Balvenie Distillery stands less than a mile from the centre of Dufftown and close to the west bank of the River Fiddich. It is sited immediately to the north of the much better known Glenfiddich Distillery, and the two are connected under a bridge that carries the Keith and Dufftown Railway. For such a well known name with such a highly rated product, Balvenie keeps modestly out of sight.
In many ways the contrast between the very visitor oriented Glenfiddich and the much quieter and more traditional feeling Balvenie is one of the things that help make the tours it offers so attractive. The second reason why Balvenie is considered a "must see" distillery is that it is the only Speyside distillery (and one of only two long-established distilleries in mainland Scotland) that has retained its traditional floor maltings, allowing visitors to see part of the process now lost in all but a few Scotch whisky distilleries. As an added bonus, Balvenie has its own cooperage.
Balvenie Distillery was a relative latecomer, being built in 1892 by William Grant & Sons Ltd., who had also build Glenfiddich Distillery five years earlier in 1887. The two distilleries have been owned and operated by the same company for their entire lives, making them a great rarity in what has over the past 150 years been a very volatile industry, with changes of ownership of distilleries, and distillers, a frequent occurrence.
If you look at a map, it becomes clear that the ruins of the medieval Balvenie Castle stand on the north side of Dufftown with, beyond them, Glenfiddich Distillery and beyond it Balvenie Distillery. There's an obvious question to be asked about the names: why didn't William Grant call the distillery closest to Balvenie Castle Balvenie Distillery?
The answer would once have been obvious, but certainly isn't now. In the early 1700s Balvenie Castle was abandoned as a residence and some of the stone (together with stone removed from more distant Auchindoun Castle) was reused in the construction of Balvenie New House, a residence much more in keeping with the needs of a laird of the time. This was located half a mile to the north, and the surrounding area became a one thousand acre farm called Balvenie Mains. By 1892 Balvenie New House had itself been abandoned for some decades and the house and the area around it proved an ideal location for William Grant's new distillery, which took its name from the house and farm rather than the older castle.
The first spirit flowed at Balvenie on 1 May 1893, from a pair of second hand stills sourced from Lagavulin Distillery on Islay and the now disused Glen Albyn Distillery in Inverness. Presumably both had previously served as wash stills, which would explain why all the stills at Balvenie have windows in their necks, a feature normally only found in wash stills. Once a distillery has an established set of stills, there is a strong tendency never to change any aspect when replacing them or expanding production, for fear of changing the character of the product.
An expansion in 1920 involved the demolition of the house, and the building of the floor maltings you see today, in part with stone from the house (and so, perhaps, from Balvenie Castle). An early photograph of the distillery suggests that Balvenie New House extended to the right of the closest corner of the kiln shown in the header image, and out towards the photographer.
Balvenie underwent an expansion in 1957 that saw the number of stills increased from two to four, and in 1965 to six. The number has since increased further to eleven, five wash stills and six spirit stills. In 1990, William Grant & Sons Ltd. added a new distillery, Kininvie Distillery, to the site. As you tour Balvenie you find that the Balvenie and Kininvie Distilleries have mash tuns that share a room, and that the two distilleries' washbacks are in neighbouring tun rooms. The Kininvie Distillery has a completely separate still house, however, and if you've never heard of it before, it is because with the exception of a few very special in-house bottlings, the whole of Kininvie's output goes into blends.
This is in stark contrast to Balvenie and Glenfiddich, which are extremely well known as single malts. It is interesting to note, however, that almost all bottlings of both have been carried out by William Grant & Sons. Whisky supplied by the cask from either distillery has always had a tiny amount of the other's whisky added, which legally turns them into vatted malts and prevents anyone else describing independent bottlings as either Balvenie or Glenfiddich. In 1992 William Grant & Sons purchased the mothballed Convalmore Distillery, whose site adjoins Balvenie's to the north-west, and have since used its warehousing.
Your tour of Balvenie starts, appropriately, in the maltings, where you get to see the various processes up close. You also quickly begin to understand just how labour intensive traditional floor maltings are, and how much hard physical work is involved for the individuals concerned. And when that is translated into costs, it is easy to see why most distilleries buy in their malt from industrial maltings instead. Even at Balvenie the floor maltings have not expanded to keep pace with the capacity of the rest of the distillery, with the result that only a small proportion of the malt used in the distillery is produced in its own maltings: but this is considerably more than in most distilleries. Even better, some of the barley coming into the maltings at Balvenie is grown on Balvenie Mains Farm, still owned by the company.
As already noted, in parts of the rest of your tour you actually begin to get two distilleries for the price of one, as elements of the Balvenie and Kininvie processes can be found side by side, or in neighbouring rooms. You can find out more about Making Malt Whisky from our series of feature pages showing the stages in the process.
Balvenie's still house remains very much its own, however, and visitors can view an impressive collection of six stills in the main still house, three wash and three spirit, from a platform at one end. The wash and spirit stills do not appear to differ markedly in size, and as we've said, the spirit stills, unusually, have windows on their necks. You emerge from the still room to see the condensers on the outside wall of the still house, and then move on to view a bonded warehouse and the cooperage.
One of the joys of visiting Scotch whisky distilleries is that each is unique. The particular joy of visiting Balvenie Distillery is that it is unique in more ways than most, offering elements you will have to travel a long way to see anywhere else, and a sense of timeless heritage that allows you to believe that you are visiting a distillery whose essential character has not changed greatly since it was established well over a century ago.