Doing It Yourself

Making whisky at Ballindalloch

Followers of my Facebook page can’t have failed to notice that I’ve recently visited the Ballindalloch Distillery. This is the one distillery that I haven’t got a bottle from in the Speyside Corridor surrounding the A95 ‘Whisky Road’ from Aviemore in Highland to Keith in Morayshire. There is a good reason for that – they haven’t released one, as it is still a young distillery.

I have a small issue in my whisky journey, and unless you are in the distilling trade, it is one you may suffer too – distillery tours are not enough. Regardless of how professional guides are in the major distilleries, most of them just follow a script, and while if you ask a question they can’t answer they’ll find out for you, the best thing to do is cut out the middleman and do it for yourself. Luckily for me, the Ballindalloch Distillery provide an ‘Art of Whisky Making’ experience. The idea behind this was so I could also provide you with much more information, but there is so much to process, it would be impossible to write in a simple blog, and therefore I’ll just use my knowledge gained to enhance any articles I write.

I have been on many distillery tours, and know how whisky is made. No matter what distillery you go to, it all happens in the same general way. I needed to know how the distillery were able to influence the flavour through the fermentation and distillation processes. Ballindalloch is a very special distillery. I watched it grow from a ruined steading to the distillery it is now as I drove between Aberdeen and Kingussie. I saw the stills being lifted in by crane, and I was determined to visit at some point. This came on the 3rd of October this year.

I must say, the visit couldn’t have been any better. I was a wee bit nervous at what to expect, but I needn’t have worried. The biggest thing I was worried about was arriving at 8am!

I was met by the distillery host, Brian Robinson, who gave me a friendly welcome. We sat down in the room where tastings from the McPherson-Grant cellars are taken, and we discuss what I expect to gain from my visit. When I mention it’s detailed knowledge I require, Brian delightfully tells me that the guys will love to pass on their knowledge, and I should ask away!

There are only 4 people involved directly with the distillery; Brian, Colin the manager, plus operators Davie and Ian. All of them took time to show me exactly what was happening and answered all questions enthusiastically.


Empty wash still, steam heating coils showing

Unlike any distillery tour, you get to see the whole lot, warts and all. Also, unlike any tour, the day starts at the stills, and not the mash tun. Firstly, Low wines from the wash still is already in the spirit still, and has been sweating in the spirit still ready to go. This already has heat in it, and is already starting to react with the copper of the stills. This helps define the character of the whisky. The spirit still has a boil ball, which increases the amount of reflux, further purifying the spirit.

While the spirit still is coming up to temperature, the wash still is filled with the liquid from the washbacks. Ballindalloch has 4 washbacks, and have 4 long fermentations and one short. Davie and Ian both explain at different times during the day that long fermentations give a wash that will provide fruity and floral spirit, shorter ones give a more malty, biscuity spirit.


Washbacks

The wash still is charged with 5000 litre of wash, and the clock starts. Within half an hour, flow is observed in the spirit safe. That’s the magic of Ballindalloch – there wasn’t a figure given, but it was done roughly by time. There appears to be no rush at all. Attention is turned to the mash tun now.

Mash tun (Forsyths.com)

Inside the mash tun – rakes at the ready.

“People see the stills as the romantic side of a distillery, but if you don’t get the mashing and fermentation right, you’ll have nothing to distill” says Davie, a man with over 30 years experience at Macallan. And he’s right. The mash tun is filled with sparge water (water from the 3rd rinse in the previous mash) to heat the bottom of the mash tun, and to prevent the grist forming a dough and blocking the mash tun up. Close to 1000kg of grist (milled malted barley) is fed into the mash tun along with sparge, for the first rinse. This is followed by two more rinses at higher temperatures to give a charge of wort for the washback, and sparge water for the next mash.

Agitating the yeast to start fermentation

I’m given a sip of the filtered, undistllled wash, and it catches me by surprise. It actually tastes very much like cider – apple, pear and a wee bit of malt. The dead yeast at the bottom of the wash back is what has created esters which give the fruity taste. By now, the liquid is ready for distillation, having reached an alcoholic strength of 8-9%

All the time, Ian is keeping a eye on the wash still and the spirit still, and explains the principles behind temperature and gravity to work out how much alcohol is produced. While not such a consideration for the low wines out of the wash still, it is important when trying to know when to make the cut from the spirit still.

For those of you who haven’t been to a distillery, knowing where to make the cut is important. The first produce out of the still is the most alcoholic, plenty of volatile compounds, and too strong to use. These are known as the foreshots (or head). Next, around 72% alcohol, we move the spirit safe to divert the still output to the spirit receiver. This portion is known as the heart and when it drops to the acceptable level, the spirit safe then diverts to collect the final portion, the feints. The foreshots and feints gets collected in the feints receiver and are used to charge the spirit still with the low wines for the next spirit distillation.

Wash still (l) spirit still (r)

Tradition is important to Ballindalloch. The vapours from the stills aren’t condensed in a shell and tube condenser, but in a traditional wooden worm tub. This is a large wooden tub with the whisky being fed into a spiral of copper tube some 70 metres long to cool the spirit. Further copper contact also removes more of the sulphuric compounds to produce a lighter spirit. Indeed, a small sip of the new make (or Clearic) is a revelation. Not harsh or gobstoppingly strong, but light, fruity and floral.

Worm tub condenser

It is mind boggling to believe that a 5000 litre wash charge only makes about 600 litres of spirit. This is eventually moved to a vat, where the week’s produce reduced to casking strength of 63.5%. This is put into barrels once a week on a Thursday, therefore I had a go at filling a barrel, and also inking on the distillery logo and markings. There is a small dunnage warehouse on site, with the scales for weighing the barrels before and after they were filled. This is so they know how much liquid is in the cask. The casks used are from the American Bourbon industry so will give a sweet note to the whisky as it matures.

I didn’t spill any. This time at least!

One of the skills I had to master is the timing of the casks. A line is drawn on the floor, and the cask gets rolled to the end of the strip of concrete in the middle of the warehouse. It has to stop with the bung up to prevent leakage. The next cask has to be advanced 20 minutes when it reaches the line, so that by time it rolls against the first cask, the bung will be at the top. By advancing 20 minutes, it means moving the barrel so that when at the line, the bung is at 120 degrees further round than the previous barrel. This guarantees the bung will be in a vertical position. Much to the amusement of Davie, I got it right three times in a row. He reckons it was good judgement. Those who know me will realise it was a fluke!

Any cheek laddie and I’ll ink you!!

Some special casks in dunnage

And so now we have to wait. Nobody could say exactly when bottling is expected, but figures around the 2022 – 2024 were mentioned. I for one cannot wait to taste this whisky, and look forward to the day when the first edition is released.

The day ends with a tasting from one of the casks held by the McPherson-Grant family. I had a 27 year old Cragganmore, and it was outstanding. Relaxing in the tasting room which is made up to resemble a public room in the castle, I took the time to speak to Colin the distillery manager, where he shared some of his experiences in the Scottish Whisky industry.

It was a whole day, but it shot past so quickly and it wasn’t long before Brian was giving me my Art of Whisky Making polo shirt, and it was time to go. It was day for learning, in which my whisky knowledge came on so much. I’ve forgotten a bit of it already as I didn’t want to be too rude in taking notes on my phone all the time. Therefore I think a repeat visit will be needed.

Draff for the Ballindalloch Aberdeen-Angus

There are other whisky experiences like this. Springbank do a residential one for 5 days, and Strathearn used to do similar, and there are other distilleries but these are very high cost. In the case of the Springbank experience it is over £1400 not including transportation. To me, I feel my £175 was money extremely well spent. There is no way in the world I could have learnt and seen so much by just going on a tour. If you want to advance your whisky experience, this is a journey I can recommend.

I can’t wait to go back.

Postscripts – Davie, I bought the Naked Grouse. We’ll soon see if you need to buy my bottle off me!!

Ian, Callum said that once you drink a bottle of 60 year old Ballindalloch, you’re free to throw chuckies at him!

Colin – thanks for the corrections!


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photo credits

All photos authors own unless otherwise credited.

I do like to be beside the seaside.

The distillery you could throw a stone into the sea from – Oban

Taste Review – Oban 14

To conclude last week’s visit to Oban Distillery, the guide handed out a measly portion of Oban 14. I wasn’t too sure of it, so had decided to have another one in the whisky bar upstairs.

The key taste profile is one of smoke, orange peel, salt and honey. During the tour we were told the barley is malted using a small amount of peat to give the smoke. The length of the fermentation gives the citrus notes and the ex-Bourbon Cask gives the honey. Nobody knows where the salt enters the process, but as the worm tubs used for condensing the liquid from the stills are in the roof, plus the fact the distillery is less than 300 steps to the sea, there is a good bet that there is where it gets its salt. Barrels are not matured on site, but elsewhere in the lowlands.

The dram in the distillery bar

Age

14 years old

Strength

43% a.b.v

Colour

Light golden pine

Nose

Slight smoke, citrus

Palate

Oak, figs, a wee bit of citrus, orange peel, spice.

Finish

Medium, spice, smoke, honey and sea salt.

Conclusion

It’s a good enough malt, but it wasn’t good enough for me to buy a full size bottle. Diageo seem to miss a trick yet again by the dreaded chill filtration, which while it ensures a clear whisky after adding water, removes some of the goodness and taste. I’d increase the abv to the correct side of 46% as perhaps more alcohol would give a fuller flavour.

Would I buy another? No. Wee bit too bland for me, and as it’s almost central in a whisky map, would give a beginner an excellent start in single malts. On this basis I can recommend. Certainly an easy drinker, and I wouldn’t turn my nose up at it. As I said, I really liked the cask strength sample, and if I saw an independent bottling of this, I would buy it.

My 20CL bottle cost me £15.95 at the distillery, expect to pay £46 for a full size bottle in the UK.

Slainte Mhath!

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Size isn’t everything…..

…..It’s what you do with it that counts….

Whisky distillery visit – Oban

Well, I hope you all didn’t miss world whisky day on the 18th of May. I have to admit, I did. I had hoped to leave an article or a tasting review on the day. I was travelling about 100 miles down the West Coast of Scotland to Oban, and my intention was to get into the distillery and have a wee taste review on the day, but it just wasn’t to be. In the end my visit had to be on the day after on Sunday.

Oban is the second smallest distillery in Diageo’s Scottish portfolio, the smallest being Royal Lochnagar. It has a capacity of 838,000 litres a year, which is quite low for a distillery owned by a major corporation. The distillery started off as a brewery next to a small fishing village. Soon, the village grew into a small town and surrounded the distillery, meaning that the distillery could not expand.

The Oban Distillery

The tour guide who showed us around was Irianna, a young lady from Cuba who had settled in Scotland. She knew her subject matter well, and answered questions well.

Because Oban distillery is so small, malting does not take place here, so the malted barley is delivered from a supplier. The malt has been dried with peat, but is only lightly so. It is crushed here to create the heist and fed into the single mash tun.

Retired Grist Mill
Mash Tun

Internals of Mash Tun

The wort from the last mash is used as the liquid for the first mash in the next mash. The mashing produces 32,000 litres of wort which then gets fed to the wash backs. The 4 washbacks are made of Douglas Fir, each lasting about 45 years. 2 are due replacement soon. Fermentation takes up to 6 days, with the long fermentation giving the citrus notes to the spirit. The wash is typically 9% abv. 

Wooden Wash Backs
Wash ready for the Still

Both the wash still and spirit still are lamp glass shape, with the Spirit charge being 11,000 litres. The low wines from the wash still are about 24% abv. which then feed into the spirit charger and onto the spirit still, the charge measuring approximately 6,500 litres. The foreshots come out of the still at 90% abv, but this isn’t desirable nor is it drinkable unless making yourself blind is one of your life goals. The heart of the distillation is taken at 65-70% abv. The feints (the spirit too weak to make whisky) is put back into the spirit charger along with the foreshots for the next charge of low wine into the spirit still.

Wash Still
Spirit Still

The waste products of the stills (pot ale from the wash and spent lees from the spirit still) are treated and sent to waste.

The Oban Distillery uses worm tubs to cool the vapour from the stills, which have the disadvantage of not having as much copper contact as a shell and tube condenser. This means the spirit is a bit heavier, more meaty. This is counteracted by running the worms hotter than normal, and leaving the access door to the still open after the distillation of a batch to ensure that the copper of the still rejuvenates quicker. Copper contact is vital for taking out some of the impurities out of the spirit, such as sulphur. I noted that the Lyne arm from the wash still was slightly canted upwards which would help with reflux and filter out more of the undesirable parts of the spirit.

Illustration of still and worm tub tubing

The final spirit is diluted to 63.5% before being placed into ex bourbon casks, which impart the honeyed note that is also part of Oban’s whisky. Most of the production is matured off-site due to the space restrictions. It is unknown where the maritime note of sea salt gets into the whisky, but perhaps it is from the barrels that are stored on site.

As we move toward the end of the tour, we are led into an old warehouse which has some barrel parts with coopering tools. There were a couple barrels which had whisky in them. The guide would then use a valinch to remove enough whisky to give each one of us a small dram. This was whisky that isn’t sold at all by the distillery and was a nine year old Cask Strength (58.1%) whisky.

An unguarded cask!

What struck me at this point was if I was to have had a ‘Copper Dog’ with me, I could have had a much better portion as the cask was left unguarded as the guides back was turned. And I so wish I could have, as this for me would prove to be the best dram of the day, despite only getting 10ml of it. Plus, regardless of its strength, I found this very palatable with no water, and very little burn. A strong honey flavour in the taste, with a light smoke, and salty smoke in the medium finish.

Very little colour and not enough liquid!

We finish up in a tasting room, where we are all shown the distillery range, and whereupon the Diageo Game of Thrones range was pushed upon us a wee bit. Having never seen a single episode, I’m not that interested and especially when when we were told it is a 60/40 mix of two of their range, which if I remember correctly was Oban Distillery Edition and Oban 14. A dram of 14 y.o was given out and that was the end of the tour.

I find it funny that the big push to buy something when the next stop is the gift shop, but I decided to give that a miss to begin with, and headed to the impressive whisky bar upstairs which gave a full range of Oban produce as well as some other Diageo offerings, including most of the currently produced remnants of the Flora and Fauna range (I’ll have to do a blog post on that sometime!). I went for another Oban 14, to get the essence of it, then an Inchgower 14 F&F which I am familiar with, but rarely taste.

Both 14 year olds are very palatable but the Oban is a heavier whisky, whereas Inchgower is much more delicate – probably the most delicate thing to come from the fishing port of Buckie! It made my mind up to buy a drinking bottle of Inchgower, and I also had to purchase a 20cl bottle of Oban 14 and Clynelish 14. The Clynelish I have had before and it is absolutely fantastic.

Oban 14

The 14 year old Oban was good enough, and apparently most of their produce of this bottling is sold in the USA. I’ll do a taste review on this later in the week. In conclusion, this is a good tour to do. If you can look past the corporate side of things, it’s brilliant to see a small distillery rather than a massive spirit factory. The staff are really friendly and helpful, and I thoroughly recommend a visit.

Slainte Mhath!

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Do you have any Irish in you?

Do you want any?

Of course I mean do you want any Irish Whiskey inside you. And why would you not? Although Irish whiskey is currently 5% of the global market, it certainly seems to be on the cusp of a massive renaissance. I have to be very honest, I’m somewhat lacking in the knowledge and experience of Irish whiskey, so a visit to Teeling Distillery in the Liberties area of Dublin was an excellent way to make a start.

Walter Teeling started out distilling at his Marrowbone Lane Distillery in the Liberties area of Dublin. This eventually merged with William Jameson’s distillery, also on Marrowbone lane. Due to financial difficulties, the whole enterprise closed in 1923.

The whiskey industry in Ireland used to be massive with 37 distilleries in Dublin alone. The last distillery in Dublin, the Powers distillery closed in 1976 when it relocated to Cork.

However, this was not to be the end of Teeling. In 1987, John Teeling bought a facility in Cooley, Co. Louth, which had been used to make industrial alcohol from potatoes. This was converted to a whisky distillery and opened in 1989. John sold the distillery to Beam Suntory in 2011, but the stock in the warehouses was not part of the deal. His sons, Jack and Stephen has also worked at the Cooley plant, and in 2015 established the Teeling Distillery again on Newmarket, in Liberties area.

The distillery visit

As is common with many whisky distillery visits, there are different packages you can get as part of your tour. This just varies how many products you get to taste at the end. We picked the Trinity tour which included three samples (Small Batch, Single Grain and Single Malt). This cost €22ea, the cheapest option was the Small Batch, which included a sample of Small batch and a seasonal whiskey cocktail, which costs €17 and the Distillery Select tasting allows you to taste the Single Malt, Small Batch, Distillery Select and the Small Pot Still whiskies. This was €30.

The distillery tour starts in an open plan space with 7 large information boards and whiskey collectables. Once the introductions are done, you are taken to see a short video, then through a door into the distillery area.

One impressive thing I noticed straight away is that being a new distillery and also one which had a visitor experience in mind, the distillery is fully accessible to those in wheelchairs. There is a lift at the end to get back down to ground label, but the journey to the production area is all on ramps.

The malted barley or grains are put into a mill to be converted to grist and are fed into a stainless steel mash tun.

Mash Tun

There are three washes of water rinsed over the grist, with the first mash being at 78C, the subsequent rinses being with hotter water. The output of the mash tun is wort, and contains all the sugars needed for the yeast to convert into alcohol. The wort goes into the washbacks but are known here as Fermenters. Unusually, the first 2 fermenters are wooden and the remaining fermenters are stainless steel.

Fermenters (wash backs)

Both of the wooden wash backs were open, one worn fermenting sugars and the other which had wort only in it. Fermentation takes between 3-5 days.

Once fermentation is complete, the wash is fed into the first still (the wash still). The wash is boiled at 88C. The out put from this still is known as the Low Wines. The low wines are fed to the intermediate still, which boils its liquid at 84C. The output of the intermediate still is known as feints and is fed to the final still, which is the spirit still, the output of which is known as New Make. The strength of the New Make is 84% abv.

Irish whiskey is typically triple distilled, whereas with a couple of exceptions, Scottish whisky is double distilled. Auchentoshan is a Scottish lowland Malt that is triple distilled and Benrinnes is a Speyside malt that used to partially triple distill by re-distilling the output of the spirit still. I’ve a Bruichladdich that has been quadruple distilled but as it is only 3 years old I’ve no urgency to try it yet.

The Stills

An interesting fact is that the Italian manufactured stills are named after the daughters of the founders. In order of process they are Alison, Natalie and Rebecca. Zoe has her name on the first cask filled at the new distillery.

You don’t get to see the warehouses at Teeling, rather just a mock up of rack storage. There are display bottles of the spirit as New Make, 6 months old and 6 years, which then gives you an idea of how the barrel changes the spirit over time.

The whisky supplied comes from the stocks produced at the Cooley distillery as the produce at Teeling has only just reached the age at which it can be called whiskey – 3 years old as is in Scotland. However where it is made is of little consequence at the moment, as it is still very tasty.

New Make,6 months and 6 years old spirit

After this stage, you are taken through for a tasting. Depending on what tour you purchased determines who many samples you get. As said previously we went for the Trinity tasting which gave us three samples (Small Batch, Single Grain and Single Malt). You get a small wrist band to identify which tasting you get but a word to the wise – don’t tighten it unless you have scissors to cut it off! I had to make do with nail clippers!

Small Batch, Single Grain and Single Malt.

I’ll give a taste test on the three whiskies sampled later as I couldn’t take good photos of the colours and didn’t get time to make notes, however I did get a Trinity tasting set to do this at home.

And this concludes the tour. I’ve been brief, as I wouldn’t want to spoil your experience if you visit, but if in Dublin I could thoroughly recommend it.