If the Glenfiddich and Balvenie distilleries were musicians, they would be Liam and Noel Gallagher.
While obviously members of the same family, the two could scarcely be more different than each other: Glenfiddich, the cocky frontman, is the public face of the band, capable of selling millions of units worldwide and never happier facing up to the fans and showing off when thrust into the limelight.
Meanwhile Balvenie’s the inspirational sibling: quieter, less obvious, not necessarily as well known by the general public. But among the die-hards and genuine enthusiasts there’s a massive respect. Liam does a fine job and has come up with a few gems in his time, but for aficianados it’s Noel who represents consistency and quality.
The contrasts between the two have always been stark, but especially on this Autumn day, as scores of whisky enthusiasts from around the world flock to Glenfiddich to pay homage to its latest offering, a delicate and rare 50 Years Old with a £10,000 price tag.
Balvenie sits on the same site as Glenfiddich and with the attention of the whisky world elsewhere, is more subdued and sullen than usual. Quiet, too, which is great because it means we have it all to ourselves. It’s a bit like being told that you’ve got an exclusive four hour one to one interview with Noel Gallagher – and he’s ready to talk about anything.
I should point out here that I wasn’t quite sure about the four hour thing. After all, how much traipsing around a distillery can you do? I needn’t have worried, though. Parent company William Grant & Sons knows exactly what it’s doing with this VIP tour, and I’d reckoned without taking my guide in to account.
Hugh Thompson has more than 40 years experience in the whisky industry, having started work for Chivas Brothers in 1968. He has worked and managed distilleries across the Speyside region, including Glen Keith, Longmorn, Glen Grant, and Caperdonich, and was at Allt-A-Bhainne when it opened in the 1970s. His company is worth the admission price alone. Now retired, he is one of a number of knowledgeable guides who conduct a stately, intensive and ordered tour that is not bettered anywhere else in Scotland.
Then, with a bit of coaxing and over a glass of Balvenie or two in the old brewer’s offices that now serve as the base for the Balvenie tour, he talks about peating water, and experiments making heavily peated whiskies at Strathisla using malt from GlenDronach, all of which helps open a window in to the world of whisky way before it went global.
That’s all for later, though. Our tour begins at the old distillery manager’s offices, now the tasting rooms for the VIP tour but a good scene-setter, their dated 60s-style features combined with beautifully crafted fittings as good as any way to underline the differences between the 10 million litre state of the art Glenfiddich distillery and the labour-intensive and traditional operation at Balvenie.
Actually, before we go on we need some context here. Balvenie is no minnow. Indeed, with production well in excess of five million litres a year, it’s either in the top 10 or bordering on it.
That said, though, you don’t get any sense of its enormity, and because of the way it operates, it manages to retain the feel of a farm cottage distillery.
That’s at least partly due to the fact that the first place you visit are the traditional floor maltings. It’s rare to see these anywhere in Scotland these days, and rarer still to see them in operation. Although the malt isn’t turned by hand any more, work here is physical and demanding.Today, though, there are technical problems and repair work is underway. All of which merely adds to the delightfully shambolic and unstructured feel of the place.
The complete malting process takes place here, from steeping the grain, much of which is grown on site, to the germinating and then drying process.
Peat is used in the drying process for the first 12 hours.
The whole malting area of the distillery is testament to William Grant’s insistence on only the highest quality for its whisky, and that commitment is matched by the cooperage which operates on the site.
We drive to it, steering a course along a roadway lined by stack after stack of empty barrels, their brooding presence an eerie backdrop, like we’ve wandered on to a science fiction film set.
The cooperage is a stark contrast, the dingy interior a mass of banging and crashing as the coopers set about their work.
The area is strewn with part and complete barrels, casks in various states of dress or undress, some on the way in to be fixed, others on the way out and ready for use. There is a delightful smell of burning wood, the result of charring, and some barrels are still smoking from their encounter with the flames.
There are few distillery scenes more traditional and timeless than this one, but this is no charitable investment in history, either.With casks in short supply worldwide and the cost of each escalating alarmingly,William Grant’s investment here has proved to be a sound one.
As always with distillery tours, the best is kept to last. All distillery warehouses are special, but there is something particularly impressive about the ones here.
The range of casks, for a starter. Glance through the Balvenie range and you’ll find that while the core characteristics cleverly run through them all, a tribute to the outstanding skill of malt master David Stewart.
There is also a huge diversity through the range. Bourbon and sherry casks are used as necessary for different expressions.
We nose casks that are old and new, some stretching back to before Hugh started in the industry, some a lot younger.
They are, without exception, rich in fruity flavours and quite mouth-watering.
Should you wish you can pay to draw a sample from a choice of different Balvenie casks and fill your own bottle. I plump for a bourbon cask offering, but it’s a hard decision between the three samples on offer.
The tour could have happily ended here, but now we return to the manager’s house for a tasting.
The Balvenie VIP tour permits a tasting across the whole Balvenie range, and time seems to be of little importance. Indeed, it is with some surprise and alarm that I realise we’ve spent four hours here and my transport back to the airport is imminent.
The Balvenie VIP tour is not cheap, especially when you consider that some distilleries will show you round without cost.
But it’s undoubtedly value for money, and only Aberlour and The Macallan come anywhere near when it comes to depth and experience.
Some distilleries just can’t match the weight of expectation put upon them, but Balvenie is everything you could want it to be and more.
12 Years Old Doublewood 40% ABV
Nose: Musty sherry notes, dried fruits, intense, with some honey
Palate: Surprisingly dapper, with rose petals, red and blackberries and a big dollop of rich spices to give it bite.
Finish: Long and sherried, bold and expressive.
15 Years Old Single Barrel 47.8% ABV
Nose: Bold vanilla and fresh banana from the bourbon cask, with some peach and orange fruits for good measure. Rich.
Palate: A fruit pot pourri, with apples, pears and exotic fruits all part of the sweet mix.
Finish: Red liquorice, aniseed, plenty of fruit, some oak and a touch of pepper.Outstanding.
17 Years Old Rum Finish 43% ABV
Nose: Full and sweet, with rum and raisin ice cream, vanilla and some coconut.
Palate: Rum and raisin, dark chocolate, exotic fruits and sweet peach, and some gentle hints of drying tannins.
Finish: Lots of fruit and spice.
21 Years Old Portwood finish 40% ABV
Nose: Rich red fruits, some berries, and a nice balance of polished oak and chilli pepper.
Palate: Full, with rich fruit. Plummy, with strawberry jam notes, and just enough oaky notes to hold everything in place. Among my absolute favourite whisky tastes, this.
Finish: Long and fruity, perfectly weighted by the oaky tannins and some delicate spices.
Years Old 47.3% ABV
Nose: Abig wave of sherry and oak, full, with raisins oranges and berries. Avenerable ermined lord of a whisky.
Palate: Big full and rich. Orange, mandarin, Christmas cake with lots of plumy fruit, cherry and sweet apricot.
Finish: Long and very, very tasty.
Warehouse 24 Bourbon Cask 10334/1996 60% ABV
Nose: Sweet, demerera sugar, banana candy, vanilla.
Palate: Dried apricots at first, light citrus and barley in the middle and gentle spices to finish, each delivered like in order, like a firework that goes through the colours of a traffic light.
Finish: Gentle fruit and spice.Tails away gradually and gracefully. Stunning.