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June 8, 2011

Mothballed? Why?! Glen Keith 1993

Way back in icy January I mentioned I raft of lesser-spotted Speysiders I had come across courtesy of Gordon & MacPhail’s Connoisseurs Choice range, the foundation line of whiskies demonstrating the extraordinary variety Scotland, and especially her pre-eminent independent bottlers, have at their disposal.

Gordon & MacPhail Glen Keith 1993Of the five malts I purchased, the Glen Keith was really startlingly good, and tasting notes are below. Glen Keith, although mothballed since 2000, is still a significant site for Chivas Brothers. Located in the town of Keith, it is just down and across the river Isla from Strathisla, whose spirit is filled there. When I passed from tun room to still house during my tour of Strathisla last year, I remember seeing pipes arrowing away down stream to another pagoda. The two distilleries are intrinsically connected. Glen Keith also malted its own barley until 1976, providing itself and Strathisla with malt. Chivas Bros. still use Glen Keith for important experimentation into the whisky-making process. 

Purchase this little star in 70cl form here.

Glen Keith 1993 46% (Gordon & MacPhail Connoisseurs Choice). £40.

Colour – Candy yellow. Light honey gold.

Nose – At first it seems quite bold with very clean characteristics and sweet citrussy oak. Lemon butter icing and butterscotch maltiness. Closer to it is oaky and grassy with apple, chunks of tablet and a just-ripe banana note. Lemon curd. Shortbread dough – raw pastry. Soft and creamy. After a sip, deeper vanilla toffee emerges, along with poached pears and cinnamon. Toasted ex-Bourbon oak and thick whipped cream.

      Water renders the whisky softer and sweeter still. The shortbread has been cooked and topped with praline. Lemon accented vanilla cream. Clean, ‘golden’ American oak. Intense heathery aromas appear and a darker rich spice. Apple turnover. Not complex: there are simply acres of delight to be accommodated. Aberfeldy-ish.

Palate – Round, quite rich and toffeed with a sweet spiciness. Citrus appears (lemon and orange) together with drying spices.

      Water makes for a softer experience again, with gristy malt and then oak. Lemon pastries, an intense dried grassiness then clean fruitiness. Slight charring.

Finish – Butterscotch sauce. Clean and soft malt in perfect harmony with a light juicy oakiness. More lemon. Medium length. Sponge cake mixture.

      Water perhaps fractionally improves matters: clean malt and soft sweet oak combine nicely. Fruity with white grape and green apple. Rich biscuit.

So…?      The advice when collecting is to go for the closed distilleries and those bottlings which taste nice. While I haven’t heard anything from anyone else about this particular vintage, it would be no skin off my nose to purchase a couple of these and, if nothing happens price-wise, I at least have the insurance of a lovely dram. This is not complex, but shows what pleasant, sweet and fresh heights some lighter Speyside malts can reach when paired with a damn good cask. The American oak does make this malt, but it does not predominate and allows some delicious biscuit and fruit notes through.

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December 21, 2010

The Whisky Train

Brief Encounter: the Spirit of Speyside ready for departure.

Brief Encounter: the Spirit of Speyside ready for departure.

It is something of a blessing in disguise that I have not yet had time to recount my time aboard the Spirit of Speyside. With four inches of snow smothering everything outside I welcome any opportunity to recollect warmer times.

This is the most northerly heritage railway in the Scotland, although it was not for this reason that I dragged my parents along for an out-and-back rattle between Dufftown and Keith. It touts itself as ‘The Whisky Line’, and so I could not pass it up.

On my squeaky, grim-faced ride from Strathisla back to Dufftown in April the road hugged this single-track line for part of the way, bridges leap-frogging rails and the river Isla for a number of miles. The sun had appeared, and arable, wooded Speyside was showing itself very handsomely. I wanted to see what it was all about, having come across listings in the guidebooks one finds in Bed and Breakfasts.

Highly visible: the proximity of Balvenie and Glenfiddich bolster claims that this is indeed The Whisky Line.

Highly visible: the proximity of Balvenie and Glenfiddich bolster claims that this is indeed The Whisky Line.

A little bit of history first, however. The railway is one of the principle factors explaining why so many distilleries were built in the region. The plentiful raw materials dictated the location of a distillery in the first instance, but the train made distilling economically viable post-Excise Act, allowing the whisky which was ultimately produced to be transported to the markets of Edinburgh, Glasgow, and indeed the rest of the world with relative ease. Many distilleries were built beside, or had sidings constructed for them, from the main branch lines. The Speyside Way follows the echoing clatters of steam trains past, and many bridges over the Spey would have conveyed engines.

Salvaged and run by volunteers, the Keith & Dufftown Railway was opened in 2001, and operates on a dedicated timetable throughout the year. If you are planning your own visit, however, it is always worth checking the website in advance, although booking is not necessarily essential, and wasn’t for us as we pulled into the station at Dufftown on a Saturday in September.

I had been on the station platform before – in April as I left Dufftown on the way to Cardhu following a concerted effort to find out exactly where Balvenie is. Diving down a side road after Glenfiddich, behind some warehouses which had unfortunately collapsed due to the chronic winter weather, I passed under a bridge and then turned left – Balvenie Castle lying to my right – to be met with the various Balvenie buildings. Reflecting on how dearly I would have liked to have been rummaging around inside, I returned to the road, only to notice a puff of smoke from the pagoda heads – they were kilning malt! The best view then of Balvenie in its entirety had been from the platform, and so it was on this occasion.KDR4

Besides the waiting room and information points, there is also a railway carriage (static) kitted out as a cafe, and it serves wonderful scones, if you like that kind of thing. The train itself is not quite steam train romance, but it is comfortable, and feels very authentic. With a screech of the whistle and a shudder of machinery we were away on the eleven mile stretch to Keith.

Balvenie and Glenfiddich are obviously highly visible distilleries from the train track, but so is the silent – but still standing – Parkmore just on the other side of the Fiddich Viaduct – sixty metres above the river in question and one of the most-time consuming and expensive areas of the restoration project. Forest, glades and open fields slide past your window – this is a very leisurely ride. On the left as you aim for Keith is the man-made Park Loch. Teaming with wildlife (they list buzzards, red squirrels, deer and many others on the website) this is a very picturesque section, and one can only imagine the scene in winter when they run their ‘Santa Specials’: for the kiddies, mainly. Other animal life include the inmates of a donkey sanctuary. Look out for them.KDR6 Parkmore

On the approach to Keith, Strathmill is highly prominent, and is the first distillery to sup at the River Isla, which rushes alongside the train for a considerable portion of the ride. At Keith Town station you can either alight and explore Keith (don’t miss Strathisla Distillery) or get out and stretch your legs and savour the relaxing procession back to Dufftown. Please note, it is useful to check which station is that of initial departure. We could have hopped on at Keith, but we would have had to wait a few hours before there would be another train to take us back again. Our journey had a fifteen minute pause at Keith prior to the return leg.

The Keith & Dufftown Railway website.

KDR5 Strathmill

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May 4, 2010

Strathisla

A stunningly gorgeous distillery, this one. It's a shame my mood was too black to appreciate it at the time.

A stunningly gorgeous distillery, this one. It's a shame my mood was too black to appreciate it at the time.

Seafield Avenue, Keith, Banffshire, AB55 5BS, 01542 783044. Chivas Brothers. Strathisla Distillery Website  

APPEARANCE AND LOCATION:      ****      Keith itself isn’t the bonniest, but this distillery is in a pleasant secluded neuk just down from the main road through the town with parks to be found on the opposite side of the road. Indeed, some young boys were energetically mountain-biking around the one next to the distillery car park.

TOURS PROVIDED:

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

‘The Ultimate Chivas Brothers Experience’: £25. A tour of the distillery plus tastings of Chivas Regal 18 and 25-year-olds, Royal Salute 21-year-old and the 100 Cask Selection – all seriously premium blends.

‘Straight From The Cask Tour’: £25. Five cask strenght malts from the Chivas stable – “the only tour in Scotland offering all cask strength whiskies.” Pre-book all, and from the leaflet it suggests that the former is on Saturdays and the latter Sundays. It does seem an odd way of doing things…

DISTILLERY-EXCLUSIVE BOTTLINGS:      N/A; although there is a service available to personalise your own label on a Chivas Regal 12YO or a Chivas Regal 18YO.

My Tour – 24/04/2010

THE RUNNING COMMENTARY:      **

THE PROCESS AND EQUIPMENT:      **

Notes:      Strathisla uses four waters in its mashing, but that isn’t exceptionally interesting. The spirit is piped out to Glenkeith to be casked through a pipe that exits above the tun room, passes straight over the merry little river Isla and away to another pagoda roof towards the centre of the town. The warehouse visit is the most immersive I experienced short of Glencadam and Bladnoch, but this was a true standard tour.

GENEROSITY:      ** (Two drams (the Chivas Regal 12-year-old to welcome you, then a choice of the Strathisla 12-year-old or the Chivas Regal 18-year-old at the end.))

VALUE FOR MONEY:      *

SCORE:      7/10 *s

COMMENT:      I was thoroughly dour when I arrived, having a nervous breakdown about when the bike was going to snap in two. Having been immeasurably positive and proud of my fortitude the day before, the idea that the bike might collapse before I did because of my own shear negligence was hard to take. It had squeaked at me all the way to Keith, and the nearest bike shop wasn’t until Elgin. One of the many helpful things my guide said to me was where I might find the car DIY store in Keith, and after using a little of the product bought there, the bike rode like new. But the tour. Interesting. When you arrive you have Chivas Bros. marketing films rammed pretty forcibly down your throat. I didn’t need to see a lot of pretty Argentinians quaffing Chivas Regal 12-year-old (with ice), nor some Asian archers doing the same. I wanted to know about Strathisla. My guide thankfully plucked me out of the very comfortable lounge area before some unknown had finished waxing lyrical about some obscure blend. It’s a very old distillery, and it shows in the still room whose wooden beams make for a health and safety nightmare. The warehouse visit is one of the best on offer, though: you walk right through the sleeping casks – can even touch them – to The Vault which contains miscellaneous whisky objects – all connected with the most expensive and rare offerings with Chivas Regal on the label. There are some for coronations and some for other extremely old blends – the 100 Cask Selection, for example. There are casks from Glen Grant and even Laphroaig to be seen among the racks. A beautiful distillery and a perfectly pleasant tour which is well worth your while if you are in the area. And you like all the guff that goes with marketing blended whisky.

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April 24, 2010

Braemar to Dufftown

Braemar to Tomintoul, 32 miles

And so quickly this tour has become a salvage operation. How do I continue to capitalise on the tour as planned, despite the hiccough? I had my room booked in Tomintoul, thank goodness, and so all I had to do was get there.

The hostel had emptied on the Sunday morning, and whereas there had been six fellow sleepers on the Saturday night, it was just me in a cavernous dorm. I woke up reasonably cheery. Until I saw the white stuff outside.

Hardly auspicious conditions. I knew the road got higher (much higher) before I reached Tomintoul and didn't like the look of this one bit.

Hardly auspicious conditions. I knew the road got higher (much higher) before I reached Tomintoul and didn't like the look of this one bit.

Throughout my time in Braemar there had been snow flurries, but nothing had lain, even on the lawns surrounding the hostel. This was different. When I get the chance, I shall show you the scale of it just before I set off. The weather news in Tomintoul was better, however, and there was the promise of something hot to drink in the ski resort. I set off.

The snow mercifully stopped as I followed the banks of the Dee. I’d taken off my overtrousers and hood and conditons were rather good. I knew the road I was due to cycle, though, and it filled me with dread.

The main road runs from Ballater to Tomintoul. I had taken the little one. The higher I got, the more it snowed. I reached the top of the main climb – over little hump-backed bridges and rolls of steepness – and it was blizzard conditions. I couldn’t entertain doing anything other than continuing, however, because where could I bail out? I was in the middle of nowhere.

At the top of the steepest stretch, I stopped to rip into the cheese and ham sandwiches I had made for myself. Was that the sun? It certainly was trying to peep through. This felt like a supportive presence and I carried on. I reached the next summit, and there was Donside. And the Lecht.

After a hot chocolate and some soup, during which I appreciated just how freezing I really was, I made my attempt. The first ramp was 20%. I had to stop in the area they normally reserve for turning gritters. Normally, they get to that point and don’t bother about the rest. It’s the hill and road that is always closed from about November to March.

This is one of the most breathtaking views of the entire tour, and thanks to the gradient I had to survive to reach this point, I was literally wheezing and spluttering to begin with.

This is one of the most breathtaking views of the entire tour, and thanks to the gradient I had to survive to reach this point, I was literally wheezing and spluttering to begin with.

 (They closed it again temporarily the following day.) I had another break before the top, and the view was astonishing. Then it was the bald stretch to the ski station and one last awful incline. A motorist (on his way down) gave me a gentle toot and a thumbs-up.

After gobbling a Mars Bar, I limped to Tomintoul. The snooker was on, and I just vegged out. I must mention Mike and Cathy at The Whisky Castle. I walked in and had a chat with Cathy, who then proceeded to pour samples down my throat. It is just the most incredible shop, with awesome stock and there is nothing the pair of them haven’t tasted or visited. There appreciation of the industry as a whole is remarkable, and after Mike’s good-humoured carping, I’m a convert to the “No chill-filter and 46%!” crusade. If it’s single cask then all the better.

***

Tomintoul to Aberlour, 26 miles

Having done The Glenlivet the previous day (see review) I was now completely back on schedule. It was hard to leave Argyle Guest House – they had looked after me so well – but one can’t travel by staying in the same place.

My first proper glimpse of the Spey and the gorgeous, gentle fields and hills it sloshes through. Here be whisky, alright.

My first proper glimpse of the Spey and the gorgeous, gentle fields and hills it sloshes through. Here be whisky, alright.

I reached Cragganmore just as it began to rain and left just when it started again. The tour I have treated in the previous post.

I don’t like the main road to Aberlour. Every HGV in Northern Europe seems to be using these Scottish A- roads. Maybe I’ve been unlucky and the ash crisis is creating extra traffic. Glenfarclas appeared, rather ostentatiously, on my right. I shall review the tour shortly but what a lovely environment. It is possible to taste the independence: right down to using a blue Swiss mill!

I made it to Aberlour without becoming a road accident statistic. In ‘Fresh’, the recommended cafe, I took stock with tea and a slab of carrot cake. And I mean slab. ‘This is why I’m doing this, then,’ I may have said to myself.

***

Dufftown to Huntly, 60 miles

I’m condensing, folks. I had gone from Aberlour to Dufftown the day before but it was a short trip and the distilleries were the talking point, not the journey. This, on the other hand, was a mixture of both.

Having been following it for the last week, now, just outside Tomintoul, I was officially on the Malt Whisky Trail.

Having been following it for the last week, now, just outside Tomintoul, I was officially on the Malt Whisky Trail.

A few miles out of Dufftown it started snowing. I passed into Aberdeenshire and it started to rain. I prefer snow. Huntly didn’t look too promising in the dank wetness. I was deeply cold, and well aware that I had far to go. I checked into my hotel room to leave some things behind while I completed a couple of errands about the town. Less than enthusiastically, I set off for Glen Garioch.

If I thought the A95 was bad, the A96 is by far and away worse. If you are a cyclist, do not bother. I had ten miles of it not to so much endure as survive. In the spray, with all the Aberdeen-bound traffic, I don’t know how some of the enormous trucks didn’t send me through those pearly gates (assuming all of this demon drink isn’t an insurmountable stain on my character). They just refused to give me room, slow down, or even wait until oncoming vehicles had passed. On one instance I was forced over a catseye by a gargantuan flat-bed and thought my time was up.

The motorway swelled and fell, and I felt every incline which the oil boys in there cars barely noticed, judging by the anti-social nature of their speed and disinterest. I knew they were oil-connected because ever second car was an Audi.

At long last the turn off to Old Meldrum manifested before my sodden eyes. 10 miles. OK. I had to be careful. My gloves were saturated and I was getting low on fuel. Could I make it to the distillery before I froze, or did I stop and eat, and freeze? I risked it and just buried myself.

The routes around this part of the country are mostly flat and very very staright. When yet another US-style ruler of tarmac presented itself, I confess I swore loudly. The sheep and lambs were startled.

Full of lively whisky and super-knowledgeable, and just as lovely, people.

Full of lovely whisky and super-knowledgeable, and just as lovely, people.

Old Meldrum: I’d made it. Well, maybe not quite. There was still a mile and a half to Glen Garioch, as the brown signs made it, and I was in a less than cheery mood when I got there. I was soaked to the skin (and a good way below that, I fancy) and all I could do was beg the lady behind the desk for some radiators. She did better than that. She sent me to the still house. Behind the spirit still I found a clothes rack and so draped my drenched gear over that. It would all be dry by the time I finished my tour – for all I extended the time by chatting to Fiona and Jane, as I would come to know and love them.

Jane made me a cup of tea while I wolfed down my lunch. Fiona took me on my tour and as guides go, she tops all I have come across so far, and not just because of her maternal care for a poor droonded waif. Her sense of humour was sparkling. She had been surprised to see me half-naked in the still house when she brought her previous tour in. She debated whether to improvise and say that my presence was essential to the final flavour of the spirit.

The tour over, I just discussed my plans. Their enthusiasm and support were the only things which preserved me back to Huntly. I can’t believe I covered those last 22 miles. I promised before leaving that should I complete this tour – and I will confess that at times it has been a case of “If” instead of “When” – I would come back to the distillery and buy myself a bottle of the 1990. On the way back I added to my plans the purchase of a Founder’s Reserve which I could get them both to sign. I’d drink the 1990! It was the perfect antidote to the weather and fatigue, and once more reaffirmed what can overcome what. In the game of rock/paper/scissors, whisky and people beat rain and exhaustion. I can’t describe the pride I felt in myself when I returned to the Huntly Hotel, whose relatively sparse and tatty-round-the-edges nature did not matter one jot in this new haze of accomplishment.

***

Huntly to Dufftown, 28 miles

I woke up sobered. I felt those 60 miles now, and looking at my bike, so had it. It was filthy, and all the squeakings of yesterday now seemed unavoidable. I had to deal with this.

A phone call to Breezes revealed my incompetence as far as maintenance is concerned. When Mark had said that on-the-hoof maintenance wasn’t really necessary, he obviously assumed (as he had done with puncture repairs) that I knew to do the basics: clean the chain and lubricate it regularly. I hadn’t been doing that and yesterday’s rain had washed the last of the grease of it. I was advised to try and get as much muck off as possible, then try and get some oil. When I asked about WD40 I got the same response as I had when I voiced my idea to pressure wash the bottom bracket: “No!” I spent 40 minutes with some rags and soapy water, then tried to find a garage. I didn’t find a garage but I did find an unlikely good samaritan. As I stared glumly at the lightless interior of the garage, a man appeared. I only understood maybe 10% of the words that came out of his mouth (and there were a lot) but he was eager to help and got me some 3-in-1. This did the trick. I was off again. I didn’t do Glendronach for my equipment issues had cost me lots of time. Disconsolately, and contemplating the ridicule I’d get for throwing the towel in now from all my readers, friends, employers and colleagues and how I was generally a weak human being, I headed for Keith and Strathisla. Yesterday I was on top of the world, believing that I could conquer anything now on my itinerary. Now I was riding in fear of my machine simply capitulating. I couldn’t see a future.

After the tour I had my Mum source some phone numbers for local bike shops. Everyone over the last few days had said that Elgin was probably the closest. Not great because it isn’t that near, but there’s nothing I could do about it. I spoke to the folk at Moray Cycles and they promised to look at it if I passed through. They also recommended some different oils which I found in a car DIY shop in Keith. I felt much better.

I returned to Dufftown, then, and after a shower, headed out for my dinner. I wanted to cheer myself up and vowed to spend the money that would have gone on the Balvenie tour on some really good grub. I was no longer after budget calories. I’m one of these people whose moods are dependent on their stomachs and so went in search of other Dufftown eateries. I arrived at ‘A Taste of Speyside’. The beginning wasn’t auspicious – they were out of rabbit! They couldn’t get hold of any. I can recommend a garden in Northumberland that has a surplus. I elected for the pork and was not disappointed. Lovely big portions full of richness and flavour. The ethos of the restaurant owner is locally grown, and in season. Plates are simply presented and ingredients confidentally, though sympathetically, prepared. This Scottish produce can speak for itself.

Probably my most favouritest restaurant in the whole entire world: fabulous food and super, unprecedented people.

Probably my most favouritest restaurant in the whole entire world: fabulous food and super, unprecedented people.

I had the muffin to finish and what a splendid shot of endorphins that was. I finished replete, and very satisfied with my decision to reward myself for my endeavours. I got chatting to Sandy, the owner and chef, and what a unique man. We discussed my previous dining in Dufftown and as we were on the computer, I showed him my blog. When he heard of my strife with internet access, he insisted I sit down and update away. I said I hadn’t my notebooks. He said I should go and get them then. I said what if I don’t come back. He said he knew where I was staying. And so here I sit, still typing because what a week it has been. Fortunately, with a cup of tea inside me, I have a renewed appreciation of the values still held by other foodies and the capacity of others to help out where they can. Sandy and his team have gone above and beyond on this occasion, and it is thanks to them that you are largely up to date with my movements. As I have said before, it is my encounters with people such as Sandy (and Liam at the Old Cross Inn, and Gavin at Tullibardine, and Jane and Fiona at Glen Garioch) that elevate my day-to-day workings and struggles. Off the bike, it is coming into contact with them that appeases and silences any negativity about when I’m going to call it a day on this trip, to simply give up. Their hospitality, genuine interest and generosity are priceless and my will to enjoy more similar encounters trumps the dejection of exhaustion.

So I do have my dark times, and I’ll be honest I still cannot envisage cycling into Glasgow in a few weeks, but there is always some glorious person spurring me on, when I’m least expecting it. If nothing else, I shall take that with me from this incredible, and incredibly challenging, journey; whenever my reserves of fight and passion seem to have been utterly spent. I hope to carry on for a few days yet, though. 

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