Inside Look: The Balvenie Distillery - Imbibe Magazine Subscribe + Save

Speyside has long been the spiritual home of single malt whisky, with more than 50 producers calling the northern region of Scotland home. Flanked by the rugged Highlands to the west and idyllic fields of barley farmland to the East, Speyside has a terroir that makes for whiskies often exhibiting flavors of fruit and vanilla and a mellow, honey-like sweetness. In the heart of the region, set near the river Fiddich (a tributary of the region’s famous namesake river Spey), sits Dufftown, a small whisky-making community known for two distilleries that sprang from the same family tree: Glenfiddich and The Balvenie.

The story starts with William Grant and his seven sons and two daughters. “After they built Glenfiddich they had an opportunity to buy a mansion next door called New Balvenie Castle, which proved perfect for malting barley with an area big enough for a malting floor, perfect storage capacity, and areas to move the barley to when it was finished. They started working on that in 1892, and they start making whisky there the next Spring in 1893,” says The Balvenie brand ambassador Neil Strachan. “The house that the distillery forms around was knocked down in the 1920’s for a custom-built floor malting area, and then there were a few changes in 1956 when the coal-fired stills were removed, but other than that everything else is pretty much how it was.”   

Strachan, who is from Scotland, says every time he travels back to Dufftown he’s reminded of how deeply ingrained the town is in whisky production and its history. “Dufftown at its heart is a community of whisky makers,” he says. “When people get a job in the distillery that’s a very honorable (and well-paying) job. We have had individuals who have worked at The Balvenie for 55 years, all the way to the 22-year-old grandson who starts as an apprentice. That sense of community and passion goes through the generations; It’s beautiful to see those journeys in real time.”

This sense of loyalty and community is what makes the whisky, and visiting the distillery, so special, Strachan says. Unlike other whisky distilleries (and before the pandemic restricted tourism) The Balvenie offered limited tours—one in the morning and one in the afternoon—to ensure that visitors had a chance to see the production process in detail and also chat with the producers as they work. “I’ve seen a great deal of distilleries around the world, and at some of my favorites I haven’t seen one person,” Strachan says. “Where are the people making this whisky? At every stage at The Balvenie there are people and they will show you things like turning the barley. They will let you get your hands dirty while they’re talking to you.”

Specifically, The Balvenie offers a few key production details that Strachan says are not particularly unique in their own right, but when combined make the distillery special within the world of single malts: the malting floor, the coppersmith, and the cooperage.

As with all whisky, production starts with the barley, of which a portion is grown on Balvenie Mains, a one-thousand-acre farm adjacent to the distillery. The grains are steeped in spring water for 48 hours, then spread out on the floor to germinate. Only a few distilleries have their own malting floor in Scotland. At The Balvenie, it’s a similar size to a tennis court, says Strachan, not quite big enough for how much whisky they make (instead they use a marriage of three grains: some industrial malted, some unmalted then malted on site, and the home grown and home malted) but just the right size to allow the maltsters to turn it by hand until it’s ready for to dry in the kiln. “That building has been there since 1929 and when you get up into the roof space it’s really beautiful. It’s a nice historical piece of whisky making that more wish they could do on site.”

Next are the stills. Coppersmith Dennis McBain has been with the distillery for 64 years, so he knows each still inside and out. “He can tap different parts of the stills to know how thin or thick they are. Parts of them get thinner because they are working harder than others, so he’ll cut those out and replace them,” Strachan says. “Every time he replaces part of a still, before we start making whisky, he grabs a big bush of juniper, throws it in there, and boils off some liquid. We don’t have any scientific or technical reason for that, but it was the way Dennis was taught, and in his words, it sweetens the still. It’s how they’ve always done it, how they will always do it so that the whisky will not change.”

Finally, having their own cooperage on site gives The Balvenie the freedom to control the quality of standard casks and also experiment with new and exciting one-off iterations. “We say roughly 70% of the flavor of the whisky comes from the cask, so having our own cooperage is important. And nowhere brings whisky making to life more than the cooperage—seeing the cooper working is pretty epic, the sights and the smells, seeing the flames as they char the barrels, feeling the heat, it all sums up whisky,” says Strachan.

All of these curated details make for a whisky that’s brimming with honeyed sweetness. “Growing up in northeast Scotland, when you mentioned The Balvenie to people they’d have this smile across their face because it’s so nice,” says Strachan. “It’s a whisky that’s easy for beginners to enjoy, relatively low on alcohol, but also good for whisky experts because when you spend time with it, it’ll give you more and more. You can talk about the human element all day, but if you have faulty quality on the liquid end, it doesn’t matter. There aren’t many people that would say there is a weak link in anything we produce.”

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