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A Man, His Passion, and a Vespa: The Recipe for a Whisky Odyssey

Imagine that you're on vacation, sipping a glass of your favorite whisky while relaxing outside of your hotel on the Scottish isle of Jura. Suddenly, a man arrives on a Vespa loaded up with camping equipment and painting supplies. Intrigued, you strike up a conversation and learn that his name is Ben Birdsall, and that he has just arrived from Switzerland to travel the Scottish Highlands and Isles, hopping from distillery to distillery along the way.

"Are you an alcoholic?" You ask.

"No," He replies.

"Are you wanted by the police?" asks a friend.

Birdsall retorts: "Not yet."

49 year-old Birdsall had many similar encounters during his travels across Scotland, which included locales such as Arran, Kintyre, Islay, Jura, Mull, Skye, the west and central Highlands, Speyside, the east Highlands, and Orkney.

Born in West Yorkshire but living with his wife and daughter in Winterthur, Switzerland (in the canton of Zurich,) Birdsall did not begin the trip as as a Scotch expert. In fact, the original goal of the trip was to feed his passion for oil painting; he only planned to visit a few distilleries on the side. However, he ended up planning the trip around distillery visits.

An English teacher who paints and writes in his spare time, Birdsall had previously written a book about his travels through the Tuscany and Umbria regions of Italy. A visit to the Oban distillery while on vacation in Scotland gave him a new idea: "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 1979 50cc Vespino, a critical part of the trip, managed an estimated average speed of 20 mph. Estimated, because it lacked necessities such as a speedometer. "The Vespa is actually my only means of transport," admits Birdsall. "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. 

On his 1,000 mile ride, Birdsall often had to set up camp outside for the night so as not to overexert himself or his trusty Vespa. It was then that he would sample the 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 realised pretty early on that whisky and Vespa riding don't mix. That was a rule I made before I started the trip." Still, he sometimes managed to shack up at a hotel for the night on his three week journey.

He emailed the distilleries in advance, but often showed up late or soaked from a rainstorm. However, he says that each time his hosts were "amazingly open and welcoming." Along the way he learned the basics of distillation from key personnel at each facility, becoming quite an expert along the way. Indeed, his trip included some of the most famous distilleries in the world. On Islay alone are the collectively known Kildalton distilleries, including Laphroaig, Lagavulin, and Ardbeg. Birdsall calls these whiskies "the most infamously seaweedy, wet-ropey, peatreeky smokebombs of all malts."

However, Birdsall didn't take to assigning each whisky a score out of ten, preferring to merely mention which ones he liked and which he didn't. He acknowledged that he was far from a conessiour of single-malts when he set out, and has a similar opinion to many distillers on the idea of whisky scoring: that it is a highly subjective experience and that different people are bound to fall in love with different drams.

After the tour, he compiled his writings, paintings, and pictures into a book entitled Whisky Burn - Distilleries of Scotland by Vespa, available here. The book has recieved international media attention, and has been praised for its adventurousness, accounts of hospitality, and, of course, its loving portrait of Scotch whisky. Upon completing the tour, his "odd and numb" (as said by Birdsall) mixture of feelings was described by The Scotland Herald as "a mixture of achievement, melancholy, pride, relief and something balanced between surprise and astonishment." 

Birsall is quite happy with the book's success, but is already looking forward to his future plans: "I'm pleased and a little bit flattered by the attention that the book has received - especially the centerfold! Right now, though, I'm concerned with planning my next summer's trip, around Ireland, and that means, of course, the distilleries of Ireland - by Vespa."

Adapted from The Scottish Herald and Wittenborg

Whisky Burn: Distilleries of Scotland by Vespa - The Highland and Islands from Wittenborg University press can be purchased at www.whiskyburn.com