The first week of our 2016 trip to Scotland was a huge success. We met new people, shared a house with close (and new) friends, popped corks with complete strangers and drove around the Speyside region as if we were home. In short; we had a blast.
|On we go…|
Monday, May 2nd 2016
As these things happen, we had to leave this place of happiness and continue our trip on our own and left the Monday morning before all housemates were even up, to go to special last-day-of-the-festival breakfast at the Glenfiddich distillery. At least, that is what Thomas was lead to believe. Ansgar had arranged a meeting with Gemma Paterson of William Grant & Sons to go see the Kininvie distillery, tucked away in a shed between the Glenfiddich and Balvenie distilleries. The surprise was kept secret right up to the open front door of the shed, where Thomas uttered a happy “Oh no, you didn’t…”. After some pictures and a good look around, (there is only the nine stills, so that went rather quick), it was time for a cup of coffee and a muffin at the Glenfiddich Malt Barn café (since there was no special last-day-of-the-festival breakfast – duh), and we hit the road to drive North via the boring A9 and catch the ferry in Gills Bay to Orkney.
|Two of the three sets of stills
En route, we passed many lovely places to eat and tearooms were plenty, but since we just had something small but nice, we decided to drive a little further until we decided it was time for a proper brunch. After we had passed Inverness for about half an hour or so, we spotted the Skiach Services in Evanton – the first decent looking place in a long while, and decided to stop. Oh boy. Everything on the menu seemed to be fried, right up to the coffee, judging from the taste. Not our best meal of the trip so far. Driving a kilometer further plenty of tea-rooms and “good food all day” places to be found. Just our luck, please take note and learn from our mistake.
Anyway, we continued up North. The higher you go, the less boring the A9 gets, and it turned out to be quite the ride with some steep hills with sharp bends along the way. As long as you are not stuck behind a lorry, this is a very enjoyable drive, with ample opportunity to stretch your legs, snap some pictures of the vistas and fill your tank. We had chosen to take the boat from Gills Bay to St. Margareth’s Hope, turning onto the A99 and follow the coastal route at Latheron, passing Wick where we could have stopped at the Old Pulteney distillery. Which we did not. Earlier as we had anticipated, we arrived at the harbour, and had an early dinner at the Seaview hotel in John o’ Groats. Again, not our favourite place of nourishment, but it filled the bellies for the bumpy boat ride that luckily lasted only about one hour. Arriving at Orkney, we immediately fell in love with the landscape and since everything on Orkney is a back road, including the A961 to Kirkwall, we had a relaxed drive to the Lynnfield hotel, located under the peat chimney of the Highland Park distillery. Literally. In the bar of the hotel we found some liquid dessert in shape of two different Imperials and after backing up the photos of the day, we were asleep before we knew it.
Tuesday, May 3rd 2016
A nice continental breakfast at the hotel, our first proper breakfast after the busy week we just had where breakfast had mostly consisted of a banana in the car, en route to our first and only distillery of today at Scapa, where we had pre-arranged a tour. The stills in this place are something special, but there will be more about them in a separate post. After the distillery, we went exploring the island a little. Most roads on the mainland of Orkney are the same as you can expect on the mainland of the mainland of the UK, but there is this one road through Stromness where we were sure we had landed in a street of one of the (too) many Harry Potter movies; pretty as a picture, but at some points barely wide enough to let through a normal car.
We were looking for the Standing stones of Brodgar, but somehow missed a sign, took a wrong turn and ended up at Skara Brae, a large area where an ancient Neolithic settlement is to be found. We ate a bite at the restaurant and again – not our day for finding quality food. Our search to the standing stones continued, and we ended up at the very windy cliffs of Yesnaby. A beautiful site to have seen, and if we ever return there, we will make sure we will walk the path further, unless we will be blown off once more.
|the Standing Stones
As these things go, after giving up on finding the stones we took a different route to the hotel, where we had a nice dinner in prospect. Turning a corner in Stenness, we first found the site of the stones of Stenness, with in the background, the circle of Brodgar. Both very impressive formations, where we are only to guess as to why they were even built (“Oye Graham, I be bored. Le’ us put up some of them big rocks and doo them in a circle. We point one at the sun at midday and the one that just broke, we put next tea the other one. Noone will understand in 500-odd years…”).
Whilst doing our lap of the largest circle, we walked into a Viking: Highland Park Global Brand Ambassador Martin Markvardsen. Quite unable to understand what we all were saying because the noise the winds decided to make, we shook hands and agreed we would start our conversation over at our planned dinner of that same evening at our hotel. We waited in the bar for Highland Park Visitor Center Manager Pat, Martin and his guests; editor of Swedish magazine “All about Whisky” and her Irish photographer. An interesting international company, enjoying a dinner paired with a nice selection of Highland Park whiskies. A very nice evening with good stories, shared laughs and a collective love for whisky and its interesting world. Back in the bar after dinner, we started conversing with the owner of the hotel and bar about his interesting selection of available bottles and his love for the various alcoholic drinks. We popped open the trunk of our car from where we could surprise him with a Dutch rye from Millstone and a newly released Gin from the Dutch Wagging Finger distillery.
Wednesday, May 4th 2016
A shower and breakfast before we would head out – all the way to the Highland Park distillery. It was a whole five minutes walk, if not six, so we were glad we finally reached the distillery gate. We had arranged a meeting with Martin and new Distillery Manager Marie Stanton for a chat and a Q&A (more about that later this year), after which Martin extensively showed us the distillery, including the top of the kilns and a rather elaborate tasting. A good thing we did not have to drive any more. Martins follow-up appointment was with a group of 22 Danes, who he had planned to show the Peat fields before touring them. Because our appointment was a tad longer than originally anticipated, we were invited into the bus with the Danes and joined them to the field where the Highland Park peat is harvested. Martin – being Danish, explained everything in Danish, so we could only pick up gestures and a handful of words that are common in Danish, English and / or Dutch, but we got the idea and the message. Back at the hotel, we had an early dinner and hit the sack early, because the alarm was set at somewhere before 05:00. A time we did not know existed.
Thursday, May 5th 2016
As said, the alarm sounded at a time where we were unsure we were still dreaming, the world just invented a new moment of existence or it really was the alarm that just sounded. So it appears five in the morning does exist, and on Orkney, it comes as bright as if it were noon. Getting dressed and packing the last items of our suitcase, we left the room meeting a nicely dressed tray with breakfast materials, We guess the hotel is used to guest leaving at impossible times. On the boat from Stromness to Thurso, we met a number of the 22 Danes we had met at the Highland Park moors the day before. The coin dropped with us, when we double checked the appointment we had made for the Wolfburn distillery, that was confirmed we were slotted in with a group of 22 people. Guess who we met at the (very nice) distillery…
After this final meeting with the Danes and the people of the distillery (who were all hard at work at this early hour), we drove off to have an unannounced look at the most Northerly distillery on the mainland of Scotland: the Dunnet Bay distillery. The small, predominantly gin producing distillery was also very busy with working people, mainly with the current expansion. Not being set up (yet?) for visitors at the moment, we had a quick chat with the founder/owner, jumped in our car and decided to come back whenever we would be in the area next time. For some reason we had decided on our planning not to go to the Pulteney distillery (again) at this point, so we drove South again, to have an early lunch at the Laidhay tea room in Dunbeath, just before Brora. A very impressive open toastie later, we were en route again, and since we were in the neighbourhood, we stopped for another unplanned visit, at the Clynelish distillery.
Theme of the day however: they had just started with their expansion / large maintenance, so they were not open for tours / visitors. They did however let us into remnants of the Brora distillery down the road, where we had a quick look at the abandoned site. Sad to see how everything still seems to be in place (mostly), but will (allegedly) never be operational again. Cruising on, shooting past our actual destination, we stopped at the Dalmore distillery, where were tucked into the next tour of six (no Danes). Having a moment of acceptable WiFi, we worked on some social media updates, after which we enjoyed the tour at the distillery that was (can you guess?) largely closed for maintenance. The good thing was that we could make pictures wherever we wanted, and got a good shot of the flat-topped stills and the cooling jackets on the spirit stills. A short drive North again brought us to the Dornoch Castle hotel, our “home” for the next two nights. The Thompson brothers run a very decently stocked bar there, where the main theme seems to be a selection of old bottlings from long forgotten bottlings and closed distilleries, all for reasonable prices. Reasonable meaning that you still pay a handsome price for some of the drams, but considering most of what you get to drink you will probably never lay your hands lips on again, the price is (very) right.
Friday, May 6th 2016
So, we had not been to Pulteney on Monday or Thursday, because we had made an appointment with the distillery on Friday for an early tour and chat, and bright and early we were on the A9 and A99 again, to the Seaport of Wick. We enjoyed the long trip, and were welcomed open heartedly at the distillery, where we got to see and touch anything we wanted. A slight cross-over from the day before; the were thoroughly cleaning the distillery at the moment, which delivered a couple of nice pictures.
Because the North did not hold much for us other than vistas, more vistas and even more vistas, we slowly drove down the A9, which seems to be impossible not to take when going to this area. Although we had promised ourselves not to eat at the same location twice this trip, the stop for lunch at the Laidhay cafe and Tearoom was no punishment.
Further South, in Tain, lies the Glenmorangie distillery, where we re-visited the distillery for an update on our information, after which we drove to Balblair for a similar update. Nothing shocking there (for us), but we had nice weather along the way, enjoyed some beautiful landscapes and without the pressure of our previously tight schedule, this was a nice change of pace. Back to the Dornoch Castle Hotel, where we had a view at the location where the boys’ distillery is growing into place, there were no signs of any of the equipment yet, but their plans sound solid the building of the old firehouse is in full affect and they have enough energy and ideas to create a beautiful, honest product. Back at their the bar, we started talking gin with the bartender at duty and before we knew it, we had put the remnants of the bottle of Wagging Finger Gin on the bar and poured them something unknown, new and Dutch. Just us, having some fun as Dutch Spirit Ambassadors again, making sure that Willemijn’s first Gin was Dornoch approved.
Saturday, May 7th 2016
Having changed our planning with putting the Dalmore distillery from Saturday to the Thursday, we had the Saturday off, and decided to drive around a little. From Dornoch to Talisker, from Talisker to Drumnadrochit, A mere 215 km following the A9 to inverness, turning onto the A835 right before the Cromarty Bridge. This is probably the best route to the West, and has two short, very driveable single lane parts in the middle. The road becomes the larger A87 at Auchtertyre and will continue over the Skye bridge onto the island, where at Sligachan, we followed the A863 and B8009 to Carbost, where the Talisker distillery is vested. A beautiful three hour drive we could recommend to anyone willing to take the time. Talisker itself was, like all Diageo distilleries we had visited these last days, only working five days a week, and therefore, not operating on Saturdays. After the standard tour, we walked up the steep hill to go to the highly recommended oyster shed, that on itself was well worth the view and the drive.
Next stop: Drumnadrochit, another 156 km to go. Nu rush, quite the bit shorter than the morning and although the first part of the trip on Skye was the same – simply because there are no different roads to take, for the largest part we had a new route to explore with new sceneries. Shortly after the Skye bridge we parked the car for the obligatory picture of Eilean Donan Castle in Loch Duich, when a Police car passed us with high speed and sounds, into the direction we were about to take. Not something we took much notice of at the time, since we had heard it before, so we continued en-route and enjoyed the views and meandering roads. Halfway the A87, after about 100 km from Talisker, we met the source of the sirens. A queue of about a dozen cars on both sides was held up by the police and an ambulance, and we were told investigation would last about four to five hours. We decided not to wait, but drive back via the only road available – the same road as we had taken this morning, adding an extra 100 km to our trip.
Later than anticipated we arrived at a fairly busy Fiddler’s Inn in Drumnadrochit, where we were welcomed with a quick dram by owner Jon, who sadly had to go to a wedding so we only got to see him a couple of minutes. After a great dinner at the restaurant, we crossed the street to get a good night’s rest at the B&B. A lovely place, where we should consider staying a little longer next time we get to the area.
Sunday, May 8th 2016
The Fiddler’s Inn B&B serves a very good breakfast in the restaurant, and after a quick bite we drove to Dalwhinnie, deciding to avoid the main road and choose the A82 to Fort Augustus, with Loch Ness on our left. Nessie was there, but covered in a thick layer of mist, so we once more did not get to meet face to face. At Spean Bridge we turned onto the A86, which we followed to Laggan, where the A889 lead us to the front door of the distillery. A route we would recommend to anyone with this destination, because after a few times on the A9, most of its charm wears off.
At the Dalwhinnie distillery (five days per week operation, and – you guessed it, refurbishing the still house), we got our last stamp in the Diageo Passports and received a wee quaigh. Waiting for the tour to start we had a cup of thick, warm chocolate sauce, which works very well with a dram of Dalwhinnie. Snapping some pictures for our archives, we toured around the distillery, which proudly show her two huge wormtubs at the front of the building, whereas Taliskers wormtubs were secretive hidden away.
Thomas & Ansgar