Words by Sylvie Odile Saunders
Craftsmanship, creativity and community – are these the key to success within any brand today? Utilising vital skills and innovative thinking as well as age old techniques, the people who make up The Balvenie whisky brand have their stories to share.
From growing the barley on their estate and malting it by hand, to forging their own copper stills and repairing and repurposing their casks, it is this ownership and knowledge of every stage that contributes to the unmistakable story of The Balvenie. We go behind the brand and meet some of the key players who have made it the success it is.
Gemma Paterson (@balveniegem), global brand ambassador for The Balvenie is a strong believer in the vital role stories play in our appreciation of The Balvenie and all the love and labour that goes into its creation. “There is no doubt that growing up on the Hebridian Isle of Lewis gave me an appreciation of craftsmanship that has fed into my love of whisky making and the dedication that comes with it,” Gemma begins.
“There’s a beautiful book called Saorsa (‘freedom’ in Gaelic) that I find myself returning to time and again. It perfectly demonstrates how the land has captured the colours and textures of the iconic Harris tweed which has been woven here for generations. I love the synergy with whisky in that it is also shaped by the land.”
The last whisky farmer
Farmer James Wiseman and his son grow the barley on the thousand-acre farm at Balvenie Mains that makes The Balvenie unique in being the only distillery in the Scottish Highlands to produce its own grain. It’s down to the Wiseman family to ensure it’s the perfect crop to make the perfect dram. They also have to select the right variety to withstand everything the Highlands has to throw at it. “It’s a privilege to be part of The Balvenie heritage,” says son Duncan – the next in line to the Barley throne.
Myths of the maltings
Robbie Gormley was maltman of The Balvenie for 40 years, a poet and singer as well as head of the maltings floor (one of only a handful that remain in Scotland). For his retirement he penned an ode that recalls a late-night meeting with the Green Lady – the ghost of Balvenie – a benevolent apparition who has come to generations of maltmen as they tend to the fires on their night shifts. Not only do these round-the-clock vigils bring the unmistakable hint of peat to The Balvenie, but their ghostly stories put the drama in the dram.
Dennis ‘the menace’ McBain got his nickname when he started out tending the copper stills at The Balvenie over 62 years ago. As a novice metal worker he infamously dropped a spanner down into one of the large wooden vats that held the new make spirit and his boss had to jump in to retrieve it. Needless to say, he never lived it down. Nowadays it’s his exceptional skills maintaining the ‘Balvenie Ball’ that make him legendary on site and beyond. Whenever there’s a repair he sweetens the still by burning juniper branches in it. “There’s nae science to it,” Dennis explains, but superstition is all part of the story at the distillery.
It takes longer to become a seasoned cooper than it does a doctor or lawyer. But that’s no surprise to the workers at The Balvenie as the casks are one of the most crucial elements in the whisky’s story. That’s why The Balvenie only trusts its in house coopers to perfect the toasting of the wood. Not only that, but for a head cooper like Ian McDonald they can tell American Oak from European by feel, and repair and rebuild without the use of a tape measure. It’s all about developing an instinct and deep knowledge of how wood works.
Meet the master
The final craftsman in the tale has been at The Balvenie for 58 years. The longest serving malt master in Scotch whisky history, David C Stewart MBE has signed his name on every bottle of The Balvenie that’s been produced and is responsible for harnessing the flavour profiles of the one million casks in the distillery’s warehouses – his nose knows every story held in every barrels.
When David began working at The Balvenie his work around ‘cask finishes’ led to a completely new way of crafting whisky that had never been seen – or tasted – before. This classic is known as DoubleWood in honour of David’s ground-breaking method of ‘double casking’ – a practice created and perfected at The Balvenie by taking whisky from traditional ex-bourbon American oak casks and then moving it to ex-Oloroso sherry Spanish oak casks to ‘finish’ the liquid, creating an unmistakable flavour. Today, it’s well known throughout the whisky world, but it all began at The Balvenie.
Balvenie and beyond
The Balvenie has a rich past, but it proudly supports modern craftsmanship. A recent collaboration with Scottish furniture designer Paul Hodgekiss has led to the refurbishment of the distillery’s tasting room. Bedecked in Scottish elm, metal and glass it has a beautifully handcrafted feel that reflects The Balvenie liquid itself. The visual legends of The Balvenie stories range are brought vividly to life through Andy Lovell’s iconic labels. As a printmaker he is best known for depicting rugged landscapes and his work is displayed in galleries far and wide, but you can own his artwork when you choose a bottle of The Balvenie.
A fitting celebration
In 2018, the latest iteration of The Balvenie 50 Year Old was created from some of the distillery’s oldest stocks as a celebration of David’s time in the whisky trade. The Balvenie brought in other masters of their trade to create a suitable presentation, including wood turner Sam Chinnery who lives in the remote windswept coastal village of Findhorn who crafted the exquisite wooden cylinder – 48 layers of wood and two layers of brass. The perfect display for a tale of craftsmanship perfected.
As we speak, the legendary characters of The Balvenie are passing on their hard-won knowledge to the next generation of craftspeople. How? Through stories, of course.
The Balvenie Distillery will be welcoming a limited number of visitors again from September 2020, find out more by calling +44 (0) 1340 822210 or on thebalvenie.com.