Scotland Day 3: Dufftown Dynasty

Nowhere in Scotland (save for maybe Campbeltown), does the stark contrast between corporate and family ownership become more clear than visiting Dufftown. This little village is home to a number of famous distilleries, but two overshadow all the rest. William Grant and their two flagship malts, Glenfiddich and the Balvenie sit proudly at entrance of town. The massive facility actually has three working Single Malt distilleries; Kininvee is kind of their dirty little secret. What’s most impressive is that the Grant and Gordon family have achieved unprecedented heights all while retaining familial control.

Indeed, the vibe is very much like Brown-Forman in that there’s a sense that the leadership takes personal responsibility of each aspect of the business. The Balvenie Distillery is the jewel in the crown , but rather than insist on squeezing the maximum out of the old distillery, management is committed to continuing production the old fashioned way. They malt approximately 10% of the barley onsite and are even using a small proportion of barley grown on the estate.

The barley, 100% Concerto, is malted by hand and dried over anthracite coal, which burns with a eerie blue flame. This dense expensive type of coal is smokeless and relatively efficient, a crucial element in traditional maltings in the highlands. Once it would have been far to expensive to use as an exclusive heat source, but it has long been a crucial element in the regions style. As tradition dictates, The Balvenie is also peating the malt they dry, albeit very mildly and the guides are adamant about the importance of this step for the ultimate character of the whisky. While we don’t think of the Balvenie as peated the local low phenol peat does play an important role in the ultimate flavor profile we experience.

The mash tun is massive holding about 53K gallons of wash over three waters. Of the 53K about 48K go into the gorgeous old wooden washbacks. These massive barrels are coopered on site from Douglas fir. The fermentation is a medium 60 hours long resulting in a rich and slightly sour wort that creates a nice oily fruity spirit. That contrasts Kininvee’s 74 hour ferment which results in more floral spirit. Indeed, the strangest thing about Balvenie is that another distillery is running in parallel in the exact same space, but the ultimate whiskies created are very different. While Kinivee’s wort is piped into that distillery located some ways down the hill, the Balvenie’s goes into five pairs of stills, but all other aspects of production occur in the Balvenie facility.

Beyond the maltings, parallel distilleries, and the wooden washbacks -The Balvenie is set up like most other high quality malt distilleries in Scotland. The biggest contrast, as is the case for all top tier distillers, is the focus on wood quality. The onsite cooperage is truly at the heart of the quality difference across the portfolio and the city of barrels outside stretches to the horizon. Nine skilled artisans are working hard to make sure every barrel meets the strict standards required, but the diversity of casks at play is astounding. They’re reusing barrels for the Balvenie three times and do shave and rechar spent barrels onsite at least three times depending on the resulting spirit.

Once you’ve made a good consistent spirit and filled it into a solid casks you’ve really only got one more ingredient before you can start blending and bottling – time. The painful process of sitting and waiting seems to be a hurdle some distillers are trying to avoid, but at the Balvenie they’re not afraid to sit tight. In fact, they’ve got some impressive old stocks and while I wasn’t allowed to take pictures behind these doors, I did see a significant number of casks of 40+ years old in there. These of course are the most prized stocks in the portfolio and a single barrel of 1965 will realize millions of dollars of revenue when it’s bottled at 50 years of age.

While these sorts of tours are eye opening and exciting, they’re also wildly frustrating. Tasting 15 year old first fill sherry cask strength Balvenie out of the cask makes me week in the knees and I want to share that experience with my customers. I don’t expect these companies to adjust their business model simply because I know I could use a certain product or style. There’s too much demand and too little whisky to start dividing the stocks between the existing programs and any potential barrel program. When I pressed the issue at the distillery it becomes clear that I’m not alone in my desires. While we may never bottle a cask strength single barrel from the shop, the experience was eye opening and brought a new appreciation for one of most important partners. And to be honest, anything is possible if you’ve got the right connections. SO if you’re looking for a barrel of 1965, you just let me know...