Building a cask and going to the museum

We had already seen the cooper’s craft when we visited the Balvenie two years ago, but had never been to the Speyside Cooperage before, so we had decided to visit while we were in the area anyway. Coming from Craigellachie when going to Dufftown, it is a hard to miss location when you would be following the A941 once more. Traveling from Aberlour to Dufftown, you can take an unnamed B-road, which will lead you behind the back of the cooperage, where you can see the many casks, hoops and staves in all different sizes, stacked to be used – either for repair work or in order to be sold to a distillery and filled with spirit.

We were welcomed at the visitor’s centre and were guided past a series of boards where the whole process and history are explained. After reading the boards, we got to see a video that had most of the information of the boards summarised. On the second floor of the distillery, the tourists are shown the workshop below, where you get to see the coopers working in high tempo. The coopers are paid per cask, so they would like to finish as mush casks per day as possible. On the sides of the workshop there are several apprentices at work, where the difference in tempo and skills are sometimes clearly visible. The apprenticeship takes four years to complete.

 As “special VIP arrangement” (although we got the idea it is part of the tour), we got to go down to the workshop to see some of the machinery up close and take some good pictures. Back upstairs we both tried to make our own cask from a selection of hoops and staves especially created to have the tourist feel how it is done. Ansgar failed miserably after some staves, but Thomas was requested to report at 7 am the next day. They might have included this part to secretly recruit new workers…

At the shop annex café, a table was set for us with a mystery single malt the Speyside Cooperage whisky, some coffee or tea and of course, some locally produced Walkers shortbread. Next time we are there, we must take a look at the inside of the Walkers factory, to see what the shortbread they throw at you on every occasion is actually made of. The mystery whisky could easily be a relabelled Benromach whisky, but we have not gotten this confirmed.

The Benromach distillery is the smallest distillery of the Speyside area. From the cooperage it is easily reached by driving up the A96, through Keith and Elgin. From the road you can already spot the Doig ventilator and after crossing the railway, you’ll find the parking lot of the distillery with ease. As with many distilleries, the owners have turned their maltfloor into a visitor centre, and we were welcomed with a short video about the history of the distillery. Because there was nobody else waiting for a tour, we were lucky enough to get a private tour around the distillery.

Where other distilleries easily run a 13.5 tonnes mash some times per day, the Benromach distillery does that same amount per week, divided into nine 1.5 tonne portions that all are milled with the tiniest 101 year old Boby mill. Like most of the other equipment, this is not the original mill of the distillery, since all equipment needed to be replaced once Gordon & MacPhail acquired the distillery in 1993. The three operators do everything manually, and we got to witness on of the men adding the dried distillers and brewers yeasts by emptying the bags until he thought it was enough. No scales or other exact measuring involved – which we like, it adds to the authenticity.

There are four larch washbacks that each hold about 7500 litres of wash during 90 hours, which is enough to fill the washstill. Both this washstill and the 4500 litres spirit still are heated with steam radiators, and the cooling water for the condensers is reused and cooled in the water-fountain in the front yard. All in all it is a nice little picturesque distillery. Part of the old, replaced equipment is displayed in the old museum opposite the visitors center, where they also offer the possibility to fill your own bottle. Take care though, there is a tab, not a valve as we discovered, only half a turn will do the trick, more will turn in something messy on the floor, which is a shame.

In the manually operated filling store (chalkboard, again no computers) they can now fill about 34 ex-Harveys-Sherry or ex-Jim Beam Bourbon Hogsheads per week (with a Sherry-Bourbon ratio of about 60-40%), but incidentally they get to fill their share of ex-Sherry butts or ex-Port pipes. This is maximum capacity at this moment, and this is double from what they used to do quite recently. On the premises are now three dunnage style warehouses, and due to popular demand, they are building two more.

After visiting the Benromach distillery, we crossed the railroad tracks once more and drove the couple of minutes it takes to get to the Dallas Dhu distillery, by following the signposts. Many people have told us it is not an operating distillery, but a museum, ran by the government, but since we were in the neighbourhood, we decided to have a look ourselves.

The surroundings of the distillery are beautiful, green and lush. When we arrived, it was awfully quiet, up to the point we were not sure they were open, with our car being the only on the parking lot. When reaching an open door, we asked if it was still possible to do a tour around the distillery, and with a museum-phone-device-thing, we guided ourselves through the site, following the numbered signs and the yellow or white footsteps.

When you have ever visited a distillery or brewery, you get to smell the distinctive odour of malted barley when you come in to the place. Here you smell an old carpet, that has been outside during a rainy day, rolled up an forgotten about in a musty basement for a year or two. Not really what we expected. Furthermore, most of the distillery seems in tact, apart from most of the malt floor, all devices required to create whisky seem to be there as if they could flick a switch tomorrow and start distilling again. It probably would take a little more time and money to do so, but in general, this is still a functional-able distillery – albeit stuck in time, so we decided to let it count towards our total.

After a long day driving around the North of the Speyside borders, we came home to a nice stovie dinner prepared by Linda, after which we all went for a dram to… the Highlander Inn. We created a lovely line up of some Chichibu whiskies, a Japanese distillery which really needs some more of our attention – and had a sip or two of something the others had.

There is so much to taste and investigate, this whisky-journey of us seems impossible to end…

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