It all begins with barley.
Heaps and heaps of this cereal grain sit on the second floor of a three-floor warehouse building on the grounds of The Balvenie Distillery Co. Ltd in Dufftown, Scotland. Outside, the weather is a disconcerting mix of bright sunshine and chilly wind. Too hot to keep your jacket on. Too cold to take it off.
Disconcerting weather is one of Scotland’s specialities.
Inside the stone-walled warehouse, small windows let in patches of fierce sunlight, but otherwise the air is evenly cool and a little musty. Besides the fact that there is a lot of it, the barley looks utterly unremarkable. But David Mair assures us that this indeed is where the process of whisky-making begins. All that wonderful, golden liquid that makes grown men and women weak at the knees, wet in their mouths and uncontrollable in airport duty-free shops is born unceremoniously in barley warehouses just like this one.
Goblet of fire: Hogwarts would’ve been close to the Balvenie Distillery. Photographs courtesy The Balvenie Distillery
Mair is what is known in the whisky business as a distillery ambassador. At Balvenie, a distillery first established in 1892 and part of the mammoth William Grant and Sons group of spirit brands, Mair’s job is to welcome visitors to the distillery, take them on 3-hour, behind-the-scenes tours of the facility and then introduce them to the nuances of pouring, nosing and tasting a good whisky.
My visit to Dufftown, which is situated just south of Moray Firth, the triangle-shaped inlet of the North Sea that cuts into Scotland, is as part of an international group of journalists invited for the launch of a new whisky vintage by Balvenie. Called Tun 1401 Batch 2, the spirit comprises a blend of 10 casks of single malt Balvenie of vintages ranging from 1967 to 1989.
The journalists include budding whisky expert Joel Harrison, of funky whisky blog Caskstrength.net, and Belgian magazine editor, writer and amateur bartender Dieter Moeyaert (whose claim to fame is being a stand-in for Colin Farrell’s left hand in the movie In Bruges).
Dufftown houses a number of large, active distilleries such as Glenfiddich, Glendullan and Balvenie. Together they make Dufftown, the “Whisky Capital of the World”, the largest malt whisky producing region in Scotland.
The Dufftown area also has one other claim to fame. In the Harry Potter universe Dufftown is located near Hogwarts. In reality, nothing ever happens in Dufftown. Last year, in the local town of Huntly, they realized after winter that the police vehicles at the local station didn’t have to be moved from the parking lot for four months. Nothing had happened. At all.
Inside the Balvenie distillery, tonnes of barley is tipped into vats of warm water and then aerated for two-three days. This softens the grain and prepares it for germination when the grain begins to sprout roots.
The barley is then thrown on to a malting floor where it is allowed to germinate. From this point onwards the process has to be overseen carefully. Germinate for too long and the grains run out of sugar. Germinate for too short a time and there isn’t enough sugar. The four who man the malting floor, one level below the warehouse, work in physically demanding conditions. The barley needs to be turned over several times to ensure even germination; originally this was done with a massive wooden shield at the end of a staff. Turning the barley is such hard work that malt men began to develop “monkey shoulders”, one dominant shoulder substantially bigger than the other.
Nowadays, malt men at Balvenie use a motorized scoop to turn the barley over. And “Monkey Shoulder” is the name of a nice blended whisky, also sold by William Grant, that is crafted by malt master David Stewart.
Stewart is also the brains, or nose rather, behind all of Balvenie’s products. He chooses what spirit goes into what cask, what cask goes into what blend and what blend goes into what bottle. Every day, Stewart tells me, his job comprises tasting samples from various casks, deciding what is ready to bottle and what isn’t. In the course of a day he routinely tastes over 100 spirits. How, I ask him astonished, does he stay sober?
“Oh, I just nose them mostly,” Stewart says. I ask him if his sense of smell is good enough to completely make the actual tasting process on the tongue redundant. He thinks for a moment and then nods shyly, as if embarrassed by his superpower: “Yes.”
Once the damp barley, or green malt, has completed germination it is dried in a malt kiln, ground to a flour called grist, then rinsed with spring water, at 64 degrees Celsius. This warm water completes the conversion of starch into fermentable sugar. The waste solid is removed and the sugar water is then combined with yeast to start fermentation.
At this stage one can’t help wondering something: Who discovered fermentation? Who was the first human being who wondered what would happen if you let wet barley, for instance, rot and then, instead of throwing the stinking thing into a river or over an enemy, distil the mess and drink the outcome?
The liquor from yeast fermentation, Mair tells some thirsty journalists, is drinkable and would taste like a beer. But it is the next crucial stage that makes whisky happen—distillation.
There are six massive copper stills in the distillery. They look like giant margarita glasses made of copper placed upside down. Inside the stills, the product of fermentation, or wash, is boiled repeatedly till the alcohol is driven off, condensed and captured.
What is left now is the longest step: casking the whisky.
What happens inside a cask is almost alchemy: base alcohol to gold whisky. The distilled alcohol begins to absorb flavours from the wood and from the residue of the spirit that was previously contained in the cask. Balvanie usually uses casks that held bourbon, sherry and port. Bourbon casks impart a mild, vanilla flavour to the whisky. Sherry and port casks, on the other hand, make the spirit darker in colour and lend more fruity flavours. All in all it is inside these casks that the whisky, as you taste it, begins to take shape. Over the years, these casks will also concentrate the alcohol, thanks to absorption and evaporation.
The prized casks of single malt.
Despite the centuries of experience in making whisky, casks can still be eccentric. “Sometimes when you open one after 40 years you find almost nothing left in it. Sometimes you find superb spirit,” explains Stewart.
Malt master David Stewart’s work begins now. That evening the journalists are ushered into a dank, dark warehouse and he pours each one some of the first drams from a massive barrel of Tun 1401 Batch 2. We swirl, we nose, we sip. Even to the untrained palate the whisky is both powerful and complex. There are many strong flavours here, but none that make your eyes water or your tongue burn.
A few days later, Harrison had this to say about Tun 1401 on his blog, CaskStrength: “Wow, this is a whisky with a big personality and the nose jumps out the glass at you; citrus fruit juices come through first, followed by a dumbing down of the energy thanks to some runny honey tones and finally oak and wood spices add some last min left turns to the aroma. A huge hit of spiced pineapple, as if used in a mild curry with some lime chutney and Seville orange marmalade.”
In comparison my palate is philistine. I wouldn’t be able to recognize Seville orange marmalade if you hit me in the face with a bottle of the stuff.
But the whisky was beautiful.
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