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My Balblair Playground

BalblairI would be very surprised if there weren’t further instalments of my five days spent a-roaming about the congeries of Balblair distillery, and undoubtedly my time there will inform all subsequent musings and interpretations on the Scotch whisky industry. However, let this post suffice to lend a flavour of my experiences ‘working’ in a real live distillery while I attempt to compartmentalise the numerous profound insights I was generously granted by the remarkable group of people who make Balblair single malt. They certainly made the experience for me.

242. 242 days had passed since I had last shimmied into a distillery. 242 days since I had inhaled the aromas of wort and wash. 242 days since I had gazed with the tenderest love upon a copper pot still. Two thirds of a year since I had been granted the opportunity to indulge my passion for malt whisky. Funnily enough, 242 days prior to the 4th of July, Balblair had featured also. Following a seven-hour and magnificently stressful train ride up to Tain during which I had spotted Dalwhinnie, Teaninich, Dalmore and Invergordon distilleries I could embark upon my first day as more than just a tourist or even privileged blogger at Balblair.

The distillery is entirely hidden from view until you have emerged beyond the cluster of houses half-way along the village of Edderton. Then, beneath the Struie hills and their skins of heather over rock, the pagoda vent and scarlet smokestack are visible. They are, from this perspective, equal in height to the Clach Biorach Pictish stone. I freewheeled into the distillery grounds; men clambered on warehouse rooves while others loitered outside the manager’s office. In here I found Graeme, who helped me find John, who was staring gloomily into the mill.

What followed was five days of informal education. I could shadow who I wanted, go where I pleased and spent most of the time in the tea room eating ginger biscuits and chatting. During the first few days the aromas were overpowering and I guzzled them up with greed. From entering the distillery complex, you detect a spicy-sweet whiff of whisky-filled Bourbon wood. I would then park up beside the millroom in a compact courtyard around which the zesty, squeaky scents of fermentation wafted. Having changed into trousers and polo shirt beside the embryonic visitor centre, I would duck between the cool, dusty malt bins to the mash tun and its heavy, warm and sweet fragrance which mingled with the countless other flavours contributed by a Plumb Center worth of pipes and a water treatment tank which could conjure up a workable approximation of what a riding school arena smells like.

Sat on the well-wron stillman's chair, it felt as though I were communing with two golden Buddhas.

Sat on the well-wron stillman's chair, it felt as though I were communing with two golden Buddhas.

The still house was a miracle of flavour-weaving. Between the wash and spirit stills the aroma was strongest: banana cheesecake, flambeed banana and vanilla. By the spirit still, all was appley and intense, until the spirit run began and then a creamier cereal note entered the picture. I spent the bulk of my time checking hydrometers, yanking open valves and turning wheels under the watchful eye of either Martin or Mike. I sampled, I dipped, I pumped and I charged. The distillery’s rhythm was an enchanting and fairly rapid one: wash left the tun room after 48 or 60 hours, passed into the wash still, left it over the course of three hours as either low wines or pot ale (which had a gorgeously heavy bakewell cake fragrance) and moved to the spirit still where there would be a 10-minute foreshot run, a two-hour spirit run and three hours of feints.

It is one thing, as I found myself marvelling to Martin and Mike, as well as Alan, John, Graeme, John and Norman, to race through a distillery over the course of an hour during a tour and glimpse a mere snapshot of each process in the whisky-making recipe. It is another to bide and watch the work of man, copper and wood and the transformation of the malt. They aren’t lying to you on your distillery tours; there are no secret switches and vessels. I simply discovered that however much you read about it and understand it in theory, only in the act of supervising whisky-creation can its reality be apprehended.

Admittedly, my time at Balblair extracted a little of the romance of making whisky. Tricky malt, a minor leak on the spirit still and the imminent advent of automation revealed a process preoccupied with yield and output. However, the cavity created in my innocent idealism was filled by infinitely precious experience. The production team know their plant, what works, what doesn’t, how to adapt and manage a wilful amalgamation of equipment on a frying summer day or a paralyzing winter night. Distilleries work, like dogs at times, but that is what they are designed to do. Without question craft and affection come into it, too, but it is a constant negotiation with a location, history and personality perfectly inclined to go its own way. Mike grimaced at the prospect of returning to work at the end of next month with the distillery having lain silent for four weeks. To him, it only makes sense when the buildings are suffused with heat and aroma: with industry. Only then is it Balblair, doing as Balblair does. That’s a whole new kind of magic.

My sincerest thanks go to Lorna Craig for setting up my week’s work experience and John MacDonald for making room and time for me. As for Alan, John Ross, Martin, Mike, Norman and Graeme: I’m still pondering how exactly I can begin to repay you all for not just putting up with me but making me feel like part of the team. When I read newspapers in future I hope to make you all proud.

The Scotch Cyclist 'working'.

The Scotch Cyclist 'working'.

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The Odyssey Projects

Hope, anticipation, expertise, confidence. How quickly these disintegrated into mystification, disappointment and despondency. In January, I had a career to kick-start and three months’ playing Pied Piper in a Scotch whisky distillery could do just that. Sadly – and mystifyingly – my numerous applications to the biggest companies generated only one response, which was to say that they had no vacancies at this time. The rest may as well have vanished into an administrative abyss. Couldn’t someone recognise the initiative and consequent potential of a young man who had planned and pedalled his way around the Scotch whisky industry? For many months I was sceptical, until Inver House Distillers made a second unexpected and charming approach.

The Balblair distillery, Ross-shire. It will look better in July.

The Balblair distillery, Ross-shire. It will look better in July.

The abiding impression of the whisky world for me is that it exists thanks to countless resilient, interconnecting and genuine personal relationships. When Inver House invited me along with other bloggers to tour their leading single malt brands, I recognised this commendable way of conducting business through time spent with Cathy James in addition to Malcolm, John and Gordon, the distillery managers. Inver House and their exemplary personnel recognised the profound, obsessive enthusiasm of we amateur journalists and I like to think that this is why, following an unsuccessful response to a vacancy at Balblair in March, they offered me a week’s work experience instead.

Having John MacDonald phone up and regale me with tales of his appearance on the latest series of MasterChef, of Hollywood having moved in to Edderton to shoot a whisky-related film, and would I like to come up and potter about the place for a few days, astonished and delighted me. I rarely jump about the house whooping and cackling, but it seems the prospect of five days in one of the cutest and most picturesque distilleries I have come across – and not to mention one which produces a very delicious dram, too – has that effect on me. I agreed straight away.

I shall be shadowing the folk on the production side of things and getting my hand in with regards to the tourism operation. Balblair offer two tours daily, led by either Julie Ross or John himself. I hope to play my part in conveying the romance of the place – and shifting a few more units – during the week. As John assured me, ‘there’s always plenty to do.’

So, my encounters with whisky continue to evolve and move forward but what of last year? How am I making use of my experiences and memories? An on-going project of mine is the writing-up of my 2010 Odyssey into a continuous, comprehensive form. Progress is steady, but the process is highly rewarding. The twelve months of maturation my memories have undergone have done them a power of good – I could not have known how profoundly each of my journey’s moments had afixed themselves to the fabric of my mind. It is very special to sit down to write and to find myself gasping instead at what, with a little effort, I recollect. I shall let you know how all of this is getting along over the next few months.

Much to keep me busy and engaged, therefore, and plenty more to make its way onto the Scotch Odyssey Blog.

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