There are many great distillery tours in Scotland (and a few not so great) but if you only have time for one (or if your companion needs to get a crash course in the whisky-making process), then you need only go on one tour; the tour of The Balvenie Distillery.
Though it is likely the most expensive tour (£20) you will ever go on, it’s also the most complete – Balvenie is the only distillery (that I’m aware of) with both it’s own maltings and working cooperage.
What you DO get to see is worth the fee. It’s an exclusive tour – reservations are required; and limited to 8 participants. As such, you are likely – though not guaranteed – to be on the tour with more seasoned folks – and less likely to be dragged down by a bus load of octogenarians asking for a glass of wine at the conclusion.
We had the good fortune to have Deborah Stewart show us around on her last day doing tour duty. Deb was fantastic. It’s obvious that she knows her stuff and has not simply memorized the tour guides’ script. Plus, she was just plain fun.
You start out at the Glenfiddich visitor center (in case you were not aware, Balvenie and Glenfiddich are both owned by William Grant, and lie on adjacent properties) and await the arrival of your guide. You also get to feel superior – while the common-folk are herded into the a theater for the start of the Glenfiddich tour, you suit up in a
lovely yellow vest – showing that you are one of the privileged few.
After a quick walk over to the original Balvenie distillery manager’s office, you are seated in a comfortable sitting room and offered your choice of coffee or tea – as you chat with the tour guide, and hear about your fellow tourees. (Ours were members of a whisky club in Dundee and included their local MP*.) Here, you can relax and compose yourself before setting off on the tour. The distillery manager’s house was recently refurbished and includes beautiful custom wood furniture – the rooms have the feel of a well-appointed, small, yet cozy hunting lodge (minus the animal heads).
After a bit you head off to start the tour.
You begin the tour in the working malting house, where you can see the grain stores, steeping tanks (in our case filled with steeping barley), and the malting floor.
But it doesn’t stop there. We were taken into the kiln house and then then right up into the smoking room – where, fortuitously, a batch of malting barley was in the midst of being dried.
That’s right. Our group got to stand on top of a foot of drying barley as the smoke swirled around us. That’s a unique treat.
Then we were off to the mill, mash and still rooms. (I’ll skip descriptions of these rooms, since they are standard parts of any tour). I will mention that Ginger,the distillery cat, decided to join us in the Still room. Sadly, Ginger is 18 years old, and, following the recent trend at distilleries, will be the last Balvenie distillery mouser.
We toured one of the more traditional dunnage warehouses, where I was treated to nosing a cask from the year of my birth. Let’s just say that it’s a year which Scottish football fans do not hold in high regard.
We then headed down to the cooperage to see the coopers do their thing – I’m not aware of any other distilleries which have a full working cooperage on-site.
After that, it was back to the distillery manager’s house for a tutored tasting which included Balvenie Founder’s (10), Double Wood (12), Single Barrel (15), PortWood (21), and the 30. To top it all off as a parting gift you receive a 30 ml bottle of the 30.
All in all the tour was almost 3 hours. Not a bit of it boring.
Balvenie also shares an on-site bottling facility with sister distillery Glenfiddich, though unfortunately you won’t get to see that. The only minor gripe I have is that Balvenie merchandise is relegated to a corner of the existing Glenfiddich shop. Fortunately, that is due to be rectified with a planned new shop on the Balvenie Distillery grounds.
Again, at £20, you may think it is expensive. But I’d like to compare it to a free, but wholly disappointing tour experience – the Macallan.
- It was the one tour that I was not allowed to take any pictures in any of the buildings.
- We didn’t visit the Mill house as we were told it is a dangerous place (I’ve been in many Mill rooms with no more danger than the occassional sneeze.)
- The guide, while well-versed in the tour script, had obviously never been to another distillery or exposed to any way of making whisky other than Macallan’s. She told us that people always fall into the traditional wooden washbacks and drown, so this was the reason Macallan used enclosed stainless steel.
- We did not get to visit any warehouses as we were told that visitors are not allowed in them (we were told that this is a UK law – un-true).
- The guide had no knowledge of the Macallan product line. I asked her about the Macallan 17 year old Fine Oak – she told me it did not exist – there was only an 18. (the 18 year old is available in the UK and the 17 is available in the US – if you are a tour guide and take many nationalities on tours, shouldn’t you know the product line?)
- At the end, we were herded back to the shop. She disappeared for a moment into a back room, came back and handed us drams in the middle of the visitor center shop. And then she walked away.
- The entire tour was on the order of 35 minutes – most of it spent walking.
I did learn that the Macallan stills appear on the back of the Bank of Scotland 10 Pound note.
Of course no one could complain about a free dram of the delicious Macallan 12, but The Macallan, for many, is the Mecca of malt distilleries – so perhaps I expected something more.
On the up side, I did pick up a limited edition 14 year old Easter Elchies – a cask strength bottling; one of only 570; and according to the barman at the Highlander Inn a "real cracker".
The Balvenie Tour
The Balvenie Distillery
Telephone: +44 (0) 1340 820 373
Until Early December
Monday – Thursday 10am & 2pm
Friday – 10am only
Weekends – Closed
The Macallan Tour
The Macallan Distillers Ltd.,
Easter Elchies, Craigellachie,
Scotland, AB38 9RX
Telephone: +44 (0) 1340 872 280
Easter – October
Monday – Saturday 9.30am till 5pm
November – Easter
Monday – Friday 9.30am till 5pm
(Last guided tour 3.30pm)
*That’s Member of Parliament to the non-UK people out there.