The Scottish whisky industry is going through a purple patch – its biggest for several generations. Growth brings a wealth of opportunities, and whereas a little under 40 years ago sites were closing left, right and centre, now, there’s rarely a month that goes by without news of a new distillery being planned. Production on Islay continues to grow, the Lowlands re-emerge from decades of limited single malt production, and Macallan has built a particularly sizable new home overlooking Craigellachie. But, with all this expansion going on, only one entirely new distillery has been founded in Speyside – and they’re not planning to release any whisky until at least 2022.
Ballindalloch Castle and the Macpherson-Grant family have been tied to whisky in one way or another for over 150 years. In 1869 Sir George Macpherson-Grant leased part of the castle’s estate to John Smith to build the Cragganmore distillery – following Smith’s death in 1923, the family became joint owners of the distillery with White Horse Distillers. Their ownership lasted until 1965 when they sold their share of Cragganmore to the then DCL. It would be almost 50 years until the Macpherson-Grant family returned to the whisky fold – this time in the construction of their own distillery - Ballindalloch.
Clearly visible as you drive down the A95 (and a much prettier view than it was 10 years ago) Ballindalloch was renovated from 19th century farm buildings and sits within the castle grounds (the only distillery in the world to do so). Whilst production commenced in 2014, the Macpherson-Grants have decided to wait until the spirit is at least 8 years of age (possibly even older) before bottling any Ballindalloch whisky. Given just 100,000 litres of spirit are being produced each year – this seems like a gutsy move.
We recently spent a half-day at Ballindalloch in the very capable hands of Distillery Host Brian Robinson. It was one of the very best distillery tours we’d ever had the pleasure of undertaking.
Unlike a lot of distilleries in the region, you can’t just turn up and expect a tour at Ballindalloch (though of course, people still try to do so) – that’s not how they do things there – visits are ‘appointment only’ – but for very good reasons – least of all being that the distillery is positively tiny by modern standards. Tours, all conducted with Brian are completely personalised – you let him know the knowledge level of your group and what you’re interested in, and he’ll do his best to focus your time at Ballindalloch on exactly what you want to see. This can result in particularly technical tours – which, after a week of hearing again and again about the main ingredients required to make Scotch whisky was more than a refreshing change of pace for my group!
The tour experience commences in rather civilised manner – afternoon tea/coffee in comfy leather armchairs and an open discussion with Brian about both the tour schedule and the history and ethos of the new distillery. Walking down the courtyard to the main production site (barn) we were greeted by Mr Oliver Russell of the current Macpherson-Grant family. When Mr Russell is free, he always tries to make a bee-line down to the distillery to greet distillery guests with a warm hello. Chaps, I have to say, it’s these ‘little things’ which make a tour to Ballindalloch so memorable – you’re made to feel both special and welcomed – a far cry away from any of the sausage factory distilleries you might have visited in the past.
The main production areas of Ballindalloch are all housed in a single long barn – this clearly presented the designers and engineers with a massive technical challenge, not only to fit everything in the space, but also to make it functional for daily operation/cleaning. However, whilst Ballindalloch should be congratulated on such a technical feat (in some areas, there’s barely a cigarette paper of space between the pipework), it also presents visitors with a truly incredible experience to witness the entire production process from end to end in a single area. It’s one thing being told about how production moves from malting to mashing to wash to distillation etc – it’s another to be able to see all of these processes side-by-side.
Ballindalloch is a hands-on distillery – a huge array of pipework is littered with valves (just under 200 of them) that the team of three are required to operate to move the production from each stage until the next. The two storey distillery makes it easy to visualise how this network of valved pipework interacts, however, one doesn’t want to even imagine what a valve turned the wrong way would achieve – there’s no computerisation here to let you know if you’ve done something wrong. The training wheels are firmly off at Ballindalloch.
The distillery’s whisky is described online as ‘robust and fruity’ by those who have had the pleasure of trying it already. But, this is one distillery where you’ll not be able to try the whisky as a visitor – at least until 2022. There are no quarter casks and octaves at Ballindalloch, the small on-site warehouse is littered with first and refill hogsheads as well as a limited number of first fill sherry butts. But, whilst these slumber for another four years, visitors get a different type of treat at the end of their tour – drams from the Macpherson-Grant private collection of Cragganmore casks. Well-aged early 1980’s Cragganmore is a rare sight in most places, and cask strength samples even more so. Despite sampling some 70 whiskies that week, Ballindalloch’s 27 year old private cask Cragganmore was by far and away the best thing I tasted – possibly all year.
Many of you will have already driven past Ballindalloch on your travels through Speyside. Next time you’re in the area I heartily recommend giving Brian a call and arranging your own custom tour of the distillery. In the meantime, the distillery is firmly on The Dramble’s radar and we look forward to both visiting again, as well as eagerly awaiting the first whisky in a few years’ time. Good things come to those that wait.
As well as visiting the distillery we spent some time talking to both Brian Robinson and Mr Oliver Russell about the distillery and their wider interests in whisky:
When did you join the world of whisky and what were you doing before?
I began my whisky career in May 2004 as a guide at The Glenlivet. I was there for two years before moving to Glenfiddich where I stayed for the next 8 years as Visitor Centre Team Leader moving to Ballindalloch in April 2014. Before that, I ran the Emergency Service Centre at Scottish and Southern Energy in Portsmouth!
Could you tell us about your role at Ballindalloch? - what made you join the distillery?
I am tasked with looking after the “front facing” side of the business. This involves responsibility for the non-production elements of the distillery. When it came to moving to Ballindalloch, I was fortunate enough to be invited by the family to join. I knew them as a result of my previous role at Glenfiddich and they felt I was the right fit for what they wanted to achieve. Although I was perfectly happy where I was, when someone offers the opportunity to be part of a distillery from the very outset, it is impossible to pass up. Being able to have a strong influence in the direction we take as a brand is enormously rewarding.
What does a ‘normal’ day look like at Ballindalloch - and what are your favourite aspects of your job?
I get involved with a number of aspects of the business, so “normal” tends to be quite varied. The majority of my time in the summer months will be taken up with tours of the distillery. We offer tours by appointment only with each visit tailored to the knowledge and interest of the guests. The visits are typically quite detailed and geared towards those who want to understand a bit more about the production process. I administer our Private Cask program which, although very small, is a wonderful way for us to build relationships that will last for many years to come. There is time spent trying to extend awareness of the distillery to build the foundations of future sales opportunities. Occasionally, I will give Colin, Ian and Davey a hand in the distillery, typically cask filling or warehousing but, I must confess, it is a long time since I have got my hands dirty for a whole day! There is also a little overlap with the castle and golf course from time to time too. Oh, and answering questions from whisky writers! Being directly involved with all aspects of the distillery is the most gratifying aspect of what I do.
If you weren’t working in the industry what would you fancy doing instead?
Whilst we'll have to wait a few more years to sample whisky from Ballindalloch, how would you describe the liquid that's been created so far? What are you expecting from the additional maturation that's been decided to be undertaken before release?
We are delighted with the new make that we have. From mashing to distillation, the whole process is carried out very slowly and the results are very pleasing indeed. We have a fruity, complex sweet spirit and the feedback from those lucky enough to have tasted it has been very positive. As such, the casks we are using are selected to enhance the character rather than to mask it. We are using nothing smaller than a barrel (no quarters or octaves!) and are committed to a minimum of 8 years of maturation as we feel strongly that this will allow us to showcase the spirit in the best possible way.
From your experience, what new trends might we see in whisky in the future?
With everyone looking for an angle, a point of difference and the essential USP, there are so many permutations now the range of bottlings is broad to say the least. In my opinion many work well and many exist under the banner of simply trying to be different. Some of the latter category perhaps don’t work so well! What I would like to see is a trend for quality and a commitment to giving the whisky drinkers of the world an outstanding product. With so many high quality whiskies being produced all over the world, we need to ensure that the word ‘Scotch’ still counts as the last word in excellence.
You're marooned on a desert island. You can only have one bottle of whisky. Which one is it?
The 1937 64 Year Old Glenfiddich is arguably the best whisky I have ever tasted. That will do for starters…….
How and why was the decision made to build a distillery on the Estate?
We wanted to continue to expand the commercial side of the Estate to ensure it remains diverse and in good shape for generations to come. With distilling on the Estate in the past, it seemed to make perfect sense to go down that path. We already had many of the building blocks here; it was simply a case of bringing them all together.
Can you tell us a bit about the Macpherson-Grant family's historic involvement in whisky industry
We have records going back to the early 1800s showing a distillery on the Estate at Delnashaugh but we are most well-known for Sir George Macpherson-Grant, my wife’s great grandfather, building Cragganmore in 1869 together with renowned distiller John Smith. Over the years I collected a number of Private Casks from Cragganmore, some of which Brian shares with guests on tours of our distillery.
How has the Estate changed over the last few years - what new developments might be upcoming in the future?
The Estate is very different now to when Clare and I arrived in 1978. We have diversified over the years to ensure we carry forward a positive legacy and it now includes things like tourism, corporate entertaining, shooting, fishing, agriculture, rental properties, renewable energy - the list goes on. For the future we will continue to look at opportunities to grow and develop but for now, the distillery is quite enough to be getting on with!
You're marooned on a desert island. You can only have one bottle of whisky. Which one is it?
I’ll wait until I can have the first bottle produced at Ballindalloch!
With thanks to Brian Robinson, Oliver Russell and Ballindalloch