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June 29, 2011

Size Matters?

Gargantuan Glenfiddich.

Gargantuan Glenfiddich.

From whisky’s commercial beginnings, success has meant going large: more equipment equals more liquid which equals more profit which equals more equipment. As businessmens’ wallets expanded so, inevitably, did their distilleries.

Miniature Edradour.

Miniature Edradour.

Today, however, we find a subtly changed model. Like the tiny birds which munch their lunch from the hides of rhinos and elephants, there are those whose comparatively diminutive size ensures their survival and prosperity. Fluttering in the wake of the industry’s behemoths are flocks of boutique operations flourishing thanks to the robust health of their enormous counterparts. Liberated by their small-scale natures to offer something particular, distinctive, unusual – maybe even personal – these distilleries cultivate a following of devotees which, though often equally as minute, are enough to sustain a brand and a philosophy. Small, for increasing numbers of ambitious and passionate people, is the whole point. But is boutique best? In the following paragraphs my aim is not exactly to answer this question. I want instead to ponder how whiskies differ on a level beyond – or perhaps it would be more correct to say beneath – flavour. The means by which Springbank journeys to your drinks cabinet contrast with those of The Glenlivet; which dram, therefore, speaks most faithfully of the provenance, process and people behind it?

This train of thought chugged into motion with the Benromach press release published yesterday. However, I should say that the thrust of this article is not innovation. Rather, I want to interrogate the principal bottlings from the likes of Glenmorangie and Macallan and evaluate whether they are as honest as they could be. Has their extraordinary volume compromised their identities as discernible in the final product? Could distillery character be more vividly captured and engaging with less output? Does spirit from smaller sites taste somehow more authentically like itself?

Giant Jura.

Giant Jura.

My tentative belief is that with fewer litres produced, requiring fewer casks and therefore with perhaps a smaller spectrum of oak-derived (or oak-perverted) flavours available, the creation of a new core expression presents the master blender with fewer alibis – whisky special effects. When putting together a 12-year-old, for example, he or she hasn’t the diverting inventory of casks with particular qualities which might in other conglomerates be brought to bear on the vatting with ameliorating, distorting consequences. I know that, with the larger companies, whole floors in warehouses are exhumed to contribute towards the next bottling run, many hundreds – even thousands – of litres many years older than the age statement that will finally appear on the bottle lend colour, fragrance and structure which may have been lacking in the youngest stock. This practise is not misleading exactly, just obscuring. Also, when releasing a subsequent batch of ’12-year-old’, the boutique master blender may be unable to maintain consistency with the previous release at the volume demanded by head office. Theirs will rather be a whisky for and of the here and now. They cannot replicate the character of a single expression, they can only construct a whisky that reflects how the Edradour or Royal Lochnagar spirit has coped with and embraced those variables which are at the heart of whisky manufacture.

Titchy Arran.

Titchy Arran.

I compared the scores given in the latest Malt Whisky Companion to the principal – or only – bottlings from the eleven smallest Scottish distilleries in output terms with those of the eleven largest. They were, once I had calculated an average, to all intents and purposes identical (80 plays 79 respectively). This, of course, tells me very little. Were the MWC published on an annual basis, however, and were the bottling habits of the likes of Kilchoman, Arran and Benromach to become de riguer for all boutiques, I would expect their scores to fluctuate, whilst those of the giants remained constant.

Not to conclude, therefore, but rather to adjourn for now, what about flavour exploration? Is fluctuating whisky better whisky? For me, I would bellow ‘Yes!’ I have enormous respect for how the big boys put out consistently tasty stuff year after year, but right now I yearn for variety, digression and different shades in my drams. I want to explore the products of those whose business models and above all artisanal attitudes empower them to shout about something really great when they find it, instead of having to surrender those drops of transient magnificence into the uniform ocean of brand continuity. To my mind, master blenders must too often sacrifice wonderful malts to function as a kind of whisky airbrushing tool; our omnipresent malts are merely beautified – they are not truly, idiosyncratically, beautiful.

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June 12, 2010

The Plaudits Post

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

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

AT THE DISTILLERIES

Drams of the Odyssey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Guides of the Odyssey

The Longer Shortlist:

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

The Shortlist:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And the Winner is…

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

Tour of the Odyssey

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

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

 Highland Park 2

***

Cafes of the Odyssey

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

Restaurants of the Odyssey

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

Locations of the Odyssey – the Best Places to Cycle

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

Beds of the Odyssey

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

To be Avoided

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

The Distilleries that Could Do Better

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

***

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

 

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

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

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April 18, 2010

Pitlochry to Braemar

Pitlochry to Kinnaird Castle, 61 miles

As I mentioned in the previous post, my attempts to tour Blair Athol were thwarted. The first I heard about it was when I was shopping for supplies in Robertsons (my kind of grocer: half of shop for fine whisky, the rest for everything else you might need to live on.) It seems their silent season had been brought forward and I’m afraid you won’t be able to tour the distillery until July. The man recommended I head along anyway, because they werew still offering an explanation of the process and a free dram.

I got there but everything was largely shut up. The man in the office said he could call the guides but I didn’t think it was really worth my while to be told about a distillery I was in. I’m all about the showing! The basics are £5 entry, with an exhibition for Bell’s whisky and a dram of the 12YO at the end. 

I headed for Edradour, then, and it is such a beautiful distillery (see tour review below). The sun was out, a fresh breeze was blowing and you feel totally removed from everything. It is your quintessential farm distillery with oodles of character.

That done all I had to do was cover the, as I thought it, 50 miles to Kinnaird Castle outside Brechin, where my aunt is a tenant and had succeeded in securing a room for me in the castle itself which are normally rented out by holiday-makers. So what better motivator was there than great food, my own room and bed, and above all someone familiar?

The route was an exceptionally picturesque one, heading north out of Pitlochry onto seemingly the roof of Perthshire with suitably strained breathing. The sun was strong and ever-present again. I passed many little communities, encountering very few cars. It wasn’t until I joined the road to Blairgowrie that the road deteriorated and the traffic worsened.

My Mum, always with half a mind on my stomach, had found a nice stop on my sparsely-populated course. I pulled up at the Old Cross Inn just within Blairgowrie and as I was getting myself sorted out a man appeared. He asked if he could help and I said I was after a drink and some food. He said that unfortunately the chef was away and the kitchen was closed. Obviously he took pity on my sighs of dismay and generally ragged appearance. “I can put the fryer on and do you a bowl of chips.” It ended up a bowl of chips, a pint of Coke and a cheese and ham toastie. I enjoyed my chat with Liam, for that is his name, just as much. Your hospitality will not be soon forgotten.

So taken was I with the charm of such encounters that upon leaving I neglected to secure my backpack to the rack. A massive honk from a truck behind me told me as much. It was in the middle of the road. Lesson learned, and reflecting on how life is instances of good and bad luck, I carried on to Brechin.

I’d said in my phone call to my aunt that I’d arrive by 5PM. Kirriemuir only just went by at 4.45PM. The road out of Forfar, connecting with the one to Montrose and Brechin, seemed to go on forever. 55 miles came and went on my odometer. I began to notice familiar views, however, and I took the turn off to Farnell knowing I was home.

The food was extraordinary, the room palatial and the bath lovely and hot. The company, though, was what I began pining for even before I left the next morning.

***

Kinnaird Castle to Fettercairn, 15 miles

A very necessary shorter day, this one. Had the itinerary been any more severe, I might not have left at all. Why leave such comfort for more stress, exhaustion and strangeness? I didn’t answer this inward enquiry, just saddled up and left.

Before Glencadam which my aunt had arranged for me, I wanted to check my brakes. The descent into Pitlochry the day before had reminded me that brakes wear out, and having that happen coming down a Cairngorm would not be advantageous. The man in Tayside Cycles reassured me that they had bags of life left.

After my Glencadam tour (see below) it was a very short – and pleasant – ride to Fettercairn. I had been promised by my Dad, who works in Aberdeen and stays in Fettercairn when he does so, that the treatment to be had with Mike and Denise at Kishmul, my B&B for the night, was second to none. The road on which it sits was divine, and the atmosphere of the place so very tranquil. I’d already got some excellent photos of the distillery against the mountains and the daffodil crops but went for a walk to get a closer look.

I had my lunch beneath a majestic monkey puzzle tree, watching the light breeze tickle the early cherry blossom on the tree just in the distillery yard. After a cup of tea and some carrot cake at ‘the arch’ (no capital letter), and asking at the Ramsey Arms for public computer access (no chance) I returned to the distillery for my tour. For the second time that day I was accompanied solely by the guide and what a nice tour it was. Being part of the same group as the wonderful Dalmore made the trip to the shop especially interesting. I shall post up my review of the tour later.

After dinner at the Ramsey Arms (super scrummy) I retired for the night, but not before checking out my route to Aviemore on my maps. I knew that the following three days would be tough, and that if I survived them then my continuation of the tour would be with some momentum, the worst being, for now, over. Obviously those three days which had troubled me so greatly in mental preparation will now look very different. The first of them, however, went ahead (almost) as planned.

***

Fettercairn to Braemar, 54 miles

Denise, as promised, set me up as best she could with a stonkingly excellent breakfast. I’m not sure that’s an official adverb but it ought to be when associated with that kind of food. She had also taken my request for a packed lunch (just a couple of sandwiches) and gone to whole new levels of accommodation. There were three sandwiches, a banana, apple and two chocolate bars. Without such a sack of vittels, I don’t think I would have made it.

Cairn o’ Mount is a famous hill in the area, often closed in winter. I wish it had been closed on Friday. Long, and unreasonably steep in parts. I’d like to brag and say I didn’t get off and push. That’s true, but only because to have done so would have been far more dangerous than simply carrying on. The gradient was so severe and the camber of the road in the final bend before the merciful parking area so inhospitable, I had to ignore my screaming legs bursting lungs and incoherent thoughts and just push on. I rolled into the car park and let the wall at its perimeter stop me. I have never been quite that destroyed.

The view south and east from the parking area on Cairn o' Mount.

The view south and east from the parking area on Cairn o' Mount.

I carried on after a few minutes, the view from the top sea and farmland on one side, the snow-capped Cairngorms on the other.

Royal Deeside: simply spectacular. Murderous to cycle through, however.

Royal Deeside: simply spectacular. Murderous to cycle through, however.

Until Aboyne the road did nothing but writhe up and down. There were many hobby cyclists out for a spin, and from either direction they all looked as if they would rather be mowing the lawn. The wind was what did for me. As I continued to head west, so it continued to gust at me. This only became a physical problem after I finally made it to Royal Lochnagar. Despite the sandwiches and banana I had finished with the distillery cat before the exemplary tour (more details later), I came out deeply tired. The nine miles to Braemar were some of the longest I had ever attempted. The road followed the banks of the Dee, so was fortunately flat, but was essentially long straight sections, with a cheeky bend at the end which I prayed would reveal the town, but instead promised more trees.

My knees had been registering some complaints intermittently all day, and now it was the re turn of my face. My lips felt rather raw, so I stopped to apply some well-known petroleum jelly. My fingers came away covered in blood. I was bleeding, and a lot. Mercifully, finally, I wobbled into Braemar. The hostel was at the other end of the town, of course, and I rasped up the steep drive to the front door. Abandoning the bike, I went to find the reception. It was busy, so I checked my appearance in a car window. I looked like I’d been in a fight. Congealed blood came from my nose, my face was ashen white and unsightly build ups of goodness-only-knows were at the corners of my mouth. Had I been in a fight? I felt like I had, only I was mssing the adrenaline. As I said to my parents, surprisingly matter-of-factly, when they phoned, I was at zero. Languishing at the bottom of the barrel, utterly spent, is not as unpleasant as many people make out. My exhaustion shielded me from many haunting realisations. I had a shower, then an enormous pizza from the Hungry Highlander and was in terrific spirits. I’d encountered my first real set-back. This tour felt like it was my own at last, after I had no option but to make the pragmatic decision to change the route. It was almost a relief to be so run-down, liberating that it truly was my decision to sacrifice my grand plans for the sake of the whole experience I can still have. Yes, I wanted to do a full tour. But these things happen when one is on the road.

Unfortunately, I could not maintain such equanimity into this morning. It dawned grey, cold and snowing so had yesterday been a normal day, I probably would still have had to call off my trip to Aviemore. Coming to terms with my fatigue and the imperfect nature of my journey, however, I couldn’t see any of the pluses anymore, hence the post of earlier today. My aim is to get to next Sunday (for my Speyside distances are largely quite modest) and then see how I am. I’m keen to be moving again, and Diane at Tomintoul sounds like she can sort me out.

***

As for the photos, dear readers, I have done what I can. An hour (£3) of uploading and only the picture of Glenkinchie would load onto my photostream – check it out, it’s beautiful. I have deleted four fifths of the pictures on my camera so that I had less to upload, but still, the other nine images I wanted to show you wouldn’t transfer. I tried again and zilch. I have done my best folks. Technology is just not on my side.

Apologies also for ay typos or tautology. I’m writing these posts straight onto the computer – no drafting – and haven’t time to read back through. With less than two minutes of credit left, I shall see you all when I see you.

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Edradour

It would be a joy to simply stand at the whitewashed wooden fence and merely observe the changes of season and weather in this tiny glen with the distillery quietly working away in its midst.

It would be a joy to simply stand at the whitewashed wooden fence and merely observe the changes of season and weather in this tiny glen with the distillery quietly working away in its midst.

Pitlochry, Perthshire, PH16 5JP, 01796 472095. www.edradour.com

APPEARANCE AND LOCATION:      *****      This is such an achingly pretty distillery. If you want small and traditional, you are hard-pressed to find better in Scotland. However, this is also, paradoxically, one of the busiest sites on the central Highland tourist trail. Annually, they receive nearly 100,000 visitors. 19 other people joined me on my tour.

TOURS PROVIDED:

‘Standard Tour’: £7.50. See ‘My Tour’ below.

DISTILLERY-EXCLUSIVE BOTTLINGS:      The distillery being owned by Signatory means that if you don’t like the standard 10YO or the cream liqueur they offer you at the beginning of the tour, there is almost certainly something tasty to be picked up from the almost exhaustive range of single cask, cask strength, non-chillfiltered or more standard bottlings Signatory offers from other distilleries. The range of Ballechin whiskies (the peated Edradour spirit, and finished in a variety of woods) is comprehensive, as is the collection of Straight-From-The-Cask malts which are very distinctive indeed, and available to sample in the bar further down the hill from the shop where the tour commences. Current as of 21/01/2011 there are two distillery-exclusives and one otherwise restricted to the Spanish market but available at the distillery, too: 14YO Barolo finish (50cl bottle), £50; 26YO Port finish, £149, and a Spanish red wine finish, £45.

My Tour – 15/04/2010

THE RUNNING COMMENTARY:      ***

THE PROCESS AND EQUIPMENT:      *

Notes: A Morton’s Refrigerator is used to cool the wort from the mash tun. A very old piece of equipment most commonly seen in dairies. They are building a warehouse at present.

These are the smallesy stills in Scotland and a charming presence.

These are the smallesy stills in Scotland and a charming presence.

GENEROSITY:      (One dram, the 10YO.)

VALUE FOR MONEY:      *

SCORE:      5/10 *s

OTHER TOURS: N/A

COMMENT:       Again, it was the good-humour and character of the guide which made for an extra special experience. Jim was a great host, whose impression of a Highland cow fed on the draff and pot ale will live long in the memory. I think there were far too many English folk on his tour for his liking, and he made gentle jibes at the contingent from south of the border. No racism, just good fun. He explained that distilleries shouldn’t allow visitors into the duty free warehouses unless there was a sealed area. It’s harsh to penalise Edradour for not making the attempt because they are still building their warehouse! A truly gorgeous distillery which is, as the video said, little changed since its inception. Unfortunately they have introduced a £5 fee since I visited in October. A good economic decision for just on our tour there were 18 people but charging that much to see it when its only real claim to fame is as the smallest distillery in Scotland? I’m probably just OK with that because it is quite a contrast from many encounters with the industry. There is a tasting bar where you can sample the many different boutique expressions from this distillery. I wanted to try some of the single cask wine finishes but time was pressing.

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March 2, 2010

Fit For The Glens: 6 weeks to go…

Never before has the arrival of March made me quite so petrified. Not even in 2008 when I had my lion-taming exam on the 5th of the month. That didn’t actually happen but you get the idea. For after all, now this whisky escapade is “next month” whenever I discuss it; no longer just “in April”, which was a construction that consoled me into believing that it was metaphorically still around a corner several streets away.

I could have been a great deal more ashen of face and queasy of stomach had the weather not granted me a window of opportunity. Friday’s rain ceased at last, although the weekend had its own showers/raging torrents. Yesterday, though, dawned bright, clear and very cold. I bundled any doubts about it perhaps being too cold, bound and gagged, into the mental cupboard under the stairs. I couldn’t face another hour and a half on the turbo.

Not even the viciously steep hill outside the house could get me comfortably warm, however, although the one out of the next village handsomely succeeded in doing so. I was in the small chainring for the first time, grinding up the ramps at 9 mph. Whilst humiliating and exhausting, it reassured me that Mark at Breeze Bikes had done a great job of arranging my gears for I still had three in reserve. Even with panniers, the training I hope to pack into these last (whisper it) six weeks ought to permit me to conquer all but the most wilfully awful inclines in the saddle.

So, five miles in and I was already knackered. This merely made it more advantageous to go slower and practise flicking down the gears until I found a ratio I could maintain comfortably and effectively. I had acquired a good rhythm by the time I reached the next collection of houses and someone in a VW decided to overtake me on a blind bend. He/she escaped having their radiator stoved in by a matter of seconds.

I had already crossed a section of road which all of last week’s rain had transformed into a ford and I trickled over another one as my nemesis accelerated into the distance. I marvelled at how the opposite carriageway was bone dry.

A mile further on I encountered my first fellow cyclists, the more serious-looking of whom was hammering it in the other direction, the commuter mountain biker I breezed past. That was pretty much it for racing adversaries, although I did show a hedge-cutting tractor a good turn of speed.

Back out in parallel with the sea (and experiencing an inward swell as I likened the breakers to those of the North Atlantic on the south coast of Islay) I narrowly avoided injury slaloming between black-mawed potholes and noticed for the first time a whirring noise. Dismounting, I discovered that a plastic sticker designed to save the derailleur from getting scratched by the chainring had partially come adrift and was caressing the chain. It wouldn’t come away completely, though, so I just had to be driven slightly mad for the rest of the ride.

If the weather is like this I shall be very happy indeed.

If the weather is like this I shall be very happy indeed.

I completed my twenty-four mile circuit happy with my progress if very very tired. More so than my first outdoor ride, it suggested to me that this journey is something I’ll be able to physically manage; significant, really, for it is only next month before I shall glimpse this: the first view afforded by the Lothian countryside of Glenkinchie distillery.

I had a minor epiphany on the whisky-tasting side of things. A novice whisky-drinker friend of mine spent the night over here during the week and I was keen for his malt horizons to be broadened. He professed to having liked Laphroaig when he tasted it recently (a genuine surprise to me, whose inaugural encounter with the output of this Kildalton distillery nearly put him off Islays for life) so I extracted my Caol Ila Distiller’s Edition, Bowmore Legend and Ardbeg Uigeadail, my three Glencairn glasses and guided him through a tasting. It was only after I started nosing the drams myself that I realised how revelatory and valuable an exercise it is to sample malts side-by-side. The Bowmore became drier, more honeyed with a note of laminated coloured craft paper like I had in first school, and against the other two it wasn’t that smoky anymore. I gasped at the Ardbeg’s smoothness and soft dark fruit flavours. But my nose really had fun with the Caol Ila. When compared with its Islay stablemates, that which makes it Caol Ila leapt out. Suddenly I registered the same warm, squeaky and rounded fruit notes I had picked up from the 10-Year-Old Unpeated. The complexions of all three were almost unrecognisable from my memories of them when sampled in isolation. I shall have to repeat this method, definitely with the trio of Taliskers and the Glenmorangie multipack which I hope to purchase soon. Hopefully it shall be possible to distinguish a constant character, and I shall take this to be the hallmark and principal style of the distillery. I might even come to love The Original.

We then talked long into the night with a little help from The Macallan 18-Year-Old Fine Oak which he had brought with him, his father having won it in a raffle. I’d very much like to know which raffle and how often they sell tickets. Obviously I was not concentrating on tasting notes that night, just sharing a great malt with a great friend. He kindly consented to leave it in my care, however, until I had compiled notes for it. After all, I don’t know when I am next

Another magnificent example of how to finish a whisky properly. Stunning.

Another magnificent example of how to finish a whisky properly. Stunning.

 going to have the chance to sample the seminal expression from the definitive Speyside distillery!

Talisker Distiller’s Edition 1993 45.8% (See ‘Most Hotly-Awaited’)

Colour: Bold orange with tones of ruby and brass.

Nose: (FS) A soft, sly stalemate between gentle though rich and complex Sherry wood and smoke. Very dry and soft peatiness, partnered with a dark maritime character: sea fog and seaweed. Charred wood with marmalade spread over it. (WW) A more insistent, light and smooth, presence of fruit: orange and white plum. The smoke notes call to mind herbs thrown on the barbecue. Boiling blackcurrant jam.

Palate: Beautiful. Initially lots of burning wood and peat smoke, then caramelised, syrupy fruitiness bursts through. It tames, slightly, the peat clouds and lends superb contrast.

Finish: Unravels very slowly. Gentle seaweed and charring wood. Chewy fruit sweets and gums. Drying on grains and subtle fresh oak.

Edradour 10-year-old 40%

Colour: Earthy and full amber with gold highlights.

Nose: (FS) Peat smoke, initially, modified by very dry sprigs of heather. A malt profile that blends a freshness with a dark, chunky oatiness. Quite clean with a soft toffeed wood note like Scottish tablet. Smooth with a creamy mintiness and rubbery citrus. (WW) Sweeter with buckets of honey. Medium-dry with sweet, heathery peatiness. Firm and biscuity.

Palate: Dry, lightly-peated malt and sweet, firm wood.

Finish: A rich, substantial maltiness lingers. Honey, too. Crisp, fresh heather shoots. Rather long with a final wood note and echoes of the open mash tun. Satisfying.

This is justifiably one of the iconic malt whiskies and the Lord of Speyside.

This is justifiably one of the iconic malt whiskies and the Lord of Speyside.

The Macallan 18-year-old Fine Oak 43%

Colour: Glossy and smooth amber/gold with pinky coppery tones.

Nose: (FS) Very assertive and spicy straight off the bat with firm, dark woodiness and apples. Very toffeed with strong plumes of peat smoke. Some very deep, dark and moist Sherry wood emerges with nuts and tangy fruit: soft plum and zesty, oily orange. Dryness spreads and develops to a rich, aromatic earthiness. Complex doesn’t begin to cover it. (WW) Much more delicately floral and sweet. Very dark but creamy-smooth chocolate. A real freshness and zip to the oak. Eagerly builds on itself with time to breathe.

Palate: Here we find the solid muscularity and richness of its age with soft fruity Sherry to offset this. The Sherry quickly vanishes to be replaced by succulent, biscuity and buttery vanilla. Perfectly judged zesty oak. Rich peat gives the maltiness excellent depth and dryness. Outstanding.

Finish: A sense of heat and size: this is a big big malt. Drying wonderfully on “russety” wood and leaf notes. Velvety dark chocolate. Spectacularly long with very gentle, fragrant, sweet and smooth smoke playing throughout. A masterclass of Speyside flavours.

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