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Day 8: Brora Bail-Out

I didn’t contemplate stopping until some time after I woke up from a sketchy night’s sleep; while eating my breakfast, despite even sketchier innards, I remained focused on my journey’s end in Brora and the following day’s coast-to-coast ride to Ullapool and, following a ferry transfer, Stornoway.

A three-mile detour, as I followed south-bound cycle route signs to Strathpeffer rather than those which would have taken me north, a series of arrow-straight, 15% gradients out of Dingwall, and an inexplicable clunking noise from the bike all turned my thoughts towards what I was capable of enduring. Was the second half of the Odyssey something I could, something I should, persevere with?

The previous evening’s pizza shop paranoia was the first suggestion that bodily fatigue had at last begun to erode mental resilience. In a reverse of four years ago, the spirit had been willing but only now did I realise how weak the body had become.

A week previously, I had been concerned about the left knee; now, the right joint was stiff and uncooperative. However, as I wheezed above the Cromarty Firth, almost painfully bright blue, I began to suspect that neither knee was really the issue. Instead, both legs were empty – there was no zip, no power, left. For the first time, breathing proved uncomfortable and lung capacity felt reduced. What was I riding for? The answer was revealing: ‘Balblair’.

Along the mazy cycle path through the woods to Alness, I decided that there was nothing for me beyond Balblair visitor centre and my night’s stop at Clynelish Farm B&B. The forecast for Lewis on Wednesday was less than encouraging, the distance – 80 miles – was not something I could entertain overcoming in my current state. Mileage forecasts read like nails in my own coffin: 80 miles, 61 miles, 59 miles, 65 miles. I hadn’t done the training to confidently commit to these distances. My ‘see how you go’ approach had now come to a head. I couldn’t go on.

What remained after Balblair, in any case? A distillery I knew I couldn’t physically get to and one I had visited before (Auchentoshan). In between? If you took Lewis and Harris out of the equation I had more or less covered the Skye to Glasgow route on the first Odyssey. Even assuming I miraculously recovered my touring legs, what would I get out of those ten days? More traffic, more exhaustion and certainly no Laidlaws. With my new job beginning in Dubai in September, I reflected that the right decision was to come home to my family and my girlfriend, savour the companionship I was sorely lacking out here on the sun-blasted tarmac of the Scottish Highlands.

Near Invergordon I cut across to the A9, sprinting a mile or so westward before reaching a turn off to the left which I suspected would take me towards Tain. By this stage, the heat and glare had reached impressive levels and the road followed an upward trajectory once more. This was a real physical low point, with little or no energy to call upon. I just had to grovel up the inclines and numbly roll down the descents. Repeat for the next six miles.

Turning through Tain, I was familiar with the next part of my route: stay as close to the soft drain at the left-hand side of the road as possible, keep your head down and try not to scream. Articulated lorries, forestry trucks, campervans, all sweep past you at alarming rates as you pass through the sweet fermenting fug of Glenmorangie. Then it’s uphill to the Dornoch Bridge roundabout before collapsing down the other side to the quieter, shadier banks of the Dornoch Firth.Far slower progress was made than three years previously, when I cycled from my Tain B&B to Balblair each day for a spot of low-impact work experience. Eventually, the caravan park on Edderton’s outskirts appeared on my right, and the brown signs for the distillery guided me past the Clach Biorach Pictish stone, red brick chimney and pagoda vent just visible beyond.

Life was, if anything, hotter in the courtyard beneath the mashtun and alongside the visitor centre, from where Julie and ‘new girl’ Monica appeared. Their greetings, and the sheer pleasure of being at Balblair, ensured I beamed rather than burned. I changed, ate lunch and then wandered back in the direction of the offices. Redecorated since my last visit, and significantly airier, too, on account of the windows being replaced, between Julie and I we established that the best bet would be for me to have a roam around looking for operators. John Ross I bumped into in the car park, Norman and manager John were in the adjoining office.

From there it was up to the break room where I met Alan More and Mike Ross. It transpires that the biggest change since automation in 2011 was the removal of the wee third still. This little riveted beauty was taken out to make room for an extra wash charger, which allows for extra fermentation space and ups the production capacity. Everyone seemed to be in rude health, and Mike showed me the computer operating system for the distillery. It is incredible to see all the graphs and readings from each step of the process, detailed so exactly. I couldn’t make a great deal of them, but clearly there were no causes for concern.

Back in the office, I could get down to the important business of tasting. Lukasz Dynowiak had been very generous at his Quaich Society tasting the previous winter, so I had tried the 2003 and 1990 already. My chief target was the hand-fill ex-Bourbon cask from 2000, exuding spicy/sweet aromas in the visitor centre. That and the 1983. I got to work on the latter while Julie slipped away to find me a measure of the former.

The nose was warm and leathery with plenty of rich orange, leaf mulch and banana toffee. The weight and clarity was exceptional, recalling my favourite Balblair ever, the 1978. Rich honey and even a light smokiness emerged next with traces of coconut and an almost Japanese dried bark intensity. The palate showcased the waxiness of age together with deep dried fruit, papaya, mango, cinnamon and cream.

The hand-fill (58% ABV) was closed, clean and quite sharp at first. A fragrant, soapy texture developed along with creamy cedar wood. To taste, I didn’t detect much more than hard leather, oak and budding fruits. Water improved matters, exposing grapefruit, lime, washback fruits, turmeric and banana foam sweets on the nose. A malty and citrusy palate was attractive but while it showed more Balblair hallmarks, I couldn’t justify the £90 asking price, which is very high for a 14yo single cask. Conscious that this was my final distillery visit, and that there was a vintage from my birth year in the shop, I went for the 1990 instead. With a bit of ingenuity, it fitted snugly in my pannier.Setting off for the Dornoch Bridge, the body felt a little more pepped and willing. I was even buoyed by a generous tailwind passing over the firth. From thereon in, however, life became difficult again. I allotted myself ten-mile sections of the A9 which I would ride as briskly as possible before pulling over for a rest. Soon, the wide tarmac hard-shoulder vanished and I was at the mercy of the traffic again. Inexplicably, for the third day in a row, the wind hit me full in the face. Saturday: heading east with a headwind; Sunday: heading west with a headwind; Monday: heading north with a headwind. Clearly the weather gods wanted me to throw in the towel.

Twelve miles to Golspie, became 8, then four. I knew Brora was not much further on from Golspie, but couldn’t be more precise until I saw a sign reading ‘Golspie 4; Brora 10′. The traffic was intermittent: congested and irritable one moment, non-existent the next. As I pedalled through the sleepy main street of Golspie, I suddenly recollected the climb out of it. These were miles familiar from Scotch Odyssey 1, but that didn’t make them any easier.

The road swung round to the cliff top once again for the run in to Brora and the full force of the north coastal breeze just about toppled my sanity. Teeth gritted, pushing down a yell of rage, I bumped into the village (no idea what those rumble strips are doing there) and spied the station. If I was getting home the next day, it would have to be by train. Of course, the station was un-staffed - indeed, it was in the process of being boarded up so I pedalled back to the A9 and followed the signs to Clynelish as I knew my B&B was practically in the grounds. I took the wrong road, however, and ended up circuiting the ruins of Brora Distillery, necessitating another short sharp climb back to what could only be Clynelish Farm B&B. Arriving simultaneously with a couple in a car (what wisdom), I was shown to my room by Victoria, the Australian proprietor.That afternoon’s shower was well-deserved, I thought, as I scoured off all the road muck and sun cream, but also philosophical. My next task was not finding dinner and preparing for the next adventure, but plotting my route back home. A couple of abortive phone calls to National Rail and Scotrail occurred as I walked between fields of cows and gorse back into Brora, followed by a confessional call to my parents.

‘I’ve decided to stop,’ I said. They didn’t seem terribly upset by this news and, following two train journeys and a bike ride to St Andrews, a bus and a further train back to Northumberland, I can confirm that I’m not terribly upset, either. Of course there are pangs of longing for the grandeur and adventure of bike touring, and I miss the pared down lifestyle it encourages. However, there is not an ounce of regret that I didn’t carry on to Stornoway. I know my body could not have coped.

Since January and my two weeks in London with Compass Box I haven’t stopped to rest and attempting a 1,000 mile bike trip two weeks after sitting my final exams was asking a great deal. A great deal too much, as it turned out. Instead, I covered nearly 460 miles in eight days, via six distilleries or distilleries-in-the-making, and ended up 60 miles north of Inverness on the beautiful Sutherland coast. I had my fun and the 1983 Balblair was definitely a dram worth holding out for. We shall have to see what touring opportunities arise in future.

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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 Water of Life of Luxury

For a number of years, whisky – and single malt whisky especially – has cultivated an aura of exclusivity, luxury and extravagance. Who has not encountered the gentrified still-life of a mahogany-hued dram, sipped in a moment of leisure picked out in leather, oak, and expensive curtains? It has come to symbolise the finer things in life, but if a recent visit to the Scotch Whisky Experience in Edinburgh for the inaugural Whisky Luxe is any guide, it would appear that there are the finer things of the finer things.

My invite to this ‘exclusive event’, in which I would surely ’indulge’ myself in ‘the most iconic whisky brands’ peddling their ‘esteemed whiskies’, fortuitously came with a 40% discount on the price of admission. Had it not, this evening of super-premium posing at the more moneyed mutation of the Whisky Live series of events would have been beyond my means. As it was, I could just about stretch to £75 for a pre-birthday beano.

Red carpet treatment at the first Whisky Luxe, Edinburgh.

Bagpipes, a red carpet and glamorous ladies in frocks greeted me at the summit of the Royal Mile on Friday. A typical Thursday night tasting at the Quaich Society this was not. I ducked into the Scotch Whisky Experience to receive my black giftbag which contained a wodge of Whisky Magazine-related freebies and my purse of little gold coins which would purchase my whiskies. To my dismay, they hadn’t included a pair of size-10 shoes that fitted with any comfort, but that is a separate cautionary tale.

I had hoped to play the seasoned whisky event attendee: swan about inspecting the stalls and constructing a list of must-tries. However, no sooner had I arrived in the Castlehill Room than I could not resist arrowing across to the Balblair stall to commence with the luxurious liquid. Andy Hannah, brand manager for Balblair, and Lukasz Dynowiak were on hand to answer my questions about the distillery and their hopes for the evening. The new online community they have established, The Gathering Place, was high on their agenda. With the 2002, 1989 3rd Release and 1975 2nd Release in attendance, though, top quality drams were a chief priority, too.

The Dewar's stand.

Other highlights on the top floor was the Dewar’s stand, where a little cask filled with ‘flavoured’ whisky dispensed a sweet, smooth spirit with a pleasant tannic bite on the palate. This is one of the many experiments emerging from the blended whisky brand in tribute to new archive research.

My next port of call was Whyte and MacKay in the Amber Restaurant. Here I met and had a splendid conversation with Graham Rushworth who described his blustery new year on Islay, the cheeky swig of The Dalmore Trinitas he enjoyed in Richard Paterson’s office and the new all-singing all-dancing distillery tour available on the shores of the Cromarty Firth before eventually and most enjoyably, talking me through The Dalmore 18yo. Another whisky that benefits from the best of W&M’s extraordinary wood stocks, I found this pleasantly fresh for an 18 with grassy sweetness, plum, and coffee on the nose. The accumulated weight of oak registered on the palate, however, with rich chocolate and dried fruits all accented with creamy vanilla.

The Auchentoshan stand.

After catching up with Paul Goodwin on the Morrison Bowmore stand – an extremely self-contented corner of the room following a host of gongs from the latest Icons of Whisky Awards (Distiller of the Year, Distillery Manager of the Year and Ambassador of the Year) – I pottered about the venue a little more. This took me to the McIntyre Gallery where I spoke with Andrew Shand of Duncan Taylor over a delightful measure of Octave Cardhu 22yo. The planned distillery in Huntly which I read about a couple of years ago is still in the pipeline, although investment is proving difficult in these straightened times. Of more immediate excitement is their new Rarest range, represented on the night by a very special bottling of the Macallan. In a bespoke decanter and with the presentation box constructed from the cask in which the whisky matured, this was a visually stunning product. Sadly there was none to taste.

Drams of Glen Garioch 1995 and Smokehead followed, but the unexpected star shone in the Claive Vidiz Collection Room. I tagged on to a tasting led by Dr Kirstie McCallum of Burn Stewart who was explaining the Bunnahabhain 25yo with the kind of passion and knowledge you would expect from a global brand ambassador. As I nosed this deep, rich and sweet delight, my mind trickled back to the Sound of Islay and this beautiful, character-packed distillery. Sea salt and candied orange tickled my nose, but when we were asked for our thoughts I blurted out ‘exotic handwash – but in a good way!’ Kirstie replied that she was unlikely to forget that particular descriptor.

Emma Smith and Graham Rushworth for The Dalmore.

A hastily-grabbed dark chocolate and whisky mousse was the last tasty morsel of an enthralling evening. All exhibitors praised the relaxed and congenial atmosphere, and they relished the opportunity to properly discuss their products rather than simply dispensing them which appears to be the modus operandi for the majority of whisky functions. Huge congratulations must go to Chloe Leighton who organised the event, as well as all visiting ambassadors and Scotch Whisky Experience staff. I thoroughly enjoyed making the acquaintance of some of the most desirable whiskies in the world – but will wear another pair of shoes next year.

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BYOB: Bottle Your Own Booze

Someone working on behalf of The Dalmore thought I might like to know that the Whyte & MacKay-owned Highland distillery has been beasting the competition as far as value growth is concerned. The ‘luxury brand’ is outstripping the other top 25 global single malts, with 69% year-on-year growth playing 12%. Consumers would appear to be fully prepared to throw lots of cash at rarer, more ‘deluxe’ bottlings from The Dalmore over and above other competitors, which is what I take ‘value growth’ to mean: the sumptuous packaging, the clever brand story, the astronomical performances at auction, would appear to be netting those managing the Cromartie Firth distillery vast amounts of money.

To double back and tackle the packaging issue, however. The Trinitas expression could boast crystal, rare woods, and enormous quantities of expertly-wrought silver, all of which nudged the whisky up towards that knee-knocking figure of £100,000. Yes, the whisky inside was doubtless rather special, but fostering the idea that a crack team of craftsmen had exhausted hundreds of hours of labour to manifest this specialness visually seemed to be important.

However, there is a counter-culture sweeping the visitor centres of Scotch whisky distilleries and it is the ‘bottle your own’ phenomenon. Aberlour, on Speyside, has perhaps the highest and longest-standing profile with respect to offering their visitors the chance to get their hands wet and fill, cork, seal and label their own bottle of whisky. Indeed, it was the first distillery at which I got up close and personal with raw whisky to take away.

Aberlour Warehouse No. 1 and the hand-bottling area.

The list of distilleries at which this gimmicky but fun and unusual process can be undertaken is a long one. Over the coming weeks, I hope to have factsheet posts for all of the Scotch whisky regions and sub regions detailing the visitor experience on offer, but for now here are those which I know accommodate hand-bottling: Aberfeldy, Aberlour, Auchentoshan, Balblair, Balvenie, Benromach, Bruichladdich, GlenDronach, Glenfiddich, Glengoyne, Glen Moray, Pulteney, and Tomatin. The spirits available typically hail from ex-Bourbon or ex-Sherry, but some may have occupied an exotic wine cask. They will vary in age and strength, but none are cheap. My Aberlour was £65, and at Auchentoshan you pay up to £100 for the privilege of infiltrating the warehouse and drawing your 70cls.

 

My 'whisky handshake' moment at Aberlour last September.

Why do we stand for it, if we are doing all of the manual labour? Of course, it is to experience that connection with the whisky-making process we have just observed. To see golden spirit exit the cask in front of us constitutes a timely reminder that depsite the often sanitized environments of modern distilleries and the gargantuan bottling lines by which our favourite single malt lands in Tunbridge Wells or Taiwan, whisky can be understood in terms of 250l hogsheads, and can - when emerging from oak - pungently enter the light and air of our personal atmosphere before slipping into a glass bottle. As we hold that bottle steady, and as its proportions slosh with spirit, it is like a whisky hand shake. We see, feel and hear before we taste and smell the personality of the whisky, uniquely developed in its wooden nursery, in a way we cannot do when picking up a bottle from the shelves of our local spirits store.

Distilleries lay on a special batch of spirit, and the tools to capture it, so that we can mark our moments in them. We can get involved, cut out the middle men, and escort off the premises a measure of the place itself. The label will bear not only the name of the distillery, but your signature, too, placing you in a new relation to your favourite dram. As far as the distilleries are concerned, I think it demonstrates that they similarly want to establish a new relation to their customers. The life of a cask is enriched by the 200-odd names, from all over the world, who drew spirit from it which I think is a powerful means of appreciating the lengths many whisky drinkers go to for their favourite whiskies, and the stories behind them. When that bottle sits, pride of place, on the shelf in Brussels or Beijing, there will exist a personal connection directly back to a few square feet of Scotland: not bad going for less than a litre of distilled beer.

Keep watching the Scotch Odyssey Blog for precisely what single cask, tasty morsels Scotch whisky distilleries will be offering the visitors this summer. Alternatively, I have found my way onto Twitter, and you can follow me via @WhiskyOdyssey. See you there.

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A Master Blender Bonanza: Part 2

Fruitcake, Frivolity, and Figs

A fraction over a week ago I was to be found skipping through the streets of Edinburgh with Chris Hoban, ducking into coffee shops and chocolateries, trying to recover a sense of our own humanity. Events which took place a larger fraction over a week ago explain why.

John Ramsay marshalling the Q&A.

With our whisky ration cards long since frittered away in various corners of the Scotch Whisky Experience, a halt was called to the Master Blender Meet-and-Greet. I just had enough time to return Chris’ measure of Johnnie Walker Platinum (full and voluptuous with no small amount of smoke and plenty of coconut-laden grains) to him before we were herded up yet more stairs.

I had long since began to suspect my legs, uncertain as to whether they were working with me or against me, but the room into which we plodded revived my spirits. A vaulted ceiling allowed plenty of the last of the Edinburgh light in, and a striking stained glass window at the far end reminded all guests of the route by which those whiskies we had tasted already that evening had arrived beneath the noses of the master blenders, before they passed them along to us. The blenders themselves were sat along the high table to face the room. Only Richard Paterson, however, got to his feet. The show must go on.

In our glasses panted the juicy, dark and rich beauty that is The Dalmore King Alexander III. As chance would have it, this was the whisky I ordered following my first tour of the Experience, poured by Mr Hoban if memory serves. Paterson wanted to unlock the full spectrum of this immensely complicated whisky, which had seen the inside of six different specimens of cask before its tasteful glass bottle with silver embossing, via strong black coffee, fruitcake and dark chocolate. In a performance that blended at least six potent characterstics of its own to match the whisky, ranging from the ebullient to the outrageous, Paterson encouraged us to approach a single malt like never before. We were discouraged from following his lead, however, and hurling the first measure onto the carpet.

The Dalmore food matching tasting, minus the coffee.

‘Mm mm mmmm… Mm mm mmmm… Mmm Mmm MMMMMMMMMM. And swallow,’ he urged, holding the spirit on his palate for a tingling age. Then chocolate followed fruitcake which followed coffee in rapid fire ingestion. I wasn’t convinced. I don’t view the addition of food to a dram as ‘messing around’ but I have yet to come upon the right combination. Though at many turns in his lecture Paterson had the room gasping in disbelief, my scepticism for the food matching exercise could not be dispelled.

Tutored tasting over, Master of Ceremonies for the final portion of what had been a joyous, insightful evening so far, John Ramsay, took the microphone to the audience. The first question probed the panel with regards to their favoured drinks, a fairly uncontroversial line of inquiry one would have thought, until Paterson rebuffed Caroline Martin for pinning her colours to the Johnnie Walker mast. The Whyte and MacKay man paid tribute to David Stewart, and the Balvenie 21yo Port Wood in particular as a whisky of stupendous interest and beauty.

A lady on our table wanted to know next how the master blenders could keep track of the multitude of flavours they encountered on an hourly, never mind daily, basis. Could they offer any tips, she asked, for improving our own olfactory skills? Gordon Motion fielded the debate, asking the questioner how many windows she had in her flat. After a brief flurry of arithmetic an answer was provided. ‘Now how did you go about counting those windows?’ Motion asked. The lady replied that she could see them in her mind’s eye. ‘I do the same thing,’ said Gordon, ‘I have a set of images for certain flavours. For example, peaches will always remind me of a holiday in France when I was young and we were given a bowl of peaches by the roadside.’

As anyone who has read my collaborationwith Keith Wood on Whisky Emporium a little over a year ago will know, this is precisely what fascinates me most about personal encounters with whisky. My hand shot up when the ‘last question’ call came. What, I wanted to know, was the most powerful moment the panel could remember in which they were transported back to an earlier sensory memory when tasting whisky?

Richard Paterson regaling the room.

Chris Morris answered first, stating that the strongest impressions he can receive from nosing Bourbon is of the rickhouses at Woodford Reserve. ‘That’s warehouses for the rest of us,’ interposed Ramsay. David Stewart’s fifty-plus years around the spirit could flag up no particular instance, although he spoke with quiet pleasure of his apprenticeship with single malt Scotch whisky. Angela D’Orazio’s testimony came directly from the heart as she described peat-cutting on Islay. In addition to the peats, Angela noticed the little wild flowers that grew on the bog, and when she had a sip of Islay whisky later, echoes of those floral characters surged back to her.

Caroline Martin focused on ‘lightbulb moments’ in connection with the distilleries she works for. The instant someone told her that Clynelish was a waxy spirit, manipulating it and understanding it became a far easier task. A childhood growing up in Coleraine, near to the Bushmills distillery, abided with Billy Leighton. When going to school or playing with friends, ever-present was ’this smell’. Entering the industry later on, certain Irish whiskeys could successfully evoke that formative atmosphere. Gordon Motion, whose point about the peaches had inspired my question in the first place, related to us a nosing session in which a particular spirit yielded with irresistible potency the garden centre at B&Q. ’Fencing panels was all I could think of,’ he said, ‘but I couldn’t say that, it sounded stupid.’ But a fellow taster noted ‘tarry wood’ in the same sample, and Gordon was galvanised to supply his tasting note. ‘Just write down what you smell,’ he urged us.

The Japanese blenders had been silent for the majority of the questioning, but Koshimizu-san accepted the microphone. He described his experiences in Japanese, and his translator assisted afterwards. The result was a statement of gentle, thoughtful brilliance. In his day-to-day encounters with whisky, every so often a sample will radiate the aroma of figs. Koshimizu-san has not eaten a fig in the last fifty years, not since one particular day at his grandmother’s house where she always had an abundance of the fruit. Nevertheless, that single flavour – when discovered – reconstructs that house, that person and that moment. ‘It is as if time has vanished,’ said the translator.

John Ramsay concluded the evening and told us of how his days in the maltings when he first started with Edrington assisted him as master blender as, for one distillery, the re-occurrence of that green malt aroma signalled that the spirit was on track. Several rounds of applause later, we all had to sadly make tracks of our own. The master blenders had been supremely generous with their time, but the 9am start and hundreds of whiskies looked to have taken their toll by the end. Outside, while raffle winners collected their bottles, a line for the lift formed involving some of the whisky world’s most significant and talented noses and palates who were all deservedly heading to their hotel rooms. For Chris, Chris and I, however, we were off to Bramble Bar, but that will have to wait for another post.

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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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An Exclusive Distillery

What do Edinburgh and St Andrews have in common? The answer is, I know where all their whisky shops are, and I have been harrassing staff in every single one of them in the last fortnight. A Fringe Festival visit with mates and a partial move-in were all the opportunities I needed to browse, faun and covet the latest whiskies available but, as my money is promised to others, I regrettably can only confess lustful glances at the Kilchoman 100% Islay (£80) and a Signatory cask-strength Dalmore 1990 (£60).

Dalmore Distillery-exclusiveIt is on the subject of The Dalmore, in fact, that I intend to expand. I don’t often receive phonecalls from people in distilleries but I certainly look forward to them because almost invariably it is good news. I lifted the phone on Thursday and found The Dalmore distillery on the line, the same distillery that has recently undergone a significant overhaul of their entire visitor-dedicated operations with the renovation project for the visitor centre beginning in March this year, and now with the official announcement of a distillery-exclusive bottling.

In truth, The Dalmore is somewhat late on the distillery-only scene. While it has been flogging achingly stylish and ancient bottles of whisky from auction houses, companies such as Diageo and Edrington Group have been rewarding dedicated individuals who have taken the time to venture to their distilleries with a unique bottling that encapuslates their visit. Such whiskies – whether already packaged or as part of a hand-bottling initiative – are not gimmicks. For those who are passionate about provenance and the total spectrum of a distillery’s nature, a pilgrimage to the distillery itself is essential to gain a more complete understanding of the place. It is not enough simply to drink the whisky: they believe that only by approaching the site, sensing its flavours, learning its history, observing and even participating in the production process as generations have done before them, the true extent of the whisky’s personality will be revealed and will enhance the tangible product. The distillery-exclusive, then, is not the sole reason for making the journey; rather, it is adopted as an embodiment of particular values and sympathies, purchased to express one’s conviction that whisky is so much more than what is in the bottle.

This is why visitor centres – and well-appointed, imaginative and sensitive visitor centres in particular – are so important. They induct the visitor into the workings and heritage of the distillery, and provide a rubric from which to commune with it. Visitor centres demonstrate with particular power that this whisky could not be made anywhere else. Single malt Scotch whisky is a located entity: place and people matter.

The Dalmore distillery, on the shores of the Cromarthy Firth.

The Dalmore distillery, on the shores of the Cromarthy Firth.

I applaud Whyte & Mackay, therefore, for twigging on this point. Yes, the sales figures across international markets are impressive – record-breaking, even – but none of it would have been possible without the buildings and passion spread over a few acres on the Cromarthy Firth. As my informant told me: ‘we had an Italian gentleman visit us the other week, and there he was sitting in the manager’s office enjoying a dram of the 1263 King Alexander III and I said to him: “there really is nowhere better to drink The Dalmore”.’ I was assured that there were aspects of the new visitor facilities found ‘nowhere else in Scotland’. The extent to which this is fundamentally true is neither here nor there; the critical sentiment is that the company have put sufficient investment into this far-flung, beautiful part of Scotland. The local community are encouraged to make a fuss about their distillery again and impress upon visitors how much the surrounding culture impacts upon the spirit which you will find throughout the world.

With this new single cask release, every fan of The Dalmore is implored to bring their passion home to Alness, Ross-shire, where it was made possible in the first place. To visit a distillery with the attitude of a devotee is to reveal an affinity for the locality and community, to manifest and recognise a relationship with the distillery which was inspired by the social and environmental traces the origins of a whisky invariably superimpose upon it. It is a reconnection. ‘Come to The Dalmore distillery,’ this latest launch declares, ‘and discover there this unique, limited whisky which epitomises all the qualities you hold to be unique about The Dalmore in general.’

It is time to re-establish the link between bottlings like these, a decoration for the few, and the distillery on which a whole community and legacy was built.

It is time to re-establish the link between bottlings like these, a decoration for the few, and the distillery on which a whole community and legacy was built.

It is my belief that Whyte & Mackay recognise that, in these euphoric times for whisky, authenticity is crucial. If you premiumise your product then your front-of-house facilities and experiences on offer must mirror this. I am hopeful that now The Dalmore, like its arch rival The Macallan, will endeavour to make tangible for the visitor the marketing and image-making associated with the brand. With the interest that the ultra-premium releases have generated, people arrive at The Dalmore expecting to be physically enfolded in this notion of the superlative: the best, most-exclusive whiskies demand a corresponding attention to detail in the demonstration of the plant that created them. The Dalmore has a lot to live up to as it strives to put the style back in to the substance.

There remain just under 250 bottles of this 20-year-old single cask ex-Sherry Butt, from an initial limited release of 450. The strength is 46% abv. and the price is £150. Reservations can be made with the distillery, but purchasers must collect their bottle from the distillery itself.

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The Dalmore Gets Ancestral – Again

Making history is something The Dalmore brand does very well. This eclectic distilling complex on the Cromarthy Firth north of Inverness has released such sumptuous, sought-after and eye-wateringly expensive drams over the last five years or so that its imprint on the single malt landscape is certain to remain profound for the foreseeable future.

The latest release from The Dalmore.

The latest release from The Dalmore.

Basking in the mahogany glow of their iconic, ultra-premium, 50yo+ releases, however, has never been master blender Richard Paterson’s style. The cult status afforded by the 64yo, Selene and Trinitas amongst others grants them license to explore and mark their distinguished history. The distillery, in operation since 1839 and under the control of the Mackenzie clan for significant periods since then, has now come to the aid of their ancestral bonds: Castle Leod, seat of the Mackenzies since the early 17th century, is in need of care and attention. The Dalmore Castle Leod is part of the rescue package, with proceeds of the £100 price tag going towards the restoration of the building.

‘I’m honoured that Richard Paterson has created this extraordinary single malt in tribute to Castle Leod, which is both my home and the spiritual home of the Mackenzie clan,’ affirms John Cromartie Caberfeidh of the Mackenzies. ‘The castle is filled with rich heritage and history, but more importantly, it has stood the test of time, and I have no doubt that in years to come The Dalmore’s Castle Leod will equally be recognised as a timeless classic.’

The Dalmore spirit has been aged initially in American oak before an 18-month period finishing in Premier Cru Cabernet Sauvignon barrels from Bordeaux and the producer’s tasting notes are fairly wonderful, promising a deeply enthralling experience: ‘exhilarating romantic notes of Rose de Mai’ on the nose, with ‘flirtation’ promised on the palate together with a ’sensual fusion’ renders this a ‘passionate love affair’. If only my history lectures were quite this fervent. 

There are to be 5000 bottles of the Castle Leod released.

Richard Paterson (L) with John Cromartie Caberfeidh with The Dalmore Castle Leod.

Richard Paterson (L) with John Cromartie Caberfeidh with The Dalmore Castle Leod.

These are fairly exciting times for The Dalmore, as my ringing-round the industry reveals that they are also renovating themselves. The visitor centre and the plant itself is experiencing a thorough overhaul and polish-up at present which, if I am honest, was required to bring the visitor centre into line with some of its other competitors which, in the luxury market, means The Macallan. The former manager’s house was a quaint venue in which to begin the tour, but the fairly cramped and dark conditions did not display the magnificence of the various Dalmores enshrined within.

I’m excited to see how this highly idiosyncratic site is to be opened up: the still house in particular is a ‘jungle-gym’ of copper and piping which cannot very easily be re-shuffled. My sources tell me that, to commerorate this expansion process, there will be a distillery-exclusive single cask released which, I don’t mind telling you, I want very badly indeed.

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Moments for Malt

Some of my favourite pre-dinner malts: perfect delicacy but also full-on flavour.

Some of my favourite pre-dinner malts: perfect delicacy but also full-on flavour.

You wouldn’t take a howler monkey to Wimbledon. You wouldn’t show up at work on Monday morning wearing only your swimming trunks (or would you?). You wouldn’t eat beef bourguignon for breakfast. Time and Place is the discrepancy in operation here, and particularly in our Western society the failure to observe what is appropriate in any given circumstance is liable to invite ridicule upon oneself. There are things which are simply not done and if you are unfortunate enough to be caught doing them you are castigated as tactless, benighted - even a savage.

Equally, there are pairings which share an indestructible complimentary tie, combinations which are both wholesome and pleasing: Stephen Fry and any television programme with a cultured or intellectual subject; Emma Watson and Chanel; English football on the international stage and crushing, embarrassing disappointment. These work.

It is the same with malt whisky, only the time and place for a dram is not prescribed by social stigma but by deep personal discoveries. As I’m sure a lot of malt lovers can appreciate, after a certain point some brands and expressions become mainstays of a special hour in the day or location in the world. Treating them like Steven Gerrard and playing them out of position simply comes over all wrong.

Very recently I reached this juncture myself. In his Malt Whisky Companion, Micheal Jackson speaks of the “particular” pleasure of the stuff: “the restorative after a walk in the country or a game of golf; the aperitif; even, occasionally, the malt with a meal; the digestif; the malt with a cigar, or with a book at bedtime.” I have sampled whisky in all of the above situations (although stroke out golf and cigars) at some point and can now declaim that, for me, a dram pre-dinner is my absolute favourite ‘Moment for a Malt’. The exploration of flavour in liquid form is a marvellous prelude to the more substantial main event. The olfactory and digestive mechanisms, in moist anticipation, make to intensify the properties of whichever whisky I’m sipping. This is especially true on Sunday evenings when my malt has medicinal qualities, too (even when it is not an Islay), remedying the fever symptomatic of the atrocities endured over the course of a Sunday Lunch shift at the pub where I work. At such a time, the delicate, smooth, captivating sweetness of youthful Speysiders is highly prized. The Glenlivet 12-year-old and Tomintoul 16-year-old used to do the job in the past. These now long empty, I look to my bottle of the superb Longmorn 15-year-old and the majestic Linkwood 12-year-old. Vanilla, oak, flowers and fruit, and a touch of peat compose an irresistible flavour profile.

Perhaps still more extraordinary, however, is Caol Ila. Although memories of cycling around the gorgeous distilleried stretch between Rothes and Elgin endows these two malts made on the Lossie with more favourable significance, I rate Caol Ila an unbeatable aperitif. The balance of soft fruity sweetness, crisp, deep peat and supreme malty delicacy is wonderful. At present, I find the Distillers’ Edition with little or no water a joy to drink.

Of course I shall continue to experiment. I suspect my dearth of support for a post-prandial malt is because I have so few bottles whose contents fit the bill. I haven’t many aged, Sherry-matured bruisers. Dark and bewitching cannot be readily applied to the inductess of my drinks cabinet. Mortlach 16-year-old works well with music after a meal but less so with television; Ardbeg Uigeadail demands commitment and certainty to be poured and savoured; the Auchentoshan 1978 is very powerful indeed at 59% ABV. All are complex malts, but haven’t yet seemed to marry with my after dinner moods. The 30-year-old Glenfarclas, however, could without a doubt address matters, and the Gordon & MacPhail Strathisla 49-year-old Sandy poured me in Dufftown to round off my fillet steak and clootie dumpling was revelatory. This last is of course a ‘Malt Moment’ in its own right.

As for whisky with a meal, testing has proven inconclusive. Glenfarclas 15-year-old with dark chocolate? Not a winner. Oban 14-year-old with salmon? Well, I’ll try almost anything once. Auchentoshan 3Wood with Christmas cake? Scoreless draw. Whisky and food pairing is an avenue many are keenly striding down, and there are some persuasive articles around to tempt me, but I feel that, for the time being, I won’t risk spoiling the impact of my whiskies when the inclination to have one arises.

The Dalmore 15-year-old: a Twilight Whisky.

The Dalmore 15-year-old: a Twilight Whisky.

If the evening is wearing on, however, now may well be the time for another malt. Though not as appealing as aperitifs, “Twilight Whiskies” can be fantastic. The Dalmore 15-year-old is an astonishingly lovely and easy-drinking dram. I adore its opulent, richness, firmness, nuttiness, fruitiness and light dab of ground coffee-esque peat. For a late-night malt, it is without equal and indeed I polished off my bottle, with regret but with friends, earlier this week. Highland Park 12-year-old is a steely competitor, though, as the light dies from the sky. I sipped some as Iniesta secured the World Cup for Spain and delighted in the echoes of my drizzly Orkney causeways which slid out of my glass.

Of course, these are no more than hunches, and most likely are all subject to change. I welcome modification, in fact, because there are few simpler joys than a blissful half-hour with just the right-tasting malt – whenever and with whichever style of whisky that happens to be. If tomorrow I discover that my precious Longmorn actually works rather splendidly immediately after a mid-morning chocolate croissant then for such future occasions shall I reserve and savour it. Although maybe I ought not to make a habit of doing so, and definitely it should be out of sight of disapproving parents. When are your favourite Moments for Malt? Have they evolved over the years? I’m made dizzy by future possibilites for my whisky-drinking: Ardbeg Corryvreckan with Power Bar energy gels post half-marathon? You never know how mood and malt may conspire to create sensory wonderment.

So then, for means of reflection, conversation, restoration or an endless list of other purposes, at any time find an excuse for a wee dram. Even if it is in the manner of those monkeys slapping at typewriters, you may hit upon the perfect marriage of whisky and circumstance. It is so very rewarding. Houseman wrote: “and malt does more than Milton can. To justify God’s ways to man.” Meditating on that aphorism alone would be apt inspiration to root around in the cupboard for something tasty.

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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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