Speyside, in Scotland, is whisky paradise. Tucked away in a corner of north-east Scotland, it’s home to more than half of the world’s whisky distilleries, peppered around the river Spey, the oldest of them being Glenfiddich, founded by William Grant in 1886. William, a Scottish distiller and entrepreneur, and the founder of William Grant & Sons, put up his second distillery, The Balvenie, in 1892. The Balvenie (a part of the William Grant & Sons portfolio now) produces single malts with a unique, honeyed flavour, due in part to the extraordinary history of the land and to the stories of its people.
The Balvenie story began in Dufftown with William Grant. For this shoemaker son of a tailor, the 20 years at a local distillery as an apprentice clerk led Grant to establish The Balvenie, 500 yards from Glenfiddich (they still share a warehousing and bottling facility). He soon acquired the land surrounding it, including a 10-acre farm and a large mansion, the Balvenie New House. “He used this building to house The Balvenie distillery, till 1929, when the family decided to knock it down and use the same stonework to repurpose the present distillery,” says Gemma Paterson, The Balvenie’s global brand ambassador, speaking to Fortune from Glasgow. “The oldest surviving part of the mansion is Warehouse 24, where we keep our oldest casks from 1962, 1965, 1967 as well as our Tun 1509.” Tun 1509 are limited-edition batches of malt whiskies hand-selected by The Balvenie malt master David Stewart MBE.
The story of David Stewart is just as unique. He joined The Balvenie in 1962 and climbed up the ranks, from literally serving tea to working closely with the then malt master Hamish Robertson. “Hamish realised that David has an exceptional nose and talent. So, he took David to his blending room and started training him,” says Gemma. “Next year, David celebrates 60 years with William Grant & Sons.” By 1974, David was malt master, and in 1978, The Balvenie, hitherto featured in blends such as Grant’s Stand Fast, was bottled as a single malt.
In fact, this was the blended whisky that withstood Prohibition. Whereas many distilleries were affected during the Prohibition, The Balvenie continued to produce whisky. “We had bottlings of The Balvenie from 1930s casks that David remembers looking at,” says Gemma, “So we had continued to produce during this time.”
William Grant, a very ambitious man, passed on these characteristics to his sons. His distillery had opened up markets globally, one of them being India. Charles Gordon, William’s son-in-law, visited the country in 1909, opening up the Asian markets, rather than focusing on America, which was badly affected by the Prohibition. “So, Prohibition didn’t hit us as hard as it hit other distilleries,” says Gemma. The product they sold globally was Grant’s Stand Fast.
One of the cachets of The Balvenie is the high regard for authenticity via the ‘Five Rare Crafts’ that makes the malted whisky extremely special. While many distilleries have experimented with growing their own barley, The Balvenie has grown theirs consistently over many generations, on the 1,200 acres that it owns. “We have a farming family—a father and son duo—who manages the land, sow the barley seeds every spring, and harvest during September-October, which allow us to put a small batch into every single bottle,” says Gemma. In every mash and fermentation (they process 50 tonnes of barley a year), there’s a small percentage of home barley that’s blended in. “This lets us do special releases and limited editions,” she adds. Last year, they celebrated the launch of The Edge of Burnhead Wood (from the Stories range), the first Balvenie made with 100 per cent estate-grown barley.
On the malting floor (there are three floors at The Balvenie, one used to store raw barley) techniques are passed down from generation to generation, unlike commercial maltings, which are automated. Eight tonnes of barley are first soaked in spring water in a steeping vessel, and then ‘dropped’ on a concrete malting floor where it is allowed to germinate. The germination comes to a halt as the barley is packed into the kiln and dried over the next 48 hours. This brings down the moisture level, and makes it ready for milling and mashing.
“Our maltmen use their expertise to gauge at what stage the grain is,” says Gemma. “It’s a place for upholding traditions, but also a ‘playground for experimentation’, as our distillery manager Ian Miller used to say.” They have played with peat in the kiln to make The Week of Peat (Aged 14 years) and used heavily roasted malt—which became the A Day of Dark Barley (Aged 26 years), both part of the Stories range.
“The maltmen burnt heather in the kiln so that it was infused with smoke from the heather, and it became the The Edge of Burnhead Wood (Aged 19 years). “We have two burners. One of them allows us to control the phenols in the peat that we are infusing, as it’s drying in the kiln,” says Gemma.
The tall, chimney-shaped copper stills at The Balvenie are also unique and have an effect on the taste of the single malt. “We are proud of ours,” says Gemma, “Every distillery has its own unique shape and size. It does influence the way the alcohol reacts inside the vessel during the distillation process, and that will affect what flavours we can capture, and will end up getting filled into the cask.”
Ultimately, it’s the magic of the cask that links back to David and his experimentation. “When he took over as master blender, the bulk of what we used was ex-American oak barrels, and a small percentage of Spanish sherry oak as well,” says Gemma. “But we didn’t know where the casks had come from; it was David who introduced a policy with the management, of working with the team to push innovation and experimentation around the point of maturation.”
David was approached by the Grant family to create a new Balvenie in the 1980s, so he took a whisky matured in a bourbon American oak cask and transferred that into a Spanish olarosa sherry cask (or butt), to see how the whisky would interact. This became the Balvenie Classic. “When we celebrated The Balvenie’s centenary in 1993, it was rebottled and became The Balvenie DoubleWood, which everyone knows and loves today as the flagship Balvenie,” says Gemma.
All through the ’90s, David experimented with rum and port casks. “In 1996, we launched the exceptional PortWood 21 (Aged 21 years), from these beautiful vintage port pipes from Portugal,” says Gemma. “David loved how the flavours interacted. He is a fan of the sweetness drawn from portified wines like Port and Madeira. The Balvenie is a sweet spirit, so we have this sweet honey tone, which is the backbone of all Balvenie.”
THE BALVENIE Triple Cask 12 (Aged 12 years) is another remarkable blend of three single malts — the first from a first-fill bourbon cask, then from a refilled bourbon cask, and finally finished with an oloroso sherry cask. It is currently available in the travel retail market all over, but is being discontinued. “This year the last of the Triple Cask is being bottled at the distillery,” says Gemma, “It will be replaced by newer expressions next year.”
And if a celebration of the people behind their craft could be bottled, it would be in the form of the highly lyrical Stories collection that The Balvenie launched in 2019, the year before the pandemic, when Gemma would travel the world hosting tastings (she visited India that year). Her travels involved research for The Balvenie Stories range of whiskies, which led to whiskies such as The Sweet Toast of American Oak (Aged 12 years) and The Week of Peat (Aged 14 years). The experience was captured in special audio stories (you can hear them on The Balvenie channel on Spotify, SoundCloud or iTunes). “It was so exciting,” says Gemma. “I travelled to Louisville, Kentucky with Kelsey, apprentice malt master (to David Stewart) to meet the brothers who own the cooperage we sourced our virgin American oak casks from, which we use to finish our whisky.”
She met the coopers on the floor just as they were processing a batch of The Balvenie barrels. “We saw everything in action and saw the barrels that we knew would end up delivered to us in Dufftown, Scotland, six weeks later across the ocean in a shipping container.”
The latest collection from The Balvenie is the Rare Marriage range with three 50-year-old single malts. “It’s a marriage of our oldest casks on site, which are minimum 50 years old,” says Gemma. “These are very rare Balvenie—not every cask is capable of maturing for 50 years, and these have been monitored closely and nurtured by David over the years. They take their influence from the wood, as well as from the atmosphere that is present in the air of the warehouse. They are full of flavour and are almost beyond whisky! They cost £28,000 a bottle.”
How should one drink a single malt and what’s the best way to store it? “I like mine with a good splash of cold water,” says Gemma.
“Store the whisky in a cool, dark cupboard, in a bar in your home, or any cupboard,” she adds.
What’s fascinating about malted whisky is the people behind the spirit, whose decisions many years ago have affected how these single malts develop in the cask.
A lot of Gemma’s interviews happened in Dufftown, at the distillery, or down in Glasgow, in the blending laboratory.
“There’s a story for The Sweet Toast of American Oak, with our head cooper Ian McDonald, who has worked with us since 1969,” says Gemma. “All his life, he dreamed about being a cooper (A person trained to make wooden casks, barrels etc from timber staves that are usually heated or steamed to make them pliable). He would go watch the coopers in Dufftown, and as soon as he was old enough, he began his apprenticeship with us.”
Today there are teenagers starting their apprenticeships at The Balvenie, following the tradition, learning from the masters.