Distillery Focus

Whisky Making at Altitude

Allt-á-Bhainne and Braeval's contribution to some of the world's best-selling blends
By Gavin D. Smith
By the early 1970s, the post-war boom in Scotch whisky sales was approaching its peak, and most major distillers were seeking increases in malt whisky production in order to slake the apparently ever-growing thirst for blended Scotch.

One brand performing notably well was the 12-year-old premium blend Chivas Regal, which boasted a loyal following in the leading Scotch export market of the USA. The owner of Chivas Regal was the Canadian distilling giant the Seagram Company Ltd, an organisation that had entered the Scotch whisky market by acquiring the Chivas Regal brand in 1949, going on to purchase Strathisla distillery in Keith the following year. A 'sister' distillery named Glen Keith was constructed between 1957 and 1960.

Chivas Regal had been launched back in 1909 as the world's first luxury blend, aged for 25 years, but under the ownership of Seagram, headed by the legendary figure of Sam Bronfman, it was re-configured as a 12 Years Old, and sales grew rapidly on the back of high-profile advertising and celebrity endorsement. Chivas Regal was the favoured Scotch of Frank Sinatra and his 'Rat Pack' cronies.

Ultimately, demand for component malts for Chivas Regal outstripped Seagram's supply, and after failing in a bid to buy Glenlivet distillery, the solution was to build new plants of its own. According to Chivas Brothers' distilling manager Alan Winchester, "Seagram actually developed a plan to construct five new distilleries, starting with Braes of Glenlivet in 1973. This was followed by Allt-á-Bhainne two years later.

"The third was to be at Tombae [near the hamlet of Tomnavoulin] but that was cancelled and only the two distilleries ever got built, as Chivas managed to buy The Glenlivet and Glen Grant Distilleries Ltd in 1978. That gave them Glenlivet, Longmorn and Glen Grant, so there was no need to construct more new distilleries. The purpose of the two they did build was to provide malt for the Chivas Regal blends, for Seagram's Passport and 100 Pipers brands, and also for reciprocal trading with other distillers."

Braes of Glenlivet was constructed in a remote location known as Chapeltown of Glenlivet, south of Glenlivet distillery. The area was once renowned for the activities of illicit whisky smugglers and also a refuge for persecuted Catholics during the 18th Century. Scalan Seminary is close by, and near the distillery stands the pink granite church of Our Lady of Perpetual Succour, almost as surprising a sight here as a 1970s distillery.

Alan Winchester explains that "Architecturally, 'Braes' was modelled on Seagram's Four Roses distillery in Kentucky. It was designed as an efficient one-man operation, with a centralised control panel to run it." There was no on-site warehousing, with all spirit being tankered to Chivas' bonding complex on the outskirts of the town of Keith.

According to the uncredited pamphlet The Present of the Past: The Braes of Glenlivet, issued by Chivas Brothers Ltd in 1978, "The building itself is based on an open court-yard plan, surrounded on three sides by the main items of plant. The main feature of the building is its slated pagoda roof - typical of many Scottish distilleries, crowned by a cockerel, which was a copy of a hundred years' old one. Local sandstone is a feature of the construction, the remainder being concrete blockwork harled in traditional fashion."

Despite being large in scale 'Braes' fits surprisingly well into its rugged landscape, and can claim the distinction of Scotland's highest distillery, being situated 1,665 feet above sea level. Although older employees still refer to the distillery as 'Braes,' the name was officially changed from Braes of Glenlivet to Braeval in 1994, in order to avoid any confusion with whisky made at The Glenlivet.

When it came to creating the second distillery in Seagram's 'grand plan' a site on the lower slopes of the landmark hill of Benrinnes was chosen, alongside the B9009 road, five miles from the distilling centre of Dufftown and eight miles from The Glenlivet.

Like its slightly older sibling, Allt-á-Bhainne - the Gaelic for 'Burn of Milk' and pronounced Alt a Van-ya or Alt a Vain - was also notably modern in design. Alan Winchester says that "There is very similar equipment at Allt-á-Bhainne and Braeval, with the wash stills at Allt-á-Bhainne being copies of those at Braeval. However, Allt-á-Bhainne is only half the size, in terms of the actual building, as the industry was starting to slow down a little by the time it was being built in 1975."

In the event, capacity was doubled in 1989, when the initial single pair of stills was augmented by a second pair, and two years later, Allt-á-Bhainne, along with Braeval and the rest of Chivas Brothers' assets was acquired from Seagram by Groupe Pernod Ricard.

Pernod already owned Aberlour, Edradour and Glenallachie distilleries, and following the take-over of Seagram's whisky-making interests the French company clearly felt that it possessed an embarrassment of riches. Accordingly, both Allt-á-Bhainne and Braeval were mothballed in October 2002.

As existing stocks began to diminish, and the company's blends continued to grow in terms of sales, production recommenced at Allt-á-Bhainne in May 2005, but Braeval had to wait a further three years. One significant change to the distilling regime at Allt-á-Bhainne has been the introduction of periods of peated spirit production, as Chivas Brothers does not own an Islay distillery, and this is a way of obtaining relatively phenolic spirit for blending purposes. Winchester explains that "We actually do alternate years of unpeated and peated spirit - one year on and one year off, with a peating level of around 15ppm."

These may be ultra-low-profile distilleries as far as connoisseurs of single malt are concerned, but like so many of Scotland's less glamorous and more obscure malt distilleries, they perform a vital function in supplying whisky for some of the world's best-selling blended Scotches.



Getting Technical



Allt-á-Bhainne

Malt: unpeated and peated (c.15ppm) - Concerto and Concerto blend barley varieties

Mashing: traditional mashtun - 9 tonnes mash

Fermentation: 8 x stainless steel washbacks - 42,000 litres each. 50 hour fermentations

Distillation: 2 wash stills, 21,000 litres charge, 2 spirit stills, 13,200 litres charge

Annual capacity: 4m litres

Braeval

Malt: Unpeated - Concerto and Concerto blend barley varieties

Mashing: Traditional mashtun - 9 tonnes mash

Fermentation: 13 x stainless steel washbacks - 41,000 litres each. 70 hour fermentations

Distillation: 2 wash stills, 20,500 litres charge, 4 spirit stills, 6,900 litres charge

Annual capacity: 4m litres



Tasting Notes



Allt-á-Bhainne 18 Years Old 1996 (cask # 10370) Douglas Laing - Old Particular, 48.4% ABV

Nose: Tinned peaches and pineapple, Bounty bars and cocoa powder.

Palate: Soft spices, hazelnuts, background citrus fruits and more cocoa.

Finish: Plain chocolate-coated lime creams.

Braes of Glenlivet 25 Years Old, 1989, (cask #10350), Douglas Laing - Directors' Cut, 60.3% ABV

Nose: Leaf mould, raisins, burnt toffee and developing vanilla.

Palate: Relatively full-bodied, rich and layered. All-spice and orchard fruits.

Finish: Lively oranges and lemon zest, tingling spices.