Our First Day Touring Speyside: Benromach and Balvenie
We now move forward 8 days from our visit at Glengoyne. My brother, sister in law and brother in law all have moved on from Scotland. My brother back home to the US and my brother and sister in law onward in their trip to explore Europe. It's now just my wife and myself.
We were staying in this little bed and breakfast that was located in a building over 200 years old. A quaint little building, but ran by very lovely people. This is where I've decided to stage out of for exploration of the Speyside whisky region.
Now I'd decided to hire a guide based on what friends of mine who'd been to Scotland before had to say about the roads. I'd been told that they could be VERY windy and narrow, to the point where it was just one car width wide with no passing space. I'd also been informed that many times distilleries that looked close to one another on the map would oftentimes be a good distance apart, sometimes requiring an hour to get to, even if it was just 5 or so miles apart.
The person I hired was Roy Mathers from About Speyside tours (http://www.aboutspeyside.com/). I'd talked to quite a few tour guides based all over Scotland trying to figure out what it was going to run me to hire someone for a week to drive us around (remember I've got lots of distilleries planned!) and what I quickly found out was that it was going to be expensive, around the lines of 300 to 700 pounds per day, not including gas, overnight accommodation, etc. So it was very pricey, but I was determined that we would benefit from a guide.
Roy Mathers from About Speyside stood out quickly due to a couple of reasons. First was price, roughly 270 pounds per day, which was much more affordable for us then the 700 pounds a day that some of the tour companies were charging. But even more important was that he was a local, being born and raised on The Macallan distillery estate.
I had emailed Roy a couple of times back and forth and he sounded pretty good, but I finally decided to give him a phone call. We wound up talking for almost 2 hours about whiskies and the Speyside region! I told him what I wanted to do, which was way too much for the time I had (something like 18 distilleries hahaha yeah not going to happen) Even better is that after naming the distilleries I informed him that I didn't want the entire time in Speyside to focus on whisky, we wanted castles and some other things to do as well (see I am crazy)
He kindly made some suggestions that I wouldn't have thought of and informed me which were the great tours, which ones were ok and which ones really weren't so hot. After 2 hours on the phone I knew I was going to go with him.
270 pounds a day wound up being the most expensive planned part of our trip, even costing more then both our airfares, running more then the hotels for the entire trip and I was very nervous about meeting him as while someone can sound great over the phone or email it can always be a very different story.
Making me even more apprehensive was that Roy's mother had passed away just a few days before we were supposed to meet up and that is ALWAYS a strain on anyone. He'd informed me that not to worry he'd still do a wonderful job for us. Even with all the reassurances there was a little worry.
I shouldn't have!
He picks us up promptly as the bed and breakfast at 9am sharp and after introductions we get on the road. Really friendly guy we chat as we drive along, talking whisky and history (another passion of mine) when all of a sudden as we're driving along he informs us that we'll probably like what he has to show us.
It's a giant standing stone, just along the lines of Stonehenge, but dating from MUCH further back in history raised by the Picts. He tells us about how they can be found everywhere, their history, everything. It is VERY VERY awesome! We take heaps of photos as it is very beautiful and then we're back on the road to BenRomach, the smallest Speyside distillery, run with just 2 guys.
I'd never had a Benromach before so I was quite keen as I'd been hearing things about the distillery for a while, how they were playing around with different styles of Speyside whisky, smoking malt and peat, brand new casks that had never held bourbon or sherry in them, so I was looking forward to the tour, but had no idea of what to expect.
We arrive with plenty of time despite our detour and take a look around the visitor center which is quite nice, but nothing fancy. We don't have to worry about paying anyone or doing anything as that was already taken care of when I paid Roy weeks ago when I booked with him so we just admire the whiskies, some of which are quite old and very pretty bottles.
The tour starts and we sit down for a quick video which is basically a quick run down on the history of the distillery and Gordon & MacPhail who own the distillery and then we're ready to start the tour. We're joined by an older couple from Canada who are quite lovely people. Our guide Jimmy at this stage has been informed a wee bit by Roy about my passion for whisky and so we chat a bit as the tour is in progress.
We're led from the mill to the tun room (where we try some wort, which is essentially beer that is eventually distilled into whisky) all the way through the still house and ending up in the warehouse where we get a chance to take a quick look around. We've been allowed to take photos for almost the entire tour, except the warehouse (which many of the distilleries won't let you take photos of)
Jimmy is a fun guide, engaging and friendly, answering questions left and right, explaining to those who don't know about the different types of woods used in casks and from which country they come, how whisky gets it's color, what flavors the different types of casks impart. He seems to be directing all the questions at me and it makes me a little bit nervous. Here's the big whisky geek, how will I look if I start answering wrong?
Not to fear I'm informed by Jimmy, I'm doing great! (Whew!!)
We end up the tour once more in the distillery center where he has two whisky samples for us, Benromach 10 year old and then I'm asked what I'd like to try next. Benromach Smokey, which is a peat smoked whisky, but VERY different from the Islay styles that you may be more familiar with is the next one on the menu.
He then asks if we'd like to try another one?
He asks which one I'd like to try, take my pick from the range, as long as I don't go too crazy and try and choose a 500 pound bottle, etc.
I settle on Benromach Organic, a whisky that he'd talked a bit about. An experiment, 100% organic, fresh casks that have never held anything in them before.
Lovely, absolutely lovely. We enjoy our drams with the Canadian couple, chatting with them about their trip through Scotland so far, and I answer questions about the blog and whiskies for the Canadian gentleman. Finally we're finished and my wife and I decide that we need to get something. Possibly something for her father who enjoys the Islay style whiskies so we settle on Benromach Smokey which we both enjoyed, I grab a photo with Jim who then leads us back to the cask warehouse for a quick photo taken outside the warehouse as I've told him I would love some for the blog (Thanks Jim by the way!)
We then head over to Roy, who's been waiting for us and head on out. Our next stop is lunch at the Glenfiddich cafe and a 1 pm tour at Balvenie.
Seeing my enthusiasm about the local history as we drive along Roy points out sights left and right, talking about the local history, this has been here so long, the locals use the building over there for that, anything that catches my eye, he can answer questions about.
We're driving along when all of a sudden he looks across at me and grins.
"You're going to love this!"
He pulls us onto this little country road, one that you wouldn't have thought to go up in a million years and drives us up it. Only room enough for one car, no passing space, sheep on my side, a country wall on the other side, he drives until we reach a gate and a little stone building.
It's a little church, sitting on a hill top, overlooking these grasslands with forests spread out before us and a mountain looming in the background.
There's no one in the church, but Roy walks us right on in. Inside the only thing I can say is that the atmosphere is one of serenity and peace. I'm not religious at all, but you can feel the ages weighing down on this building, this building has seen everything it feels like.
We're then informed that it has. This church is roughly a thousand years old. It feels it. There's pews and some BEAUTIFUL stain glass windows. A tiny PA system has been added in you can see, but this building just radiates peace. In the corner near one of the windows is a small bell.
Roy informs us that this bell, this misshapen bell is a hand beaten bell dating back over a thousand years that was used to ring in church. I'm grabbing photos the entire time left and write. There is a sense of peace about this place that settles in on you as Roy describes the history of this little building. He then pays for a couple postcards that my wife and I have grabbed and leads us out into the cemetery where we stand there looking at graves 3, 4 hundred years old (that's the oldest ones that you can identify.
Wow, just wow.
It's with a sense of awe that I get back into the van. We continue driving towards Glenfiddich and Balvenie (they're right next to one another) As we drive the winding country roads I'm left thinking to myself (Thank god I hired a driver because Thao and I would be so lost by now).
We arrive at Glenfiddich which is PACKED! People everywhere, left and right. Beautiful visitor center and nice restaurant. We sit down for some food and sadly my wife's first 2 choices are sold out. It's been THAT busy over the course of the day. We see busloads come and go while we eat. Good food though and reasonable prices!
While at the restaurant I take a look around to see if I can find my favorite Glenfiddich, the Snow Phoenix!
Hahaha nop, Not a chance! I'd be surprised if any store was sitting on any right now.
Roy informs them that we're booked in for the Balvenie tour so if they can put a rush on our food so that we can enjoy a leisurely lunch it would be much appreciated. And they do.
Like I said very yummy food. I wind up enjoying what's called a "Cullen Skink" which is a type of smoked fish soup that is famous in the Speyside region. Absolutely delicious and it makes such an impression on me that I wind up ordering it just about every time I see it in our trip through Scotland.
As we walk over to Balvenie after lunch we notice that the trees are black, actually black. Not the leaves, it's just the bark, but they are black. It's a beautiful contrast between the vibrant green of the leaves and the stark blackness.
Roy informs us that it's caused by the alcohol vapors in the air. EVERY distillery in Scotland (and I'd honestly guess the world) has it occur. It's literally the Angel's Share in action (that's the evaporation of the alcohol in the casks that occurs as whisky ages for those who are unsure of the term). I ask Roy if it's anything to be wary about and he informs me it's completely safe, in fact Scotland's distilleries have some truly heinous regulations that they have to work around in order to produce whisky (case in point I was informed by several distilleries during our visit that the water they return back into the water sources, streams, rivers and such is actually much cleaner then what comes into the distillery)
We see this tree blackness again and again on our journey and as I said it's actually very lovely, to the point that my wife and I still talk about it to this day. You'll notice it out to maybe 100 yards away from the distillery so it doesn't travel very far.
There's pretty much no distillery center for Balvenie, which is more then fine, it's the sister distillery of Glenfiddich, opened a few years later after Glenfiddich was opened. There's a couple of small rooms, a waiting room, a tasting room and a small office where you can buy whisky.
We sit in the waiting room with a couple of other groups of people. A couple of guys from Norway who are walking their way through Scotland and an older couple from Canada. We're waiting for a couple of guys from America and then our tour is ready to begin.
Now Balvenie does only 2 tours a day, they run at 35 pounds per person. No idea what to expect other then the fact that I enjoy Balvenie quite a bit, owning 2 different bottles at home, the 12 year old Doublewood and the 21 year old Port Wood (SEXY!)
While we wait we're offered food, coffee and tea and we're introduced to our tour guide, David Mair, who I'm actually informed after the tour is THE Balvenie ambassador.
After waiting 10 minutes or so David decides that we're just going to start the tour and they can join us as they're able. First off we put on reflective vests to wear as we move about the distillery (remember that ALL of these distilleries are WORKING distilleries, so in some ways it's just like taking a tour through a lumber yard or construction site, you have to be careful!) and then we set off.
The tour starts out a little different then all of our other tours as Balvenie actually does a small portion of their maltings on site. Now maltings for those who don't know is basically malted barley. When you malt it what you do is you spread many tons of barley across a wide floor and then you let it get wet, not too wet, not too damp, in order for it germinate or sprout. This is done over about 5 to 7 days with the barley being turned every couple of hours in order to encourage starch to develop on the barley which then turns to sugar.
Now almost NO distilleries left in Scotland do this on site as it's a VERY intensive process requiring a good bit of man power as the barley HAS to be turned every couple of hours and in the old days used to cause a physical disorder called Monkey Shoulder (yes the whisky is named after that). This is done over the entire day, for 5 to 7 days, so there is no break. Even though there are now machines that do this it is still a time intensive process.
The other reason why most distilleries don't do this anymore is they can't malt fast enough to keep up with demand. You're going through megaton lots in a week so it's a HUGE undertaking. Most distilleries get their malt from companies that specialize in maltings, they'll gather the barley that you need and malt to your specifications on smoke, peat, etc.
Balvenie however still does some maltings at their distillery, not much and it's more for visitors to see, but they do it. Sadly they weren't doing it when we arrived, but as we arrive in the malting house there are these MASSIVE mounds of barley just waiting to being the process of making whisky. Huge massive piles of barley.
David says that if we want to touch any we're more then welcome to. We all stand outside the malting area, handling the little bits of barley that are there, but everything in me screams to go jump into a pile of the barley. My lovely wife says that she doesn't think that David meant that when he said we could handle the barley.
David then informs us that that is indeed what he meant.
I'm over the little barrier so fast that you wouldn't believe it, heading to the mounds of barley, running my hands through it as my wife laughs and takes photos. David talks about the barley and is an engaging speaker, which is a very difficult thing to do considering that almost every single distillery makes whisky the exact same way with only the details changing. It's VERY hard to keep it fresh for someone who's been through distillery after distillery.
Right around this time we're joined by the missing Americans and we start moving through the distillery, actually seeing how the malt is dried, heading by the mill, the tun room where we try some more wort (whisky beer!) the still house, taking photos the entire way! Once we're done with the still house we're informed of something special!
Balvenie and Glenfiddich are SO massive and go through so many casks that they have their own onsight cooperage that they use to repair casks after use. We get to watch it in action.
OH SWEET BABY JESUS!!! SO COOL!!!
We hope into a little vehicle and drive over to the cooperage which is running flat out with maybe a dozen guys repairing casks in all stages of repair. It is VERY cool. Actually it's insanely cool! I take several hundred photos of just the cooperage and repairs having already taken several hundred photos throughout the distillery. I'm asking David questions left and right and he answers them all without fail, after about 10, maybe 15 minutes David, after confirming that everyone has seen what they want to, calls for a move on.
It's time for the big game, the cask warehouse!
Now we're informed by David that this is the area of the tour where we're not allowed to take photos (remember what I said about the distilleries and this, TECHNICALLY it's supposed to be due to Occupation Health and Safety running wild). He however lets us take photos from outside the distillery through the door. I grab a few and then eagerly head in!
David, my wife and I chat as we wander through the warehouse with the other tourists wandering through the warehouse. It's beautiful! Casks from the early 70's, 80's, 90's everywhere. You can smell the whisky in the air my friends, it's the Angel's Share.
As my wife, David and I walk through the warehouse he asks me if I'm a member of the Warehouse 24 club. For a minute or two I'm trying to figure out what he means....Warehouse 24? I'm a member of the Balvenie Club, having signed up about a year ago when I signed up for every distillery's club in Scotland who's whisky I enjoyed.
He then describes the club, seeing my confusion. YES! I am a member of the club.
At that point he informs me with that being the case there is a VERY special cask inside of the warehouse which has whisky in it for me. A cask that was 39 years old from 1974.
Oh my god!
This was a cask selected by David Stewart, the Malt Master of Balvenie, for club members to sample while they were visiting the distillery. There are no words to describe the way I felt at that moment. My wife just had a GIANT grin on her face and me, I was speechless.
We head into a lower level of the warehouse where the rest of the tour group has gathered. At the end of the room are 3 different casks, different ages, pretty much 14 to 17 years or so old, that people can bottle for a 200ml bottle if I recall correctly for around 25 pounds. You get to dip the dog (the item used to pull whisky out of a cask for sampling) and bottle it yourself, char and all!
David then hands my wife and myself a bottle, dog, and funnel and informs the group that because we're Warehouse 24 members we get to bottle a 39 year old whisky for sampling. However unlike them we can not TAKE this whisky off the property, it must be drunk there. If they're lucky we'll be kind and share it with them he says.
Everyone looks on with envy as my wife and I head back upstairs to bottle the whisky, which takes me a couple minutes to figure out how to do, however it takes my wife just a minute or so to figure out how to do this and the rest of the time is spent explaining it to me (hey I've said I'm an idiot before :D)
We come back down after bottling this sexy looking 39 year old single malt which comes from a 2nd fill bourbon barrel and join the rest of the group who are bottling their 16 year old whiskies, which Thao and I then try all the casks. Very nice whiskies, but right now I'm budgeting like you wouldn't believe to make sure my money will last throughout the trip.
Once everyone has their whiskies bottled we head into the tasting room, hang up our vests, and sit down for a most excellent tasting. On the table are 5 different whisky samples, Balvenie 12 year old Double wood, Balvenie 14 year old Caribbean cask, Balvenie 15 year old Single Barrel and Balvenie 21 year old Port Wood.
We sit down for a tasting as David walks everyone through all the whiskies, tasting notes, cask finishings, etc. I try and tune everyone out as I've poured the 39 year into glasses for everyone, with a bit more left over for me for seconds.
This is a 39 year old CASK strength whisky, poured straight from the cask, into my bottle, bits of char and imprefections and all.
It's lovely to behold.
I have tried most of the Balvenie line, love it, the major exception which normally would have had me super excited was the Caribbean cask which I'd heard rave reviews about. But right in front of me was a 39 year old cask strength Balvenie. NOTHING AND I MEAN NOTHING was going to distract me from this bad boy.
I spent the entire tasting focusing on this whisky (Review coming later) and all I can say is that it was a CRACKER! David walked the rest of the group through the tasting, providing notes on what they might expect to nose and taste, how much water does he add to his whisky, etc as he answers questions for everyone. I pour another round out of my 200ml bottle of 39 year old whisky for everyone who wants some more and it's awesome to watch immediately the change in people. When we'd started my wife and I'd seen a couple people treating these lovely whiskies like rotgut, downing them in shots, and at the end people are nosing the 39 year old, taking cautious sips, enjoying it, savoring it with the respect it deserves.
During the tasting of the 39 year old Roy has joined us, waiting for us to finish our tour. He takes a nose of the whisky and calls it lovely (it REALLY is!) and helps take a photo of David and myself together. We take a look through Balvenie's little whisky shop which has whiskies from their standard range up to the 21 year old Port Wood (Remember my friends that's sex in a bottle!)
A brilliant day, two brilliant tours. The only issue was the 39 year old cask strength from Balvenie. I would have happily paid 100 pounds for that 200ml bottle (For the Americans that's roughly 4 shots of whisky) in order to be able to enjoy it at my leisure. I totally understand why they didn't let me take it, and considering that it's completely free to join the Warehouse 24 club and try some AWESOME whisky for free when you visit (took me less then 5 minutes), but I still would have loved to have purchased a bottle of it to enjoy at home for a full fledged proper review.
We end the day with Roy driving us back to our bed and breakfast where we grab a bite to eat in Elgin and crash, watching tv in bed and prepping for the next day: Glenglassaugh!
Would we do either distillery tour again? Hell yeah! I'd pay for a more indepth tour at Benromach happily, they go up to about 60 pounds for a fill your own bottle tour and around 40 pounds for your normal highend tour, but considering the fact that we paid roughly 5 pounds for our tour and they gave us 3 whiskies to try (technically they were only supposed to give us one from what I understand) we'd happily go back again. In fact the bottle of Benromach Smokey that was supposed to be for my father in law is now mine :D
As for Balvenie excellent tour again for the price point and being a warehouse 24 member makes it stupidly awesome with the ability to pour a bottle for yourself to sample on the premises and again for the price a steal! I'd definitely do both of these distilleries again and in fact plan on it when we head back with my brothers and friends!