Private tour of Glenfiddich distillery and tasting at The Balvenie distillery

After travelling past Loch Lomond, Ben Nevis, Glencoe and Loch Ness, with a short pit stop in the seaside village of Lossiemouth, I thought I had seen the best of mainland Scotland. That was until my visit to a few beautiful distilleries, namely Strathisla, Glen Grant and Glenfiddich.

The Scottish countryside and coast ranks among the most beautiful scenery which I have ever seen. The countryside around Ben Nevis had sheep dotted along its rolling green hills, and it was every bit as beautiful as I had imagined the Scottish countryside would be.

Glencoe

Glencoe, however, absolutely blew my socks off! The glen is what remains from an extinct supervolcanco, with it being further sculpted by glaciers during the last ice age. It is a geological masterpiece that beggars belief as you snake through it with your hire car.

Glencoe

Yet, despite having seen the beauty of many of the glens and lochs of Scotland, a number of distilleries in Speyside still managed to take my breath away. Among the most beautiful were the Strathisla, Glen Grant and Glenfiddich distilleries, with their old stone warehouses and idyllic Scottish surroundings.

On Monday 11 June 2018 I visited Dufftown in Scotland for a private tour of the Glenfiddich distillery and a tasting at The Balvenie distillery.

Glenfiddich distillery

THE HISTORY

When I first arrived at the Glenfiddich distillery I was awestruck by the beauty of the place.

The distillery’s stone buildings and warehouses which I set my eyes upon were each built in roughly the same style as the original distillery building which Glenfiddich’s founder, William Grant, and his family of seven sons and two daughters constructed by hand in 1886.

It took William and his family about a year to build the original distillery building, in which every process of whisky making took place from malting to mashing to fermenting to distilling and finally to ageing spirit in oak casks. William named the distillery Glenfiddich, which in Gaelic means valley of the deer. The first drops of new make spirit flowed out of the Grant family’s stills on Christmas day 1887.

Over the century that followed, stone buildings popped up around the original building.

In the below picture, you can see the original building to the rear just under the chimney (which, technically, is a ventilator).

Glenfiddich distillery

THE GLENFIDDICH SPIRIT

Glenfiddich, I was told, uses unpeated barley when it makes its core range of whisky. It has however released peated single malt, such as its vintage cask expression.

Below you can see what happens to barley when it is being prepared for whisky making – it is allowed to germinate, then dried and heated to stop the germination process, and then ground into a rough powder-like consistency called “grist”. This process permits the release of more sugars from the barley and it makes the barley “malted barley”, thus it is ready for using to make single malt whisky.

A display at the Glenfiddich distillery showing the steps taken when preparing barley for whisky making

Throughout the process of whisky making the distillery makes use of Robbie Dhu spring water from nearby. Our guide informed us that a large parcel of land was purchased by the distillery to safeguard this water source, in effect meaning the distillery now has ownership of the water.

Water is vital to making whisky, and you need a lot of it! The huge metal mash tuns pictured below mix the ground malted barley (the “grist”) with Robbie Dhu spring water at a temperature of 64 degrees Celsius, creating a porridge-like substance.

Glenfiddich’s mash tuns

Within the mash tuns are large metal blades which churn the “porridge”. During this process the water extracts sugars from the barley.

Inside Glenfiddich’s mash tuns

The sugary water from the mash tuns, which is called “wort”, is then transferred to the wash backs (pictured below) where yeast is added to the water so it can be fermented into an alcoholic liquid that resembles beer.

Glenfiddich’s wash backs are made from Canadian Douglas Fern, a type of wood which the distillery’s founder’s thought added to the flavour of whisky. Keeping true to tradition, the distillery continues to use this type of wood for its wash backs to this very day.

Glenfiddich’s wooden wash backs

At Glenfiddich fermentation lasts 72 hours. This, the distillery’s guide said, is a longer than normal period of fermentation. During this period more flavour compounds, called esters, are formed in the beer. Once fermented, the liquid is called a “wash”.

Peering into the wash backs, there is a foamy liquid that looks like beer. The foam is caused by carbon dioxide, and to prevent wash backs from overflowing each wash back has rotating blades which burst the bubbles when the foam gets too high.

Looking inside a wash back at the Glenfiddich distillery

The wash is then distilled into new make spirit.

The still room pictured below shows the Glenfiddich stills. The larger stills at the rear of the room are the distillery’s wash stills whereas the smaller stills towards the front of the room are the distillery’s spirit stills.

The wash is distilled in the wash stills first to produce low wines, and then the low wines are distilled in the spirit stills to produce spirit, some of which will be selected for ageing into whisky. A distiller needs to select the spirit that will be aged into whisky by making “cuts”.

Glenfiddich’s stills

Adhrremce to tradition is important at Glenfiddich, so while new make spirit is being distilled cuts are done manually depending on the skill of stillman or stillwoman. There is no reliance on computers when making cuts.

Curiously, Glenfidich have two distinctly shaped spirit stills which each serve a different function. The stills that are shaped like witches hats produce sprit with a stronger flavour because alcohol vapours rise up unabated when they are distilled in this shaped still. The stills that have what looks like pot bellies at their base have more reflux, so you can expect these stills to produce alcohol which is lighter.

Glenfiddich still room 1

Surprisingly, the stills at the Glenfiddich distillery were smaller than I had expected. I was told that the distillery uses stills of this size because William Grant used a similarly sized still. Using stills of a similar size and shape to the one William Grant used helps to ensure that the flavour of Glenfiddich whisky in 2018 and beyond resembles as closely as possible the character of the original Glenfiddich new make spirit which William himself would have distilled. Though, these days, there are many of the little stills busily churning out whisky!

THE WOOD AND ON-SITE COOPERAGE

Once distilled, the new make spirit needs to mature in oak casks for a number of years before it can be called whisky.

While Glenfiddich use different oak types to mature its whisky, including ex-bourbon and ex-sherry casks, the distiullery’s marrying vats are made from Portuguese oak because this type of oak is very hard and it does not soak up whisky as easily as other oak types. To ensure its supply of Portuguese oak does not dwindle, the distillery has even purchased a forest in Portugal.

Glenfiddich share an on-site cooperage with its sister distillery, The Balvenie, to help maintain and care for oak casks.

Inside the on-site cooperage at the Glenfiddich and Balvenie distilleries

We were shown into a couple of the distillery’s warehouses, and allowed to put our noses in a 44 year old ex-bourbon and 28 year old ex-sherry cask. They smelled divine. The 44 year old ex-bourbon cask smelled of toffee and wood vanilla, while the 28 year old ex-sherry cask smelled like dark chocolate and fruit cake.

Empty casks at the Glenfiddich distillery

After nosing whisky from very old casks, we were shown into Glenfiddich’s warehouse No. 8.

Inside warehouse No. 8 a large wooden vat was being filled with whisky that had been matured for 15 years in ex-sherry casks. The aroma in the warehouse was divine, and amidst the wood was the waft of glazed cherries – it smelled like Christmas. That large vat was the distillery’s solera vat.

Inside Glenfiddich’s Warehouse No. 8

THE ON-SITE BOTTLING HALL

After our tour of the distillery’s warehouses we were shown its on-site bottling hall, where bottles are filled with Glenfiddich single malt. Lining the walls of the bottling hall are old and limited edition bottles of Glenfiddich.

The Glenfiddich bottling hall

THE WHISKY

Eventually, the tour of the distillery made us all thirsty and we retired to a room in the distillery to taste Glenfiddich 15 year old solera, Glenfiddich 18 year old and Glenfiddich 21 year old.

It was such a wonderful experience to taste the 15 year old solera, having moments earlier stuck our noses in the solera vat from which the bottled whisky was once drawn. I was most impressed, however, with the 21 year old which had been finished in Caribbean rum casks after 21 years in oak. The rum casks gave the whisky a rich tropical fruit character of banana and kiwi, alongside decedent vanillas and fiery spice.

The Balvenie distillery

After a delicious lunch of venison at the Glenfiddich’s restaurant, the Malt Barn, we made our way to the nearby The Balvenie distillery.

The Balvenie distillery was founded in 1892 by William Grant, some six years after he founded Glenfiddich. Rather than construct it by hand, as they did with Glenfiddich, William and his family paid someone to build The Balvenie.

I was told that while Glenfiddich do not use any peated barley when making their core range of single malt, The Balvenie has some very light peat smoke forming part of its signature character (to about 5 ppm). Like Glenfiddich, The Balvenie has jumped on the peated bandwagon with its special release of peated whisky, one example being its 14 year old peated triple cask.

The Balvenie distillery

Unfortunately the distillery was closed for maintenance, but we were shown the cooperage which the distillery shares with the neighbouring Glenfiddich distillery and then given a very generous tasting of a number of Balvenie single malts.

Among the eight (yes, eight!!) whiskies tasted, we were given three very special whiskies to try: Balvenie TUN 1509, Balvenie 30 year old, and an unlabelled Balvenie 36 year old.

The Balvenie TUN 1509 was a tasty dram, but my preference was for the 30 year old which offered faint smoke, rich raisins and a malty drying finale. Despite having spent three decades in oak, it was amazing just how full-flavoured the malty taste was in the 30 year old.

Finally, to end the tasting in perfect style, we tasted a 36 year old Balvenie that had been matured in Oloroso sherry casks. Intensely oaked, the whisky tasted like licking the inside of a sherry barrel and it had rich flavours of decedent dark chocolate, leather, raisins, cinnamon and ginger. Whilst the whisky was heavily oaked, it was an absolute privilege to taste this 36 year old single malt at the distillery where it had sat maturing for just over three and a half decades.

An unlabeled bottle of 36 year old Balvenie single malt

Final thoughts on my visit to the Glenfiddich distillery

The Glenfiddich distillery’s stone warehouses, its stills, on-site cooperage, wooden wash backs and manual distilling that make no use of computers is testament to the distillery’s respect for tradition, something that seems to be fading in other distilleries in Scotland. And yet, the distillery’s use of solera vats and its special releases signal a culture of experimentation and open mindedness. While a visit to the distillery provides the opportunity to see how one of the world’s most popular single malts is made in modern times, exploring Glenfiddich’s dark stone warehouses feels like a trip back in time to the days of William Grant. With its stone warehouses and pagoda rooftops, it is a beautiful distillery that should be experienced for its preserved historical architecture, immersive warehouses smelling of old oak casks and delicious whisky!

Thank you to William Grant & Sons for arranging this tour and tasting.

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