Six Malts and a Motorcycle

First published in Shaft, the Kawasaki GT Club magazine, December 1999

The midges are ferocious around Achnasheen. After forty minutes in the open air Julie and I were left cowering in a phone box, huddled around the feeble flame produced by a midge-repellent candle bought in desperation from a nearby garage, praying for deliverance from the airborne tormentors that swarmed noisily around our pathetic hiding place. At least it could get no worse, we thought. (We were wrong.) And it was all the fault of whisky.

We should have known, for motorcycles and whisky go together like Laphroaig and Tizer, but we had been looking forward to our holiday ever since I had first seen the Friends of the Classic Malts handbook. Six distilleries dotted neatly around spectacular scenery: join the dots and that’s one superb motorcycle tour, especially as so many of them are reached along twisting single-track roads.

So earlier this year we picked a few days at random that we could both take as holiday, found a lion tamer to look after two children while we were away, and waited with fingers crossed through a succession of wet weeks and murky months. Would summer never begin? And then – hallelujah! – on the Monday of our departure in the last week of July the sun beat down out of a cloudless sky. Joy was unconfined.

Julie, my pillion, and I live north of Inverness, which made Ballindalloch our first destination. After a pleasant journey through Speyside we found the Cragganmore distillery and received a friendly welcome despite its lack of a visitor centre. We had no plans to look around the distillery but enjoyed our view of the solidly built buildings and the neatly trimmed lawns that surrounded them. There’s always a great feeling of peace around a distillery – perhaps it’s no coincidence that so many monasteries got into brewing and distilling. My feeling of peace evaporated when we returned to the bike to discover a puddle of oil now staining the otherwise spotless car park.

This seems a good point at which to introduce the third member of the tour: C578 WOY, a thirteen-year-old 1000cc Kawasaki GTR which unlike many other bikes was never given a name but in recent years has increasingly often been called “You Bloody Thing”. The cause of the leak was a mystery so Julie and I returned to Inverness and left YBT in the tender care of Morrice, the mechanic who had serviced him a few days earlier. In the meantime we sat in the sun and contemplated the unappetising prospect of continuing the holiday trapped inside a four-wheeled sauna. Yes, it was that hot.

But Morrice’s magic spanner was our salvation; two hours later we were back on the bike, YBT’s corroded oil pipe patched up and capable of lasting the rest of the trip, we were promised.

As we were now three hours behind schedule we stuck to mostly main roads for the journey to distillery number two, high and lonely Dalwhinnie, where we arrived half an hour before the visitor centre closed. The welcome was again warm and included my first dram of the day, which slipped down a treat after the earlier alarums. Back in the car park there was no sign of oil but there was that distinctive distillery aroma wafting around us and into the hills. Heaven. We spent the night at an inn near Perth where I caught up on the Cragganmore I had missed earlier and we looked forward to continuing our journey.

Tuesday was another hot, cloudless day. That was the good news. The bad news was that to reach Glenkinchie we were faced with motorway from Perth to the Forth Road Bridge, the inevitable jam once we were across the bridge, then wall-to-wall traffic on the Edinburgh ring road. Most notable sight of the journey was the lazily drifting ten-mile-long streak of pollution which scarred an otherwise unsullied sky, originating from the refinery at Grangemouth.

After Dalkeith we turned off the A68 and within seconds we were back in quiet countryside. The contrast was remarkable, and we began to enjoy the journey once more as we picked our way through criss-crossing roads to another peaceful distillery.

Glenkinchie’s visitor centre will leave any whiskyphile (is there such a word?) drooling at the number of bottles and boxes which line its shelves. The exhibition was the best we saw all week and the distillery production line model is a marvel. Sad to say, its whisky is my least favourite of the Classic six. My taste runs to robust island malts and to my palate Glenkinchie is – dare I say it? – a little thin. Perhaps the kind lady behind the bar there could see something in my eyes, for instead of the ordinary 10-year-old I was handed a dram of the Distillers Edition: much richer, rounder, and a very tasty tot indeed. Recommended. But time pressed and we had a ferry to catch.

West is our favourite destination, for there the Highland scenery is unsurpassable: a glorious montage of imperious mountains, sparkling lochs, beckoning sea and winding roads that appear to have been designed purely for motorcycles; why people take cars on them I can’t imagine. YBT enjoyed his trip through, up, down, over and across Argyll to Kennacraig. So did his passengers. An hour later we were sailing across a calm sea towards the ultimate malt Mecca: Islay.

Wednesday began with the short hop from our B&B in Port Ellen to the distillery at Laphroaig: birthplace of the first malt I ever tasted. Otters had been seen there the previous morning but our luck was not in. The view was compensation. For the first time we took the guided tour, obediently following our host from room to room as part of an international group whose members’ expressions ranged from fascinated through baffled to bored. Let’s be honest – you’ve seen one distillery, you’ve seen nearly all.

Afterwards I enjoyed my dram, savouring it slowly, while Julie watched with bemused incomprehension. For the truth must be told: Julie can’t tell the difference between malt whisky and old turpentine; in fact she’d probably prefer the turps. The smell of whisky appals her, the taste disgusts her and the price leaves her open-mouthed with amazement. Well, she’s got a point there. It’s fortunate I don’t have a yearning for 50-year-old Springbank. The silver lining, of course, is that I get double rations on distillery visits.

After leaving Laphroaig we briefly explored the island before a tour of Lagavulin in company with a group of jolly jack tars who were taking part in the Classic Malts Cruise. Bet they didn’t get to Dalwhinnie. Lagavulin was notable for the view we got of the computer technology that many other distilleries hide, fearful of destroying the image of nineteenth century craftsmanship. Fortunately it’s the end result that matters, and after the tour I relaxed in the visitors room with a large glass of my favourite malt, feeling mellow in the extreme.

We left Islay after breakfast on Thursday, enjoyed an uneventful voyage back to Kennacraig, then turned north towards Oban. Along the way we made a detour to Easdale on Seil Island which is reached via an old up-and-down pack-horse bridge that has to be seen to be believed. And the sun still beat down. There had to be a catch; sure enough, oil was once again visible beneath YBT. The amount was small but it was there.

Oban distillery is an exception to the peaceful rule. It fronts directly on to a high street which bustles as busily as Blackpool, so it was no surprise that its visitor centre was busy too and keeping several staff on their toes. Perhaps that’s why no-one offered me a dram. No-one. The shop is worth visiting though, being at least as well stocked as Glenkinchie’s. Shame about that dram, though…

We spent the night at Glencoe, approaching from the south so we could enjoy the drama of Rannoch Moor and the magnificent mountains which dominate everything around them. If you’ve never been north through Glen Coe you’ve never lived. At the Clachaig Inn we were surrounded by husky mountaineers and assorted other outdoor types, all taking loudly after a day yomping through the hills. It takes all sorts – give me a motorcycle any day.

Friday was the final day of our whisky odyssey. The easy way to Mallaig is up the road to Fort William and left down the Road to the Isles; the interesting way is up the road and across Corran Ferry. This allowed is to meander through the splendid quiet of Ardgour, Moidart and Arisaig and has the added bonus of avoiding Fort William altogether. From Mallaig the ferry sails to Armadale in Skye, and from there we rode to Carbost, home of Talisker whisky and the sixth and last of the Classic Malts. The dram there was marvellous and the distillery gets bonus points for being the only one with motorcycle-only slots in its car park. I celebrated the completion of our trek by buying a bottle of Distillers Edition Lagavulin, causing Julie to shake her head in despair.

We left Skye on the tiny ferry that links Kylerhea with Glenelg, the five-minute journey enlivened by the seals that swim with ease through the rapid current between the island and the mainland. The road from Glenelg to Shiel Bridge, which offers some spectacular views, is another that would-be tourists must put on their itinerary, along with the magnificent Glen Carron road which has recently been upgraded from single-track and offers either beautiful views or a fast trip. It is not recommended to try both at the same time. After five days of sight-seeing and single-track roads I decided to give YBT a bit of a blast.

We were only doing 120mph when it became apparent that not all was well. I was already slowing when YBT belched grey smoke and stopped firing on at least one of its four cylinders. I switched off the engine and coasted to a halt in the middle of what Billy Connolly calls mamba country: that’s miles and miles of bugger-all. Only one part of the engine restarted; YBT was very poorly.

We did have some luck. The first vehicle at which I stuck out a hopeful thumb stopped to help then gave Julie and me a lift the few miles into Achnasheen. From there we phoned the RAC and settled down to wait. The weather was still fine and the view worth lengthy contemplation, so we contemplated it. Then the midges arrived…

The RAC arrived forty minutes later in the guise of a Volvo (just to rub salt into the wound) and bike trailer driven by the owner of the Lochcarron garage. Our deliverer from the midges was sympathetic as he drove back to where YBT leaned at a drunken angle, the side stand disappearing into tarmac made soft by the day’s heat. Before venturing from the car he pulled on a gauze midge hood which covered his head and entire body. It had been bad at Achnasheen but this was a bit over the top, I thought, and sprang from the car to help load YBT. Within seconds I was covered in blood-crazed midges which also flew into my ears, my nose and, whenever I was forced to gasp for air, my mouth. This was seriously unpleasant; the ten minutes we spent coaxing YBT on to the trailer felt more like thirty. After the loading we drove to Inverness with all the windows open to blow midges out of the car. A forlorn YBT was left for Morrice to find next day; the RAC man took us home.

While Julie bathed I opened the Distillers Edition Lagavulin: it had been worth it. The 16-year-old’s peat and fire was there, blending perfectly with rich fruit: it is a mouthful so firm you can chew it.

Our whisky odyssey covered 900 miles in five days (OK, the last fifty were by Volvo) plus several dozen nautical miles. I would recommend the tour to anyone. If you have a fortnight to spare a few detours and lazy days would make it even better, especially with a generous dram every evening.

YBT is now officially dead, and it was nothing to do with the oil leak. The old boy had completed almost 100,000 miles before one of his innards failed from old age and a broken end punched a hole through the front of the engine casing. At least he went out with a bang. Literally.

But don’t fret – by the time you read this I will be back on the road on Jim Borland’s old bike while he rides around on his brand new GTR with a smug grin. There’s synchronicity for you.

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