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Day 5: Speyside and Spokes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The gorgeous location of the Ballindalloch distillery.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Medicine with Uncle Mike

You may have heard of the description, ‘a shrinking violet’. They tend not to make good sales people. Mike Drury, of the Whisky Castle in Tomintoul, is a very good sales person. He is not a shrinking violet. The shop is run as a private church to his evangelical faith that whisky ought to be better than the standard which most official bottlings, to his mind, settle for. Mike is vehemently, unapologetically passionate about single malt Scotch, and when taken together form one formidable duo.

Hopefully I can make annual visits to this tantalising apothecary shop of astounding, individual whiskies.

My staunch refusal to countenance anything other than a Mortlach last year had evidently pained him – ‘there are much better whiskies than that in here…’ he had sighed – and so last week I vowed to submit to his tutelage. Despite a rapidly congesting nose, I begged to know what was good at that moment. ‘He’s come to Uncle Mike for a cure,’ beamed Mr Drury, and I had a Douglas Laing Mortlach in my hand inside 25 seconds.

I explained my Project – cask strength, preferably single cask, non-chillfiltered: a whisky with genuine personality – and away he went to forage in the forest of bottles behind the counter. He produced a Gordon & MacPhail-sourced, Whisky Castle-bottled Arran. ‘This,’ winked Mike, ‘is one sexy whisky – if you like toffee.’ A first-fill ex-Bourbon barrel had held Arran spirit for 11 years, and the result was a bonanza of the best that wood can offer: butterscotch galore, creamy, unctuous, with a suggestion of green fruits and spring blossoms in a cool mist. We had our benchmark.

There followed many others: amongst them a Bunnahabhain (heavy lactose notes at first, then a more mature maritime character and a complex oak-malt interchange on the palate) and a ‘diverting’ A.D. Rattray melange of malts. Nothing flicked any switches, however, and I began to worry that my Cinderella whisky was simply a fantasy.

This 15yo first-fill ex-Bourbon will hopefully prove to be the ultimate Caol Ila experience.

However, Cathy – Mike’s wife, who all this time had been surfing the net calling out cruise trip options further along the counter – spoke up in support of another G&M/Whisky Castle collaboration: a Sherry-matured Caol Ila. The moment those gloriously familiar peat notes reached my nose – a mixture of peat bog and the lightest smoke eddying on the Islay breezes, my mission changed and I was acquainted with a Dewar Rattray 15yo.

Meanwhile, others were getting the Mike treatment: controversial declarations which gently put the customer’s nose out of joint. However, his bluster is always backed up by a stunning malt the customer would never have thought of. I reflected as I counted out seven ten-pound notes how effective Mike’s approach is. Whisky is a complicated matter: a wood wilfully obscured by the trees at times. I would wager that Mike’s particular methods, by starting from the customer’s own tastes and challenging them with good-natured abuse and tenacity, induce new opinion in his punters. To defend your predilections is to gain a more rounded understanding of them and with a new conviction comes new confidence. By establishing a dialogue, aided and abetted by those glorious drams I talked about, people become genuinely interested in what whisky is and can be. A steady stream of samples shows that there is no harm – only greater rewards - in exploring.

I left with my Dewar Rattray after all, similarly bristling with single malt bombast. Mike knows his own mind, and he knows whisky, and consequently I believe that it is possible at the Whisky Castle to purchase drams as they should be drunk: in lively, enlightening conversation.

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A Taste of Speyside with Friends

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Small Matter of a Mortlach

 

Do not miss this shop if you are anywhere near north east Scotland. It is relatively accessible (between May and November!) and contains malts and people unlike any others.

Do not miss this shop if you are anywhere near north east Scotland. It is relatively accessible (between May and November!) and contains malts and people unlike any others.

Re-visit Glen Garioch: check; dine at Sandy’s: check – I had been very efficient in my completion of whisky-related objectives so far on my Scotch Odyssey plenary, and with the previous night’s Speyside Platter still handsomely fueling my faculties, we made the journey into the Cairngorms to Tomintoul for my third mission.

As far as whisky emporia which I encountered over the course of my tour, none could match the Drury’s Whisky Castle. For the two days I enjoyed Tomintoul as my base camp, I spent a good deal of time in the shop and not nearly enough money. Mike and Cathy are passionate, generous, and often outspoken, but in the main fabulous ambassadors for whisky – although I don’t expect The Macallan or The Glenlivet to be employing Mike as sales director any time soon, but more of that later.

A sample of the varied bottlings to be found here.

A sample of the varied bottlings to be found here.

Where else could I have gone to purchase a most significant bottle? Who else could more instructively and entertainingly me guide me through the plethora of independent expressions available inside? Mike was my man for Mortlach.

He did not at first understand why I should be so determined to limit myself within the biodiverse jungle of his shop to one species of distillery alone. I had to explain that Mortlach was a special place for me, producing a special dram appreciated by special people. He grabbed a 12-year-old Provenance from the phalanx of sample bottles behind the till and tipped some into the bulbous Whisky Castle tumblers, which worked well for the tasting. I sensed conifer branches and burnt toffee, with plenty of phenolic character. Rich oak and sweet barley sugar emerged, too, along with a little shortbread. It was a clean nose, leading into a big, sulphury palate which filled the mouth with sweetness and a hint of peat smoke. A worthy start, but it hadn’t the guts at 46% ABV that I was really seeking.

This was a thoroughly pleasant way of spending a Thursday morning. I mean afternoon...

This was a thoroughly pleasant way of spending a Thursday morning. I mean afternoon...

Mike’s next suggestion was a Douglas Laing of the same age as the Provenance. At 50% ABV it was approaching the heady heights of raw whisky and certainly propounded plenty of oaky flavours on the nose: vanilla, new oak and a dry sweetness, extra rounded stewed fruit notes appearing after a time with greener fruits behind them. Toffee was present in the mouth, as well as more oak. Chewy and fruity, this reminded me quite a lot more of the 16-year-old official expression, one of my very favourites.

As I was nosing, scribbling and pondering, people were continually being sucked through the door. Whisky drinkers are chatty people – even at 11AM – and what was as a harmless remark on the part of one couple that they had visited The Glenlivet the previous day caught Mike’s attention. Yes, he said, The Glenlivet was a nice place to visit, it wasn’t really very good. He had plenty of malts which could kick the standard bottlings into touch.

‘I’d like to see you prove that,’ was the retort, and while he poured me further Mortlachs, he attended to these new customers and, I rather fancy, he did.

It is Mike’s policy to slyly rub you up the wrong way: juxtaposing your apprehension of the industry with that of his. His experience informs what can come across as incendiary – even sacrilegious – remarks about the state of the industry at present, and such disappointment is derived from his knowledge of better, more exciting days of flavour and distinction; these, he says, are behind us. His argument is that single malt whisky in its readily available, big-brand form, is dull. Not bad, he says, just consistent; uniform. He hurls his invective on chill-filtration and 40% ABV bottlings, claiming it sucks the life out of a once idiosyncratic spirit. He takes issue with the scale of the industry, too, bemoaning the lack of really good wood and this is where the Macallan comes in. The husband of the couple, when asked by Mike what he normally drank so that a suitable challenger could be selected, nominated the Speyside megastar. Mike argued that their wood management, whilst extensive and sophisticated, was dealing fundamentally with a threatened, finite resource and the resulting whisky was not a patch on that being bottled fifteen or twenty years ago. The Fine Oak range was a prime example of how the paucity of good Sherry casks was afflicting the X-factor of the output of distinguished malts today.

With the aid of a single cask 18-year-old Longmorn, the lack of protest from his patrons would suggest that he had made his point.

Meanwhile I had been savouring an Adelphi which Mike had put in front of me which, in his opinion, was a Mortlach. Technically, it proceeded under the rubric solely of ‘Breath of Speyside’ but his suspicion was that it was Dufftownian in origin. Single cask, cask strength (57.9% ABV): this was what I was here for. On the nose, sweet and powerful oak flavours dominated with plenty of toffee and a resinous character. Smooth and chocolatey, its dark richness put me in mind of dunnage warehouses – an instant hit for any whisky. Lightly charred notes came forward, with thick vanilla. Barley sweetness, like with the Provenance, appeared, too, with caramel shortbread. The palate was epically enthralling, evocative of the majestic Flora and Fauna bottling so rich, dark and fruity was it. The presence of more chocolate and toffee made this just the decadent example of Speyside I am particularly partial to.

The A D Rattray 16-year-old could not quite measure up to this delightfully rich mystery dram. Whilst being deeper and fuller, with more resinous dark fruits, it was a little too musty for my liking – very drying indeed. Caramel toffee and orange teased the nose, with some honey and rich barley. Those phenolic notes appeared on the palate with more fruit and vanilla. Nuts and sugar presented an authentic Mortlach experience.

It had to be the rich, sweet, oaky power of the Adelphi, though. Its spirited dynamic exhibition of the best of Sherry cask maturation ensured I would be taking this back home to Northumberland.

Requiring a walk to clear the old head of whisky vapour, my Dad and I wandered in the Glenlivet Estate, the same route we took, in fact, the day immediately prior to stumbling into the eponymous distillery. The weather, just as it had been three years ago, was as delicious as the malts I had been quaffing, and as the track took us beyond the tree line we could appreciate the rugged isolation of the Cairngorms and Tomintoul tucked within them. Scanning the valley bottom, I found the road which I had agonisingly toiled along only five months earlier: blizzard-blasted and hamstrung. All that came after had its steel, optimism and endeavour rooted in that day. My reward then had been an hour in The Whisky Castle, with a super meal at the Clockhouse Restaurant. It was there that we reconvened with my Mother and Aunt for another extraordinary feast.

Tomintoul

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Sacred Spirit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Braemar to Dufftown

Braemar to Tomintoul, 32 miles

And so quickly this tour has become a salvage operation. How do I continue to capitalise on the tour as planned, despite the hiccough? I had my room booked in Tomintoul, thank goodness, and so all I had to do was get there.

The hostel had emptied on the Sunday morning, and whereas there had been six fellow sleepers on the Saturday night, it was just me in a cavernous dorm. I woke up reasonably cheery. Until I saw the white stuff outside.

Hardly auspicious conditions. I knew the road got higher (much higher) before I reached Tomintoul and didn't like the look of this one bit.

Hardly auspicious conditions. I knew the road got higher (much higher) before I reached Tomintoul and didn't like the look of this one bit.

Throughout my time in Braemar there had been snow flurries, but nothing had lain, even on the lawns surrounding the hostel. This was different. When I get the chance, I shall show you the scale of it just before I set off. The weather news in Tomintoul was better, however, and there was the promise of something hot to drink in the ski resort. I set off.

The snow mercifully stopped as I followed the banks of the Dee. I’d taken off my overtrousers and hood and conditons were rather good. I knew the road I was due to cycle, though, and it filled me with dread.

The main road runs from Ballater to Tomintoul. I had taken the little one. The higher I got, the more it snowed. I reached the top of the main climb – over little hump-backed bridges and rolls of steepness – and it was blizzard conditions. I couldn’t entertain doing anything other than continuing, however, because where could I bail out? I was in the middle of nowhere.

At the top of the steepest stretch, I stopped to rip into the cheese and ham sandwiches I had made for myself. Was that the sun? It certainly was trying to peep through. This felt like a supportive presence and I carried on. I reached the next summit, and there was Donside. And the Lecht.

After a hot chocolate and some soup, during which I appreciated just how freezing I really was, I made my attempt. The first ramp was 20%. I had to stop in the area they normally reserve for turning gritters. Normally, they get to that point and don’t bother about the rest. It’s the hill and road that is always closed from about November to March.

This is one of the most breathtaking views of the entire tour, and thanks to the gradient I had to survive to reach this point, I was literally wheezing and spluttering to begin with.

This is one of the most breathtaking views of the entire tour, and thanks to the gradient I had to survive to reach this point, I was literally wheezing and spluttering to begin with.

 (They closed it again temporarily the following day.) I had another break before the top, and the view was astonishing. Then it was the bald stretch to the ski station and one last awful incline. A motorist (on his way down) gave me a gentle toot and a thumbs-up.

After gobbling a Mars Bar, I limped to Tomintoul. The snooker was on, and I just vegged out. I must mention Mike and Cathy at The Whisky Castle. I walked in and had a chat with Cathy, who then proceeded to pour samples down my throat. It is just the most incredible shop, with awesome stock and there is nothing the pair of them haven’t tasted or visited. There appreciation of the industry as a whole is remarkable, and after Mike’s good-humoured carping, I’m a convert to the “No chill-filter and 46%!” crusade. If it’s single cask then all the better.

***

Tomintoul to Aberlour, 26 miles

Having done The Glenlivet the previous day (see review) I was now completely back on schedule. It was hard to leave Argyle Guest House – they had looked after me so well – but one can’t travel by staying in the same place.

My first proper glimpse of the Spey and the gorgeous, gentle fields and hills it sloshes through. Here be whisky, alright.

My first proper glimpse of the Spey and the gorgeous, gentle fields and hills it sloshes through. Here be whisky, alright.

I reached Cragganmore just as it began to rain and left just when it started again. The tour I have treated in the previous post.

I don’t like the main road to Aberlour. Every HGV in Northern Europe seems to be using these Scottish A- roads. Maybe I’ve been unlucky and the ash crisis is creating extra traffic. Glenfarclas appeared, rather ostentatiously, on my right. I shall review the tour shortly but what a lovely environment. It is possible to taste the independence: right down to using a blue Swiss mill!

I made it to Aberlour without becoming a road accident statistic. In ‘Fresh’, the recommended cafe, I took stock with tea and a slab of carrot cake. And I mean slab. ‘This is why I’m doing this, then,’ I may have said to myself.

***

Dufftown to Huntly, 60 miles

I’m condensing, folks. I had gone from Aberlour to Dufftown the day before but it was a short trip and the distilleries were the talking point, not the journey. This, on the other hand, was a mixture of both.

Having been following it for the last week, now, just outside Tomintoul, I was officially on the Malt Whisky Trail.

Having been following it for the last week, now, just outside Tomintoul, I was officially on the Malt Whisky Trail.

A few miles out of Dufftown it started snowing. I passed into Aberdeenshire and it started to rain. I prefer snow. Huntly didn’t look too promising in the dank wetness. I was deeply cold, and well aware that I had far to go. I checked into my hotel room to leave some things behind while I completed a couple of errands about the town. Less than enthusiastically, I set off for Glen Garioch.

If I thought the A95 was bad, the A96 is by far and away worse. If you are a cyclist, do not bother. I had ten miles of it not to so much endure as survive. In the spray, with all the Aberdeen-bound traffic, I don’t know how some of the enormous trucks didn’t send me through those pearly gates (assuming all of this demon drink isn’t an insurmountable stain on my character). They just refused to give me room, slow down, or even wait until oncoming vehicles had passed. On one instance I was forced over a catseye by a gargantuan flat-bed and thought my time was up.

The motorway swelled and fell, and I felt every incline which the oil boys in there cars barely noticed, judging by the anti-social nature of their speed and disinterest. I knew they were oil-connected because ever second car was an Audi.

At long last the turn off to Old Meldrum manifested before my sodden eyes. 10 miles. OK. I had to be careful. My gloves were saturated and I was getting low on fuel. Could I make it to the distillery before I froze, or did I stop and eat, and freeze? I risked it and just buried myself.

The routes around this part of the country are mostly flat and very very staright. When yet another US-style ruler of tarmac presented itself, I confess I swore loudly. The sheep and lambs were startled.

Full of lively whisky and super-knowledgeable, and just as lovely, people.

Full of lovely whisky and super-knowledgeable, and just as lovely, people.

Old Meldrum: I’d made it. Well, maybe not quite. There was still a mile and a half to Glen Garioch, as the brown signs made it, and I was in a less than cheery mood when I got there. I was soaked to the skin (and a good way below that, I fancy) and all I could do was beg the lady behind the desk for some radiators. She did better than that. She sent me to the still house. Behind the spirit still I found a clothes rack and so draped my drenched gear over that. It would all be dry by the time I finished my tour – for all I extended the time by chatting to Fiona and Jane, as I would come to know and love them.

Jane made me a cup of tea while I wolfed down my lunch. Fiona took me on my tour and as guides go, she tops all I have come across so far, and not just because of her maternal care for a poor droonded waif. Her sense of humour was sparkling. She had been surprised to see me half-naked in the still house when she brought her previous tour in. She debated whether to improvise and say that my presence was essential to the final flavour of the spirit.

The tour over, I just discussed my plans. Their enthusiasm and support were the only things which preserved me back to Huntly. I can’t believe I covered those last 22 miles. I promised before leaving that should I complete this tour – and I will confess that at times it has been a case of “If” instead of “When” – I would come back to the distillery and buy myself a bottle of the 1990. On the way back I added to my plans the purchase of a Founder’s Reserve which I could get them both to sign. I’d drink the 1990! It was the perfect antidote to the weather and fatigue, and once more reaffirmed what can overcome what. In the game of rock/paper/scissors, whisky and people beat rain and exhaustion. I can’t describe the pride I felt in myself when I returned to the Huntly Hotel, whose relatively sparse and tatty-round-the-edges nature did not matter one jot in this new haze of accomplishment.

***

Huntly to Dufftown, 28 miles

I woke up sobered. I felt those 60 miles now, and looking at my bike, so had it. It was filthy, and all the squeakings of yesterday now seemed unavoidable. I had to deal with this.

A phone call to Breezes revealed my incompetence as far as maintenance is concerned. When Mark had said that on-the-hoof maintenance wasn’t really necessary, he obviously assumed (as he had done with puncture repairs) that I knew to do the basics: clean the chain and lubricate it regularly. I hadn’t been doing that and yesterday’s rain had washed the last of the grease of it. I was advised to try and get as much muck off as possible, then try and get some oil. When I asked about WD40 I got the same response as I had when I voiced my idea to pressure wash the bottom bracket: “No!” I spent 40 minutes with some rags and soapy water, then tried to find a garage. I didn’t find a garage but I did find an unlikely good samaritan. As I stared glumly at the lightless interior of the garage, a man appeared. I only understood maybe 10% of the words that came out of his mouth (and there were a lot) but he was eager to help and got me some 3-in-1. This did the trick. I was off again. I didn’t do Glendronach for my equipment issues had cost me lots of time. Disconsolately, and contemplating the ridicule I’d get for throwing the towel in now from all my readers, friends, employers and colleagues and how I was generally a weak human being, I headed for Keith and Strathisla. Yesterday I was on top of the world, believing that I could conquer anything now on my itinerary. Now I was riding in fear of my machine simply capitulating. I couldn’t see a future.

After the tour I had my Mum source some phone numbers for local bike shops. Everyone over the last few days had said that Elgin was probably the closest. Not great because it isn’t that near, but there’s nothing I could do about it. I spoke to the folk at Moray Cycles and they promised to look at it if I passed through. They also recommended some different oils which I found in a car DIY shop in Keith. I felt much better.

I returned to Dufftown, then, and after a shower, headed out for my dinner. I wanted to cheer myself up and vowed to spend the money that would have gone on the Balvenie tour on some really good grub. I was no longer after budget calories. I’m one of these people whose moods are dependent on their stomachs and so went in search of other Dufftown eateries. I arrived at ‘A Taste of Speyside’. The beginning wasn’t auspicious – they were out of rabbit! They couldn’t get hold of any. I can recommend a garden in Northumberland that has a surplus. I elected for the pork and was not disappointed. Lovely big portions full of richness and flavour. The ethos of the restaurant owner is locally grown, and in season. Plates are simply presented and ingredients confidentally, though sympathetically, prepared. This Scottish produce can speak for itself.

Probably my most favouritest restaurant in the whole entire world: fabulous food and super, unprecedented people.

Probably my most favouritest restaurant in the whole entire world: fabulous food and super, unprecedented people.

I had the muffin to finish and what a splendid shot of endorphins that was. I finished replete, and very satisfied with my decision to reward myself for my endeavours. I got chatting to Sandy, the owner and chef, and what a unique man. We discussed my previous dining in Dufftown and as we were on the computer, I showed him my blog. When he heard of my strife with internet access, he insisted I sit down and update away. I said I hadn’t my notebooks. He said I should go and get them then. I said what if I don’t come back. He said he knew where I was staying. And so here I sit, still typing because what a week it has been. Fortunately, with a cup of tea inside me, I have a renewed appreciation of the values still held by other foodies and the capacity of others to help out where they can. Sandy and his team have gone above and beyond on this occasion, and it is thanks to them that you are largely up to date with my movements. As I have said before, it is my encounters with people such as Sandy (and Liam at the Old Cross Inn, and Gavin at Tullibardine, and Jane and Fiona at Glen Garioch) that elevate my day-to-day workings and struggles. Off the bike, it is coming into contact with them that appeases and silences any negativity about when I’m going to call it a day on this trip, to simply give up. Their hospitality, genuine interest and generosity are priceless and my will to enjoy more similar encounters trumps the dejection of exhaustion.

So I do have my dark times, and I’ll be honest I still cannot envisage cycling into Glasgow in a few weeks, but there is always some glorious person spurring me on, when I’m least expecting it. If nothing else, I shall take that with me from this incredible, and incredibly challenging, journey; whenever my reserves of fight and passion seem to have been utterly spent. I hope to carry on for a few days yet, though. 

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