Put simply: this is the best distillery visit I have been on. OK, it cost more – £35 instead of the normal £7-£10 – but it is good value and I can now think of Balvenie with nothing but affection. If the aim of a distillery in offering visits is to engage customers and make an emotional bond to enhance future enjoyment, then what they do here is mightily successful.
The first thing you notice about the place is how much you don’t notice as it has a very discreet presence, in a dip, hidden from the road with very discrete sing which is easy to miss. Even after you have turned into the car park you’re not sure you’re in the right place because it looks like a picnic spot with well separated bays for cars. And you still can’t see the distillery! But there is a sign and a path, which opens up and then you can see the whole works. Wander further down and you finally come to a small outbuilding used solely for visitors, where you are welcomed warmly and ushered into a cosy room, with an open fire, if it is cold, and offered a cup of coffee. You then wait and chat for a while as the small group assembles (it is pre booked so the names and numbers are known) and you get to know each other a little. What a pleasantly way to start. Already the engaged attention of our guide, David Mair, has put us at our ease and we know we are in good hands, and that is judging by generally high standards of the whisky industry.
This is the time for a little digression about people who work in distilleries: they are almost always warm, welcoming, engaged and engaging. OK, when you visit, the shiny brass stills look lovely, the locations are often beautiful, and the buildings can be atmospheric but without the staff it would mean very little. You visit a working distillery to see how it works, how people go about things and their general attitudes and demeanour. And almost everywhere there seems to be an open friendliness and an underlying confidence in what they do and the whisky they produce. Confidence allows people to be relaxed. I’m sure there must be some miserable old buggers lurking around in the shadows (not everything can be sweetness and light) but I have no direct knowledge of them. Instead I always come away from a visit reinforced in my opinion that drinking whisky is a social activity, and there are more nice people in the world than I might otherwise think.
Balvenie is that it is one of the best distilleries to visit because it is one of the most complete; you can see more of the whole processes of whisky making than you can almost anywhere else. Lets start with the malting – they do their own. Nothing gives you a sense of the raw material, the heart of the matter as seeing barley being transformed into malt. These days a distillery will only make a small proportion of what they use in their own, old fashioned, floor malting (it’s more expensive to do it by hand than buying from specialist maltsters with their big industrial drums) but there are very few distilleries who do even that (Islay has the greatest concentration with Laphroaig, Bowmore, and Kilchoman but on the mainland there is only Springbank, Belvenie and Benriach, whilst on Orkney there is Highland Park). Balvenie actually go one stage further in vertical integration and grow some of their barley on their own farm, a reminder, of the old days when priorities were reversed and whisky was an agricultural byproduct rather than a product in its own right with a huge international market.
Maltings, of course, need their fire with their heavy cast iron door and looking at details like this give me as much pleasure as the obvious things such as the copper stills. It is nothing to do with the nature of the spirit of methods of manufacture, instead it is a sense of industrial archaeology, seeing something that could have been made 100 years ago being used. A direct connection with the past, and a reminder that you are visiting a working environment that dates from Victorian times. It may well have been adapted with some new methods but it has not been totally transformed, you can still reach back in your imagination see the way things were when physically most lives were much harder.
At Balvenie, though, you can go further back. There is a cooperage, where you can see the work of making, or more accurately repairing barrels. It is a skill that goes back about 2000 years and, appropriately enough, it is credited to the Celts but it was the Romans who capitalised on the invention and used barrels to transport goods throughout their empire and beyond. Although this workshop looks more modern than the maltings it is actually showing us an older trade. Today though we have more machines. Nevertheless I am transfixed by the noise, the rhythm of work, seeing how things fit together, and the skill required. It takes a long apprenticeship to become a cooper and seeing their skill in action is interesting. But luckily I have also served a long apprenticeship under the tutelage of Jerome K Jerome “I like work: it fascinates me. I can sit and watch it for hours”.
It makes you realise that you don’t usually see much physical labour on a normal distillery visit. It would be interesting to look at an organisational chart to see how many people make, store, bottle, or physically handle the spirit as opposed to doing the marketing, admin, and other ancillary tasks; and then compare this to other industries. I have no idea what the results would be – it is idle speculation, without any intention to do any proper research – but it strikes me that the whisky industry is an example of the way industrialisation has gone in general and that fewer and fewer people are needed to make the actual goods. Our visit would be posted on the public relations section of the ledger. It is still work but it is something that requires people because the product (good will, loyalty, sympathy, interest) is not easily quantified. Balvenie do this work well. The more we see the more we like and the more we know the more we appreciate, which leads me naturally on to the warehouses. Oh yes warehouses! I love warehouses: their smell, the slightly damp atmosphere, the darkness. It is here that you can stand, breathe, and feel your appreciation as a physical sensation . They are magical places, where the spirit and the wood interact until the whisky becomes what it is meant to be. In most distilleries they are sealed off from visitors, sometimes though you are allowed limited access. At Balvenie there is Warehouse 24. It is one of the oldest buildings on the site and when you go into the darkened area the atmosphere hangs around you like a cloak. Fantastic. For the visitors there are a couple of treats. The first is the opening up of three casks of different types. A dipping dog is used to pull out the liquid and a little put in the palm of the hand so you can get some idea of the character. All of them were delicious and it was possible to buy a bottle. (It is no a matter of regret that I did not take advantage of this – I just didn’t know what I was thinking). The second treat is only available to those who have already signed up to the Warehouse 24 group on the Balvenie website: it is a dram from an old cask. So if you learn only one thing from this write-up it is that you should join the group before you visit – you know it makes sense.
After that it is back to the visitor centre and a tasting of the core range. But here is the problem: I was driving so I only sniffed then tasted the merest drop on my tongue. Very restrained but I actually enjoyed concentrating almost entirely on the nose. Here though is another tip: buy some miniatures (then drink them obvs!) take the empty bottles, plus a little funnel and some labels and save the samples for later. Problem solved. My solution was rather more idiosyncratic. David gave me a slightly bigger bottle and I mixed all the samples together – a slightly strange blend, for which I won’t be bothering with any tasting notes.
Then it was all over. As I said – it was the best distillery visit I have been on.