Cunningly, as soon as I got back from Islay I went gallivanting off to Fort William, to climb Ben Nevis, and then Skye, for a more general holiday. Not too much whisky, although I did try a few nice ones bottled for the Isle of Skye Brewery (whose ale, by the way, is fantastic). Anyway, back in the old homestead and ready to get typing about my original holiday.
I’m going to start at Balvenie. Not strictly chronological order, but not a bad place to begin. The Balvenie tour is one of the most complete looks at how whisky is made you’ll find in a distillery. Not only do they have their own on-site maltings, they also have their own cooperage, so you can see almost every step in the process (we didn’t get to see the filling of the casks, we had to wait until Kilchoman and Bunnahabhain for that).
Despite my previous, somewhat colourful description of the malting process, the Balvenie malthouse is a very relaxing place. The first floor holds mounds of newly-delivered barley, piled high and marked with a little plaque denoting the strain of barley (concerto is the flavour of the month, providing consistently high final yields). The malting floor itself is an almost mesmerically patterned ocean of grain – the barley must be constantly turned, and the raking leaves behind a wonderful sequence of bumps and troughs.
Here’s a cool thing about Balvenie Distillery – it has a bit of Kininvie Distillery in it as well. You walk into the mash room to see two adjacent tuns, and it turns out that one of them belongs to Kininvie. The wort is cooled alongside that of Balvenie, and then pumped to Kininvie Distillery itself about 200 metres away, which is a generally more industrial-looking beast.
The last thing you absolutely have to do at Balvenie is to try their Members’ Cask. This takes a bit of pre-planning – the cask is only available to members of Warehouse 24, Balvenie’s loyalty club. Fear not though, it’s free to join and only takes a minute or two through their website. For this small bit of effort, you get treated to a dram from a 41 year old 2nd fill bourbon cask. The nose is not what you’d expect from a Balvenie, with a slight smokiness and a musty, tannic edge overlaying green apples. The palate is incredibly evocative. You get a powerful, mushroomy, savoury flavour, as if they’ve casked the warehouse itself. There’s a lovely honeycomb finish, a great way to round off a great tour. I’d definitely recommend this one, it feels more personal and informative than many others, and it’s not every day you get a free dram of 41 year old whisky!