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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About H.W. MacNaughton

Technologist and communicator. Into technology, jazz, Formula One, sci-fi and any good writing about real stuff.
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