James' story is a fascinating one and he is one of the most interesting people that you could wish to talk with. For six weeks in the spring of 2010, he decided to try an visit as many whisky distilleries in Scotland as he could. Nothing particularly new about that, until you consider that he cycled the whole way. He wrote a whisky blog with a difference as he and his bike made that epic journey.
We are delighted that James has agreed to write a guest blog post for us about his journey, which can be found below. To read the full story of the trip and to read what he has been up to since, please visit his excellent and informative Scotch Odyssey blog. We are returning the favour and saying a big thank you by writing him a guest post, so feel free to check that out on Scotch Odyssey in a couple of days time. We hope that you enjoy the abridged version of James' travels.
- Karen & Matt
A Distillery Tour With A Difference
by James Saxon
|At Bladnoch distillery, Dumfries & Galloway|
Like all good ideas, the ambition to cycle around Scotland, dropping in on as many distilleries with ‘Welcome’ doormats as possible, has no definite genesis. Rather, it was a mish-mash of motives and fantasies, synthesised and cultivated within the confines of my more unusual states of mind. Once established, however, the scheme refused to budge. While my schoolmates would be trekking through South-East Asia or taking the fruits of the English education system to Africa, I would be pedalling through a Scottish spring, keeping an eye peeled for pagoda roofs.
I have always been prone to compulsive absorption in a new hobby, and single malt whisky has proved to be no exception. My procycling magazine subscription became Whisky Magazine and the Cairngorms and coastal regions were of greater interest than the Pyrenees and Alps. However, as a means of transport and experiencing the world, the bicycle remained central to my mission. How else could I remain alive to the sights, sounds and smells of Scotland and her terroir without being so fully exposed and self-reliant?
|The road near Carbost and Talisker distillery, Isle of Skye|
Day 12 of the Scotch Odyssey to Glen Garioch pointed out some of the flaws in this philosophy. Drenched by the rain and standing water on the A96, demonised by cars and trucks and demoralised by both, the tour had stopped being a gentle spin between glowing stills, reflecting on what implications the proximity of heather and barley might be, and had become a survival operation. For ten fraught and filthy miles I squeaked along the hard-shoulder, praying that the next enormous flat-bed lorry would nudge over towards the centre of the carriageway and not jerk me after it with its slipstream.
Things hardly improved in deepest, driechest Aberdeenshire as the rain continued to dribble out of the sky. Forty miles into the day, I finally squelched into the Glen Garioch visitor centre, and the lady behind the desk must have thought that the creature from the black lagoon wanted on the next tour.
"Have you any radiators I could use, please?" I mumbled, expecting my clothes to inflict a damp death if I put them on again following my tour and they had not had any chance to dry.
"Go over to the stillhouse," she said. "Tell them that Jane sent you to dry some things."
Stripping off in the Glen Garioch stillhouse and hanging my sodden clobber on a rack behind the spirit still is an experience I will never forget, and nor will the tour party who shuffled in just as I extricated myself from my shorts. I had a one-to-one tour with Fiona, and a long chat with both she and Jane in the visitor centre afterwards about my journey. Theirs was a kindly kick up the backside for me, but one which was pivotal to completing the 20 miles back to Huntly, and played a major part in galvanising me for the remaining four weeks.
From the Lowlands, Highlands and Speyside, it was up the northern coastline to Orkney, across to Skye and the remainder of the West Coast. I began to relish the mileage, the scenery and the new flavours that were creeping into the production process as I walked past more and more mashtuns. Islay was a case-in-point, an insistent smokiness pervading each of the incredibly busy distilleries. A word of warning, though: don’t do all eight tours in two and a half days. And not in the week before the Feis Ile festival.
|The trusty bike outside Kilchoman distillery, Islay|
After weeks of island-hopping, returning to a major centre of population shocked and thrilled me. Pedalling over the Clyde – and nearly joining the M8 – confirmed that I had reached Glasgow and bar a serious bike breakdown which was either impeccably well-timed or laughably unlikely with only a day to go, I loved the city. Glengoyne was my hottest tour and the journey there and back one of the most exhilarating.
The final day through Ayrshire and Dumfries and Galloway was memorable for many reasons: the nutter on the train, the extraordinary cuteness of the landscape, but most of all the sheer charming oddity of Bladnoch. After a tour that included a sample of oak-aged gin and seemingly every corner of the distillery, I was in danger of missing my train from Barrhill back home.
Martin Armstrong, son of distillery owner Raymond who had kindly opened the place up for me on the Saturday when he ought to have been revising for his university finals, offered a lift as far as Newton Stewart. The bike and panniers were thrown into the back of the Bladnoch Transit van, and we bombed along the country lanes at speeds I had rarely experienced over the previous six weeks while Martin supplied a potted history of the landmarks that passed in a blur. After a quick handshake, it was a fifteen mile time trial back to the station in baking heat. I made it, hairier, sweatier and happier than I have ever been.
I will admit that a car cannot really be beaten for practicality while distillery touring. If nothing else, there is space in the boot for all those distillery-exclusives. However, my solo cycle gave me a first-class, first-hand encounter with Scotland, her whiskies and above all her people – a distinctive, unchillfiltered race whose humour and hospitality materialised when I least expected but most needed it. Thanks to them, every dram I pour enthrals me with a vivid presence and emotive allusiveness more than malt, water and yeast could ever have managed on their own.
All images included in this article are © James Saxon.