The famous Warren Ellis quote, “Scotch whisky is made from barley and the morning dew on angel’s nipples,” might not be true, but it does allude to the magic of its manufacture. In essence, single-malt Scotch whisky is made from just water, barley, peat, yeast and the treatment of time. The barley is malted over peat smoke, and water and yeast are added to the fermenting mash. The distillation purifies the mix, and then the cask is allowed to mature.
But the nuances of each single malt’s production are far more elaborate than this. Each distillery has its own refined processes, and each barrel becomes its own time capsule, something that is almost impossible to duplicate. The intricate alchemy involved in each stage usually results in each barrel having its own distinct characteristics.
Auchentoshan is the only distillery in Scotland to triple-distill its Scotch. This gives it a smooth and elegant taste, with notes of citrus and nuts. Single malts from this Lowlands region generally exhibit soft, floral traits that have led them to be referred to as ‘Lowland Ladies,’ and they are widely considered to be the most accessible whiskies.
The same could be said for the area’s mountain biking, and a big reason for this is the 7stanes development: A network of seven mountain-bike centers spanning the south of Scotland, offering all-weather, beginner-friendly trails in convenient locations. The biggest and most popular of these trail centers is Glentress, located in the Tweed Valley just south of Edinburgh.
The moment we pulled into the center’s paved parking lot we were floored by the facilities. In addition to bike-washing stations and showers, there was a shop where bikes are sold, rented and repaired, a well-stocked café and abundant maps and trail signs. We had never seen such a well-developed trailhead, and it signified that mountain biking here has been legitimized in the same way that golf and soccer have.
The development of the Glentress trails began in 2000 with the Red Route, which includes the famed Spooky Wood Descent, a roller coaster full of little jumps, rock drops and berms. The well-built trails are fun and flowy, making them attractive to a wide range of riders. The surface consists of manicured, crushed gravel and finely sculpted dirt, and the tempo is fluid, with no tricky surprises. It contrasted starkly with the weathered, rocky trails we’d ridden in the Highlands. Just as the single malt there had reflected the terrain’s challenge, the whisky of the Lowlands seemed to mirror the region’s mellower traits. And we had found the ultimate of expression of each in Scotland’s wildly varied singletrack.
Beyond the regional differences, what we discovered was confirmation of a long held belief that it’s not the rider or the trail builder that makes a trail. Sure, they can manipulate, manage or manufacture a trail, but only within the boundaries of what the terrain will allow. The terroir, in other words, determines the character of the trail.
The crushed gravel 7Stanes trails look like they could be pushed into any landscape, but they wouldn’t be, simply because they can only exist near densely populated areas that can draw the crowds that attract the necessary funding for such intense construction. Likewise, the Highland trails are generations old, laid in place where they were needed and where nature allowed, then forever being changed by the elements.
No two trails are alike because the trail surface, shape, surroundings, and the starting and ending point marry together to create something complete unique.
Our tastes are extremely personal. We all have different palates and flavors that suit our personalities. While some people prefer a smooth, purified experience, others still enjoy the rugged flavor of the natural earth. More so, even when you fail to find marvelous stretches of sinewy goodness (or none at all) the journey there still might have been worth it. Some people will always be persuaded by the tasting notes printed on the side of a bottle (or the musings in a mountain bike magazine), but ultimately it’s all a personal journey, both the whisky wonk’s hunt for the definitive single malt and the mountain biker’s endless pursuit for the perfect stretch of singletrack.