Back to the Future
First Society bottling in 1987.
In 1999 Dennis Malcolm was happily moving towards retirement after a successful forty-three year career in the distilling industry. It had been a very satisfying career beginning as a shift worker in the early 1960s and ending, both the century and his career, as the General Manager of Seagram's nine distilleries. It seemed as if all that he could achieve had been done.
But then Malcolm received an unparalleled retirement gift from Graham Hutchins, then the General Manager of Inver House - an offer to manage Balmenach Distillery in Cromdale, located between Grantown-on-Spey and Bridge of Avon, the distillery sat mothballed among the Hills of Cromdale in a secluded spot just east of the A95.
In 1997 Inver House acquired Balmenach, an old traditional distillery where little had been done over the years to modernise it. Surprisingly, it was not Inver House's view to automate it or replace the old equipment. Rather, they saw the beauty in the old washbacks and stills and wanted a manager who saw the same beauty in the slightly faded lady. They wanted a renaissance at Balmenach and needed a renaissance man to do it. From the very beginning, Malcolm and Balmenach matched perfectly. He brought a life time of experience and training done in the traditional way.
Beginning as a cooper at Glen Grant in 1966, he worked his way through the distillery learning all the jobs and responsibilities as he progressed - cooper, brewer, distiller, and manager. In the course of his career, he saw distilling move from an early twentieth century process rooted in tradition and on-the-job training to a more stream-lined process based in technology and university training. He knew both the old and the new worlds; and, most importantly, he chose to keep the best of both. Dennis Malcolm's interest in Balmenach is not just professional; it is also personal.
Malcolm's wife is the great-great grand daughter of James McGregor, the founder of Balmenach. And the view of the Cromdale Hills is much today as it would have been for McGregor when he crossed the hills to establish himself as a farmer and distiller. The area was renowned for illicit stills and smuggling because of the available sources of water and numerous hiding places provided by the Cromdale Hills. As with so many other distilleries, documents list Balmenach as being officially founded in 1824, following the Excise Act of 1823.
The distillery stayed in the family until 1922 when it was acquired by three Scottish blending companies, and then later Scottish Malt Distillers (SMD) in 1930. Eventually ownership passed to Distillers Company Limited (DCl) and later to United Distillers (UD), who mothballed it in June 1993. Inver House bought it in 1997 and began producing whisky in March 1998. When Inver House revived distilling, they also established the position of the General Manager for its five distilleries at Balmenach.
I rang Graham MacWiliiam, the General Manager at Balmenach to discuss all five of the distilleries he managed. During our conversation MacWiliiam strongly suggested that I revisit Balmenach and meet the new Distillery Manager, Dennis Malcolm. Because I knew that MacWiliiam only makes suggestions with good reason, I found myself on the road out of Cromdale and heading toward the hills beyond the town.
The distillery is tucked among the Haughs of Cromdale, and one can easily imagine the people and events that give rise to the exotic stories of its smuggling history. It is quiet, somewhat sheltered from the main road and village, and clearly a place where one can work, undisturbed. The physical plant was the same as I remembered it, yet it had a different ambiance. It had a vitality that I could not recall.
The nineteenth century buildings housed equipment that dated to fifty years ago, but the place was tidy, the buildings freshly painted, and the equipment cleaned and shined. Dennis Malcolm vibrates with enthusiasm about Balmenach and is eager to showcase what he considers to be "a delightful time capsule." He observes with long experience that "It is people, not machines, that make whisky." And nowhere is this more obvious than at Balmenach where people not only make the whisky; they also make the place.
Distillery workers know and work all phases of production so that personnel can be utilised depending on need. They are all responsible not only for the final product but also the maintenance and appearance of the place, which clearly reflects the pride of the people who work there. Time-honoured processes are immediately evident in the Mash Room. Here, grain, milled in the long-used Porteus Mill, pours into the classic cast iron mash tun covered by a copper dome.
Successful mashing at Balmenach requires the vigilance and judgment of the distillery people rather than computerised processes. The crucial extraction of the sugar from the barley necessitates the careful tweaking and adjusting of the old valves and temperature gauges in order to maintain the proper and steady temperature of three different waters. And as the mashman drains each water, he uses only his eyesight and experience to regulate the speed at which it is drawn off. If too fast, the sugar locks into the grain, if too slow, the water becomes too cool for the addition of yeast. The sugary worts then travel into the Tun Room for fermentation in the Oregon pine washbacks.
Many distillers recognise that the newer stainless steel washbacks contribute to the efficiency of a distillery because they are easier to clean, but some feel that a wooden washback provides a better fermentation. The temperature peaks slowly in a wooden washback and then flattens out, but the temperature in stainless steel tends to peak sharply and then drop. Even though wooden fermenters require more diligence and work to maintain a high standard of cleanliness, Malcolm prefers the wood for fermentation not only because it softens the place but also because it allows greater temperature control. Still, Malcolm concedes that the key to good fermentation is consistency and likes to rely upon the skill of his distillery people to provide it. Once the fermentation is complete, the wash, which shares similarities to sour beer, moves to the Stillhouse where the distillation will shape and form the whisky's flavour.
Alfred Barnard described the stills at Balmenach in 1887 as "picturesque old Pot Stills"; and like Barnard, the modern day visitor enters the Stillhouse and views the stills from a gallery. An impressive collar decorates one of the wash stills with etched engraving, which commemorates Qu'een Elizabeth's Silver Jubilee in 1977. The distillery commissioned the still, more than twenty-five years ago, and displayed it in Hyde Park as part of the Silver Jubilee celebrations. later, DCl installed the still at Balmenach; but sometime afterward, the collar was removed, and the little still's part in history was forgotten. But the present team at Balmenach found the discarded collar in a storeroom and shined it so that its lettering was once again legible.
They restored it to its pride of place in time for Queen Elizabeth's Golden Jubilee in 2002, which was marked by a limited bottling of Balmenach twenty-five year old. The restored collar is the only distinguishing feature that sets off this still from the other, fairly small, copper pots that march across the floor of the Stillhouse. All six of the copper stills have a boil ball above sharply angled shoulders and tall necks that allow more reflux action. The long necks and boil ball allow the heavier vapours to fall back into the still so that only the lighter vapours travel over into the Iyne arm. Most interestingly, Balmenach continues to use copper worms rather than the condensers employed by so many other distilleries. The worm curls nearly a hundred metres in its bath of cool water from the Cromdale Burn and tapers down from a fourteen inch diameter, where it connects to the still, to a three inch diameter, where the whisky appears at the base of the worm tub. Many distillers feel that using a worm to condense the vapours into whisky allows a longer contact with copper and slowly pulls out the distillation. But one can only feel that at Balmenach, with its reverence to its past and its traditions, people are also paying homage to the ghosts of smugglers who hid their small pot stills and condensing worms in the hills surrounding the distillery. The whisky that drips from the copper worm ages in used sherry and bourbon casks, and all cask filling and ageing occurs on site. No trucks transport this whisky to other warehouses for maturing; instead, all the Balmenach whisky ages in warehouses with dirt floors at the place where it is distilled.
In the time-tested method, the whisky takes on the characteristics of the place where it matures and contributes to the flavour profile of Balmenach. As much as the processes at Balmenach adhere to old traditions, the warehouse, more than any other place, seems to combine old practices and new innovations. Dennis Malcolm may have committed himself to preserving the traditional techniques at Balmenach, but he is not afraid of, or adverse to, innovation. Warehouse workers still stencil the distillery name and year of distillation on the heads of each cask, instead of using bar codes, simply because everyone deems it good to maintain the old methods. And all the cask heads are painted white, instead of black, only because it brightens the warehouse. Yet, an innovation also marks each one of these casks that otherwise appear caught in II time-warp.
On close examination, a series of indentations mark each of the bung staves. Distillers re-use casks several times before discarding them. Each time the warehouse men empty and refill a cask, they repaint the cask head in order to indicate that it is a first-fill, second-fill, and so on. Unfortunately, each distillery uses a different series of colours so that the distillery workers find it impossible to know the history of the cask unless it originates from one's own distillery.
At Balmenach a punch mark appears on the bung stave (the last one replaced) each time the workers refill it. When five indentations mark the cask, a slash divides the punch marks, the cask is re-charred, and the marking system begins on the next stave. Significantly, this tracking process, developed by Malcolm, is now in use at all five of Inver House's distilleries. Fortunately the thousands of casks maturing at Balmenach will ensure that its whisky will be more readily available in the future. For the present time, however, Inver House has released a twenty-seven year old Balmenach that is distinctly fruity and less sherried than some of the previous bottlings.
The lighter sherry notes allow other flavours to emerge including summer fruits of raspberries and rhubarb, vanilla, and anisette. People at Balmenach eagerly await the ten year anniversary that will mark when the first whisky distilled by Inver House will reach its ten year maturation. The anniversary will certainly mark the culmination of efforts to distill a whisky "the old fashioned way" using wooden wash backs, copper worms, and the skills of workers who nudge and watch old valves and gauges. Everyone here takes satisfaction and pleasure in preserving traditional methods and making the faded lady shine once again.
They understand the timehonoured processes of distilling and also understand the future for this place is in preserving its past. At the end of our time together, Dennis Malcolm locked the warehouses; and looking over the distillery, he remarked, "This place is not fancy, but it glows, like a fire at night. And the distillery says, 'It is old. It is reliable. It is quality'.
processes of distilling and also understand the future for this place is in preserving its past. At the end of our time together, Dennis Malcolm locked the warehouses; and looking over the distillery, he remarked, "This place is not fancy, but it glows, like a fire at night. And the distillery says, 'It is old. It is reliable. It is quality'.