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February 14, 2012

Highland Park at the Quaich Society

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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April 5, 2011

Highland Park 13yo (Master of Malt)

A single cask Highland Park from Master of Malt.

A single cask Highland Park from Master of Malt.

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

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

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

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

Colour – Clean intense gold.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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May 26, 2010

John o’Groats to Skye

John o’Groats to Kirkwall, 27 miles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

Kirwall to Wick, 39 miles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

Wick to Ard Dorch, 17 miles

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

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

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

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

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

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

How do you write a caption for that?!

How do you write a caption for that?!

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

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

On the way to Broadford.

On the way to Broadford.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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May 9, 2010

Highland Park

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

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

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

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

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

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

TOURS PROVIDED:

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

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

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

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

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

My Tour – 04/05/2010

THE RUNNING COMMENTARY:      ***

THE PROCESS AND EQUIPMENT:      ***

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

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

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

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

VALUE FOR MONEY:      **

SCORE:      9/10 *s

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

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

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

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May 4, 2010

My Half-Term Report (including the hiccoughs)

I am, surprise surprise, beyond halfway now. That juncture was passed on the Saturday night in Helmsdale.

From a fairly precarious outlook in Braemar a fortnight previously, I have entered and exited Speyside (notable highlights being Glenfiddich and Aberlour on the distillery side, Sandy and everyone at A Taste of Speyside in the way of general, unlikely angels), and journeyed up the north-east coast to Wick and beyond to John o’Groats where the concentration of cyclists increased dramatically with those starting or finishing their Lands End to John o’Groats attempts. I’m behind in relating all of these stages to you. Forgive me. For now, I am attempting to ease the backlog of distillery tours – there have been many, and I still need to bring you my views on 11 of them. Yikes!

I am in ‘Whisky Magazine’, after all. There isn’t a picture so I might not be able to use it as a passport for free entry to my following tours but it was a thrill. Unfortunately it reminded me that this blog is not quite the outfit I had hoped, and which one might expect to find mention of in a quality publication like ‘WM’. It also means that the amateurish nature of this site is most likely known to even more people – and perhaps the very whisky enthusiasts I had meant to contact in the first place. I’m sorry guys: no pictures yet and irregular updates. I haven’t my own computer with me so I am very much at the mercy of the IT facilities at my hostels. I shall be spending much time on it once I return home, however, which is two weeks on Saturday. Patience, please, because I’m having quite an adventure up here.

I feel it my duty to explain that between telling Mr Allanson (editor of ‘WM’) of my travels and details of said travels appearing in the magazine, I actually undertook those travels. Certain distilleries have had to be avoided or were closed to me, so that figure of 49 is no longer accurate. Here are the casualties and why:

Blair Athol – Unexpectedly closed, their silent season having been brought forward. There will be no tours of the distillery until July.

Dalwhinnie – I would have died trying to get there. The post dealing with my journey to Braemar will contextualise my exact condition at the time.

Tomatin – See above.

Glendronach – Following my 60-mile slog in the rain, my bike was in a pretty poor state. The cleaning of it and sourcing of oil (and general pulling of hair) left too little time to head out east for Forgue and still make it back for Strathisla.

The Balvenie – It seems I should have booked weeks in advance. I phoned on the Friday to book a tour on the Monday (the 23rd for the 25th) and discovered that they were fully booked until nearly a week into May. This was even before the festival. Be advised.

Dallas Dhu – I elected not to tour this distillery on the advice of the guide at Cragganmore. She said that its museum nature was a rather tragic contrast to the working distilleries and was unlikely to show me anything I had not already encountered.  Also, omitting it saved me time and money. If you are interested, though, it is a self-guided tour round the old production areas, then a video and a dram.

Clynelish – Having struggled along the A9 in the rain under the assumption that the distillery was open (all of my reading and research had said that they were open on Saturdays), I found it to be shut up entirely. This was annoying. It seems they are open on Saturdays… as of next month. No literature or website told me this. I should have phoned ahead, but as I said, I didn’t think there would be any problem.

So not a full tour in the slightest anymore. I am still covering the miles and getting a sense of the regions, however. As I have (quite happily) come to realise over the course of this tour, though: Scotland isn’t going anywhere. I can plan another tour which encompasses the missed distilleries from this loop, as well as returns to those which have made a real impression on me, which at present include Tullibardine, Royal Lochnagar, Aberlour, Glenfiddich, Glen Garioch, and Highland Park, which I toured today.

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