My Visit to Scotland (June 2011) Part I : Balblair
Before i begin, i just want to let you know this is my 300th post!! on Whisky Israel, and that I’ve chosen to publish this post today, as it was probably the highlight of those great two years since i began blogging. So, it’s just fitting to act as my celebratory post. Hope you enjoy it. and here is to many more posts like this! Cheers!
Stage I : From Israel to the Scottish Highlands
It all started very unexpectedly one day, when an email from The guys over at Inver House Distillers landed in my Inbox, inviting me for a few day’s whisky trip to Scotland. One does not get such offers every day, and i was Thrilled and very excited by it.I could not say No, and after a short discussion with the wife, to make sure she can hold the torch while I’m gone and keep the two little energy bombs (a.k.a : kids) under control for a few days, i answered YES!, Yes Yes. The plan was to hop over the pond for 4 days, filled with whisky,malt, and distilleries.To be more exact, 4 distilleries (Balblair, Old Pulteney , SpeyBurn and Knockdhu), in 4 days, Not impossible, yet taking into consideration those four are not quite close to one another, that meant it’s going to be hectic and wonderful. I was even more excited when i learned who I will be sharing this trip with : some i knew before, mainly online, from blog posts, FB, and twitter, and some were new friends, i was keen on meeting. But more about that later.
The trip was about to start on Monday 5th of June. We were to meet at Inverness Airport and start our journey from there. Since i live a few hour’s away from Europe, I had a longer trip than most, and arrived Sunday night at London Luton, where i was about to spend the night before my connection flight to Inverness. As Billy (@cowfish) put it, Luton isn’t quite London,but it was perfect for me. I didn’t mind an extra evening alone, with no kids waking me up at night, or needing attention. It has been a long time since i went abroad ALONE. As flights go, mine got delayed, and I landed after midnight in rainy wintery(by Israeli standards) Luton (and loved every minute of it. Hell!,summer in Israel is too hot for me) , only to spend the night over in the airport, and hop on the next airplane in the morning.
So the next morning, after eating a proper English breakfast(my favourite breakfast in the world, yes!) I managed to arrive on time and catch the next flight. I was tired as hell after getting only about 4 hour’s sleep, but the adrenaline flew in my veins, and i was looking very much to what was to come.
After landing in Inverness Airport (perhaps the smallest one I’ve been to), I was to meet Cathy James, from Inver House (our designated driver,tour guide, and superwoman). AS it appears, my flight was on time, and we had about two hours to kill until the rest of the gang were to arrive (from the UK and Sweden, Mark from the USA had already landed and was shooting some videos at the distillery). Inverness airport is hardly a place to pass more than a few minutes, and after having a pint of guiness, Me and Catchy set off to explore the area, hoping to find a seashore and enjoy the Scottish shores.
We set off towards Nairn, which is a small town but “blessed” with traffick and it took forever to arrive at the city center. who would have thought they had traffic jams at those places? After taking a detour we managed to find a beach, and got out for a stroll.
We retuned in time to meet the rest of the gang : Håkan Dahlberg from Vi som älskar Whisky, Johan Baeckström and Tommy Deile from Whiskyblogg.se ,and of course the one and only Billy Abbot (a.k.a @cowfish) a blogger and currently the online editor at The Whisky Exchange Blog & Site, and proud owner of Billy’s Booze Blog. We started driving up the A9 headed towards the Dornich Firth and our first Distillery , where our tour guide / organizer and comrade Lukasz Dynowiak (Director at Alembic Comms, who manage the Inver House bands online, and Co-founder of EWB) and Mark Gillespie of WhiskyCast,were already doing some filming , in order to meet and start the tour.
Stage II : Balblair
Balblair Front. dramatic skies (photo: Lukasz Dynowiak)
So Balblair, located in a lovely place, is also the oldest working distillery in the highlands built in 1790 at the village/town of Edderton. Initially it was set in a farm (Balblair farm – hence the name) ,a few miles away from the current location. Currently not much is left to see at the old location,which is a shame. The current distillery has been set up at that location in the year of 1883, however the water source which is an important factor in a distillery as we all know, has been kept the same (named Allt Dearg) and flows about 7 km from the distillery.
Our tour guide in the distillery was no other than John MacDonald, the distillery manager, and what a tour we had. First of all John is a really interesting man to talk to, a bit cynical with a great sense of humour and enormous love and to everything whisky, especially Balblair whisky. He started by telling us a bit about himself, how he became manager, and his early days in the neighbouring distillery of Glenmorangie (where he worked in the milling, mashing, and as a still man) until offered his “Dream” job in 2006.
John leading us in the grand tour (photo: Lukasz Dynowiak)
As most distillery tours do, we started at the start : at the malting barns. Like many other distilleries, these are not operational today, since malting stopped in 1975 (year yours truly was born). Currently they are used for storage and… you would not geuss, but they are soon to be used as a film set. I was delighted to hear that one of my favourite film directors Ken Loach has chosen them as the set for his upcoming film dealing with the whisky, named “Angel’s Share”. As always Loach is very secretive about the plot, but this is one film i will surely go and see. Loach and whisky, and Balblair. the holy trinity. Can it get any better?
The Porteus Milling machine
Next step was the Milling room, where we were invited to see the old Porteus milling machine. [If you don’t know the story about Porteus, here’s a summary: Those guys sold outstanding milling machines about 100 years ago to many distilleries, but since those machines were THAT good, and did not break, they lasted too long, and the company went broke, since no one needed new milling machines, the old ones just kept working forever..] we also tasted and sniffed some barley (peated barley too, which is used in some batches now at Balblair, man it smells like ash!),then off to the Mashing rooms we go.
The mash tuns in balblair are made from stainless steel , having a deep mash bed, they enable a rather slow mashing process, which in turn produces more flavours and contributes to the qualities of the spirit. As for the water, John told us that the water passes through layers of peat, which gives them some peaty characteristics, which also affect the mashing, but not dramatically.
The Mash tun
Now look at the following sign, and try to guess what “MT” stands for? (answer at the bottom of the post)
The wort is then moved to 6 American Pine wash backs , each can hold a whopping 23,000 litres of liquid wort. It takes about 70 hours to complete the fermentation after which the “wash” has quite a few “beer” characteristics, at 8% ABV, and a lovely smell and colour, very reminiscent of some Belgian wheated beers such as Hoegaarden / Karmeliet.
A view on top of the Wash Backs
Now comes the fun part- the actual distillation. There are 2 round of distillation : the first, taking the wort at 8% and distilling it , then a 2nd round which lasts about six hours, in which the spirit is distilled into almost 70% ABV, to be then put in casks and matured.
The still room
I was always very curious what was being done with the remains of the distillation process, and was happy to hear that nothing is really wasted. The ‘draft’ from the washes is sold as to farms as cattle feed, while the lees left from the first distillation is washed to sea where it acts as a great food source for the marine life in the firth. Cool!
Inside the Still Room (photo: Lukasz Dynowiak)
Ok, now that the spirit is ready (we’re about to taste it soon, wait!) we need to put it into oak casks and mature it, right? Off we go then to one of Balblair’s aging warehouses.
Casks in Warehouse #3 stacked in 3 levels
We entered warehouse #3, to have a wee look and sniff, and boy what a great aroma you can find in there. It’s hard to describe it, you just need to be inside in order to appreciate it.
John started by telling us that most of the whisky made in Balblair (like many other distilleries) finds its way into blends while only a fraction is bottled as “Balblair” single malt (only 12 % is bottled as single malt). being owned by Inver house Balblair is a major source of whisky for the Inver House blends worldwide (some of it also finds its way into Thai whisky blends! believe it or not). Every single Balblair branded single malt cask is matured on site in one of the warehouses until ready and selected for bottling.
Myself and some casks.Yea, I look tired.(photo: Lukasz Dynowiak)
Currently Balblair bottles whisky in vintages, when they feel a certain year is good enough to be bottled and sold under the Balblair label. John added that most of the casks are ex-Bourbon and 2nd fill, while a minority of the casks are sherry casks. John feels that whisky aged in Bourbon casks better displays the whisky characteristics, and not masked by heavy sherry.
John is a super guide. He’s funny, knowledgeable, and very charismatic, so needless to say I had a grand time during the visit. An man, the distillery is so beautiful, with those green fields, and pastoral location. Too bad they do not have a visitor centre (YET). But i hear they are working on it, maybe after the Ken Loach movie is finished, they can turn that storage area and barns into a nice visitor center, eh?
After the tour was over, we sat down for some proper whisky sampling, and notes taking with the Balblair range. But, that’s something for the next post. Here’s a wee picture form that session.
Tasting session with John (photo: Lukasz Dynowiak)
i would like to thank Johan, Lucas and Cathy and the entire Balblair team for their lovely hospitality, tour, whisky and generosity. It was one of the highlights of my whisky year, if not the highlight. Thank you so much.
Btw: “MT” means : “empty” in distilleries jargon..