By now we had found the Road Snail’s rhythm, knowing to shift gears well ahead of any incline so that the diesel engine wouldn’t get bogged down. We also had learned how to finesse each turn to offset the van’s top-heavy physique.
The previous evening, we’d parked near Ballater, where some of our friends had camped. We’d stayed up way past our bedtimes sharing whisky samples and opinions, and each of our heads felt like a washing machine full of hammers. Despite this, we were awed by the region’s loveliness. This area of Scotland is characterized by its charming countryside. Avid fly-fishermen comb the banks of shallow, babbling rivers. Blue-blooded huntsmen in lovat-toned, twill shooting jackets step down from Land Rovers onto cobbled streets. And all of this is set against the backdrop of low, rolling fields of barley (which appeared grasslike in June when we visited) and ancient copses. Balmoral Castle, the Royal Family’s Scottish vacation residence, is located within the Cairngorms National Park and the presence of a royalty has tended to grace the area with a general sense of regality, perhaps by osmosis.
The countryside here is inviting for outdoors people and the 2003 Land Reform Act specifically established the right for all people to use all the land for recreation. This granted mountain bikers in Scotland a legitimate right to roam the forests and hills in pursuit of great mountain bike trails.
In the Cairngorms around Aviemore we rode faint tracks among plantation pines, exposed rocky trails among the heather and ancient trade routes which for hundreds of years have linked settlements together. Much of it was marked and easy to find with a little local help or a good map, but our real problem came with deciding what to ride. The amount of trail in the area was mind-boggling and the two days we spent in the area was woefully inadequate.
Scotch is a product of locality. It was once produced by farmers (and friars before that) who used their own barley to brew uisge beatha, or “the water of life” for their own needs or to trade locally. It was a gaelic moonshine of sorts until 1644 when a duty was imposed upon whisky for the first time. Due to Scotch’s homebrew nature each whisky tended to possess a unique flavor that fluctuated each year. In the 19th century the art of blending together malt and grain whiskies began, with an aim to create consistent, cheaper and lighter-flavored drink.
With the increased regulation and evenness of Scotch came a significant increase in demand, leading to the creation of new distilleries, with no fewer than 33 being constructed during the last decade of the 19th century alone. The Speyside whisky industry grew significantly at this time, as the smooth, relatively subtle character of many Speyside malts was ideally suited for blending purposes. More than half of Scotland’s working malt whisky distilleries are located within the Speyside region of north-east Scotland and Dufftown produces more whisky than any city in the world.
We’d stayed up way past our bedtimes sharing whisky samples and opinions, and each of our heads felt like a washing machine full of hammers.
We wished to visit one distillery in particular: Glenfiddich. Very few of us would have ever had the pleasure of enjoying single malt if not for Glenfiddich. For years, conventional wisdom held that single malts were too intense and complex to be sold outside Scotland, but in 1963 Glenfiddich’s owners decided to widen the availability of their whisky as a bottled single malt, rather than continuing to just supply its whisky for blending. Though the move was greeted with much skepticism, it paid off. These days, there are single-malt drinkers all over the world who eagerly explore different expressions and are willing to spend a great deal of money on rare or remarkable expressions. This is something that distillers now play up, offering single malts matured in various cask finishes, ages and special treatments.
It is untrue that once you have seen one distillery you have seen them all. Each distillery, although sharing the same basic techniques for the production of rare spirit, puts their own spin on the process, infusing it with a particular and idiosyncratic personality. By visiting a distillery you get a feel for the people and the philosophy behind the drink that’s made there.