The North Coast 500: Motorcycles and Scotch Whiskey
don’t have the kind of job you’re supposed to be itching to get away from. I own and operate two whiskey-focused restaurants in New York City: the Flatiron Room and Fine & Rare. A fair chunk of my work involves talking whiskey, entertaining guests from around the world, and of course taking the occasional taste of the stuff I’m selling. I love it, but I also love being outdoors, discovering new things, and getting away from the grind of the city. My work takes me to Scotland on a regular basis to visit distilleries and talk with exporters, and I’ve found the time to take a few motorcycle trips around the country with my brothers, David and Kenny. It was time for another visit to Scotland, but after a conversation with a friend and a new idea, I knew this one would be different.
“Have you ever heard of the North Coast 500?” my friend Steph asked over a drink at the Flatiron Room. She’s a brand education manager for a few different Scotch whiskeys, including Old Pulteney and Balblair, and she also knows I’m into motorcycles and love a good adventure. I had to confess to her that I hadn’t. “Tommy, you really must do this.” I trust Steph with whiskey, so I decided to check it out. A quick Google search, and I was in.
The North Coast 500 is a 500-mile loop around the northern tip of Scotland
The North Coast 500 is a 500-mile loop around the northern tip of Scotland, starting and ending in Inverness. Known as “Scotland’s Route 66,” it’s been named one of the top coastal road trips in the world. Small, twisty, single-lane roads weave through tiny villages, deep valleys shadowed by dramatic mountain ranges, and alongside beautiful coastal waters. It’s not an easy trip, especially by motorcycle, which makes it a bit of a holy grail for enthusiasts.
After doing my research and recruiting my brothers, David and Kenny, for the trip, the three of us caught the red-eye out of JFK and arrived at Inverness about 11:30 the next morning—bleary-eyed but ready to roll. For our ride, we’d chosen the BMW R1200GS. Equipped with panniers to store our gear and keep it dry, it was the perfect bike for our journey, considering how wet it is on the Scottish coast. While we were loaded down with gear, the best gadget we brought for the trip was Bluetooth headphones, so we could talk while we rode—and believe me, they got plenty of use. Motorcycle rides can be solitary experiences even when you’re riding in a group, so the headphones were a must-have.
The best part of distillery tours is normally the tasting, but because the ride was such a challenging one, we restricted ourselves to nosing the whiskeys, which was surprisingly enjoyable.
Along the way, we made a couple obligatory distillery stops. Old Pulteney and Balblair have both been around for about 200 years (legally, that is—illicit distilling likely took place before then) and neither of them is what you’d call a modern distillery, which is a good thing. In fact, Old Pulteney is one of the last distilleries in Scotland to use a worm tub, which is the 19th-century equipment for condensing alcohol vapor. The best part of distillery tours is normally the tasting, but because the ride was such a challenging one, we restricted ourselves to nosing the whiskeys, which was surprisingly enjoyable. Forcing yourself to focus on the aromatics really heightens that particular sense. After the tour we’d snag a bottle for evening festivities and be on our way.
The one constant of the trip was the elements. We were almost guaranteed driving rain and howling wind every day. We were pretty well prepared for it, but there were times when the rain would come creeping in my helmet and gloves, and at that point there was only so much that hand warmers could do to alleviate the chill. Near the Isle of Skye, the weather could change every thirty seconds. It would be clear and calm, but as soon as I’d pull over and get my gloves off to take a picture, the wind would just start whipping up again and the rain would come.
we opted for bikes because they keep you in touch with the outside world.
At one point, my brother Kenny suggested, “Why don’t we do it in a car, so we can relax?” An idea worth mulling over, but we opted for bikes because they keep you in touch with the outside world. The few times we were in a car on the trip we felt detached from what we were looking for—the wind on your face, the salty air, and seaside smells.
My favorite part of the route was Applecross Path. It’s a treacherous road not really meant to be ridden on a motorcycle, which of course makes it the best thing to do on a motorcycle. Massive gusts of wind that nearly pushed my bike over when we drove (and did push it over when we parked). Winding roads with crazy views of surreal landscapes, wind so fierce it was hard to breathe, and driving at an angle to counterbalance the bike made this the best and most challenging ride I’ve done.
If you can turn around 360° and the beauty isn’t tarnished, that’s worth noting.
At Duncansby Head was a cliff overlooking these gorgeous tiny islands, with a small path so steep you needed to use a rope to get down. We saw the Smoo Caves, which are a combination of seawater and freshwater caves. We saw waterfalls where the water actually went up because of the intense Scottish winds. While the beauty is endless, what really impressed me about the North Coast was its remoteness. Most places you can look at a photo and say, “Oh my God, that's so beautiful and pristine,” but if you pan the camera just a little to the left you’ll see hordes of tourists taking photos of the same thing, or a Burger King, or chain stores. That wasn’t the case here—if you can turn around 360° and the beauty isn’t tarnished, that’s worth noting. At one point in the trip, our friend Miles, who is also in the whiskey business, hosted us for a night. The house is so remote that I couldn’t figure out where they shopped or even how they got food, considering it had been miles since we’d seen a store. It turns out there’s a fishmonger who comes around in a van once a week, and if you’re in the know, he’ll stop at your house, open up the van to show you what he has.
My brothers are my favorite people to ride with and there is a great dynamic amongst us. We seem different in almost every way, but when we get together like this I realize how similar we are. Without even saying anything, we’ll all pull over and start taking pictures of the same things. I’d take photos of them taking pictures of the same things I was taking a picture of. We’ll rib each other a lot, but we know we’ve got each other’s back in the end. If I drop my bike, they won’t let me hear the end of it for the rest of the day, but I know that once the initial laughs are over they’ll be the first ones to help me pick it up. That is family.
I take these trips as a chance to get essential inspiration for my life and work back home.
Aside from the value of getting to spend time with my brothers, I take these trips as a chance to get essential inspiration for my life and work back home. Even as remote as we were, there were still things I could take away and use. I’d text my chefs and my bar managers about little things I noticed at the little pubs we’d stop at. My philosophy is: The more input, the better the output. The more you absorb, the better. In New York, everybody in the hospitality business is doing their version of the same thing, but I find my best ideas always come from different cultures. It’s not always seeing one thing and being directly inspired by it, but it’s a matter of connecting the dots. One thing will trigger an idea that leads to something else, unlocking all sorts of possibilities.