That’s The Spirit!

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 Bridge Of Avon

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.


Ballindalloch Distillery

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.


Mash tun and stainless steel under back

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.


Wash backs with spirit Spirit Still and Wash Still in the background.
We’d be meeting this one later

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.


The tasting table

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: –


Ballindalloch Single Malt. Bourbon Cask 5 on the left, Oloroso Cask 130 on the right.

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.


Three Cragganmore from the MacPherson-Grant private casks

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.


Empty glasses are a sure sign of a good dram

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!)

Scotty

Index of tastings here

Index of articles here


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.

Photo Credits

All Photos – Authors Own

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.