The Whisky Cannonball Run

With a scrunch of gravel, the snarling engine of the Morgan comes to life. With the roof buttoned down, I pull away from the sidewalk, short-shifting through the low gears to build up speed. Driving modern vehicles can be a passive experience, but a Morgan demands to be actively driven.

With Freddie, my father-in-law, as co-driver, we’re attempting something quite ambitious; some might call it foolhardy. I’ve set us the challenge of driving the entire length of the A9 and back again in 48 hours. It’s Scotland’s longest road, running 273 miles up the spine of the country. This is Scotland’s answer to Route 66, with more than a dozen distilleries interspersed along its route. Forevermore, this two-day attempt to tackle the journey from Rosebank distillery in Falkirk to Wolfburn distillery in Thurso and back again will be known as my Whisky Cannonball Run.

The car belongs to Alex Stewart of Caledonian Classic Cars, based near Dollar, Clackmannanshire. He runs the Kennels B&B, which has ample garage space for his fleet of rentable vintage vehicles including a 1971 E-type Jaguar coupe and a 1966 Austin Healey 3000 Mk III. Ordinarily, I would recommend renting the car for a weekend self-drive and prepare for some leisurely motoring to take in the rich landscapes, scheduling some distillery stops along the way. However, if you have a group, consider booking one of Caledonian’s all-inclusive breaks where you can travel in convoy, enabling you to drive a different vintage motorcar every day.

I’m the first to admit it: our wheels are looking damn hot! From the bulging chrome grill and the curvaceous fenders to the tightly packed bonnet louvers and bulbous headlamps, Morgan owners adore the car’s flowing lines. She’s light-framed, nimble, and drop-dead gorgeous. At my height, folding oneself into the low leather seats of the Morgan takes a particular gymnastic agility. But it’s all worth it as rubbernecking pedestrians track our passing with a smile and a wave.

This isn’t any cruise down a freeway either. The A9 has been dubbed Scotland’s ‘Killer Road’ due to its history of car wrecks caused by speeding and dangerous overtaking, especially where the road fluctuates from single to double lanes. Many friends in the whisky industry avoid the A9 road in summertime, choosing quieter, safer routes to Speyside best known by locals. Between 2006-10, there were over 200 accidents a year on the A9, resulting in 67 fatalities. That is at the forefront of my mind as I hunker low in the car’s cockpit, feeling slightly vulnerable in the timber-framed car body with my rear sitting mere inches above the tarmac.

Burning rubber

After a tutorial and test-drive with Alex, Freddie and I cross the Firth of Forth on the Kincardine Bridge, buzz past the impressive equine sculptures known as The Kelpies, and venture into Falkirk to locate the start line.

Rosebank distillery is an underwhelming sight these days. Closed in 1993, she looks battered and unkempt. Ivy threatens to reclaim one gable end for Mother Nature. A billboard fixed to the distillery declares tragically, “Canalside Development Opportunity for Commercial/Leisure/Conversion.” We pull into the parking lot where “The Rosebank Bar and Grill” now occupies part of the former distillery site. It’s an inauspicious start.

We depart Falkirk, joining the A9 at its official southern end at Junction 5. Benefiting from the short motorway section, we make good time to Deanston distillery, a short detour to the pretty town of Doune. Money has been invested in visitor tours since it was featured in “The Angel’s Share” movie, though the old distillery signage still looks straight out of a Spaghetti Western. Rejoining the A9, we hasten toward Blackford to reach Tullibardine distillery. We pose around the car with the tour guides holding bottles of Tullibardine 25 year old, taking their good wishes with us.

Learn how the A9 came to be

Vroom!

Before long, Perth is behind us, and I am finally able to put my foot down and make some real progress. The landscapes open up, farms giving way to the gorgeous fall colors of tree-covered hillsides. Steadily, we begin to gain height, traversing through Cairngorm National Park and Britain’s highest mountain range, where rugged scree slopes and heather predominate. The spectacular split dual carriageway between Dalnarcardoch and Dalnaspidal up the Pass of Drumochter is unquestionably my favorite stretch of the road. The narrow wire wheels mean the car’s handling is skittish as the speedometer quivers amid the higher numbers, the crosswinds ensuring I concentrate on maintaining the car’s straight-line speed. I’ve driven this section under azure skies, in howling gales, and even in blizzards, when the stags and hinds leave the hilltops to take shelter by the roadside. On days when the heaviest snow accumulates over the high passes, the police will drag orange snow gates over the lanes and close the road.

With a satisfying growl of the engine, we crest Drumochter, some 1,516 feet above sea level. The view has never looked better than through the Morgan’s rectangular windscreen. Sanctuary is not far away, as we turn off onto one of the old A9 sections, bound for the gleaming twin pagodas of Dalwhinnie distillery. All year round, pockets of snow can be seen tucked into mountain corries here. Today, it’s getting a bit dreich [overcast, misty], so we fasten down the tan roof for shelter and press on.

As we push deeper into the Highlands, the detritus of rippling saltires, cut-outs, and posters from the Scottish Referendum still dot the roadside. Their unilateral message is a single, repeating word akin to Meg Ryan’s shrill utterances as she slams her hands on the table in Katz’s Deli. The miles tick by as we pass Ruthven Barracks, built after the Jacobite Rising of 1715; we cross the major whisky rivers, the Spey and Findhorn. Traffic congeals to a procession approaching the Slochd summit, but then suddenly we are freed by divided lanes to revel in the eventual sweet descent into Inverness.

There are no working distilleries in the city anymore, but regardless, we stop to pay our respects at Millburn distillery (now a restaurant and chain hotel). The old A9 would have cut inland through Muir of Ord (home to Glen Ord) and Dingwall rather than crossing the Black Isle. When the road was upgraded, the Kessock Bridge was built over the Beauly Firth in 1982. Spanning 3,465 feet and with four tall towers, it was designed to take drivers high over the water, allowing shipping to access the port and the Caledonian Canal. After a visit to the gas station, Kessock is the first of three Firth crossings we’ll do during the northern leg of the trip.

Designated Driver

As we stop to photograph the transformative sunlight on the Cromarty Firth, we hear a toot and return a hasty wave to a fellow Morgan driver, traveling south in a sport blue roadster. The Cromarty Bridge is a low, long right-hander, delivering us into a landscape dense with distilleries.

First, we stop at Teaninich where the distillery was undergoing an upgrade with a major new building erected already, flying straight off the page of the artist’s impression. Scaffolding cloaks one side and on spare ground, horizontal storage tanks await installation. Diageo intended to build their new super distillery here too, but the plans are currently on ice.

There’s work of our own to be done, so we hop in the car and nip along to Dalmore. The Morgan looks spectacular parked next to the restored Commer truck emblazoned with logos for “Mackenzie Bros, Dalmore Ltd.” Late on this Sunday afternoon, there’s not a soul about, only the oil rigs anchored in the firth acting as witness as they anticipate refurbishment at the Nigg and Invergordon yards.

Our final crossing is the bridge over the Dornoch Firth. Astoundingly, this last section of road was only opened in 1991, shaving miles off the detour around Bonar Bridge. Glenmorangie marked the bridge with the commemorative Dornoch Firth bottling, and more recently celebrated the area’s conservation work with a Travel Retail bottling called, simply, Glenmorangie Dornoch.

Heading north into Caithness, we encounter the turrets of Dunrobin Castle and Gardens. They are undeniably impressive and fantastic to visit, though the location is still tainted by the history of the Highland Clearances in the 18th and 19th century and the actions perpetrated by the orders of the Duke and Duchess of Sutherland. The first Duke of Sutherland is immortalized in a statue on a high plinth atop Ben Bhraggie known as “The Mannie,” which has been subject to a number of vandalism and unauthorized demolition attempts over the years.

We trundle through the village of Brora, hooking left to drive up to Clynelish distillery. Adjacent, the dark gray stonework of Brora distillery is attractively cast in evening sunlight, which picks out the two-tone brick chimney and gray-green pinnacle of the pagoda roof.

We jump back into the Morgan. The A9 hugs the dramatic coastline, never more so than the steep inclines and hairpin bends of the Berriedale Braes. No visit to Old Pulteney distillery for us, as the old route to Wick no longer forms part of the A9 like it did in the 1970s.  It’s the final push now. We’re hungry and weary, yet exhilarated about the hundreds of miles the Morgan has covered, and all the distilleries she’s taken us to. A foreboding black cloud rolls in from the Pentland Firth and engulfs us in the near-darkness. Cursing, we spring out and fumble to raise the roof, as fat droplets of rain begin to soak us to the skin. With relief, twenty minutes later I turn off the ignition outside the welcoming glow of the Forss House Hotel.

The life force of the hotel is Annie McKenzie, the hotel’s energetic septuagenarian manager. “I started on a youth training scheme 27 years ago, and I’m hopeful that they might take me on permanently,” she quips. She sets down two glasses of Orkney Dark Island beer in front of us and we fall upon them. Many of tonight’s guests are eating in the hotel’s fine dining restaurant before catching the morning ferry from Scrabster harbor to Orkney. Freddie and I dine like kings. With almost 200 whiskies behind the bar, Annie is not the only reason that people come back here again and again and she certainly knows her stuff. She has even installed a brass water tap on the bar that can be twisted to a sluggish drip to unbuckle your dram’s full potential.

The Morgan under the stills at Wolfburn Distillery (Photo by Jonny McCormick)

So Long

Morning breaks. The full Scottish breakfast at Forss House comprises smoked Caithness bacon, pork sausages by Harrolds of Wick, Aultbea black pudding, and Lochquoy free-range eggs. Trust me, it’s as good as it sounds.

At Wolfburn distillery, they throw up the shutters so I can drive right in and park under the stills. Shane Fraser is relishing his role as manager, overseeing a production target of 150,000 lpa. They ran 10 ppm peated malt in July, he tells me, but plan to distill unpeated malt for the rest of the year. Wolfburn’s new make spirit is sweet, fruity, fragrant, and highly promising. The warehouses are filling up nicely since production began in January 2013. We hunt around the white cask heads, many belonging to private owners, until we find cask #1. But with 273 miles ahead of us, we cannot dawdle, so we bid farewell, roll out of the stillroom, and return to the road.

Caithness has a bleak emptiness as we cross the Flow Country from Thurso to Latheron. I feel like I’m driving on the top of the world: here, the journey is the destination. We retrace our steps, mopping up Balblair, Glenmorangie, and Invergordon distilleries that we skipped yesterday. Tomatin distillery will never win any beauty competitions or grace the cover of many tourist brochures, yet the hulking corrugated walls and red paintwork hide a distillery with a growing reputation for its whiskies.

With the back of the journey broken, we reach Pitlochry by mid-afternoon, home of Blair Athol distillery (curiously, not in the town of Blair Atholl) and turn up through Moulin to reach Edradour distillery. Once Scotland’s smallest working distillery, it remains a huge draw for visitors. The shop is a treasure trove of cask strength Signatory bottlings complementing the Edradour and Ballechin expressions.

Undertaking a road trip is a liberating experience, satisfying our irresistible impulse to travel. Hilaire Belloc said, “The difference between wandering and travel is that we wander for distraction and we travel for fulfillment.” Exploration of this magnitude provides a real sense of escape: the open spaces enabling a quieter, more contemplative state of mind. We return triumphantly to Rosebank distillery at the day’s end, having racked up over 550 miles. When we set out on Scotland’s superhighway of whisky, we had no idea if this epic challenge would be feasible, but the charismatic red Morgan has conquered the A9 with verve and considerable swagger. What a way to arrive at a distillery!

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