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Countdown to Scotch Odyssey 2

Incredibly, I may just be in a position to take on a second circumnavigation of Scotland in search of Scotch whisky distilleries to visit.

If April was chock full of coursework, May was the domain of exams, and you can’t memorise the finer points of Kelman, Stevenson or Self (especially Self) if you are physically knackered. Training, therefore, has been rather more opportunistic and far scarcer than it was four years ago, when my ‘Fit For the Glens’ weekly posts updated progress from ten weeks prior to the Grand Depart. No such lead-in this time. I covered about 660 miles in training ahead of April 12 2010; this time we are maybe looking at half that figure, possibly a little more. I have had, as they say, my doubts.

However, I’m presently fed and showered following a 57-mile day of training, which suggests that – when I pedal off in a northerly direction towards Pitlochry on Tuesday – distance shouldn’t be a problem. Neither, it must be said, should inclines scare me. Over the course of recent weeks I have been impressed/dismayed by just how hilly Fife is. Seriously, the kingdom is like a heart rate monitor reading. If you want to acquire solid cardiovascular fitness, Fife is the place to cycle, lurching up single-track precipices and screeching down the other side repeatedly.

It’s also bloody windy. If you manage to get to the top of a hill, the breeze blowing out to sea is something you must contend with. Often this week I have been crawling along into the molars of a gale.

In summary, if the quantity of training cannot match 2010, perhaps the quality is a shade higher. I’m hoping so, because I have more than 900 miles filling 17 days, meaning that what I covered today is my average – average – for the tour as a whole. I’m going to need some carrots to get me through all of those, and fortunately the whisky industry has obliged.

I will begin close to home, at Francis Cuthbert’s Daftmill distillery. Long have I wished to poke about in this wholly-independent farm operation and possibly taste something interesting. It is rare these days to be taken round a plant by the person who makes the spirit. From there it is up the A9 to the distilleries which my overly ambitious itinerary ruled out last time: Dalwhinnie and Tomatin. I only hope Dalwhinnie is as pretty on the inside as it is to look upon, hurtling by on the main road. Tomatin are releasing stellar whiskies at the moment; hopefully I’ll be able to get a taste of what is on the horizon.

If you can't have Balvenie, then a single cask Imperial from the year you were born is definitely the next best thing.

Speyside is next, a region where I had a very high hit rate four years ago. Sadly – nay, tragically – I have repeated my feat of being too late to book a tour of The Balvenie. I gave them two weeks’ notice in 2010, one month this time. Nothing doing. If you want to get round before the end of the year, my advice is book now and cross your fingers. You’d think it was El Bulli. Of course, I have an excellent fall back option, the soon-to-be-complete single estate distillery at Ballindalloch Castle (like them on Facebook). After that, I’m going to repair to the Speyside Way with an apt dram. A 23yo Imperial, bottled by Hunter Laing, fits the bill nicely. From there I shall peddle gently on to Dufftown to say hello to, and eat the fine food of, Sandy Smart at Taste of Speyside.

Already the mileages start to increase, and the next day I leave for GlenDronach and Glenglassaugh. Sunday is a distillery-free hike west and then north, before my triumphant return (all being well) to Balblair. I’m banking on Clynelish being open on a Monday, but the site is being expanded so maybe not. I’ll phone ahead this time.

The next section has me petrified and hyperactive with excitement all at the same time. I will have distance, ferry timetables and the whims of the West Coast weather systems to trouble me as I cycle across to Ullapool for a boat to the Outer Hebrides. It is quite a trek to get to Mark Tayburn’s Abhainn Dearg, but if everything runs smoothly it should be spectacular. Long days in the saddle are necessary to get from Stornoway to the bottom of Harris in time for a ferry to Uig, before peddling down the spine of Skye for another stay at the Ratagan Youth Hostel.

From Loch Duich I more or less retrace 2010′s tire tracks to Fort William before omitting the islands (with regret) and pitching up in Glasgow for Auchentoshan. Fired with triple-distilled gorgeousness (but not too much, obviously), I wend homewards with a night in Stirling before stopping off at Strathearn Distillery (another small-scale operation) by way of a rest on the homeward stretch to St Andrews.

If you are travelling in Scotland during the next two and a half weeks, do look out for me. I’m the tall, lean be-spectacled cyclist smelling faintly of wash and pot ale, amongst other things. I’ve decided to pack a bottle of Compass Box’s Great King Street Experimental Peat in the hope that I’ll make some new friends. The blog will be silent during that time, but do check Twitter for up-to-the-minute events (@WhiskyOdyssey). I shall expand my experiences to more than 140 characters upon my return. I welcome any comments or queries you may have!

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On the road again…

Back in the saddle again in June 2014.

The terrific thing about wrapping up a semester is that you can turn your mind to fun future projects, cogitate a little more about what you want them to be, what shape and purpose they will have, and get a jump on making them a reality. That happened to me over the weekend regarding a mission of mine which has been incomplete since May 2010.

As those of you who followed my original Scotch Odyssey three years ago will know, I couldn’t make it to every distillery on my itinerary. The reasons for this were numerous: bike/boy breakdown, an overambitious route, misread opening times etc. etc. I had unfinished business with about eight distilleries in Scotland – and then a bunch of passionate people set about building more!

In June next year – all being well – I’ll graduate from the University of St Andrews. Between the formal termination of my final semester here in Fife and Graduation Week there are a few days begging to be capitalised upon and I feel I really ought to finish what I started prior to entering higher education in 2010. With the aid of Google Maps and the mega-litres of whisky experience I gained last time I packed my panniers and pedalled to the glens I have compiled a second route round Scotland which will see me cover nearly 1,200 miles in 20 days and visit thirteen malt whisky distilleries old and new.

The Scotch Odyssey Part II will begin here in St Andrews with Daftmill and Kingsbarns distilleries before I head north over the Tay to tick off Dalwhinnie and Tomatin. From there I wend my way into Speyside for the distillery I shouldn’t have missed last time round but did: The Balvenie. Then I swing by the Aberdeenshire distilleries of The GlenDronach and Glenglassaugh before skirting the Moray Firth on my journey to The Dalmore. I did visit this distillery in 2010 but in the meantime the visitor experience has been dramatically overhauled and I feel I really ought to spy those famous stills on the Cromarty Firth in this new light. Next I head to Balblair for my first tour as a punter, despite working there for a week in the summer of 2011.

I continue north to Clynelish which famously does not open for tours on a Saturday in late April. Then it’s time to head westwards: catching the ferry from Ullapool I visit the most westerly Scotch whisky distillery of them all, the spirit of Lewis, Abhainn Dearg. I will cycle down through Lewis and Harris to Tarbert before another ferry desposits me at Uig, Isle of Skye. From here it is an identical route to previously as I pedal off the island to Fort William. There will be a few long days in the saddle before I reach Clydebank and the Auchentoshan distillery. After a few more I hope to visit Annandale – if it is open to receive me – before wending my way back up to St Andrews.

Knowing what I know now about cycle touring I’m hoping to extract maximum adventure from my trip and I’ve invited any friends who wish to accompany of a leg or legs of the journey to do so. The real logistics of B&Bs, ferries and tour bookings have still to be made, and the fitness regime will have to start fairly sharpish. The Scotch Odyssey of 2010 is an undertaking I think about every single day and with every whisky I drink. I have high hopes for the next pilgrimage round Scotland’s beauty spots and barley-boiling stills.

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Whisky Quality Emigrating?

Will we eventually have to leave Scottish shores in search of whiskies with personality?

Perhaps by way of compensating for the wheezing, frigid wind, and rain that strikes with an assassin’s stealth and ferocity, whisky companies have always released some jolly nice specimens at this time of intractable, dismal decline. Whether it is Diageo’s array of Special Releases - and the salivatingly tempting (if soberingly-priced) Lagavulin 21yo in particular, or the fourth rendition of Compass Box’s iconic Flaming Heart expression (want passionately), some whisky gems always appear at this point in the year.

However, today I intend to discuss not just new whiskies, but New World whiskies. A very interesting article appeared in the Scotland Sunday Times last month entitled: ‘Aussies scotch claims to best whisky’ (News section, Sunday September 16th. In fact, the debate surfaced on connosr.com in March, and continues to rage here). I stashed the piece to one side because I knew I wanted to discuss the matter it raised once I had finally put essays to bed.

Put simply, some voices from the recent distilling operations – notably in Australia – have attacked the ‘dumbed down’ malts some parties within the Scotch whisky industry are allegedly producing. As the category swells to encompass the globe, the argument is that quality and ‘personality’ are sacrificed. To meet demand and make profits, Scotch isn’t being made as it used to be, and is suffering as a result.

Tim Puett, an Australian independent bottler, asks whether the Scotchs of yesteryear are being ‘driven out by rationalisation, basic resource availability, and financial return?’ These questions are valid when bottles of Ballantines or Dalwhinnie pop up on the back bars of establishments from Sao Paulo to Shanghai. How could they maintain a given standard when chasing new markets so aggressively?

I intend to produce a defence of Scotch one the one hand, but a rallying cry for all whiskies more generally. I don’t believe Puett has set the right tone for his inquiry, or acknowledged as fully as he might have done that the category of Australian whisky could not have taken the form it has, or enjoyed such an immediate and largely positive reception, were it not in part for the ground broken by the industry based in Scotland. He talks of the pimple on the elephant’s back in the connosr piece, but the implications for this are far greater than a naturalistic metaphor. Though based on radically different business models, Scotch drove consumer curiosity in single malts while still maintaining chief focus on its blended products to crack new markets. This was not achieved with sub-standard juice, as the present continuing boom in single malt whisky surely attests to decades of fine bottlings. These Scotch whiskies were what inspired drinkers to explore the unexpected outposts of single malt hailing from overseas. Scotch is – and in blended form always has been – a spirit with a global personality, by which I mean certain flavours have always travelled the world and will continue to do so.

Not enough good examples of these kicking around?

Of course, I have not been drinking Scotch whisky for that long (it will be my five-year anniversary on Thursday), and so I cannot compare the likes of Highland Park 12yo or Talisker 10yo through the ages. I would expect their precise characters to have changed, although I naturally dislike the notion that this may well be for the worse and that I shall never sample spirit from those golden Halcyon days. But this nostalgia may be more romantic than apparent, and what I have come to accept is that for the last fifty years at least, the Scotch I enjoy has been made – and made possible as a varied product I can feasibly purchase - in large part thanks to volume and scales of production. The best of what is now a far more consistent product has charmed and inspired me: I do not look at a £30 bottle of Balvenie and rend my garments in anguish that it would be a superior dram were there a million fewer examples of it. And let’s not forget, when discussing whether producing more whisky more speedily and at a reduced cost makes for a poorer whisky, there is an interesting comparison to be made with start-up distilleries. Their costs will be necessarily higher and the need to bring a product to market is just as - if not more – pressing. This is the 21st century: these distilleries are businesses, too, and cannot survive on a philosophy.

Puett’s remark about ‘basic resource availability’ is most curious, however. If there are shortages in grain and casks, surely this ought to affect all distillers equally? Indeed, shouldn’t it prove a greater hindrance to the new guys, who don’t have these networks of resource acquisition quite as finely-honed as the established powers? Quality oak is a global, finite commodity, and everyone wants some. Surely those with bigger budgets and longer-standing relationships (e.g. Scotch) will muscle in ahead of the queue? I don’t buy the claim that start-up distillers work best from a supposed dearth of materials.

My final quibble is with the implicit contrast between Scotch as a category of mass-production and shareholders, and the New World as the home of boutique enterprises. Amongst the behemoths in Scotland, there are independent companies passionate about making themselves distinct, and harnessing centuries of distilling know-how to best effect. The number of Australian distilleries numbers 18 (see here) and not all of these can boast a mature product available outside Australia, although distribution of this exciting category is improving all the time. I can list just as many small or independent Scottish distilleries concentrating on producing a unique, high quality spirit without the primary focus being volume, of which Bladnoch, Daftmill, Kilchoman, BenRiach and GlenDronach, Benromach and Springbank are the most prominent examples. As one commenter beneath the original connosr post correctly stated, this is a prime period for unusual and exciting products emerging from Scotland. The entire category ought not to be slighted as ‘average’ (a potential future suggested by Dominic Roskrow in the Sunday Times article) because of its multifaceted activities. To boast the most vibrant and diverse blended whisky category in the world, iconic frontline single malts and small-scale producers is a singular achievement in a style as closely legislated as Scotch.

I can understand the more recent distillers trying to create a fuss about themselves, to make points of distinction and appeal to customers who maybe want something new. Scotch, however, assumes a dual responsibility in trying to keep the commercial aspects of the spirit healthy (which benefits all distillers internationally) as well as the connoisseurs happy. The former is not something the Larks, Bakery Hills and Amruts of this world have to worry about. I am not denigrating the up-and-coming distillers. I will always seek out new whiskies (I have an independently-bottled Lark to review later in the week), and I firmly believe that there is room for more exciting single malts on the shelves. I like it, too, when people shout about what they believe they are doing well but my point is that attacking the old guard is not the way to go about it. As Puett concedes, Scotch has had 1000 years to work out what its magic formula is: considerably longer than this - worthy but still nascent - movement in Australia.

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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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Respect your Elders: G&M’s Glenlivet 70yo

Glenlivet 70 Year OldSince last Tuesday’s big bang in the whisky universe, in between essay deadlines, I have been mulling over the significance of a second 70yo release from one of the world’s most illustrious whisky companies. It would appear that much of the forum-fever has dissipated, which suggests to me that the whisky industry is gradually perfecting its techniques of benumbing us to their five-figure asking prices and allows me conveniently to factor it out of my own reckonings as ‘read’. It is a lot of money, neverthless I should imagine that the vast majority of bottles will have long gone by now. Move on, basically.

I would instead like to commend Gordon & MacPhail for electing to charge anything so arbitrary as Pounds Stirling for a bottling which gives us unique reason to pause in our frenetic progress through life. Disposable furniture, buildings, art, football managers – they surround and jostle us, slackening our grip on conceptions of permanence. Peering once more in at the shop window of the whisky industry we come across younger and younger whiskies, raced through the distillery, into bottles and down our throats. As William Henry Davies lamented, ‘We have no time to stand and stare’.

Davies died in the very same year that the folk at the The Glenlivet distillery were putting this particular spirit into its Sherry butt. In all the time it spent in there, the global culture would accelerate still further. Dunkirk, D-Day, Indian independence, the accession of Elizabeth II, CND, feminism, the computer, the internet – all of this was going on while a few hundred litres of Speyside whisky were getting comfy in oak and supping on the air of north east Scotland.

I’m presently reading Gavin D. Smith’s The Whisky Men and have thus far learnt an immense amount about the dynamic change experienced by the whisky industry which has been carrying on around this cask. Peat, direct-fired stills, and the longer distillation regimes have gradually faded from distilling policy, yet the ‘old ways’ were contained in Cask # 339. This whisky carries the genetics of The Glenlivet and manifests the evolution of Scotch whisky generally. It is inconceivable that the flavour and character should not differ from the spirit produced at the highly-computerised plant we find today. Nevertheless, every bottle of 12yo hitting the shelves now in 2011 will embody all of the developments made since this unexpected study in the intricacies and mysteries of whisky-making ran off the still. Flirting with economics and markets very briefly, I very much doubt that the manager of the distillery in 1940 would have ever entertained the fancy that at some point in the future the contents of this cask, as a single malt, would receive the attention it has done. 

The Glenlivet 70yo by Gordon & MacPhail is the Scotch equivalent of the ‘missing link’ and whether you approve of the asking price and resulting exclusivity or not, at least reflect on the positive ramifications for whisky’s heritage, character and confidence. A different world inhabits those blown-crystal decanters, and I applaud the faith and patience of those individuals to realise whisky’s full potential and the skills of our forebears.

The Glenlivet

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Memory and the Middle Cut

‘Life through the Worm Tub’

Memory and the Middle Cut

I have been exceedingly fortunate in my explorations into Scotch whisky thus far to have had the opportunity to engage in dialogues with many fascinating people. Be they distillery personnel, brand ambassadors, retailers or folk like you and me who just passionately love the stuff, an encounter with another person whose life has embraced whisky in a meaningful capacity invariably results in new insights and perspective.

Let me give you an example: when Lukasz Dynowiak (Alembic Communications and Edinburgh Whisky Blog) invited me to join his phalanx of whisky bloggers set to descend on Inver House distilleries last year, I found myself sat across the aisle in our toothpaste tube of an aeroplane on a lurching leap up to Wick beside a Mr Keith Wood. In the act of elaborating upon my whisky adventure my deep-seated and only dimly-understood convictions concerning whisky’s essential magic crawled to the surface of our discussion. As the tour progressed, an affinity in our respective approaches to drams became clear and I have been reading Keith’s superb Whisky Emporium ever since. Indeed, it is partly on account of his personal testimonies which every so often emerge in and colour his tasting notes that I have been inspired to post up my own every so often.

Rather than leave it at that, however, we felt a little whisky scholarship was in order. Keith, newly inducted into the order of Malt Maniacs, and I searched the scrolls for scientific study into olfaction and personal memories, using any conclusions we found to illustrate how whisky has catalysed with a profound and primordial part of us. Why was not of prime importance – I simply had to devote more time to reflecting on the ways in which malts have cross-referenced my life experiences so far, and share them with another individual whose sensory archives dwarf my own.Caol Ila

The distillation of our meditations is this combined blog post, in which we discuss the boundaries between the personalities of Scotch Whisky and our own, and how our willingness to blur them can result in extraordinary, almost out-of-body, experiences. Read Keith’s version here.

Though hardly essential in all matters, with certain phenomena it is satisfying when science can confirm what you long suspected. ‘[O]lfaction,’ Messrs Rubin, Groth and Goldsmith stated in their 1984 study concerned with the relationship between how our separate senses cue contrasting categories of memory, ‘is somehow different from more commonly studied senses of vision and audition.’

This, I feel certain, will hardly astonish my whiskyphile readers. Who among us has not perceived the heightened degree of intimacy tied to an evening of enraptured dram-snuffling? Whiskies impel us, quite irresistibly, to personal meditation and every so often the consequences can be quite revelatory. If this weren’t the case, if whisky in the glass were no more loaded with subtle powers of suggestion than whisky on the page or screen, we would all be content to limit our encounters to reading tasting notes or watching Ralfy bounce enthusiastically around Scotland on YouTube.

As human beings we are programmed to pay close attention to these most immediate and invasive of sensory cues. Aroma and taste, as though armed with a search warrant, can pluck the deepest and murkiest echoes of our lives from their obscurity for its own arcane ends. Like connecting the blood-stained cleaver under the sink to the grisly murder perpetrated the previous day, our brains forge an indissoluble and significant link between stimulus and past experience. Though no longer of quite the same evolutionary necessity, this ancient mechanism is still most definitely switched on. The study found that an odour cue was more likely to retrieve a unique and well-preserved recollection than other forms of cue: ‘previously inaccessible memories’ were recalled for the test subjects as a result of nosing a selection of aromas, memories that had never been consciously contemplated or discussed prior to their unveiling during the experiment. In addition, though not conclusively proven, these rarer memories were for some rated as more pleasant than those conjured up by images and words.

Allow Keith and I to describe how whiskies have rifled through our personal mental photo albums and why, non-scientifically but all the better for it, we found it to be such a breath-taking ride.

GlenfarclasKeith: I often reflect on this phenomenon as whisky aromas often return long-forgotten memories immediately to the fore. My first experience of this was whilst nosing a Jack Wieber Caol Ila and I was summarily returned to a cold and damp day in the Yorkshire Dales some 30 years previously. You will also see from my tasting notes page that I swear there is an Islay jetty inside every bottle of Ardbeg, Caol Ila and Laphroaig. This is thanks to those peaty aromas mingling with ones of wood, sea-air, surf and that je ne sais quoi which is Islay personnified. Likewise, Highland Park takes me away into the wild Scottish countryside with heather, bracken, hints of smoke and the great outdoors, reminding me of many walks across Bens and Glens. Finally, people often talk about ‘Christmas drams’ and I also have my own definitive one; Glenfarclas Quarter Casks (1987) which was truly surprising as it offered an amazing array of aromas when the bottle was first opened. These included leather, aged oak and musty books, but after the bottle had been opened a couple of days these were replaced by sherry and dark fruits like plums, currants, raisins and figs. This overall experience immediately transported me to an Olde English country house on Christmas day, just after lunch when I might be relaxing in my favourite deep-buttoned leather chair, surrounded by old first editions lining oak shelves and with a glass of sherry or port in my hand. This, for me is the magic of malt whisky!

Another, more recent one which took me totally by surprise; The whisky was an Independent Port Ellen called Old Bothwell which my dear friend and fellow Maniac Oliver Klimek brought to the table in December last year. This had a very maritime character but with only extremely faint peat, more akin to “the great outdoors” with fresh, sea-air in abundance. For some reason I was immediately transported back to some childhood days out at the coastal resort of Scarborough during the school holidays. It was a special treat for me when my Mother would take me to one of the local coastal resorts for the day on the train. Scarborough was special because at that time it was far from being a tourist trap and had a great promenade along the sea front from the new to the older part of town, under the watchful eye of the castle. Anyway, the countryside and maritime character of the Port Ellen immediately evoked those childhood days out from more than 40 years ago.

Port Ellen, twinned with Scarborough - in Keith's mind.

Port Ellen, twinned with Scarborough - in Keith's mind.

Evocative, non? I marvel at the period of time Keith describes – twice my present age! Please note I am not suggesting my esteemed collaborator is in any way of an excessively senior disposition, rather that his extra years work to his advantage with regards to this phenomenon. Keith’s agglomeration of experience is so much broader than mine. To use a 21st century analogy, his iPod has many thousands more songs stored on its harddrive which must, I can only suppose, make the act of hitting ‘shuffle’ liable to throw up many more surprises.  Allow me, then, to present an example of which tracks single malt has selected from my more limited jukebox of private sensory memories.

I should say that only rarely – thus far – has a malt recalled its distillery, a function I had hoped my experiences on the Odyssey would enable more consistently. Often my jogs of memory derive from the most innocuous and randomised assortment of landscapes and circumstances, though whisky is never too far away from the original recollection in one of its many forms. One example is a tasting of Ardbeg 10-year-old in late 2008, and the ensuing reawakening of an open-air encounter I had had nearly a year previously at the Torranbuie Cottage near Strathdon in wild, wooded Aberdeenshire. In the process a meaningful connection was made between two largely unremarkable moments: one from my innocent life Before Whisky and the other what had been twenty minutes spent analysing just another dram another dram. There sudden, unforeseen conflation, however, shed new splendour on both. I was walking to the porch, then, on this late October afternoon which was rapidly freshening. The cool mountain air seemed to draw out greater pungency from the bracken, grasses and damp earth. Meanwhile, I became cloaked in the smoke from our neighbour’s log-burner which had pooled in the space between the two houses beneath the pine trees. Back in 2008, and as the Islay malt slid down my throat and the finish developed, the same quality of wood smoke wafted about my palate. A Northumbrian summer melted from my physical sight as I was transported back to the last days of my single malt Dark Age. Soon afterwards on that holiday, I would stumble across The Glenlivet distillery, my state of sensory obliviousness enlightened irreversibly.

The Whisky Country of my imagination.

The Whisky Country of my imagination.

Handing the floor back to Keith: This is one of the truly unique powers, perhaps what some would call mysteries of Scotch malt whisky and although these are purely personal recollections, I will continue to write about them [on the magnificent Whisky Emporium] when they occur in the hope that others will also be encouraged to ‘open their minds’ and let their imaginations enjoy the mysteries of single malts.

I wholeheartedly agree, Keith, and promoting sensitivity to those aspects of single malts over and above flavour-finding - to what that process can reveal concerning our own engagement with the world – was at the back of mind whilst producing this piece. I second any move to get out there and open ourselves up to the depths of our own personal histories, and how whisky can navigate them with such inspiring sympathy.

Just a hint of smoke...

Just a hint of smoke...

*      *      *      *      *

Keith WoodKeith was born in the summer of ’59 and discovered his love of whisky at a rather young age, in fact he was a mere toddler in his teething process when his mother discovered that his pain and discomfort seemed to ease if she rubbed a little whisky on his sore gums. Sadly, her own pain and discomfort didn’t ease quite so much as he tended to scream for more!
 
A lifetime of enjoying drams through four decades from the mid 70′s to present, then writing about his passion for whisky since late 2009 was rewarded in December 2010 when he was invited to join the Malt Maniacs as a certified member, although some say that he should have been ‘certified’ many years ago!

His Whisky-Emporium website is now his main hobby and home to his whisky musings, tasting notes and lots of whisky-related features.

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Fanatical about Flavour

A distillery and the outside world: neither we nor whisky are made in isolation.

A distillery and the outside world: neither we nor whisky are made in isolation.

Dave Broom said that ‘we smell our way through our lives’. I for one get rather excited when someone meditates on the role our senses play in how we interact with the world around us and how those encounters shape who we are. For now, let me just say that I agree with Mr Broom (the beard commands respect) and I shall endeavour to explain why.

Our olfactory senses trump our eyes and ears, hands down. By this I am not inviting blindness and deafness; I am immensely appreciative of my ability to see and hear: the beauty of Scarlett Johanson would be lost on me without the former and the same applies to the melodies of countless rock groups minus the latter. What I mean to say, however, is that sight and sound are absorbed and compartmentalised with very little conscious input from ourselves. It is as if the vision of the desk in front of me and the sound of my flatmate rummaging through the kitchen cupboards is jealously contained within the neural pathways connecting receptor and processor. They are signals alone, and do not illuminate any other regions of my self.

My Pears soap, on the other hand, is a very different story, because it attaches me to a much earlier personal narrative edited and arranged by my brain into a neat, startling order. When soap vanished from the shower tray and appeared on my shopping list, I was intrigued to see Pears in the local supermarket. Once home, I extracted the bar and was hooked bodily back to the shower room of the Port Askaig Hotel. Those sweet, nutty/grainy and herbal fragrances wiped away in a fraction of a second the five intervening months since my time on Islay. It was quite uncanny.

So many young-ish crisp Speysiders have taken me back to this perfect moment.

So many young-ish crisp Speysiders have taken me back to this perfect moment.

The smell of the green tea and blackcurrant infusion of the London Fruit and Herb Company, freshly-brewed, has the capacity to transport me back years to a summer holiday where I drank little but. Aroma create 3D postcards from life’s archive. Unlike images and noises (except perhaps in the cases of those with seriously powerful emotion attached), the brain lodges away sniffs and snufflings, and when one encounters a scent that resembles it (entirely, or only in one sharp respect) it is as if an electric current has been conducted through your head. Engaging with flavour and aroma immerses us in the tangible world much more immediately and rewardingly.

A smell can speak of the recent past, too, preserving a moment in time, when perhaps the principal actor has since departed. Have you ever wandered along a corridor and been hopelessly beguiled by an abiding suggestion of perfume? One can speculate endlessly as to the wearer – it might even have been Scarlett Johanson (provided it was Dolce & Gabbana): one’s imagination was been piqued. Whilst we humans are not bloodhounds, certain fragrances do persist: the bottle of Lagavulin may have disappeared from the minibus in November, but the traces of peat and crisp malt in the atmosphere and upholstery spoke of its lingering presence the next day.

Every time you nose and taste a single malt, Irish whiskey, Bourbon, whatever, you are unconsciously challenging your brain to surprise you, to excavate something you may have experienced and then forgotten about decades ago. I shan’t apologise for mentioning him yet again, but Keith Wood enjoyed just this breed of revelatory moment recently. Little did he know when he poured out his test sample of Port Ellen that he would relive a holiday he had had on the Yorkshire coast as a very young boy.

In the 2009 Malt Whisky Yearbook, David Stirk tackled the tricky issue of whisky tasting notes and ratings. A salient point for this discussion is precisely how personal a response any whisky tasting is, unique to the individual. The better one appreciates this, setting out on an exploration of whisky undaunted by the terms they have to use or the flavours they ‘ought’ to find but motivated by the possibility of discovering a compendium of sensory memories contained within them, the more fulfilling our drams become.

A whisky’s maturation can, as Gordon & MacPhail have shown, extend to and encompass 70 years of quiet interactions. People are formed over a similar time scale. I would contend that a whisky’s complexity is so closely tied up with our own arcane recollections and aroma archives that the line between those qualities which we extrapolate from a whisky and those which a whisky unlocks within us is very difficult to draw indeed, and uncovers a fascinating subtext to those personal tasting notes of yours.

Whilst not wishing to put words in anyone’s mouth, I suspect that the reason Keith is considering inducting the Port Ellen into his personal Top Ten whiskies is not just because it is a brilliant whisky (I’m sure it is), but mostly because it could penetrate deep into the subconscious, and earth his intangible memories into a very real, experienced sensory world. Our nose and mouth have the power to convinve us that we are not creatures isolated, alone, in the present moment. One taste, one fragrance, can illuminate our personal timelines, retrieve and reanimate what we had never thought we had remembered.

Use your senses, I urge you: they just might take you somewhere amazing.

A singular moment in Time, revived by a single malt: in this case Highland Park 12yo.

A singular moment in Time, revived by a single malt: in this case Highland Park 12yo.

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The Scotch Odyssist’s Handbook

If you are tired of waiting for me to produce the definitive tome to the world of Scotch whisky tourism (and I know I am) then please allow me to do the next best thing and point you in the direction of two men who have done just that.

Not content with contributing to a thorough, and to my mind successful, revision of malt whisky’s seminal work – the Malt Whisky Companion of Michael Jackson - Gavin D. Smith, in partnership with Graeme Wallace, has released a gem of a book which does not follow the whisky out of the distillery to the bars and shops, but stays behind to take a closer look around.

Discovering Scotland’s Distilleries may have been the subject line in my correspondences with Scottish Field prior to their publishing an article of mine in October, but I learnt earlier this week that it is also the title of a pioneering work concerned with informing the whisky enthusiast of how he or she might get the most out of their time amongst the towns, hills and pagodas of Scotland’s whisky landscapes. I am delighted to see this work appear, because it confirms in my mind how the attentions of the industry, and of the whisky-drinker, have become increasingly focused on the idea of provenance. Nothing was more crucial to me when I elected to sit on a slender saddle for six weeks and pedal to as many distilleries as possible. We now wish to make a journey and plenty of discoveries beyond the drinks cupboard and the nation of Scotland is eminently well-euipped to accommodate such urges.

Rather than the ‘coffee-table books’ you may find lauding the Scottish landscape and the romantic, artisanal industry within it, this is a slender volume (195mm by 120mm) to be thrust into an overnight bag or coat pocket for use out ‘in the field’. The rigidity of its thick card cover would suggest it would withstand even my abusive shovings into backpacks and panniers. In fact, I rather wish I had had it to hand prior to and during my Odyssey.

Divided into a general introduction covering whisky history, the geographical regions which, for all the concept has been questioned of late, is still highly relevant to the traveller, and a very evocative passage on the present state of distillery tourism. Congratulations are in order to Gavin Cunningham and company at Tullibardine who lured in the most thirsty tourists during 2008.

There follows a series of thoughtful suggestions as to combining a distillery visit with a general excursion in Scotland, focusing on the major cities and also outlying rural districts. Some of these I undertook by bike: the accessibility of the ’Eastern Perthshire Trail’ I can attest to - even on two wheels! Together with how you might work your day around a peep at Glenturret and Tullibardine, for example, are listings of bars, hotels and eateries. These sections really are fine pieces of research, although I’m quite certain they do not cater for the budgetary considerations I was obliged to observe!

Both this and the section detailing those distilleries which offer tours take a counter-clockwise route around the country (in much the same manner as I did). From the relatively accessible malts and distilleries of the Lowlands, the book is structured to reflect the increasingly intrepid nature of getting to the far-flung birthplaces of some of the other malts you may have encountered. For each distillery with a regular tour in operation (fifty are listed) there is a double-page spread with information, on the left-hand leaf, regarding ownership, the malt itself and the production, in addition to distillery and local history. The right-hand page deals solely with the ‘Visitor Experience’ with an extended prose commentary in addition to listings of times and tour specifications. It is all so up-to-date it is quite unnerving, and proves my suspicion that many distilleries were set to upgrade the tourist experience shortly after I passed through.

The remainder of the book approaches the other half of the industry which, officially, don’t provide an established tour. However, there is the suggestion that, with perseverance and charm, you may be able to arrange a look around.

I’m still waiting on some page proofs from the publishers to illustrate much of what I had to explain above, and when they arrive I shall return and slot them in. Of course visitor centres function, on the most basic, cynical level, as the most immediate and stylishly-furnished extensions of the owners’ marketing departments, but there has been a committed, coordinated response to the increased interest in where one’s whisky comes from, and as a result there are some truly memorable experiences on offer to cater for all tastes – and which the Scotch Odyssey Blog can still help you to distinguish between!

Discovering Scotland’s Distilleries is available from Amazon and Waterstones at GBP £9.99.

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Three Years and a Day…

My Metaphor 1

I like to think that, on October 26 2010, I could empathise on a level of singular profundity with Anthony Wills and how he had felt on December 15 2008. Last week I marked my most significant whisky anniversary to date – the obsession conceived with unexpected suddenness and violence in the slender stills of The Glenlivet in 2007 had, by measure of the Scotch Whisky Act of 1988, achieved official ‘whisky’ status.

It is fairly evident that, to persist with the metaphor, my personal cask of single malt curiosity and exploration has been stacked fairly high up in the palletised warehouse. As I have described elsewhere on this blog, I possess two bottles which demonstrate by their associated dates just how extraordinarily Scotch whisky has acted on my consciousness and imagination: hooked as an ignorant 17-year-old (the 10/07 bottling date of my Nadurra manifesting this moment for me), I had circumnavigated Scotland by bike, dropping in on more than forty distilleries before I had reached 20 (the Glengoyne 17-year-old with its personalised label, presented to me at the distillery on May 21 2010). That is one hell of a rapid maturation.

Tragically essay deadlines precluded an appropriate toast – at least on the day in question. The rigours of a Scottish univeristy did not allow me to partake of the Scotch drink there and then, but I was in a pleasantly wistful mood on the 25th and the 26th.

A little over a week later, however, the bung was withdrawn and a liberal sample taken to assess how my dedication, understanding and character were progressing. I returned, as a guest of Inver House Distillers, to areas of the country I had not visited since my tour and some others which I had; I took another peek around Pulteney into previously unseen darkened corners in addition to Balblair and Knockdhu, and mingled with some of the loveliest people I have ever been fortunate enough to encounter. I would urge you to check out the many diverse reports of the two day tour on Edinburgh WhiskyGuid Scotch Drink; Onversneden; Whisky Emporium, and Whisky For Everyone. It was a true privilege to meet the people behind these exceptional platforms, to encounter their passion and expertise and – good-naturedly – disagree from time to time. I hope to bring you my account of the trip in instalments over the week from a Scotch Odyssey perspective. I shall say at this point, however, that it was a fantastic experience, and confirmed that the whisky wood has been having no small influence on my whisky mania contained within. This is a refill hoggie at the least in which I’m ‘casked’. 

I’m still a very young whisky, however, with some rough edges to be smoothed. I have a fixed idea of where I aim to take myself and this blog, however, and if I can attain the heights of the above blogs - Glenfarclases, Ardbegs and Highland Parks in my eyes - then there shall be another IWSC winner, I’m sure.

Fecund and fabulous - I'm very pleased with my progress so far.

Fecund and fabulous - I'm very pleased with my progress so far.

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Sacred Spirit

Will I be a collector when I grow up? Prior to my Scotch whisky odyssey I would have dismissed such a probability with a contemptuous “not on your nelly”.

Perhaps as a consequence of the style of my initiation into the spirit at The Glenlivet, I left the distillery in 2007 with a devout enchanted appreciation of the craft, passion and personality at the core of Scotch malt whisky. That the legacy and struggles of those first amateur distillers bore no relation to predominating concerns for economic fluctuations or sober accrual and display, which motivate some consumers today, was a belief from which I could not be negotiated. Big ideas and big personalities had shaped the fortunes and flavours of the distilleries behind the iconic malts of now. Why had they persevered through economic disaster, World Wars, devastating accidents and destruction; why had they innovated and invested to create the best-tasting spirit possible for us, and in so doing intertwining their own histories, hopes and characters with the drink, only for it to sit on a shelf untouched and incarcerated: an ornament instead of an elixir; a relic instead of a companion?

I may have waited for the opportune moment to open and enjoy the bottle of 18-year-old Glenlivet we purchased that day in 2007, and I liked to read about old and rare bottlings, but my principal goal was connoisseurship: the quest to discover nuance, power, antiquity, youth, to learn how to distinguish the great from the good. What use, then, was a sealed bottle of whisky to me? It fell tragically short by at least 80% of realising its full sensory potential. So synonymous is Scotch whisky, for me, with Scotland and the Scottish, so intuitive and indisputable did that sip of The Glenlivet in the dramming room demonstrate said link to be as I imbibed the distillation of place, history and art, that I could not be content with appearances and myth alone. I needed to experience whisky and all that it related to for myself.

And now, having gone so far to do just that already, one of the results seems to be an urge to acquire, to set aside, to enshrine. It appears I want to start a collection. It suddenly and unexpectedly makes sense. After having visited so many distilleries and spied out further sites diligently, quietly making malt, the proud traditions and idiosyncracies of whisky manufacure in Scotland are more comprehensively understood, more colourfully evoked and more ardently valued. I feel a need to recognise and venerate the industry; the past present and future of which is contained in every bottle. I also want to manifest in precious amber liquid some of my fondest and most unrepeatable encounters and experiences. A bottle of malt is again a distillation, albeit cerebrally, of my favourite malt moments. I will still drink and evaluate the stuff, of course – I love the flavour exploration, a journey in its own right – but I am going to experiment with my new inclination to preserve.

Three months’ ago I would have agreed entirely with a statement found in a Whiskeria (the magazine for The Whisky Shop and full of excellent articles from leading whisky writers, free in-store) article from the Summer 2009 issue. Within ‘To Drink Or Not To Drink…’ the author advanced the drinkers’ creed: “…it’s criminal to take a product that was lovingly crafted using skills honed over generations, put it in oak more than 100 years old, mature it for 25, 30 or 40 years and then stick it under the stairs. It is a drink, they [those in favour of drinking] say, and it should be drunk. Any other fate for it is disrespectful.” Now, however, I can see that this inventory of the credentials of whisky’s heritage and artisanal quality can still stand as supporting evidence for the other side of the debate. I am ignoring for the purposes of this article that the preservation of rare and unusual bottlings can be an altruistic act, making it possible for those with curiosity (and money) enough in the future to taste what whisky was like in the dim occluded past, and I am also going to largely overlook the trade in exclusive whiskies for substantial profit. I think setting some precious bottles aside shows tremendous respect for the time and skill required to create fine malt whisky: it demonstrates, in my view, an appreciation, a reverence even, for whisky’s alchemy, tradition and significance. It is an entity built to last like high art, jewellery and architecture. It is not disposable like so many other things in our culture and collections recognise that. We do not devote rooms and our hobbies to the mundane and mediocre.

Expressions from The Dalmore had appealed to me as the focus of a collection on account of their beauty. After this 15yo the prices spike upwards pretty steeply, though.

Expressions from The Dalmore had appealed to me as the focus of a collection on account of their beauty. After this 15yo the prices spike upwards pretty steeply, though.

Of course, whisky’s shelf life makes it a prime candidate for delayed gratification. If you never rip the seal, release the cork and pour the malt into your tumbler/copita/ubiquitous Glencairn glass you can “savour it, enjoy the anticipation of it.” It will be there for that “very special occasion” or you can pass it on, “sell it to someone else who will get to share in the pleasure of ownership.” (Whiskeria) If you collect and buy rare whisky you become part of a very special chain of human interest and acquaintance stretching maybe decades back in time. You are snagged in a web of connections, for collectors keep exhaustive archives of the history of their star expressions, with one particular bottle of whisky, whose life and character you have contributed to, at its focus. As a recent post about a Ladyburn bottling on WDJK? demonstrated, this web can include us more than once and is always liable to surprise.

But to get specific about my personal ambitions for a collection: what would I rather survey than swallow? What is better in the bottle than my belly? What will get my mental juices flowing but maybe never my mouth’s? It is the final query which harnesses the crux of the matter. I am not interested in stashing away whisky for the sake of its age, its rarity or a slight imperfection in its packaging. The whiskies, or more correctly the distilleries, I wish to preserve all have special meaning for me. The two malts below have especial significance on account of the key dates related to them. The Glenlivet Nadurra was the first malt in my collection and came to be so by accident. I had bought it with the full intention of drinking it but upon getting it home I realised the date of its bottling: the 16-year-old Speyside had reached its full potential and been sealed in glass in October 2007. My own obsession with whisky began at the same distillery in the same month of the same year. The Glengoyne was presented to me unexpectedly when I arrived at the distillery. Its label reads: “Specially bottled for James Saxon on the occasion of his visit to Glengoyne distillery. 21st May 2010.” The journey from October 2007 to 21 May 2010, the penultimate day of my recent single malt adventure, is quite an extraordinary one, and it shall be commemorated by these two bottles.

The Glenlivet Nadurra and the Glengoyne 17YO: the first bottles of my collection.

The Glenlivet Nadurra and the Glengoyne 17YO: the first bottles of my collection.

I want to hunt out further bottles which represent an encounter, flavour or motif of my travels. Single cask Bourbon-matured Aberlours will always take my fancy, for example. I would also happily drain my bank account for cask strength Lagavulin. So perfect a microcosm of Speyside was Aberlour and so picturesque, relaxed and romantic was Lagavulin that their spirit will forever more have the singular spiritual overtones of my journey.

There are two distilleries most of whose bottlings I will aim to source. That Glen Garioch is one of these will come as no surprise to those who read my blog while I cycled round Scotland. As it happens I will be in the Speyside/Aberdeenshire neck of the woods at the beginning of September to take the VIP Tour of the distillery, catch up with Fiona and Jane and make the purchase I promised I would in the presence of these ladies as I clattered back out of the VC into the rain for the return leg to Huntly. I am after a special Glen Garioch, symbolic of my first visit, the hardships faced before and after and of having completed the journey with Fiona and Jane’s notable touching encouragement. Following the re-branding of the distillery’s range, the first two of their new “Small Batch Releases” comprised the 1978 (30-year-old) Cask Strength and the 1990 (18-year-old) Cask Strength. The latter, as it shares my birth year, is a most apt acknowledgement of my greatest achievement to date, some of the most extreme 24 hours within it, and of two of the loveliest people I have ever stumbled upon.

The other uber-distillery is Mortlach, Speyside’s “secret star” according to Michael Jackson. For the three nights I spent in Dufftown, Mortlach was a stone’s throw from my B&B. When I walked to the shop for supplies each morning, the pagodas, silver smokestack and steam were visible down in the hollow and the smell of mashing and worts intoxicating when the wind was right. It also turned out to be the favourite whisky of the demi-god of my adventure: Sandy from Taste of Speyside. He grew up beside Mortlach, and the 16-year-old is a whisky he recommends to all of his patrons. In my experiences with this malt Before the Tour (BT) I had been impressed but hadn’t raved. Now I find the earthy smokiness and dark Sherried richness nothing short of enthralling. For me, it evokes a more traditional Speyside flavour profile and that it is closed to visitors so that it might better get on with producing whisky adds to the mystery and pure, serious, aura. Its different-shaped stills and complex distillation run is charmingly quirky and the recent release by Gordon & MacPhail of a 70-year-old proves its venerable nature. This is a distillery of antiquity: it is for eternity. Of course, if I wish to amass a complete collection of Mortlach it will mean £10,000 for this last expression. Rather a lot, really.

When back up in Speyside in late summer I intend to celebrate Mortlach’s significance to me with another purchase and I shall return to The Whisky Castle in Tomintoul, my favourite malt emporium run by the unmissable Mike and Cathy, to make it. I’m looking for an independent bottling, 14-20 years old, Sherry-matured and possibly cask strength. Research on their website has unearthed a Douglas Laing, a Dewar Rattray and an Adelphi which fit the description. I shall try and taste each and make my choice as to which shall be a cupboard stalwart, my 70cl Ambassador for Mortlach, Sandy and Speyside.

Neither the 1990 Glen Garioch nor the Mortlach should be over £70. They are not, therefore, unjustly expensive (the key barrier at present for seriously embarking on this collecting business and I cannot afford to buy two of anything so that I might have the best of both worlds, but everyone has to start somewhere) and this is because they are not particularly rare. In my possession, on my shelf, though, they shall exude the pure, complex light and bearing of precious memory and times past. On the subject of “anticipation” and delayed gratification, however, they may yet contribute to magical moments to come, shared with someone I feel comfortable writing in to my developing whisky saga. Never say never.

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