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Issue 48 - Road tripping whisky

Scotland Magazine Issue 48
December 2009

 

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Road tripping whisky

We catch up with the team their journey and blend.

Saturday 6th June Port Askaig to Bladnoch, 240 miles RA: The earliest start so far, with check in being at 6.15am, so it’s a case of breakfast on the ferry and then we all pretty much pass out and get some shut eye. I manage to ensconce myself in a coffin-like manner along one of the seats in the galley, rising like the living dead with about 20 minutes to go before docking. It’s going to be a long day to Inveraray and beyond.

This part of the world is truly spectacular. A different, more gentle landscape of lochs and glens. The twisting roads are also a joy.

You could seriously wind up dead down this stretch to Glasgow, simply by admiring the views.

Next to greet us is Raymond Armstrong the owner of Bladnoch, the third in our distillery odyssey. And what a place.

Originally owned by Diageo for blends and storage, this place is huge. Raymond stores other people’s casks here for maturing so there is some interesting liquid about the place, including an oak aged gin.

The liquid is brilliant and eventually we settle on a little bourbon refill number that has the classic lowland sweetness and vanillas. Part three of our blend is in place leaving just two more stops.

KH: Breakfast is a bowl of Cal Mac porridge (not as good as I’d hoped), then off to Inveraray for a cup of tea, scones and new waterproof trousers.

Some lovely views of Ailsa Craig, but it is a fast road, so not much spare brain for sightseeing – the Enfield is too involving at those speeds. Stop for petrol at Ballantrae (this is turning into a Robert Louis Stevenson trip - Kidnapped yesterday, and Master of Ballantrae tomorrow. When do we reach Skeleton Island?).

Bladnoch, and Raymond Armstrong, the distillery owner. The stills are not running here, so get an excellent shot of Raymond stood inside the still, while he mentions that the spirit interacts with the copper of the stills, but cannot tell me how.

“Ask John Ramsey, he’ll know”.

TM: Breakfast on the ferry, then we all crash out for a couple of hours.

The funny thing about this trip so far is the lack of serious drinking. It’s just too hard. Each day we ride, sniff whisky, eat, have a pint or two, sleep.

We stop in Inveraray, and by this time I am seriously cold. Part of its lack of fat (that Calmac breakfast was a half-hearted attempt at healthiness: porridge and yoghurt. Stupid, stupid stupid). Part of it is an absence of jumpers. We eat a cafe’s entire stock of fruit scones, pour down coffee.

I make a sharp exit, alone, from Ballantrae, as I’m aware that we’re running late, and my old pal Dave Donaldson, Broons supremo at Dundee superpublisher DC Thomson, is meeting us at Bladnoch. It’s odd to be travelling alone. And, on average, 15 mph faster than my colleagues.

Finally, Bladnoch. There’s a crossroads, a bridge, a salmon river. A pub and a distillery.

It’s like heaven would be if there wasn’t any sea there.

Dave is there. He arrived two hours ago, but Raymond Armstrong, ebullient Irish owner of the distillery, has been entertaining him in the lovely gardens at the river’s edge.

For the superblend, Raymond is unstinting.

He prepares 11 samples for us. Eleven. Sherry casks, bourbon casks, refilled butts, nuclear hogsheads. Rob and I tackle the job of tasting with, it should be said, rather too much enthusiasm. The bikes are parked for the night, after all.

Sunday 7th June Bladnoch to Oldmeldrum, 280 miles RA: Tom is up and out early this morning as he is doing the ribbon cutting honours at the Ayr Classic bike show. We settled on that the SingleMalt TV crew, Ken and I would head up to Old Meldrum and Glengaroich as an advanced party and meet Tom there. It would be the longest leg on the trip and at the Enfield’s pace it was a wise choice.

For some reason the thought of Samuel Johnson’s pompous line about being bored of London, and his subsequent rambling about and against Scotland during his tour with Mr Boswell pop into my head.

Shame the motorbike wasn’t invented back in the late 18th century, it is truly a great tool for discovering Scotland on.

So far we have seen so much of this country.

It’s changing landscapes from Orkney to Islay and the Borders, and it has never failed to engage and thrill. Even the tense atmosphere of a night out in Fort William has its odd charm.

Nothing much stopped us from reaching our destination, Glengarioch – which when we got there was closed.

The night at the Meldrum Arms is one of those pleasant events where we are all pretty relaxed, no early start.

KH: First up is a fantastic windy road through Galloway Forest Park to New Galloway, pausing only to gape like village idiots at the scenery, geology and wildlife and take photos of the bikes at Clatteringshaws dam.

Just north of Abington I see something to my left, and turn to see a buzzard, about three feet away! Fantastic, if a little frightening Everything is shut up at Glengarioch, but the security guard directs us to the hotel. Rob, Rob and Paul are clearly not familiar with Doric, so it is fun to watch them nod enthusiastically, grimace nervously and drive off and take a wrong turn. Arrive at the hotel to find Tom is already here, and has already slated the Enfield to the receptionist TM: The next part of the trip is easy on a bike like the Bathtub, and in good weather: to Aberdeen, motorway the entire way. The section between Glasgow and the Granite City is the road I travel most in Scotland, so I’m on autopilot a lot of the way.

I’m at Oldmeldrum by three in the afternoon, and despite having been here before, I can’t find the distillery.

Glengarioch is as big, old and as impressive as I remember from 1992. Glengarioch has (mothballed, alas) a full-size floor maltings attached, which was once much in demand for the quality of its product. I’ve always had a soft spot for this delicate, buttery malt, though a lot of folk don’t rate it. Me and Michael Jackson, though, are among them.

Monday 8th June Oldmeldrum to Muthill, 125 miles RA: When we get to Glengaroich we are met by manager Kenny Smith, who takes us straight into the warehouses to find the casks.

No presentations or tours here, just down the line chat about what we might be looking for and how the trip has been.

Again because we are driving there is no tasting, only nosing and both samples are packed with the classic Glengarioch sweetness, toffeed notes and a little hint of wood.

We finally roar through the gates at Glenturret past the huge metal grouse structure. After all this is the home of the Famous Grouse and a perfect place to meet master blender John Ramsay who is going to put the blend together out of the four parts we have collected so far.

The fifth part of the wheel comes from Glenturret itself. As Neil Cameron the distillery manager swings the heavy iron door open to the warehouse that familiar dunnage and maturing smell hits you and wraps you up like a blanket.

Now the magic happens. Sometimes I wish you could tap into peoples’ thoughts because I really wanted to know what is going on in John’s head as he puts the blend together.

Gone are the flowery words of whisky writers and tasters, this is just straight pragmatic stuff. A little age, a little spice, some good backbone and a hint of peat.

To say it is awe inspiring that he hits the nail on the head the first time with the blend is an understatement.

The culmination of some 1,000 odd miles, some odder than others, of travel, tasting and unforgettable scenery all brought together in one glass.

After we say our goodbyes and make our way to the final hotel my head is filled with thoughts about the trip.

I cannot really believe we have done it, without any major hiccups.

KH: The warehouses at Glengarioch are amazing, but that’s another story for another trip. We collect samples, we don’t sample these - we have to ride, after all.

Through to Crieff, to meet John Ramsey.

No tour here, we are here to do a job. Samples are drawn and we are back to the meeting room for the blend.

John lays out his equipment - beakers, pipettes, hydrometer, colorimeter, glasses, and starts by nosing (smelling) all the samples, then tasting each (spitting out, of course). John’s descriptions are totally different from the marketing/journalist descriptions I have heard so far. No Christmas cakes here. Honey, heather, phenols and not much else.

He mixes the first blend – a 10mm sample, which does the rounds. Smells fantastic, and as I agitate the glass, I can smell the different components. We taste. Job done, I reckon, but it is unlikely that he’d hit it on the first blend... We try another, using more of the Bladnoch, to get more age into the blend.

I have no idea what that means, in real terms, but the result is not as nice. Try again, with more Kilchoman, for a peatier whisky.

No. Right first time.

Before we leave, I take John to one side.

“John, about the interaction between the copper and the spirit...” He explains. Maybe it is not all myth after all...

TM: Glengarioch has some truly wonderful dunnage warehouses, spread over a higgledy-piggledy clutter of streets and lawns.

We nose (another biking day, so no swilling) three samples; in the end we choose one from a 1999 bourbon cask, as for me it exhibits what I think of as prime Glengarioch: Butterscotchy, vanilla overtones, a tiny hint of peat.

It’s time to go. Master blender John Ramsay is calling.

Things seem to speed up at this point. John Ramsay is a businesslike man in a shortsleeved white shirt and tie, a combination I always associate with formidable efficiency.

We walk at a stern pace (in armoured motorcycle breeks, it’s more of a stern waddle) to a warehouse, where instantly it’s apparent we’re in the hands of experts. Casks have been chosen in advance, three are tapped with great efficiency, and then it’s a wobbly waddle back to a section of the Famous Grouse Experience restaurant to try them out.

What happens next is a revelation and an education, but then most revelations are. It’s like all the faff in whisky ‘connoisseurship’ and appreciation falls away.

John is a pro. Each sample is tried with a strict 20 percent water added. His scale of descriptions is accurate and deliberately limited: Honey. Dry. Peat. Sherry. Oak. Sweet.

Bland. I feel like a boy with a Meccano set meeting Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

But the key skill is based on years of experience, and involves nose, palate and intuiton. I think somewhat to John’s surprise – is a really distinctive, positive component.

Poured. Done. Add water. Perfect.

This is Scotland in a glass. That’s it.

End of blend.

Tuesday 9th June Muthill to Littleport, 400 miles RA: A leisurely and magnificent breakfast heralds the start of the day, the final push for home and some 400 miles of riding.

Apost breakfast wander takes us round the old church and tower at Muthill. A surprisingly peaceful place, despite the heavy farm traffic bashing through the village.

We do a few end of trip interviews for SingleMalt TV, say our final goodbyes and roar off the wrong way…just for the camera.

Then it’s off, the last leg. Ken and I take a fairly brisk pace, but in the back of my mind is the thought that most accidents happen within a few miles of home. Given the 1,000 or so we have already done, this last part is the equivalent to being nearly home.

KH: Cooked breakfast (how does he get his scrambled eggs like that?), then a quick look round Muthill Old Church.

A few interviews in the back yard of the Barley Bree, then we are off.

We stop at Blyth Services. Last fill up, and we push on. The rain catches us around Sleaford – absolute stair-rods one moment, then evening sun the next. Around Sutton Bridge, a huge barn owl flies out to have a look at us, then disappears. A sign that we are nearly home. We stop in briefly for a pee in King’sLynn and to say cheerio. Doesn’t seem right to just indicate at a junction and wave, then I am back to biking on myown.

Sounds silly, but it is odd riding without Rob’s headlight buzzing in the mirror. Another barn owl checks out the bike - no doubt that I am back on the Fens.

TM: We shake hands formally, like the gentlemen we are. We only met on Thursday night. Five days ago and it feels like the ending of some great expedition, not a 1000-mile rumble around a few distilleries.

I hit Aberdeen with an hour to spare before I can put the bike on the ferry to Shetland. In the teeming granite city, alone, bereft of my leather-breeked companions, I feel like a spaceman, an alien just landed from the Planet Tharg, or possibly Wick.

When I get back to the, thoroughly latted, a seagull has deposited an almighty piece of guano on the seat. The first damage of the trip.

At least no-one’s nicked anything.

I don’t feel this should end now. I want to keep going. There are other distilleries to visit, there are roads to take, blind alleys to explore.

I clatter onto the Hrossey’s car deck, flick the bike onto its centre stand with nowpractised ease, and stamp upstair to my cabin. It’s time to go home.