BEN Birdsall arrived on his loaded-up Vespa on Jura and met a couple of strangers sitting outside a hotel. They fell into conversation, Birdsall explaining that he had arrived from Switzerland to tour the distilleries scattered across the Highlands and Islands. The strangers' curiosity was, perhaps understandably, stirred.
"Are you an alcoholic?" one asked.
"No," Birdsall replied.
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"Are you wanted by the police?" asked the other.
To which Birdsall could only reply, "Not yet."
West Yorkshire-born Birdsall had many such encounters on his Vespa-borne travels round Arran, Kintyre, Islay, Jura, Mull, Skye, the west and central Highlands, Speyside and, finally, the east Highlands and Orkney. He has now poured his writings, photographs and paintings of that trip into a rather nice book.
Birdsall, who is 49, lives with his wife and daughter in Winterthur, a city in the Swiss canton of Zurich, where he teaches English "and paint and write in my spare time". Having written a book about his travels round Tuscany by Vespa, he originally envisaged his Scottish project as a painting trip with a few distilleries thrown in, but the idea gradually evolved in favour of the distilleries.
"I was on holiday in Argyll and Bute, doing a few paintings, and visited the Oban distillery," he says from his home in Switzerland. "I had just finished a trip round Tuscany and Umbria and was looking for a new idea for a trip, and as I went round that distillery I realised it would be a great mix – the painting trip and the route of the distilleries. The distilleries took over, though I still managed to do a dozen oil paintings."
His trusty 1979, 50cc Vespino certainly turned heads. He managed an average speed of just 20mph on it; at the time of the distillery tour it even wanted for something as basic as a speedometer. Still, it got him to where he wanted to go. At one point he met an elderly writer, David Seagrove, who had an interesting Vespa story of his own: in November 1967 he was riding to a train station in the north of England but his Vespa broke down, causing him to miss the train. It so happened that that same train went on to be derailed. Seagrove's father always took the view that the Vespa's breakdown was divine intervention.
"The Vespa is actually my only means of transport," Birdsall concedes. "I don't have a car. I remember bikers saluting me as they passed: normally, bikers wouldn't salute a Vespa, but maybe because I was so loaded up with stuff on the back, they thought that was something they should do." He ended up doing 1,000 miles on the bike. At night, cradling that day's whisky miniatures, he would sleep in his tent or, as happened occasionally, in a more conventional establishment, such as a hotel.
Whisky, and the many distilleries in which it is made, are at the core of the book. Birdsall's idea was to hit the road and spend three weeks riding from place to place and visiting the distilleries, having emailed them in advance. When he arrived he was often late and/or soaked through by yet another rainstorm. But his hosts couldn't have been nicer. "They were," he says, "amazingly open and welcoming." He went on tours of distilleries and spoke to key personnel, learning the basics of distilling and becoming quite an expert in the process.
Not for Birdsall, though, the habit of awarding each whisky a mark of out of 10, as other writers have done (not every distillery manager necessarily sees the logic in awarding points, arguing that such judgments are by definition highly subjective). For one thing, he was not exactly a connoisseur of single malts when he set out.
"The best comment I've had to the book so far is that I don't really give ratings to the various whiskies," he says. "I don't try to say which is a good whisky and which isn't. I say which ones I like. It's not that kind of book. I think the distilleries appreciate that – they seem to like the idea that different people taste different things in whiskies.
"It was a learning experience for me. Most of the distilleries will give you a dram, or if you're driving, a miniature. I didn't actually drink in the distilleries: I took the samples back to the campsite and tasted them in the evening. I realised pretty early on that whisky and Vespa riding don't mix. That was a rule I made before I started the trip."
His tour, of course, took him round distilleries that make some of the world's best-known single malts. On Islay alone he Vespas along "one of the most famous little tracks in the world" – a track that would take him to the majors collectively known as the Kildalton distilleries. Three of the biggest name in Scotch whisky are within a bottle's throw of each other: Laphroaig, Lagavulin and Ardbeg. Characteristically, Birdsall has a phrase for their whiskies, too: "The most infamously seaweedy, wet-ropey, peatreeky smokebombs of all malts."
At the end of his Scottish visit, Birdsall writes that he encountered an "odd and numb" feeling – a mixture of achievement, melancholy, pride, relief and something balanced between surprise and astonishment. It was, he says now, "a bit like a rock star finishing a tour and taking two weeks to calm down." But he is already giving thought to his next project: taking his Vespa around the growing number of distilleries in Ireland.
Whisky Burn: Distilleries of Scotland by Vespa – the Highlands and Islands is published by Wittenborg University Press, priced £39.99 Visit whiskyburn.com