Friday, 22 July 2016

12 Months of Pilgrimage

A year ago today, to a backdrop of yowling huskies, in an all-but-windowless room and with countless West-coast souvenir midge bites still bespeckling my arms I tentatively typed out the first words of what, in a moment of idiocy, I had called The Whisky Pilgrim. (I’ve spent the last year wishing I’d thought about names a bit harder and replying ‘mumble mumble’ on the few occasions people ask me what my blog’s called at whisky gatherings.)

The last 366 days (Leap Year, remember) have been full of moment and consequence. My pokey room in Bristol has been swapped for a marginally less pokey room in Reading. I drove through London several times and didn’t die. My local Asda discontinued Mackie’s Salt and Vinegar Crisps (the narrow-sighted, palate-less bastards).

And amidst all that I’ve done a fair amount of whisky-ing. In an idle hour the other day I figured out that my mileage for the pilgrimage stands, thus far, at 6576. (Give or take.) In context, that’s further than the distance from London to Los Angeles, Tokyo, Vancouver, Bangkok, Rio de Janeiro or Cape Town as the crow flies. The realisation that about 50% of that driving has just been the M6 is enough to cause a violent shudder.

The keyboard’s taken a hammering too – by the time this piece is finished I’ll have passed The Hobbit’s word count – 95,022 if you’re interested – having left the first two Harry Potters far behind several articles ago. Not that we can expect a successful Whisky Pilgrim film franchise any time soon. 

More importantly I’ve visited 39 distilleries and tasted something in the region of 650 different whiskies, about 100 of which I’ve published my notes on, between distillery write-ups and the 40 under 40 series. I’ve tasted blends, malts, bourbons, ryes, single pot-still and whatever the hell you’d class that Mekhong stuff from Thailand as! I’ve been privileged to meet a huge number of incredibly talented people, both involved in the whisky industry and commenting on it and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed myself.

Thing is though, looking back at the target I set myself twelve months ago of visiting every whisky distillery in the UK and Ireland within an 18 month period, it’s not going to happen.  

With the exception of a couple of days at Christmas, and a few more when my family was coping with bereavement, I’ve used every day of holiday I’ve had to drive up to Scotland and knock off distilleries, and I’m still only on 39. Granted I’ve not taken in Speyside yet, which is where most of them are, but it’s still an insurmountable mountain to climb in between now and December.
Furthermore a vast number of those distilleries don’t have visitor centres, and therefore gaining access becomes problematic, given I’m not approaching as a member of the industry.

What this is, therefore, is a reassessment of the game plan between now and Christmas. With the holiday allowance I have it remains possible for me to visit every distillery which both has a visitor centre and is currently producing a whisky bottled under its own label. This will include Bushmills in Northern Ireland, and Hicks & Healey in Cornwall, but I am hugely sorry to say that time and money will prevent me from visiting the distilleries in the Republic of Ireland this year. 

Distilleries such as Loch Lomond and Ailsa Bay, which bottle a whisky under their own labels but don’t currently have a visitor centre I plan to cover through the medium of a separate series in late September. 

So what else does the next five months hold for the Whisky Pilgrim? Well, since I’ve let the Irish Distilleries down from a visiting point of view, I’m hoping to do a separate piece on Irish whiskey, focussing (as ever) on the most affordable expressions. Japan’s the whisky country on so many peoples’ lips at the moment – in August I’m going to examine why, and what the value options for the UK consumer are in that direction. I’ve also been woefully neglecting Canadian and blended whisky lately, and that’ll have to be rectified before too long.

I don’t plan on keeping the Whisky Pilgrim going beyond Christmas – after all, it isn’t very user friendly, and the site looks rubbish anyway. Plans are being drawn up with talented co-conspirators to create a better and far more visually appealing website with a less embarrassing name for 2017, but for the time being I’m keeping all that under wraps.

In the meantime, whisk(e)y efforts are being redoubled! The East Highlands are beckoning in September, and in late Autumn I’ll finally stop dancing around Speyside and hit that nail squarely on its head. I’ll be pointing the Corsa in the direction of Cornwall one weekend soon, and Northern Ireland’s on the menu for October. Plenty of distilleries to be explored and hundreds of drams to be drunk. A good few miles left in the Pilgrimage yet!

So all that’s left is to say a massive Thank You to everyone who’s read my waffling over the last year. To everyone who has contributed with support and advice. Most importantly, to everyone who has shared a glass. It really has meant an awful lot.


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