Walking through whisky country

Walking through whisky country

\"It's only through flavour that we'll understand whisky and maybe it's only by walking the country that we'll understand flavour,\" says Dave Broom after climbing Ben Rinnes and Lochnagar with distinguished company

Travel | 16 Nov 2001 | Issue 19 | By Dave Broom

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Those moments of un-thinking bravado happen to us all. A year or so ago I was sitting with Alan Winchester in his leather-bound office at Aberlour talking casually about hill walking when he said: “I’ve always wanted to write about the great hills you can climb from distilleries.”“Okay,” say I taking another slug of 15-year-old, “let’s do it.” Which is how I end up standing with Alan outside Benrinnes (sic) Distillery on a sunny summer morning looking up at the summit of the mountain it takes its name from, some 2,100 feet above us, and wishing I lived in a hillier area so I could have done some training.Alan is one of those Speysiders who was born, raised and works in the shadow of the Ben (you can discard the ‘Rinnes’ when in Speyside). This is one of those unusual creatures, a local mountain that’s the touchstone for a community – its sharp profile is the sign that they’re home once more. It’s “The Ben”, as if it’s the only mountain in the world.From the distillery we trace its water source, through birch and alder woods. The trees clear and soon we’re climbing into the high peat moss that used to provide the fuel for most of the local distilleries. At the head of the track we clamber over a disused peat bank and head towards the Ben’s north-west shoulder that’s capped by one of three weird tors, or scurrans, which form a rough triangle on its broad summit. Bog cotton tufts bob gently in the light breeze, cloudberries and bog myrtle cover the ground. Behind us, the gentle northern part of Speyside reveals itself.Alan’s been climbing these slopes since he was taken up, aged 11, on a school trip. They’re made of stern stuff here. Our Primary 7 outing was a sail on Loch Katrine. I remember looking up at Ben Venue and wondering what the view would be like, if maybe you could see our smoke-shrouded Glasgow home in the distance. While I had mountains slowly walking through my imagination, Alan was already climbing them. By now we’re walking through Baby’s Moss, named after an old woman who was considered a witch. The path disappears as the gradient stiffens and the ground, mildly boggy before, turns into an energy-sapping sponge. I haul myself up to the weird cluster of giant fossilised beehives that comprise the Scurran of Well. From there we can look east to the indigo humps of the Convals rising like soft breasts, obscuring our view of Dufftown. To the west the Spey glints in the sun, meandering past Cardhu, Tamdhu and Knockando. In front of us are Dailuaine, Benrinnes, Glenallachie and Aberlour, in the distance Macallan, the Speyside Cooperage and Craigellachie. Alan’s a believer in distillers choosing a site because of its “magic location” – from this height you can easily see what he means. The vivid green of abandoned croft field workings are still bright against the dun of the heather. The patchwork of fields gives us a glimpse into Speyside’s past: there are the old farms owned by the first (post 1823) distillers and there are the same watercourses still flowing towards today’s grander plants through birch, rowan and alder. “They’re perfect Highland burns for whisky-making,” says Alan, tracing the woods with his finger as they weave off the Ben to Glenallachie, Benrinnes and Aberlour. “The trees shade the water and keep it cool ... and in the old days they kept you hidden from the gaugers.” Neil Gunn would be very proud.An hour ago we’d been walking through Benrinnes, trying to understand the technical complexities of its two and a half times distillation. Seen from this height, whisky once again becomes a simple, natural product springing from its landscape.We walk over to the Scurran of Morinsh which opens up the south: into Glenlivet, Glen Rinnes, the Braes and in the distance, the murky bulk of the Cairngorms. Cragganmore, Tormore, Glenlivet and Braeval peek out, though Glenfarclas is just hidden by the shoulder of the Ben. It’s a dramatic change of landscape. Whereas the view to the north opens up gentle farmland and river valleys, here we are looking into a wild, rough land – the haunt of moonshiners. “I remember my grandfather told us if the tenant farmers hadn’t taken out the licences they’d have been kicked off the land,” says Alan. “It was: ‘you, down the road and get yer licence!’” It was years before the old guys in the Braes began to drink legal whisky like Glenlivet, seeing the new licences as the final betrayal of the Highlander’s birthright to make his own whisky from his own barley for free.We walk along the pink weal that an uncaring landowner has scored into the summit plateau with his Land Rover to the highest tor, the Scurran of Lochterlandoch. We sit on the granite boulders and listen to the banging echoing up from Allt-a-Bhainne and talk rock. The Ben’s the northenmost granite outcrop of the Cairngorm massif and for Alan this is a key to its importance as a whisky mountain. “We’ve always said it’s the granite intrusion that makes the difference,” he says. “The majority of the distilleries around the foot of the Ben are old plants, places that the first distillers knew made the best whisky. The newer ones, the ones on sandstone, were built due to the coming of the railways.”Seagulls begin to fly below us and the air turns cold. The view to the coast has gone and we’re blanketed by a haar that’s swept in off the Moray coast, a timely reminder of how quickly the weather can change on the Scottish hills. We take the direct route back, straight down the north-east face and back along the peat track to the distillery. That night, safe in the bar at the Dowans Hotel, we toast the day with a dram of Benrinnes. The Ben is still capped with cloud, the totem of Speyside, keeping its counsel.Whisky walks - a dram or three on Lochnagar
The next day Alan and I head south, over the Lecht and plunge into the pine-clad slopes of Deeside. We’re meeting with Jim Beveridge and Ewan Ogilvie from UDV to climb Lochnagar, the 3,789 foot peak which lours over Balmoral Castle and gives its name to the local distillery.It’s a long walk in from the car park at the Spittal of Glen Muick, up a river bed of a path. It forks by a cairn and we start on the long final climb. Mist is draped over the summit, its crevasses veiled behind ripped grey curtains. As we press on the cloud starts to lift, slanting sunshine across the hills and eventually giving us our first view of the vast corrie of the summit with its jagged buttresses and gullies that offer some of the finest climbing in Scotland. Far below, the impassive black waters of Lochan-na-Gaire (the little loch of the noisy summit) sits like a teardrop in its rock-strewn bowl.It’s this lochan which gives its name to the mountain, a classic tale of Victorian prudery. The original Gaelic name, Beinn Cichean, means Mountain of the Breasts while its two summits are respectively Cac Carn Beag and Cac Carn Mor (Little and Big Shit Cairn). Whatever way you look at it, Queen Victoria would not have been amused, so Lochnagar it became.We pick our way up the jumble of the Ladder, a dump of huge granite boulders haphazardly balanced on each other, a vertical ascent bringing us to the eastern edge of the summit ridge. A gravelly coughing cuts through the air. Ptarmigan. We eventually find six of them, almost perfectly camouflaged, bodies brown and mottled, white tips on the wings like veins of quartz. Stone birds in summer, snow birds in winter.The push towards the summit is straightforward and as we close in on it the final cap of cloud lifts off Cac Carn Beag. To the north-west we can make out flashes of high snow on the deep purple wall of the Cairngorms. Around us is a vast, empty, wildness. In the glen far below we can just make out Balmoral Castle and, beside it, a clump of trees which hides Lochnagar Distillery. Its founder, John Begg, had his first (illegal) still near Richarkarie in Glen Gairn. When it burned down he took advantage of the new licences and shifted to a new site in Easter Balmoral in 1825. Keeping with the spirit of the times, he, just like his fellow ex-moonshiners, built in a secluded spot just in case the laws changed once more.We laze on the summit reluctant to move out of the summer sun, but eventually drag ourselves away. We follow the track beside the Glas Allt (grey burn), past a spectacular waterfall and down the steep slope to the woods surrounding the lodge at Glas-allt-Sheil on the shores of Loch Muick.We’re entering pine woods, dry with a faint smell of mulch, sap and resin. A waft of warm heather rises from the ground. We’ve been talking on and off about the power of smell and how whisky relates to its immediate environment. I ask Jim if he always shuts his eyes and thinks of a place when he is nosing a whisky. “I don’t even need to shut my eyes,” he says. “It’s automatic. It also makes me look deeper into the connections between landscape and the drink.” But is there really a link between the physical landscape and the spirit? He pauses. “What if,” he says, “the distiller is walking just as we are, he’s outdoors, he’s smelling these aromas and he wants to try and capture them in his whisky. Maybe that’s the connection.”These distillers were people like John Begg, making their whisky in converted farms and whose spirit perhaps reflected their personality. By the time the second wave hit, a distillery’s style was now dictated to by the requirements of the blenders. It’s a tempting theory, far removed from the trite “this is a rugged mountain, therefore this is a rugged whisky” story which the industry has parroted, unthinkingly, for years. The big connection between flavour and landscape is there, but in an abstract fashion.Whisky needs to be taken out of the bottle and re-examined. It’s part of this land, forged from the rock, heather, peat moss and water, but not in the ways we’ve been told. Scotland’s landscape has formed the industry in multifarious ways, from dictating where distilleries could be built, offering places to hide and then places to prosper, to this tantalising notion that men and women tried to capture the vivid scents of the countryside in their whiskies. It’s only through flavour that we’ll understand whisky and maybe it’s only by walking the country that we’ll understand flavour.There’s a loud splash. Alan is celebrating by skinny-dipping in the loch. We trudge on with our half-naked companion around the loch to the cars. It’s been a glorious day.
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