How To Do A Whisky Distillery Tour During The Pandemic
A few months ago, in celebration of World Whisky Day, which falls annually on the third Saturday of May, I was invited to take a tour of The Balvenie's Speyside distillery. Virtually, of course. I gladly accepted, not wanting to pass up the offer to see how water, grain and yeast are turned into one of my favourite spirits.
The Balvenie is touted as one of the world's most renowned handcrafted whiskies and is located in Dufftown in Speyside. Unique among single malts, The Balvenie is the only distillery in Scotland that grows its barley. It uses traditional floor maltings and keeps both a coppersmith and a team of coopers on site. Malt Master David Stewart oversees all this and he is believed to be the most experienced malt master in Scotch history, having nosed over 500,000 casks across his career throughout his 59 years at The Balvenie.
The tour was conducted via Zoom and the valiant efforts of the distillery's brand ambassadors Gemma Paterson, Bretty Bayly and James Roberts, who strapped on a camera to take my group on a live tour of a then gloomy distillery grounds as I lounged in front of my camera with a glass of whisky in hand thankfully provided in my kit.
Roberts kickstarted the distillery's grounds tour with a quick detour to its onsite spring, providing the primary water source that eventually turns into whisky. The weather was gloomy, chilly and it drizzled a little; typical Scottish weather, I was told. And I can attest, having visited another distillery in the Highlands back in 2019 and experiencing the same weather.
We next arrived at the malting floor, where The Balvenie enlists the aid of malt men that would steep raw barley to incite germination and then lay it across said floor to encourage the process. Here, the malt men manually use a shovel to turn the barley to ensure the grain maintains the correct temperature and germinates evenly.
The still house gave us a glimpse at how the distillation process works, with Roberts noting that it takes around 15.5 hours to 16.5 hours for the entire process to take place. Once distilled, the spirit is poured and aged in casks at warehouses, with our tour segueing into The Balvenie's Warehouse 24.
It was here then we caught a glimpse of some of the distillery's older casks tucked away, waiting for time to play its part. As previously mentioned, a copper dog was provided to us in our virtual tour kit and is a tool used to extract whisky from a cask. Ours came filled with The Balvenie 12 Years Old Doublewood, but this tool has a fascinating history of being exploited by would-be whisky thieves to extract the spirit for a sneaky dram's worth sneakily!
The tour concluded with a Q&A session with Malt Master David Stewart after sharing his thoughts and experiences on the whisky we were comfortably enjoying at home. Launched in 1993, The Balvenie 12 Years Old Doublewood used a process designed by Stewart in 1982 that's now commonly known as "wood finishing". To make the distillery's iconic whisky, Stewart takes 12 year old-aged whisky spent in American oak ex-bourbon casks and moves it to Spanish oak ex-Olorosso sherry casks for nine additional months. The whisky is then transferred to large oak vessels called tuns for three to four months for the flavours to harmonise.
The 12 Years Old Doublewood is quite a whisky. The Balvenie notes that traditional American oak casks soften and adds delicate character while the sherry wood brings depth and fullness of flavour. It's a medium-bodied whisky with hints of gentle spice, vanilla, nuts, and dried fruit. On the nose, aromas of sweet fruit and cinnamon linger. With a long and warming finish, this is just the kind of after-dinner whisky you can savour and take your time enjoying.