How could a 2700 mile road trip from Southern California through some of America’s most spectacular scenery get any better? By ending each of our days on the road with a different single malt Scotch. For my brother’s introduction to The West, as well as to single malt Scotch (he was new to both), it was a grand opportunity for me to be both travel guide and whisky mentor. Highlights of the trip:
I-15 to Valley of Fire State Park and Las Vegas. Our first day was punctuated with rich colors and sparkling lights. The evening’s malt: Glenmorangie Port Wood Finish (forerunner of current Quinta Ruban). Its gorgeous burnt red color and bright sparkle in the glass nicely reflected scenes of our day (click images below to enlarge).
Area 51 and Hoover Dam. Active imaginations conjured up all sorts of scenarios as we saw strange circular contrails above the desolate desert landscape, less than a hundred miles from Area 51. Things got a lot more populated as we arrived at Hoover Dam and the spectacular new Mike O’Callaghan–Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge which carries US 93 900 feet above the Colorado River. Our tour took us into the bowels of the dam, sometimes being able to see the curvature of the massive structure. The evening’s malt: Talisker, from the misty Isle of Skye, lending a bit of the island’s mystery to our memories of Area 51.
Seeing first light break on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon was magical. Our hotel was adjacent to the rim. Armed with hot coffee, the 26-degree temperature didn’t seem so cold, especially when the rays of light began to strike the canyon. The evening before, we had the privilege of seeing about a dozen magnificent California condors enjoying the venue. The rest of the day was spent driving to various overlooks of the canyon. The evening’s malt: Auchentoshan Three Wood, chosen for its soft introduction to the palate, then blossoming into wonderful, multi-layered flavors, just like dawn at the Grand Canyon.
Sedona, Oak Creek Canyon and a bit of Route 66 on our way to Lake Havasu and the London Bridge took most of a day. At the Sedona St. Patrick’s Day Parade, Arizona Congresswoman Ann Kirkpatrick’s familiar 1941 Cadillac was the entry preceding the one we rode in, representing a local Celtic society – great fun and the crowds, often three and four deep were into the spirit of the day. One section of fabled Route 66 had reproductions of the classic Burma Shave signs. My favorite: He tried to cross / As fast train neared / Death didn’t draft him / He volunteered / Burma Shave. Spring Break was alive and well in Lake Havasu, with bikinis and beer in abundance. The evening’s malt: in honor of the 73 year-old Cadillac, we enjoyed the oldest whisky in my stash: Glenfiddich 30. Nothing more than sublime can be used to describe it, as we sat on our balcony and watched the warm-weather revelry.
Joshua Tree National Park provided a great introduction to desert landscapes for the Visitor from the East. Beautiful spiky chollas, blazing red-orange ocotillo, breath-taking rock formations, and the contorted, twisted silhouettes of the Joshua trees had us remembering the days of 36-exposure rolls of film as we shot hundreds of digital photos without a care. The evening’s malt: Macallan 18’s lush, sweet flavor and stunning reddish color beautifully celebrated the day’s memories.
Driving California Route 1 to Big Sur on a weekday in March was a complete joy. We had zipped through Los Angeles very early and enjoyed the brisk morning sea air of Morro Bay before hitting the jaw-dropping scenery to the north, where the Santa Lucia Mountains kneel to the Pacific. An alfresco lunch at Nepenthe, about 1000 feet above the roiling surf provided one of the culinary stars of the entire trip: a shrimp BLT on artisanal bread. The evening’s malt: Lagavulin, as rugged and marine-like as the scenery we had just experienced. Enjoyed on the patio of our pine-paneled cabin, nothing would have been more perfect.
We seized opportunities to get close-up and immersed in two very diverse aspects of nature at Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, near Carmel. Hiking trails through sun-dappled cypress groves and juts of land where a slap in the face of refreshing mist from the surf was a welcome shock and proof we were in nature’s hand. Later in the day we entered Yosemite National Park through the South Entrance and immediately headed for the Mariposa Grove of giant Sequoias. To walk amongst these gargantuan trees was a humbling and almost religious experience. The evening’s malt: Highland Park 18 on the balcony overlooking the fast-flowing Merced River. HP’s regal aroma, taste and balance perfectly reflected our time at the sea and in the forest.
Getting to Hetch Hetchy Reservoir and the O’Shaughnessy Dam took a bit of doing. John Muir described Hetch Hetchy Valley, in a remote section in the Northwest corner of Yosemite as follows: “I have always called it the Tuolumne Yosemite, for it is a wonderfully exact counterpart of the great Yosemite, not only in its crystal river and sublime rocks and waterfalls, but in the gardens, groves, and meadows of its flower park-like floor.” In the early 1920s, the dam was built to create a water source for San Francisco, 160 miles away, filling the valley with trillions of gallons of fresh water. In September 2013, the area endured a vast wild fire, the results of which are still quite evident. The evening’s malt: Amrut Cask Strength. I packed this unusual whisky for our trip “just in case”, and it was perfect to complement today’s experience driving through miles of burned out forest. Amrut’s fiery taste and long, promising finish did the trick.
Actual on-the-road time was 12 days, with multiple nights spent at places like Las Vegas, Big Sur, and Yosemite. After experiencing the mind-boggling sights during his two week tour, my brother’s assessment: “You can see all the pictures you want, but you have to see these places within their natural context to fully appreciate them.” His assessment of single malts: “They were all good, but I’d rather drink my Corona.”