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The Plaudits Post

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

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

AT THE DISTILLERIES

Drams of the Odyssey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Guides of the Odyssey

The Longer Shortlist:

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

The Shortlist:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And the Winner is…

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

Tour of the Odyssey

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

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

 Highland Park 2

***

Cafes of the Odyssey

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

Restaurants of the Odyssey

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

Locations of the Odyssey – the Best Places to Cycle

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

Beds of the Odyssey

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

To be Avoided

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

The Distilleries that Could Do Better

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

***

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

 

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

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

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Ard Dorch to Oban

Ard Dorch to Talisker, to Ratagan, 70 miles

If that can't get you up and on the bike, I don't know what can.

If that can't get you up and on the bike, I don't know what can.

Following some very rough calculations with a map and a bit of paper with the scale mile marked on it, I’d deduced that it was about twelve miles further to get to Talisker from my B&B in Ard Dorch than it would have been to get to this iconic distillery from the Glenbrittle hostel. Obviously, the leg taking me from the distillery back to the mainland would be the same as planned. Today would therefore be the longest of the tour to date, and looking at my distances for the remaining weeks, the longest; period. As the above figure shows, it exceeded my projections still further.Skye 4

If there is a more perfect place or time to cycle than the Isle of Skye at around 9AM in early May, please tell me, but I doubt you can come up with one. The traffic was non-existant and the difference this made to my appreciation of the place swelled exponentially. The island felt new, undiscovered. It did not feel mine. Only after visiting Mull a few days later could I put my finger on what it is that Skye does to you. Falling in love with Skye is like Stockholm Syndrome. Skye is the most “there” place I have ever been to, it is so completely, fiercely its own place and it does not care one jot for your problems or concerns. It is aloof, it is punishing, it is capricious. It is not in any way friendly, but it captures your soul. Indeed, this is the only means by which you can truly experience it: you cannot see it or hear about it alone, and this is why the photos you see cannot hope to convey all of Skye’s personality and sorcery. My mum visited the year before at about the same time, and she said the same, although the pictures she took entirely failed to prepare me for it. With the clear, bright sun newly up, and the shoulders and caps of these great cones of ancient volcanic ire shaking off their clouds, to be cycling along at sea level beneath them was an awesome, humbling experience. I actually experienced fear: raw, thrilling fear. You can’t get to know Skye with the help of the conventional five sense. You are bullied into surrendering yourself to its spell because of how it acts on your very being. It’s the only way I can describe it. I sent a text to mum saying essentially: “I don’t know how I’m supposed to leave here.”Skye 5

A little later I simply felt joy. The weather was perfect, the views were jaw-dropping. Only the traffic jams and road works spoiled it somewhat. With these cleared, the sign to Talisker appeared all too quickly. I was having a great time: these Skye miles were simply zooming past.

After making the left turn, you pass a hotel nestled in to the junction. You will also have to stop because you will have just spotted the Cuillins. They truly are like something out of a sci-fi comic book. You wonder how they don’t puncture the earth’s atmosphere, so sharp do they appear. After collecting myself following this far-off encounter, I free-wheeled down a very long, gentle hill, sensing the envy of those passing in cars. The approach to Talisker was a hugely significant one for me, and Carbost itself is worth a visit in its own right. All white-wash and cherry trees gleaming in the spring sunshine while I was there.The Cuillins 2

The tour over I had a super burger in the Old Inn, somewhere I would recommend for sheer informality and local colour. “Very Irish,” said one of the local lasses, “the fire on and the door open.” I had a lovely cheeseburger and then there was nothing for it but to head back to the mainland.

The reverse leg was just as moving, and vanished as quickly. I bought all of the stuff I thought I’d need for Ratagan from the Broadford Co-op, and had to hang around in the car park eating or drinking all the stuff I couldn’t actually fit in my panniers. 46 miles were up, and from the looks of the map I still had a not inconsiderable distance to go.

I felt quite glum as I crossed back on to the mainland. The traffic was giving me hell, though, so I hoped a different route would alleviate those whose journeys were just so vital they had to pass you at 80mph while cars came the other way. I disagree with Iain Banks’ interpretation of the island mentality. I think people get a false sense of liberation, that there actions can’t possibly have any consequences. Well they can for cyclists.

The road to Ratagan was unbearably long. After 50 miles I accepted that 6PM was going to come and go and I’d still be on the road. Apart from the quaint splendour of Eilean Donan Castle, I mostly had to suffer trees, cliff faces and yet more irritable motorists. However, it was sunny and I wasn’t about to knock it. After about 65 miles by lower back felt as if it had lost all structural rigidity. Nevertheless, I had to press on and fuelled by shortbread I eventually came to Loch Duich and what could only be one of the Five Sisters of Kintail. ‘Ratagan’ was written on a road sign, I cried with delight and pulled up at the hostel right on the shore of the loch.

After a mammoth plate of pasta and most of a McVities lemon sponge, I retired to my full 10-bed dorm. I have never felt such pure fatigue. It didn’t matter that the Dutch motorcyclists snored. I’d have slept in a Formula 1 pit lane.

***

Ratagan to Corpach, 61 miles

Isn't that perfect? the bike before Loch Duich and some of the Five Sisters of Kintail.

Isn't that perfect? the bike before Loch Duich and some of the Five Sisters of Kintail.

I has feared this day above all others, prior to having completed the previous day in the style that I did. No distilleries, just a solid 60 miles down the West Coast. If I completed this, I said to myself, the rest of the tour would be a doddle.

The road out of Ratagan towards Invergarry is undoubtedly spectacular. For the first few miles I kept expecting to be seized from above by a golden eagle. After the first few miles, I just felt plain tired. Hitherto, I needed to have covered about 10 miles before I stopped feeling dog tired. It was the break-in period for my legs of a morning. Well these West Coast roads expect you to be on top form from the gun. The road clung to the sides of mountains, then teased the shorelines of lochs. All the while up and down it went, and as the sun attained greater heights, out came the traffic. In the respect of the weather (painfully bright but rather cold), the maddening traffic and the sapping, never-ending road, it was not my happiest morning.

I kept eating and drinking, though, and with a little over 20 miles done I made the turn to Invergarry. It was a joy to actually encounter a junction of some description. I knew that from now on I was unlikely to be unmolested by other, motorised road users. All of the signs had the names of important towns on. The road I had just left had Inverness as its destination, and this one had Fort William at the end of it.

I had lunch half way up a seriously big hill, just in front of the sign welcoming me to Lochaber. Invergarry was still another ten miles away or so.

Another mind-boggling vista, this one near Glen Garry.

Another mind-boggling vista, this one near Glen Garry.

Despite several near-death experiences in the space of a few hundred metres: first with motorcyclists overtaking me on a cattle grid which had a whacking great pothole waiting for me at the end of it, and again when a car overtook me, the driver plainly forgetting he had a caravan hitched to the back, I made it to Invergarry. There isn’t a great deal there. Just a few houses and a hotel in which was a very pretty girl who happily served this grotty, smelly yellow creature without revealing in any way how vile it must have been for her.

Things improved slightly after that, and my ride through the Great Glen was quite spectacular. A reasonable tailwind hurled me towards Fort William. I took the minor road turning to the right, which took me over the Caledonian Canal and brought me out again at Banavie. I was staying with family friends in Corpach, and was relieved to see their road, and finally house number, materialise before me. “130 miles in two days,” I reflected over my cup of tea. I couldn’t stop smiling.

Fortunately I wouldn't be heading up these brutes.

Fortunately I wouldn't be heading up these brutes.

 

***

Corpach to Oban, 52 miles

After a rather vital rest day in Fort William, during which I updated (or to be more correct: sought to alleviate some of the backlog for) this blog like crazy, wandered around Fort William and generally unwound, it was time to be moving on; on towards the isles.

Regrettably, I could not set off as promptly as I wished. Ben Nevis distillery could not accommodate me on one of their morning tours. In fact, they couldn’t squeeze me in until 1PM. This was galling, because 50 miles to Oban is 50 miles, and when I have a distance like that looming I like to at least spread it around lunch. I wasn’t about to miss another distillery, so I booked a spot on the 1PM tour and just accepted that it would be a later night than was ideal.

As you can tell from my review of Ben Nevis, I was glad to have lingered. I bounced and swerved through Fort William onto the south-bound road full of delight at this most immersive and educational of visits, and eager to see whether I would be lucky enough to meet Jim McEwan at Bruichladdich (“If you meet Jim, cancel all plans for the rest of the day,” John warned me), and whether I would encounter Willie at Jura. I was promised that there was nothing this man didn’t know about whisky.

The panorama kept my spirits fairly high, too. Once more I was giddily fortunate with bright sunshine and heat. The views of Loch Linnhe and Argyll slowly coming into shot were magical. The further I went, the more rock could be found protruding from the energetic aquamarine. The islands had technically begun.

Damn, it makes me feel so full of yearning seeing the bike all loaded up like that before those landscapes.

Damn, it makes me feel so full of yearning seeing the bike all loaded up like that before those landscapes.

During my time in Fort William spring had definitely been making unsubtle hints as to its entrance. Now, the trees were in fresh-out-of-the-box leaf, and green was assiduously establishing itself. The best place to have appreciated this reawakening of nature may have been the cycle path, which I would spy running in parallel every so often. I only used it over a couple of stretches, however, because every time it looked as if I could join it from the road, it appeared to head of in the opposite direction to that indicated by the nearest road sign. 

Either way, I arrived in Oban shortly after 7PM. I was struck first of all by its location, within the hills and above the sea, secondly by the amount of people around. Fort William had been busy, too, but I had walked amoungst them. Now I was on a bike again and it was all rather overwhelming. I made it to my B&B by 7.30PM, unhappily discovering that it was some way out of town.

Once again, I had made it to a significant check point. I was in Oban now, so I could not fail to catch that once-a-week sailing from Oban to Port Askaig. Again, I could breathe a sigh of something like relief.

***

Oban to Tobermory and back, 45 miles

With no small amount of trepidation, I headed down to the harbour. I had spied out the ferry terminal the night before and let’s just say it was in impressive contrast to John o’Groats. It looked like a mini airport! I wasn’t at all sure of the protocols involved in getting me and my bike on to the ferry and how much it would cost. In a very short time indeed I was waiting at the head of a queue of cars to board, having paid half the John o’Groats to Orkney fare.

Awaiting the ferry in Oban.

Awaiting the ferry in Oban.

In the passenger lounges, there was a large contingent of Americans, Texans to be precise. I wondered if it was a school trip or a holiday. I suppose for the same reason we head over there they come here: a change of scale.

On Mull I allowed all of the ferry traffic to precede me on to the island and this was a very smart move. If I could recommend an island to cycle on, it would be Mull. Between Craignure and Tobermory there is essentially no traffic at all and until you get to the one seriously malignant hill it is relatively flat and well-surfaced. Much like on Skye, miles flashed past without me really registering them. I found the whole place charming: you could see the mainland at all times and this suggested a fraternity existed between it and Mull. Once you are on Skye heading north, the island seems to turn its back on mainland Scotland, shoving lots of other islands in between.

Mull is a friendly place, and even after the rather nasty hills which begin once you are through Salem, the island seems eager to reward you with views which are nothing less than perfect.

A view into the Sound of Mull, from the top of the only hill you really need to worry about (cyclists and motorists alike) between Craignure and Tobermory.

A view into the Sound of Mull, from the top of the only hill you really need to worry about (cyclists and motorists alike) between Craignure and Tobermory.

Tobermory is quite divine, too. Again, because it is a “proper” island in a transport sense, demanding a b-o-a-t to get there, you sense that it is more preserved than it might be if there were an easy road link nearby. It had everything I needed: a distillery, a superb cafe selling fabulously rich cakes and a Co-op for my day to day nurtrition. I was sad to leave, and didn’t overstrain myself to get back to Craignure in time for the 5PM sailing back to Oban. I made it back anyway, just as the last cars were shuffling down on to the car deck. 

Looking back to Mull.

Looking back to Mull.

I elected to eat the food I had bought in anticipation of having to wait for the 7PM ferry on the rear viewing deck and quite marvellous it was, too. It was hear that I took the picture you can see above. My early return to Oban made dinner arrangements a lot simpler and hassle-free. I ate at a little restaurant called Cuan Mor on the harbour front. So impressed and inspired had I been by the unashamedly, committedly peaty flavours of Ledaig that I asked the waitress for one. They didn’t have it, incredibly, so I had a Caol Ila instead, in anticipation for the following day and its profoundly significant destination.

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Ben Nevis

 

Well worth a visit: maybe after you have conquered the mountain which is its namesake.

Well worth a visit: maybe after you have conquered the mountain which is its namesake.

Lochy Bridge, Fort William, PH33 6TJ, 01397 700200. Ben Nevis Distillery Ltd. (Nikka). www.bennevisdistillery.com

APPEARANCE AND LOCATION:      ****      The distillery itself is rather industrial in its character and appearance, with a facade that puts me in mind of a fairly dour bank. It is also immediately off the very busy road into Fort William. However, its position at the very foot of Britain’s highest mountain earns it an extra star.

TOURS PROVIDED:

‘Standard Tour’: £4. See ‘My Tour’ below.

DISTILLERY-EXCLUSIVE BOTTLINGS:      N/A

My Tour – 10/05/2010

THE RUNNING COMMENTARY:      ***

THE PROCESS AND EQUIPMENT:      *

Notes:      Ben Nevis is quite a quirky distillery as it happens. The still room is in fact split into two: one pair of stills and a spirit safe, and another pair of stills with a spirit safe at the other side, one working 12 hours behind the other. Going back a little way, they say they have the purest water source in Scotland, and that this is (grudgingly) conceded in other quarters. They have two silent seasons, one just after Christmas and the other in the summer. Their wash is unusually strong at 11%abv and their new make spirit has an average strength of 76%, again very high indeed. The appearance and lay out of the distillery is largely down to its Canadian owner in the 1930s. He built out-buildings and extensions as if they were going out of fashion, but without foundations. He thought the distillery sat on granite. It has its own on-site cooperage, athough we don’t see that, and the cafe is reputed to be excellent, once you have finished with your nip of the 10YO.

GENEROSITY:       (1 dram)

VALUE FOR MONEY:      *

SCORE:      5/10 *s

COMMENTS:      This was another instance where you encounter one of those people who are the industry and who know it inside out. John Carmichael took me round and had in fact sent me an email offering his guest house, which is only a stone’s throw from the distillery, as accommodation for my stay in the area. It seems he’s a reader of the blog, too, so Hi John! His father worked in the industry before him and the assurance and knowledge, together with some exceedingly dry wit, captivate on the tour. He was equally interested in my own exploits and I cannot, unfortunately, relate all of the anecdotes one of my answers would provoke; I can’t remember them all! He gave an impassioned lecture about how to drink whisky: not with a chip on his shoulder or with an axe to grind before any particular demographic, but with a profound understanding of the make-up of the spirit. He also gave me new tips for tasting, and for deducing the age, provenance and many other characteristics of any malt I may have before me. For example, begin the nosing of your dram with your nostrils a few centimetres above the rim of the glass. If you simply stick your snooter into the glass, you will only ever find the top notes. For drinking cask strength whiskies, he advised firstly to tip just a tiny amount onto your tongue, a quantity that doesn’t even require swallowing, and take that as your undiluted sample. He told me about his whisky heroes, one of whom is in my personal whisky hall of fame: Richard Paterson. He told me about “a show” Richard does in his ambassador capacity: standing on stage and asking someone who doesn’t like blends to come down. He will then mix up a blend for them personally, based on their tastes and even interests and hobbies. Then he will put it before them. After the volunteer has taken his or her first sip, he will then slap £1000 down on the table and say: “if that isn’t the best whisky you have ever tasted, take the money.” No-one has yet, apparently. John goes against Mike from The Whisky Castle: he argues that chillfiltration was brought about by the consumer to begin with, and that can you ever really drink more than one of those big, oily cask strength brutes. Personally, one is just fine for me, so I will source out those single casks with nothing added or taken away. A fascinating man, who was kind enough to see the potential in my undertaking and waived the entrance fee for me!

A snowy white mountain and snowy white cherry trees. Japan and Scotland collaborating.

A snowy white mountain and snowy white cherry trees. Japan and Scotland collaborating.

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