I have always secretly fancied taking a RIB ride down the Thames, even though it does seem like a bit of a touristy thing to do. After all, speedboats are fun. Especially when the chap at the wheel tries to do boat wheelies while the James Bond theme blares out. I actually got to finally do the speedboat thing on invitation from Balblair whisky, who had had ingenious idea to get people together on a speedboat to drink one of their new vintages. I am not 100% sure if alcohol is encourage on these trips normally, but it’s a bloody good idea, so if you take a trip yourself make sure you get your shit together and bring a hip flask.
Fortunately, Balblair had supplied us with our own, fully loaded with a vintage 1999 Highland single malt Scotch:
We all met at the London RIB Voyages pier near Embankment at 6:30pm, where we were issued with wildly unflattering but waterproof jackets and life vests. It was at this point I realised a skirt and four inch high suede wedges were probably not top wardrobe choices, but we were in the boat now and if we went down there was no suede protector in the world that would stop my shoes from going down with us.
The trip was, as I had secretly suspected, jolly good fun. Our guide was of the boundlessly enthusiastic variety, throwing out all sorts of interesting but essentially useless facts that pedants like me enjoy committing to memory and regurgitating at every opportunity. It was like an orgy of trivia, which I won’t ruin for you (because there is nothing more annoying than somebody stealing your interesting facts).
We cruised down the Thames until we’d cleared the slow-zone, and then the captain (who looked like a saltier version of Owen Wilson but with a better nose) sped us up and sent us shooting around Greenwich, doing his best to do the nautical equivalent of a handbrake turn and nearly tipping us all out into the river, which is – we were told – one of the cleanest in Europe.
Once we’d returned to Festival Pier, it was time for the good bit. John MacDonald, Balblair distillery manager, had come all the way down from Scotland to give us some tasting tips, which I probably needed and appreciated more than anyone else. I’ll be honest, before the RIB ride my experience of whisky was limited to forcing down a Jack Daniels and coke when somebody accidentally bought me the wrong drink at the Union in 2010, and trying in vain to appreciate the stuff whenever the men in my life cracked it out on special occasions (although, interestingly, Europe has a higher proportion of lady whisky drinkers than anywhere else). John told us about how the whisky was made – in ex-bourbon barrels and ex-sherry butts – and how to really separate out the flavours on the palate. I was surprised; I’d never got far enough into whisky to realise what a sophisticated drink it can be.
As Big Ben struck eight, we all wobbled off the boat, still swigging from our leather-sheathed whisky flasks, because it was time to go on the London Eye to try some more of Balblair’s firewater. With the help of John and a couple of other guys who seemed to be semi-professional whisky-chuggers, I was sipping Balblair 1990 and 1983 and identifying notes like a pr–well, at least like someone who wasn’t chatting completely out of their arse. It’s amazing how much flavour they can fit into one warming mouthful: butterscotch, toffee, vanilla, citrus fruits, chocolate, raisins, honey and spices. It was like a treasure hunt. On my tongue. Predictably the one I found most delicious was the oldest and most expensive, but they all went down much more smoothly than the cheap whiskies I’ve tried in the past, which were like swallowing red-hot acid.
And the London Eye? Well, it was a cloudy day, but the views were still magnificent. I’d definitely recommend it for tourists, but for locals with a hankering for a room with a view the Heron Tower, Tower 42 or even the Gherkin – if you can catch a posh dinner in its eight week open-to-the-public stint – may be better value.
London RIB voyages are available every day from Embankment Pier and are a fantastic way to see the city from a new angle. I’m walked, run and cycled from the South Bank to Greenwich before, and I still thought the experience was fantastic. Online ticket prices are £42/adult (steep, IMO) but they do participate in the National Rail 2 for 1 Days Out scheme, so make sure you get them half price if you come to London by train!
Since trying some of Balblair’s whisky I’m a bit of a convert. Whisky, like many spirits, is a complex drink, and it doesn’t do to drink the shit stuff. If you’re thinking about getting into it without blowing a couple of hundred straight off the mark, I can recommend Balblair’s 2003 vintage, which you can find online for around £40.
Author: Emily Gibson
Emily is an urban adventurer, blogger and
glutton foodie on an epic quest to uncover the best things to eat, drink and do in London. She lives in Islington and loves ceviche, cycling and magic shows. Lifelong nemeses include beetroot, beards and wine served in tumblers.