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Day 6: Cullen Shrink


By the time 08.20 arrived I knew the bus wasn’t coming. I picked myself and my rear wheel up off the pavement and walked from the clock tower back to my B&B. If I couldn’t get an 8AM service into Elgin, I was going to have to ride in. Quite why the timetable didn’t explicitly tell me there was no service at 8 o’clock on a Saturday morning, I have still yet to deduce.

With the exhortation ‘Don’t get squashed under a distillery lorry!’ ringing in my ears from my landlord, I rolled off into the warm sun. Climbing out of Dufftown was less onerous than I had expected, made lovelier by the enduring integrity of my back wheel. The descent into Craigellachie was swift and problem-free, and I could reflect on how the Munro of casks outside the Speyside Cooperage was now more of a Corbett.

Joining the A95, I braced myself for the heavy traffic my landlord had predicted. However, I glided into Rothes by the banks of the iridescent Spey with only cars for company. The hill past Speyburn was long, sticky and very hot, but once I reached the summit a tailwind took me in its talons and didn’t let go until Elgin. At times I was progressing at 19mph with very little effort. Longmorn: hello, goodbye; BenRiach: hello, goodbye. The decision to set off for Bikes & Bowls on two wheels proved inspired as it wasn’t until a mile outside Elgin that the 09.05 36 bus service from Dufftown overtook me. I’d come 17 miles in less than an hour.

Bikes & Bowls proved not to be the shop I had frequented four years ago. It was at the end of the high street, and apparently had been there for the last 25 years. My good Samaritan in 2010 had, it turned out, proved a bit of a cowboy, fleeing town a few months after I darkened his doorstep. The chaps inside inspected the bike as I related my tale: two in a week but no problems whatsoever in four and a half years.

‘The spoke nipples may be rusting,’ said the guy I’d talked to on the phone. ‘The wheel can’t flex when that happens. This may be the start of the whole lot going. We’ll have a look for you, though.’

With this life-affirming piece of news to mull over, I went out into a sweltering Elgin having vowed that the next time I cycled for more than a day at a time I would have spare spokes and know how to replace them.

I bought maps and repaired to a café to plot my route to GlenDronach. Having failed to get to this distillery four years ago, on a Saturday, due to bike problems, I was going to sacrifice Glenglassaugh and see about reaching Forgue. If I could get going again by 10.30, there was a chance…

Staring at the OS Maps every which way, however, I could tell that a 17-mile detour north-west was just far enough to render GlenDronach-Buckie a ride of epic proportions. More epic than I believed was feasible – or indeed, sensible – as the mercury continued to rise. Swearing under my breath, I had to admit that GlenDronach, like Balvenie, was playing hard-to-get.

Back at the shop, the bike had a new silver spoke inserted and the good news was that the remainder of the wheel looked fairly sound. ‘Hopefully the rest of your trip will be injury-free,’ the mechanic said as I prepared for my departure. Do not miss Bikes & Bowls if you are in dire need when in the Elgin (or indeed Dufftown) area. This father-and-son team have a way with bikes, and even though my Odyssey did not carry on for as long as advertised, it was injury-free.

National Cycle Route 1 recommenced nearly on the doorstep of Bikes & Bowls and while following it I was ushered to north-east Elgin and the fast-track to the sea. Beautiful, quiet, tree-lined roads cut through farmland and little villages, before dropping me at Portgordon and – barely credible in Scotland but a not uncommon sight – turquoise surf.I ought to have stopped for lunch earlier or at least found some shade. The sun was beating down and my tailwind of the early morning was now squarely in my face. Plus, the cycle route signs pointed at mental instability – combined with absent-mindedness – on the part of their designer. I was getting a bit lost and more than a little bit irritated.

Cycling through Buckie, I marvelled at how the little blue signs took me here, there and across innumerable roads, behind industrial estates, through supermarket car parks (practically) and eventually onto a disused railway line. I followed this as far as Portknockie before joining the A98, believing it to be quicker and better-surfaced. This hunch turned out to be true, but I didn’t factor in busier, hotter and madder. The road takes you down to sea level, through a thronging Cullen (home of Cullen Skink which is far more appetising than it sounds) and back up to the cliffs. The steepness, heat and wind defeated me, and I stopped at a convenience store for liquids and food.

Feeling quite mad by this point, the interminable wait in the cool interior helped a lot. I sunk a whole bottle of Lucozade Sport, hopped back on the bike, sweated to the top of the hill and then fought the wind for the next four miles until I spotted some serrated roofs on the left.Glenglassaugh has a wonderful situation, sat amongst green fields, looking out to a bluer than blue Moray Firth. When I arrived everyone in the little community seemed to be mowing lawns. Certainly there wasn’t anyone else trying to tour the distillery.

Having spent a good ten minutes getting my breath back in the shade of the visitor centre, I went inside to meet the youngest VC attendants ever. Lauren and Karen were holding the fort and were just the down-to-earth conversationalists I needed to recover from my mild heatstroke.

It was Lauren who took me round the cool, silent distillery. Production only runs Sunday night to Friday morning, so there was no noise or heat emanating from mash tun or stills. Much of the original Glenglassaugh buildings still stand and still have a use. Lauren told me that the take-over by Billy Walker and the BenRiach Distillery Co. had led to significant investment in upgrades, repairs, and just a much-needed lick of paint. We were about to head upstairs to the tun room when Karen appeared, with two people in tow. ‘Time to practice your French,’ she said, before heading back to the visitor centre.

Glenglassaugh’s production regime meant that the only ‘live’ action was taking place in the washbacks, the tops of which were more than a metre and a half above iron grating floor level. Lauren opened each lid so we could nose the differences in each fermentation stage, via rickety wooden steps.

At the stills we nosed unpeated and peated new make, the peated especially catching my attention. Much like the Glenturret peated spirit at the Whisky Stramash, I wouldn’t have minded a dram of that particular liquid. By this point I was attempting to resuscitate my A-Level French and translating words rendered unintelligible by Lauren’s Aberdeenshire brogue. Unfortunately, whisky-making didn’t feature on my high school syllabus so we didn’t get very far.

In the warehouses, we somehow got on to the alcohol minimum pricing; a forged gamely on but my vocabulary was hopelessly inadequate. Monsieur, eying the private octave casks, suggested we could sneak a taste and blame it on ‘des anges’ – the angels. I think that’s been tried before.

In the VC, the tasting was illuminating. Karen had suggested that Evolution may be up my street, as I am partial to a Bourbon-matured malt. The Revival, when I tried it last year, just didn’t do it for me. Evolution proved a feisty, thick and ‘hot’ dram at 50% ABV, but water pulled out some buttery corn-on-the-cob and an insistent sweet maltiness. There was also Torfa for our delectation, which the French couple ended up purchasing. I have to say, even though I am partial to youngish peated whiskies (see the anCnoc Peaty Collection), Torfa was rather good.

In common with most of the distilleries I visited, there were casks on display from which visitors could draw their own flask. The ex-Bourbon octave, distilled in March 2009 and weighing in at 60.5% ABV, was rather closed and oaky. It grew on me, but the real star was the ex-Sherry octave (from September 2009) and fractionally weaker. The integration of dry, rich, fruit-laden oak and the Glenglassaugh malt was exceptional and £35 for 50cl is pretty good value. Meanwhile, Mr and Mrs Martin (as I now know them) were quizzing me on Scotch whisky more generally; what did I think of x, or y? What about wine?

Saluting Lauren and Karen, who had been great company, I left soon after the Martins and eased into the wind back towards Buckie. This time, I followed NCR1 all the way, and could appreciate the late afternoon sun on a truly spectacular coastline. Residents of all the villages I passed through were doing likewise, perched on benches, lounging in back yards with a can of something.

Things got rocky and dangerous as I neared Findochty but I persevered. Rosemount B&B arrived after mile 58 and I could cool off in a very long shower with my loft room Velux wide open. An even more arduous day awaited come morning.

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Glenglasaugh

     The first I heard of Glenglassaugh’s tour schedule was at the Glen Garioch distillery last April where I also discovered that a change in their own policy, unbeknownst to me, equated to the Oldmeldrum distillery opening for tours on Saturday after all. Both pieces of news were greeted with a mixed reaction: in the case of the former it was another distillery I could have visited but now wouldn’t, and in the case of the latter I had spent a morning rejiggling logistics some time in October in order that I could make it to Glen Garioch by the Friday for nothing. As it turned out, of course, the effort and stress were more than made up for in other unforeseen respects and Glenglassaugh, from the looks of things presently, isn’t going anywhere soon.

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The distillery from the north, over the Moray Firth. Quite a setting.

The distillery from the north, over the Moray Firth. Quite a setting.

Portsoy, Banffshire, AB45 25Q, 01261 842367. Glenglassaugh Distillery Co. (Scaent Group). www.glenglassaugh.com

TOURS PROVIDED:

‘The Spirit Tour’: £7.50. Conducted around the plant with one of the workers (in my opinion the folk most qualified to tell you about the equipment they operate, in addition to possessing a hefty reserve of hilarious anecdotes), the tour ends after the spirit still, newly returned to gushing torrents of life (as in the water of life). It is some of this that will be offered to you in the form of a complimentary dram. One of the Spirit Drink range can be sampled which, though not legally whisky yet, is Glenglassaugh in its truest form – its DNA.

‘Behind the Scenes Tour’: £30. In the capable hands of a senior manager, the ‘Spirit’ experience is on offer in addition to an exploration of the obscure nooks and crannies one finds in old distilleries. The dusty corners may not see a huge amount of the action now, but whisky-making in its earliest days was never a wasteful process, and these forgotten spaces can tell you much about the provenance and history of the place. Pace the closed malting floors, imagining barley from the local fields spread upon them quietly turning to malt. Then head to the warehouse for a rarer privilege: the nosing of whisky-laden casks and encounter the silent but intense process of maturation. After the tour, enjoy a dram from the Spirit Drink range in addition to the 26yo and 30yo single malt whiskies.

‘The Ultimate Tour’: £80. This sounds like a lot of money, and it is pitting itself against the likes of the Magnus Eunson Tour at Highland Park and the Cask Idol Tour at Glengoyne. The stops do appear to have been pulled out, however. Distillery manager Graham Eunson will take care of you on the route of the Behind the Scenes tour to the spirit receiver vat where a lesson in recording alcoholic strength awaits. I am given to understand that there is more to it than giving you a sample of the new make and waiting for you to say ‘Phwoar! That’s strong!’ or similar. Take a peak at racked warehouses 2 and 3, then the bottling hall and then assume your honorary position on the Glenglassaugh cask selection scheme. Your opinion is desired on a range of single cask samples to assist in the decision of the next Glenglassaugh release. The tutored tasting includes the drams as for the Behind the Scenes tour in addition to the IWSC Trophy-winning 40yo. Regarding this last, should you decide to buy a bottle of it there and then, the cost of your tour will be refunded.

DISTILLERY-EXCLUSIVE BOTTLINGS:      N/A   

CASK OWNERSHIP:      That there are no distillery exclusives is a bit disengenuous: there is the opportunity to own your very own cask of new make Glenglassaugh and watch it mature with the Octave programme. Unpeated (£500) and Peated (£600) Glenglassaugh spirit is filled into a 50 litre Octave cask make from staves previously used to mature Scotch whisky at 63.5% ABV. The filling process can be done by a distillery employee or by yourself. Choose the inscription on the cask head and you are presented with a certificate of ownership in addition to a photograph of your cask to take away with you. Progress is monitored annually, with a sample sent to you. Better yet, phone ahead and visit your cask in person/ As to how long your cask rests in Glenglassaugh’s coastal warehouses is up to you but when you do decide to bottle your whisky (at natural or reduced strength is also your decision), Glenglassaugh are there to hold your hand with their on-site facility. It is even possible to design your own label, although this must be formally approved. With the whisky now bottled, the Octave vessel is yours to keep. I can imagine it working very well, turned on its head, as a side table for supporting your evening dram.

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