When I first opened the email from the SMWS telling me that I’d been selected at random as the winner of the Art of Whisky Making course at the Ballindalloch distillery on Speyside, I thought it must be a spoof. But as the awesome realisation that it was true sank in, I was absolutely thrilled – the chance to attend the course with a friend of my choice was simply wonderful.
So on Thursday, 26 April my friend Raymond Hodgson and I reported for duty at Ballindalloch where we were met by Brian Robinson, the distillery host, who gently eased us into a day during which, we were told, we would be working. He wasn’t joking!
Brian briefed us on the comparatively short history of the distillery and its ethos founded on quality and longevity. The former farm buildings (listed, of course) had been lovingly and painstakingly restored and revitalised. After the idea of turning the derelict structure into a distillery had first been mooted, it took around five years of careful planning and the hard work of a variety of local craftsmen to create the space for the two pot stills, four washbacks and the ancillary equipment that characterise this small but perfectly formed working environment.
The distillery oozes quality – the pointing of the original stonework, the gleaming Forsyth stills and the carefully coopered Oregon pine washbacks are just three of many pointers to the care that has been taken at every turn to make this an exemplar of how to breathe new life into part of a working estate that had been neglected for a long time. And it was beside the spirit still that our working day began. Brian handed us over to distillery manager Colin Poppy, who took us under his wing.
The previous day’s production from the wash still had been left overnight in the spirit still, slowly steaming away just below distillation temperature so that the fluid could ‘sweat’ inside the still to maximise copper contact. Raymond and I were able to start the steam pump to heat up the coil that caused the fluid to reach its boiling point – and almost immediately the foreshots began to flow through the spirit still – whisky geeks will understand that this was a magical moment!
But there was to be no romantic lingering – we were off on a tour of the pipework that connected the various elements of the distillery – turning valve handles manually to create the desired direction of flow. The first task was to empty the washback that had been filled and begun to ferment the previous Friday. Yes, this means that fermentation had lasted the best part of six days – a slow and careful process, obviating the need for any kind of foam suppressant. I know of no other distillery that takes this amount of time and care.
Having set and checked the valves, we were tasked with starting the pump to fill the wash still. Once the washback was empty, Ian, who would later allow us to start the next fermentation, set about cleaning it with a long-handled rubber brush device, some hot water and steam to sterilise it. But we couldn’t help him with this job – we had to close the valves we had opened and start up the wash still.
Once it was all running, we adjourned for coffee and a natter with the experts – suffice it to say that we learned an awful lot about how passionate the four team members were about their work and how dedicated they were to making a quality spirit that would be much sought-after when the first finished whisky becomes available, hopefully in 2023.
The rest of our day was taken up with helping to mill the malted barley – all grown on the estate but malted by Bairds of Inverness – and transporting the mixture of husk, grits and flour into the mash tun. We then assisted in flushing water at steadily increasing temperatures through the mash in three separate flushes and collecting the resulting wort in the washback that Ian had previously cleaned very carefully.
At first, we pumped a small amount of wort into the washback at about 46 degrees so that we could pour in the yeast and allow it to activate (by agitating it vigorously with a long handled ‘stirrer’). We added the remaining wort to the washback at a lower temperature so that the yeast could slowly begin its work of transforming the sugars into alcohol – another magical moment for the geeks amongst us! Then it was time to move the handle in the spirit safe from the foreshots to the spirit collector – the aroma was simply delightful.
The next step was to pump the newmake spirit into the filling tank and make some mind-bogglingly complicated calculations about how much water to add to dilute the spirit to the optimum 63.5% abv for maturation. We did this quite literally by turning a tap on to add filtered spring water from the distillery’s three springs up to the requisite amount.
But there was no time for slacking – it was time to do some barrel filling. This was a very rewarding activity – after all, it was the culmination of all the distillers’ hard work. Davie – an Orcadian with several decades experience in the industry – made sure we did not waste a single drop! Hammering the bungs in and rolling the barrels to the scales and then into the dunnage store was quite a physical task – but we soon got the hang of things.
At the end of the day we re-charged the spirit still ready for the following morning’s distillation, having previously discharged the pot ale from both stills into a receptacle outside, as well as cleaning out the draff from the mash tun. Both of these waste products are recycled on the estate – the draff as animal feed and the pot ale as fertiliser (allegedly with a 10 per cent better effect than conventional fertiliser).
Ray and I were both quite surprised at how much paperwork is involved in the whisky making business – at every step of the process, quantities and temperatures and specific gravities have to be recorded. Some of this is to keep a record of what happened, and when – much like the chart at the end of a hospital bed. And HM Revenue and Customs are also keenly interested in the amount of alcohol produced, for taxation purposes. But the team had this all in hand and we didn’t have to run the risk of entering an incorrect figure in the wrong column – thankfully.
Overall, we had a fantastic day in the distillery, we met some interesting and dedicated people with a passion for their work and we learned so much that we are still processing it all. Thank you SMWS – this was an unforgettable experience that has enriched our understanding of Scotland’s most important distillate!
Frank Simpson won the competition to take part in Ballindalloch distillery’s Art of Whisky Making course through Unfiltered magazine, which is distributed exclusively to members of The Scotch Malt Whisky Society. To join the SMWS, visit www.smws.com/whisky-club-membership