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September 1, 2012

The Bloggers’ BenRiach

The whisky blogosphere can be both intoxicating and intimidating. On the one hand, to see so many people pursue their passion as far as maintaining a little corner of the internet in which to display their views I find tremendously inspiring. Appreciating how others drink so deeply of the spirit of the subject provokes a redoubling of my efforts at comprehension and communication.

On the other hand, however, there are the likes of Caskstrength.net, a blog so professional, so influential and so damn readable I wonder how my attempts can be in any way comparable. It would be easy to become downhearted – even petulant – if Joel Harrison and Neil Ridley, the blog’s founders, were not such lovely people and performed such a sterling whisky service by providing comment, controversy and creativity.

Creativity, thinking outside the box, is the focus of my post today. Caskstrength.net enjoys a standing few other blogs can boast because Caskstrength.net has done things few other blogs have attempted. In 2011, to celebrate the three year anniversary of the blog’s inception, Joel and Neil took a risk: they approached the Isle of Arran distillery, purchased a cask from them, and bottled it for their readership. They told me in November last year that those 96 bottles had given them plenty of sleepless nights. Would it be popular? Would they all be sold? Would they have to flee the country as the traditional independent bottlers made pariahs of them for discrediting their profession? I made that last one up, but dipping a toe in the financial realities of whisky distribution, rather than simply writing about it, was a serious step to take.

The Caskstrength BenRiach.

They needn’t have worried, of course. Former A&R men for the music industry, they can sense a hit when they hear it. The Arran sold out, and as 2012 rolled around their prescient noses sought a second project. Nothing if not thorough in their approach, Joel and Neil thought that an alphabetical system worked as well as any other and hence the Cask Strength and Carry On BenRiach was released through online retailer Master of Malt last week. I placed my order within minutes of receiving the press release, having got wind of the bottling on Twitter. I like to show my support for creative enterprises, after all. Please take a look at Chris’ excellent side-by-side review of last year’s Arran with this BenRiach over at Edinburgh Whisky Blog.

Cask Strength and Carry On BenRiach 1996 cask #5614 55.2% 296 bottles. Available here for £54.95

Colour – rich chestnut orange.

Nose – restrained at first with ripe banana and a cereal bar stickyness: raisins and dates. Dark but sweet liquid honey. Sundried tomato. Suddenly, weighty toffee and sweet bubblegum step out as well as some lovely herbal sweetness: patchouli. Sweet leather and gentle smoke. Oily citrus freshness interchanges with toastier, burnt rich flavours. A saltiness.

Water turns the spotlight onto the Pedro Ximenez influence: a heavy, lichen-like oak aroma with purple raisin and marzipan. Some gooseberry-like tartness. Iced gingerbread men and the booziest of Christmas mince pies. Caramel and a nuttiness, like pecan. Stewed dates with a wrapping of soft smoke.

Palate – soft, nutty and mouthfilling. Medium-dry and sweet malt rolls over the tongue with a suggestion of singed grasses. Then unctuous, creamy oak sugars pour over everything. For all this, it is surprisingly delicate and superb for it.

Water revealed dried fruits galore, all against clean but not obstructive oak. Creamy vanilla, orange and syrupy flapjack. Yellow fruit and icing sugar.

Finish – still with a soft creaminess, there is plenty of oak but also honey. Some dryish bruised apple flavours give way to glazed almonds.

Water enlarged the experience with suave richness. Bold pear, almond butter and biscuity, cinnamon-accented malt. Perfect sherry oak contribution with sultana and vanilla caramel.

So…? As I breathlessly declared on Twitter, this was not the malt I was expecting. In the past I have always gazed with longing upon the Batches of single cask releases BenRiach and sister distillery GlenDronach indulge in each year, hoping to come by one of these rich, fruity and generous expressions. A 16yo single cask, with four years of PX maturation behind it, fitted the bill perfectly and I knew Joel and Neil would not sign their names to a duff bottling. Whilst it might not – on first impressions – wear its heart on its sleave, I believe this BenRiach is an example of what Martine Nouet calls ‘whispering whiskies’.

It is composed, brilliant, complex, challenging and utterly delicious but it does not shout to be heard. Water accentuates some of the distillery’s inherent fun-loving fruitiness, but this is a dram to spend a long evening with – do not expect cheap, quick thrills.

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April 6, 2011

The Spirit of Unity

Whisky ‘News’  and the latest releases are ordinarily entities I leave to other bloggers, preferring to focus instead on the distilleries behind the products. On this occasion, however, I think you will agree that this is more than your everyday expression and Scotch Odyssey – with ambitions one day for a Japanese Odyssey – would like to join others covering this dram.

Seven ‘craft’ Scotch distillers are contributing one cask each from their warehouses for the purposes of blending the contents and selling the doubtless delicious result in support of the relief efforts which still continue in both Japan and Christchurch following the recent earthquakes. All proceeds from this unique blend, dubbed the Spirit of Unity, will go to those countries battling to recover from the dreadful infrastructural and above all human costs.

Arran, BenRiach, Bladnoch, GlenDronach, Glengyle, Kilchoman and Springbank will contribute their singular characters to the blend whose marriage will be overseen by BenRiach Distillery Co. Master Blender, Billy Walker.

The relationship between the Scotch whisky industry and that in Japan has been long-established: Masataka Taketsuru studied the art of whisky distillation in Speyside and Campbeltown during the 1920s - regions here represented by BenRiach and Springbank/Glengyle – before shaping the establishment of Yamazaki and founding Nikka. The outturn of this vatting is expected to be in the region of 2000 bottles, 1200 of which are reserved for the UK and the benefactors hope to raise around £50,000 from the sale of these almost certainly unrepeatable bottles.

Royal Mile Whiskies and Loch Fine Whiskies are already taking preliminary orders through their websites, with the batches due to be dispatched into their stores by the end of this month with an expected price of £59.

The Scotch whisky industry has endured some tumultuous times over its history in the shape of bankruptcy, over-production and global recession, but is now in a position to lend its strength to others. With this and many other contributions from all over the world we can hope that Japan and her distilling traditions will swiftly bounce back.

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June 8, 2010

Lochranza to Glasgow

Lochranza to Glasgow, 58 miles

I hadn’t much of an appetite for my toasted Hovis rolls this morning. It had been a struggle leaving the shadowed, undemanding nowhere-land that was my hostel bed. The world must be faced, however, and if I didn’t catch the 1.30PM ferry, I would be cycling into Glasgow at midnight. Not desirable.

A chat with a Frenchman who bore a resemblance to the tennis player Gilles Simon distracted me nicely, but he and his girlfriend left, I handed over my unused and unwanted washing powder and hunted out the distillery. As I waited in the grounds for signs that the tartan-skirted folk inside wanted to take my money, listening to the aggrieved cries of the real-life Arran peacock, lured away by an unscrupulous neighbour with more interesting tidbits, I doubted I would stay dry today. The idea of spinning effortfully through the Central Belt, soaked and harried, did not appeal.

I was as wet as I was going to get, as it turned out, racing two very fit young ladies on unencumbered road bikes who flashed past the distillery entrance just as I was tip-toeing across the cattle grid and afterwards wishing violent, ignominous death in an oblivious motor-home driver. I passed them with some ease on the hill out of Lochranza towards the east coast. It had much in the way of authentic Highland scenery about it, though, and I guess you could call it a proper mountain. It was appallingly hot and airless, however, ribbons of cloud flapping gently in wooded glens away to our right. Having so carelessly overtaken, I didn’t now want to stop and take off my pointless baselayer. The descent was a mixture of the sublime with the ridiculous: perfectly smooth, sensible tarmac giving way to roads that would not look out of place in Basra. It was as I was negotiating one of these sections that one of the girls flew past me, seemingly with no thought to her wheels. I was deeply concerned about these, and certain soft pieces of my anatomy which I did not share with my fellow competitors. Just before the hill bottomed out, the second lass put me behind her and sped away up the next incline. I was tired of racing, and these girls were plainly mildly insane, so I watched them disappear into the mist and small villages.

The mist was an enemy of my mental equilibrium. In much the same manner as it had goaded and tormented me the previous day, I felt trapped and constricted. Nothing beyond the rocks on the shore were visible: the rest, sea and air, was a featureless unity. I suffered more disappointment with Arran roads before Brodick appeared, tree-lined routes especially pitted. There were craft villages, cheese shops, the brewery and ornamental gardens in country houses. Had I not got a ferry to catch to my certain doom, I would have liked to have stopped and explored.

I clicked into Brodick just as the mist began to coalesce and fall as rain. I bought my lunch and dinner for tonight, reasoning that I hadn’t a clue when I would arrive at the hostel in the centre of Glasgow and, after the mini breakdown in response to what I had endured, would not know if there would be anything still open to feed me, it would be a good move to have food with me. I should explain that I fully expected to be mugged, stabbed, run over, assaulted, jeered, kidnapped and any number of other unspeakable things when I got to the big city. This was partly my dad’s fault: he had even offered to drive me to the Glasgow distilleries, and partly the inconceivable contrast from four weeks in the most isolated pockets of Scotland to the noise and bustle and human threat of a built-up area. This is why there are no pictures of my journey to Glasgow: I’m ashamed to say that after the distillery I put my camera’s memory card in my glasses case and that at the bottom of my panniers. I now know that it was a gross over-reaction, and the act of facing my fears and just doing it made for a far more enjoyable ride than I had expected, and I would have liked to have had pictorial evidence of it. At the time, however, I was atrociously anxious and wary, and could not have been too careful.

I checked in at the ferry terminal, and sat on the wall beside the area reserved for ferry-bound cars: a concreted expanse the size of a football pitch all covered in vehicles. I wondered how on earth they were all supposed to fit, as traffic snaked off the ferry from the mainland which had since docked. I didn’t even have time to finish my lunch before myself and two other more senior cyclists were being waved on.

The Ardrossan ferry, the last I would board on this tour, had a completely different feel again to the others I had taken. There was an impression that this was less for tourists and holiday-makers, more for commuters. There were builders and businessmen, and me sat in the soft grey gloom, trying to read the paper, knowing that forty-five minutes from now I would be facing my greatest test of the whole tour: the real world in all its unpredictable, flawed glory.

Land ahoy. Down to the bike. The cars bounce out and screech away. Me and the other cyclists follow into Ardossan. They are off to Troon and we wave as they take the first right. I continue over another roundabout and follow the little blue signs which will be encouragement and cause for concern in equal measure over the next four hours.

I change by the sea front, still swaddled in this timeless, soporiphic mist. The cycle route leads me on what feels a little like a wild goose chase for the first few miles: along the coast, through a park, over some dunes, along the side of the railway line with its trenches and broken glass. Oh there was lots of broken glass. The nightmare scenario of actually puncturing in this grim place was almost paralysing. A couple of times I would hear crunches beneath my rear wheel, only to find that the tyre bulge was just as healthy as it had always been.

I soon left Ardrossan and Saltcoats behind, and it began to look rather pastoral and pleasant. Until I got to Kilwininning. Work on the main street meant that I abandoned the cycle route temporarily, and this was of course enough to very nearly get very lost. If I hadn’t seen another blue sign in a residential street across the road, I could have been lapping Kilwinning for some time after. Everywhere, even the estates, was deserted. The cycle paths leaving any built-up area, however, were clearly the coliseums of the local bored youth: graffiti’ed, broken glass everywhere and scorched by aerosol cans or other inflammables. It was rather intimidating, and indeed on this section I decided to push the bike until the terrain became less prickly.

I did begin to enjoy myself a bit more after that. The cycle route was incredibly well signposted and avoided all of the seriously busy roads, for all I was granted good views of them intermittently. It was now after 4PM, and Glasgow had started to appear on my signs, but was still 30 miles away. It felt rather like a treasure hunt with all the blue signs and little tarmacked cuttings I had to dive up with little warning. Now that Iwas there, in the beating heart of Scotland, it was less menacing. As I swept down into Highlfield, I experienced a thrill: there was beauty here, and the evidence of other people prepared to get out and appreciate it.

The Kilbirnie Tesco takes some of my money and I then get a little lost. When I catch up to a female mountain biker and ask about the cycle route she says I have come quite a way away. After shopping, I should have headed back the way I came. I thank her and do as she says. I learn from this experience that unless there is the little route number in red on the sign, if isn’t the official route, just a branch line off it.

By Lochnwinnoch I encounter fresh water, which means insects. By this point I am on a wonderfully flat and straight piece of path which is quiet but peopled with enough joggers and cyclists to keep one’s spirits up. After Kilbarchan, I have no shortage of company. Johnstone is next and that basically means Glasgow. I’m eating every ten miles for energy, and I have no problem finding bushes when nature calls, allaying one of my biggest irrational fears that I would get caught short as the buildings sprang up and that finding public conveniences with somewhere to lock up the bike in time would become more difficult and stressful.

At Johnstone I cross another major artery in the Central Belt road network. It is bright, but not too hot, and everything is going to plan. Reflecting on it now, it was a very exciting ride with so many new challenges. One such new challenge began after I pushed off following a sausage roll and shortbread stop. A faint crunching and grinding whenever I put power down to get myself moving again. I follow the disused railway line over the motorway and into Johnstone proper. Here I get a little lost again but quickly return to the cycle route. However, stopped on the main street, with an unknown equipment problem, I feel very alone and conspicuous.

Paisley is rather terrifying. The advantage of cycle routes in general is that they take you away from the busyness. In disadvantaged areas of urbanity, however, the busyness can be a protection. The underpasses, litter, high-rises and quiet folk sitting by the canals smoking is not an environment I wish to return to soon.

The route seems to be flinging me all over the place. After the run-down suburbs I’m back in a park, and here I largely stay, give or take a few more estates and main roads, until I hit the centre of Glasgow. All the while I have been slowly counting down those little blue signs: City Centre 9 miles; City Centre 6 miles. There is no getting away from the fact that I am already deep into built up Glasgow however, with all the traffic lights ramping up the fear as all that grinding and squeaking erupts when I move off from stationary.

Another underpass, another climb back up to rejoin the main road, then it is back into another park. Once again I’m in the newish suburbs with people, threatening to me by their very presence, going about their Thursday evenings in a manner so very alien to mine. I regain grass and trees. I come across lots of people running – for leisure, not due to criminals.

I cross a busy road, head up a big hill and there is Glasgow. It is oddly stirring to see it, knowing I have made it so far already. I cycle in parallel with the motorway for a stretch, then meet the beginnings of one of Glasgow’s central business districts: pizza restaurants and underground stations. The blue signs don’t let me down, and I follow those for the SECC. Another cyclist is the benefit of an earlier green light to my left and he scythes expertly through the traffic about to cross the arched bridge over the Clyde. I join the queue. There is the SECC, here are lots more traffic lights (there is so much traffic and I’m in such a state of nervous tension that I don’t hear the complaining drivetrain), there are lots of girls crossing the road with little concern for their own safety, here is ‘Govan’ written on the tarmac, there are signs for the city centre, here is the M8. I stop myself in time, I’m pleased to say, but it required a couple of cars overtaking me at about 50mph before I realised that I was on a slip road. I get out the A-Z and frantically search. The hostel seems to be to the north of Kelvingrove Park. After a spell on the pavement, then on the wrong side of the road, I finally join onto Finiestown Street legally and reach the set of traffic lights I would have encountered last October when my mum and I walked from Sauchiehall Street to the SECC for Fleetwood Mac. I get distracted by an Audi R8 and a pedestrian alerts me to the green light for my lane. I follow signs right off Argyle Street north to Kelvingrove galleries. The one way system baffles my planned sequence of streets. But wait: there is Kelvingrove Park, I must be able to go through there. My companions now are students: students sauntering, students sitting, students playing lacrosse. I reach the top of the park and is that Park Terrace? I abandon any adherence to the one-way system now, and very quickly the hostel sign appears. I sag with relief and pride. I’m here in this leafy, neo-Georgian terrace having fought through seemingly everything. My bike is probably knackered but it has got me here in one piece. In my room I chat to two walkers, then make myself some pasta at 9.30PM. I read a bit of Raw Spirit in the lounge, fabulously relaxed. Just like the day to Glen Garioch and back to Huntly, I had done something I neither wanted to nor thought I could do, and my reward was quiet, peaceful exhaustion.

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Port Askaig to Lochranza

Port Askaig to Carradale, 31 miles

Sunrise over Jura: a mystical and auspicious start.

Sunrise over Jura: a mystical and auspicious start.

The promise of freedom and the open sea pacify my inclination to whine at a 5.40AM start. I would feel much worse waking at 9AM in the knowledge that I still had one more day imprisoned in the hotel. It is just the best time to appreciate the beauty of this part of the world and the particularly complex environment that is the shore of Islay, the shore of Jura and the mad sea in between.

Breakfast costs nearly a tenner, but I need the calories that only a canteen cooked breakfast can provide. As I read Raw Spirit the southern-most tips of Islay and Jura slide by. I’m facing north in my seat, and the rocky coast with that famous triad of distilleries is in view for maybe an hour. Before long new land approaches, and so shaky is my grasp of the geography between south western Scotland and Northern Ireland I think it is the latter. It is in fact the Kintyre Peninsula and we are making for the port of Kennacraig.

I change in the car park, and put on some warm stuff: it may be bright but there is a real chill to the wind. At the junction with the main road, right says ‘Campbeltown’, left says ‘Glasgow’. I gulp but go left anyway. It’s just after 9AM, there are only 20 miles separating me with the mercifully three-star Carradale Hotel and I might as well check out Tarbet, that other important harbour.

Riding on the mainland is an unexpected shock to the system. Roads are wider, faster, and better, and motorists don’t wave at you anymore. I make it into Tarbet in good time. It has grown steadily warmer and feels very summery indeed. In the town I look for OS maps of Glasgow and find onlt street level charts for the city centre. I buy one. I have a piece of coffee cake and a hot chocolate, source my lunch, and then head for Carradale.

On the way back I appreciate the reappareance of heavy traffic. Unfortunately, the roads in Argyll are sinuous and knotted, clinging to the sea-chewed land but trying to avoid big hills and forests. This means that if you get a tanker stuck behind you, it is deeply unnerving when they eventually find a straight (and it often isn’t as extended as you might have liked) they must make to overtake you from a near stand-still. This, when you are dealing with a ten-ton truck, calls to mind what it must have been like on board Pricness Leah’s ship in the first Star Wars film as they waited for the star destroyer with Darth Vadar on it to dock. Once sunlight and silence returned to my world after the latest ponderous, glacier-paced manoeuvre, Kennacraig came into view again, and it was time to find my minor road.

It was no such thing. The B-road-cum-cycle route from Kennacraig down the eastern side of the Kintyre Peninsula is neither particularly quiet, nor is it safe. I’m being deadly serious, unless you are just nipping across to the ferry at Claonaig, take the main road. After more than five weeks on the road, this was the worst riding terrain so far. Once you leave the main road it is immediately uphill, and not gentle, nicely rhythmic uphill: short, sharp and painfully steep. It gets worse when you finally start to head south. I made it up the first series of inclines, whistled down the other side where I found more tourers looking very unwell, past signs for Claonaig and began to suffer. The picture you see of the bike with Arran all blue and romantic in the background is indicative of the views to be had on this stretch. Not that I could enjoy them. The picture was taken at the foot of a rearing road that had a 16% gradient warning sign, and it just continued thus for the next 14 miles or so.

One of the most raw and beautiful locations in all of Scotland. But it will eat you if you come with a bike. I'm typing with my thumbs: my other fingers having been digested by the Kintyre Peninsula.

One of the most raw and beautiful locations in all of Scotland. But it will eat you if you come with a bike. I'm typing with my thumbs: my other fingers having been digested by the Kintyre Peninsula.

Concerns over water rationing and psychosomatic panic attacks about my chain breaking typify my state of mind as I battle the terrain, the heat and the intolerable head wind. There is nothing between me and Carradale, and if anything the roads are gettig more and more insane. Unless you are a fusion of Alberto Contador and Steve Peat, or are training for a sportive in the Belgian Ardennes, do not come here. The uphills were bad, but the downhills were significantly worse, so steep and twisting with varying levels of surface integrity that I doubted whether my breaks would last.

Midday comes and goes. I want to get out of the sun, if only to stop feeling quite so mad, but the roadside vegetation is too thick or non-existant. At last I find a lonely spruce, and stand in its shadow. I reflect on how pathetic I feel, and how I don’t feel at all prepared for Glasgow. The loneliness is ramped up still further.

Some food inside me, I ought to have felt better. Unfortunately, the road just wasn’t going to let that happen. Grogport, far more attractive than it sounds with unparalleled views of Arran, is in the dip of a horse-shoe of hills. The one down to sea level is about 200 metres long and 16%. The one out again has hairpin bends and averages, AVERAGES 14%. By this stage I have to stop in each passing place that follows a serious incline, and they all are, because they all have big red triangles telling you so. I don’t know how I’m to carry on on the same road to Campbeltown, then retrace my route back up to Claonaig. Either I will die or my bike will. At the time, my degree of fatalism was even more dynamic than this Catch 22 would suggest.

I cannot stress enough how glorious the surroundings were. Deep glens with lush green sides and forests everywhere. A long, more steady downhill section allowed me to appreciate this, but only slightly. I knew I would be grovelling up it the following day. Not too soon, a sign. Not spiritual or religious or anything: just a sign for Carradale. It had spiritual and religious overtones, however, because I was very desperate indeed by this point. I passed further signs promising much in the way of home comforts and fine-dining in the area. here were craft shops and a cosiness that belied its extreme location. I arrived at the hotel, signed in, and hid in my room for a bit, mixing electrolyte cocktails for my hydration and revival.

I feel better for cleaning the bike and myself; worse for a call from home. Three times the signal cuts out, and by the third time we realise that there is very little point in continuing what is less a conversation more a dirge of a soliloquy on my part. At least it proves beyond all reasonable doubt that home cannot help. I must sort myself out. I eat curry, watch some telly and fall asleep, wishing like I have never wished before that it won’t be raining when I wake up.

***

Carradale to Lochranza, 56 miles

Oh, a weather sytem with a sadistic streak. It isn’t really raining, but it might as well be: that special strain of drizzle that succeeds in getting you wetter than proper rain. I had wanted to be on the road no later than 8.15 to get to Springbank for my 10AM tour, but what with one thing and another (breakfast, visits to the toilet, not being able to move about the hotel quite so fast on account of all the sobbing), it is closer to 8.30 when I push off into the mist and become instantly soaked.

I have to put the overtrousers on. It is too heavy to simply get a little damp. The road continues in the same vein as yesterday: ruinous elevations and sudden, terrifying descents. On the former, your head is drenched in sweat anyway, so you want to take your hood off, but on the latter you would freeze to death. I stop after the third ramp that demanded me to slog it out in very bottom gear and pant. I haven’t panted since Cairn o’Mount and the Devil’s Elbow. It only gets worse: a 16% blind hairpin bend. Fortunately I was able to move into the middle of the road slightly, because being forced into the corkscrew inner bend would have been impossible. I squeakily brake on all the descents, but I still fly off the bottom of them at more than 30mph. When I see Davaar island, I know I’m close. We holidayed in Campbeltown a few years ago and enjoyed weather very different to this. When the tide was low we walked to said island, saw the cave painting and walked back, harvesting mussels for our tea as we went.

I still have some memory of that time, and it was deeply incongruous to be in Campbeltown again under present circumstances. After many wrong turns and contraventions of the one-way system, I find Cadenheads. They send me on my way again because the distillery is elsewhere. At least I knew I was lost, and so aborted my charge on the main road back up towards Kennacraig. On the way back into town, I then saw the sign for the distillery.

An hour later I left Cadenheads for Campbeltown and some lunch. I didn’t fancy a Bangladeshi curry so found a cafe which served me soup, a toastie and some water while I waited for my jersey to dry. It never truly dried, but I never truly cared. I did some shopping, bought a whole box of washing tablets when I only wanted two and made the sensible decision that I would return to Claonaig via the main road. This turned out to be very sensible indeed. It was falt and it was fast, with a nice tailwind. It wasn’t even that busy, either. I accepted that I wasn’t likely to make the 4PM sailing but that was alright: I’d bought more food in the Co-op for just this occurrence and it was actually quite warm and pleasant with these nice views of Gigha. Then the rain returns.

Looking from the main road west towards Gigha.

Looking from the main road west towards Gigha.

When the weather closes in on the west coast of Scotland, you feel utterly lost and alone. Your vision is restricted to a soft sphere of about 70 metres in any direction and it begins to feel like a moving asylum. When I heard a huge crunch from my chainring area, I thought my chain had snapped into many small pieces, stranding me. When I continued to move forwards my moving my legs up and down I reasoned that it must have been nothing after all. In such situations, though, one niggling anxiety can assume megalithic proportions and genuine, physical weight.

I stop and check the map, because this road has now outstayed its welcome. I’m not that far from the turning to Claonaig now. I eat some food and carry on. I skid onto the “minor road” for the second time in two days. The hills and drops are all about survival, and I manage to make it to the ferry terminal by quietly talking myself through each up and down, counting them off in my head.

The view to Arran, playing with its silk scarves of mist.

The view to Arran, playing with its silk scarves of mist.

I sit in the bus shelter, the only form of protection at Claonaig if the weather turns nasty, eat my crisps, sausage roll and chocolate bar, talk to my good friend Stephen and feel imeasurably better. I have achieved. I have tired out my inner touring cyclist and now he can give me a bit of peace. I nearly freeze on the ferry over: yet another different way of doing things over the seas. You walk on over the same ramp that the cars use, buy your tickets on board and prop your bike up against the wall of the car deck.

There is some joy as I disembark at the other end. Lochranza has just a lovely feel to it: not a village as such but a sequence of houses strung like beads along the road. Lochranza Castle, the sea loch and the massive bulk of the heather’ed and bracken’ed hills are wonderful to behold. So focused was I on completing today that I have even managed to forget about Glasgow! Oh no wait; there it is again…

Lochranza is completely lovely, even in the grey. There is a happy, island feel to it that I couldn't help but respond to. It's so peaceful, too.

Lochranza is completely lovely, even in the grey. There is a happy, island feel to it that I couldn't help but respond to. It's so peaceful, too.

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June 7, 2010

Arran

The golden eagles may have been up there somewhere, but I wasn't likely to see them.

The golden eagles may have been up there somewhere, but I wasn't likely to see them.

Lochranza, Isle of Arran, KA27 8HJ, 01770 830264. Isle of Arran Distillers. www.arranwhisky.com

THE APPEARANCE AND LOCATION:      *****      Arran is often described as Scotland in miniature and the more in-land portion of the village does evoke the Scottish Highlands to an impressive degree, even down to the thick mist. Mountains, beaches, sea lochs, golden eagles; all are within a stone’s throw from the distillery. The distillery itself looks quite similar to a collection of eco-homes. I’m not sure I like so many separate pieces of architecture, although it is clean, minimalist, and a model for all modern distilling sites.

TOURS PROVIDED:

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

DISTILLERY-EXCLUSIVE BOTTLINGS:      N/A

My Tour – 20/05/2010

THE RUNNING COMMENTARY:      **

THE PROCESS AND EQUIPMENT:      *

Mash tun and stills.

Mash tun and stills.

Notes:      The tour begins at the end, almost. You are taken out of the smuggler’s bothy in which you watch the obligatory video and out into the grounds. This is where you see a rack of dis-used casks of varying sizes and where you receive the maturation and wood policy talk. At Arran it is quite impressive, with not just the standard ex-Bourbon and Sherry oak employed, but wine casks from all over Europe. The mashing, fermenting and distilling all take place under the one roof. The open-plan layout makes the whole process very easy to follow.

GENEROSITY:      ** (A choice of the 10YO or the Arran Gold Cream Liqueur, then another from the impressive range of wine finishes.)

VALUE FOR MONEY:      *

SCORE:      6/10 *s

Washbacks and stills.

Washbacks and stills.

COMMENT:      I had actually visited this distillery before, but long long ago before I was ever interested in the stuff it produced. This would have been very soon after it opened, though, so one of my parents should have been taking notes in the off-chance that I might become a single malt fanatic. The VC is stunning, there’s no other word for it. Deeply modern with an indoor waterfall and barley field (not growing, I hasten to add). There is the Eagle’s Nest cafe just upstairs which has a very good name. The whole eagle connection is because in the hills above the distilleries there is to be found nesting a pair of golden eagles. Construction of the distillery was postponed for a few months so that the birds could raise young. Allegedly they performed a “fly past” on the day of the VC’s opening but I’m not sure I believed that. Kate, our guide, had had some first-hand experience of Arran’s now vanished illicit whisky-making traditions. When she was a girl, playing in the hills, she came across a secret still hidden away. This personal footnote was wonderfully effective at evoking how things were done when distillers were outlaws and Arran was famous for producing some of the best illegal booze in Scotland. I appreciated the tales of the lengths people went to smuggle it off the island under the noses of excisemen. I was a bit confused as to why we couldn’t see inside the warehouse, though. As a distillery built to capitalise on this age of the tourist, I would have thought that access would have been arranged. I forgave them this oversight because they were very keen on pushing my other whisky touchstone: terroir. Arran’s is supposed to be a combination of sea breezes, mountain air, mosses, heather and rowan blossom although a point I have always made about Arran is that it hasn’t a truly distinctive island (maritime) character. This was a very relaxed experience, and would have endured as such were it not for the cattle grids they have to obstruct ones entrance and exit. The metal sleepers that comprise the contraption are rounder and more widely-spaced than most cattle grids, and so I elected, in my cleats, to walk the bike carefully across for moist metal and thin tyres have never to my knowledge got along. This would have worked a treat had some complete fool not decided in his motor home that he couldn’t wait for me to make the crossing and roared into the grounds himself. The rattling and flexing caused by the progress of this moron could have been enough for me to loose my footing. As it was I avoided a broken angle and experienced the greedy continued nourishment of the hatred I have for the minority of other road users.

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March 31, 2010

Fit For The Glens: 2 weeks to go…

Let it be known that I’m at peace – joyful, even. Unfortunately, in order for you to understand why these more positive moods are in residence less than two weeks before the most difficult undertaking of my life so far I must relate some bad news before embarking on an account of Monday’s epic mission through the Scottish capital.

I didn’t mention it in my last post because I had thought that it was only a temporary niggle. However, getting back on the bike in the afternoon to consolidate my intense workout the day before, my knee pain reduced a proposed 25 mile ride by two thirds. Pedalling was agony and unlike with my previous knee grievance, rising from the saddle didn’t help. This wasn’t desirable. I then did what you should never do: I diagnosed myself using the internet. Having read procycling for seven years, I know that cyclists are prone to tendonitis and look: there are all my symptoms. The advice was to rest until all discomfort had vanished. There being rather a lot of discomfort, suddenly my 18 remaining days appeared to be a hopelessly inadequate time frame to get rid of it all and still return to the required fitness level. So severe was the pain and so limited was my information about it I went mentally down hill an awful lot faster than I had toiled up Corby’s Crags a couple of days earlier. “I don’t have time for this to heal… Every time I push the pedals the pain is going to return… How much damage will I do to myself by attempting to live with this injury for 1330 miles?“ Nine months and £2000 looked to be trickling down the drain like wort from the mash tun. I had been doomed before I’d so much as started; my grand claims, my bonded spirit of hopes, were just so much of the Angel’s Share. I simply had not foreseen the chance of an injury, and after more than 300 miles of training I had believed the likelihood of any muscular problems had been progressively pacified.

But contemplating the dissolution of my trip, my whole reason for taking a gap year in the first place, made me realise just how badly I want to do this. I want to cycle that passage from Inverness to Wick past some of the most iconic distilleries; I want to be on that ferry to Orkney; I want to see the Cuillins; I want to spin with unaccustomed ease between the eight densely-packed and legendary distilleries of Islay; I want to board my train home from Barrhill on May 22nd knowing I’ve done something unique; I want to see Scotland. A trip to the osteopath brought wonderful news: “if you had tendonitis, you wouldn’t have been able to do any of the exercises we have just done.” He emphasised taking things more slowly, something that could only benefit and enrich my travels as much as my body. He is right, of course.  I still need to enforce the “pootle-along” mode. There are only a couple of critical deadlines on this trip; for the majority of it I should have my head up absorbing the natural splendour that shall surround me. If all I’m concerned with are the figures on my bike computer then it won’t be a very enlightening tour.

I don’t have tendonitis, just a “capsule strain” caused by one over-developed quadricep pulling the knee cap out of alignment. This is easily recovered from and so long as I avoid big gears for long periods of time, I’ll be right as rain.

So it was a positive diagnosis and I was proscribed a set of strengthening exercises. I managed 15 miles on the Friday and had been promised that my reconnaissance plans on the Monday would not exacerbate anything. Provided I didn’t overdo things.

To Edinburgh, then, and with equal amounts of anxiety demanded by this new health-realted threat in addition to the concerns of cycling in a very busy city with expensive, inflexible public transport links on the itinerary, there was even more riding on my experiences yesterday (pardon the pun). Could I do it?

The weather forecast wasn’t good. Monday dawned, right enough, pretty shabbily. I was a whirling dervish of activity as I filled things, stuffed things into other things, dug things out and prepared for this most different of rides. I had every cycling-specific article of clothing with me including leg warmers, overtrousers and hood, and over the course of my day on the banks of the Forth I employed them all. I also brought along the OS map, Multimap directions and camera. Most of these were extracted, sprawled out and shuffled around as I changed into my “real world” disguise of combat trousers and hoodie at the station. Everything was then put back in and I was prepared in all respects besides my actual tickets. The ticket man obliged, but further scrambled my plans when he revealed that there had been an accident on the line between Newcastle and Morpeth and that there would be a delay of at least half an hour.

A little reminder that things don't always go to plan. Indeed, that they don't frequently.

A little reminder that things don't always go to plan. Indeed, that they don't frequently.

I sat on the platform, inwardly bemoaning how the vagaries of the weather and public transport could conspire to complicate things, and doing a lot of mental arithmetic to work out what time was left me. The bottom line was that it was less than anticipated.

After lugging my equipment up and down my first sets of stairs of the day to reach the other platform, grateful that I have also invested time in preparing my upper body, the rain became heavier. I observed the droplets on my saddle and panniers and thought about still greater concentrations soaking me to the marrow.

Only twenty minutes late, the train arrived, and having been told that Coach D was what I needed for cycle storage, I headed in that direction. Manoeuvring bike into cubby hole was no harder than getting an angry sow into a toaster and a few ominous creaks from mudguards and pannier rack later, there she was ensconced. A fruitless tour of the two adjacent carriages meant I sat in the luggage area for the duration of the journey which at least was quiet and allowed me to scrutinise any would-be bicycle thieves as they passed through in search of the toilets.

I'll know how to store her next time round...

I'll know how to store her next time round...

I ate a flapjack and changed back into my cycling gear just as we pulled into Waverley. I waved the hoards of fellow passengers off ahead of me and finally wrestled bike and bags on to the deserted Scottish platform. Another flight of stairs had to be mounted, and yet another gingerly descended before I was in the concourse, the road to Waverley Bridge beside me and a never-ending flood of taxis trundling over it. Cleats on and plastic-walleted instructions in my jacket pocket, I set off.

Immediately I encountered my first hazard with city cycling: pedestrians. Why don’t they look before crossing the road? It can’t hurt. Certainly it can’t hurt more than having a narrow bicycle tyre wedged in their groin.

My next obstacle was one Multimap hadn’t warned me about and came completely by surprise. I continued onto East Market Street from Market Street and was confronted by Roubaix-style cobblestones! Covered in drizzle and oil! Having seen enough Spring Classics crashes, I knew to go slowly.

Road works on Canongate allowed me to revise my route for the first of maybe a dozen times on the way to Pencaitland. “Take the first exit at the roundabout onto Abbeyhill.” The green light winked, I tanked off, made the turn, and was suddenly lost. “Abbeymount?! I want Abbeyhill!” I asked a passing cyclist how I was to get to Abbeyhill. He said I was on it. Not having received any instruction to make the right turn which had brought me into contact with my directional saviour, but confident I was at least in the right area, I retraced my tyre tracks, rejoined what must be the correct road, and came face-to-face with the A1. It was big. Lots of traffic lights for lots of traffic and lots of stress awaited me. I wanted to turn right to head east, but what with all the big buses and bellowing trucks preventing my progress in that direction and yellow paint on the road telling me I couldn’t stop, I carried on, onto the wrong road, swerved into a car park, did a U-turn and came at this paragon of a cyclist-hostile environment from another angle.

At last I was on London Road and despite the traffic lights and buses which I ran a type of relay with for about three miles, it was actually quite straightforward and not as claustrophobic as I’d feared. Did I mention the rain? I don’t think I did. By this stage it was really coming down, I had my hood on and quailed at each pedestrian crossing. The reason for my trepidation were the metal studs used to mark out the limits of the crossing which were all, of course, moist and ready to throw me to the tarmac for the Number 51 to run straight over me.

I also began to appreciate the ineptitude and baffling logic of cycle lane designation and allotment. All of the bus lanes were cycle lanes too, and that was marvellous as long as there were no buses in them. The most exhausting kind of leap-frog ensued when I did have to contend with a truculent double-decker. It would overtake me and pull up at the next stop. I would be forced back into the roaring traffic to get past, only for it to overtake me again 200 metres further on.

Buses stopped baiting me, however, when I reached Musselburgh. This, though, was also when I deviated from the advice of Multimap. I’d just bounced over the River Esk and seen no mention of my hitherto faithful companion, the A199. Instinct said left so I bore left. 500 metres later, though, and just when the cold and wind began to breach my fortifications of adrenaline and I started to feel rather tired, I stopped to double-check. Only the OS map was any use now. Fortunately, it reassured me that I was on the right track, still heading towards Tranent from where I would then dive south to the distillery. By now I was following the banks of the Firth of Forth closely, which was a spectacular blue/grey with a powerstation of sorts a little way off.

I appreciated this view. At last I'd broken free of the city.

I appreciated this view. At last I'd broken free of the city.

I sped over a massive roundabout, enjoyed a generous helping of cycle lane, even if it was pot-holed and sprinkled with broken glass, and suddenly I was in East Lothian and countryside. Once over the A1 I began to dream of days in the saddle with just the fields, forests and mountains for company. The idyll was spoilt slightly by the incessant passing of cars desperate to get to Tranent. Once I arrived myself I wasn’t sure how they could all fit for it wasn’t the biggest of places. I didn’t have long to ponder because frankly I didn’t have long. My stops and starts and wrong turns in the city had cost me and it was getting on for 12:45. The kids were out of school for lunch, something I knew I’d only allow myself once I got to Glenkinchie.

Overshooting a turn-off in Ormiston was the final error. After that the way was highly familiar as I followed the same road we had taken when I visited with my family in September. Rounding a hill beyond Pencaitland, up popped the red-brick smokestack like a beckoning finger and I had at last made it.

Freewheeling into the hollow that hides the distillery, I got my first proof, a validation, of the advantages of travelling whilst open and immersed in the atmosphere. Unlike in September, I smelt straight away the sweet, heady scent of tortured barley and yeast. That made my 18 miles of manic panic worthwhile.

The car park was packed, even on that grey and miserable Monday afternoon. As I dismounted and commenced changing into normal clothes with a frenzy accountable to my bladder breaking to me all at once details of the water it had been retaining, forcing me to contemplate how severe the punishment would be for weeing in the Kinchie Burn, some visitors were returning to their warm, comfortable cars. They weren’t Scottish, either. In fact, I’m not at all sure where they were from but I discerned what must have been “cyclist” and judging by the enthusiasm and earnestness with which they pointed me out to each other, I’m guessing they had enjoyed their Scotch hospitality.

I cycled into the grounds, propped the bike up by the entrance and fled into the toilets. I returned to find it

I would have loved to have tried the tour instead of having time only to snaffle my packed lunch in the chilling drafts outside. I'll be back, though.

I would have loved to have tried the tour instead of having time only to snaffle my packed lunch in the chilling drafts outside. I'll be back, though.

 fortunately still there. It was then that the fatigue hit me. It was 1:30, I hadn’t had my lunch, I couldn’t do the tour but I had to get back for my 4:08 train. I couldn’t bask in the achievement and significance of having escaped the bustle and anonymous menace of the city and made it to this, the first distillery on my tour and my first re-invocation of that glorious double act of Scotch and Scotland which has inspired this journey in the first place, a distillery that I had been to before but had required other means of transport to reach, and not my own steam. I shovelled in my sandwiches and cake, asked a few practical questions of the receptionist regarding what I was to do with bike and panniers when I returned in a fortnight’s time, took the picture you can see on the right and went back to Edinburgh.

I’m not sure why I fretted over the possibility of a blow-out on the return leg. I flew back at an average speed of 15 mph which gave me enough time to change again, buy a fizzy drink and a chocolate bar and collapse on to the train.

A word on that clothing transition period, though. I would not recommend it as a method of meeting women. Propped up against one of Waverley’s mighty green pillars, just beside WH Smith’s, I set about taking things off and putting other things on and trying to remember the sequence for both. With clothing spilling out of rucksack and panniers, I looked like a brightly-coloured, sweaty refugee who, despite probably having lost his village and most of his family to natural disaster or war, had kept in mind the dress code for the more stereotypical gay bars if all the Lycra was anything to go by. The future Mrs Saxon, perhaps not surprisingly, didn’t make herself known.

I had a seat on this train, but while we were stationary I didn’t use it properly. I’d stored my bike correctly this time (suspended by the front wheel from a hook on the ceiling) but due to the open door which streams of folk were using to alight on to the train, it was on full view of the platform. Slurping Lucozade, I suspected every commuter of kleptomania. My eyeballs didn’t return to their normal orientation until the doors had been locked and I was speeding back to south of the border, reflecting how two weeks’ later I’d be on a train taking me further north to Stirling and what I feel is the more authentic beginning of my Scotch odyssey.

I cannot express how contented my day made me feel, so as this post is long enough already I shall simply say that it was the very best thing I could have done. I know my route;  I know how long it will take me; I know the practicalities of train and bike travel, and I know that rain is no dampner.

I also know that for the next two weeks I need to carefully control the intensity of my training. My efforts of Monday did incite a flare-up of pain and swelling, although not on the level of last week. Another treatment at the osteopath has assured me that it is preventable and manageable and this whisky journey need not be jeopardised. This is simply terrific, because I’m quickly coming to grasp what potential it has.

Ardbeg 10-year-old 46% (See ‘Most Hotly-Awaited’)

Colour: Pale and faintly luminous sandy gold.

Nose: (FS) Intense lemon marmalade sweetness sits between tarry rope and seaweed. Light creamy malt on a very strong, dry and thick peat floor. Smooth and gentle, though self-evident, maritime character. Carbolic soap. Floral, honeyed, with a diesel note. (WW) Sweet heathery smoke but still the seaweed and wamr, clear sea water remind you this is Islay. Shellfish. Pencil sharpenings. So open and expansive. A brewing summer storm on the beach.

Palate: Spicy, malty and fruity with very dry, rich and spiky peat. Fabulous exchange between oily tar, peat and smoke and biscuity malt and fruit. So complex.

Finish: Lemon bon-bons eaten by the fire. Hevay – huge! Beach bonfire ash. maram grass. Delicate smoke and engine oil float about. Heathery. Charred cask with spoonfuls of syrupy vanilla. Stupendous.

Glenmorangie Lasanta 46%

Colour: Full, glowing amber orange with bright copper highlights.

Nose: (FS) Intensely soft and smooth Sherry. Drying firmness hehind this of dark, “green” peatiness. Very fresh and spicy wit a creamy nuttiness. Rather oppulent and sumptuous. Complex. (WW) Lighter with more sustained barley sugar sweetness. Marzipan-style oakiness: thick and sweet. Lots of creamy caramel toffee.

Palate: Firm, dark and spicy with lots of dark chocolate, delicate though extremely rich peat and slivers of oak. Nutty. Soft, chewy malt with sticky and sweet dried fruits and toffee.

Finish: Warmth and with very rich, sweet depths. Spongy rubberiness obstructs some of the finer wood notes. Dark heather honey, earthy and with sticky malt. Creamily nutty again.

Arran 10-year-old 46%

Colour: Very clean, pale and soft gold. Champagne.

Nose: (FS) Dry, authoritative oakiness and rich, honeyed, biscuity malt. Heathery with rounded fruit notes. Humid and pungent cereals, underneath which is an appetizing, dry and rich earthiness. Spicy. Chunky and powerful. (WW) Lighter, smoother and a touch sweeter. Jam-filled sponges and pastries. A more inviting firmness and excellent subtle spice. Dark, peaty notes meld well with older oak flavours.The whole thing has real energy and clout.

Palate: Very spicy and firm yet retains a teasing softness. Fruity at first then rich caramel and chocolatey barley. Full and rounded with heathery peat notes.

Finish: Stewed fruit and plain chocolate. Firm, medium-dry oak a principal flavour. Heather honey. Some extra citrus and spice. Smooth with lovely barley grain richness and depth.

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