It’s amazing how often you can drive by something and not realise the treat you are missing. Being somebody who works away from home, I get used to missing things as deadlines and events pass me by. But this month I was going to make a stand and take action about some things that I’ve passed by for years.
The first thing that that I regularly pass by is the Bridge of Avon at Ballindalloch castle. If you are familiar with the A95 road that runs through Speyside, you’ll know of the hairpin like bend that descends past the Delnashaugh Hotel, towards Ballindalloch Post Office and Filling station. There is a modern bridge going over the River Avon, and out one side, you may see the gatehouse for one of the Ballindalloch Castle entrances, but it’s hard to see the old bridge.
The other thing that is easy to pass by is some whitewashed steadings, but not just any old steadings – these contain the Ballindalloch Distillery, which started production in 2014. I have to admit that I don’t pass it by, as I have visited before and completed the ‘Art Of Whisky Making’ day that was run before the advent of the Coronavirus pandemic. This time I was going to be able to stop and take part in my first Spirit of Speyside Festival event in many years.
The Spirit of Speyside festival is probably the largest whisky festival in Scotland, if not the UK. Starting in 1999, the festival can ordinarily have over 700 events spread out over 6 days. Over the past couple of years, the festival has been impacted by the pandemic and the normally springtime event in 2021 was moved to the late autumn. This was great news for me. Normally the spring through to summer periods are a busy time at work due to the fact a lot of projects kick off at sea when the weather is more conducive to oil industry operations so I normally miss out, but the rescheduled festival this year meant I could take part once again.
As part of the Spirit of Speyside Festival this year, the distillery opened its doors once more. Not only would you get a detailed tour of the very compact distillery, but you would also get the chance to taste their single malt some two years before its official release.
Our party of 8 for this event included Richard Forsyth OBE, the former managing director of Forsyth’s of Rothes, the company famous for the manufacture of distilling equipment. Mr Forsyth told the story how he and some golfing chums used to play on the Ballindalloch Golf course. One day they had been playing and had met the Laird of Ballindalloch Castle at the time, Oliver Russell. Mr Russell had been mentioning to Mr Forsyth and his friends that he didn’t know what to do with the ruined buildings, which were listed, and means they could not be demolished, so the story goes that Mr Forsyth had suggested a distillery.
It is a good job that this advice was taken, for by 2014 the Ballindalloch distillery had started production. One of the issues in the construction was that the buildings could not be modified externally due to listing regulations, therefore any distilling equipment had to be fitted within the available space.
The distillery has a copper topped mash tun, with a charge of 1 ton of grist, the process then flows through the building beyond with 4 wooden washbacks followed by the single wash and spirit stills. All the equipment is on an upper mezzanine which makes the process easier to understand. While the majority of those present had been to the distillery before, the distillery manager Colin Poppy gave us a detailed yet unhurried tour and the opportunity to ask whatever questions we wished.
Previously, tours usually ended in the tasting hall or sitting room where there were comfortable sofas to sit and relax while drinking whisky from some of the family Cragganmore whisky casks, on account of there being no Ballindalloch whisky to taste. This time was going to be different.
I’m not going to beat around the bush; the highlight of this trip was to sample the Ballindalloch whisky. For the tasting we were able to try two 7 year old samples of Ballindalloch. One was from cask 5, which was a bourbon cask, and the second one was from an Oloroso sherry cask number 130.
Due to the nature of the tasting, I wasn’t able to take detailed tasting notes of any of the whiskies at the time as I was not able to take the time to really analyse the drams but I can give you the following: –
7 Year old Bourbon Cask – 60.3%
Nose: – Black pepper, Apples, slightly acidic – lemon. Hint of vanilla.
Palate: – Sweet – vanilla fudge, Apple jolly rancher candies, pastry notes. Became more spicy once water added, and the apple became less prominent and more like an apple pie with cinnamon and ginger. Light to medium mouthfeel with little spirit burn.
Finish: – Long but gentle finish with the apple, ginger and vanilla notes fading gradually.
7 Year Old Oloroso Cask – 60.2%
Nose: – Raisins, Fig, Christmas cake sponge, Red Apple.
Palate: – Much more Raisins and Fig, Plums, Sultanas, Nutmeg. Sweet, light to medium body, excellent mouthfeel with little spirit burn.
Finish: – Again, became a little spicier when water added. Another gentle fade with the Christmas Cake Spices and dried fruit dominating.
These drams both have something in common – at no point would you have guessed you were drinking cask strength spirit at such a young age. I found both these spirits to be immediately drinkable. Water was not necessary, though did open the spirit. Indeed, everybody at the tasting had the same opinion of the Ballindalloch spirit. It was agreed that the whisky that we were provided was exceptional. In my opinion the fact that Ballindalloch had made the decision not to release whisky as soon as they could legally do so was the correct one. I’ve tasted a few younger drams from some of the recent crop of recently opened distilleries and they come nowhere close to this.
The three Cragganmore that followed were also very delicious, ranging from a 28 y.o Bourbon Cask at 53.1%, a 28 y.o 2nd fill Bourbon cask at 42.6% and a 29 year old PX cask at 43.2%.
Ballindalloch will always be a distillery with limited supply of whisky when they eventually release. All the barley for the distillery is grown on the Ballindalloch estate, and the distillery was never designed with 24 hr operation in mind. If they were to up production, they would also likely need more washbacks to maintain the long fermentation times that are required to give the light and fruity spirit that is produced at Ballindalloch. And here is where the problem lies is that there is no room for extra washbacks.
With Ballindalloch not having a large output and not able to expand, it is likely that releases of Ballindalloch will have the same buzz that is seen when a Daftmill is released. And it deserves this accolade, if not more than Daftmill. I’ve had early Daftmill and at 12 years old it came nowhere near to the levels of enjoyment I got with the Ballindalloch whisky. Colin and his team have done an excellent job in developing the Ballindalloch distillery right from the start. The unrushed approach to the distillation of the whisky has paid off, and I can’t wait to taste the final spirit.
We were told that Ballindalloch is not likely to release its spirit until 2023, this will be as an 8 year old. Colin informed those present that the plan would ideally to be to progress to a 10 and 12 year old once stocks allow. Of course, one does hope for single cask releases too.
Based on this experience, I don’t think anybody should have any sleepless nights over the quality of this whisky. The only sleepless nights I will get will be because I just can’t wait.
Hopefully the Ballindalloch distillery will get back to allowing regular tours next year, as well as the day long ‘Art of Whisky’ making course. I can personally recommend this, as you can see the passion in the Ballindalloch team in their distillery, the care they take with their spirit, and hopefully now the smiles they will have now the public have had a taste of their work and have loved it.
The countdown has begun to 2023.
Yours In Spirits (and in Speyside!)
Thanks also to Fiona and Andrew at the Delnashaugh hotel just around the corner from Ballindalloch distillery. I stayed here when visiting for the Art Of Whisky day and again for this trip as I could not drive after drinking.
A great family run hotel with delicious food and large comfortable rooms. I slept well and the breakfast the next day was outstanding. I thoroughly recommend that anybody visiting Ballindalloch consider staying here.
All Photos – Authors Own