Sun is setting at the end of our first day and we look out from the small cottage in which we are staying. The landscape is both grand and bleak but the light picks out some warm colours to model the contours. A farm yard in the valley shows it is not desolate but it is empty. It is a place where you are constantly aware of the landscape, which is the reason for being here: to appreciate the peace, the solitude the beauty.
Looking out you know the distinction between Speyside and Highlands is arbitrary, and the division of whisky into regional types ismostly a marketing shorthand and essentially meaningless. This is the Highlands – the signposts tell you that (unless you stray a few miles and find yourself in the Cairngorms) but it is also in the Speyside region. Also it is Eastern Highlands where the landscape is more gentle and rolling than in the West and lacks the rugged grandeur. If whisky regions are based on a distinction related to provenance then these differences should be significant. But, as I have said that is abstract and unimportant. Right here, right now the important thing is to look at the landscape. You can see it was moulded more by river action rather than ice. It was formed 26 million years ago when the land was uplifted in a solid block, rather than folded. Since that time the sedimentary sandstone, that covered it, has mostly been eroded. The rock is now mostly schists and quartzites (metamorphic rocks formed from sedimentary rocks). But is this area there are also strata of limestone, which would make for harder spring water. So even in this small area there are variations of water quality that can affect the character of particular whiskies.
The reason I dwell on the landscape and geology is that it is the reason we are here. It is perfectly feasible to gain a deep knowledge of whisky by sitting in a room and tasting all the bottles you can find. You will gain a range of taste comparisons, be able to make aesthetic judgements, and appreciate the qualities of what you sample, which is a perfectly laudable thing to do, but it is not my way. I am more romantic, I want to feel the location, know where something comes from, and transfer a first-hand sense of landscape and buildings onto what is in the glass and so complete an imaginative picture of what I drink.
So here I am, in an isolated cottage looking at an uplift that happened 26 million years ago of much older rocks. I stand on the divide between Moine and Dalradian. Behind it is Moine, formed about 740 million years ago, in front of me Dalradian, slightly younger at 570 million years. I don’t notice the difference and only know it because I read it in a book. But what I do know is that there is grandeur here, the air is clear and one can breathe deeply. Below runs the River Avon, on whose banks stand the Tomintoul distillery, only a couple of miles away but invisible from this side of the river. The next nearest distillery along is Glenlivet, similarly isolated. On the table there is a map of distilleries and my task is to plan an itinerary. Not easy as there are more distilleries than I can see in one week, especially as I don’t want to spend all my time inside. If the aim is also to experience the landscape, you can only do that outdoors. So there is a randomness to what I see.
Let it begin.