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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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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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Day 4: Tomatin

Before getting into the meat of my recount (or should that be drizzle?), I’d like to alert the prospective traveller to a phenomenon which I call Landlady’s Revenge.

I don’t know quite when the bond between eating in a public space and music became indissoluble, but I first noticed its incursion into Scottish bed and breakfasts during the previous Odyssey. Then, at my third breakfast in Braehead Villa, I had to ask that the accordion-heavy drivel be turned off as I could not bear it any more. Landlady’s Revenge, therefore, is where your host welcomes you into their home, provides you with a comfy bed for the night, clean towels and a binder of things you might like to do in the local area before exacting neat and artful retribution by forcing you to pick at your muesli to the strains of some flutey-voiced, warbly, traditional Scottish musical kitsch. My four fellow guests, Swedes long past retirement age, commented on the aural awfulness, too.

After an especially painful but energetic run-through of ‘Flower of Scotland’ I ran upstairs and packed as quickly as possible. Deciding quite what to wear for the day was a problem, however, for although low cloud abounded above Newtonmore, it wasn’t exactly cold and it wasn’t raining.

Three miles in and just beyond Kingussie, I had to remove the over-trousers. The road was angling upwards and I was set to sweat big time otherwise. This was a good move and the ramps didn’t prove too onerous. However, soon it was time to head downhill and the low cloud was especially thick by this point. On went the over-trousers again and before long the over-shoes had been donned, too.

I’m still unsure whether dampness is worse than a headwind and searing heat combined. Unless it is mid-winter, the constraining clothing means that you perspire aggressively so you are wet inside and outside. The only benefit is that you are wet and warm, which is to be preferred to wet and cold. However, I was trying to make it to Tomatin for 11.45, I was in time-trial mode and the wetness was worsening.

Descending through forest, meeting the odd tour bus coming the other way, life was bearable. By Coylumbridge, however, we had reached saturation point and that very special breed of fine Highland rain that seeps in everywhere. On went the hood and the winter gloves, up went the perspiration levels.

I’m sure the landscape round about me was striking, and looking at the map now I see that I was on the banks of the Spey for much of the way, but I could hardly see. Vile is the word, but you have to keep going. By Boat of Garten, however, I was concerned. Water was low (the irony) and I had to stop for food. It was now that I could appreciate how inadequate my rain jacket had become, with no base layer protecting my chest from the cooling water.

Anyway, it wasn’t until some way after Carrbridge, when the rain became mist again, that I knew I had to make a clothing switch and fortunately I had packed a second hi-vis waterproof. With a rugby jersey on beneath it, I began to warm up and make better progress although I accepted that my 11.45 Taste of Tomatin Tour was long gone.

I rasped my way up to the Slochd Summit, 1315 ft above sea level apparently, which is quite high for a Scottish road, and finally there was another cyclist! I didn’t catch his name but the tanned giant in the saddle was a surgeon from York cycling from Glasgow to Inverness. We chatted about the weather, midges, and Roald Dahl by which point Tomatin had appeared on my left.

Inside, Hannah and Scott did a marvellous job of pointing me towards radiators (my shoes and gloves made it into the still house) while I refuelled and reflected on the horrors of the forty miles thus far. It turned out I was on time for the 1pm Taste of Tomatin Tour, so I paid my £10 and set off with about seven others.

Drizzle, drizzle everywhere...

If Dalwhinnie had been an over-priced geek-free zone, Tomatin spoilt me rotten. Scott, the tour guide, gave us all an immensely thorough run-through of Tomatin’s fascinating history (it was at one point the largest malt whisky distillery in the world, but look up my ‘Tomatin at the Quaich Society’ post for more detail) before sticking his hand into a bag of Maori yeast in the washback room, talking us through distillation with the aid of a real decommissioned shell-and-tube condenser and leading us into the cooperage.

Where there were once 23 stills, now there are 12. Condenser at bottom right.

Unlike other commercial cooperages, where employees are on piece-work contracts, Tomatin’s two full-time coopers are salaried like everybody else which makes for a more relaxed working environment. I loved this section, like a maze of wood, starting with first-fill Sherry butts exhaling generously, to a quadrant of virgin oak casks (used for Legacy and Cu Bocan), a phalanx of Port pipes and a legion of ex-Bourbon barrels, mostly from Makers Mark.

From left to right: virgin oak, Port pipes, a Sherry butt.

Finally it was into a cool, clammy dunnage warehouse where a few more cask types were on display, before back inside the still house to an adjoining room for the tasting. The previous day, £17 had bought me three whiskies (two lots of 15yo, a Sherry finish and a single cask); today, £10 bought me one new make sample, three core range whiskies and two single casks. Tomatin pummels Dalwhinnie in terms of bang-for-buck, intrigue, information and charm. In fact, if you are on the A9 don’t bother with Dalwhinnie at all.

The new make nosed like soft, creamy pear with a skeleton of firm caramel. Water revealed fresh barley, apple jelly and a touch of flowers. Legacy, as it had been in St Andrews in the autumn, was a delight and for under £30 I struggle to think of a single malt I’d rather drink. The 12yo was more appetizing than usual although I do find the Sherry finishing too sweet and grapey for the spirit; drier Sherry inflections would work far better.

The fourth dram was the visitor centre bottle-your-own Bourbon cask which I was very anxious to try. Exuberantly sweet on the nose with caramelised barley, delicate oak, peach and honey. It did become a touch ‘nippy’, however, which is perhaps not surprising for an 11yo spirit out of first-fill barrels. The taste was creamy, light and sparkly and overall very attractive. It’s neighbour was the VC’s Sherry cask which showcased exactly why I don’t like the Sherry influence on Tomatins: all fat sultana, fruit and nut chocolate and creaminess. I wanted depth, but the spicy, Dorrito-esque palate didn’t deliver. Cu Bocan was much as Cu Bocan had been previously: sweet, lightly smoky and well-structured.

As I saddled up, following a wee taste of the 1988 (medium-bodied, bursting with yellow and tropical fruits) and the 14yo Port finish (by far my favourite of the whole lot on the day, the Port adding the dry richness that those Sherry casks seem incapable of doing), the sun appeared. I was buoyed only momentarily, however, as a mammoth storm cloud sat on the mountain top above the distillery.

It took a while to leave Tomatin village, as I hid beneath a farmer’s barn for the clouds to pass. By and large, however, I escaped the worst of it as I retraced my steps back to Boat of Garten and swung east towards Nethy Bridge. I didn’t remain entirely dry, but I could get away without the over-trousers which made a significant difference.

In Nethy Bridge, 58 miles after setting off from Newtonmore, I needed a whisky comfort blanket. The Nethy Bridge Hotel duly obliged with Isle of Skye 8yo on the optic. ‘You want that Glenfiddich’, said the local expert. ‘It’s the same price and you’re getting a single malt’. I replied that I felt like a blend at that precise moment, which baffled him entirely. Sipping my double over the next 40 minutes, I didn’t regret my decision.

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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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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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Rearranging the Furniture at Jura

The other week my kind of press release landed in the Scotch Odyssey inbox. Rather than the latest ‘world’s first’, small-batch, or otherwise whimperingly expensive release, Isle of Jura dropped me a line to say that the finishing touches to their brand new £100,000 visitor centre have been made, just in time for Feis Ile 2011.

The new VC from the inside. There looks to be a bit more room to mill about, debating what to buy.

The new VC from the inside. There looks to be a bit more room to mill about, debating what to buy.

Not much more than a year ago I was in the previous incarnation and couldn’t see anything wrong with it. The visitor felt cosseted beneath the low ceilings, with lots of wood and unusual expressions of Jura single malt crowded onto shelves, between books and perched over doors and windows to catch the eye and confirm that you were nowhere else but in a distillery. There was not a great deal of room to work with but I felt Whyte & Mackay, the owners, had fitted it out well. Nothing in the whisky tourism sector stands still for very long, however, and further imagination, time and money has been dispensed on the precious few square metres that shall accommodate you, should you venture across. (And I would highly recommend it).

I’m especially interested in how the brand people have endeavoured to bind the distillery all the more closely with its local community and the history of its location. Allegedly, the refit sought to incorporate ‘the island’s legends and symbols, reflecting its literary, cultural, and mythical heritage in West of Scotland folklore’ and the ideal aesthetic to do this was believed to be a ‘traditional Hebridean bothy’. 

Whether earnest of playful, the critical point is that those trying to convey the Jura ethos to the numerous brave souls who visit from all over the world have seen the value in provenance and what it means for an industry to have hung around for some 200 years lending not only economic opportunity but also identity to those living close by. The Jura distillery was created to prevent the last of the Diurachs from upping sticks and moving out and that there is a stable population on the island today who may wield such an appellation is in part attributable to its foundation which I find to be an extremely powerful circumstance. The marketing has caught up with this reality: those who work in the distillery, either on the production or tourism side, by geographical necessity live on the island, too. The resulting whisky and how it is celebrated is thereby an expression of these local people who face and overcome local challenges to constitute a significant facet of this global product.

The new tasting table and display cabinet.

The new tasting table and display cabinet.

I would argue that such an intimate and time-sensitive quality will make itself evident following any time spent around Scottish distilleries but Jura’s new visitor centre attempts to spell this out with the pictures of honoured Diurachs on the wall and a tasting table granting access to some of the rarer vintages. People and spirit are combined in what the press release hopes will be an ‘authentic’ manner, making for an ‘authentic’ and worthwhile encounter for those who have overcome many miles and perhaps a choppy Sound of Islay to get there. Not having seen the finished article with my own eyes, I cannot suggest how tastefully this time capsule has been realised. Just remember, though, that it is not a Hebridean heritage centre but rather a vehicle for brand consciousness and I see no reason why the distillery should not have a bit of fun with those landscapes, artefacts and personal histories which contribute to it.

Willie Cochrane, Distillery Manager, sums it up nicely: “Many of those who make the effort to visit Jura do so because of our fine whisky and the rich culture of our remote island. Having a visitor centre that reflects the history and culture of our island, whilst matching the quality of our single malt, will provide our guests with a truer experience of what Jura is all about. More importantly, they will hopefully be more inclined to buy some of our fine whisky and share the magic of Jura with their friends and family!” Mythology, malt, and marketing.

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The Scotch Odyssist’s Handbook

If you are tired of waiting for me to produce the definitive tome to the world of Scotch whisky tourism (and I know I am) then please allow me to do the next best thing and point you in the direction of two men who have done just that.

Not content with contributing to a thorough, and to my mind successful, revision of malt whisky’s seminal work – the Malt Whisky Companion of Michael Jackson - Gavin D. Smith, in partnership with Graeme Wallace, has released a gem of a book which does not follow the whisky out of the distillery to the bars and shops, but stays behind to take a closer look around.

Discovering Scotland’s Distilleries may have been the subject line in my correspondences with Scottish Field prior to their publishing an article of mine in October, but I learnt earlier this week that it is also the title of a pioneering work concerned with informing the whisky enthusiast of how he or she might get the most out of their time amongst the towns, hills and pagodas of Scotland’s whisky landscapes. I am delighted to see this work appear, because it confirms in my mind how the attentions of the industry, and of the whisky-drinker, have become increasingly focused on the idea of provenance. Nothing was more crucial to me when I elected to sit on a slender saddle for six weeks and pedal to as many distilleries as possible. We now wish to make a journey and plenty of discoveries beyond the drinks cupboard and the nation of Scotland is eminently well-euipped to accommodate such urges.

Rather than the ‘coffee-table books’ you may find lauding the Scottish landscape and the romantic, artisanal industry within it, this is a slender volume (195mm by 120mm) to be thrust into an overnight bag or coat pocket for use out ‘in the field’. The rigidity of its thick card cover would suggest it would withstand even my abusive shovings into backpacks and panniers. In fact, I rather wish I had had it to hand prior to and during my Odyssey.

Divided into a general introduction covering whisky history, the geographical regions which, for all the concept has been questioned of late, is still highly relevant to the traveller, and a very evocative passage on the present state of distillery tourism. Congratulations are in order to Gavin Cunningham and company at Tullibardine who lured in the most thirsty tourists during 2008.

There follows a series of thoughtful suggestions as to combining a distillery visit with a general excursion in Scotland, focusing on the major cities and also outlying rural districts. Some of these I undertook by bike: the accessibility of the ’Eastern Perthshire Trail’ I can attest to - even on two wheels! Together with how you might work your day around a peep at Glenturret and Tullibardine, for example, are listings of bars, hotels and eateries. These sections really are fine pieces of research, although I’m quite certain they do not cater for the budgetary considerations I was obliged to observe!

Both this and the section detailing those distilleries which offer tours take a counter-clockwise route around the country (in much the same manner as I did). From the relatively accessible malts and distilleries of the Lowlands, the book is structured to reflect the increasingly intrepid nature of getting to the far-flung birthplaces of some of the other malts you may have encountered. For each distillery with a regular tour in operation (fifty are listed) there is a double-page spread with information, on the left-hand leaf, regarding ownership, the malt itself and the production, in addition to distillery and local history. The right-hand page deals solely with the ‘Visitor Experience’ with an extended prose commentary in addition to listings of times and tour specifications. It is all so up-to-date it is quite unnerving, and proves my suspicion that many distilleries were set to upgrade the tourist experience shortly after I passed through.

The remainder of the book approaches the other half of the industry which, officially, don’t provide an established tour. However, there is the suggestion that, with perseverance and charm, you may be able to arrange a look around.

I’m still waiting on some page proofs from the publishers to illustrate much of what I had to explain above, and when they arrive I shall return and slot them in. Of course visitor centres function, on the most basic, cynical level, as the most immediate and stylishly-furnished extensions of the owners’ marketing departments, but there has been a committed, coordinated response to the increased interest in where one’s whisky comes from, and as a result there are some truly memorable experiences on offer to cater for all tastes – and which the Scotch Odyssey Blog can still help you to distinguish between!

Discovering Scotland’s Distilleries is available from Amazon and Waterstones at GBP £9.99.

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