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Glenallachie Speyside Single Malt

It is hard not to get excited about visiting any distillery in Speyside. How could you not? However, when that distillery happens to have been taken over by a legend of the industry, the excitement levels are amplified. For those who are not familiar, GlenAllachie was formerly used as one of the components of Chivas Regal until Billy Walker (not to be confused with the British Heavyweight boxer from the 1960s, coincidentally known as The Golden Boy) along with Trisha Savage and Graham Stevenson purchased the distillery in October 2017. Billy is known for his ownership and work at GlenDronach, BenRiach and Glenglassaugh, where he transformed the distilleries into what they are today, before being sold to Brown Forman. Billy’s career started in my birth year, 1972, when he was part of the team developing blends at the company which owned Ballantine’s at the time. If you have a bottle of vintage Ballantine’s in your collection, there is a possibility that Billy may well have been a part of that bottle’s creation. That is quite a thought.

Although the distillery can produce four million litres of alcohol, they operate at around 600,000 – a very small fraction compared to what is possible for them. The water is sourced from dam heads around two miles from the distillery. Henshead and Blackstank flow into Beatshach Burn, which supplies the water directly to the distillery, and sits on the North East of BenRinnes. Ben Rinnes is a mountain which has one single path to reach the summit, sitting at 841 metres from which you can view eight counties. One of the main attractions of the walk are the waterfalls, a sight I look forward to visiting in the future.

As you approach the distillery for the first time, you are taken aback by the sheer size of the operation, passing warehouse after warehouse (sixteen in total). You see the main building, nestled behind a beautiful pond, complete with established trees framing this now iconic building, which until a couple of years ago was closed to the public. Beauty is this by definition.

On the day of my visit, Juliet, a brand ambassador was my personal tour guide. We had a great conversation, talking of skiing and travel as much as whisky.  We discussed how I still ski in a classic 1980s French style (Juliet being French herself), which is very much frowned upon. I argue not everything from the eighties and nineties is bad, I enjoy it and have no intention of changing. As we started looking around one of the barrel warehouses, Richard the distillery manager appeared suggesting we grab a coffee and have a chat in the boardroom. I jumped at the chance. Upon entering, my eyes wandered to the left, observing a boardroom table full of papers, presumably from a morning meeting. My mind started to wonder what the meeting was about, could it have been scheduling future releases? Something old and exceptional? I don’t know, but I shall let ideas of a 1972 single cask permutate through my mind.

We took a seat on the comfortable brown sofas, the sun streaming in through the large landscape orientation window, offering incredible views of the hills surrounding the distillery. It was almost blinding, making me squint, but the warmth generated was as welcome as a fine dram after a long day at work. Over coffee and biscuits, we discussed a cornucopia of topics, including our shared passion of cycling, travel and whisky.

After half an hour or so, the boardroom door slowly opened, allowing Billy Walker himself to enter the room…I recalled my initial thoughts over the meeting that morning. Was it about future expressions? I am fairly used to meeting celebrities in my life as a sports photographer and know the last thing Billy probably wanted to talk about was whisky. So, I didn’t. I hope he appreciated that. I am sure there will be other occasions to do so. We nattered away for quite some time when Billy mentioned he had signed some bottles recently. My brain activated immediately, and for the first time I mentioned whisky, asking if he would sign some bottles for me. They will have pride of place in my collection. Bottles signed, we had another look around the warehouses, which should be more appropriately referred to as cathedrals of whisky. These are my favourite locations at a distillery, as they take you on a sensory overload, especially the ex-sherry casks. Each warehouse had its own aroma, only dissipating slightly with the open doors, allowing the glorious smells to gently season the surrounding air.

Richard explained they smell each cask before filling, trying to ascertain its potential. I was offered this opportunity and was amazed by their strength. As a former wine merchant, I have a particular penchant for sherry and even flew to Jerez for lunch at a Bodega long before the budget airlines existed. Observing a cask half dismantled, I took a look at the level of charring within when Richard asked if I would like some staves and a cask end to take home. I naturally jumped at the chance, Richard even hand drew the GlenAllachie branding using the template for me. All I have to do now is decide where to keep it. Maybe I should have it made into a table to place my current dram on.

Alongside inheriting 50,000 casks, GlenAllachie is of course on a continuous cycle of distilling. One of the major changes they have made since taking over is allowing fermentation to last for 160 hours.  This extra time will give them time to understand the new make spirit which flows through two spirit safes allowing them to operate the sets of stills independently of each other.

The new make spirit then has to be matured in casks until maturation. Whilst they are waiting for this to happen, Billy’s skills really come to the fore. With 50,000 inherited casks dating back to the 1970s, it is a monumental task to taste through and discover what to bottle and when, and what finishing they might need. As any fan of GlenAllachie knows, the results have been nothing short of magnificent. Over the coming years we have so much to look forward to. How will the whisky change with revised techniques and more accomplished task management? It will be fascinating to taste a vertical line of their vintage statement expressions and the core range. Expect incredible things to come. I did actually talk with Richard about whisky which you can view in its entirety in the film, or read an abridged version, expertly written up by Annie Bowles below. 

Glenallachie is a distillery with a vast operation and rich history, which continues today after its takeover in 2017 by Billy Walker, Trisha Savage and Graham Stevenson, instilling a culture of dedication, expertise and thirst for knowledge into the company. They have had amazing success in such a short time, with the monumental task of handling hundreds of thousands of casks, curating into creative, original blends. Richard especially praises Billy Walker’s particular skills, and a good understanding of his craft backed by years of experience. This is clearly an attitude ingrained into the culture of the company, as they hand-picked their new team based on passion and an eagerness to learn. 

When taking over Glenallachie, many of the original workers left as they were so loyal to the previous ownership. However, Richard says this allowed them to select people that matched their goals and aims exactly. Their reputation had gotten around, and people were interested in what they were doing, and wanted to get involved. The current warehouse manager, Lindsay, got in touch directly and expressed his interest in the project – he knew they were about the finished product, not the money. He and Richard met at 10am on a Saturday morning for an interview – three hours later, they were still chatting about how all possible aspects could impact the whisky, how they could get the best possible product out of the means available to them. Lindsay’s wife called wondering how the interview had gone, when it hadn’t even officially started yet! Richard stresses this dedication is what makes the company, as all staff are ambassadors. Newbies at Glenallachie spend a week engrossing themselves in the culture and processes of the distillery, indulging a desire for knowledge shared within the workforce. 

Despite managing thousands of casks, Glenallchie is running at just below 20% capacity, which allows them to relieve pressure financially, while still driving for quality and character. They are able to nose the casks as they come in, their current size meaning they can spend more time selecting casks specifically, choosing their casks suppliers carefully, whether bourbon, rye or sherry. Fairly traditional in some ways, Richard makes a point of saying there is no substitute for time. One can wrap casks in cling film, but tried and tested is always the best method. Glenallachie is fortunate enough to have plenty of space onsite (much needed for over 100,000 casks!) to keep a library of everchanging profiles and products as this whisky legacy develops over the years to come.

Whisky is about the journey, and Glenallachie pride themselves on bringing the fabric of their distillery up to standard with big, bold stills, as well as developing their samples and expressions, coming out with fairly consistent batches. Spending hours in the lab, referencing previous batches – all this contributes to the quality of spirit inherited, adding a complexity and character to the original basket of flavours. With a commited team, nothing is a chore, and everything must be done to a high standard, whether it be the whisky or the engineering of the distillery itself. Glenallachie wants to show the best of what its got, imparting knowledge and feeling to whomever has a desire to learn.

In the future, Glenallachie are planning to slowly increase production, based on their huge success and what they want to provide consumers with going forward. Whisky fans are interested in older products, so they’re working on 25 to 30-year-old expressions with great balance and character. Due to the vast amount of knowledge and experience of people on the team, they are willing to try anything, including introducing peated whisky onsite. This willingness means nothing is too unusual or difficult for the team.

Luckily, they’ve had a phenomenal response to their work thus far, building a huge folllowing who are willing to share their appreciation of the product, word of mouth driving the sales. All they really want is for someone to be with a mate and a bottle of Glenallachie on a Friday night and think, ‘I’m gonna open that, and I know I’m really gonna enjoy that.’ Richard recalls a particularly interested group tour which culminated in the guests purchasing a few bottles, trying a dram immediately, then another. Then, after asking some especially pertinent questions, the group went down to the local village and offered a dram to everyone who came by, as it was ‘really good stuff’. That’s what Glenallachie is all about – learning, knowledge, and the sharing of it – that, and a really good dram.

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