For my next distillery focus, I’m going to Speyside, my home for many years, and the Ballindalloch Distillery. These guys were practically my neighbours when I worked at Glenfarclas so I was really keen to find out a bit more about what they were up to. I moved away from Speyside just after they opened, so although I often drove past the distillery while it was being built, I’m ashamed to admit that I haven’t yet had the opportunity to visit. (Something I hope to remedy very soon!)
While the Ballindalloch Distillery is a new venture, distilling on the Ballindalloch Estate certainly isn’t; In fact, the Ballindalloch Estate used to feature fairly prominently in my descriptions of the early history of Glenfarclas. You see, the Glenfarclas Distillery was founded by tenant farmer Robert Hay in 1836 on Rechlerich Farm (part of the Ballindalloch Estate). When Robert Hay died in 1865, local farmer John Grant took over the tenancy and purchased the distillery at the same time (for the bargain price of £511.19d). Since his interests lay in farming, rather than distilling, he initially put in a manager, John Smith, to run the distillery for him, while he concentrated on farming. A few years later, in 1869, John Smith left Glenfarclas to establish the Cragganmore Distillery, in conjunction with the 4th Baronet of Ballindalloch, Sir George Macpherson-Grant.
At that point, John Grant’s son, George, took over the running of the Glenfarclas distillery and farm and it has remained in the family ever since. They only ceased being tenants of the Ballindalloch Estate in 1930 though when George Grant (John’s grandson) bought the freehold. As far as I am aware, Cragganmore is still on Estate grounds, and there may well be other distilleries which were, or are, on the Estate but I’m not entirely sure of the full geographical reach. It’s certainly a fairly big area, covering some 7000 hectares today (around 27 square miles) and presumably much more than that in the past.
Anyway, enough about the history, let’s find out what’s going on in the present! Brian Robinson, the Distillery Host, very kindly answered my questions;
Q. Why did you decide to start producing whisky? And why now?
The Ballindalloch Estate has been in the Macpherson-Grant family for nearly 500 years. In more recent times, it has evolved and changed to remain viable and diversification remains key. The decision to build a distillery is the latest endeavor by the family to ensure a strong future. We had all the pieces of the puzzle already in place in terms of growing barley, water supply and a use for draff and effluent, so it seemed like a natural progression to bring those elements together. As far as timing is concerned, it was simply the family looking ahead and deciding that the time was right for them.
Q. Can you talk us through the process of setting up your distillery?
From the time the family decided to go ahead with building the distillery to the first spirit run on the 22nd September 2014, was around 4 years of planning, scheduling, building and renovation. We deliberately used a small group of local craftsmen and trades throughout the fit out, so the renovation took longer than it might have done. That said, the family got exactly what they wanted in terms of the standard of the work carried out and the distillery looks great as a result. We were fortunate that Forsyths could fit us into their schedule as they are superb at what they do. We certainly benefited from their knowledge together with Charlie Smith who was brought in, initially as a consultant, and latterly became our Master Distiller before stepping back the end of 2015. Colin Poppy now heads up production as Distillery Manager with Phillip Murray and Mike Duncan working with him. I joined in 2014, just as the fit out started, and look after the non production side of things.
Q. What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced so far in setting up a new distillery? What do you envisage as the biggest challenges going forward?
Firstly, remove money from the equation – distilleries cost a lot of money to set up and run, so we will take that as obvious! Getting the right people in place is key, along with setting the direction you want your distillery go.
In the future, the biggest challenge will be going head to head with some outstanding, established whiskies. As well as the usual, global suspects there are a number of small distilleries who I have great respect for, so we will be entering a very busy marketplace. That said, we have the quality we need, a plan in place and time to position ourselves, so I am confident we will be ready to compete.
Q. Can you tell me a bit about your production equipment and processes (barley variety/yeast strain/distillation/cask management etc)? ie What makes your distillery unique?
Q. Who do you see as your target market?
To be honest, it is too early to commit to and answer publicly. We have some thoughts and ideas that we will pursue when the time is right. Given that we are a number of years away from sales, so much can happen between now and then that could impact on plans made too early. I certainly would not like to suggest we will head to a particular market only for us to change our minds. I can promise though, once we are in a position to confirm these details, I will ensure everyone knows!
Q. When do you plan to release your first whisky? Will you be producing any other products in the meantime?
We anticipate a wait of around 8 to 10 years from when we started, so a little while to way to go yet. We do not make Gin or Vodka nor will we release bottled new make spirit. I am very pleased to say that we are lucky enough that we can wait until we feel the whisky is ready.
Q. If you were to compare your distillery to any other existing or closed one, which would you most aspire to be like and why?
I’m not sure that I would make any direct comparisons to specific distilleries. We are fairly typical of a Speyside style but with a more complex spirit character. My aspirations would be allied to any distillery that has produced a wonderful whisky and built a following of people who appreciate and understand the hard work that goes into making something special!
Q. Are you open to visitors? Can we buy your product, either in bottles or cask? If not now, then when?
We do indeed welcome visitors, but we do not have a Visitor Centre as such. Tours are offered by appointment and I will then tailor the visit to the guests who book. I can offer tours that start at £35 per person and last around 2½ hours through to a day spent working with Colin, Phillip and Mike. Called The Art of Whisky Making, it allows up to 2 guests to get hands on for the day getting involved with everything that we do here.
As far as buying any product is concerned, as I mentioned earlier, there is a bit of a wait there I am afraid. I do have a very small Private Cask program with no more than 25 casks available each year. If anyone is interested, it is best to email me directly and I will discuss the program with them.
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Happily, all our fears were unfounded. We had a good turnout of around 60 people - some whisky enthusiasts, some novices and some that didn’t even like whisky but had come along because Rhona asked them to and it was for a good cause - We even managed to convert one of our non-whisky drinking friends! (Yes, we do have some!) The joint tasting thing seemed to go okay too, at least after the first dram or two, and, between ticket sales and the raffle, we raised a fantastic £1640 for Macmillan. All in all, a pretty successful evening.
We had a pretty good tasting line up too thanks to Mark’s current employer, Cadenheads, and my previous employers, Springbank and Glenfarclas, who very generously donated all of the whisky for the event.
Huge thanks to everyone that provided whisky, raffle prizes and came along to support the event. Who knows, we may even do more joint tastings in the future!
Whisky Impressions is run by Kate Watt. Previously at Springbank and then Glenfarclas, I now design some whisky related stuff and write about it, and anything else that takes my fancy, on this blog.