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Issue 47 - On the road

Scotland Magazine Issue 47
October 2009

 

This article is 8 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

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On the road

Part one of the tale of three men, three motorbikes, five distilleries and the search for one blended malt.

The idea of Journey’s Blend was to travel nearly 1,000 miles through Scotland’s finest landscapes and towns on iconic British motorbikes selecting the ingredients to create a one-off special blend malt.

The journey would see the team, Editor Rob Allanson, BBC Scotland presenter Tom Morton and photographer Ken Hamilton leave Orkney to head to one of Scotland’s newest distilleries on Islay, Kilchoman, then travel to Bladnoch in the south before heading north east to Glen Garioch.

These distilleries represent the furthest points on Scotland’s distilling map. The trip ends at Glenturret Distillery, home of the Famous Grouse, Scotland’s oldest and one of the most central distilleries, forming the compass hub.

Whisky guru and master blender for the Edrington Group John Ramsay would meet the team there and create the final bottling.

TUESDAY JUNE 2ND LITTLEPORT TO FORTROSE 600 MILES RA: The total sum of about nine months of planning all culminated in meeting a chap with a fabulous handlebar moustache, in leather trousers outside Kiss Kiss Lingerie on the A47. Interesting place and thankfully easy to spot, with its red neon sign.

This was the auspicious and unofficial start to the Journey’s Blend trip, the official start being at Highland Park more than 600 miles and one ferry trip away.

The Triumph Bonneville SE, kindly on loan from the factory, was running perfectly and the bike and I were starting to get used to each other. It is a great bike for this sort of trip, happy on the motorway cruising at the speed limit, but equally content to take the twisting A and B roads into the country. The factory had installed a big touring screen and some panniers, which with the addition of my tail pack gave ample storage for the days ahead.

Alittle sojourn to the Lake District on the way up gave us the opportunity to ride the Kirkstone Pass, one of those great roads through the fells, twisting and climbing slowly to the top. It’s steep sides on one with the hillside the other, but the views are impressive.

The road also gave both bikes the chance to come into their own, especially the Enfield.

Second gear to third and riding the throttle scaring the sheep, the Bonnie just thrummed its way through this sumptuous countryside, taking corner after corner, the balanced steering letting me lean the bike in.

On route we met a couple of fellow bikers started chatting about the bikes we had. The thought struck me that you don’t really get this with car drivers. No one is going to stop you at a service station and ask you if that is a Mark 1 escort you are driving with the original pipes and paint work.

After nearly 16 hours later, and about 4 hours after I told Jim the owner of the Anderson we would be there, we almost fall off the bikes behind the pub.

KH: We’re off! Shortly after we set off we see a buzzard being mobbed by a gang of rooks. I decide this is a good omen...

110 miles in, somewhere around Worksop, the air filter cover pops open. Pull off the A1 and check – the lock has sheared. Bodge air filter cover with bungee and cable tie and on we go.

Two mile traffic jam at Bolton allows me to test the Enfield’s filtering ability. Light steering means it is easy to control, it’s really thin, and the loud thumping engine means everyone knows I am there.

I cannot say that I am not concerned about the time. Nearly the end of a working day and we are still in Englandshire.

I am starting to worry about petrol. Discuss this with Rob at a set of roadworks. He is also concerned, and puts Doris (Sat Nav) on the case. Doris is great at finding petrol stations, but rubbish at knowing if they are open. We pull into Pitlochry at 9:55pm and fill up.

Have some fruit and nuts outside the Bells distillery - the first on Journey’s Blend!

WEDNESDAY JUNE 3RD FORTROSE TO KIRKWALL 150 MILES RA: After a few photos with Jim, and some old chap wandering up and randomly taking pics of the bikes too – well they are pretty nice looking, and off we head.

We hit Thurso in good time for the ferry after some blinding roads north of Wick. Tight left and right handers, swooping S-bends and some serious gradients give us both a work out. At one point I am considering using the emergency run off lane for a little respite and a laugh but think better of it.

Eventually we run past John O’Groats, in preparation for falling off the mainland at Scrabster. Here on the map, beyond the land, is just marked “here be dragons.” We have almost ridden from one end of the mainland to the other. So far so good I think.

There is a sense of excitement that all my planning is about to come off. Passing into Stromness Harbour this sense grows.

The quick blast from Stromness to Kirkwall takes us through some of the most ancient sites in Scotland, chambers and stone circles I have been reading about since I was little, the landscape is peppered with antiquity.

However no time to stop this evening as time is drawing on and Highland Park’s ambassador Gerry Tosh is waiting for us to roll up.

Thankfully it is easy to spot the distillery, its pagodas jutting out above the rooftops. We swing in through the gates, under the iron wrought Highland Park letters and into the courtyard. Distillery number one, part one of our blend.

After a quick thirst quenching beer, whistle stop tour of the distillery and meeting up with the Drapers (Rob and Paul) from Singlemalt TV who have agreed to film the trip, Gerry lays out the four samples and it’s down to the serious part of the day.

One is rejected pretty quickly. Serious sulphur and almost no colour. Another one is picked off, this time it is a rich deep colour but there is something on the nose that is not pleasant. This we find out was done deliberately by Mr Ramsay to show the finer points of maturation.

So two samples left and to be honest there is not a lot in them to separate them. Both have notes of honey and heather, but one has just a touch more vanilla edge to it and that’s our winner. Wrapped in a T shirt, it is lovingly coddled deep in one of my panniers with the promise not to drink it.

Another beer, bed and food waits and the near by Lynnfield Hotel, so we don’t have to worry about the bikes.

KH: 0800 Wake and fall into shower. Discover that other pillow in bed has a chocolate mint on it. Discover another melted on my neck.

Breakfast on kippers Stop at Tain for the pies and cakes provided by Rob’s Dad yesterday. People keep stopping and pointing at the bikes, especially the Enfield.

True it is a good looking bike, and sounds great.

Would love to wave but I don’t dare take my hand off the bars.

Berriedale Braes on the A9 show the true potential of the Enfield – at the top of the Braes, I hit a false neutral and everything goes pear shaped. Tip in to a series of hairpins with odd cambers on a huge steep hill with the bike at an unknown speed, in an unknown gear and brakes of dubious capability. In the end I slow down to a crawl and go round like Mary Poppins, but it is better than coming out the other side in an ambulance.

Ferry crossing dead calm, and wonderful.

“No need for Doris! I know the way”. Having boasted of my knowledge of Orkney on the ferry, I spend an anxious 30 minutes to Kirkwall hoping that I do. Luckily the clay foundations of my glorious boasts remain undiscovered and we go straight there.

Highland Park, and Gerry Tosh. Arrive about 9:30pm. Doubles the number of distillery tours I have been on. The only other tour was also round the Highland Park distillery. Attempt to learn. Gerry mentions that the spirit interacts with the copper of the stills, but cannot tell me how. “Ask John Ramsey - he’ll know”.

I am surprised by the variability of whisky from different casks, and while I cannot necessarily detect the smells Rob and Gerry describe, I can detect differences. Rob and Gerry do a great job of not making me feel like an idiot, and take me seriously. I am pleased to see that we all agree on the sample to be selected.

THURSDAYJUNE 4TH KIRKWALL TO FORT WILLIAM 220 MILES RA: Abright and early start on Orkney to get some footage at the distillery and some photos at the gates.

We have settled on getting some classic shots of the bikes at Stenness, a series of stones near the more famous Ring of Brodgar, just past Maes Howe. But the lure of these famous stones is too much and we decide to dice with the ferry times and go up to Brodgar.

On the route down to Fort William, Rob Draper decides he wants some action footage.

Unfortunately until you become used to a camera unit standing on some seriously tight bends you tend to tense up. Not good when you are trying to be smooth and flowing through the corners. After a narrow miss, due to my misjudgement, of Ken’s back tyre and a wander through the white line we reach our first pit stop of the day, Glenmorangie.

Our host, Annabel Meikle, proudly shows off the company’s new still, but no sampling today as we still have a fair way to go. Instead it’s soup and sandwiches then out on the road again towards Loch Ness and Fort William.

The ride goes through some glorious patches of blooming gorse. This ladens the air with the heady scent of honey.

We roll into Urquhart Castle. One of my favourite castles in Scotland, its positioning, history and just the feel of the place.

The next stop is at the Commando Memorial at Spean Bridge. This used to be my stopping point between Glasgow and Inverness when I lived there. It is a good monument to Lord Lovett’s men and a poignant reminder of the sacrifice the armed services have made and continue to make.

Aquick rub of one of the soldier’s shoes for good luck and a swift prayer staring at the awesome sight of the mountains where these men trained and off we head. Finally to meet Tom at Fort William.

KH: Up early to get some photos at the distillery and we shoot off to Stenness for a bit of motorcycle/World Heritage Site action.

Absolutely amazing run down from Glenmorangie, through Muir of Ord (no stopping – shame. I really like Glen Ord), Beauly, Drumnadrochit and stop at Castle Urquhart for a bit of filming and photography. Changed a bit since I was last here, and the planting all but obscures the castle for photography, and it is closed. We fool around for a while, then open a gate and push the bikes in for a few stills. On down the Great Glen to Spean Bridge and the Commando Memorial. Rob and I babble excitedly at each other about corners, bikes and the road until I discover that my waterproof trousers have split up one leg.

Quick rub of the foot of the statue for luck, gawp at the epic view of Ben Nevis, then run down into Fort William. All through this run I have had no bother from the Enfield - below 55 the vibrations are bearable, and I have got the hang of the gearbox – change early, with enough time to check you are in a real gear.

This is a great bike for these roads.

Fort William does not change. Meet Tom and his Triumph Trophy. Perhaps now Rob will stop going on about how smooth and comfortable the Bonnie is!

TM: I arrived in Fort William in late afternoon, fairly secure in my knowledge of the town. I’d spent loads of time there during my four years as The Scotsman’s Highlands and Islands reporter and the location of the Park Lodge Guest House. Five complete circuits of the horrendous one-way system later, I couldn’t find it. I parked up and searched for a street map.

Fort William is Ben Nevis central.

Unfortunately, you can’t actually see Britain’s highest mountain from the town.

At 9:00pm my mobile rang. “We’re downstairs” said Rob. This trip is ON!

We scrape into the Ben Nevis, right on the edge of last food orders, for large helpings of workmanlike pub freezerfood, my lasagne not quite warmed all the way through, and after a wee sniff’n’swallie at the Highland Park sample selected the previous day (immense; that fantastic HP combination of sherry, peat and a whiff of sea air, only with knobs well and truly on) it’s back to the Park Lodge through the weirdly malevolant streets of Fort Bill (the ghosts of drunken off duty redcoats reeling back to barracks) and to bed.

We have a really early rise. Tomorrow we have to get to Kennacraig for the 1:00pm ferry to Islay, and that means by 12:15pm. It’s 100 miles, give or take, via Oban.

FRIDAY JUNE 5TH FORTWILLIAM TO PORTASKAIG 150 MILES RA: Another early start and I find Rob Draper in the car park wiring up the Bonnie and the Enfield with little lipstick cameras to capture some onboard action.

We arrive at Oban deciding that we have ridden long enough with out a fry up and find the perfect place on the seafront, £1.99 for a plate full.

Another ferry trip, I am beginning to enjoy these, riding the bike on and off the deck. We huddle up on the sundeck, despite the rain, and chat. Food is in order so it’s the delightful CalMac scampi and chips all round.

After a brief and freak hail storm as we come in to Port Askaig, it’s a quick blast across the island avoiding mental sheep and impassive cows that just stare at our odd convey as we pass to Kilchoman.

Islay’s newest distillery has become legal, making it the furthest west, and when we visit it’s being sand blasted by the onshore breeze.

Kilchoman puts everything you need to know about distilling in one place. From malting to mashing and distilling to filling and then the years of maturation it’s all here, you can even sit and watch the barley grow in the nearby fields.

But we had work to do, or rather the owner’s son had to, beating the living daylights out of the casks until the bungs jumped out.

Samples collected, we do not taste them at the distillery as we still had to get back to Port Askaig, and we nip up the road to the Kilchoman church to have a look round.

Here is one of the handful of iconic crosses on Islay. This 14th Century cross has designs on the back with Christian symbolism on the reverse.

At its foot, and judging by the depth and wearing on the holes this had been going on for decades, people were obviously leaving money in these hollows topped with smooth rocks.

Why break tradition I thought, slipping some cash into one and offering a swift prayer for the rest of the trip.

Back at the hotel we set up to pick our choice from the three cask samples Anthony had given us at the distillery.

To be honest initially it was quite hard to get past the peat. These drams are only three years old so youthful and packed with alcohol.

However we settled on one that seemed to have more cask interaction. Winner number two, the piece of our Journey’s Blend jigsaw starts to fall into place.

KH: Up early to get to Kennacraig for the ferry. Tom reckons we are leaving too early, but he hasn’t travelled with the Enfield.

Breakfast in Oban, and lots of photos and filming by the harbour, before pushing on to Kennacraig. Traffic stops about 15 miles short.

Long enough for Rob D to film us sat on the wall by the side of the road.

Other side and we scoot over the island to Kilchoman, and Anthony Wills. My third distillery tour! This one interests me because of the local approach taken – the barley grown on the farm is used in the whisky, none of it is used for blending (except for Journey’s Blend!), and the farm had interpretation boards about its management agreements.

Anthony mentions that the spirit interacts with the copper of the stills, but cannot tell me how. “Ask John Ramsey – he’ll know”.

Samples collected, there is time to look round the local church yard, with its late medieval cross and grave slabs. The church itself looks fairly interesting, but is fenced off.

TM: Well, I say ‘really early’. We’re refuelled and out of Oban by around 8.00am, but breakfastless.

Bikes and a lack of breakfast don’t go well together. And this is where the whole theoretical question of motorcyling and the human intake of solid and liquid substances starts to exercise my brain.

When you’re on a bike, doing an average, say, 55 miles an hour on a journey of four hours, it’s like standing in a storm force wind, grimly, more or less, holding onto a bucking and bouncing piece of machinery which, at any given moment, could kill you. While other people in larger, more solid lumps of metal try and kill you.

Now, this is exciting, thrilling even. But it uses up a lot of energy. So the consumption of enormous quantities of food is essential. And salads won’t cut it. A couple of radishes and some salsify won’t keep your motor running What we want is breakfast. And not your croissant and capuccino efforts. We need tea and fat. We find both (all inclusive full-on breakfast for £1.99) at a place called MacTs, which it takes me ages to realise is the new name for that venerable Oban institution, MacTavish’s Kitchen. Then someone notices that fruit scones have just arrived, fresh from the oven. We all order two each. With extra butter. Welcome, transfats!

Tarbert looms like a mini-Balamory to the left as I follow Ken’s chugging process.

It’s a calm, easy crossing. I’m a veteran of 14- hour nightmare gale-force wallows across the North Sea to Shetland, so this is nothing. At Port Askaig, we have our bikes untied and hey presto, it’s Islay. For a very short visit indeed.

It’s 3.30pm by the time we’re landlubbed and ready to head for Kilchoman.

So here we are, pulling up a very dusty farm track to the only corrugated iron malting kiln in Scotland.

The insistence by founder Anthony Wills on having a functioning maltings almost killed the project off in its infancy, when the kiln caught fire. It’s been rebuilt, and the tiny maltings is a glory in itself, a tribute to Anthony’s commitment to using the adjoining farm’s barley and showing every stage of whisky manufacture on the one site. Though at £6 million, it’s a lot of money for Scotland’s westernmost distillery.

Lovely visitor centre, perjink washbacks and mashtuns, great still room. Anthony is a former wine merchant who has sunk his whole life into this project. It looks finally as thought things are going to work out.

We obtain three samples in medicine bottles, all of them speckled with charcoal from the American Bourbon casks used to age the spirit. Then it’s back to Port Askaig to check in at the hotel.

After dinner, we sample the three Kilchomans. They’re all overpoweringly peaty and astringently youthful.

I was expecting this, as the ‘new spirit’ I have at home is so powerful it affects your tastebuds and nasal passages for hours. We choose the least abrasive of the whiskies, and hit the hay.