Deep within the Spey valley lies Ballindalloch Distillery, announcing itself from the A95 road with large black lettering against a white painted wall. It looks like an old farm steading, principally because that's exactly what it was before conversion into a delightfully traditional whisky making operation during the years of 2014/15.
It is part of the historic Ballindalloch Estate, owned since 1546 by members of the Macpherson-Grants, represented today by Oliver and Claire Russell and their family. Sir George Macpherson-Grant was involved with the building of nearby Cragganmore, in the 19th Century, and the family remained co-owners of Cragganmore until 1965.
But we were there not to muse on history, but to do something infinitely more practical. We were there to make whisky. Practicality and early mornings are not necessarily the whisky writer's strongest points and we managed to be late for our 8am start, but at least we found the distillery.
When we drove up, the sky was a fetching shade of grey, and the heavens had opened. Happily, distillery host Brian Robinson was on hand with a golfing umbrella to greet his two apprentice whisky-makers, and the calm, warm embrace of the distillery felt like home as soon as we stepped inside.
We were greeted with smiles, cups of tea and industrial gloves; the latter just in case we had forgotten that we were there to work, and hopefully learn. Once the tea took effect, Colin Poppy, distillery manager and our temporary boss, led us into the building's heart, where everything was gearing up for the day ahead.
It was on the 19th hole at Ballindalloch golf course with 'Copper King' Richard Forsyth that Oliver and Claire Russell first began to muse on whether the notion of creating a distillery in the disused steading could become a reality. Happily, it did, with sons Guy and Edward also taking a keen interest. The Russells have skilfully fitted an entire distillery into a confined space, yet even with all the pipes and levers, it doesn't feel claustrophobic. And trust us when we say there are a lot of levers to be turned in one day!
One thing that soon struck us was that making whisky is not the 'linear' process it sometimes appears. It's all a great juggling act, but instead of balls we had 110 levers, and in total there are some 270 manual valves to deal with. None of the levers are numbered or lettered, so you just have to know which to open and close and when to do it. Oh, and they are all blue, so no hints there either.
By 8.30am wash was being pumped from one of the four Oregon pine washbacks where it had been fermenting for some 65 hours into the wash still, while steam was heating the spirit still ready to commence the second distilling run. Our role here was to decide whether to press the large green button or the large red button to start up the pump to transfer the pre-heated wash into the wash still. Fortunately, we chose the correct colour.
The main spirit run lasts for between three and three and a half hours, and according to Colin you need to watch the 'sight glass' on the still until it starts to 'sweat', which confirms that all is well with the wash, and a close eye is kept on the glass to ensure that the foam doesn't rise too high, using one of the many valves to cut back on the amount of steam to prevent any possibility of it boiling over. This is where the individual skill and experience of the operator is crucial.
As the spirit first starts to flow into the spirit safe, intense, rich, fruity aromas emerge. "My favourite smell in the whole world," declares Colin, who showed us how to use a hydrometer to measure the specific gravity of the spirit, which determines when 'cuts' are made, enabling the heart of the run to be collected between the flow of foreshots and feints.
The still design allows for a significant amount of copper contact, leading to a relatively light and clean spirit, but the use of traditional worm tubs balance that to an extent, giving a relatively robust spirit character that is intended to cope well with lengthy maturation.
Next it was a case of transferring one tonne of grist into the mash tun, along with 4,200 litres of water. At this point we had to get physical, as a paddle is used to push the grist through the central hole in the hopper where it meets the water. The barley is home-grown on Ballindalloch estate, and ultimately the spent grain is fed to the Estate's famous herd of Aberdeen Angus cattle.
After all the opening and closing of levers, mashing, and running up and down the stairs, it was time to be handed over to Mike, the apprentice. Mike is as friendly and passionate as everyone at Ballindalloch, but his energy is something they should bottle. In washback number two the previous day's mash was ready for the addition of dried distiller's yeast. Simple you might think, but remember it's a manual distillery which meant measuring out the exact amount of yeast, and slowing pouring it in from a bucket while stirring it into the liquid sitting in the back.
We were given what looked like a canoe paddle to gently mix the yeast as it was being poured. It takes time and is slightly mesmerising. Possibly one of the funniest parts of the morning was teasing the magazine's Scotland editor as he tried to stir and pose for the camera all at the same time! Meanwhile tomorrow's tonne of malted barley was being milled into grist, illustrating just how many different processes are happening simultaneously.
By lunchtime we were energised, yet welcomed a sit down and some chat. Estate owner Oliver popped by to welcome us and to check we were enjoying ourselves, but soup and sandwiches consumed, it was soon back to work.
The next task was to reduce the spirit being made down to its optimum filling strength of 63.5% ABV. Out came Colin's dip rod and a book of tables which gave one of flash backs to bewildering O-Level maths classes while the other - a former accountant - was much more within her comfort zone.
With the spirit duly diluted to filling strength, it was now time to fill some casks. This usually happens once a week, when a full five day's production is transferred from tank to cask. It sounds fun, and it is - although a tad tricky as this stage of the process is as manual as everything else. First off, we stencilled the stock of casks due to be filled with the Ballindalloch name and year and amount of spirit they were due to receive. As guests for the day we got to sign them too. We like to believe that means they are now ours, although Brian Robinson seemed inclined to disagree on this point.
We rolled a barrel into place - which is where the gloves really earn their keep - then inserted the nozzle of the pump into the bung hole. Unlike the pumps we use at filling stations, there is no automatic cut-off, so a degree of skill is required to get the cask full, but avoid spraying spirit around the filling store. Once full, it was time to select a bung that looked likely to fit the hole and hammer it until the bung was flush with the staves of the cask. Helpful tip: use both hands to grip the mallet and whack it hard. As soon as all was secure it was time to roll the barrels into the adjoining traditional style dunnage warehouse and weigh them, duly recording the weight and cask number for future reference.
As our first day of real work in many years drew towards a close, the spirit still was being charged ready for the following morning, which is where we came in. We thanked our wonderful, patient, short-term colleagues for a truly insightful, tiring, yet invigorating day, and as if by magic, wearing the smile of a man who had just got two writers to do a full day in a distillery, Brian popped his head around the corner. It was 'Whisky Time' with Brian.
The ethos of a Highland country estate has been applied to the large, comfortable room where we got a chance to share a dram with Brian. Artefacts and portraits from Ballindalloch Castle adorn the walls, and a fire blazes in the hearth. A goodly smattering of whisky books included several by our Scotland editor, thereby avoiding the fit of sulks that inevitably follows the discovery of titles by other authors while his are absent.
We were presented with highly-coveted 'Art of Whisky Making' Ballindalloch polo shirts, gifted only to those who have participated in the experience, and then Brian poured generous measures of vintage Cragganmore from Ballindalloch's personal cask collection.
If you love whisky and want to get really up close and personal, you couldn't ask for a better day. We left tired but this memorable and fun experience served to underline the fact that individual craftsmanship and the importance of experience still thrive in a world where it sometimes seems that whisky is made by computers rather than people.
Our advice: call Brian, take the time, and visit. What you will find will endear you to the place and its way of doing things, while giving you the confidence that once the team feels the whisky is just right (about eight years) they will release it, but not a moment before.
The folk at Ballindalloch are in this for the long term. After all, when your family has lived there for the best part of half a millennium, what's a mere eight years? We will just have to return in 2024 to ensure that the whisky we helped make turned out right, but in the meantime we may be back from time to time, to check on 'work in progress'.