FROM THE VAULTS
‘Where Eagles Dare’
The Society has always loved taking a dram outdoors, and in this feature from Unfiltered issue six in January 2010, Richard Goslan took to the hills to test some bottles at Munro height (that’s over 3,000 feet or 914 metres) in the company of inspirational mountaineer Jamie Andrew
PHOTOS: MIKE WILKINSON
The early morning mist is still hovering over Loch Lomond as we set off along the path from Inveruglas. As we start our climb of Ben Vorlich, the rising sun burns away the remaining wisps, although from our vantage point we can see that Glasgow is still shrouded in cloud. It’s good to be out of the city.
The pursuit of the perfect outdoors dram has brought together an unlikely trio for a day on the hills. Jamie Andrew is our mountain expert, a climber who lost his hands and feet after becoming trapped in the French Alps, an accident in which his climbing partner and best friend Jamie Fisher died. Craig Johnstone, a Society ambassador, is our whisky expert. He might know a thing or two about the ultimate dram, but he’s never been up a Munro in his life.
We’re not only climbing Ben Vorlich, we’re out to test the Tasting Panel’s assessment of what makes for a suitable outdoors whisky. It’s one thing to describe something as “a stimulating dram for the outdoors”, especially when you’re sitting in a leather armchair in the Members’ Rooms at The Vaults. It is quite another to sample it at the summit of a 3,093ft (943m) mountain.
The location is Jamie’s choice. He last climbed Ben Vorlich as a 17-year-old schoolboy, taking the train from his home in Bearsden out to Ardlui with a friend. His love of the hills was starting to inspire him onto even greater challenges. This is the first time he’s been back since his amputations in 1999.
“I remember it was one of these days when we were young and fit and it felt easy going up the hill,” he tells me as we start our ascent. “We had plenty of time to stop and practise our rock climbing on the boulders on the way up. Looking back, it was a totally carefree time.
“It’s always nostalgic to go back to a place where you’ve had happy memories, and for me, doubly so because the first half of my life was as a normal person with hands and feet, and then the second half has been completely different.”
Not that walking on prosthetics holds Jamie back. He leads us onto the most direct route up the hill, over rough, tuffety ground which gives way unpredictably into knee-deep holes. I grab onto strands of bracken to help steady myself on the steep slope, amazed at how Jamie is able to keep his balance.
Loch Lomond in the background
It’s a relief to clamber onto shorter grass a little further up, and pause to admire the clear views across the loch to Ben Lomond and beyond. The day is absolutely idyllic, and I’m anticipating a perfect set-up for our mountaintop tasting.
Then the clouds roll in. In an instant, the view is obliterated, and before too long we’re trudging up through snow towards the summit. Visibility is so poor that we have to stay close together. The priority at the peak is a hot drink and a sandwich. The whisky can wait for now.
Ever the barman, Craig pours out our samples in Society glasses set in trays on the snow. It makes a change from taking a slug from a hipflask, and means you can drop in a pinch of snow to cut the cask-strength whiskies.
But it’s well below freezing up here, which cools the whiskies and subdues their aroma. They work to warm us, briefly, but the freezing air robs them of their complexities and we can’t afford to take the time to linger.
Jamie reminds us that drinking spirits in these conditions is not a good idea when you have a 3,000ft descent to think about.
We make the wise decision to pack up and save our tasting for the bottom of the hill.
“I might take a hipflask up a hill, if it’s someone’s birthday, as a ceremonial thing,” says Jamie.
“But whisky really comes into its own after you’ve made it off the hill to a bothy. If you’ve walked for an hour or two to reach the hut, it’s almost invariably whisky which you carry with you.
“And it works really well in the bothy atmosphere, where it’s dark and smoky, the fire’s blazing and it’s cold outside. I think that’s an ideal drink for those kind of circumstances.”
Craig is also in a reflective mood about how whisky responds to its time and place. “I was on Islay once with friends, at Lagavulin Bay on a beach outside the distillery, drinking a glass of the whisky created right next to us,” he says. “It was about to start raining, so even when we needed some water the heavens helped us with that as well. You couldn’t have scripted it.
“But in terms of a perfect whisky, it doesn’t really matter what’s in your glass. I’ve always said that if you’re in the right place with the right dram and the right people round about you, it could be anything because all those factors add to it. When you can match the whisky too, then you’re in bliss – you’ve got something perfect.”
Chat about memorable drams sustains us on a steep descent back under cloud level to the road which runs up to the dam at Loch Sloy.
It’s a classic Scottish gloaming, but we time our return to Inveruglas to perfection reaching our starting point just as sunset tips over into outright darkness.
Back at the car park, we agree that the Panel’s drinking tip for Cask No. 37.45: Slap and Tingle, that it is for “after a walk in the cold air” is right on the money. It’s perfect for toasting a great day out, before parting company.
What did we learn from the experience? Probably only that whisky is a complex drink, made even more unpredictable by the situation you drink it in.
“Taking whisky outdoors and out of its environment, it really depends on where you’re going,” says Craig. “The term ‘outdoors’ can mean anything, from a summer evening stroll by the machair in your T-shirt, to the conditions we’ve just experienced.
“But if you’re going to have a dram at the top of a hill, you want something big and rich and with a lot of flavour that’s not going to be stolen by the atmosphere, or masked by the cool temperatures.”
But as Craig says, the beauty of the day has been that the pursuit of an outdoor whisky has brought us together, to swap stories, share memories and create a bond over our ascent of Ben Vorlich.
That’s whisky’s power, regardless of the dram, and whether it’s enjoyed indoors or out.