From barley to bottle at Ballindalloch
Creating a brand new single malt whisky in today's day and age is rare. Doing so using ingredients sourced entirely from the estate on which it is distilled, is groundbreaking, says Marcus Janssen.
If, like me, you have a soft spot for Speyside and the rich sporting culture that is interwoven into the very fabric of that magical corner of the country, you would be forgiven for envying Guy Macpherson-Grant, the 23rd generation of his family to live in Ballindalloch Castle. Aside from the spectacular castle itself, Ballindalloch boasts an excellent low ground pheasant shoot, roe and red deer stalking aplenty, an improving grouse moor, and some of the finest fly water on both the hallowed River Spey and its main tributary, the crystal clear River Avon. But, as the owner of any great house will tell you, inheriting such an estate is the easy part - it's keeping hold of it that is tricky.
Diversification is key; combining agriculture and traditional rural activities with modern business enterprises without undermining the integrity of the area's unique heritage. Since the 1970s, in response to falling farm rents, Clare Macpherson-Grant Russell and her husband Oliver Russell (Guy's parents) have done just that, successfully implementing a strategy to deliver the increased revenue required to keep the estate going. As a result, the cherished family home now also functions as a successful business where, in addition to traditional agricultural and sporting revenue streams, they have developed an outstanding nine-hole golf course - designed by esteemed golf course architects, Tom MacKenzie and Donald Steel - and a new wind farm.
And now, under the new tenure of the next generation of Macpherson-Grants, Ballindalloch has entered a groundbreaking new chapter with their latest project grabbing the attention of single malt connoisseurs across the land. Resulting from an estate review three years ago which sought to explore new opportunities, the family discussed the idea of producing their own single estate, single malt whisky, something that, as far as they were aware, had never been done before.
They had all of the key ingredients: a suitable building in the form of an old 1820s farm steading, the all-important spring water from the nearby Garline Woods, they had their own supply of Ballindalloch Estate barley and, perhaps most importantly, they had an ingrained appreciation of the nuances and complexities of fine single malt whiskies. In fact, Sir George Macpherson-Grant, Guy's great great grandfather, founded Cragganmore Distillery in 1869 and the family maintained a share in it until it was bought out by Diageo in the 1970s.
But starting a brand new distillery from scratch requires a substantial investment and, crucially, one that won't deliver a return for up to 10 years, so they needed to be certain that it was a viable concept. After much careful thought and planning, and with a bit of encouragement from Richard Forsyth, of Forsyths in Rothes - a company which specialises in the construction of whisky stills - the decision was made: Scotland's first single estate, single malt whisky distillery would be up and running by the end of 2014.
And I can gladly report that it is.
'As you would expect, it has been a challenge,' concedes distillery host Brian Robinson, who joined the team in April 2014, having spent eight years at Glenfiddich and three years before that at The Glenlivet. 'But we are very lucky to have Charlie Smith (68), our master distiller who we managed to convince to come out of retirement after 40 years of distilling whisky at distilleries including Talisker, Cardhu and Glenkinchie. He has probably forgotten more about whisky making than most people will ever know.' Indeed, without someone with the highly specialist skills to take the helm and oversee the development of the distillery and the production process, it would have been a non-starter.
But, before the all-important copper stills could be commissioned, a critical decision had to be taken: what type of whisky did they want to produce? Every distiller from Bladnoch in the Borders to Highland Park in the Orkney Isles will tell you that the character of their malt is determined by the size, shape and dimensions of their stills - each distillery's are unique. But there was no uncertainty - they wanted a heavier, more robust, after-dinner style of dram rather than the mellow, light and sweet characteristics of your typical Speyside malt. Armed with that information, Charlie then set about reverse engineering the distillery to the right specifications to create the type of whisky they envisaged. Together with distillery assistant Colin Poppy, who himself brings nearly a decade of distilling experience, Charlie will run the distillery, by hand, to ensure the consistency of new spirit running from their stills.
'Our biggest challenges so far have been the scale of building a distillery from scratch,; continues Brian. 'There are all the elements associated with that - legislation, licensing, planning etc. - but because we have taken the decision to build a fully manual, traditional, non-computerised distillery, there have been some added challenges in getting it up and running. We have had to work out how all of it fits together - what pipe goes into what valve and into what vessel!'
The building work started early in 2013 and ran concurrently with the installation of all of the components - the copper stills, pipework, mash tun and wooden washbacks - which commenced in April 2014 and reached completion in September. 'We were very excited to officially start production of our first batch of Ballindalloch Single Malt Whisky on September 22 this year,' adds Brian, a sense of relief detectable in his voice.
But this is just the start; the real significance of the single estate ethos is in the production process which permeates across into other aspects of the estate's management. 'We have essentially adopted a 19th century approach to distilling,' adds Brian. 'In those days, all of the ingredients would have been sourced locally. Our barley comes from our own fields on the estate, the whisky is distilled and matured on-site, the draff (leftovers after the mash, i.e. the spent grains) will go back to feeding the estate's cattle - which, as it happens, is the oldest Aberdeen Angus herd in the world - and the liquid bi-product will be used to fertilise the soil in which the barley is grown.' And of course the all-important water comes from a spring within 500 yards of the distillery, near the banks of the River Avon, one of the clearest salmon rivers in Scotland.
The only element of the production process that is not carried out on the estate is the malting of the barley - this is done in Inverness, but procedures are in place to ensure that their barley is ring-fenced so that it isn't mixed up with other batches at the maltings. The malting process takes about a week, during which the grain is soaked in water and then dried, which converts the starches into sugars. These sugars are then extracted in liquid form in the mash tun and then fermented in traditional wooden washbacks to produce a beer-like liquid which is then distilled before being aged in oak casks. It is this ageing process which gives each whisky its own unique flavour, colour and character.
Casks will be a combination of first-fill American Bourbon barrels which, typically, add honey and vanilla characteristics, hogsheads and sherry butts, which add bold, dark, dried fruit flavours, 'a bit like Christmas cake,' says Brian. The higher the percentage of sherry cask, the darker and richer the whisky. Indeed it is that ratio of sherry versus bourbon that will determine the final flavour and character of the Ballindalloch Single Malt.
Legally, a Scotch whisky must be aged in oak casks for a minimum of three years, but because Ballindalloch will be entering the market as a premium single malt whisky, they have taken the decision to wait between eight and ten years before bottling their first batch. 'One thing you can't do,' adds Brian, 'is rush the ageing process.' And, although it is at least eight years away, they hope, by that stage, to have their own bottling facility on the estate, making it a true single estate dram, from barley to bottle.
Brian doesn't like the term 'micro distillery' but, in truth, they have no plans to rival the big producers like The Glenlivet, Macallan and Glenfiddich for volume and plan to produce in the region of 100,000 litres of whisky a year. To put that into context, a large distillery like Glenfiddich has the capacity to produce over 30,000 litres a day.
But, despite their relatively modest size, they are aiming high. 'Going forward, it doesn't matter how beautiful our facilities are, how lovely the setting or how unique the single estate ethos is,' continues Brian, 'our number one aim is to produce the very best whisky we can. At the end of the day, we are in the business of making outstanding whisky and, in around 10 years' time when our first batch goes on sale, we want to be challenging the bigger and older distilleries for accolades and awards.'
Whatever the outcome, one thing's for certain, though, when that first drop of eagerly awaited Ballindalloch Single Estate, Single Malt Whisky finally reaches the end of its journey from barley to bottle in a decade or so's time, no-one will deny that the Macpherson-Grants and their team have broken new ground.
Visit Ballindalloch Distillery
The newly completed distillery, which overlooks the ninth fairway on the Ballindalloch Castle Golf Course and the River Avon beyond, is now open to visitors. 'We really want to showcase what we are doing here because we believe it to be truly unique,' says Brian.
Visits (by appointment) start at £30, but they are currently developing a bespoke offering to include other estate activities such as golf, salmon fishing, shooting and estate tours.
www.ballindallochdistillery.com?Tel. +44 (0)1807 500 331