I 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.
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.