By Olivier Humbrecht, France
The Summer Isle Restaurant, Achiltibuie – Highland Park Bicentenary
November 2003, The North-West Trail, Scotland
To start this sequence of memorable places, food and whisky, I could not choose a different location. Achiltibuie is a small village (I mean really small: just 40 people, a post office, a small store, a painting gallery with great aquarelles, and the Summer Isle Hotel…)
located at the end of an endless single track, roughly an hour north-west of Ullapool, facing the famous Summer Isles. ‘The Wicker Man’ from the 1970’s with Christopher Lee, Edward Woodward, Britt Eckland… is a must see cult film set in this wild part of Scotland. (Please, do not even think of watching the poor American remake made recently).
The drive to Achiltibuie will make you dizzy just looking at the extraordinary scenery. High munros, volcanic shaped peaks like the Suilven drop directly into the blue of the ocean. If you are lucky enough to do this drive in a sunny day, the summer Isles (a group of small islands just off the coast) will appear shining in the sea and you could take a (digestive) walk on one of the nicest white sand beach you’ve ever seen…
The scenery wasn’t the first motivation to go that far in NW Scotland, it was an unexpected bonus.
The ‘Red Guide’ or Michelin guide gives the Summer Isle Restaurant in Achiltibuie a one star rating, and that was enough to trigger my curiosity. As we arrived the first time there (you guess correctly, we are going back regularly now…), the main restaurant was closed, so we ended up eating in the adjacent bar. It only has 5 tables and a small bar, but it is the same kitchen that prepares the food. My choice went without hesitation for the seafood platter. If you ever take it, DO NOT order anything else before, as you will get a huge plate covered with what this area of Scotland does the best: lobster, langoustines, salmon prepared in many different ways, mussels, crab, oysters, shells, and various kind of marinated and smoked fishes… and as fresh as it can be.
As I was enjoying my meal, my eyes caught a dumpy bottle with a funny transversal narrow label behind the bar.
It was a Highland Park 21yo 1977/1998 (40%, OB Bicentenary). One dram, two drams… three drams later I decided that Highland Park was definitely a good distillery. This whisky is not a power house cask strength wood enhanced type, but more a gentler all rounder honeyed, lightly peated/smoky kind. In short, a better more complex version of the beautiful 18yo. It really shows the maritime/island character of Highland Park with delicate heather/flowers aromas. The fact that it is a low ABV makes it a little shorter than I would have loved it to be, but on the other hand, after lunch, I was able to enjoy it without feeling overwhelmed. I thought first that my rating of 90 points was perhaps to generous and influenced by the whole experience, but I tasted this whisky in multiple occasions after, and never lowered my score.
Sadly, if you go to Achiltibuie, you can’t taste the Bicentenary anymore, because some enthusiastic maniac finished the bottle!
No worries, you’ll find an interesting selection of other whiskies at this ‘end of the world’ location (www.summerisleshotel.co.uk).
Driving off Achiltibuie, take the small coastal road to Lochinver (45 minutes) and make a stop at the Albanach in Baddidaroch….