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.