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April 14, 2011

Itchy Legs – One Year on from the Odyssey

A moment I will never forget - obliviousness as to the future makes a certain imprint on the mind.

A moment I will never forget - obliviousness as to the future makes a certain imprint on the mind.

If only my mind weren’t obliged to sacrifice quite so much attention to mastering my academic commitments, you would find me sprawled amongst the daffodils, incapacitated by reminiscence.

This Tuesday past marked the one year anniversary of my unpredictable, challenging and spectacular cross-breeding of single malt and a bicycle. I had not appreciated the power with which the rapid turning of the year would recall my preparations for my Odyssey although fortunately cherry blossom, blue skies and what feels as if it were laundered air have evoked less of the jittery insanity and helplessness and all of the excitement and wonder I don’t quite remember the prospect of six weeks of cycling in aid of the finest Scotch whisky entirely induced within me the first time round, the closer it came to departure. That I should be in Scotland renders the comparison still more arresting.

Of course, of greater import than a wish to go back in time, cock a leg over that silver cross bar and pedal away into the Trossachs again is the contrast of perspective the intervening twelve months supply: a year ago I would be snuggled into the bottom bunk in a dormitory of the Pitlochry Youth Hostel. Now, I am desperate to get into a different bed – one in my student accommodation. (Not until you’ve done more work.) I may yearn for the extraordinary surroundings of that first 60 mile plus ride from Pitlochry to Brechin, through Kirkmichael and Kirriemuir, but I have also encountered the sublime in my literary studies. The Odyssey introduced me to magnificent, singular people; here in St Andrews I have made further wonderful acquaintances.

Though I haven’t cycled between its production facilities for a while, whisky itself has at least abided with me. As I sipped a Glen Garioch Founder’s Reserve – a toast to the occasion – I could be profoundly grateful that my memories, connections and all that I learnt and experienced on the Odyssey inform each dram I pour for myself. While I won’t have the opportunity to get on the bike and spin to a distillery during the next six weeks, I intend to enjoy many whiskies in diverse circumstances and – as Keith and I discussed last month - chances are pleasingly high that a malt in my hand will communicate with one from the past.

As I complete my term’s work, my mind at every opportunity free-wheeling down a myriad single track roads or wandering between washbacks, I hope some of you will take advantage of the much improved weather to get out and explore some of Scotland’s unique landscapes, and singular single malts by whichever method of transport pleases you. These itchy legs of mine won’t let me forget the precious joy of two-wheeled adventure.

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June 12, 2010

The Plaudits Post

I’m back now, and whilst I may miss my simple, if at times seriously debilitating life on the road, I am in a position to appreciate and marvel at the world of Scotch malt whisky on an entirely separate astral plain. You want to know (I assume) what was good, bad and indifferent, and where you can be guaranteed an unfeasibly large slice of chocolate cake should you be pondering an attempt at something similar (and you really should).

Therefore, this is a plenary post, an awards bash, for what really shouldn’t be missed if you are within 100 miles.

AT THE DISTILLERIES

Drams of the Odyssey

The Glenlivet Nadurra 16YO, 54.2% - Floral, honeyed and teeming with butterscotch and vanilla. A superbly bold Speyside from the more delicate side of the family.

Aberlour 14YO Single Cask First-Fill Bourbon, 63.3% – Full and intensely sweet. Freshly-sawn pine, wood oils, toffee. The malt by which I shall judge all other Bourbon-matured whiskies, and indeed single casks.

Benromach 10YO, 43% – Sweetly heathery, malty and peaty. My kind of whisky.

Ledaig 10YO, 43% – Properly, evocatively peaty. The first heavily peated malt I had tasted since Talisker, and an auspicious herald of the peaty monsters shortly to come.

Laphroaig Quarter Cask, 48% – Awesome. Perfectly assertive oaking, seaweed, smoke and power.

Lagavulin 12YO cask Strength, 57.9% – I was assaulted by this malt. It butted me in the ofrehead then kneed me in the groin. But I loved it. Smoke and sweetness. I need to find this again.

Longrow CV, 46% – Oily, wood smoke. Enormously complex.

Guides of the Odyssey

The Longer Shortlist:

Clare at Royal Lochnagar; Chris at Aberlour; Dagmar at Highland Park.

The Shortlist:

Gavin at Tullibardine – What more can I say about Gavin that I haven’t already? He is one of the most enthusiastic and friendly people I met on my travels. I phoned up the distillery once I returned to research exclusive bottlings in the VC and he remembered me after I mentioned that I had been the boy on a bike. He was brimming with admiration and congratulations, and eager for me to head back to Blackford. I’m just as keen.

Jim at Edradour - For being just a very funny man. His jokes were equally appreciated by the other twenty memebers of my monster tour party. As dry a Scottish sense of humour as you could wish to find.

Fiona at Glen Garioch - Fiona was another guide with an irrepressible sense of humour. Together with Jane, she gave me the much-needed kick up the backside, and in my darker moments thereafter, the thought of being in a position to roll up to Old Meldrum some time in the future and say “I did it,” kept me going.

John at Ben Nevis – It is very difficult to describe where John Carmichael fits in to the architypal breeds of distillery guide. He is  most definitely not the wide-eyed seasonal student; nor the passionate but casual part-timer, nor a member of the production team. He is, however, a complete professional, and a tour with him around the distillery (and he is the head tour guide so chances are good) is not to be missed. He is the second generation to have been in the industry all his days and it shows. His humour (dry), knowledge (supreme) and demeanour (you would think it was his distillery) are all compelling qualities. I learnt more from him about whisky, whisky hospitality and whisky history than from anyone else. It is plain, when he speaks of industry luminaries such as Richard Paterson, that he too enjoys a niche within the inner circle of people whose passion and experience are a good few rungs above everyone else. 

Ruth at Lagavulin - My tour of Lagavulin was perhaps the most relaxed and somehow intimate of my whole odyssey. It was a lovely warm day, the distillery was ticking over nicely and the tour group wasn’t too enormous. Ruth was spectacularly informative and was able to root out a bottle of the 12YO CS, something I’m very grateful for.

Henrik at Glengoyne - Henrik has kept in touch since I met him last month. Another very professional and passionate guide, he took time out of his regular duties to shoot the breeze with me after the tour. He said that he hoped I had enjoyed my tour with the “sweaty Swedish tour guide.” I assured him that these tours were my personal favourites. Michael, the Australian walker I shared a room with in Glasgow, had toured the distillery with Henrik, too, and he praised  his character and performance, as well.

A special mention to Martin at Bladnoch – not technically a tour guide at all but he delivered a top class performance anyway. I don’t think there was a dusty corner of the distillery I didn’t get a glance at. Obviously, his  chauffeuring was an added bonus, but if he does choose to follow his dad into distilling, the future of Bladnoch and distilling in Dumfries and Galloway is in extremely good hands. Thanks again.

And the Winner is…

Robert at Bunnahabhain – As I waxed in my post for the distillery, despite everything that had drained, annoyed and bored me that day, I hung on Robert’s every word. This can’t have been his first tour of the day, but the pride for his plant couldn’t help but shine through so brightly. Hilarious, and with the insight that only comes from actually making the stuff, Robert was by far the best guide of the tour – and he insisted he was “only a stillman.”

Tour of the Odyssey

To win this accolade, it is vital to show the visitor unique insight into the whisky-making process, accommodate them comfortably and stylishly and dram them well. Bowmore, Kilchoman and Springbank would qualify under the first requirement; The Glenlivet and Tullibardine are notably superior exponents of the second, and Aberlour and Glenfiddich are streets ahead in terms of the whisky handed over. There can only be one winner, however.

Highland Park – The emotions triggered when I think back to my visit are wonderful, unique, inexpressible. The location; the unusual logistics of getting there; the typical difficulties with the Scottish weather; the one-to-one tour; the maltings; the spitting, sparking kilns; the warehouses; the video; the beautiful VC; the drams – it was all deeply special.

 Highland Park 2

***

Cafes of the Odyssey

‘The Arch’ in Fettercairn; the wool place on the road between Strathdon and the Lecht Ski resort, ‘Fresh’ in Aberlour; the cafe on the A9 bridge in Helmsdale; ‘Morag’s’ in Wick; the chocolate shop in Tobermory; ‘The Kitchen Garden’ in Oban; ‘The Craft Kitchen’ in Port Charlotte; ‘Fresh Bites’ in Campeltown.

Restaurants of the Odyssey

‘The Ramsay Arms’ in Fettercairn; ‘The Clockhouse’ in Tomintoul; ‘Taste of Speyside’ in Dufftown; ‘Chapter One’ in Forres; ‘The Red Poppy’ in Strathpeffer; ‘The No.1 Bistro at the Mackay Hotel’ in Wick; ‘The Port Charlotte Hotel’ in Port Charlotte.

Locations of the Odyssey – the Best Places to Cycle

Between Gilmerton and Aberfeldy in Perthshire; Angus; Between Forres and Inverness; The North-East coast to John o’Groats; Orkney; Skye; Mull; Arran; Dumfries and Galloway.

Beds of the Odyssey

Stirling Youth Hostel; Pitlochry Youth Hostel; Kishmul B&B in Fettercairn; Argyle Guest House in Tomintoul; Norlaggan B&B in Aberlour; Milton of Grange B&B in Forres; Carbisdale Castle Youth Hostel; Netherby B&B in Wick; The Picturehouse B&B in Ard Dorch, Skye; Inverasdale B&B in Oban; The Carradale Hotel in Carradale; Lochranza Youth Hostel; Glasgow Youth Hostel.

To be Avoided

It would be remiss of me to not warn you of the less rewarding components in the Scotch whisky family.

The Distilleries that Could Do Better

Glenturret (too expensive); Old Pulteney (too expensive and your questions won’t be answered); Oban (never mind too expensive, this is highway robbery); Caol Ila (disinterested guide and not much on show).

***

If you have any questions about anything you have read, or there is anything which you feel I haven’t fully described or made clear, just drop a comment and I’ll do my best to help out. Scotland is an unspeakably beautiful, pleasingly accessible and thrillingly complex country made for exploration, just like the unique spirit it creates.

 

Pagodas, sea, sky and a bike. Just right now I can't think of a more stirring combination.

Pagodas, sea, sky and a bike. Just right now I can't think of a more stirring combination.

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May 23, 2010

The Long Road to a Whisky (Blog’s) Maturity

I have returned to verdant, glorious Northumberland, folks. Everything has just exploded into life and I feel I have missed out on a key transformation. I was, after all, chasing winter as I headed north along the east side of the country.

I have begun the long process of uploading my photos and inserting them into their appropriate posts. I’m beginning at the beginning, so that is where all of my pictorial evidence is now. I have already updated my first four posts: Glenkinchie; the journey to it and Stirling; Tullibardine, and Glenturret. Please check them out. There aren’t many, sadly. As I said in Braemar, I deleted many thinking it might ease uploading. There should be enough to be going along with, though.

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May 4, 2010

My Half-Term Report (including the hiccoughs)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tomatin – See above.

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

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

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

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

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

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April 18, 2010

Tullibardine

This isn't the prettiest of distilleries but within it I had one of my best experiences on tour. It is the oldest brewing and distilling site in Scotland.

This isn't the prettiest of distilleries but within it I had one of my best experiences on tour. It is the oldest brewing and distilling site in Scotland.

Blackford, Perthshire, PH4 1QG, 01764 682252. Tullibardine Distillery Ltd. www.tullibardine.com

APPEARANCE AND LOCATION:      **      The hills and glens around Blackford are all stunning and the Highland Spring bottling plant is only a little way along the road. The distillery, however, is situated in a retail park directly off the A9.

TOURS PROVIDED:

‘Standard Tour’: £5. See ‘My Tour’ below.

‘Tutored Tastings Tour’: £7.50. There is no tour in this option, just a guided tasting of three expressions of Tullibardine in their special tasting room off the warehouse.

‘Bonded Tour’: £15. All of the qualities of the standard tour, only you can actually walk in the warehouse, a rare privilege. There is also a free Tullibardine-branded tasting glass and a miniature as well as the three expressions to enjoy.

‘Connoisseur Tour’: £25. Again, the merits of the standard tour, only here you get to dram three samples straight from the sleeping casks in the warehouse. Three expressions of Tullibardine.

DISTILLERY-EXCLUSIVE BOTTLING:       N/A

My Tour – 13/04/2010

THE RUNNING COMMENTARY:      ***

THE PROCESS AND EQUIPMENT:      **

Notes:      Designed by the renowned distillery architect William Delme-Evans (also responsible for Jura and Glenallachie), this is a very functional distilling enterprise.

GENEROSITY:     ** (2 drams.)

VALUE FOR MONEY:      *

SCORE:      8/10 *s

COMMENT:      Gavin Cunningham, our South African guide, was the star of the show. The distillery was silent at the time of touring for maintenance and the Easter break but Gavin held the attention marvellously: entertaining, authoritative and with a unique turn of phrase and means of explanation, he deserves those three stars. They bill themselves as the most easily-accessed distillery in Scotland and as you can see the distillery in its little shopping complex from the northbound A9, it is hard to disagree. It is also the oldest brewing and distilling site in Scotland and 1488 whisky ale is sold in the visitor’s centre. The on-site cafe serves a little of what you’d expect and does it very well. This tour exceeded all expectations and you are allowed to take pictures inside. I should think this would make a very pain-free day out.

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April 15, 2010

Stirling to Pitlochry

I beg patience of you, readers. Whilst I would love to satisfy my own needs and my journalistic responsibilities at the same time, I’m quickly appreciating that this is not always possible. Time, just at the moment, is money, and with an hour’s worth of internet access at my hostels costing me £3, I have to condense. A lot!

Regarding the pictures, I had hoped to post some yesterday but unfortunately the IT at Comrie Croft was not in a cooperative mood. Hopefully tonight, as I’m satying with my aunt, I should be able to bring you some of the stunning photos that have practically taken themselves. The whole country is one astonishing photograph!

***

Stirling to Comrie: 34 miles.

I awoke with far too much anxiety. I won’t lie to you, had the first two days of my trip entertained even a smattering of rain, I would probably be writing this from home. Three hours of sleep, I felt was insufficient to embark on my second day of my whisky odyssey. Just at that moment, however, it felt like the whole 1300 miles were waiting for me that day. Mentally, I was not in good shape at all. Despite the nausea of panic, I managed to eat some muesli and some toast. Washed down with a hot cup of tea, I felt a little better.

I collared the staff at Stewart Lawson Cycles, Barnton Street, just as they were lifting the shutters. Pedal system fixed, I returned to the hostel feeling infintely better.

I set off in what the Scots would call ‘driech’ weather. It was grey and cold, in other words, although how expressive a dialect it is. Blackford, here I come.

The turn off signalled by the map suggested a small road. It said nothing about a corkscrew of a passage. I had to get off and walk, for the first time as a cyclist since I took it up seriously in my early teens, I had to walk. In cleats, though, and with the weight of the bike added to the insane gradient, pushing was more challenging.

Although it didn’t flatten, the incline wasn’t quite so steep. I cleared the trees and there was the Highlands. And lots of it. Only the photos, when they eventually are transferred, can communicate the desolate beauty of the landscape.

Congestion was possible, even on these single track roads. A farmer was driving his sheep to new pasture, the two

There was no safe overtaking opportunity on this occasion.

There was no safe overtaking opportunity on this occasion.

 collies on the back of the quadbike with him eyeing this strange, fluorescent thing wheezing behind them.

After a nerve-shredding 500m on the A9, I made Blackford and there was Tullibardine. They claim to be the most accessible distillery in Scotland and I can’t disagree. It is odd having a traditional distilliung complex in a retail park but stepping into the excellent visitors’ centre, I didn’t notice. More about the tour later.

Getting to Crieff was more of a challenge. The roads got busier, faster and, on one awful stretch, dustier. I had already phoned Glenturret to put my tour back by an hour and arrived with 10 minutes to spare. More on this tour in a future post.

Now deeply concerned about where my dinner was coming from and riding on empty already, I sought my accommodation. Comrie Croft is unique in my experience. Camping, hostelling, hen rearing. It was a little earth-lover’s utopia. I could not enjoy the idiosyncratic nature of it all, however, for the doubts were returning. I had washing to do, buses to catch (and living in Northumberland I know how sparsely distributed services can be) and sleep to hoard. Despite there being no plug in the basin, I improvised with a ball of saturated toilet roll. I shall know better for next time, for now everything I washed has little white flakes of paper all over them! And they don’t smell particularly clean…

I was given a lift to Comrie, as it happened, by a total stranger. We talked about the weather, the surrounding area and the ospreys which were nesting just across from the hostel and had been for the last seven years.

I demolished some fish and chips, found an apple, caught to the bus back to the hostel, and had a great night’s sleep.

***

Comrie to Pitlochry: 49 miles.

I woke up feeling not a great deal better. The idea of cycling to Aberfeldy and then on to a busy Pitlochry did not appeal. A party of teenagers whom I had not failed to register the night before from their loud music and loud conversation had assumed total dominion of the kitchen. I managed a bowl of cereal and some toast. I decided to forget about scrambled some of the Croft’s free range eggs.

The road north out of Crieff starts to look very Highland, very quickly.

The road north out of Crieff starts to look very Highland, very quickly.

The road from Gilmerton to Aberfeldy, 10 miles into my journey after going back into Comrie for supplies, was indescribable. Immediately the glens began. Cycling between these monoliths, like the knees of the earth thrust up under the duvet of the land made me feel very tiny indeed. Again, the pictures can say a thousand of the words of which I am only vaguely aware.

It was hot. Heat haze was making me feel more disorientated than I really felt. I ate some lunch in what shade I could find, with the cars whooshing past intermittently. Just when I thought this empty moorland would never end, I noticed the sign for Griffon Forest, where I had walked with my family last autumn. A little further on was a viewpoint for the surrounding Munros. There, shark-toothed and with a mantle of snow was Schiehallion, my first Munro. I didn’t have long to appreciate the view. It was after 1PM and I still had to tour Aberfeldy.

I was suitably stirred having seen this. Schiehallion is my first and only bagged Munro to date, and spying it on the horizon was evocative of last autumn when I was hear with my parents.

I was suitably stirred having seen this. Schiehallion is my first and only bagged Munro to date, and spying it on the horizon was evocative of last autumn when I was hear with my parents.

The descent into the town was a worry for the brakes. I’ve been riding with them for more than 600 miles already and I suspect they will need replacing soon.

Aberfeldy was busier than I remember it, but the distillery was a focus of calmness. Locking the bike and changing, the smell of the washbacks had been in raptures. More on the tour next time.

The road to Pitlochry was both familiar and familiarly hectic. The sun was a concern of sorts with my burn and water consumption. It’s very difficult to judge all these things in addition to sun cream application when you have more than 40 miles in your legs already. I couldn’t take the A9 so I followed the minor roads. Minor, I hasten to add, in size; not, incredibly, in traffic.

A few close calls later, I was in Pitlochry, and in fact passed Blair Athol. The smell was again, deeply promising.

I found the hostel and for the first time felt genuinely contented. I’d travelled far, and was beginning to feel like a traveller. The sun was still shining, dinner was within walking distance, and I was rooming with fellow cyclists.

The night’s sleep was a good one, and the breakfast was superb. Bring it on, as they say.

By the by, if you have toured any of the distilleries I will be visiting, please comment under the relevant post with your own experiences. Mine is only one opinion, after all. I hope to speak soon.

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