The dramatic landscape of the Scottish countryside, an evening with haggis and infinite moments with fine whiskey. Everything that happened when I found myself in the Distilleries of Glenfiddich and Balvenie whiskies -Maria. Th. Massoura
I love Scotland as I have already visited it twice. Whisky, is a fascinating world I have promised to explore it extensively this year. So, the invitation by Vassos Eliades Ltd for a trip to Scotland in order to visit the famous Glenfiddich and Balvenie whisky Distilleries, couldn’t come at a better time.
Glenfiddich and Balvenie Distilleries are located in Speyside region, in the Lowlands, near the town of Dufftown. Speyside, is considered the “capital” of whisky in Scotland, having a big number of distilleries. The whisky of Speyside region, is considered to be the most complicated scotch, being sweet and elegant with a lightly peated character and highly aromatic. And if you are a whisky lover, you ‘ll probably know that Glenfiddich is one of the most famous Scotch whiskeys and that Glenfiddich 12, is one of the most popular worldwide.
It all began in the summer of 1886 in Dufftown in Speyside region, East of Scotland. William Grant had a great desire to create, one day, the best “dram” in the valley, in short, the best whisky. With great determination and with the help of his nine children, they themselves built a distillery which started operating on Christmas day in 1887. Its name, Glenfiddich, in Gaelic means “Deer Valley”.
Until today, it is one of the few distilleries which remains in the property of the family. The year 1963 was a milestone for the family because Sandy Gordon Grant, a great-grandson of William Grant, decided that Glenfiddich was so great that it had to be exported. And this is what happened. Glenfiddich was the first scotch to be promoted strategically abroad. Consumers who used to drink blended whisky entered the magic world of single malt.
In this way, a great course with landmark editions started, like in 1987, when 100 years were completed from the creation of Glenfiddich, in 2001 when the oldest, 64 years old, single malt whisky was released in just 61 bottles and, in 2010, when an incredible snowfall destroyed a warehouse where employees worked at -19C to save the barrels. In their honor, Glenfiddich Snow Phoenix was created.
In the world of Glenfiddich
What is needed for a good whiskey to be created? The Holy Trinity: Malted Barley, Water, Yeast. When this process is done by a single distillery, then we talk about Single Malt. The way and the skill used with these three ingredients, make a whisky brand, distinctive from the others. We saw this process during the tour in the “sanctuaries” of Glenfiddich Distillery. The process remains almost the same since 1887. The premises of Glenfiddich distillery are located in a magical place. The warehouses, the distillery, the shop and the offices are located in small houses with roofs surrounded by greenery.
The first step in the process is for the starch of barley to be converted into sugars and become alcohol. For this, barley must pass through the process of sprouting. The first part of this process is “malting”. Barley is soaked in hot water for 2-3 days (steeping). In this way, it is “fooled”, grows and releases starches. Then, it is spread on the floor, in a building called malting house, and is turned over regularly for the temperature to remain constant or it is placed in large containers and is spinned to get dry.
When barley begins to sprout, the process must stop for the starches not to be destroyed. This is done by drying barley, with the use of fire or by using peat if a result of smoked whisky is required. At this point, barley is now called malt and is grinded.
In the second step, warm water is added to the grounded malt and is enriched with sugars and enzymes. At this point, water is very important. Water from the source of Robbie Dhu spring is used to make Glenfiddich whiskey. The combination of malt and water is called “mash”. Then this is put into a big pot and “mash tun” is stirred for hours. Then, sugars are dissolved, gather at the bottom of the mash tun, and a brown liquid is formed, the “wort”. In the third stage, the wort is put into large wooden tanks, the washbacks. Yeast is added and the fermentation begins, a similar process with beer. The result is the wash that is low in alcohol (approximately 5-10% ABV).
In the fourth stage, we have the distillation. In Scotland, the wash passes distillation twice. We entered the room where the distillation takes place in huge and impressive bronze pot stills. The size and shape of the pot still plays an important role in the taste and character of the final result. After distillation procedures and careful monitoring at the right timing, the cut is made and a liquid is collected and is put into barrels. As far as Glenfiddich is concerned, only about 65% of this fluid is collected, the superior quality.
The final step is a magical process, the maturing and ageing in barrels. The kind of oak casks e.g. bourbon casks, sherry casks, play a key role in flavor, aromas and the final color this selected liquid will get. According to the Scottish process, whisky has to age for at least 3 years in barrels. We visited 2 rooms where casks with whisky of various years was kept. A piece of information I liked was that during those years, a percentage — about 2% — from the whisky evaporates. According to tradition, this proportion is called the Angel’s Share, in other words, the whisky that evaporates is Angels’ share.
However, I will make a particular reference to a specific and very important storage room for barrel maturation that we visited. Why important? Because there, the Solera Vat method takes place, a method created in 1998 by the 5th Malt Master. This is a huge barrel, which is used to create 15 year old Glenfiddich. This particular whisky is composed by matured whiskies of various ages placed in three kinds of oak barrels. These whiskies are mixed in the Solera vat, a huge, imposing barrel which is never emptied but it remains half full and is refilled. The result is a great whisky with nice, complex aromas of sherry, citrus and, simultaneously, with an elegant and balanced flavor with notes of raisins, caramelized fruits, some sweetness and spices.
That first magnificent day at Glenfiddich Distillery ended with the best way, a tasting of 6 of the most symbolic whiskies of the brand. We tasted Glenfiddich 12, 15, 18, 21, 25 and 30 years old. During that tasting, we were honored to have David Stewart, Master Blender and Malt Master for William Grant & Sons since 1962. He was recently honored by the Queen of England with an MBE for his contribution to the world of Scotch whisky.
Before we left, we had visited the store where we had bottled our own whisky, a 15-year-old Glenfiddich, which was sealed and signed bearing the name of each one of us. A whisky for special moments!
In the world of barrels
The next day was devoted to the Balvenie Distillery, located near the Glenfiddich Distillery. Before entering the ‘ depths ‘ of Balvenie, we visited the Cooperage, the barrel factory of William Grant & Sons. Since 1957, Charles Gordon has insisted on having on-site, qualified and skilled coppersmiths for better control of the quality of barrels. In this way, whisky was developed very well. In 1959, a cooperage was built which exists until today. It is worth mentioning that, the tools used by coppersmiths to make about 10 large barrels and 40 small ones daily, are the same that were used from the very beginning. Glenfiddich and Balvenie are among the few distilleries that have their own cooperage.
In the world of Balvenie
Balvenie has a very important detail: it is the only single malt whisky created with traditional methods, something that contributes greatly to the uniqueness but also the importance of this brand. We saw those methods during our tour at Balvenie Distillery. We started from the room where barley is gathered. It is first soaked in water which comes from a source located on the hills above the distillery. Then, “hills” of barley are spread with big brooms on the malting floor and are stirred approximately every 4 hours. It is worth mentioning that there are only 6 malting floors in Scotland. Much of that barley is grown by the company itself in areas around Balvenie Distillery, ensuring, in this way, the right quality. Then barley, is dried on fire from the room below while sometimes peat is used, too.
Dennis McBain was with us on the tour, a legendary figure of William Grant & Sons. He has been working as a coppersmith in the company since 1959. This means that he is one of the most experienced coppersmiths in the world of whisky and knows very well how to make, maintain and supervise the copper pot stills.
After we had bottled our own Balvenie, Mr. McBain showed us how to take whisky from the barrel with the traditional tool and told us wonderful stories about distilleries. Then we went on with tasting.
Six wonderful Balvenie whiskies were waiting for us to try. The legendary Double Wood 12 the Single Barrel 15, the 17 year old Double Wood, the 21 year old Balvenie aged in port barrel, the Barrel Single 25 and the 30 year old Balvenie.
Those two days, full of experiences and excellent whiskies in lovely Scotland, ended with a traditional Scottish dinner. I could n’t miss trying Haggis, served during a ceremony where a Scot, wearing the traditional outfit, recited a poem by Robert Burns, a national poet, who wrote it to show his love for Haggis. I accompanied it with a lovely old Balvenie Caribbean Cask 14 Year in order to show my appreciation for all that!
Glenfiddich and Balvenie whiskies are owned by William Grant & Sons family being in the field of premium alcohols since 1887 and representing leading brands such as Grant’s, Glenfiddich, Hendrick’s Gin, Monkey Shoulder, Sailor Jerry and even more.
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