I was fortunate to be able to get away to Speyside for a couple of days, flying up to Aberdeen on the evening flight from Birmingham.
My first nights stay was at the Huntley Hotel, needless to say a little ‘dramming’ went on! Other customers joined in the fun and the Landlord clearly hadn’t sold so much single malt for a long, long time! Whiskies that stood out were the predictable Springbank 12 years old, Ardmore 91 Macphails and Glen Scotia 12 year old from the old style bottle.
My first stop next morning was the almost out of the way Glendronach Distillery, recently taken over by BenRiach’s Billy Walker and his team. What followed (after a warming dram, as there was still a lot of snow lying around) was a fascinating tour by Alison, who really knows her stuff – one of the best in the business! I found the distillery and whiskies fascinating, well worth that little bit of effort to visit. The enthusiasm for the new business is very apparent, and we’re very much looking forward to stocking the new expressions.
A gentle run round to Craigellachie calling in at Strathisla Distillery en route, now closed to visitors till Easter. Then with a little time in hand I visited ‘The Macallan’ visitor centre, where they were kind enough to give me a taste of 10 year old as I chatted to the helpful staff about the new developments taking place, such as the vast new bonded warehouses that are being constructed on the hillside above the distillery.
Time to move on down the hill to Dewars Craigellachie Distillery, where Rosalyn Thomson showed me round. I found this fascinating. The full Lauter mash tun was like something from outerspace and the stills, easily seen from the road, as usual holding a great fascination for me as their size, shape and the angle of the Lyne arm impart so much character to the make. Afterwards I spent a few fascinating minutes with the manager. He told me that Craigellachie is a light yet pungent whisky for blending purposes, it’s a spirit deliberately high in sulphur – in fact so high that when the spirit safe is opened the sulphur is clearly detectable on the nose. I left him to his computer, how life has changed!
A quick dash down to Rothes and to the Glen Grant distillery, where the eager member of staff was happy to take me round on my own. The introductory film was rather amusing, and the guide was again very knowledgeable. Once again the still room held my attention with the interesting condensers on the lyne arm, and unusually shaped stills and I reflected on the skill of the stillmen controlling the temperature of the stills when they were coal fired in times gone by.
A tasting followed. The younger whisky favoured by Italian customers was too spirity for my palate but it wasn’t difficult to see how the whisky can – with care – reach a great age, we stock Glen Grants going back to the 1940’s. The famous gardens were snow covered unfortunately, so a wander round them will have to wait for another visit!
On to my accommodation for the night, the world renowned Highlander Inn at Craigellachie. Warm, comfortable and very friendly with a vast array of interesting malts, it was here I was to meet up with Phil Dawson who is stillman and mashman at Balvenie. I had one of the most convivial evenings I can remember – thank you Phil.
Next morning Phil took me to the huge Greencore Maltings at Buckie. The malting process is often overlooked in whisky making, yet malt is one of the most vital ingredients. Apart from a handful of distilleries that still produce some of their own malt for distilling by using traditional floor maltings (which are high in labour and low in efficiency and output) the majority of malt produced for whisky making comes from industrial plants like this one. It’s a process I have always wanted to see.
These maltings are vast. The manager Gary Lotton took us round and we first looked at the huge warehouse capable of containing 40 thousand tons of malting barley from last years harvest, all from local farms. Then we went to the steeps (eight huge stainless steel tanks), which to view from the top meant climbing up several levels up which I struggled with my borrowed three sizes too large safety boots! The barley is soaked in water in batches of 575 tonnes per steep for a period of 48 hours before it is then drained and transferred to the vast germination building. The view from here over Buckie to the sea behind is superb.
They were germinating a batch of Optic at the time but Oxbridge is the other variety favoured by distillers at the moment. Stepping down into the germinating malt felt like stepping down on to the moon for the first time, just malt and more malt. Behind us were the vast rakes that gently lift and turn the malt, enabling an even germination as it rotates through them. This process takes four and a half days before again being moved on to be kilned for a 36 hour period. It is then ready then to be used by the distilleries.
After a welcome cuppa in the office and relief at removing the oversize boots, we headed into Buckie, where Phil showed me the sights (the harbour was of particular interest) then a bite to eat and back to The Balvenie. Phil and his colleague Robbie Gormley showed me round and although it was my second visit on this personal tour I could absorb so much more. I certainly saw a lot more too!
Time to sadly say cheerio to Phil. I’m greatly indebted to him for arranging this trip and for his great company, a guy well worth seeking out.
With time in hand I headed for Oldmeldrum and the almost out of the way distillery of Glen Garioch, arriving on the cusp of them closing for the day. However this wasn’t a problem and I was again cheerfully taken on a personal tour – first with a superb guide then with the Manager Kenny Grant, with whom I sat chatting till well after his going home time. This little gem of a distillery is well worth making the effort to visit.
And so on to the nearby user friendly Aberdeen airport and the flight home ending another trip – they just seem to get better and better.