So, during our little tromp through Speyside last week we started the Whisky bit off with a rather expansive tour of Balvenie distillery, their wee maltings and the cooperage.
We were right on time for the tour, and were welcomed by David Mair, a rather well known whisky figure in his own right. The tour wasn’t private and was joined by two other Dutch guys, of whom I knew one from sample swaps and the club.
Coffee and biscuits were had and David started chatting about the tour, the tasting afterwards and that we were waiting for one more American guy, who never showed up. Three others did, but the tour is strictly limited to eight people so he had to turn them down.
Since, for three of my mates, it was their first whisky distillery tour, it was nice to start with one that does every part of the process in house. We started on the floor maltings, next to the steeping tanks (eight tons per tank). With those tanks and the malting floor Balvenie can malt about 10 to 15% of their needs. This bit is lightly peated to about 5 ppm, and the rest that’s bought isn’t peated.
They burn anthracite in the kiln, as well as some machine cut peat on a slow but steady burn. It smelled awesome and the malted barley had a nice crunch and ever so lightly smoky character.
After the maltings we went over to the washbacks and then the distillery. I suck at remembering numbers so for all kinds of exact information you just have to check other websites.
Contrary to many distillery tours nowadays we were allowed to take pictures, except when in Warehouse 24. Kudos for Balvenie.
Some construction work was going on on the premises to hook up an anaerobic digestion plant which would get quite a bit of energy from the pot ale. This to cut back on energy usages, sell back to the national grid and be quite a bit more ‘green’ in the process.
Before we went to the cooperage we visited the stillroom. They have six spirit stills and six wash stills. We didn’t get to see those wash stills but the spirit stills were all nicely humming and creating some precious vapors. It all looks quite nice and, even though they’re quite a big distillery, rather old fashioned and small.
The cooperage was very interesting. Balvenie has 8 coopers on site of which the oldest has been there for 46 years. I don’t want to get into a fight with that guy! It was quite nice to see the guys at work, and it was good to see a lot of loving labor going into each cask. The coopers mostly do repairs at Balvenie, and there were literally hundreds of casks waiting to be checked. I can’t imagine them ever running out of work the way things are now. David Mair told us the coopers are very well paid for several reasons: They do an important job which they would have to outsource otherwise, it’s a lot of hard work, there’s a four year apprenticeship, and it brings in tourists. All very good reasons, I think. It makes Balvenie a rather unique distillery to have this facility.
In Warehouse 24 (the fan club is named after it) we were able to taste the bottle-your-own whiskies of which the refill bourbon and fresh sherry were quite exceptional. I bought both of these and let the fresh fill bourbon there. I’m already looking forward to opening the bottles, but that might be a while.
Also, since there were some Warehouse 24 members present we got to draw a sample of the Members’ Cask, refill bourbon barrel 17703. Distilled in 1974. Forty one years old. Forty. One. Upon the last check the ABV was still 53.7%.
It had lots of oak going on, in a very gentle and timid way some old whiskies do. Far from overpowering, so to speak. Old fruit, dried lemon, spiced cake. There was a different hint of smoke on this than on more modern bottlings and I got a hint of mint.
The palate again had some smoke, quite a lot of oak and it was dry. Sweet with banana, more peaty than smoky, actually. Rich, fatty and oaky. Again that certain old-fashionedness that is so lovely and so hard to find in affordable drams.
The finish is ridiculously good and long. Rich and full with oak, peat and lots of fruit.
Already the best dram of the trip, and it was just Thursday morning.
David Mair gave us an awesome tour of the distillery and was far from shy with his information. This was a tour for people who want to know more about whisky, and by more I mean stuff that’s normally omitted or romanticized in regular tours of more approachable distilleries (from a touristy perspective).
It made me love Balvenie a lot more than I did.
Oh, further tasting notes of the whiskies we tried (another five, and the spirit) might pop up later, but those were all regularly available drams so I don’t think it’d add much to this wee write-up.
I was recommended this tour by a lot of whisky buddies. They were all right when they said you just HAVE to go to Balvenie. I think this is the most in depth tour I’ve had so far. Mr. Mair is incredibly knowledgeable and really knows about the industry and all parts of the distillery. He’s awesome as a tour guide. In short: visit Balvenie.