Just about the first thing we did when we knew we were traveling to the Spirit of Speyside whisky festival 2016 was contacting Brian Robinson, distillery host at the Ballindalloch distillery to see if we could arrange something during or around the days we would be in the area. Coming from the A9, following the “Malt Whisky Trail” brown signs, there is no way you can miss the distillery with its humongous lettering on the side of the building. In May 2014, during our first visit to the festival, a couple of days after visiting Forsyth’s coppersmiths where the finished Ballindalloch stills were visible for all to see, we passed the distillery under construction and saw the stills had just been hoisted in that day. We knew we had to see this again some day, when everything was connected and set up properly, without us trespassing and see how the light fruity spirit would be coming to life in the Single Estate distillery in the Spey valley. Single Estate, because they grown their own barley, process, distil and mature on their own lands and properties, feed the draff from the mashtun to their own Aberdeen Angus cattle, and the pot ale and spent lees from the stills are used as fertiliser around the Estate.
“They” are the Macpherson-Grant family, who have been calling the Ballindalloch Castle and Estate their home since as far back as 1546. 23rd generation Guy Macpherson-Grant had a strong wish to bring back distilling into the family who were involved with the start of several distilleries in the area since 1820 but sold their share of the Cragganmore distillery in 1965 to what has now become Diageo. The wish became a strong desire and grew into an plan mid-2011, when they had a look at the gloomy 19th century steading on the Estate next to the golf-course. A small team was put together to build a distillery and by the end of 2014 the first light and fruity spirit trickled from the stills into a variety of casks.
Our appointment for a tour at the distillery was moved around several times and eventually took place at the Saturday evening of the festival. Distillery manager Colin Poppy, Brian and ourselves had had a very busy schedule during the week and after a rough night and half a day in the car, we must have been noticeably tired. We arrived on time at the distillery and were promptly welcomed by Brian who showed us in, introduced us to Colin for coffee and a chat about the distillery and the Estate’s rich history, which you can feel everywhere from the otherwise brand spanking new distillery.
After the good (and very welcome) coffee we were guided past the two 16 tonne malt bins, which feed the modern mill, milling one tonne of barley in shy 70 minutes. The 1.1 tonne semi-lauter, copper-topped mash tun is filled with the barley mixed with one of the seven water sources from the Estate hill. Just over two and a half hours later, one of the four 10.000 liter wooden washbacks is filled with only 5.000 liter wash, a pinch of dried Anchor yeast is added and left alone to ferment for at least 65 hours during the week, and a whopping 115 hours during the weekends. The one, L-shaped room contains every piece of equipment and all solids and liquids are transported by manually opening and closing one of the 120 valves, starting on the one end of the room until you reach the other where the two small stills continue the process around the corner, through wooden wormtub coolers outside the building into the spirit safe and receiver, which is located in the next room.
From this receiver, the three man operating the distillery (Colin, his Assistant Phillip and their Apprentice Mike) have created enough spirit in their five days a week shifts to fill over 1.000 casks in the first 18 months. Many of these casks are first and refill ex-Bourbon American Standard Barrels, but also hogsheads and ex-Sherry butts are not shied away from. Warehousing starts in the very next room, but as you can imagine, with no intention of releasing any of their whisky before the product is at least eight years old, the first warehouse is already full and they have started moving their fresh filled casks into other properties on the Estate. With the small production size and plan to wait until at least the end of 2022, it is a very brave move not to start gin or vodka production in the meantime or release their new make spirit to create revenue, but focus completely at what they are good at, have fun doing it and take a long, deep breath while they are waiting for their single malt to become whisky and see it grow into something they feel is ready for release into the market.
Stepping outside through the beautifully decorated guest rooms we see we have come full circle square and are back at the front door of the distillery. All in all, because of everyone’s busy schedules, it was a quick walk around the beautiful place, but we got a good vibe and good first impression of the people and the place, and are looking forward to go back in some years to see if everything is still the same as we see it now. That shall also be the moment where we will visit the Ballindalloch Castle because they were closed the day we were there. Many thanks to Brian and Colin for taking the time out of your their schedules to let us see the place!
Thomas & Ansgar
More pictures of the distillery can be found via our Facebook page.