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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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The Balvenie Fete

The simple ideas are the best. ‘Why not set up shop in one of Edinburgh’s loveliest squares, commission some extraordinary installation pieces which illustrate our craft-centric approach, notify your Warehouse 24 members and pour them whiskies when they show up?’ The marketing meeting at which The Balvenie Fete took shape may have gone something like this; a brilliant idea which, as St Andrews’ Quaich Society discovered, was impeccably well-executed.

Andrew Forrester is one of our VIPs here in Fife, having delivered a terrific opening tasting for us in September 2012. We had hoped he would be available to repeat the feat but this new and exciting series of events called him away. Being the hospitable fellow he is, we were invited along to the Fete in St Andrews Gardens this weekend for a tasting, some mingling, and a thorough crash course in craft.

Ian MacDonald prepares another hogshead in one of the Stave Domes.

The stupendous Stave Domes – like medium-charred wooden igloos – were the focal points of the festivities: four Domes in total offering dedicated spaces for discussing Balvenie. In the first, the one from where all the noise emanated, was the domain of Ian MacDonald, The Balvenie’s Head Cooper in Dufftown. I lost count of the number of casks he assembled and deconstructed while we were there but if anyone epitomises craft, it is Ian. As Andrew commented, he was using some of the oldest tools known to the industry yet the practiced art of coopering revealed a stunning sensitivity and precision which The Balvenie’s owners, William Grant & Sons, acknowledge is central to the success of their spirit.

A sort of 'from the cask' experience.

Speaking of spirit, to our opening dram - the Balvenie Doublewood – via a decorated Bourbon barrel and a copper ‘dog’, the handiwork of Dennis McBain. Dennis is the only coppersmith in Scotland residing at a distillery and his purview extends to Balvenie, Glenfiddich and Kininvie’s stills. For the Fete, he whittled off a couple of long slender copper tubes, just like the ones opportunistic distillery workers of yesteryear would knock up for the purposes of ‘whisky liberation’ in the warehouses.

The venue for our tasting.

Inside one of the Stave Domes, constructed by a creative partner of The Balvenie whose craftsman credentials were impressively underlined, Andrew delivered a breezy, informal tasting for us. On show were the new 12yo Single Barrel, the 14yo Caribbean Cask, the 17yo Doublewood, the 21yo Portwood and the Tun 1401 Batch 8. Andrew threw in some new make for good measure, too. In every dram a little of Ian and his team’s handiwork could be appreciated: the oaky stamp is an ever-present in this Balvenie range, although the nature of that imprint changes in numerous complex and satisfying ways.

With the 12yo Single Barrel that was toffee, banana and shortbread with a deliciously fresh yet creamy and spicy mouthfeel. It was perhaps my favourite of the whole selection, although I adore the rich, gentle muscularity of the 17yo Doublewood and the Tun 1401 delighted with dense, complex oak, leathery malt and superb floral hints. The 21yo Portwood will always rank highly on my list of exquisite drams.

The Balvenie range.

Rosy-cheeked on account of the warmth of Balvenie’s hospitality we stepped out into equally balmy sunshine to savour the whisky bustle. Another dram in hand (I went for a top up of the 12yo Single Barrel) the Quaich Society mingled in the precious autumn sun. Had the team put on a hog roast or similar I may just have camped in St Andrews Square until nightfall, begging for more Balvenie at judicious intervals - I certainly didn’t want to leave this Scotch whisky paradise. I’ve mentioned the hog roast idea to Andrew so we shall see what they can come up with.

Our thanks to Andrew for including us in the Fete’s schedule and we hope to tag along on the next beautifully straightforward Balvenie event. If they can craft another peach of a day, all the better.

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The Best of Blends

Revision, I have come to learn, is an exercise in segregation. No matter how often professors bandy about the word ‘holistic’, post-colonial readings of Shakespeare’s King Lear and the crisis in Victorian masculinity as Marxist resistance really ought to be cognitively kept apart. At least, such unholy mixtures seldom earn the better marks in examinations. However, feminist issues in the plays of Middleton persisted in forming unhelpful fusions with sexual subjection in Jane Eyre and I decided it was time for a break, and to muse on the best results of blending.

The pre-eminent panel of master blenders.

In April, I had reconvened with the International Spirits Challenge judges at Edinburgh’s Scotch Whisky Experience, a body of men and women towards whom I feel something like hero worship. For the second time, these illustrious master blenders – from Scotland, the USA, Japan and Sweden – had kindly agreed to an evening meet-and-greet, despite the demands of assessing some 200 whisky samples during the day. I start to tire after about eight whiskies (and that number decreases concerning new human acquaintances) so my admiration for their effort, energy and wisdom reached precipitous heights.

Brian Kinsman takes us through the SWE 25yo blend.

Prior to roaming the MacIntyre Gallery, we were treated to an on-arrival dram of the 25yo Scotch Whisky Experience blend. Put together by William Grant & Sons’ Brain Kinsman, this lush, mature offering contains whiskies from every shareholding company at the Experience, and commemorates the 25th Anniversary of the venue which is very much Edinburgh’s chief whisky tourism and education facility.

Upstairs, I wished to right a wrong perpetrated in the summer when I had failed to visit Billy Leighton at the Irish Distillers stand. At a given time of day, I am rather fond of Jameson, and at approximately 19:55 on Wednesday April 25th I was deeply impressed by the Jameson Gold Label Reserve. Apple, cinnamon and unctuous honey led the way on the nose, with an abundance of fresh grain. With time, the nose became buttery, with a trace of salt. The palate delivered: a big nectarine and barley punch, before vanilla led me into a drying finish.

Angela D'Orazio with the very special Mackmyra #10.

Billy revealed the economics behind the 100m euro Midleton expansion, which will push capacity up to 60 million litres of alcohol per year. In addition, he told us how crucial cask selection is to Jameson’s success, and that he remains central to cask monitoring, and ensuring no sulphur enters the system. Recent marketing meetings have focused on ‘creating craic’, and the warm, welcoming and loquacious Mr Leighton certainly ensuring there was a surfeit of that at his stand over the course of the evening.

Another omission from the previous Meet the Blenders line-up was Mackmyra. Here I shared in Chris ‘Tiger’ White’s wonderment at Angela D’Orazio’s latest creation, the Mackmyra Special #10. A Swedish exclusive for the time being, this whisky has been part matured in casks that have contained coffee bean-infused spirit: the beans macerated in whisky, casked for two weeks, then turned into a liqueur. I was stunned by the obvious coffee notes on the nose, but also marvelled at the crushed strawberry and fudgey malt character which was equally prominent. Add a glug of this to a short Americano and there can be no complaints.

Next door, I was drawn to the latest Balvenie, the 17yo Doublewood. The expression of the same name but five years its junior is something of a cult, and I was fascinated by this. Oppulent oak and stewed fruits surrounded a candy cane thread of fresh barley sugar for a whisky of admirable richness and engaging liveliness. As I said to Brian Kinsman, this is a whisky for which ‘effortlessness’ is the only adequate descriptor.

The beautifully simple Cutty Sark Prohibition Edition bottle.

Elsewhere, Caroline Martin presented the Johnnie Walker Gold Route, and Gordon Motion’s two bottles of the Cutty Sark Prohibition Edition vanished very quickly indeed. This was the first time I had seen the packaging for this impressive, feisty blend, and very taken with it I was, too.

Finally, the congregated whisky fans appraised The Dalmore Custodian – vibrant orange, vanilla and clove, with the distillery’s classic coffee overtones (although that could have been the last of the Mackmyra sitting in my nostrils), this was a fine final pour. Afterwards, the panel fielded questions from the floor, with one barbed comment concerning the lack of innovation in Scotch when compared with the likes of Mackmyra and the Japanese blends wringing an impassioned defence of Scotch whisky in the 21st century from Richard Paterson. While acknowledging the duty of care he and his colleagues shared regarding the proud heritage of the blended category in Scotland, Richard assured us that every possible permutation of whisky-making that is permitted by legislation is being presently investigated.

Progress and innovation is very much at the forefront of the Scotch priority list in response to committed global competition. John Ramsay, ISC chairman, related something Diageo’s Caroline Martin had said to him over the course of judging the Japanese expressions earlier that day: ‘this is getting a bit scary, John’.

A thoroughly convivial evening confirmed that blended whisky is very much leading the charge for flavour, personality and craft at the moment.

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The Balvenie at the Quaich Society

The deliciously diverse Balvenie range.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A Master Blender Bonanza: Part 1

I don’t go in for hero worship. Irrespective of how many Tours de France they have won, how many people they have performed in front of or how many Michelin stars they hold, they are still human beings beneath all the Lyrca, cymbals and cauliflower foam. However, at a recent event held within the Scotch Whisky Experience (SWE), Edinburgh, I must confess that I could finally empathise a little with Beatle Mania, or whatever it is all those teenage girls succomb to whenever anyone mentions Justin Bieber.

The master blenders and ISC panel.

Together with Chrises Hoban and ‘The Tiger’ White from Edinburgh Whisky Blog, I milled about in the refurbished SWE shop together with many other bright-eyed, excited members of the public for the fun, games and knowledge to begin. For the first time in 17 years, the International Spirit Challenge has devolved from London to Edinburgh. This, to me, seems only right for various coincidences of geography and whisky-producing heritage. As a further innovation, the panel agreed to meet with whisky fans for one night only, talking ticket-holders through one of their bottlings before a whisky and food matching presentation with Whyte & MacKay’s Richard Paterson (or R-Patz as C. Hoban insisted on calling him), to conclude with a Q&A. Courtesy of Mr Hoban, I learnt of the event just in time. Another arrangement for which I am deeply grateful comes courtesy of Mr Hoban as well, and that was permission to crash on his sofa afterwards.

Industry legend John Ramsay kicked off the evening, introducing the decorated individuals to the waiting throng. As they stepped out of the wings onto the new mezzanine floor, my easily-suggestible mind confected a Juliet-on-the-balcony comparison, but I was also struck by how – in this, a peerless collaboration by the Scotch whisky industry – the people responsible for so many of the smartly-packaged whiskies surrounding us on the shelves should also be in full view. Ramsay’s successor at Edrington, Gordon Motion, was introduced first, followed by Caroline Martin of Diageo, Billy Leighton of Irish Distillers, the great David Stewart who will complete 50 years of service for William Grant and Sons in September, R-Patz, Seichii Koshimizu of Suntory, Tadashi Sakuma from Nikka, Mackmyra’s Angela D’Orazio, and Chris Morris from Woodford Reserve. With head spinning, we were ushered upstairs where the chatting and dramming commenced.

Chris Morris, all the way from Woodford Reserve, Kentucky.

I have described previously the awe inspired by stepping into the Diageo Claive Vidiz Collection, but skipping between soaring cabinets of seriously old, seriously rare Scotch whisky – both blended and malt – there was added significance as I contemplated meeting the individuals resposnible for continuing the legacy of those brands which were so well-represented all around me. However, my first port of call was outside of Scotland. Since the beginning of the year my fascination for all things Bourbon has mooched into the kind of territory once upon a time open only to the likes of Lagavulin and The Glenlivet. With a recent pub in my local town boasting Buffalo Trace Antique Collection releases – the William Larue Weller expression I had tried a couple of days before – I wanted to learn from one of the masters.

With a big smile and a cheery How-do-you-do? Mr Morris poured me a measure of Woodford Reserve Distiller’s Select. Though hardly an uncommon Bourbon, even in my less than cosmopolitan drinking circles, to sip and listen to an exposition from the man who makes it trumped all previous tumblers of this rich, spicy and floral whiskey. At 43.2% the spirit spoke eloquently of glorious American oak and six to eight baking Kentucky summers. In fact, that was the analogy Chris used when trying to differentiate Bourbon from Scotch in the maturation stakes: in the rackhouses, the intense heat forces the spirit into and out of the oak, and exacts an Angel’s Share of 7% per annum. Though Woodford goes into barrels at 55%, it comes out again at 63%. Chris revealed that he had even found a cask whose long tenure unnoticed had seen alcohol by volume reach 90%. It was, of course, ‘undrinkable’.

The mashbill for Woodford Reserve is 72% corn, 18% rye from Dakota and 10% malt. Mr Morris revealed that a new expression would be on the market in the US soon, and will eventually make its way to Europe. He has taken batches of fully-matured Woodford, reduced the spirit back down to 55% and put the whiskey back into Chardonnay casks for 6 months to a year. The result is infinitely darker than the standard expression and reviews so far are highly complimentary.

Richard Paterson in suitably rarefied surroundings with the new Cigar Malt from The Dalmore.

I headed over to the Edrington stand where the quietly spoken but forthright Gordon Motion introduced me to the Famous Grouse Wade Decanter. Constructed to celebrate the pre-eminence of Grouse in the UK market for the last 30 years, I found it to be a very gingery, biscuity spirit, with clean cereals and a hit of earthy smoke. I rather liked it, but appreciated the conversation I overheard between Gordon and Charles Maclean regarding his new film star status still more.

I managed to catch The Nose as the last of his consignment of the latest The Dalmore Cigar Malt disappeared. He had just put in an order for a replacement when the MC tapped him on the shoulder – the next stage of the evening had to begin promptly. He just had enough time to tell me that my date of birth and body mass index could provide vital clues as to how a blend personalised for me might taste (and to pose for a photograph) before strutting off upstairs.

The tutored tasting and blenders’ question and answer session would take place next, but that is for another post.

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The Balvenie

      Bitter disappointment does not come close to describing my feelings having phoned up The Balvenie Distillery from my room in the Huntly Hotel to be told that their tours for the forthcoming week – and indeed most of the next month – were fully booked. Having been assured by a fellow tourist at Macallan that it was a most singular single malt experience (and at £25 for a three hour tour, I should think it would be) I saw what a gaping hole its loss left in the fabric of my Odyssey. At the time, I cycled round the buildings, reflecting on the plumes of steam, metropoli of warehouses and wraiths of blue-brown smoke coughing out of the pagoda vent. It was set to achieve four stars for the production process alone – providing as they do a chance to view the coopers at work in addition to the floor maltings. I also happen to be very fond of the drams they make. Next time… 

*      *      *      *      *

The eclectic Balvenie site, as viewed from the Spirit of Speyside carriage on the Keith-Dufftown Railway.

The eclectic Balvenie site, as viewed from the Spirit of Speyside carriage on the Keith-Dufftown Railway.

Dufftown, Keith, Banffshire, AB55 4DH, 01340 820373. William Grant & Sons. www.thebalvenie.com

TOURS PROVIDED:

‘The Tour’: £25. A three hour experience at the home of ‘the handcrafted malt’. A coffee and a summary of the distillery’s history begins the tour in the Distillery Office before a thorough investigation of the plant occurs. Maltings, mashing, fermenting, distillation and coopering are all included, as is a trip to the warehouse. I’m not promising anything, but the chap I met outside The Macallan boasted of having sampled malts straight from the cask – two, in fact, and both from his birth year: in the 1960s. There is a tutored tasting of The Balvenie range, ascending from new make to the highly prized 30yo back in the visitor centre. BOOK EARLY, I CANNOT STRESS THAT ENOUGH.

DISTILLERY-EXCLUSIVE BOTTLINGS:      Whilst on the tour there is the opportunity to bottle your own 20cl measure of single cask Balvenie from a choice of three casks. The visitor may nose each of the samples from the three and make their selection – or alternatively they can bottle one of each! At present this trio are all from 1996: a first-fill Bourbon, refill Bourbon, and a first-fill Sherry. £20 each. Also, once back at the visitor centre the shop will be opened for you and then there are two exclusives to choose from: Rose, £100, and Tun 1401, £150. The shop is only accessible to those who participate on the tour.

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‘A Taste of Speyside’ – My Second Helping

This pagoda could just be glimpsed from Braehead Terrace over the three days I stayed there. For me, the distillery shall always recall Dufftown; the whisky Sandy at 'A Taste of Speyside'.

This pagoda could just be glimpsed from Braehead Terrace over the three days I stayed there. For me, Mortlach shall always recall Dufftown, and particularly Sandy at 'A Taste of Speyside'.

Without a shadow of a doubt, it was a good birthday. While certain social pressures preside over turning 21-years-of-age, and may lead to some degree of short-term memory loss next September, the location and the company which my birthday of 2010 embraced were sufficiently distinctive to preserve them in my mind, hopefully forever.

In the style of one who is especially hard to please (although I’m not, really), my gift to myself comprised a return to Dufftown. With my parents driving, of course. I had booked the family (my aunt – saviour of the Odyssey’s first week – had joined us) into ‘A Taste of Speyside’ for dinner, and we chugged into Dufftown, past the gargantuan Glenfiddich on the left and the symbolic still neck on the right, tickled by weak sunshine. A box of Northumbrian goodies sat beside me on the back seat - my Hamper of Limitless Gratitude.

Within said hamper (it was a cardboard box, in truth, although it had once been appropriated by the Doddington Dairy, makers of superb ice cream) were Piperfield Pork bacon, a selection of homemade preserves and an array of products from the Northumbrian Cheese Co. Northumbria’s are distinctive cheeses, and some of the loveliest I have ever tasted. I had hoped these would appeal to Sandy’s passionate interest in local produce, and whilst the topic of many of our conversations in April had been whisky-flavoured, he could acquire plenty of this himself. It would – as indeed it had for us – require quite a commute to purloin these note-worthy, delicious items (Piperfield supply Heston Blumenthal at ‘The Fat Duck’).

One of my very favourite restaurants, as I may have mentioned. Whisky might have brought you to Dufftown - this eaterie will bring you back.

One of my very favourite restaurants, as I may have mentioned. Whisky might have brought you to Dufftown - this eaterie will bring you back.

Our dinner was not as alchemical or psychedelic as one might find in Bray, but just as lauded. Having nipped down the hill to Mortlach for the purposes of yet more distillery photography – I had neglected to capture its eclectic visage when I was last in the area, and indeed my comparative lack of pictorial variety preserved on my SD card is one of my bigger regrets of the tour - I hiked back along Fife Street, passed the Co-op where I had purchased so many highly-calorific morsels to the Clock Tower and Balvenie Street.

Ducking through the front door of No. 10 to witness Sandy holding court before my relatives was tremendous. I had hoped to introduce The Mother to him, but he came to appreciate what I had alluded to in April of his own accord. My dear Mum has enroled herself in an exclusion diet to mitigate symptoms of early-onset osteo-arthritis in the right elbow, an important joint for a chef. Sandy’s menu is fabulously rich in places, celebrating the apparent unpretentiousness of natural Scottish ingredients. The consequences of indulging in flour and dairy my mother agonised over extensively. “I can’t have potatoes, either,” said Mum. “Well don’t have them,” replied Sandy.

Following my Gordon & MacPhail Linkwood 15-year-old (not my wisest choice as an aperitif but they hadn’t any Tomintoul 14-year-old) I had the Cullen Skink – a creamy, potato-laden fish soup – to start, and then the Speyside Platter which amalgamated many of the finest foods from the Spey valley and the Moray coast. As it turned out, they hadn’t any of the rabbit casserole on this occasion, either. Both were extraordinarily delicious: the Skink pure comfort food and the Platter an insight into the diveristy of produce from the area. Smoked salmon, chicken liver paté, smoked venison, herring, oatcakes and cheeses – my designs on rounding off my meal with the cranahan cheesecake had to be redrafted! I haven’t any photos, by the way, because each course vanished too quickly.

As a digestif I indulged in the 21-year-old PortWood from the distillery whose namesake is the street I was dining on. This was wonderfully spicy and rich, with marzipan sweetness and creaminess. The oaking was assertive but deliciously so and the tannic fruitiness mingled with the textures of the crème brûlée I had managed to despatch. Once again, superlative Scottish hospitality had put the world to rights.

So unexpected and plentiful had Sandy’s support and generosity been at the time I first encountered him - a juncture of huge significance and precariousness - that to dine in his restaurant under entirely different circumstances and yet to discover him unchanged, baffled me no end. This man had made self-belief possible at a time when I had lost my way, badly. What I now accredit as my most treasured achievement to date had at one stage been in serious, ignominious jeopardy. Circumstance and despondency had coalesced on the morning of April 27th, but the potentially debilitating and restricting legacy of each had been banished by a simple demonstration of humanity. A change of mentality was desperately required, and duly arrived as a surprise side dish at ‘A Taste of Speyside’. The man himself, of course, continually dismisses his own pivotal role. Be assured, Sandy, it was not ”nothing.”

For the account of my first encounter with the folk at ‘A Taste of Speyside’, please view my original blog post, typed on his computer. For further information about the restaurant, please visit Dufftown’s website. You can also “add them” on Facebook.

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Dufftown to Nairn

Dufftown to Rothes, Via Elgin: 45 miles

Having had my faith in humanity, and myself, reaffirmed by my weekend in Dufftown, I was ready to move on again. The weather could not have been better. Distinctly breezy, but bright and warm.

Oh man: too romantic for words: Highland peat smoke on the fresh, spring Speyside breeze. Said breeze wasn't quite coming from the right direction so I couldn't get a nostril full.

Oh man: too romantic for words: Highland peat smoke on the fresh, spring Speyside breeze. Said breeze wasn't quite coming from the right direction so I couldn't get a nostril full.

On the road out towards Craigellachie, I spotted what I had missed on the way in to Dufftown on the Thursday and consequently since in my walks around the town: the sign to Balvenie. I thought I’d better take a look, and at least cycle round the place if I couldn’t tour. It is quite a site, I must say, and bouncing along the road between Glenfiddich and Balvenie revealed some warehouse damage to the former which was being repaired with many vehicles and red plastic fencing. They were kilning the malt at the time as I returned to the main road. This made me rather more excited than really it ought to but it was stupendous to see those wraiths of peat smoke waft out of the pagoda roof to be snatched and stolen away by the Speyside wind.

Past the cooperage and Craigellachie distillery, over the Spey and then up the hill back past Macallan. The wind would be in my face for the next 7 miles or so but the scenery was so damn gorgeous I really didn’t care. I was relieved, though, when two pagoda rooves lifted their chins above the outline of a ploughed field. See my review of the Cardhu tour below – and my rave about their Highland cattle!

I had the benefit of the wind’s assistance on the reverse leg to Rothes and this ensured it was only a little after 2PM when I made it to my hotel. I phoned up Moray Cycles in Elgin to announce that I would be seeing them that very afternoon and headed off again.

I had by now grown used to the insane levels of traffic on these Speyside roads but that didn’t make it any more pleasant. That said, pagoda rooves appeared everywhere and at one stage, just before a quick descent towards Elgin, I fancied I spotted the outline of the Moray Firth and the Highlands bordering the sea.

The man in the bike shop put my mind at ease. The noise I had been hearing from the front wheel was merely a combination of a slight buckling which wasn’t at all serious and spokes rubbing against each other. It was worth the 18-mile detour for peace of mind.

I said I was going to "cycle around" the distilleries and that was literally what I did with Benriach and Longmorn.

I said I was going to "cycle around" the distilleries and that was literally what I did with Benriach and Longmorn.

On the return journey, with the sun so omnipresent, I stopped off at Benriach - it being practically on the road, and took my mission statement very literally: I cycled round the distillery. It had an inviting feel about it, too, and I would like to arrange a tour. I did the same with Longmorn – visible just a little way further into the glen. It was a privilege – a secret indulgence – to pedal round when no-one else was there.

I returned to my hotel, showered, did a mass of laundry and enjoyed a meal that owed more to chance and improvisation than management. Good fun, though, and my tour was once embued with momentum.

***

Rothes to Forres: 28 miles

Rain. Lots of rain. It isn’t how I prefer to be woken up, and everywhere looks a bit oppressed when it has that watery sheen to it. I had less than a mile to cover to Glen Grant, however, and it ceased on the way.

The route to Glen Moray involved retracing my tyre tracks from the day before. The sun even appeared. Swishing past my privately toured distilleries of yesterday, I made good time into Elgin where I was rewarded by the equally magnificent aroma of cooking shortbread from the Walkers factory. I just caught the 12.30 tour.

A hot chocolate and much food later, I went in search of Forres. I was not going to use the A96, however, and had planned a route of quiet B roads. Miltonduff and Pluscarden Abbey slipped by and I was thoroughly enjoying the warmth and glorious cherry trees. It couldn’t last, though.

The rain made an encore appearance and I had to adopt rain gear. The temperature meant I could do without overshoes and hood but I just got wetter as I passed through Forres – my B&B lying on the northern outskirts. I arrived to find no-one at home. I was quite chilly by this time, pondering how I was supposed to find my dinner and stay reasonably dry. My landlady returned from her walk and everything was accommodated for: a shed for the bike, rags to clean it, a washing machine for my filthy things and an exceedingly comfortable room.

If you like to put away 3000 calories over the course of your evening meal, go to Chapter One in Forres. My burger with all its trimmings was enormous. I left not a speck on the plate, however; much to the amazement of the couple dining next to me. I should have left it there, but the dessert menu looked too good. I ordered the meringue nest, thinking it would be maybe the size of an orange. It wasn’t. It was the size of a rustic country bread loaf. It beat me, it humiliated me. I could only eat a third of it, and regretted forcing in that much. As I waited for the bill, passing in and out of consciousness, a wondered how anyone could manage two courses, if even a touring cyclist couldn’t manage them. Great grub, though.

***

Forres to Nairn: 26 miles

I spun this day out a little. The initial distance suggested less than 20 miles and that would leave me with far too much time on my hands. I wanted to see the sea, in any case, and headed to Findhorn Bay. It is a profoundly beautiful place, and the whole of the landscapes over the last few days had begun to acquire more rugged, wild demeanours. This was no exception. I think I could retire to Findhorn Bay, with Forres nearby for my bowls and Tesco.

My landscapes were all beginning to look rather wild and bleak, and they would only get bleaker. In a good way, you understand.

My landscapes were all beginning to look rather wild and bleak, and they would only get bleaker. In a good way, you understand.

Benromach is a very stylish little distillery and offers one of the best smells from the outside. See my review below.

After I bought my lunch from the above supermarket giant, I had little to do but make my way to Nairn in my own time. I ate the purchased sandwiches on the cycle path beside the Findhorn river.

Nairn arrived a little slower than planned, but I was glad when it did. I had been climbing along single track roads for quite some distance, duking it out with motorists and insects, when the hedges of gorse fell away on my right and there was the Moray Firth. A more dramatic stretch of coastline I had hitherto not encountered. It was jaw-dropping.

I bought a book, an apple turnover and a cup of tea in Nairn, then watched some more snooker. Unlucky, Steve Davis.

Before the football came on I made my way to the beach as the clouds and the setting sun exercised their artistic characters over the sea and the coast which I followed to the horizon with my eyes, knowing that Orkney was at the end of it. Internazionale v. Barcelona evolved into a bit of a damp squib in the first half so I watched Monty Halls in the Uists and went to bed. The Highlands proper demanded my full attention.

Moray Firth at Nairn

 

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Glenfiddich

No photo can communicate the scale of this site. It is preposterously huge. However, walking around the well-tended grounds with the hills all around, it is quite charming.

No photo can communicate the scale of this site. It is preposterously huge. However, walking around the well-tended grounds with the hills all around, it is quite charming.

Dufftown, Keith, Banffshire, AB55 4DH, 01340 820373. William Grant & Sons. www.glenfiddich.com

APPEARANCE AND LOCATION:      ****      As distilleries go, they don’t come much bigger than Glenfiddich. Its like looking out on a city of warehousing when observing in the Craigellachie direction. However, the buildings of the main plant are utterly beautiful with perfectly-pointed stonework, pristine paint and those charming squat pagoda heads. The visitor centre and the restaurant are housed within the buildings originally built by William Grant and his stone mason in 1886. The surroundings hills are certainly large, too, but gentle. Sitting on a picnic bench outside the brand centre on the Sunday as I waited for 12 o’clock and opening time, the smell of the malt bins, the wort and the mash blown about and blended by the Dufftown breezes was too perfect for words.

TOURS PROVIDED:

‘Standard Tour’: FREE. See ‘My Tour’ below.

‘Connoisseur Tour’: £20. More in-depth, lasting 2 and a half hours. There are four Glenfiddichs to nose as well as the new make. You get taken to Warehouse 8 to investigate the famous Solera Vat.

DISTILLERY-EXCLUSIVE BOTTLINGS:      A bottle-your-own facility in the distillery shop. At present [02/02/11] it is 15yo and a vatting from various different cask types in the one barrel, £70.

My Tour – 25/04/2010

THE RUNNING COMMENTARY:      ***

THE PROCESS AND EQUIPMENT:      **

Notes:      Despite its size, the owners wish to keep the distillery as traditional as possible. Very few computers are used and all of the 20 or so washbacks are wooden. A really interesting quirk is in the stillhouse. There are three different-shaped stills: a wash still and two alternative spirit stills, an accident of circumstance which dates back to when William Grant first built the distillery. With very little money he could not buy all of his stills the same shape. The warehouse tour is utterly marvellous and as we shuffled in the rain began, pattering on the slate roof and heightening the romantic atmosphere so much I forgot I had to walk back to my B&B in it.

GENEROSITY:      ** (Three drams, the 12YO, 15YO and the 18YO.)

VALUE FOR MONEY:      **

SCORE:      9/10 *s

A lot of fuss has been made about this dram. I would like to come back and do the Connoisseur tour because in my head I get the sense that Glenfiddich ages very well. Living proof here.

A lot of fuss has been made about this dram. I would like to come back and do the Connoisseur tour because in my head I get the sense that Glenfiddich ages very well. Living proof here.

COMMENT:      I arrived at 11.30am on the Sunday, too early. I read the paper on a picnic table outside the brand centre and was enchanted by how the smell fluctuated between stored malt, sweet wort and fruity mash, all blown about on the breeze around the town and its gentle surrounding mountains. As 12 noon approached, the floodgates of tourists opened. For the introductory (and very professional) film in the ‘Theatre’ there were more than 30 people. For the tour we were split into three parties (two standard, one for the Connnoisseur tour) and all of us were taken round at once. That should intimate the scale of the place. If that doesn’t, how about their using 90 tonnes of malt a day, their 24 washbacks and the 140 million litres of spirit maturing on-site. Fergus is our guide and he is unflappable. The whole experience is tremendously professional, with an emphasis on the traditional: wooden washbacks and long fermentation time. Computerisation is kept to a minimum, too. Into Warehouse #1 and what an adorable place. At one end is a video about coopering, accompanied by an excellent explanation and at the other are casks to nose: find the Sherry cask. I thought I’d be good at this but I got it wrong! They confused me by the age of the cask I picked: a 36-year-old Bourbon. The other two were an 18-year-old of the same wood and a 20-year-old Sherry. I must have had an off day. Rain pattered on the roof, making for a very atmospheric experience. The three drams at the end were a huge bonus, all served in Glencairn glasses. The shop is a must-see, with lots of Balvenie, too. My favourite was the cafe, where I had soup, a sandwich and a scone – all delish. In the same part (the malt store for the old distillery building), there is a bar with many Glenfiddichs to try. I would recommend this as a first tour, and then spend the extra money visiting Aberlour. With only 6 miles between them, it sounds like the perfect day to me.

I like to see a bit of pure wild water flowing to a distillery. The reason I discovered this view was because water started falling from the sky and I ducked under a piece of masonry beneath the shop.

I like to see a bit of pure wild water flowing to a distillery. The reason I discovered this view was because water started falling from the sky and I ducked under a piece of masonry beneath the shop.

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My Half-Term Report (including the hiccoughs)

I am, surprise surprise, beyond halfway now. That juncture was passed on the Saturday night in Helmsdale.

From a fairly precarious outlook in Braemar a fortnight previously, I have entered and exited Speyside (notable highlights being Glenfiddich and Aberlour on the distillery side, Sandy and everyone at A Taste of Speyside in the way of general, unlikely angels), and journeyed up the north-east coast to Wick and beyond to John o’Groats where the concentration of cyclists increased dramatically with those starting or finishing their Lands End to John o’Groats attempts. I’m behind in relating all of these stages to you. Forgive me. For now, I am attempting to ease the backlog of distillery tours – there have been many, and I still need to bring you my views on 11 of them. Yikes!

I am in ‘Whisky Magazine’, after all. There isn’t a picture so I might not be able to use it as a passport for free entry to my following tours but it was a thrill. Unfortunately it reminded me that this blog is not quite the outfit I had hoped, and which one might expect to find mention of in a quality publication like ‘WM’. It also means that the amateurish nature of this site is most likely known to even more people – and perhaps the very whisky enthusiasts I had meant to contact in the first place. I’m sorry guys: no pictures yet and irregular updates. I haven’t my own computer with me so I am very much at the mercy of the IT facilities at my hostels. I shall be spending much time on it once I return home, however, which is two weeks on Saturday. Patience, please, because I’m having quite an adventure up here.

I feel it my duty to explain that between telling Mr Allanson (editor of ‘WM’) of my travels and details of said travels appearing in the magazine, I actually undertook those travels. Certain distilleries have had to be avoided or were closed to me, so that figure of 49 is no longer accurate. Here are the casualties and why:

Blair Athol – Unexpectedly closed, their silent season having been brought forward. There will be no tours of the distillery until July.

Dalwhinnie – I would have died trying to get there. The post dealing with my journey to Braemar will contextualise my exact condition at the time.

Tomatin – See above.

Glendronach – Following my 60-mile slog in the rain, my bike was in a pretty poor state. The cleaning of it and sourcing of oil (and general pulling of hair) left too little time to head out east for Forgue and still make it back for Strathisla.

The Balvenie – It seems I should have booked weeks in advance. I phoned on the Friday to book a tour on the Monday (the 23rd for the 25th) and discovered that they were fully booked until nearly a week into May. This was even before the festival. Be advised.

Dallas Dhu – I elected not to tour this distillery on the advice of the guide at Cragganmore. She said that its museum nature was a rather tragic contrast to the working distilleries and was unlikely to show me anything I had not already encountered.  Also, omitting it saved me time and money. If you are interested, though, it is a self-guided tour round the old production areas, then a video and a dram.

Clynelish – Having struggled along the A9 in the rain under the assumption that the distillery was open (all of my reading and research had said that they were open on Saturdays), I found it to be shut up entirely. This was annoying. It seems they are open on Saturdays… as of next month. No literature or website told me this. I should have phoned ahead, but as I said, I didn’t think there would be any problem.

So not a full tour in the slightest anymore. I am still covering the miles and getting a sense of the regions, however. As I have (quite happily) come to realise over the course of this tour, though: Scotland isn’t going anywhere. I can plan another tour which encompasses the missed distilleries from this loop, as well as returns to those which have made a real impression on me, which at present include Tullibardine, Royal Lochnagar, Aberlour, Glenfiddich, Glen Garioch, and Highland Park, which I toured today.

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