A trip to the Hebrides is always a breath of fresh air. This trip was more refreshing than usual though – our first ‘holiday’ since the lockdown was lifted, an eagerly anticipated escape from our neighbourhood. A trip that was long overdue being crossed off our to-do list; two islands famed for their rugged, peaty beauty and their long tradition of producing world-famous whisky.
I’m not that fussed for drinking whisky but I do find something exquisitely exciting about pedalling down an inconspicuous single track road and having gradually revealed, through gaps in the foliage, an immaculate whitewashed building here, a slate grey turret or copper still there, all bright and twinkling against a caerulean of sea beyond. Finally the name of the distillery, painted large in block letters on the white walls, sweeps into view, and with it the smell of smoked malt on the air, preternatural in the wildness yet so inviting at the same time.
The olfactory experience of passing a whisky distillery is very much coloured by the weather that you are in as you pass it. On a bright, brisk, breezy day you may only smell the notes of scent fleetingly and they lose some of their heaviness and depth, smelling somewhat like the clean burn of dry wood. If the day is hot and humid the peat smoke mingles with the sweet, acrid scent of rotting leaves in damp soil – the latter a smell not unlike crumbled stock cubes – with the smoke cloaking the sourness of the rot. The best way to experience the smell of the distillery, in my opinion, is on those days where it hasn’t stopped drizzling and the air is saturated (I think Scots call it smirr). On these days the smell lingers enticingly, invoking feelings of inner warmth and amber brightness, like that of getting in from the rain to dry clothes and a roaring fire.
Luckily, we had all three extremes and more during the few short days of our trip.
Our first cycle, on a day of flash downpours and a Caribbean-feeling sticky air, was from Port Ellen, the southernmost of the two ferry terminals on Islay, following the Three Distilleries route to Laphroaig, Lagavulin and Ardbeg. The road was near deserted, the distilleries still being closed for tours. It gave the route an air of being a secret smugglers’ run. The riding is flat and easy and most of it is navigable via a dedicated off-road cycleway. If you’re not sure where to start with the exhaustive whisky menu in the bar tonight, then you can do worse than picking the distillery whose smell you like best.
The next day was a ride on neighbouring Jura and was an altogether different beast. Jura has just the one road along its’ east-by-southeast coast. It’s roughly 25 miles long and if you ride the length of it and back then you’ve easily exceeded the altitude gain of the hors catégoire Tour de France mountain climb of Alpe d’Huez. There’s no notable big hill on the way – or maybe the Paps (Jura’s imposing inland hill range) that run alongside give a warped sense of perspective. The rollercoaster quality of the road gives rise to surprises galore as coastal vistas open up beyond the crest of a hill, or you sweep low along beaches of exotic pink quartzite and abundance of seashells of all shapes and sizes being pecked at inquisitively by oystercatchers and pink footed geese. The Jura distillery is based in Craighouse, the island’s one real town. And the whole time you’re watched by Jura’s resident namesake – those inquisitive Y shapes outlined atop the hills, the red deer.
Our day started with a solid hour of beating rain which cleared in an instant and was replaced by humidity and midges. The hills are rolling – soothing, even – as you depart the port heading into Craighouse but the further north you head, the more severe the hill gradients until at the very end – after the turn for Inverlussa and past the Lussa gin distillery – you’re heaving your way up scrambles of soggy scree.
Our final ride took us round the bay from Bowmore towards Port Charlotte and the north of Islay. This route was gentle and kind and offered treats at every turn: bright rays of sun beaming Biblically from behind clouds to illuminate rolling sand dunes; the faded glory of the Old Kilchoman parish church; the aesthetically adroit Bruichladdich distillery glowing turquoise against the peatland. We did have just one Banterlude experience (It’s a shame to have to mention it because the rest of the drivers were 100% considerate but hey, such is the clickbait world we live in). And which whisky was our favourite? Well, ask our friend at Lucci’s bar for the one that comes in a fleecy jacket…
29 July, 2020