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Glenmorangie Companta – Why I’m Wine Finished

I was panicking, I couldn’t help it. I didn’t know what the master distiller wanted from me, why couldn’t he just stop?

‘You will see,’ he said, stalking between the shadows at the far end of the warehouse. ‘It’s the future; you must accept it.’

I fought against the tannins still coating my tongue from the Saint-Emilion-boarding I had received earlier that morning. ’But it’s perfectly good as it is! You don’t have to do this!’

The master distiller stepped up to the cask which lay, defenceless, between us. ‘You will see,’ he repeated and signalled to his henchmen. Heavy boots scuffled over the cement floor as the goons wrestled another cask into view. They placed this newer-looking cask beside the first, then gripped the mottled grey hogshead.

‘Please don’t do this!’ I cried as they began to lift and tip the contents of the first cask into the second.

‘No! No! Noooooooooooooooooooooooooo!’

Okay, so it isn’t a scene that’s going to make it into the next Matt Damon espionage thriller. The anxieties of the wider world are still titillated by government surveillance and nuclear war - the whims of the whisky industry are very far down the list of Hollywood’s screenwriters. But that leads me on rather neatly to the whisky anorak’s premonition of the apocalypse: wine finishing.

I’m not going to go into the whys and wherefores; how the practice started is of less importance than where it is leading. There were conspiracies in the darker pockets of the internet that wine casks and indeed any oak vessel which had once held something else were drafted in to the Scotch whisky industry to lift sunken stocks. ‘Is your 13-year-old whisky a bit lifeless and bland? Stick it in a tokaji cask and you’ll be laughing.’ I should stress that I am not tarring all finishes with the same brush, nor am I suggesting that this was the policy for the entire industry. I am a big fan of Sherry and Port finishes, and some fortified wine finishes have been stellar: Ardbeg Galileo from Marsala casks, Glenmorangie Nectar d’Or from Sauternes. I reserve my reservations, in fact it is tantamount to a fully-formed aversion, for red wine-finished whiskies.

Over the years I have tried, in no particular order: Auchentoshan 17yo Bordeaux Finish, Bruichladdich Rocks, Bowmore Dusk, Bruichladdich Black Arts, Glenmorangie Artein, Edradour Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Dunedin 10yo Doublewood. All boasted redeeming features (excepting the Black Arts, of course) but the initial taste and recurring faults in the finish – like a repressed memory that keeps fighting back – always upset me.

On taking a first sip, it is as if Tarzan has swung in from nowhere with an offering of semi-decomposed berries and his own leaf mulch mattress. There’s a gruesomely bold ‘ta da! It’s me!’ from the wine, like encountering with a hangover a mostly empty bottle of merlot someone else was drinking the night before sat on a hot windowsill and exhaling exuberantly, which ruins everything else. Fair enough (almost) if your original casks have been stingier than an insurance company in Somerset but what if the liquid was quite charming to start with? This brings me on to Glenmorangie’s latest expression in the Private Edition series, Companta.

Dr Bill Lumsden, head of Whisky Creation at Glenmorangie, is a big fan of wine. He introduced Super Tuscan wine casks for the Artein release a couple of years ago and has settled in France this time for Companta. Two separate parcels of Glenmorangie were brought together, one lot maturing in Grand Cru casks from Clos de Tart and the other in fortified wine casks from the Cotes du Rhone. The idea was to offer something ‘neither too bold nor too tame’. My problem here is that the wine influence is fairly bold, and I suspect they thought the original whisky was on the more mellow side. Rather lovely in its own way, but in need of pep. I fear that, in pursuit of something a little more earnest, they have dressed Cerys Matthews up as Lady Gaga.

Glenmorangie Companta 46% £69.99

Colour – full dark honey with prune tints.

Nose – complex tannic knots of cask, barley sweetness beneath and dark cherry with a dark chocolate shell. Soft, full and inviting. Big note of Port-poached pear, the wine thickening and puckering at the edges. Lashings of blackberry vinegar. A shaving of lightly creamy and spicy ex-Bourbon cask. Earthiness returns and a loss of focus in the mid-range.

Palate – winey fruits and jelly beans collide into each other then firm, sweet baking spice oak arrives. Smooth malt behind. A touch aggressive but pleasant.

Finish – quite light in the finish: apricot flesh surrounds a fading fudgey malt. Budding vanilla fragrance and buttercream thickness.

Adding water improved everything by a fraction. The nose was reminiscent of Jammy Dodgers, sweet hazelnut and stewed apple. There is a lovely malt at its peak texture and sweetness but the wine, I felt, inhibited any attempt to realise the whisky’s depths. With time, strawberry bonbon, acacia honey and peppermint appear. The palate takes the dark cherry note from the neat nose and spins it on a bed of fromage frais. A bit of pear and more winey warmth. Creamy coconut and soft fruit stick to the tongue before earthy cask notes return. All led into a creamy and elusive finish.

So…?      As I said above, there are strong hints of a very lovely whisky here. The high quality Glenmorangie spirit has an exceptional ability to fill the nose and conjure up sweets you had long forgotten about. There are suggestions of the 10yo’s pear and creamy Bourbon character and it’s all rather nice until you have to factor in the wine. In this whisky the dangers of mixing grape and grain came in the form of a warm mulchy earthiness, like making jam in a potting shed. It didn’t dominate, but it was just enough to mar the effect at every stage. The Companta, therefore, is a bright blue sky, with a cloud or two sidling into shot.

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Glenmorangie Artein

‘You’d like to visit the Glenmorangie Distillery, Long John Silver, up in Tain?’

‘Arrrrr – Tain!’

Excuse the pun. I’m quite sure it is not how Dr Bill Lumsden would like his latest creation in the Private Editions range to be introduced but I’d much rather fool around with a piratical play on words than go through the Scots Gaelic derivation.

‘Stone’ follows on from Sonnalta and Finealta in the Highland distillery’s more experimental annual releases. The whisky is a vatting of two thirds 15yo spirit to one third 21yo spirit, matured in ex-Bourbon hogsheads and finished in Super Tuscan wine casks. The distillery’s water source is famously hard. I tried to clamber up to the Tarlogie Spring while I was up in the area during the summer, but pulled out of the attempt before I became too sodden. The limestone surroundings are said to ‘contribute to the whisky’s complex fruity aromas’.

The wood finish is one Lumsden is especially interested in. ‘I was fascinated by the role stony ground played in cultivating the vines – therefore influencing the flavour profile of the famed Super Tuscan wines,’ he said. ’I was inspired to experiment with extra maturing Glenmorangie in these wine casks and was thrilled with the result – a rich, outstandingly fragrant whisky – born of stone.’

I sampled the Sonnalta at the distillery, and whilst I admired its citrussy richness, I felt the malt only wore the Pedro Ximenez finish like a sumptuous Parka, without absorbing its characters. Here are my thoughts on the Artein.

Glenmorangie Artein 46% vol. £69.99

Colour – Stunning: rich orange with pinkish depths.

Nose – Hovering around the rim of the glass is a wall of matte, moist barley sweetness, sandiness (like I find with the LaSanta) and veins of oak. There is also a clean, buttery toffee aroma and a warm, rich grapiness halfway between the robust Quinta Ruban and the sweet, crystallised Nectar d’Or. With the nose in the glass, the red grape, winey notes build but what really interests is the silky Bourbon presence: corny and sweet with sugary plums. Clean peach tones in addition to rich vanilla cupcakes. After a sip and some time, mandarin and nectarine emerge along with ever-so-sweet cereals. Iced cinnamon buns.

Water sweetens the experience still further with delicate citrus mousse tones. Perfumed and chunky – yet smooth – maltiness. Bourbon oak returns: heavy, oily corn and eucalyptus. Oozing rich toffee. Mandarin again and milk chocolate. More time reveals orange and marzipan as well as fudge. The whole arrangement boasts a remarkable clarity.

Palate – Fruits come to the fore, although at first they are definitely cask-driven: orange, date and apricot. The cling and sugars all come from the Bourbon casks, but they are lovely examples; so creamy but, yes, corny.

Water does not detract from the clinging quality. It is still sweet with citrus fruits and honey. A rich earthiness builds, before dark oak rolls into view. Chocolate biscuit.

Finish - Much of the Bourbon influence here – in fact, if more of the Bourbons I drank finished as gently and sublty as this I would be a happier man. Long with jammy notes (strawberry and plum). Creamy vanilla suggesting French pastries, although the concluding flavours are cake-like.

Water renders the effect more gentle still with soft, leathery malt and fig rolls. Icing sugar and apple puree. The oak returns and they are fine, rounded casks. Plums and corny Bourbon at the death.

So…?      This is a strange whisky: rich and involving, but not exactly Glenmorangie. Indeed, with such a hefty proportion of well-matured stock I had expected a little more finesse, perhaps with more of that ethereal sweetness which the Nectar d’Or has in spades. A common thread in the tasting notes was the strong Bourbon character and this I found very enjoyable indeed. It reminded me a lot of a more well-mannered version of the Wild Turkey 101 I’ve been drinking in St Andrews: rich, full, creamy and fruity. Of course, the Wild Turkey is about a third of the price.

The Glenmorangie Artein is a very assured – even charming – whisky, but there is far more to be had at a more competitive price from the Quinta Ruban.

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The Odyssey Projects

Hope, anticipation, expertise, confidence. How quickly these disintegrated into mystification, disappointment and despondency. In January, I had a career to kick-start and three months’ playing Pied Piper in a Scotch whisky distillery could do just that. Sadly – and mystifyingly – my numerous applications to the biggest companies generated only one response, which was to say that they had no vacancies at this time. The rest may as well have vanished into an administrative abyss. Couldn’t someone recognise the initiative and consequent potential of a young man who had planned and pedalled his way around the Scotch whisky industry? For many months I was sceptical, until Inver House Distillers made a second unexpected and charming approach.

The Balblair distillery, Ross-shire. It will look better in July.

The Balblair distillery, Ross-shire. It will look better in July.

The abiding impression of the whisky world for me is that it exists thanks to countless resilient, interconnecting and genuine personal relationships. When Inver House invited me along with other bloggers to tour their leading single malt brands, I recognised this commendable way of conducting business through time spent with Cathy James in addition to Malcolm, John and Gordon, the distillery managers. Inver House and their exemplary personnel recognised the profound, obsessive enthusiasm of we amateur journalists and I like to think that this is why, following an unsuccessful response to a vacancy at Balblair in March, they offered me a week’s work experience instead.

Having John MacDonald phone up and regale me with tales of his appearance on the latest series of MasterChef, of Hollywood having moved in to Edderton to shoot a whisky-related film, and would I like to come up and potter about the place for a few days, astonished and delighted me. I rarely jump about the house whooping and cackling, but it seems the prospect of five days in one of the cutest and most picturesque distilleries I have come across – and not to mention one which produces a very delicious dram, too – has that effect on me. I agreed straight away.

I shall be shadowing the folk on the production side of things and getting my hand in with regards to the tourism operation. Balblair offer two tours daily, led by either Julie Ross or John himself. I hope to play my part in conveying the romance of the place – and shifting a few more units – during the week. As John assured me, ‘there’s always plenty to do.’

So, my encounters with whisky continue to evolve and move forward but what of last year? How am I making use of my experiences and memories? An on-going project of mine is the writing-up of my 2010 Odyssey into a continuous, comprehensive form. Progress is steady, but the process is highly rewarding. The twelve months of maturation my memories have undergone have done them a power of good – I could not have known how profoundly each of my journey’s moments had afixed themselves to the fabric of my mind. It is very special to sit down to write and to find myself gasping instead at what, with a little effort, I recollect. I shall let you know how all of this is getting along over the next few months.

Much to keep me busy and engaged, therefore, and plenty more to make its way onto the Scotch Odyssey Blog.

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Unwrapping Balblair

This was my view of the gorgeous little distillery as I passed on the road on my way to Culrain in late April.

This was my view of the gorgeous little distillery as I passed on the road on my way to Culrain in late April.

‘In Tain, no-one can hear you scream…’

I passed a most refreshing night, waking up no earlier than my alarm and in my own room. As I would learn at breakfast, this isn’t necessarily a formality for some, but it really isn’t my place to say anything further…

It was with some portion of guilt that I passed through the drinks lounge in order to get to the dining room; the reason why I sought the forgiveness of the two bottles of Balblair sat accusingly behind the bar (emptier as a result of our stay) was having preferred their local rival as my own digestif the previous night. Atonement was required and atone I certainly did.

It was only slightly unfortunate that the weather was not of equal majesty to the last time I beheld Balblair Distillery. It is a gift of the Scottish Highlands that even in dour and driech weather, it can still capture one’s soul: or maybe I’m conceited and it was simply because whisky was in the offing.Balblair 1

Disgorging from the minibus, the blogger photo frenzy occupied a number of minutes and John MacDonald appeared when he decided that any greater exposure to our flashbulbs might blind the angels lovingly in residence. The locality in which Balblair sits is reputed to have the cleanest air in Britain, and if a good proportion of that is evaporating Balblair spirit, then this stands to reason.

John has been rattling around the distillery since 2006, jumping at the chance to manage this little-known Highland gem when the position became available. After 17 years at Glenmorangie, he was as intimately attuned to the area as he was its whiskies and had been for some time mystified as to quite why Balblair’s profile had not risen to something like its neighbour’s dizzying heights.

Mr MacDonald, Cathy had assured us, was a dab hand at promotion. As he recounted some of his many varied experiences of the industry, together with the (impressive) facts and figures of the distillery, one couldn’t help but be struck by his immense passion and brand-flattering articulacy. To my mind, he is a hybrid between production manager and ambassador. I was educated and amused in equal measure.

John MacDonald in his Balblair element.

John MacDonald in his Balblair element.

Big plans and grand schemes are jostling in John’s brain: chief among them for the present is a visitor centre for the distillery. I think this is a terrific idea, and couldn’t be better situated. Less than an hour from Inverness, just off the A9 and with an access road no more hazardous than Ardbeg’s – and certainly not a patch on the hair-raising routes to Bunnahabhain and Kilchoman – you could certainly pull in the punters. If the tourists have already made it as far as Glenmorangie for a peep around, then Balblair is hardly going to put them out any further. Also, as far as Inver House are concerned, their sole official visitor centre is Pulteney’s – in Wick! In the shape of the old floor maltings, John has an extremely versatile space on which to capitalise (look at Glenkinchie and especially Aberfeldy for how these types of enclosures can be harnessed to best effect), plenty of parking, and a distinctive brand to peddle. With the right personnel – and John would fill the desired role in the ‘Manager’s Masterclass’ format perfectly – this would be by no means a redundant operation. John, you have the full support of Scotch Odyssey Blog!

Forty years ago, there was no space for a visitor centre, the floor maltings being fully operational. Now, we could walk upon the concrete floor covered only in fresh paint. Display cases filled with Balblair bottlings and ancient distilling knick-knacks gave some

The intended situation for the Balblair visitor centre. If we are lucky.

The intended situation for the Balblair visitor centre. If we are lucky.

 idea of what John has in mind. The floor-to-ceiling banners for each of the vintages so far were handsome, also. In such environs we were informed as to how the VC would be a continuation of Balblair’s apotheosis into a new single malt power. The new packaging, which has received much attention – not least within this year’s Malt Whisky Yearbook and an article by Dominic Roskrow – takes its inspiration from the Edderton Stone, a Pictish monolith jutting proudly out of the turf and cow pats a stone’s throw from the distillery. A detail from the ancient carvings is duplicated in the embossed glass-work of every bottle.

I was particularly fascinated to learn about the composition of the three vintages released in 2007. John and his team personally shortlisted 81 casks from more than a thousand which they felt displayed Balblair spirit at its best at that moment. This was a bold move for a hitherto overlooked distillery in a world of age statements. It worked out for them, however. Thirty casks were vatted to create the 1997, 36 for the original 1989 (there is now a second release) and 15 for the 1979, these last being snapped up very quickly indeed. 15% of production will be bottled as Balblair Single Malt, and John hopes to produce more than 1.3 million litres this year.

The longer fermentation time from 48 – 73 hours over the weekend, is a significant factor in the distillery character. John believes that giving the deliberately clear wort (liquid drawn from the mash tun) that little bit time to evolve makes for more ‘pronounced’ aromas later on in the process.Balblair Old Still

The stillroom did a very wonderful and rare thing: it reminded me of Glen Garioch. Beside the two fat copper stills which churn out all those millions of litres was one quite redundant, but very handsome with its stylish copper rivets. This was an original still from 1949, cold and silent since 1969. As Jason remarked, in a world where everyone seems to be straining to squeeze every last millilitre (AKA, penny) out of their facilities, it was refreshing to see a space given over to a bit of attractive history. When John expressed the belief that it would fit in very nicely with the decor of his VC, I suggested that a hot tub, using water from the condensers, might go down well with the tourists if installed in its stead. I don’t think I was taken seriously.

In the warehouses, to dodge the persistent enquiries from Jason and Mark about ‘oldest’ and the next release, John fed us the same intriguing line that had been served seventy miles away in Wick: ‘watch this space’.Balblair Warehouse

As was the case for Pulteney, I shall defer the authority on relating the tasting as a whole to the other bloggers in the group (I’d recommend Keith’s notes). I tasted the 1997 at the beginning of the year and loved it; I’d tried the 1989 a few weeks ago and loved it, and I’d had the 2000 at the Scotch Whisky Experience in Edinburgh during the Festival and you know what, I loved it, too. The 2000 still held its own, even against the deep and mammothly complex 1978. With just a little water, it was all sweetness and light: almond pastry, butterscotch tablet, heather honey and perfumed. Simply gorgeous.

After making our way through as much of the lunch spread fit for an army of kings as we could, it was back on the bus, and on to Knockdhu.

Unwrap Balblair - it's well worth it.

Unwrap Balblair, I tell you - it's well worth it.

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Nairn to John o’Groats

Nairn to Strathpeffer: 48 miles

The morning’s riding is characterised by cool, wet winds. It isn’t serious enough to warrant putting on anything waterproof but they are quite challenging conditions. There is some degree of trepidation ahead of this ride. It is the first longer effort I have had to make in a wee while.

Inverness nears. I pass Culloden battlefield as I engage with my enemy: the weather and most other road users.

I hadn’t expected the capital of the Highlands to be quite so busy. It is a proper city! I make my way through the Central Business District, underneath the huge shopping centre. I misread the sign for my desired road. I wanted the same number but with an ‘A’ in front of it. I follow the ‘B’ version for some distance until I realise that I’m not going in the right direction at all.

I hammer back in to Inverness, then cross the river and make for those signs with ‘Dingwall’ on them. Every place name confirms that I am no longer in tidy, cosy Speyside anymore.

I stop at the Bunchrew Hotel on the banks of the Beauly Firth. I have my lunch down by the water’s edge and look over to the misty mountains on my left and the road bridge on my right. There’s something not quite right with the pedal as I pull away. I think the Allen key bolt has worn itself loose again.

I adopt what will become the standard mode for following lochside roads which aren’t entirely flat: head down, swear and try and ignore the lactic acid. I’m lucky that the weather is truly superb by this stage, and everywhere looks divine. Beauly is no exception and this is where I manage to find a garage with a little Allen key. I tighten the hell out of my pedal, and as I totter around the forecourt testing it out I think I’ve sorted it. Back on the road, however, it is patently clear I haven’t.

Muir of Ord arrives at long last and after arrowing through the centre I come to its industrial outskirts. Technically, it is only a pair of buildings that qualify for this, but one is the Glen Ord maltings. And it’s huge. All that romance the tour guides try and sell you when it comes to the malting process? True in the mists of time, but that isn’t how they malt barley now. No pagoda rooves, just multiple storeys of industrial blandness. Inside are enormous drums for turning and drying the barley. Floors and kilns are just too expensive. I later learn on the distillery tour that the Glen Ord maltings provides all the malt for Talisker.

While sitting with my dram of Glen Ord 12YO (see review below) I realise it is my ‘new’ cleat which has come loose, not the pedal spring. I borrow a screwdriver and the whole issue is resolved.

This stirring vista greeted me after I left Muir of Ord on my way to Strathpeffer. Sunlight and cherry blossom in the fore- and middle-ground, rain filling the skirts of the mountains in the distance.

This stirring vista greeted me after I left Muir of Ord on my way to Strathpeffer. Sunlight and cherry blossom in the fore- and middle-ground, rain filling the skirts of the mountains in the distance.

The setting for the remainder of my ride is very much Tolkien’s Middle Earth. The gradations of colour and light are astonishing, and the outlines of the mountains themselves are majestically aggressive.

Road signs have begun to be displayed in English and Gaelic. It turns out I’m only 50 miles from Ullapool. It’s a steep climb up to Strathpeffer and an even steeper one to my B&B. I get off and push up the 50 metre ramp. I just can’t be bothered.

During dinner in the excellent Red Poppy I had noticed some guys head up the hill with tennis rackets. As part of my post-prandial walk, I spectated on the tennis for a little while. For the first time I felt homesick for my friends and our own unusual games.

***

Strathpeffer to Culrain: 52 miles

This was one of my better days, for all it started moistly. I’m pleased to report that it was just a shower and I had the company of the sun for the remainder of the day.

After a food stop in Dingwall (I hoard bananas, you see) I followed the coast overlooking the Black Isle. What a spectacular part of the world this is. Every so often the trees would cease and I could spy back to the spine of Scotland. It was still raining there, alright.

The Dalmore was so eagerly anticipated, and I almost missed it! I was where I didn’t want to be, on a busy road out of Alness, and the sign pointing to the distillery was just concealed.

I followed the main road into Invergordon, desiring a peek at the grain distillery. It didn’t look quite as huge or ungainly as I had been led to believe grain distilleries were. It wasn’t until I passed on the train a few days later that I saw the scale of the warehousing. It’s colossal.

I took the cycle routes to Tain, although I flirted again with the A9. Those roads really aren’t for cyclists. The location of Glenmorangie and the tour more than made up for it, and I only had maybe a mile to survive before I could turn off this horror of a highway and gently waft to Culrain. Err… not quite.

A splendid view of Balblair. Many a time I found a mini of the 1989 and had to put it back on the shelf. I didn't want it getting broken.

A splendid view of Balblair. Many a time I found a mini of the 1989 and had to put it back on the shelf. I didn't want it getting broken.

It was a quieter road, but I was beginning to develop out-of-body tendencies. I ate and ate and ate, but could not summon any real attentiveness. I realised that I had never visited more than one distillery on a day of more than 50 miles duration. Maybe that had something to do with it. What didn’t help was the highways authority’s loathing of telling you how far away you are from anywhere. Distance markers are so incredibly rare and so I was guessing how much further I had to go.

It wasn’t until Ardgay, after some awesome scenery, that I discovered I had only four miles to go. I had estimated seven, so was rather pleased.

Getting to the Youth Hostel involved more breathtaking roads; principally for the landscapes, but latterly for the hills. The track leading to the hostel forecourt was needlessly steep for someone in my condition.

Carbisdale Castle looks like any other Scottish castle from the outside. Inside, it is a youth hostel, but retains statues, rugs, libraries and ancient works of art. It’s unbelievable. Even more baffling is how long it took me to find my room and consequently complete my errands with dorm, reception, laundry room and dining room at opposite ends of the castle. I needed an energy drink just to get from the main entrance to my room. The views over the Kyle of Sutherland to Bonar Bridge were captivating, and largely made up for it.

It was all getting very very Highland-ish at this point. Mercifully, it was quite flat, though.

It was all getting very very Highland-ish at this point. Mercifully, it was quite flat, though.

The hostel also offers evening meals. I paid for three courses and I’m well aware I was no prize picture whilst eating them. feeding had, by that stage, become a primal activity. I practically drank my soup and drummed my fingers on the table in anticipation of my chili, wishing for a big portion. This was quickly despatched. Pudding wasn’t quite the right amount of stodge for me, but at least I began to feel a little more human.

I was rooming with a fellow cyclist and he put it rather well: “You get fitter, but that doesn’t mean you get any less tired.”

***

Culrain to Helmsdale: 42 miles

The scale of the hostel made amassing my things and preparing for the off difficult. I was expecting to read some time in the afternoon on my bike computer when I eventually made it to the entrance with all my bags but in fact it was still before 10AM.

Whilst stocking up in Bonar Bridge, a stranger is compelled to voice his approval of my mode of transport. He was once a cyclist, too, and commends my style. He doesn’t care for these mountain bikers and their fat knobbly tyres, only interested in going down hill. He recommended an alternative route to the main road, and he did promise that it had a lot of ascending. Maybe he was using me to advocate the noble art of suffering on a road bike, thus contrasting me with the muddier sort of cyclist. I have nothing against mountain bikers. It just annoys me when the estate carts zoom past me with them tied to the back, that’s all.

Clynelish was as empty for me on that Saturday as Brora beside it.

Clynelish was as empty for me on that Saturday as Brora beside it.

The man also assured me that it was a wild road. After continuing over a junction, which turned out to be the last one for a very long time, I began to appreciate what he was getting at. It was freezing when I eventually reached the top and the barreness of the hillsides, together with the chilly-looking lochs made me feel very much on the edge of civilisation. Munching on some shortbread by the side of the road as two cars in convoy passed spoilt the image somewhat.

I could avoid it no longer, though: the A9 was back. I emerged from my track to the past beneath the Mound, an incredible edifice. The motorcyclists greeted me with screaming engines. The camper vans were well represented. What followed were 20 very miserable miles.

If you took away all of the people who believe they have to get to where they're going at 80mph, it would be perfect. A stunning piece of coastline.

If you took away all of the people who believe they have to get to where they're going at 80mph, it would be perfect. A stunning piece of coastline.

The problem is that Scotland is a small, sparsely-populated country. When you get north of the Central Belt, what towns there are are hugely significant for the people living within their catchment and there are only a few roads connecting them all up. Factor in tourism, and cyclists have a pretty rough deal. I find it incredible, though, and actually nothing short of derisory, that there is no cycle lane connected to the A9. It’s on the Lands End to John o’Groats route, for goodness sake! I and the other cyclists I saw, together with walkers, all had to huddle into the verge as closely as they could while buses, vans lorries and cars hurtled past with soul-destroying speed and disdain. When I got to Golspie it started to rain, and the picture of dejection was complete. 

They were 10 wet and slow miles to Brora. Finding Clynelish shut was almost the final straw. Still rather wet, I decided not to head backwards to the centre of Brora but push on to Helmsdale. It was only 11 miles. And it was along the coast, too. It must be flat. Oh no, it wasn’t.

Helmsdale hardly endeared itself to me. The hotels were pricy and the cafes were not to my taste. The hostel was fully booked and there was only the one shower and toilet between a dorm containing nine beds.

I knew that all I needed was some gooey, calorific loveliness to pull round and I found it in the cafe on the A9 bridge, just out of Helmsdale. I had some gorgeous ginger loaf, a big mug of tea, and felt infinitely better. A phone call to Ross, who had spent three months in Uganda and Rwanda at the end of last year and so knows a thing or two about being alone and miserable, helped immeasurably.

***

Helmsdale to Wick: 36 miles

I don’t know if you have ever shared a room with a man with irritable bowel syndrome? I did that night and whilst I won’t go into details (I’m desperately trying to repress the memory), I will say that I had a broken night’s sleep. He woke me up just after seven when he cracked open a can of Tennent’s lager. I made my breakfast and escaped. On the road by 9AM. I ought to have been proud of myself.

The hills got worse between Helmsdale and Wick: one really long though gradual one, and one

Testing terrain between Helmsdale and Wick.

Testing terrain between Helmsdale and Wick.

nastily steep one. Two guys I’d met the night before, and who were one day in to their attempt for Lands End, had warned me about the latter, promising I wouldn’t get up. They had admitted earlier that they had done very little training, and for someone who has been up Cairn o’ Mount and the Devil’s Elbow already this trip, it wasn’t much more than unpleasant. My gears did all the hard work for me.

The weather was changeable, but the landscape was unwaveringly beautiful. The pictures will communicate it best but it is utterly unique. I live by the North Sea, but this was different.

I got to Wick in good time: 12.30! It was no surprise that my B&B proprietors were elsewhere. I took the bike into the middle of Wick, having spied out Pulteney and sat in Morag’s Cafe for an hour or so. Her chocolate cake and mugs of tea revived me perfectly.

Back at the B&B, I tended to my bike, watched some snooker, and fell into a coma.

***

Wick to John o’Groats: 20 miles

As I have mentioned below, my tour of Pulteney left a lot to be desired.

My quest for groceries was similarly frustrating. Lidl would only sell me gargantuan portions of everything, and the Co-op which was said to be at the other end of town I haven’t found yet. The supermarket I did use was perfect, though. I had my sauce, I had my pasta, I had my meat, and I had my bread. It wouldn’t be gastro, but this would be the first night of cooking and I didn’t want to complicate anything by poisoning myself.

This view means the end of the British mainland and was a marker like no other of just how far I had come.

This view means the end of the British mainland and was a marker like no other of just how far I had come.

Into the wind, it was a long 20 miles to John o’Groats. I had no clue as to where the village was until I had toiled up the last hill and there were the islands. I was dumbstruck. A little board told me what everything was. Stroma, Hoy, South Ronaldsay, the Pentland Skerries. Orkney was not qyite visible. A gleaming white ferry was heading towards it as I watched, though. That must be from Gill’s Bay.

I could free-wheel into John o’Groats now. It is an odd place, though. It isn’t a village at all, really. I would say it is more a scattering of houses and two mouldering hotels. Unlike anywhere else so far, though, I sensed that here was somewhere a little bit different to what I had come from, with an entirely different relationship to its surroundings. These last were incomparable, it must be said.

In the bright sun and perishing wind, I arrived at the hostel. It was closed until 5PM. I could have gone for a little ride around, but the wind offered strong discouragement and so I pulled up an abandoned chair and read my book until the nice young man who had been trying to fix a bleeping in the building passed on the message that I could go in.

I found two Geordie ladies on the desk. When they asked what I was up to and saw where I was from one asked, “wasn’t there an article about you in the Northumberland Gazette?” Here I am in the most north-easterly point in mainland Britain and I’m famous!  

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Glenmorangie

This is another Scotch giant, although you wouldn't know it. Only from the train can the metropolis of warehouses be appreciated.

This is another Scotch giant, although you wouldn't know it. Only from the train can the metropolis of warehouses be appreciated.

Tain, Ross-shire, IV19 1BR, 01862 892477. The Glenmorangie Co. (Moet Hennessy). www.glenmorangie.com

APPEARANCE AND LOCATION:      *****      If you ignore the brutal A9 behind, this is a flawless distillery location, and I saw it on a very good day. On the Dornoch Firth, facing the rugged north eastern coast, Glenmorangie is very picturesque distillery.

TOURS PROVIDED:

‘Standard Tour’: £2.50. See ‘My Tour’ below.

DISTILLERY-EXCLUSIVE BOTTLINGS:      A fortuitous find following a re-shuffle of certain corners of the premises uncovered a single cask release in the old-style bottle: a minimum of 10-years-old, £50. They also have limited numbers left of a 15yo Sauternes-matured Glenmorangie which is priced at £65. A new release for the distillery is expected for February/March: a single cask 1385. Watch this space.

My Tour – 30/04/2010

THE RUNNING COMMENTARY:     **

THE PROCESS AND EQUIPMENT:     **

Notes:      This is another distillery which has undergone recent expansion. It does lose, with its modern interiors, something of the feel of a truly working distillery – everything is too clean! A fine tour, however, with all stages of the process clear and interactive.

Everything is very cool and damp in here. It would have been nice to have gone into one a little closer to the sea, because this is a coastal distillery.

Everything is very cool and damp in here. It would have been nice to have gone into one a little closer to the sea, because this is a coastal distillery.

GENEROSITY:      ** (The tour only states that one dram is on offer, but I was kindly given two (Sonnalta PX and Signet) when I said that I had tasted all of the standard range. From the looks of things, most other people were poured more than a nip of the Original. Good on you, Glenmorangie!)

VALUE FOR MONEY:      **

SCORE:      8/10 *s

COMMENTS:      I had a personal tour, as it happened. On the way to the mill room who should I bump into but my Czech friends! They had enjoyed their experience at Glenmorangie and were glad of the opportunity to compare. They actually came to see The Dalmore’s characteristically claustrophobic buildings as a good thing: they warmed to the family-run, traditional feel. They weren’t so keen on the very modern facade of Glenmorangie: “too much metal.” I wrote down some recommendations for when they are next in Scotland, because they were keen to return. I really enjoyed the tour. I did find some of the revamped areas a little… sanitised. It did have the feel of a factory about it, unfortunately: the stillroom is sheer beauty, though. In the warehouses there are good displays explaining the finishing process in the core range, with a Port Pipe, a Sherry butt and a Sauternes barrique for visual aids. There are only 2 degrees centigrade of difference in the warehouses between summer and winter making for relaxed maturation. Obviously this is broadly the same in all distillery dunnage warehouses, but this was the first time I’d been given the actual climatic figures. As I mentioned above, I was deeply grateful for my tastes of the Sonnalta (I have a positive memory of Pedro Ximenez casks when associated with whisky maturation thanks to the Auchentoshan 3Wood) and the Signet was very unique. I’d been given a jar of toasted malt to smell in the mill room and the fragrance was wonderfully rich with coffee and chocolate. This came across in the whisky which was velvety smooth to boot. A good day’s whisky touring which spurred me on for the last 20 miles.

You could hardly wish for a more scenic, yet accessible, distillery location. The A9 thunders past the front door.

You could hardly wish for a more scenic, yet accessible, distillery location. The A9 thunders past the front door.

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