A Whirlwind Tour of Speyside (Balvenie), Part Two with Reader Wayne

Balvenie4This is part two of a two part series from reader Wayne, who is a staple in our burgeoning Facebook Group. He shares with us his experience touring several Scotch whisky distilleries this past summer. I’ll sprinkle in a few of my thoughts through but this is an awesome recap with some amazing pictures guaranteed to make you jealous! Part one is available here.


Finally (Ta Da!), the Balvenie Distillery.

This was fun, and even a bit funny.

The first thing you see as you walk onto the grounds is a warning not to proceed if you don’t have a reservation. They only do tours on a reserved-space basis.


We got there before the other 4 people in our tour and the VERY nice woman immediately asked me if I’d like to sip some whiskies “quickly, before the others arrived.”

I know this will be shocking to all of you, but I said “YES!”

Balvenie5 Grains come inThis was a 3-hour tour and we walked through the entire process, starting with the room where the grains come in.

Balvenie6 Grains get wetNext, the grains go into a container where they are wet to begin the germination process.

Balvenie7 Grains go to malting floorAfter that, they go onto a LARGE warehouse floor to germinate. They actually grow a little sprout out of the end of the grain and this is also where they need to be constantly turned so that they germinate evenly. The shovels are flat wooden tools, the handle of which is cut to the optimum length for the person using it. They are also now mechanized and there is a man-operated machine that turns the grain that reminded me of the old rotary push mowers, but the romance of men actually turning the grains to properly malt is irresistible!

After the grains malt properly, they are taken upstairs to the drying floor. This is not a solid floor – it has screening so that heat can flow through. It’s very smoky looking into this room from the fires below, and every distillery has a characteristic pagoda-shaped roof which serves as a vent to let the smoke out… but not too quickly.

Balvenie19 the Pagoda RoofLarger distilleries just have more of these pagoda-shaped vented roofs. The furnace below is filled with various types of things to burn that flavor the grains. Also, the little sprout falls off the grain at this point and is used for feeding animals. (EVERTHING is used – every by-product, every leftover, etc.)

Balvenie10 Heating kilnBalvenie was burning anthracite coal to dry the grains and they also had some local peat. It’s important to note that the peat in this area is NOT like the peat in Islay, so even though Balvenie uses peat at some point in the process, it doesn’t yield the smoky flavor that the peat in Islay does.

Balvenie11 Mash TunOnce the grains are dried, it’s time to add water, re-wet them and make them into an ugly looking broth. They then go to the mash-tuns where the yeast will be added and the fermentation begins. The product that is left at the end of this part is beer!!! Interesting!

Balvenie Wines SafeFinally, this liquid goes to the stills, and heated to a precise temperature to cause the alcohol to evaporate first (before the water), the steam is collected and sent to the Wines Safe. The final step of course is to put the whisky in whatever kind of cask is selected to begin aging.

To be called “Scotch Whisky” the brew has to be aged for a minimum of 3 years, although as we all know, very little (if any?) is ready that quickly.

Balvenie17 inside Warehouse 24

Finally, came the REALLY fun part. We got to go into Warehouse 24 – Balvenie’s double-super-secret storehouse with a lot of stuff they don’t sell.

How to get the scotch out? The casks are horizontal with the stopper on top. There is a device they call “the dog” which is a long copper cylinder on a long chain.

The cylinder is sealed at the bottom and you lower it into the cask to fill up, and pull it vertically back out, filled with scotch. The tasting technique was totally unexpected – they poured the scotch into our cupped hands! No glasses. Because of the need to inhale while sipping so as not to waste too much before it leaks out through your fingers, you get an incredible nose. Very cool!!!

We tasted 3 different barrels in there as follows: One was a sherry cask, one was a bourbon barrel single fill, and one was a bourbon barrel refill. I have never tasted anything like the bourbon barrel refill – the most amazing distinct tones of chocolate I’ve ever had in a scotch. We had the option to bottle our own, which was only a small bottle (about 1/3 of the liquid of a US 5th) and it cost 25 pounds – about $42 bucks. Worth every penny as you cannot buy this on the market.

Jim: So jealous right now. OK, I was jealous before… but I’m so jealous now. 🙂

Balvenie18 the Tasting RoomAs if this weren’t enough, we then did a formal tasting, in a room with chairs & a table and glasses (!) of 5 different Balvenie products. There was the 12-year Doublewood, the 14-year Caribbean cask, the 17-year Doublewood, the new 15-year Sherry cask and the 21-year.

On a sad note for me, I did not like the new 15-year sherry cask as much as the discontinued 15-year single-cask. In general, I discovered through all of our distillery visits and tastings that I did not prefer the sherry-cask products as much as some of the others.

Of course, here, it’s all Balvenie and it’s all wonderful. Finishing that, we said our goodbyes and began our drive back to Edinburgh to fly home.

I hope you enjoyed this recount of our trip and I can tell you, I’d LOVE to go back. Feel free to send me messages through Scotch Addict, join the Facebook group and chat there, and let me know if you have any questions!

If you want to reach out to Wayne, you can always find him in our Facebook group!

All photos are courtesy of Wayne, thank you so so much for your generosity with the photos and this recap!

A Whirlwind Tour of Speyside (Edradour, Dalwhinnie, Cardhu), Part One with Reader Wayne

Wayne Outside BalvenieThis two part series comes from reader Wayne, who is a staple in our burgeoning Facebook Group. He shares with us his experience touring several Scotch whisky distilleries this past summer. I’ll sprinkle in a few of my thoughts through but this is an awesome recap with some amazing pictures guaranteed to make you jealous! Part two will be published next Monday.

We’ve wanted to do a tour of Ireland / Scotland for a long time, so my wife and I decided it would be a great present to give to each other for our 30th anniversary. The Ireland part was for her – the Scotland part was for me!

Arrival in Edinburgh

EdinburghFor the Scotland portion of the trip, we flew in to Edinburgh on a Sunday afternoon. Before I start talking about our distillery visits, I have to say, Edinburgh was the COOLEST city we’ve ever visited, and we felt a little dopey for not scheduling more time to really enjoy the city.

We also happened to hit it, totally coincidentally during the Fringe Festival, which was a lot like Mardi Gras! What fun!

Fringe Festival Performer2


Okay, enough of that. We engaged a tour service (Exclusive Scottish Visits) and our driver, John Harbour picked us up on Monday morning to start our drive up to Speyside. We were scheduled to be there for 4 days, and it was suggested that we visit distilleries in one region, which was fine with me.

Speyside is where Balvenie is, so that was an easy, if not automatic choice for me! Along the way, our driver called our attention to many points of interest we would have missed had we chosen to drive ourselves.


EdradourIt’s a 3-hour drive to Speyside from Edinburgh, so our first stop was to Edradour in the early afternoon. This is the smallest distillery in Scotland – a statistic they are actually very proud of. Nevertheless, the tour group there was surprisingly large – maybe 12 people.

They bring in the barley but do have a malting barn. They (as every distillery claims to) use water from a nearby mountain spring. The tour guide was extremely friendly and went to lengths to explain their process. After seeing the fermenting process and then the stills, we moved on to the tasting.

Unfortunately, many of the areas at the distilleries are designated as “no pictures allowed” places. They say it’s a safety issue in that either the very fine powder in the air, or the alcohol in the air can explode with the right kind of spark.

That can ruin your whole day!

For a small distillery, they offer a TON of different scotches, AND a scotch-based cream liquor, which we did taste… it was actually quite good!

We also tasted a 10-year scotch aged in Barolo Wine casks. That was different, and I didn’t like it as much as the 8-year regular oak-aged selection we had. Either way, it was evident that their whiskies are of very high quality, but I’d be hard-pressed to say they had a characteristic “Edradour flavor.”

A point of interest was the casks we saw there with other distillery names on them. Apparently the whisky industry in Scotland is VERY incestuous… everybody seems to share with everybody else.


DalwhinnieA quick stop for lunch, and we were off to Dalwhinnie, where, because of the late hour of the day, we opted for a tasting instead of a full tour.

Dalwhinnie’s scotches are interesting, with a notably higher level of smoke than the other Speyside choices and they do a really interesting thing by pairing the scotches you can taste with an accompanying piece of “matched” chocolate. It was a nice touch and they were on the mark with which chocolate worked well with each scotch.

As you‘d expect, the 15-year and the sherry-cask have that same distinction from each other, with the more prominent notes of vanilla being in the 15-year and the more prominent notes of spices being in the sherry cask stuff.

An interesting footnote here, the entire Scottish highlands appears to be covered with heather (purple) and as the plants die each year, the roots of the plant compress into the soil, making the peat they use in the drying process.

This is different from the peat used in Islay, which is made up of different vegetation leading to the intensely smoky flavor those scotches have. When Dalwhinnie describes their flavors as including hints of heather-honey, that’s why!

Jim: I did not know that! I always wondered how heather and “heather-honey” got into a spirit… funny enough, even if I knew, I probably still couldn’t pick it out!

Our hotel that night was the Archiestown Hotel, in… well… Archiestown. I described it as being on the Scottish map of Nowhere, directly in the middle. It was a tremendous pleasant surprise.

A very small place – maybe 12 rooms – the opportunity for personal service was great and oh boy, did they ever do that! It was that night, as I went to the bar to see what scotches were available that I was first informed that they don’t call it “scotch” over there – its whisky!

Anyway, they had about 100 “whiskys” to choose from so dinner was enjoyable!

This is in chronological order, so I’m inserting a personal note here… we woke up Tuesday morning to a phone call alerting us to the passing of my wife’s father. After realizing we couldn’t get back to the airport early enough to fly home that day, we had a decision to make – to drive back to Edinburgh and sit out the day in the hotel or to finish up Tuesday’s tours, and fly home the next day. We decided to do the tours, but this cut our Scotland from 4 days to two. It’s okay – the next two visits were really great!

Speyside Cooperage

Speyside Cooperage1First up was the Speyside Cooperage.

Jim: I didn’t learn this until I went to Scotland and did some tours but a Cooper is someone who makes “barrels” (of varying sizes) and a Cooperage is where a Cooper does his work.

I gotta tell ya, it was fascinating to see how casks are built.

I never expected that the job was done with no caulking, glue, screws or nails. Those damn pieces of wood are cut precisely enough so that when the metal bands that hold the cask together, they don’t leak! It was also fascinating to realize how much the cask contributes to the final taste of the whisky. The kind of wood (the most preferred is American Oak) the previous contents of the cask (everything from rum to sherry to port wine to even Barolo wine) and the conditioning of the inside of the cask with flames.

These guys are a special kind of craftsmen, and they have to be good because they get quality 100% checked, but they also have to be fast as they get paid by the piece!


Cardhu1After that it was on to Cardhu. This distillery was originally owned by a woman, and these were lovely people. The tour was interesting – much like the Edradour tour.

They made an important point about the shape of their stills. The long necks of stills make a bend at the top, which varies off of an approximate right angle. This bend in the top of the still will affect the flavor and the top of Cardhu’s stills go decidedly upwards. This is one of the factors that lends to their decidedly light floral flavor.

THIS was the whisky product that appealed most to my wife, and would be a lovely desert whisky!

An interesting footnote, for all the distilleries, is that all whiskys that come out of the still are clear – it is the cask that gives scotch the amber color.

The distilled spirits also flow from the stills into a locked collection device, some of which were named “Wines Safe”. It was explained that the lock is needed because the measurement of the flow through that device is how the distilleries get taxed. Only one or two people in the distillery, and tax officials, are authorized to open it. They also measure the ABV in here and “mix” the flow of the distilled spirits from the multiple stills to maintain a consistent strength to the raw product.

Next week, we’ll get Part Two of this whirlwind tour and a deep dive into one of my (and Wayne’s) personal favorites – Balvenie.

All photos are courtesy of Wayne, thank you so so much for your generosity with the photos and this recap!

How to Take Advantage of Duty Free Shopping

Credit: justgrimes

Credit: justgrimes

I just got back from a fun week-long vacation overseas which meant I had a chance to score a few gems going through duty free.

Sadly, when I went to checkout with a few bottles in Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport, the cashier told me that I shouldn’t buy any scotch. I was going through Iceland and she warned me that customs would take it away… even though USA was my final destination.

Not knowing any better… I figured I could just buy a few bottles in Iceland anyway.

It turns out the bottles would never have been confiscated (I never left the security area) and Iceland’s Keflavik airport whisky selection, as you’d imagine, was much much smaller. 🙁

But, when life hands you lemons, you make some limoncello… right?

Before I get into what I ended up finding, to my delight, I wanted to briefly talk about how I take advantage of duty free shopping. I don’t travel abroad very much anymore, now that we have two young kiddos, so when I do, I need to take full advantage.

My Strategy for Duty Free Shopping

Years ago, when I was a novice at this game, I would just try to find things that were cheaper in duty free. So I’d find myself lugging around bottles of Glenlivet 12 or some other scotch I knew I liked.

After a few trips like these, I realized I was going about this all wrong. Duty free will save you a little bit of money but the real benefit isn’t in saving money… it’s in getting access to bottles you wouldn’t otherwise be able to buy.

That’s how you take advantage of duty free. Saving money is fine and dandy, but true value (at least for me) is getting stuff I can’t otherwise get.

“Travel Exclusive”

If you ever see this term, or “travel retail,” written on a box or label, it means that it’s only made available through the duty free market (or on cruises, etc.).

Why do distilleries only make certain things travel exclusive? So it’s somehow special. Take a look at this listing of exclusive malt whiskies in World Duty Free, the operator of World of Whisky duty-free shop in Heathrow (and several other airports in the UK).

You can’t really trust the list (for example, you can get Ardbeg Corryvrekan outside of travel retail but you won’t find any of the Macallans), but you get the idea.

Customs & Alcohol Allowance Limits

When you re-enter the United States, you’re supposed to pay a duty on products you bring back. Everyone gets an exemption though and this is a dollar amount ($200, $800, or $1600 depending on what it is) as well as a limit on certain types of goods.

For example, you can’t bring back any fruits and vegetables but there’s a limit on liquor. You can bring back one liter of alcohol per person if you’re over 21. Anything above that may be subject to a tax.

I’ve never been subject to a duty and I’ve traveled back with as much as 6L of whiskey before. I declare what I have on the form (in terms of dollar amount) and I’ve never been questioned about it. The worst case is that you pay a tax, the best case is they don’t really care and you pay no extra tax.

How do you know if you’ll like it?

No matter what it is, I’ll probably like it. 🙂

While poking around in Schiphol Airport, I did see a Bruichladdich Octomore 6.2 and I considered it. That’s a case of where I might not like it, it being the peatiest scotch in all the land, and it was close to $300 USD. I’m all for splurging but I suspect it would’ve been too intense for me.

If you’re worried whether or not you’ll like it, think about what you don’t like about a whisky and avoid it. If you don’t like Islays, don’t get an Islay. If you like things sweeter, look for finishes in dessert casks like Port or Sauternes. If you like to be confused, get an Islay finished in a dessert wine, like Laphroaig PX (PX standards for Pedro Ximénez, a sweet dark sherry).

What did I end up with?

It turns out that Iceland’s airport had Monkey Shoulder, a blended scotch imported by William Grant & Sons. Fellow reader Wayne told me about it first (though several others have mentioned it… like Martin and Larry) but I wasn’t able to find anything locally. I haven’t opened it yet but I look forward to it.

Here’s what Wayne has said about it in our Facebook group (it’s set as closed but anyone can join):

This is a scotch blended of some very pedigreed scotches – Balvenie, Glenfiddich and Kininvie (I’ve never heard of the Kininvie), all from Speyside. At $34 bucks a bottle this might be the best value in scotch today! It has all of the attributes of a good Balvenie – rich, creamy, smooth, some caramel.

It’s not only the best blended scotch I’ve ever tasted, it outdoes many of the single-malts on the market. If you can find it, RUN, don’t walk and get some! (point of interest, the store I got it from didn’t even have it on display – they had ONE case from which they would sell ONE bottle per customer, by request!)

I also picked up Highland Park Einar, a global travel exclusive. It has a cool Nordin theme and, seeing as I was in Iceland, it felt like a good choice. I’m always a fan of Highland Park anyway so I figured you can’t go wrong!

So while I was a little bummed out about not having to go through security again, sometimes things just work out.