Sparks showered the hearth as another chunk of oak was placed on the fire and the last drops of a favourite Islay whisky fell into the crystal tumblers. The empty bottle sat before us, a rather sorry sight. But with the warmth of a fine single malt inside, it’s easy to conjure up the excuse for a road trip, especially a whisky one.
Where, when and rather importantly, what to drive, were all decided before the stove needed its next log. Arran distillery. January. And BMW’s newest addition to the 8 Series range, the Gran Coupé.
A handful of weeks on, the trip couldn’t have started in a more glorious fashion: there’s a full moon rising over the Manchester skyline and a rich glow as the sun slides over the horizon. And of course, there’s the inevitable feeling of anticipation as BMW’s ultimate grand tourer is swung north, away from people, noise and hassle.
By Lancaster, I’m settling into the car’s rhythm and its comfortable cabin; the motorway is starting to clear and we’re dispatching the miles rather well. But by the time we hit Shap, the earlier, glorious night sky quickly gives way to the filthiest of weather. Despite the car’s slippery profile, the wind tugs and pushes; lashing rain and spray from the trucks start to make the drive hard work. BMW’s Active Cruise Control is fighting the squalls too, frequently illuminating two bright orange bars on the steering wheel in distress each time we’re blown off course.
On we press, with the reassuring all-wheel-drive and ever so refined interior carrying us over the Scottish border. Four and a half hours behind the wheel and the 8-Series receives its first grand tourer tick in the box: the drive would have been far more gruelling in any lesser vehicle.
Following a welcome overnight stop in Kilmarnock, the weather continues to show that January road trips in Scotland aren’t perhaps the best idea. A quick sprint to Ardrossan and we find the ferry is cancelled. After watching the spray pound the harbour wall, the warmth of a café (and its cheesy ‘80s music) beckons. The promised crossing later in the day isn’t looking hopeful at all.
Yet like someone flicking a switch, the sky lifts and we’re allowed to board the Hebridean Isles ferry, the considerable 8 Series eased carefully into its belly. It’s a tad choppy but we’re sailing the near 15 miles at last.
Landing at Brodick in pitch darkness – few places do nighttime quite so completely as Scotland – I turn the car left and drive the short hop south to Lamlash. More specifically, the pretty Glenisle Hotel, its welcoming fire, its stock of Arran beer and its extremely inviting menu. Talk veers between ferries, weather and whisky: subjects prominent in any Arran conversation.
Shaking off the previous evening’s excesses with a full Scottish breakfast – including haggis, of course – it’s time put the 840d through its paces. Time pressures are tight with another storm threatening our return ferry crossing so it’s a spirited drive up the eastern side of the island.
Sport mode engaged and – trying to avoid the worst of the potholes on the island’s crumbling roads – the drive is invigorating. The straight-six in the 840d is a fine match for the car, the twin turbochargers spooling up quickly and its enhanced exhaust note suitably growly. The sports suspension isn’t especially forgiving for a GT car but precise steering and good poise are there to be enjoyed.
We are rewarded with clear skies, not another soul on the road, and Arran’s raw beauty. It’s uplifting, spiritual even. Bloody gorgeous in fact. Should you be unfamiliar with this little island, it is a mere 167 square miles of raw Scottish landscape. First colonised in the 6th Century, it is now home to around 5,000 inhabitants although you’d hardly know it, the hamlets are so small.
Skirting the ragged shoreline past Brodick, Corrie and Sannox, the single coast road takes us on to Lochranza, home of Arran whisky.
Twenty years earlier, I pulled an MGB GT onto the rough gravel of the then recently opened Arran distillery. This time, the 8 Series is eased onto the smooth Tarmac outside the newly refurbished visitor centre. Two decades ago, the whisky was in need of one crucial ingredient to help it on its journey: time; today, expectation is high.
The Arran distillery is the one of a new breed of whisky makers. It is also the first distillery opened on Arran since the last (legal) one shut in 1837 – although it is said there were as many as 51 illegal ones. This year, it celebrates its 25th anniversary and is planning events and special whiskies to celebrate. The Arran distillery has expanded too; in fact, it is now two distilleries, the other in Lagg on the south of the island.
After first sampling the 10-year-old – merely a splash on the palate for the driver, sadly – Campbell, resplendent in a kilt, takes us on a tour. Reeling off the facts, the anecdotes and showing considerable passion for Arran and its whisky, he doesn’t miss a beat. Aged in sherry casks from Spain and bourbon casks of American white oak, it is all managed under the watchful eye of master distiller, David Livingston.
Unlike most west coast whiskies, the flavour isn’t peaty; water is sourced from underground springs at Loch na Davie on the island, described as the purest water in Scotland by Glasgow University. Nor is Arran whisky chill-filtered. So if (heaven forbid) you add ice, it’ll go cloudy because it still has all its oils in. And this really does give it its rich, enticing flavour.
While briefly tempted by the sweeter sherry cask finish, it’s the more savoury 10-year-old I pick as our trophy. There’s something unfussy and no-nonsense about it. Just like Campbell. Just like the rugged Arran. And just like its frequently barbaric weather. It is a fine whisky.
One last walk through the shop – full of tasteful things one might actually wish to buy – and a glance at my watch: time’s tight for the ferry. But with another spirited drive, I might just be able to take in the western route, anticlockwise around the island and cut over the middle to see Goatfell and still make in time for boarding. First though, a speedy stop at the stately 13th Century Lochranza castle, its distinctive silhouette having graced a number of earlier Arran whisky bottle labels.
The sprint back is a delight. The road opens up and sweeping curves offer the chance to set the car up properly and further enjoy its abilities. Showers are starting to head in from the Atlantic and we’re in and out of bright, dazzling low sunshine. And there it is: Goatfell on our left – a light dusting of snow on its 874-metre peak – and ahead, the descent down to Brodick Bay. Just in time for our ferry, the mission is complete. We have our whisky.
How did the weekend go, ask friends? And I tell them. There’s a reason why tales of Arran involve ferries. And weather. And whisky. This story has a stonking BMW in it too.