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A Place to Gather

‘Community’ is a word endowed with many connotations, leading to its (mis)appropriation by politicians, sociologists, market researchers and Mark Zuckerberg. Whether that community is ‘fractured’, patri-local or online, in the 21st century we still value and are moved by an idea of our collectivity.

Whisky provides yet another excuse for grouping together. With a single distillery or style we can identitfy with one another, share experiences and profess our loyalty. We can demonstrate how fiercely we fight for flavour. Increasingly, Scotch whisky distilleries have sought to foster such communities. Though they are ostensibly confined by the internet, strongly implied is the suggestion that one’s true point of contact – irrespective of where one lives – is a postcode in Scotland. The personality of a distillery, mediated via its virtual presence, promises the possibility of a connection to bricks, mortar and copper once you have logged off and bought a Caledonia-bound plane ticket.

Courtesy of a few clicks on the internet, you can be a Diurach with Jura, an Ardbeg Committee member, a Friend of Laphroaig, or a Guardian of The Glenlivet. It wouldn’t surprise me if, in the next few months, The Macallan Order of the Garter realises its inauguration. Brands are encouraging us to pledge fealty to them on a fractionally more intimate footing. We have bought their whisky, but they want us to participate in their stories, too.

The Clach Biorach standing stone at Balblair.

My old friend, Balblair, has followed suit and underscored this notional encounter all the more powerfully and simply with ‘The Gathering Place’. In recognition of the distillery’s long-standing neighbour, the Clach Biorach Pictish stone around which Highland peoples would assemble millenia ago, and whose swirls and forms find echoes in the Balblair bottle design, there is a new way of connecting to the pair of stills in Edderton, Ross-shire. Balblair fans can sign up for free to receive exclusive web content, expert whisky tasting videos and, perhaps the principal boon of swearing allegiance to one’s lord, spirits for your taste buds only. Tiger over at Edinburgh Whisky Blog has reviewed the first soon-to-be-released vintage from 1990. He rather liked it.

And I rather like this new inclination to transform customers into a community. Whisky inspires deep passions in people, chief among which must be that our favourite drams continue to be of high quality, testaments to integrity and skill. Through these membership schemes, we have the opportunity to communicate with these distilleries and the individuals responsible for them, rather than merely pay our money and consume them. A related point is developed very well by Stuart Robson over at the Whisky Marketplace blog. Philosophy intermingles with financial imperatives and hopefully we customers can make a bolder, more sustainable statement, adding an extra and vocal dimension to those sales figures. Give us a gathering place and we will prove our loyalty. The Gathering Place at Balblair.

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Peat: the Smell of Fear

While still in my whisky nappies, as it were, I made the adventurous but ill-informed progression from The Glenlivet 18yo I had relocated from the distillery on Speyside to a nascent dramming cupboard, to another single malt we happened to have in the house. My Mother had confessed to a certain bias with regards to a distillery I could not pronounce and was grateful for her instruction: Laff-Roy-G. ‘How different could it be?’ I wondered.

To this day I remember the savage abuse that dram of the 10yo wrought upon me. As far as a flavour is concerned, it was not etched upon my memory so much as gouged into my tongue. Rather than The Glenlivet’s rounded, floral and honeyed gentility, this potion reeked of Chemistry cupboards and my next door neighbour’s chimney when he is burning something suspect. It was not whisky as I had only recently come to know it, but an encounter with something primeval, dangerous and dirty. When the idea to tour Scotland’s distilleries came about, I labelled Islay on the map with a big red cross and a ‘here be dragons’ note. I did not want any more of this whisky region’s fire and brimstone.

Of course, today I would happily sprinkle peat on my breakfast cereal, or substitute it for black pepper. Caol Ila is (probably) my favourite distillery - Kilchoman is fast catching up – and sometimes, only a Laphroaig will do. Increasingly there are more folk like me, who relish the taste of earth and burning in their spirits and more companies eager to supply them with cutting, ashy loveliness. Douglas Laing released Big Peat a few years ago, and now Fox Fitzgerald Ltd. have shown up for the party with Peat’s Beast. I would say that they are a bit late, but the next Ardbeg Committee bottling and Feis Ile will demonstrate just what popular punch peat still boasts.

Dubbed ‘a sublime single malt scotch that’s packed with a big bite of untamed peatiness’, it also ticks the Whisky Geek boxes by being bottled at 46% abv. and without chill-filtration: ‘as it should be’ it bellows on the label. Dare I approach the Beast again? Have my Laphroaig Quarter Casks from earlier in the week been adequate acclimatisation?

Peat’s Beast 46% £34.99 available here.

The singeing effect of Peat's Beast.

Colour – Very pale (suggesting natural colouring, too) with wet straw and lemon pith shades.

Nose – With the glass a little way below the nose, homebaked bread appears first: yeasty, sweet and savoury. Beneath this is a grimey, industrial earthy smoke. Close to I find Italian salami, green fruits and certainly a full-bodied character. Whether it is necessarily ‘fierce’ I am not yet certain. With time, crackly bonfire appears, and this will change from its original moorland setting to the beach. Vanilla pod and ‘green’ peat. Later still grapefruit jelly appears with the impression of barley on the malting floors.

With the addition of water, the nose becomes slightly smoother and slippery. Burning straw and spicy malt. Develops into a smouldering charcoal barbecue. Orange peel comes with an emerging sweetness. Gentle earthy, crumbly smoke wafts around. Time reveals stables, a slight sweatiness and baked bread again.

Palate – That sure is a ‘bite’, but I don’t want to recoil in pain. Sweet malt sugars appear at the front of the tongue before a cayenne and chilli heat take over. This falls back onto smoky/sweet charred oak and eventually a deep softness.

After some water the palate grows sootier with charcoal. Another sip reveals turmeric and smoky toffee. Medium-dry, it boasts residual chilli-like heat but loses some of the nuances of the straight sample.

Finish – Some oak sugars survive, but mostly the impression is of grains of peated malt. Apple cores and smoke. Peat bog is a growing impression, but in a naturalistic, not kilned character. Vanilla returns with paprika at the end.

Water lengthens and deepens the experience. Texturally, the whisky is of real interest blending creaminess and a rough firmness. Honeyed at first, with a bit of lemon, before becoming – there’s no other word for it – medicinal. Strong vanilla and caramel from the oak and a little of the Islay iodine character. Cured meats are the final act.

So…?

Let’s be clear on this one point: this is a very capable and charming single malt. It blends youthful vibrancy with richness and sophistication and I think it is very good value indeed. However, I tried it with a couple of friends of mine and we were all in agreement: it doesn’t blow your mind with peatiness. Ordinarily that would not be a compliant. Octomore and Supernova are all very well, but would you turn to them on a daily basis? However, neither of these two expressions claim the title of Peat’s Beast and it is in the spectrum of peat that we must judge this whisky. This is not widely available, those who choose to buy it will most likely do so with a few tours of duty already completed in Islay’s smokiest expressions and they are likely to come to the same conclusion: Ardbeg, Lagavulin, Laphroaig and Kilchoman all go peatier. 35 ppm is not a beastly phenol content; in fact, I would rename this whisky Peat’s Boisterous Labrador.

I am fairly certain this is not an Islay whisky, however, and hails instead from the mainland’s consistently peaty distillery: Ardmore. My evidence is the industrial grime I noted on the nose, in addition to the cured meats and orange, and the strong, fresh barley impression it retains through the palate and finish. Provenance is not vital, though, because this is a superb whisky. Peat – by its own mission statement, however – is, and it falls some way short of sticking your head inside the Laphroaig kiln. Therefore, buy it for the skilful manipulation of richness, spirit integrity and attractive earthiness, but bear in mind that there are bigger peaty beasts out there.

Many thanks to Pauline Graham for the sample.

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The Magic of Distilleries

I think Ardbeg could win wars. In the shape of its Committee the Islay distillery has, in the event that the word “closure” wriggles from Gallic mouths in LVMH, a sizeable and quickly-mobilised private army. Paris would fall in hours. People hold Ardbeg in the kind of esteem that was once more commonly displayed for one’s country. Ardbeg transcends nationality, however. Japanese, Scandinavians and Americans would muster alongside the Ileachs beneath the banner emblazoned with that stylised Pictish ‘A’ should strife threaten the peacable, peaty kingdom. In fact, I rather suspect Ardbeg transcends whisky altogether.

Ardbeg: a whisky lover's Wembley Stadium, Graceland and Mecca - all rolled into one.

Ardbeg: a whisky lover's Wembley Stadium, Graceland and Mecca - all rolled into one.

I use Ardbeg as the most demonstrative and well-documented example of this tribal fanaticism. Clan Ardbeg is vociferous, protective and passionate bordering on unhinged. When I visited in May the distillery was crawling with people. Hordes of men (and they were almost entirely male) roved about the visitor centre, clutching T-shirts, caressing bottles, looking as if they would shortly wet themselves with excitement and joy. However, I could not fail to interpret something more in their fixed stares, proud gaits and faint smiles: spiritual gratification and beatification was burgeoning in their souls with every step and profound breath. Their visit had unshakeable, indeed consoling and elevating, overtones of the divine. Their pilgrimage was at an end; their faith had been rewarded. The atmopshere was one of incredible intensity – such are the emissions of reverence. Perhaps that explains my prevailing disappointment with the tour itself.

Only near-neighbour Laphroaig can administer the single malt sacrament akin to the Ardbeg dogma. In the visitor centre there, too, it was easy to pick out the disciples for whom this was no simple diversion but a sacred destination. I could isolate the contingent of hushed devotees at Macallan, Springbank, Bowmore and virtually every other distillery I toured, global icon or not.

The question is why? What compels someone to travel to the birthplace of their favourite malt? Why is it so crucial to hear the mill, smell the washbacks, feel the heat of the stills and see the middle cut gushing through the spirit safe? For many, such a journey is neither straightforward nor cheap yet whisky enthusiasts arrive in their thousands each year in order to learn how that bottle of Bruichladdich they bought in Osaka, Stockholm or Seattle came into being. I think it is a means to discover, to acquaint themselves with, a malt whisky’s complete personality; flavour being only one limited facet of it. Octomore, after all, will taste the same on Islay as it does in Idaho, but seeing for yourself where it is made, by whom and how, adds so much to the experience of pouring a dram once back home.

However, if your interest in malt whisky has been keen enough to lure you to the distillery’s front door, I must warn you that it is already too late to resist the exponential momentum to which your relationship with the spirit is now prey. It will carry you into obsession and alter entirely your perceptions of the industry. Suddenly, the drink will become subsidiary to the premises that craft it in the same way that music is subsidiary to the person who writes and performs it. Visiting a distillery is like seeing the band live; the songs are the same but they are enriched by the arousal of all the senses in response to the wholeness of the experience: the essential mechanics of the performance, the demeanour of the musicians, the intoxicating sensation of sharing space with many other like-minded people. A great concert can be further enhanced by occurrences and encounters only loosely connected to it before, during or after; close-to or far away. All provide texture, depth and context to the main event.

The same is true of distilleries. To travel to one is to immerse oneself in its locality, and in Scotland that is almost invariably beautiful and dramatic. No longer is your favourite dram made in the isolation of your imagination but amidst hills, lochs, forest and foaming waves. You associate it with so many things: your landlady of the previous night; the man in the pub; the guide and staff in the visitor centre. You are charmed by the architecture, absorb the history of the place radiated from every stone and dusty corner. A fascination with and love of Scotch malt is so readily translated into an equally potent desire for Scotland. A little more exploration reveals an indelible symbiotic tie between the most engaging, dynamic and endearing distilleries and the most authentic and personable faces of the country. These may occasionally be tragic and melancholy ones but this only strenghtens the preference of the enthusiast.

All of which leads me back to Ardbeg and its beautiful rennaissance. The underdog, not so very long ago broken and dishevelled, has come good. It is now a distillery of charisma, drama and energy, with these heady ingredients imbued - in the romantic eyes of the fans - into its expressions, and who among us wouldn’t wish for a similar apotheosis at times?

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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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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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Laphroaig

I know, I know; it is quite a cliched view of Laphroaig. But you can see why, can't you? I had to find the vantage point from which those photos were taken.

I know, I know; it is quite a cliched view of Laphroaig. But you can see why, can't you? I had to find the vantage point from which those photos were taken.

Port Ellen, Islay, Argyll, PA42 7DU, 01496 302418. Beam Global. www.laphroaig.com

APPEARANCE AND LOCATION:      *****      You would have to construct your case methodically and passionately for another distillery to replace this one as the most gorgeous in Scotland. That said, Lagavulin and Ardbeg do come close. Its siting on a spit of land into the Atlantic (you can see Northern Ireland on a clear day, which Friday 14th of May certainly became) with its little sandy beach in front of its own stridently-painted warehouse front is simply lovely. The south coast of Islay is a deeply dramatic place: sea and rock collide, often with shrapnel sprinkled in the shallows. Behind the distilleries are rising hills of more rock and short grass. The peat fields are further in-land.

TOURS PROVIDED:

‘Standard Tour’: £3. See ‘My Tour’ below.

‘Source, Peat, Malt Tour’: £20. This two hour tour is a must for those who want to see how the “most richly-flavoured” single malt combines land and water to produce the legendary dram. There is a hike to the Kilbride Dam, Laphroaig’s water source, where you are given a dram, I believe of the Quarter Cask. You are then driven to the distillery’s peat bogs near the airport, where you receive the 10YO Cask Strength, and then it is back to the distillery and the floor maltings where you are given a third expression of Laphroaig. Six persons max, for this tour and book in advance. Tuesday and Thursday at 9AM.

‘Tutored Tastings’: (Standard): £10. Four Laphroaigs: 10YO, 10YO Cask Strength, 18YO and the Quarter Cask. (Premium): £25. Three old and rare Laphroaigs in addition to the standard 10YO.

NB: You can become a Friend of Laphroaig, which involves your taking the flag of your nationality onto the field at the back of the distillery and plotting out your own square foot of Islay, which is now yours. Every time you return to the distillery you can “collect your rent” for that piece of land, as well as make use of the Friends of Laphroaig lounge. Special bottlings for the Friends also appear from time to time.

DISTILLERY-EXCLUSIVE BOTTLINGS:      N/A – you just have to be one of the lucky ones there for the festival.

My Tour – 14/05/2010

THE RUNNING COMMENTARY:      **

THE PROCESS AND EQUIPMENT:      **1/2

Notes:      My second day and my second malting floor. The ones at Laphroaig are very light and airy, and we had the opportunity to stand in one of the empty kilns. It is astonishing how soot-blackened all of the beams were, and how fine the metal mesh floor. The smell of cereals was just delicious, too. This was one of the most interactive tours of the whole trip, during which we (and there were many of us) were encouraged to stick our fingers in as many things as possible (in a whisky-making context, you understand). While we were in the maltings we were asked if anyone wanted to take home a bag of Laphroaig malted barley. Some people do. I would have done, but I didn’t want to arrive home with grain throughout my panniers. We enjoyed another taste of the wash: richer, fuller and fruitier than Caol Ila’s; we could dip a finger in to the stream of low wines tumbling through the spirit safe, and stick a digit into the bung hole of a newly-filled cask of Laphroaig spirit. This earns them an extra half a star. This last lucky dip was in the filling store, not the warehouse, sadly. That being said, the smell of fresh Bourbon wood was intoxicating. It was just as well there wasn’t a warehouse visit as part of the tour, because I might have had to miss it so late was I in getting to Lagavulin. Danielle was anxious that I should enjoy my dram of Quarter Cask so phoned them up on my behalf.Laphroaig Maltings

GENEROSITY:      * (1 dram)

VALUE FOR MONEY:      **

SCORE:      7.5/10 *s

COMMENT:      Now this is what I call a proper distillery tour, from a proper distillery. The site, as I have mentioned, is beautiful and the smells playing about the buildings are simply magical. The shop (and before too long there will be an exhibition space; building was going on while I was there) is housed in the lower level of the maltings, looking out onto Laphroaig bay. Never have I seen so many photographs taken of a wall: everyone was standing before the sea-facing warehouse, smiling for a camera.

The crucial, famous quarter casks. I can attest that they make quite a difference. The dram I had after the tour was quite astonishing.

The crucial, famous quarter casks. I can attest that they make quite a difference. The dram I had after the tour was quite astonishing.

The tour is highly involving and I could not fail to pick up on what makes Laphroaig what it is because Danielle could really project her voice. You could be standing by the working mill, deaf in one ear and still hear that they only use 1.5 tonnes of peat a week. It is obviously a finite resource and all distilleries that kiln their own malt do their best to use this natural product sparingly, without compromising on flavour. 99% of the casks used are ex-Maker’s Mark and are only used for one fill of Laphroaig. Outside in the yard we could see the peat shed, as well as used quarter casks. They are very dinky indeed, especially when seen beside the butts and puncheons.

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Fit For The Glens: 6 weeks to go…

Never before has the arrival of March made me quite so petrified. Not even in 2008 when I had my lion-taming exam on the 5th of the month. That didn’t actually happen but you get the idea. For after all, now this whisky escapade is “next month” whenever I discuss it; no longer just “in April”, which was a construction that consoled me into believing that it was metaphorically still around a corner several streets away.

I could have been a great deal more ashen of face and queasy of stomach had the weather not granted me a window of opportunity. Friday’s rain ceased at last, although the weekend had its own showers/raging torrents. Yesterday, though, dawned bright, clear and very cold. I bundled any doubts about it perhaps being too cold, bound and gagged, into the mental cupboard under the stairs. I couldn’t face another hour and a half on the turbo.

Not even the viciously steep hill outside the house could get me comfortably warm, however, although the one out of the next village handsomely succeeded in doing so. I was in the small chainring for the first time, grinding up the ramps at 9 mph. Whilst humiliating and exhausting, it reassured me that Mark at Breeze Bikes had done a great job of arranging my gears for I still had three in reserve. Even with panniers, the training I hope to pack into these last (whisper it) six weeks ought to permit me to conquer all but the most wilfully awful inclines in the saddle.

So, five miles in and I was already knackered. This merely made it more advantageous to go slower and practise flicking down the gears until I found a ratio I could maintain comfortably and effectively. I had acquired a good rhythm by the time I reached the next collection of houses and someone in a VW decided to overtake me on a blind bend. He/she escaped having their radiator stoved in by a matter of seconds.

I had already crossed a section of road which all of last week’s rain had transformed into a ford and I trickled over another one as my nemesis accelerated into the distance. I marvelled at how the opposite carriageway was bone dry.

A mile further on I encountered my first fellow cyclists, the more serious-looking of whom was hammering it in the other direction, the commuter mountain biker I breezed past. That was pretty much it for racing adversaries, although I did show a hedge-cutting tractor a good turn of speed.

Back out in parallel with the sea (and experiencing an inward swell as I likened the breakers to those of the North Atlantic on the south coast of Islay) I narrowly avoided injury slaloming between black-mawed potholes and noticed for the first time a whirring noise. Dismounting, I discovered that a plastic sticker designed to save the derailleur from getting scratched by the chainring had partially come adrift and was caressing the chain. It wouldn’t come away completely, though, so I just had to be driven slightly mad for the rest of the ride.

If the weather is like this I shall be very happy indeed.

If the weather is like this I shall be very happy indeed.

I completed my twenty-four mile circuit happy with my progress if very very tired. More so than my first outdoor ride, it suggested to me that this journey is something I’ll be able to physically manage; significant, really, for it is only next month before I shall glimpse this: the first view afforded by the Lothian countryside of Glenkinchie distillery.

I had a minor epiphany on the whisky-tasting side of things. A novice whisky-drinker friend of mine spent the night over here during the week and I was keen for his malt horizons to be broadened. He professed to having liked Laphroaig when he tasted it recently (a genuine surprise to me, whose inaugural encounter with the output of this Kildalton distillery nearly put him off Islays for life) so I extracted my Caol Ila Distiller’s Edition, Bowmore Legend and Ardbeg Uigeadail, my three Glencairn glasses and guided him through a tasting. It was only after I started nosing the drams myself that I realised how revelatory and valuable an exercise it is to sample malts side-by-side. The Bowmore became drier, more honeyed with a note of laminated coloured craft paper like I had in first school, and against the other two it wasn’t that smoky anymore. I gasped at the Ardbeg’s smoothness and soft dark fruit flavours. But my nose really had fun with the Caol Ila. When compared with its Islay stablemates, that which makes it Caol Ila leapt out. Suddenly I registered the same warm, squeaky and rounded fruit notes I had picked up from the 10-Year-Old Unpeated. The complexions of all three were almost unrecognisable from my memories of them when sampled in isolation. I shall have to repeat this method, definitely with the trio of Taliskers and the Glenmorangie multipack which I hope to purchase soon. Hopefully it shall be possible to distinguish a constant character, and I shall take this to be the hallmark and principal style of the distillery. I might even come to love The Original.

We then talked long into the night with a little help from The Macallan 18-Year-Old Fine Oak which he had brought with him, his father having won it in a raffle. I’d very much like to know which raffle and how often they sell tickets. Obviously I was not concentrating on tasting notes that night, just sharing a great malt with a great friend. He kindly consented to leave it in my care, however, until I had compiled notes for it. After all, I don’t know when I am next

Another magnificent example of how to finish a whisky properly. Stunning.

Another magnificent example of how to finish a whisky properly. Stunning.

 going to have the chance to sample the seminal expression from the definitive Speyside distillery!

Talisker Distiller’s Edition 1993 45.8% (See ‘Most Hotly-Awaited’)

Colour: Bold orange with tones of ruby and brass.

Nose: (FS) A soft, sly stalemate between gentle though rich and complex Sherry wood and smoke. Very dry and soft peatiness, partnered with a dark maritime character: sea fog and seaweed. Charred wood with marmalade spread over it. (WW) A more insistent, light and smooth, presence of fruit: orange and white plum. The smoke notes call to mind herbs thrown on the barbecue. Boiling blackcurrant jam.

Palate: Beautiful. Initially lots of burning wood and peat smoke, then caramelised, syrupy fruitiness bursts through. It tames, slightly, the peat clouds and lends superb contrast.

Finish: Unravels very slowly. Gentle seaweed and charring wood. Chewy fruit sweets and gums. Drying on grains and subtle fresh oak.

Edradour 10-year-old 40%

Colour: Earthy and full amber with gold highlights.

Nose: (FS) Peat smoke, initially, modified by very dry sprigs of heather. A malt profile that blends a freshness with a dark, chunky oatiness. Quite clean with a soft toffeed wood note like Scottish tablet. Smooth with a creamy mintiness and rubbery citrus. (WW) Sweeter with buckets of honey. Medium-dry with sweet, heathery peatiness. Firm and biscuity.

Palate: Dry, lightly-peated malt and sweet, firm wood.

Finish: A rich, substantial maltiness lingers. Honey, too. Crisp, fresh heather shoots. Rather long with a final wood note and echoes of the open mash tun. Satisfying.

This is justifiably one of the iconic malt whiskies and the Lord of Speyside.

This is justifiably one of the iconic malt whiskies and the Lord of Speyside.

The Macallan 18-year-old Fine Oak 43%

Colour: Glossy and smooth amber/gold with pinky coppery tones.

Nose: (FS) Very assertive and spicy straight off the bat with firm, dark woodiness and apples. Very toffeed with strong plumes of peat smoke. Some very deep, dark and moist Sherry wood emerges with nuts and tangy fruit: soft plum and zesty, oily orange. Dryness spreads and develops to a rich, aromatic earthiness. Complex doesn’t begin to cover it. (WW) Much more delicately floral and sweet. Very dark but creamy-smooth chocolate. A real freshness and zip to the oak. Eagerly builds on itself with time to breathe.

Palate: Here we find the solid muscularity and richness of its age with soft fruity Sherry to offset this. The Sherry quickly vanishes to be replaced by succulent, biscuity and buttery vanilla. Perfectly judged zesty oak. Rich peat gives the maltiness excellent depth and dryness. Outstanding.

Finish: A sense of heat and size: this is a big big malt. Drying wonderfully on “russety” wood and leaf notes. Velvety dark chocolate. Spectacularly long with very gentle, fragrant, sweet and smooth smoke playing throughout. A masterclass of Speyside flavours.

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Fit For The Glens: 8 weeks to go…

So it looks like I’m going, then. A month after I was first told by the man at the station that I was keen but too early to reserve tickets for the spring, I strode into the waiting room just after the peak commuter period and secured the keys

These shall get me and my noble steed deep into whisky country.

These shall get me and my noble steed deep into whisky country.

 to my whisky odyssey. However concrete a statement of intent I thought booking my accommodation to be, this is a step beyond that again. £22.50 gets me to Edinburgh and then on to Stirling. The man was kind enough to reserve a space for my machine, too, although if I miss my 16:33 train to Stirling I may be a wee bitty screwed in that regard.

Speaking of the machine, I made another unequivocal stride towards Scotland before lunch yesterday. I succeeded in swapping the clipless pedals from the road bike to the Giant (although only with the help of a neighbour’s spanner); adjusted the saddle height and handlebar set-up, and changed the saddle itself. Not only did I have my passport to the distilleries as a physical actuality in the shape of those train tickets, but my bike is now road-ready and will look little different when I pedal out of Waverley station. The effect this transformation has had on my psychology is monumental: replace the garage with the Cairngorms or Skye as a backdrop and this adventure has gained dizzyingly vivid dimensions. So much so, in fact, that numerous irrational fears frightened away sleep last night as the darkness offered a platform for concerns which, in the light of day, are simply questions of the unfamiliar. I have to do this tour, though, by way of exterminating them. 

As far as looking the part is concerned, my physique is at last resembling that of a Highland-conquering cyclist. Two

Me on the rack.

Me on the rack.

turbo trainer sessions last week, each of an hour’s duration, and more than 15 hours spent running around a restaurant have brought encouraging tone to those crucial quadriceps. Yesterday’s run (I would have ventured out on the bike but due to all my mechanic tasks time slipped away from me) was the longest of my training to date yet I returned feeling strong, having possessed sufficient reserves to muster up a credible kick in the last 150 metres. I hope to have seen the last of the turbo now. Focused exercise it may be, and with tangible results, but I find clipping my toenails more interesting. Wednesday should star my first outdoor ride, and I’m aiming for an 18 mile circuit following the endurance preparation in the garage and the cardiovascular work on the streets. I’ll let you know how that goes.

Getting the word out about my whisky journey has been more natural and instantaneous than I  initially realised. A few comments on my favourite blogs and Facebook saw a record spike of visitors on the Saturday. With Whisky Magazine editor Rob Allanson on board and full of praise for the undertaking, I may even see more sustained traffic in the near future. Hows about dropping a few comments, readers? The figures tell me you’re reading but are you enjoying?! Whilst I hadn’t intended it to be the blog’s sole function when I set it up, your support will be as key in the lead-up to my adventure as during. In addition, if you have any queries about any of the places or distilleries I’ll be touring, let me know and I’ll do my best to root out the desired information once I’m there and see that it is included in the relevant post.

And so to my tastings for this week. I would have included more – I had time for at least one extra tasting note – but the weekend deprived me of any opportunity (besides a Talisker Distiller’s Edition on the Sunday night for the sake of my nerves) and I couldn’t get my mind off the Tomatin. As you shall see in the notes, there were aspects which weren’t to my liking and you can infer this from the terminology and structure of my observations. However, they are the third attempt at evaluating this malt; the first giving me the impression of a good but largely unexciting dram and the second of a deeply horrid one. I felt it deserved another effort on my part to try and divine the middle ground. I feel I succeeded.

I also sampled, for the first time, the Bruichladdich 10-year-old and what an astoundingly fabulous malt it turned out to be. One of the best I’ve enjoyed for a while. Full notes should be available next week, unless the second tasting suspiciously underwhelms.

Another Islay begins my report, however: a Laphroaig I tasted first in November and  had then sat on my desk, dormant, since then.

Laphroaig 10-year-old Cask Strength 55.7% (See ‘Most Hotly-Awaited’)

Colour: Dark, full and glowing amber.

Nose: (FS) Very very dry and dustily oaty. The peat notes are heavily seaweed-accented and they derive a kind of rich sweetness from this. Slightly nutty. Thick rimes of salt lend intriguing texture. Creosote. (WW) A stupendously powerful peated malt profile. This contains a moist grainy sweetness which provides a delicious smoothness. Raw vanilla. Medicinal: antispetic bandages.

Palate: Bewildering feral heat and peat smoke dryness.

Finish: Peat smoke blown about the bay. Quite sweetly peaty. Very long with developing honey and berries.

Look elsewhere for fireworks, but a worthy everyday malt.

Look elsewhere for fireworks, but a worthy everyday malt.

Tomatin 12-year-old 40%

Colour: Clean, bright amber with sherbet lemon highlights.

Nose: (FS) Oak, principally, and a pear note drizzled with fudgy chocolate sauce. It is this that recycles back into the wood but the connection is a fairly prominent combination of cloying sweetness and sulphury, rotten-cask uneven dryness. This fades with airing to muted maltiness with good Highland freshness and light doses of heather and honey. (WW) Everything is a touch fuller and moister, but sadly that includes the suspect woodiness. Overall, however, a pleasant, firm Highland panorama with butter-rich shortbread.

Palate: Barley and gentle earthiness: almost a full tobacco note, in fact. Stewed fruits: peaches and plums.

Finish: Cerealy and malty. Clean with some runny honey and stewed fruit juices. Becomes oaky and quite dry.

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