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Talisker at the Quaich Society

The five Taliskers on show recently at the Quaich Society.

With twenty-eight distilleries to cherry-pick from, it was perhaps a surprise that David Sinclair of drinks industry giant Diageo arrived in St Andrews with the product of only one of their distilleries. Then again, given Diageo’s recent investment in single malt brands – most notably regarding their Speyside dark horse, Mortlach – the decision to showcase all that is new and interesting in the world of Talisker was understandable.

Back when I first succumbed to whisky’s compulsive charms the extent of the Talsiker ‘core’ range was the iconic 10yo, the devilishly hard-to-find but stunning 18yo and the Amoroso-finished Distiller’s Edition. However, over the last twelve months we have seen a feisty no-age statement Storm, it’s brooding cousin Dark Storm and even a Port-finished offering, the punningly-named Port Ruighe (the Gaelic name for the capital town of the Hebridean island of Skye, where Talisker is made). David – somehow or other – managed to procure two bottles of the 2009 30yo release as well, so it wasn’t just a blooding of the youngsters.

Talisker’s production process is, quite rightly, the place to start when appraising any of the whiskies from this cult distillery. Today using medium-peated barley from the Glen Ord maltings, once upon a time Talisker was triple-distilled; indeed, the still house still boasts the extra copper which would have been used to further refine the spirit back in the old days. These stills are unusual in themselves, with purifiers in the wash stills connecting the u-bend lyne arms back to the body of the stills. All condensation takes place in worm tubs. Basically, this is complex distillation, building in weight and power to the spirit.

There can be no better demonstration of this than in the 10yo: idiosyncratically peppery, with a bit of savoury seaweed on the nose, the whisky has mellowed slightly with generous vanilla and spice from the oak casks used to mature it. This was the first time in years I’d tried the core expression and, to be honest, it wiped the floor with the next two interlopers.

Talisker Storm – or ‘drizzle’ as one wag I spoke to dubbed it – is supposed to be a more potent rendering of the house style, building in extra spice and peat with the use of heavily-charred, rejuvenated American oak casks. These impart no flavour from the liquid which was originally in the cask and allow the fresh oak to penetrate the spirit. I maintain that this is actually quite a soft, floral and mild Talisker by comparison with the 10yo and while not an unpleasant dram by any means, it cannot hide its blatant limitations of depth.

I have stated elsewhere that I am a big fan of Port-finished whiskies – in fact, last night I tearfully savoured the last of my BenRiach Solstice which I bought almost a year ago at the distillery. This is a symphony of dry, aggressive peat and thick hedgerow berry sweetness from the Port. I found the Talisker Port Ruighe disjointed and flat in contrast - the house style, after between three and six months in Port casks, had been consummately butchered, a suspicion only underlined whenever I returned to that bombastic 10yo.

David Sinclair talks us through the impressive 30yo.

This is not to say that Talisker and wine casks ought always to be kept well clear of each other; the Amoroso Sherry-retouched Distiller’s Edition is and to my mind always has been a delight. The peat and spice of the spirit meld with the drier elements of the wine while overall the effect is of fullness, sweetness and decadence, but in balance.

Our final whisky was a rare treat. I last sampled a 30yo Talisker at Edinburgh Whisky Blog’s Movember tasting – again courtesy of David. I described it as a lady’s boudoir extruded through the ashes of a peat fire. This one was marginally less sophisticated and surprising but still impressive. The nose offered a pronounced creaminess with some candied zest. Behind came a perfumed smokiness and tropical fruits with a growing spice and coconut character. A trace of cedar oil ramped up the aromatics. The palate, even at cask strength of 53.1%, was leathery and amazingly rounded. I detected almond milk, menthol and eucalyptus and a more overtly herbal finish with plenty of invigorating barley sugar. Excellent.

In the past it hasn’t always been possible to go ‘vertically’ through a Diageo distillery’s range. When there are three or four to choose from the latter drams are normally prohibitively expensive and elusive. To see Talisker in its many costumes was hugely instructive for me, and I know a number of others found the flavour bridge they’d been searching for between smoke-free and heavy peat whiskies. The Storm and Port Ruighe just didn’t do it for me, but I look forward to more experimentation with this powerful and versatile spirit. Hopefully David Sinclair will be able to come by again and curate them for us.

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Movember – Edinburgh Whisky Blog style

‘I expect Charles Maclean will be there,’ I thought to myself as I power-walked along a drizzly Princes Street in Edinburgh last week. Tiger from Edinburgh Whisky Blog had invited me to a whisky tasting in aid of Movember, a cause close to the blog’s heart with Hoban, Lucas, Turbo and Tiger sprouting a mo’ every November. We would be sampling the rarest and most outlandish bottles they could come by (legitimately) and the venue would be Ruffians Barbers. Whisky and expressive facial hair. Definitely Charlie Maclean territory.

The opening cocktail, courtesy of Solid Liquids.

 

I ducked into the uber-modern though somehow classic decor of Ruffians and grasped my bearings. I’ve passed the Barbers so often on the bus from St Andrews: it’s rich blue exterior promising relaxation and professionalism. What I hadn’t previosuly glimpsed from the X59 was Martin Duffy and Alan Fisher from Solid Liquids hand-carving stainless ice to deposit into giant glass tumblers, nor row upon row of stemmed blenders glasses receiving their measures of precious spirit. If I’m honest I hadn’t spotted Charles Maclean on the premises before, either, but there he was, lending a proprietorial air.

The Edinburgh Whisky boys arrived and the place gradually filled up. Martin pushed one of the tumblers into my hand: a Talisker 10yo infusion, ahed in a tiny oak barrel seasoned with Sherry to which charred pineapple syrup and bitters had been added, finished off with a candied grapefruit peel moustache. Almost simultaneously, I made the acquaintance of Ruffians owner, Ian Fallon. A charming chap, and I wish them luck with the opening of their London shop next month.

A kilted-Hoban and Tweed-bedecked Tiger opened proceedings. Chris explained why we were all there: to get behind the Movember initiative which raises awareness of the No. 1 and 2 most common male-specific cancers: prostate and testicular cancer. From humble beginnings in Australia, the charity has raised millions for research and publicity, aided by a platoon of global moustached-activists.

Tiger and Hoban spreading the word.

Back in Edinburgh, we lathered up with the whiskies, starting with a very special, historical whisky from Chris Hoban’s collection. In June last year, Chris and a select group of other bloggers (not yours truly, sadly) were invited up to Glenfiddich to ‘help’ Grant’s Master Blender, Brian Kinsman, recreate the Stand Fast blend as detailed in William Grant’s own ledger dated June 1912. As Chris pointed out, legislation has changed since Willie Grant’s time and they couldn’t use 2-year-old whisky in their blend but some sensitive nosing and lateral thinking – or maybe chucking a lot of whisky into a measuring cylinder and hoping for the best – resulted in Stand Fast. Never commercially released, Chris had donated his own bottle to delight the crowd. I found this a lovely blend: sharp barley, very rich, firm vanilla tones and a thick carpet of peat smoke.

Tiger admitted that, even with a single cask, he could not match the rarity of Chris’s Stand Fast. The sharp, malty and feisty Glenfarclas from the SMWS took they evening into a burlier direction, one only confirmed with the Sherry-soaked wonders of Karuizawa, Spirit of Asama. I had never experienced this cult Japanese single malt before but Hoban furnished us with a bit of background. Built in the 1950s, its owners wished to make a whisky as close to Scotch – and the Macallan especially – as possible. Small stills, floor maltings, everything about Karuizawa was designed to pile flavours on top of flavours. I liked it a lot.

We were well-stocked with thought-provoking whiskies.

To the final dram of the evening, officially at least, and it was one to put hairs on the chest if not the upper lip. David Sinclair of Diageo bestowed a bottle of Talisker 30yo, for which I for one was deeply grateful. A Special Release from a couple of years back, this was Talisker extruded through a Viscountess’s drawing room: time in cask had added layers of exotic dried fruit, a delicate waxiness and polished oak. The smoky side had relaxed into yesterday’s Russian caravan tea. Just exquisite.

The £10 entry fee had garnered each attendee some Raffle tickets and the prizes had been winking at us all night like quiz machines with an improbably high jackpot. These comprised the contents of EWB’s drinks cabinets: everything from duty free Balblair, Glenfarclas for the Belgian market, new Glenfiddichs and many more whiskies you just can’t find down at your local Tesco. Unfortunately I had to leave for a train, but I’m confident the money rolled in with bountiful donations and big smiles. No one does a charity whisky tasting quite like Edinburgh Whisky Blog. Many thanks to the guys for inviting me, and I wish them luck with their personal sponsorship drives – and the resulting taches.

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Diageo on the Beach (at the Quaich Society)

Diageo at the Quaich Society

The Quaich Society here in St Andrews has acquired a considerable quantity of momentum so far this term. A number of factors put paid to the final portion of last term’s itinerary but so far in 2011 the drams and learned conversation have been liberally flowing. This Thursday (the 10th), Diageo came to town, and I could not miss my chance to appraise how the world’s largest drinks producer goes about conducting tastings. As it happened, they are rather good indeed.

There could have been no more appropriate ambassador to address a bunch of students than a man who looked as if he had only just graduated himself. Duncan opened his talk with an allusion to just this happy circumstance, promising that he was relishing the change in demographic our forty-or-so strong crowd presented.Duncan McRae

With his six key points of discussion, and a special al fresco stunt planned for us at the end of the evening, Duncan’s task was a hefty one. Constraints of time are rarely too strictly observed at the Quaich Society, however, and we lapped up all of the information Duncan put before us. And the prevailing bias of the tasting was just that: information. The only thing ‘hard-sell’ about Duncan was his sincere love for his job and Scotch whisky, and putting the free Talisker scarves and ‘rocking glass’ to one side, gimmickry was notable by its absence. He expressed his personal views on such matters as terroir and centralised warehousing, basing many of his statements on the science of distilling, in addition to the simple realities of economics.

To those six factors, therefore: facets of the Scotch whisky product Duncan felt it most necessary to know. He accompanied each individual whisky with a spiel relating whichever of these categories that whisky could most interestingly illustrate, the first of which was Glenkinchie. Now this little Lowlander receives a fair amount of flak from some quarters, but I happen to be a fan of its sweet, dry, herbal characteristics. On this occasion I found more of the tight spiritiness of younger whisky with a great deal of vanilla and ginger cookie dough. Duncan partnered this with the distillery’s history. When the phylloxera virus decimated Cognac in the 1800s, two Edinburgh businessmen saw an opportunity to supply drinkers south of the border with spirit. However, it had to be different from their past encounters with the potent, heavy qualities of Highland Scotches. Sited close to rail links and raw materials for efficient production and access to market, Glenkinchie today continues to provide much of the freshness and zip in blends such as Johnnie Walker.

DiageoWe covered Dalwhinnie next, a preferred dram of mine in the right circumstances. Creamy and peachy with honey and smoke, the flavours did not disappoint or surprise. Duncan illuminated the story of Dalwhinnie with a word on the journey required to reach it. ‘You know when you head north of Pitlochry on the A9, when everything starts to look as if you’re in Mordor? That’s Dalwhinnie.’ Meaning ‘meeting place’, I can empathise with Duncan’s description. Unfortunately this was from the comfort of a car instead of a bike but that is what the next Odyssey is for…

Dram no. 3 was introduced in a highly novel fashion: ‘OK, who has beef with the Singleton of Dufftown?’ Hands shot up. Duncan’s explanation of why Diageo markets three different malts in three different territories in exactly the same style went some way to pacifying the dissenters in the room. Glendullan for the States, Glen Ord for Asia and Dufftown for the UK and Europe are each intended to occupy a given location on the Flavour Map, which was also wheeled out a couple of times during the evening, hence the identical labelling. Duncan conceded that, as a trio, they did not garner the greatest critical acclaim. However, he then dropped in the little nugget that the Singleton was the fastest growing whisky and in the world. Fair enough – Diageo don’t stay where they are at the top of the tree by refusing to give the general drinker, and in this case new drinkers, what they want.

With a word on maturation regimes for the Singletons (almost exclusive Sherry maturation) we arrived at the ‘big boy whiskies’. Duncan’s passion for Talisker and his eloquence on the subject of whisky generally was extremely powerful. ‘Why is whisky favoured around the world? Why is it romanticised in the way that maybe vodka isn’t? Why, when you type Talisker into Google do you come up with endless pictures of dogs?’ We awaited his answer, and – for me – it was the right one. ‘Because of the place.’ Talisker, as I have said before, is the most awesomely-situated distillery in Scotland. Duncan endeavoured to explain how Skye and malt whisky had the power to conspire and embed sensory sensitivity in the overcome visitor. How the locality and force behind the whisky could return to you, when you least expected it, over a Talisker anywhere in the world. That was what the tumblers and scarves were for. Duncan intended to lead us down to the beach, pour out some 57 North and let the magic happen.

Caol Ila and Lagavulin were somewhat hastily guzzled in anticipation of this jaunt – unique in my experience at the Quaich Society. Whilst to describe Lagavulin is superfluous by now (I am deeply saddened that my 20cl bottle is nearly dry), my encounter with the Caol Ila 12yo after what must be nearly two years of hiatus was keenly savoured. When I first entered the room I must confess I had been rather rude to my companions as I slumped on the table with my nose dipped, immovable, in the glass. It is such a magnificent aroma, such a majestic house style: so sweet, fresh, clean, oily and smoky. When Duncan told me that they had recently launched the Caol Ila Moch, I took note. An exclusive for the Friends of the Classic Malts, Moch is non-age statemented, vatting together 8-15 year-old Caol Ila for a medley of qualities. Money, where are you?Diageo

After satisfying his raffle-drawing duties, Duncan marched those of us intrepid enough and devoted enough to Talisker to brave the ferocious wind and cold to the shoreline. In the dark, the cask strength hooch flowed into waiting tumblers. Beneath the stars, we warmed ourselves on malty lava from the Isle of Skye. Unfortunately, I was left somewhat cold by the 57 North. It could have been the temperature, it could have been the lack of water to cut the spirit, but I found it too one-dimensional with a rigid dark oak note which strangled the body of the whisky. Rather than that irresistable Talisker peat fire burn which builds and builds, the whole thing just tasted slightly burnt – like salted caramel left on too high a heat.

Though the whisky was not to my taste, it was a highly innovative idea on Duncan’s part – not something he could have done in Manchester or Leeds, for example. The stars and my fellow Quaich Sockers were magnificent company at any rate.

I think this picture adequately demonstrates our gratitude to Duncan, and the Quiach Society committee, for laying on another fabulous evening.

Raising a toast with Talisker.

Raising a toast with Talisker.

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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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Talisker

 

You can just see the smokestack and the white buildings. That's Talisker.

You can just see the smokestack and the white buildings. That's Talisker.

Carbost, Isle of Skye, Inverness-shire, IV47 8SR, 01478 614308. Diageo. http://www.discovering-distilleries.com/talisker/

APPEARANCE AND LOCATION:      *****      I’ve said it before, but this is the ultimate place to put a distillery. That famous shot which is in lots of whisky books shows the loch, the hills and then the Cuillins behind with the distillery tucked into the middle ground. From the distillery itself, you cannot see the set of Medieval surgical appliances which class as moutains, but on the road to Talisker they cannot be missed. Be prepared to stop, because it is safer doing that than ploughing on into oncoming vehicles because you have forgotten you are in charge of a car.

Talisker

TOURS PROVIDED:

‘Talisker Distillery Tour’: £6. See ‘My Tour’ below. Children between 8 and 17 gain entrance for £3.

Talisker Tasting Tour’: £20. Lasting 2 hours, this is a more in-depth Talisker experience with access to areas which are normally “off-limits”, a taste of five different Taliskers and a free nosing glass to take away with you. The man I met on the tour at Benromach had been on this one and thoroughly recommended it. If you think what five Taliskers means: that’s the 10YO and 18YO at least from the standard range, and he said he received the 57N, the 25YO and the 30YO. You would, wouldn’t you? Phone up the distillery to book, and make certain of which days they are offering this experience.

DISTILLERY-EXCLUSIVE BOTTLINGS:      N/A

My Tour – 07/05/2010

THE RUNNING COMMENTARY:      **

THE PROCESS AND EQUIPMENT:      **

Notes:      We were told as we bought our tickets that there was a chance we might not see the stillroom due to mainenance taking place. As it was, we did see the still room, and they are quite magnificent. All of the ornamentation is on the wash stills: the boil-ball ad the U-shaped lyne arm. The spirit stills are squat and plain by comparison. As we entered the warehouses one of the German motorcyclists turned to me, smiled and went “Mmmm.” I took this to mean that he liked the smell and whilst it was, indeed, divine, I could detect no seaweed or spicy, smoky sweetness. Obviously that isn’t how things work for peated whiskies. We were behind a a sealed viewing window, so that might have filtered out the local maritime air, but Michael, our guide, insisted that the “salty, seaweedy air” was being sucked into the cask to replace the volume lost in alcohol and water. The oldest cask was from 1979, and Michael gave the very exact estimate of how much of the cask’s original volume they expect to find in it: only 38%. Just over a third full. That is why your older whiskies cost so much. Casks are used as many as three times, and must be filled with grain spirit before they house Talisker. The malt used to be triple distilled, but it isn’t now.

GENEROSITY:        (1 dram)

VALUE FOR MONEY:      *

SCORE:      5/10 *s

COMMENT:      A good tour, don’t get me wrong, but not a sparkling one. Michael knew his stuff and more besides, but there wasn’t a great deal more to see than you could find in Diageo distilleries closer to home. The views as you walked around the site of the ever-improving day, however, were singularly wonderful. The trademark smell of Talisker was subtle thoughout the production areas, and I got a stronger whiff of peat from the Benromach mash tun than this one. It was covered, though. The smell outside as I locked up the bike was gorgeous: super sweet and creamy. As I say, I would have loved to have raved about how the sea and the seaweed had permeated the warehouse atmosphere, but I just couldn’t detect anything beyond old stone and wood. A bone to pick, though: why don’t Diageo have a universal glass that they use? Some of their distilleries use the Glencairn, some an oddly shaped stylised Sherry glass. Well at Talisker do you know what they give you in which to savour one of the best 10YOs in the world? One of those appalling tumblers they give you in really rustic, cheap pubs. It’s like going to Chateau Neuf Du Pape and receiving one of their prime vintages in a Styrofoam cup. Why do it?!

On the other side of the hill to Carbost and Talisker, this is the phantasmagoric panorama that awaits to ensnare you.

On the other side of the hill to Carbost and Talisker, this is the phantasmagoric panorama that awaits to ensnare you.

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John o’Groats to Skye

John o’Groats to Kirkwall, 27 miles

It is an early-ish start to be sure of catching the first ferry of the day, the 9 o’clock. The weather is as forecast: grey and rather damp. When I actually get out in it, though, it hardly detracts from the beauty of the place, merely renders it in a different palette.

There is some confusion with the ticket-buying. I thought you could simply saunter on and pay your fare but No, the man in the quite hideously tacky waiting shack tells me, You have to buy them from the ferry office. £28 for a green piece of paper which will bring me back again. I don’t have a great deal of choice as t0 when precisely that will be, however. I can catch the 9.45AM crossing back to the mianland, or the 5PM. Those are off-season ferry services in the north of Scotland for you.

Compared with the CalMac jobbies I'd be catching later on, this still had the feel of a community project: local, and an important link for the residents, for all I didn't hear a single Scottish accent on the boat besides the crew, but there you are.

Compared with the CalMac jobbies I'd be catching later on, this still had the feel of a community project: local, and an important link for the residents, for all I didn't hear a single Scottish accent on the boat besides the crew, but there you are.

The crossing is fairly popular, but I only spot two other people even vaguely close to my own age. The remaining passengers are all Australian, their tans quite incongruous in this murk and tepid conditions. There are buses waiting to take them to Kirkwall from the ferry terminal in Burwick. I have to get myself there.

Once everyone else has done the decent thing and buggered off, the only sounds are the winds and the skylarks. It’s captivating. Very quickly it’s wet, too. It doesn’t pour down, but it is a breed of mist that gets you just as soaking. I will encounter it the next day, and a couple more times on the West Coast.

It isn’t until I see a sign for St Margaret’s Hope that I realise that I must have got off the ferry somewhere else. And I’ve already gone 6 miles. It seems the Gill’s Bay vehicle ferry gets in at St Margaret’s Hope; the John o’Groats pedestrian ferry pulls in to Burwick. This upsets me, because all of my mileage forecasts for my Orkney stages have just been flushed down the toilet. This means that it is 20 miles from my hostel to the ferry. If I want to catch this first ferry tomorrow I shan’t be able to dawdle.

I’m desperately disappointed that I can’t see more of the islands I’m passing through. The mist restricts my viewing to the point where I cannot see any coast at all and wouldn’t know I was on an island unless I really thought about the likely provenance of the mist in the first place. There is a gradual reprieve, however, as I island-hop using the neat little causeways which warn of wave action and high winds and that drivers cross at their own risk. Again, the cyclist and his concerns is not mentioned. The clouds lift in parts, and I see golden sands, aquamarine bays and purply-brown hills rising out of the sea on the horizon. It is spine-tingling.

It might not look it, but I was happy to be there.

It might not look it, but I was happy to be there.

What idiot said Orkney is flat? I’m sure a couple of people made such a hopelessly false claim during the earlier part of my trip. It isn’t flat, and I have proof: latterly, all of the road signs, which I could just read despite the sweat in my eyes, warned of “blind summits”. To have a summit implies synclines and anticlines: up and down. Being an island, when you got up one hill you had the opportunity to career down the next, but unfortunately the flat section preceeding your next slog of a hill was just long enough to sap all momentum gained from your descent. The arduous, exhausting nature of the terrain was worsened by a really strong sun blasting away some of the clouds between it and me, and turning to vapour the deposits of water on the road and vegetation. It was like sauna on the approach to Kirkwall and when I finally arrived at Highland Park, it rained again. With all my wet weather gear on, body temperature soars. Therefore, I’m soaked by my own fluids instead of those coming from the heavans. When you stop, those dripping garments you couldn’t find a radiator for cool very quickly and walking around cold, wet stone buildings with these on is a further challenge to the initial effort and overheating of actually battling the elements on the bike.

After a late, and enormous, lunch, I peaked into a few windows on the Kirkwall highstreet, reflected that the whole place felt rather similar to most important Scottish towns I’d been in and that it hadn’t really what I had anticipated to find as befits an “island feel”. It is telling that those living in the Orkneys refer to the bit with Kirkwall on it as “the mainland”. With its Lidl, Tesco and Co-op, all on the one street, you can see what they mean.

I find the hostel with its supreme view of Highland Park on top of the facing hill. It has the air (the hostel, that is) of a WWII bunker. It was clean and warm inside, though, and populated by few others. I shared with Michael, a giant, spindly Lancastrian who had just done a tour of Shetland and told me horror stories of the austerity to be found in some of the more basic accommodation options available on those even more remote islands. he was such a nice and interesting chap, though, and we talked about tourinf cyclist things: clothing, other road users, equipment trails; and also other things: the perception of exercise, ambition and some other very profound topics. 

Heart-stopping, majesterial Orkney; even in the rubbish weather.

Heart-stopping, majesterial Orkney; even in the rubbish weather.

***

Kirwall to Wick, 39 miles

I had the time of 9.30 in my head as when I really needed to be in Burwick. I wanted to give myself two hours to cover the 20 miles, nice and easy. That meant leaving at 7.30. ‘Oh, if I set my alarm for 6.30 that should be plenty of time.’ I don’t know how, or where the time went when I was preparing to depart in the mornings, but one hour was not long enough for all the little tasks that had to be completed and checked. It was 7.50 when I eventually bounced out of the hostel. An hour and forty minutes to do 20 miles. Now I’m stressed. The thick mist was back and so I would not be spurred on by Orkney in her finery, either.

The hills, obviously in reverse for this leg, were even more infuriating on this run. I had my knee warmers and skull cap on: the over trousers and hood would have made me too hot and sacrificed speed. I didn’t notice the billions of little water droplets sticking to my bare calves and shins on the way up hills, but I couldn’t, after 10 miles or so, ignore the sensation of cold after a long descent. I kept having to towel them off, shocked by the degree to which numbness had set in without my noticing. Whenever I looked down to check my speed or grap a bidon, water cascaded off my helmet into my groin. Incredibly, I kept forgetting that head movement bore this result.

I sped through Burray after a few more causeways (which, at least, were flat) and stopped at a public loo. In here I held my skull cap under the hand-dryer and this blow-dry worked a treat.

There is a bus service which takes passengers from the ferry to Kirkwall, and it operates in the other direction, too. Of course, having a bike gives you limitless freedom on these inter-connected islands.

There is a bus service which takes passengers from the ferry to Kirkwall, and it operates in the other direction, too. Of course, having a bike gives you limitless freedom on these inter-connected islands.

Another causeway negotiated, I rasped past St Margaret’s Hope. Looking back on my time trial, it seemed to go very quickly indeed. However, as I began to recognise roads and houses from the beginnings of my ride on Orkney the day before, the miles seemed to pass more slowly than ever. A bus roared past me, bound for the port. I had time, obviously, and after a few more turns I could even see the ferry terminal. I could not believe I was home and dry, though (a figure of speech only), and was still pushing it at 20 mph into the car park. One of the bus drivers said that the ferry wasn’t in yet, that I had about fifteen minutes to wait. I’d done it. I’d covered what turned into 21 miles in under an hour and a half. I was paying for it, though. I felt sick and wheezy, and suddenly very cold. I hadn’t had time to eat on the way so was essentially empty. All of my clothing was either wet with mist or wet with me. The waiting room was colder than outside, but there was a radiator which I switched on and, disobeying its instructions, put my gloves on top of it. I then stripped semi-naked to get off my jersey, socks and base layer, which amused a fellow passenger. I donned all my dry clothes and waited for the next shipment of tourists to shuffle on to this magical island which had tested me in ways I had not expected it to.

On the ferry I commandeered all of the three radiators on board. This act arguably saved me, for while my jersey wasn’t entirely dry by John o’Groats, I would have been in serious trouble had I now other option than to stuff it in a pannier.

I had a cup of tea in John o’Groats and watched with a degree of loathing as people photographed themselves by the marker post. I can’t help but feel that it is for all those who set out from Lands End, either on foot, by bike, by unicycle, whatever: what does it mean to those who got in their car and got here. What have they achieved. I was an angry young man at this point, because I took offence at the busloads of OAPs, buses which I had been traumatised by for the last week and whose occupants would simply get off the coach, wander around for fifteen mintes, have a cup of tea, use the loo, get back on the coach and head off somewhere else. This way of spending your time made me irrationally furious.

I delighted in taking things as easily as possible for the first half of my ride back to Wick. Even the return of the mist/rain wasn’t too severe an issue. However, just as I was due to rejoin the main road south into Wick, the rain decided it wasn’t going to mess around anymore. It was that fine, heavy rain that drenches you within seconds, yet seems to take longer to moisten the tarmac. Well, soon enough that too was awash. Arriving back at Netherby B&B (stay there, if you are ever up in the area. Alison is one of the nicest ladies you could ever have the good fortune to meet, particularly if you are approaching a laundry crisis), I have got out of swimming pools in a drier state. I wrenched everything off and simply walked  into the shower.

***

Wick to Ard Dorch, 17 miles

I may not have cycled a great deal on this particular day, but somehow I ended up in a different world again. I had to be up by 4.40AM to give myself time to get everything together and eat breakfast. Alison, saint that she is, made me a cooked breakfast at 5.30 in the morning!

The 6.20AM from Wick to Dingwall is a quiet service. Rain fell thinly as I cycled to the station and persisted until we headed in-land. Dingwall was the seventeenth stop on the route before Inverness.

It was only slightly dispiriting taking only four hours to return to a town that I had left via pedal power almost a week ago but there you are. Having passed in front of my youth hostel at Carbisdale and been confronted again by the white, steaming facade of Clynelish (it was open on that day) we also passed at high speed Balblair, Glenmorangie and Invergordon. I had just over an hour to buy some lunch (I’d had no food or water on the train from Wick) and await the train taking me to the west.

My first sight of Skye: a shock to find it so close to the mainland.

My first sight of Skye: a shock to find it so close to the mainland.

At 11.20 it duly pulled up and the amount of bikes and rucksacks squeezed on signalled quite clearly that I was going somewhere where a lot of people got red-faced and sweaty. I thought I’d fit in rather well. I had intended to update the notes on my progress which I tried to keep up with as little details simply vanished from my memory. Failing that, a sleep or some reading would be nice. The landscape was much too stunning to be ignored, however. Almost instantly after leaving Dingwall, the panorama altered. It looked vaguely Midi-Pyrenean in places, as it happened. Mountains swelled, then reared again, lochs formed, clouds spiralled and bulged. Everything became very dramatic indeed. But something wasn’t right. I felt guilty, and indeed very disrespectful, for travelling thus. During my first stage on the rails, I had wondered to what extent my taking a train was cheating. I talked myself round from that with the valid argument that I’m still touring, just by a different means, and that to have gone from Wick to the West by bike would have taken five days and cost maybe as much as £300 extra. My qualm on this train was how wrong it felt to so passively streak past these magnificent natural structures. I felt disconnected from the landscape for the first time. Hitherto, a mountain or a glen had taken as long as hours to materialise in front of me, and my suffering through and over them had been a valuable way of experiencing them, for the difficulty of each pedal stroke and the myriad atmospheric factors acting on me at any one time had given me unique insights into the landscape around me. I felt I knew it. Sealed in this clattering human tube, I felt as though I was instead showing contempt for my surroundings: these views were nothing more than a speed date, a visual goosing of beauty as opposed to considerately and progressively developing a relationship with it all. I got off the train in Kyle disorientated as a result, and not just because it was gloriously sunny and very warm.

How do you write a caption for that?!

How do you write a caption for that?!

After initially heading in the wrong direction for the road bridge, I changed on a footpath, shielded from the main road by a lot of gorse bushes. Then I went in search of Skye. I found it more or less instantly after breaking free of the blasted earth resulting from when they built the carriageway. I had to stop. I was speechless. I was moved. The view before me was of the sea between Skye and the mainland to the north of the bridge, with great chunks of rock rupturing out of a fast, choppy tide. The pictures I shall upload will not, cannot, put across the extraordinary beauty – a savage, allof beauty - and scale of Skye in the spring sunshine.

I continued onto the bridge and it is quite preposterously steep, especially with the winds as strong as they were. A bump, a sign in Gaelic and I’m on an island, apparently. There is only a tiny spit of sea between it and the mainland where the bridge is built, and so the construction of the latter was perhaps inevitable. However, it does rather take away the impact of arriving on an island. With Orkney, the act of catching a ferry conditioned the mind. The large roads of Skye with all the traffic robbed me of that. I also believe that it has a lot to answer for, on the subject of traffic. Islands, because of their relative inaccessibility and ferry requirements, demand a commitment of a motorist. On Skye, you can pop across like you would the Forth or the Clyde. Throughout my trip, no island was as treacherous for us two-wheeled pedallers as Skye. Cars, trucks, buses, a never-ending stream of snarling motorbikes all made the actual cycling a complete pain in the arse because there was no deterent: “Feel like a drive to Skye, darling?” “Oh, alright.” And it’s a shame, because the roads are mostly well-surfaced and there are no serious hills. If you want to go to Skye, then (and you really ought to), just take a car like everyone else.

On the way to Broadford.

On the way to Broadford.

The wind and the traffic were not having the desired effect on my equanimity. Neither, when I saw a road sign saying 8 miles to Broadford, was the location of my night’s accommodation. In Rothes, I had asked my mother to find alternative lodgings on Skye for me. I didn’t like the idea, at that time, of getting off my train at 1.30PM, still with 40 miles to go to reach my hostel in Glenbrittle which is what the SYHA call “rustic”. In short, miles from anywhere and demanding me to make my own dinner. I didn’t really want to do that. I had scrapped the idea of staying in Broadford when I first began organising this trip because the distance to Talisker and back to the mainland from Broadford was impossible, or so I’d thought. I now couldn’t remember if the B&B mum had found was in Broadford or further on. Looking at the address I’d scribbled down, I was relieved to see it was north, closer to Talisker. However, it was still to be a short day, so how much longer had I made tomorrow?

I skidded down the drive to the Picture House B&B and I didn’t care. It was right on the sea shore, over looking the tiny island of Scalpay, which was still enormous and filled my bedroom window with its quiet, bleak bulk. Tomorrow would be what tomorrow would be. I was here in this unbelievable place and on the West Coast. The second part of my odyssey was in full swing.

There are 'sea views', and then there are Sea Views. The water is being disturbed by a fierce wind which groaned around the edges of my window all night!

There are 'sea views', and then there are Sea Views. The water is being disturbed by a fierce wind which groaned around the edges of my window all night!

I dined with a group of retired folk, 80% of whom were photographers. If you are a photographer, a stay at the Picture House is a must. Gill and Steve run the B&B together with their own gallery, being professional photographers themselves, and their work decorates the bedrooms. They can recommend the best places to shoot, the times to go, and who else to talk to.

I returned to my room to catch up on the unfolding election. Jeremy Vine’s paving stones were a bit much for me, though, and I drifted off just as the ballot boxes from Sunderland were being tossed in to the counting stations.

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Fit For The Glens: 4 weeks to go…

As this last week’s number of startling developments failed to match that of the previous one, this ought to be a slimmer post. We’ll see whether this is how it proves, or whether some new neurosis screams for an airing.

It has been seven days of familiarisation and consolidation. I haven’t been promised a cover spot in ‘Whisky Magazine’, I haven’t received an endorsement from Charles MacLean, and I haven’t been abducted by The Macallan and whisked up to Craigellachie so that they might give me a lavish grounding in their ethos ahead of my arrival next month. I have been cycling, though. Since my last post I have spun through more than 100 miles and feel jolly happy about it. My bottom, however, has taken offence somewhat, so I have started on the soothing, salutary creams.

Wednesday’s weather and record distance in a single day resulted in a profound sense of achievement. The warm, clear sunshine made pedalling twice round my 18-mile circuit a true delight. However, its perfection came packaged up with a strong feeling of guilt and foreboding: this can’t last, it has to rain eventually and will it ever stop when it does; gales will blow unremittingly and chill me to the marrow, I know it. Then then we’ll see if whisky is a strong enough obsession to carry me through. I was, therefore, perhaps oddly keen for it to pelt it down and gust ferociously around so I could test my mettle. I should have been careful what I wished for.

Things took a grim turn on Friday, a stiff breeze scoring the underbellies of some fat, juicy clouds. Of course I had forgotten to put my waterproof overtrousers in my panniers, although fortunately it was a passing shower and the rest of the ride was a dry one.

Yesterday, whilst dry, took the wind idea and ran with it. I woke up in the semi-dark and could hear a lot of air moving very quickly over the field outside. On opening the curtains, I saw the horse huddling behind the barn and trees being buffeted in groaning arcs of branches and needles. They weren’t really ideal conditions for a proposed 43 miles. But I won’t have any choice in four weeks’ time, so I gave myself none on this occasion. After running some key errands, and giving the weather maybe a bit more time to calm down (it didn’t), I togged up and went out. It was pretty hairy in places and while the panniers planted the rear wheel to the road, pushing through merciless side winds was exhausting for the arms as I fought with the front end of the bike. The headwinds were quite something, though. Early on in my first stint, the road forsook the protection afforded by a small village, made a sharp left turn and suddenly my surroundings were very open farmland. Incredibly, I had to change down into the small chainring, reduced to barely more than 8 mph on the flat! It was similar agony again when I returned to the coast line 5 miles further on. However, on those same stretches during my second, reverse loop, I was freewheeling merrily at 22 mph. I completed my 43 miles; just. A huge plate of pasta and a couple of hours of indifferent TV alleviated the worst of the shellshock.

But to return to those errands, because they really were very significant indeed. The first set of them saw me return to the station where I bought my railcard, train tickets for my Wick to Kyle of Lochalsh transfer stage (I leave Wick at 6:20AM and arrive in the Kyle just after 1:20PM, still with 40 miles of riding before I bed down on Skye), and reserved a space on the Cross Country service to Edinburgh on the 29th of March. I’m doing a reconnaissance mission! I’m getting into Edinburgh Waverley at the same time as I will a fortnight later, cycling the route to Glenkinchie and seeing if I can make it back to the station in time for my train to Stirling, a fictitious connection on this trial run. I need to overcome the stress of urban cycling and memorise with the aid of landmarks the minor roads I need to find to draw me out of the city. I also need to learn in what condition my beloved machine is to be stashed on the train and just how watchful of my fellow passengers I must be. Not that there is any chance of a quick getaway so heavy and ungainly is it with the panniers attached. The aim is to purge as much fear and anxiety ahead of time so I am as cool as the proverbial cucumber when I come to do it for real and don’t require urgent medical attention and sedation on the platform. Or lock myself in the Stirling youth hostel toilet and refuse to come out for six weeks. Luckily I’m a one-hour train ride from Edinburgh to make such an exercise possible.

Security is a big concern of mine, naturally enough. As, for the purposes of saving weight, I shall only be carrying the essentials, I cannot afford for anything to be pilfered. Should anything, from the bike downwards, undergo a change of ownership, I shall be royally, inter-galactically screwed. So I visited the guys at Breeze Bikes and bought a big, heavy lock, the operation of which I should probably factor in to my timetable, knowing as I do the state of obsessive compulsive paranoia I shall be in whenever I must leave the bike unattended. “I did lock it, didn’t I?” will become a tiresome refrain.

I’m sure I will adapt – I’ll have to – and my myriad anxieties will be silenced by the necessities of reality. There is only so much I can do. The rest I must simply condition myself not to worry about. It is the same with road safety. I may be big and very yellow, but there is the chance I may come a cropper due to someone’s undue haste, carelessness or simple bad luck. I can’t concern myself overly. I certainly can’t allow it to become inhibitive. Cycling to Scotland’s distilleries means cycling on the road. There’s just no way around that.

The may have been expensive, they may be bulky, but they are vital - and also quite inspiring.

The may have been expensive, they may be bulky, but they are vital - and also quite inspiring.

Those are my fears, then. Keeping them in perspective and proportion, though, is the mounting anticipation. At last I can visualise undertaking this journey, and great visual aids are my maps. £100-worth of maps… It’s supposed to be a small country! I’m still waiting on a couple, but on these charts I can plot each stage, see on paper the roads I’ll be taking, the ever-shrinking settlements I’m to pass through and the precise location of the distilleries themselves. Very auspicious is Map 28, ‘Elgin & Dufftown’ which gives up marking each individual one and simply records: “Distilleries”. In my more vivid daydreams I can imagine my Sunday ride in Dufftown, a rest-day of sorts, when I shall be touring the town and its forest of pagodas.

I had to atone for my poor total of tastings the week before last so I have four sets of notes for you now. I retasted the Talisker 18-year-old and to say I was blown away is just the kind of glib, vile cliche that should be eradicated from our language. But I can’t express it any differently. It was truly extraordinary and, in the context of my personal rating system, I’m not sure many will be able to best its score. Having been slightly underwhelmed when I tasted it last year, preferring the more insistent, volcanic power of the younger sibling, I can now lend my support to the decision which deemd this the best malt in the world. I shall share the particulars of my scoring system with you after I return from this odyssey, for technically only then with my bank of sensory and spiritual experiences can it operate at its full potential.

The Glenmorangie Quinta Ruban was awesome, too. I’m acquiring a taste for this Tain whisky, it would seem, for my third attempt at seeing what all the fuss was about regarding The Original largely paid off. You couldn’t ask for a better example of how to tastefully finish a malt.

The Dalmore impressed as much as it did when I first sampled it in late 2008, although it hasn’t quite the same poise and complexity of the 15-year-old.

To finish, I’d like to stress how much I enjoyed the Glen Deveron. I picked up the mini at the Aberfeldy distillery last autumn and I was struck by its beautiful balance, quiet complexity and deft interchanges of Speyside and Highland

My week's work.

My week's work.

 characters, an appreciated strong allusion to its location on the border of these two regions.

Talisker 18-year-old 45.8% (See ‘Most Hotly-Awaited’)

Colour: Glowing, profound amber and gold.

Nose: (FS) Extremely complex maltiness, both in flavour and body. It is firm and smooth but in places light and ethereal, falling away into sea cliff floral and salt notes. A very rich, fragrant and dry peat fire: burning for an eternity of so it seems. Full rich sweetness of honey but also darkly rich seaweed. (WW) Sweetly smokier with extra sweetness from the rich honey and smooth seaweed. An intense burning together with some some syrupy fruitiness. Sublime richness and balance: salt crystals and light resinous oak. Bewitching mature smoothness together with gentle spice. Ashy smokiness of a garden fire.

Palate: Full and grainy with a sliver of seaweedy/woody sweetness then impossibly rich, mouthfilling peat. Biscuity, heavy malt and dark honey. So satsifying.

Finish: Dark, rich and awesomely long. Sweet vanilla oak with a sooty, rounded maltiness. Clouds of black pepper. Exquisite delicacy and very moreish.

Glen Deveron 10-year-old 40%

Colour: Smooth and bright amber with old gold highlights.

Nose: (FS) Soft, medium to full with gentle Sherry influence and some light smoke. Rich and quite solid biscuity graininess with helpings of caramel toffee. Gentle and earthy spice. (WW) A little peatier with deep honeyed fruit. Victoria sponge. Barley sugar. Not-too-sweet melted chocolate. Fresh and complex in the least taxing of senses.

Palate: Malty, lightly peaty and very very firm. Sustained spice. Dark chocolate in taste and texture.

Finish: Deeper oak flavours: chocolate with subtle, enticing Sherry fruit and nut. Clean with well-defined and deliciously rich malt.

The Dalmore 12-year-old 43% (See ‘Most Hotly-Awaited’)

Colour: Intense deep orange with touches of greeny gold.

Nose: (FS) A real presence of heat contributed by rich and intense Sherry oak and earthy peat. Green, rich malt. Lots of orange with a contrast in textures between orange cream and candied orange. Zesty and nutty. (WW) Firm dried fruitiness and gentle smooth toffee. Heather tickles the nose. Seriously deep honey and lightly-toasted oak. Sugary marmalade and orange concentrate. Deliciously soft and oppulent with fragments of burning sweet peatiness and chocolate.

Palate: Rich, firm, lots of spicy gripping oak and very peaty. Orange and smooth coffee.

Finish: Orange Chewits. Soft with some Italian coffee for yet more richness. Fresh, leafy and oily oak over which the Sherry is a moist, nutty veil.

Glenmorangie Quinta Ruban 46%

Colour: Clean and pale amber with a pink rosy tinge and copper red veins.

Nose: (FS) Dry but rich heat; possibly, in its spicy, dark fruit overtones, the Port caves themselves. Very smooth with heavy, voluptuous vanilla wood. Some honeyed, delicate malt emerges as does a round citrus note. Very clean and even floral notes. Excellent soft sweetness with all the complexity of an ice cream sundae. Smooth dryness. Extraordinarily complete integration of wine flavours. Still a Glenmo, though. (WW) Deeper and even softer. Cherry and dark chocolate. Very firm wood with lots of warming spice. The Port influence exerted is breathtaking. Exquisite caramel toffee. Blooming, gripping saltiness.

Palate: Vibrant, warming and very spicy. Dry but also rounded and rich. Lots of cooked fruits. Sweet earth and oak lend fabulous firmness. Barley sugar sweetness.

Finish: Excellent smoothness and richness with echoes of fruit and caramel. Floral/grassy. Long and delicate. Creamy vanilla and dark honey.

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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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Fit For The Glens: 7 weeks to go…

For all it would be entirely reasonable and merited, this post shall not be turned into a petulant tirade against the

I'm pretty sure Captain Scott hated it more than I do, but I'm still no fan.

I'm pretty sure Captain Scott hated it more than I do, but I'm still no fan.

 British weather. After all, complaining about a fourth straight day of rain once I hit the West Coast in May isn’t going to help anything. Suffice it to say, in that case, that it has snowed quite a lot, the temperature has returned to the inner suburbs of freezing and I had no other option but to resume my relationship with the turbo trainer.

Whilst not whining, it was doubly frustrating when the white stuff came down again because on the Wednesday I succeeded in getting out. With no small amount of anticipation or ceremony (at least in the instance of my practised movements for clothing myself in neoprene and Lycra) I pedalled onto the highway. It was not the most auspicious beginning. What was intended to be an eighteen mile circuit finished as a twenty mile effort when, after only a mile, I accepted that the squeak made by my overshoe on the left crank was intolerable, returned home again, and had to repeat the distance. With masses of Vaseline applied to the crank, my sanity suffered no further aural assualts. I know what can happen to the red-hot brain when it has something annoying and constant to fixate on for any considerable amount of time, and it isn’t pretty.

Back on cold wet tarmac, the bike handled nicely. The first instance of my leaving the saddle on an incline presaged the challenge I shall face when the panniers are attached. Just the unaccustomed weight of the rack was enough to affect the behaviour of the rear of the bike. I shouldn’t have been out of the saddle, anyway: I need to practise seated climbing for I really will have no choice on the matter in April.

In maintaining a steady rhythm and pace, again an attempt at simulating my enforced approach when I begin touring for real, I could appreciate how far bike technology has come in the handful of years since we bought the road bike. Gear changes were super-smooth and the gear ratios made it easier to proceed at a slower pace than I’m used to without feeling embarrassed for merely crawling along. The frame was a lot stiffer than I had expected, and been led to believe, and initially the impacts with potholes were an alarming occurrence, but not just because of their repercussions on the body parts in direct contact with the machine. The sound of the mudgaurds and pannier rack rattling about was nothing less than cacophonous.

The ride as a whole was an interesting dichotomy: at once a confidence boost that I should be capable of completing immediately quite long distances in relation to my previous experience; but also rather daunting as I imagine undertaking bigger hills with more weight over greater distances. But it was my first authentic ride of the year so I can only improve.

How foolish I was, though, to think that I could consign the turbo trainer back to its corner in the dining room for the remainder of my preparations. I awoke on Friday to what I thought, peeking through the warped glass of the bathroom window, was merely a hard frost. On opening my curtains, however, I soon learned that this was not so. It was snow. I had to train, but couldn’t face admitting defeat to the turbo so soon after my glorious escape attempt on the Wednesday. I went for a run in the blizzard, instead. Two minutes in I already felt knackered but I endured for the full twenty out of sheer bloody-mindedness.

I spent the weekend working, witnessing further snow falls out of the restaurant windows and wishing it would have just f****d off by Monday. How cruel, but the opposite greeted me when I pulled aside the curtains yesterday. It was a veritable Winter Wonderland, but a serious kick in the teeth for my outdoor cycling aspirations. In the end, the freezing cold decided it in conjunction with the risk of hitting a patch of ice, breaking a leg, and rendering all of my travel plans, ambitions and this blog obselete. So I swapped the pedals over again and inducted myself back into the torture chamber.

I had as a target one hour and twenty. My real world ride ought to have done much for my legs and lungs, I reasoned, so a longer session should mean an even longer circuit whenever I next have the opportunity to ride on the road. To see me through it I had Snakes and Arrows Live again; the second CD. As it happened I went from ‘Spindrift’ to the last Dutch roar in the wake of ‘YYZ’ over the course of my ride. One hour 25 minutes! I had achieved, and for all the weather made me miserable, I couldn’t scold myself for how I just got on with it anyway. My fingers are crossed for better luck over the next ten days or so, which is about the limits of my capacity to influence things in this regard.

It has been a similar week of contrasts as far as my tasting progress was concerned. A successful, and indeed revelatory encounter with the Balblair 1997 (see below) was soon forgotten after a period browsing on The Whisky Exchange site. When I have a bit of time to kill I will often take a look at the reviews of malts I have tasted, and especially those which I have felt moved to provide my own reviews for. I was surprised to find that someone had recently taken me to task, not just on my opinion on the malt concerned, but on my manner of expression and whisky experience. I was less offended and more shocked at this stranger’s attack, the retaliation I sent back at the time fortunately less incendiary than others I composed that afternoon. I admit my written style can get a bit out of hand, and even more so when whisky is involved, but the only reason this was singled out and derided was because my take on the malt was contrary to that of the other reviewer. Similarly, I don’t see, in the context of a consumer site like The Whisky Exchange, that my experience or lack thereof is at all relevant. The site is used by the casual whisky drinker and the fanatic alike, and precisely because of that the views of anyone inclined to post a comment regarding a particular whisky are as valid as the next person’s, and the number and supposed quality of their other tastings has no bearing on it whatsoever. I know that my opponent most likely did not intend his piece of banter to offend, but I am new to people I have never met mocking what makes me me; and my use of language has always been central to that.

Consequently, I was somewhat distracted when I poured out a measure of the 1993 Talisker Distiller’s Edition for analysis. By the time I had washed up my glass, however, my priorities and concerns had been adjusted back to their original orientations:  the spirit coming first. While I read the notes of other tasters on this malt and the snow fell with almost vindictive application outside, a wave of essential clarity, not unlike those of Loch Harport which break against the distillery walls, engulfed me. So perfect was the malt, and in that moment, that even if disagreement as to its quality were possible, it could be entirely discounted irrespective of how that disagreement were to be expressed. Due to this reminder of how the drink acts on me, how I can barely explain it myself, I realise that it is only me for whom I may speak, and whose perspective is at all significant in any case.  But I shall talk more about the Talisker next week.

For now there is the Balblair, and with the 1989 at only £43 I might just have to acquire some so delicate yet satisfying and vivacious was its younger brother. Speaking of the analysis itself, it was an interesting and important lesson in the body as a suggestible and variable assemblage of apparatus. I feel my first tasting notes captured the ’97′s character

A marvellous little malt. Fortunately I have this second miniature of it!

A marvellous little malt. Fortunately I have this second miniature of it!

 better, with dominating flavours I re-interpreted or missed altogether at the second attempt. Yet I scored it higher second time through. Bizarre.

Bruichladdich 10-year-old 46%

Colour: Glossy and rich amber.

Nose: (FS) Maritime sweetness with a rounded fruit character (honeydew melon?). Quite salty with a smooth, delicate touch of seaweed. Hot and runny strawberry jam with vanilla Swiss roll. (WW) A little sweeter and maybe saltier, too. Passion fruit pavlova. Gentle, hay-sweet cereals and increasingly grainy.

Palate: Very complex. Tart, spiced fruitiness runs alongside gripping saltiness and soft sweet oak. Sticky and peppery.

Finish: A gentle but solid bed of peat. Still lusciously fruity with honey and mascarpone cream. Sandy and oaky at the end.

Balblair 1997 43%

Colour: Very full gold.

Nose: (FS) Fresh, clean and light with impeccable, mouthwatering sweetness. A drizzle of honey then lots of creamy-smooth vanilla. Deliciously soft with a building warm cloud of cereals. (WW) Sweeter, more moist and compacted. Again that achingly sensuous vanilla wood steps forward. Heathery smoke – subtle but there lending marvellous depth and contrast.

Palate: Full and sweet with firm, lightly-peated malt. Smooth vanilla from the soft though spicy wood soon envelopes everything.

Finish: Buttered digestive biscuits and some milk chocolate. Fruity with butterscotch. Creamy vanilla wood and honey.

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Fit For The Glens: 10 weeks to go…

Alright, alright. So I cannot actually speak of any real training since my last post because there hasn’t really been any since my last post. In my defence, however, it isn’t my socialising at the stiletto’d feet of which I must place the blame, rather that which has moved to joint pole position as the most important use of my time before April: work to earn money so that I can do this at all. 

Four hours of sleep (whilst a luxurious lie-in compared with Wednesday) was not sufficient rest to allow me to start my shift in the restaurant at full throttle. This was unfortunate because January 30th felt more like July 30th such were the hungry hordes which only Lauren and I were available to seat, serve and tidy up after. When she had to stay past the departure of the last bus, I volunteered to take her back to where she lives, in the depths of snowy Northumberland. Not having driven on the snow since I expensively dented the car before Christmas, and fully aware of how my sleep-deprived person was approaching the limits of his attention span, I was both drained and delighted when I finally returned home at 11.30PM, not having killed anyone. Another mammoth shift the next day, during which we served almost as many Sunday lunches as we would in the summer only, with it being winter, one waiter less, floored me utterly.

As far as living is concerned, then, it has been one of my busier weeks. I would not have had it any differently, though.

My friend’s birthday night out was a revelation. After the meal, organised by me at the very last minute, I was bracing myself should our group end up wending their way towards The (Hateful) Gate. As it was, the birthday girl took us in the opposite direction and this is how I now know about Baby Lynch.

To the left of Newcastle Central Station as you approach it from Gray’s Monument, this was to be my first Newcastle club. After having had my ID checked (both irritating and intimidating) in I went. I was impressed. The decor was original and comfortable, the music good without being deafening and they had five single malts behind the bar. This

"Lookee! Bowmore!" I can't tell you how overjoyed and relaxed finding this unlikely outpost of malt made me. Ross was happy with his mojito, too. Photo by Frances Hawkins.

"Lookee! Bowmore!" I can't tell you how overjoyed and relaxed finding this unlikely outpost of malt made me. Ross was happy with his mojito, too. Photo by Frances Hawkins.

 bar looked like the floor of the London Stock Exchange after everything started to go wrong. Bartenders rushed between tills and bottles and glasses, mixing all sorts of incredible drinks. To my complete surprise I felt at home. I bought a mojito and a double Bowmore 12-year-old. Although these totalled more than £12, it was entirely worth it for the sensation of soaking up this new atmosphere whilst drinking something I actually like. Would you believe it, but this has never happened before. Sipping and sniffing, this drink lasted me for the remainder of our time at Baby Lynch. As we roamed around trying to get into other places (too much to get in to Tup-Tup Palace; ticket-only night for Digital) it started to snow. While sitting in Gotham Town and juddering around in a couple of other places prior to leaving for our taxi, it started to snow a lot.

2AM arrived, but no taxi. We were standing in the huge concourse of the station with streams of people emerging from the blizzard, hopelessly under-dressed and trying to track down a taxi of their own. Charlotte was one of these under-dressed folk, and because she isn’t really of Northern origins, I feared she was going to perish of hypothermia. After donating my hoodie to her, I thought I was. The taxi came at long last, though, and on the way back we saw why he had taken a bit longer to reach us. Everything was white. Someone plainly doesn’t want me riding on the road.

Therefore, it is another turbo session once I have posted this, plus overshoes and one of my new base layers. I don’t need a cold on top of everything else! For one thing, it would get in the way of my other branch of training, which has been going very well indeed.

As you can see from the picture, I have been giving my senses a refresher course and I feel they are back up to speed.

"Ten green bottles..." Some of my favourite malts, and a great test of my sensory abilities.

"Ten green bottles..." Some of my favourite malts, and a great test of my sensory abilities.

 To my delight, I have discovered a heightened sensitivity (or would that be imagination?) regarding terroir-related flavours. It is these aspects of the whiskies I’ve sampled which I have use to compose the tasting notes below. The originals were much much longer!

Bwmore Legend 40% (See ‘Most Hotly-Awaited’)

Colour: Fresh gold with smooth ambery depths.

Nose: (Full strength) The sea experienced in a close driftwood shed. Salt and spray fly above a solid, heavily-peated base. Cool and moist: a warehouse on the shore. (With water) Smokier: thick, fragrant palls of the stuff. Rich, iodine-y seaweed.

Palate: Initially it is an island of peat on an energetic ocean. Lots of seaweed.

Finish: Salty and seaweedy. Peat smoke lingers in the background but reservedly.

Mortlach 16-year-old 43%

Colour: Deep burnished ochre with amber/bronze highlights.

Nose: (FS) Very intense, rich, moist and round Sherry wood aromas. Fudgy. Not quite “outside”, not quite “in”. A quiff of heather essence and within a closely-contained peat/smoke note. (WW) Becomes drier, sweetly earthy and floral. Fruitcake and honey. Wonderful caramel.

Palate: Very sherried malt with spoons of rich honey and a dab of fruit. Dries a lot and there’s an explosion of peat smoke.

Finish: Long, thick and moist. Bitter chocolate. Figs. Orange and cloves.

Old Pulteney 12-year-old 40%

Colour: Bright broom-yellow gold.

Nose: (FS) Very pronounced May seashore sweetness: dry grasses and flowers. A light dash of dessicated coconut. Seawater in a plastic bucket. (WW) The butter and sugar have become a full sponge mix with lemon zest. Still quietly floral only these flowers are wilder: broom and sea cliff flowers.

Palate: Medium-sweet, hot, lots of honey and increasingly malty.

Finish: Flavours of flora: flowers again, but also grass and the dark shade of a tree.

Ardbeg Uigeadail 54.2% (See ‘Most Hotly-Awaited’)

Colour: Smooth nutty Sherry brown with golden highlights.

Nose: (FS) A powerful humidity is first out of the glass with the characters of Sherry wood, dry malt and some smoke. Tarry notes and pencil lead. Finally we reach equilibrium: smooth and authoritative with marram grass and hot white sand. (WW) Not quite the same smoke and a little clearer. Leather tarps, tarry buckets and well-used wood. A delicate, smooth, sweet and fragrant vanilla/citrus note. Dried peat put back in the bog. You could nose it forever.

Palate: Very intense and aggressive. Wash-like fruity malt which is soon overtaken by thick black peat smoke and burning heather roots.

Finish: Burning cask staves. White chunks of peat. I even taste the whitewashed stones of the distillery itself. Takes an age to diminish.

Longmorn 15-year-old 45%

Colour: Full yellow/gold.

Nose: (FS) Honey and vanilla ice cream with a herbaceous border of floral notes. Butterscotch. A definite, soft fudgy sweetness with fresher minty qualities. (WW) Lighter and more moist with added juicy fruitiness. Warm and spicy oak. All light and delicate flavours with a lot of space between them.

Palate: Very lively malty sweetness leads into a drier biscuitiness, then assertive and flavoursome seasoned oak.

Finish: Vanilla and flowers dominate the quiet, measured and creamy finish.

Talisker 10-year-old 45.8% (See ‘Most Hotly-Awaited’)

Colour: Polished fireside brass with clean gold highlights.

Nose: (FS) Very dry, smoky and peppery. Volcanically powerful. Smoked molluscs. Subtle heather honey. (WW) Much more easily-defined smokiness: burning driftwood and smokeless heat from the peat. A wooden rowing boat on the sea loch. Clinging sea mists.

Palate: Begins with heat, raw wood and peat. Then you taste the peat fire.

Finish: Long, salty and seaweedy. Lovely smokiness in the rounded wood flavours.

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