Distillery Tour: The Balvenie

Visitor’s center, from the rear.

Our second tour was at William Grant & Sons in Dufftown. At this site are the Balvenie and Glenfiddich distilleries. Where Glenfiddich is nearly ubiquitous worldwide as ‘the world’s best-selling single malt‘ and a high-volume product (13M liters/year, produced from 32 stills), the Balvenie site next door is William Grant’s craft distillery. The Balvenie retains its own malting floor (producing 10% of its malt, much of which is grown locally), and has its own cooperage — a rarity in the Scotch whisky industry. Their output is less than half that of Glenfiddich — but that is still considerable. In fact, they about double the output of Glenfarclas. You may not see the Balvenie Doublewood, their most common expression, in every bar, but you’ll see it in many upscale spots. Not all of the production from this site goes into Balvenie expressions, some goes into Kininvie, a malt used in Grant’s blended whiskies.

I usually end with a bottom line, but this time, I’m starting with one: the presentation and execution at The Balvenie is designed to connote a handcrafted, old-fashioned approach to whisky making. Where Glenfarclas is small and spiffy, the Balvenie is organic, even rustic in character. This is the tour to take if you take only one.

A cozy fire and coffee at the lounge…

The tour starts and ends in a small, painted-brick building. It sits next to a pond and has four rooms: a cozy lounge, complete with coal fire, a small bathroom (with a super-cute, old-timey copper toilet), a tasting room sporting not much more than a round table (seats eight) and shelves, and a shop, again cozy and packed with their wares. We were there in August, so the grounds were green with grass and the gardens bursting with color. Inside this small visitor’s center, we sat in the leather couches as our guide, Charlie, gathered the party. We were not many — some folks did not show, despite this being a pricey tour: £50 per person. We had heard it was worth the coin and were eager to start, but the host waited a bit to see if they showed. In the end, we went through with just three others, besides my wife and myself. It made for an intimate tour.

Soaking vat at Balvenie

A short walk took us to the maltings, where we saw the floors covered with about six inches of malt, no surprise there. A malting is not visually exciting but it does smell nice. And there is also some other cool stuff — like the old wooden soaking vats, where the barley sits to absorb water for sprouting. Already you see the difference between this old building and the clean-cut efficiency of Glenfarclas; click on the photo to the right. This equipment is weathered and shows the scars of past repairs, the walls are unadorned concrete, the floors well-worn wood. There’s barley scattered about. The place has a worn look that conveys time, human striving, history. It’s a lovely time machine. Of course, Balvenie is a big (if not huge) producer, and this malting operation represents just 10% of their barley consumption; the rest is sourced from commercial maltings. Still, it is great to see ‘how it was done’ since the 1800s. And it doesn’t stop here. This tour got intimate. Our guide encouraged us to pick up the barley, run our hands into it and feel the heat generated by the malting barley. It’s surprisingly warm. On this warm summer day all the windows were open to keep the place from overheating.

Note in the photo below, they still use some human power to do tasks like turning of the malt.

The Balvenie Malting Floor (they have two). Click for hi res.

Tools of the Trade. Click for detail.

They also have powered machines for the heavy lifting of wet malt, pictured at left, with our guide demonstrating the old-school approach still used when the malt has been dried.

At this point I have to mention the remarkable smell. Many folks when talking of a house after a party will say ‘that place smelled like a distillery’ but an actual distillery smells more like a bakery. Whether in the malting floor or at the mash tun, the smells are deep, nourishing, like that of rising yeast dough; it is the same mechanic, isn’t it? The smells entranced my wife, a hopeless foodie, and from the Balvenie on she was excited about what each distillery would offer in sight and smell and fired an enthusiasm in her that fueled the rest of the trip. Thank goodness.

Continuing with his ‘get your hands in it’ approach, Charlie brought us to the second section of the floor where the malt had sprouted and showed us what the sprouts look like when heavy with sugars. He encouraged us to dig in, feel the stuff — lighter now — and taste some of the malt. Really good stuff!

Three stages of malt: soaked berry, early sprouting, fully sprouted, ready to dry. Click for super detail. Apologies for the third shot, I was holding the camera in my off hand.

The Barley Elevator

How does the malt get to the next stage? Via the Barley Elevator, of course. I love the old sign. This sits below grates in the floor above, and moves the barley up to the next level: the kiln.

This ascent for us humans was past another malting floor, then up some old metal stairs and then a wooden ladder from which we had wonderful views of the the maltings below. I am, as I mentioned in the previous post about Glenfarclas, an aficianado of old, worn structures that show layers of history, human interaction and, yes, grime and decrepitude. Up in the rafters where the kiln lies I was in seventh heaven. Wooden ladders, crusty old doors, and even some workman’s graffiti – too cool!

Balvenie’s kiln. I wonder who left the light on one day?

Furnace. Note louvers for draft control.

From there, we descended all the way down to the bottom of the building where the fires  burn that heat the kiln. More brooms and shovels. These guys really put their back into their work. They use a mixture of coal (predominantly) and some peat, though the Balvenie is not noted for a peaty finish. (In their review of the same tour, the WhiskyForEveryone folks report 5 hours peat, 40 hours coal to dry the malt.)

From there we passed through the guts of the place, under massive ducts, rows of blowers, control panels (stop buttons within easy reach of clueless tourists — these are trusting people) to the milling machine. Like the one at Glenfarclas, this one is old, and reliable,and the only one they need and have. It’s really pretty but we had little clearance in front and I could not get a decent shot of it. Too bad, it was the nicest one we saw.

Balvenie has the coolest wort cooler .

Upstairs are the mash tuns. These big steel beasts display the industrial might of the Balvenie operation. We were surrounded by heavy-duty ducting and beige steel-painted walkways but a touch of color from the wort cooler (at right) shows the Balvenie’s style.

In the next room were the we return to a more organic style with the Oregon pine washbacks, 20 if I remember right. Oregon pine is traditional for washbacks, and Balvenie considers these part of their magic. Other places use stainless steel, claiming it is easier to keep steel clear of unwanted bacteria. Charlie opened one and the malt was so active the froth shot out the top like a volcanic eruption. It was quite a sight, everyone enjoyed that. The smell in here is pleasant, but if you stick your nose over the opening of a (less active) washback, you will get a strong sting of CO2 right up your snout. We were surrounded by tons of small beer, fermenting its way to the next stage, distillation.

The Oregon pine washbacks. It’s nice to know my state has a key part in whisky production.

Six spirit stills. Say that six times fast…click for hi-res.

The six spirit stills are tightly fitted in a really pretty Willy-Wonka-esque maze of walkways and piping. You could not just wander around them like at Glenfarclas, you are above the operation, looking down. We did not see the other still room where they have their wash stills. I would have liked a better shot of their spirit safe, as the safe is the jewel in every distillery’s operation. So, chalk one up for the Glenfarclas tour, you could get up close and personal with their stills and safes.

We then took a walk about the grounds. We were off to the cooperage — another unique feature of the Balvenie operation.

The Balvenie cooperage. Click for detail

We observed the cooperage from a walkway above the main floor where the work gets done. Charlie showed staves from different stages in a casks life, in which the gradual bleaching of color from the wood shows why using casks beyond two or three uses is fairly pointless. The flavor of the wood is gone by then. Balvenie uses first-fill sherry casks and if I remember correctly, first and second fill bourbon. We enjoyed watching the men building casks. Besides the band saws and a big blue monster to snug the bands over the finished product, the work is very much ‘hands on.’ These guys are craftsmen and the fact that Grant employs them here shows they are committed to  maintaining from ‘soup to nuts’ the skill and knowledge for producing whisky.

Our next stop was the warehouse, and sadly no photography was allowed. Inside we passed by the towering Tun 1509, from which they produce a yearly special batch and climbed upstairs to a set of four casks. Three of these we tasted from the palm of our hands — as Charlie did, slurping the cask strength spirit like some sort of furtive warehouse guys taking illicit tastes. I found it very much in character with the intimate feel of the place and the up close and personal style of the tour. For those who wanted to draw a valinch of their own, we could choose from a 14-year-old in a sherry cask, a 13-year-old bourbon and a similarly aged port cask. My wife and I took the option to decant our own (small) bottles for the sherry and bourbon cask, a pricey option but for such amazing flavors, we could not pass that up. The pièce de résistance was, for we members of their loyalty program (Warehouse 24), a dram (in a glass even) from a special cask. I am sure this changes from time to time; on our visit, it was a 34-year old bourbon cask. Charlie said with great reverence, “this is some serious whisky!” and he was not kidding. I have had some 20 year old whiskies and even a 25-year Talisker, which I found sublime, but this was another experience entirely. Whisky this old passes from smoothness to a thickness, the only way I can describe the taste was of age, like the smell and appearance of really old, heavily worked leather — meaty, dark, thick. It had incredible mouthfeel. For the cost of an email address, it was the best deal in all of Scotland.

Some of the many temptations of the Balvenie shop

That was it for the tour, and from there we recovered to the tasting room, a big round table with five Glencairn glasses with a selection of their whiskies: the Doublewood, a single-cask 12, their Caribbean cask — super sweet and tropical — and a pair of 15-year old single-cask releases.

From start to finish this tour was the most amazing time we had in Scotland. I cannot recommend it enough. If you are taking the time and expense to go all the way to Speyside, and you have an interest in how whisky is made, you will not be disappointed. And for certain, sign up for Warehouse 24 beforehand. They will make it worth your while.

Bottom line: pricey, but just do it!

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Book Review: The Golden Notebook

This longish novel by Nobel Laureate Doris Lessing is known as an important feminist work, and that’s why I decided to read it. However, Lessing’s intent was to approach a number of other important subjects, primarily fragmentation of the mind and of society. She certainly swung for the fences; the number of subjects she touches on are too many to mention without driving readers away (I have a list at the end, for the heck of it). From politics (disintegration and rebirth of the British communist party) to existential loci such as the presence of a child as an emotional anchor, to intimately common things like dealing with tampons. The scope of the novel is wide-ranging; so are the settings and characters: along with the protagonist, Anna Wulf, Wikipedia notes 31 characters, all of whom are fully described, fully animated. The two focal points are the protagonist’s early life in Africa during the War (WWII) and her post-war life as a single mother (and Free Woman) in London. Settings are intimate — passages go on for pages often without the characters leaving their apartment. After the African section, primary characters rarely go outside and there are no descriptions of London at all.

Note: page numbers refer to the Simon & Schuster 1962 edition.

So, how is it to read? I found it odd and intensely detailed, often for reasons which are obscure to the reader until much later. The characterizations are superb, as are descriptions, such as: her room, page 52; the privileged of English upper classes, 71-73, beauty and ugliness, pp 132-133, consideration of suicide, page 152. And, or course, Africa, in many places.

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Distillery Tour: Glenfarclas

For this post, a departure: not a whisky review, but a distillery tour review, of Glenfarclas. This was my first tour of a distillery, so the whole thing was new and fascinating. That’s fortunate, as I had planned no less than nine tours for our two-week vacation in Scotland. Frankly, my wife was dubious, but she came to really enjoy them. As we progressed across the whisky-making regions of Scotland, we did six other tours and learned that no two tours are the same. We also discovered aspects of the distillery experience we did not expect, and fortunately, we both found compelling. Onward! (Note, most photos can be clicked for higher res images.)

Glenfarclas Lobby Shop. You can see the entrance to the tasting room at the far end.

Glenfarclas rare bottles. Can’t buy these, but…

Glenfarclas is about 20 minutes south of Dufftown. It’s set in a broad valley, which you can see in a flyover view here, at their website. The entrance is easy to miss driving south, so if you find yourself up among the piney hills, you’ve gone too far.

You’ll gather in a lounge off the lobby. I couldn’t sit for long, I was too busy gazing at all the rare bottles (pic at right) they had on display. Not all were off-limits, there were some old releases (the Family Casks) still available for the (very) well-heeled.

…the Family Casks can be bought. My birthyear bottle was about £3K, if I remember correctly. Click for hi-res.

We were shepherded by our hostess for the morning, Kirstin, and we headed outside to the millhouse. Fortunately, we had a bright, sunny morning, so everyone was in good humor. Our guide proved to be witty, a touch arch and quite refreshing. That was one aspect of our tours we grew to appreciate — at most of the distilleries, the guides felt comfortable being themselves, and they proved to be quite an enjoyable lot.

In the millhouse, we were introduced to the raw ingredients. Kirstin passed around jars of ripe barley and the malted end product. Note, they do not malt on site, so we were in a shipping bay where malt is brought in. But we all had the opportunity to try munching some malted barley, that was exciting. Tastes pretty good.

Next up we met their one milling machine, and I found it surprising that they had no backup for this critical machine. Kirstin explained that these machines were so reliable that the company which made them went out of business. The mill at Glenfarclas is relatively new (1960s model I believe) and kind of bland in appearance. (I have better photos of older mills still in production in future tour reviews.) We passed by a big electrical panel with important-looking red lights and switches. I was impressed that they Glenfarclas folks trusted complete strangers to keep their hands to themselves. As I learned at all these tours, you really climb around in the guts of these facilities.

Up a steel staircase from the mill, Glenfarclas has a lovely malt de-stoner, pictured below. I find this hilarious as I live in a town where cannabis is legal. We could use a de-stoner.

At one time in my life the studious label of the de-stoner would have sent me into fits of laughter. The dresser evokes its name with a touch of attractive woodwork, a hallmark of malt distilleries: custom handiwork.

The mash tun. Nuff said.

Next we marched into the heart of the distillery and met their mash tun. At 16.5 tonnes capacity, this stainless steel beast is an indication of Glenfarclas’s industrial focus: modern equipment, run efficiently. But this is industry at a small scale. At 3.5 million liters per year, their output is a fraction of true giants like Macallan. (I lost many notes when I destroyed my phone later on the journey, but I’m remembering that Glenfarclas brings in about 10 tonnes of malt per week, whereas Macallan would use that in less than a day.) You could call Glenfarclas a boutique maker: they boast modest production levels and focus only on unpeated, sherry-cask-aged releases. They pursue their niche with well-capitalized, modern efficiency. There are no Oregon pine washbacks or bragging about old-time methods. Everything about the place conveys a sense of focus and attention to detail.

Spick and span is Glenfarclas. Underneath the big Tun Room.

The facilities are spectacularly well-kept and clean, as you can see from the photos. Efficiency leads to opportunity; our guide boasted that in the downturns of the industry, the owners of Glenfarclas, a family-run concern ( J. & G. Grant), always expanded their contracts. Their good management is evident in the way they deliver an excellent product at very reasonable retail prices. They find efficiency in bottling and malting offsite. The heart of the process, distilling and aging, is handled here.

No worries taking photos at Glenfarclas.

Next up was the still house (click to expand photo at left.) There was no wash running at the time; maybe that’s why we were able to photograph (other distilleries disallowed photography in their still houses). The wash still reads 28,000 liters. That’s a fairly big still — compare to Caol Isla, no slouch in production whose wash stills are 19,000 liters. The stills are highly polished at Glenfarclas, not a job I would relish. A real industrial work of art, the whole of the still house, and topping all, the pièce de résistance: their spirit safe.

Keep it secret, keep it safe.

Spirit safes, from the grungier facilities like Bunnahabhain (review coming) to spiff places like Glenfarclas, are always gorgeous, the jewel in the crown of any distillery.

If the spirit safe is the heart of a distillery, this is the brain.

Yet I always keep a lookout for organic decrepitude. It’s an aesthetic interest I have: as beautiful as we can make any piece of equipment, the natural wear, tear and grunge that accumulates from time and heavy use adds an air of history and accidental art to ordinary objects. Such a subject is tough to find at Glenfarclas, but find it I did: the control center of their still house. Can’t you just imagine the malt master sipping a cup of coffee as he pores over the temperatures and pressures? I’m leaving this photo at full res so you can click it and zoom in on all the cool buttons and gauges. Check out the gloves under the desk, how all the switches require a key, the old brass padlock. Add a lovely patina of wear and yes, (rare for Glenfarclas) a touch of grime.

Warehouse 1, with guide.

On to the great old dunnage (stone walled, dirt floor) warehouse. We were not allowed to wander about the casks (there’s a rope across the way). Some places let you do that, other distilleries have their casks behind gates and do not allow photography at all for fear of explosion. (I found that a weak excuse after photographing in several warehouses). We had a good view of the place and of some casks dating back to the 1950s.

Barrels stacked 3 high, as per tradition.

On to tasting. The tasting room sports very intricately carved woodwork, as it is all salvaged from an old steamship’s lounge. Click on the photo below for super detail.

A room that is quite…tasteful. Sorry,

We had the basic tour, which comes with two tastes, the 10 and if I remember correctly, the 15. You can see my little bottle there, that’s for drivers.

Two for my baby, and one more for (after) the road.

Altogether, Glenfarclas was a delightful introduction to distillery tours. They have a spit-and-polish air and a no-nonsense approach to production. Their packaging is similarly no-nonsense — nothing fancy, as you can see from the photos of the lobby shop: they’ve had the same style, the Glenfarclas script and Roman font describing the release on a square tan label, their stout-shouldered bottle, for many years.

Is it worth the drive out of Dufftown? Absolutely. We enjoyed the lively guide and cheerful tasting room atmosphere. It was great education and entertainment for about $10 US. And that included a discount certificate in the lobby shop, which helped buy us a bottle of the 15-year-old to take home. As with other distilleries, there are more in-depth tasting tours available. Certainly recommended.

 

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Whisky and Words Number 30: Highland Park Magnus

Reminds me of 2001, a Space Odyssey.

Another in the NAS series! Again I’ll weigh the stratagem of the distiller, and we’ll see if the malt master and his minions have created value for both distiller and imbiber. In this case, the Magnus is presented to us as a hearkening back to old ways:

A whisky crafted in the old way by a new generation of Vikings, MAGNUS bears the soul of our Viking ancestors and the name of just one – our founder, Magnus Eunson.

Magnus, a chap who set up a still on the Highland Park site in the 1700s, was a descendant of Vikings. I’m reading Churchill’s History of the English Speaking Peoples, and pretty much everyone in the UK and northern Europe in general is a descendant of Vikings. They got around, those Vikings. Anyway, that’s the theme set by the marketing wags. The presentation is heavy on atmosphere, with the opaque black bottle (right) and a distinctive new cap, which is a combo cork/screw-in with a lot of detail embossed (detail below). The screw-in feature is handy if you are too tipsy to push the cork in without letting slip the bottle. Drink responsibly.

New cap, more Viking vibe.

What can we expect from the whisky? They explain they have brought forward Magnus’s “bold and uncompromising approach to whisky making… a single malt whisky, matured in Sherry seasoned American oak casks, that delivers notes of sweet vanilla, overlaid with our distinctive aromatic smokiness.”

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Whisky and Words Number 29: Bruichladdich Islay Barley 2009

We’re off the NAS train for a bit, coming back from the underwhelming Dalmore KA III, back at you with another Bruichladdich. I’ll do a little compare and contrast with the Bruich’ Scottish Barley, AKA Classic Laddie. Note, the Islay malt does have an age statement. On the bottle it states “Distilled in 2009, bottled in 2015. Aged 6 years in oak casks.” So, this has been sitting around in bottles for two years. Similarly, the currently available Islay Barley shown on the Bruich website is from 2010. (Oddly, where the 2009 is redundant stating the time spent in cask, the 2010 bottle is silent on that subject.) So, you wonder, how does a 6-year old stack up to the standards from other distilleries aged 10-12 years? We’ll see below. Let’s see what goes into making this whisky.

Click to expand, you can read their record of provenance.

First of all we have to recognize Bruichladdich as a distiller with an intense focus on how the whisky is made and from what. Not that other distillers are unfocused–I did visit a number of them this year–but these folks really take terroir to a fanatical level. My Islay Barley’s canister (photo alongside) boasts ‘Uber-provenance’ and names the Islay farms from which they sourced their barley. There is a lot of text about what was happening on the farms the year the barley was grown. It’s worth a read. We also find their credo on the canister, they “believe in Islay…in people..in authenticity provenance and traceability. We believe in slow.”

Regarding ‘slow’: the Bruichladdich people don’t stop at focusing on grain. On their website they describe in detail the old-fashioned equipment and methods used onsite: Oregon pine washbacks, Victorian equipment, little mechanization:

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Whisky and Words Number 28: Dalmore King Alexander III

KAIII box rear

This whisky, the Dalmore King Alexander III (KA III forthwith) was a gift, and I am grateful for it. Especially as this retailed for over $300 when our local stocked it (it’s a state-owned store and they rotate brands, it is gone now). That price is definitely out of my ‘I’ll try it on a whim’ range. One wonders at the price, especially for a NAS whisky. What are we buying? There is a fancy box, as you can see (bottom of post), and all those flaps provide lots of inspiring verbiage:

  • A note on the box art, The Death of the Stag, a fine painting at the Scottish National Galleries (I saw it, an impressive painting indeed) on the right inner flap.
  • A note about the Dalmore Custodians, their loyalty program on the left inner flap.
  • Dalmore history, Dalmore’s general approach to marrying spirit, and KA III tasting notes (box rear).

So what does Dalmore bring to the party? Does this hyped-up NAS hold up?

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Whisky and Words Number 27: Bruichladdich ‘Classic’ Laddie

Known alternately as Scottish Barley and The Classic Laddie, this expression from craft-distiller Bruichladdich is a NAS whisky.

I have to admit a fondness for the place after having visited; I like their style. It was our last day on Islay, and after a busy morning walking from Port Ellen to Ardbeg (more on that later!) we decided to head out into the hinterlands for a drive. We took the road out to Port Charlotte, a tiny village at the end of which the A847 went from two lanes to one. That was all for me, I had had a bellyful of driving on tiny little roads and we headed back the way we came. Portnahaven would wait for next trip!

On the way back, we dropped by Bruichladdich. The distillery had been enthusiastically recommended to us by ‘Uncle Charlie,’ our taxi driver for the Bunnahabhain/Caol Isla visits (more on that later as well). I unfortunately has well tired of photography (and the day was spitting rain as well) so I have no photos, sad to say. Except this one, of some local creatures which had just scurried out of our way:

What, they think they own the road?

Just a dram, please.

It’s an interesting little place, a whitewashed structure and wall, through which you pass into an intimate little courtyard to park. The tasting room is through a brightly painted (turquoise) door, low-ceilinged, liberally provided with couches on which whisky overs lounged in quiet repose. There was the usual display of t-shirts, jackets and the like, and a wide bar where a kindly woman of mature years welcomed us gaily and immediately offered us a taste. Why, of course, why not? I expected the usual: “Here’s our standard, if you want more sign up for a tour.” But she led us energetically through tastings of four expressions (of which I took the tiniest sips, as I was still driving, grr.) We had the Classic Laddie, the Islay Barley (both unpeated), the Port Charlotte and Octomore (latter two peated). Note: though I growl about NAS whiskies, these all lacked an age statement and yet I enjoyed them all.

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