Me in a distillery. A fatal combination, you might think. Luckily whisky’s not really my tipple. Although having soaked in the smells and the history during our single malt-scented tour of Oban Distillery (http://www.discovering-distilleries.com/oban/), I’d become a bit of a convert, in principle if not totally in palate. It’s a small place, run with precision, pride and tradition by a team of just seven men who control the whole process. I was surprised to see the heavy padlocks on the wine safe, where the distilled liquid is tested until it reaches the required alcohol concentration. However, when you hear the amount of duty the government receives on whisky (£600m every year, as I learned from a convenient article in Management Today http://tinyurl.com/36rmntl ), the level of security is not really so surprising.
Whisky has just three raw ingredients: barley, water and yeast. Yet as our guide explained, there are many factors influencing the flavours of the final drink. Our escort through the distillery was a tiny, dour-seeming woman who’d frowned at us over our ticket purchases. Once we got into the distillery, she transformed into a passionate whisky aficionado and displayed a dry sense of humour with the hearty kick of a 14-year-old malt with 43% alcohol. Living proof that all is not always as it seems.
We’d driven up to Oban for our annual girls’ weekend, past the waters of Loch Lomond and Loch Awe, sullen under the heavy November skies. In contrast the trees were bravely flamboyant in this season’s colours: pushy orange, block colour yellow, classic burnt reds. Dun na Mara, perched atop a steep rockery on the shores of Ardmucknish Bay, was as welcoming and restful as ever for our first night. (http://www.i-escape.com/Dunnamara.php) (Unfortunately the B&B is now for sale, so although you can buy the place, you can’t actually stay there right now). The décor is cleanly minimalist and peaceful, the porridge with whisky is unbeatable. When we arrived the bay was choppy, with surly little waves nagging at the careless heaps of briny seaweed, but by the next morning it was still and tranquil as the dull grey clouds sulked off to reveal a crisp blue sky.
It was a long and winding road to our next destination, which my stomach felt keenly. Having managed to get lost, it was much later than planned when we finally coasted up the scrunchy drive to Ardanaseig, one of my favourite ever hotels. (http://www.ardanaiseig.com/) But it was worth the travel sickness. The dark wooden reception hall is lined with a choice of wellies that guests can wear to tramp around the enticing grounds, a sign of hospitality that is emblematic of the staff’s attitude. The whole place feels like a luxurious version of home: sofas to sink into around the smoky fire in the bar, hot water bottles in the beds, Molton Brown toiletries in the bathrooms.
Eating is a big focus for us on these weekends. We always eat at Ee-Usk (which means fish in Gaelic) on Oban’s pier. And memories like last year’s fish and chips, served by a moustachioed woman from a trailer in Tobermory and defended vigorously from the predatory seagulls, live for ever. Gary Goldie, Ardanaiseig’s resident chef, doesn’t disappoint. The five course tasting dinner is a delight, especially when kicked off by champagne in the lavishly decorated drawing room. Fresh kippers for breakfast are to die for – though they do tend to stay with you for the rest of the day!
But the best thing about Ardanaiseig has to be the location. The views of Loch Awe from the back of the house and from the lawns restore an enormous sense of well-being to my harried urban soul. Whatever the weather, the closeness and majesty of nature creep under your skin with every breath of clean Scottish air. On a frosty autumn morning, such as the day we left, an arc of blue sky floats over the tawny hills and bounces off the graceful mirror of the loch. Peace and serenity reign. The mud is frozen hard, the grass looks dusted with icing sugar. Walking in the grounds and foraging in the enchanted old kitchen garden have already, after just two visits, become rituals. Ones that I hope to indulge in for many years to come.