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Whisky galore.

IHAVE a confession to make: I'm quite drunk.

I'm not behaving disorderly, I have no intention of driving a car and I'm not going to stab anyone, so please indulge me.

I'm sitting at a table confronted by seven empty whisky "nosing" glasses and, over the past 60 minutes, have become something of an expert in tasting Scotch.

Now I've always been partial to "a wee dram" and relatives know the easiest present to buy me is a bottle of my favourite single malt.

But I've never pretended to be the oracle on such matters. Until this afternoon.

I'm at Highland Park Distillery on the biggest island in Orkney, which the locals quaintly describe as "the mainland".

Nestling among gentle, rolling hills, caressed by the North Sea to the east and North Atlantic to the west, this stunning scenery, massaged by 70mph winds, requires a warm, quality drink to appreciate the beauty and splendour of the setting.

And the tipple of choice I have been summoned to sample? Eighteen-year-old Highland Park, which was named best spirit in the world four years ago by Spirit Journal and is 43% proof.

Two years ago, Highland Park also clinched the coveted title of "distiller of the year" at the San Francisco World Spirits Awards.

The 3,500-year-old peat is dug from 1,600 acres of heather-covered moorland above the distillery, and the water flows from a nearby spring.

A film of crashing waves, flaming peat and workmen toiling with huge spades accompanied by panpipes raises my expectations.

And it's followed by a tour of the maltings building, a narrow tube with six inches of barleycorn smothering the floor at the start of the germination process.

Then it's on to the 120-year-old kilns where 300 tonnes of peat is burnt every year, followed by the mash room where 12 wooden vats process 30,000 litres of "wash", a potent liquid which will eventually become a multiaward-winning drink.

The smell of alcohol here is simply overpowering and I reckon I'd be touch-and-go on a police breathalyser test.

More than 25,000 casks lie in 23 stone barns gathering dust as they wait for anything between 12 and 40 years to be opened, bottled, sold and savoured.

Stacked three high in a dimly lit, chilly building supported by dark wooden beams, this is where the real work takes place - and it's simply waiting.

Waiting for these solid, dull objects - and of, course time itself - to work their magic and mature the whisky to a product to be enjoyed across the world.

Visitors can only take photographs inside the warehouses once a health and safety worker has checked the density of alcohol fumes in the air, lest a rogue camera flash sparks an explosion.

After an hour of learning about the history and heritage behind the drink, it's time to be taught how to enjoy it.

Distillery manager Russell Anderson tells me to make the most of the whiskies available, which is exceptionally important as one of those I'll sample is 48.3% proof and from a bottle that sells for pounds 899. That means one measure is worth pounds 65 (I eventually drink four, all in the name of research, of course).

"There's a lot of snobbery about when it comes to nosing and tasting," says Russell.

"There's no right or wrong answer." My first whisky, the 12-year-old, 40% model is in front of me. Russell advises me to close my eyes, thus banishing one of senses, bury my nose in the glass and allow my nasal passage to do the rest.

I go all light-headed and my septum is buzzing with pins and needles. My nose is actually stinging.

And then I throw the whole 50ml into my throat, where it draws moisture from my tongue's pores, dries and closes them, then prises them open once again, allowing saliva to cleanse my slightly numb mouth.

This carries on for six more double measures and that's how I got drunk. It was delicious.

So a walk along the jagged coastline encircling the green grazing land like a necklace is the perfect cure for my hangover.

But the first stop is Kirkwall, home to the UK's most northerly cathedral, St Magnus.

The Orkney Islands' strong maritime links are highlighted in the imposing, red sandstone 12th Century structure, which features the bell of HMS Royal Oak, torpedoed in the natural harbour of Scapa Flow killing 833 men in October 1939.

The sinking of the Royal Oak by a German U-boat led Churchill to order the construction of barriers across the sea to block the eastern approaches to German submarines and U-boats hoping to gain entry to Scapa Flow, where British ships were stationed during World War Two.

Italian prisoners of war held in Orkney built four causeways, on which roads now sit to help the handful of residents on the smaller islands gain access to the services and amenities on the mainland.

But it wasn't just boat-blocking barriers Italian inmates built. Deprived of a place of worship, they knocked together two Nissen huts to form a church.

Further along the coast sits the Stone Age village of Skara Brae, a tiny community nuzzled among gentle cliffs leading to the churning, grey sea, generating 6ft high snow-white waves in which seals happily bob.

And, hangover blown away, it's time to board the plane home, clutching a bottle of my new favourite tipple. pounds 185 Take a Paradise three- star self Cardiff on April 30, pounds 235 Leave Cardiff on the three- star breakfast basis. The pounds 359 Enjoy a seven board at the three Cardiff on May 5, pounds 369 Stay bed Atrium in Dalaman.

two sharing and All the holidays www.

Prices

BEN flew with British Airways from Heathrow to Edinburgh and Loganair from Edinburgh to Kirkwall.

Return flights with BA start at pounds 75.60 with the Loganair connection costing pounds 170.30. Visit ww.ba.com and www.loganir.co.uk Ben stayed at the Lynnfield Hotel where single rooms start at pounds 70 and double rooms at pounds 100. Visit www.lynnfieldhotel.com GETTING THERE

FIVE must- see places on the Orkney Islands: Highland Park Distillery. Learn how the world's greatest spirit is created, sample the various whiskies available and round off the tour with a peek inside the gift shop where a host of Scotch is available from the 12- year- old single malt at pounds 26.99 to the pounds 899, 40- year- old variety. Visit www. highlandpark. co. uk Skara Brae. The Stone Age village lay undiscovered until 1850 when a vicious storm uncovered the ruins. See inside a Stone Age home and look at the network of tunnels which connected the tiny community.

St Magnus Cathedral. The 12th Century cathedral is the most northerly in Britain and home to a memorial to HMS Royal Oak and the 833 men of her company who perished when she was torpedoed in the early weeks of World War II. Visit www. stmagnus. org The Ring o' Brodgar. A group of standing stones peering across the coast and set back from the main road.

It styles itself as the Scottish Stonehenge, but without all the tourists.

The coast. The Orkney Islands are characterised by beautiful scenery and you're never more than a few minutes from the sea. From wrecks to Churchill's Barriers, the crashing waves provide a stunning spectacle.

FIVE THINGS TO DO account to FLY FROM CARDIFF pounds 185 Take a seven- day trip to the Lanz Paradise Club in Lanzarote and enjoy a three- star self catering holiday. The flight leaves Cardiff on April 30, and the holiday is based on four people sharing. 235 Leave Cardiff on May 2, for a seven- night holiday at the three- star Casablanca in Faro staying on a bed and basis. The holiday is based on two people sharing.

pounds 359 Enjoy a seven night trip to Larnaca and stay half at the three star T.Kos Polycarpia. The flight leaves Cardiff on May 5, and is based on two people sharing.

pounds 369 Stay bed and breakfast at the three-star Club Atrium in Dalaman. The 14-night holiday is based on two sharing and the flight leaves on May 18.

All the holidays above are with Thomas Cook, so visit www.thomascook.com for further information.

Prices are subject to availability..

CAPTION(S):

Ben Glaze, above left, gets a lesson in appreciating fine whisky
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Publication:South Wales Echo (Cardiff, Wales)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Apr 25, 2009
Words:1408
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