Last week I went with a couple of friends to Scotland for a tour around two of the greatest whisky distilleries. The two distilleries are located in the village Dufftown which is a quite remote area in Scotland. Surprisingly, ALL Scotch whisky comes from their own individual distillery located in Scotland. The same is true for Irish whiskey coming only from Ireland, where they add an E to the spelling. The local soil and water are a key part in the taste of the finished drink. The same principle as true champagne only coming from a small region of France.
Scottish Whisky Distillery Photos
The nearest airport to Dufftown is in Aberdeen, then you have to drive around 50 miles / 80 km. This is an hour and half drive through a hilly and alien landscape. The scenery changes rapidly from villages to farmland to moorland. The colours are stunning when the sun shines, but as soon as the clouds appear everything becomes rather dark and grey. Fortunately we had sunny weather for most of the time!
When we arrived at the distilleries at first glance they seemed rather small. It was hard to image that so much whisky is coming from this place. We had planned two in-depth tours for the day, first going through the Balvenie distillery followed by the Glenfiddich distillery after lunch. Both are at the same place so convenient to combine in one day.
We started with a small walk from reception to the Balvenie distillery. The place oozes history. This is apparent from the beginning when we walk up to the main buildings. You can see the old structures still being in place and used – some of them are over 100 years old!
Balvenie is a rare whisky because it is mainly hand crafted.
This means that a lot of the production is handwork, even though there are now machines who could do it. But the brand embraces its history. We have a walk through the first area of production which is the malting floor. Here the barley is shifted around by hand to enable all the seeds to germinate. We have a go and this is hard work! Our guide gets some former employees (who are everywhere and just seem not to want to retire) to show how it is done. I have to say these old guys make us look ashamed. All of them seemed to have young and sparkling eyes in faces filled with character.
From the malting floor we follow the production through fermentation and distillation. The buildings are stunning and it is hard to imagine that most of this production has not changed since the beginning of whisky making. From the distillation floor we have a short walk to the cooperage where they repair the wooden barrels which help give the distinctive tastes. The cooperage is for both Balvenie and Glenfiddich and it is one of the last ones that are done on-site. Most other brands do not have coopers in house anymore.
The first thing you notice there is row upon row of barrels in all shapes and sizes. They estimate that there are around 1 million barrels in situ at any given time. The tour guide explains that there is shortage in men wanting to undertake the job and that the team will never be out of work.
We are granted a short visit in the cooperage. The noise is enormous and makes talking for a little while impossible. This is an area where really strong men are at work. They need to roll the barrels around and repair them where needed. Although some machinery is used to make it a bit easier, 95% of the work is still done by hand. Many of the hand tools used were worn in to the fit the hands of those who used them most.
From the cooperage we walk back to the main buildings where we visit some of the warehouses. Here you get a true understanding of whisky as some of the barrels lying around are over 30 years old. Making a great product takes time! Before we end our tour we get the chance to taste the lovely product.
After 2.5 hrs we are tired and it is time to enjoy delicious Scottish salmon and venison for lunch to help us re-energise for our afternoon tour in a different part of this almost magical place.
Comparing the Glenfiddich tour to the Balvenie tour is rather impossible. Where Balvenie is small scaled and hand crafted, Glenfiddich shows its size and has embraced where possible new technology to keep up with consumer demand. Everything at Glenfiddich is bigger than at it’s sister Balvenie, but the core is still the same. A large group of dedicated employees working on a product they love through a process that for both brands is largely the same.
However, due to large scale, Glenfiddich buys in its barley which comes in via huge lorries. The key parts of production, malting and distillation, are done in similar way, just much bigger!
Our tour guide – the same as the morning – is great in explaining the difference between the two production processes and the history of both brands.
Of course, you can’t end the tour without a tasting session. You might end up slightly tipsy as the end due to all the exercise, fresh air and nice whisky but it is definitely worth it. I would recommend to either have someone to drive you to the distillery or find a place to stay overnight close by.