We’d been on the island of Islay for less than an hour before being offered a drink of Scotch. We were led into a room decorated with dark wood panels and a long table, around which a dozen older gentlemen were seated. Most of them had bulbous, red noses with threaded veins and deep dimples. Upon first glance, I thought we’d been dragged into an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, but the trays filled with aromatic single malts that lined the table caused me to re-evaluate the situation.
These gentlemen weren’t boozehounds. They were serious drinkers. More to the point, they were discerning drinkers. They were collectors and connoisseurs of fine spirits who had traveled from the far corners of the globe to experience this rare opportunity to sample brand-new, never-publicly-released single malts. We were completely out of our element. While I admit to possessing a hobbyist’s appetite for Scotch, I’m far from an expert. Moreover, it was just past breakfast and we were already being asked to consume a considerable amount of fine Scotch.
“This is going to be a muddled, foggy sort of day,” I thought to myself. “Just don’t lose your head.” That very thought was to be my last clear one of the day.
For 30 minutes, each of us silently reveled in a personal odyssey of smells and flavors. It was only after everyone at the table had finished the samples that lips were loosened and opinions shared. The spirits had untethered my tongue, but I bit down on it to avoid appearing dense before the pros. What some tasters marveled at, others were less keen on, and in the end there was no consensus over which were the finest. But no one had expected there to be: The local maxim is that “Scotch is every man’s business, but also his own.”
Oh, what’s that? You were wondering why I’m raving on about single malts rather than singletrack? Well, that’s because there was little to be found on Islay. There was a bit of doubletrack (that’s no reference to our level of inebriation after the morning’s sampling) but nothing to write home about.
We came to Scotland to find the very best in mountain biking, but our riding radars had dragged us to Islay, fooled by the aromatic flavor of Scotch, which disguised the fact there was little in the way of riding. Call it opportunistic indulgence if you will, but I prefer to think of it as a selfless act of reporting that demonstrates the lengths to which Bike correspondents will travel to inform you, the reader.
The island is ringed by a thin band of black rock and sandy shores that clash with the ferocious Atlantic storms that come aboard and batter the island. The Laphroaig distillery sits on the seaweed blackened shoreline, resisting the pounding tides that have been breaking against the thick fortress-like walls for centuries.
This is going to be a muddled, foggy sort of day,” I thought to myself. “Just don’t lose your head.” That very thought was to be my last clear one of the day.
After our tasting we headed back through Port Ellen, the island’s main harbor. It appeared quaint and peaceful the day we were there; squat, whitewash-walled houses packed tightly together, trimmed grass and a crescent of white sand. We continued our merry pedal on narrow winding roads, lined with ancient stone walls which enclose farmland containing neatly-grazed grass fields dotted with well-turned-out sheep and cattle, and old yet exquisitely-tidy stone farmhouses were perched like cake ornaments.
Beyond the weather beaten shoreline the island of Islay gains little altitude. The few trees there are short, squat and lean at angles dictated by the fierce winds that sweep in from the sea. Some of the land is useful for farming, but much of it so boggy that its only value is in the rotting vegetation buried beneath. The peat found on Islay is different than that found on the mainland because it is a product of the sea salt-sprayed heather, ferns, gorse, sphagnum moss, moorland grass and seaweed. For centuries distillers on Islay have created a unique style of whiskys, renowned for their fiery, fierce and beguilingly earthy flavors. Drying the barley over peat fires gives these whiskeys a distinctive and highly-prized smoky and salty, iodine-infused marine quality that excites some but alienates others.
We pedaled for thirty miles, almost entirely on sealed roadways, across the island to catch our ferry back to the mainland, giving us plenty of opportunity to appreciate the potency of the thundering headwind from the Atlantic.
While the island’s location, geography and radical weather conditions might go a long way to provide some of the necessary raw materials that create such wildly distinctive single malts, it just wasn’t a place for bikes. So with that in mind we collected a few bottles for later enjoyment and headed to somewhere that perhaps would have favorable conditions for single track and single malt production: the Highlands.