Back to the Valley of the Garioch

Glen Garioch

Although I observed many new distilleries from the car, distilleries which the route of my Odyssey had not approached – Dalwhinnie, Tormore, Auchroisk, Glenallachie, Strathmill to name a few – and many familiar ones which our voyaging took us past repeatedly - Aberlour, The Macallan, Craigellachie, Glenfiddich – there was to be only one distillery tour this holiday.

It was shear blind and baffling luck that so many significant people and properties within the context of my tour as a whole should be indigenous to a readily accessible area of some 50 square miles. Had this privileged region been in Caithness then I would still have insisted we make the journey, however. The attenuated dog leg that links Tomintoul, Dufftown and Oldmeldrum was my malt-related magnet and my first significant pilgrimage was to the last of these settlements.

Roughly a month after I hung up my panniers I phoned Glen Garioch and was fortunate enough to have Jane lift the receiver. Thrilled to speak with her again, and doubly so that she apparently remembered me, I promised that we would be up again in the not too distant future and to that end, I asked if she could set aside a bottle of the 1990 Vintage. I was anxious not to miss out on what my subsequent reflections on my Odyssey rendered a highly symbolic, venerated and desired artefact. Several weeks later I contacted her again to book my family on a VIP Tour.

Frankly unbelievably, the weather was ominously reminiscent of my first foray from Moray to Aberdeenshire on the 23rd of April. Whilst we did not encounter snow on the bare tarmac out of Dufftown, rain threatened throughout our race along the A96 and more pleasant sweep along smaller A-roads to Oldmeldrum. So vivid were the reminders of that day, so unnervingly similar were the colour palette and light quality. Every stopping point, every side turning, every enraged bellowed expletive and herd of startled livestock from five month’s ago hovered before my mind’s eye. It was quite uncanny. I doled out pity on my past self as we reached the roundabout at the entrance to Oldmeldrum and navigated the uphill arc of road to the top of the town. Upon arriving I’m aware only of sprinting about the site with my camera, capturing the place in a manner I had neither at first the trust in my equipment’s waterproofing, then energy and finally inclination to attempt in April.Glen Garioch VC

Jane was, suitably, the first face I glimpsed as I entered the visitor centre. The locus of so much surprising joy, I was yet again astonished by how familiar it all was, right down to the paper map of Scotland on the wall, on which I had traced for Fiona and Jane the destinations my tour had still to reach.

From what I could gather, the pre-tour video had been updated. Now there were ample close-ups of the repackaged range interspersed with segments illustrating Glen Garioch’s history and production methods. On the way out of the door to begin our observations of these processes first-hand, Fiona appeared. She was forthcoming, not with a hand to shake, but with open arms. Such is Fiona’s gregarious personality, but also impressive tact: a hug on the occasion of my last visit would not have been at all pleasant.

We left the sustaining glow of the casements of whisky in the visitor centre with Jane as our guide. She turned to me as our little group was ruffled by a blast of Aberdeenshire air, laden with rain drops. “We’re blaming this on James,” she said. “That’s only fair,” I replied.

Whereas previously I had been shepherded across the courtyard and the road to the maltings, Jane had an alternative destination for our party. In the renovated Exciseman’s hut – The Wee Bothy – we were welcomed to Glen Garioch in style, with a nip of the Clearac.

My parents in the charming Wee Bothy, formerly the exciseman's hut. An evil lair converted into a merrier space.

My parents in the charming Wee Bothy, formerly the exciseman's hut. An evil lair converted into a merrier space.

Having been informed that spirit yields at the distillery were pleasing everyone, the distillate pouring through the safe in greater quantities and at a higher strength, Jane produced a bottle of colourless liquid and poured a measure into nosing glasses. I have been fortunate enough over my travels to taste the new make of a number of distilleries and a wander round a still room will introduce every tourist to its distinctive aroma. The Glen Garioch stuff is delicious, though. The fragrance was typical of unaged malt whisky: sweet, fruity and with plenty of squeaky, rounded intensity. Stewed apples and strawberries could be distinguished from this: suggesting themselves from the richness and fullness of the drink’s body and its raw sharpness. On the palate the barley sugar grist is evident. It is very clean and yet mouthcoating, clinging to the tongue and gums with a green apple flavour and despite its strength of 72.5% abv, it didn’t blow your head off. With more aeration, Hobnob biscuit notes emerged on the nose.

The maltings, our next point of interest, appeared a great deal warmer following our dose of new make. They have been mothballed since 1993, when the last batch of Glen Garioch-made malt was shovelled off the kiln floor. After Suntory’s take over, and a tense time for the future of the distillery, the company elected to preserve, re-invest and raise the fortunes of Glen Garcioh. The maltings were cleaned up, and for six weeks in 1999 they operated again to check that all of the machinery still worked properly. It did, so there shall continue be rumours that the malting process could once more take place on-site. There is no small amount of experience as to how it is done within the Morrison Bowmore group, either: Bowmore distillery malts its own, and indeed some of the staff were off to Islay the day after my visit for a change of scene.Glen Garioch Maltings

Our smaller tour group made it easier for Jane to reveal some of Glen Garioch’s nooks and crannies. The first of these was the kiln itself. We were allowed through a low door on one side of the kiln fire and could take in the sooty darkness of the construction, the fine mesh floor and the ventilation fan just visible.

We climbed a highly vertiginous wrought-iron spiral staircase and peeked at the mill, the malt bins and the kiln floor. It was a real privilege to see behind the scenes at a malt whisky distillery, because when its original features are preserved, as they are at Glen Garioch, it is a glimpse back in time.

The mash house and tun room were familiar, as was the little white clothes rack behind the Spirit Still. I pointed this out to my parents, and Jane recounted for the benefit of the other people with us how these stills had performed as a life-saving laundry facility in addition to operating solely for the production of the water of life.

Jane and I reunited in my most unexpected launderette.

Jane and I reunited in my most unexpected launderette.

By now the wind and rain were a little more assertive, and our walk to the warehouse made us glad of its quiet stillness. This was what I had been especially looking forward to, and the sweet mustiness – a combination of earth and exhaling oak – was a glorious re-induction to the realm of the angels. Following its closure in 1995, the warehouses were emptied and two years later, when Suntory decided to open it again, they were deemed unsafe. Three years of upgrade work, and casks could be matured at Glen Garioch again in 2000. Butts, barrels and hogsheads fell away into the fecund shadows, and I doubt I stopped smiling. Glen Grant and Longmorn casks were prevalent outsiders. Five casks from Yamazaki were very foreign indeed. These became visible as we made for the staircase down to the lower warehouse and their reasons for being in Aberdeenshire and not Japan was explained to us. Head office are curious as to what influence locality of maturation has on the final spirit. To that end, Suntory have gone further than experimenting between indigenous and central warehouses in the East and has taken eighteen casks from 2006 to Scotland, distributed between Auchentoshan, Bowmore and Glen Garioch. I would be fascinated to taste the results. Whether there is a conclusive difference only time will tell.

Yamazaki Casks

The final tasting back at the VC was appreciatively thorough. The core range of the Founder’s Reserve (buttery, sweet, malty, clean and fruity) and the new 12-year-old (more citrussy, softer and deeper) were explored first, followed by a measure of the new 1991 Small Batch Release (£65) which had been launched in June. At cask strength, this was dusty and rich on the nose, giving way to more phenolic notes (wood smoke and coal dust-esque and industrial) with water. Dry and warm with firm maltiness on the palate with pungent, spicy peatiness continuing into the finish. I wonder how close my 1990′s profile matches this. I was glad to see it emerge from the back room, all stocks having sold out at the distillery. It had been a wise move to set one aside.

After wishing my favourite ladies all the very best, we departed in the by then seriously heavy rain. As we glided away from Oldmeldrum, conditions now identical to those of the return leg to Huntly on April 23, I looked upon my souvenir of that day and the subsequent weeks made possible by Jane and Fiona’s humour and encouragement, sat in the footwell. It will be a wonderful reminder of those forty-one incredible and challenging days, but it shall also remind me of the return visit which I’m delighted and amazed to assert had an equally powerful, lasting effect on me.

L-R: Fiona, myself and Jane, plus my 70 centilitres of drama, revelation and triumph. It was extraordinary to reflect on my undertaking with the comfort of dry clothes.

L-R: Fiona, myself and Jane, plus my 70 centilitres of drama, revelation and triumph. It was extraordinary to reflect on my undertaking with the comfort of dry clothes.

The Glen Garioch VIP Tour: £20; 90 minutes (approx.) duration


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Glen Garioch

As I have asserted in a number of other posts, it was piddling it down when I visited. Consequently, I took my photos from the door of the VC. The gable end you see is for the still house, where my laundry was drying at the time.

As I have asserted in a number of other posts, it was piddling it down when I visited. Consequently, I took my photos from the door of the VC. The gable end you see is for the still house, where my laundry was drying at the time.

Oldmeldrum, Inverurie, Aberdeenshire, AB51 0ES, 01651 873450. Morrison Bowmore (Suntory).

APPEARANCE AND LOCATION:      ***      This area of Aberdeenshire is rural and rugged, despite being mostly flat. It feels a little wilder. The distillery is very much in the outer suburbs of the town, with a very busy main road at the top of the lane to the distillery. The buildings are lovely, however, even when wet which is rarely said about architecture anywhere near a damp Aberdeen.


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

‘VIP Tour’: £22. The distillery manager takes you round on this tour. It is a more in-depth experience again, lasting about 2 hours. You go into the warehouses and taste four whiskies from the Morrison Bowmore stable, including output from Bowmore and Auchentoshan distilleries.


My Tour – 23/04/2010



Notes:      I got a good look up inside the kiln and around the maltings, which it is rumoured may start up again. They haven’t been converted into anything else, unlike the old cooperage which is now the superb VC. However, the way Fiona described the place of traditional maltings in the modern whisky industry – how with the consistency of commercial maltsters the industry as a whole is now producing consistently better whisky – I don’t think the staff believe this re-instatement is an imminent one. They have had problems with water, and hedge their bets with two sources. There are three stills in the still room, but only two make whisky and dry soaked cycling gear.

GENEROSITY:      (1 dram)


SCORE:      5/10 *s

COMMENT:      A fairly standard 5/10 stars, so why would I recommend everyone to go, and why, if I manage to finish this journey, will I mark the achievement with a bottle of the 1990 vintage? The people, is the simple answer. Jane and Fiona lifted my spirits to untold heights: seriously impressive considering my hellish experiences in the rain and muck on the A96, one of the busiest roads in the Highlands. Their humour and hospitality are two things I shall never forget, and thinking of their enthusiasm for my trip was what ensured I made it back to Huntly. It is a nice whisky, though: dry, cerealy, but with toffee richness. The tour is equally good. You take a peak in the maltings and there is a very thorough explanation of why they are no longer used. You also get to look into the kiln from the grate where all that peat would have gone. The Visitor’s Centre is top class, also; they converted it from the old cooperage. Jane: that was a lovely cup of tea; and Fiona: you get that gold star. Thank you.

The kiln above the maltings. Will it come to life again and supply the peatier Glen Garioch malt of old?

The kiln above the maltings. Will it come to life again and supply the peatier Glen Garioch malt of old?

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Fit For The Glens: 1 week to go…


This is the only sonic accompaniment available for my sensations over the weekend and this morning: something unfocused, apathetic but deeply-felt and significant. Over the last 18 months I haven’t suffered many colds, but whenever my immune system has no longer been able to turn away the viral assaults, the colds I have developed have been aggressive and vindictive. So it has been with this one, swift to mutate from sore throat on Saturday evening to the kind of sinus headaches on Sunday that suggest your skull is no more resilient than one of those flour-filled balloons as your face is systematically distorted, Hall of Mirrors-style, by waves of crushing pain, to tissue consumption on an Amazon-threatening level. Work was even more agonising than a Bank Holiday weekend has any right to be. I was supposed to complete 50 miles today. I think to have attempted this total would have been deeply foolish. 

So once again my training plan has been blighted. In truth, I’m philosophical about it all. Yes, there is now less than seven whole days remaining until I depart (this returning realisation upon waking up this morning created quite a tableau of panic) but I have more than 450 miles of training under my belt: at this stage, a rest is just as beneficial. I may not have the opportunity to simulate 55 miles-plus in a day before I go, but what would such an exercise really tell me? I’m going ahead with this, and that is the only fact worth considering. I cannot hope to approximate the topography in any case, and why would I want to take away from discovering how I deal with physical and logistical adversity when it arises? There is a limit to preparation, as much a spiritual one as that which concerns my fitness. Challenge and the unknown is partly why I am doing this at all, I trust adrenaline and excitement to carry me through, and cannot wait to remark upon the shift in mentality inevitable when I am finally immersed in the environment. In my more directionless day-dreams, an image or an emotion will break into my thoughts presaging my journey. These out-of-body experiences (for they have this flavour about them) have been growing more frequent as the start date approaches and I’m interpreting them as positive visitations. As I pass through my remaining days, I’m gaining a sense of the underlying determination and anticipation, built up over the last nine months during which I have extended all reading on the subject to contemplations of what it might feel to be in the distillery described or viewing a particular process at work. I’m beginning to discern the shape of my own will to adapt to the beautiful isolation, extremes of fatigue and weather, and to enjoy that delicious whisky in its own front room. I accept that I will be shaken, but I’m convinced that I shan’t be made to waver, to turn back instead of carry on.

Friday’s quota of 44 miles was a step in the right direction, although the exertion may have hastened the onset of the cold. With a whole day, tonnes of shortbread and regular tea stops, I see no cause to doubt that I can conquer that 61-mile day and the other six instances where I have to ride beyond 50 miles between beds.

Wednesday’s ride was only of 18 miles duration, but it taught me much: chiefly just how much of a bugger rain is. At the beginning of last week, essentially just after I returned from Edinburgh, the UK had been held, thrashing, under deluges of water and yet more snow. Flooding wasn’t so severe in Northumberland for all the rivers swelled and roads in places were submerged from verge to verge. Landslides north of Berwick, however, closed the East Coast mainline up to Edinburgh. This was all far too dramatic. Half-way through my ride, then, the heavens opened. Meaningfully. Hood on, overtrousers slick with wet, I went through two pairs of gloves. Once home, I began to appreciate just how much clothing needs to be hung out to dry after such treatment and how that just won’t be possible once I get to a distillery, should it have rained on the way. Wet things will have to be stuffed in panniers then, once the tour has ended, put back on again all cold and damp. This will not be pleasant but what choice will I have? When I realised that it wasn’t the rain which had saturated my leg warmers (it was rather the sweat which had condensed on the inside of the overtrousers), I saw how I was to remedy the situation in future. It was clear that if temperatures demand extra thermal layers, then I would need more than one set, and ditto for the gloves. Ohterwise, without dry things to change into after a stoppage, I would not only be uncomfortable but jeopardising my health.

Yet more things to buy, then. On the Thursday I rode to the bike shop, principally to have the bike checked out but now also to make a few more purchases. Despite the masses of other customers who had descended ahead of the Easter weekend, the machine was speedily given the all-clear after a few tweaks and tightenings. Memories of Mark Beaumont’s equipment ordeals during his frankly astonishing journey across the Americas had planted the seed of doubt in my mind about just how lucky I was going to be. Whilst I wouldn’t be taking my machine beyond the mileage warranty, punctures can happen after any distance and so I wanted some insurance and knowledge if the broken glass, screws and other hazardously sharp objects of Edinburgh’s cycle lanes were anything to go by. I was given a puncture repair kit and some advice: “Best to take with you two inner tubes. Between them and the repair kit you should be OK for eight punctures.” I had to confess that I’d never attended to an inner tube replacement in my life and not liking the idea of hurtling up, but most particluarly down, the Highlands on tyres I’d glued myself, I asked for a tutorial. I’m going in again tomorrow for a crash course in tyre changes.

On the subject of expenses, it turns out my forecasts for amassing the cash for my budget were rooted in fantasy. After having bought all of the equipment, maps and tickets; in short, accounted for all of the preliminary outlay, I now had to go back through my files and total up what will be required of me once in Scotland. This sum came to £960. A quick check of my statements, money under the mattress and projected earnings for the last fortnight prior to leaving left me a fiver short of that. And there is still the £600 food/repair budget to find. £500 can be put on the credit card and my parents have promised to help but I cannot figure out where I’ve squandered £600. It’s baffling and depressing in equal measure. I’ll work something out, though.

I’m to be in the Northumberland Gazette this week. After I was reassured that I was not irremediably crocked, I dropped by their offices and spoke to a reporter about my plans. She expressed an interest. “Why are you doing this, for charity?” “Nope, I’m just selfish and like whisky.” A photographer came round last week and snapped me, the bike and a bottle of Bowmore Legend in the downpour. I wonder how authentic a representation of my travels it will turn out to be.

This is the first whisky I have ever bought a second bottle of and it's just marvellous. Just how well will my Orkney experiences measure up to the workings of my imagination?

This is the first whisky I have ever bought a second bottle of and it's just marvellous. Just how well will my Orkney experiences measure up to the workings of my imagination?

Highland Park 12-year-old 40% (See ‘Most Hotly-Awaited’)

Colour: Rich dark honey with amber highlights.

Nose: (FS) Impossibly complex, textured spicy sweetness. Like burning candied heather. Saltiness provides much of the firm freshness. Very rich, round and earthy malt, almost with a syrupy intensity. Deep and rich with spicy, nutty Sherry. (WW) Sweeter and lighter. So much runny heather honey. Thick but soft peatiness. Excellent floral notes. Smooth toffeed maltiness. Remarkable richness and balance.

Palate: Soft, rounded rich malt with very firm earthy peat and lots of sweet honey. So heathery with the richest, darkest fruitcake flavours. Touches of dark chocolate.

Finish: Warming, peaty and with lovely richness. Creamy and slightly citrusy. Fades into subtler and even more satisfying flavours. Firm biscuity cereal with peated husks. Sweet crisp spice and drying.

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