Ballindalloch has already won a coveted Whisky Magazine Icons of Whisky ‘Craft Producer of the Year’ award, yet it doesn’t sell whisky – and won’t for another few years. That may cause a few raised eyebrows. How is it possible to win something like this in its first year? Well it wasn’t long until I, too, was seduced by this fantastic little operation when I visited Ballindalloch at the recent Spirit of Speyside festival.
As you enter the Speyside region proper, you drive past Tormore distillery and then would have come across Cragganmore and a touch later, over the hill, Glenfarclas. There used to be a dilapidated farm building opposite from Cragganmore that lay on the Ballindalloch estate, which was better known for its castle, built in 1546, golf course and an ancient herd of Aberdeen Angus cattle. There are plenty of other buildings on the estate, including what was once a run-down farm building. But in 2011 Guy Macpherson-Grant, 23rd generation of his family, wanted to create whisky within that farm building. I mention all these other things on the estate, because that’s important. Ballindalloch was Scotland’s first single estate distillery, whereby the bulk of the ingredients – mainly barley – were to be sourced from the estate property.
For many months during the decision to turn this farm building into a distillery was something of a secret. That is, right up until worm tubs, which are used at the end of the distillation process, were added onto the outside, and then everyone knew what was going on here. The black lettering was painted on the walls in the final hours, and I think it’s safe to say that they’ve turned this into one of the prettiest little distilleries in Scotland.
For a modern estate owner to have their ‘business’ survive, they must diversify. And that’s precisely what the Macpherson-Grant family has done. In fact, during our tour of the Speyside festival, we were greeted with a handshake from one of the elder statesmen of the Macpherson-Grants family, before being escorted by distillery host Brian Robinson into a splendid room for tea and shortbread biscuits. Which, I have to say, was the most civilised start to a tour I’ve ever experienced. They can do this, because they’re not in a hurry at Ballindalloch.
In fact, they’re not going to release whisky until it’s 8 years old, or thereabouts. Not until it’s mature. Not until it’s ready. And that is to be commended. When many new operations are happy to sell young spirit, even new make – and I can understand reasons to do so – at Ballindalloch they want to sell proper whisky when the time comes.
The building that had been rebuilt and extended into a distillery is constructed from a mixture of local stone, put together by as many local traders as they could get – localism being the order of the day here. And Ballindalloch is certainly as attractive behind the pretty white-washed facade. It’s so well constructed that none of us could tell the difference here between the original stone and new stone either.
Distillery host Brian Robinson led us through the main operation. At first, when those in our group realised this was a 3-hour tour, we thought: how can they fill the time on a small site? You’d be surprised. Brian’s tour was leisurely, tailored in its tone – and very hands on. There wasn’t so much of a script, and any questions were expanded upon in full detail.
As we approached the Oregon pine wash backs and mash tun, we were shown all the various pipes that crisscrossed the building, and all the levers that controlled the flow of various liquids. Now, I mention levers: no automation, just levers. And hundreds of them. This was properly hands-on, and to prove the point – volunteers from the group had to pull some of these levers to (I think, if I recall correctly) get the wort to flow out of the mash tun. It took a while and it was surprisingly complicated to get your head around the process, but it was nicely immersive.
This same hands-on approach continued with the wooden wash backs too. Those from our small group – ourselves, not watching someone else do it – poured in and mixed yeast to ferment the wort, all with the guidance of distillery apprentice, Mike, who I’m sure found it more amusing than anything else. This process was not easy on the arms, but reinforced that hands-on nature of the distillery. No computers. No automation. It’s made by people, and we were shown that it’s hard work too.
Colin Poppy, who is now the distillery manager, is one of those people. As Brian introduced us to him, Colin said that he wanted to come to Ballindalloch to make whisky. He didn’t want to spend his hours sitting behind a computer screen, as can be the way in many other distilleries, but rather he wanted to be hands-on with the operation. This is real craft whisky and Ballindalloch makes just 100,000 litres of spirit a year this way.
Brian then led us through to the dunnage-style warehouse, to see what was maturing on site. The distillery uses a mixture of first and refill barrels, hogsheads and sherry butts, and by the time we visited – at the very end of April – they had filled their 1,000th cask. Normally tours would drop people off at the distillery shop, but given there is no desire to sell anything before the whisky is ready in several years, we were steered instead towards the tasting room. The doors opened into the bright, heavenly whisky scene.
Sir George Macpherson-Grant leased a slither of the estate to distiller John Smith to build Cragganmore Distillery in 1869, and there’s been a relationship between the neighbouring sites ever since. In fact, some arcane deal that transpired further down the lines saw that the Ballindalloch estate was given a private cask of Cragganmore every year. This, until the creation of Ballindalloch, had been rather forgotten about, and so what does Ballindalloch offer to guests at the end of a splendid tour? Well, in addition to its own (brilliant) new make spirit, it offers a guests a taste of these forgotten, old private casks.
And it’s here, in the tasting room, that our tour of Ballindalloch ended. It’s safe to say that by this point everyone in our group was seduced and it was easy to see why it had won its Icons of Whisky award. We even said among ourselves that this was the best distillery tour we’d been on: though I suggest true whisky fans would get much more of that warm feeling than casual tourists, given the geeky, immersive nature of the experience. Everything here just made you smile: the Single Estate attitude, localism, proper craft, patience, and the little details. It is not really fighting against the modern corporate whisky monster – instead Ballindalloch is utterly indifferent it. There’s an unusual confidence about the place. They know they’re onto a good thing, and they’ve just got their heads down making good whisky.
Suffice to say that when Ballindalloch does sell its first bottles of single malt whisky, I’ll be in the queue.