Saturday, 2 August 2014

The Talisker Loop (#ScotTour Day 5)

On our first day based in Portree, we set off back the way we had come the previous day (I detect a pattern here...). We had an appointment on the other side of the Isle at 11am and could not be late!

This called for a Big Breakfast.

I left the B&B saying "Today, I am going to suffer". I dreaded the climb up out of Portree towards Sligachan (remembering the wind and inconsistent gradient) that was such an unwelcome surprise the day before) and figured I better resign myself to it -- make my peace with it, manage my expectations -- well before I actually had to do it. 

That "talking to" I gave myself must have worked, because it was... dare I say it, a breeze. Adam was waiting at the top and I cruised up to him saying "I don't believe it, my heart rate is still normal". 

At Sligachan, we turned westward off the A87, onto the A863. The day before, it had seemed to me that this road (across the middle of Skye from coast to coast) was siphoning off a great deal of traffic from the A87 -- for which I had been very grateful! So today, I was braced for quite a lot of motorhome and caravan traffic, on a road even less suited to it than the A87. 

We were immediately faced with a climb upwards into -- surprise, surprise -- low cloud and mist. There were no motor vehicles, none moving at least. Instead, we found ourselves negotiating a few families (with children) and walking groups, all strolling down (or up) the middle of the road. We went by a few cars parked up alongside the road, before cresting the backbone of the Isle and free-wheeling for miles down towards Loch Harport. 

The view across the valley, as we coasted to the coast.

Sharing the road with pretty much the sum total
of all motorized traffic encountered that morning. 

We soon reached the turnoff to Carbost, with its own wooden sentinel -- not a Highlander this time but a smiling scarecrow. 

A bit blurry but it gives context...

The photos do not give any hint of the level of moisture in the air! We were pedalling through an invisible soup. On arrival however, we were swarmed by midges, so we struggled into our waterproofs (the only full-coverage items of clothing we were carrying) as quickly as possible, to cover up as much delicious skin as possible. 

We found we were in fact quite early for our 11am booking, so we took the opportunity to look at the displays in the visitor centre. 


I suppose many distilleries do this kind of thing nowadays, but Talisker take a very local approach and, being the only single malt distiller on Skye and one with such a long history and connection with the people of Carbost and Loch Harport, their exhibits put me in mind of a local history museum. 

In amidst all the writings about the distillery were brilliant snippets about Skye history, culture and philosophy.

Could I live here? With the lessons cycling is
teaching me... give me a few more years and
I might be ready.

It was then time for our appointment. No, we did not do a tour. Instead, I had booked us in for a private tasting. 

Our tasting guide, Sarah from Inverness.

The accoutrements of our tasting:  a nosing glass, a pitcher of water and (out of shot) a pipet.

We were both amazed at how much we learned. I'm a whisky drinker of 15 years -- Adam not so much -- and Talisker has been a favourite of mine for a few years now. This has been the Talisker 10 Year Old expression widely available in supermarkets and off-licences ("liquor stores" for the Americans). But I had no idea of the widely differing characters of the various "expressions". Here we started with the "standard" 10 Year Old and then also tried "The Distillers Edition", which I believe may only be available from the Talisker shop (on site and online) or to Friends of Classic Malts members, and then lastly the distillery's latest big release, "57 North". 

57 North is what is called in the industry a "flavour-led" whisky, which has a certain matrix of characteristics and flavours as its goal. This means liquids from a selection of vintages -- all nonetheless single malts sourced from the single distiller -- may go into the make-up of a "flavour-led" whisky. Also, since vintages vary from each other from year on year, even from "batch by batch", the exact make-up or proportions of specific single malts by year will necessarily vary. As long as the result has the particular flavour and character identified with that expression, the end product remains consistent.

All three expressions that Sarah featured during our tasting session were wildly different from each other -- as different, in fact, as I'd (naively) expect from single malts from completely different distilleries, albeit within the same range on the Flavour Map (here, "Full-Bodied and Smoky"). So much depends on how long the liquid is casked and in what. And with the wide range of casks -- what wood they're made of, how old those casks are, how much charring there has been, what liquid the casks have held before -- the range of possibilities is mind boggling. For example, the Distillers Edition is matured in casks that have previously held Amoroso (a sweetened fortified Spanish wine) which lends a sweet and smoky character, with peat not being particularly noticeable, which is remarkable, given that Talisker is at its heart a pretty peaty beast of a whisky!

Further, neither Adam nor I had imagined how the whole experience of each expression (vapours, oily-ness, taste on the tip of the tongue, mid-mouth, back of the tongue) could change almost beyond recognition by the addition of one drop of water -- and then again with a second drop -- and in most cases, "for the better" as water releases certain chemicals (which means flavours) from the oil. 

We also amused ourselves studying the "legs" of each whisky, in its neat and increasingly diluted states. 

Of the three, Adam and I both preferred the Distillers Edition and 57 North far and away to the standard 10 Year Old. Adam preferred the Distillers Edition over all, while for me the 57 North perhaps just edged ahead. But adding one drop of water to the Distillers Edition improved it for me to the point where I'd happily buy that instead of the 57 North if pushed to choose just one. 

After our tasting session, we asked Sarah where she would recommend a good lunch. It seemed if we wanted quality food, we had only two options. The first was a man-with-a-van who would be parked up at the end of the road (at the top of an short brutal hill). The food would be freshly caught but there was no shelter and no seating area. A great experience -- if it's not raining. 

The other option? The Old Inn. We had passed it in the village on our way to the distiller, so it was on our way out again. Sarah said the food was very good and it would be nicer to sit down in this damp weather. 

In fact, when we stepped outside, the weather had, not exactly cleared but the mist had lifted and a light breeze had picked up, which made the prospect of eating outdoors rather attractive after all. But I didn't fancy walking up the hill to the van in my cleats. So off to the Old Inn we went.

The car park was beside the road -- above the Inn. A flight of stone and concrete stairs went down to the loch side behind the pub. 

Trust Adam to spot the CTC sticker in the window -- from the top of the stairs, no less!

We stepped inside to get our Diet Cokes and order our meal, and found a cozy well-appointed pub, as well it should be given the isolation of its location and the dependency the village must have on it.

Someone here has a sense of humour. 

Err...  "best"?  Try "only".

We went back outside and soon got a feeling for who's boss around here.

Our parking arrangements were pretty simple, as they'd been in most places on Skye -- bikes within sight, no locks needed.

And our view was just... perfect. 

When the starter arrived, somehow it wasn't quite what we had envisaged. It was so unusual and yet so obviously right... and so delicious we made a vow to try this at home. (Which we have kept!)

A whole camembert, heated up in its original carton with a few herbs.

Heaven in your mouth. Wow. 

Could our main course (the humble fish and chips) live up to the expectations raised by that starter?

Oh yes, yes, it could.

Fresh local fish, fresh homecut chips... and homemade tartar sauce. 

Tartar sauce in a seashell. 

 Life doesn't get much better than this.

Our new friend loitered at the end of the table near Adam, looking both expectant and resigned to disappointment. It seems that, in this way also, art imitates life. Or is it the other way round?  (Did this dog pose for the sculpture? Or was it an ancestor of his? We should have asked.)

The road through Carbost back towards the A863 went up and down, with more lovely views.

Here is just one example of the huge stands of foxgloves so plentiful all over western Scotland in June. 

What else is plentiful in Scotland? Have I mentioned the sheep? I haven't?! Oh my, there are sheep. Everywhere. Several popular breeds, each with quite distinct characteristics and personalities. 

Just before re-joining the A863, we stopped and took our measure of the weather situation and decided to take a chance.... and took off the waterproofs. 

Back to the A863, we turned left to go north up the east side of Loch Harport. Naturally, we had to climb a hill.

I remember saying to this fella as I spun slowly past,
"What a lovely home you have here".

Climbing warms you up. I began to sweat freely and wondered if I should stop to put more sunscreen on. I was glad to have shed the waterproof jacket before the climb and soon found myself pushing down my armwarmers too. 

Definitely raining over there!

When we reached Balgown (surely there's an "l" missing there...!), we turned right onto the B885. Surprise, surprise, this meant an immediate "straight up", on a narrow singletrack. 

The A863 can just be seen to the upper left. Once we turned off it,
the road rise sharply upward - lending a nice perspective to this
old churchyard in Balgown.

The hill was steep but appeared to be fairly short. However, in quick succession a series of cars and delivery vans coming up from behind us forced us to stop, with a frequency much higher than the intermittent passing places could accommodate. So each time we were forced into the grass and unstable ground beside the road. Stopping and starting in conditions like this is quickly wearing, so after the third or fourth vehicle, I simply walked for a little while, while grumbling "I thought this was going to be a quiet road". Well, it's a minor road, but it's also a direct road over the backbone of the island from the west coast to the main town of Portree, so obviously attractive as a short-cut. 

The views were amazing, though, so as always the minor inconveniences forced upon us by motorists were quickly forgotten. 

As it happens, here's an example of patched chipseal.
Not an effective (cost or otherwise) surface treatment.

At some point as we roller-coasted across the top of the island, Adam said "Stop! Listen to that!"


"Well, what do you hear?"

"Hmmm.... wind? And the occasional bleat of a sheep somewhere".

"Exactly! And when we set off, just the sound of rubber on tarmac".

He wasn't wrong and neither was I, but I was disconcerted by the question and how to answer. Yes, I appreciated how stunningly quiet it was up here, but with the constant white noise of my tinnitis, I wasn't too sure that "wind" was the right answer -- I always hear "wind", even indoors! 

Soon after cresting what we could feel was the ridge of the island so that now we were facing Portree (rather than leaving Loch Harport), we spotted what appeared to be holding pens beside the road. For the briefest moment, I could imagine myself in Wyoming rather than Scotland.

Our route took us through a cultivated forest (where we had a near altercation with the driver of a Volvo who clearly had no ability to judge time, speed and distance so as to overtake two cyclists safely!), we were on the approach to Portree -- a mixture of farms and small industrial businesses and construction sights. No more photos were taken.

Until dinner! We ate at the Bosville Hotel. My main course was another presentation of venison. Nice but nothing particularly special, certainly not anywhere near the same league as what we'd had at Coruisk House. Although the puree lurking underneath was interesting. 

Adam had a nice chicken Caesar salad.

After dinner, we strolled down to the harbour before retiring.

Today's loop out to Talisker covered 27.8km in 1 hour 30 minutes, with an average moving speed of 18.5km/hr.  Here is our route: 

No comments:

Post a Comment

Share This