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Day 5: Speyside and Spokes

Perhaps it was my super-abundance of full cooked Scottish breakfast, perhaps it was a moment of madness to leave it behind the wheel of my hosts’ car in the first place, but I was four and a half miles beyond Nethy Bridge, about to join the A939, when I realised I had left my bike lock at the Coire Choille bed and breakfast. Fortunately, Jan and Allan Goodall are wonderful people (cyclists themselves) and they were willing to down tools and drive out to meet me with the lock.

While I waited, I could appreciate the stark beauty of this upland landscape as the low cloud began, mercifully, to lift. I also heard a cuckoo. The rest impaired my ascent of the 20% gradient up to the main road, however, which was a fairly upsetting obstacle so early in the day. It would get worse.

When cycling to Tomintoul four years ago, I had snow and the Devil’s Elbow up to the Lecht ski station to contend with; as I pedalled towards sunshine I began to recognise that the road I was on concealed challenges of its own. Bridge of Brown is the settlement perched above a sheer drop and some hairpins. As the gradient warning signs appeared, a flashback occurred to me from having driven in this direction with the parents maybe six years previously.

My first problem was controlling the bike on the abhorrently steep descent: with all the weight, braking achieved only so much. Soon, though, I could whistle to the glen bottom and begin the ascent up the other side which was, if anything, steeper. The hairpin innards were nigh-on verticle, and even in bottom gear I had to stop at flattish sections to hyperventilate before carrying on. Eventually, I hauled myself up to the summit and could appreciate a gentler descent into a sunlit Strathavon.The remainder of the road into Tomintoul was hardly plain sailing, but it was spectacular. Indeed, one section recalled the panoramic photograph that illustrates southern Speyside in Dave Broom’s magnificent The World Atlas of Whisky.

By the time I rolled through the village the sun was rather fierce and what I really needed to do was cool off in the company of Mike Drury in the Whisky Castle. Bombastic as ever, Mike combined a diatribe against the vacuity and rapacity of the modern whisky industry with greetings to locals and taking delivery of consignments from said modern whisky industry.

‘Where were we?’ I asked, as the shop cleared again. ‘Somewhere between truth and non-truth?’ he replied. He then poured me a dram, an extravagantly creamy Dewar Rattray 18yo Braeval which was good, but not £90 brilliant. ‘I’ve sold one hundred and sixty bottles of that!’ Mike blustered.

We then touched on the reasons why the whisky industry is in ‘the shite’: the lack of good quality, old casks. Mike and his wife Cathy are single cask, single malt fanatics and they bottle whiskies under their Whisky Castle label when they find something great. Mike confessed that the casks simply haven’t been up to scratch of late, so he hasn’t bothered bottling any.

The accelerated wood programmes of most distillers, using virgin oak, first-fill Bourbon barrels whose staves hadn’t been air-dried properly in the first place and bottling younger expressions were all exacerbating the dearth of quality single malts. Doom and gloom, therefore. It’s true that the industry has to think very hard about where the oak is coming from to encase the many millions more litres of spirit being produced, but I’m not about to shed any tears just because the heart-stoppingly beautiful single cask Ardbegs, Glenlivets, or Braevals for that matter – and which only ever pleased a handful of enthusiasts – are growing scarcer. Investment in whisky is across the board, from distilleries to bottling plants to cooperages. Distillers are grappling with the problems of the supply chain and I believe that, five to ten years from now, we will be looking at more consistently tasty expressions available from more companies than we enjoy currently. The only question that remains concerns how much we shall be expected to pay for them.

Leaving the Whisky Castle behind, I pedalled off into the Glenlivet Estate below a scorching sun. Soon, I glimpsed the steam chimney of The Glenlivet, ’the single malt that started it all’, and for me in particular. The last time I cycled past a blizzard swept down the glen to engulf the distillery and me; now I was worried about heat stroke.

Late (very late) for my rendezvous with Brian Robinson at Ballindalloch Distillery, I carried on past The Glenlivet following the Avon once again. As I passed a field of cows, on a flat smooth stretch of tarmac, I heard a disconcerting, metallic ‘ping’. Fearing the worst, but carrying on anyway, I reached the A95 and turned down towards Cragganmore and the Ballindalloch Castle Golf Course, where a wee distillery was being built.

The gorgeous location of the Ballindalloch distillery.

Dismounting, I discovered that I had indeed snapped a spoke, two in a week, and my plans for the afternoon were going to have to change. That lovely Imperial 23yo on the Speyside Way? Scratch that, I was going to have to get to Dufftown and try to find the bike shop in Elgin I’d used last time to get the rear wheel structurally sound again.

With mechanical matters in mind, I maybe wasn’t as attentive or curious on my tour of the site with Brian as I could have been. However, key points that emerged were that Ballindalloch, when it opens to visitors (hopefully by September) will not be like other distilleries and visitor centres; the plan is to bring a flavour of the ancestral home of the MacPherson Grants at Ballindalloch Castle into the distillery. Mrs Russell, who has lived in the Castle for 65 years, will oversee interior design.

The VC was some way behind the rest of the distillery, but it will be a space dedicated to making visitors feel very cossetted and special. Brian was at pains to emphasise the love and dedication shown to the project by the local builders, carpenters, electricians, etc. The final say for the build goes to the family at the Castle, however. ‘If they say they want this room to be pink, it will be pink’.

Charlie Smith will be head distiller, and his brief was to produce an oily, weighty spirit. Working backwards, worm tubs were required, squat slender stills installed, a long-ish ferment and cloudy wort will be established. The traditional approach to whisky-making starts with the barley which will be grown on the Ballindalloch estate, but malted in Inverness, and continues to the copper-domed mash tun and those brand new worm tubs. A unique element of the build is that the filling store and warehouses are ‘inside’ the distillery building – guests will be able to fill a cask as they go round on the tour before rolling it into the warehouse.

As I left I spectated on the worm tubs’ installation before getting on the bike. I knew, despite my anxiety, I needed to get some serious calories in me and the Delnashaugh Hotel, just beneath the curl of the A95, was closest. I actually really enjoyed my time there: from the helpful waitress who found me the number for Bikes & Bowls in Elgin, to the huge plate of mac ‘n’ cheese, garlic bread and chips had outside on the patio area, I began to feel more in control. Also, the range of single malts behind the bar is pretty impressive. Stop by if you’re in the area.

Full to the gunnels with carbohydrates, I managed to power through to Aberlour, then time-trial up the hill to Dufftown. I was just in time to catch the bus from the clock tower to Elgin, but I couldn’t travel with the whole bike. This meant I had no choice but to repair the bike tomorrow morning, and that put GlenDronach and Glenglassaugh in jeopardy.

I was despondent for as long as it took to shower, change and visit Sandy at Taste of Speyside. Once again I was bowled over by the Highland hospitality, the venison casserole, and the G&M Glentauchers 1994. I could reflect that, even if the bike wasn’t 100% fit, I had still made it to the malt whisky capital and that wasn’t such a bad place to be.

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A Taste of Speyside with Friends

Perhaps the most profound and extraordinary aspect of whisky’s character is how expertly it manipulates and distinguishes precious moments. One distillery, one dram, can bridge many months and miles and can muster disparate souls together to a degree that is startling yet also immensely heartening. When I purchased the Adelphi ‘Breath of Speyside’ 16yo in September last year, I had hoped for just such a moment and, a couple of months ago, I was fortunate enough to participate in it.

If Jane and Fiona employed something akin to maternal care for the purposes of chivvying me back on my way last year, Sandy of Taste of Speyside, Dufftown, wielded more paternal power to forcibly shake me from my exhausted and deflated stupour. In both instances, the distilleries they championed today recall a bond as near to kinship as makes no difference. Glen Garioch and Mortlach respectively connote laughter, security and friendship: they are like second homes. With a bottle of the former already in the cupboard, I needed a bottle of the latter as a representative in liquid form of Sandy’s humour and generosity. Mike in the Whisky Castle, Tomintoul, poured a measure of this for me, which he was certain could only be spirit from the desired distillery. For eight months it lurked in the darkness of the sideboard but with the completion of my first year at St Andrews and the imminent departure of a very dear friend to Alabama, USA, I felt the time was right to uncork all that pent-up conviviality.

As I explained to my malt-mad counterparts, I couldn’t imagine sharing the Adelphi with any other persons. Justin, possibly the most infectiously enthusiastic and erudite individual it has ever been my good fortune to attend a whisky tasting with, had swooned upon discovering the 16yo Flora & Fauna earlier in the year and Gareth, whose whisky experience has been swelling at a considerable rate of knots and absorbs the brasher, more aggressive flavours Scotch has to offer with relish, both succombed to wide-eyed rapture upon tasting. I, too, was delirious with delight at how perfectly the dram sang of Speyside’s earthier, richer, woodier landscapes and for a time I was back in a sparkly sunny Tomintoul withstanding Mike’s woe about how hard it is to find a good whisky these days. The dram, which we all agreed matched the distinctive power of Dufftown’s first distillery, communicated a great deal more effectively than I could my feelings both for single malt whisky in general and the two gentlemen who had supped so much of it with me in particular.

Adelphi Breath of Speyside‘Breath of Speyside’ 1991 16yo 57.9% cask no. 4229.

Colour – Fierce: soaked Sherry oak. Rich maple syrup.

Nose – Red fruits squashed into dusty dark earth at first, then a lot of the heady oaky ‘tang’ I associate with first-fill Sherry wood. Blackcurrant cordial. Closer to, the big, dark and powerfully sweet Sherry really leaps out. However, this whisky’s theme emerges immediately alongside this as I smell Chinese stir fry: groundnut oil and soy. Then I detect a log store: damp, bark-like and darkly aromatic. Leaf mould. Fragrance of light, leafy smoke completes this walk in the woods.

      Water conjures up a sweet meaty note straight away. This is roast leg of lamp straight out of the oven with crisp skin and running juices. Behind the meat is soft, muscular fruitiness. Rotting plums. Incredibly dense and feral. Earthily smoky and very rich maltiness suddenly emerges, with lavendar oil close behind. More breathing time pulls out toffee and nuts.

Palate – Attacking, fruit from the cask and then just cask. Serious tannic grip. Mulchy smoke and then sweeter malt steal in.

      Water rounds it out slightly, with the fruit now permitted to stand alone. The oak is tamed although there is still a dark richness that reminds me of beef stock granules.

Finish – Lovely, deep deep vanilla notes. Light and creamy citrus, too. The cask lends all the right flavours here. Meaty. Gently drying with orange pith.

      Water heightens the drying fragrance exerted by the cask: oak branches. Hot darkness comes next with blackened Sherry fruits. Creamy toffee, some green malt and then more impressions of living oak.

This is a powerful, challenging whisky which asserts the continued existence of a darker, more primeval Speyside than the one too many people now write off as light, fruity and honeyed. I can imagine the Speyside Way projecting similar aromas to this wonderful malt from the exceptional Adelphi on a wet November day. Maybe it is a conversation whisky, for I have not been amazed by it to the same degree as when I sipped it with Gareth and Justin. Of course, on the breath of this Speysider will carry the whispers of that particular night to which it bore witness, and I will prize it all the more as long as there is some of it left in the bottle to listen to.

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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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