Despite the fuzzy start to our journey, we were determined to find prime singletrack, so we hopped into our Ford Transit van—which had been appropriately converted to motor home duties—and continued our 10-day circumnavigation of Scotland and its distilleries. Lovingly nicknamed the ‘Road Snail,’ our van was to do multiple duties as our transportation, hotel, restaurant, living room and after-hours club. Laden with enough blokes, bikes and laptops to stock a small pawn shop, the Road Snail’s struggling suspension and wobbly chassis would soon be pushed to their limits along the narrow, winding roads that would lead us from one trailhead to the next distillery. Driving the Road Snail was, I imagine, a bit like riding a newborn giraffe.
With one eye on the road and the other on our surroundings, we steered through the Highlands, where the landscape constantly flicks between charming and brutal. There is an exquisite beauty to the grassy glens, rounded Munros (mountains of more than 3,000 feet in elevation) and tidy cattle farms contained by stone fences. But just as suddenly, the scenery will shift to dramatic dioramas of geologic temper tantrums.
The wide, curved glens, have a deceiving softness to them. There is an exquisite prettiness to these views that warms the heart, but there’s a hidden temper inside them, for these glens become amphitheaters for nature’s most brutal tempests. Cherish a good day here because you might be threatened and beaten back by the weather before the day is done. The wind can beat mercilessly, firing bullets of rain sideways in thick, stinging volleys.
Our search for singletrack had led us to the Isle of Skye, which also happens to be the home of a Scotch of considerable distinction: Talisker. The Minginish Peninsula, where the Talisker distillery is located, is an impressive place. In a wide, green bay under a pale-blue sky, small fishing boats tug at their moorings like eager dogs. Each house is pragmatic yet inviting—a main door surrounded by a shallow porch, a window on either side and two more upstairs. Thick, whitewashed walls hold up an A-framed slate roof. Buoys, driftwood and chickens decorate each garden.
To the north and east, soft, rounded hills are speckled with the white dots of grazing sheep. In contrast, the Black Cuillins to the south rise up like a black wave. Forged by eruptive forces, carved by glacier, given shape by erosion and cracked by ice, these mountains look foreboding, even dangerous. These great walls of rock are blotched with yellow and purple lichens, and dislodged boulders punctuate the dense carpet of grass, moss and bracken. It is from these mountains that Talisker draws its water.
Each year, Talisker requires 30 million liters of water for distilling Scotch. But this is not a problem. The Cuillins reach up to the skies, unlocking the payload of maritime storms, and this precipitation filters through the rock and vegetation, picking up flavors and minerals as it flows into the surrounding lochs. As a result, Talisker tastes as dramatic, volcanic and peppery as the Black Cuillin range.
Forged by eruptive forces, carved by glacier, given shape by erosion and cracked by ice, these mountains look foreboding, even dangerous.
We parked the Road Snail at a campsite in Glenbrittle, a collection of a dozen or so small holdings, one farm and a summer population of mountaineers and ‘scramblers’—the hardy version of hiker who prefers routes requiring all four limbs.
From here, trails weave through a desolate glen and meander between rocky peaks. I’d briefly lived here 15 years ago, but had never put rubber to these trails. Back then, they had been closed to mountain bikers, but in 2003 the Land Reform Act granted riders in Scotland the right to roam the forests and hills. Now everything is fair game, and the game is great.
I wanted to explore a demanding ascent to Coire Laggan, a frigid lake nestled within a rocky cauldron high in the mountains. At times, we had to shoulder the bikes, and our frequent rest breaks gave us ample opportunity to take in our surroundings. By the time we summited the splendid cascade of cooled lava at the trail’s terminus, the payoff for our groans and sweat was obvious: Set amongst a backdrop of fearsome rock faces, it looks like a giant skatepark of smooth rock transitions.
We played for some time, taking in the peaceful sight of the isles of Canna, Eigg and Rum while passing around our hip flask of the savagely spectacular Talisker; an intense and tortuously bewitching dram that leaves an impact on your palate on par with the seismic and climatic conditions that shaped the Cuillins. Duly warmed, we poured into the descent back, stopping only to fix flats and take a quick dip in a pool above a 200-foot waterfall. The experience was as invigorating as the nips of Talisker we’d started it off with.
With the long days of June going into overtime, we stayed up later than usual that night, diligently making our way through plenty of ‘research material.’ The sun eventually dipped below the horizon, only to reappear a few hours later, giving us only a small window of time to gaze at the light show in the sky. We wondered whether it was the Northern Lights or just an optical illusion sparked by the emptying of yet another bottle.