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The Water of Life of Luxury

For a number of years, whisky – and single malt whisky especially – has cultivated an aura of exclusivity, luxury and extravagance. Who has not encountered the gentrified still-life of a mahogany-hued dram, sipped in a moment of leisure picked out in leather, oak, and expensive curtains? It has come to symbolise the finer things in life, but if a recent visit to the Scotch Whisky Experience in Edinburgh for the inaugural Whisky Luxe is any guide, it would appear that there are the finer things of the finer things.

My invite to this ‘exclusive event’, in which I would surely ’indulge’ myself in ‘the most iconic whisky brands’ peddling their ‘esteemed whiskies’, fortuitously came with a 40% discount on the price of admission. Had it not, this evening of super-premium posing at the more moneyed mutation of the Whisky Live series of events would have been beyond my means. As it was, I could just about stretch to £75 for a pre-birthday beano.

Red carpet treatment at the first Whisky Luxe, Edinburgh.

Bagpipes, a red carpet and glamorous ladies in frocks greeted me at the summit of the Royal Mile on Friday. A typical Thursday night tasting at the Quaich Society this was not. I ducked into the Scotch Whisky Experience to receive my black giftbag which contained a wodge of Whisky Magazine-related freebies and my purse of little gold coins which would purchase my whiskies. To my dismay, they hadn’t included a pair of size-10 shoes that fitted with any comfort, but that is a separate cautionary tale.

I had hoped to play the seasoned whisky event attendee: swan about inspecting the stalls and constructing a list of must-tries. However, no sooner had I arrived in the Castlehill Room than I could not resist arrowing across to the Balblair stall to commence with the luxurious liquid. Andy Hannah, brand manager for Balblair, and Lukasz Dynowiak were on hand to answer my questions about the distillery and their hopes for the evening. The new online community they have established, The Gathering Place, was high on their agenda. With the 2002, 1989 3rd Release and 1975 2nd Release in attendance, though, top quality drams were a chief priority, too.

The Dewar's stand.

Other highlights on the top floor was the Dewar’s stand, where a little cask filled with ‘flavoured’ whisky dispensed a sweet, smooth spirit with a pleasant tannic bite on the palate. This is one of the many experiments emerging from the blended whisky brand in tribute to new archive research.

My next port of call was Whyte and MacKay in the Amber Restaurant. Here I met and had a splendid conversation with Graham Rushworth who described his blustery new year on Islay, the cheeky swig of The Dalmore Trinitas he enjoyed in Richard Paterson’s office and the new all-singing all-dancing distillery tour available on the shores of the Cromarty Firth before eventually and most enjoyably, talking me through The Dalmore 18yo. Another whisky that benefits from the best of W&M’s extraordinary wood stocks, I found this pleasantly fresh for an 18 with grassy sweetness, plum, and coffee on the nose. The accumulated weight of oak registered on the palate, however, with rich chocolate and dried fruits all accented with creamy vanilla.

The Auchentoshan stand.

After catching up with Paul Goodwin on the Morrison Bowmore stand – an extremely self-contented corner of the room following a host of gongs from the latest Icons of Whisky Awards (Distiller of the Year, Distillery Manager of the Year and Ambassador of the Year) – I pottered about the venue a little more. This took me to the McIntyre Gallery where I spoke with Andrew Shand of Duncan Taylor over a delightful measure of Octave Cardhu 22yo. The planned distillery in Huntly which I read about a couple of years ago is still in the pipeline, although investment is proving difficult in these straightened times. Of more immediate excitement is their new Rarest range, represented on the night by a very special bottling of the Macallan. In a bespoke decanter and with the presentation box constructed from the cask in which the whisky matured, this was a visually stunning product. Sadly there was none to taste.

Drams of Glen Garioch 1995 and Smokehead followed, but the unexpected star shone in the Claive Vidiz Collection Room. I tagged on to a tasting led by Dr Kirstie McCallum of Burn Stewart who was explaining the Bunnahabhain 25yo with the kind of passion and knowledge you would expect from a global brand ambassador. As I nosed this deep, rich and sweet delight, my mind trickled back to the Sound of Islay and this beautiful, character-packed distillery. Sea salt and candied orange tickled my nose, but when we were asked for our thoughts I blurted out ‘exotic handwash – but in a good way!’ Kirstie replied that she was unlikely to forget that particular descriptor.

Emma Smith and Graham Rushworth for The Dalmore.

A hastily-grabbed dark chocolate and whisky mousse was the last tasty morsel of an enthralling evening. All exhibitors praised the relaxed and congenial atmosphere, and they relished the opportunity to properly discuss their products rather than simply dispensing them which appears to be the modus operandi for the majority of whisky functions. Huge congratulations must go to Chloe Leighton who organised the event, as well as all visiting ambassadors and Scotch Whisky Experience staff. I thoroughly enjoyed making the acquaintance of some of the most desirable whiskies in the world – but will wear another pair of shoes next year.

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My Half-Term Report (including the hiccoughs)

I am, surprise surprise, beyond halfway now. That juncture was passed on the Saturday night in Helmsdale.

From a fairly precarious outlook in Braemar a fortnight previously, I have entered and exited Speyside (notable highlights being Glenfiddich and Aberlour on the distillery side, Sandy and everyone at A Taste of Speyside in the way of general, unlikely angels), and journeyed up the north-east coast to Wick and beyond to John o’Groats where the concentration of cyclists increased dramatically with those starting or finishing their Lands End to John o’Groats attempts. I’m behind in relating all of these stages to you. Forgive me. For now, I am attempting to ease the backlog of distillery tours – there have been many, and I still need to bring you my views on 11 of them. Yikes!

I am in ‘Whisky Magazine’, after all. There isn’t a picture so I might not be able to use it as a passport for free entry to my following tours but it was a thrill. Unfortunately it reminded me that this blog is not quite the outfit I had hoped, and which one might expect to find mention of in a quality publication like ‘WM’. It also means that the amateurish nature of this site is most likely known to even more people – and perhaps the very whisky enthusiasts I had meant to contact in the first place. I’m sorry guys: no pictures yet and irregular updates. I haven’t my own computer with me so I am very much at the mercy of the IT facilities at my hostels. I shall be spending much time on it once I return home, however, which is two weeks on Saturday. Patience, please, because I’m having quite an adventure up here.

I feel it my duty to explain that between telling Mr Allanson (editor of ‘WM’) of my travels and details of said travels appearing in the magazine, I actually undertook those travels. Certain distilleries have had to be avoided or were closed to me, so that figure of 49 is no longer accurate. Here are the casualties and why:

Blair Athol – Unexpectedly closed, their silent season having been brought forward. There will be no tours of the distillery until July.

Dalwhinnie – I would have died trying to get there. The post dealing with my journey to Braemar will contextualise my exact condition at the time.

Tomatin – See above.

Glendronach – Following my 60-mile slog in the rain, my bike was in a pretty poor state. The cleaning of it and sourcing of oil (and general pulling of hair) left too little time to head out east for Forgue and still make it back for Strathisla.

The Balvenie – It seems I should have booked weeks in advance. I phoned on the Friday to book a tour on the Monday (the 23rd for the 25th) and discovered that they were fully booked until nearly a week into May. This was even before the festival. Be advised.

Dallas Dhu – I elected not to tour this distillery on the advice of the guide at Cragganmore. She said that its museum nature was a rather tragic contrast to the working distilleries and was unlikely to show me anything I had not already encountered.  Also, omitting it saved me time and money. If you are interested, though, it is a self-guided tour round the old production areas, then a video and a dram.

Clynelish – Having struggled along the A9 in the rain under the assumption that the distillery was open (all of my reading and research had said that they were open on Saturdays), I found it to be shut up entirely. This was annoying. It seems they are open on Saturdays… as of next month. No literature or website told me this. I should have phoned ahead, but as I said, I didn’t think there would be any problem.

So not a full tour in the slightest anymore. I am still covering the miles and getting a sense of the regions, however. As I have (quite happily) come to realise over the course of this tour, though: Scotland isn’t going anywhere. I can plan another tour which encompasses the missed distilleries from this loop, as well as returns to those which have made a real impression on me, which at present include Tullibardine, Royal Lochnagar, Aberlour, Glenfiddich, Glen Garioch, and Highland Park, which I toured today.

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Fit For The Glens: 5 weeks to go…

Yesterday had a lot riding on it. 10 extra kilos to be precise. For all I covered 70 miles last week, an encouraging figure in itself, it couldn’t placate my timetable-related hysteria. Until 11 o’clock yesterday morning it didn’t matter that I’d completed my first full week of real road training or that one particular session included the longest distance and time I have ever spent on a bike, in my head and imagination, prescient for all things apolocalyptic, it was meritless because I had not yet ridden with panniers; not yet subjected myself to the practicalities of equipment and the experience of lugging it about. Therefore, I could not be certain of my fitness, in every sense of the word, for the undertaking of this whisky tour. Well now I am at peace.

I am one of life’s manual-readers, and pored over that which pertained to my Altura Orkney (how apt) panniers. As it happened I didn’t have to worry myself about adjusting the top hook inserts – they “clicked” on to the rack nicely enough. It was, however, necessary to get the screwdriver out and slide the bottom clasp which is designed to latch around one of the vertical rails of the rack a little more off-centre. These tinkerings resulted in the panniers fitting securely to the bike, and far enough forward to keep the weight balance a safe one over the back wheel but leaving clearance for my spinning heels. This, apart from catching the back of my hand on one of the many pieces of sharp plastic that adorn the bags, was really very painless. The following day I would learn if transporting them would be anything but.

In the course of tailoring the set-up of my suitcases, I began to appreciate their dimensions a bit more. They are 34 litres the pair and whilst contemplating one leaves me scratching my head in anxiety that my existence in Scotland shall be a very ascetic one, in truth between the both of them and the rucksack I recently bought, I should be quite comfortable as far as stashing everything I need is concerned.  This assurance is also based in a re-appraisal of my list of essentials: it’s not that long, really. Toiletries, underwear and spare cycling-specific clothing – all of which are generally light – summarise the contents of my panniers with the rucksack having to accommodate all of my real-world garb, camera, maps, notepads etc. when I’m travelling between distilleries and my touring gear once I get to

Mobile library: books provide very effective ballast, it would seem.

Mobile library: books provide very effective ballast, it would seem.

 one. I will be wearing at any given time one set of togs so a third of my list will be in action anyway, and not a dead weight. The exact weight of my luggage I don’t yet know. I rounded up yesterday, therefore, and put 4 kgs of books in either pannier. The difference made when hefting my machine was frighteningly obvious. Trying to raise the rear end of the bike required a couple of stern grunts and walking it round the garage, manoeuvring it past all the junk, revealed how ponderous the extra ballast makes it. Moving it through Edinburgh Waverley should be entertaining; not.

Add a rucksack on the top of the rack and that is me, tour-ready. "-GULP-"

Add a rucksack on the top of the rack and that is me, tour-ready. "-GULP-"

My overnight musings were all to do with how lumpen the bike would now feel to ride. I had decided to go the whole hog for my forthcoming training session: put the panniers on and break my day’s mileage into two sessions either side of a lunch break. I wasn’t sure how much extra effort would be demanded of me so I was prepared to scale down my plans from 14 miles pre- and post-lunch to just 9 miles afterwards if the first ride proved too much of a slog. Maybe you can sense my unease from the photo: “will I collapse with exhaustion or just collapse?” I thought to myself. As the tone of my opening indicates, however, the riding experience was deeply encouraging.

I had expected standing starts to be of a similar ilk to those in kilometre track cycling: all gurning and straining muscles. As it happened, I didn’t notice any added resistance whatsoever. I didn’t mark any unusual effects of my new burden, in fact, until I reached my first hill and even then it wasn’t the one predicted by the lads in the bike shop. If momentum was lost it was imperceptibly so, rather getting out of the saddle required extreme care. I had been warned not to pull on the bars like Mark Cavendish gunning for the Tour de France finish line but even so the extra weight sitting on either side of the back wheel exaggerated the oscillations caused by standing on the pedals. It was possible, though, to climb in short bursts out of the saddle: a vital ability on some of the hills I shall be faced with. Besides that, bumps were more keenly felt, and the bigger ones bounced me out of the saddle. I took great care, though, because I could plainly see, feel and hear the stresses passing through the rear wheel. I have to look after my spokes.

I trundled back home extremely satisfied, vowing that another 14 miles would be perfectly doable. I spent an hour in the house attempting to replicate my behaviour in the cafes I’ll frequent in the middle of my days, munching on sandwiches and cake and downing a cup of tea. I headed out again on the reverse of the circuit I had just done.

In the first four miles there are two very long and steep hills and these reminded me of the effects both of arresting then resuming intense exercise and doing so on quite a full stomach. I was gasping horribly after the first but recovered on the second. However, as my ride progressed a niggle developed, attributable I’m sure to the extreme effort meted out on those inclines so early on in the ride and exacerbated by the substantial nature of my break. On the outside of my right knee a tendon was complaining and with six miles to go I thought it might just be more sensible to pull out. Pushing big gears was out of the question, the pain generated making me fear that my kneecap was in danger of being wrenched away from its natural position. I stopped for some raisins and a bit of a stretch, which helped, and the remainder of my ride was more comfortable if not entirely free of complaint. Serious recuperation is needed before Wednesday, I think.

Twenty-nine miles was the total mileage yesterday, so I make that a more challenging ‘Moderate’ session. I opened up the spreadsheet for my daily distances yesterday morning and classified them up into the ‘Easy’ ones (20 miles and under); ‘Moderate’ (21-35 miles); ‘Hard’ (36-50 miles), and ‘Very Hard’ for days in excess of 50 miles. One in five are ‘Easy’, ditto for ‘Very Hard’ with the majority of days manageably between 21 and 50 miles. On that basis, my training is on or ahead of schedule for I plan to being doing ‘Very Hard’ distances daily from two weeks to go. That my 29 miles took less than two hours suggests my pace between distilleries (when required to be a bit brisker) should be sufficient, too. I’m a happy bunny, therefore.

And this perspective makes it so much easier to see the positives of my latest contact with ‘Whisky Magazine’ editor, Rob Allanson. Having heard nothing over the period he had promised to discuss further my project and its possible place in the magazine, I fired off another email as a little reminder. I’ve worked in a news room and I know that proposals and ideas can get waylaid despite the best of intentions. It did the trick, and how. I found an email the next day full of positive purpose: “send me a photo and it can go in the next issue”; “I’ve put something about you on the news section of the website”; “when are you back because I can take 2,000 – 2,500 words plus pictures?” Everything was now in motion: I will have the exposure I believe this journey (or “voyage of discovery” as he put it) deserves. I actually have that exposure now as the day following my mention resulted in a record number of visitors. Between the support of the whisky press and a lovely email from Gal Granov, prolific blog commenter, the Isreali perspective on the industry and exactly the audience I had in mind for my travels, I should have felt elated and galvanised. I did, to some extent, but the other side of the publicity coin is that all of a sudden the expectations of strangers mount on top of your own, and you feel the eyes of the world on your for-so-long private project. I couldn’t stop viewing such attention as pressure, rather than support. I couldn’t help contemplating that the backlash for failure, for an uncompleted trip, would be disappointment and irritation that I wasted my followers’ time, that the suspicion would wrongly permeate that I was simply self-promoting without any substance. Maybe, also, I could only fail: everyone seemed so taken with the concept, pointing invariably to the arduous nature of the undertaking, that I began to wonder if there wasn’t a very good reason why this has never been done before. Seeing my endeavour through the eyes of the neutral – and possibly in pockets sceptical - public, I was overwhelmed by the vulnerability and daunting scale of my odyssey. I forgot, in short, that I have spent more than half a year preparing for this, that it is and always was structured around what I believe to be physically achievable, and that the greatest disappointment, indeed heartbreak, liable to be endured should my plans be thwarted by injury, illness or any number of other factors, would be mine alone. I don’t want to come up short, and everyone I have spoken to about it hasn’t wished that for me, either. It was only after yesterday’s exploits, however, that the goodwill of others was married with a mammoth shot of heady

The Original is on the far left. I shall be tasting the rest of these offerings with the help of the standard malt for comparison.

The Original is on the far left. I shall be tasting the rest of these offerings with the help of the standard malt for comparison.

 self-belief.

Glenmorangie Original 40%

Colour: Very pale straw with clean refractive lemon highlights.

Nose: (FS) A spicy firmness is immediate. Salty and dry peatiness. Clean and light honey melds with very cool and fresh floral flavours. Satin-smooth, medium-sweet and classily different maltiness. (WW) A little sweeter and more cerealy. Moist malt and sponge cakes. Still firm with a solid matte smoothness provided by a mixture of grains, earth and oak. 

Palate: Very smooth and firm. Some spice and milky vanilla comes through, as does a brief appearance from chunky, soft earthiness. I missed the rich maltiness hinted at by the nose, though.

Finish: Floral with a good amount of heather honey. Rather long with teasing echoes of vanilla and oak.

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