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Day 4: Tomatin

Before getting into the meat of my recount (or should that be drizzle?), I’d like to alert the prospective traveller to a phenomenon which I call Landlady’s Revenge.

I don’t know quite when the bond between eating in a public space and music became indissoluble, but I first noticed its incursion into Scottish bed and breakfasts during the previous Odyssey. Then, at my third breakfast in Braehead Villa, I had to ask that the accordion-heavy drivel be turned off as I could not bear it any more. Landlady’s Revenge, therefore, is where your host welcomes you into their home, provides you with a comfy bed for the night, clean towels and a binder of things you might like to do in the local area before exacting neat and artful retribution by forcing you to pick at your muesli to the strains of some flutey-voiced, warbly, traditional Scottish musical kitsch. My four fellow guests, Swedes long past retirement age, commented on the aural awfulness, too.

After an especially painful but energetic run-through of ‘Flower of Scotland’ I ran upstairs and packed as quickly as possible. Deciding quite what to wear for the day was a problem, however, for although low cloud abounded above Newtonmore, it wasn’t exactly cold and it wasn’t raining.

Three miles in and just beyond Kingussie, I had to remove the over-trousers. The road was angling upwards and I was set to sweat big time otherwise. This was a good move and the ramps didn’t prove too onerous. However, soon it was time to head downhill and the low cloud was especially thick by this point. On went the over-trousers again and before long the over-shoes had been donned, too.

I’m still unsure whether dampness is worse than a headwind and searing heat combined. Unless it is mid-winter, the constraining clothing means that you perspire aggressively so you are wet inside and outside. The only benefit is that you are wet and warm, which is to be preferred to wet and cold. However, I was trying to make it to Tomatin for 11.45, I was in time-trial mode and the wetness was worsening.

Descending through forest, meeting the odd tour bus coming the other way, life was bearable. By Coylumbridge, however, we had reached saturation point and that very special breed of fine Highland rain that seeps in everywhere. On went the hood and the winter gloves, up went the perspiration levels.

I’m sure the landscape round about me was striking, and looking at the map now I see that I was on the banks of the Spey for much of the way, but I could hardly see. Vile is the word, but you have to keep going. By Boat of Garten, however, I was concerned. Water was low (the irony) and I had to stop for food. It was now that I could appreciate how inadequate my rain jacket had become, with no base layer protecting my chest from the cooling water.

Anyway, it wasn’t until some way after Carrbridge, when the rain became mist again, that I knew I had to make a clothing switch and fortunately I had packed a second hi-vis waterproof. With a rugby jersey on beneath it, I began to warm up and make better progress although I accepted that my 11.45 Taste of Tomatin Tour was long gone.

I rasped my way up to the Slochd Summit, 1315 ft above sea level apparently, which is quite high for a Scottish road, and finally there was another cyclist! I didn’t catch his name but the tanned giant in the saddle was a surgeon from York cycling from Glasgow to Inverness. We chatted about the weather, midges, and Roald Dahl by which point Tomatin had appeared on my left.

Inside, Hannah and Scott did a marvellous job of pointing me towards radiators (my shoes and gloves made it into the still house) while I refuelled and reflected on the horrors of the forty miles thus far. It turned out I was on time for the 1pm Taste of Tomatin Tour, so I paid my £10 and set off with about seven others.

Drizzle, drizzle everywhere...

If Dalwhinnie had been an over-priced geek-free zone, Tomatin spoilt me rotten. Scott, the tour guide, gave us all an immensely thorough run-through of Tomatin’s fascinating history (it was at one point the largest malt whisky distillery in the world, but look up my ‘Tomatin at the Quaich Society’ post for more detail) before sticking his hand into a bag of Maori yeast in the washback room, talking us through distillation with the aid of a real decommissioned shell-and-tube condenser and leading us into the cooperage.

Where there were once 23 stills, now there are 12. Condenser at bottom right.

Unlike other commercial cooperages, where employees are on piece-work contracts, Tomatin’s two full-time coopers are salaried like everybody else which makes for a more relaxed working environment. I loved this section, like a maze of wood, starting with first-fill Sherry butts exhaling generously, to a quadrant of virgin oak casks (used for Legacy and Cu Bocan), a phalanx of Port pipes and a legion of ex-Bourbon barrels, mostly from Makers Mark.

From left to right: virgin oak, Port pipes, a Sherry butt.

Finally it was into a cool, clammy dunnage warehouse where a few more cask types were on display, before back inside the still house to an adjoining room for the tasting. The previous day, £17 had bought me three whiskies (two lots of 15yo, a Sherry finish and a single cask); today, £10 bought me one new make sample, three core range whiskies and two single casks. Tomatin pummels Dalwhinnie in terms of bang-for-buck, intrigue, information and charm. In fact, if you are on the A9 don’t bother with Dalwhinnie at all.

The new make nosed like soft, creamy pear with a skeleton of firm caramel. Water revealed fresh barley, apple jelly and a touch of flowers. Legacy, as it had been in St Andrews in the autumn, was a delight and for under £30 I struggle to think of a single malt I’d rather drink. The 12yo was more appetizing than usual although I do find the Sherry finishing too sweet and grapey for the spirit; drier Sherry inflections would work far better.

The fourth dram was the visitor centre bottle-your-own Bourbon cask which I was very anxious to try. Exuberantly sweet on the nose with caramelised barley, delicate oak, peach and honey. It did become a touch ‘nippy’, however, which is perhaps not surprising for an 11yo spirit out of first-fill barrels. The taste was creamy, light and sparkly and overall very attractive. It’s neighbour was the VC’s Sherry cask which showcased exactly why I don’t like the Sherry influence on Tomatins: all fat sultana, fruit and nut chocolate and creaminess. I wanted depth, but the spicy, Dorrito-esque palate didn’t deliver. Cu Bocan was much as Cu Bocan had been previously: sweet, lightly smoky and well-structured.

As I saddled up, following a wee taste of the 1988 (medium-bodied, bursting with yellow and tropical fruits) and the 14yo Port finish (by far my favourite of the whole lot on the day, the Port adding the dry richness that those Sherry casks seem incapable of doing), the sun appeared. I was buoyed only momentarily, however, as a mammoth storm cloud sat on the mountain top above the distillery.

It took a while to leave Tomatin village, as I hid beneath a farmer’s barn for the clouds to pass. By and large, however, I escaped the worst of it as I retraced my steps back to Boat of Garten and swung east towards Nethy Bridge. I didn’t remain entirely dry, but I could get away without the over-trousers which made a significant difference.

In Nethy Bridge, 58 miles after setting off from Newtonmore, I needed a whisky comfort blanket. The Nethy Bridge Hotel duly obliged with Isle of Skye 8yo on the optic. ‘You want that Glenfiddich’, said the local expert. ‘It’s the same price and you’re getting a single malt’. I replied that I felt like a blend at that precise moment, which baffled him entirely. Sipping my double over the next 40 minutes, I didn’t regret my decision.

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The Balvenie at the Quaich Society

The deliciously diverse Balvenie range.

I have wanted to bring The Balvenie to St Andrews for a tasting for a very long time. Since UK brand ambassador Dr Andrew Forrester’s star turn for the Quaich Society last month, I have wanted to tell you about it for what feels like nearly as long. Deferred gratitification seem to be the watchwords for this family-owned Speyside favourite, and indeed in the shape of Malt Master David Stewart who recently celebrated 50 years with William Grant and Sons, the distillery understands better than most the virtues of patience and timing.

Andrew’s youthful energy complemented the mature selection of whiskies he had brought along. We opened with the 12yo Signature, a malt I had not come across before but whose sharp pear and clean oak aromas pleased me. The citrus and vanilla notes on the palate were also appreciated. It enabled Andrew to discuss the highly-specialised know-how which offsets the traditional ethos of The Balvenie: multiple cask maturation. The Signature is a vatting of first- and second-fill Bourbon and Sherry which makes for a ‘quaffing whisky’ if ever there was one.

Next on the palate was the paragon of Bourbon maturation, the 15yo Single Barrel. I love this whisky, and could appreciate the effects of gentle refill American oak on the Balvenie spirit. Sweet and floral with gummy fruits on the nose, pear was still very much in evidence with vanilla and light muscovado sugar. The palate was clean, lemony and delicate with some late dryish cereals and charcoal.

Andrew Forrester's Balvenie paraphernalia, with those copper 'dogs' behind the cask samples.

Reconnecting with the example set by the Signature, Andrew directed us towards the third glass filled with deep amber liquid. The Double Wood was described as an exemplary introduction to the wonderful world of whisky, and represents Stewart’s pioneering experiments in wood finishing. Each ‘batch’ of Double Wood hails from maybe 100 casks, with the Bourbon-matured 12-year-old spirit placed in first-fill Oloroso Sherry casks for 4-5 months. ‘Gentle and easy-going’ summed up the resulting whisky perfectly.

Andrew’s surprise package of the night turned out to be the 14yo Caribbean Rum Cask expression, enjoying only its third outing at a tasting. True to form, the finishing process epitomises David Stewart’s attention to detail, with the rum cask mix comprising wood from three different origins. The sheer weight of the aroma was a delight, with gristy sugars and sweet lemon peel. Some smoke and heather emerged and that sweet pear puckered in the glass, too. The rum finish was notably discreet, until I took a gulp where golden rum, latte coffee notes and spice galore hit the tongue. Water pulled out pralines and an oozing deep sweetness on the nose. Delicious, although it wasn’t to everyone’s liking.

We finished with what has been a mainstay for premium, high-quality aged single malts for some time now: the 21yo Portwood. To Andrew, this was Nigella Lawson constructed from water, barley, yeast and oak. He waxed lyrical about its grace and elegance, and I would concur with his conclusion that this boasts sublime silkiness and a ballroom dancer’s poise.

Maximum enjoyment from the Quaich Society's first tasting of the year.

Outwith student whisky tastings, keep an eye open for how your next Balvenie is served. In certain fashionable bars, the spirit of chicanery and alcoholic liberation will be revived as the company intends to create a serve celebrating the illicit opportunism of distillery workers of the past. You will soon be able to have your Balvenie poured from a handmade copper ‘dog’, the kind of contraptions workers improvised to purloin extra whisky. Everyone seems to appreciate these stories of yesteryear – even retired excisemen – and the Quaich Society were no exception, lapping up tales of those with the skill and nerve to appropriate some stunning whisky when no one was looking. For many Quaich Society die-hards, these are their heroes, after all.

A huge thank you must go to Andrew and The Balvenie for venturing across to St Andrews and putting on such a professional, educational and massively enjoyable evening. We could not have asked for more from our opening tasting of the year.

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