My visit to Balvenie Distillery proved another time, how much I love Scotland and that there is always room for more. More pleasure, more experience and more happiness. The whisky industry makes it happen! Before I start my review that will (spoiler alert) be mainly a praise to my visit and the distillery, lets go back a few weeks before I actually got there. Still working at GlenDronach Distillery I took advantage of having a landline phone in the visitor center (mobile phones work very randomly in Scotland and mostly not at all specially when you need them to). So I called Balvenie to book a tour. That was in early August 2016 mind you. Since my time off work was limited and Balvenie only welcomes visitors twice a day (no weekends) my earliest appointment was offered to be the 22nd of September! Oooook I thought. This place seems to have a fame issue. So yeah. For the every day „spontaneously-just-popping-in-customer“ Balvenie has nothing to offer. It is a closed distillery like many others. And this with a worldwide great reputation for its single malts. A very exclusive thing. The 35 £ pricetag for the tour made this even more clear. This can´t be a regular tour. Otherwise I´d be really pissed off.
Lets jump to the day of the visit. Almost incredibly I made it in time to the distillery this time (to be fair only by skipping a planned detour to Elign but what the heck). The parking experience already felt like entering a fairy tale. The little forest at Balvenie is mainly black from the angle’s share fungus. So I set food on the premises not being able to shake off the feeling of entering holy ground. It was a glorious sunny day on my way I passed beautiful carved banks and flowerbeds. After having being arrived at the office we waited for all the guests to arrive, eight in all. Thats the maximum capacity of the Balvenie tours. In most distilleries you are looking at 10-15 people plus on a tour on a busy day.
The first part of the tour shows the maltings. Like all of the very few distilleries with floor maltings left Balvenie can only afford to use 15% of their own malted barley. Its simply too expensive. About three times as much as an industrialized batch. Ouch. At first I was a bit suspicious if the maltings where really active since they looked a bit clean. But then I saw (and touched) the steeped barley (for the first time in my life) and was convinced. This is the real stuff. The only active maltings I had seen so far was Bowmore and Laphroaig. But never had I seen maltings on the mainland. Off we went pass the spread malt on the floor to the Kiln. Basically that was the point of the tour where I was spoiled. I just remember being on a stupid grin and headshaking-I-can`t-believe-how-much-I-love-this-mode for the rest of the tour. We looked inside the burning Kiln and the little peatsmoke kiln besides it. Nerdgasm. Totally.
Next stage of this malt whisky distillery tour feast was the tun room with the fermentation. We tried both the young stage (almost wort… tasted a bit like the german non alcoholic malt beer Karamalz… If you´ve never tried it… do it! Its great!) and the later stage of the fermentation which is in fact beer. In the industry its referred to as „wash“ of course. At this point I feel the need to add that whenever you read something in reviews about „we did this, we were allowed to do that“ please do never take this for granted and even worse pick on the tour guide if he or she is not doing the same on your tour. Every tour is different because every guide is and every guest is. The simple rule is: Don`t be an annoying customer and you increase the chance of not getting an annoyed tour guide ;). Anyway this guy (as I later learned it was David Mair, Balvenie Distillery Ambassador) was so relaxed he probably would have dealt with anything. So yeah… distillation. Huge stills, curiously separate still houses for wash and spirit stills…. If that matters to anyone.
Warehouses. Draw your sample from the cask and fill your own 20 cl bottle. In the warehouse I can’t empathize this enough. Its getting rare. Because of idiots that write about their great experience on the internet. Now that I think about it. Of course we DID NOT bottle anything IN the warehouse. Cause that would be illegal. Nah don’t worry I´m sure they’ve worked it out by now.
You should think up to this point you can’t really add anything more. Wrong again. We took a quick ride on an old Land Rover and ended up in a building surrounded by casks. Their very own cooperage. Amazing. I had seen the Speyside Cooperage before but having a smaller version on site… thats really something!
Off to the tasting we went. For my taste (no pun intended) this was a bit rushed, probably due to the fact that we spend way more time on the tour that we were supposed to be. Since I was driving and bottling I didn’t really care. For drinking all this fantastic whisky I would have felt a bit rushed. But… yeah.
I have to say that this was hands down the best distillery tour I’ve ever had (looking at 54 visits at this point, not a bad shot for Balvenie). And speaking about the 35 £ for the tour and 25 £ for the bottle your own. MORE then worth it! Balvenie has a really good value for many ratio if you ask me. You get a bloody premium special deluxe tour for 35 quid. I’ve seen worse for more money. So to the „past me“ moaning about that money… Leave it alone dude! Really.
We tried some great malts Balvenie Double Wood 17, Balvenie Portwood 21 yo and Balvenie Single Cask No. 1489, but what really got me (till this day) was a 34 year old Balvenie (single sherry cask if I remember right): Oh my fucking god! (Excuse my french) That was one of the most amazing whiskies I’ve ever tried. On the nose I would have mistaken it for an older Glendronach. On the tongue the same but smoother. My memory is too limited to describe all the impressions I got from this whisky. Honeydew melon, caramelized sugar, maple sirup on bacon and pipe tobacco came to my mind but never stood up to its flavor.
As already said the value for money on this tour was more then great for me. You get basically two to three tours on one (2-3 hours that is) so this more then justifies the money. With a working malting floor, working kiln, a cooperage on site and an amazing warehouse and bottle your own experience this was by far the best tour I’ve done so far (finishing this article Balvenie is No. 1 out of over 60 distilleries). The only thing I have to criticize of better to recommend it that you plan your visit way far ahead since the booking might be an issue. For the rest I can just say: This was one of the best days of my life, I love Scotland, I love visiting distilleries and even if I never will become a great fan of Balvenie as a brand I am forever grateful for this amazing experience.
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See you guys on the road!
Leon – The Captain