Visiting The Balvenie.
This was a visit I was looking forward to having enjoyed the whisky for many years. With a little time to spare before my appointment at The Balvenie, I visited one of the many whisky shops scattered throughout Speyside, hoping to relieve my wallet of some weight. It was to be an unsuccessful mission. The welcome on a gloomy, quiet day was very underwhelming. I walked out empty handed, having experienced no passion at all from the owner. Unfortunately, this is not that uncommon.
I got a little confused upon arrival on where to park. For your reference, you use the Glenfiddich Car Park which is adjacent to The Balvenie. So many distilleries! I was met by James, the distillery ambassador who, fortunately, was upbeat and welcoming, I could sense his love for the brand immediately. This wasn’t just a job to ensure all mortgage payments were met, but something he truly enjoyed. Walking past Glenfiddich and meandering along the pathways that connect the two distilleries, I had a real sense of place, of history and of sereneness. The small lake, OK, more a large pond, gives soothing sense of calm. I looked over the almost still water to the iconic building that houses the malting floor. Stopping to take photos James and I chatted about how The Balvenie genuinely is a craft distillery, even with its size. Can a business as large as Balvenie can be classified as “craft”? I firmly believe it can. Let me persuade you:-
The Malt Master
David Stewart MBE started as The Balvenie in September 1962 at the age of 17. He served a 12-year apprenticeship (including 2 as a clerk), where he learned how to make exceptional whisky. To put that into context, my calculations put that at almost 22,000 hours. More than double the 10,000 hours it is generally accepted to take to become an expert in anything. David has become one of the most highly regarded malt masters on the planet. It interesting to note that during the years of his long apprenticeship there was only one Glenfiddich (also owned by William Grant) and one Balvenie expression, so it was a time for absolute focus.
Things move slowly at The Balvenie, they are not a distillery to jump on the latest bandwagon and expressions like Peat Week may have been in the making for over a decade. Their limited-edition bottles tend to be on the 14–17-year range with some, like the Red Rose, being an exceptional 21-year-old. Other giants of the industry, such as Dr Bill Lumsden, are frequently consulted.
For obvious reasons it would be far too challenging to grow all their own barley, but a good proportion is from their own 1000-acre farm, Balvenie Mains. The farm overlooks the distillery. Here, the only nod to modernisation is the use of a combine harvester, everything else being done in the same way it has been done for decades. The work is overseen by farmer James Wiseman’s and his son Duncan.
The Balvenie is one of the last remaining distilleries to house their own floor maltings in what is an iconic building. As soon as you enter you feel the sense of scale and the sheer physical labour it must take to turn the barley. This is no small room, but a sizeable, historic warehouse. Prior to being spread on the floo,r the Wiseman’s barley is steeped in natural spring water that has filtered down from the hills above the distillery.
The steeping takes 26 hours before being drained for 23 and then laid out ready to be turned ensuring the correct temperature is reached to allow germination. Robbie Gormley, the maltman will then test the grain to check readiness for drying by writing his name with a grain on the floor. From here the barley is dried in the kiln with just a hint of peat.
It isn’t just David Stewart who has been at The Balvenie for decades, Denis McBain has been there for approaching 60 years! Denis looks after the famed “bell” shaped stills and their mechanics. The stills have pretty much remained unchanged in shape since the distilleries inception. They allow the vapours to mix and help give the whisky its honeylike notes. It is interesting to hear that the stills are seasoned by placing branches of juniper trees inside for the first distillation. This is known as sweetening the still. Denis is convinced that without the juniper branches a totally different spirit would emerge.
Another aspect of this distillery that is quite rare is that The Balvenie have their own cooperage. Don’t think for one minute that this is a small room kept operational for marketing purposes, though you can view if you take the tour. It is a vast room that, to me, looks as big as a football pitch. Looking down from the viewing platform I saw skilled craftsmen – the apprenticeship is 4 years – working on individual barrels with precision and knowhow. The barrels have to be wind and watertight through the use of multiple sizes of staves. It’s an intricate vertical jigsaw – not something that can be picked up from watching a YouTube video.
Coopers at work are fascinating. The speed and accuracy at which they worked was incredible. And there didn’t appear to be a tape measure in sight – proper craftsmanship.
Casks are expensive, so having a skilled team of coopers onsite ensures they are well maintained. Through shaving and re-charing cask life can be extended by years. Maintenance is important, but so is buying the right casks in the first place. I saw a pallets of them ready to be returned as they hadn’t passed quality control.
Enough? I rest my case. These are the reasons why I consider The Balvenie to be a craft distiller. It’s not about volume but about undertaking the craft and the being true to the principles that guide that craft. But what of the whisky itself? I am sure you are familiar with the core range, so let delve into the more interesting expressions.