskies with the temerity to withhold their ages. NAS (or non-age statement) whiskies have been increasingly conspicuous on the Twitter feeds and off-licence shelves – controversially in the eyes of some. Indeed, last week I scrolled to the bottom of a piece describing the new Glen Garioch Virgin Oak on a popular blog and I was stunned by the irate dialogue which I found there. Without having tried the whisky in question, this commenter went so far as to advocate legislation prohibiting distillers from charging beyond a certain price point for whiskies without an age statement. As if in an attempt to alienate me further from their cause, they then insisted that older whiskies were always better.

Two of the Glen Garioch range: part of the problem, or the solution?

The gist, amidst the salvos of punctuation marks, was that age offered a guide as to what was actually in the bottle. From that they could then decide what was and what was not value for money. After a more informed reader commented to correct them on their extreme adherence to age before beauty, their response asserted both a re-entrenchment in their views and a threat of physical violence towards she who had contradicted them. Debate over. Some people are just nuts.

But then I got to thinking: ‘am I not on the same spectrum?’ Putting aside the utter nonsense that you cannot recognise quality without information about age, which makes whisky sound like ‘The Antiques Roadshow’ or geology, did I not argue a couple of months ago with the Macallan 1824 Series that justifying a three-figure price tag for a whisky with no indication of maturity carried substantial risk? If age is not the handmaiden of quality, then it is at least possible to estimate what sort of liquid lies within. A standard 18yo from one distillery will carry a similar fingerprint of maturity to one from another distillery. But NAS? What can we glean from Talisker’s Storm that might enlighten us regarding the Glen Garioch Virgin Oak? Next to nothing. With NAS, distillers are asking for a leap of faith.

Perhaps Mr/Mrs Furious had heeded the NAS sirens in the past and come to grief as a result, or perhaps distillers are just that little bit opportunistic when it comes to determining an RRP for their NAS products. Or then again, maybe I am out of touch somehow with how whiskies are valued. On the same whisky blog, one gentleman took exception to The Glenlivet Alpha, calling for summary execution – Jeremy Clarkson-style – of those who release anonymous whisky with such a steep asking price.

Is there a tipping point, a sum for whiskies without an age statement beyond which companies are taking the piss? Let’s begin with the NAS monicker itself which, for Scotch whisky, isn’t the full story. Every dram you buy, whether it claims to rest within a particular bracket of maturity or not, has a nominal age statement of 3 years and above. As we have seen with Kilchoman, whiskies at this stage in their development can be mesmerically intense, assured and satisfying. The vast majority of NAS whiskies will contain whiskies fractionally older than this – maybe 6-8 years of age – but with a proportion of significantly older spirit added to the mix. Look no further than the Glenmorangie Signet for a highly-acclaimed example of this style. More often than not distillers are demonstrating creativity with their stocks, bottling liquid with a USP but harmonising this with more conventionally-matured malts. They are not trying to con you.

Problematically, however, the customer cannot be certain whether they are purchasing the marketing or the more costly malts included to support the flavour profile. The press release may gush about the 26 year old whisky included in the new product, but that number cannot be shown on the label. The only figure the customer has to go on, therefore, is the price. As Scotch whisky once again captivates the global drinker, those in the more traditional markets must accept that 10 year old this and 21 year old that will become harder to find, and they must also accept that this is a direct result of the industry’s new economic position. If distillers cannot play a variation on a theme with their NAS products, then the standard age brackets will have to satisfy greater demand, and command even higher prices. In time, companies with the best track records for releasing tasty whiskies without any age statement will have distinguished themselves from the rest, however, inspiring consumer confidence in this regard.

My message to the ‘quality cannot be appreciated without age’ brigade is this: you’re wrong, and set to endure prohibitive prices for your favourite drams unless you have the courage to shop around and discover something new. Crouched in your little bunkers taking pot shots at NAS whiskies will ensure gems simply pass you by. Some bottles may write cheques their contents cannot cash (Macallan Ruby) but others might just boast genuine character, complexity and dynamism (Macallan Sienna, Ardbeg Uigeadail, Dewar’s Signature, the Compass Box range of blended malts). Frequent the whisky blogs, use the Drinks by the Dram service from Master of Malt, inform your purchases, and stop railing against a reality you cannot change. In ten years’ time I suspect the NAS trend will have taught us that age is a luxury, but certainly no guarantor of a great whisky.

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Kilchoman Loch Gorm

By golly, they’ve done it again. While I always hope and intend to say insightful things about whisky, now and again all metaphor, analogy or apt digression must be supressed in place of an indulgent grin. Nice one, Kilchoman. Get in there, etc.

The email promised a new range from the youngest of Islay’s eight distilleries. Loch Gorm (named after a distinctly peaty body of water near the distillery) joins Machir Bay in a regular line up of two whiskies, which doesn’t seem terribly extensive. You might also be forgiven for thinking that core ‘range’ is not terribly accurate, considering that both expressions are intended to showcase the Kilchoman spirit as it evolves. The first incarnations, emerging from Islay’s western shore since 2008, have suggested a seriously precocious whisky, however, and indeed a couple of months ago, the International Whisky Competition announced Machir Bay as its Whisky of the Year 2013. This is an extraodinary accomplishment for a single malt which is still, relatively speaking, in its nappies.

Loch Gorm introduces the peaty product from Islay’s farm distillery to the close, sensuous attentions of Sherry casks from the off. Aged in the freshest Oloroso butts, the Loch Gorm whisky is then finished in ex-Sherry hogsheads for six weeks. Kilchoman does not artificially colour or chill-filter its whiskies.

The new Kilchoman Loch Gorm.

Kilchoman Loch Gorm 2013 46% £56

Colour – medium amber.

Nose – immediate youthful fruity sweetness led by poached pears in syrup and a dab of punchy passion fruit. The peat lends a warm cherry cola aroma. It is definitely Kilchoman under there: dazzling bright barley with the sweetness of tablet and authenticity of green malt. Almond pastry. The smoke keeps its distance at first, evidenced perhaps in a sweet and oily pepperoni heat. Lime pickle and mango chutney. The peat sits at the foundation, providing its own sweetness.

Palate – a cascade of sweetness with raisins and dried cranberries. The malt is the chief delight for the sweet of tooth. The peat digs in with a thick and fuzzy texture before drying to leave impressions of the kiln, as well as that outstanding malt and echoes of walnut.

Finish – increasingly dry with a beautifully acrid and industrial peat character. Singed hay, rich caramel and vanilla pod.

With water, this moved into another gear with a nose of dried fruits and coal smoke, double cream and milk chocolate. Red apple, orange and cinnamon appeared, before things became heathery and bog-like. With time, strawberry coulis and lime-doused Granny Smiths emerged, with a blackcurrant character to the peat. Fabulous. The palate begins with a charming softness, before sharpening to pin-point and precise flavours. Fruity sherry accentuates the apple/pear core of the Kilchoman spirit. Strawberry jam next, with thick charred peat which reminded me of Toulouse sausage. To complete the picture, juicy peach arrived. The clean and malleable barley sets up a beautifully simple and well-judged finish, with apple strudel and dying beach bonfire staying true to the Kilchoman character.

So…?      What a joyous, satisfying whisky. Manager John MacLellan and Dr Jim Swan have mitigated whatever risk may be attached to drawing young peated whisky from Sherry casks to reveal another, even fruitier side to Kilchoman. This is a seriously sweet whisky at times, but the strength and purity of peat wins out in the end.

If you can come by a bottle, grab it. I can think of no better companion to a twilit summer evening.

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King Kilchoman?

Though in the eyes of some it may have a few years of its single malt minority still to overcome, I would suggest that Kilchoman, Islay’s infant princeling, has already staked several bold claims to the crown. That crown is ‘My Favourite Distillery Out There’.

Kilchoman’s sudden surge to prominence and notoriety has, I’ve always felt, paralleled my own passion for whisky. Bubbling away significantly from the later part of the last decade, 2009 onwards witnessed a dedicated assault on the whisky establishment, its institutions and its received wisdom. That last bit is meant to describe the distillery, you understand, although if encountering whisky on two wheels counts as an innovation in discovery I suppose the Odyssey may fall under the same umbrella.

I missed out on the Inaugural Release, but I enjoyed the Autumn 2009, Spring 2010 and Summer 2011 expressions enormously. At times I have been nothing short of astounded by the breadth of flavours this young whisky boasts and I think I am gradually isolating a house style. Gorgeously peaty and seductively sweet, the spirit speaks of Islay and also centuries of whisky knowledge harnessed to best effect, with at times miraculous results from brief maturation regimes. That peat note is at times ‘brown’ and dirty, at other times dry and fragrant. I often detect cow byre. The malt is full, juicy and rounded. Between the two, meanwhile, I find a beguiling herbal quality close to oregano or sometimes green tea. The Autumn 2009 will reside long in my memory for its extraordinary length of finish.

In a move away from incremental, work-in-progress style releases, late last year the single malt community could celebrate Kilchoman’s fifth birthday with the launch of the 2006 vintage. The significance for the Kilchoman brand was clear: could those ‘clever casks’ which had helped the 3yos taste so magnificent continue to augment and embellish the spirit without showing their hand roo much?

Ahead of our Quaich Society Committee Tasting next week, I grabbed a couple of bottles from Luvians in St Andrews, pouring myself a dram by way of a finder’s fee. Here are my thoughts on the whisky, tasted in parallel with an expression from my existing ‘King’ distillery: a Scotch Malt Whisky Society Caol Ila.

The first 5yo Kilchoman.

Kilchoman 2006 46% £49

Colour – Pale gold.

Nose – Straight away tight, smudgey peated malt, painted in browns and greens. Damp peat. With nose in the glass, there is a remarkable thickness of peat residue: very kippery. Quickly rising above this is toffee malt and incredibly light, creamy green fruits. It is fuller and more engaging than the Caol Ila. Vanilla-coated apple peel. Some shellfish. The oak provides a liquorice-like lift. Garden bonfire – autumnal suddenly. Stunning.

Water adds a gloss to all that sweetness, although the ‘brown’ peat retains its crackle and roughness. So soft and creamy. Sweet apple peel appears beside a beach bonfire. Vanilla toffee. Oregano. Some oiliness, hinting at the phenolic, dark underbelly of this spirit but it disappears the next moment into soft, endless smoke and grassiness. More time reveals sweet butter and a bit of rosemary. Burning turf. There is the kind of toffee malt I would only expect from your more assured 12yo Speysides. Awesome.

Palate – Thick, fruity and lively with bags of thick peat, charred beach bonfire and slivers of sweet malt. There is a concluding interplay between malty sugars and dry, dark peat.

Water provides a sharper tableau: a summer day on a West Coast beach with a storm coming in. Barbecued vegetables and sea scrub. Malt and apple. Coriander and ginger paste. Dry peat and oak hit later on and the sustained intensity is utterly brilliant.

Finish – A little bit of toffee and gingerbread in the oven. Sweetness dominates but the dry peat continues to tickle. Like licking a pencil sharpener. A bit of vanilla. Becomes exceedingly dry.

Water gives the impression of the distillery: malt bins, mill room. Creamy with a balancing dryness.

 

Caol Ila 9yo 66.6% (Scotch Malt Whisky Society, 53.134)

Colour – Clean, full gold.

Nose – Soft and scented to start with, it picks up vanilla custard and a vein of smoke. Pear. With nostrils in the glass, soft butter tablet appears alongside creamy, ‘golden’ oak. Pear switches to green apple. Very oaky, however. Juniper and lime jump out with a bit more time. Dirty smoke and caramel biscuit emerge, too.

Water creates spicy and savoury aromas: cheese and onion crisps. Some oak influence but mostly wash scents at this early stage. Mint humbugs. Sour apples spell the beginning of the end as the shouty, sharp Bourbon cask cannot be held in check any longer. Bin bags. Some burnt toffee appears late on.

Palate – Lots of smoke and alcohol with wood sugars galore. Gently peated malt and apple cores emerge. Ferocious.

Water witnesses a disaster zone with bin liner-wrapped hay bales and shallots. A bit of peat and samphire before resolving into alcohol bite and lethargic, heavy oak.

Finish – Big, clean oak flavours, starting with vanilla and honey. A little green smoke appears.

Water, to persist with a theme, ruins the experience with oak sugars squeezing all but apple pip notes out.

The youngster beats the 9yo all ends up. I still haven’t decided whether the SMWS bottling is an almost excusable momentary aberration, or that the Kilchoman alongside it was simply peerless, but the wrong whisky had come out of the wrong cask and done itself no credit. I goggle at the quality the Kilchoman guys – with the help of Dr. Jim Swan – have achieved here, and seriously skilful stock management is on show. If I had the money, a bottle would be sitting on my shelf now as the spirit has so much going for it. Not only does it generate conversation based on its ‘craft’ and bespoke credentials, but the flavours are so crisp and precise, whilst remaining evocative and complex. I hope our guests at the Quaich Society will agree on Thursday.

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Wordsmiths and Drinkmongers

I fancy that Scotland owes Robert Burns and his progenitors a great deal. The North-of-Border-Bard supplies a seminal date for two of its finest areas of excellence: literature and whisky. Haggis might well be a third entity to benefit from close association with the ‘heaven taught ploughman’.

A stirring Highland-scape.

January 25th can serve as a seminal date for Scottish poetic expression and the spirit to which so much of it is dedicated. Robin Laing has compiled a charming anthology called The Whisky Muse which contains verse recent and ancient celebrating uisquebeatha’s prominent role in the culture of this beautiful country and the lives of the characters within it. Of course, whisky doesn’t exactly need a date each year on which to be so venerated, but who else can the industry and product cleave to as a figurehead? To favour any particular commercial distiller would be to forget the essential roots of whisky, in the bothies and peat sheds of farmers trying to earn a little more from their harvests. To plump for a politician responsible for a piece of legislation that made our favourite drink what it resembles today would be deeply unpopular and somehow, to miss the point. Burns is a personality to which whisky as the potent blood of Scots-hood may gratefully pin its colours, a high priest to a romantic past resurrected by the whisky-laden breath of every Burns Night makar.

Drinkmonger's inviting exterior.

I returned from Pitlochry yesterday having discovered a new outpost for the contemporary whisky industry. Along the road from the tartan and teek of the Blair Athol distillery is Drinkmonger, an offshoot of Royal Mile Whiskies. Inside, I discovered a retail space a little different to what you might expect of a whisky retailer in such a tourism-driven town. It would not look out of place on Edinburgh’s Princes Street. Wooden-floored with dark shelving, the layout is clean and tasteful. The staff are especially helpful, and I learnt from the sales assistant that the shop had been open six months and they continued, even in the leaner post-Christmas times, to enjoy local interest in their products and services.

The spirits shelves at Drinkmonger.

From what I could see of the range, there can be few complaints. Drinkmonger came into existence to allow RMW to expand into the wine sector but their malt and bourbon selections are tasteful and extremely interesting. I list Bourbon for several reasons: I am deeply keen to try more of this fantastically innovative and complex spirit, and Drinkmonger has the best range of any retailer I have come across in four years of poking around in Scottish spirits shops. Buffalo Trace distillery was very well represented, with the eponymous expression (£24) in addition to Sazerac Rye (delish) and Eagle Rare (£32). Woodford Reserve, Knob Creek and Wild Turkey were also in evidence.

I am a Scotch blog, though, and I gazed lovingly at a bottle of the new Kilchoman 2006 (under £50), in addition to the GlenDronach 14yo Port finish (£33 if I remember rightly). I was assured, however, that through their extensive connections with distributors the store will attempt to track down any special request you may have.

If you are one who thinks that there is a surplus of whisky shops already, I suspect that even you will forgive Drinkmonger. Between their wines, spirits other than whisky (I was pointed towards the rums whilst noticing their impressive selection of gins) and cigar humidor, this is a highly professional outfit with a few gems certain to surprise. I’m saving my money for a trip to the Good Spirits Co. in Glasgow, but under different circumstances I could have spent many an hour and much currency in Drinkmonger.

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‘Wet Dog – but in a Good Way’

'Eh?!' 'Mmmmm!'

And then I thought John MacDonald was going to hit me. My tasting note of ‘guinea pig hutch’ had not gone down well.

When nosing and tasting whisky, our brain has a habit of surprising us with a suggestive vista of just what sensory memories we have folded away in the darkest recesses. The conversion by our imaginations of these hints and fragments which those few molecules of distilled, oak-matured malt spirit disturbed when they pottered past our hypothalamus into an image or reel of footage can, however, appear so far removed from anything you might wish to detect in a fine single malt, bourbon or blend once we concretize them in writing.

The exercise of producing tasting notes works on association, putting into a system of signs for mass-consumption and comprehension what is only a deeply private impression. Tasting notes, therefore, work best only for the taster who can unlock the subtext and allusions to the words on the page. This is not quite on the same topic as Keith Wood and I discussed at the beginning of last year whereby particular scenes and whole memories are triggered by a mysterious aroma or flavour but instead aims to broach the subject of the unexpected – but appreciated – when encountering whisky. As I have said before, it is powerfully rewarding when the surface level of our awareness is broken by a whisky, and we can go beyond ‘malty’, ‘honey’, ‘vanilla’, ‘smoky’ in our evaluations to something that challenges how we perceive and contemplate sensory information. When sharing that whisky with others – as should always occur - it can be fun and illuminating to compare our most outlandish impressions, to explain how as individuals in the same sensory world we could possibly have ‘come up with’ that particular tasting note.

To return to that ‘guinea pig hutch’ descriptor above. It referred to the cask strength sample of the new Balblair 2001 and, as I tried to placate the distillery manager, I did not mean it as a criticism. Simply, in that moment my mind had stamped a sign on what I am by now used to finding in younger Balblairs – a sweet cereal character with light wood and a grassy/spicy aroma. For whatever reason, these had combined and reformed into an image of a rodent residence.

Mortlach is another that can generate some fairly unusual descriptors: rotting logs, lamb stock – what are these doing coming out of a whisky? What is important is the atmosphere these objects suggest to me, of late winter forest walks in Northumberland or left-overs from the Sunday roast.

Drams from Islay have more than a little drama to their personalities, with endless interpretations of just what quality of smoke there is in evidence possible. Bowmore Legend pushes out damp cigarettes while Kilchoman blends smoke with peat, which in turn evokes muddy farmyards and cowsheds. Pleasant? Absolutely. The classic case-in-point is ‘TCP’ for the likes of Laphroaig and Ardbeg. Some shrink away in fear of a pungent and oft-abused medicine cupboard, while others revel in the aromatic challenge.

All I would say is, put down what feels right to you. Why play it safe with what you worry you ‘ought’ to notice? You will come to understand the whiskies you come across far more intimately and meaningfully if those deeper and more esoteric responses are not repressed but are instead celebrated. After all, they acknowledge how diverse each of our experiences with food, drink and anything else that might have caught our noses or tastebuds over a lifetime are and with any luck might bring them into the discussion, too.

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Size Matters?

Gargantuan Glenfiddich.

Gargantuan Glenfiddich.

From whisky’s commercial beginnings, success has meant going large: more equipment equals more liquid which equals more profit which equals more equipment. As businessmens’ wallets expanded so, inevitably, did their distilleries.

Miniature Edradour.

Miniature Edradour.

Today, however, we find a subtly changed model. Like the tiny birds which munch their lunch from the hides of rhinos and elephants, there are those whose comparatively diminutive size ensures their survival and prosperity. Fluttering in the wake of the industry’s behemoths are flocks of boutique operations flourishing thanks to the robust health of their enormous counterparts. Liberated by their small-scale natures to offer something particular, distinctive, unusual – maybe even personal – these distilleries cultivate a following of devotees which, though often equally as minute, are enough to sustain a brand and a philosophy. Small, for increasing numbers of ambitious and passionate people, is the whole point. But is boutique best? In the following paragraphs my aim is not exactly to answer this question. I want instead to ponder how whiskies differ on a level beyond – or perhaps it would be more correct to say beneath – flavour. The means by which Springbank journeys to your drinks cabinet contrast with those of The Glenlivet; which dram, therefore, speaks most faithfully of the provenance, process and people behind it?

This train of thought chugged into motion with the Benromach press release published yesterday. However, I should say that the thrust of this article is not innovation. Rather, I want to interrogate the principal bottlings from the likes of Glenmorangie and Macallan and evaluate whether they are as honest as they could be. Has their extraordinary volume compromised their identities as discernible in the final product? Could distillery character be more vividly captured and engaging with less output? Does spirit from smaller sites taste somehow more authentically like itself?

Giant Jura.

Giant Jura.

My tentative belief is that with fewer litres produced, requiring fewer casks and therefore with perhaps a smaller spectrum of oak-derived (or oak-perverted) flavours available, the creation of a new core expression presents the master blender with fewer alibis – whisky special effects. When putting together a 12-year-old, for example, he or she hasn’t the diverting inventory of casks with particular qualities which might in other conglomerates be brought to bear on the vatting with ameliorating, distorting consequences. I know that, with the larger companies, whole floors in warehouses are exhumed to contribute towards the next bottling run, many hundreds – even thousands – of litres many years older than the age statement that will finally appear on the bottle lend colour, fragrance and structure which may have been lacking in the youngest stock. This practise is not misleading exactly, just obscuring. Also, when releasing a subsequent batch of ’12-year-old’, the boutique master blender may be unable to maintain consistency with the previous release at the volume demanded by head office. Theirs will rather be a whisky for and of the here and now. They cannot replicate the character of a single expression, they can only construct a whisky that reflects how the Edradour or Royal Lochnagar spirit has coped with and embraced those variables which are at the heart of whisky manufacture.

Titchy Arran.

Titchy Arran.

I compared the scores given in the latest Malt Whisky Companion to the principal – or only – bottlings from the eleven smallest Scottish distilleries in output terms with those of the eleven largest. They were, once I had calculated an average, to all intents and purposes identical (80 plays 79 respectively). This, of course, tells me very little. Were the MWC published on an annual basis, however, and were the bottling habits of the likes of Kilchoman, Arran and Benromach to become de riguer for all boutiques, I would expect their scores to fluctuate, whilst those of the giants remained constant.

Not to conclude, therefore, but rather to adjourn for now, what about flavour exploration? Is fluctuating whisky better whisky? For me, I would bellow ‘Yes!’ I have enormous respect for how the big boys put out consistently tasty stuff year after year, but right now I yearn for variety, digression and different shades in my drams. I want to explore the products of those whose business models and above all artisanal attitudes empower them to shout about something really great when they find it, instead of having to surrender those drops of transient magnificence into the uniform ocean of brand continuity. To my mind, master blenders must too often sacrifice wonderful malts to function as a kind of whisky airbrushing tool; our omnipresent malts are merely beautified – they are not truly, idiosyncratically, beautiful.

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The Spirit of Unity

Whisky ‘News’  and the latest releases are ordinarily entities I leave to other bloggers, preferring to focus instead on the distilleries behind the products. On this occasion, however, I think you will agree that this is more than your everyday expression and Scotch Odyssey – with ambitions one day for a Japanese Odyssey – would like to join others covering this dram.

Seven ‘craft’ Scotch distillers are contributing one cask each from their warehouses for the purposes of blending the contents and selling the doubtless delicious result in support of the relief efforts which still continue in both Japan and Christchurch following the recent earthquakes. All proceeds from this unique blend, dubbed the Spirit of Unity, will go to those countries battling to recover from the dreadful infrastructural and above all human costs.

Arran, BenRiach, Bladnoch, GlenDronach, Glengyle, Kilchoman and Springbank will contribute their singular characters to the blend whose marriage will be overseen by BenRiach Distillery Co. Master Blender, Billy Walker.

The relationship between the Scotch whisky industry and that in Japan has been long-established: Masataka Taketsuru studied the art of whisky distillation in Speyside and Campbeltown during the 1920s - regions here represented by BenRiach and Springbank/Glengyle – before shaping the establishment of Yamazaki and founding Nikka. The outturn of this vatting is expected to be in the region of 2000 bottles, 1200 of which are reserved for the UK and the benefactors hope to raise around £50,000 from the sale of these almost certainly unrepeatable bottles.

Royal Mile Whiskies and Loch Fine Whiskies are already taking preliminary orders through their websites, with the batches due to be dispatched into their stores by the end of this month with an expected price of £59.

The Scotch whisky industry has endured some tumultuous times over its history in the shape of bankruptcy, over-production and global recession, but is now in a position to lend its strength to others. With this and many other contributions from all over the world we can hope that Japan and her distilling traditions will swiftly bounce back.

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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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Islay and Jura

May 13th, Bowmore, Caol Ila, Bunnahabhain, 33 miles

It felt deeply odd to wake up and have my mother cooking me breakfast, as opposed to someone else’s mother. I tried not to fight it, because after all, this is their holiday too and they want to see their first-born, even if he is unexpectedly hairy, smelly, unsure of the conventions of social etiquette and eats like a starving lion.

My father has wheeled the bike out of the garage for me, and I have much more sensibly-shaped panniers. It all feels so wrong! At least the Scottish rain keeps me grounded. That, if nothing else, is familiar.

I fight the rain and a stiff Westerley to Bowmore, take some pictures and sniff like a solvent-abuser the peat-laden air. Then I have to rake around Bowmore village because they can’t fit me on a tour until 11AM. I pop into the local Spar, which double sup as the Islay Whisky Shop. There were lots of delicious malts I wanted to take home with me. Which would be my favourite by the end of the week? I was seduced from afar by a bottle of Ardbeg Lord of the Isles. A snip at £400.

After my tour of Bowmore, I had to battle the rain and slightly increasing temperatures to Port Askaig and the impossibly rutted, then steep road to Caol Ila. I was so thrilled to be here, though: the home of my very favourite malt. Hidden by name, or at least in the marketing of Diageo, hidden by nature, with the steeply falling cliff ensuring that only its smokestack can be seen from above.

A very very special moment. Indescribable.

A very very special moment. Indescribable.

Regrettably, it wasn’t to be the glorious validation of my pilgrimage. As you can see in my review, it fell a good deal short of expectations.

I was fortunate that it had stopped raining by the time I exited, because nothing had had the chance to dry. Running a little on empty (the lunch my mothe rhad packed for me may have been delicious, but it was maybe half the requirements for the day) I flogged myself along the merrily undulating single track road to Bunnahabhain. I encountered a car travelling in a contrary direction, but none of the terrifyingly huge Carntyne lorries. Having said that, they were loading one with casks when I bumped over the cattle grid into the distillery complex, another one squeezed onto a shelf of flat land before some very un-flat cliffs.

Upon leaving Bunnahabhain, I discovered that the reverse end of the barrel which had acted as a sign post on my way to the distillery broadcast a rather entertaining joke, which you may find below.

The other side, the one you see first as you head to the distillery, says 'Distillery'.

The other side, the one you see first as you head to the distillery, says 'Distillery'.

  

***

May 14th, Laphroaig, Lagavulin, Ardbeg, 28 miles

There's nothing like being stunned by the ebauty of your surroundings first thing in the morning.

There's nothing like being stunned by the ebauty of your surroundings first thing in the morning.

Laphroaig demanded an early start of me. Trying to organise my day such that I could visit all of the Kildalton distilleries in the one day was a major head ache. Initially, I had wanted the visits to be kiltered the other way around: with Ardbeg first and Laphroaig last. Due to their tour times, and some being fully booked, I had to rotate my itinerary around the fulcrum of Lagavulin.

Therefore, I was up and out in the lifting mist at 8AM, due for Port Ellen and the unexplored south shore. The mornign was quite stunning, with rain always threatening to the east, and a beautiful, sun-kissed western view of sea and sand. At one stage, I passed through an area where the wind blew the still-smouldering heather blazes (started illegally) into my face. Wowee! It was that triad of distilleries in one breath of wind: peat, heather, earth and smoke, with a view of the sea to boot. Islay in my nostrils.

Smoking Islay: uncannily reminiscent of the real thing.

Smoking Islay: uncannily reminiscent of the real thing.

By the time I reaached the south coast, it was a treat for the eyes. Few places I had encountered were as gnarled, cramped and rugged as Islay’s south shore, and to find three world-class distilleries within three miles of each other: amazing, mind-boggling.

Laphroaig was first, and how lovely it was. The buildings are utterly precious, and everyone else with a camera seemed to think so, too. A warehouse would have been nice, but what with all this interaction with the developing spirit and my running rather late for Lagavulin, it was probably just as well there wasn’t.

What should greet me as I hurtled back on to the main road but road works! This didn’t help. Once clear of the men in hi-vis jackets, the landscape became fractionally softer and more wooded in time for Lagavulin. I caught the tour by the skin of my teeth and just as well: it was magnificent.

Buoyant and fed, but very very warm, I made more serene progress to Ardbeg. When I got there it was as if the Festival had begun early for this particular distillery. “It’s always like this,” said one of the ladies rushing about. “Everyone wants to eat NOW.” There wasn’t a table to be had, and after some folk took the pouring of whisky into their own hands (glasses, really, but you know what I mean), there were no sample bottles, either. Pandemonium.

By the time the tour departed, everything felt rather wrung out. It was the last tour of the week, everyone on the production side had gone home, and their were some giggly young Germans as part of the 20-strong tour group. It might have been the heat, it might have been that they had had similarly intensive encounters with whisky that day. Soporifically, the tour wended its way to the filling store, I felt like a nap. I wasn’t allowed that. What I was awarded instead was an hour and a half of pitted, ruptured, buckled and destroyed Islay roads, into a head wind.

I was similarly broken by the time I returned to the holiday cottage. Once showered and dressed for our parting meal in the Port Charlotte Hotel, I began to feel the effects of six distilleries in two days and the impending desertion of my parents. The exceptional fare on offer at the Hotel recovered my spirits for the remainder of the evening, but what would break and engulf me the following afternoon had been awakened.

***

Bridgend to Port Askaig, Kilchoman, Bruichladdich, 36 miles

Another food parcel is being put together for me as I wolf down my breakfast. It isn’t an early tour of Kilchoman, but it is on the other side of the island. With regards to the food parcel, I’m wondering how I am supposed to readjust to buying food for myself once Ma and Pa depart this afternoon. It sees a return of the full compliment of baggage on the bike, too. 

The amazing thing about relatively low-lying islands in the Atlantic is that you can see weather coming long before it actually hits. I therefore had a lot of time to prepare myself for getting wet before the black and hevaily-laden cloud finally burst upon me. It wasn’t especially cold, though, so I resisted putting on the overtrousers. However, the rain grew heavier and I decided that getting soaked wasn’t liable to be much fun. On went the over trousers, and just as I set off again, the rain abated. I could then watch it as it bounded away to terrorise Jura.

Stormy weather.

Stormy weather.

The weather remained wonderfully fine for the rest of the day. I could only complain about the wind, and did I? I had agreed to meet my parents for lunch in the Croft Kitchen, Port Charlotte at 12.30. After a few minutes on the road to Kilchoman, I appreciated that such a time was ambitious, even if my tour was a scant half-hour.

The extreme western third of Islay is profoundly unstable. The road sinks and soars dispiritingly regularly. When fighting a vindictive Westerly, this is not a good thing. It wasn’t until I came to Kilchoman, however, that I could appreciate what a not very good thing was really all about. “You don’t like cyclists, do you?” I put to my guide. The farm track to the distillery cause my upper body into spasm as it endeavoured to execute minute turns of the handlebars so that I might avoid the biggest rocks whilst inching along at 6 mph. Nevertheless, the back wheel was regularly pitched into unexpected directions by pieces of gravel and I’m faintly amazed that I didn’t fall off or puncture. Maybe I’m a born cyclocross rider. I walked the bike back to the main road after the tour.

The bike with Lochindaal and Bruichladdich in the background.

The bike with Lochindaal and Bruichladdich in the background.

This act of self-preservation cost me time. The frankly wilful winds ensured that my race against time to Port Charlotte (all the while raging internally that this was my last lunch with my parents before I left and I also had to get food before touring Bruichladdich at 2PM) was frustrating to the point of actually screaming. This doesn’t make me feel better, but succombing turns anger into embarrassment.

A chicken bacon and mayo sandwich, some chips, the hand-over of miniatures and food, the vanishing blue bumper of the car. It was all very upsetting, more so because I didn’t think I was going to be and didn’t want to be upset.

Bruichladdich had a similar feel to Ardbeg the day before: more sedate fairground exhibit than distillery. I ate some food, and headed towards the hotel at Port Askaig, trying to look at this change of scene, a reversion to old ways, as a good thing. This was me returning to those austere self-sufficient days which had done so much for me. Mum and Dad leaving was only an unusual, temporarily complicating factor.

Well, it was temporary in that I only struggled with it and a number of other issues for the following three days. It could have been worse.

I sat on my bed in the hotel, making a passionate attempt to label my accommodation as quirky; quirky that the door wouldn’t lock, quirky that the TV didn’t work, quirky that my bike was sharing the covered open garage at the back with a number of picnic tables, quirky that there was no-one in the place, quirky that everyone, to a man, had a Polish accent, quirky that Port Askaig seemed to comprise only this hotel, the ferry terminal and the shop, quirky that I was booked in for three nights, quirky that this seemed to surprise the Polish girl who showed me to my room, quirky that I felt suddenly completely alone and abandoned on this little island in the Atlantic. I tried desperately to maintain a sense of humour, but that I could see the ferry terminal from my seat in the dining room, my escape route but 72 hours hence, was too tragic an irony.Port Askaig

I was desperately hungry, but had no appetite when my very uniform-looking breaded haddock fillets arrived. That night and the next morning was the worst I had felt all trip, including the first three days and my equipment worries in Huntly and Keith. I battled with doubts that the appearance of my parents had dropped me right back at square one, that my passion for single malt, for Scotland, had been exhausted, and that I was dragging myself to Glasgow and its myriad new threats for no good reason. Compounding these anxieties was the accusation that I had no right to feel as I did. Five weeks in, and more than 1000 miles, I should have been able to take it all in my stride. Well I couldn’t and this sheltered cove within the cliffs felt like a prison, the scene of manifested madness and despair.

I turned the light out long before 9PM, and slept until what would class as late for me on this trip.

***

Port Askaig, 25 miles

Rest enjoyed, I could appreciate the lunacy of my recent itinerary. How could I expect to feel anything else after touring all 8 distilleries in three days? I was exhausted. Recenvening with familiarity only to have it leave was a risky move, but the end is approaching and the peripheral issues on this score are the most pressing. I have pushed myself beyond what I had thought I was capable of and my biggest challenge was still squarely in front of me, drawing nearer each day. Quite right that this evaluation of priorities and my own exact physical and emotional location should take place now, with the resolution of my goals and ambitions so very close.

I tried to chivvy myself by engaging in small tasks: making lunch from the rolls, butter, cheese and ham left for me, doing some laundry in the sink. With these little objectives completed, I decided that I reall wanted to get up and out. I packed my panniers, changed into my gear, retrieved the bike, and broke free of Port Askaig. It was, as I said in a text to my mother, a raod to nowhere. I looked at Finlaggan, central seat for the Lords of the Isles, bummed around Bowmore for a bit, visited the little retail/craft village just outside Bridgend, bought some groceries, and returned to the hotel. Despite a very suspect Spaghetti a la Carbonara (that ‘a la’ is crucial), my spirits had lifted.

Reading Iain Banks helped hugely, perhaps even vitally. His vitriol and invective at the political climate of 2003 when Raw Spirit was researched together with his hilarious anecdotes and experiences in distilleries that I had already visited lifted me forcibly out of my gloom. Without his ‘company’, I’m not sure how I would have passed the stickily-slow time in Port Askaig. Had I not been able to draw off some of his enthusiasm and attitude, day 35 might have ended with my seeing if I could swim to Jura, or something equally wrong-headed. Thank you, Mr Banks. As a writer, too, I only hope my work can have such a sustaining effect on someone.

***

 Port Askaig to Craighouse, to Port Askaig, 17 miles

It is a very exciting, and speedy, crossing to Jura. This little boat is captained with real skill, shuttling back and forth over the treacherous tides and currents of the Sound.

It is a very exciting, and speedy, crossing to Jura. This little boat is captained with real skill, shuttling back and forth over the treacherous tides and currents of the Sound.

I should have known by now that no matter how close I may be to a ferry terminal when I wake up, at least an hour must pass between the first anguished yelps which is how I greet the new day in response to the brusque herald that is my alarm and finally exiting my accommodation, Lycra’ed to the max and ready to go. Consequently, as I ate poached eggs at 8.15, I accepted that I would miss the 8.30 sailing to Jura and had to shuffle about for the 9.30 boat. This, at least, gave me the opportunity to get in touch with Bladnoch distillery, as it appeared that there was every likelihood that I would make it to Dumfries and Galloway, after all. 

 As I waited and cars began to queue, William and Sue rolled down from the hotel. I had met them the previous afternoon as I walked the bike back down in to Port Askaig (saving the brakes on the ruthless hill). They had been cycling the other way, and the reversal of accepted bicycle locomotion with regards to negotiating inclines was remarked upon: it should have been them pushing their bikes up, not mine down. William asked, in a wonderfully broad accent straight from the North East of England, if I’d had a mechanical failure. I had replied that I was just nursing my equipment whenever I had the opportunity. Over breakfast we had met again, and had discussed my travel adventures and their own. As it turned out, they had completed almost exactly the same route to get to Port Askaig as I would take from Port Askaig to Glasgow. Reconvening on the pier, they asked if I knew about the Sustrans network. Phyllis in Dufftown had first put me on to them as we tried to work out a possible route from Nairn to Tomatin. Sue now told me that there was a very well-signposted National Cycle Route from the ferry port in Ardrossan to the middle of Glasgow, the 7. This was music to my ears. My Multimap print-outs and 21-year-old OS map (far older than some of the whiskies I had been tasting) were not at all compatible, and I sensed would not keep me off the very busy roads in Scotland’s most densely-populated area. That they had put before me an alternative already allayed some of my monumental fears concerning the stages at the end of the week, and which had grown from molehills into Cuillins of problems and anxieties over the course of my travels.

We boarded the Jura ferry, and what a charming and informal operation it is. On go the pedestrians and cyclists, who tuck themselves closely into the sides of the vessel, the n the cars board – far more than you would have thought possible. You buy your tickets, blink, and you are swinging into Feolin, Jura. A herd of cows represent a welcome party of sorts, and then you cannot wait to explore the interior of this tiny, sparesly peopled island paradise.

Glimpses to the heart of Jura.

Glimpses to the heart of Jura.

The road follows the coast, essentially, although the mountainous nature of Jura is inescapable. With the Sound of Islay on your right, there are tiny dells and glens with streams and steep-sided gorges to your left, heather and grass and misty mountain tops. It felt the most island-like, somehow, of anywhere I had yet been to. The one single track road I suppose helped with the feeling of separateness and seclusion. I couldn’t help but think of Orwell, and whether it was his influence or not, I found my thoughts rising in an attempt to meet the grandeur and serenity of the landscape about me.

In the distillery visitor’s centre, I asked how far away Orwells old house was. It was only a little after 12 and I had not much else to do once I returned to Port Askaig. The lady looked sceptical. It is at the point of the tear-drop that Jura forms, and requires a fair walk once the suspect road finally peters out. Maybe next time for another breed of pilgrimage.

On the way back, the threat of rain vanished and cloud and light entranced me. The Sound itself was like glass, and a tanker slid along in utter silence. I stood opposite the point at which Islay and Jura form a bottle neck of sorts for the wild seas and create the Sound itself. It was gloriously warm and I had another Highland cow for company.

It is places like this that make anyone look like a good photographer.

It is places like this that make anyone look like a good photographer.

I’d been able to claim a couple of sightings of Jura’s famous deer on the way to the distillery, a head or two on a ridge line. As I headed back to Feolin, I disturbed an army of the creatures, grazing on the land below the road. Upon seeing me, they bunched together and sprinted up the hill, amassing again and turning to assess my level of risk.

Back at the ferry terminal, I was one of a peloton of cyclists. There was Dad and son on a tandem, and Mum and daughter on their own bikes. I learnt from William and Sue when they arrived, having completed their exploration of Jura, that they had encountered this family on the Arran ferry. What an amazing thing to do with and for your kids, although I suspect you would need full co-operation and approval prior to departing. As I can testify, some of the greatest moments possible can come in the saddle, but there is massive potential for days of unmitigated  misery, too.

Back in Port Askaig, I had a drink on the lawn outside the hotel with my two fellow North Easters. They were due to leave for Bowmore shortly, but before they did William showed me his “tool kit” with everything a touring cyclist could need, and by rights shouldn’t be without. Having none of what he showed me, I felt rather ashamed. He then reminded Sue of the Sustrans map. This was excavated from a pannier and would be invaluable when, three days later, I headed in to the big smoke, and every one of my darkest fears.

Pure serenity. The vista is completed courtesy of the Highland cow.

Pure serenity. The vista is completed courtesy of the Highland cow.

When they left, I felt almost as bereft as I had on Saturday with my parents’ departure. The afternoon was still young, however, I wanted to see a bit more of Islay and Caol Ila was walking distance away. I then decided to hike to Loch Nam Ban, the water source for Caol Ila.

This was a very good idea. I panted up the hill to the main road and turned right for Caol Ila. The maps in the hotel had suggested a track of sorts that lead off the carriageway to the distillery itself, up into the hills where the loch lay. I passed the stone cairn/sign for Caol Ila, enchanted by the hot, citrussy and eminently peaty smells of mash and wort blown to my quivering nostrils by the breeze in the Sound. I turned left through a bank of trees and found the capped well, under which flowed the process and water, piped from the invisible loch above me. My shoes may not have been at all appropriate, and the route may have been rather unnecessarily circuitous after I headed up the wrong hill first, and had to fight my way through barbed wire, thick mosses, bog and grass to regain the road, only to find that there was a well-worn quad bike track up to the infamous loch. Standing on the shore of the lapping, energetic waters, I felt more at peace. It helped that its situation, in a bowl in the hills looking out to Jura, deflected all wind so the only sound was the faintly luxuriant and very soothing ‘blop’ of wavelets breaking against the loose stones of the shore. I picked up one of these stones and slipped it into my pocket. That was my most solid and significant souvenir of the tour.

The long hot walk back, during which I watched a thick hairy caterpillar speedily cross the road, was rewarded by some battered chicken and more Iain Banks. Tomorrow I would be on my way again. Progress couldn’t come soon enough.

Wild and soft, remote and welcoming. My favourite malt's very core and DNA.

Wild and soft, remote and welcoming. My favourite malt's very core and DNA.

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