Distillery Focus

Two's company (Ballantines)

Ballantine's is one of the world's top blends but it is in need of a dose of loving and who better for that than the French? Dominic Roskrow reports
By Dominic Roskrow
The way in which French drinks giant Pernod Ricard picked up a raft of new brands from Allied last year, assimilated them in to its company portfolio and has set about giving them a polish has been ruthlessly efficient and highly impressive.Normally when a company falls apart and its carcass picked over by cash-hungry predators there is a degree of blood-letting and unpleasantness, and then a period of disruption as wounds are opened and then badly stitched up.Perhaps some of that has happened but you have to peer pretty intensively if you want to spot the joins. And already there have been one or two examples where Pernod has picked up the ball and ran with it to great effect.Scapa, for instance. Here was a distillery that Allied had committed itself to, and invested in. Within weeks of Pernod taking over, though, the company had decided exactly how it intended to move forward, invited the media to share its vision, and set about putting bottles of the Orkney malt where it really mattered: in front of whisky drinkers.Now, it would seem, it is set to do the same with Ballantine’s, which on the one hand is a massive and successful global blend, and on the other has been floundering without a clear identity in the mind of the blended whisky drinker and has been in need of some tender loving care.Cue the Pernod treatment. What the company inherited was a worldwide blend and the two distilleries that are at the heart of it. So its approach has been logical. First it set about assimilating the new distilleries in to its existing structure and restructuring its operations as a result. Now it is about to give Ballantine’s a new lease of life, using the distilleries that are so important to it as a platform.So it is that a group of whisky writers are taken to north Speyside to have a taste of the Ballantine’s experience. We start at Miltonduff, a somewhat imposing and austere distillery that looks exactly what it has always been – a large scale production distillery where aesthetically pleasing features are left firmly in the back seat.The distillery is in a state of transition at the moment as new trade guest facilities are introduced. But Pernod Ricard has already moved its operation for its Northern division from Strathisla to here and set it up as its new headquarters. It lies a few miles south west of Elgin and is a highly visible and distillery. It’s big, too, with a capacity of 5.5 million litres, almost all of which is required.There are very few single malt bottlings of Miltonduff and Allied certainly didn’t do anything with it so visitors weren’t encouraged and there is little of the tourist trimmings. Acompany flag and a French flag are the only obvious external indicators that times are changing.Let’s just take a moment to get a sense of how important Ballantine’s could be to Pernod. It’s a huge brand for a starter – number three selling Scotch in the world, and top seller in Europe. It’s the 10th largest spirit of any type in the world, selling 5.3 million nine litre cases a year. That’s 63.6 million 75cl bottles, or two bottles every second. Big then.But impressive as all these statistics might appear, research has shown that it still doesn’t have a clear identity.With Pernod identifying the drink as a focus brand for the future, that had to change – and that’s where the distilleries come in.The company’s plan is to offer special visitors a four part experience based on the four elements, fire, water, earth and air – or pot stills, spring water, barley and maturation respectively.It sounds contrived but it’s not at all; the company has set about offering the experience with style. Four distinct experience rooms have been created for trade visitors, special guests, media and company staff. The idea is that the maltings room at Miltonduff will celebrate the life and work of George Ballantine. Then visitors will be taken to the second distillery, Glenburgie, where they will be shown the Leck of Murray, where the barley is grown and the water plane from where the spring water is drawn.A distillery tour will take them round the barley stores at the very top of the distillery with its stunning views across Elgin and surrounds. Visitors will be given a ‘water experience’ and ‘barley experience’ before going through the still rooms to a ‘maturation experience’ room, on through a tasting and blending experience in what was the distillery’s old customs room and finally to a ‘cellar experience.’ It’s a well-thought out and comprehensive approach to defining the brand, made more so by Glenburgie distillery itself. On paper Glenburgie and Miltonduff would seem to have much in common. They were both owned by Allied, both had Lomond stills installed and then removed. Both are fingerprint malts for Ballantine’s. That, though, is where the similarity stops.When Allied decided to take a fresh approach to the distilleries it decided to knock the distillery completely down and start again. It spent a whopping £4.3m to bring it up to date and added two more stills, taking the total to six. Glenburgie is, therefore, the most modern and space age large scale distillery in Scotland.Most impressive is the still room, where the huge floor space is open plan and designed so that one operator can pretty much see everything and run the giant plant on his own. The high-tech interior is the nearest thing yet Scotland has to an automated distillery. Not everybody’s cup of new make, admittedly, but highly impressive all the same.With the components all in place the marketing department is being allowed to run riot, and we’re bombarded with an astounding blitz of initiatives to support the blend in the future. You know the sort of thing: ad campaigns using photography taken by one of the world’s best sponsors, a mountain of point of sale material and promotional merchandising, new ad slogans.But to Pernod’s credit the whisky remains at the heart of everything. With a growing number of people optimistic about the future of premium blends, Ballantine’s is positioning itself well for the challenge ahead. And for those of us who just love whisky it’s wonderful to see two distilleries being given some proper love and respect.Tasting notes Miltonduff 15 Years Old
Nose: Blood orange, bitter spices, becoming fuller with water.
Palate: Spice to the fore, sharp citrus fruit bite and then a robust malt background. Liquorice root, robust sweet fruit. Very different to what you might have expected from the nose.
Finish: Quite long and a bit of a surprise. Sweet malt and quite chunky.Glenburgie 15 Years Old
Nose: Oranges, sweet vanilla, boiled sweets, particularly cherry and blackcurrant ones.
Palate: Dry, fizzy, quite light, with some citrus and apple fruits and even a hint of dark chocolate. Ballantine’s Finest Nose: Sweet, and quite spicy. Gentle.
Palate: Slightly fizzy and zesty, with lots of easy to drink honey notes. Again gentle in the mouth, balanced and satisfying with a nice balance of malt, fruit and honey.Ballantine’s 12 Years Old
Nose: Less pronounced and more reined in that Finest. Sweet orange, Clementine, honey.
Palate: Effervescent and spritely, with a creaminess and some orange in among the malt and grain. A good lengthy finish to end the drink with some styles Ballantine’s 17 Years Old
Nose: Quite different. Cocoa, sherried fruit, even a hint of smoke.
Palate: Age seems to have taken some of the sweetness away and this is altogether more challenging and wonderful. Liquorice root is there as in the Miltonduff, there are inoffensive traces of the wood and a nice embracing finish. Best of the lot by far.

Ballantine’s 21 Years Old
Nose: Fresh fruits, horlicks, hot chocolate.
Palate: Rich and fruity, with the malt quite dominant and then the wood suddenly makes its presence there. Not like you’d expect from a blend at all.Ballantine’s 30 Years Old
Nose: Mushy melon, very soft and gentle, specially with water.
Palate: Amazing for its age. The soft fruits are given plenty of space to exercise and the wood is very refined and dignified. The whole experience is warming, blanced and rounded. Impressive.