Monday, June 9, 2014

A Day with David Mair, at The Balvenie Distillery

THE TOUR

After trying to break free from the hold North America had on me since birth, my family and I finally traveled overseas to Scotland this April.  There may be a few more postings about this trip in the near future, but I thought the first one should be about one of the main reasons we chose to go to Scotland in the first place. 

A fair amount of the trip was actually planned around this tour.  A whisky tasting five years ago hosted by The Balvenie was the reason I got into whisky to begin with, so if we were going to go to Scotland, I'd be going there.

Unlike other distillery tours that take about an hour, this one lasted around three hours. 

If that seems too long, you could always go to the Glenfiddich tour, which is on the same property. Both are owned by William Grant & Sons.  But, if you want to see the best distillery tour in Scotland, make sure to book ahead and attend this one, as they fill up fast! I'm not alone in this opinion.  It is a five star tour, and worth every pound sterling. Trip Advisor reviews


Click on these words to book a tour. But, before you do, make sure to join their free email newsletter/club "Warehouse 24"  In addition to having a digital place to record *all* off your tasting reviews from distilleries across the world, and learning about new developments from The Balvenie before the general public, you'll have access to taste from a cask that no one else on the tour will have access to.  (Amazingly, after they found out about this privilege, many tour members then raised their hands and claimed they were a member!)   In my case it was a 2nd fill bourbon cask from 1974.  The spirit was pulled straight from the cask, into a bottle, and served to us directly. Tasting notes are at the end of this article.


Here's what the tour looked like:

We started in the Distillery Office, where we got to know each other a bit, and taste a few samples from three barrels.  This is where we first met David Mair, The Balvenie Distillery Ambassador.



From there, we moved on to their barley warehouse.  Unlike many other distilleries who now source all of their malted barley from external companies, about 10% of the barley that goes into making their whisky is either grown or malted on site.  On the top floor was where the barley was stored.


On one side was two tubs where the barley would soak up water, and then be dropped to the main floor from a chute.

David, front right, with a soaking tub in back


This wet barley is then spread out on the malting floor, and left to sit for a number of days as they begin to grow roots.

Close up of malted barley, before drying

Afterwards, this barley is then kiln dried. 
The drying room.  This smelled incredible!
Kiln below the drying room, fueled by anthracite

On this particular day, they were conducting an experiment.  David emphasized that it was just an experiment at this point.  Instead of adding peat to the fire, they included oak shavings from Bourbon casks, drilled at their own cooperage.  We even got to put a small handful of shavings into the kiln.  Who knows, maybe in 12 - 17 years, we'll be able to taste what became of this experiment!

Oak Shavings. Smelled like bourbon!.
After the barley is dried, it is then ground by rollers and put in vats with hot water.   The liquid drained off of this mashing is called 'wort'.



The Wort cooler takes the temperate down to 14C. Then yeast is added to the mix.


It ferments for three days, in incredibly large Douglas fir washbacks, until the temp is up to 33C

These are just the tops of the washbacks
The washbacks go down far!

Then comes the part of the process that everyone emphasizes in their imagination when they think of whisky making:  distillation!

The Balvenie Spirits safes
Copper helps remove sulphur.  And looks incredible.
 
A still has about a 20 year lifespan before it needs to be replaced.

After this part of the tour, we hopped into David's Range Rover, and headed over to Balvenie's own cooperage.   On the way, we saw their own fields of barley growing in fields nearby.  At most distilleries, a cask is used about three times before it is completely spent.   During that time, they may need to be repaired.  This is where their own cooperage comes in handy.

Craftsmen working on various casks.
They had an observation deck, where we could watch a number of them working.  On the observation deck itself, I saw these items:

Stave and Reed. The reed is used to help seal a cask.
Distilliate!!  Distilliate!!
After the cooperage tour, we were driven back to one of their warehouses.  Because the casks breathe, and alcohol eventually makes its way out of them and into the air, we were not allowed to use any electronic equipment inside the warehouse, as it posed a fire hazard.  So, these are the last photos I could take before we headed in:




The famous red doors!
 

Inside, there were three barrels, where we were allowed to take 200ml samples for purchase.  For the record, I got two samples, and here are their stats:

Cask #11270  Sherry Butt, aged 12 years
Bottling Date 4/28/2014
59.6% ABV

Cask #7983 2nd Refill Bourbon barrel, aged 16 years
Bottling Date 4/28/2014
60.7% ABV

THE TASTING

We then headed back to where we first met up, and spent some time in the tasting room.

The tasting room, my seat by the orange bottle.
This was the lineup that we tasted after the tour.
David speaking with two gentlemen from France. (whisky > wine, just sayin')
And, as I mentioned above, there was a special cask laid aside for members of Warehouse 24 only to taste.  However, we were such a jovial group, that we members didn't put up much of a fuss when others claimed they were also members once they found out about this perk.  So, everyone in our group got to taste it.  I'm sure all of them signed up right when they got back home.

Here are my tasting notes on this particular cask, pretty much as written:
1974 2nd fill bourbon. 39 years 53.7% Member cask!  Never bottled!
Nose:  icing, a tiny bit of vinegar, classic The Balvenie honey and vanilla.
Taste: Sweet!  Floral, cake icing.
Finish, medium short, with just touch of peat/smoke at the end, touch of salt on taste.

Why, why why!!! Not available as a bottle???  Such a lovely dram. Icing onto birthday cake. 


I would just like to point out that on my last birthday cake, I used The Balvenie instead of vanilla in the icing mix.  So, I was smelling and tasting so much of that particular icing.  It was a very lively dram for 39 years old!

THE INSIDE SCOOP aka: Burying the Lead

According to David, here is the new line for Balvenie for the foreseeable future.  The 17, having gone through several experiments over the last few years, has settled into the DoubleWood 17.  The Single Barrel 15 (ex-bourbon) is going to be retired, and will soon be replaced with one that has been aged exclusively in Oloroso Sherry butts.  Being that I have a 12 year old sample from The Balvenie that was aged exclusively in Sherry, I am *really* excited about this release. Of course, they are very likely to continue to release their experiments, TUN 1401 offerings until it is dismantled, the new TUN once it is completed (should almost be done by now if it isn't yet already), and other offerings that only can be purchased in duty free shops throughout the world.

DoubleWood 12
Single Barrel 12 (first fill, ex-bourbon)
Caribbean Cask 14
Single Barrel 15 (Oloroso Sherry Butts)
DoubleWood 17
PortWood 21

Speaking of all of these double barrel releases, ever wonder how long the Balvenie ages their whiskey in the second barrel?  Here's what I learned:

Double wood: 12 years in ex-bourbon, then 8 months in sherry butts
Caribbean cask 14 years in ex-bourbon, then 5 months in rum casks
Double Wood 17: 17 years in ex-bourbon, then 8 months in sherry butts
Port wood 21:  21 years in ex-bourbon, then 4 months in port casks

Again, if you are going to be anywhere near Dufftown (going to Inverness to look for the Loch Ness monster perhaps?), you absolutely should spend a day or four in Dufftown.  And if you can only make one tour of a distillery in all of Scotland, this is the one you should attend.

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