As some of you will know, I have - since the mid-1990s - been working my way through a book called The Malt Whisky File, trying to sample the produce of each of the distilleries listed. This quest has gone in phases: before, during and shortly after a trip to the West of Scotland in 1997, I cleared almost half the list, but then there was quite a long gap, with only an occasional extra one. Things came into focus again with my 50th birthday, when my sister was kind enough to send me ten miniatures to help the cause and rekindled my interest, whilst also highlighting two things: on the one hand, I was much nearer finishing the list than I had realised, but on the other, brands of whisky I had been counting on as potentially available had either shot up in price or seemingly disappeared altogether. Time was clearly of the essence in tracking down as many of the remaining whiskies as possible.
[Cut for length] The opening of Boisdale, Canary Wharf, stopping off in Edinburgh on the way back from the Tolkien Society's Glasgow AGM and my discovery of The Britannia pub near Guy's Hospital all helped a lot (as did buying miniature bottles online), but there were still some tricky ones...
Another of my idiosyncrasies is that I don't tend to take holidays just as holidays: I need an excuse for going somewhere (for example: without my interest in Sherlock Holmes, I would probably never have gone to Switzerland). The fact that my internet research turned up references to one rare whisky in Aberdeen and another in Dornoch convinced me that now was the time for my third trip to Scotland, so I set about booking it.
Ironically, it was on St George's Day that I pulled out of King's Cross Station to the strains of the Get Carter theme on my MP3-player (for those who don't know: in the film, the music plays as Michael Caine's character takes a train journey on the same route). Booking weeks in advance had meant that I got a 1st Class ticket for roughly half the price of a Standard Class one bought on the day and it really is worth the upgrade, particularly on East Coast Trains, who have given me more of the feeling of being treated like a VIP than any other train company (so far, at least). Aside from the advantage for such a long journey of having a reserved seat with plenty of leg-room, the friendly train crew provide table service of drinks and food: I had at least one cup of freshly-ground coffee per hour, two rounds of sandwiches (hot food was available, but I didn't fancy what was on offer), a glass of wine, an orange juice and a can of Coke - all included in the (cheap) ticket price. The only real problem for me, as a long-time smoker, was having to go without a cigarette for seven hours, so I took some nicotine chewing gum, which turned out not to be as good as I'd hoped, but just barely satisfied my nicotine cravings (I'll be exploring the possibilities of another potential solution soon).
I won't bother describing the scenery en route - it's really something you have to see for yourself. Suffice to say that I was suitably impressed by my first views of the East coast of Scotland.
Considering the weather we have had so far this year, I was really lucky: we passed through bands of sunshine and of rain, but it was fine when I arrived in Aberdeen shortly after 5 p.m. I had booked a B&B not far from the station and, apart from walking past it once before working out how the house numbers worked (oops!), it didn't take me all that long to get booked in, so I could explore the place without the encumbrance of luggage. I like Aberdeen: nice architecture and not too big.
At this point, I'd like to say that almost everybody I met in Scotland was friendly and charming. However, there are always exceptions and I met my first two loonies during my walk about town: a woman who was determined to give me directions, even though I wasn't looking for anything in particular, and a man who thought I was a rabbi and was quite disappointed when I told him I wasn't!
When planning my holiday, I had decided to book a restaurant in each location, to give me a good chance of at least one enjoyable meal (taking pot luck for the rest), and in Aberdeen that was Cafe Boheme, which I can heartily recommend, unless you are on a budget (a recurring theme on this trip was spending far more than I had intended!). I had pigeon breast for the starter, duck for the main course - accompanied by a very nice pinot noir red wine - and a multi-faceted dessert of mini tiramisu, chocolate mousse, coffee, meringue and a macaroon - with a sweet, white dessert wine - all rounded off with a coffee and liqueur. I left feeling replete and contented and was back in the B&B in time to watch some TV before an early night (for me) after what had, after all, been a long day.
I don't always manage to get up in time for breakfast when I'm away (especially as some B&Bs have particularly cruel early hours of serving), but I did this time and it was very nice too. Then it was time to set off for the main object of my visit.
The Grill is something of a legend, partly because it has changed little since the 1920s and partly due to the truly impressive range of whiskies available. It is also not as narrow or dark as reviews had led me to believe - perhaps due to the exceptional luck I had with the weather (and starting mid-morning), it looked positively bright and airy.
Anyway, after a fruit juice to lubricate the pipes, I soon got down to business, starting with the rare one I hadn't been able to find anywhere else. As with most of these "ticking-them-off-the-list" whiskies, it was quite nice, but unlikely to change my Top 30. Over the next six hours, I tasted some 14 whiskies (interspersed with soft drinks and snacks) and discussed my "quest" with people on both sides of the bar, including the boss, who had built up the collection of bottles with drinkers like me in mind.
I could go through my tasting notes for all of the whiskies, but one thing we all agreed on was that tastes differ, even to the extent that different people taste the same whisky differently (the boss-man had a copy of the same book as me and neither he nor I agreed with all the tasting notes in it), so that might not be much use, and not everyone would enjoy quietly sitting, sipping whisky and chatting as much as me, so I'm not sure I can convey what a marvellous time I had.
With nothing booked in the way of an evening meal, I just wandered up and down Union Street until a place called the Filling Station caught my eye and I stopped off there for steak and chips - something nice and simple was just what I needed.
Amazingly, I managed breakfast again, but then just gently faffed about until it was time for my train to Elgin. During that journey, I had a very pleasant chat with the passenger sitting opposite and was in danger of missing my stop, but it all worked out all right in the end. Elgin is not that large and the B&B would have been in fairly easy walking distance, but I got a cab to avoid having to map-read whilst dragging my suitcase. Once I'd settled in, I walked along for a look around town.
The highlight of my visit was supposed to be shopping at the renowned establishment of Gordon & MacPhail, purveyors of fine whiskies since 1895, but it turned out to be rather a disappointment: they didn't have most of the things I was looking for and the staff didn't seem very interested in trying to help me. However, they did have one bottle left of the limited release 1973 Ladyburn and I decided to snap it up while I had the chance, rather than risk the vagaries of the postal system for a potentially cheaper one from somewhere else. It was far more money than I should have been spending on a bottle of whisky for drinking, but it could have been worse: the rare one at The Grill would have been almost three times as much and the one at Dornoch Castle nearly four! Both of those pale into insignificance, however, compared with one whisky I saw at G&M's shop for £15,050.00...
My booked meal was at Pizzeria Toscana. I don't know if it was just that I was not in such a good mood, or that my system hadn't recovered from the delights of Aberdeen, but I struggled to enjoy it and find myself unsure how to rate the place: I can't really recommend it, but wouldn't want to do them a disservice in marking them down (it was a bit disconcerting, though, to see a couple of the staff sending text messages when they could have been serving).
Next morning, I didn't fancy breakfast, so had a bit of a lie-in instead (as I've mentioned: this is quite normal for me during most holidays, but was a one-off for this particular expedition). This meant that I was back on good form when I trundled my (now significantly more valuable!) luggage the officially 0.9 mile distance out to the Glen Moray distillery for a very enjoyable tour and tasting. They have a scheme whereby you can fill and label your own bottle from a specially-selected single cask, so I had to take them up on that and I couldn't resist getting one of their branded teddy bears too!
A taxi ride to the station started me off on the most complicated leg of my journey: train to Inverness and then coach to Dornoch. Luckily, apart from getting caught in a hail shower in the coach queue, this went as well as I could have hoped (I don't really like coach travel, but it seemed to make sense when I was booking it) and I got to the hotel shortly before four o'clock.
I think officially Dornoch Castle Hotel only has three AA stars, but I am pretty sure that is just limited by things like small size and that the architecture cannot incorporate lifts - it certainly felt luxurious to me and I would give them five stars if I could! In fact, I was a bit of a "cheap date": I only had one cup of instant from their extensive array of tea, coffee and hot chocolate making facilities, half of one day's worth of the little luxury chocolates and I didn't touch the complimentary sherry at all (though mainly to avoid clashing with the whisky I knew I'd be drinking). On the dresser was a teddy bear in a hotel bathrobe, with a label saying that he was called Henry and could be purchased from reception, so I sat my Glen Moray bear (now named Iain) next to him, so they could have a chat while I was otherwise occupied.
Given the complications of getting there, I had planned to make things as easy for myself as possible, so I was leaving the serious whisky tasting and meal out until the next day. This meant dining in the hotel and I went for an early sitting, since it had been a long time since lunch (and that hadn't amounted to much). For my starter, I had razor clams (that had just been added to the menu that day), then a main course of venison (the chef was apparently delighted that someone had finally ordered it rare; if anything, I'd have preferred it rarer still) and for dessert Earl Grey tea panacotta and a chocolate eclair. All absolutely scrumptious and as haute a cuisine as one would expect from such a place. I did let the side down a bit trying out a new cocktail recipe: with Kahlua and Archers, the Kahlua gets completely lost, but with Tia Maria and Archers, the balance is spot on!
Before dinner, I had already started chatting with Simon and Phil, the two brothers responsible for stocking the amazing whiskies behind the bar, and I'm afraid I took up far too much of their valuable time during my stay, but they did seem to enjoy having a guest who was almost as enthusiastic as they are. I was still holding off on trying the really expensive one, as I wanted to be sure I was in the right state to appreciate it properly, but the night was yet young, so I did have a few wee drams. In fact, the first was one of the best two all weekend. The next one, though...
This brings me back to the "tastes differ" phenomenon I have already mentioned and, just this once, I will share my notes: Nose - car upholstery, with a hint of dashboard; Taste - oily, claggy, sour; Finish - mercifully short... Luckily, having seen the funny faces I pulled forcing myself to finish that one, the brothers knew what not to recommend and everything else went well.
After another fairly early night, I was up for breakfast again (much easier anyway, with their more sensible times) and went for a walk around the lovely little town, but then had a siesta before buckling down in the bar again. As TV shows with a live audience often have a "warm up act", I didn't go immediately for the real rarity, but started off with a Littlemill, which almost persuaded me to add that distillery to my Top 30 (but my notes on the other version I had tried outweighed that). Then came the main event, which was nicer for me than the one in Aberdeen, but not as nice as the Ladyburn (hooray! I hadn't spent a fortune on the wrong one!).
Several more drams later, it was time for my booked meal for this locale, but I left the hotel with the potential chance of something special later, if I was in a fit state when I got back...
I think it would have helped me to know in advance that the proprietor of Luigi's has what Conan Doyle might have described as a pawky sense of humour. However, after a short while thinking I should have eaten at the hotel again, things got back on track with a salmon and crayfish terrine, served with nicely toasted ciabatta, a marvellous monkfish main and a very rich walnut treacle tart.
Back at the Castle, I did take them up on the very special offer, about which I am sworn to secrecy! I can say, though, that I was able to add what had been a borderline distillery to my Top 30.
Next morning, after another hearty breakfast and settling my hefty bill (including the price of Henry Bear!), I was waiting for the departure time of my coach when Simon and Phil's father, Colin, happened to mention he was headed in that direction and I was able to cadge a lift, which was brilliant. On the way, we were able to chat about all sorts of things, including the lads' ever-expanding whisky business, before he dropped me in Inverness well before I had expected to arrive.
Here I encountered my third loony: a woman ranting about Muslims. I said I was a Taoist and that Middle-eastern religion and politics were a bit of a mystery to me and she left me alone.
My faith in humanity was quickly restored, however, by the proprietors of the Rossmount B&B: they picked me up from the coach station when I arrived and drove me to the railway station when I left and gave me a photocopied map of Inverness, on which they marked all the best bars! And all of that exceptional service from the cheapest place I stayed at all week!
The Castle Tavern is probably great if you like beer, but didn't seem much cop for anything else, so I didn't stay there long. The next recommendation was "the piano bar" at the Glenmoriston Hotel - I couldn't see (or even hear) a piano anywhere, but maybe they used to have one. Unfortunately, a large group of what I would peg as Guardian readers had ensconced themselves right in front of the bar, which made things rather awkward, and nobody was serving when I got there, but eventually things did improve. One of the downfalls of being so far through my whisky quest is that a list that would have seemed very impressive and extensive some years ago has little new to offer my jaded palate, so I only had a couple. I also felt a bit sorry for the young barman (how patronizing of me!): he is certainly enthusiastic and may end up in the same class as the knowledgeable folk at The Grill and Dornoch Castle, but he still has a long way to go at the moment and may not be helped by the pricing structure at his current establishment. On the whole, though, I am glad I went there.
I decided then to go to the other end of the map, so to speak, and work my way back, as the restaurant I had booked was roughly mid-way, but (not for the first time) my schemes went somewhat agley: I had so much fun at Blackfriars Highland Pub that I stayed there until just before dinner-time and went back there shortly afterwards. Among the delights on offer were a range of Thistly Cross ciders (including a strawberry-flavoured one!) and the ingredients for several of my cocktail recipes, which I then inflicted on a couple of the locals and a Swiss tourist.
The guys at Dornoch Castle had warned me that Mustard Seed could be somewhat variable, but someone else had recommended it and there wasn't much else open on a Sunday, so I had booked it. As with Toscana's in Elgin, I am loath to say: "don't go there", but I did not enjoy my time at Mustard Seed. In fact, I sent back my main course and left in a huff, stopping off at a Chinese takeaway to fill up later - draw your own conclusions...
After my last breakfast of the holiday (including haggis!), it was time to head for home. This journey was less of an ordeal than the one up had been, though, as I had to change trains in Edinburgh, splitting the journey into "bite-size chunks" and allowing me to use some East Coast Trains reward points to spend an hour in the First Class Lounge. Having said that, it did take over eleven hours total.
As I've mentioned, I spent far more than I should have done, but I had such a marvellous time that I think it was worth it. If you like drinking whisky (or even think there is a remote possibility that you might), then I can recommend a pilgrimage to The Grill in Aberdeen and/or Dornoch Castle Hotel - you don't have to have any of the rare, expensive ones to enjoy it: there are lots of nice reasonably-priced ones too and the experts will be able to find something to your taste. Even if you don't drink booze, Scotland has lots of lovely places to visit and stay and (most of) the locals are friendly.
So, what did I bring back? Soft bears, Iain and Henry, hard bottles, Ladyburn and Glen Moray, and a whole host of memories to cherish.