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D-Day: Drumochter and Dalwhinnie

It’s an especially chaotic but liberating feeling, waking up in a youth hostel knowing all that is required of you for the day is getting to your next bed. What happens in between is entirely your responsibility.

After map-buying, baguette-sourcing and much knee-stretching, I returned to Pitlochry’s high street and spun north. Butterflies had not yet checked out of my stomach for the route that lay ahead, what one Diageo brand ambassador described as Scotland’s answer to Mordor. When driving to Speyside for week holidays here and there, my family and I always follow the A9 north to Boat of Garten before swinging right onto the A95 past Grantown on Spey towards Aberlour. Sat in the back of the car, I have always been conscious of the scrappy bike track which runs alongside the motorway, clinging to it all the way to Inverness as the arterial route comes to terms with the wild barrenness of central Scotland.

Google Maps, my platform of choice for working out directions for the Scotch Odyssey, has come on a good deal since 2010. Consequently, I knew that the climb from Pitlochry to Dalwhinnie was nearly 1,200 feet. On exposed roads. With next to no pit-stop opportunities. The road was certainly stretching upwards as I made it to Blair Atholl but became gentler as I found myself on a well-surfaced, two-lane cycle path.

By this stage, about 14 miles in, the only cause for concern was the enormous black cloud above me, which every left turn convinced me was passing over and harmless, and every right turn had me contemplating the waterproof. It just hung there, all morning, without making its intentions clear.

Before very long at all, the single-file concrete and fine gravel cycle path arrived. What I couldn’t appreciate from the car was how it swooped down to the river bank and the railway line before lurching back up to the main road on an annoyingly regular basis. Plus, there were bridges to contend with, all sporting brutal potholes at either end as you left and rejoined the main path. Progress was less than continuous.

Mercifully the sun emerged alongside Loch Ericht but very soon my physical powers were put to the test by a vicious headwind. My mental toughness was also examined, since despite the wind the black clouds in the south seemed to be gaining on me. How was that possible? Soon it was the gates requiring opening and shutting that were enraging me: having to dismount and wrestle a lump of ironmongery in a gale while keeping a heavy bike upright is not much fun.

With the sky darkening, I spotted a sign to Dalwhinnie, the distillery visible from two miles out. Still, however, progress wasn’t straightforward as the wind strengthened and traffic increased. After not too much swearing, however, I arrived and could reflect on the wisdom of my decision four years ago in Braemar where I had chosen to skip Dalwhinnie and Tomatin. I simply couldn’t have managed it.I signed on for the next tour, deciding to capitalise on one of the additional ‘tastings’ offered – tasting ‘A’, which meant three Dalwhinnie’s paired with chocolate. Foolishly, I thought the price quoted was inclusive of the tour. It wasn’t, so my Dalwhinnie experience was going to cost me £16.99 (£8 for the tour, £8.99 for the tasting).

The tour itself showed improvements on the last time I was visiting a Diageo facility. As always, the tour guide is very friendly and informative although not all guests had their questions answered. The distillery itself is very pretty and exceedingly fragrant, the massive modern mash tun sat beneath one of the bronzed pagodas visible from the motorway and the wooden washbacks lending a heady, fruity aroma. The stills are large and working at full capacity. All Dalwhinnie produced goes to single malt and their now reasonably legendary 15yo.

In the warehouse, things became a little more hands-on. First of all, kudos for even letting us in there; secondly, hurray for a nose of the new make and a single cask sample. All good stuff. Next door there is a display of how colour accrues in different casks over time and here we received our 10ml of 15yo Dalwhinnie, together with a little fingernail-sized piece of chocolate truffle.

The 'Three Tastes' option at Dalwhinnie. I wouldn't recommend.

Forty minutes after leaving the visitor centre I was back again and this was where the problems started. I approached the ‘bar’ to offer my ‘three tastes’ ticket and receive said tastes. Being on a bike, I asked for a spittoon or similar so that I could remain on the right side of the law. ‘I’m sorry, we don’t have anything that can be used for that,’ said one member of staff. ’Whisky’s supposed to be drunk’, came the reply of another. ‘Have you a bottle you could use?’ said the first. I find this a) flabbergasting and b) irresponsible. How can you advertise a distillery tour and tastings to passing trade who are 99.9% using cars to get to you and not provide for spitting-out?

In the end, I did have an empty Volvic bottle and set to work. What did I find as part of my £8.99 tasting? Another 15yo! I was really irritated now. Why charge people for another dram of what they have just had? Surely it is in your interests to give them something else to try, which the customer may go on to buy as a result? Essentially, therefore, my £9 was for two ‘new’ whiskies and a repeat of what I had only nosed five minutes ago. Great stuff, guys. And again, abiding by the 10ml measures. Four Iain Burnett chocolates retail for about £7, but 30ml of whisky? I think Diageo are making a killing.

The other drams, then: the Distillers’ Edition 16yo, finished in Oloroso Sherry, and a single cask from 1997 – the same one that had been passed round to nose while in the warehouse. The Distillers’ Edition was very good, as it happens, and worked reasonably well with the chocolate. The single cask was a bit feisty and closed and tasted younger than the 15yo, the meatiness of the spirit - created in the worm tubs – not quite at its apotheosis.

I left Dalwhinnie seething gently, which was maybe why I couldn’t quite find the cycle route. I did manage another shot of what is a beautiful distillery before finally discerning the little blue sticker. The wind was a constant enemy for the final 11 miles into Newtonmore, and though only 43 miles were clocked for the whole day, it felt like a lot more.

Dinner was at The Letterbox restaurant on Newtonmore’s main street which I heartily recommend. Their two course offer was very compelling and the rest of the menu looked delicious. I wasn’t about to buy a third Dalwhinnie 15yo so stuck to Appletiser.

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Scotch Odyssey 2: Le Grand Depart

Scatter-brained, that’s what best characterises my preparations on the morning of June 3. I had a twinging knee which called for pain relieving gel and I knew I would have oily fingers requiring wet-wipe cleansing later on. To buy both I had to make two stop-offs at Boots. Then there was the pannier-packing. Could I fit in that bottle of Compass Box Great King Street Experimental Peat? I could not. This was a blow, if not to my touring weight then certainly to my après-cycling conviviality.

It was a smidgen after 9AM when I swung past the Cathedral and took the above photo. My departure from St Andrews was nigh: 70 miles lay ahead and the only person who could make them go away was me.

Almost immediately the touring cyclist paranoia kicked in: had I packed a spare set of bike lock keys? Had I packed the bike lock? Was that a piece of broken glass that may result in a puncture later on? How are my spokes doing? With such feverish mental activity it was a small wonder I had any energy to turn the pedals.

The bike felt pretty cumbersome for the first few miles, especially as I followed the blue cycle route signs through Guardbridge’s suburban back streets. I picked up pace through Leuchars and soon I was on unfamiliar roads to Tayport. Enormous sprinklers, the kind I’m used to seeing in southern France, blasted water over the cereal crops as I passed. Tayport itself was long, thin, with abundant obstacles for the wary cyclist: speed humps, roundabouts, tourists, potholes, they were all lurking to induce destruction.

Leaving the terraced houses behind, suddenly the Firth of Tay lay to my right and the sun was beginning to poke through with more conviction. A dedicated cycle path led me to a small service station-style building and car park where I refuelled with a banana and then sought out access to the Tay Bridge’s cycle and pedestrian central reservation. It was far easier than I’d thought; I re-emerged just above road level and immediately had to stop and take a photo. The view up the Tay floodplain is a favourite of mine from the bus but it is so much more enthralling when you are out in the elements within it.It took about five minutes to cycle to the other end where I very much enjoyed my first encounter with a cycle lift. This took me to ground level under the new roads which continually reform themselves on Dundee’s waterfront. I had no joined Route 77, the Salmon Run. I just had to follow the little blue signs and I would arrive in Pitlochry.

Exiting Dundee was a fairly swift exercise with wide, well-surfaced bike paths hugging the river bank. At Invergowrie, however, those signs vanished. What I ought to have performed was a counter-intuitive hairpin turn but instead I followed the top road which brought me out alongside a petrol station and a very suspicious dog. My route to Longforgan was doubtless not quite as scenic as the official path, but with the aid of a map I could reconnect with the cycle network without much hassle.

The remainder of the journey to Perth was warm, flat and biddable. However, after reconvening with the main road traffic, the 77 chose to leap straight up hill. Near Kinfauns you pass into fields and woods before darkness descends and the only glow comes from a triangular warning sign advising that there is a 20% gradient ahead. Down to bottom gear I went and ground out painful, rasping progress. Fortunately I was quick enough to avoid a Highland Fuels tanker on the ascent, as having that monster labour along behind me would have been immensely off-putting.

Further ahead the view opened out to reveal Perth, cowering beneath a huge – and rapidly advancing – black cloud. I couldn’t be certain of making it to the city for lunch after all. I continued for another mile or so before spotting a woodland walk parking area. I decided to eat sandwiches beneath a big beech tree which, when the rain cascaded down about 15 minutes later, was a good decision. However, it seems trees have their own guttering systems and soon ropes of water (the French have an idiom for heavy rain which is il tombe des cordes - very apt in these circumstances) were drubbing me and the bike. Were my panniers waterproof? I’d soon know definitively.

The monsoon became still more ferocious, people emerged sprinting from the wood, shrieking, to find the shelter of their cars. Meanwhile all I could do was wait. Eventually, the rain did stop, although the downpour under the trees remained considerable. I skidded back onto tarmac, saddled up, and descended with the muddy run-off from the storm to Perth.The 77 became a trail through a park and then a golf course, before tarmac surrendered to mud and gravel. The Tay oozed with a glossy black sheen beside me. Soon I could remove wet-weather gear and began to enjoy myself although the uneven surface was a concern for the sanctity of my bike.

A steep climb and descent out of Perth brought me to the picturesque Pitcairngreen Inn where I stopped for a Coke and some correspondence (Tweeting was becoming more difficult as signal deteriorated). The next major settlement was Dunkeld.

The sun was fully out as I tackled the undulations of Perthshire, a beautiful county but you pay for the landscape when riding. Bankfoot came and went, then a little hamlet called Waterloo. By now I was climbing quite steadily and the sun was relentless. Over my left shoulder, though, I could not fail to note another phalanx of storm clouds. I continued, detecting more traffic noise which confirmed I was near the A9, hence Dunkeld. The sun blazed, the wind picked up and I knew another downpour was imminent. A handy railway bridge sheltered me for half an hour, and for most of that time the sun persisted. However, my instincts were right and the rain did arrived – not nearly so heavy as above Perth but I was better off out of it. Plus, after 55 miles, I deserved a breather.

Passing through a soggy Dunkeld I felt dead in the legs and it wasn’t until gradual ascents gave way to leisurely descents that I found a second (or should that be fourth?) wind. Soon I was back at A9 level on a tarmac path running north. The only hazards here were low-hanging branches which demanded sometimes acrobatic evasive action.

A little blue sign then pointed me up an embankment to a road junction beside Ballinluig and I knew I was close. The odometer read 64 miles: I was going to do it. Rain threatened again so I donned the hi-vis rain jacket and made progress. I couldn’t figure where the black chevron on the map featured in relation to Logierait, a village I’ve passed through a number of times in the past. This repressed memory soon resurfaced, however, but the strange thing about getting into reasonable shape is that, despite a long day in the saddle and a fair weight over the back wheel, standing on the pedals up a steep rise can still be sustained for a long enough burst.

The 77 was now exceedingly quiet and very panoramic. The hills ahead of me were enlarging but I put that down to my glucose-starved brain. Nevertheless, the map promised one final chevron and it delivered all the jelly-legged, lung-bursting agony you could wish for. The view from the top was worthy of a stop in its own right, but mine was enforced. From here, I could more or less trundle into Pitlochry.Following a final ramp up to the hostel I could enjoy the balmy sunshine as I tended to the caked bike chain. I had cycled from the home of golf to the Highland resort of Pitlochry, 72 miles at an average speed of very nearly 14mph. I felt Odyssey-ready.

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Blair Athol

When I was not setting, turning, spinning and polka-ing during the Celtic Society’s jaunt to Pitlochry, we had just enough time to visit a distillery. We – or at least I – would have contrived some way of fitting Blair Athol in irrespectively.

My previous visit to the home of Bell’s blended whisky was irritating in the extreme. I had discovered that morning that I could expect little more than a video and a dram at the distillery due to maintenance. I rocked up at the reception and exhibition area, got bored, and decided I had better set off for Edradour if I wanted to make it to Brechin before nightfall. I remember it as a smart plant, with an eager burn washing between the buildings.

Blair Athol Distillery, the home of Bell's.

Perth Road, Pitlochry, PH16 5LY, 01796 482003. Diageo. http://www.discovering-distilleries.com/blairathol/

APPEARANCE AND LOCATION:      ****      The distillery sits beneath the railway line, halfway up the braes that lead in to Pitlochry with the River Tummel at its foot. Beautiful stone buildings house the distillery, which sits within a courtyard. The burn which flows through it provides an extra scenic dimension.

TOURS PROVIDED:

‘Blair Athol Tour’: £6. See ‘My Tour’ below.

‘Flora and Fauna Tour’: £12.50. A  tour of the distillery with a chance to taste the Blair Athol 12yo and two other expressions from the Flora and Fauna range. Mortlach 16yo and Linkwood 12yo are my recommendations.

‘Allt Dour Deluxe Tour’: £25. The distillery tour plus Blair Athol 12yo, Cask Strength distillery-exclusive and four other malts.

DISTILLERY-EXCLUSIVE BOTTLINGS:      A cask-strength, Sherry-matured Blair Athol. 55.8% vol. and £55. I managed to wangle myself a dram of this and found it much lighter than the standard 12yo with more of an insistent creaminess and first. Delicate floral notes could be detected before planed oak took over. The palate was prickly and nutty with a good dose of vanilla but water didn’t help at all. A strange dram, and I would personally go for the standard bottling.

My Tour – 23/01/2012

The Blair Athol reception and exhibition area.

THE RUNNING COMMENTARY:      **

THE PROCESS AND EQUIPMENT:      **

Notes:      The tour commences from the courtyard, climbing up a series of steps into the old floor maltings, which now house the mashtun. Two waters only are required to extract the sugars from the grist, which are drained efficiently back down the hill to the four stainless steel washbacks. A short ferment (50 hours) produces the nutty characteristics required, and from there it is on to the stillhouse. Four tall and proud stills sit in the corners of the room, belching heat and a heavy, intriguing spirit. Standing by the ISRs, I could detect old gym crash mats and biscuit. From there it is across the bridge into the filling store for a cooper recruitment drive (there aren’t enough of them, apparently) and into the warehouse. The tour concludes on the balcony of the shop, with a dram.

GENEROSITY:       (Only the one dram is available as part of the standard tour. Asking nicely is the way to do it.)

VALUE FOR MONEY:        *

SCORE:     5/10*s

The shop.

COMMENT:      What hasn’t already been said about a Diageo distillery tour? I was part of a larger group – many first-time whisky drinkers – who said to me later that the ‘patter’ came across as somewhat formulaic and that they didn’t entirely trust some of the claims made. Having done more than 50 distillery tours, I suppose I have become inured to the ‘patter’ but I found our guide to be clear, informative and friendly. To address those odd ‘claims’, though. I only raised an eyebrow when discussions about blending began in the warehouse, the suggestion was that the blender fiddles around with ex-Bourbon casks because colour is more easily managed. There was some discussion of the vanilla elements ex-Bourbon casks lend to a spirit but the focus returned to colour as a reason for master blenders maturing their whisky in these casks. The warehouse itself was something of a disappointment, separated as we were from the sleeping casks in a sealed viewing chamber. No aroma could penetrate, and I feel many missed out on the mystery and magic of those oak-spirit scents, allowing them to guess at the gentle dynamism at work in a dunnage warehouse. The entire distillery, it must be said, was a little denuded of smell. The washbacks were ventilated, the mashtun airlocked, too. For the home of a major blended brand like Bell’s, I found the decor to be a little mundane and thin. It certainly could not hold a torch to the Famous Grouse Experience or Dewar’s World of Whisky. The blend-single malt focus was appropriate, however, and it was made very clear at the beginning that Blair Athol was an element of Bell’s, and was not the producer of it. We are living in different economic times to when I undertook my Odyssey, and I suppose that £6 is what one must now expect to pay for a distillery tour. As such I feel the expense is justified because Blair Athol and its product are undeniably charming. But if you have the means of getting to Edradour above Pitlochry, I would say that was a better bet.

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Wordsmiths and Drinkmongers

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

A stirring Highland-scape.

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

Drinkmonger's inviting exterior.

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

The spirits shelves at Drinkmonger.

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

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

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

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Itchy Legs – One Year on from the Odyssey

A moment I will never forget - obliviousness as to the future makes a certain imprint on the mind.

A moment I will never forget - obliviousness as to the future makes a certain imprint on the mind.

If only my mind weren’t obliged to sacrifice quite so much attention to mastering my academic commitments, you would find me sprawled amongst the daffodils, incapacitated by reminiscence.

This Tuesday past marked the one year anniversary of my unpredictable, challenging and spectacular cross-breeding of single malt and a bicycle. I had not appreciated the power with which the rapid turning of the year would recall my preparations for my Odyssey although fortunately cherry blossom, blue skies and what feels as if it were laundered air have evoked less of the jittery insanity and helplessness and all of the excitement and wonder I don’t quite remember the prospect of six weeks of cycling in aid of the finest Scotch whisky entirely induced within me the first time round, the closer it came to departure. That I should be in Scotland renders the comparison still more arresting.

Of course, of greater import than a wish to go back in time, cock a leg over that silver cross bar and pedal away into the Trossachs again is the contrast of perspective the intervening twelve months supply: a year ago I would be snuggled into the bottom bunk in a dormitory of the Pitlochry Youth Hostel. Now, I am desperate to get into a different bed – one in my student accommodation. (Not until you’ve done more work.) I may yearn for the extraordinary surroundings of that first 60 mile plus ride from Pitlochry to Brechin, through Kirkmichael and Kirriemuir, but I have also encountered the sublime in my literary studies. The Odyssey introduced me to magnificent, singular people; here in St Andrews I have made further wonderful acquaintances.

Though I haven’t cycled between its production facilities for a while, whisky itself has at least abided with me. As I sipped a Glen Garioch Founder’s Reserve – a toast to the occasion – I could be profoundly grateful that my memories, connections and all that I learnt and experienced on the Odyssey inform each dram I pour for myself. While I won’t have the opportunity to get on the bike and spin to a distillery during the next six weeks, I intend to enjoy many whiskies in diverse circumstances and – as Keith and I discussed last month - chances are pleasingly high that a malt in my hand will communicate with one from the past.

As I complete my term’s work, my mind at every opportunity free-wheeling down a myriad single track roads or wandering between washbacks, I hope some of you will take advantage of the much improved weather to get out and explore some of Scotland’s unique landscapes, and singular single malts by whichever method of transport pleases you. These itchy legs of mine won’t let me forget the precious joy of two-wheeled adventure.

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Pitlochry to Braemar

Pitlochry to Kinnaird Castle, 61 miles

As I mentioned in the previous post, my attempts to tour Blair Athol were thwarted. The first I heard about it was when I was shopping for supplies in Robertsons (my kind of grocer: half of shop for fine whisky, the rest for everything else you might need to live on.) It seems their silent season had been brought forward and I’m afraid you won’t be able to tour the distillery until July. The man recommended I head along anyway, because they werew still offering an explanation of the process and a free dram.

I got there but everything was largely shut up. The man in the office said he could call the guides but I didn’t think it was really worth my while to be told about a distillery I was in. I’m all about the showing! The basics are £5 entry, with an exhibition for Bell’s whisky and a dram of the 12YO at the end. 

I headed for Edradour, then, and it is such a beautiful distillery (see tour review below). The sun was out, a fresh breeze was blowing and you feel totally removed from everything. It is your quintessential farm distillery with oodles of character.

That done all I had to do was cover the, as I thought it, 50 miles to Kinnaird Castle outside Brechin, where my aunt is a tenant and had succeeded in securing a room for me in the castle itself which are normally rented out by holiday-makers. So what better motivator was there than great food, my own room and bed, and above all someone familiar?

The route was an exceptionally picturesque one, heading north out of Pitlochry onto seemingly the roof of Perthshire with suitably strained breathing. The sun was strong and ever-present again. I passed many little communities, encountering very few cars. It wasn’t until I joined the road to Blairgowrie that the road deteriorated and the traffic worsened.

My Mum, always with half a mind on my stomach, had found a nice stop on my sparsely-populated course. I pulled up at the Old Cross Inn just within Blairgowrie and as I was getting myself sorted out a man appeared. He asked if he could help and I said I was after a drink and some food. He said that unfortunately the chef was away and the kitchen was closed. Obviously he took pity on my sighs of dismay and generally ragged appearance. “I can put the fryer on and do you a bowl of chips.” It ended up a bowl of chips, a pint of Coke and a cheese and ham toastie. I enjoyed my chat with Liam, for that is his name, just as much. Your hospitality will not be soon forgotten.

So taken was I with the charm of such encounters that upon leaving I neglected to secure my backpack to the rack. A massive honk from a truck behind me told me as much. It was in the middle of the road. Lesson learned, and reflecting on how life is instances of good and bad luck, I carried on to Brechin.

I’d said in my phone call to my aunt that I’d arrive by 5PM. Kirriemuir only just went by at 4.45PM. The road out of Forfar, connecting with the one to Montrose and Brechin, seemed to go on forever. 55 miles came and went on my odometer. I began to notice familiar views, however, and I took the turn off to Farnell knowing I was home.

The food was extraordinary, the room palatial and the bath lovely and hot. The company, though, was what I began pining for even before I left the next morning.

***

Kinnaird Castle to Fettercairn, 15 miles

A very necessary shorter day, this one. Had the itinerary been any more severe, I might not have left at all. Why leave such comfort for more stress, exhaustion and strangeness? I didn’t answer this inward enquiry, just saddled up and left.

Before Glencadam which my aunt had arranged for me, I wanted to check my brakes. The descent into Pitlochry the day before had reminded me that brakes wear out, and having that happen coming down a Cairngorm would not be advantageous. The man in Tayside Cycles reassured me that they had bags of life left.

After my Glencadam tour (see below) it was a very short – and pleasant – ride to Fettercairn. I had been promised by my Dad, who works in Aberdeen and stays in Fettercairn when he does so, that the treatment to be had with Mike and Denise at Kishmul, my B&B for the night, was second to none. The road on which it sits was divine, and the atmosphere of the place so very tranquil. I’d already got some excellent photos of the distillery against the mountains and the daffodil crops but went for a walk to get a closer look.

I had my lunch beneath a majestic monkey puzzle tree, watching the light breeze tickle the early cherry blossom on the tree just in the distillery yard. After a cup of tea and some carrot cake at ‘the arch’ (no capital letter), and asking at the Ramsey Arms for public computer access (no chance) I returned to the distillery for my tour. For the second time that day I was accompanied solely by the guide and what a nice tour it was. Being part of the same group as the wonderful Dalmore made the trip to the shop especially interesting. I shall post up my review of the tour later.

After dinner at the Ramsey Arms (super scrummy) I retired for the night, but not before checking out my route to Aviemore on my maps. I knew that the following three days would be tough, and that if I survived them then my continuation of the tour would be with some momentum, the worst being, for now, over. Obviously those three days which had troubled me so greatly in mental preparation will now look very different. The first of them, however, went ahead (almost) as planned.

***

Fettercairn to Braemar, 54 miles

Denise, as promised, set me up as best she could with a stonkingly excellent breakfast. I’m not sure that’s an official adverb but it ought to be when associated with that kind of food. She had also taken my request for a packed lunch (just a couple of sandwiches) and gone to whole new levels of accommodation. There were three sandwiches, a banana, apple and two chocolate bars. Without such a sack of vittels, I don’t think I would have made it.

Cairn o’ Mount is a famous hill in the area, often closed in winter. I wish it had been closed on Friday. Long, and unreasonably steep in parts. I’d like to brag and say I didn’t get off and push. That’s true, but only because to have done so would have been far more dangerous than simply carrying on. The gradient was so severe and the camber of the road in the final bend before the merciful parking area so inhospitable, I had to ignore my screaming legs bursting lungs and incoherent thoughts and just push on. I rolled into the car park and let the wall at its perimeter stop me. I have never been quite that destroyed.

The view south and east from the parking area on Cairn o' Mount.

The view south and east from the parking area on Cairn o' Mount.

I carried on after a few minutes, the view from the top sea and farmland on one side, the snow-capped Cairngorms on the other.

Royal Deeside: simply spectacular. Murderous to cycle through, however.

Royal Deeside: simply spectacular. Murderous to cycle through, however.

Until Aboyne the road did nothing but writhe up and down. There were many hobby cyclists out for a spin, and from either direction they all looked as if they would rather be mowing the lawn. The wind was what did for me. As I continued to head west, so it continued to gust at me. This only became a physical problem after I finally made it to Royal Lochnagar. Despite the sandwiches and banana I had finished with the distillery cat before the exemplary tour (more details later), I came out deeply tired. The nine miles to Braemar were some of the longest I had ever attempted. The road followed the banks of the Dee, so was fortunately flat, but was essentially long straight sections, with a cheeky bend at the end which I prayed would reveal the town, but instead promised more trees.

My knees had been registering some complaints intermittently all day, and now it was the re turn of my face. My lips felt rather raw, so I stopped to apply some well-known petroleum jelly. My fingers came away covered in blood. I was bleeding, and a lot. Mercifully, finally, I wobbled into Braemar. The hostel was at the other end of the town, of course, and I rasped up the steep drive to the front door. Abandoning the bike, I went to find the reception. It was busy, so I checked my appearance in a car window. I looked like I’d been in a fight. Congealed blood came from my nose, my face was ashen white and unsightly build ups of goodness-only-knows were at the corners of my mouth. Had I been in a fight? I felt like I had, only I was mssing the adrenaline. As I said to my parents, surprisingly matter-of-factly, when they phoned, I was at zero. Languishing at the bottom of the barrel, utterly spent, is not as unpleasant as many people make out. My exhaustion shielded me from many haunting realisations. I had a shower, then an enormous pizza from the Hungry Highlander and was in terrific spirits. I’d encountered my first real set-back. This tour felt like it was my own at last, after I had no option but to make the pragmatic decision to change the route. It was almost a relief to be so run-down, liberating that it truly was my decision to sacrifice my grand plans for the sake of the whole experience I can still have. Yes, I wanted to do a full tour. But these things happen when one is on the road.

Unfortunately, I could not maintain such equanimity into this morning. It dawned grey, cold and snowing so had yesterday been a normal day, I probably would still have had to call off my trip to Aviemore. Coming to terms with my fatigue and the imperfect nature of my journey, however, I couldn’t see any of the pluses anymore, hence the post of earlier today. My aim is to get to next Sunday (for my Speyside distances are largely quite modest) and then see how I am. I’m keen to be moving again, and Diane at Tomintoul sounds like she can sort me out.

***

As for the photos, dear readers, I have done what I can. An hour (£3) of uploading and only the picture of Glenkinchie would load onto my photostream – check it out, it’s beautiful. I have deleted four fifths of the pictures on my camera so that I had less to upload, but still, the other nine images I wanted to show you wouldn’t transfer. I tried again and zilch. I have done my best folks. Technology is just not on my side.

Apologies also for ay typos or tautology. I’m writing these posts straight onto the computer – no drafting – and haven’t time to read back through. With less than two minutes of credit left, I shall see you all when I see you.

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Edradour

It would be a joy to simply stand at the whitewashed wooden fence and merely observe the changes of season and weather in this tiny glen with the distillery quietly working away in its midst.

It would be a joy to simply stand at the whitewashed wooden fence and merely observe the changes of season and weather in this tiny glen with the distillery quietly working away in its midst.

Pitlochry, Perthshire, PH16 5JP, 01796 472095. www.edradour.com

APPEARANCE AND LOCATION:      *****      This is such an achingly pretty distillery. If you want small and traditional, you are hard-pressed to find better in Scotland. However, this is also, paradoxically, one of the busiest sites on the central Highland tourist trail. Annually, they receive nearly 100,000 visitors. 19 other people joined me on my tour.

TOURS PROVIDED:

‘Standard Tour’: £7.50. See ‘My Tour’ below.

DISTILLERY-EXCLUSIVE BOTTLINGS:      The distillery being owned by Signatory means that if you don’t like the standard 10YO or the cream liqueur they offer you at the beginning of the tour, there is almost certainly something tasty to be picked up from the almost exhaustive range of single cask, cask strength, non-chillfiltered or more standard bottlings Signatory offers from other distilleries. The range of Ballechin whiskies (the peated Edradour spirit, and finished in a variety of woods) is comprehensive, as is the collection of Straight-From-The-Cask malts which are very distinctive indeed, and available to sample in the bar further down the hill from the shop where the tour commences. Current as of 21/01/2011 there are two distillery-exclusives and one otherwise restricted to the Spanish market but available at the distillery, too: 14YO Barolo finish (50cl bottle), £50; 26YO Port finish, £149, and a Spanish red wine finish, £45.

My Tour – 15/04/2010

THE RUNNING COMMENTARY:      ***

THE PROCESS AND EQUIPMENT:      *

Notes: A Morton’s Refrigerator is used to cool the wort from the mash tun. A very old piece of equipment most commonly seen in dairies. They are building a warehouse at present.

These are the smallesy stills in Scotland and a charming presence.

These are the smallesy stills in Scotland and a charming presence.

GENEROSITY:      (One dram, the 10YO.)

VALUE FOR MONEY:      *

SCORE:      5/10 *s

OTHER TOURS: N/A

COMMENT:       Again, it was the good-humour and character of the guide which made for an extra special experience. Jim was a great host, whose impression of a Highland cow fed on the draff and pot ale will live long in the memory. I think there were far too many English folk on his tour for his liking, and he made gentle jibes at the contingent from south of the border. No racism, just good fun. He explained that distilleries shouldn’t allow visitors into the duty free warehouses unless there was a sealed area. It’s harsh to penalise Edradour for not making the attempt because they are still building their warehouse! A truly gorgeous distillery which is, as the video said, little changed since its inception. Unfortunately they have introduced a £5 fee since I visited in October. A good economic decision for just on our tour there were 18 people but charging that much to see it when its only real claim to fame is as the smallest distillery in Scotland? I’m probably just OK with that because it is quite a contrast from many encounters with the industry. There is a tasting bar where you can sample the many different boutique expressions from this distillery. I wanted to try some of the single cask wine finishes but time was pressing.

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